Deaf, dumb and blind boy / He's in a quiet vibration land.
- The Who, "Amazing Journey"
That voice was a lamentation. Calmer now. It's in the stillness you feel you hear. Vibrations. Now silent air.
- Joyce, Ulysses
Life is devoid of irony and full of spite. The weather is at least.
- Ole G. Stenhagen
"Adam," Ardis pronounced emphatically, "you have a sick mind."
But it did look like a breast - the South, that lush immensity below the Yangtze, flowing outward from the heartland. On my colourful National Geographic map of China, it was like a pliable globule of toffee held over a flame, its first drips the islands of Taiwan and Hainan. It clung, still, to the central plains of the North, the implacable grassy plateau of Tibet and the wasteland of Qinghai in the west. The South China Sea lapped along the sensual curve of its coast.
I could stare at that map for ten minutes, fifteen, letting my mind wander, but somehow always returning to the fertile and essentially female associations that had drawn Ardis's merry wrath. I sat in the middle of a Shanghai winter, but that land-swell was ever green and verdant in my mind. I thought: fresh and mild. And I very nearly packed accordingly - the long underwear I figured I might just need on board the boat to Fuzhou, or possibly on the home stretch of my planned loop, the cruise down the Yangtze. The day before departure, I cleaned out my bank account, tucked its contents inside my money belt, and went to sleep. I was adamant that I would stay on the road as long as the money held out; Ivory Tower be damned.
II. Ferry to Fuzhou Shanghai notes the sailing with a demeanour as grey and dour as the January sky. I watch the waterfront traffic from the rail of the Fuzhou-bound ferry, the Dongfang. She's a fair-sized boat - in Asia, anything larger than a junk seems grandiose - and every five days she plies this route. There's a speedy Shanghai-Fuzhou rail connection, and a direct line to Amoy a little further down the coast. But I'm tired of trains and schedules. Well after the ship has left the bloated waters of the Huangpu and moved out into open ocean, I have no idea precisely how long the Dongfang will take to make the trip. It hardly matters. I'm off.
The boat sleeps a hundred and three, and I can see no empty beds. But the atmosphere is relaxed. I was imagining a lively, even chaotic passage, densely-packed Chinese gearing up for the celebration of the traditional New Year at the end of the month, their cherished annual glimpse of far-flung relatives. But Spring Festival (how could it be chilly in the South, with a name like that?) isn't for ten days yet; I plan to be in Canton for the revelry.
The boat will take me a leisurely 470 miles, down the entire island-speckled length of Zhejiang Province and a fair slice of Fujien, for about the price of a decent steak in Canada. My berth is in the lowest class but one: I'm spared the discomfort of bedding down in the hallway.
I stroll on deck to watch Shanghai's impassive waterfront buildings and half-empty dockyards recede. Then I go below to lie on my bunk, staring at the ceiling, smoking. The Chinese are talking in muted tones, bedding down for their early afternoon xiuxi (siesta), a right actually guaranteed them in the latest version of the Constitution.
Slowly I drift off, George Orwell's essay on Dickens open and half-read on my chest. I find myself on a China Airlines flight from Taibei. A stewardess moves solicitously down the aisle with drinks trembling in sleek plastic containers. As we take off, the pilot's smooth, professional voice wafts over the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, China Airlines has had problems in the past on the route we are taking today ..." That much is admitted, at least. I know, as do all the other nervous souls on board, that not long ago 269 people were blasted from the skies by Soviet jets, though I've forgotten it was a China Airlines flight that was sent spiralling into the sea ...
"So if you will bear with us, we are now going to test-fire our newly-installed air-to-air missiles." I glance out the window in time to see a blazing projectile leave the wing of the passenger jet. Jolly good. Now we can fight back!
But something is wrong.
The plane is banking sharply to and fro, and we seem to be heading back to the airport, which I note with sickening familiarity bears a marked resemblance to the Shanghai boat terminal. The wings tip dangerously, and I feel my stomach lurch - we aren't going to make it! -
I awake with a start to find the boat yawing lazily, steadily. Disorientation. I glance down from my upper bunk. A small, slim waitress in a grimy uniform stands at the foot of the bed, her pretty features set in an expression of polite patience. I have the feeling she's been standing there for a while.
"It is time to eat," she announces with a thin smile.
Advance seating in the dining room: one of the perks to which the only foreigner on board must resign himself. It suits me fine. I clamber down, a little shaky, and rub goo from my eyes. I've slept for nearly three hours.
In the canteen I'm shown to my seat by a tall attendant with the ubiquitous worker's brushcut, ragged cigarette, and friendly smile. He helps me wade through the menu. "And a beer, please," I add. "A big one."
When the roll of the ship permits, I can see we are passing the profusion of knotty offshore islands - some two thousand of them - that spatters the coast of Zhejiang Province. I've steeled myself to bypass Zhejiang completely, after only brief pondering. Just one of its ports is open to foreigners, and only occasionally. The province's great claim to fame appears to be its status as the preferred take-off point for Chinese pilots attempting to cross the ninety-mile strait to Taiwan, defecting in favour of a more glittering future. (Most, upon reaching "The Other China" successfully, profess stunned ignorance of the million-dollar bounty and high Air Force rank that await them.) Hangzhou, Zhejiang's main attraction, is within easy reach of Shanghai; I'm saving it for a long weekend come spring. As for the rest - well, it sounds a bit grey. My Chinese geography handbook glows: "One of the provinces with the earliest modern light industry, in the past three decades or more Zhejiang has made rapid progress in power, machinery, chemical metallurgical [sic], electronics, silk, bast fibres [?], paper-making and aquatic products processing industries." Hot dog!
I pick at my food. An anorexic chicken, rice, and the standard bowl of monosodium glutamate passed off as soup. A child across the aisle from me, eagerly spooning soup into his mouth, pauses briefly to puke liquid onto the lurching floor. I look back just in time to stop my bottle of beer doing a nose-dive off the table.
My dinner partners in the soon-crowded cafeteria change at a prolific rate. The Chinese have no compunction about hovering vigilantly over the lucky few seated in a packed eatery; they spur them on with attentive postures and frequent aggressive glances. Once, unaccountably, two young men across the table switch positions in the five seconds it takes me to find my cigarettes. Surely it couldn't be the beer making my head spin? But their sleight-of-hand doesn't fool the ever-increasing horde of hungry onlookers, and soon both take their humble leave.
As a foreigner, I am ostentatiously exempt from this treatment, which only serves to make it more intimidating. I finish my beer outside in the dusky grey of the fading afternoon, watching the boat churn its way through a fantastically murky sea. The Yangtze in early autumn, on a visit to Nanjing upriver from Shanghai, had been a dense light-green. By the time it spews into the ocean, though, the water is the colour of stale cocoa. It stays that way even a hundred miles down the coast, opaque and sediment-choked, battered into a dirty froth by the boat's prow. I can smell the salt even through my perpetual winter sniffle.
Morning. I wake to the steady hum through my pillow. Before any conscious thought can penetrate my sleep-soaked brain, I know instinctively I'm onboard some form of transport. But then, why is a cock crowing bawdily in the vicinity? On a boat? Ah, a Chinese boat!
I lie awake, unmoving, for a long time. When I open my eyes and prop myself up, a couple on a bunk by the stairwell are gazing at me and nudging each other. Every so often, the woman leans across and puffs on her man's cigarette when she thinks no Chinese is watching, and then grins conspiratorially at me. Smoking is something a Chinese woman simply does not do ("unless she is old, or perhaps from the North," friends tell me). I cross my eyes at her and she nudges her man again.
"You are happy!" exclaims East-Is-Bright Chang at lunch, with real delight.
"What?" I'm bending down to pick up the chopstick I've dropped.
"You have dropped your chopstick. That means you are happy." I am staring at him. "You know, kuai-le, happy!"
"Would you write that down?"
It is so wonderfully bizarre I nearly don't want to check it - the Chinese get so few chances to be inscrutable these days. (But I do, later. It appears to be some complex Chinese pun. Kuai is "cheerful," and kuai-zi means "chopstick," though the characters are slightly different. Le also means "happy." As far as I'm concerned, any further intricacies are welcome to remain tangled.)
I laugh and pour some more beer. Chang - thick spectacles, the university student's shock of unruly black hair across his brow - is on a roll. There's no stopping him now.
"I have heard a humorous story. A man was so happy before Christmas, he slipped on some ice and broke his left leg!" That cracks me up, too, and in my mirth both chopsticks go somersaulting onto the floor. "Double happiness!" Chang yelps.
"You must have got a name like 'East-Is-Bright' during the Cultural Revolution," I say to him, accepting the fresh set of chopsticks he offers.
Chang smiles a little embarrassed, a little proud. "Ah, you know so very much about my name ..." But there must be millions of East-Is-Bright Changs and East-Is-Red Wangs and Serve-The-People Lings all over China: doomed to carry to their graves evidence of their parents' eagerness to conform, to bend like bamboo in the face of the Red Guard hurricane of the late '60s.
Early in the afternoon, nearing Fuzhou, we pass little towns nestled in tiny bays, clinging to stony terraced hillsides, shrouded in wisps of rain-cloud. There are crumbling, sometimes half-collapsed yellowy-green cliffs. I spot the odd cyclist or minibus trundling along narrow roads hacked into the slopes. Oversized junks dot the little harbours, and grizzled gulls circle overhead. The Chinese crowd the rails, lifting their nattering children for a better look.
I chat below for a while with the usual curious crowd which assembles whenever a foreigner opens his mouth and Chinese comes out. I tell them I will likely be in Fuzhou only for a couple of days, but will spend longer in Xiamen - "Amoy" in the more vigorous local dialect. That rings a bell with a large, amiable Chinese man slouching on my bedpost. "Amoy is lovely," he confirms. "And you know, that Italian, Marco Polo. He was there when it was one of the biggest ports in the world."
"So I've heard," I smile. Marco got around. "You know, it's always interesting to walk along streets in a city like that - Hangzhou or Suzhou, maybe - and think, hey, he walked these same streets once!"
The man says firmly, "You can be the Canadian Marco Polo."
I want to be on the rails when the ship draws into Fuzhou (actually into the port of Mawei, some miles up the coast). Would Marco Polo have stayed below decks? But the Chinese have choked the passageways with bodies and belongings half an hour before the scheduled arrival time, exactly twenty-four hours after departure from Shanghai. I stay in my bunk, reading Orwell, eating chocolate.
He qualifies his statement: "Well, poorer than Shanghai, anyway." Lin is a student here. I've met him on the boat, and I recognize his smooth, attractive face as I'm hauling my pack onto the articulated bus. He is sitting just behind the creaking middle joint of that rattly monster, on a bare wooden seat which we now share, and which could have cost him his life. The other passengers wield lethal-looking bundles, swung across their shoulders on sturdy bamboo poles, and I'm thinking they would have put up some stiff opposition in the mad scramble for a plank to squat on. Rain drips through the roof and forms pools on the floor; they tremble and trickle with each bump.
"But you'll find things are more expensive here than in Shanghai," Lin cautions. He has a modest, matter-of-fact way of speaking, and I like him immediately though I'm damned if I can remember which of the profusion of Shanghai technical colleges he hails from. Ah, that's it: he studies post-graduate maritime law, majoring in English, which he speaks carefully and well. At the Maritime Institute, or some such.
I furrow my brow. "But I thought you said Fuzhou was poor."
"It is, but the Overseas Chinese send a lot of money. So prices go up."
His explanation doesn't do much for my crinkled forehead, but it's the first time I've heard a reference to the lifeblood of many of these southern coastal towns: the huaqiao, the millions of descendants of Chinese who flung themselves around the world during the great upheavals and famines of the nineteenth century. There are millions overseas who still feel keenly their traditional ties to relatives in the distant motherland, people who in many cases they've seen only in photographs. The ties go far enough, at least, for the huaqiao to fund a slew of large-scale projects (Amoy University is only the most famous) and to add to the paltry coffers of thousands of individual families in Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong.
"Did many of the overseas Chinese return to China to live?" I ask Lin.
"Of course! Very many. Countless numbers. Especially in the early 1960s, from countries like Indonesia." That would have been 1965, after the abortive communist coup which the Indonesian army crushed with staggering ferocity. A wave of anti-communist pogroms swept the country. After a short time, the tell-tale signs of leftist leanings became slant eyes and a small business on the streetcorner; Indonesia's Chinese, wherever their sympathies lay, became the focus of the vendetta. As many as a million lost their lives. After that, the military régime allowed a few boats from the People's Republic to dock at Indonesian ports and carry away those Chinese who wanted to leave. The boats dumped them on Chinese soil just as the fury of the Cultural Revolution was being unleashed. Out of the frying pan and into the fire! At university, turning faded pages of musty back issues of Chinese propaganda magazines, I had come across the old pictorials: the heroic oppressed compatriots returning to home's safe embrace. Many of the returnees were weeping openly. The photos didn't look posed.
"And Vietnam, of course," Lin adds. After 1979 - the expulsions, the boat people, the border war. "But a lot have gone back to their homes overseas once things cooled down there."
He pauses and looks at his elegant intellectual's hands, examining them thoughtfully. Glances up again. "What do you think is the biggest difference between China and the West?"
I tell him - my stock answer - I think it's that, in the West, the individual is paramount. In China, for various historical and political reasons, emphasis is more on the group, on knowing your proper place in the group. It's trite, but true enough, and he nods in pensive agreement.
My turn. "What do you think is the biggest problem for a Chinese today? Not the Chinese, but an individual Chinese?"
He mulls that over for a long time, then huffs with embarrassment. "Difficult, difficult to say. But generally? I don't know the English word. Maybe you understand the Chinese. Jingshen."
Of course I do. It's been on the lips of every newscaster in China, in the pages of every newspaper, for months. Usually followed by another, more ominous word. Wuran. Pollution.
"Spirit," I tell Lin.
"Spirit. Yes. You see" - and he shifts a little on his plank, agitated - "there are many things a Chinese wants to do and cannot. There are things inside him, parts of him, that he is not allowed to express. This hurts the - spirit."
He shakes his head. "Think how many masterpieces there are waiting to be written, but the authors must stay silent for fear of contradicting the government line. You know, Chinese are by nature industrious, energetic. But there are so many obstacles placed in our way. There are things, many things, that need changing in our system before people can be what they - can be."
His words move me, and I admire the rhythm of his speech, the way he searches for the right word and usually finds it, then slips it in straightforwardly, with no self-congratulation. And I agree with him, after five months or so in his country. "It seems the Chinese must keep a corner of their hearts quiet," I say as softly as I can over the noise of the bus. Lin nods. Then, perhaps feeling the twinges of his own quiet corner, he smiles wistfully.
"I really like meeting people from other countries, other ways of life. It is so interesting. I do not have the chance to observe other countries and how their people live. You are fortunate to be able to travel so freely. Travel - 'broadens the mind,' is that right?"
I nod, grinning as I do whenever a Chinese dusts off an old English cliché for my benefit. "It sure does. But you know, the French have a saying - the more things change, the more they remain the same. The more you travel, the more you realize it's all one world."
Lin sees it is a dodge, a weak salve for his thwarted ambitions, and I add hastily: "Of course, there's no substitute for being able to find that out for yourself."
Fuzhou dismays me from the first glimpse of its soggy outskirts. I know at once it is going to be picturesque, and the idea of having to dig up new words for "picturesque" makes me squeamish.
There is a foggy grandeur to the slick outlying cliffs, and wonderful tumbledown houses scattered along the bus route into town. The houses come in bunches, or in rows like faded, closely-spaced dominoes sent tumbling, with one stalwart supporting the lean of the rest. They're crazy, really. Planks tip sideways; entire upper levels look as though they're about to collapse in on themselves. But - as goes without saying in the most populous nation on earth - there are people living in them; the rickety structures all sport shiny blue tin number plates, nailed to the doors.
I take a bus to the Overseas Chinese Mansion in the west of the city, praying this time to avoid a protracted bargaining session for a room. The Mansion is a stoic-looking six-storey structure: grey concrete and verandas, with a half-hearted attempt at a garden.
"I'm a student," I say timidly to the lady at the desk, "and I'd like a cheap bed."
She nods, scribbling. "Four kuai, okay?"
Two dollars. For that, I end up with a very comfortable three-bed room which I have all to myself the first night. It has nice overstuffed lounge chairs, a writing desk, a private bathroom with a genuine shower nozzle - everything you file under "Taken For Granted" in a Holiday Inn. Granted, the toilet doesn't flush, and there's no heat. But the hot water is endless and ferocious, and by the time it has scalded the boat journey off me, I'm feeling irrationally happy. Two dollars. Shit. It makes all the dreary youth hostels I was ever stuck with in Europe seem somehow tragic.
I shower and change and slip out the lobby, wandering down the main boulevard, a freckly rain still falling. I stop at a food stall tucked into a recess on the corner. Seafood and beef are scattered around the premises.
"What can I have with these?" I ask, pointing to some noodles.
"Yes," replies the chunky proprietor, because "What can I have with these?" and "Can I have anything with these?" sound similar in Beginner's Chinese.
We appear to be at an impasse, but he smiles at my perplexed frown and says, "How about I cook you up a plate of something. One kuai, okay?" Ten minutes later I am digging into a potpourri of oysters, liver, beef and vegetables poured over a bed of steaming noodles.
I decide I like Fuzhou already. Even if it is determined to be picturesque.
A sign across the street from the hotel compound: a billboard, depicting a well-dressed Chinese couple they could even be father and daughter clad in western garb, with a far-off propagandist gaze. (Maybe the hash is stronger than they're used to.) A bold exhortation: "Take Part in the Construction of the Motherland - Welcome Overseas Chinese!"
The long, wide swath of May 1st Street shows off both faces of modern Fuzhou in roughly equal measure. Just down the road is the VICE DEPARTMENT, in English (FUJIAN ARTS & CRAFTS SER- is emblazoned on the other side of a massive door; the most effective Chinese advertising stratagems are always unintentional). The Department's sign gushes: "We take pleasure in offering you our arts and crafts articles as well as a portion of light industrial and textile products as your sovenir [sic] and gifts as follows." I don't read on. Everywhere, Chinese are carrying on their bikes compact packages of the new, officially-sanctioned booty, much of it labelled "Hitachi-Fujian." The Hitachi plant lies a little further on: low white buildings like pint-sized aircraft hangars. Container cargo is piled high outside, marked with its destination: the distant United States.
Overseas Chinese are not the only outsiders pumping up Fujian's economy. Many western companies are being encouraged to set up assembly plants and branch operations, and the incentives offered can be generous enough to make the most hardened capitalist do a double-take. Further down May 1st Street is the State-Run No. 1 Leather Shoes Factory. I think: almost anywhere in China, that preface confirming government control of the enterprise would be redundant. I pause to buy fruit at a little hole-in-the-wall that also sells plastic bags printed with the logos of Eaton's and Johnnie Walker and 555 State Express. A short distance away is a café, unexceptional save for its vaguely rakish clientele. They are attracted, perhaps, by the partitioned-off section of the eatery, which houses three video games, blustering and bleeping seductively at passersby. All are made in Fuzhou, including a primitive Chinese version of Pac-Man.
Even a few months in "cosmopolitan" Shanghai hasn't prepared me for all this. But just as pervasive as the western influence are the clusters of shoddy shanty dwellings, set a little back from the sulphurous main road, huddled around small fields of lustrous green cabbage. I stand and watch the winter retinue of labourers toiling away under the serene but watchful eyes of wrinkly grandmothers. Over there, two people are siphoning a thick stream of muck from a sidestreet sewer, pumping it into a low, slimy creek where ducks squabble and ruffle their feathers. Women wash clothes in somewhat clearer water from another rusty pipe downstream. There is the bracing smell of shit, and the sound of sudden laughter mingles with the horns and grinding gears.
It just seems schizophrenic. Or potentially so.
Look around you. Do these people seem schizoid? You're reckoning without four or five thousand years of continuous civilization. You think these folks can't cope with a few surface changes?
But the government has seen it coming, too. Check out the propaganda here. It's the most vulgar and garish I've seen in China. It's as if the Party wants to keep the stars, the hammer-and-sickle firmly in people's consciousness - more firmly than ever, while it loosens the leash and lets them run off in pursuit of their Pac-Man games and Hitachi televisions. Let's walk down to May 1st square. Nearly empty ... the huge, benevolent Mao statue ... Look at that billboard over there. The Chinese people - note the delegates from the scattered minorities, carefully included. They lean, fiery-eyed, in ballistic flight. Like socialist Rocket Robin Hoods. Their lower bodies dissolve in a blur of forward momentum - let me check my dictionary - "United in Heart and Mind for the Four Modernizations." And what sun do they raise their eyes toward? What source undoubtedly powers their solar energy cells? You can see it, top left, that nice, fat, gleaming hammer-and-sickle. Lest we forget ...
I'm glad to see you haven't lost your flair for melodrama.
O unbeliever! Let's cross the grand old stone bridge - actually, there are two of them in Fuzhou, centuries old, and they are to this city what the Golden Gate is to San Francisco. Do you want some of this [foul, stunted] toffee apple? [Send it spiralling into the muddy murk below.] And look! The government again. Cautioning from behind glass cases at the end of the bridge. This particular series of posters warns of the ills of excessive materialism. The illustrations are like those we use in the West to caution young children against playing with matches or drinking mother's Draino. Here. One frame: a crudely drawn young man gestures at a roomful of luxurious furniture. He's promising a pretty girl: "I'll buy you all these!" The next frame has him adding, "And these!" Televisions, fridges, stereos. He's got his back turned to us, and he's holding a large slip labelled ... um, let me check ... DEBTS. Finally the girl, now a wife, brightly-dressed, is thrusting an accusing arm at her hubby a sparkling new watch on her wrist and barking: "I want this, and this!" ...
Sounds like an updated version of Benjamin Franklin to me. And that doesn't seem to have caused much psychosis in the West. If it has, you're as much a product of it as the rest of us.
... And of course the husband, in rags and patches by now, can only raise a helpless hand to his forehead. The caption: "Times Can Change!" Another drawing, same glass case. "The Four Issues Facing a Man of Moral Integrity." They're - "borrowing," "returning," "excessive drinking," and "eating" ...
"Returning" is a no-no?
It could mean "gift-giving," "currying favour." The dictionary's not too clear. I'm loath to drawn sweeping conclusions from it, regardless.
While you're loathing around and fumbling with your pocket dictionary, there are a lot of Chinese following your every move with rapt interest.
[Looking up] Shit. Onward ho, McDuff.
I eat an early lunch in the marvellously ramshackle (there, will that do for "picturesque"?) old section of town. Fuzhou has dozens, possibly hundreds, of these seafood restaurants. All have the same attractive dishes on display outside, appealing to the hungry pedestrian. I settle for the standard big bowl of noodles, tough meat, and skinned, gutted fish with dead silvery eyes. They look unpleasantly parasitic, and I try to work my way around them. But there are too many. I steel myself to eat a few. They crunch in all the wrong places, and I soon give up.
A Chinese man across the table, bundled loosely against the chill, slurps: "Where are you from? America?"
"You have this kind of food in Canada?"
"No." Then I think of Chinatown. "Although ..." But his head is back in the steaming broth. I go to the window and see that the restaurant is actually set on stilts in the scummy river. There are women below, washing clothes on the flat rocks. I take a picture. Then I thread my way through the litter of mummified fish heads and picked-clean vertebrae to the door.
When you're looking for a view, you're fine as long as you're going up. I wind my way along the network of narrow roads. A path through an imposing wrought-iron gate looks promising, but there is a young helmeted guard with a rifle inside, and he has his eye on me. I smile my best dumb-tourist smile, and he falters and lets me through. Unfortunately, there are rather a lot of green-tunicked soldiers wandering the premises, and I am quickly accosted.
"What are you doing here?" one asks. Friendly enough.
"Just looking for a view. What is this place?" It seems half Chinese village, half officer's barracks. There are squat Chinese-made limousines in the carpark.
"No view here. This is a zhaoxue. You'll have to go."
I'm in the mood for a little idle banter. "A what-xue?"
"Zhaoxue. You're really not - "
"Can you show me the proper character for zhao in this dictionary?"
He fumbles with the eight-hundred-odd pages of my pocket marvel. "There. Zhao. Now - "
He escorts me out, apologetic but firm, and then gave the guard at the gate a mild talking-to. I wander off, nose nestled in the dictionary. Zhao means "to look into," and xue is a school. But putting the two together, I come up empty. A research institute? I amble on, noticing the vicious shards of glass embedded in concrete atop the walls. Which are high.
A few steps on is another path, undulating up to the left. It leads, finally, to my view: a barren little park with several judiciously-placed lookouts and a bored boy trudging around with a stack of the evil-tasting toffee apples for sale.
But this, far below, isn't Fuzhou.
It is Foochow, pure and simple: the once-illustrious medieval entrepôt-turned-colonial-treaty-port, its name distorted by the 19th-century West into an evocative half-sneeze, half-drawl.
If you focus your gaze, there are whole sections of the city that look unchanged from a hundred, even two hundred years ago. The mad tangle of stolid shanties south of the river so tightly packed that the lanes between them are invisible, even from a vantage point almost directly above; the larger office buildings, vaguely European-looking, near the waterfront. But the river, with its pastiche of chugging crafts moving leisurely downstream, takes you into the age of the engine, and north of the river the scythe of Liberation is unmistakable. There, concrete modernity towers over a dense undergrowth of one- and two-storey shacks. Chimneys belch black and blue fumes. The post-1949 main road, straight and wide and flanked by new hotels and corporate regional headquarters, splits the city like a firebreak. But even the modernity has a kind of dulled beauty. I am above it, and the insistent tap-tap-tap of the boy, hawking his apples by clacking short lengths of bamboo together in an enervated rhythm, is louder up here than the muted bedlam of horns, motors, and occasional firecrackers below.
I take a bus back to the hotel. In a rare fit of willpower I've left my cigarettes in the room, and now I desperately needed a smoke. When I open the door, I find I have a roommate.
He is Mr. Huang, 60 years old and smiling greetings, dressed in anonymous slacks and an incongruous western hat. We exchange pleasantries. He speaks Mandarin, but I can't get him to use it. After all, it's not every day you get a chance to practice your fractured English in these parts.
"I from Macao!" Mr. Huang announces. "Yes, Macao. But before that, Burma!"
A real live overseas Chinese. "Rangoon?" I ask him.
He smiles. "Rangoon. I born - Burma - Rangoon. Learn little English when I very little." He motions - just that tall.
Mr. Huang ("It mean - yellow?") left Burma for China in 1966. Beginning the previous year, and lasting through 1967, the two nations had been close to war over Chinese support for anti-government Burmese rebels. As in Indonesia, the local Chinese had proved an ideal scapegoat for the holy wrath of the natives.
Or so Mr. Huang tells me. "Chinese have problems. Com-mu-nist, So-cia-list - pah!" He spits drily.
My roommate had spent fourteen-and-a-half years toiling on the Overseas Chinese Agricultural Commune, up the coast from Fuzhou. He shows it to me on my map. "Cold. So cold. So poor." Finally, three years ago, Mr. Huang received permission for himself, one daughter, and two sons to go to Macao - which meant leaving a wife and daughter behind in their Fujian village. Now they are applying for exit visas, and until they have them Mr. Huang is returning frequently, leaving his Macao medical supply business behind for a while to help them keep the faith.
"As for now - we can only meet," he says sadly.
It is by no means certain they will be able to do more than that in the near future. I know exit visas are often granted to Chinese who have relatives in a foreign country - but under the proviso that at least one family member remain behind in China indefinitely. That way, the nation's coffers are assured of a little more of that lovely hard currency, in the form of remittances and money spent whenever the overseas contingent returns to visit those still stranded.
Neat. And a bit obscene.
"Is Macao good?" I ask Mr. Huang.
"Macao - better than China," he replies, seriously and with some disdain. He looks tanned and healthy, the legacy of his upbringing in Burma perhaps; I note his knotty, wiry form, spectacles, and thinning hair. He smokes 555s. Perhaps that, too, is a legacy of life in Rangoon? They were once the preferred smoke among ultra-brand-conscious Burmese, and many an Asian traveller over the years tiptoed around the outrageous official exchange rate by flying in some duty-free smokes and unloading them on the eager black marketeers outside the airport terminal.
Mr. Huang had stood up for my entrance, but he is soon back at the writing desk. He picks up my book, D. T. Suzuki's Zen Buddhism, lying there. "Once, once, I study this. And this" - he points to my geography handbook. "But ..." With his forefinger, he makes halting, confused circles around his ear, and shakes his head.
"Difficult, yes!" I agree. He smiles and turns back to the letter he is writing. To his wife.
"Right now I am using all my strength to try to lift my foot," Lars muses. "Lift, leg, lift! But the damn thing won't budge."
He is a Norwegian student from the Beijing Foreign Language Institute (known among foreign students as "The Ghetto" - foreigners there, an hour and a half from the city centre, outnumber Chinese). He's the first fellow westerner I've spoken with since leaving Shanghai. We chat over a snack of beer and cake in the hotel lounge.
"When I am walking down a street, I get these stares ... I mean, we always get stares, but they're looking at my foot. I feel like Mr. Hyde, you know ..." He twists his Scandinavian face, with its trim beard, into a menacing grimace, and mimes dragging his clubfoot down the road.
"It's a little scary, too. Just a few days ago, I crossed my legs, like this, and then I uncrossed them, and - it's like my foot's gone to sleep and won't wake up."
"You probably just pinched a nerve," Dr. Jones informs him in a tone of high professionalism.
"I went to a doctor here for acupuncture. Very interesting experience. He said it might be a virus of some kind. A virus? Every morning when I wake up, I think - what if it's spread! Up my leg!" He screws his face up comically. "Soon I won't be able to feel my hand holding this beer glass - and then - arrrggghhhh!"
He is only half-joking. "I'm heading to Amoy tomorrow. I'm meeting a girl from Wuhan there. Then on to Hong Kong, to try to get this damn thing fixed."
"Did the acupuncture help at all?"
He drains his glass. "Maybe I should have gone back a few more times."
Lars hails from the same small Norwegian town as my great friend, Ole. That little coincidence gets us started on the subject of his homeland.
"Norway is a small country, but its ties with China are not insignificant," he lectures me, tapping his empty glass on the table. "We're proficient with hi-tech, and we're more willing to sell it to China than the Americans or French are, because we don't have this - euphoria? - about 'you'll use it for arms!'. Because we don't have an arms industry to speak of."
I ask him whether he wants to drag his foot along to the film I plan to catch that evening. It is an English remake of The Man in the Iron Mask (Ironface Man, in the slangy Chinese translation). I've seen the placards while wandering south of the river. One of the stars is Jenny Agutter, a woman of limited acting talent but exquisite beauty, and it's been a while since I've set eyes on a decent bosom, celluloid or otherwise.
"Not me," Lars defers. "I've had enough of Chinese films where I can't understand more than the odd 'How are you?'. Besides, anything with foreigners in it makes me nervous. Have you seen this new film, The Burning of the Summer Palace?"
It is a Sino-Hong Kong joint venture which tells the story of the sacking of Beijing's fabled imperial quarters by foreign troops during the Boxer Uprising. "The foreigners are portrayed as absolutely evil people," Lars says, "fat faces and flaming beards. Which of course they were evil, I mean but they needn't be so direct about it!"
He gives a short laugh. "And near the end of the film when the foreigners begin to get killed, you should just hear the crowds. 'Go, go! Kill the bastards!' When the lights come on at the end you sort of smile meekly at fifteen hundred Chinese who all look as though they'd like to wring your neck. No thanks. I'll have another beer and get an early night."
He sips pensively. "You know, back then, we were foreigners. Nowadays ... Norway's small, as I say. Four million people. Really only a province. But we came just in time to be part of 'the great flowering of European civilization.'" He smirks facetiously. "This is interesting. Because now, today, I'm not a foreigner in this land, but a westerner, you know? Think of it! We are from the West, and our way of life has a grip on every corner of the world today. Everyone is fascinated by our way of life."
I wait for him to tie it all together, but Lars stares out the window and drinks his beer and says nothing. "I'm off," I tell him. "Maybe see you in Amoy, huh?" He smiles, nods, and gets up shakily to order his last beer of the evening.
The film is wonderful. Maybe, just maybe, you haven't lived until you've seen Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner, and even dear old Ralph Richardson speaking impeccable Chinese. The crowd loves it. They whisper delightedly among themselves as the intricacies of the plot unravel. They let out a wistful collective sigh when Chamberlain fixes his smoky gaze on darling Jenny and whispers, "I really love you." And the closest anyone comes to wringing my neck is when a woman in the row behind taps me on the shoulder and inquires whether I'd mind scrunching my six-foot-three frame down in the seat, just a little.
The Drum Mountain Temple, three thousand feet up, is beautiful - half a dozen separate structures, faded but still radiantly antique, nestled in lush hills. But the Chinese here are mostly PLA soldiers turned tourist; they laugh and buddy around in self-conscious groups, run hands surreptitiously over the heads of the statues in the main hall. A little red-cloth donations bag hangs around one of the statues' neck, and there are a few grotty paper fen, the lowest denomination of currency, crumpled inside.
This is a sacred site: the home, it is claimed, of one of the Buddha's teeth. But I search in vain for the hall that holds the relic. It might be under guard by the one monk on view, a doleful, wizened creature who sits in a dim hall housing one of the most graceful Bodhisattva figures I've ever seen. The old monk staffs a table selling incense sticks. I buy a bundle and set about placing them in the bowls of earth before the various idols: partly because Buddhism appeals to me; partly because I love the way the fumes cloud the chilly stone interiors of the halls; partly, perhaps, in defiance of the soldiers joshing disrespectfully around the statues, and of the infuriating little crowd that gathers around me whenever I stop, waiting dumbly for my next trick.
I place a triad of incense sticks in the cool earth at the base of the beautiful Bodhisattva. The monk doesn't even glance my way. He looks up only when there comes a sudden crush or peal of laughter from the workmen. There are a dozen of them in the hall, hammering planks of wood, shouting measurements, trying gamely to toss bundles of rope over high beams. The Drum Mountain Temple, it appears, is "undergoing restoration." It isn't very peaceful in the hall, and I don't stay long.
Outside, just as I'm heading back to catch a bus, I spy a young monk disappearing down a side passage from the main compound. On an impulse I follow. He wears an outfit curiously similar to a nun's in the west: black head-dress and grey smock. I clear my throat softly; he turns around; we chat briefly.
He is 21 years old, from a town here in Fujian Province. His accent is too lazy, and my Chinese too atrocious, to catch more of his background than that. There are, he tells me, some 30 monks and nuns now living in the temple, compared with over a hundred before 1949. Most are older than he, though once a squat adolescent lad in similar dress passes by with cheerful greetings.
"Where are you from?" he asks. He smiles dreamily at my answer, a far-off look in his eyes. "Canada's a very big country."
"How long will you stay here?" I ask. And again I missed most of his reply, but catch: "I will go where I am needed."
I am cramped together with two others on a single seat, counting myself lucky, my bags piled in the aisle. We clank out of Fuzhou, and once outside the city limits the driver leans on the shrill claxon he's been saving for the countryside. He has another one, more muted, for urban environs perhaps to avoid frightening absent-minded cyclists into his path rather than out of it.
I'm happy to be moving on land again, and in the countryside. There is plenty to see outside the grit-flecked windows of the bus. Fields full of dusty cabbages and pillbox-shaped haystacks speed past, bracketed by fine scrubby hills. And people, always people: cycling along the road, pushing overflowing carts of sugar cane up steep hills, or chugging about in the incongruous forcep-shaped hot rods that are everywhere in rural China. For some miles we follow a truck laden with leafy produce. In back, three farm workers wearing soiled, formless clothes and expressions of stupefied boredom recline on their bed of veggies, kings of their mountain, jowls wobbling with the jouncing of the vehicle.
In between the shrieks of the bus's horn, a low, sweet, melodious voice sings a wistful tune. It belongs to a kindly-looking middle-aged man, across the aisle and further front. Is he trying to lull one of the nearby children to sleep? With that horn going?
I turn to the girl sitting next to me. "What's the song about?"
She is Lucia ("I chose the name myself!"), an eighteen-year-old student in International Relations at a Beijing university. English is her major. Lucia lives in Quanzhou; the same school holiday that takes me around South China is taking her home to the family she so misses.
Giggles. "About two lovers!"
"Those are always the good songs," I say firmly, and she blushes and grins. She is pretty, very girlish, with a wide, cherubic, mildly spotty adolescent face and a tight shell of a hairstyle that's American '50s through-and-through. Sometimes she looks like a shiny beachball with a wig. I like her from the first.
"It is a song from a popular film," Lucia goes on. "Film called The Five Flowers - no, The Five Golden Flowers."
"What happens to the lovers in the film?"
"Ah! Well. They are shaoshuminzu - minority people, like the Joes in America."
"The Joes. When man sees woman, he loves her. And she - she also loves him! They are very shy and cannot speak to each other at first. But they are used to sing to express themselves, so they sing this song to the other. Then they agree to meet in somewhere in next year."
"And do they meet?"
"Yes! They have problems, but in the end they are married."
I think a minute. "Is this a film from before Liberation?"
"No, after. During the Cultural Revolution it was banned as 'spiritual pollution'. Now it can be shown again. It is regarded as good film." She bows her head, blushing furiously. "I am sorry my English is so poor."
The land is dry, almost prototypically dusty. If I want to stick to my breast metaphor, I'm going to have to get used to seeing it lying half-fallow for the winter. But before long the field beside the road two lanes, often stretched to three or three-and-a-half with the multitudes of cyclists and cart-pushers bursts into extraordinary colour. Neat rectangles of yellow blossom from delicate green stalks.
Now, I've always envied the travel writer who spends half a page happily describing, in exhaustive detail, the profusion of vegetation flowing past his window. Unfortunately, horticulture and I have been bitter enemies ever since my father cut off my weekly allowance, thrusting me out into the cruel world of weekend gardening to earn enough money for the new Kiss record. The result, needless to add, is that I have trouble today telling a rhododendron from a rhinoceros. And so I ask Lucia, "What are those flowers?" thinking, "Daisies?"
She knows only the Chinese, and we fumble with my pocket dictionary.
"But surely sugar cane is tall and - like a pole?"
"Yes," she says, "but these are the flowers of the sugar cane."
"Oh." On this dingy, overcast day, with the panorama of dun-coloured fields, they are spectacular. And I see Lucia is right: mature sugar cane is everywhere, fronds of shoots rustling in the wind, keeping their lean when the breeze subsides.
We pass the town of Putian, with its busy market and a beautiful ancient stone bridge which, from a distance, seems easily the equal of the two in Fuzhou. The bus rumbles and sputters through a slew of gracious, visibly prosperous little villages ("many of those brand-new houses were financed by gifts from relatives abroad," my guidebook notes). New roads are being built at a prolific rate.
We stop for a lunch break at Hsangjiang, a slight backtrack from the main coast road. As we prepare to pull out again, a local woman comes aboard, selling foot-long sticks of sugar cane. Well, the last time I munched raw cane was in Java, four years ago. An Indonesian accomplice and I had broken it from stalks at the side of a paddy-field a few miles from Jogjakarta. I remember the juice running down my chin and dripping onto the sun-baked earth.
Nostalgia could certainly come in a less attractive guise. I ask the woman, "How much?"
"One mao." Five cents.
"That's too much!" Lucia gasps.
"Not where I come from," I shoot back hungrily. Lucia nods, "Of course," her worst fears of free-spending, globe-trotting capitalists confirmed.
We drive off, and I see it. "Lucia look!"
"What!" she follows my rapt gaze.
"A church - there! Do you see?"
"A church?" It's gone. But it had been there a stubby little steeple rising bravely among the maze of houses, the cross on top miraculously intact. Of all places, in this small town on the way to now-insignificant Quanzhou!
"Are you sure it was a church?" Lucia presses, doubtful. "I don't think so."
I shrug and gaze out the window again. And Lucia pipes up, "Do you believe in God?"
I look at her. "Yeah."
"Really?" She is astounded. I seemed so sensible!
"Sure," I laugh. "Do you?"
"No!" A defensive look, orthodox indignation, spreads across her features. "Why do you believe in God?"
I think a minute. "I don't know. Why does your heart beat? It's there, it beats, I feel it beating. Why ask why?"
"But God does not really exist."
"If you mean I can't point out the window and say, 'Hey, look, there's God,' then I agree. But you know, you say to someone, 'I love you' - couldn't they say, 'But love doesn't exist?' Yet we feel it inside."
Lucia asks matter-of-factly, "Does your girlfriend believe in God?"
"No," I say, smiling. "She won't hear of it."
Lucia is truly shocked. "She doesn't?" Then: "That is interesting."
She sits, thoughtful. Not long after, we come over the crumbling hills on the outskirts of Quanzhou. Lucia points out the local Overseas Chinese University on our right - a large, bland, off-white structure set among dwellings and green, dusty trees. "The huaqiao gave all the money for that," she explains. And then we are into the city. Lucia gleefully points out the changes that have taken place along the road since she left town for Beijing a few months ago.
"Goodbye!" Lucia calls gaily as I shoulder my bags and wander off to find a room. Backing up to the window, where a passenger was passing out her bags, she adds: "And I wish you a happy Spring Festival!"
"You too!" I shout. But she has backed herself into a parked bus, and I think she misses it.
But with the sky dull grey and my unheated room bitterly cold at night, I begin to think of moving on. I'm sinking in Quanzhou: tired of thinking of things to do in the two hours before bed, when everything outside is comatose save for the tinkle of night-shift bicycle bells. Those two hours, after a beer, lying on the bed with a packet of cigarettes at my side, are when I get thoughtful when the loneliness and defenselessness of solitary travel in a strange country lies like a lead weight on my chest.
And I'm feeling ill. Quanzhou's markets are wonderfully robust, they overflow with fresh vegetables and heaping trays of bean curd and meat butchered on the spot. But every restaurant every café, every corner stall with its bare-bulb lighting sells ... seafood. Desiccated fish, bowls of oyster-meat that look disconcertingly like the contents of a used air-sickness bag. And carp, swimming lazily in bowls outside the eatery doors, blithely unaware of their imminent doom.
It's the last one that clinches it. Carp and I have an understanding stretching way back, long enough for the news to spread throughout the ranks of the species: You don't mess with me, I won't mess with you. These carp look at me with their wide, shining eyes and burble, You're not really going to go back on your pledge, are you?
Of course I'm not. I walk the streets for an hour at a time, looking for a measly bowl of plain noodles; but everywhere is scabrous fish and slimy oysters. I end up subsisting for a day and a half on sweetcakes and peanut brittle and nauseatingly sour beer and oranges, oranges, oranges. I am liking the city but feeling the knots in my stomach twist every time I turn a quaint, picturesque, ancient corner. In the end I decide it's better to risk being bored and well-fed down the road than to starve to death, fascinated, where I am. I take the morning bus on to Amoy.
"You teach?" We speak over a table laden with empty bowls that once held hundun (better known as won-ton); a table strewn with the stale crumbs of lately-scoffed baozi buns.
"I teach my grandson - he three years old!" Mrs. Zhou has an ecstatic, screechy voice that positively crackles when she laughs. Her face is drawn to the edges in a permanent rictus of glee. There is a large bandage on her cheek, and a prominent cyst under her chin.
"I teach him English, yes. I learn English when very little, when you foreign people still in Amoy. 'How old are you?' 'I am three,' he can say. 'Where are you from?' 'China!' 'Where were you born?' 'In Amoy!' 'Where do you live?' 'Amoy!' 'What do you do in Amoy?' 'I brush my teeth up and down!'" She finishes with a triumphant whoop, makes brushing motions over her strong, white teeth.
Then she grows serious. "I think it is very important that he learn a - foreign language. It is a use-ful acquirement!" She smiles proudly.
"This is the way I teach. Very easy. Take words that sound - the same. A word like flower, f-l-o-w-e-r. What is the same sound? Tower: t-o-w-e-r! Power! Bower! Lour! Then my student learns, all at the same time. You see?"
I am giggling helplessly until that last word. "Lour?"
"Yes!" She spells it.
"What does it mean?" I ask, perplexed.
"What does it mean!" She points to her shiny face and makes mysterious circular motions over her unbandaged cheek. "When you are sad - like this - or the sun when it is not ... shining!"
"Do you mean 'dour'?" My brows are knotted, but I'm still smiling. (Try it one day.) "D-o-u-r?"
We're not getting very far with this, so she tries a different approach. "Or this word, 'flower.' Inside is 'flow.' What is the same sound? Bow - sew - toe ... and 'flow' backwards is w-o-l-f!"
"The animal!" I yelp.
"The animal, wowlf! You see, they learn all at once!"
"I think it's wonderful, Mrs. Zhou, especially that you're still learning. You should never stop learning and studying!" Jeez, I could be a billboard in Liberation Square.
"Verrrry useful acquirement!" she chortles. "And more - what sounds same as ... your Chinese name, Zhong Hai-tang. Zhong,' clock! There is - 'sock'! And - 'rock'! And - 'cock'?"
"Another animal," I assure her.
"Yes! And - "
"Mrs. Zhou, I'm sorry, I have a friend to meet back at my hotel." I can't face too many more rhyming contests. Though I would like to see how many more one-syllable words she can come up with that I've never heard of.
"Good-bye, I wish you nice time in Amoy!" And when I am out in the street, just down from my third Overseas Chinese Hotel in a row, there is a break in the clouds. The sun blazes briefly, but burningly. For the blessed duration of my walk back to the room, the day is no longer "lour."
All out, here in Amoy. There is a large billboard at the end of Zhongshan Road, by the ferry terminal - an ad for Xiamen Brand Pan Film: GET MOST HAPPINESS FOR YOUR TOURIST. Up the road and to the right, outside the new Overseas Chinese Mansion (a spiffy offshoot of the grey concrete block where I'm staying - built for those who demand showers, and carpets on the floor), there soars another eye-catching sign. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, that staid old bastion of British imperialism in East Asia, is now "Promoting and Financing China's Modernisation." To drive the point home, a glistening red People's Republic flag looms over the Bank's distinctive emblem: a lion - gruff, proud, and very British, its paws splayed solidly à la Trafalgar Square.
All of a sudden in Amoy it is magnificent weather. The clouds sprint over the horizon, chased by a painfully bright sun. The sky is so pure and blue after weeks of winter grey that it seems almost garish. That sun is like a rambunctious boy bursting in on a solemn conversation of his elders. I love it. I love feeling prickles of sweat down my spine, love having to loosen my scarf, love wondering whether my jacket can be stuffed away into my ragged old carrying-bag.
Amoy is made for the sun. The buildings' brightly-painted shutters glitter and shine; the dust in the air is like specks of gold. It's the first Chinese port I've seen on the coast which looks and smells and moves like a port should. Fuzhou and Quanzhou, the great entrepôts of dynasties past, are all situated some distance upriver from the coast, and are largely silted up. But Amoy clings to the sea - is itself an island, connected to the mainland by a sturdy causeway. With its New Economic Zone status and ever-increasing ties with mighty Hong Kong, it bustles and hustles.
In the glare the harbour twinkles, and the water turns a cool translucent green. The odd junk comes billowing in from the open sea, dwarfed in its passage by a huge cargo ship, the Tai Shan. Rich, booming notes sound from the horn of a Hong Kong-bound passenger liner.
I stand watching it all from a peak high above the island of Gulang Yu, once the abode of Amoy's foreign capitalist contingent. It still feels drowsy with wealth and idleness. The patchwork of the city spreads out below and opposite. All around is a sweeping vista of sea and forest and hills.
A grizzled People's Liberation Army officer stands nearby, pointing out the sights to a child of two or three.
I say, "Excuse me. I've heard there's an island near here still held by the Nationalists. Is it visible from here?"
He nods, but then shakes his head. "You can't see it today. Maybe if the sky weren't so hazy ... over there, on a good day, you'd see a bit of it." He points round the swerve of Amoy's south coast, past the red-tiled roofs of the Xiamen University campus. "It's only round the corner, there, that you can really get a good look. And that's forbidden without authorisation."
So I resolve to try the next day, for the hell of it. The island is Quemoy, of course that incongruous little flyspeck off the coast, which for some reason (the U.S. 7th Fleet, I imagine) Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists managed to deny their foes in 1949. In 1958, the two sides exchanged some ferocious artillery salvoes (Quemoy is that close to the mainland), sparking one of those global crises which today merit half a sentence in the history books.
I am dying for a glimpse of it. The whole thing seems so ridiculous. Even lacking assault craft, why didn't the Communists just roll across the narrow stretch of water and take Quemoy with the human-wave tactics which sent the American imperialist running dogs packing in Korea? Now Quemoy is a fortress, almost impregnable. My classmate Robert, who spent two years in Taiwan, says there are 60,000 Nationalist troops on it - "Everyone without connections gets sent there." Looking down on Amoy, I imagine the whine of incoming shells. I envisage the shells flying the other way, pounding Quemoy's 60,000 soldiers and twelve farmers and God twenty-seven cows ... each side, as usual in modern war, almost invisible to the other.
In Amoy, my guidebook rhapsodizes, "The pace of life is as Mediterranean as the aging stucco buildings that grace much of the town." It makes me a little disgruntled and suspicious, that. I'm pissed off about having to get up at six o'clock to catch the only hot water of the day back at the hotel; pissed off that it's in a vat and you have to ladle it over you; pissed off that there's no ladle. I have the beginnings of a racking cough from the damp winter of Fuzhou and Quanzhou. Lying in bed with the day's first cigarette, the sky gloomy outside my window, I think: Great. Pseudo-Mediterranea to cheer me up. And on Gulang Yu, says the book, "the Mediterranean flavour is more pronounced."
Then the sun bursts through. Gulang Yu spreads itself out and winds around below my perch. And Chinese Mediterranea suddenly seems the most wonderful thing in the world.
The waterfront of Amoy proper is strung along the harbour opposite like the port of Corfu. But it is on Gulang Yu tiny and secretive and quiet (no motor vehicles allowed, only a few bicycles on the clean-swept lanes) that I feel that faintly-remembered serenity creep through my system. It's like the blush of just enough red wine. I walk the narrow streets, light and shadow stark in the early afternoon sun. Two old biddies are catching the rays and gossiping animatedly on the steps of a stucco house. One has gold teeth that flash; the other has three real ones that don't. I am going to pass with only a friendly nod, but the near-toothless one sees me coming. Her deeply-etched face breaks into a welcoming grin. Up shoots her thumb into the air, and she cackles: "Okay! Bye-bye!"
I take it as an invitation to chat. I want to snap a picture, and ask if I could, my faltering Chinese supplemented by avid clicking gestures in front of my face. They nod, smiling and uncomprehending, but when I take out the trusty Olympus they screech in mingled horror and delight. "How could you! Not while we're wearing these clothes!" They tug at their faded apparel.
Mrs. Golden Tooth lectures me with mock severity. "What will everybody say when you go back to your country and they see pictures of us in outfits like these! Now, you just come back another time, we'll be sure to wear pretty clothes."
"Your clothes are fine!" I protest. But I dutifully stuff my camera back in my bag, shaking my head with exaggerated dismay. "I'll be off now," I say.
"O.K., bye-bye," boisterous Mrs. No-Tooth says once again, and their peals of flattered laughter follow me down the lane. I know that one'll have 'em chatting for the rest of the day, sitting there on the steps in the strong sun.
I find myself in a small square not far from the waterfront, and sit down for a moment that stretches into many, basking shamelessly in the glare and ambience. God, I think, it is the Mediterranean. Something in the definite brightness of the sun, the way it dances on the bleached-white façades of houses with their blue and yellow shutters. Something in the faint smell of the sea (how pervasive, I can't tell; my cold is less than impressed by the surroundings, and is managing to keep my nose blocked while allowing most of its contents to trickle out, salty and ticklish, over my upper lip). And the sounds - people, not engines and horns. Old men bicker over games of cards at stone tables in the square. Children in incandescent clothes waddle or dash, bubbling and screaming, down crooked paths and side-lanes. Pungent cries from shopkeepers on the perimeter puncture the murmur of the lounging locals.
I know where I am. Skyros. Outside one of those cool backstreet cafés, where you sip rich, sweet coffee in the shade shade that smells of ancient dust or scorch yourself in the sun. I'm waiting for the noon ferry that will take me back to the mainland. But there's plenty of time to enjoy that coffee with the first smooth cigarette of the day. At any moment I can get up - a quick farewell to the proprietor in fractured Greek; he knows me, one of his transient regulars. I can walk down that cobbled street, the coffee tingling in my molars, to the sidewalk market. There the crone with the universal wrinkled features will sell me a crumbling handful of goat's cheese, tugged liquid and tangy from its donor's teats a few hours ago. A little further on there'll be a corner bakery, stinking of yeast, with bread baked fresh that morning. I'll buy an apple and some cheap wine, or a bottle of strong Greek beer, to wash everything down and send me to sticky sleep back in my little whitewashed room on the hill. Though of course, there's that ferry to catch ... funny how you forget these things ... and then -
- And then I'll glance up and see the trio of PLA soldiers peering cautiously at me, and I'll remember I'm in China.
Like magic, there is a little café nearby, in the centre of the square. It's surrounded by a fence overgrown with shrubs and ivy. The attendants are sweeping up; there are no other customers. But they recommend a local beer and sell it to me. I sit alone at a stone table, sipping cool brew, glorying in the sting of the sun on my face.
The next day's sun is diffused by stubborn clouds. I spend the morning clambering around the hills with Brian, an American I've met at the hotel dinner table. Brian is the kind of guy for whom the word "strapping" was invented. Six-foot-five, ex-football player ("My upper body is comparable to a pro's," he tells me deadpan, "but my legs need work"). A rugged, chiselled face that becomes bland when pensive. He's travelling around the East on an awesomely generous fellowship awarded by the tiny University of Puget Sound in Seattle. The only debt he seems to owe his benefactors is an occasional letter and a reasonably accurate tally of his expenditures at the end of the trip. This latter duty he takes deadly seriously. At day's end, he pulls out his Japanese pocket calculator and does his accounting.
"I flew in from Canton," he tells me. "The flight took forty-four minutes and forty-four seconds. I timed it." The calculator doubles as a digital stopwatch.
On cramped buses, he tucks his frame against the roof, pulls out his copy of John Le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl, and reads blithely, highlighting passages of interest with a yellow marking pen. We like each other the more time we spent together, tolerating each other's pretensions. I'm feeling glad to have another prominently tall westerner who can draw away a share of the stares. Most of the stares, indeed, are for him, with his towering athlete's physique, and I don't think he's spent enough time in China to mind them much.
We're hunting for a glimpse of Quemoy, but each ridge we climb above town is blocked by a higher one further south. Brian confirms our bearings with his pocket compass: "Do you have any idea what the magnetic deviation from true north is around here?" A couple of times a promising-looking trail is marked by an unforgiving sign: NO TOURISTS ALLOWED or VISITORS PERMITTED ENTRANCE ONLY WITH SPECIAL AUTHORIZATION. The roundabout Chinese way of saying FUCK OFF. Finally we bump into a small police academy, nestled in green forest. We ask one of the trainees whether there's any view of Quemoy nearby. He smiles at the too-stupid-to-be-believed foreigners and says, "Look, that's army over the ridge. Even we're not allowed there."
You can only go so far with the ignorant-outsider act. Brian and I decide to give it up before we trip a wire on an automatic machine-gun nest. We spend the rest of our wanderings trying to decipher faded inscriptions on the tombstones that crop up in thickets off the hill paths. In the afternoon we take a packed bus to Jimei, just across the causeway from Amoy. We find ourselves clambering over some rocks laid bare by the low tide, watching the ancient ritual of oyster farmers scraping their crop off regimented rows of half-embedded boulders. The shore stretches away from us in a rough crescent; there are dozens of fishing boats beached by the tide.
Nearby is a little blacksmith's shop where the scraping implements of the oyster farmers are fashioned. On a whim, the old blacksmith invites us in. His young apprentice sits us down to tea, boiling the water in the furnace, bellows on full-blast: it is bubbling furiously within half a minute. We sip tea, exchange cigarettes. Brian does something with his calculator and blushes a little when I have to translate questions for him.
The sun breaks through the clouds just in time to set. We skirt the perimeter of Jimei town. It's simply the most prosperous imaginable in China, funded to the hilt by the huaqiao; it gleams in the fading light with the gold of those countless overseas remittances. Brian stops to take a picture of fields and houses, and says, mildly wistful: "It would be a great shot if only those telephone lines weren't in the way." He thinks briefly. "Of course, I guess they need their lines more than I need my photograph."
I look at him, surprised. He spent a lot of time trying to be astute, and then, just when you least expected it ... We squat on our haunches by the side of the road, our faces glowing pale orange, waiting for the bus home.
My last glimpse of Amoy, clattering out of town in the pre-dawn haze next morning, is a sign urging in English and Chinese: SPEED UP CONSTRUCTION OF ECONOMIC ZONE. How long can it be, I think, before magical Gulang Yu sees its first car, smells its first belch of carbon monoxide? But farewell, Amoy. Thank you.
Is this the glorious fertile breast? Is this my steaming South of sweltering green? I try to get up on my high horse about it, but it isn't the same. The vistas are so numbing the poison simply cakes on the pen. I sit there, sucking and crunching peanut brittle, reading Huxley's hokey Island, looking out the window. Each successive mile makes me feel a pound heavier in my seat.
There is nastiness in the air in Canton. It's there from the first, from the idle parking-lot hustler outside the train station, who thrusts a photo album at me as I walk past. The album is full of Chinese standing by gleaming red taxis, with the station's clock-tower in the background. Just one dollar, ladies and gents, and you too can stand by this marvellous lump of metal, let your grin of false pride spread across your face, fold your arms self-consciously ... as if it was really yours to drive away! Christ, who could be fooled?
When I march up a side alley away from my hotel to grab some lunch at a food stall, I find myself grabbed instead around the wrist, by a female hand. Does she want to change money? No, she wants me to eat at her stall. She drags me fifty meters up the road to her cubby-hole. I balk at the posted price-list, and I can feel her eyes following me morosely as I head across the street to do some comparing.
I am in Canton to rest up a little, and to see the Qingping Market.
The infamous Market. I have met travellers on the road whose eyes glaze over with wonder and revulsion at the memory of this, "one of the world's most unforgettable food emporia," and I've vowed to take a look.
The Qingping Market is hell as Dante might have imagined it, if Dante had been a chicken. Or for that matter a duck, crab, frog, snake, civet, eel, dog, or any of the dozens of species of fish tempting passersby. Brian, in Amoy, tells me the old joke. How do we know Adam and Eve weren't Cantonese? If they were, they would have eaten the serpent.
It runs up one long north-south street and spills over into a couple of side alleys. Much of it is covered. The air is fetid, stinking of fish. Truckloads - truckloads - of carp are being unloaded into the chaos: the rear of the vehicles has been converted into a kind of transportable wading pool by means of a few tarpaulins. Baskets of still-gasping fish are being hurried down the street, past buckets of lazy turtles. Fish float on their sides, exhausted, or lie belly-up in pools. People ride by on bikes with huge carp, some still alive, dangling on twine from their handlebars, like misbegotten dashboard ornaments.
I wander, dazed, past stalls with cruel, stringy dog-meat fresh from the backyard abbatoir, flayed raw, dangling on hooks. The din is incredible - thousands of people bickering, bargaining, buying. Raging debates take place over trays of obliviously flopping fish. Chickens squawk in protest as they are carried away, upside-down, by their smiling purchasers.
It's a Spring Festival madhouse, surely - this couldn't happen every day? The only creatures who seem unperturbed are the ducks. They are arranged in rows, with a strange, slightly ruffled dignity. They pose and preen: Eat me first! Just round the corner lies their fate: haphazard piles of steaming duck corpses, fresh from fatal immersion in steel tubs of boiling water. Young women gossip as they methodically strip away the sopping raiment from the duck-flesh underneath. Nearby, other ducks hang upside down, their beaks inches above a grisly pool of blood and viscera, quacking in sudden, terrified awareness of their impending doom. Every so often, one of the women stops chattering long enough to haul out a few more madly-protesting creatures from their stacked bamboo cages. The ducks jitter frantically in their cages, jockeying to be furthest away from the intruding hand, scrabbling fiercely as they are dragged over to the boiling water.
That's enough for me. Little warning pricks have started in the corner of my eyes: the eyes of this animal who once paid his younger brother two weeks' allowance to set free a lake trout; who would probably have ceded all income in perpetuity if bro' had had the business sense to hold out for a higher offer; who had slipped away to cry for hours with pain and relief and sweet joy when the fish was finally set free.
And what of the New Year?
In the nation's capital, it is nearly zero hour. In a salutary article headlined, "Spring Festival Spirit Embraces Beijing," the China Daily gushes:
The sporadic sound of firecrackers, the bustling shoppers and the endless stream of passengers at railway stations in Beijing all indicate that the city is ready for the traditional Spring Festival, which falls on February 2 this year.
The vegetable markets and other shops are already crowded with customers. A steady flow of foodstuffs and beverages from other parts of China has been pouring into the capital. Stocks of meat, chickens, eggs, ducks, fish, and pastries for the festival all surpass those for last year. The supply of lean pork, the people's favourite nowadays, is expected to increase by 31 per cent.
At the Beijing Railway Station passengers can be seen coming and going from early morning till late at night, loaded down with gifts and eager to rejoin their families. During the 40 days between January 13 and February 21, an estimated 600 million passengers will be transported throughout the country [my italics]. To cope with the situation transport departments have expanded air, bus, rail and ship services during the festival period. ...
Beijing peasants, whose celebrations will last for 15 days, are rehearsing theatrical pageants, featuring stilts, lion and dragon, boat, and drum dances. A dozen professional troupes will tour suburban areas to entertain rural residents. ...
The city's 400,000 retired workers and office employees have been invited to gatherings and parties held by the units where they used to work. Special arrangements have been made for people to help families of soldiers and revolutionary martyrs and childless old people to shop, clean, wash and decorate. ...
Chinese, particularly children, like firecrackers for festive occasions. The city's Sundry Goods Corporation has shipped in 600 million fireworks from other parts of the country for the festival.I remember the insane Chinese New Year's Eve in Singapore - 1980, was it? The crowds, the cacophony of cymbals and drums and gongs, the garishly-lit temples with their gates open all night and draped with garlands of offerings. ... In Canton, I think: Shit, if the overseas Chinese can toss a bash like that, what must the real sons of the soil be capable of, with government restraints mostly lifted? In Canton, which even on a normal day is supposed (according to my guidebook) to make other Chinese cities "seem bland and boring by comparison"?
But the traditional New Year is ushered in, for the most part, behind closed doors. It seems Canton has gotten much of the public flurry out of the way beforehand. Everyone's had a ball buying their fresh civet brains and haggling over a nice pair of pangolin paws in the Qingping Market. Now they're content to sit down at the table and gorge on the fruits of their exertions. I can see them on my New Year's Eve nighttime stroll, through windows or cracks in doors along darkened main streets and side alleys: brightly-lit rooms with Mum, Dad, Gran and the brood clustered sedately around groaning kitchen tables.
Firecrackers and fireworks resound everywhere, whooshing and hissing and spitting. But the perpetrators of this saltpeter-scented bedlam seem few in number. There is big brother lighting little brother's firecracker and waiting for Junior to blow his arm off; delinquents crouched behind pillars waiting for a bicycle to pass, so they can toss a surprise into the spokes and send the hapless rider flying through the front window of a Number 31 bus. That's about it.
There is more activity in the backstreets, but even here it consists mainly of families feasting out in the open, munching and chatting away placidly. The salient feature of this whole Spring Festival business, from my viewpoint, is the fact that no street-stall noodle-seller is offering anything other (and cheaper) than the traditional celebratory banquet. Hunger drives me back to the hotel. Again I'm dragged fifty yards up the alley to the overpriced cafe. There, the proprietress relents, admitting there is actually a one-yuan version of the rice noodles. There are two other customers in the place. They watch me eat and think and sip weak tea.
Apparently, silent contemplation over mouthfuls of food is integral to the Spring Festival for the Chinese, too. The occasion has stirred the brain cells of one Chen Dexi, of Baoji Town, Shaanxi Province. He has offered the China Daily his "New Year Wish for Unity":
Editor - Spring Festival is coming, which always makes me miss even more our fellow-countrymen in Taiwan, and I'd like to express my sincere festival greetings to them and their families. In the meantime I'm much concerned about the future of Taiwan which affects China's reunification.
The Chinese leaders have sincerely invited the Taiwan authorities and the people in Taiwan for talks on reunification and have offered their own proposals. I have confidence that people of insight will and ought to respond positively, abandon previous enmities and work for the reunification of the motherland.And somewhere, no doubt, on that smoggy and now-ostracized little island a few dozen miles off the Fujian coast, someone is penning similar epistles to his daily though perhaps not so conciliatory in tone. Plus ça change ... but I can't help thinking the Taiwanese across the strait at least know how to ring in the New Year with a little more energy and flair.
I spend one last day in Canton, my third. Long enough to buy a boat ticket upriver to Wuzhou. The lady hands me a ragged piece of cardboard at the ticket window. It reads, in English: "Where do you want to go? Please point to correct city: Guilin - Yangshuo - Wuzhou." She takes my onward bus fare to Yangshuo on the spot. I wander the streets and, quite by accident, stumble on what was once the most famous landmark in Canton for the westerner: the old twin-spired Catholic Cathedral near the waterfront. After decades of service as a warehouse, it has reputedly been refurbished and reconsecrated. But to me it still has a forbidding, shuttered look, and the gates are locked tight. You can only stare. The windows once delicately stained, perhaps are now gloomy and functional, smashed in places by stones tossed twenty years or twenty days ago. All in all it appears to operate about as boisterously as the Buddhist temples I've seen in China - but at least with them, a ten-fen token will buy you a token glimpse of the interior with a token monk or two, and an aura of once-thriving magnificence. In Canton, standing outside the cathedral, it's Thursday and there's nothing doing.
I stroll a while longer and find a few more landmarks familiar to me from my first visit to the city in 1981. It had been warmer then. ... I feel angry with myself for just wanting to go back to the hotel, scribble a few ambivalent paragraphs in my notebook, check if my washing's dry, and go to sleep. But what the hell else is there to do on this damp, dismal day?
In the evening I amble over to the train station food stalls and eat my worst meal in China, maybe my worst anywhere: cold clumps of rice and a few gristly clods of chilly, grease-laden meat. I finish about half of it and look up to find a squat young girl at my table ugly haircut and eyes just looking, staring at me, giving nothing away. I've seen her hovering on the way in, her baggy blue trousers and grey blouse, and on the basis of the official-looking badge on her jacket I've pegged her as a station attendant. Well, she's a beggar but a beggar who doesn't beg, not even with her eyes. She just stares into you and through you. Is she fourteen? Fifteen? Twenty-seven? She is clean enough in appearance, but when I give up on the evil meal in disgust and head over to the counter to buy sweet-cakes, she switches seats in a flash and gobbles the remainder of my food, vile half-chewed meat and all. It makes me feel sick and guilty and angry all at once.
She wolfs down every grain while I stand around deciding on my cake, and then she walks quickly over and stands at the counter with me, not looking up when I glance at her. I buy two cakes and suddenly ask the clerk to add another, which I press into the girl's surprised (but hastily-extended) palm on my way out. I think: Canton, you old whore, and the next day I'm gone.
Old and new, Guangzhou (Canton).
The boat fare, berth included, is less than I paid for a bed alone in Canton. The bunks are just slabs of wood running the length of the hold, covered with worn straw mats. Removable wooden slats serve as partitions. The bunks are nearly full with chattering Chinese: families have pulled out the slats and piled them against the wall, preferring to lie around in a haphazard, communitarian sprawl. A few couples have done the same: All the better to snuggle with you, my dear. Boats, like the hard-sleeper compartments in Chinese trains, are capsules, worlds of their own. Regimentation and pettiness never seem to intrude.
I put down my writing pad, lie back in a litter of sunflower seeds, and abandon myself to the pleasantly slovenly atmosphere. I have my Walkman turned all the way up, the batteries are fresh, and out of nowhere comes John Bonham, kicking the living shit out of his drumkit, reining in monstrous distorted riffs from Jimmy Page's guitar. "The Rover":
I've been to London, seen seven wonders,It was the last dance of the flower children on the road to Kathmandu. For that reason I've adopted it, slightly self-consciously, as my theme song: nostalgia for a time I've never known.
I know to trip is just to fall ...
Oh how I wonder, oh how I worryWail, Robert, wail. In a minute will come that guitar solo, the most subtle and searing bit of fretboard fiddling you'll ever hear, and heaven will be a hard bunk on a slow boat with a kid tossing breadsticks at me and Zeppelin in my brain.
And I would dearly like to know
How all this squander of earthly plunder
Will leave us anything to show!
On the mat beside me are strewn replacements: more Zeppelin (the runes album), Kinks, Pink Floyd, the Clash, live Seger, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Michael Jackson and Simon & Garfunkel for mellower moods. In other words, the music of the moment; ever-shifting, but with some surprising constants. The runes album was the first I ever owned, purchased for fifty cents' lunch money, in such awesomely poor condition that "Stairway to Heaven" sounded like someone singing while he made popcorn. It didn't matter. I scrubbed away at it with soap and water until all the clicks and pops and fissures were fresh, clean, and twice as audible. Then I sat back and let the aural earthquake of "Misty Mountain Hop" rattle my molars.
Later, I slip on some Tom Petty ("It doan really madda to me, bay-beh / Everybody's had ta fight ta be freeee!") and look down to the end of the hold. There are the beginnings of a travelling community down there: something I always find a little magical to watch coalesce.
Travellers in general, and perhaps Asian travellers in particular, form one of the last great border-less communities. It's a community always in flux, but ineffably interconnected, so that the German you last saw munching on a pie in Kathmandu you might well bump into smoking opium in northern Thailand or laying his straw mat next to yours, deck-class on the ship to Sulawesi. There are no sincere goodbyes on the Asian trail. There is only, "Maybe we'll bump into each other in India."
And so often you do bump into each other again: so often that it become suspicious, and finally ridiculous. I meet Dave, an effervescent American, sipping coffee in a Shanghai café with Paul and Debbie from Hong Kong. Two weeks later I run across Dave again in the same café, different table. He's headed to Beijing. A couple of weeks after that Paul and Debbie spot me at Luoyang Train Station, hundreds of miles from Shanghai. They've seen Dave in Beijing, by pure coincidence, and they bring me up to date on his doings. A month and a half later, strolling into the restaurant of a boat to Hong Kong, I spy good old Dave, hunched over a beer, on his way out. We smile and shake our heads in turn and say, "It's just like the time that ... ." He promises me a postcard from the Philippines, which he never sends. No problem. Maybe we'll meet again in India.
I see it as one of the most enduring and valuable legacies of the Sixties, when for the first time the West went en masse to the East not to destroy or convert or colonize, but to learn and experience. I don't want to romanticize the hippies' motives, but hey even at their worst, heading to distant realms in search of cheap heroin is a significant improvement over heading there in search of cheap labour.
The community strings itself out over thousands of miles, veins branching wherever a few wayfarers decide to blaze a new trail. The arteries are those little hangouts which get taken over by travellers needing to recharge the batteries before diving back into the dust, sweat, and dhal of Asia. Places like Goa and Kathmandu in the Sixties; Bali and the Thai island of Ko Samui in the Seventies; Ko Phangan and who knows where else today. (Special mention to the Hotel Malaysia in Bangkok, famous for its traveller's notice-board covering two full walls: "Wanted: Doctor to certify me seriously ill so I can extend my Thai visa. Best rates.")
Maybe hiking the traveller's trail can be as wearying and jaded a lifestyle as the nine-to-five occasionally. But there is here what exists in any community of the like-minded: Stability. A grapevine. Something to lend perspective and a sense of continuity to what is usually a very fragmentary experience.
And now, on this little boat to Wuzhou, smack astride the Tropic of Cancer, we find Sharon, a young American woman who speaks of her days in a Michigan prison reform program (as an employee, not an inmate). Next to her is her swarthy, smiling Okinawan boyfriend, Mikio. Below their bunks lies Kurt, a bearded Swiss with twinkling eyes; and at a table a few feet away, Matthias, a towering blond German who has studied in Taiwan and is now the centre of attention for a few Chinese passengers, with whom he chats earnestly and quite fluently. Some other Europeans, including a North African Frenchman, are playing cards and laughing. But they have formed their own sub-community, and its borders are respected by the larger group.
I sleep fitfully, even after a couple of beers with Sharon and Mikio, and am up at four with the Chinese. We dock at Wuzhou at five. It is (sensibly) a sleepy town at that time of the morning, but there's a restaurant down the street from the bus station where lethal rice wine is already - or still - making the rounds. Sharon has the shits from the beer last night, she thinks, and during her frequent adjournments to the squat-toilets I chat with Mikio. He was born on Okinawa, but before that his mother and father lived in Qingdao on China's eastern seaboard. Once a German concession (the brewery, China's most famous, dates from that era), Qingdao was turned over to the Japanese after World War I. Mikio has a lush beard and a wool cap and a great laugh. He and Sharon met in Istanbul; they've travelled together ever since. Occasionally the community forms less transient bonds.
There are a lot of merry Hong Kong Chinese on the bus to Yangshuo, each of them 35 going on 11. They keep us awake and almost entertained with endless group renditions of "It's A Small World After All," which in Cantonese sounds something like:
Lok ma sol dip yam-ma, ma sol hik kok,They roar it lustily, kids on the way to school trying to get on the bus-driver's nerves, and they give me oranges.
Lok ma sol nip fee-roo, yow noo sum dok,
Lik ma tit su-wung goo, sing a gong tow-la-loo,
Lok ma hip sol ee-tsai bawl!
The scenery outside the bus window is so mistily grand you could almost forget it's winter and empty and raining. Finally, after two weeks of crumbly brown fields, there is something of the feel of the tropics. Dripping ferns sprout from hacked-off hills; dense, foggy stands of forest guzzle the rain and prick the clouds for more. Far below, nearly invisible rivers meander among slim banks of saplings. I can see a few small huts, but only a smattering of people; for a full two hours we meet with no other vehicle on the road. Guangxi Autonomous Region is as poor as Bangladesh, and the poverty extends to the traffic. There are seedlings sticking out of padi-fields wherever the land permits and often where it really doesn't but they look numb, desiccated.
The road winds up into the clouds. More hazy panoramas of rain-drenched hills: you could imagine them exhaling the mist that shrouds them, the way the bus passengers fog the windows with their breath. Here at last lush, fertile, and resilient, even in the chill season of disuse is The Breast.
We level off onto a plateau. There are more houses; a spindly, ancient-looking stone aqueduct; and for the first time, the famous jutting crags of this region, looming out of the cloud. Guangxi is world-renowned for its karst peaks, chaotically arranged, scored by gulleys and by centuries of landslides and erosion. Karst - wasn't he a famous portrait photographer? I prowl my vast reserves of geological knowledge, and when that quickly fails, I consult my guidebook. Ah: limestone. A vast ridge lies just beyond us. The clouds flow so regimentally past it, and crest so fleecily, that the ridge resembles a reef being battered by waves of stormy foam.
I sit, captivated, freezing to death. ("The air can't circulate around your body," explains Sharon patiently, above the din of my chattering teeth.) I'm reading Kerouac's On the Road, trying to turn the pages with my grimy Chinese mittens. Ardis gave me the book before I left Shanghai. "I can't read this sort of writing," she told me with distaste. Of course it is astoundingly brilliant, and the style the hyperkinetic, jazz-and-amphetamine mindset of Kerouac's crowd is contagious. I realize I'm going to have to work hard to stop Jack leaking all over the pages of my notebook.
We pass a bus ploughed into a tree. All the windows are shattered, their frames twisted grotesquely by the collision. The passengers stand morosely on a bank at the side of the road, surveying the tree-trunk now embedded in the radiator grill, contemplating their ruined schedules. I turn back to Kerouac. At least his characters managed to stay On the Road, ha-ha. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are having one of their amazing conversations. "Yes. Dig him! Now consider his soul stop awhile and consider ... there's thoughts in that mind that I would give my last arm to know; to climb in there and find out just what he's poor-ass pondering about this year's turnip greens and ham." I look out the window, heart pounding with this prose so disjointedly pure, and:
I feel like a hoop that someone throwsEmphasis in "reverse" on the first syllable, just so's you know. A poem for Jack Kerouac, February 4, 1984.
With a flick of the spinning forward goes
Scuffly skidding and digs its toes
Then reverse gear and back it goes.
The driver turns off the engine and coasts eerily down descending bends. We are among hills again. Enormous crags, round and furred, clamber over one another, clamouring for attention. At their feet sits the layered quilt of farms and terraces. A few smiling village girls climb sedately up the steep trails to our road.
We stop for what Sal Paradise refers to as "pisscall." I hop around to warm my feet. The Hong Kong Chinese are all doing exercises, leaping and giggling, counting off the motions one-two-three in Cantonese. An old lady stands in an open window across the yard and watches the crazy foreigners. I smoke the nicest cigarette I've had in days and give one to Matthias, who has been stuck away at the back of the bus. "I don't normally thmoke," he says with a second-language lisp, "but I need to warm up thomehow." Marlboros, squandered on the unappreciative! We get back on the bus, shivering again as it roars off.
I hitch my scarf up over my mouth, and for just a short while there is nowhere I want to be but here: rocketing through the Chinese countryside, reading Kerouac through the blasts of condensation that fumes out through the scarf, feet and fingers almost numb, scribbling the odd note in a scrawl turned spastic by the cold and tremors of the bus.
Suddenly there are mountains everywhere, but springing up from nowhere, eroded from nothing: like a jumble of gargantuan paperweights unceremoniously plunked down on the table of farmland. Sometimes the layers of foliage-covered stone tilt sharply, and the crags look like squat container ships sinking lazily, stern first, into an ocean grave. One of them is as perfectly symmetrical as a volcano; its cone seems to be spewing the muddy vapour that obscures the summit. The bus rumbles through a tunnel, horn echoing, ghostly. We navigate the gap between two monstrous crags and see dozens more ahead, shrouded and secretive, hulking like so many Banquos. They seem the most mysterious-looking things I've ever set eyes on. And then we are in Yangshuo.
Every so often in sleep, a socked toe sticks out into the frigid air. A few warning systems trip over. Slumber grows unsettled, semi-conscious. A dream that might otherwise by lost by dawn etches itself, instead, into a dim corner of your brain.
I am talking with Paul Theroux at a cocktail party being held in an anonymous-looking railway station. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the photograph on the dust jacket of The Kingdom By the Sea. I don't need to look down to know what he's wearing: the blue-jeans and oily hiker's boots in which he traipsed around England.
"It's going pretty well so far," I'm telling him, confident. "I've got about 100 pages, and I think I'm managing to steer clear of your style for the most part." He nodes and smiles. "Just for heaven's sake, don't you write about China before I can get mine out!" I add, and we laugh easily. We're speaking as equals, old guard and new - not even master and protégé!
The party swirls around us. Somebody is waiting for me in the other room. I excuse myself courteously, not too formally, and move away into the swirl. We'll be seeing each other again, I'm sure ...
I write it down when I wake up, thinking: "That was a dream, all right."
Yangshuo is a fine place to wander, following the country roads that weave among the spectacular misty cliffs. There are ghosts in there: shrill voices echoing away through secret valleys, merging with the squawk of chickens and the salutations of roosters. Farmers bringing family or produce into town prop their little children on the handlebars. The kids look like psychedelic steamed dumplings in their colourful winter padding, and they call out, "Hellloooooo" the first word of English under their belts. (For Chinese with limited foreign vocabularies, it serves as "Goodbye" as well.)
I can feel an added bounce in my step as I trudge around the town and its environs. On the first morning the soundtrack for my wandering is Beethoven. A brilliant Taiwan-born violinist has recorded a program for television. Every TV set in town has it turned full blast, majestically tinny, keeping away the ghosts of the grey day.
There is one decent restaurant in Yangshuo outside the hotel (which serves dinner for precisely half an hour every day, and the devil take the tardy). It isn't the Lianfeng: that's closed for refurbishing, though it still boasts the an exquisitely garbled English sign: "Lianfeng RES-TAU-RANT, DE EQUIPPEB WITH ALL SORT OF THE TEAST!" (Underneath is written a genteel "How do you do!")
We, the pillars of the community ever in flux, eat in a little cranny by the centre-square cinema. It is run by Mr. Huang.
Although he couldn't know it, Mr. Huang belongs to a noble tradition: those natives of a country who consider it their solemn duty to take as many wayfarers as possible under their wing. You find them scattered across Asia, at strategic points or in backwoods, always turning up when least expected and most needed. There's the smiling matron of the Ko Samui bungalows, who throws a benefit banquet to pay the fine-cum-bribe of a young American lodger busted for possession of grass. (The banquet menu includes two hash cookies for desert.) There is the owner of the Jogjakarta hotel, a flustered Indian who apologizes profusely for his lack of a cheaper room, then urgently hunts you down the moment one becomes available. Somewhere in the tiny backstreet café in Chiang Mai is a Thai lady who knows it's Christmas, a lonely time for lonely westerners far from home, and scrupulously prepares small gifts for any travellers who might wander in. My favourite tale concerns the harbourmaster in Irian Jaya who listens to a backpacker's tale of woe about not being able to find a dependable boat out. He scribbles a terse note to his pal, who happens to be the local shipping magnate; the magnate provides the traveller with free passage all the way around Borneo to Java.
You might find Mr. Huang a little less spectacular, more tentative. But he is new at the game. Dealing with foreigners is an unfamiliar experience for most Chinese. Still he stands, smiling as I trudge across the plaza with Sharon and Mikio, saying: "OK, hello! Please sit!" Tea is poured and rice wine proffered ten cents a shot. Menus, in English, are thrust in front of our noses.
"I am wanting to learn much English!" He pours himself some rice wine too. "Ganbei - Chairs!" He hoists his glass ostentatiously. We follow suit.
"How do you learn?" I ask him.
"I have travellers like you teach me. When they come to eat food." He has an animated face with the incipient wrinkles of a man mid-thirties, perhaps who's weathered more than a few cold-water morning washes. He chats with us in English as far as it will go, then signs up with my equally faltering Chinese translation service. Blond Matthias and bearded Kurt join us from the movie outside ("Something about - a Monkey King?"). There are two other travellers present: Sjors, from Holland, and a New Zealander named Marvin. Of whom much more later.
All the while Mr. Huang's wife rummages about the wok, whipping together our meals. She is very beautiful, with a wide, sensuous face, a shy smile that paralyzes me, and intelligent though deferential eyes. I find it difficult to stop gazing at her, and Sharon is impressed enough to want her picture - taken alongside her husband, of course.
The next night we bring our own rice wine, rotgut mindfuck at a dollar a bottle, and I get extremely drunk. I steal a cigarette from Mikio, to whom that very morning I've given the last of my Marlboros, vowing to quit until my racking cough subsides. Mikio punches my shoulder in inebriated delight. And we all listen to Mr. Huang tell us his plans. Oh, he has plans. This little hole-in-the-wall isn't good enough for him, no sir. In not two days, he'll be shifting to fresh premises on Yangshuo's main street. "Now I am the only good restaurant in town, so I will be there, and more people will see me, and I can take on more cooks. So next time you come you will have a nice large selection to choose from!" He has six or seven pages of goodies on the menu as it is, although requests for anything with tomatoes hit a brick wall ("It's winter!") and the chilis are available only in the evening (and turn out to be green peppers).
I hunch over the firepot he has thoughtfully placed by our table and ask him whether it had been difficult getting permission to move. He misunderstands, thinks I'm asking how he'll manage to shift all his equipment down to Main Street. "But the government?" I press him.
"This has nothing to do with the government," he says straightforwardly. The only proper restaurant in the city, in private hands? That's a flexible incentive scheme, to be sure.
I like Yangshuo, but it is terribly cold at night, and the closest thing to a hot shower is a bucket and tap in the outhouse behind the hotel. Under those icy skies I would have second thoughts about taking off my clothes for Raquel Welch, let alone a steel bucket. And so I go dirty, and the pimples I thought I'd beat spring back fiery and sore on my forehead. I am getting behind on my journal, and what I do write down seems as numb as the fingers I scribble with. Mr. Huang deserves more than his two or three paragraphs: deserves the chance to tell not only his plans but his dreams, and perhaps his wife could utter a few words as well. But my questions would lead to answers, and answers would mean more hours hunched over the brittle desk, tensing against the shivers pouring endless cups of hot sour tea down my throat, and then fumbling through my layers of clothing in the freezing outhouse when the liquid has taken its natural course through my system.
After two days in the room, sharing with Matthias and Kurt, I say my goodbyes over breakfast to Mr. Huang and his wife, and take the bus on to Guilin. I am speeding and that's bad, but I'm anxious not to lose the fertility of mind I'd found marrying karst to Kerouac on the bus in.
The Guilin bus is densely packed, but the matronly attendants manages to find the foreigner a seat. In return they ask only for a listen to my Walkman. It's blasting the Stones. I can thus report that there is now, somewhere in southwest China, a middle-aged bus conductor whose entire conception of western popular music may hinge on the first three minutes of "Sympathy for the Devil." Perhaps she could do worse.
Speed, speed. Keep moving. I want only a day in Guilin. Ahead is spring and sunshine. I think about it during the two-and-a-half hours the bus takes to traverse the fifty flat miles of bleak scenery to Guilin. When we arrive, I buy my train ticket out, even before heading into town. It's mid-afternoon, and Matthias and Kurt, who'd had to stand the entire time aboard the bus in a garlic-scented crush of passengers, want to go straight on to Kunming. I need a shower. We say goodybe, or the traveller's equivalent thereof.
The Kweilin Hotel is happy to give me a single room for less than two bucks. I stand speechless as the room attendant plops a fresh roll of toilet paper and a bar of soap onto my desk. "You're too kind," I splutter, astonished at the decadent luxuries. She shrugs.
The room is a concrete box with a thick quilt: intensely cold, and the hot water doesn't begin to flow until seven o'clock. I walk shivering to the front desk to see if Mikio and Sharon have happened along. There, glued to the noticeboard, is a piece of paper that reads: WILBURG KLEFF.
Wilburg! a friend of a friend, a German student in Nanjing. Warm, silly, sexy, smart Wilburg, here! I scribble an addendum to the note. Sitting in my room that evening, tingling everywhere from a ferociously hot shower, there's a knock on the door from Norma, Wilburg's classmate at Nanjing University.
"Wilburg's supposed to be arriving tonight from Chengdu," she tells me. They are headed, together, for the balmy southern shores of Hainan Island one of the drops of toffee that drips into the South China sea from the pliant globule of the South.
Next morning, there she is, brushing her teeth on the sixth floor after a 50-hour train ride, and how long has it been since I've had a nice hug like that? We go for breakfast, Norma too, and chat. Chengdu is cold. Wilburg brings the first news of The Sacred Mountain, Emei Shan, just south of Chengdu. For her visit it was bitter and frozen. "I only climbed halfway up. It was snowing and I couldn't see a thing. No spectacular sunrises like the guidebook promised." I offer her a cigarette. "I'm trying to quit," she says, and takes it gratefully.
She and Norma have ticket-buying and assorted bureaucratic bickering to do, and I wander off by myself, still wondering what the hell I'm really doing here. It's all of a sudden a spectacular day: clear blue sky with just a sickly tint of smog lapping at the horizon. I puff my way up a hill in the east of Guilin for a view over the city. Grey, formless buildings with their bizarre backdrop, the battalion of limestone crags for which Guilin is famous all over China and the world.
I'm clearly basking in the beauty of the morning, and so some anonymous Chinese must assume I want to leave Guilin something to remember me by. On the Sardine Tin Express, the Number 1 bus into town from the north, alien fingers tingle in my pocket. As soon as I step off, I know my wallet is gone.
I charge right back on the bus before the doors snap shut and say to the ticket collector, "Someone took my money." Then I turn to the dreary Chinese faces of my fellow passengers and shout, "Alright, who's got my money?"
Strangely enough, no-one raises their hand. The thief has probably dismounted at an earlier stop, clutching his prize. The futility of it all sweeps over me. The ticket collector says blandly, "You'd better go to the police." Behind the blank visage, a smug smirk is trying to crawl across his features.
I look at him, size him up, and say, "Fuck."
I throw myself out of the bus and roar FUCK at the sky, which makes passersby stop and stare. Deflated, I'm suddenly aware of how tired I am, how lethargic my system feels, how the dust of city after Chinese city has worked its way into my bones.
The lady at the Foreign Affairs Division of the police station is understanding, gentle, and patient to a fault. She nearly drives me up the wall.
I explain the situation. She bustles out and bustles back in with a blank piece of paper. We talk some more. I look at my boots with resolute disgust.
"You speak Chinese very well," she lies.
"Thank you," I reply. "But - "
"How long have you been studying Chinese?"
I give her a brief hopeless look and chuckle with frustration. "What do you want me to write down?"
Details of the theft, details of the contents. Five Chinese dollars. A Canadian driver's license and Social Insurance Card. Sundry other minor documents. One hard-seat train ticket to Kunming, for this evening. And all the little fragments of a life, stuffed into a wallet and never properly sorted out and filed away. The shard of brown paper which American Glen passed me in History class, eons ago in Singapore, advising: "PARTY." The card letting the world at large know I wrote contact lenses - stained yellow from the vomit of my going-away party for the East nearly four years before. The farewell note Gerard 'Goblin' Goggin had stuck in my mailbox the day I left Singapore, all fucked-up, for home: "I don't know who I'll turn to now for certain cheering-up. You've always struck me as someone who loves life, even when you're being cynical and wonderfully perverse and disgusting." A twinge: the tiny collage I'd pieced together behind plastic when I broke up with Karen, my first girlfriend: the USA 15-cent "LOVE" stamp, and underneath, the Canadian Post Office sticker warning "PERISHABLE" in two languages. Nearly everything is from Singapore or the period immediately after, I see now. Perhaps I felt it would help me to come to terms with those two frantic years, to distill them down to half a dozen items that could grow old and safely moldy in my back pocket.
All of it - unitemized, obviously - goes under the heading of "Various Personal Documents."
"Have things like this been recovered in the past?" I ask the woman.
"Sometimes - they take the money and leave the rest lying somewhere."
"Can the train station do anything about my ticket?"
"Only sell you another one." She smiles sympathetically and sends me trudging back into the warm bright sunshine.
I meet Wilburg and Norma by prearrangement on the steps of a new luxury hotel nearby. Wilburg tells me she had her purse lifted in this same city the previous year. A friend of hers had a similar experience. "I don't known what it is about Guilin," Wilburg moans.
She buys me a Coke and we sit sipping it in the park across the street, pensive on the grassy shore of a small, neat lake. The approach to the flashy hotel is a veritable gauntlet. Women at vegetable stalls call out, "Change money?" Ladies shouldering immense loads of fruit on bamboo poles drop everything to race after you: "Change money?" Guilin giveth and Guilin taketh away. Here, as in no other city in China, they change your money or they steal it.
I'm loving being with beautiful Wilburg and quiet friendly Norma, and I lie back on the grass with my Coke, only a bit melancholy, listening to the two of them natter away in guttural German. I go alone to the station and buy another ticket to Kunming, and then we all eat dinner with Sjors the Dutchman who we'd bumped into on the street, and Guilin beer is vile, China's worst, and I want out.
Back at the hotel I collect my bags and hug Wilburg goodbye. We kiss, European-style, on both cheeks, then again, and then she plants a firm one right on my lips. "See you in Shanghai sometime," I vow, and stagger away from the encounter thinking, I've been in this country too long, when a nice friendly kiss makes my heart leap and my knees tremble. Too damn long.
Later in the year, long after the trip's over, Wilburg takes a train to Shanghai. Both of us are fed up with school and life and familiar surroundings. We go for a walk in the park and laugh and hold hands and kiss. In the evening we talk over drinks and David Bowie with a few recent arrivals from Canada, students in town for a short language program. Then we kiss again and hold each other and make love. For three days we talk and laugh and bitch and heal a few of the wounds of isolation and frustration in China. She teaches me to love without possessing, which is one of the harder lessons I've had to learn. Then she kisses me goodbye with "Tschüss," and writes me a letter on her way out of China, so that I get it after a four-day train ride back to Shanghai from the oases and wastelands of the western desert. What else can I tell you? That I feel well, I feel stronger and I'm thankful we met, that we loved. Oh yes it was serious, but it was 'out of time and space,' strange conditions, but it had something dreamlike. I think of you, we shared something, a time when we both were vulnerable but didn't hurt each other, but were easing some pain. I'm not going to make it an 'IDYLLE,' to dramatize it, but you are going to be a very fine man.
Thank you, darling. Ich vermisse dich sehr.
With Wilburg and Coca-Cola, Guilin
[Link to my poem for Wilburg, "A time of sweat and smiles ...".]
Created by Adam Jones, 1998. Photographs copyright 1998.
No copyright claimed for non-commercial use of text or images if author
is credited and notified.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.