A modern China journal, June 2001.
Crossing the border into China was very easy -- simply a stamp in my passport, and I was soon on the bus to Canton. Southern Guangdong Province and the Pearl River delta area seemed to be very lush and prosperous. The petrol stations were large and plentiful, but did not seem to be doing much business. After an hour and a half, I arrived in Canton. The city is bustling and there is much building going on. I flagged down a taxi for Shamian Island. This was simply a neglected sand-bar in the Pearl River before the British and French arrived, and in the nineteenth century it became a British and French concession. The French Catholic Church of Our Lady of Lourdes stands in the main boulevard. A chalked sign in English invited worshippers to attend Mass, and like the rest of Shamian Island, it has been renovated.
A sense of nostalgia draws crowds of foreign visitors, and renovations are under way. The old Canton Club has yet to see a revival, but it seems only a matter of time before this relic of British colonial life returns in all its glory. The island also houses the White Swan Hotel, Canton's most prestigious place to stay. After Taipei and Hong Kong, with their slick modern foyers, it seems rather slow and dated.
The American School was holding a function the night I visited. The wellknown tourist haunt, Lucy's, served one of Canton's best-known contributions to world cuisine -- sweet and sour pork -- and it even had pineapple pieces in it. By local standards, the prices were high, but Canton is a prosperous city. Also on Shamian Island are the tennis courts, essential to rounding the social education of upwardly mobile Cantonese.
Next morning, it was raining heavily. Canton was receiving the tail-end of heavy rains that flooded some parts of Hong Kong. I looked for the famous Qingping Shiochang -- the Bright Peace Market. Back in 1979, it was the first privately owned market in China to reopen under Deng Xiao-Ping's radical experiment with the free enterprise system. Today, visitors are more likely to be drawn to the market's reputed zoolike collection of animals waiting for slaughter, from cats and dogs to monkeys and anteaters. Its notoriety among disapproving Westerners seems to have doomed the trade in these unfortunate animals, because when I visited, there were only a few baskets of frogs to be seen.
One sight that has not changed is the Canton Railway Station. Never before have I seen such a seething crush of humanity -- the nearest scene to approach it is a Grand Final crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Many illegal immigrants from the countryside sit on flattened cardboard boxes with their possessions in empty rice bags. My companions on the journey to Guilin were a Hong Kong family, off to see what the Chinese call "the most beautiful place on Earth" -- the karst formations of Guilin, celebrated in thousands of paintings, postcards and photos. Travelling on a hard bed in a sleeping car is said to be the best way to travel by train, but there is little room for the average-sized Westerner, especially in an upper bunk, as I was. The usual touts surrounded Guilin Station, but it was early morning and I took the mini-bus to Yangshou -- further out than Guilin, but in the heart of the karst country.
Yangshou's West Street is totally unlike China. At night it is full of tourists dining out, with souvenir sellers and even a Youth Hostel. The closest thing to it I have seen is Bali. But not far off, things are more normal. I struck up a conversation with two young girls who worked in a cafe.
"We want to go to Shanghai," they said. "It's too dull here in the country. Will you help us learn English?" they asked, producing a book. They had both picked up a fair amount of English through self-study and getting free lessons from travelers such as myself. "Why don't you wear chi paos?" I asked. Chi pao is the Mandarin name for the quintessential Chinese women's dress, often called a cheong sam in the West. They scoffed. "No-one wears chi paos now. They are too hard to wear. You can't be too fat or too slim, you have to have just the right figure." Nonetheless the chi pao is returning. In its hometown, young women say it is the essence of old Shanghai.
That night, I watched a biographical drama series on Mao on the television. The Chinese Communist Party's eightieth anniversary was approaching, and Mao is still popular, even if socialism is less so. The series, greatly romanticised, attributed a far greater role for Mao in the early history of the Chinese Communist Party than other, more objective, accounts do.
The next morning I took a boat trip to see the karst formations. This was rural China. Nothing much had changed through the centuries. The children in school were learning via the age-old Chinese fashion -- chanting the lesson and learning the textbook by heart. Even here, isolated by the river, it was clear where the children's ambitions -- or those of their parents -- lay. On the wall was a carefully composed English alphabet with upper-case and lower-case letters. The school's sole recreational facility was a muddy concrete basketball court, reflecting an almost obsessional interest in the United States, even here, in the middle of isolated rural China.
On the mini-bus back from the boat trip, I asked a woman passenger about the one-child policy. "Here, you can have a second child if the first is a girl. It's quite prosperous here, so they don't mind too much if you have a second child, but education is very expensive if you have more than two." What about Deng Xiao-ping? "Comrade Deng was very good, but Chairman Mao was good too. People were more equal and got on better with each other when Chairman Mao was in charge." This was a common theme in much of my discussions in China, especially in north China, still not as commercially oriented as the south. "People here are still very traditional," said Miss Tang. "Most men run off and find young girls as second wives." "Isn't there a law against second wives now?" I asked. "And there's a law against spitting in the street, too," she answered, "but everyone still spits."
That afternoon, I called at the local cave, said to be "very famous". I met an English student from Szechuan, Miss Lee, who was on holidays. "Here, come with me," she said. We bought a ticket. "Hey, he's a foreigner, he's supposed to buy a foreigner's ticket," yelled an attendant. "Ai-ya, don't take any notice of him," said Miss Lee, who was in a hurry to see the cave. The cave was very disappointing. Although the guides pointed out the usual fairies and other grotesque shapes, the whole place was far less interesting than the caves in south-western Western Australia.
I took a three-wheeled taxi to a newly built Buddhist temple nearby, which had just opened. It seemed to be very popular, judging from the amount of incense being burnt. The guide was very professional in separating me from my money for various donations, but I baulked at paying $A500 for a lucky jade talisman for my wife.
Next day, using a mixture of taxi, mini-bus and pillion-riding on a motorcycle, I left for the airport to travel to Changsha, capital of Mao's home province, Hunan. In Changsha, I found a cooperative taxi driver who took me to a good, reasonably priced hotel. It turned out to be actually owned by the Hunan Province Central Committee of the Communist Party. I tried to change money. No-one at the hotel had ever seen U.S. dollar traveller's cheques before, but the staff readily exchanged New Taiwan dollars. Even the banks refused to believe that American Express cheques represented real money. This left me very short of cash until I discovered the local Bank of China -- even a nearby policeman could not help me find it. The police's lack of knowledge of even the most elementary facts was something to which I soon became accustomed.
Next morning, still lacking money, I took a tour to see Mao's birthplace at Shaoshan. First, we visited the ancestral home of Liu Shao-chi, one of the original "capitalist roaders", like Deng Xiaoping. Liu died at the Red Guards' hands during the Cultural Revolution. He has now been rehabilitated, but still, it was a shock to see the extent to which he is now regarded as one of the People's Republic's founding fathers. Next on the agenda was lunch. I explained that I would have to miss lunch, as I had no money, but Shao Deng, the tour guide, invited me to eat with her and the other staff. It was one of the best meals I had in the whole time I was in China. My wife is from Hunan, and the food was familiar.
We moved on to Mao's "cave", where Mao had a Western-style bath and toilet, instead of the near universal squat-toilets. Mao's house, nearby, is very large and solid, build of adobe with a tiled roof. His father was, by local standards, a rich man who obtained his wealth through money-lending and acquiring agricultural land. At the souvenir shop, a shrine has been set up for the worship of Mao. Surprisingly, many of the common people of China sitll regard him as a god. Mr. Shangdong, a university lecturer, bought a statuette and burnt incense in front of Mao's life-sized statue. He waved the statue in the incense, so that it would be sanctified, and then placed some money in the overflowing donations box. His devotion made it clear that, contrary to popular belief, not only some of the peasants worship Mao. All the passengers agreed that Mao was wrong in some things, but was mostly good. In Beijing, the taxi-drivers have Mao medallions in the cabs for luck, in much the same way that St. Christopher medals used to be prominent in Australian cars.
Hunan is a lush province; the paddy fields were green and well tended. Foreigners are a novelty. I saw no other Westerners that day. Several people exclaimed in surprise "Lao wei" when they saw me. This is a polite term for a foreigner, similar to calling someone a New Australian.
Next day, I took a local mini-bus to Lei Feng's Memorial Hall. Lei Feng, considered the model Communist citizen, was a People's Liberation Army soldier who died young in what was said to be a traffic accident, though I was later told that he electrocuted himself doing some amateur electrical connections. As I was the only visitor, I had a personal guided tour in Chinese. On closer analysis Lei Feng did not seem to be without faults. Apparently he did not wash his comrades' socks, although when he was stationed in Manchuria he mended his comrades' inner shoes, essential for protection in north China's frigid winters.
One guide in the entrance kiosk told me, "Lei Feng was very smart at school. My uncle knew him, but of course my uncle is quite old now." But for all the esteem expressed towards Lei Feng, apparently very few people are visiting this Memorial Hall. The ticket lady said in a rather embarrassed manner that not many adults visited, but little children -- who came on school outings -- liked him because he was cute and died at the age of twenty-two.
Taking the train to Hangchou that night, I was sitting among a group of public servants off on a weekend outing. The boss was obnoxiously drunk (it is a myth that Chinese never get drunk) and insisted on displaying his knowledge of Australia, which consisted of the belief that Australia had only three cities -- Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. One woman I spoke to was married and wanted to emigrate to Australia:
"I have one child, a girl who is eight years old. I really want to have an other child before I'm too old, but it is forbidden. Our pay is very poor. I earn 700 yuan a month [by way of comparison, my host in Beijing had an amah who earned 1,000 a month]. China has no welfare system. The basis of our society is help from the extended family. If people are near starvation, we can give then a small amount, about 400 yuan, but we expect the family to provide for its members."
The public servants were very interested in Australia's welfare system and quite amazed that the government encouraged families to grow by paying a family allowance for children. They were drinking beer out of the bottle, and were trying to match me up with one of their colleagues, which I fortunately avoided. If there is one thing to avoid in China, it is drunks.
Having missed out on a berth, I travelled sitting up all night (with the lights on continually) to Hangchou. Next day, I explored Hangchou, said to be the most beautiful city in China. My main aim was to take the boat on the Grand Canal to Suchou, so I bought a ticket. The Grand Canal is a masterpiece of ancient engineering, and is one of those staggering exhibitions of handwork and physical labour that are seen in China; it has hand-built stone walls along the bank for many kilometres. I shared the V.I.P. cabin with Philip, a Swiss tourist. We had a very good meal in the dining room, unlike our Chinese fellow passengers. We were talking to a university graduate, Miss Chen, who also said she would like to have another child. We were told by one of the staff, who wanted information about Australia, that he was saving up to send his only son there to study. One of our fellow diners was obnoxiously drunk and attacked our companion for talking to foreign men. I made the mistake of saying that he was drunk, which inflamed the incident even more. He was loudly remonstrating with the crew and other passengers for several hours. Sleep was hard to come by that night.
The Grand Canal runs from Shanghai to Beijing. I was expecting a quiet rural atmosphere, but it was a hundred metres wide, and all night noisy barges passed us with roaring engines. Most of their cargoes were bulk commodities, like sand, bricks, grain and aggregate. The V.I.P. suite had two very small bunks, with barely enough room to turn in.
Suchou is said to be the Venice of the East, and U.N.E.S.C.O. lists its gardens with approval. They are more in the style of Japanese than of most Chinese gardens, and have no flowers, but only trees, rocks and pools.
Next day, I took the train to Shanghai. That city is staggering. From my room in the Grand Hyatt on the sixty-first floor, I could look out and see a city that houses more people than the entire population of Australia. Everywhere were skyscrapers and apartments, as far as the eye could see.
The Grand Hyatt is an education in itself. As a building, it is magnificent -- without doubt, the best and most luxurious modern hotel I have ever been in. It is also the world's tallest hotel, reaching up over eighty storeys. The central atrium is awe-inspiring. My room was sumptuous but modern, and had access to C.N.B.C., B.B.C. and C.N.N. on cable television.
Shanghai is the show-place of China. With many leaders in the central government being from Shanghai, it obtains favoured treatment, and will inevitably replace Hong Kong as China's window on the West. My room looked out over the Bund, that relic of empire that housed such capitalist institutions as Jardine Matheson and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank's headquarters. While the Bank did not receive its old headquarters back, a prime office tower has the H.S.B.C. symbol emblazoned across it.
Central Shanghai is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. Clean and safe, it also has real character, from the old foreign Concessions to the Bund Tunnel, a tourist tunnel running under the river between Pudong and the Bund. One can easily travel the city on foot and by the efficient Metro. Shanghai is also the city where the Chinese Communist Party was founded, but I was more interested in seeing both the old and modern Shanghai than in visiting the Party shrines. Not surprisingly, Shanghai is back to its old capitalist ways, and not much attention is paid to the Communist Party's history.
We shared a taxi into Beijing and I met my old friend and prominent Australian businessman Alan Reid. Alan is married to Chen-ying, a Beijing native, and lives in Eurovillage, near the airport. Clearly, life is good if one has adequate money, and Eurovillage in its walled compound is safer then most parts of Australia. But as with most expatriates, the Reids' main concern was educating their three daughters. The Beijing American School fees are about $A50,000 a year -- far beyond the resources of most private business people.
Beijing is like London -- the centre of Empire. But unlike London, the empire still exists. This city is a ferment of building. The announcement that it would be the Olympic Games' host city for 2008 was being eagerly awaited. If one travels by bus and metro, getting around is easy -- my entire travelling expenses for one day traversing Beijing were $A1.75.
Tienanmen Square is the centre of the centre. Here are the Forbidden City, Mao's Mausoleum and the Great Hall of the People. Mao is still preserved in a waxy, lifelike state. The queues to see him are discouragingly long, but move quickly. Flowers are sold to offer as a tribute to Mao, but very sensibly, they are bunches of artificial flowers which are dumped into a hopper in front of Mao and then recycled -- a bunch costs two yuan (about fifty cents). Next to the Mao Mausoleum is the History Museum. The main feature was an exhibition commemorating the Chinese Communist Party's eightieth anniversary. I tried to get a ticket, but was told it was sold out. A scalper approached me and explained that only worker groups were allowed in, as the authorities feared demonstrations by opponents of the regime. I was the only Westerner there, and did not stay long, but everyone at the exhibition was very friendly and helpful. Most visitors were middle-aged and older. Significantly, true believers among the young seem to be in short supply. Even my companions from the government work group in Hunan were amazed that anyone would waste his time seeing Mao's home and Lei Feng's. Why bother? No-one else does.
I could not leave Beijing without having dumplings. They are my favourite Chinese food, and Beijing is the home of dumplings, so Alan's amah (servant) made some for me. I tried to give her a bottle of wine as a present, but she adamantly refused. As it turned out, she had never seen a bottle of wine with a cork before, and did not know how to open it. While illiterate, she had an enviable job working for a foreigner who paid her more than most educated people earn.
What do I remember about China? Mainly the people -- Karen at the Kempinski Hotel in Beijing, who allowed me to use the concierge's desk phone so that I would not be stranded without money in the middle of a rainstorm; the honesty of people who were friendly and open; the ancient seat of empire; the brilliant new buildings like the Grand Hyatt Shanghai -- and also the young men who seemed to be loitering around the hotels. Were they keeping an eye on me? I do not know, and probably never will.
China has changed and suffered much over the last hundred years, but old attitudes prevail. For example, in regard to foreigners, especially in the seat of government in north China, Chen-ying Reid said the yang guei dz (foreign devils) were very strong and energetic, but not really civilised.
As far as Communism is concerned, genuine belief in it seems currently confined to the old and late-middle-aged. Young people who join the Party do so for purely careerist reasons, but I was told that even those carry little weight nowadays. The Old Left finds this hard to accept. For example, socialist and cultural activist Curtis Smith, who has the rare distinction of having been deported from both Taiwan and mainland China, wrote -- in attempted rebuttal of the assertion that socialism is dead in China -- that one cannot say socialism is dead, because it has not been really tried anywhere on the globe. But to those with open minds it is clear thats Communism in China has been a failure.
MR. JEFFRY BABB is a commentator on Asian political and cultural issues who has lived for many years in Taiwan.
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|Publication:||National Observer - Australia and World Affairs|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2002|
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