Saturday, April 18, 2009

China and me (memories of my first encounter)

I have just passed the 15th anniversary of my first visit to China. I can't now recall the exact date. I flew into Hong Kong some time in the second half of March, but Qing Ming - the big annual grave-sweeping festival - caught me out by falling fairly early that year: all travel to the mainland was booked solid, and I found myself trapped in Hong Kong for 10 or 12 days, waiting to sort out a flight to Wuhan. When I did finally arrange that ticket, it was for a ridiculously early flight out of Shenzhen (now, of course, a bustling metropolis, but at that time still largely under construction; no kidding - my taxi ride to the airport from the small downtown area was 40 or 50 minutes of passing nothing but building sites), so I had to take the train over the border the day before and find a cheap hotel to spend the night. That episode is best glossed over: Shenzhen was a nightmare. I date the beginning of my experience of China proper from my touching down at Hankou airport (the runway only a rough concrete strip surrounded by grass; the terminal building a simple hangar; baggage claim a hurly-burly free-for-all as we snatched our possessions directly off the back of the tractor). It's a pity I don't remember exactly when that was; the beginning of April, I guess.

It was an unimaginably different world here back then. About 18 months ago, I revisited Hankou for the first time since '94 and barely recognised the place: an entirely new city has sprung up there. The new airport is gleaming and modern, no longer just a shack in a field. There are no more steam trains (passenger trains had already moved over to diesel, but steam was still being used for some freight until about 10 years ago, I think); and train tracks no longer wind through ramshackle neighbourhoods, taking you by surprise as they emerge from between houses and run straight down the middle of the street for a while. There no longer seems to be any of the drab, grey one- and two-storey housing that used to be everywhere there; it's all apartment blocks now.

It was still "a country of bicycles" back then. There were hardly any private cars, other than for a few party bigwigs; and only a handful of taxis, compared to today. The main passenger service was provided by motorised rickshaws - small motortrikes with crudely improvised bench seats and canopies (made of the then ubiquitous red, white and blue striped plastic sheeting which used to adorn every shop-front and building site; these days, it only seems to be used for laundry bags) fastened above the rear wheels. Very unstable. I had one particularly hairy experience as our driver dodged crazily through back alleys littered with building materials, seeking out the most improbable shortcuts as he made a heroic but rather too careless-of-danger attempt to get us to the Wuchang Stadium in time for a football match; at one point he clipped a pile of sand with one of his rear wheels and we got a good 25° or 30°of tilt on for what seemed like several seconds. I'm sure the only reason we didn't flip over on to our side was that I was 1.5 times as tall and twice as heavy as the Chinese friend who was sharing the seat with me, and so was able to provide saving counterbalance. Yes, sometimes your beergut may save your life - really.

There were some guys offering a passenger service on small two-wheeled motorcycles too, for one person, riding pillion; I didn't have that much of a deathwish. These machines were something of a novelty back then, and most people didn't seem to have much idea how to ride them. Accidents were commonplace. And both the bikes and the one-size-fits-all 'passenger helmet' offered were way too small for me.

So, the adoption of new forms of transport had begun, but it hadn't got very far by that point. Apart from the buses, there were some mini-vans and the occasional Liberty truck - but, basically, hardly any motorised traffic at all. Just thousands and thousands of bicycles, human rivers of them, 8 or 10 abreast on each side of the road. Even Beijing, I heard (though I didn't get the chance to visit the capital on that trip), was much the same in those days - eerily quiet compared to the constant rumble of traffic we endure today.

The commercial revolution hadn't yet really taken off. There were no major brands or national chains. A lot of restaurants and shops still bore old-style Communist designations like No. 23 Workers' Canteen (a particularly good spot for re gan mian) and No. 1 Department Store. Almost every house was attempting to run some sort of business out of its front room, but often with no sort of sign out front; and often those businesses would wither and disappear within weeks (in the neighbourhood where I was staying, I saw a number of these enterprises abruptly abandoned in favour of trying something else, just in the couple of months or so I was there). Our favourite eating spot in the 'hood was a family home that we knew simply as "The Fat Lady's", our affectionate nickname for the cheery and well-fed woman who owned it and did most of the cooking (I think she was actually called Mrs Wu). A little further down the street, another house opened itself up as a baijiu store; the guy had a selection of 8 or 10 huge 'Ali Baba' earthenware jars in a tiny, unlit room opening on to the street. You'd bring along your own container - usually a small plastic jerrycan - and he'd painstakingly fill it up for you with a ladle. I think the price was only about 10 kuai for 2 or 3 litres, even of "the good stuff". And the boss was quite happy to give us free tastings (perhaps only because we were foreigners, and foreigners were still a glamorous rarity in those days), even though we'd abuse this facility at least a couple of times a week: only a couple of sips each time from a porcelain thimble-cup, but still quite enough to get you lightly oiled, when you're sampling 5 or 6 liquors in quick succession, and on an empty stomach.

Exposure to cultural influences from outside China was still very limited. At the gate of the university where I was staying, there was a music shop (at that time, only cassette tapes were available; but within a year or so, I think, there would be a big influx of cheap CDs - quality-control rejects or deleted stock that had been 'clipped' to try to render them unusable - that would make a lot of Western popular music available here for the first time). The music they would blare out of their speakers every day seemed to progress chronologically, as if they were attempting to provide a potted history of Western music to passers-by (or perhaps this was simply the order in which the owners themselves happened to be discovering it?): at first it was all Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry (no Elvis, I don't think); but after a few weeks, they moved on to The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and a little later again to The Rolling Stones and The Who; towards the end of my time there, glam rock started to make an appearance - and I found myself regretting that I couldn't stay just a bit longer, to see if they would embrace punk next.

In theory, foreign currency was not convertible. You were expected to buy this weird intermediary currency - the FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificate) - which could only be spent in a handful of designated hotels and restaurants and at the special 'Friendship Stores'. This system was in the process of being phased out, as China lobbied for acceptance into the WTO, but was still nominally in place during that first visit of mine. In practice, of course, almost everyone was happy to get their hands on your pounds or dollars, and 'illegal' street-corner moneychanging was a daily event. (Hmm, perhaps that's one thing that hasn't changed so much: bank commissions are so high, so few branches actually stock much if any foreign currency, and there are so many piddling bureaucratic restrictions on how much money you can change, that just about every foreigner I know - including several who run 'legitimate' businesses here - still routinely uses backstreet moneychangers, because there's no real alternative.)

You didn't encounter much English back then. There was one stock phrase, "Hello! How are you?" (invariably enunciated in such improbably plummy tones that I always expected someone to follow up with "More tea, vicar?" or "Anyone for tennis?" ; I couldn't help but think that some listening practice tape they'd all been exposed to must have been culled from the sitcoms of Penelope Keith) which almost everyone seemed to know, and which would follow you down the street everywhere you went. Apart from this, just about no-one you'd meet on the street spoke a word of it. (However, I was touring around a lot, visiting universities and teacher training colleges, so I'd meet a lot of students, academics, and government officials who did speak some English.) There was no English or pinyin on road signs or food packaging, and only a very little on shop signs or advertisements - very different from today! The sense of being surrounded everywhere by Chinese writing - screaming incomprehensibly at you - was rather oppressive. But it did create an incentive, an imperative to learn the Chinese language that is lacking today; then, it was necessary for survival; today it's purely elective. Within just a few weeks, I developed a pretty fair listening ability, could speak a few dozen words quite effectively, and could even read quite a few of the most important characters (distinguishing 男, male, and 女, female, was the first essential, since toilets were never labelled in any other way back then). Most Chinese cities today are a bilingual environment, in both speech and writing; in these circumstances, it is much harder to learn Chinese, and much easier to get by without it - my Chinese has withered with each year I've spent in Beijing.

The country was on a cusp back then - poised between the possibility of breathtaking transformation or stagnation and collapse. Since the events of '89, China had suffered international isolation and the consequent stalling of its economic reform programme; and although Deng Xiaoping had tried to get things moving forward again with his famous 'Southern Tour' the year before, it was unclear whether his initiatives were yet having any effect - at least, outside of Shenzhen and the Pearl River delta. A German journalist I was hanging out with a lot was extremely alarmed about the country's prospects. Local government employees in Wuhan, he told me, were owed some months of back pay, and were threatening strike action. Many of the local utilities had broken down: refuse collections had been suspended some time ago, and people were dropping their rubbish down manholes. (Under-street explosions from accumulating methane were becoming commonplace; I witnessed one at extremely close quarters. Interestingly, many of the Chinese passengers who scattered from the bus we were on at the time seemed at first to think that we were under attack from the police or the army - such were the anxieties of those times.) Power cuts of an hour or two were an almost daily event; most of the larger shops and restaurants left candles out on counters and tables, ready to be lit whenever required. There was no street-lighting, other than on a handful of main thoroughfares; and, in the dark, missing manhole covers were a major hazard - I nearly stumbled into oblivion two or three times. Above all, the country was conspicuously dirt poor: even the major cities still felt like 'the Third World'. In short, China early in 1994 appeared to be coming apart at the seams. But it didn't. Somehow, that crisis was weathered, the reforms began to take hold, and the national economy would sustain double-digit growth for a dozen or so years.

I am glad to have seen the country at that crucial stage in its development; rather sorry not to have seen it also a decade or so earlier, when the legacy of the Mao years had scarcely been shrugged off; and yes, I confess, I am perversely disappointed that the China experience today is not so intense, so raw, so challenging. I was surprised to find how massively Beijing had changed by the beginning of the Noughties, even before the huge drive to rebuild the city ahead of the Olympics: the capital, and almost all of the country's cities and larger towns, now feel very modern, very 'Westernized' (KFC and Starbucks spread like Giant Hogweed). China is still very different from Europe or North America; but it's no longer so utterly alien as it was 10 or 15 years ago; and I do kind of miss that.

I had the time of my life on that first trip - travelling, mostly alone, on buses, boats and trains, all around the central provinces of Hubei, Hunan, and Szechuan - and I completely fell in love with this strange and crazy country. As soon as I got back to England at the end of the year, I began to look for ways to come back here. My German journalist friend had dreams of setting up an international school in Wuhan, but they never came to fruition; some contacts I'd made in universities and in the Ministry of Education had promised to help me find a job, but those promises proved empty; in desperation, I tried applying to VSO (the British equivalent of the Peace Corps, which was at that time providing most of the few hundreds of foreign English teachers in the country; very different from the situation today, where there are tens of thousands of them, mostly recruited directly by private schools and colleges), but even they turned me down (I think they took my eagerness to return to China as a sign of mental instability!).

So.... I got sidetracked doing other things for 7 years, and when I finally came back here, the China I knew had all but disappeared. But it's still wonderful, in constantly new, constantly changing ways: it's mad and huge and friendly and frustrating and baffling and endlessly vibrant. It's hard for me now to imagine anywhere else I'd rather live.


JES said...

Just from the first few sentences, I can tell this will require a leisurely read to respond to properly. In the meantime, thanks for posting it.

alfaeco said...

"it's mad and huge and friendly and frustrating and baffling and endlessly vibrant."

I liked that

ScottLoar said...

Fifteen and more years ago a foreigner speaking Chinese even sotto voce in public and unless on the move would quickly attract a crowd; on the streets or at a trade show the crowd would press in on our conversation until I had to speak past three or four people, each of whom would look back to me then the other with each sentence, as if watching a ping-pong match.

Froog said...

Well, Scott, to find a foreigner speaking Chinese really well is still a thing of wonder - to me, and to the Chinese. I can quite understand why it stops people in their tracks. More often, I feel, the fascination is of the "dog walking on its hind legs" variety.

15 years ago, being an English speaker was terribly exotic. Whenever I travelled on the train, a queue of people would form, waiting their turn to practice their few words of English with me, or just to have a look at me. And there would be a lot of pointing and staring on the street, crocodiles of little kids following along behind you; this still happens sometimes in the countryside, but then it was everywhere.

ScottLoar said...

Fair comment Froog, but then as now some very few Chinese took it all in stride as if common. On entering a large government complex in Canton looking for a particular apartment I asked directions of one cadre about my age, and without batting an eye he got up and insisted on showing me the way, engaging all the while as courtesy from one stranger to another; we had much to say because the compound dated from the Republican era and I was curious. I mention so because the experience was a rarity and still a treat.

Anonymous said...

Funny how British people like the treatment they get, but then stay so long, and spread them selves so much, so that the novelty wears off for the locals and then the British complain that it is no longer like in the good old days -when they were only guests, visiting, with an unspoken promis of leaving one day in the near future.

Why don't the British just go places and visit but then leave again, and go home??

Earthling here, scared of the British anger, but you cannot do anything to me, as you are not HOME!!!

Froog said...

Were you having a dig at our colonial past there, Earthling??

Getting "stuck" overseas is by no means a Brit-only phenomenon. In fact, among the expat community in China, I would say we are rather under-represented: the French and Canadians seem to be - proportionate to their national population, anyway - far more numerous. As do Aussies and Kiwis. With the Americans and Russians, it's harder to judge - because you expect there to be hordes of them.

Here, it's not a question of the freshness of my experience having waned because I've been here so long. It's that the nature of the experience itself has changed, because the country has changed so much. One part of that change is that foreigners are now far more commonplace here. I think the fact that means we are now rarely treated as a circus sideshow is a welcome change. The fact that is sometimes impossible to get away from throngs of foreigners and find a more purely Chinese environment is less welcome - but we have to deal with it.

stuart said...

Froog, I think 'Earthling' must have been pffeferised.

Great post, btw. This bit particularly resonated with me:

"I confess, I am perversely disappointed that the China experience today is not so intense, so raw, so challenging."

I didn't visit until 2001, but could sense the change still in progress, particularly in some of the less developed cities and backwaters.

So too with some of the obvious tourist destinations. Back then you could still walk on the wall for hours leading to Simatai and be lucky to encounter anyone other than a local trying to sell you a postcard and a bottle of water.

I imagine the charm of the delapidated ruins has now been 'harmonized' a la Badaling in the name of appearances and tourism. Understandable, but also a little sad.

Froog said...

I haven't been out to Simatai for quite a while; but, because it's so remote from Beijing, I would imagine there's a fair chance that it isn't as much of a gaudy funfair as Badaling. Once you get any distance away from the entry point, I imagine it's still just postcard and water bottle sellers. And none of the overdone 'renovation' that mars Badaling. I hope so, anyway.

Anonymous said...

What does "pffeferised" mean??

And yes Froog, I was talking about the colonial times. Some old people in the UK are still in their minds living in those days and talk about dark people like we are slaves or wors. And it's not helping with all the slave owners from South Africa now living in the UK. These days the only english spoken on the street is with South African accent. They are every where and growing in numbers, but because they are white, they don't get deported, even if they are here ilegally. Well they are WHITE!! so it's okay that they come and take our jobs! well they are white!!
I am sorry, it's just that I have had very bad experience with some the south africans and british who have lived there before. They really don't understand being PC or polite even, and they have class system in their heads which kills someone like me who was brough up in Social Democratic Skandinavia. We just cannot handel that kind of inequality shit (pardon my SA language)
Any way, hope you are still enjoying living there even if there are too many white people there. Earthling

logofili said...

Interesting and well-written piece! But I'm not sure if I really believe Beijing today to be bilingual in speech and writing.

Makes me miss China though.

Froog said...

Not completely bilingual, of course. You still find lots of people (taxi drivers, especially!) who can't speak a word of English.

But psychologically it makes a huge difference not being in the resolutely monolingual environment that China was in the 90s. You didn't hear or see any English at all back then - not even 'hotel' or 'WC'.

the tank man said...

Even in today's china when you are standing in places particularly set for english practitioners,it would feel the same like being in a circus sideshow. Places such as huanzhong normal unversity, which i bet you must be familiar with the name.There used to be an occasion regularly held near a fountain for college students who wanted to better their spoken english .Every thursday or friday night, a couple hundred of people including scrappy college students from neightboring schools,mid-aged professors from dull classrooms and sophisticated office workers out of a whole day's tiring job, flock over and try to strike up a conversation with each other in English. If there is anyone with a towering nose or happens to be a blonde, the twittering college students would swarm to him/her the way bees flock to honey,too impatient to ask questions like where he/she is from,which i'm quite sure have been answered more than a million times already. With about 3 decades's openning up and reform, what china and most ordinary chinese people have been experiencing is more than any 30 years they had experienced in the history.Anxiety and confusion plauged people like me who have the chance to get a glimpse of the outside world yet still have no idea about where i'm heading. Now English is more than a language for me just in order to utter some exotic words , it's becoming more like an instrument i could utilize to find out a counterbalance between being propagandized and institutionalized so as to stay critical and sober, but when i am precariously keeping this balance, i occassionally get lost and confused by how i was educated to do things and what i think it's right to do things. It appears to me the world i was brought up in and the actually world i'm living in have been somewhat reversed.And this i think is what most of young people in china have now been going through in this hectic world with change happening all the time.

John said...

I would have loved to have seen China myself at that time, it seems to be (in recent years at least) its most pleasant period; the hell of Mao behind it and the hell of too-rapid development yet to begin. I read the stories of underground explosions and airports no more than hangers as quaint and understandable but the things about China I hear today are often terrifyingly abhorrent and inexcusable. I suppose the only other time in recent Chinese history I am interested in is Shanghai in the early 20th century, now my interest in China is I have to admit morbid, flecked with slight glimmers of hope and sympathy. Oh and Hong Kong of course, must visit there someday but everything else I'll stick to experiencing second-hand thank you very much.