Posts Tagged 'China'

One woman’s treasure

is another woman’s rubbish, and there is something oddly pathetic about both.

Chinese artist Song Dong’s walk-through installation in the Barbican is made up of just some of the masses of things his mother collected over a lifetime of hoarding. Old shoes and clothes; rolls of fabric; plastic bottles and glass jars and biscuit tins; mouse traps and bird cages; laundry soap and toothbrushes and used-up tubes of toothpaste…

It all reminded me of the hopelessly transient Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, who collects empty cans and old newspapers

 because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and because she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.

Sylvie tries desperately to be like other people, play-acting at keeping a home, a family, but she simply has no idea how to do it. Things, whether they are carefully washed empty cans or dried-up bars of soap, do not a home, a future, or stability make.

Song Dong’s mother, living through years of communist shortage, hoarded because she was afraid that tomorrow there would be no more soap. And then, as shortage turned to surplus, she was afraid that tomorrow there would no longer be the right kind of soap, the type she understood and was accustomed to. When everything is changing so fast, you hold on all the tighter to what is familiar.

I recognised lots of things from Song Dong’s mother’s hoard. Gigantic thermos flasks with flowers on the side. Enamelled bowls decorated with scarlet fish and peonies. The spotted and flowered cotton fabric that is used for aprons and baby carriers and sleeve protectors throughout the country. The country may be changing at an impossibly fast rate, but these things are still quintessential China.

Strangely enough, among all the assorted footwear, there was not a single pair of Liberation Army shoes

I recognised many things, but in fact in China I never met a hoarder; instead I was struck by how little people seem to possess. I stayed with families who apparently had fewer possessions (including the ubiquitous red and white enamel bowl and flowery thermos) in their entire house than I had in my rucksack.

I was envious of them. I imagined (from my ignorant outsider’s viewpoint) they had everything they needed, and had done away with the superfluities. These, I thought, were people the deprivations of communism, and the incredibly fast changes of state capitalism, seemed to have passed by. They were too small to be affected, too modest, too far away. It was hard to reconcile their lives, tucked away in the mountains of rural China, with those other mountains of stuff coming out of the factories of East-coast urban China and taking over the world.

Song Dong and his siblings tried to persuade their mother that in these days of plenty she did not need to hoard anymore, and to throw away some of her useless stuff. Then they realised they were only making her unhappy. So instead, Song Dong invented a purpose for all her accumulated stuff – he turned it into ‘art’.

Those things that had waited so long to be used could finally be used. My mother was very happy and told me: ‘keeping those things was useful, wasn’t it.’

This backwards logic reminds me again of Sylvie in Housekeeping. The hoarding of useless things is at the heart of Robinson’s work of art too. Possessions can’t be family or home or happiness. But they can be a history of a country, a mentality, an act of love and of art.

Political metaphor

I love similes and metaphors. I’ve just been editing a draft of my new book, and noticing that I use them in practically every other sentence. ‘He looked like a blinded survivor’, I wrote, of a character who has just received an appalling shock. Clearly I don’t see the world as it is, but as it almost is, as it might be; through a sort of double vision in which everything that happens is a comparison to something else.

Alongside the editing, I’ve been reading about recent events in China. It’s a relief, now that I’m out of the country, to be able to open web-pages without wondering if they will be blocked, to do internet searches unhindered by crude word filters.

The friends I made back in China are not so lucky. If any of them are searching sites like weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) this weekend, they will find the warning coming up even on the apparently innocuous word ‘blind’, that ‘According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, these search results cannot be shown’.

‘Blind’ is not a metaphor. It’s a possible reference to the dissident who escaped house arrest in China two days ago, and who happens to have lost his sight. As far as Chinese official media is concerned, Chen Guangcheng’s escape has not happened. It’s a non-story; a blind spot. His name, or those of his family and friends or the village from which he fled, have disappeared from the media, from on-line vocabulary, along with ‘blind’, ‘embassy’ (he’s assumed to have sought protection in the US embassy), ‘consulate’…

In their place something else has appeared on weibo: a cute story about a little mole who escapes with the help of his friends the mice from some not-very-nice wolves. Lest you miss the point: moles are, of course, famously blind.

Under political systems like China’s, similes and metaphors are not a matter of literary style. They are the only way of telling the truth. When you are not allowed to describe the world as it is, your mind has to find other devious and inventive ways of expression.

We had conversations in China about how repression can lead to great literature; Bulgakov, for example, writing in the Soviet Union his story of a dog’s heart transplanted into a human. The Chinese writers were depressed. Not in China, they said. Not yet. We lack the imagination, the courage…

I don’t think the story of the mole is great literature, but it is, obviously, an extended metaphor. The little tale ends with the mice spreading the news of the mole’s escape ‘but they couldn’t decide whether the escape was a victory, or whether it was just the beginning of more hardship.’

As far as I know, Chinese government censors have yet to block searches on weibo of the word ‘mole’. As I continue to edit my MS for excessive use of simile and metaphor, I am humbled by the use Chinese writers make of literary devices, and I worry for my friends, and for all their colleagues in China.

The People’s Liberation Army shoe

I’m not sure there’s a better symbol for how far China has come, and how much further it may go, than the People’s Liberation Army shoe.

For a start, its name. There is something inexpressibly heroic and yet pathetic in a whole army marching the length and breadth of one of the largest countries in the world without boots.

Liberation Army shoes(解放鞋 jie fang xie*) are khaki-coloured canvas, with rubber soles. They are, even by Chinese standards, cheap: around 10 Yuan, or one pound a pair. They stink fishily after you’ve worn them a couple of times. They’re brilliant. I love them – lots of foreigners do, they’re so cheap and practical.

At my very rough guess, maybe around 600 million people in China are wearing Liberation Army shoes at any given hour of any day. So who is providing all this footwear? I didn’t think about that all that much until I had to do some research into HIV prevalence in China, and government laws regarding injecting drug use (which is the main route for spreading the infection). That led me to make another guess:

drug users, I found out, can be put into compulsory rehabilitation centres (they used to be called re-education through labour centres) where, among other activities which seem to include little actual rehab, they are put to work making shoes.

For up to three years, unpaid and unregulated.

I still wear my Liberation Army shoes, but with slightly less glee now. My friend Mr Zhou can’t bear them. He, along with most Chinese people, had nothing else to wear for years and years and years and years.

Nowadays, Mr Zhou’s city brethren are more likely to wear North Face and Merrell knock-offs. But in rural China (where you can still encounter the Mao suit) the Liberation Army shoe is ubiquitous. Nakhi people wear them to climb over snowy passes, Dong to wade through ankle-deep mud. I’ve been on hikes up mountains and through jungle and flooded paddy fields, all the tourists (Chinese and foreign) slipping and sliding in their expensive heavy hiking boots, while the locals twinkle past effortlessly sure-footed in their Liberation Army shoes.

In the cities, Liberation Army shoes are only for labourers – immigrants from the countryside – and I as a foreigner wearing them get laughed at. (It took me a while to understand why people kept finding my feet hilarious, I thought maybe it was just that they were too big or something).

In Hong Kong, no one gives my footwear a glance. Hong Kong has moved so far ahead, it no longer knows what the People’s Liberation Army shoe is.

*thanks Mr Zhou for the Chinese

Rosetta plays roulette

Macao believes in gods and in luck.

It’s full of stuccoed Catholic churches where the red votive candles flicker; of small, brightly-coloured Taoist temples packed with offerings: sweets and oranges and roast pigs and waxy lotuses, coils of incense filling the air with smoky sweetness, piles of paper money burning, burning burning up in smoke. It’s full of giant, brilliantly-lit casinos where to the click of the dice, ping of the bell, spin of the wheel, snap of the cards, the money figuratively burns, burns, burns.

It’s luck or it’s fate or it’s the hand of the gods.

“Of course I play roulette, I have to, it’s my name,” Rosetta tells me. Most Chinese people choose their English names themselves. I wonder which came first for Rosetta, the name or the game.

“Of course there’s a system,” she tells me in-between winning some, losing some. “Are you trying to tell me there’s no system in the universe? You’re English, from the same country as Newton. Newton had insight, he understood the order in the universe.”

I wonder if Newton was a gambler.

“I never found order in life,” Rosetta tells me, scribbling down numbers on pieces of paper. “But I found it in the casino.”

I wonder how much money she’ll take away at the end of the night – or day, or tomorrow night, because there’s no night or day here, no today or tomorrow. The croupiers change over every forty minutes or so but otherwise it’s all the same: the lighting, the music, the smoke-disguising smell, the free drinks, the smiling, sharp-eyed security guards, the cleaners picking up specks of lint from the thick thick carpets.

In Macao museum, I look at tombs for crickets. Miniaturely grand stone edifices for the erstwhile champions of Macao’s gambling obsession. Crowds used to turn out in their thousands to watch prize fights; to attend the funerals of heroes.

Cricket fighting’s out of fashion now. From micro, Macao has gone macro – casinos the size of villages, marooned in a vast building site where even bigger casinos are going up, looming like baroque battleships behind the glittering Venetian, the City of Dreams.

It’s luck or it’s fate or it’s the hand of the gods.

In the protestant graveyard are grey tombs of the people who lost. Who caught tropical fevers, who fell into the ship’s hold, who were shot by cannon, who gave up. They are so lonely, these graves. They’ve been put up by shipmates or office colleagues or succeeding consuls who don’t even know how old the dead man was (they are nearly all men). They’ve been carved by people who can’t even spell. The dead are defined by their jobs – soldier, sailor, company agent – and while there are some ‘esteemed’, some ‘regreted’ (sic), there are no Beloved Husbands, no Dearly Loved sons, no Deeply Missed.

I wonder why these colleagues and shipmates felt the need to state in stone who erected the grave. To show there was someone who cared about the decencies, about the deceased? In the hope that someone would do the same for them when they were swept away by fever or a fall, so far from home.

I stay a cheap night in a former brothel on Rua da Felicidade, the street of happiness (I didn’t win at roulette – so much for Newtonian insight). Partitioned rooms not much bigger than protestant graves and a lot more flimsy.  It’s full of Philippino workers chasing luck and employment, calling their families back home on mobile phones, being deeply missed and dearly loved.

In the morning the whole street smells of almond biscuits, and I’ve dreamed about a regreted, long dead ship’s boy called The Peunington.

All tomorrow’s parties

But what did you do in those Chinese villages? my city friends ask me. Didn’t you get bored with hiking about in the wilderness, and crave some society, some culture, some fun?

A lot of the time I was writing my book, and craved solitude and long hikes. But a lot of the time, I was going to parties.

The Bai, the Miao and the Dong, the Tibetans and Lissu – they do love a good party. Like followers of traditional calendars everywhere, they find endless occasion: sowing and harvest; full moon and flood; birth, marriage, death of people and of gods; house-warming and tomb-sweeping; arrivals and departures, beginnings and ends. And they are always happy to share the occasion with random visitors. If it involves said visitor making a total fool of herself, so much the better…

In the Bai region of Yunnan it’s the grandmothers who keep the world going, the calendar pages turning, the parties full of food, dancing, pageantry, laughter. They do love to laugh. To dress up the tombs and temples and houses (not themselves; it’s the old men who dress up in cardboard crowns) with bright flags and flowers and paper people and paper money. To dance around, tinkling cymbals and tapping drums. To feed, and ply with baijiu (rice wine) the five thousand.

Every month there’s a festival in one of the many temples scattering Shaxi valley, and it’s a fabulous and hilarious privilege to be invited to join in, to eat and eat, to sit on a tiny bench watching the performance, to be dragged up to dance with a huge bunch of paper flowers or a china bowl containing a lit candle – balanced on my head.

The locals are all so delighted, dashing about the temple, bowing to the gods, reciting prayers, gossiping and openly laughing when it all goes a bit pear-shaped… I’ve no idea of the religious significance of any of it, or why they made me dance with a bowl on my head. I suspect there was no significance, they were just making it up as they went along, propitiating the gods just in case, and having a lot of fun.

Rambling between villages in Guizhou province, we stumbled over a Miao house-warming party and were invited in for food and drink – drink – drink. Old men already so drunk they couldn’t stand up; aunties and grandmothers, those ones who keep the word turning, busy making everyone else drunk with their endless bowls of wine dipped from clay jars, which have to be drained to the bottom not once but twice; younger sisters looking after the babies. The family’s four sons were all there, even the one who was working in Fujian province, in the city, and who wandered off with his girlfriend to walk moodily hand in hand through the paddy fields; two modern children, not charmed by rural excess; a bit bored now they knew what else life had to offer.

Later there will be dancing; there will be bull-fighting, they promise, filling up our wine bowls yet again. I am kidnapped; carried off to the upper village and presented like a hunting trophy to various households, to a succession of shyly, sweetly smiling small girls trying out their few words of English and showing me their battered school books; more food; more wine; up to the village hall where the bronze drum is hauled out of storage and hefted down to the square and the former communist party leader begins to bong and blong, the giggling small girls and a few chuckling grannies begin to dance and laugh when I get the steps wrong, round and round we go or maybe it’s the world that’s going round and round, the strings of drying yellow maize and red chillies, the dark wooden houses jumbled along steep cobbled pathways and the pink pigs peeking out from their sties, the gigantic stairs of the rice terraces stepping up the mountain, peopled with hay stacks like shaggy giants wearing topknots of pine branches –

and now I’m in another little dark house, sitting on a miniature stool by the embers with another lot of people I’ve never seen before all chomping and slurping, staring at me with shiny eyes, solemn staring babies peeking over their parent’s shoulders, and I feel like a pink pig, like a giant puppet pig in a tiny puppet show, in a Miao Punch-and-Judy, and I really don’t want any more baijiu thankyouverymuch – and I tiptoe away when no one is looking and stagger back to the lower village, where I find my Chinese companion has been tucked up in bed by our hosts to sleep off the alcohol and I’m on my own where no one speaks English and everything’s broken…

Palaces for piglets

Kaiping, in Guangdong (Canton) province, was the heart of the piglet trade.

Around the turn of the 20th century, thousands of impoverished Chinese were tricked into going abroad in search of streets paved with gold, money showering down from trees. What they found instead: more poverty, exploitation,  heartless countries that did not love them, would not understand them, only wanted them to make money out of them…

Translation of a typical advertisement recruiting Chinese workers (from the Overseas Chinese museum, Zili Cun)

The same old story. Nowadays, it’s called people-trafficking.

But still, there were opportunities to be had. For every ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred who lost everything, who never came back, there were the few who returned to China with their pockets lined with money and their heads full of grand ideas. These are the ones who built the Kaiping diaolou (watchtowers).

Every village and small town in this area is a grey jumble of tall concrete towers and balustraded concrete mansions, all in a strange and forbidding sort of Disney architecture, a half-remembered or half-understood approximation of Scottish castle mixed with Italian villa.

They were villagers, these men and boys who went overseas and worked in laundries and building railroads; hard-working, single-minded, self-taught and self-made. You can see it in the style of their buildings. The diaolou have none of the elegance of traditional Chinese architecture, nor the frivolous charm or grace of the European classical or gothic or baroque, the romance of those castles they imitate. What they have got is a defensive boldness, a sort of single-minded self-confidence and determination. Fortified to keep out thieves and bandits, fancified to impress the neighbours.

They are very ugly, most of them, but incredibly atmospheric; each village with its fancy, falling-down front of grand buildings facing a duckpond where geese sit under umbrellas in bamboo enclosures, and narrow dark alleys behind threading between the high forbidding walls. Kaiping district must have been rich for such a short time, when the piglets, the overseas Chinese, came back. But then everyone who could afford to left again.

Now these towns and villages are frozen in the 1930s. They look like wild west towns after the gold rush has gone. Sleepy and crumbling, trees and cacti growing out of the grand facades, broken stained-glass window panes and cracked tile floors, rooms full of abandoned bedsteads and bureaus. Photographs of the owners still hang on the walls, a glimpse of that fascinating turning point, when the nearly 300-year-long Qing dynasty was coming to an end and China was giving in to the modern world, when men still had long plaited queues but wore western suits, when women bobbed their hair and dressed in fitted qipaos.

In a room at the top of every diaolou is the ancestral shrine, of carved and gilded wood and painted glass. A reminder that family is everything.

Childless (son-less) wives of the men who emigrated and never came home to them would adopt boys, to ensure that the family name carried on. And then there were the paper sons and daughters. Paper children born out of fire, because it was after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed all the immigration records that the city’s Chinese population could claim US citizenship and therefore the right to bring their foreign-born children into the country – or, after visits home, claim new births.

These made birthright ‘slots’ – children who existed only on paper – which could be sold to young people to enable them to come to America.

And that’s where they still are, leaving their (true or adopted or bought) ancestors’  pretensions to grandeur, a family life in the Old Country, to moulder and crumble into the palm trees and the flowered creepers and duckponds. Lots of the diaolou now are home only to ducks and geese – and piglets.

Mr Jiang, an overseas Chinese from Canada, wanders among the diaolou, lifting the trails of creepers, turning over the clutter of crockery and broken balustrades, looking for history, for beauty, for clues about ownership. “No one cares about the architecture,” he says sadly. “No one cares about the past of these places.” An old couple living alone in great echoing mansion (all they can find to fill it are a few tiny stools, a heap of firewood, some cooking pots) show us around its high empty rooms and grand staircases, delighted if bemused to have visitors.

Mr Jiang wants to buy one or several diaolou, to preserve them as museums or as holiday homes, if he can track down who to buy them from. It seems an impossible task to an outsider, especially since entire villages have the same surname. But the village is everything. Family is still, even overseas, even after all this time, everything. In Chinatowns all over Canada and the US, everyone knows each other, Mr Jiang says. He will ask about such and such diaolou in such and such village, and someone will know who it belongs to, will remember family.

In which I inadvertently climb a snow mountain

Well, it wasn’t quite inadvertent, and I was probably more prepared for it than many of the people in Haba base camp, who had apparently never camped (“It’s so strange sleeping in a sleeping bag – you can’t move your arms!”) or seen stars before (“How will we know if the weather is clear when we start at 4a.m? It’ll be dark!”). But I didn’t plan to do it.

Mountains are fascinating and grand. I love how small they make me feel, I love hiking among them, watching them change with every shift of the light and lift of cloud. But I’ve always vaguely suspected people who risk life and limb to get to the top of them of being… slightly arrogant?  Unimaginative? A bit incomprehensible.

Reading about climbing Everest made me feel a bit disgusted with the whole endeavour, particularly its modern commercialisation, but mostly just puzzled by why people would endure so much of what seems like total misery (boredom, exhaustion, altitude sickness, frostbite) just to say they have been on the highest peak in the world – along with, these days, thousands of other people. There’s no purpose in it, no trip from here to there. I suppose other less famous mountains are much more of an adventure still, and an achievement, but really what are they a test of? Endurance? Skill?

And now I’ve done the same thing, on a much smaller scale, myself. It’s just that I was in Haba base camp, half way though a hike, and our friends were in the camp planning the ascent the next day, and the mountain was just there, snow-white and waiting… and really, by that point, why not?

The mountain from the lake

Well, because it was unbelievably utterly freezing, for a start. And 5400 metres high. And we had to get up at 3 a.m to hike most of it in the dark. And at 7 a.m the sunrise was flame and gold and violent and below us, in drifting brilliant clouds along deeply distant valleys, over pink-tipped granite peaks so far left behind they were like crinkles in paper… And at 8 the wind was worse than knives and we were in cloud or fog and there wasn’t enough air anymore. And the steep snow field went on and featurelessly on. And I lost everyone else. It was just me and the rope snaking upwards through whiteness, across whiteness, into whiteness; my own personal icy Sisyphean hell of pointless misery. One tethered rope leading to the next one, the next, a climb going nowhere, and what the hell was I doing this for anyway? Struggling to move, to breath, and for what purpose? I had no idea if I was anywhere near the top, and even if I did reach the top I wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway, no fabulous view, no earth falling away forever, just freezing fog, drifts of snow fine and heartless as dust…

(We’d sat yesterday in the base camp, me and my hiking companion, basking in the sun of a cloudless morning watching the climbers, black dots toiling up this same snow field, then along the ridge at the top that looped back taking them out of sight – watched them the way I’d watch sport on TV, because I’m too lazy to do anything else, except this was an exceptionally slow and boring sport, of creeping black dots – we’d watched some of them get only half way up the snow field, and then turn back and begin the long defeated creep down again)

I didn’t much want to be a defeated dot, but really I was just worried that if I turned back I’d get lost after the ropes ran out. So I kept on. And was rescued by a St Bernard dog with frost in her whiskers and lumps of ice big as golf balls stuck in her paws. I could have been hallucinating at this point…

(but – see this Haba summit photo… my proud and affectionate mum asks, which is you and which is the dog?)

And then cloudless skies and views that go on for ever, all the way down.

The lake from the mountain

So what was it a test of? Endurance? Skill? Stupidity? That familiar human desire to do utterly pointless things…


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