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Wednesday, August 13

China From the Ground

At the start – let me point out that this adventure happened over 20 years ago. Supposedly, things are different now (really?). Since then - China has certainly embraced capitalism and all its inherent seductions. Of course - just last year the head of China’s food and drug administration was sentenced to death for corruption (and the poisoning of thousands of people). Well…… maybe there that iron hand does still exist. All it needs is the right incentive to coax it out. I guess you really can’t take the dictator out of the ‘former’ communist country!

The Olympics have brought China front and center. I watched the opening ceremonies in amazement. Truly beautiful - right down to the pixie-like little girl who sang "Ode to the Motherland" (shades of something else there, I'm thinking). But that was all illusion (much like the ceremony itself). It got me thinking - what constitutes the truth? Where is the real China? I can only show you mine. Is it the truth? Well it was 20 odd years ago – at least for me.

Hong Kong 23 years ago was quite the place – it still retained some of the seedy charm made famous by James Bond and his Golden Gun. The Peninsula Hotel was still considered one of the worlds finest, boasting dozens of bright green limousines ready to transport guests anywhere their hearts desired. Women still served drinks naked at the 'Bottoms Up' club, its dim lighting and plush velvet interior seductive with libertine possibilities. This was before the prevalence of pole and lap dancing, mind you – the women here were visual delights – beautiful, multi-lingual goddesses; not objects to be fondled and carelessly discarded. Gems, ivory, cinnabar, rosewood, carpets – all manner of luxury items were available, and at a drastically reduced price. I negotiated my perfectly matched, pink-toned pearls there – driving the proprietor almost nuts in the process. Kowloon, Stanley’s Market, afternoon tea – Hong Kong was contradiction incarnate. Tattoos next door to McDonalds – a true mixture of old and new.

It was also China’s front door – just a hovercraft away from intermediary Macau and its massive, ornate and inaccessible entry gates – reminiscent of those separating the mighty Kong from a populace that worshipped him; and, in their own way, just as ineffective. You see, Macau occupies its own peninsula – so the analogy was not lost on me. Anyone visiting Hong Kong was encouraged to make that trip – an excursion into a still forbidden land reeking of otherness and danger. China – fabled land of mystic charm, (then and still) communist bastion of the Far East – definitely a magnet for those interested in walking on the dark side. Or so I imagined, anyway. Adventure!! With all the requisite exclamation points. So off I trundled, early one morning, skimming across the harbor on a craft less Bond and more left-over lunch. Still – the view from the top deck was brilliant – tiny islands popping up out of the sea like verdant gems – crowns of bright, white birds endlessly circling. It was beautiful – and possessing enough mystery to maintain my excitement. I was going to China – how cool was that!

We arrived in Macau – legendary city renowned for its shadowy connections to Asia’s underworld. Moody 40’s noir movies had set the tone for this place – Mitchem and Russell – gliding through a city rife with corruption and ripe for anything. People bought and sold drugs, diamonds, gold and human flesh in Macau. The Chinese government was wise to let it alone, and reap the economic benefits from such a free zone. It literally had no interference or oversight. If you could make it there – and survive – you earned respect in those circles where respect meant everything – and dictated life and death. Exciting – no? All this and more I expected - so I was keenly disappointed when upon making port, we were all hustled onto a somewhat old and rather smelly bus that made its way straight through the middle of town – not stopping even once to allow us a few quick pictures. It was daytime, so there wasn’t even the atmosphere darkness lends – just quick impressions of casinos, people and streets – I felt terribly let down.

That dissatisfaction melted away when we finally reached our destination – the entrance to China proper. I got off the bus and looked up – there they were - huge gates; I mean huge! Enough to keep out an ancient army, if need be. Beautiful, ornate – my jaw lay somewhere near my feet. They are called the ‘Barrier Gates’ – and have been protecting Chinas back door since the 1500’s. We were going to step through all that history – crossing more than just an invisible threshold. Dante’s Divine Comedy flashed into mind – the epithet carved on the doors of hell:

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.

Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.

Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Such characters in colour dim I mark'd
Over a portal's lofty arch inscrib'd:
Whereat I thus: Master, these words import

As you can see I had high expectations for my China adventure. Initially – those hopes seemed warranted. The gates opened, revealing a series of steps descending into a huge open square filled with people. Beautiful, colorful - just what I expected to see. There, at the base of the stairs waited another more modern bus ready to take us on our tour. A bit at odds with the surrounding ambiance, but what the hell – it all still looked tantalizing! Then the gates closed behind me, blocking the available light. Immediately we were accosted by beggars, the likes of which could only have existed in some medieval novel – cripples with twisted limbs dragging themselves up the stairs, accident victims minus eyes, hands and feet, dwarves, hunched over like Quasimodo and worst of all – two lepers (at least that’s what I thought, given their appearance), bandages barley covering the ruin the disease had made of their faces. It was like being surrounded by souls imported from a Todd Browning film. I reared back in confusion – the stench was overpowering and I will admit to being a bit frightened.

Suddenly our minders arrived – yelling at the beggars, driving them back with sticks – it was shocking. They rushed us down the stairs, hurriedly loading us on the bus, almost roaring off – China’s exposed underbelly left behind in a cloud of diesel fumes. Immediately the ‘guides’ began to talk – extolling China’s brilliant economic and educational features, pointing out ancient examples of architecture. Most of the people with me settled in – accepting this sea change – pretending that the horrors visible at the gate were figments of our imagination. I wasn’t buying this horse shit. Immediately I began asking questions – what was up with the begging? Why were those people there? And what about those lepers (if indeed they were lepers)? I thought that disease had all but been eliminated? These and about a thousand other questions I fired at them were roundly ignored. Thus began my strained relationship with the people assigned to keep us in line. They didn’t like me, and I resented their constant interference and attempts to direct where we went and to whom we spoke. Not an auspicious beginning, by any standard.

We traveled through the countryside – completely rural – though I wouldn’t label it bucolic by any means. The lack of modernity was obvious. Houses were little more than thatch-covered huts, no visible electricity or plumbing – hell, farmers plowed their fields with water buffalo – towing ancient devices I’d only ever seen in newsreels from the 1930’s. Every farmstead had its own duck pond, though – duck being a staple of the Chinese diet. The roads were narrow and unpaved – our bus would pass by the occasional ox-driven cart, which usually had to be asked to get out of the way. I noticed none of the locals made eye contact with our minders – it was more than deference – I got the impression they just didn’t want to be noticed. There were some modern vehicles – jeep-like conveyances carrying troops all decked out with visible arms. I’d seen the same sort of thing in The Philippines. Very intimidating – and that’s just what it was supposed to be. Needless to say, my questions about this were ignored as well. I was batting 1000 by this point.

Finally, we stopped in a somewhat largish town. All modern buildings here – not a piece of straw in sight - quite immaculate, in fact. Frankly, it looked like it had been built yesterday. Off the bus we file, over to the picture-perfect school to see robot children doing calisthenics. The paths were roped off to ensure we didn’t step out of line. There was always this subtle menace you see – straying from the path promised retribution. It wasn’t as if you’d get shot (one would hope), but there would be consequences – of that I was sure; too many men with metal smiles watching every nuance – blocking access to any and everything. The school children were followed by lunch – wonderfully tasty, and irrefutably Chinese – at least 2 dishes made with peanuts, and little or no meat of any kind. There was tea, of course (delicious) and some type of sweet rice for desert. It was during this relatively convivial meal that our so-called guides loosened up a bit. Not all of us tourists were American – in fact, there were several Europeans, and some Indian and Thai visitors as well. We all spoke English, though – so there was little chance of being misunderstood.

I learned many things over that lovely lunch. I learned that according to every Asian there – Americans and Europeans smelled – stunk, actually – of meat. Our Chinese hosts expressed amazement at how much meat we consumed on a daily basis. They said you could tell an American was coming by how badly they reeked. OK – I accepted that. During a recent trip to Korea I had noticed the entire country smelled like Kimchee – its national dish. Kimchee is a kind of fermented cabbage – tasty as all hell, but smells to high heaven; kind of like limburger cheese. After a few days, I didn’t notice the odor anymore – I guess I got used to it; so I was willing to accept that, due to my meat consumption, I was a touch stinky. I actually filed the information away for future reference. I found myself wondering if my Japanese friends were being polite in not mentioning it. Perhaps they thought I smelled as well. It was something I was going to have to look into when I got back.

After the meal, we were taken on a mini tour of the town. Once again, there were ropes preventing us from straying. I was beginning to get a little pissed off about all this. I came to China to meet the Chinese – not to view little girls in jumpsuits with hoops, or spend all my time on a bus. That and I was just a teensy bit annoyed by all the question dodging – I don't like to be herded - too much Elsie the cow for my taste. Shopping was allowed in one large store crammed to the rafters with touristy stuff – nothing of any real interest, all of it geared toward promoting China and Communism – TONS of copies of Mao’s little red book, for instance. We were shepherded around here as well – go down this aisle, you have to buy that. The store had been cleared of everyone except us, our minders and the proprietor. My fellow travelers seemed to just accept this without question, whereas I began to formulate a plan.

The streets had become rather crowded with people trying to get a good look at the foreigners. As a result – a small group had pushed in between the bus, and where we were shopping, obscuring the line of sight. Good, I thought; no one will notice I’ve gone. After I paid for my few purchases, I left the shop; but instead of heading back toward the bus, I ducked under the rope separating me from whatever it was they didn’t want us to see, and just took off - left the 'guided' tour and struck out on my own. I was damned if some bastard with a gun was going to determine which direction I could go. No one and I mean no one had ever prevented me from doing whatever the hell I wanted – especially not since my epiphany two years previous. What can I say - the hubris of youth - I was immortal, I was in control, and I'd be damned before giving in to any kind of repressive authority.

People stared at me, yes – initially I was moving at quite a clip - but no one raised any hue and cry – so I was able to escape attention long enough to lose myself down several side streets. What a difference a few blocks made! Wow! It was like a whole new world. All of a sudden, the modern, antiseptic buildings disappeared. Replacing them were colorful, high-rise tenements, ramshackle wooden buildings, thatch and cloth everywhere – all cheek-by-jowl – packed to the gills with people, animals, food - teeming with life. I had stumbled on an open air market – ducks, eggs, vegetables – it was great! And the smells! Small grills toasted up everything from mushrooms to various seeds – like some giant open air restaurant. Really, really cool.

Digging for coins, I bought some kind of fruit and munched on it whilst wandering around. People, especially children, came up to me – touching my face, clothing and hair. They were smiling, happy, wonderfully friendly folk. Frankly – I was having the time of my life. I petted some kitties, tried to understand what people were telling me – after a while I gathered these particular Chinese had never seen an American before. Keep in mind I am talking more than 20 years ago here (closer to 25 actually). The Berlin wall was still very much in evidence, and America still played secret squirrel with the Russians on a regular basis. Hell – the whole Nixon goes to China thing was barely a decade in the past. I was broaching new territory here – no western news service even had an outpost in China yet; as a matter of fact, they had only just begun to allow tourists. Tiananmen Square was nearly 8 years into the future. So yes – what I was doing was unbelievably stupid. I just didn’t think that way at the time.

I’ll bet right about now you’re wondering if my little walk had consequences. Oh, you betcha! They found me, all right. A whole platoon of soldiers trooping through that market - jack boots clacking away. I’ve never seen people scatter so fast in my entire life. Suddenly I was alone in the middle of the street. From the midst of these soldiers appeared my minders – frowning mightily. No conversation – I was frog-marched back to the bus, where I received a standing ovation from my fellow travelers. That was the only sign of appreciation I was going to get. As soon as we reached Macau, I was separated from everyone else, and interviewed by several old men hell-bent on making more of this than it actually was. No sense of humor, those guys. Thought I was some sort of spy, I’m guessing. Eventually they 'escorted' me back to Hong Kong with full honors - drawn guns, lots of shoving, threats all around. Took my picture, yelled at me while waving fingers in my face and all but said 'don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out'. Somehow I don't think I'd be welcomed back anytime soon. Pity – I rather liked the place – once I got past all the bullshit. Very nice people. I do hope they manage to permanently lose that government soon, though. But then, we here in America do know all about that kind of thing, now don’t we?

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