1983 and 1987
Both my visits to China started, after taking the train from Hong Kong to Canton, in the amazing "White Swan" Hotel — Bai Tian É, White Heavenly Goose in Chinese. The first time in 1983 I attended an international laser conference there, the second time I wanted Barbara to experience its immaculate service — staffed, as it was, by children, mostly charming girls....
Guards at the entrances to the hotel kept the street rabble out, but enough Hong Kong Chinese and Japanese stayed there that the western tourists were in the minority. So it came that Barbara's introduction to China next morning was less than auspicious, the little girl who served us breakfast froze when she encountered Barbara's blue eyes.... We would soon learn.
Immaculately laid tables and Mozart's music welcomed us at breakfast. Behind me are a wall of glass windows bordering directly onto the teaming life on the Pearl River. Ferries, junks, steamers, people, people, and more people, surging into the ferry terminals, on the boats, the filthy river only a few meters from our table — and the sweltering heat outside — all contained behind a simple window pane.... True imperialist luxury...
Coming from this luxury heaven, Guangzhou's streets and lanes were a shock. Mercifully, coming from the air-conditioned hotel eye-glass wearers will find that their lenses fog-up for the next fifteen minutes, and so did my camera. In 1983 I spent hours wandering through the back alleys and markets no three blocks away. Barbara was less easily enchanted by the native life and the characters in the markets. To me they are an unending source of impressions on people and customs.
Of all Chinese provinces Guandong is populated by the most emotional, boisterous and volatile of the Han tribes.
No Chinese would buy a dead bird, not even the western dressed lady who is haggling with the man over a particularly lively chicken.
In Guandong everything is eaten — from snakes and dogs in winter to all kinds of rodents (e.g.,. SARS seems to have originated from a weasel-sized civet, a highly valued musk-cat in Guandong) — even owls! Although my Chinese American friends insisted that this owl man, who snares them live, sold them as pets to catch mice on the farm. Nonsense, they are eaten. A few month later a friend, Collin Thuborn would buy an owl from this man and after a string of adventures with the bird set it free from the open window of a train to the protests of his local fellow travelers....
Do fish laugh? In Canton they do, ready to wander into a fish-head stew.
A typical lunch scene at a coffee shop.
And here are the leftover from a restaurant being carted to a pig farm. Notice the European (Hong Kong) style purse carried by the man who pulls the cart! — But the refuse cart was only the pretext, a foreground for a photograph of the people reading the posters on the wall. They carried announcements of the next public executions....
Tobacco, like in Southern Europe is consumed in large quantities.
In 1983 only the rich could afford motorcycles — all cars were owned and operated by the government, except one Jaguar in Beijing which was owned by Aunt Mary (about her later) — so this man is rich and the embodies the future....
On our first evening in Canton in 1987 I took Barbara through the familiar lu—lanes of the old city. It was October and chestnuts are being roasted on the back of a bicycle by an ingenious "fluidized-bed" technique (using small black pebbles) which allows a very uniform processing of the chestnuts, a method I have only seen in Southern China.
Guilin on my Birthday 1983
Guilin is a town in an area of bizarre limestone hills through which runs a the Li river. Famous and celebrated by centuries of Chinese scroll painting Guilin attracts scores of tourists, Chinese and foreign who are being taken down the most romantic stretch of the river on flat tour boats. The conference offered a special day-excursion, a one-hour flight and a river ride - a dinner at night and the return flight to Guangzhou — a real bargain. It was my birthday, and I overcame my aversion of "tourist" places and joined. This day started a love affair with the people of Guilin's — mostly non-Han minorities — and my search for what was Chinese beauty.
Fisherman on the Li River. The Dragon Teeth of the mountains in the distance.
Boat people and local traffic
Minority Man selling Chinese pears and a fishing rod(?) by the dock. The beautifully woven baskets!
A little girl playing a two-string pipa.
The market in lovely Yangshuo at the end of the boat tour. From here one is taken back to Guilin by bus. The boats return empty overnight. In those days Yangshuo together with Dali, Labrang, and Lhasa counted among the most famous backpackers havens. Children from all countries congregated there.
I swore to return to Guilin at the end of my trip and explore the area, and in 1987 I took Barbara there, so that I have made the Li River Run three times — very unlike me.
As part of the conference the Academia Sinica had invited a number of scientists to a visit of their laser laboratory in Shanghai. That interlude became, except for science and a few interesting foreigners, the first a real test of my ingenuity and thereafter a minor disaster. The flight from Canton was late. There was nobody at the airport to take me to the place where I would stay. It was 11:30 PM, and the airport was emptying. I took the last taxi and gave the man the name of the only hotel I knew. It was booked out, but the man at the reception directed my driver to a government guesthouse, in a large gated park. The personnel was most solicitous and carried my luggage into the room below.
"Chairman Mao slept here!" whispered the man. A huge room with an even larger bathroom. The price was not mentioned. I slept very well in the bed of Mao's concubine.... In the morning I was awoken by a delegation from the conference who had tracked me down. I made them wait in order to enjoy a sumptuous breakfast. After that they drove me to a new Japanese hotel near the Zoo, way out of town and plagued by mosquitoes. It rained the whole time. I never saw Shanghai again.
But the Academy had arranged for a visit to a commune which included a workers family home and the kindergarten. I never knew what surprises were in wait of me, this time it was the immaculately dressed children.
On the flight to Beijing a few days later the China Airlines 707 lost an engine, thank God, after take-off, the narrowest escape from an accident I ever had on my many travels. We returned and waited for six hours for a replacement. But the good people in Beijing had waited all this time and gave me a VIP reception — why became only clear later that night.
These were my two guides for an entire week, one, Xiuming carried the money (in her black purse) the other, Willow Branch spoke English.... Without my prior knowledge a group of engineers from a Navy institute had been bussed to Beijing, and I was supposed to give them a six-day, four-hours each course on chemical lasers. This demand came out of the blue, it had never been mentioned. My problem was that I had permission from the Air Force to give a one-hour talk on the subject, no more.... I was in a real bind. My blood pressure rose alarmingly, besides I had contracted a laryngitis in Shanghai and could hardly speak. I mustered all my presence of mind — smile, never wrinkle your brow in China or you'll loose your listeners. — To stretch my limited material I decided to wing it by converting the lecture into a "seminar" in which my students participated. The professors were aghast — their work was equally classified.... I had a restless night.
Next morning an institute car with two very solicitous men waited to take me less than hundred meters to another house in the compound where my students waited.
On the left is yet another interpreter who translated my talk sentence by sentence. My savior, this way my material would last a long way. The little man with glasses (third on the left) was the minor faculty member who had invited me, hoping that I would enhance his reputation. His unhappy boss sits next to me. Behind him hides a woman who acted as the spokesperson of the students. My interaction with them, trying to get them involved, was less successful, they were not used to speak up to a famous professor. I finally asked them to write down their questions and hand them to me in the morning.
In this fashion we spent the mornings. To the worry of my two girls my voice had dwindled to a faint croak. First thing in the afternoon they took me to a woman doctor at the hospital, who diagnosed irregular pulse and high blood pressure. An EKG? I declined. The good woman prescribed three potions for me, some Western antibiotics and two Chinese preparations, which consisted of ground rhinoceros horn and pearls. From now on my girls watched that I took my medicines at the prescribed times. The antibiotic seemed to have no effect, but the rhinoceros horn slowly teased my voice back.... I would have troubles with my voice for four years until a doctor at Kaiser in LA removed a "rhinoceros horn" from my voice chords....
Every afternoon the girls and the interpreter took me around town in the institute car. The tourist sights of Beijing. When I told the girls that I would spend the hour before class by wandering alone through the streets near the Yuo Yü Fandian— Friendship Hotel, Willow Branch nearly fainted. As long as she was responsible for me, I could not do that, her head would be cut off, if I lost one hair during my explorations. So I refrained from getting her into trouble.
The roofs of the Forbidden City.
The Tiantan— the Temple of Heaven is the most beautiful complex of buildings in China. Until I visited Putuo Shan Dao with Barbara in 1987 I swore it was the only beautiful building in China.... Truly, used as we are to visual beauty in Europe, Persia, or India, Chinese cities are ugly to our eyes, there is very little visual beauty, and even in the villages there are but few beautiful handicrafts. An American I met in Chengdu had purchased a wooden carrying-beam used for balancing buckets and other heavy loads on one's shoulders, as the only beautiful everyday object he had found.
Tiantan is colossal, its processional avenue stretches for over a mile between the Temple of the Sun above and the that of the Moon to the north.. A magnificent astronomical design to display the pomp of the annual processions of the emperor. Not my favorite architecture, were it not for the sophistication and perfection of its parts, and...
...the Chinese girls, or...
...the old woman with bound feet whom we met at Tiantan pushing her grandson in one of the Kinderkarren — children carts, so ubiquitous all over China.
More and more I became aware that the Beauty of China lies in her people, like these two old men.
And they are not asleep either. For some time Willow Branch had to argue with the brighter of the two for permission to keep the photographs I had taken.
The Spirit-Wall in the Xiangshan Hotel. Every hotel and restaurant, all traditional living compounds and classical public buildings in China have such a wall blocking the direct entrance to keep the evil spirits out, which can only travel in a straight line....
My great wish had been to see this new hotel by I. I. Pei in Xiangshan — Fragrant Hills, maybe that he had something to say that would help me understand China. After taking me to the Great Wall in Badaling, which looked exactly like the China Airlines Poster: Visible from Outer Space! and to the Summer Palace, where to the embarrassment of my guides, this time enlarged by Mr. Fan, an architecture student who had been retooled to work as an engineer at the Navy Institute, many of the buildings turned out to have been erected for the sensual pleasures of the emperors and their concubines, which I finally relieved by telling my friends, that I had read Jing Ping Mei, the Chinese classic of sexual pleasures. Fan became very excited. He confirmed that it was still on the index, but what did I think of it? — we went to Xiangshan. This one classical, Chinese building by Pei, turned out to by emotionally so cold that my friends took refuge under the awning of a café attached to the soaring main lobby....
In the end, Willow Branch proposed to take me to the Lama Temple, the Tibetan shrine of Beijing with this 18th-century, Qing-Dynasty entrance gate. Horrified by its colorful garishness and disappointed by the veiled yab-yum sculptures in the sanctuaries — modern Chinese consider them indecent— I nearly missed the photograph of my entire trip...!
A huge copper cauldron into which people throw coins to divine their future. I had looked into it and these Tibetans had gathered curious of what I had seen: The Many Faces of China....
Xiuming waiting for the bus to my hotel — a two-hour ride — in front of the Office of the Foreign Police.
My teaching duty over, the two interpreters and the institute's car vanished into thin air. I was left with Xiuming who was supposed to persuade the foreigner police to issue me a special passport for travelling to all the places in China I had on my list. Why so many? What for? Contrary to the Soviet Academy the Academia Sinica would not help me beyond assistance to get the passport and a ticket to my next destination out of Beijing. But the passport took us three days and a special letter releasing me from the care and category of "VIP guest of the Academy...." Next morning Xiuming handed me an air ticket to Lanzhou, which I had cleverly chosen as my next destination — far away in remote northwestern Gansu, from where I would try to explore Dunhuang and the possibilities of getting to Tibet.... Henceforth I would travel as a "Single Independent Student of the Chinese language" for whom no official organization was responsible....
The adventures of the days with Xiuming you find described in "The Return of the Monkey King".