Some notes after the 2003 trip in 2004.
Beijing is my hometown. When I left it for Hong Kong in 1979 as a teenager, it’s very much a dirt-poor communist capital. One thousand yuan was a pure astronomical figure that you would only encounter it in the math class, sporadically. Actually since China was so isolated, not many person heard of Beijing, let alone to understand what a yuan was. Now every one with a slight of financial sense would surely know yuan from yen. Back then a few restaurants that operated dished out bland meals only twice a day, hour and half for lunch and hour and half for dinner. Now from Maxim’s de Paris to KFCs that dominate landscape. In little over two decades, China emerges from obscurity with a daring defiance and it’s 1.3 billion population has every western nation seeing the cash register ringing. As for me, I settled in New York and watched its meteoric rise with bewilderment. For the passed 17 years I had not set foot on China’s soil. This past summer, despite of outbreak of SARS, I decided to visit. I had two goals: to research my roots for my books, and to have my children to learn to speak Chinese. After few fruitless years of trying and going to Chinese weekend schools, I was so sure that a trip to Beijing would solve this problem, immediately.
The direct flight with Air China from New York to Beijing was unexpectedly pleasant and short, with eager-to-please flight attendants who would jump at snap of fingers. We checked in quite late so the three of us had scattered seats. The flight attendant (in her 30s?) upon greeting us, immediately assured me that she would put us together once every one had aboard. True to her promise, without expecting a reply, she asked two single travelers to make room for us. It could not have been more dramatic than my last encounter with them in the 80’s, when I was scold for asking a little service. When I finally relaxed in my seat, I quickly noticed the commercial on the back of the seat pushing for a Korean consumer giant’s products. The same flare shows up in McDonalds throughout Beijing, as a Scandinavian’s mobile phone does the selling on the paper that lined the tray. The bravado of commercialism was plainly savvy. It surely surpassed the USA, the capitalist pig of the world.
With Yang Liwei soared into space, orbit the globe 14 times in less than a day, the slicker Air China no longer hands out nail clippers, fly swatters or fans as souvenirs. A smiling face and few bags of peanuts from time to time had kept my children content throughout. The first feeling I got when I arrived in Beijing was as if I had never left, but at the same time everything seemed all very foreign too me. The futuristic airport is lean, and the highways are shimmering under the setting sun without potholes. Only when we were approaching the city center, the familiar older buildings appear on the horizon, with the thin and small cars, did I remember that China is still a third world.
My cousin came to pick us up. The immediate thing my children noticed was lacking of back seat seatbelt in his Volkswagen, the major warriors on the road. In a scrimmage, I joked that it’s an insult to the driver, as you add soy sauce to a dish would do to the chef, even knowing fully that it won’t stand, and my children appreciate the joke with “Ya, right Mom.” I was quiet for a while. My children are still very young and this was their first extended trip from comfort of home, to my hometown no less. I was excited to visit and hoped they shared the excitement (but worried that my children may not find any excitement there). I desperately wanted to do every thing that possible to make it pleasant for them, but in reality I knew it is very hard. A nearly century long economic dominance gives Americans a strong sense of entitlement. They consider three bathrooms their birthright, and the abundance made wasteful their nature. For example, how often you’d see someone grab a handful of napkins then throw them away unused. The last time I was in London, a 4-star-deluxe hotel didn’t even have an exercise room, and Harrods was like sauna this past summer when heat wave invaded Europe. Tokyo’s department stores are not bone-chill cold in the summer except in the USA (and people would complain “it’s cold” when they wouldn’t wear shorts in the cold winter … hello, it’s winter, ever heard of sweaters???) In Germany, we had to pay for ketchups in McDonald’s and frail plastic shopping bags at supermarkets (those are all free in Beijing now). The cars run on the autobahns are not always Benzs and BMWs, and even if few are, they looked bearishly thin. However trivia and unnecessary, it has become standard the Americans all expect to have. So, what could I possibly expect Beijing to offer?
1. hair cut
I kept myself immersed about China largely from major media coverage and of course, through friends and relatives. Although the change is tremendous, but neither the continuation of the old way of life surprised me, or the glittering skyscrapers impressed me. Everything was pretty much in my estimate. China is in my blood. The last time I was there, I dished out titles such as ‘aunt’, ‘uncle’, ‘grandmother’ or ‘grandfather’ to other people, to show the proper respect the older generation deserves. This time, I was often addressed as an aunt, thus not yet grandmother. Being old is still adamantly a glory thing, for the older crowds. A man my father’s age, (he is the youngest son born to my great grandfather with his eighth concubine) I mistakenly addressed him as Uncle, he was not pleased and pointedly corrected me, “No, I’m your grandfather!”
Dog once again, becomes man’s best friend. A staggering registration fee of 5,000 yuan (about $600, exchange rate of 8.2 is used hereafter) was imposed a year ago; with far too few registrants, the fee now reduced to about $120. Bills at restaurant were violently fought and won by my relatives or friends, despite my failed attempts. I was just simply always half step slower. The hutong cultural, the narrow streets of Beijing, is forever lasting, neighbors with cup of tea in hand, chatted the day away; many of the men were shirtless and the crowd was much younger, because the urban unemployment rate is huffing at double digits. (Business Week has put it at 10%, I suspect it’s a lot higher.) People smoke non-stop and spitting unselectively. Bad teeth. They wore sandals with socks in the scorching summer and men kept their pinkies nail long. A bottle of Listerine costs more than in New York, made me briefly wondered whether economical to use Channel No. 5 instead.
Shortly before I left for Beijing, in a Times SundayStyles section, there was an article about Channel current season’s ultra short minis. The reporter had hired an actress to model the outfit and described reactions from Four Seasons to subways. On our second day in Beijing, after meeting a friend from London for lunch, we went to Oriental Plaza for ice cream. The Oriental Plaza is a colossal modern complex near Tiananmen Square interconnected by underground shopping mall. As we were just getting comfortable from the sizzling sun in the mall, I spotted a skinny girl was stepping onto the rising escalator. She wore a white jacket over a, well, very (short) revealing jeans shorts that clearly showed the bottom half of her moon. It might have been purely coincident. Her saggy white jacket is no match for the dressy robust Channel and her legs are clearly needed some cosmetic surgery. But nevertheless I was very relief to see that Beijing is not far behind fashionly. My confident of China grow as the girl rose out of my view.
We stayed with my Xiaoyi (my mother’s sister). They live in a newly built high-rise community that has becoming increasing common in China. Coral and cream color exterior made such stark contrast to the gray hutongs surrounded that was waiting to be tore down for new development. Uniformed young boys guarded the gate and middle-aged women operate the elevators in the building, who expressionlessly reminded my children to ride in silence, and not to fidget around. The community was built by the hospital that they used to work, providing to its current and former employees. We all lived where our parents work, and it continues for most people still.
Xiaoyi’s 5-building community housed over 1000 (5 bldg x 22 fl x 12 unit) families. Her apartment has three bedrooms and two baths. Their master bath is in line with the American standard (a bathtub) and the second bathroom is in line with continental. Although the second bath has all the amenities, a toilet, a sink and a washer, but without a bathtub or shower stall. It looks like what in American terminology, a hole in the ground. The shower is mounted on the wall and water goes down the drain on the ground, so is the washer. An Italian or French would find themselves right at home. It is only the Pacific Ocean that divides vast differences in living standard. Looking to the west from China’s standpoint, the differences beginning to blur, rather fast. The Europeans were the founding fathers of the United States, but the latter had surpassed its master in every conceivable way.
On the way home that same afternoon I took my son for a hair cut at the community salon. It was an average issue. The slender hairdresser was sporting a sandy blond hair, and wore a black turtleneck, a black jeans and a pair nice looking black boots. Seeing his buzzer skillfully negotiated over my son’s constantly fidgeted head, it was very appealing and I felt an urge to have a change. So I questioned if he had time to cut mine, too. He said of course. “How much is it?” I casually asked as I waited. He regarded my head for a second, and stuck up his thumb and index finger, which meant eight. “Eighty?” I asked. He chuckled softly, “oh, no. Eight.” With a dollar, he spent the next 50 minutes trying to make me look gorgeous. When I gave him a 20 yuan bill and told him to keep the change, he fidgeted and said with a blush, “oh no, it’s too much.” As I was exiting the door, he apologetically called out in a typical Chinese way, “I didn’t get to do a good job, come back another day, I’ll do it better.” This mentality had reminded me the night before at my Jiujiu’s home (mother’s brother). After lavishing praise for her caretaker who doesn’t steal and is hard working, his mother-in-law commanded her daughter to increase the caretaker’s salary to $60 (500 yuan) from current $48 (400 yuan) a month “should I begin to loss my mind.“ The caretaker shyly objected, “oh, no, that’s not necessary.” The daughter chided in, “my mother thinks the world of you.” The young caretaker is from the country, doesn’t steal, does her duties with grace and is honest. “That’s not necessary, that’s too much.” The caretaker repeated the refusal with her eyes cast downward. I could almost hear what my New York (Long Island) counterparts’ cry, “that’s all?”
Apparently, a stone throw away from 5-star hotels, Beijing, as with China in that matter, is still very humble, poor and primitive, regardless how savvy the commercials might have implied and found its way into the most unimaginable corner.
2 Wet Nurse
I hadn’t been back to China since settling in New York for nearly two decades, but even before I touched down in Beijing, Jiujiu had already charted an itinerary consisting of a list of relatives to whom I should be paying respects. This was not wholly unexpected, and I was quite happy to let my Uncle take the burden away from me. Gods forbid I forget to visit or call on someone of importance. What did surprise me, however, was seeing who was on top of his list of VIPs: my wet nurse. It never occurred to me that an ex-servant would trump all my aunts, uncles, cousins and childhood friends, yet Jiujiu was adamant that I should go.
In my younger days, the significance of paying respects to a former servant would have been lost on me. While living in the US, I had always heard the phrase ‘hard to find good help these days’, but it was a lament that I never fully understood. Not until I had to look for a live-in maid/nanny to help raise my two youngsters in suburban Long Island did I bear the brunt of its meaning. All of a sudden, the trials and tribulations of securing a devoted caregiver had been thrust upon me, and I began to sing the same sad refrains that had become familiar to working Moms across America.
Some of the maids that held prior experience had graciously come on board and performed all the duties that were agreed upon, no more, no less. As professional and efficient as these maids might have been, their first instinct was to move on (bolt) to the next family in the hope of finding a better deal. Of course in this day and age we value experience and professionalism, but I would have been happy enough with some modicum of loyalty. Initially, I naïvely tried my best at making them feel a part of the family, asking them to take meals with us or simply inviting them into the family room to watch a movie with us. After a while, I had given up on this idea, instead turning the hiring (and firing) process into an ‘arm’s length’ business transaction that was devoid of any emotional attachments. I tried my hand with ‘amateurs’, those nannies that came from other walks. “I’m from the Island of Dominique, NOT the Dominican Republic”, one proclaimed haughtily, as if this mattered one iota to the job description. This was a woman that persisted in putting the same drinking glass into the dishwasher three straight times before admitting that the lipstick stain need to be cleaned off by hand. Another, her voice full with regret, spoke dreamily of bygone days: “I was the chief translator…the texts needed my final approval.” I tried to be sympathetic to her fall from grace, but in the end, the former chief translator did not stay on very long.
I was born in Beijing in 1961, just a few years before Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution took hold of the country. My wet nurse was a tong yang xi, a child daughter-in-law raised by the family of her future husband, an arrangement born of convenience and necessity. The traditional Chinese servant often came on board in youth and stayed on until retirement, frequently serving more than a couple of generations. Once, a servile thirteen year-old maid came as part of my grandmother’s dowry. Even though she was only capable of washing my grandmother’s handkerchiefs, bringing tea and giving an occasional shoulder rub, we treated her as part of the family, and in return earned her loyalty. The relationship bore no preconceptions or false expectations, no excess baggage.
Wet nurses were in great demand amongst the middle and upper classes, since cultured women would never submit themselves to the indignities of breast-feeding their own child. For one thing, the Chinese considered enlarged breasts to be lewd and unsightly. Nevertheless, the endearing way in which Jiujiu talked about her clearly indicated that she was more than just a hired hand. In 1961, China was still reeling from three straight years of famine, and we depended on our American relatives to send milk powder, rice, cooking oil and sugar via Hong Kong. The scarcity of basic supplies made her services more precious than ever. As we drove toward her home near Marco Polo Bridge, I found myself growing anxious about the meeting. My mother had committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, and so, any link to my past held no small interest for me. Was I a good baby? A cryer? A good sleeper? Did my Mom tuck me in every night?
My wet nurse was close to 80 years old and living with her eldest daughter in a modest red brick siheyuan, a courtyard dwelling that housed two families. Her daughter had been laid off by her danwei (work unit) and was being paid by her wealthier siblings to take care of their mother. They occupied two rooms, the outer for living and dining also doubling as a bedroom for her daughter, while the tiny inner room was used by the tong yang xi. As soon as we entered her bedroom, we were met with a pervading mustiness that was cut by the pungent odor of urine. My children crinkled their noses and held their breath, and I sensed their reluctance to step any further into the dwelling. An armchair sat in the corner, the bottom of its seat cut out with a chamber pot resting directly beneath it, a makeshift toilet. Sitting up in bed, she still had a full head of hair but appeared frail and unfocused. Aside from a diabetic condition, she had had a stroke that left her paralyzed and barely able to speak, and when her daughter introduced me, I was greeted with a blank look. Her daughter tried to comfort me by explaining that she couldn’t recognize all of her own six children. However, upon seeing Jiujiu, a wide toothless grin spread across her face and her eyes shone with a gleam of anticipation. Hands in his pockets and looking very chipper, Jiujiu spoke with great animation. To her daughter’s surprise, she hung on every word Jiujiu was saying, nodding and smiling and making little noises with her throat. Before we arrived, I thought that the visit would have meant more to me than to Jiujiu, but seeing him in action, the emphasis he placed on the gifts I had brought, his thoughtful comments and his patience with her, showed more than just a nostalgic whim. We weren’t there for old time’s sake. He took it as his duty to inquire about the well being of our former servants. She was the very last servant alive who had rendered faithful service to us, and Jiujiu was keen on paying tribute to that fact. When he finally spoke at length about my mother, a look of recognition crossed her face. She turned to look at me, holding my gaze for a brief moment. I tried to think of something that was appropriate to say to someone who, at the expense of her own newborn child, had provided me with her mother’s milk, but came up gallingly short. The only connection we made was when I sat down to take a picture with her, and she lightly squeezed my arm. Her enfeebled grasp gave me some comfort, as if she were saying to me: Its okay. We may not remember each other, but we both know why you are here.
My children couldn’t have been happier when we finally headed to the front door. Saddened as I was by her plight, I was glad that we had made the trip and happy that I was able to connect with her, however fleeting it may have been. Seeing my wet nurse now, her body spent and useless, my mind flashed back to an old black and white photo of a robust young woman clinging to a well-fed cherub. As the Chinese like to say, when taking a drink from the clear waters of a running river, always be mindful of the source.
The visit of a former servant was not our first, but it would probably be the last, for she had ultimately passed away on October 6, 2003. Jiujiu was more than thankful that we had visited her, especially having me in toe. Should I come another day, I would have missed her completely. As reciprocation, her children did not inform Jiujiu timely of her death. They deemed it as trouble to him, to have to come to the funeral. After all, he himself is 70 years old. Our visit was already quiet flattering gesture.
3 Human Sentiment
Chinese has always prize on their noble tradition of human sentiment and family, also the education and honor, which defines China for thousands of years. Xiaoyi and her husband are retired doctors. She was an OBGY and he was a heart surgeon. During a lunch with their former colleagues, a couple, I learned the harsh reality of what once being described as the sole bearer of human sentiment. (Chinese often credited themselves as have more human sentiment than the westerners.) They were colleagues in the same hospital before. The couple, she was the director of Ophthalmology department, and he was an underline of my uncle. When my uncle decided to run the hospital, he took over the vacated position, becoming the director of the heart surgery department. My uncle is still dashing and robust. The former underline was four years younger, but looked visibly weak and much older. From the conversation, I quickly learned that he had just had his $24,390 by pass three month ago. In a candid manner, the Ophthalmologist recaptured the ordeal. “I had to put up an upfront down payment to ensure the beginning of the operation.” In the past, the basics, such as housing, medical and education were cost meager and mostly taken care by the state. But then every one was also very poor. With the emergence of a middle class now, the safety net for the basics is mostly gone. “Otherwise the surgery would not commence on schedule, the following day at ten o’clock.” The remaining balance was paid out at recurring request. “If you fail to submit the required amount in the morning, the medication would stop immediately in the afternoon.” There was no anger or irritation in her voice. I thought of a joke asking why sharks do not eat lawyers. The punch line goes due to professional curtsey. Together they battled many long and treacherous by pass surgeries, yet here in his retirement, where was his professional curtsey due to him, or the ever-prized human sentiment?
If you think the medical cost is exorbitant in the United States, but for humanity or to avoid lawsuit, every one gets treated here, rich or poor. It not so in China, people literally die outside of hospital now for lacking of money. Patient lay dying untreated while family members racing to the bank to get the money.
My discomfort is being brain washed (brought up) under the notion that Chinese has more human sentiment, vs say the Western capitalist pigs. Now seeing them in the race to prosperity with half-baked flourishing capitalism, as they understand it or chose to understand, is just simply unsettling. The hospitals shunned the poors because they needed to stay afloat with the paying customers. The United States has been the biggest capitalist pig and was loathed by Beijing for all we know, but the Americans are clearly very compassionate. Does wealth breed more human sentiment? Beijing in the 70s was not yet a multifaceted city minus migrants, thus simpler and with more educated populace. Western media often focus on the economic lesion and ignore human moral after the Cultural Revolution. The later actually cost more and need more decades to restore.
The first Saturday we took in a concert by China National Symphony Orchestra, formerly known as Central Philharmonic Orchestra. It was their “Cliosing Concert of the CNSO 2002-2003 Season” as the handsome stage bill claimed, at an alternated theatre that was seat less than 2000. (Their regular base is being renovated at time.) It was not fill to capacity and I spotted very few Western faces. The program included Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Prokofiev’s Piano concerto in C major, and Xian Xinghai’s Yellow River Cantata . Xian Xinghai wrote Yellow River in just six days in the spring of 1939 in a cave in Yan’an. China was in the brink of defeat by Japanese invaders at time, full of sorrow and suppressed anger. The music theme throughout was brilliant powerful, the crescendo symbolizing the sheer strength and illustrates the very currents of the river. I fully expected to be taken to the top of the wave in the roaring ocean and led down the rapid river. But with the young and energetic conductor Li Xincao at podium, they failed to elicit my excitement.
I am not a music connoisseur; actually quiet the contrary, so it is not fair to judge them in any way. But I felt that I am qualified in giving an opinion on reaction as an audience. The concert by Seiji Ozawa in Beijing in the late 70’s had jogged my memory, proved a stark contrast. The enthusiastic and endurance of applause brought down the house. The twenty thousand plus audience went wild at Nationalities Cultural Palace on Chaqngan Jie, as if Presley was on stage. The intensity of appreciation from the local crowds could milt an iceberg. Granted, the audience in 2003 perhaps are more jaded then in the simpler time of the last 70’s.
I used to know them well during my years living with my aunt and uncle who were prominent members of the orchestra since its founding. She played flute and he clarinet. The faces on the stage I no longer recognize. The only one I faintly remember is Zhu, once my uncle’s star student now-turned the marketing director. To my relief male performers no longer wore make-ups, but little has changed since. Western classic music is a rear field and has the cachet of high culture; the musicians who made into CNSO are the cream of the elite group who hobnob with dignitaries and Alex Haley’s Roots was their book of choice at time. Herbert von Karjan, Seiji Ozawa and Isaac Stern were among earliest visitors rushed to China as the sleeping giant was waking up. I still vividly remember being taken to flight by Stern, even during the rehearsals. Perhaps Stern is a western man, thus he understood the classic music better. But Ozawa is clearly an Asian and spoke very limited English when he started out. The portly violin master with limbs that always seemed in short supply had radiant his audience with his passion for music, and perhaps little board knowledge for life. He (Stern) commented at time in 1979 on Chinese musicians that they could all play the notes with astonishing dexterity, but they didn’t understand the music. While I lived there, (people live where they work) every morning as I walked to school a short distance away, the practice sound of vocal, piano, violin, oboe, flute rising and falling continuously, was mingled with the moist of fresh air. Yet, never had I seen my aunt and uncle played a single record of music on their exotic record player, or played a piece on their black lacquer upright, or discussed some thing that intellectually stimulating. Limited resource yield narrow thinker. And they thought that technique alone would get them the best jobs. Stern’s comment still rings a truth two decades later, and applies not only to music. It was not our fault, because we were never taught to understand the music, how to appreciate the music, or to think or feel beyond the box.
Contrary to common believe or claim, my generation which born in the early 60’s had pretty decent education, or at least we neither abandoned the education nor studied just for the sake of passing the college entrance exam. We all experienced the horror of the Cultural Revolution. It was particularly personal for me: my mothers had committed suicide before I even started first grade. Mother was a scientific journal editor at Institute of Zoology located in Zhongguancun, home to the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, now dabbed as China’s Silicon Valley. Two best universities in China, Beijing and Qinghua, often mentioned as China’s answer to Harvard and MIT, are just a stone throw away. Perhaps because where we were and who we are, there was never a day in our mind that we shouldn’t study as hard as we could. Each mid term and final, our score list, total scores tally up next to each individual’s name, was posted prominently on the blackboard for every one to see, starting with the highest to the number 53, the bottom. (In high school, the classes were taught as in grade school – in the same classroom, but by different teachers.) No one less.
However, our learning was narrowly defined, and we had to do away without benefit of a library. Few French and Russia masters’ books we could get our hands on, were in the danger of being confiscated by teachers, if got caught. I often credited my low IQ and obtuse to the rote-learning years of my youth. During my first couple of years in school, even our math has to toe the party line. A steel mill had always a ten fold increased, attribute to addition; and subtraction always depicted at American factory or farm that had a strike, thus decrease of production. During a semi-final test, a careless math teacher wrote a problem that used People’s Commune: due to a nature disaster, had reduction of crops. We had always known that only the Americans are suffering huger and streets are filled with beggars. So, more than half the class did not know how to respond beyond the rhetoric to solve the simple subtraction problem. The poor creative teacher was soon condemned into the abyss of a counterrevolutionary and suffered plenty; curtsey of the Cultural Revolution. We suffered no physical damage but a life long of deficiency of knowledge.
On his first presidential visit to China in February 2002, Bush remarked plainly at Qinghua University that Chinese don’t always see a clear picture of American, and went on to elaborate that because the school textbooks, published just last year distort the truth. I was amused at his bluntness and stunned at the fact, a quarter of century had passed and little had changed.
On an outing with other children, a teenage found a worm and picked it up. Few kids descended over and tried to classify it in Chinese. A moment later, they dropped the worm as well the subject when no one seemed to know. Then my son walked over. He bent down and called out to his sister, “Sarah, look, a centipede!” They clearly relish in finding a familiar face on a foreign soil. I don’t believe any of the youngsters are less intelligent than my 10-year old. But an American education is clearly far broader, and superior. And my children never had to toil homework during the summer vacation, where the Chinese counterparts do. Math, physics and chemistry are very important, but character and value are equally important.
Compare textbook to textbook, Chinese clearly win the difficulty contest. They drove us insane into the obscurity of math, physics and chemistry, yet social sciences were barely touched. Seeing them tackling homework well into the night year round, I worried if my children would grow up to wash dishes and swipe floors. To conform myself, I argued that the five Chinese Nobel Physics laureates had all won the prestigious Prize as an American.
Right around end of my junior high, the college entrance exam restored and one of our graduating classes had 99% college admittance rate. From there on, my high school exudes excellence that fewer schools can compete in the country, and it now commands a hefty ‘contribution fee’ far larger than the private school tuition in the US in an absolute value, if a child had felt few points below its bench mark, and wanted to enroll. But in retrospect, the studying field was very narrow with too many emphases placed on math, physics and chemistry, everything else seemed less important. Lacking a library was a huge set back; moral character was never on our curriculum. Nowadays, students, especially in those elite high schools study extremely hard. They even have summer vacation home works, starting from primary school. With scarce of higher education institutions, the youngsters live and die by the college entrance exam. I often wondered if its Chinese mentality to prohibit thinking outside of the box, thus make them prone to align with old tradition without much thoughts. Fitting in is more important than standing out. Few times that I had dinners with my extended family, and fewer times I saw their college bound children. They are doing well, apparently by the high schools they are attending, one being in my former high school. But the toil had made them glossy eyed and missed much family gathering, because they have to do homework, on a hot summer Saturday night.
As expected, my class of 1980 had sent an exact 100 teenagers to Beijing and Qinghua universities, a wobbling 16%, the customary figure remind ever since. Sherry is one of my best friends since junior high. Very bright and ambitious, she did well on her college entrance exam, but not high enough to be grant her chosen field of computer science. Instead she was exiled to the major of automobile design at Qinghua University. Although she was not on an athletic scholarship but nevertheless she competed on Qinghua’s swimming and badminton team. I never had any former training, but now she could hardly keep up with me either in the lane or on the court. The life style is pretty much preserved (from before) and a few laps in the pool are considered a laborious chore, this mentality is stemming from thousand years of an agriculture society that any physical activities considered beneath them. Nothing is nobler than learning. And fair skin is still a fundamental essential in judging beauty. Regardless if I had an energizer battery insert in my spin as she claimed, the truth is most of my school friends seem much older, and they are getting tired all so often, even I’m a year older than my classmates, since I started school late due to my mother’s untimely death.
The family climate in China is still rooted in heterosexual. If over age of 30 and is still single, it considers, well sort of aberration. Divorced with a daughter, Sherry is now dating a classmate that I also know since Zhongguancun primary school. He is also a divorcee. In the late 80s to 90s, he made billions in smuggling computers, opening casinos (gambling halls) and investing in real estate in Hainan, the southernmost province of China. “At peak of the (real estate) bubble, you can’t even find a piece of property to buy. The mountains of money were piled on the banks’ floor.” When the authority began to crack down on him, plus unsophisticated money management, he is penniless now with two marriages behind. The younger wives had left him in sequence as his fortune dwindled. Sherry’s husband had fallen in love with a young girl freshly out of a vocational school. It was a mild way to put it. Quiet frankly the family value is in decline as material comfort rises. The buzz words in personals are PCH, not Professional Christian Hispanic; it stands for “private business”, “car”, “home”. Love is on the backburner. American citizenship used to be a golden parachute, now it divided into finer details, such as if the candidate is waiting in a restaurant or running a corporation. Young women are relentless in pursuing a rich husband, and the middle-aged men are not putting up fight to preserve the family he already had. The devoice rate in major metropolitans are very high. The greeting in China used to be “Have you eaten yet.” “How are you” or “how do you do” never used in reality. Now it had changed to “Have you divorced yet.” It may sounds cynical, but media focused on economic ruin of the three decades (that immediately preceded 1949), and the improvement from the last two decades; it neglects the human factor. The erosion of the basic humanity is not mere couple of decades could correct or restore.
The agriculture society has left Chinese shun the dark skin and hard labor. But that has been changing. Sherry announced one day that she had planned a weekend trip to the countryside. “It has become fashionable to eat country meals.” So a small contingent of nine families, all her college buddies set out. With the customary traffic, we approached the destination in less than an hour drive. Seeing the bustling of the road with the high rise loomed tall on both sides that could put Manhattan as a suburb, my children questioned if we were in deed in the country. “Why there are so many traffic lights?”
We stayed at a senior retreat across street from a full-fledged resort with plenty indoor amenities. After lunch, we drove up to the mountain that over looking the Shisanling Reservoir, Thirteen Tomb Reservoir. Mao had pitch in his share of sweats and the iconic picture with shovel in hand was plastered across China on 5/25/1958. Sherry and I used to swim there as daredevil. (We had no problem to dive in. But had to rely on few pass by soldiers to pull us up, because there wasn’t any way out of the water.) It was a rainy afternoon, the Reservoir was nowhere in sight. Instead the tranquil water, we were greeted by sea of clouds. The newly constructed long corridor on the steep hill was playing hide and seek with us. Without any crowds, it was extremely romantically serene, almost to a degree of ghosty. I sat in one of the pavilions that were connected by the corridors, could almost visualize Li Bai with a cup of tea in hand; sitting at the end of the corridor murmuring a classic poem he had just composed. Or could it be Mao Zedong in a boat in the lotus-infested pond?
We had planned to go strawberry picking afterward, but the intermittent rain had forced us to retreat to the indoor activities at the resort sport complex. They have from KTV to golf simulation, from massage to shooting. Bowling costs $30 per land per hour. Two fathers had decided to play tennis and asked me to join. I hesitated for a flick of moment for tennis is not yet a popular sport. But the love for the game had prevailed. The tennis hall had two courts, decorated like a gentlemen’s club with cushiony sofas, dark paneling. It was lifeless and stiff. For $36 an hour, we got two ball girls in matching tennis outfits who occasionally patrolled the courts. I had on a pair of Ked, one girl insisted that I was damaging their carpet surface; therefore, I had to rent a pair of sneakers at $.50. The management not only rent ageing rackets, they also rent tennis balls!
I had imagined that we’d be eating in an open meadow with a blind folded donkey pulling a stone grinder in the background. Mosquitoes would feast on us and flies on the dishes. A dirt road led us to the nearby restaurant with cornfield on the opposite side. It was an L shaped row house, the spacious courtyard used as parking lot. An extremely neat pig pan by the entrance seemed too clean for practical use. When we arrived to our dinning room, there isn’t a major hall, all individual rooms, I found myself facing a pretty manager. She’s in her early thirty’s, wore a black tailored jacket seemed right out of Ann Taylor. Her manner was subtle but efficient; she won’t look out of place even in the chic Manhattan eatery Tao. The hint of light lipstick only added a feminine. We had three tables. In the middle of each table was a gigantic still-cooking pot of games, their specialty (games were over cooked). Within minutes, each table was packed with food. They were delicious and we could only manage to finish half of it. When the manager came to settle the bill, I said, “It’s very delicious and fresh.” She uttered not a single word, but gave me a smile. A glimpse of stained and un-even teeth made me regretted very much that I ever volunteered my opinion.
Eating in Beijing has been a pleasure, but not bacchanalia. Knowing the way how would they entertain a far away guest, I expected drinks at every meal and getting little rousing at end. It turned out, beer had been my most convenience companion and I consumed it oftentimes alone. Restaurants didn’t sell wine by the glass, and my dear friends refused even to lip touch a drink: “If I get caught drinking and driving, they’ll take my car away.” They earnestly stated. Seeing how rough the road warriors are in Beijing, I was stunned to find Rudolph Guiliani’s influence extended across the Pacific Ocean and how diligently they heed the law. A car to them perhaps meant a lot more. One night, they decided to give me a proper bacchanalia: a dinner at a friend’s home and every one was welcome to stay the night. One toast after another, I quickly realized what my harmless little nagging at dinnertime had done: they thought I’m an able drinker. In fact, I began to drink since I was still a kid, before 7. My mother taught me to drink and cheered me on. To her, knowing how to handle a drink was chic. My godmother, a pianist, was a graduate of London’s Royal College of Music. Her expression of elegance was taking me to the International Club, sipping a beer among a group of adults and not show a signs of boredom; (American human right activists were not around at time.) and her fun would considered boating on the Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace, sardine or tuna on white bread and wash it down with beer. I enjoy drinking very much, and gotten drunk only once when I turned 40. But honesty, I have one problem: I can’t drink much. Two glasses is my maximum. That night, I became the party popper, and was lousy at Karaoke.
Passion at Great Wall Sheraton Hotel is the most famous night club since the late 90’s, and still very well known for it’s beautiful girls and princely billings. My childhood friend Li and his brother-in-law bought it from a group of Taiwanese investors whom could not make it in the capital. Li has the ultimate currency that functions best in a developing nation, the connection. His late uncle had last served as the president of the People’s Republic of China during the 80’s. Although the former head of state had passed away in 1992, but “my aunt is still receiving kudos and people are giving her face.” With solid political background and financing from his cousins, plus business acumen and few public fights that attracted heavy media coverage, their venture was a great success from day one.
As night befell in the Northern Capital, (that what Beijing means), provocatively dressed young women began descending into this five-star hotel in Diplomatic District. They lined up at nigh club’s arched door to pay $12 (per night) for the privilege to work there. “It was cooked up by the security guys.” Li casually commented. They had given the tacit permission in order to keep their musclemen happy. Half dozen smartly dressed men with headphones and sparkling women greeted us competently at the entrance. Three more received us once inside and two more led our group to the destination. As with most restaurants and such, there are always countless young Maitre D’, greeters or standbys to acknowledge your present. The décor is very upscale with imported material. Beside the tri-level dance atrium, there were numerous individual karaoke rooms where they generate their most profits. Many business deals were hammered out there, an Asian trait. I wanted a Cosmo but had to settle for a plain martini. It came in a muscular rocks glass. (Same thing happened when we went to a German bar that catered to the local crowds. After few wordy explanations and wrangling, young waiter finally brought Baileys to our table, in a Highball. “So little?” A friend of our group immediately yelled out.) A far cry from a $16 flavored martini in a swan necked cocktail glass we often had in Manhattan. “Isn’t the sweeter apple martini suit Chinese pellet better?” I wondered out loud. Li shrugged, “they are not here to taste the cocktails. They come for the girls.”
The girls at Passion are indeed prettier and carry a hefty $250 negotiable sticker price for real action away from the club. One of the spacious karaoke rooms had a baby grand piano with simple yet elegant decoration. Li held his court there. A stream of associates dropped by, some happened to be in the club, came to say hallo, and others came to seek his favors. A sprinkler contractor was introduced to Li by his associate. The contractor presented her case and Li had subsequently left Beijing for Hangzhou, one of his power bases the following Tuesday to lobby the municipal officials on her behaves to get the pending sprinkler contract. Li would pocket percentage of the contractual among if successful. Girls had been constantly brought in by the managers, equally pretty and young, but lot more savvy. A friend of Li sat next to me liked what he saw in his arm and asked the girl to leave with him. The young woman replied with a pretend shyness, “it’s my first night working here, I’ll have to ask …” The guy let out a mild curse with laugh, “if you can’t claim you are a virgin, at least you can pretend that you are fresh.” Virginity is prized since the first emperor of China, and still coveted. Hospitals offers a simply procedure to stitch up the hymens.
Throughout the night, red wine had been in a constant flow. They were imported, a.k.a. without added sugar; and consumed, to my relief, without delusion of spirit. After comparing the advantage of having sauna maids to prostitutes, (they all consented that sauna maids have more work ethic, while the prostitutes are lazy that on top of paying them, men have to do the work.) they moved on to discuss which women’s body part should be looked at, at what age. Beginning from age of twenty at face, thirty at her bosoms, moving all the way down to seventy, at feet. “What do you think Zhou Enlai was looking at all those time?” China’s first premier was considered a handsome saint that never strayed from his unattractive wife. “He had to be looking at Deng Yingchao’s feet.” The roomful men, about 8 broke into knowing laugh. Within hour, more than two dozens of emptied wine bottles were resided under the glass table. I realized that no one in particular had ordered the wines, and the waitresses gulped down the lion share. Face is the uttermost factor in their lives and frugal had no place, especially in business entertainment. The waitresses all worn identical uniforms that they had to buy, and their tasks often blurred with the call girls in the dim lighted room. The company issued uniform was simply cut and well fitted, showed proper curves; with a small pocket under the arm, for the cell phone. One night we went to Li’s newly acquired club early and I caught a glimpse of opening preparation. The girls were lined up in a hallway to be inspected. For a brief moment, I thought I was encountering beauty pageants that were readying themselves back stage. They stood on their heels and paid attention to Li’s lieutenant liked soldiers in boot camps. He yield out few simple remainders, includes the one posted in the lady’s room: put on a smiling face, swallow your tears and take his money and laugh all the way to the bank.
At second tier nightclubs, with staler décor, the girls were less inviting, but they were far more explicit in showing their wares. Prostitutes and sauna maids are still rated at top of business entertainment. Like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, sex in China was always an incongruous affair, rife with baffling contradictions. Clinging to a prudence that bordered on the neurotic, the country’s sexual repressions fed extreme practices such foot binding and castration. Since Mao proclaimed on Tiananmen in 1949 that new era had began, indeed prostitution had disappeared alone with the leftovers from the capitalism past. Now with Mao looked from above and a buoyant economic, prostitution is making a full throttle comeback. As if they are trying to recuperate the three lost decades with furor that often seemed overbearing.
Parking in Beijing is very difficult; it simply not equipped to handle the mushrooming cars. Especially after the SARS breakout, people were very keen on getting their own transporters; of course vanity is playing a major roll on the decision. Cars rested on the sidewalk are panorama. The last crisis Li had on hand while I was there had started by a chauffeur for a daughter of one of ten Marshals from Long March era. The staff of the top echelon is usually acted as if they are above the law. The driver got beaten up pretty bad when he insisted to park where he’s not allowed at club. Li’s lieutenant paid hospital visit and medical bills. But when the daughter’s camp realize that Li is mere a nephew of the former president, and they, the direct descendant of a former marshal, they questioned his legitimacy, thus the fuel began. Li admitted that his connection (has far more influence away) works better away from Beijing where who-is-who is too saturated.
Zang is also one of my childhood friends whom we often nicknamed Leather Shoes. As with Li’s father, his parents were colleagues of my mother. When I caught up with him in Shanghai in 1985, he was attending his fifth, the last year college there and contemplating if it’s a girl or boy that he desired. He had dated both and had a memorable relationship with a girl since high school. This time in Beijing, he declared that he’s a complete gay.
Homosexual is not a newfound foreign import; it has deep roots in China since Han dynasty at around beginning of the century. They were called xiang gong pi, slang for catamite. But like in many Asian countries, it is treated as a shameful disease, general consent it’s disgusting. (It seems many of Asian gay found their true identity through a westerner.) Many of them had to be led out of the closet by a foreigner. Leather Shoes’ transformation came after he met his first serious boy friend Richard; an American executive worked in Beijing. They met on a train and Richard courted him long and hard. The paradox of different cultural had Richard who though himself as a China hand, so confused and frustrated that he had gone as far as to present Leather Shoes a clean bill of health. The relationship lasted 10 years. Richard was being fired twice from two American food conglomerates, largely due to his inability to give face to the Chinese partners when it was due and to tolerate their appetite on taking benefit of the company. It was called “squeeze” by Westerners a century ago.
Leather Shoes had introduced few of his significant others, which included his former girl friend and Richard to his parents, and they had known his sexual early on. Until this day, the girl who had since married keeps a warm relationship with them. When I had dinner with Leather Shoes’ parent, after inquire about my life in the intervening years, they gently kidded him for not having a family and a child.
“Who’s going to visit you when you are old?” His mother stated plainly. My heart jumped out for him. Like me, he’s the only child. He and Richard had ended their relationship few years ago. Richard had since left China, now manages a small cheese company in Prague. Executives changed very frequently in China. Right now, he is in a state that finding young boys in the park to solve his physical need and on the look out for a long-term relationship, which is not easy. In his tastefully decorated apartment, his own paintings and photographs with mostly about naked men were drowned in a state of emptiness.
“Why did you break up with Richard?” I asked him. Underneath the rhetoric, was his desire to object Richard, the American, at every turn he possible could, perhaps just to show that Chinese can say no. “When he pointed to south, I would defiantly say north, even in my heart I knew the south is the right direction.” I was bewildered. Love is to accept who the person is, and at time, comprises. He ignored me and went on to lecture on the state of Chinese employees who work at foreign firms. “It’s great to land a job at foreign firms or joint venture. The pay is better. But at the same time, many Chinese felt repressive by their bosses, usually white. Those white people felt they are above the rest.”
Is the pleasure in saying no worth of break up of the relationship, or Leather Shoes is not a born-again gay man he claimed to be. There are few gay bars in Beijing operate openly. One was near Passion, an airy popular bar with modern design. I spotted few girls. The real action was carried out at Queer Fish Bar in Xichang District, in a residential area. The entrance is subtle, few flats down into the bar, I encountered the drag queens and a stream that separate two rooms, fish tanks and dampened air. The bar is mixed with Safari and western décor and the audience is purely male. When we arrived, the homemade fashion show starring thin young boys or MBs for money boys was in session. Each MB carried a number and striped gradually down to the translucent G-string. Most of them looked coarse and swung their upper body like Joshua Bell, the violinist. “You can ask them by number. He’ll come and chat with you.” Liu whispered to me. He is a friend of Leather Shoes, a CPA works for Deloitte & Touche. He bolted from his last girlfriend when she demanded an oral job: “all my girlfriends’ boyfriends are doing it for them.” He is currently with a handsome college boy. We chose an inconspicuous table at end. It may have been that I was a female, or my detachment, I was quiet popular and those gays opened up to me. A brushy man sat at next table could not keep his hand off the MBs and at same time bragging about his two wives that he kept at two different cities.
A 40 something businessman wore a thin gold rim glasses sporting a poker face told me eagerly that he divorced his wife nearly four years ago peacefully in what commonly known as no-fault divorce, just tired of each other. “I used my computer to find this community.“ He avoided the word gay. Tongzhi, comrade is the word they use to refer to themselves. “At first, I did not want to involved too deeply, I wanted my own space.” With an affectionate glace toward his younger partner, he confessed “he got me deep into this.” Would you consider dating a woman again, I asked when his partner was away from the table. He seriously thought about it for a second, and then said, “Maybe.” A pause, “we have been together for 3 years, it considers an eternity, because partners change very frequently in this community.” Again, he avoided the word ‘gay’.
McDonald and KFC are very much a preferred diet for the younger crowds as in the US. Trend triumph the taste, they are doing a brisk business on a land that favors rice for thousands of years. To lessen my children’s homesickness, I had taken them there far more often than I would back home.
Compare to the local kids, my children looked naïve and slow, because we all gave way to others as courtesy and waited for our turn as right. One child policy has been in place for about 20 years, and I had often heard stories about little emperors or empresses came from excessive spoiling. Once I waited at a slight distance for my daughter to wash her hand at a McD. (Many restaurants share the sinks in the open between the bathrooms, which is not a bad idea.) A teenage girl shiftily emerged into my view. She marched to the sink in a straight line; wasted no time, crisply pushed my little girl away and began to wash her own hands. My daughter was shocked. It had to be seen to believe. I felt my blood was rushing into my head. The rudeness or the ineptitude of dealing with others had turned my children off more than anything else in Beijing.
Earlier that day, we went to the Aquarium at the Worker’s Stadium. In one of the dark rooms where showcases salt water tanks, I heard my son came over and muttered,
“that’s nasty. The kid just peed on the floor.”
I turned to look, just caught the sight of a fashionably dressed mother pulling up her precious princess’ undies. She let her urinated right on the carpet under the watchful eyes from tankful fish with crowds all around. No one uttered a word of objection, even the aquarium staff when I alerted them. They seemed couldn’t be bothered.
“Isn’t that too horrible?” I questioned the mother a few moments later as she and daughter stood behind us on the moving walkway out of the tunnel. I couldn’t help but whip out my new toy, Casio’s Exilim and began to record her response, over the objections of my children. She looked at me then away, keeping her composure. Judging their out fits, very sophisticated, I had to guess that she isn’t from the country side and her accent confirmed that. This fact bothered me a great deal because I always thought the people from the rural brought with them the bad habits.
“Oh that.” Casually she added, “I can’t find bathroom” was her answer, with a perfect composure.
Another parent guiltlessly life up her son and sunk him into the crow by the rail. It happened to be in between my children. Since there was not any room, so the little emperor ended up sitting on my children’s shoulders. My children retreated. Without any slight acknowledgment, she now had the front row. I taped on her shoulder and asked, “would you like me to do the same to your child?” She looked at me from head to toe, and smeared, “what’s big deal, aren’t we all doing this for our child?”
A telling moment came when a child felt right in front of me on a street. Naturally, I step up and pull her up. Since I did not expect a thank you, so I did not get one. A friend who was with me said with a visible apprehension that the moral is so in decline, “sometime we are afraid to pull a child up (help), I might be accursed of sacking the child in the first place.” I was quiet for few moments, and replied, “it’s not new. I’ve heard the identical phrases in Hong Kong, well in the late 70s.” When there was no law, people seemed simpler and sincerer. It was human nature to know what’s right and what’s wrong. You saw a child or elder felt; of course you pull them up. Now totalitarian is evaporating as rule of law began affecting people’s life. It’s quiet amusing to see how they apply the law. Couple of car accidents I witnessed, when it happened, no one called police. Instead, a circle of standbys immediately formed and a mediator emerged voluntarily from them. He consulted with both side, “he was jerking at last minute,” “he’s going too fast,” aim plenty unsolicited opinions shut out from the crowd. When a settlement could not be reached “according to law”, then did they call the police.
One day after boating, I accidentally dropped my little credit card sized camera into the water. It was one of gizmo I could not possible live without. Not willing to part with the favor toy without a try, and just maybe by luck I could save the memory chip. So I took a net began to fish in the waist high pond. A guard with walkie talkie came to our aid. Though my children rapid English conversation, it didn’t take him long to realize that we weren’t local. So he paged his manager to send some help. “Manger Wang, we have foreigners here who lost their camera.” There was a brief moment that I felt the air was frozen under the sun. I wanted to go about as a local, because I did not want to be treated either as a cash cow or clueless migrants. If he could help me to retrieve my trophy toy, so be it. Soon the manager came. A portly man in his fifties, resembled every inch a bureaucrat, when he did not spot any Caucasians, he stopped abrupt at distance and yelled out to the guard, “don’t bother. Even if you find it, the camera would be to no good anymore.” What he said was true and I knew it too. “But we got to help them. They are for-eign-ers.” The guard pleaded. The manager surveyed a little longer, then without a word, he turned and left. Obviously we were not exotic enough to warrant his help. Needless to say, I left without finding the camera but bruised feelings. I felt betrayed and short changed. I wondered when Chinese can be treated equally as well as Caucasians in China. On the same token, the reports on China in major media outlets are generally written by Caucasians, and they obviously portrayed a different China, because they were treated differently. I don’t know the validity of Leather Shoes’ claim that some the Caucasians act as if they are above the rest. But if were true, whose fault? Dare the teenager brush my girl away, dare the parent sit her prince on my children’s shoulders and dare the manager walked away from rescuing my toy?
Qiaolian, Oversea Chinese Association is a grass root organization that helps oversea Chinese to navigate, especially the muddy financial water in China. Uncle Chou is the chair of the finance committees. He is Jiujiu’s life long friend. “Meatball” was his description of me when he recounted our first meeting, few days out of hospital. We went to a seafood restaurant. Opposite from the reception area stood several tanks of their live-stocks. Those exotic water creatures are such far cry from old days when we only had pork lards with soy sauce to munch on. The restaurant was upscale and adequately decorated. But the fancy fare served on the dishes as well as our serving dish seemed just dug out of a cave from Mao’s era. Over lunch, he stressed the importance dealing direct with the right authority. “Once, there was a Taiwan businessman who wanted to invest in China. He went to his ancestor’s little village down in the south and purchased a piece of land for an incredible low price.” Uncle Chou took a sip of his beer, and continued, “but soon he realized that the piece of land he bought from the local party boss was useless. The party boss had no right to sell in the first place. So when he wanted his money back, he ran into a stonewall. The party boss was demoted due to corruption and the local authority won’t honor the deal. Angrily he came to Beijing to file a complaint.” The central government has few grades for investors. Sitting on top of the list with the most generous policy are for Taiwanese, because taking back Taiwan is their uttermost agenda. Second on the list are the overseas Chinese. We’ll get handsome breaks. The third on the list are the foreign investors. The last on the list are local Chinese with yuan. They get no breaks at all, because recycled money worth much less than hard currencies. “So, we asked him how much money has he left with.” “US$50,000 only.” “That’s a sesame. So, we allocate him a small noodle shop right off the Changan Blvd. in Xidan. He got very good business and made several millions within few years.” Xidan is one of the three oldest commercial areas in Beijing. I grew up there and Jiujiu still lives there. “When the government began to pulling down the old shakes to modernize Xidan, he refused to move. Citing the relocation package was unacceptable. He wanted a lion share of money.” Another sip of beer, “he filed complain again. And he even made runs in Taiwan to condemn the forced move.” Last dish had been served. Uncle Chou lighted up a cigarette and let out a perfect ring. “The headlines had irate the government to no end. To retaliate, they levied several millions fine, claiming that he had illegally over priced his noodles.” The Lunch was delicious. Before we parted way, he handed me few exceedingly high quality guides for investments in Xicheng District. A 5,500 square meter parking garage in the Shishahai Lakes area, asking $6 millions; and a 10,000 square meters hotel is asking $116 million of investment. “Those projects are gone generally within three to six month as they become available. The last bidding before the Olympic would be October 2004.” As we bit good-bye, he assured me that I would be more than welcome to bring any interested investors. I knew he’s the right man to go to, but regrettably, I don’t really possess Kinney, Hilton or Soros’ phone numbers.
My great grandfather had purchased large parcel at Wanan Public Cemetery at the foot of Fragrant Hills in the early 1940s. When he passed away in 1942, 8 of the 16 slots had used to construct his ornamental gravesite with marbles and surrounded by granite walls. The granite stones are gone, taken by a near by village’s party boss to repair the riverbanks during the Cultural Revolution. Three slots were used for my grandmother, grandfather and his beloved concubine. One slot had been sold by the cemetery, of course it was illegal and they pocketed proceed. The remaining 4 slots are requiring payment of $4,878, the “usage fee” since 1994, if more bodies are intended to bury there. Other municipal governments in the south had dug up orphaned gravesites and sold to public again. Referring to the National Congress, Jiujiu bitterly commented, “with the voting hands in the air, we no long own the land” where the houses and burial sites were on.
As China is struggling to find right path to prosperity, with their brand of capitalism, it is the small price or casualties that every one has to pay for a bigger and hopeful better future. Look around the globe, for the past two decades, China has done far better than its peers near and afar, without clasped of economic and civil unrest. Even Russia, who gets invited to the G-7 Summit, has lagged behind.
My parents had their wedding banquet held at the swanky Moscow Restaurant on a crispy November Sunday in 1959. The entire complex, includes Beijing Exhibition Hall was erected in 1954 with the help of the Soviets during happier times. The multicolored neon architect opposite from Beijing Zoo is very imposing. Xiaoyi, then a medical student was so intimidated by the archway and broad marble staircase where grandiose pillars were lined; she missed her sister’s banquet. The atmosphere was very stiff, and I remembered being dwarfed by high ceiling, the big nosed diplomats and elderly high ranking officials. Both governments had changed guards several times and are racing to embrace the capitalism. But the Moscow Restaurant has retained its venerable status and remained the ultimate western cuisine, till the 80s, even the food was not exactly mouth-watering; the rich cream is not a fit to Chinese pallets. We nicknamed it Lao Mo, Old Mo.
Lao Mo is still surviving despite few high brand named eateries had spurred up since the 80s that could quash western food yarn. At entrance, three young girls in long black skirts and matching jackets with red bowtie formed a line, alone with two guards. They stood on the polished marble in the airy atrium (reception hall) welcomed us on a red carpet. The Maitre D’ led us up the massive staircases into the dining hall. It was scarcely filled; the numbers of dinners, all locals casually dressed, almost matched the waiting staff. The interior design was quiet and comfortable with cushy booths and chairs, chandeliers, murals, drapery and a piano. The young serving staff wore black outfits, boys in pants and girls in knee high skirts. The waitress decorated like English chambermaid, white apron, white collar and completed with white binate. Even the bathroom was spotless. The ceiling is still very high, as is the price, and they close between lunch and dinner. Those perhaps are the only remnants of the old time. The menu featured Chinese and English, I had “Fish Filet” and my children choose “Haburg Steak with Mushroom Sause”. In the tourist traps like Summer Palace and Beijing Zoo, misspellings are rampant. The assortment of ice creams all had very big names. When Snowman and Christmas made their grand entrance onto our table, we thought by mistake, they had brought out the free desert you would be severed in a Japanese restaurant, half scope in small glassware.
Many businesses do not seem to care how their customers feel. An exhibit about Yang Guifei, the most famous concubine of Tang dynasty was mounted in one of the rooms between Tiananmen and Forbidden City. I had done a little research on her and felt very lucky to found an exhibit devote to her. The admission was relatively cheap. But having had bad experience elsewhere before, I asked the ticket man how big is the exhibition. There were numerous rooms, as row house, so it’s hard to tell. He turned around and used his right arm to circle from left to right, “this big.” “Is it a single room?” I questioned. “Go in and see for yourself.” He impatiently answered and turned to sell more tickets. Once I flip open the heavy curtain to enter the room, I wanted to vomit. The exhibit hall was in a narrow room, no larger than 5 by 20, and visitors packed like can of sardine. The air was suffocating with sweats. There were only few worn pictures hung on the wall and a dress in the glass case that reminiscent of a cheap costume from a dancing assembles. I had seen far more substantial pictures from my local library. As I escaped to the burning sun shine, more suckers rushed in. They have more than one billion of them. Obviously repeat business is not necessary.
Tianjin is one of four municipalities directly under the Central Government, and one of the biggest industrial and port cities in China. It is the cradle for both my parents’ families, the Zhang and the Zhou. My paternal great grandfather was a celebrated warlord with a First Baron titled by Yuan Shikai. He served as Chief of Staff and the Viceroy of Shandong Province. My maternal great great grandfather was Viceroy of four provinces, and the founding father of the northern industry. Especially my great grand uncle, his unprecedented business acumen and tangled dealing with Herbert C. Hoover, the future 31st President of The United States, had made him the foremost industrial legend of the north. The crow jewel of their diversified empire is Qixin Cement Co. which controlled entire cement market in China.
Doing research in National Library of China was not easy. The staff bear the trademark of iron bowl, was unhelpful. Many string-bound books that were written by my ancestors, I could get them in New York, but was almost impossible in Beijing. Because most of those books were declared rear or the only copy, thus were untouchables. I had somewhat anticipated and set my goal more on oral than prints. Located just 80 miles southeast of Beijing, Tianjin is a sleepy town, unhurried and uncrowned with very few migrants. As our taxi sped by the Astor House, I tried to imagine what Uncle Zhou Weizeng would look like; once the prince of the city, smart and very wealthy.
Uncle Weizeng has been living at his red brick mansion for more than half a century, a modern German style architect in the former German concession. The exterior was taken care by the city government, for beautification propose in the prominent corner in a prime location. But the interior was dilapidated and occupants were no longer family members. They were strangers or tormentors during the Cultural Revolution. The grand entrance hall once graced by the captains of the industry is filled with various tenants’ junks, and an illegal room was carved out underneath of the magnificent dark wood staircases. The shared bathroom and kitchen were just simply too rotten to describe in words. He is still handsome and although carries his bulky frame well, but bit of frail due to his old age. He is allotted a single room since the Cultural Revolution. As he was vividly recounting the history, I couldn’t help but taking an inventory of his home. The room is (20 sq m) about 400 square feet, with window on two sides. A twin bed, a pile of suitcases stacked up high, a sofa, a refrigerator (he actually chilly some cold water for me, because Chinese still don’t like to drink or eat cold, even in a 90 degree sweltering summer.), an enamel basin, two thermoses, a folding table, few chairs, a block thing against the wall that was covered by a sheet. For a former successful industrial magnet, his living situation is a pit. But from the reality, his home is considered rather roomy.
Factor in the wealth re-distribution incident that bound to happen in history, he lives graciously in peace. Come to think about it, Mao’s government had done far better than Lenin’s, they didn’t confiscate the private business out right. Amid at return the capitals, they paid handsome 25% small dividends for 10 years. It had stopped in 1966 and resumed after the Culture Revolution ended in the 70’s.
A giant wooden desk is the only adequate furniture in the room. A rosewood beauty with mother of pearl inlaid, perhaps? But when I looked closer, it was not. Apparently there were not any artifacts left from his former privileged life. It pilled high with books and papers. He is writing memoirs and correcting mistakes that other careless writers wrote about the Zhous. China is known for its massive cheap products. Frankly its literary shares the same fate. A son at the beginning of the book, would wound up as a nephew at the end. The imprudence to the fact or incompetence in classic Chinese had irate some family members that they took to publish the amendments to its inaccuracy in magazines and books. He is currently finishing up a biography on his aunt, the rebellious daughter to the Zhou, as my mother to the Lyus.
I briefly stopped by Changde Dao, Long Virtue Road. It was in British concession. I spent few Oliver Twist years with one branch of close relatives right after mother’s suicide. The mean and cruel treatment had left me no desire to ever see them again. But curiosity had brought me back there. My cherry childhood was butchered, on the surface, very obviously by the Cultural Revolution. But I often felt it was more by the malicious relatives. Of course mother’s suicide had jump-started it all.
16 exquisite high ceiling villas formed the compound. It looks a lot smaller than I remembered. To my relief, the last villa where I lived is empty and on the market for sale. It is the center of the city, but the street is tranquil, once in a little while a car unhurriedly passes by. I witnessed the furious Cultural Revolution from the window. The massive parades jammed the street, not a drop of water could pass by. I read from my ancestors’ books that candidly recorded the first wave of western industrial invasion in the nineteenth century; the Tianjin Treaty (of 1858); Tianjin Massacre (1870) and Boxer Rebellion (1900). It was almost incomprehensible to image the blood shedding up roaring events that had happened here near and afar. Some took place on the very spot where I stood.
A stone throw away in the former French concession lives Uncle Liu Zanzeng. The once delicate villa, after years of patience and struggle has been gradually vacated and reverted back to him, now where he lives with his wife quietly (peacefully) and spaciously. He has just turned 80 and is extremely healthy with a booming voice. The chest long snow-white beard gives him an elegant aura. Upon my first visit, after a long chat, he dashed over to his upright and played Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata. Few minutes into playing, he stopped abruptly on an off key, jerked around and asked, “do you know zengzu’s museum in Zhenhai?” His zengzu, great grandfather was my great great grandfather.
Further down, a mere 150 km south of Shanghai is Zhenhai, a costal city in Zhejiang Province on the Donghai, East Sea that had been the battle grounds for foreign invasions for centuries. To commemorate the history, a seaside museum was built in 1997. One of the four battles presented there is the Sino-Franco War of Zhenhai Defense in 1885, which was led and succeeded by the Governor of Zhejiang Province, Liu Bingzhang (Liu Ping Chang), my great great grandfather. He obtained a jinshi degree in 1860, and retired as Viceroy of Sichuan Province in 1895, amid controversial, as New York Times labeled him ‘a Westerner hater’.
As one of the eminent elder from the past, city officials had been treading his doorstep seeking information that could be used to promote the city’s 600th anniversary next year.
13 Zai Jian (Good Bye)
The last night in Beijing, we went to a muslin restaurant near by with my nearest family members, jiujiu and jiumu, and xiaoyi and yifu. Over hot pot dinner, in a tone very much like a closing statement, Jiujiu asked me rhetorically, “Beijing is pretty good, right?” and went on to ask if I was satisfied by the courtesy that all my relatives showered on me, and would I be returning and perhaps with my husband, who had choose golf over the Middle Kingdom for the summer. I earnestly replied that Beijing is just as I have imagined, and indeed every one has treated me very warmly. Suddenly I was choking back tears. Most overseas Chinese visit China is due to having a family there, parents or siblings. I had neither, so the motivation of returning had reduced drastically. I don’t have an identity problem, having lived in many different countries had prepared me see thing very objectively. But some times, I do feel like a kite with a broken string stemming from my relationship with my father and close relatives. Perhaps my aunt concluded it better by asking “do you have a sense of returning home?” Have I denied myself the opportunity to reacquaint with Beijing for too long? Should I let go of the frosting years when Beijing was very antiquated and the same group of relatives, very few of them had extended a helping hand toward a needy child? I am probably guilt of both. New York has been my home, not because I lived here for the longest stretch, because it provides every thing I needed, and make me fell wholesome. But the trip to Beijing has stirred up memories that I hesitated to visit, ultimately needed to confront to be at peace with myself.
Half way through the dinner, Jiujiu questioned about my research, “did you get any answer from Zhongguancun?” Regretfully, I did not. It came as a bit of surprise to me that all of my mother’s former acquaintances and friends more or less maintain silence on the subject. Old and young, they had all told me to drop the subject and abort the mission. Perhaps they have their reasons, because no one wanted to look backward. They are all trying to forget about the painful past, especially the horrifying Culture Revolution. Why shouldn’t they? Even as patience as Chinese could be, they deserve to savor their newfound freedom and wealth in peace, without stirring up the old mud. People are generally very content. They all confidently asked for my opinion as how Beijing had improved and waited for no reply. According to International Monetary Fund, American’s share of world output of products and services has remain the dominate of 21 percent since 1980, while China is doubling since 1991 to current 12.7 percent. The living standard has risen tremendously in the metropolis, as the catch up game is being played out. Human right and dissendants? They all laughed, it’s so American. How could those activists advocate human right when they never had to suffer the sub-standard? When the belly is empty, they would rather bolt to the nearest wire-gated factory toiling double digit hours. And frankly they don’t care who’s in and out of jail. Why bother to air family dirt when every nation has a bag of laundry?
After dinner, we walked home. As we were waiting at white-strip trying to catch a chance to cross the road, my 10-year old son told his kid sister in a matter of fact manner, “if we can safely cross one last time, we’ll make it home alive.” I was saddened by his observation. It’s my hometown, not a battleground. But then, crossing road was like fighting for your life in a jungle. It was a scene in Beijing (and I was told repeatedly that Beijing is the most polite city in China) that cars, buses, trucks and bicycles they fight each other to death and yield not an inch to pedestrians even on the white stripes. One has to hold his own dear life and prey that it won’t be his last supper when he crosses a street. I was tough and could take it with a stride. But every time when I saw the sheer horror on my children’s face, it angered me to no end. Their rudeness and selfishness showed in other aspect of life as well. The feeling I got was that they are trying to recuperate the lost last three decades and racing for prosperity (doing every thing) with an urgent furor and excessiveness.
Compare Beijing, which is still under going tremendous development, with other well established cities might seem utterly unfair. But in my mind, it deserves a spot on the list of great capitals and cities, aristocratic or parvenus. True they don’t have free election yet and human right is in question. But the American democracy may not be the best way at current time, unless the education has improved. After all, their most covet thinker Confucian had deemed that men, not law made society. People seem content and they couldn’t care less about the few dissidents that grabbed headlines in the West. Look around the third world, which country has passable human right records?
Needless to say, we all safely crossed one last time in Beijing. As I basked in a hot summer night, I regretfully thought of my children failing to master not even few more Chinese characters, which was one of my two goals for going there. But then I chew on my son’s observation and knew they left China with widen horizon. Unflattering as it is, it’s a moment in history and their experience could not be measured in words.
A shorter version is at WorkP under the same title