THE DRAGON IN THE WELL
A Year of Teaching ESL in China
There is an albino busking on the sidewalk in downtown China.
He is sitting on the stairs of an overpass, blowing softly into a blues harp, one upper
Legend has it that the celestial music of the spheres rings in the key of D - if the
majority of musical instruments played throughout China are in tune, the middle
kingdom is in harmony and prosperity is waiting just around the corner of the lunar
deities and the Radiant Convenience of Capital.
Welcome to Haikou, known to some as Southern China‟s dead end.
Next to the albino, a professional wall-eyed Han mendicant (he belongs to an
exclusive guild) is doing a roaring business. In abject gratitude, he pounds his head
on a pillow laid on the cement steps as the alms pour in.
But the albino‟s cup stays empty. He is off-key. He is a ghost. He is the white hole
that disturbs the dark design of Eastern Pacific Standard time.
Human traffic parts around him like water and rock.
I am standing beside him.
How did I get here?
There are many armchair, magazine, and television journeys.
“All paths lead to each and everywhere, twice removed.”
So says Fo, also known as the Buddha.
“Whether, why, when, where, and how the grass grows greener is to be determined.”
So says Confucius.
It all started with a book, entirely by accident, about an 18 th Century Portuguese
He said, “When the Sultan of Malacca squeezes his fist, all of Europe trembles.”
The sultan controlled the ocean movement of the spice trade from the faraway East to
The sultan, in turn, paid tribute to the emperor of China.
So who cares?
I wanted to see for myself.
“Hey buddy, can you spare me a dime? All I need is a sack full of money and a
Well, next thing you know I am in the library, ready to roll. I read the story of Tuan
and the Almond Blossom. I sail in the wake of the typhoon pirates of the South
Pacific. Joseph Conrad, Jack London, and Karl May walk through my youth,
swinging Mallaca cane tough as a whip.
Ginger, liquorice, tangerine, and spice!
Sandalwood and mahogany where the ants dream and say, “Yes, we speak English
One day I saw a picture in Vancouver Chinatown window - a tiger and a dragon,
made from the wings of butterflies.
“It‟s like using a feather to sling stones,” I thought inadvertently.
Next thing you know, I‟m in the library again:
The White King of Rhododendrons.
Tigers and pandas.
Rice terraces and osteoporosis.
The divine right of kings.
A mandate from heaven.
Emperor and Assassin.
Nine levels of hell!
Peking ducks that mate for life…
One thing led to another. Kathleen and I booked a tour to China.
Toting flags and anthems, we wandered with strangers among the alien corn, in
another time and another place beneath a humid sky.
On the outside looking in, we saw the three Gorges. Rise and shine. Breakfast for
forty-two Westerners. The Battle of Western Toast and Jam versus Eastern Rice
Gruel and salted fish.
The river is an ancient journey:
“A monk hung upside down a red cliff.
At the rim, bamboo blades etch poems in stone.
Iron resolve and defence bred in the bone, scorched by ferry hawsers.
Green-eyed hope sweeps down the old river.
Around the corner, autumn moon hones the white slabs of White King temple.
Silver shadows of loquat thrum the breeze.
Eight elements of warfare echo down the river deep and wide.
Sails pass, bright pearl beacons of roads harder to climb than the sky.
Peaks fly by like regrets.
Fate churns the waves and a phoenix rises on the wing of pines.
Cloud hides the sun.
The wind is rain.
Empires black as coal float past sturgeons old as concubines.
With the hue and cry of nations the torrent of man runs to the sea.
May a thousand snowdrifts fall down upon the poet of tangerines.”
Cruising down the river that Sunday afternoon, we looked to the left and saw a city
of empty windows. Not a face in sight. Eight maybe ten stories side by side.
“They are flooding the Gorges for the good of us all,” said a local passenger,
“Thirty million people cannot live in drowned cities.”
Forever silenced, graves, gods, and scholars line the bottom of the river.
There is a super highway above Shanghai. Below us, the narrow streets are red with
lanterns. They reflect in the highway‟s arch of concrete wet and white with a
thousand gallons of cream paint. Rows of plastic flowers in pots recede for miles
into the turnstile distance.
In Beijing, the empress' summer garden is lined with trees that look like gnarled
prayers. Booths and hawkers live at one end; old men sing and play flutes at the
The lake in the heart of the garden is copy of West Lake in Hangzhou, the city of
silks, poets, and tea.
In the beginning, there was the royal decree. They came and they built. In seven
months the lake was done, fingers worn to the bone.
Beside this lake, a man with a spindly goatee and a clubfoot limps across the
polished tiles of a tai-chi court. With a bucket and a mop he draws swift, precise, and
perfect water calligraphy on the ground. Perhaps it is a laundry list, or a poem:
“In measured steps show your devotion.
Dance gently forward to part the wild horse‟s mane.
Explore a needle at the bottom of the sea.
Stand still, a fly in amber.
Save your breath to cool your feet
If you twist and turn you can see the dragons of your red-eyed soul.
Throw your body on the tiger in ambush
And fly aslant like a crane over the sea.
Between pillar and post, slide across gravity‟s rainbow.
Cast your fate to the wind that blows against both ears.
Cross hands to carry the ultimate void.
The words disappear into a vaporous sun laced with diesel.
A lone figure sits cross-legged in Heavenly Peace Square, staring at a raised Chinese
flag on a pole flanked by teenage soldiers, the Gate of Heavenly Harmony, and the
Forbidden City. The tanks, the blood, and the tears of student protests have been
scrubbed and washed away into political oblivion.
The three arches of the Gate are swathed in red polyester. A parade of generals,
Party officials, and black suits marches on the harmonious ramparts above Mao's
It is a rehearsal for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Revolution. The figures bow from
the waist like question marks.
Around the square and down the streets, the manhole covers are all padlocked.
Xian, the capital of the West, sits among pomegranate orchards. Among the roots
below, a terra-cotta army waits in planked ditches, guarding the tomb of the Qin
emperor and a government-approved "Friendship" store that sells imperial replicas.
You can buy an emperor, take him home, and put him out with the spinach, the night
soil, and the flowers. He is half-baked from mud with his hands rolled up inside his
Near Qonqing, a temple complex winds up a mountain. At dusk in the parking lot,
men and woman practice Western ballroom dancing to a tinny blue waltz.
One, two, three. Steep stairs point up toward a temple in the sky.
Demons with blue skulls and yellow eyes line the pathway.
Red calligraphy leaps from a clay bank, an elegant: "Magnificent View".
White characters are etched into oily black slate: "only Kindness brings Peace".
On the way up, there are rituals and games to play. Run up fifty stairs without pause
in one breath - you will live a long life. Walk a thin line between two fountains and
you will marry well.
At the top of the mountain, the prince of Hell waits for you, squatting on a throne.
You must stand at the entrance for one minute with one foot balanced perfectly on a
small round stone.
If you slip, you cannot enter. If you pass, you can walk inside. Bring your own
I fail the test. Kathleen is more balanced. She succeeds and gets to go inside.
Once upon a time, a group of maidens towed a young emperor down the Grand
Canal. As he watched them pulling gracefully on the ropes, he was reminded of
He ordered that sapling be planted all along the waterway.
Now, the willows brush the placid water and watch the centuries flow by.
Thanks for the memories.
But one thing led to another.
As it were, Kathleen and I are standing beside the albino and his harp, on an island
between the mainland and the deep blue sea.
Below us, the square is strung with a sky full of red paper lanterns. Tables loaded
with moon cakes filled with boiled egg, lotus paste, and chestnuts are lined up all
along the pavement in anticipation of the coming October autumn festival. We are
on a boulevard of shopping malls loaded with designer clothes, high-end computer
lap tops, and pianos while the side streets are crowded with stalls in dim corners of
flotsam amidst the fetid detritus of lowly commerce: sewing machines, papayas,
centipede ointments, coffins, gutted cycle engines, shoe polish, and plastic family
In narrow aisles between the crumbling houses, air conditioners drip steadily on tin
flashing and rusty cast iron, a discordant back beat to the music of the spheres.
The air is warm chicken soup. Not a single Buddhist temple. No joss sticks. No
prayers to the goddess of Mercy.
Welcome to Hainan, a tropical lava and limestone island. For a hundred years, it
served as a place of exile for disobedient Mandarins.
No Caucasian other than yours sincerely: no English, no laundry, no tickets.
It took a while to get here: visas, permits, medical forms, inoculations, testimonials,
letters of introduction, references, diplomas, and fourteen passport-sized photos.
Verily the wheels of fortune are made of paper.
We are privy to a large apartment in the crumbling Southern Dragon Garden
complex, with high ceilings and marble tiles, two refrigerators, high speed Internet
(maybe in month or so, maybe never…), two bathrooms, a bed with a box spring
mattress (bottom part only), two desks, a white (albino) mosquito net to entrap the
dreamer in the night, and a motley surround-view of apartment windows festooned
with sensible underwear and plain apparel waving listlessly in the semi-tropical haze.
The sinks leak. The toilets reek. The stairways are paved with spit and baling wire.
Duct tape is useless.
We live in the best of all possible worlds.
In the lobby the doorman in a green and red star uniform sings a pentatonic aria at
the top of his lungs. The street vendor is smiling. On a crowded bus, young women
say hello and offer up their seat.
On the balcony of the next building an arm‟s length away, a baby burbles and tosses
mother‟s chopsticks out the window. They take wings and fly.
I am to teach international marketing and negotiating to students of Commerce and
English at the Hainan Dao College of Vocation and Technique.
Kathleen will be teaching English as a Second Language.
No nonsense here!
May the tutelary spirits of the market prevail!
The college is three years old. My classroom is on the seventh floor. There are no
elevators. 4000 students are crowding the hallways in every direction - only groups
reasonably fluent will study under the three English and one French foreign expert
that comprise the sum of the West.
This is China. The college is in eternal crisis management. There are not enough
dormitories to house the students except to assign four or more per room. The public
address system has blown a fuse. A monsoon squall has flooded the hallways. The
language laboratory had an electrical seizure. The scanner bulb of the thumb print
machine at the front gate has burned out.
A German teacher came and left immediately if not sooner, offended at the lack of
Teutonic planning and efficiency.
Chaos lurks in every corner.
The only salvation is prayer.
The only hope is a sacrifice to the kitchen gods.
Eat, drink, and attend dinner invitation that offer tea with wolfberry and
chrysanthemum, pickled jellyfish, duck feet webbing, black fungus, eel in Sichuan
pepper sauce, hairy melon, winkles, snails, and a 140 proof brew of rice, millet, and
Noodle soup with almonds.
Red dates and tofu.
Pig stomach with Szechuan peppers taste like fiery rubber tires.
But that was yesterday. All is forgotten because today, the Equinox full moon is on
It is mid-autumn day.
The last moon cake is being sold. The stores are closing. The morning deluge of rain
has turned to sunshine.
The day idles and lingers.
At dusk buses both great and small, stuffed to the brim with slim five foot four
people, inch their way toward Holiday Beach, a long stretch of sand facing the South
China Sea. On one end, rented beach chairs and umbrellas strip to the horizon. On
the other end, the sand has been heaped into hundred of private circles capped with
bristles of glowing incense.
Sitting inside the circles are families, friends, and lovers.
All eyes are fixed on the harvest moon above the sea. The children crane their necks,
looking for the hare and the lady.
We eat tofu, sausage, moon cakes with preserved egg yolk in lotus seed paste, mango
juice, and a curious wine made from coffee beans with the promise of a „delirious‟
The bottle comes from a small liquor store on South Dragon Street, tucked in right
behind “The Slothful Drinker‟s Tranquil Beer Café.”
South Dragon Street is our new turf. The directions are easy: maternity hospital to
the left and a defunct mustard yellow restaurant to the right. Across the highway,
the empty International Traveler Hotel is valiantly defended by two life bronze
Roman Centurions. They are on horseback in full battle regalia.
The number 3 bus, also known as the number 33 and the 703, stops in front of the
It is time go to work and embark upon our duties.
We are driving to the college in a rust bucket bus along crowded streets. The
sidewalks are broken along the hole-in-the wall retail shops huddling in clusters.
Side-alleys bristling with umbrellas angle off into dubious directions. The traffic is
utterly democratic: pedestrians, motorcycles, water, dragons, horses, mopeds, and
bicycles all equal unto themselves. This means that there is no right of way at all –
the traffic flow is a concentrated exercise in avoiding collisions.
The bicycles, mopeds, and farm contraptions with smoking single cylinder diesel
engines have taken control of the sidewalks.
It is the damp tail end of the monsoon season. Two intersections are flooded with
water a foot deep in all directions – crowds with umbrellas slosh through the deluge
to evade the rooster tails of splashing cars. In the centre of this wet vortex, a group
of men with stalled cars are discussing who should back up first – nobody makes a
move. Wade in the water. Rejoice. Go into a huddle.
A spare tire turns into a card table and a loud game is in progress.
Eventually, the bus reaches our destination.
The college stretches six blocks along a highway on reclaimed farmland. There is an
administration building, a teaching complex, and a large cafeteria. The halls are
covered not with ivy but with the laundry of students quartered in cement and brick
dormitories - four to six in a room, partitioned with bunks and blanket walls.
The six acres of landscape, soccer field, and baseball courts fronting the buildings are
crowded with first year students. Boys and girls are dressed in army camouflage and
green rubber gym shoes. Clutching umbrellas and lined up in tidy columns, they are
practicing kick-steps and desultory salutations.
At noon, four thousand students descend unto the cafeteria. There are twelve line-
ups. Within ten minutes, food is flying in all directions. The tables and the tiled
expanse of the floor are slippery with noodles, pieces of vegetable, and spilled sodas.
Within half an hour, the cafeteria is empty. A crowd of women with cone-hats move
in with wheelbarrow, mop, and scraper. In an hour, the place is spotless.
The department of foreign languages is a recent invention, designed to add gravity
and modernity to an Asian curriculum often characterized as academic spoon-
The department is frayed. Huddled at the bottom of the academic pecking order, the
administrative and support staff is glum and near burnout – classrooms are cancelled
at a moment‟s notice by powers-that-be and a complicated tally of onus and duty
assures that everybody needs permission for everything.
Obtaining the key to unlock a room, a piece of chalk, a confirmed class date, and an
introduction to various facilities and locations are major diplomatic forays into an
inscrutable world of self-appointed kingdoms guarding iron bowls of rice.
Or so it seems.
Lost in translation.
I have been asked to discuss my teaching methods. In China, the student is an empty
cup, to be crammed with information and no questions asked.
I propose my view of Western teaching:
Self-reliance, development of critical faculties, and the pursuit of knowledge are the
stuff of pedagogic dreams.
I consult my notes:
Visual, tactile, analytic, and circular comprehension
Sense of Self – the five senses
Cognition, Knowledge, and Learning
Understanding, Experience, and Intuition
Left and right brain
The smell, taste, and feel of words.
Software, hardware, and wetware
Grammar, context, the ear
School of Life
Street wisdom. Ethics. Morals.
In the end, I am at as loss for words.
How do you say “holistic wet ware” in Chinese?
I decide to simplify my syllabus. I propose that the students are not empty cups –
verily they are full of clear water and I the teacher need only to add some green
leaves and presto: we have afternoon tea of the highest quality.
Pressed further, I confess that I myself prefer coffee measured out in spoons as the
Watching life go by is an international custom. In Hainan, this exercise requires the
proper posture: squat on your heels, your legs outward, your feet square to the
ground. Keep you back rigid. Let the arms swing loosely.
Most of the women are plain and unadorned. No make-up. No jewellery. The
occasional whiff of perfume. Denims and blouses are the norms.
However, the clothes are often skin-tight.
Impudently advertising of feminine wares: this is in direct contravention of the
nation‟s self-imposed prurience!
There are no nude Chinese mannequins in the shop windows.
The dummies are all blonde Caucasians.
There are older women on the street, dressed in pyjamas. Bandy-legged, their feet
splayed outward, they walk in hair curlers on open sandals slapping the sidewalk.
The men are simple. Black shoes. White shirts. Some have tucked the shirt right up
to the chin, sweating bellies exposed to the air. Others have rolled up one pant-leg.
Bald kneecaps gleam above black polyester ankle socks.
There is so much to watch! China has entered the consumer age with a vengeance.
After years of denial, the populace is ready to shop and drop every day.
However, so far it is mostly live chicken that can be had for plucking in the basement
– money is scarce and ownership of televisions, automobiles, French perfume, and
gold-plated faucets must wait for the future. Hedonism is a distant mirage,
instalment plans are suspect, and deposit insurance is black magic.
“In America, the people kite their cheques and live for tomorrow in the belief that a
rolling debt gathers no loss. It is this true?”
“Yes, you can even insure your debts and make money on the interest.”
“Really? It sounds irresponsible. Not here! In China, we say that the chicken
always comes home to roost.”
Banks on every street corner assure that money is China‟s main line religion. This
includes the Buddhists and their tourist traps - visitors pay up front in the parking
lots, at the gate, at every gong, bell, book, candle, and avatar, miraculously
converting yesterday‟s newspapers into holy scrip traded for real cash.
China‟s economic advantage lies in massive amounts of cheap unskilled and semi-
skilled labour. She is the mistress of incense smoke and bronze mirrors.
Seduced by promises of untapped markets and an emerging middle class, Western
corporations chase down every opportunity real or imagined waving suit cases full of
A piece of Western economic voodoo called the „purchasing power multiplier‟,
coupled with a historic notion of China‟s „unredeemed greatness‟ are the mantras of
a great investment boom. The influx of foreign money has been of benefit to the
sons and daughters of chiefs of intelligence, premiers, and chairmen positioned to
broker influence and contact friends in high places.
Political and ideological principles are a sideshow.
The army and navy have set up their own shell companies and process exports
The main force is commerce.
The buses servicing the downtown core seven days a week have standing room only.
An extensive net of shopping malls offers everything from a computer floor with
hundred vendors competing side by side, to mosquito nets, to rock-hard bedding, to a
dead-end shop stall full of Bowie knives and polar expedition gear.
Designer dresses in these swank malls have fixed prices at ten times the monthly
salary of the window-shoppers. Most European fashion houses here operate at a loss
and are waiting disconsolately for the economic miracle to beat a path to their door.
The malls are haunted with men and women on commission. In the clothing section,
a customer disappears in a crowd of clerks. In the jewellery aisles, young girls
display armfuls of cascading pink pearls, also available crushed and powdered to
whiten the dusky face of the Orient.
Tucked behind these four-story temples of merchandise are alleys loaded with
plumbing, air compressors, floor tiles, noodle vendors, spices, seasonal fruit and
vegetable fresh off the farm, bugs and fish, discounted piles of shoes, snake pills, and
Most of the genuine articles are adapted, copied, plagiarized, re-labelled, and hawked
in the side streets. The advertised prices are meaningless – everything is negotiable.
This is where the real buying and selling takes place – the malls are for entertainment
Hainan is a backwater island and Haikou is a helter-skelter capital city in progress.
Shanghai and Beijing get all the attention.
The first is business and financing, the second is government and power.
Shanghai is mounting a month-long tourist festival complete with plastic neon and
„life-enhancing‟ evocations of ancient China.
Presumably the authentic „old‟ China is on life support.
The Beijing cultural elite are mounting „Aida‟ complete with five thousand extras
and a forty foot pyramid, touting the „biggest opera ever‟. There are plans of re-
building and renovating the Forbidden City in order to parade China‟s ancient culture
on the world stage.
The fragrant public temples of convenience throughout the city will soon be
renovated and deodorized. Money is no object.
No such luck for Haikou. Until recently, it was simply known as an unspeakable
place of backward races, fit only for mad dogs and furtive exiles.
Over the years however, the Han have been paying attention to this quiet tropical
jewel of the China Sea.
The island‟s current status as a special economic zone is a euphemism for
Reputedly a paradise for investors, there are agricultural, commercial, investment,
manufacturing, pharmaceutical, transportation, and construction banks at every
corner, as numerous and often as shabby as alley grocery stores.
New farms are exempt from taxes for the first 18 months.
All food products have favourable export duties.
Industrial manufacturing projects have priority for water and electricity.
The local government offers cheap land transfer fees in exchange for a company‟s
preferred class A shares.
So far, a succession of governments has managed to strip away the natural forest and
mineral resources while the residents, re-located by government edict from mainland
China or drawn by relentless promotion to this tropical Eden, are left to fend for
Skyscrapers capped with turrets and aerodynamic spoilers compete with mud and
straw housing reduced to puddles during the monsoon season. The luxury hotels are
serviced and maintained by male and female coolies living in dire straits - most farm
and hospitality workers earn an income below the poverty line. Women in slit
dresses are spending their lives standing motionless by the doors of restaurants.
Subsistence farmers are hawking a few fruit at every street corner and persistent
mendicants roam the crossroads waving Tupperware Made in China plastic alms
Many tall hotels and concrete shells, dedicated to opportunity and the gross national
product, stand abandoned. Beyond recovery, these derelicts are guarded all day and
night by zealous security guards. They drag a TV, a karaoke box, a bamboo sleeping
mat, and a hotplate into the lobby to take up arms against their sea of troubles.
The Western guidebooks of Asia call Haikou a beehive of glib commerce where
nobody is a local and where life is energetic but without a soul.
The sum total of the capital‟s culture appears to be banks, hot-pot restaurants, and
Karaoke lottery lounges.
There is no discernible history except for some run-down Western colonial
condemned buildings, built and left behind by early settlers from Macao.
There are two temples, dedicated to five Han officials that fell into disfavour at the
But appearances are deceiving - just as it appears that China is simply one giant
tenement and breeding farm, a perfumed lime-green invitation arrives.
The governor wishes to wine and dine a select group of Westerners lost and confused
Special buses depart early that evening to the reception. The guests bounce and
shimmy toward the sea through industrial districts teeming with rows of cement
mixers, rebar, diesel compressors, and mountainous piles of bamboo scaffolding.
The highway is forever under repair. As soon as it is finished, it will be dug up
again. A mound of red earth stretches like a scar along palm and banyans trees and
peters out into scrubby lowland vegetation.
The governor‟s white mansion and guesthouses are strung along manicured lawns
studded with fishponds, a Thai massage pavilion, and three International cuisine
restaurants. The China Sea, restless and white-capped tonight, glows phosphorescent.
On the horizon sits a modern oilrig extracting and pumping natural gas from the sea
The governor‟s aides welcome us. We are a small motley crowd: a commercial law
expert from Switzerland, three college teachers from Canada, a black Presbyterian
missionary from Angola, several kindergarten teachers fresh off the boat, an
impatient German investment banker, a struggling Italian pizza restaurant owner, an
angry fertilizer salesman from Texas, a farm fish expert from Korea, a microchip
manufacturer from Taiwan, and a wild-bearded Swedish youth clad in a red
nightgown whose purpose and vocation remains a mystery.
The host treats everyone with equal equanimity.
We all admire the lop-side smile of the crescent moon.
The planet Mars is clearly visible nearby, as close to Earth as it will ever be for the
next thirty-four thousand years.
Our evening is a lifetime event.
There is some vague astrological talk about the god of War, his invisible influence on
typhoons and tycoons and the fight to globalize the planet.
Let our hands reach across the water! We are men of good will. May lucky winds
aid our journey into harmonious prosperity.
We are our future.
There are no fortune cookies.
Two hours later everyone departs in search of the bus.
The governor‟s mansion, built especially to entertain commercial dignitaries, sits like
a white void in the honeymoon night.
The next morning, I wake up to the doorman‟s maternal aunt, five floors below us in
the courtyard. Fortified with a cord, a cable, and a television, she is trying to sell
oranges, apples, and water at full throttle.
Business is slow. A bicycle vendor selling yellow flowers sits down beside her to
relax and watch life according to the Tube.
I join them to watch the gnashing and the wailing of Chinese opera swirling in heavy
silk brocade, thin fake beard, stylized ghost mask, and plumed head.
Reeds quiver plangent among strings with drums and gongs.
Dressed as a woman, I glide across the stage like a willow.
In a clear uncanny voice I sing in love and sorrow.
The song could well be an Irish lament of a woman haunting the moors for her
The orchestra picks up the beat. I hear a Gaelic reel were it not for the glottal stops
of the Chinese percussion instruments.
On another channel, impossible heroes in designer wardrobe are flying through the
air. They sport fantastic topknots and their faces are covered with fringed
lampshades, scimitar eyebrows, and curled lips.
Curses: the evil khan is foiled again and with a toss of her black hair, aided by a fan
blowing off-camera, the adorable maiden is ready for her next close-up.
In between there is a pratfall comedy, a band of military hunks of burning love with a
stiff salute for their country, and episodes of a detective who chews obvious clues
like scenery and climbs the drapes.
The channel flips to Manchester United versus Arsenal.
Mel Gibson enters left on the screen. He is wearing a three-sided hat and is speaking
in fluent Chinese at dawn‟s early light of the rocket‟s red glare during the American
Then the Shanghai Symphony orchestra plays selections from Italian Opera featuring
Chinese violins, piano prodigies, and tentorian tenors blaring clear as silver trumpets.
The voices of Mongol coloraturas race up and down the musical scale like frisky
The power goes off.
I ask the doorman‟s aunt about her interests apart from TV. Has she ever travelled
beyond her neighbourhood?
She knows only Haikou.
Yes, there are other towns on the island to be sure but none of them can compete
with Haikou and the neon lights and the „Spring Sea Recreation Lie Fallow‟ parlour
She has no interest in the central highlands and the Southwest where the white sun
sinks into mountains dotted with a few nature reserves. One area used to have over
forty varieties of butterflies: it took a petition from UNESCO to put aside the final
remains of this natural bounty for future generations.
She has nothing to say about the Li minority and the city of Tongshi with an outdoor
market where men with Raiders and Yankees baseball caps and betel nut stained
teeth are checking out a rack of rats split open like French rolls and grilled on
These are not your average city rats. These are wholesome country critters raised on
corn and rice and dipped in hot sauce with ginger, scallions, and white pepper and a
great heap of raw garlic on the side.
Eight years ago, Tongshi was voted China‟s most liveable town.
Five Finger Mountain rises six thousand feet through the barbecued smoke like the
splayed hand of a dying chieftain. This petrified religious quintet is worshipped by
villagers that have build archways and shrines in honour of the mountain, decorated
with chicken heads and the family jewels of farm animals.
A few old women wear their faces pierced and disfigured with elaborate geometrical
designs, a custom that traces back to antiquity to avoid becoming trophy wives for
the warriors of raiding neighbourhood clans.
The one million Li occupying the central highlands predate the mainland Han by two
thousand years and have their own language and culture. They grow rice on hand-
hewn terraces and go fishing. Their music and dance are echoes of a shaman religion.
Sometimes they practice old hunting skills using poison-tipped arrows, and they
weave textiles admired throughout China.
The Li are only superficially assimilated into modern China. They have a history of
fourteen rebellions against interference from the barbarous mainland although they
did support the Communists against the Japanese invasion and paid with a great loss
of lives - some of the hills are reputedly filled with mass graves.
The locations are a private matter since the Li look unkindly on the raising of the
In return for their war services, the Communists gave the Li tribe partial autonomy
over internal island affairs.
The mythology of the island is sparse.
The scrubby farm town of Wenchang is famous for its corn-fed chickens and for the
two local sisters that married SunYatSen the dreamer and ChiangKaiChek the
One husband was a revered scholar, the other a warlord accused of absconding to
Taiwan with China‟s gold reserves.
Nearby is the town of Boao where three rivers flow into the Pacific, building a sand
bank frequented by travellers and rental boats - it is reputedly the longest and
narrowest strip of alluvial soil in the world.
A tide of summer umbrellas surges up a walkway between two luxurious hotels
toward an admission gate guarding a white hall filled with empty high-back chairs
and a podium.
This is the site of the ASEAN conferences attended by national premiers, despots,
presidents, and the world‟s media to discuss, share, and promote investment among
the countries of South East Asia.
Life-sized portraits of notable participants line the corridors.
The oratories of economic hope and co-operation are available on tape at the
For forty dollars, you too can stand behind the Speaker‟s podium to have your
picture taken, with the conference logo rampant in white on a blue background
shining lambent behind you.
A good time is had by all – the Chinese are proud of their conference facilities and
their historical induction into the great brotherhood of economic blocs vying for
Direct foreign investments are the norm. Indirect investment via stock markets is
discouraged. One large step forward, two small steps back is the Chinese face-
saving response to importunate Western corporate suitors. Memoranda of
understanding agreements are not binding. Promises do not materialize or are
diligently shunted aside.
For a number of years, the licence and investments opportunities were strictly
limited. Every deal needed its own distinct operating approval. The Western
representatives who opened offices could not conduct meaningful business: the
regulations allowed only for liaison or investment paper work. Investment was
restricted to approved zones where land could be leased, but never owned. The
rentals and fees were determined by fiat rather than by market rate.
Nobody questioned the prices paid.
Panties and bras were the first „untapped‟ markets identified by foreign business.
Although it is a prudish society, China now manufactures the majority of the world‟s
sex toys, licensed for export by the same government that censors Internet dating
In China, the emperor never really died, but changed his name to Helmsman or
Chairman. The divine edicts of Mao morphed into Deng social theories.
The emperor‟s new palace is called Pudong. It is a modern business district in
Shanghai with a low occupancy rate, mostly by foreigners desperate for a slice of the
fabled Chinese consumer birds all baked in a pie.
China does not offer money on its own but demands controlling interest in every
project. Chinese buyers expect to by provided with loans to pay for the investments
and the goods. Ministers sign non-binding memoranda of understanding with
Chinese grammar moves from the general to the particular. For example, a business
letter will list the country, the province, the street, and the name.
This reverse osmosis is tailor-made for inspirational cant, vague rhetoric, and the
emperor‟s new clothes.
On the other hand, the Western powers swamped China in successive historic waves
of gunboat diplomacy, economic exploitation, and third world status.
China was a convenient well and the dragon was asleep.
Europe and America brought many buckets and helped themselves.
Be it East or West, all rivers flow to the sea.
One of these rivers is the Wanqan.
It is the pride of the island.
It begins at six thousand feet in the highlands, is delayed by a hydroelectric dam, and
then runs shiny as a bronze bell down into the lowlands. Calm side channels lead to
waterfalls hidden among canyons with overhanging trees in clear water with volcanic
rocks visible a fathom below.
Along the banks are one-man sampans and shacks occupied by rubber workers. They
work alone or in small families, tending their small plantations. They keep the river
clean, patiently collecting plastic bottles, styrene foam, and black polyethylene.
At dusk, herds of water buffalo sit placidly up to their eyebrows in water. Black
goats graze at the river‟s edge, tended by children dressed in cerise and scuffed lilac.
In the lowlands, the river turns tranquil. An enterprising farmer has cooked up a
successful tourist recipe: lash together some bamboo poles, cover them with thin
plywood, nail twenty chairs in two rows to the floor and hand out some barge poles.
Stir in a life jacket. Add a dash of rental water pistols.
Invite the public to go down to the river to wash the blues away and baptize each
Stand back and count the money floating in.
At the southern tip of the island lies Sanya, China‟s pre-eminent tropical resort.
In the winter, tourists from China invade the luxury sprawls of barbecue pagodas and
lake pools. Down by the sea, men women and children cover the beaches in full-
piece bathing suits and trunks - only fat foreign barbarians are ignorant enough to
lose face wearing bikinis and briefs.
Away from the hand-raked beach, dubious characters and slit-skirted pony-tailed
women patrol the back alleys with lazy indifference, mingling with Chinese navy
recruits in full spit and polish riding their bicycles.
The nearby docks are knee-deep in fish guts and glory.
Gumboots are conveniently sold at the gate.
Thus says the guidebook.
Perched on the horizon are Chinese gunboats and two coral reefs burned out long ago
by a lethal excess of excursion boats and swimmers collecting souvenirs.
Anchored there near day‟s end, not a single fish is to be found in the cloudy water
until a hung-over passenger vomits over the railing.
Suddenly, the water is churning with colourful small fry in rainbow colours feeding
while a blood-red postcard sun sinks into the ocean.
Far away from prying eyes and ears in 1924, down on the East Coast in a village
called Jiaji, China‟s first Communist cell was formed.
There is a Temple Beach nearby. A huge statue of Buddha sits on a platform. He
contemplates white-winged waves crashing against a rocky shoreline of broken
granite giants strewn among yellow sand. The wind is a white noise of sea-swept
styrene, plastic fish netting, and palm trunks.
Two gaunt villagers claiming native salvage rights are picking through the flotsam.
Local and foreign visitors that venture upon the beach and innocently pick up a
bleached palm branch souvenir are immediately accosted:
“We are a poor village with only one beach. You want a piece of wood, you pay.”
“We also have sugarcane for lunch. One kwai. It‟s cheap at half the price.”
“We have coconut too, but honestly it tastes better when picked fresh in the morning.
“The wood is ten bucks if you want it.”
Half of the money goes to the Buddha.“
“Happiness and prosperity are waiting for you at the next corner. Have a long life.”
Teaching marketing and negotiations in China is like carrying coals to Newcastle.
These people learned to bargain in the cradle.
At best, the avid visitor could argue that the sugarcane be free as it grows everywhere
like a weed.
“Welcome to palm city and mango forests,” shouts the official tourist brochures
displayed in the lavish lobbies of expensive five-star hotels. “May coconuts fall into
your lap as you amble down our boulevard of tropical splendour. Come, come again
and see our sun-drenched apartment suites. See the bucolic ecological villages full of
high quality material life and a colourful culture in this fine environment of a green
economy where the lives of youth are eternally permeated with smiles and sunshine.”
I am coming.
This state-approved Happy Valley is indeed a small paradise brimming with
medicinal herbs, fruit, vegetable, seeds, and aquaculture.
The bounty is officially tended by happy peasants toiling contentedly in the fields of
the Party, tending and picking two million tons of out of season fruit and vegetables
destined for the central and Northern provinces draped in white snow and black coal
Balsam pear, gourd, pepper, mango, papaya, tea, coffee, cocoa, rice, lichi, pawpaw,
guava, wampee, shaddock, sour bean, rambutan, hawthorn, cherimoya, and Japanese
oranges are available by the truckload.
But man cannot live by fruit and vegetables alone.
It is Sunday today. We are in full hunt and cry for a bakery with daily bread other
than sponge, aerated sugar, and red bean gumbo.
We walk past the Happy Meat Intestine Restaurant across from the Coffee and Bar
Of Shelled Peanuts.
We stop off at the Electro City Market to admire a radiant kitchen god clock,
„guaranteed to keep sparkling time„.
All is vanity. The sidewalks are crowded.
The sledgehammers are busy. The rust never sleeps.
The dust dances high up into the sky on the updrafts between the towering breeding
farm apartments with open windows and eternal laundry.
Yes there is an order in the Chinese scheme of things.
It is the everlasting cleaning lady of China.
It is she who patrols the morning streets seven days a week with ratty broom and
screechy shovel, pushing a bicycle cart piled with garbage.
It is she with the golden front tooth, the veined hands, and the spindly insect arms;
she who every evening drags sixty pound bags of cement along bamboo slats up the
outside of building sites to the tenth floor.
It is she who toils like an ant gnawing on a bone; she with seven hands and eight feet
milling in the wind and rain, clutching eyebrows and chin all at once.
All around her, China continues to break the pots, sink the boats, and burn the
Spitting on the sidewalk and tossing butts, the Haikou city fathers drive by on motor
scooters. They are clad in pyjamas, with the wife on the seat and a grinning, wide-
eyed, beloved child balanced on the handlebars.
They thread like a needle through the perilous traffic, one hand on the money the
other on the wheel.
“Watch out! There are snares above and nets below.”
Business is long and life is brutal and abrupt without a cell phone.
“Yes, there are too many wine sacks and rice bags in this world. They drain the
ponds to catch the fish, cut the toes to fit the shoes, and skin the flies for the hide.”
“For sure, they are our eternal problem. Some are as savage as a meat axe. Some
don‟t know chalk from cheese.”
“We ourselves are only shrimp soldiers and prawn generals. We must keep our
hearts small and we must walk slowly.”
“Hope is tenuous and sly as a butterfly. It brushes your shoulder on the left and hides
to the right.”
“Remember that failure is the mother of success.”
The onus of governing lies heavy on their shoulders. It is exhausting work and
requires plenty of food to remain energetic and viable.
“When in doubt, eat dinner.”
The food is always shared. The dishes are piled up on a revolving platter set on the
Pick any seat you like.
Food spilled on the table is ignored or swept to the floor.
Use the first cup of hot tea to disinfect the chopsticks.
Allow your host to serve you the first portion.
Dip your food into a side dish of soy sauce with vinegar, red pepper, and raw garlic
to ward off dysentery and evil spirits.
The soup is served last.
Tell a story.
The Chinese eye for detail is finely honed. I tell the story of western Bibles carved
on a grain of wheat with a laser beam. In return, our hosts tell us about a travelling
“They say that to this day, itinerant showbiz types tour the hinterlands carrying a
small bag full of fleas.“
“Dressed in meticulous costumes, the fleas hop through hoops in the limelight, swing
on a trapeze, commit love and murder, and sing songs of sad mountains and lonely
“It is said that the best of them can dance a aerobics chorus line on less than a dime.”
“Cheap magnifying glasses are available at the entrance.”
“The handbill on red paper says that the fleas are highly trained.”
“Rest assured that if the circus comes to town, you are invited.”
Later outside the restaurant on a sunset evening, a walk on the wild side of the
market will lead you past cup cake brassieres, plastic blankets, brass souvenirs,
flimflam, and camouflaged sneakers.
Turn left at the corner down a narrow boulevard of dried-up schemes, shrimps,
prawns, fish, mushroom, legumes, and spices available by the ounce and by the sack.
Down the street to the left is standing room only. The sidewalk is filled with chalked
diagrams and formulas. Twenty hawkers tout their secret for winning the lottery.
Complicated schematics of odds and handicaps are covered with spit, chewed cane,
and orange rinds. At the curb, two herbalists are selling rhino hide, snake salve,
centipede ointment, and monkey skulls.
Go to the small stalls crowded with wire cages and stained plastic tubs teeming with
cats, lizards, owls, salamanders, peacocks, orioles, dogs, turtles, rats, civets, frogs,
snakes, beetles, scorpions, and chicken.
There is a kid lamb swaying upside down in the air, suspended from a cord twisted
around the legs. The shorn head with sightless bulging eyes lolls to the side like
Christ on a cross.
In the siesta heat of the afternoon, the owners and stall attendants are dozing on
rickety chairs and precarious stools.
Although half asleep, they still attend to business: a listless hand waves away a horde
of flies gathering for the feast.
Eyes closed, a woman reaches out, nabs a frog on the lam, and stuffs him back
beneath the plywood cover of a pink basket.
A sleeping foot casually herds a turtle back into group quarantine.
The alleys are strung with tarpaulins and the stalls are in deep shadow fading into
blackness. Buzzers, whistles and air horns erupt from a bedlam of bicycles, scooters,
delivery vans, and pedestrians clogging the aisles.
Snake cat, and chicken have always been the hallowed ingredients for the renowned
“Cantonese Braised Dragon” dish, a delicacy for the rich and adventurous.
Snake is a tonic for the blood and is said to cure asthma and rheumatism.
The air is thick with blood and fat and eggs and semen.
But the customs and times they are a-changing and China is mulling endangered
species legislation. The laws are easy enough to write, but enforcement is an
eternally thankless task.
There is some success. I am told that the famous Guangzhou Snake King Restaurant
now features roast goose.
“What I liked best about the early Party days was the free cafeterias. There was
always food, unless you were living in the sticks beyond the pale. In return, you
stayed away from money and didn‟t open your mouth, thus avoiding a constant
persecution for anything and nothing.”
Fuelled by hot tea, the vendors nod and remember.
“For ten years, our Chairman was fixated on the smelting of steel and dealing death
“There were hand bills plastered to the walls of town and country saying that it was
possible to make a meal without food.”
“During several famines, Party officials peddled fantasies of record harvests.
As the country starved, Beijing discussed what to do with all the food.”
“In 1956, there was no concept of a consumer society. We the people were kept
ignorant and thus obedient.”
“Our politics were based on class categories. No criticism was allowed.”
“I think there was a fundamental contempt for human life and for the peasant who is
illiterate and cannot challenge the rules. For a while, the right class background was
more important than merit in promotions and advancement.”
“No free time.”
“Listen to this: „The Party replaced our wants with the fundamental need to obtain
authorization from the Party for each and everything real or imaged, nebulous or
“Yes, the man who wrote this was stoned and torn apart by Red Guard youths high
on cant and testosterone.”
“That was a control issue.”
“True. I remember every day we had to attend morning reports, afternoon
instructions, and evening loyalty dances.”
“Hey, that‟s entertainment.“
“Cozened and swaddled in pride and circular dialectics, as it were.”
“Whaa! Those were the devil days of hormone, ignorance, dogma and youth. The
Party is so much older now.”
We escape to downtown Mingzhu Plaza where the air is air-conditioned and thin.
The shopping isles are spot-less: incessantly polished glass cases display cameras,
pearls, cell phones, apartment complex models, and computer motherboards.
A glass elevator rises past stuffed tigers, slate pool tables, and faux French perfumes
toward ebony furniture, silk bedding, and stainless kitchenware.
Shop girls lurk everywhere, teetering on high heels between boredom and
Some of them are wearing thin sweaters. Apart from the air-conditioning, the
temperature outside has been falling almost imperceptibly over the last week.
It is December now and a lukewarm winter is moving in. Red and green are the
Christmas is in the air and the lunar New Year everywhere.
In the plaza, a new pendulum counts down the hours: laughing children and
grandfathers are practicing martial arts. They whack and kick a large punching bag
Santa Claus. His reindeer nose is bent. His beard hangs askew.
Avid shoppers thread their way between burnt sienna piles of bricks, grey jack
hammers, mustard yellow caterpillar trucks, brown and blue vendors crouched on the
ground with baskets of oranges and bananas, and discount Hawaiian shirts.
Teenagers, packed like sardines, are listening to pop rock gyrating tastefully on a
small stage decorated with cough medicine logos.
A yellow balloon reindeer with a flashing emerald nose and blue eyes presides over
On the sky bridge above the crowd, the albino busker has put away his mouth organ.
Whenever we see him, his cup is always empty.
“Once upon a time, GongGong the god of the sea was so angry he beat his head
against a mountain, toppling one of the four pillars that hold up the Southern sky,”
he shouts loudly and waves his windmill arms.
A five metre rock now graces this holy apocalyptic site.
“Down by the sea, at the tip of the island among areca palms and ethnic villages,
there are many mysterious rocks once inhabited by the Immortals of Time and
“Now, young men climb the trees there to harvest betel nuts as presents for the
“She will take your betel nut and bite your finger as a sign of surrender. Love is an
“Soon it will be a New Year. The trees will turn to flame and red flowers will bloom
loudly. You will see a golden trickster monkey. He towers like a cloud in the sky
and offers the peach of immortality to the stars above.”
“Be humble and bow your head to the New Year. Also, don‟t forget to buy an
orange and a fish for good luck.”
But the crowd moves on, like ducks listening to thunder.
There is a fine line between the beggar and the businessman.
There is money to be made.
These are modern times and official tourist sites.
Follow the Tao.
The old ways are chicken feathers and garlic skins: they can‟t buy you a cell phone
or a motorcycle.
Chase neither the wind nor clutch at shadows.
Do not fish for the moon in the sea.
We‟d rather go to see the fleas. However, the fabled circus is touring the outer
provinces and is unavailable.
Instead, we end up a cricket game.
Not far from the Emporium of Gastronomy just ten paces east of the Extraordinary
Exquisite Tomato Beauty Parlour near the Golden Spring Fairy Hair Saloon, enter
left into an anonymous concrete shell!
Follow the easy assembly instructions.
The place is filled with spectators of all colour, type, and persuasion and watch small
green crickets fighting to the death among red lanterns and green wine.
There are two Western „experts‟ like us. They are distraught. We huddle together
dumb as wooden chickens.
They are in culture shock.
Their honeymoon is over.
“Everything‟s broken and the sewage is leaking.”
China is a permanent construction zone rife with the decomposition and methane gas.
The national flag is drying laundry waving from countless apartment windows.
“The national anthem is,” No, we don‟t have it.”
Life is a humid crowd.
“At night, the apartment residents living a floor above us perform clog dances in
“The very handrails, the doorknobs, and the money - surely they carry some
They will be robbed.
They have great concerns over minor pains.
They suffer from house ague, bus fever, and shopping migraine.
Daily life is an anxious chore and the host country is indifferent to their plight.
They are doomed. They speak no Chinese. They are hapless grains on the ocean.
Around us, the gamblers, owners, and operators of this sporting life squirm like cats
on hot bricks.
Tiny champions chomp each other into chowder.
We are told that Imperial concubines used to put crickets in small golden cages and
take them to bed for company and to hear them singing.
The peasants took up the genteel hobby and turned it into a blood sport.
The crickets are weighed like boxers to determine the odds and are placed into an
arena box. Prodded with blades of grass, they attack each other in a contest that can
last from a few minutes to half an hour.
The winners, raised in the hot pepper fields of Shandong province, have big bodies,
big jaws, and a black face. Fed on corn, sliced apples, calcium, and ginseng, they
can fetch a thousand dollars plus an arm and a leg.
Nearly ten million Chinese raise crickets. The stakes are high. No sacrifice is too
Poems, essays, and tributes to the green insect reach back to antiquity. China‟s
fascination with fierce and small creatures is endless.
Outside, it is a Sunday like any other day.
The downtown city park sits abandoned except for a few old men dozing in the noon
heat among a flaking Donald Duck, a one-eared Mickey Mouse, a heroic bust with
stone-cold eyes and a fat lower lip, and a gap-toothed and cross-eyed decaying
A mangy plaster kitten ten feet high and clad in bright orange is playing with a string
A benign granite statue of Laotse with a bulging forehead hovers before me. He is
standing on a large up-ended flowerpot.
The Chinese assimilate all things equally and temporarily.
There is a Mona Lisa smile on the sage face. His right hand is raised in benediction.
“Lighten up,” he says.
” All is well today.”
A lithe Chinese girl ambles past the park bench.
She could easily be a student in my class. Blue jeans. No jewellery. A ponytail.
Flapping sandals. Her cell phone is covered with „Hello Kitty‟ decals. She has two
boyfriends. Her hormones are singing. She walks hand in hand with girl friends but
not with the men.
Her shapely T-shirt says, “Don wory. Be hapy. Look for star.“
Blue skies are shining on me.
My classroom is on the eighth floor. No elevator. The halls are filled with pools of
Fifty students per class loll across their desks, nodding off to sleep in the damp heat,
listening to my tales of Western marketing woes:
S. W. O. T.:
Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, and Threats are the four elements of good business
P. P. P. P.:
Product, Place, Price, and Promotion are four elements of sound business practice.
A. I. D. A.:
Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action are the four elements of hard business success.
It is said that Chinese script is very difficult. It is not related to sounds, and each
character needs to be memorized separately.
It is said that Mandarin and its natural metaphors are not conducive to rational and
Rote learning becomes the norm, stupefying rather than enlightening.
Moreover, as Mao supposedly told the peasants in 1965: the more books you read,
the more stupid you become.
However, the students turn out to be proud and competitive. They point out that
China supplied Europe with designs for multi-mast ships, rudders, the compass, blast
furnaces, hydraulics, gunpowder, the clock escapement, papermaking, and printing.
In turn, Europe and America supplied China with the dynamo, the combustion
engine, the turbine, the transistor, the computer chip, the microscope, dynamite,
vaccine, rocket fuel, and calculus.
In modern China, there are four modernizations: agriculture, heavy industry,
services, and high tech.
We discuss the circus of world economics and the roller coaster of China‟s foreign
China‟s relationship with the outside world has been sporadic. In 800AD during the
Tang dynasty, 25000 foreigners lived in Xi‟an, a sophisticated city with two million
inhabitants. The three warring states had been united into ZhongGuo, the middle
kingdom that reached out to embrace the Asian world.
In the next century, China once again split into warring factions and the rest of the
world was ignored and forgotten.
In 1421 AD, China‟s navy toured the world. Sailing on the major ocean currents,
Eunuch admirals visited Australia, Africa, and the Americas, including Falkland
island situated directly below the Southern Cross and vital to the navigation of the
They returned to a China plagued by famine and bankruptcy.
The emperor had lost the mandate of heavens.
The cost of these Eunuch foreign excursions was to blame.
China closed its doors again and lost the key.
She is a shape changer. A new mask has flicked across her face with a new look at
Watching this performance, the West is divided into three camps.
The sceptics feel that China is on a dangerous economic path and that her promises
are empty, like a coy opera bride who refuses to lift her veil. The anticipated growth
rates are mere statistic if there are no increases in individual disposable income.
It seems the Chinese are customers in theory rather than in practice. They prefer
only spend what they have.
China‟s banks are technically bankrupt, but as long as the average Chinese does not
demand access to his or her savings in a lump sum, the brood will be all right.
Proposed bankruptcy laws and due diligence accounting have been shelved for fear
of a run on the money. Deposit insurance is avoided as it could trigger insecurity
from the comrades who are content as long as the deficit spending across China is
accompanied by gongs, cymbals, and firecrackers lain out like ammunition belts.
Economic data is difficult to obtain: there is a constant loud over-reporting of
An ageing but wealthy population is the big money spinner, but in China this market
does not exist. Life Insurance business across the world is chomping at the bit, a
pack of hounds chasing Chinese bunny rabbits.
The foreign companies that have set up shop are slowly losing ground as domestic
policies nurture the Chinese state-supported companies with cheap credit and
Most Chinese buyers of Western technology, services, and products expect to be
given loans by foreign investors, in exchange for a minority stake and
inconsequential management control.
The race to the bottom is feral and competitive.
State investment in the infrastructure is often without reference to demand and whole
towns are built entirely from national debt.
But the West is convinced that China will re-prime the world engine of
manufacturing that is sputtering to a halt.
She‟s the big ticket.
China‟s boom is a result of the individual village entrepreneur taking the business
bulls by the horns. Scrap the communal farming life. Change to piecework and
commission as incentives.
Labour is cheaper than the dirt.
The Taiwanese and Hongkong exporters browsing the village markets are in clover.
Although it is the villager that is driving the foreign investment machine keeping the
state-controlled economy alive, less than one percent of all bank loans are given to
China is rapidly absorbing modern manufacturing methods, technical knowledge,
and high technology transfers. Exports are improving in quality and have been
approved by the International Standards Office.
The demand for steel, coal, fuel has become insatiable.
The World Trade Organization allows China to avoid bad debt by encouraging yet
more foreign investment, hoping that a free market will lead toward a convertible
currency and simper licensing processes
Armed with foreign exchange reserves collected assiduously over many years, China
will soon go shopping for mining companies, financial services, and blue chip
Meanwhile, the academic and pedagogues spend their time mythologizing the
commercial Chinese culture in praise of the sable brush stroke, the Tang poets, and
the apotheosis of nature.
“Now that the door to China is open, ” I ask the students, “ What do you see?”
“We see sunshine, happiness, white clouds, flowers, and lots of red ink.”
We try to trace the economics of tea, silk, and opium. First they were items used in
both the rural and the imperial household, then they became a social lubricant and
textile commodity increasing in demand and volume, and finally they became
international consumer products and a measurement of the wealth of nations.
My students are picked by hand, it seems, but only a few them are sufficiently skilled
to indulge in arguments and rebuttals. English is their second language and they
range from rural areas with limited education facilities to sons and daughters of the
We continue to discuss the wealth of China, her looming influence on the world
stage, and her methods of business negotiation characterized by reticence and
These are business students and they want to know how the West makes money.
I tell them about wheel chair access ramps.
It‟s a growth industry. Do your research. Get in at ground level.
Here in our white campus tower, we chart the stars.
But the maps are not the territory.
Below us, a hundred men and women are building a sidewalk to the new computer
lab building that includes languages such as Basic and Cobol, with software ranging
from spreadsheets to computer generated imaging.
All this is rich and heady stuff as we watch the itinerant workforce crouched outside
in a shallow ditch, wielding hammers and chisels to break and pulverize a mountain
of old brick for a roadbed.
The college is construction site. Men at work stand among mountains of lime and
sand and shovel by hand. Behind them, hasty brick huts squat along the property line
- basic stalls for the migrant workers. A single water hose serves this Coolie Row.
Behind, a woman is hacking at stony ground speckled with desultory cabbage heads.
A slogan painted on a hut says: Prosperous Party Property.
A thousand pounds of lime, sand, and cigarette stubs will soon be mixed and poured
The new cement road shall lead in triumph, flanked by motorcycle and bicycle sheds.
Visitors from Beijing are soon arriving.
They will review the terms of this College.
Work hard and anything is possible.
The first term is almost done.
China is preparing for one month of winter holiday.
The students want to go home.
Half of China will be visiting each other, clutching train and bus itineraries in
preparation for one of the biggest mass migrations on the planet.
We too are soon lost in the crowd leaving the island. We have a month of holidays
and a whirlwind tour of a few famous places.
First, Kathleen and I visit Kunming. It is the capital of Yunnan province.
We watch the winter sun light up a market stall.
Rainbows and prisms quiver and collide among pedestal glass globes of the Earth.
Clear glass calculators reflect slivers of light. Crystal slabs encasing digital alarm
clocks are pulsing ice-green.
The algebra of fire.
On the stall floor, scattered shadows flicker across dead and desiccated ants and
Yet there is still too much to do and see.
There is The Most Delicate Tomato Bounty Beautiful Emporium.
There is the Gentle Fairy Make-up Hair Chain Assembly and Spa.
The bus stops curb side beside a temple.
It‟s a Buddha franchise.
We duly follow a sign-posted map to admire the Jade Emperor, the Nine Dragons
Wall, the Eighteen Layers of Hell, the Nice Ladies Pavilion, and the Western Toilets.
There is a restaurant right beside the Jade Emperor.
The inexplicable menu includes „numb and sore dried bred bean curds‟ for a dozen
They taste like chicken breasts.
We meander and amble into a park called the Masses Art Hall and Tea House.
It is an oasis for the threadbare and the elderly. Dusty potted bonsai shrubs line a
sidewalk flanked by plastic blue chairs.
The white tables are loaded with cards, dominoes, checkers, and mah-jong tiles.
The five holy games!
Men and women in padded winter jackets are playing and watching.
The Chinese will bet on anything. How many rocks are in that pile of stones? Will
the flea land on an ear or will it be a smack in the eye?
Triple five is the luckiest number you‟ll ever do.
Birds strum loudly, strung up amidst the pines and the bamboo.
They say that the birds of China all live in cages.
Near an octagon pagoda, grey and blue men and women are performing selections
from an opera. The singers and the musicians all carry battered thermos bottles filled
with hot tea.
Melodious bangs and shrill arpeggios punctuate the bird songs.
In 700BC, a Zhou emperor saw his mother every evening to recount the business of
the day. She usually fell asleep. Steeped in filial piety, the dutiful son learned to
strike a large drum every few sentences to keep her awake.
This method was adopted throughout China.
It keeps foreign experts sleepless and attentive during lengthy excruciating recitals.
We watch an old man slouched on the bench beside us. He is resplendent in a white
beard, a Mao jacket, blue jeans, platform Nikes, and mirrored sunglasses.
He nods his head and addresses us in English.
Yes, we are from Canada.
We start to talk and soon a crowd forms around us. Men and women amble over
from the mah-jong and card tables. Some of them are carrying their birdcages.
Surrounded by modern tall buildings of steel and glass, the old men and women
remember a world that has since been razed.
They do not mind the destruction and rebirth.
There never was a golden age.
Times are better now, but all the wild swans have been tamed.
The old man of China speaks with swooping hands - the past lies at the bottom; the
future rises up.
Our Western time is linear – the past is on the left; the future is to the right.
We all take inventory of each other. His friends nod pleasantly. They speak
little English; we speak even less Mandarin.
The old man of China is fluent.
He is our translator.
“Yes, we are busy electing a new leader in Canada.”
“You are correct. We have a province that speaks French and wants to secede.
We have another province that has lots of oil and wants to be American. How did
you learn this?
“We read and listen.”
“This is our fifth month here in China. It„s good to be on the mainland.”
“Yes, Hainan is much too modern - the whole culture is wholesale and retail.”
“Yeah. Where are the brick city walls, the cobbled streets, the bearded scholars
squinting into the mists, and waterfalls among the hills teeming with dragons,
roosters, and bamboo?”
“When will we see the one and only perfect golden lotus, unfolding like a physics
computer simulation of the big bang and first light?”
“What shall I tell the golden sages that eat the wind and the morning dew?”
“It‟s a basic question. Where hath old China gone?”
“You mean the China of Cashless Misery and Arranged Marriages?”
“You think so?”
“You mean perhaps the middle kingdom of feudalism, repression, grave political
errors, war lords, famines, and genocides?”
“I‟m not sure.”
“You mean our vast country mired in the backwaters of international history,
belatedly aspiring to higher technology like a toad lusting after a swan‟s flesh?”
“We shall raze everything that is old to make space for the new. I am sure you have
noticed this. The past is not an issue. Why beat a drowning dog?”
“Yes. The world is open now.”
“Soon we will be as fat as butter.”
The old man points to the ground.
“Look in our root cellars. Old habits are stored there. We used to have barbaric
customs. Foot-binding. Girl-child drowning. We heeded the emperor. We wore
cloaks of obedience sewn from tradition and morality.”
“Yes, like the nine kow-tows.”
“You know, some of us led a peasant‟s life: water, dung, fuel, food, seeds – all
gathered by hand with baskets strung on shoulder poles.”
“Then one day the rice fields rippled in the winds of red banners rising.”
“We were comrades.”
“We won! Now we had to fit the hardships of life into theories of government.”
“Yes. The old power flowed from the emperor to the magistrate to the land owner –
a reflection of the great chain of being: from gods to demons to men to animals to
plants to stone.”
“The new way was an elevator: democratic rural election, discussion, and
consultation going up with the centralism of united discipline and command flowing
“Yeah sure. Actually it was like playing a lute to a herd of water buffalos.”
“What is right and what is wrong? Truth must be tested by practice and politics
“Mao above all was a teacher who showed us that with initiative and hard work, with
mass rule as a unifying principle, we could accomplish anything.”
“We never decided whether we wanted to be a civilian or a military party.”
“The hawks and doves it what we call it in the West.”
“Material goods determine the nature of a society. The most useful goods are rice
and water. Meat and vegetables are good too.”
“Yes, the farmer plants but the pigs eat it all.”
“From all according to their ability. To each according to his need.”
“But things went wrong. Our leaders erred from the path. They built a vast
apparatus with the powers vested in a few key players.”
“We forgot to include monitoring devices and the elite rules by sanction.”
“The deadly sin of envy became the basis of a control system.”
The old man of China shakes his head. “Such a tragedy. A stillbirth. An aberration.
I must apologize. The tea is cold. Ignorance conquered reason. China is wide-
awake now, but I am tired and I am
going home. Good luck to both of you. I think life in Canada is easier. Before you
leave China, you should visit the Bamboo Temple here. Look out for the dragon in
Walk slowly!” he adds, saying farewell.
We wander into a foggy mountain monastery. The guard at the door is chanting from
a book scroll. Perhaps it is the Lotus sutra.
Past two lions, up the stairs, into a pine courtyard, through a red and yellow gate –
there is the well!
We look down, our noses parting the waters. The well is shallow and the bottom has
A young dragon rises from the depth, wavering in the celestial velvet folds of the
There are many dragons in China.
Creatures of the first light.
Earth, fire, wind, and water.
The dragons are emanations from the four pillars of the world.
They launch from the back of a giant turtle, with a phoenix standing by.
Five claws of lightning strike from the sky. The eye of a typhoon swirls over the
South China Sea. A scaly body forged in the planet‟s iron core rises from a bed of
limestone and stretches itself across Yunnan and Guanxi.
The dragon‟s hackled spine near Guilin has eroded peaks and valleys contoured with
rice fields. It is scarred with patient miracles of hydrology and rice, white green and
blue in the spring, russet and steel grey in the winter.
This morning, the rice stubbles are rimed with ice. Bare footprints stand frozen in
the clay harvest soil. A pig, a dog, and a cow are standing at the edge of the world.
Ducks sail across clouds in the sky. The mountain air is placid and lucid.
This silence is the bated breath of the dragon. The wind is a mirror in the clamour of
sunlight as the planet revolves. We wander in opposite directions and meet in the
The backbone of the beast descends toward the plains and teeth are strewn along the
banks of the Li River, rising in dark humps crowned with thin vegetation among rice
paddies and pomelo orchards.
Grey limestone pillars leached from a coral sea, baked by volcanic heat, honed by
rain and wind. They march into the distance, dissolving into shades of raw sienna,
raw umber and faded olive.
The dragon‟s tail surfaces in Yunnan province, in a stone forest of schist splintered
and tossed at random like giant darts.
Our bus slides past the Guilin Cigarette Trade Hotel and the New Urbanization
In the lobby, I am told that the armed forces and their state franchises own all the
choice real estate.
They ask me if in Shanghai, the roof of the China Tobacco Company Inc. is paved in
Is that true?
We pay a visit to the Califor House of Torrefaction. It is a bakery. The steamed
buns are excellent.
Downriver in Yangshuo, the shops on Western Street are papered with bargain
basement scrolls. Geriatric tigers, humped tigers, steroid tigers, kitten tigers, and
black velvet tigers.
Tiger penis and claw are available in the next block at the pharmacy.
Together with tourists from all over the world, we are gathered at the river to wait for
a discount ride and wash our blues away. We all stand and squint at the grey sugar-
cone landscape, holding a twenty yuan bill with the picture of the real thing.
There is no ride today.
Politics have intervened.
The independent boats are now restricted to pre-sunrise and post-sunset. From now
on, business hours are reserved for the official flotilla endorsed by the powers that
The river keeps on flowing.
We can no longer wait.
Beside us, a disappointed voice curses in English, “The Han are the Jews of Asia.”
Kathleen and I sift the remains of this sour day and watch a flock of cormorants
preening with attitude. Tied to fishing punts, they are flustered and enraged because
they never get to eat the fish they catch. “Flip flop and fly, don‟t care if I die!” they
honk and wheeze.
I wish I had a rod.
In China, going fishing is traditionally a symbol of disenchantment and non-
Leaving the dragon‟s teeth behind us, we vanish into thin air, courtesy of China
Airlines, to visit a Yangtse delta lady called Hangzhou, capital of the Sun dynasty.
West Lake sparkled in the sun outside while inside, cats, monkeys, and dogs dyed
pink with balsam leaves lived on house floors laid in silver.
That was long ago.
Life is a stage.
Tonight the wives are dancing for the Emperor, diaphanous butterflies in lewd
In a market, a row of competing vintners are brandishing their respective red, yellow,
green, and blue wines useful for filling fountain pens. All the good wines in China
are bottled in Arabic from the heady vine of Islam.
The story of the White Goddess is carved into panels of poetry in motion above an
old temple, a loose shamble of bricks where she became mortal.
West Lake is glossy in wet noon light. An armada of rental boats gleam out on the
water, packed with silhouettes of paddlers in gloves and jackets sitting averted from a
Today is the last day of the spring festival.
Red Lantern Day!
It‟s the final event of the year.
The city erupts in a cacophony of bells, fireworks, gongs, clappers, klaxons, and
whistles. Fuelled by dumplings, carp, goose, and stinky tofu, the tight flocks of
revenants and revellers swerve and dip like swallows through streets painted in blue
neon. Red lanterns are gleaming everywhere, a silky yellow light within. Fiery red
trees twinkle briefly above and green suns burst into ashes. Fish scales curve
through the night in a fountain of quicksilver.
Happy tinsel and shams fly everywhere.
To escape the deadening firecrackers, we enter a video store, followed by a youth in
Trench coat and top hat that proceeds to demonstrate the follies both of up and of
down on a circular staircase. His duel with gravity is accompanied by dry heaves.
Finally, he gathers his crushed hat from the ground, lurches upright, and spins his
cross-eyed wheels for a while.
He reels himself to the exit and folds up into a compact and inert bundle on the
Welcome to the year of the Monkey.
In the morning, trampled shoes and sandals litter the sidewalk and the drunk is still
lying outside the video store.
We leave for Suzhou.
It is a garden city and we found a path between mulberry trees among pots of madder
and indigo plants.
Since nature displays neither order nor symmetry, the path doodled along zigzag
bridges, capricious water, and still pools mirroring nature in its depth, all doubling up
in a dream world of flecked light.
There is a fresco of Marco Polo strutting through this town of canals, gondolas, and
silk. Horsehair and straws are mixed into the plaster.
You walk through a barn door.
White silk cocoons sit lambent on wicker mesh. Cloudy shapes sit in formaldehyde
jars. A silk loom has been strung with a yellow thread highway - each strand is
under tension, weighed down at the end with raw chunks of glass in blue and green.
In front of the loom is a bench with a blue and a pink pillow side by side tied with
scarlet ribbon. Crimson, yellow, emerald, and olive skeins of silk lie in a pile of
glazes and dyes. Iron and alizarin produce green and copper turns itself blue.
Years ago outside the garden, handbills used to bloom on the wall with edicts in large
„Eliminate flowers, grass, and pets.‟
„Replace them with vigilance and cabbage.‟
„Hunt, isolate, and destroy the ox and snake demons.‟
From equality and deprivation for all, the Party moved to hierarchy and privilege and
To this day, the beat goes on and the proceedings are wrapped up in maudlin up-lift
music and drama.
The path continues to a house built for the Master of the Nets, an Imperial
magistrate. Red lantern corridors lead into bonsai and windy rock courtyards.
The pavilions have windows partitioned to show at once a whole bamboo grove and
a fly on a sunny blade.
The path is polished with pebbles of fish and crabs and ends at a place where artists,
professors, and scholars are showing their paintings.
There are no unicorns, phoenixes, tortoises, peonies, or landscapes.
Bless us all.
These are ancestral poems and sketches of China on the walls:
A bare neck lying slashed in a rice field under a dishwater sky, a placid water buffalo
the only witness.
Not long ago, singing fountains, once signifying harmony with nature, became
Landscape painting, once the province of artists, became the art of thugs slashing
razors at numb faces.
But things are better, no?
Have some lotus paste and wash it down with an ounce of MauTai.
The streets are safe.
We have food.
However, there is room for more improvement.
Judges rank below party members and make less money. Lawyers are instructed not
to take on cases against the government at any level. You cannot start a fishing club,
a self-help group, or a newsletter without government sanction. The country
executes more people than the rest of the world put together and there are thirteen
separate agencies dealing with security issues.
Life is imperfect everywhere, and the victim is the last to know.
Kathleen and I are back in Haikou to teach the second semester.
Apart from our college duties, we agree to an evening class. The engineers, lawyers,
meteorologists, and prospectors working for a ministry of environment and
development want to practice their English. We are glad to oblige.
“You can find pigeon blood rubies on this island.”
“Someday I want to kayak down a steep mountain river.”
“I have a machine to measure wind and rain, but the instructions are in English.”
Unlike college students, they have studied history:
“The revolution? It all started out with the best of intentions, but progressive ideas
were ruined by regressive people.”
“The people in power declared a plague on all clubs, societies, tea parties, and on all
“There were no objective standards for fairness.”
“All information was controlled and departmentalized.”
“The key invention was to involve everyone in the systems of control.”
“Keep the public ignorant and thus obedient.”
“Violence became stylized, hidden behind the fluttering of white handkerchiefs.”
“Selflessness became a form of total submission.”
“Life was the tale told by an idiot.”
“At one of loyalty dances, there were arguments about stopping at red traffic lights.
Red is a serious business. Halt, cease, and desist is contrary to the essence of the
“Treason. They said it was treason.”
“Bad optics for sure.”
“From equality and deprivation for all, the party moved to hierarchy and privilege.”
“Politics is China‟s only religion and Money is her new mantra.”
Puff the magic dragon.
A resident architect tells me that Beijing was laid out with unsurpassed reason and
spiritual clarity in an orderly footprint to lubricate the balance between the individual
and the family, family with state, human order, and cosmic order.
Clarity is everything.
He means a square grid of housing underneath three concentric circle roads that have
grown into six expressways.
Haikou, however, is everywhere an accretion of cement bungalows and huts, based
on the Party mass line of “renewable cheap housing, perpetually adaptable to new
social and biological needs.”
We visit a fishing village surrounded by mangroves. Four Han families remain. The
sons and daughters have moved to the city and have become judges, teachers, and
accountants, but spiritual obligations demand that everyone return to honour the
This is the ghost festival of the seventh month and music troupes play puppet and
opera in the front of shrines throughout China.
Actual ghosts appear.
They waft by in a vague odour of wet socks and fish tails in the wake of cats gargling
with fur balls.
Reclining in ornate palanquins, five pink puppets are carried into the temple
compound accompanied by gongs, cymbals, and firecrackers laid out like
An oil lamp shines on the altar where the gods join the ancestors.
This is the light of the Tao.
Two candles are the sun and the moon. The prayers are accompanied by sticky rice,
grain, tea, five bowls of fruit, five noble metals, a paper symbol of power, an octagon
mirror, a bell to subdue restless spirits, a sword made of coins, and a chicken.
It works every time.
The ancestors sit silent platforms. For three nights, they occupy mortal space and
watch a comedy, a revenge play, and a ghost story.
The players arrive in a white bus and unload. With a few ropes and long bamboo
sticks, they hoist the backdrop. Scrims and curtains are hung next. Five work lights
illuminate the stage.
On the lake backdrop indigo, red ochre, coral dust, and blood of the serpent swirl
together into a sky washed in receding imperial green.
Backstage the actresses, dressed in blood of serpent, stone green, cockscomb yellow
and indigo blue, are rubbing powder puffs of flake paint and Fukien carmine across
Onstage, the magistrate at a desk is playing a goddess, writing the secret of love on
rice paper, her brush loaded with water and carbon burned in stone oil.
Paper may be made of hemp, young bamboo, paper mulberry, husk of millet, corn
stalks, and silk waste.
The Tang calligraphers use ink sticks thin as a chop, hard as steel with edges sharp
enough to score stone.
The Sung painters preferred dried pine soot cakes that ate up the light.
Living on salaries, inheritances, or patronage, the court artists stood aloof and
painted symbolic rather than natural truth. A scroll of storm-tossed bamboo bending
in the wind was a mild allusion to China trembling beneath the lash of foreign
invaders. Willow leaves were safer subjects than the misery of the people.
In temple towers they sketched birds tweeting among cherry blossoms. Wispy sages
stroked their chins, teetering at the edge of a cliff. Tigers lurked pale between the
moonlight miles. Goldfish glittered in lotus ponds.
Anonymous folk artists saw a different world: life is a fatal and pre-ordained
procession of household duties and potluck. Just ask the tortoise or the balloon
hare. Paper cuts of unicorns, ducks, and carp in the balance of amiable households.
Harmony in the house is everything.
The village is rich.
Life is full.
The ancestors watch as the village salutes the Chinese flag of yellow stars on red.
“Ladies and gentlemen! The big star is The Party. The small stars are the peasant,
the worker, the soldier, and the official.”
Maybe. The ancestors know better:
The stars are the five tribes: the Han, the Manchu, the Mongolian, the Tibetan, and
The stars are the five contradictions: industry versus agriculture, central versus local,
urban versus rural, pluralism versus assimilation, and the one versus the many.
The five stars are fear, indoctrination, rhetoric, and hypocrisy - rampant on a red field
of raving teenage guards.”
The stars are the five Chinese fevers: stock market, real estate, development zone,
semi-privatized business, and fast growth.
The stars are the five scripts.
The stars are the five languages.
The stars are five coins in the dragon well.
Copyright August 2004