Two weeks in China: tourist snapshots

By Stefany Anne Golberg

China_shuffybrucelee_webThere’s a curious smell in Chinatown. It smells of fish and death and moldering cardboard. The streets teem with people moving and spinning like the Teacups ride at Disneyland. I try to keep up with my mother, father, and older brother but they are too quick for me. My father is looking for the perfect dim sum restaurant. People bump into me, there is no space in this part of town, not even for a little girl. In every city, anywhere we go, my father takes us to Chinatown. He loves Chinatown. He loves the food, loves the style, the smell, mostly the food.

In every American city, where people mostly travel alone, and eat alone, and shop alone in big big stores, there is almost always Chinatown, where people are packed together, and eat together, and are together. When I am a girl, Chinatown is a world that has been created for me and not for me at all, that I can go to and will never be mine. Chinatown is the rest of the world, its possibilities and its failures. Somewhere, there is a whole country of Chinatown that sustains this one, that creates the magnificent trinkets cluttering the streets, wonderful, beautiful crap, cheap props in a street play.

I learn to love Chinatown too, in any city, anywhere I go.

May 7

“I was a Red Guard member in 1966, saw Our Great Leader Chairman Mao in Tiannanmen Square,” Bill says with a big smile. “I tell you my life story, very sad. That’s why I’m writing a book! About all my life experience. There’s a picture of me in my Red Guard uniform during Cultural Revolution. I will show you!”

In the hotel room I turn on the television. On one channel there’s a great battle scene from ancient times. On another channel, a man in a suit sits behind a desk and angrily scolds another man, with his pistol. Another shows a march of bloodied soldiers and filthy extras—men, women, children—dragging themselves down a dirt road. There’s an elaborate Tang opera and an infomercial channel dedicated to selling products I can’t identify. Hu Jintao addresses a congress and advertisements for the Beijing Olympics pop up regularly. On the one English-speaking channel, Mongolians in folk costumes frolic through wide grassy fields. In the upper left-hand corner of most channels is a CCTV logo, the major state-run television broadcaster.

My mother meets me at the Jiangxian Grand Hotel in southern Beijing. She disappears into the elevator with her friend and I finish a late-night plate of bok choy in the empty Western-style restaurant, watching pink plastic lilypads bob in an artificial pond that overlooks the lobby.

May 8

Neither my mother nor I can sleep. As she showers, there is a knock at the door. I throw on a robe and open it. A young man’s hands are full of soap cakes and mini bottles of shampoo. He eyes me nervously and says nothing. I hold out my hands and he dumps all the soaps in them. I close the door and put the soaps on the TV. “Who was at the door?” my mother asks. “It was a man with soaps,” I say. “I read that in China if you ask for something you get it immediately,” she says. “Did you ask for soaps?” I ask. She pauses and turns to me. “No,” she says, “I don’t think so.”


China Daily: “CHINA SCENE”, Thursday May 8, 2008

“Liu, a resident of Xinjin, Sichuan province, recently filed a lawsuit seeking child support payments from his daughter…”

“Ma, an 18-year-old resident of Pingliang, Gansu province, kidnapped himself last Thursday in an attempt to extort money from his parents…”

“Hengxian county in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region is enjoying a bumper jasmine harvest this year…”

“Guangzhou communities up to their neck in rats”

30 years after his death, the visage of Chairman Mao still watches over Tiananmen Square. But just behind him lie the empty, dusty rooms of concubines and the musty thrones of emperors. The gates that lead to the coiled dragons and ceremonial halls of the Forbidden City are flagged with boys who stand erect playing soldier. They are decorated with the red stars of the Communist Party and we are not allowed to take their picture. It is here that the story of the Empire’s last days is told. Where the once-concubine Empress Cixi suddenly found herself caught in the middle of the 20th Century; one the one side, moustachioed foreigners who wanted to bring railroads and progress, on the other, armed Chinese traditionalists who wanted to punch the foreigners and their railroads back across the sea. For her part, Cixi simply wanted to keep her little Empire. It was…what she knew. But she was smart, she could see which way the wind was blowing.

Now, these rooms are visible only through the bits of streaky glass between the crowded heads of tourists.

A row of bicycle rickshaws carrying our tour group zips through the narrow hutong alleyways near the Bell and Drum Towers, part of an extensive complex of ancient planned residential areas. On the bus ride over, we see miles of walled-in scraps of hutongs that have been bulldozed in preparation for the Olympics, but we are told that our hutong area will be preserved as a national heritage site. Maybe we are driving in circles. We swerve through heaps of trash and ubiquitous laundry lines. A pair of women in their 50s or 60s sit on small stools by the side of the road, wearing jeans and red-and-yellow armbands. An old man in an army uniform and dark sunglasses sits cross-legged in front of a peeling doorway, a bamboo cane and sleeping dog at his feet. Locals in their 20s and 30s go about their day, repairing old windows, talking on cell phones, smoking. We’re dropped in front of a traditional-looking home stuffed in the back of an alley which could be anywhere as far as we know. Inside, the middle-aged couple who lives there serves us homemade dumplings, wok-fried things and Tsingtao beer. We are told that the traditional home is only a year old, that the government allowed the couple to build the new house with the agreement that they use it to feed tourists and show them the authentic dwellings of an average Chinese family. Most other buildings in this neighborhood are crooked and crumbling and have communal open-air bathroom facilities.

“What’s China’s national bird?



Yellow cranes loom large in the grey skies of Beijing. Below them are shantytowns that house construction workers, bare barracks-style tents surrounded by the crumbling brick remnants of walls and homes. From the vantage of the Drum Tower in the north of the Inner City, I watch a shirtless man below washing his feet in a plastic bowl balanced on a pile of bricks. In front of his tent, an empty chip bag and a tin tea vessel. Bloated sky-high hotels and corporate centers are everywhere, standing over the razed remnants of ramshackle houses and apartments.

May 9

China Daily: “CHINA SCENE”, Friday May 9, 2008

“Spurned lover spends her days wandering the streets”

“Fall after late-night trip to Net café leaves boy in coma”

“Starting this week, traffic police in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, will fine drivers who cover up license plates on vehicles used to fetch brides for wedding ceremonies. The fine will be 200 yuan ($29)…”

“Starting this month, tour guides in Zhaoqing, Guangdong province, will no longer refer to their customers as “handsome boy” and “pretty girl”. Instead, they will use tongzhi or “comrade”. The goal is to improve services in the tourism industry…”

It’s a bright spring day in Beijing.

On the grounds of the Temple of Heaven people kick around brightly colored hacky-sacks made of old tin and feathers. Below the bridge, scores of elderly Chinese sing songs praising Chairman Mao. Throughout the park, thousands of men and women twirl umbrellas, conduct slow-motion sword fights, line dance, do tai chi leg lifts, hop up and down, smile, smile, smile, for hours every morning, all in near-perfect synchronization. Music blares from boom boxes. An old man paints in evaporating water on the concrete ‘Hope Peace Longevity’, and for us, ‘Long Live Friendship Between Chinese and American People’.

There are wide-eyed cartoon figures on municipal signs in Beijing. “Don’t Drink and Drive” warns a dilated officer standing happily on a highway sign, as in “Don’t Drink and Drive, Kids.”

The Great Wall of China, cloaked in fog and drizzle, surrounded by hills of green, cluttered with hundreds of giddy, giggling visitors from the world over, a rainbow of plastic ponchos and umbrellas, bumping into each other, falling down, squeezing through passages, hawking phlegm through parapets, in awe of their human achievements.

May 10

The Tourists dislike squat toilets and are already puzzled as to why we are eating so much Chinese food.

We arise each morning at the crack of dawn and proceed with daily, brutal marches around the country, seeing its sights, speaking to no one. We have only each other. We walk through China behind a tattered pink flag unable to believe at times that we are in a real country and not some staged performance of a country.

Our bus drives down the main highway in the city of Xi’an at dusk. The road cuts through farmland topped with simple red brick residences. The streets are mostly empty, the buildings appear abandoned. A man pushes a wooden cart piled high with rags, a woman strolls far behind a newly walking baby. And then, as if the outskirts had all been a dream, the scene is replaced with row after row of stacks of apartment buildings, huge neon billboards, and sidewalks lined with late-night diners. Teenage boys play soccer in a field and I remember it is Saturday night in a medium-sized city of 8 million people. Amber, our cheerful young local guide says, if we want, we can call her Yang Yang.

May 11

In the market stalls that line Huajue Xiang alley next to the Xi’an Great Mosque middle-aged women in hijabs sell socks and Gucci knockoff purses. Young women in tight jeans sell fake antique opium pipes and call out in English. An outdoor chef stands behind an enormous wok atop a pile of flames, with skewers of raw pork neatly lined beside bowls of minced chilies and onions. A group of wrinkled hands spread bean paste and sesame seeds over a huge mass of thick white goo. It’s Sunday.

A young woman sends me a friendly ni hao and puts a calculator up to my face. 280. Forty dollars is what this woman wants for the dirty plastic glasses I am holding. In New York, I would pay $10 for these glasses and it would be too much. I type into her calculator ‘20’, about three dollars. She tells me in perfect English that this is not a serious offer.

The woman pouts, then types ‘80’ into the calculator. And so we go, back and forth, until we agree on 35 yuan, 7 dollars. She gives me a melodramatic gasp that proves I am robbing her and then grins as she wraps up the glasses. Her mother comes out and points to the picture of my three nieces in my wallet, smiling. It’s frightening and humiliating to be a tourist. Yet we are all always tourists, the minute we leave home, if we leave home.

Every day, an 80-year-old man who poses as the discoverer of the Terra Cotta Warriors sits in the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum gift shop to sign copies of the official Museum commemorative book in person. When Bill Clinton visited in 1998 to meet him and get his autograph, the Museum got an idea. And here he sits today, so delicate, as if a soft breeze would prove him to be a pile of dust in the shape of a man. He signs my book with a long, slow swoop. I squeak out a feeble xie xie and am overcome by a mob of Chinese teenagers all clamoring for a signature of their own. Not long ago, you could get your picture taken with Mr. Yang. But the flash now hurts his eyes.

Mao wristwatches are plentiful in all the market stands. At least a few of these merchants are surely old enough to remember the mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward. Citizens were made to melt down their cooking pots for the metal. Some people had to eat their own children. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1970’s led to what was effectually a denunciation of Maoism, and Mao’s wife, and most things Mao. But Mao himself lives on, plastered to the sides of government buildings and on the wrists of foreigners.

This evening we are brought to the sprawling Grand Opera House Tang-Dynasty Palace, which, I suppose, is meant to resemble the palaces of the Tang Dynasty. Inside, foreigners are seated around lamp-lit tables, hunched over great piles of slippery dumplings. Before us, the grand stage stands empty.

Then the lights dim. Pretty women sway to prim folk music and swirl 10-foot-long sleeves that dangle from their arms. They remind me of fan-propelled tube puppets in front of car dealerships. Court dances of any nation are composed essentially of mincing steps and dreamy, fixed expressions. By the 8th Act, suffering from dumpling exhaustion and sleeve hypnosis, the audience can no longer clap or move. Then, in Act 9, a man who makes amusing quacking sounds with his face nearly brings the house down.

As I watch, a passage from a short story by Eileen Chang, the Chinese writer who died alone in her bare Los Angeles apartment, comes to mind:

“The furniture and the arrangement were basically Western, touched up with some unexceptionable Chinese bric-a-brac…. These Oriental touches had been put there, it was clear, for the benefit of foreigners…this was China as Westerners imagine it: exquisite, illogical, very entertaining.”

The second half of this piece will appear next Monday… so stay tuned.

Update (12/15/08): Part II can now be seen here.