Sunday, January 2, 2011

Four China: The Generals of Guangzhou


War was everywhere I turned in Guangzhou. Grizzled men, their skins creased with the stresses of the military life, commanded their soldiers with flicks of their fingers, pondered and muttered strategies with their officers, and observed the triumphs and tragedies their decisions wrought. Their armies were small and smaller still were the consequences of their actions, but these chainsmoking generals moved their xiangqi disks with the gravity of true veterans.


But all this fighting took place in the most incongruous of locales: a quiet park in the polished downtown section of a modern Chinese city. Appearance-wise, Guangzhou outpaced the other Chinese cities I visited – its facades were spotless, its windows sparkling, and the signs proclaiming it the site of the 2010 Asian Games (and the ‘10 Asian Para Games as well) still reared their heads proudly. Away from the financial centers I could still find the homely and far more tolerable market streets filled with vendors selling tea and old electronics, but there was abundant evidence of the Rise of China in the city’s shiny pockets of prosperity.


One of these oases was Shamian Island, a former French/British concession on the Pearl River separated from the rest of the city by a tidal canal. Much like the formerly-French swathes of Shanghai, Shamian Island still retains many of its European-style buildings and, unfortunately, many of its Europeans (and Americans) as well. My hostel on Shamian was essentially a hotel that happened to have a dorm room, but by local standards it was at least cheap, though still twice as expensive as my most economical lodging in China. The island also had a range of food (I had a tasty Thai dinner one night) and lovely views across the Pearl River, where river cruises lighted the way across the water.

Foreign adoptions of Chinese orphans are also processed in Guangzhou, and so the area is rife with westerners. I’m going to harp on the negative aspects of expatriatism here and assert that, throughout my life in the Philippines and my travels in Japan and China, I never witnessed so much rudeness as on Shamian. Every time a foreigner treated a local with arrogance, impatience and condescension (this was the standard attitude towards waitresses in particular), I wanted to slink away in shame. I wanted to slink away a lot.


I did have a very positive cross-cultural experience on my train from Chongqing, however. Conducted with body language, very few English words and even fewer Chinese words, my interactions with country nationals in China (except for hostel staff, who spoke more English) were generally pretty shallow. On the way to Guangzhou, though, I got to know the slightly older Chinese man in the bunk across from mine. I never quite got Jean’s story straight – he either worked in Chongqing or studied there, he might have had family there as well but they may actually have lived in Guangzhou or somewhere in-between the two cities, and I had no idea why he was on the train to begin with. As he spoke English he struggled with words and choked on his pronunciation, obviously making a huge effort to talk to me, and I appreciated that effort tremendously.

Our conversation covered a wide range of subjects, from traveling (he was interested in my stories about the Philippines, though he didn’t know the country’s precise location) to the modernization of Japan. We also discussed literature. I impressed him by mentioning Li Bai; I was lucky that this discussion never got deeper than names because otherwise he wouldn’t have been impressed for long. I was amused that the Romanized name of the most famous Chinese figure in the west, Confucius, was totally unrecognizable to Jean. I managed to get close enough to the Chinese pronunciation, Kong zi, for him to know who I was talking about. Still I couldn’t help wondering: if the west managed to distort the guy’s name so thoroughly, what must we have done to his actual philosophy?

Jean also treated me to lunch (I didn’t order a meal, but when the cart was rolled out – surprise – there was an extra for me), and in return I gave him some American, Philippine and Japanese coins as keepsakes. He disembarked on the first night and we exchanged the usual platitudes about hoping to keep in touch. I don’t know if we will, but his email address is in my notebook along with the bewildering maze of strokes that makes up his Chinese name, so maybe it’ll happen. Or maybe not: there’s something appealing about train buddies, people who pop into your life for a set time and then disappear and leave you to wonder forever after what they’re up to and who they really are. They are Encounters, and some of the most interesting and rewarding parts of my life since I left the US (and even when I lived there) have been such Encounters.

I had a flight to catch, and as the days turned in Guangzhou my time in China was getting short. My next train ride was a short one, only two hours, but it would provide one of the greatest contrasts of my trip: it would take me from the leafy, quiet confines of Shamian Island to the mad streets of Hong Kong’s Kowloon, where the only thing brighter than the skyscrapers is the erratic neon.


Carren said...

Great work on the lights! I haven't been able to get around China so much. I envy you :)

Anonymous said...

At times, I consider you to be one of my bewildering train buddies-- true, we had the advantage of speaking the same language, but in retrospect, I really knew less about you than I wished, and I do find my thoughts circling back to you. I'm so glad you keep this journal so that I can watch from a distance. As always, your photography is beautiful.

Ryan Murphy said...

Thanks, Cassandra. I'll be back in the US finally in about two weeks. It's going to be very strange, I think.