Sunday, 14 March 2010

Tossing the Condom - From Tin to Tofu

The Chinese town of Shiping seen from the gate is like any other.

Modern cars and mobiles contrast with the old back streets.

The daily grind goes on as a woman washes dishes in the street.

And others wait in the early morning selling peanuts and oranges.

A lady barbecuing breakfast tofu looks more animated though.

While a food seller stoicly waits eternally for sales.

The streets are busy, though what are they laughing at?

Street life is open and public and privacy is not much valued.

The railway station where Jack Reynolds arrived in 1947.

A rainy street scene in an old village near Shiping.

Roofs of an ancestral temple epitomise old China.

And a fret work window makes another classic image.

Old men play old mens' games in the warm of one of the rooms.

These two take the money to see inside the courtyard house.

Meanwhile, Denise photographs a fine interior.

A detail on a carved door suggests the opulent life of the few.

An ancestral hall, built to commemorate the rich forebears.

Family and friends await a lavish wedding breakfast.

The wedding food looks distinctly appetising.

This fine house is remarkable for being built of mud bricks.

The interior is spacious and elegant but today is just a farm house.

Word is going around Shiping in Yunnan province in western China that when the foreigners have difficulty negotiating an important matter of personal relations, they reach a decision by the strange practice of tossing the condom.

Over the Chinese New Year, we were on holiday there (See the two blog articles below.) and had just arrived at Shiping. This is a typical small town that promised us some traditional architecture, and we’d found our way to a clean modern hotel in the town centre. The problem was that they only had two rooms that were very different, a slightly gloomy one on the ground floor and a more pleasant one that demanded a climb up four flights of stairs. So who was to have which room?

The receptionist looked on as we debated and dithered. Then Bill suggested we toss a coin. Trouble is, they don’t seem to have coins in China. We could toss something else then, but what? The girl looked mildly aghast when we used the one thing that’s beside the bed in every hotel in China, which duly made the decision for us. I’m not surprised if she later told all her friends about our bizarre behaviour.

Shiping is famous for making tofu and its present wealth is based on tofu factories, big and small, which are everywhere. Even half a century or so ago it was an unusually rich town but that was when the local tin industry was flourishing.

Jack Reynolds, the Bangkok based novelist, whose fascinating life story I’m hoping to write, was in this region of China in the late forties doing transportation and relief work. He was working with the Friends Ambulance Unit and was sent by them to Shiping to investigate an outbreak of malaria. He arrived by train, alighting presumably at the impressive French built railway station that we saw, which still stands at the end of the line exactly as it must have been in his day.

On coming into the town Jack was struck by how very prosperous it was.

“Plodding around I quickly realised that Shihping was the most prosperous town I’d ever visited in China. In the main streets the temples were tumble-down but the markets were stuffed with food and goods. But it was the side streets which were the revelation. They were incredibly quiet and empty for Chinese streets. They were lined on both sides by high stone walls. At intervals in the walls there were roofed gateways adorned with some of the best stone carving I ever saw in China. Behind these gates the tin mine owners lived in vast compounds built on the traditional plan – a succession of four courts joined by moongates. You were always asked inside the main gate, asked to sit in straight-backed chairs in a reception room just inside, and provided with tea and sunflower seeds.”

The shocking truth though was that this wealth was built on slave labour and child labour at that. In a fine article in the Bangkok Post in 1977, which I hope to include in my forthcoming book, Jack exposed the awful story that the miners were all little boys because they were small enough to move through the low galleries of the mine. To stop them getting too big they had an inadequate diet and were given opium to keep them going. Working in these appalling conditions, their life expectancy was about two years.

For his persistence in investigating and visiting the mine, Jack very nearly paid with his life. A serious attempt was made to kill him.

The arrival of the communists a few years later put an end to all this, but now, more than half a century later, on seeing some of the fine buildings in the town it constantly struck me that while they truly are beautiful, the ostentation and display of their owners was built on the bones of small children who never had a proper life.

Today most of the old buildings in the town have been swept away though and Jack would recognize little in the town other than the railway station. For tourists like us wanting to find old ancestral shrines and courtyard houses, you thus have to go out to surrounding villages. Nonetheless, despite China having moved confidently into the twenty first century, I’m sure that the feel of the place would be familiar to Jack. The people, though now better off, are still much the same as ever. The experience of eating breakfast out on the street in the chill of the morning, sitting on stools six inches high, cannot have changed one bit. And the food would be familiar too, even if tofu has edged its way onto the menu. The light, the mist, the smells, the mud… all these things in China are eternal and unchanging.

After exploring the town centre, we took a day trip out to a village called Zhengying Cun which is about ten kilometers to the west and is known for its fine domestic architecture and temples.

As always, once out of the town, it was apparent that China has a huge appetite for steel and for vegetables; there were factories of some sort scattered everywhere and tight between them sprawling acres of vegetables.

As you drive along motorways and side roads, in valleys and villages, between houses and commercial premises everywhere you see row upon row of vegetables. The Chinese ability to grow vegetables in abundance is remarkable. Every inch of ground must be fully exploited and to this end their vegetable gardens are incredibly neat and orderly. I have the feeling though that this strict imperative exhausts the national capacity for tidiness and, apart from their modern townscapes, rural China is often a chaotic mess. On the way to the village for example everywhere on the side of the road were sprawling heaps of coal just dumped untidily by its owner. If tidiness doesn’t make money, then it’s not worth bothering about.

When our taxi reached the village it began to pour with rain. That’s the end of any decent photos, I thought. Even so, as we walked on through the drizzle, I was optimistic that misty grey skies and wet pavements would evoke China as it so often is. Certainly the traditional buildings did not disappoint. What was so pleasant was the relative absence of vehicles as the whole place had a human scale with small paths and passages between the buildings with their pan-tiles swept up roofs. It had not been planned around the motor vehicle.

We were able to visit a number of fine ancestral halls and courtyard houses and they were superb. In one of the halls there was a wedding feast in full swing and it was fun being a fly on the wall as food was carried from the kitchens to the tables where the friends and family were sitting at tables. Certainly we attracted a few curious glances but generally we passed largely unnoticed as foreign tourists are no longer a rarity.

The house I liked the most was at the end of our walk, a large and elegant building whose fine quality was not diminished by the fact that it was made of mud brick. We had a nose around inside the courtyard and it was apparent that this was no longer the home of a rich, capitalist road landlord type but of modest ordinary people. Yet despite relative neglect it looked strong and was surviving the years well despite its form of construction, which is a tribute to its builders.

Our visit over, I hardly believed that the promised bus would actually arrive as it was getting late and we were well off the beaten track. Should we walk therefore or should we wait? Could we phone for a taxi? We seemed to be at odds over what to do. How therefore would we resolve this awkward impasse between us.

The light was fading and I was trying to think it all through. If we could narrow the options to two and if there were a pharmacy nearby we could buy what we needed to give us a final decision. But by this time everything was now closed.

Then thankfully there was a hoot and a bus came round the corner to take us back to Shiping.

Perhaps in future I should carry a packet with me to deal with situations like this, though explaining the reason to my wife, Cat, might be a little bit difficult. I’m not sure she’d believe me.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog March 2010

Monday, 8 March 2010

Yunnan's Yuanyang Rice Terraces

In Yunnan, a Hani grandmother smiles at us from her doorway.

High on the mountain, our bus stops to top up its radiator.

Misty light at dawn on the flooded terraces.

The mist filled the valley for much of the morning.

And it was difficult to stop taking photos.

It only needed figures in the landscape to take another one.

This old lady was going to bring in her ducks for the night.

Breakfast was with all the other visitors in the kitchen.

A buffalo's bottom, an old crone and pigs in the mist.

An old man sharpens his scissors on a stone.

I’ve seen a few rice terraces in my time in Nepal, Bali and the Philippines but for sheer scale they are all dwarfed by the Yuanyang rice terraces in Yunnan province in S.W. China that Cat and I have just visited with our friends, ‘American Bill’ and ‘Chinese Denise’.

Our trip had started with a night in the atmospheric center of Jianshui. (Scroll down for the pictures). In the morning it was noodles in the street and then many hours in a small bus over the mountains to the rice terraces. The roads were a miracle of engineering, with long snaking hairpin bends taking us to terrifying heights with thousand foot drops and no guard rails. Meanwhile the overloaded bus, its roof piled high with luggage, bumped and swerved and brought us close to the brink. Soon we came to a grinding halt and the reason became clear. The tortured springs had collapsed under the strain and we were left miles from anywhere waiting to be rescued by another bus.

Soon we saw the Red River thousands of feet below us, passed the spectacular barrage which dams the gorge and arrived in the bleak modern town of Nansha. Here we booked a comfortable taxi all the way to the terraces, but at Xinjie, the old town on the hill, we were told to get out and join a mini-bus. This was driven by a middle aged woman who was surely on speed.

After a terrifying journey through the mountains she stopped abruptly and told us to get out and walk. The village and guesthouse we had booked was, she said, a few hundred feet down the hill and there was no road. This seemed unlikely and a raging argument erupted during which we were threatened with death and worse besides.

Shouldering our heavy packs, walk we did, not knowing where we were going, until a nice lady said she’d only show us the way if we gave her 20 Yuan, a good day’s wage. When we got to the square concrete guest house which was still half building site, we were shown our bare room with six beds for a price that would buy four star luxury in Thailand. Then we went off into the village to look for food but there wasn’t any. It was to be eating in the guest house or nothing.

It’s strange though how even after two days travelling and a bad start, things can quickly warm up and we really enjoyed our two days there in the mountains above the spectacular rice terraces. The family who ran the place were pleasant enough, and even if they were milking the New Year festival for all they could get, they produced mountains of edible food for all their visitors who were an interesting crowd.

The village itself was very strange. Apparently designated as a tourist village, all the houses had been painted in a pleasant shade of pale shit brown and fake thatched roofs had been stuck on top of the tiles. From a distance it looked quite quaint, though totally unauthentic, while inside it the daily life of the farming families went on as usual.

The first day dawned with the valleys full of cloud and we took a long walk down into the terraces in the grey mist of the morning. There was nothing artificial about all this though and we saw rural life in the raw, much as it has been going on for centuries.

The terraces were flooded but not planted and were quite remarkable, an extraordinary feat of civil engineering created over many generations. And the villages, in part of well-made mud brick, were exactly what the tourist hopes to see, a vision of a traditional life with black pigs and buffaloes, children brightly dressed for the festival, men tilling the soil by hand and the duck lady going out to bring her ducks back at night. It was National Geographic in 3D, with smiling locals, buffalo dung, sounds, smells and all.

These were not Han Chinese but the Hani people, one of many minorities who make up a large proportion of the population of Yunnan. What their history was and how they got there I have no idea. Perhaps more powerful peoples had driven them from the lowlands into the mountains many centuries before where they had since had to survive in these unforgiving mountains. How they had created such stupendous terraces and generated so large a population and substantial villages is a tribute to their ingenuity and it should command great respect.

Nor do I know how their relationship with the men from far away on the plains now stands. All I can say is that the Hani seem to be worlds apart from the China of the industrial lowlands and big cities. Up on the road behind our village there was a viewing platform and at dawn perhaps thousands of Chinese holidaymakers came, like us, to see the terraces and the human zoo of the minority peoples.

They had come in their big, plush cars and SUVs, sporting smart clothes and shoes and cameras with long lenses to capture the light on the terraces at dawn. And for this privilege of looking down the mountain they had paid 70 Yuan each, a fee that would not be cheap even in the West. Then with the short official break over, they’d pile into their cars and go back home for another year’s work.

I marvelled at this transformation of China from the poor country I’d first seen in the seventies, now with its confident and expanding middle class even in far Yunnan, out for a good holiday in the mountains. I wish them well and I admire them for becoming prosperous in so short a time. Somehow though, this place where one group of rich and mobile Chinese was so busy taking pictures of country people stuck in a nostalgic past seemed to encapsulate all the potential problems for the future.

How can China’s new found wealth be reasonably fairly spread and how can fringe minorities be included in the wider polity? How to respect and preserve their traditions and individuality but not in the process make them a mere spectacle for the majority to stare at? Such are the problems of modernizing a fast developing economy.

China claims to now have a middle class of 300 million people and from my brief glimpse of this far region I can well believe this to be true. In the next few years China will become the world’s biggest economy which is no surprise because until relatively recently it always was the world’s biggest. For China has always been the most populous country on earth.

While we were in Yunnan there certainly were a lot of people on the move. Even on the country roads to the terraces there were traffic jams. But of course the week we were there was the Spring Festival, the New Year when China stops work and everything closes down for a week of celebration. Like lemmings we were thus taking part in the biggest ever migration of mankind in the entire history of the world.

It was an interesting time to go, but boy, was it tough for Denise when she was trying to buy us bus tickets! I wouldn’t have liked to have done it without her.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog March 2010