Local Culture
 

Songshan Lake

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2005 Guangdong Winter Camp
 
Latest Updated by2005-08-24 10:57:30
 

Vincent Lowe

I've never really had a hasty desire to go to China. It was something I believed I would always get around to doing, but I assumed it would happen in good time. I have heard interesting stories from friends and family lucky enough to go but it's never exactly stirred any ancestral impulses to jump on Cathay Pacific via Auckland and embark on a conquest into the oriental unknown.

Soˇ­ in typical fashion, it was mum that initiated the move for me to enlist in "China camp". And so I thought I was inline for some kind of single-serve-once-in-a-life-time-experience-bulk-discount-bundle-package. I was kind of skeptical.

Then I started saying to people that I was going to China. And it wasn't until then that I finally figured something outˇ­. I was actually going to China. I mean it wasn't as if I was going to Hamilton. And so I peeled off the layers of arrogance and cynicism and quickly realized that I was in a rather privileged position. I began to appreciate the fact that I was going to visit the "motherland", the birthplace of my father and grandparents and hang in an environment where the concept of being the token Asian is most foreign.

So then we started getting drip fed information about the trip. Group emails, itineraries, pre departure information, name lists, updated itineraries. But to begin with it was all relatively meaningless. The places on the itineraries don't exactly mean much. He Quan Da Ma Lu? Where is that? Even still what are we going there for? And what's a minority village? Then there were the people. Her mum is related to whom? Oh I think I know this guy, he's that random mate of my brother's mate's ex-girlfriend. So this girl related to my second cousin by marriage? No, she is my second cousin. And what was all this about a camera crew? Jason Moon from Asia Downunder? He's Brad's brother right?

By the time November 28 rolled around bags were packed, needles had been stabbed, and I was still at work rushing a design an hour before my flight to Auckland. But I got away fine.

So, I was to spend the next month with 18 other mildly mannered Chinese kiwis a cameraman/reporter and the intrepidly traveled Janet Joe. My first encounter with some of the touring party was waiting in the breakfast queue at Auckland Airport Mcdonalds. I found it a little hard to offer enthusiastic introductions at 6 am with a foolish and deserved hangover and heavy eyelids. I made a token effort and introduced myself to a few of the crew and quietly went back to my Mcmuffin.

Many of us will mention that we endured the 11 or 12 hour flight to Hong Kong without any in-flight entertainment. Many will also tell you that I spent the majority of the flight in antisocial slumber. I recall people kept occupied with cards and tentatively inquisitive banter, but with headphones on and the complimentary green Cathay Pacific pillow over my face it was hard to recall much. Even still it was a long time in one seat.

It was hard not to be uncontrollably excited when we did hit Hong Kong. It was for many of us our first taste of Asia. Not knowing exactly what we were to encounter, the thrill of an unknown land or at least unknown airport awaited. My first distinct memory of Hong Kong as soon as we stepped off the plane was the unmistakable smell of something distinctly asian. So it is true - everything in Asia does smell of mothballs! Fortunately the remarkable fragrance didn't last for long. The other distinct memory we all witnessed in transit was some old guy in a suit, stand over a rubbish bin and loudly spit into it. Hong Kong certainly had its charm - and an amazingly wicked airport.

None of us were really prepared to endure another 7 hours of travel to go from HK through to our first destination. But after a stuffy plane ride to Guanzhou and a bus ride that seemed to last forever we finally made it to Foshan. To our delight our hotel was an immaculately clean sanctuary after enduring the torment of hours of travel. At this point our bodies were running on the sustenance from the free peanuts and craving sleep in a horizontal position. It made no difference that the beds were solid. We were gone.

Foshan had the honours of introducing us to the "Chinese way" of life. Squat toilets, plain jook for breakfast, bitter melon, mangosteans, the omnipresence of spitting, pollution, aggressively attentive shop assistants, gambling your life to cross the road, motor scooters, six lane roads, motor scooters, and where red means "go" and green means "U-turn in the middle of the intersection".

Things were bigger, louder, more crowded and more polluted than anything I'd experienced. Yeah... I think dirty would be the most appropriate word to describe my first impressions of China. It was an amazing placeˇ­ but dirty. The smog took a little getting used to. And the dust seemed to deposit itself over everything. The cleanliness of our hotel was definitely something we should be savoring. It was quite strange observing the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and distressingly poor. It was strikingly obvious directly across the road from our hotel. What looked pretty close to a condensed block of slum apartment buildings, complete with broken windows and dangling laundry, had no less than a glistening multi storey 5 star hotel as it neighbour. Saying that, our hotel wasn't exactly a budget backpakers and you couldn't help but feel a little undeserving. Being a large group of foreign tourists we were also going to attract beggars and the homeless. I was expecting them, but not to be as young and even younger than my little cousins. All with grubby hands, feet and holding tin cans for coins. Some we past would just be napping on dirty sheets of cardboard. We knew this was just a taste of what was to come.

It was astoundingly hot weather during our stay in Foshan. I certainly wasn't expecting to be wearing shorts and jandals for the first few days of the trip. To be honest I didn't even think I'd be using them at all. "Make sure you take enough thermals" people kept insisting. The complimentary bottled water from our hotel rooms kept our bodies hydrated. And they needed to be for the martial arts onslaught we were about to encounter. But first there was lunch.

Our first lunch was pretty good. It was quality Chinese fare, the stuff we were all pretty used to getting back home. Chinese veges, and mushrooms, tofu, fish, beef dishes the odd bit of duck. It was like we were at Grand Century, in fact strangely identical. But even as we shared our first meal together, you couldn't help but wonder whether this was to be typical of our daily meals - for the next month! I was curious of whether a 4 week solid "sick fan" marathon was achievable by me or anyone else. Was this going to be the true test of our Chinese character?

The main event arranged for our time in Foshan was some training at the Huang Fei Hong martial arts academy. After witnessing the impressive daily performance by the sifu and the resident students our task was set. The goal was to learn something perform to officials from the Guangdong overseas Chinese affairs office who sponsored us on the trip. Our masterful teachers were friendly, however they were big on accuracy. Apparently they'd dumbed down the exercise for our inept skill level, so I guess they were expecting us to get it right. We also had Amy and Ms Long joining us. They were our guides, Chinese teachers and translators for our stay in the Guangdong province. We endured the kung fu routine in the heat of the Foshan sun. But I don't think we anticipated being drilled till we were saturated in sweat. But eventually through a combination of clumsy sign language and excessive head nods and shakes, Horse stance and Tiger claw became accustomed body positions. Our sifu's strive for accuracy strangely managed to rub off on us, and by the end of the three days we were putting ourselves through hours of practice.

So by the time it came to doing the performance, what at first seemed a daunting routine mysteriously transformed itself into quite a gratifying experience. And at the risk of sounding like another bloody clich¨¦ China report, the experience actually was a nice way for the group to get to know and help each other. But it was also cool to see it bring out those well-mannered, good old-fashioned Chinese values that our loving parents have instilled in us all. We dished out loads of support and encouragement and think we were all pretty impressed to witness how far everyone had come in 3 days. Needless to say the performance went by a treat and the impromptu haka and maori song by the girls stole the show.

Also while we were in Foshan we witnessed some wickedly impressive lion dance performances. I was expecting some banging of drums and having the lions run around each other. But these lions had some skills that blew us away. The performers made the costumes appear almost lifelike. You forgot there were actually two people inside the thing. And then they started getting acrobatic on us. Part of the performance would have the lion, two guys remember, leap across pillars 1- 2m apart and up to 2.5 meters tall. It's kind of hard to explain but it was supremely impressive.

While being in awe of the lion dance in Foshan something finally clicked for me, I began to appreciate the reality of why I was in China. Where else would a see more genuine lion dance? Where better to receive true kung-fu training? Where else am I going to see my ancestral village? Where else is the Great Wall? Where else would we get served 9 course meals every day for a month? Coming to China has allowing me to experience the genuine article. For someone reason I hadn't figured that out till then, but I'm glad I did. And it's the reason why the 19 of us took close to 10,000 digital photos.

After 4 days in Foshan and another bus ride later we arrived in Jung Tsing. We had arrived on the soils of our ancestral homeland. But we still had no idea of where we were geographically. We'd left the manic city streets of Foshan and were now at some isolated hotel surrounded by mountainous terrain and some huge lake. But tomorrow some of us would visit these villages of our parents and grandparents and ancient relations. To be honest it was bizarre feeling to realize that this was the place that I could be calling home, if my grandparents had not decided to immigrate to NZ.

None of us could deny that there was an air of curiosity about what our villages would reveal. What essence of our heritage would we discover to realize the true meaning of being Chinese? Will our distant relatives take us in with open arms or turn us away in contempt of what had happened through the ancestral bloodline? Do they have a rice cooker? Who has a hot cousin? Will my rellies let me have a ride on their motor scooter? Is there a basketball court in my front yard? Who knew? But I was grateful to be here.

Those of us that were visiting our villages in Jung Tsing were met by relatives at the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Affairs Office in the city. The first encounter with mine was somewhat awkward. More because of my lack of vocabulary than anything else. I was met by two elderly gentlemen. The others said I looked like them. I couldn't exactly tell. It turned out that they were my father's first cousins. It was strange to think that I'd arrived at some arbitrary city and I was actually meeting family. And then you quickly become conscious of the fact you've traveled half way around the world to shake their hands. What do you say? I said hello, in clumsy Cantonese, I don't know if they understood me, and then we shared an uncomfortable silence.

I took Jimmy, our tour guide for Jung Tsing, as my translator to my village. He was critical to my experience. It's kind of sad that I was pathetically ignorant without his help. Communicating through a third party wasn't exactly the ideal way to converse to my newfound relatives. But To be honest it's not like it doesn't happen back home. But it does force you to appreciate how different a world we live in New Zealand. Even still, through Jimmy I managed to take a lot out of the event.

We'd been informed that denim was the province's major industry. Some magnificent stats were thrown at us about the region's contribution to China's jean production. It was something like 90% of China's total exports. How ridiculously colossal would China's manufacturing power be for something like denim? One cannot begin to fathom. Considering this we were prepped for the stone washed onslaught.

When we arrived at my village, Guan Hu, I was greeted by a towering basketball hoop. One of my queries had been answered, and it was somewhat unexpected. Underneath the hoop was a giant mound of jeans. They were being stacked on wheelbarrows up to at least head height. Even though I was aware that I'd see denim, it still made a pretty bizarre first impression. I was greeted by other relatives and they invited me into one of their homes. They me offered me Coke and some fruit. And then I was frankly told off for not knowing any Chinese. While I was escorted around the village I noticed the streets were made of dirt and dotted with chickens, dogs andˇ­ denim. They kind of just pile them on to the side of the dirt streets and the workers simply sit and work around them.

A lot of the buildings looked like they'd been around since ancient times. They were mainly made of concrete or brick but were ornately decorated. It brought back memories of those old Chinese period TV dramas my grandmother used to watch. The ones where the fight scenes are have an excessive amount explosions and everyone can fly. However, the most bizarre thing was the juxtaposition of the preserved ancient buildings and the "contemporary" pink and white multi storey abominations they'd constructed around them. It's not like they were horribly ugly buildings, it was more the fact that for some reason the landscape of mainland China now has an eclectic mix of buildings that are from ancient past and buildings that are pink.

For some reason Jimmy thought we needed to rush to get back to meet the rest of the group. So my visit became an intense and hurried experience. I was rushed through the tight stone paved alleyways to the empty homes of my past relatives. I was quickly taught the traditional "hang san" incense ceremony, and performed it in each home. But whose houses' were these? Was this the living area or a bedroom? I wasn't really in each house long enough to ask. And it was all a bit too much to take in at once. Most of the homes were coated in layers of old dust. And they seemed to be used mainly for storage. Some were also overgrown with grass and weeds. But some things still remained. I was hastily rushed though open fire kitchens, broken water wells in the small open courtyards and communal long drops. It was easy to forget that this was where my dad grew up as a boy. Did my dad actually live like this? He must have. It was an insightful experience. It would have been foolishly tragic, if it hadn't been. I got to visit my dad's home last. We had to smash the old lock off the door, with a hammer. No one had been to visit in a while, I guess. I explored around a little and took as many photos as I could cram into my memory stick and then it was time to leave. It turned out we didn't need to be in such a hurry. We were first back by a long shot.

It would have liked to visit my mother's village in the Seyip province. It turned out that more than half of us had relatives from the area. It would have been nice to make a comparison between the two.

Our next destination was Guangzhou City. Although the name was vaguely familiar we still had no idea where it was, for that matter where were we now? What we did know was that it was another solid bus ride away, and that our next accommodation would be serving plain jook for breakfast. We had been informed that we'd be making a couple of stops on the way to Guanzhou. And these were to be enlightening.

The first was the markets in Shenzhen. For many it was to be our first taste at bargaining. Man, I still feel the scars. It was a watch. An elegant timepiece emblazed with a charmingly bogus TAG Heuer crest. Not paying attention at Janet's 100 level bargaining lecture on the bus was a fatal mistake. I had no idea what the going rate for a fake Tag Heuer was! So it was me and Brett, who were trying to figure out what we thought was a reasonable price to pay. We brought the price down by like 50 yuan (like NZ$10). I thought we'd done ok. I mean we didn't want to starve their children or anything. So we both bought one each. We should have just walked away. Tim found out from another watch seller less than two minutes later that we'd probably paid five times the going rate. We paid NZ$40 each. It's probably not something that stall owner's going to start bragging about, but they probably had a substantial chuckle at our ignorance. I can't currently bear to wear that watch. I gave mine to my brother. A timely learning experience it was.

There are still numerous things that puzzle me about shopping in China though. Like even if you actually were victorious in a bargaining conquest and even if you managed to slaughter the price down to 10 percent of the original value, why is the stall next-door offering it even cheaper? How much of a mark up do they putting on these products? And why is it the dodgiest looking guy always has the best selection of Rolexs? How many dozens of foot and back massage stalls do you actually need in one market? What is the current record for the amount secret compartments in one stall?? Why do Pepsi make basketball boots and 'designer' leather jackets over here? Why do white people in the markets always look like they're being ripped off? Is this real leather? Why do the girls always get better bargains than the guys? How many jiao in a yuan? How many cents is in a jiao?

Our other stop on the way to Guangzhou was the minority village, which was also in Shenzhen. I finally discovered what a "minority village" was. It's very similar to an amusement park, the name doesn't exactly suggest as much. But instead of being based around an animated talking mouse or violent Hollywood blockbusters the themes are derived from the various minority cultures within China. It is definitely a more wholesome and educational form of entertainment. We were there to see the Chinese show. I wasn't initially expecting a hell of a lot, since the show began with a speaking rock. But the show quickly kicked into gear. And it was ridiculously impressive. The show staged a huge variety of performances. It had a troupe of at least a hundred performers, elaborate costumes, martial arts, dragon dance's, hula hoops, plate spinning, horses, camels, elephants, waterworks, fireworks, laser lights, more animals, and ladies suspended from the ceiling. It was all simply and amazing show. Except for the English story translations on the big screen. They were amazingly indecipherable.

I realized there was a recurring theme after witnessing the minority village show and the performances in Foshan. The Chinese really know how to perform, and they love to do it. And then I figured it out. The Chinese love to show off, or to put it more diplomatically they enjoy expressing themselves. Things that are distinctly Chinese are always elaborate and embellished to the highest degree. And when you think about the way they celebrate Chinese New Year, The Moon Festival, lantern festivals, and the other Chinese celebrations I don't have any idea about, they are always elaborate and huge events. I mean they invented the firework didn't they? I'm guessing performance has been integral part of Chinese culture for centuries. Martial Arts is very much a performing art, there's Chinese opera, they love those huge telethon like tv shows, and they're infatuated with karaoke. But it never really occurred to me how much a part of Chinese culture it is until I came here. But the New Zealand born Chinese aren't so flamboyant. Maybe we're just trying to integrate into society. Who knows? But it's made me consider the difference in cultures between China and back home. It's also made me think about how massive the Olympics are going to be.

After the evening spectacle we eventually arrived in Guangzhou city. Exhausted from the bus ride and the strenuous bargaining exploitations earlier in the day. But the night was still in its infancy and our first sample of a Saturday night in China beckoned. It was only appropriate that we consume the duty free alcohol we had lugged so far from shores of Auckland. So a few quiets eventually led us to some obscure karaoke bar with a spring-loaded dance floor. Beers were NZ$10 each! The end of the night concluded with us all cramped inside a brightly lit Seven Eleven replenishing our exhausted bodies with tasty foodstuffs. Funny how it all seems very reminiscent of back home.

Our first day in Guangzhou was spent visiting the high school where Ms Long and Amy taught. I think they had planned some calligraphy lessons for us and there were rumours of a basketball game. Someone mentioned that it was an English-learning high school. But we weren't exactly sure what to expect. To be honest we weren't exactly sure what we were actually here for. But after the formal introductions and the group photo things ended up unfolding quite naturally.

The students were normal college age, about 13 ¨C 18 year olds. After our greeting we all casually dispersed and the students kind of latched on to us we introduced ourselves. A lot them spoke pretty good English. They were initially unsure about their abilities. But all of them could speak well enough to have a casual conversation. We got them to show us around their dorms and classrooms. It was interesting to see what life is like as a high school student in China. Their standard of living is quite basic. By Chinese standards I think these kids are probably quite fortunate. To us, it would probably take a little getting used to. The floors are unsealed concrete. They bunk in a room with 5 other people and provided with a squat toilet and a washing/laundry area. ALL laundry is hung outside to dry. It's actually quite a site. The dorms from below look like a 5 storey drying rack.

The guys ended up being our teachers for the calligraphy. The task at hand was to write our Chinese names in characters. I'd done it a few times before, but it was pretty intimidating watching the kids in action. They'd be swiftly executing each elaborate brush stroke with precision and ease. And we'd be standing there vacantly trying to figure out if we were holding the brush right. It was fun times though. But just as we started to make a little progress we were prematurely interrupted for a little dose of basketball. I was itching to get some exercise seeing as we'd recently been spending a lot time in buses. I was expecting a little 3 on 3 action, maybe a few casual lay-ups ¨C nothing too intense. They'd gone organized two refs, a score bench and full squad of players and all kitted up in official NBA apparel and knee-high socks¨C well not quite. But we had 8 guys and some of us were playing in pants. They were also expecting us to a play a full 60-minute fixture under the broiling heat of the Guangzhou sun. Although invigorating it was an intense 60 minutes. The soles of my shoes were melting by the third quarter. Appropriately we drew the game. Our girls won. Then we had lunch.

Being such 'entertaining' hosts they'd also arranged a 'show' for us. I'm telling you these Chinese peoples really dig their shows. It could probably be best described as some sort of variety bash. The performances ranged from martial arts to traditional dance to hip-hoppy-type-dance to some sort of China-Idol-thing to traditional Chinese instruments to traditional singing and then there was some bizarre game that involved the audience and balloons. It was basically a continuous barrage of performing talent and that wasn't even including our kung-fu demo and a token haka. Where the hell did they all these guys? I was way too tired from the basketball to think about. But it was still really entertaining nonetheless.

Interacting with the kids was quite a gratifying experience. I think they really enjoyed our company. Who knew how they would react to a bunch of random Chinese guys and girls with some pretty bizarre accents. But they were all incredibly humble and very gracious to us. They were always asking questions, and seemed really keen to learn. I guess one of the reasons we were there was for them to have someone to practice their English with. But I think we all took something away from the experience. One thing we did help them out with was refining their choices for English names. Some were shall we sayˇ­.aah?ˇ­ill considered. I think one of the first conversations someone had started like this: "Hi, my name is Vitamin C". And they replied: "ˇ­ˇ­.Sorry you're whaaat?!?". I'm also pretty sure that we played basketball with some dude named is Handsome.

We got to savor our first free day of the trip in Guangzhou. It was about time. For once there was no bus to pile into, nowhere to tour and no mandatory 9 course onslaught for lunch. After Janet had taken great pleasure in educating a few of us how to use the Guangzhou Metro, we utilized the knowledge to great effect. Our first sample of Chinese public transport system and was actually quite impressive. It's really clean and, once you can decipher the map, easy to use. In typical holiday fashion, the free day was put to good use aimlessly perusing an assortment of shopping complexes, shopping markets and MOBILE PHONES! Along with their compulsive obsession for showing off is their manic fixation with cell phones. Malls devote entire floors to the phenomenon. I didn't bother to make sense of it. The free day was also the dawn of our perpetual search for the cheapest Kodak store in China. We needed to burn our rapidly escalating collection of digital photos on to CD. Especially the extreme close ups of our nostrils and our flattering moon shaped facesˇ­ and also the ones from the ancestral villages. It wasn't as simple as we'd thought it'd be. The best deal we found was NZ$2 others would mark it up to NZ$20.

At night Janet revealed her covert DVD dealership. We bought plenty. I bought plenty. To be honest I've only watched 2 of about 40 odd that I bought. I brought all the cardboard cases back. Janet also disclosed her sock and underwear merchandiser. I bought of sox. Not as many as some though. Why would anyone bother to buy 40 pairs of sox? I guess you can take it home as carry-on.

Also while on Guangzhou we met up with a crew of Australian Chinese who were on the same brand of expedition as us. In true trans-Tasman contempt we were coyly suspicious of them. But it was actually refreshing to have some new faces to speak fluent English with. We casually shared a 9-course extravaganza with them. They were just getting accustomed to the diet. But it was justˇ­ the same. The banality of the dishes was slowly turning meal time into an arduous chore. But we had to eat.

Together we visited the memorial, the birthplace and the home of Dr Sun Yat Sen. When we arrived, both us and the aussies were pretty much like: "What are we here for again?...Hey, who's got the oreos?" But we soon learnt that Sun Yat Sen's significance in China's political history was kind of up there with our Treaty of Waitangi. So the visit ended up being an intensive crash course in Chinese social studies. I guess I'm grateful that I now know a little about now China's history now but I wouldn't say it was totally awe inspiring either. We said our goodbyes to the aussies and left them at the museum and the girls exchanged insightful advice on how to find hygienic western toilets.

From Guanzhou we were to fly to Huangzhou, which is supposedly south of Shanghai, which was the first city that actually rang some sort of bells in our western consciousness. We were to spend a couple of nights in Huangzhou and then it was another solid spell in a bus to get to Shanghai. Leaving behind Amy and Ms Long at Guanzhou airport signaled the end of the formal part of our tour. We were really grateful for their help and advice and it was kind of sad that we were just ditching them with the bus. Some how we'd blown half way through our China campaign. 2 weeks had gone by unnoticed?

Our time in Huangzhou felt less frantic than the previous part of our conquest of China. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was because we could drop having to worry about imperfections of our kung fu routine or maybe it was because we weren't rushing around maniacally trying to see a whole ancestral village in an hour or maybe it was just simply we were immersed in Huangzhou's picturesque vista's and zen invoking atmosphere. We had also now shifted from intense education mode into full-blown lazy foreign tourist mode. This was formalized by the fact we were provided with Bob, our own English speaking tour guide complete with microphone, insightful anecdotes and yellow flag. We also scored an air-conditioned bus equipped with reclining seats, vcd player, TV monitor, karaoke and driver.

Huangzhou's air appeared significantly fresher than anything else we'd been intoxicating ourselves with thus far. And it also provided our first taste of the cooler weather we'd been expecting. It was definitely a nice change from the sticky humidity of Guanzhou. To me Hunagzhou bore a striking similarity to Lake Taupo. Both have beautifully idyllic lakefronts with tremendously lush foliage and surrounding mountains and ducks on the water. However Huangzhou is dotted with ancient pagodas, ancient towers and elaborate bridges that are probably centuries old. It was indeed a beautifully photogenic landscape.

Huangzhou also introduced us to our first true "tourist destination". I'm not too sure what you'd call it really. But it was to be the first of a series of intensely rehearsed infomercial like performances, formulated to encourage the foreign tourist to invest in "authentic Chinese souvenir products". In this case we pulled up in our tourist-wagon under the impression we were visiting a "tea museum" and for the first part it all appeared sound. Until we were herded off to a private viewing room to be "presented" to. The thing was that the products often looked genuine enough and we were often presented with free samples. However the way they presented the stuff often came off as unashamedly blatant hard sell. Who said change it to the Shopping Network? We were better off having Mike King sell us Pork loins back home. The whole deal reeked far too strongly of a patronizing way to milk tourists. Had it all been presented with a little more authenticity or a little less exaggerated, it would have been a little more tolerable. But it seemed there were other ways we could be spending our time in China. The bitter taste didn't last long though. That was replaced by another 9-course bonanza. After two nights we left the picturesque Huangzhou and progressed on-route to Shanghai.

Shanghai is impressive. Impressively bigger, impressively faster and impressively populated. Especially on Nanjing road. I've never been so cramped on a bloody footpath before; in parts I found it was similar to a mosh pit. Shanghai is very much a city of affluence. The architecture is bolder, the cars are sleeker, the neon is brighter and the Starbucks is dearer. And the luxury brands are disturbingly ominous. Prada, Louis Vuitton, D & G, Gucci, Rolex, Tag Hueuer, BMW, Ferrari, Maserati. There seems to be an infatuation with all things European. It was different from walking around Foshan and Guangzhou. It was more apparent here that the population that do have money, enjoy flaunting it. You'd see women on the streets parading their pink fur ensembles and guys sporting bleached hair, bleached jeans and excessive gold jewelry.

Also impressive was the fact that I managed to get horribly lost 3 times on the first day. It was a somewhat unorthodox way to see Shanghai, but scenic nonetheless. But aside from the unintentional detours I definitely enjoyed my time in Shanghai. With four days there it was hard to really get a true impression for the huge and burgeoning city. But we were served a satisfying appetizer. It was an enlightening and entertaining mix of Shanghai's history and Shanghai's contemporary state of being. I didn't actually think China would be as westernized as it is. But it's definitely somewhere I would like to return to. And it'll interesting to see how magnificently different it will be when I do.

From Shanghai we took the soft-sleeper train from Shanghai to Beijing. A 12-hour expedition. I think it was longer than our initial flight from Auckland to HK. But it didn't end up being too traumatizing. Apart from the fact that we got shafted with the cabin with some grumpy asian man with suspicious looking luggage it ended being a quite harmless experience. We occupied ourselves with mahjong, Janet's appetite for gossip, and a sound nights sleep in the comfortable bunks bed provided.

Beijing was cold. We were finally immersed in the negative temps we'd been expecting the whole trip. It's not like I wanted it to be cold but we'd lugged kgs worth of bloody thermals and jackets, I sure as hell wanted to make use of them.

Beijing was a very stark contrast to Shanghai. In Shanghai the skies were blueˇ­ish (the pollution, added a certain greyish haze), and embellished with soaring modern architecture, stylish hotels and buzzing neon. In Beijing the sky is grey and the city is fortified by imposing buildings from an ancient civilization. It's not a vibrant and dazzling metropolis, but the capital city is a strangely profound place. In places like Tian'men Square the mood feels very serious. Then after thinking about it I kind of boiled it down to this: In Shanghai you're engrossed in China's potential, in Beijing you encounter China's past.

In Beijing we inherited a new bus and new tour guide, Oscar, who strangely kept treating us with stories about his girlfriend. We visited a lot of the China's most famous tourist spots while we were in Beijing. Mao's mausoleum, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, the Hutong district with bonus rickshaw experience (those bike-carriage things), The Summer Palace, The Ming tombs, and the amazingly Great Wall. All were an insight into how life was in a time without Coke, rice cookers and when the concept of a fork would have been most radical. It was hard not to be impressed by the detail of construction in the ancient structures and temples. And the level of craftsmanship that goes into even the menial objects, like the window frames and roof gutters. I don't know why I noticed those things. But the others would often just look at me vacantly as I'd take photos of door handles and stare at the ceiling.

The Great Wall was a wicked experience, but it took some effort. You wouldn't say it was hard work, but when you have to compete with the icy temperatures, the icy stone steps, the uneven stone steps, the icy uneven stone steps, and the almost vertical incline, you begin to question why you're bothering. Yet the wall is a marvel to behold, it really does seem to go on forever. And the amazing views make you understand where they get their inspiration for those water-colour landscapes and murals. We only walked a small section of the wall. Those of us that made it to the top tower were mighty proud of the achievement and honored the event with a memorial souvenir plaque with our Chinese names and the date engraved. Others just bought the plaque and ate pringles on the bus.

When our last day in Beijing arrived it was sad. We knew there was so much more to see, we'd barely scratched the surface. And who knew when we would return? We knew it would never be with same gang of people again. Our time in Mainland China had vanished so quickly it was hard recall all the things we'd experienced. Our luggage weights told a truer story though. We'd collected enough souvenirs and bought enough crap that we were all starting to freak out about how 'excess' our luggage weights actually were. The luggage cull had commenced and anything not essential had to go. We still had to make room for Hong Kong.

We knew our time in Hong Kong was limited. So we meticulously planned the one and a half days and two nights we were to encounter there ¨C sort of. As soon as we hit the Kimberly hotel, sorted the rooms, dropped the bags and changed our socks we were out the door again. There were things to see, stuff to buy and alcohol to consume. I don't know if it was our inspired foresight and strategic execution, or the fact that Janet has been to Hong Kong an abnormal amount of times in the last decade, but we were able to achieve an amazing amount in our conquest of Hong Kong. We experienced, with intense vigor and extreme haste, a trip on the Star Ferry, The Peak, Causeway Bay, Mong Kok, half price yum char, more spitting, the subway, the bus, running after a bus, the night markets, the Hong Kong harbour at night, the best won ton in the world at some obscure noodle shop for dinner, pei dan jook and cheung fun for supper and I purchased my precious Apple Powerbook which in turn exploded my credit card balance.

Because I wasn't able to visit my other grandmother's village in the Seyip province, I was grateful to be able to visit where she and my mum used to live in Shueng Wan. Even thought the apartment complex had been replaced with shops it was cool to experience a part of Hong Kong that I guess is another little slice of my heritage. It was a nice way to round off the trip. I appreciated being able to spend a little time, if somewhat token, in the places where both of my parents spent parts of their childhood.

And then there was the drinking. We made sure we made good use of those two nights we had. To make up for the fact we'd kept placidly sober in China and to celebrate the end of our voyage, it was only appropriate that we partake in a spot of binge drinking. We are Kiwi after all, aren't we? We visited an array of attractive watering holes. Most notably was Felix, which sits atop the Peninsula Hotel on the Hong Kong waterfront. Renown for its glamorous toilets with picturesque harbour views, we undertook covert operations to capture photos of the hand basin and urinal cakes. I also stole a napkin. We were also politely denied from places because we weren't door list material. But we persevered and discovered a couple of 'nice' bars that provided good music and served ridiculously overpriced alcohol. One place came complete with a resident dog. I also managed to get frisked by the cops and lost my phone. I reckon the cops snaked it.

I wanted more time in Hong Kong. It's an amazing city. It was easy to forget that our time there was all happening two days out from Christmas. In fact there was no real concept of time throughout the whole trip. Keeping track of which city we were in was hard enough. We left Hong Kong for Auckland on the 24th to be back on in New Zealand on Christmas morning. Even though it was hard to leave China coming home for Christmas was a pretty good alternative.

It was bizarre visiting a place that I thought I knew so little about. It was disturbingly foreign at times, but strangely familiar as well. And I think it was like that for everyone on the trip. Until now China has always seemed so distant. I've never considered it an integral part of who I am. And even though I was hugely skeptical of what I would experience it's fundamentally different once you hit Chinese soil. But seriously, no one can describe to you what there is to encounter about your heritage. And if they try, it's going to sound so clich¨¦ you could probably just walk away and I don't think  they'd blame you.

What must not go unmentioned is the invaluable and experienced knowledge of the tireless Janet Joe - the cornerstone of our tour. She makes it look so effortless. Most of what I took away from the tour about China, its culture and the people came from my conversations with her. She provided an insight and a context in which I was able to relate to as a New Zealander and that I don't think the other tour guides could ever provide.

I'll miss the bitter melon, I'll miss the traffic, I'll miss the spitting, I'll miss the squealing dvd sellers, I'll miss the squat toilets, I'll miss the strange seafood creatures, I'll miss the bad English signage and I'll miss the 50 cent baus. But I'm grateful I have sampled China and I would encourage others to experience the motherland. I've experienced parts of my heritage that I never knew existed and appreciated things that would pale in comparison anywhere else in the world. China is an incredible place, with a rich history and expansive potential. I had no idea the value of a trip like this would be as significant as it was for me as a Chinese New Zealander. My generation has no real comprehension of what exists on the oriental continent. But you discover things about your family, the world they left and about the world it's turned into. It's pretty much impossible to have any true understanding of it unless you experience it for yourself.

March 2005

 
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