Thursday, September 23, 2010


A market in China

 My employers, opened an office in Hong Kong and it didn’t take very long at all to wangle a trip to the island.

I’d been fascinated with China and all things Chinese since school days when my closest friend was the inscrutable Pearlie Sou San.  We had each gone our separate ways over the years but like the Cheshire cat whose smile remained when the moggie disappeared, so too did my deep and abiding interest in all things Oriental.

These were the days of closed borders, of Mao’s little Red Book.  Trade missions and politicians seemed the only people gaining entry.  There I was in Hong Kong with China looming in the distance, a sleeping giant I couldn’t wait to explore.

In your dreams said my Boss.   Betcha I confidently replied.

Lone travellers were getting into China at that time but they had to have a darn good reason for going there.  I filled in a visa application, entered aspiring writer as an occupation and sat back to see what happened next.

Maybe Australians were flavour of the month, or perhaps  I filled their entry quota for the day because I was duly granted the visa and found myself next morning boarding a train for old Canton, now to be known as Guangzhou.

Two other westerners were on board, an Italian priest in mufti who didn’t want authorities to know he was a priest, and an English Television researcher who didn’t want anyone in China to know he was working on a documentary...about mainland China.

I felt I was in excellent company, after all  in my case I wasn’t the aspiring writer the Chinese had been led to believe I was.  

Any thoughts we each of us held that we were indeed travelling alone and independently were shattered when the train arrived at Guangzhou and we three, among the many hundreds of Chinese passengers spilling onto the platform, were neatly plucked from the throng and shunted off to a large white van.  From the station we were taken to a foreign visitor’s hotel and placed in the care of the China Travel Service.

That night at dinner we exchanged notes.  The tourist people had offered two tours, one to a pig farming commune the other to a porcelain factory.  I signed up for the commune as did the English TV man.  The Italian Priest said he was moving out of the visitor’s hotel next morning and planned to disappear somewhere down by the river into a more suitable hostel more in tune with his limited finances. Mind you he did speak the language fluently.

I never saw him again.   Next morning the Englishman caught me at breakfast to say he was ditching the commune; he had certain people to meet and other mysterious places to go and hoped I’d enjoy the farm.

I did. I met pigs, lots of pigs and even more little piglets; The people were genuine and interesting and the lunch commune workers put on for me really was embarrassingly generous and very tasty.  The whole outing was an exercise in official propaganda. Trouble is I didn’t fancy controlled tours and organised hours, so I took a leaf out of my former companion’s book and set off alone to explore old Canton.

China, for me, would never be quite the same as it was on that first visit.  Sans map and supervision I wandered the streets, an object of curiosity to everyone I passed.  Some would stand in my path peering into my eyes, minutely examining my nose, my face, and of course my clothes.  Others would stop as I wandered past; I could read their minds, ‘what is that big nose creature doing in our street?’

I was waved into eating establishments too utilitarian and large to classify as a western cafe or restaurant and offered tea and food. One ancient gentleman seeing my difficulty with chopsticks even rushed into the kitchen and returned with a tablespoon and a very old and battered fork. On another occasion they even refused money, just clasped my hands and smiled huge wide grins.

Maybe I looked hungry, in need of a feed.

Wandering into a music store an assistant asked where I was from, then picked up a flute and played a pretty good rendition of Waltzing Matilda.  How could I not fall in love with China and the Chinese people?

Only one grey cloud marred that first visit.  Across from the Hotel was the Guangzhou Trade Fair.  A huge hall displaying China’s exports, somewhat like Brisbane’s sample bag hall at the Exhibition but without the sample bags.

I found it interesting though not particularly exciting, but as I wandered up and down the aisles I soon realised a young woman was following closely and persistently behind me.

She finally introduced herself in a whisper as a Burmese national trapped in China and unable to leave.  Lowering her voice even further she begged my help to contact relations in Burma.  For all I knew she could have been Burmese but this wasn’t something I wanted to be part of.  China’s track record with dissidents was well known even back then.

I told her I would see her outside at the entrance when I left, and then I looked around for another exit.  The only one led out into a dingy service bay where workers looked at me in astonishment.  I just kept moving down an alley, into a side street, back tracking until I found my hotel.

A genuine dissident or a Government stooge?  I will never know.  China however has never refused me an entry visa for any of my subsequent visits.  On one occasion China Travel Service even asked me to babysit four non speaking Chinese tourists from Hong Kong to Guilin. The request came with an astonishing discount on my air fare. Of course I said yes.

They didn’t seem concerned that I spoke no Mandarin or Cantonese and the two couples supposedly in my short time care spoke only French Canadian and Japanese.

                                                                      Ladies of China 



©Robyn Mortimer 2010