The end of an era

January 28, 2006

Sunday, August 7th, it was time to leave behind the mainland and head back to old, very familiar territory: Taipei. I had decided that my original packing scheme for the summer, which involved my backpack overstuffed and very heavy, along with a small tote bag and a computer case, was not a convenient way to move things around, and that it would be wise to have a suitcase I could pull along. I picked one up near my apartment for about $7. I knew this would not mean a lifetime guarantee, but really, all I wanted was for it to survive the trip to Taipei, Singapore, back to Beijing and home.

To get to Taipei, I was taking the train down to Shenzhen, crossing the border into Hong Kong at Lo Wu, and then flying from Hong Kong to Taipei (necessary because there are no direct flights between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic, nor will there be until some political and territorial issues are settled). A little complicated, but I was confident it wouldn’t be a problem.

The first wheel of my suitcase broke in front of my apartment building. The wheel structure cracked further in front of the Guangzhou East train station, and the wheels just fell off altogether at the ticket checkpoint. I half carried, half dragged the suitcase (which was heavier than it had any right to be – I’m only up a couple books and five small terra cotta soldiers since Beijing, so it should be lift-able. Of course, when all the same things were divided into three bags in different hands and shoulders, they were easier to lug than when they were in a large box shape in front of me) and somehow made it onto the train platform. There the ground was quite smooth, so I gave up on all pretense of lifting the blasted thing and just started to drag it behind me. Minutes later, there was a loud THUD, and I noticed the suitcase was infinitely lighter. I looked behind me, and found my hand still tightly grasped around the pull handle, which was now, sadly, attached to nothing. The suitcase was flat on the ground a few feet back.
Somehow I managed to get the suitcase on the train, and from there a very nice Japanese gentleman (and a professional boxer, he informed me) helped me get it situated on the luggage rack over my head. I think spent the entire hour-long ride to Shenzhen wondering how I would manage to get myself and that suitcase across the border to the airport. These concerns were magnified by the amount of time it took me to lug it out of the train station and onto the sidewalk outside. About when I started quite seriously considering just abandoning it and wearing the same clothes for the next three weeks and forgoing the other assorted items inside, I saw my salvation: a very enterprising young man sitting just outside the station selling cigarettes, beer, and (da dum!) wheeled fold down luggage carts. For 30 kuai, he hooked me up with a cart and bungee cord to strap my suitcase down, and even did the honors himself, making sure that the weight was even so that the whole thing could not tip over. At that moment, he was my favorite person in China, never mind the other 1.3 billion.

As I trekked through the border, assorted pieces of the wheel and handle gear kept falling out at pretty regular intervals. In the no man’s land after clearing China immigration but before passing through the Hong Kong side, I finally dumped the wheels and handle that I had for some reason held on to. When I reached the Hong Kong side, I took the KCR (railway) one stop to the airport bus, where I lost two screws and another piece of the handle. As I went, I kept shedding loose parts, as if leaving a little Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail behind me in case I got lost and needed to find my way back to China. Once to the airport, I was delighted to be relieved of the burden of my suitcase, and made use of the little cart to pull around my backpack (the mere presence of my computer in the backpack, even with nothing else in it, is enough to make it too heavy to wear for long).

In Taipei I had arranged to stay in a hostel of sorts, which was actually just a three-bedroom apartment that the owner rents out to travelers. It was right behind the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, though, which put it a ten-minute walk from my destination, the Guomindang (Nationalist Party) headquarters. Right off the bat, I was unimpressed with the hostel management. I told him I was taking a cab in and wanted the name of an intersection to go to. Xinyi Road was not a problem, but I couldn’t get from him whether the cross street was Jinshan or Xinsheng Road – both intersect with Xinyi road, but a good two miles apart. What made it difficult is that fact that spoken aloud, the names sound sort of similar – especially when spoken by a guy who knows kinda how they sound but not the characters, the meaning, or the Romanization. With the help of a very patient cab driver with a cell phone, we found the right place – but not until after calling the guy three times, having the cabbie speak to him personally (which only led us further from our destination), and going down Xinyi from Jinshan to Xinsheng a total of five times. Here we go round the mulberry bush…

All told, it took over twelve hours to go from my apartment in Guangzhou to the hostel in Taipei, door to door. Pretty sad given the fact that the flight between the two cities, if direct flights were offered, would be a bit shy of 90 minutes.

My days in Taipei were consumed by my attempts to do research at the GMD Party History office. The research facility consists of one table up on the seventh floor, with a bank of lockers, a power strip, and about 300 little drawers full of cards on which one document each is listed. The cards are grouped into three, er, categories: party congress records, pre-1949 records brought over from the mainland, and everything else. Within these three categories, the cards – thousands and thousands of them – were arranged in semi-chronological order. The problem with semi-chronological order is that for every 10 cards that appear in order, there’s one so far off base that you still have to go through every card individually, but it feels more pointless than if you were going through cards that were arranged in no order whatsoever. I asked for some advice from the young woman in charge of things, and her answer was to take out a drawer, and flip, flip, flip.

I had only 8 days in the archive, so clearly I could not devote the lifetime that it would require to systematically search the drawers for references to relevant documents. What I did do was go all the way through the party congress and 1940s records at warp speed. Really. I’m surprised smoke didn’t start to come from the friction as my fingers flipped through the cards. I wrote down a list of about 50 files I felt I absolutely must see, and started ordering. Once the records came, I had the new challenge of trying to speed read and translate or type in Chinese anything I thought I needed. Because naturally they don’t allow photocopies or digital cameras. Of course not. Sometimes, at these little moments in historical research, bureaucracy on Taiwan and bureaucracy on the mainland is so similar, you can start to forget just how far apart the two governments’ politics really are.

The one advantage of research in China or Chinese renegade provinces is that no matter where you are, you can count on the facility closing early. With only 8 days to work, this was actually probably not an advantage, but I know that I can really only sit and speed-read Chinese documents for so many hours in the day – and after 8 or so (with an hour for lunch, during which all records must be stowed but the card catalog is available for extracurricular flipping) is about my limit, and then my brain turns to mush and frequent repetition of the epithet “those communist bandits” starts to make me giggle uncontrollably. So it is nice that at this point, the archives will inevitably close and I spend a guilt-free evening enjoying my surroundings.

The evenings in Taipei were like old times, for me. Lancelot was conveniently in town at the same time, so I got to hang out a bit with him, and I also spent as much time as possible with my good friend Yu-wen. We did the culinary tour of Taipei, trying to get in old favorites (my mouth waters at the very thought of the barbeque octopus at the Shi-da Road Korean restaurant. I know, me with the octopus cravings. I’m not sure how that happened, except that once you get over the tentacles, it’s really quite tasty), and try some new digs.

On Saturday night, we went to an all you can eat Chinese-style restaurant. I must say, Taipei has perfected the art of the all-you-can-eat restaurant. Most places are feature steak, Korean barbeque, or hot pot with elaborate salad and extras bars, but this place was a full-service Chinese restaurant with a standard menu and lots of pictures of the available dishes. It was made special, however, by the fact that you could order as much as you wanted, all for the same price. We got there at 5:30, and started right in. We ordered new dishes roughly every 20 minutes for the next three and a half hours. We skipped the beef and chicken dishes, but ordered literally everything else on the menu. And no little bits or “just a taste” – we sent back clean, empty plates with each new order. After every table in the area had turned over at least twice around us, the waiters began to approach us with trepidation. For the last hour, we had to go to great lengths to flag them down to keep ordering, as they started to steer a wide path around our table. When we finally conceded to their almost pleaded request to bring us our fruit and dessert and the bill, we stood very slowly and waddled up to the counter to pay. In US terms, $11 each, inclusive. Desperate to move, we decided to walk over an hour back home. On the way, we discussed whether we ought to feel good about our rather remarkable accomplishment, or embarrassed that the restaurant just lost money on us (I’ve attached a picture of the two of us, so you can see just how unlikely the two of us managing to consume so much really is). We ultimately settled on a sort of sheepish pride as most appropriate.

On Sunday, my only Sunday in town, I went first to my old church on Xinglong Road. I hadn’t told anyone I was coming back to Taiwan, so there was a great deal of exclaiming and “do my eyes deceive me?” After a lovely morning catching up and promising to stay in touch, I met up with Yu-wen’s whole family and we went out together on an adventure.

They took me up to Ye-liu on the North coast, which is known for colorful layers of rock that have been sculpted over thousands of years of typhoons. Parts of it look like a landscape on Mars or some other, similarly otherworldly, location, and other parts of it are made famous by the rocks’ remarkable resemblance to something of this earth, like a sandal or Queen Victoria’s head in profile (really). Sometimes you have to squint to see it, but then you line up to have your picture taken alongside it, which is really all you can do with rocks said to resemble long-dead foreign leaders.

From there, we visited an extinct volcano in Yangmingshan (a national park made up of gorgeous mountain scenery in Taipei) and went out for a fabulous dinner at an outdoor mountaintop eatery. Before heading back into town, we stopped at Wenhua University. Perched on the side of the mountain, the campus is reported to be the most beautiful college grounds in Taiwan, and it affords a panoramic view of the lights of Taipei at night.

Much, much too soon, I was back at the Chiang Kai-shek International Airport and headed for Singapore. My purpose in returning to Singapore, other than completing my post-research East Asian Victory Lap, of course, was to attend a conference on Overseas Chinese studies. 2005 marked the 600th anniversary of the start of the voyages of Zheng He (a Ming Chinese eunuch who commanded a fleet of ships that traveled across East to the East coast of Africa… and even to North America, if you’ve read Gavin Menzies’ version of events and were gullible enough to believe in it). The conference was interesting, certainly for the papers and the academic contacts, but even more so for the cultural differences between academic conferences hosted in the US and those hosted in Asia. In particular, I think of the evening of Perenakan culture presented by the local Perenakan society.

Perenakan is a Malay word for Straits Chinese – that is, people whose roots go back to China, if you go back far enough, but whose families have been settled in Singapore or Malaysia for the past few hundred years. The entertainment extravaganza consisted of a couple of very off-key numbers by a group of Perenakan octogenarians, who were cute in their sarongs, if nothing else; an elderly man in drag cracking jokes in English so accented it was completely incomprehensible; half of a DVD, which ultimately succumbed to technical difficulties; and a fashion show that involved all of three outfits, each repeated up to four times to make it seem longer. I would have tried to sneak out if I hadn’t found myself sitting next to an established Chinese-American musicologist with a talent for sarcastic commentary and biting remarks. We muttered and snorted our way through the evening, and ultimately thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

On my day off in Singapore, I went out to scoff at the 1421 exhibit on the esplanade in Singapore, devoted entirely to the bad scholarship and questionable findings of Gavin Menzies’ study of Zheng He. Rest assured, I had my snarky new friend with me, and a good time was had by all.

Flying back to Beijing (where I had left my suitcase full of research and books for the summer) was about the least fun I’ve ever had traveling in my life; up at 3:30 a.m. to head for the Singapore airport, then flying to Hong Kong, taking a bus over the border (with frequent stops for immigration and customs formalities) to Shenzhen, and then waiting for a much-delayed flight to Beijing, the city upmost in my loathing. I spent three days in Beijing, clearing up archival matters and doing a bit of last-minute shopping, and then I was off for home.

I think I was home a week before I began to really miss China. I don’t miss Beijing, of course, but if I stay away long enough, even that might happen eventually.

Things I’ll miss about China:
1. Everything’s just so darn cheap
2. Sleeper trains that go everywhere
3. Korean food (I know, I know… but I like this better than Chinese food and there is really a lot of it all over China)
4. Friendly people who love to chat about anything and everything, especially my much-beloved neighbors in Nanjing
5. Bicycle commuting (really!)
6. The randomness of it all, in particular the abrupt juxtaposition of old and new, communist and capitalist
7. Great Wall Dry Red Wine (Ack! I think I developed a taste for it!)
8. Fun new mandopop CDs every week
9. Constant challenges to my Chinese: speaking, reading and learning something new all the time
10. Having an Adventure every day

Things I will never miss about China:
1. Pick-pockets
2. The unbelievable crowds, especially on holidays but also on random Tuesdays
3. Defending Taiwan or the Japanese to every cab driver
4. Risking my life as a passenger in every speeding cab
5. Beijing in all its… Beijingness
6. Anything that costs four kuai, eight mao and three fen (it’s impossible to do exact change when it gets down to fen; the coins are so tiny, and they all look alike)
7. Being solicited for anything and everything while walking down the street: from spare change, to Chinese art to walk-on roles as the foreign barbarian in Chinese soap operas (the last of which happened three times in one day in Guangzhou)
8. Cab drivers who try to cheat you by taking an extra lap around the city… because you are, after all, a stupid foreigner
9. Registering with the police every time I move ten feet in any direction
10. Worrying about not having registered: visions, however unrealistic or unlikely, of Chinese prisons

Weighing the two against each other, there’s only one conclusion: I’ll be back.