Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Slow Bloke To China: 8. Guangzhou - Five Golden Flowers And The Perfect Commune

'Great news!' I overheard one of the older ladies who had come on the trip as helpers/nurses tell Toad, the teacher in charge. 'I think we are in luck. I don;t think anyone has picked up Hong Kong Dong.' It must have been more by luck than judgement as several of the group headed directly for the bars in Wanchai which were in their prime in 1979 and still living off the publicity given to them by Richard Mason's 1957 novel, The World Of Suzi Wong.

Others had been out on the booze and had just made it to Kowloon Railway Station to catch the new Canton Express. Three hours later we are standing outside the 1950's square frontage, being introduced to our guides. Already I feel in a different world. People stopped and stared at every opportunity. Being 6 ft 6 tended to be an item of curiosity akin to a Klingon landing in the centre of Guangzhou.

It started in the crowded station when a man who wasn't looking where he was going, walked into me. Like  a Jacques Tati movie, he looked a little dazed and probably thought he had been stupid enough to walk to a lamp post. then he looked down and saw a pair of Size 15 shoes attached to 'the lamp post'. He then slowly raised his head and when our eyes met he screamed and ran.

That was to continue the whole way through China. I stopped the workings of a department store as both staff and shoppers stood still and gawped. I didn't know what to do so I just smiled, waved and said "ni hao". In return I received a thousand smiles, wave and ni haos before everyone  carried on shopping.

The bus took us over a bridge onto an island in the Pearl River. There were several Peoples' Liberation Army guarding the bridge.

'Here is your hotel,' announced the guide. 'The Little Island Hotel'.

It seemed to be an old colonial building, spartan with a musty smell, but full of character. After dinner we decided to go for a walk around the city but only made it as far as the bridge where the soldiers came out of their hut and pointed their rifles at us and in the direction of the hotel.

'No go. No, go,' one of them kept repeating.

We seemed to be prisoners on an island. Admittedly on a very nice island with a comfortable hotel and delicious food. Later we found out that this was a Government reception house and either we were very privileged  or more likely, there was a shortage of hotels in Guangzhou and there was nowhere else to put us.

There was nothing much to do, so  I wrote up my diary. The entry went like this:

'As I am writing this, it is very hot, sticky and lovely. A Typhoon Warning has been issued and they tell us it is always sweltering in Guangzhou before a storm.

The bedroom had two bamboo single beds enveloped by sweeping mosquito nets. The material was so thick that the air from the one electric fan couldn't penetrate, so it was like a glorious oven. Some people like the cold or the wind in their hair. I like being swamped by the heat.

Earlier, we were taken off to the cinema to see the classic film (made in 1959), Five Golden Flowers. It was about a boy called Ah Peng who searches for a girl he meets called Golden Flower. After the propaganda of celebrating the unity of the Chinese people, they all live happily ever after.

The propaganda was something which we were going to have to get used to. The next day we were taken off for the obligatory visit to the Commune. The day was spent mainly drinking cups of tea and eating large banquets. In between we had talks form the Head in the hall about how perfect the system was, surrounded by portraits of Mao, Lenin and Stalin.

'The aim,' he said 'was to grasp a better idea of Chinese life,' as we were taken into a community hall and the workers told us about their wonderful lives amid more cups of tea.

Then we were taken to a happy peasant's model home where we drank yet more tea. It was spotless and we were invited to ask questions about their lives and work for the greater good of China.

'What's good to like about Communism?' one of our group asked impatiently. It produced much coughing and red faces and a procession of ladies with hot water to top up our teas, but no answer. The tour around the village showed a beautiful and prosperous world - well groomed black pigs, water buffalo, contented chickens and happy ducks wandered around the beautifully manicured streets.

The guides dutifully spat out the party line. The food was fantastic. Several large whole river fishes were laid on the table as well as every other meat and offal in rich sauces. The last chore was the visit to the hospital, which was pristine and the cupboards were piled high with medicines, yet there were no patients. There, you've guessed it, we had yet more tea.

It was a relief to get back to Guangzhou. Back to reality. Back to heaving streets. For several hours I felt we had been living in the fictional world of Five Golden Flowers. It was like being an extra in a Chinese version of The Prisoner or The Truman Show.

This was not the real China. There were murmurings and mutterings amongst our group. We hadn't travelled all this way just to hear some propagandist political clap trap. There was a revolt brewing. There was trouble ahead.


  1. I know you don't get many comments to your posts and perhaps you sometimes think that nobody's reading them, so I'm just posting a little note to say that I'm really enjoying this series of posts - just as I do your posts about daily life - and I'm looking forward to the next instalment.

    Thank you for taking the time to dust off the memories. :)

  2. How kind of you to write.

    I love doing this, both present and past, and I am lucky enough to have had a varied life. I am also lucky or unlucky enough to have kept everything from old betting slips to sweet papers from everywhere I have been.

    There's a lot more to come, I'm afraid. Including a book.

    Thank you again.