A Gweilo in 1980s China – pt. 8

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Written by Tai Pan

For those who want to read the previous chapters before being immersed in this one, you can go to the ‘Story of my life’ section and start from part 1.


After listening to my fellow-countryman’s story about public transports in Shanghai, the other Italians and I decided to go for dinner in a traditional Chinese restaurant. We asked the front desk of the hotel for suggestions, and the lady behind the counter told us to go to the Jinjiang Club: a very popular authentic restaurant where the British ambassadors and officials always liked to dine.

We reached the destination by taxi, and once there we found ourselves in front of a stunning colonial structure that was surrounded by green gardens and trees. As soon as I walked in, I began to hear a very soft and elegant melody that was being played by a Chinese man on a piano. We sat down at a table and we immediately ordered food, as we were quite hungry after the ‘funny’ adventure of the peak hours in Shanghai. To be ‘safe’, we chose all dishes that we had already tasted before during the lunch with the Chinese officials of the Textile Import Export Shanghai.

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While we were all sitting down chatting and comparing our first impressions on China, I began to think that that day had been extremely interesting and unique! I was pretty convinced that surprises and strange things were over for the day, but I was actually wrong. The Jianjiang Club had prepared for me another special experience.

While we were waiting for the food to be served, I went on a little tour of the restaurant to find out where the ‘piano-man’ was hiding. Guided by the sound I entered a small room where I finally found the instrument and the Chinese man that was playing it.

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I stopped in the doorway to listen to the relaxing melody without intruding, but the young musician immediately noticed my presence and got extremely uncomfortable. He jumped and came up to me apologizing, but I couldn’t understand why! Then he looked at me really worried and asked me: “What can I do for you sir?”

We began to talk: he explained that he was actually the restaurant’s manager and that he had taken a break from his duty to play the piano. “That’s why he was embarrassed and he started apologising to me!” I thought. He also told me that he studied music at school and that his dream had always been that of becoming a pianist, so I told him that I had been truly enchanted by his skills with that instrument!


I was just about to ask him why he didn’t chase his dream, when a waiter came into the room to let me know that the food was being served. Usually a restaurant manager, except in very special cases, directs and manages the waiters; however, Yang – my new musician friend – remained near our table and continued to chat with me while the waiters were serving us the dishes at the centre of the table. Even when they all left, the young Chinese sat next to me to continue to talk to me. It was as if we had known each other for years!

He told me that he came from a very wealthy family, and that when he was a boy he was given the chance to study music. His family bought him a piano so that he could exercise from home as well. Unfortunately, during the Cultural Revolution promoted by Mao Zedong, a lot of incidents of unjustified and pointless violence happened. Yang was, indeed, one of the unfortunate people that was subject of this violence. He told me that one day a group of Red Guards came to his home, accusing him and his family of being ‘anti-revolutionary’ and against Mao’s ideologies. Apparently someone from his neighbourhood had reported Yang to the authorities. The Red Guards began to break every single thing in the house shouting, and swearing to everyone around them. They then took the piano and started pushing it towards the window, to let it fall outside. According to Mao Zedong, any musical instrument was an object of anti-revolutionary spirit, and so they all needed to be destroyed!

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Yang rushed to the piano to save his beloved dream from being crushed to the soil, whilst his parents were trying to stop him fearing that the Red Guards could hurt him. Too late…Yang threw himself to the piano just when they were pushing it out the window, and while he was trying to push it back in the house, both his hands got trapped under the instrument that because of the excessive weight broke all of his fingers.

He continued telling me that after the accident, he had to spent several months in rehab trying to regain full functionality of his fingers, but unfortunately he couldn’t fully recover. Yang was unable to chase his dream, and his life goal got destroyed together with the piano that crushed from the window. He then decided to become a restaurant manager, letting sometimes himself go to that musical world that he was never going to be part of anymore. He could still play the piano, but he couldn’t really play for too long as his fingers were giving him severe pain every time he would press a note.

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When he finished his story I felt like I wanted to get up and hug that poor young boy, but right when I was about to stand up, the restaurant owner came to take Yang – my friend explained that the manager couldn’t really take care of just one table, but he had to supervise the whole room. After dinner we stayed at the club for a drink until we were the only ones left in the room. The kitchen was closed and the staff was finally eating dinner.

While I was scrutinising the room checking out every single detail of the Chinese decorations around me, I noticed something moving really fast on the carpet. I asked Yang what that was, and smiling he told me that if I wanted to find out what that thing was, I had to follow him. Overwhelmed by curiosity, I got up and followed him into the kitchen: some of the staff was eating sitting around a table, and for each piece of food that they would drop, there was a kind of ‘automatic vacuum’ cleaning everything up…now the very surprisingly – and sort of disgusting – thing, was that the vacuum was no other than a FAMILY OF MICE! Yang explained that the animals lived in the garden, and that they were very helpful to the restaurant as they would always clean the floors! The even crazier thing, was that – the young man told me – the mice would immediately go back to their ‘house’ in the garden when their work was done!


Wonderful China of the 1980s! That night I fell asleep dreaming of the Cultural Revolution; unaware of the uniqueness of the journey that I would have embarked the next day on the train from Shanghai to Changsha. I will tell you about this in the next episode!

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