A gweilo in 1980s China – Chapter 16
Written by Tai Pan
If you haven’t had yet the chance to read the previous chapters, I suggest you do so by going to the ‘Story of my Life’ section and start from part 1.
CHAPTER 16 – SHANGHAI’S ALLEYS
After our trip to the beautiful Hangzhou, our next stop would have been Shanghai, before leaving for Beijing. Finally I had the chance to go see the capital city of the People’s Republic of China!
I was so excited about the idea of visiting Beijing, that during my first night in Shanghai, before falling asleep, I began to fantasise about the capital, imagining how beautiful it must have been at the time of the emperors. That night I, indeed, dreamt that I was in the company of Dirk Struan – once again – and that we were both going to visit the forbidden city of Beijing to meet the Emperor’s advisors to discuss about a tea and spices trading concession.
The dream was so deep and realistic that the day after, when I woke up, I took notes on the details of the ‘business transaction’ I dreamt of, as I was scared I would have forgotten about them!
The morning after I woke up in my room at the Peace Hotel and I sat down next to the window. It was about 6 o’clock in the morning when something incredibly beautiful happened just outside the hotel. What I saw through the window was something that was indelibly “printed” in my memory: the Bund below me was already ‘awake’ and full of people walking and cycling around. I thought that maybe I had the wrong time on my watch; it couldn’t have been 6am, impossible!!
The Huangpu River wound its way over the road and in the faint light of dawn, and through a light fog, I saw a lot of boats sailing up stream. The majority of the small boats had a lantern – I think it must have been an oil lantern – hanging from the front side, to make their presence visible to the bigger boats. Also the big boats had warning lights on board, in this case, however, they were light bulbs and not lanterns.
During the four days spent in Shanghai, apart from the exhausting business negotiations, I also had the opportunity to go back to the Jin Jiang Club to meet my friend Yang, as I promised before leaving the country the last time. As soon as he saw me and the other Italians, he immediately lit up! The restaurant was fully booked and he was talking with the numerous guests that were seated at a big table to celebrate something; however, when he saw me, he suddenly walked away from the table he was serving and came towards me with a big smile.
He took us to our table and he called 3 waiters to serve us. I knew that he did everything for the spontaneous and wonderful empathy that was created between us! At first I was really happy and excited, but then I looked around the room, and I realised that all the other guests were staring at us while they were whispering something.
I felt really embarrassed and uncomfortable; I could not understand the reason why all those people reacted like that!
Finally, later that evening somebody explained to me that, since then, no one had ever seen a foreigner being so friendly to a Chinese, and a Chinese being so friendly to a gweilo, so everyone thought that I must have been a very important person, and this is why the restaurant manager respected me so much!
One afternoon in Shanghai, we had some free time for ourselves, so my fellow countrymen and I asked the government officials if they wanted to accompany us on a tour of the little streets in the old town.
In those tiny ancient roads, where the sun struggled to penetrate, buildings were designed one right next to the other, and people thanks to the position of the constructions, people would hang their clothes to dry on strings that were attached to both buildings. That whole scene reminded me of the alleys of the old Naples (my hometown).
While I was happily admiring the ancient architecture, I noticed an old man sitting on a chair on the side of the road, who was eating rice with vegetables. When he saw that we stopped to watch him, he stood up and called out with a smile, the person, which I later learned to be his wife. The lady came out of her home and told us something in Chinese. We obviously did not understand a word, but then the officials that were escorting us translated it for us.
Unfortunately, one of the Italians was a real imbecile! Indeed, he thought the old couple was asking for charity, so he started to take money out of his pocket. While he was opening his purse, saying “let’s give something to the poor”, the old lady came out of her house to offer us 3 bowls of steamed rice with vegetables. Incredible but true! The idiot had seen their humble and simple appearances, and had thought that they were begging for money. Instead, the Chinese man thought that we were staring at him because we were hungry!
This happened in the old streets of Shanghai after the Cultural Revolution, in a country where people did not have enough food to live comfortably but that, however, would have happily shared their meal with a random gweilo.
We joined the couple and ate the tasty rice, and after finishing the food we said goodbye to them and left. That day my Italian ‘colleague’ had a life lesson!
While we were heading back to the hotel I witnessed another wonderful thing, which I remember as if it happened yesterday.
As we stopped at the entrance of the Peace Hotel, the other two Italian and I began to observe the upper floors of the building.
While we were debating about the architectural style we were indicating one specific point of the hotel, and we did not think that maybe three gweilos stopping in the middle of the street and indicating something, must have looked weird and suspicious.
Few seconds later two Chinese stopped next to us and tried looking in the same direction that we were pointing at. They were curious and interested to know what we were discussing about.
Do you remember when in the previous episodes I told you about the “legendary” Nanking Road covered 24/h by an unimaginable amount of people?
Well, in less than a minute all those people that were rushing up and down Nanking Road stopped all around us to look at the building that we were pointing at!! Everyone was intrigued to see what those three gweilos were so interested in! In just a minute the crowd surrounding us occupied the entire sidewalk, forcing the human flow to stop as well.
Unbelievable but true! We created a real traffic jam! The situation was quite funny I must say, at least until we heard the sirens of a police car, followed by three people wearing a uniform who began to scream at the crowd. One of the three started to yell, in an obviously incomprehensible language for us, and put his hand on his holstered gun!
All of a sudden the crowd magically dispersed. The police then explained to us that, having noticed that the crowd stopped to look at something, they feared that something serious had happened to the gweilos that were standing in the middle!
To cut it short, we literally created public disorder only by looking and pointing at something while speaking about a building!
All this happened because at that time in China it was quite rare to see foreigners walking on the streets.
After a few days spent in Shanghai, we finally left to go to Beijing. However, I will tell you about this beautiful city in the next chapter!
(All photos are from Google.com, and they all belong to their original owners)