“Have you been to the Greek War?”
The 19-year-old Chinese waitress in Frank’s Place was trying out her English and that was the question she’d hit me with. I had been in Beijing for several days and it was true that I’d missed some newspapers during that time but, still, was it possible that America had got involved in a war in Greece since I’d left my East Village Manhattan apartment? Or had she actually said, “Great War,” thinking I looked old enough to have served in the First World War?!”
And then it hit me. She had asked, “Had I been to the Great Wall?” Because the saying goes, pu tao Ch’ang Ch’eng, fei hao han,” or, “He who hasn’t been to the Great Wall cannot be considered a hero.”
I lit up a Chinese “Panda” cigarette and looked around Frank’s Place, a joint-venture restaurant/bar American style with checkered table cloths, a dart board, American license plate decor, specials on buffalo wings and frozen strawberry margaritas and reminders of the upcoming Memorial Day barbecue. Yes, Beijing had come a long way.
I nursed my second Tsingtao beer and reflected on my trip to the Great Wall the day before. The day I too became a “hero.” On the way I had seen not only the Ming Tombs but advertisements for the Beijing Golf Club, Harvest Villas, Woodlands Villas and Dragon Villas. And houses that looked as if they had been transported from suburban America and dropped intact into northern Beijing. In addition to whirlpools, jacuzzis, etc., one of the developments offered “heated towel rails.”
I speculated on the Beijing my Chinese teachers in Monterey, California must have known just before they fled the approaching communist armies in 1948: the city with beautiful triumphal arches, pony carts, a magnificent city wall, no modern hotels, no subway, and, needless to say, no “heated towel rails.” And a city yet untouched by the Red Guard destruction of temples and treasures during the Great Cultural Revolution. Yes, Beijing had come a long way.
I ask again for Frank but Frank is never around. Frank is off preparing to open yet another joint venture. In fact, nobody in Beijing is around because they are all off in various sections of the city building a building, or making a deal or opening a hotel or talking to their cellphones about joint ventures. Construction cranes face one another about the town like ancient weapons from forgotten wars.
I stare for a moment at the license plates on the wall and stop at that of New Hampshire. For many young Chinese its slogan must appear ironic and appropriate: “LIVE FREE OR DIE.” I decide to leave Frank’s Place and head back to my hotel located far to the west of the city. A clean, inexpensive hotel but not where my guidebook map said it would be. Because the editors have obviously mixed up the name of the hotel with the same name of a park in the city’s center. When I’d landed at Beijing Airport, a taxi driver had told me my hotel wasn’t even on the map. At the time, I thought he was just joking; he wasn’t. It was on my map; not theirs.
The problem with a hotel located outside the city was that leaving it in the morning ensured I’d be caught in Beijing’s traffic jams. The only thing good I can say about Beijing’s traffic jams is that they are not as bad as Bangkok’s traffic jams. Not yet.
Every day, caught in such a traffic jam, I would chat up the driver in mandarin. Questions: How did people feel about Chairman Mao now? How about his wife, Chiang Ch’ing? Were drivers still using Mao talismans as good luck charms and hanging them from mirrors to avoid accidents? Answers: Most drivers spoke highly of Chairman Mao, following the official line that what Mao did was about 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong (a better percentage than my ex-wife would say I had managed to rack up). Not one person in Beijing had a kind word to say about the “white-boned demon” Chiang Ch’ing. And many taxi drivers no longer believed Mao’s picture dangling from a mirror could protect their taxi because they had seen many taxis with such pictures involved in bad accidents. The Chairman’s charm has faded.
I soon learn something else about my hotel. They take Visa and Mastercard all right, but not my Visa or Mastercard. The Visa and Mastercard they accept is issued by something called the People’s Agricultural Bank of Communes. Or maybe it was the People’s Communal Bank of Agriculture. In any case, it doesn’t take the desk clerks long to determine that my credit cards were definitely not issued by that venerable Chinese institution.
So I find myself in the American Embassy. First to learn where the American Express office is and second, to ask whom I might speak with in Beijing about musical theater. That is to say, I wrote a musical set in Hong Kong and I’d like a Beijing theater to put it on. After all, they staged Arthur Miller’s stuff; why not mine?
I stand near a bemused marine guard and speak on the phone to the cultural section of the American Embassy in English and mandarin. A Chinese woman suggests I check the China Daily to see what is playing. For this I pay taxes? As I hang up, I hear a voice say, “Perhaps I can help you.” I turn to see a Chinese man and a Chinese woman. The man is in his thirties and well dressed. The woman has beautiful long black hair, high cheekbones, almond eyes right out of a T’ang Dynasty poem. Probably descended from an imperial concubine. Absolutely gorgeous. A goddess. But the goddess appears not to notice me, staring straight ahead. There is a legend behind everything in China and she may have heard one about the Chinese woman who turned to stone inside the hallway of the American Embassy because she looked directly at a randy New Yorker who loves Chinese women.
The man explains that he brings in Chinese theater talent to Florida tourist attractions and although about to leave for the States, he might be able to assist me in some way when he returns. I thank him and he introduces the goddess as his dance director. She says “Hello” in a way that tells me that that is probably the full extent of her English and then she takes my hand. Suddenly, at her touch, the embassy dissolves and we bestride the White Crane of Longevity. As it stretches its wings and flies, the goddess and I soar upwards until we enter into the Jade Heaven of the Western Paradise. There, in beautiful jade pavilions set among flower-gardens the goddess and I cavort. And as I bathe in the warm beneficence of her smile, lotus flowers fall from above and brilliantly colored birds sing more melodiously than any I have ever heard, and the goddess and I wander hand in hand, crossing glittering rivers of pure gold coursing through mountains with cloud-covered peaks from which we can gaze upon the legendary Isle of the Blessed. Then suddenly the goddess releases my hand, and I am – in a heartbeat – back in the American Embassy in Beijing.
The man offers me his card and, as I quickly draw mine from my shirt pocket, about a dozen sky-blue, sugar-substitute Hermeseta packets that I pinched from hotel coffee shops scatter to the floor. The goddess bends to help me retrieve them. Not exactly the activity I had planned for her but apparently all the gods will allow. Then, suddenly, even before I have a chance to speak to her, the Marine guard says they can go in now. And, in an instant, they are gone. I glare at the Marine, mumble something about “dumb Jarheads,” and leave the embassy.
Beijing University is not only described as having a beautiful campus but has always been a hotbed of radicalism. Which may be why the middle-aged dragon lady guard at the gate adamantly refuses to let me in despite my pleas and flattery in two languages. Foreigners without difficult-to-obtain permission do not venture beyond the gates and certainly not a foreign devil such as myself who looks as if he might enjoy indulging in the sensistic impressions of the phenomenal world with campus coeds. I assure the woman I only wish to speak with the faculty of the theater department about the state of theater in China. Bad move. Her face registers victory even before she speaks: Bei Da (Beijing University) has no theater department. Touche.
In the late afternoon, I meet a young Chinese woman whose English name is Rosemary. She works as a guide at Beijing’s mangificent I-Ho-Yuan or Summer Palace. She does not have a “danwei” or work unit as she has taken the plunge into pure Capitalism. I almost never take a guide when visiting but, for some reason, I take Rosemary. It would prove to be a wise decision.
As we walk, she points out the many traditional paintings that the Red Guards wanted to paint over in modern Maoist style, thwarted only by a besieged Chou En-Lai. Rosemary, thirty years old and divorced, knows her Summer Palace well, but when she speaks of more modern times she begins a sentence with “After liberation…” She sees my smile she asks what is wrong. I say that if she lives in New York for a year or two she’ll soon say “After 1949,” or “after the Communist victory.” She laughs heartily but says that “after liberation” is how everyone in China refers to the Communist victory. Yes, but in her head, the seed of reflection has now been planted.
And speaking of seeds, everywhere I travel in Beijing seems to be caught in a snowstorm. These are the seeds of willow trees and they swirl around us as we walk beside Kunming Lake toward the Marble Boat of the Empress Dowager. They are known to Chinese as the “Six month snow,” and, according to a Yuan Dynasty play, began falling when an emperor unfairly blamed a common woman for the mistakes of a noble and had her executed.
The old Summer Palace, by the way, lies in ruins, destroyed by British and French troops in 1860, and signs both there and at the (new) Summer Palace tell of how the foreigners “barbarically looted; irrefutable evidence of imperial powers destroying human civilizations.”
I take Rosemary aside and inform her I’m going to tell her a secret. Her eyes widen. I tell her that the real reason the British and French troops destroyed the old Summer palace was because many of their unarmed men meeting with Chinese forces under a flag of truce were taken by the Chinese and brutally tortured for days. Several died, others were maimed for life. Rosemary thinks for several seconds, composing her thoughts as well as her answer in English. “I think…even with this…even if all you say is true…they still did a wrong thing.” And as my granddaddy used to say, “arguments out of a beautiful mouth are unanswerable.”
Rosemary listens attentively when I bemoan my failure to enter Beijing University but says she knows a student there and why don’t we try to get in by a back gate? Rosemary is obviously my kind of girl. We ride in a taxi together to the university. At a back gate, Rosemary alternately cajoles and pleads with a stern-faced guard until finally he asks to see my identification. I present my New York driver’s license and namecard. More words. Lots of writing. But, suddenly, I am inside the university walking beside the lake and pagoda. I am the only foreigner and all around me are young Chinese women on bikes and the sounds of bicycle bells and wind in the willows. Exhausted from a day of sightseeing, I sit on a bench. I tell Rosemary she must be tired from guiding people all day. No, she is not tired, she says, and then she adds, “because I’m young.” Ouch.
While I am in China, I occasionally try out some Cantonese on Beijingers. Invariably, they seem almost startled and then laugh. One lady taxi driver informs me she once saw a movie in Cantonese and then she imitates and exaggerates the sing-song dialect of the south. It could not be clearer that northern Chinese and southern Chinese still have little in common. At language school in California, the northern Chinese teachers had begun by telling us “I don’t fear heaven, I don’t fear earth, I only fear foreigners speaking Chinese.” But, as the months passed, and they knew us better, they let us in on their other saying: “I don’t fear heaven, I don’t fear earth, I only fear southerners trying to speak mandarin.”
While resting in the Square, I am approached by a student. He is not happy in the factory where he works and we discuss his chances of emigrating to Canada or the United States. We also discuss politics and China’s recent history. Young men who seem to be undercover police occasionally stand near us with stone faces but eventually wander off. I mention to the student that on the way to the Square I saw a strange banner in English and Chinese proclaiming that
The Tibet Tourist Board Congratulates Beijing on its Rise to Eight-digit Phone Numbers.
I point out that if New York had added a digit to its phone numbers, it is unlikely that the California Tourist Board would have strung up a banner congratulating us. It takes a few seconds, but then he catches the political subtext and laughs heartily. After which, face somber, he glances toward Tien An Men Square where so many workers and students died and says, “Yes, strange things are happening in China.”
Both in print and conversation, I had been informed that Chinese cities are practically overrun by ladies of the night, or “girls who sell their spring.” Inside and outside hotel lobbies they gather and one guidebook even warns that young Chinese women outside karaoke bars “trick unsuspecting males,” enticing men inside where they overcharge for drinks. Testing this information, I slip into my disguise of a New York man with a love for Chinese women; a disguise I find especially easy to slip into. I find absolutely no girls selling their spring – or women selling their autumn, for that matter – inside or outside hotels, and so I walk past the doorway of a karaoke bar steeling myself for the sudden onslaught of feminine wiles and treachery. No one appears. I walk past more slowly. I linger. Nothing.
I wander off past several old men playing Chinese chess. One of them is using the three-tiger opening. He looks up and asks me in mandarin where I am from. I ask him how he knows I speak mandarin. He tells me he can see it in my face. Another asks if I know how to play Chinese (“elephant”) chess. I tell him, of course; didn’t America and China recently play chess over Taiwan? And they all laugh.
And that is something I have noticed in Beijing. Even the most aloof, bureaucratic face breaks into a smile if addressed in mandarin by a foreigner, especially one versed in Chinese culture or history or even martial arts movies. “You don’t know who I am?!” I demand of a woman taxi driver. “I am the First Sword under Heaven, also known as the Iron Fist without Sympathy!” My expertise in decades-old sword-fighting movie minutia impresses her and we chat. Her name is Chiu Lan, “Autumn Orchid,” and she is divorced with two kids and when I ask if women in China receive alimony she says no, only support for the children. Women in China, she says, wish to be equal to men. So do women in America, I say, but they also want the money. I give Autumn Orchid my card and tell her if she’s ever in New York to give me a call and we’ll paint the town “red.” Strange things could happen in New York too.
Beijing has several famous duck restaurants, Big Duck, Small Duck, Sick Duck, etc., but I skip the “stir-fried duck intestines with green peppers” at Wang Fu Jing’s Roast Duck Restaurant and, down the street from Beijing’s main railway station, indulge in street food: a simple fried noodle dish washed down with a Chinese soft drink called jianlibao. My guidebook says the drink is made with honey rather than with sugar and the book is almost right this time. The drink has both honey and sugar but must be safe to drink as it has been canned “under the supervision of Guangdong Group Co., Ltd. Science Research Institute.” Although, almost as an afterthought, the can reads: “A little sediment of pulp is allowable.”
At the History Museum near Tien An Men Square, almost everything is being renovated except for the gift shop. And, indeed, inside almost all tourist attractions from the Forbidden City to the Mao mausoleum, gift shops abound. And, to coin a phrase, He who does not buy an “I Climbed the Great Wall” T-shirt at the Great Wall cannot be called a customer. Near the Great Wall the sign reads,
Welcome to Chinese and foreign visitors to the 8th mass celebration in Mutianyu for climbing the Great Wall and admiring flowers
There is also something about a “cala-okey ballroom” and “service with immense zeal.” And a stern warning about those who will not be allowed on the cable car ride up to the Wall including “the persons drinking a lot, the senses being indistinct.” And, indeed, there is much at the Great Wall to make one believe his senses are indistinct: a camel to have your picture taken with, a pony to have your picture taken with, guards in Ming Dynasty costume to have your picture taken with.
While waiting for the cable car, I see a western man being carried in a bamboo chair by four Chinese pole bearers, and, for a moment, I wonder if I have stepped back into the 19th Century. But my first impression is mistaken. the man is not some ridiculous tourist making a fool out of himself and using local labor in a degrading way; he turns out to be a man afflicted with polio who came all the way from High Point, North Carolina to reach the Great Wall. And he has done it. Walking the Great Wall of China and watching the rolling hills disappear and reappear in the mist gives me new insight into the late Richard Nixon’s much ridiculed assertion: “It is a great wall!”