An anonymous Crikey reader writes: The odds were quite small. My father was in China on a consulting job at the same time as I was there, lazily observing the country’s hyper-growth, breaking up my flight to Europe. It was a strange coincidence, but not entirely unlikely.
He’d been there plenty of times before in the previous two years, semi-retired and consulting for European chemical companies in the art of leather processing. Post abattoir leather refining — pre-footwear, pre-handbag, pre-car seat. One of those industries we don’t really think about, but that hums away to the beat of our lives as consumers. He’d had a forced retirement in a sense, as the bulk of the leather industry had steadily moved from Australia and elsewhere to China over the preceding two decades.
It was dirty work. Cowhides bathed in acids to strip them of hair amongst myriad other nasties to make them lie flat and soft like a piece of fabric, and of course dyed to suit whatever item of clothing, fashion accessory, or furniture they would invariably become. Democracies couldn’t really stomach poisonous industries like that anymore, so it had to go somewhere where they didn’t have to worry about water quality and hazardous waste treatment or award wages and sick pay and all those other headaches that exist in developed economies. It’s the bottom line that counts right? And there is only one bottom line.
My father’s bottom line couldn’t avoid not following the work to China either. Still a little too young to retire, a few weeks here and there earning consultancy fees would help smooth out the transition to superannuation dependency. Only he wasn’t the traveling type. He wasn’t even the leaving the house type, truth be told. So to rendevous with him in China of all places was simply too fascinating an opportunity to miss. My father out of his safety zone. It had to be witnessed.
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I, on the other hand, am the traveling type. When I was twelve years old I remember being seriously concerned that I hadn’t been overseas yet. How could I possibly grow into adulthood without having seen other cultures, other continents, other places than the insular Peninsular of northern Sydney. Fifteen years later, and I’d had the great fortune to have walked with wild elephants in Africa; been drunk in Britain; drunk tea in Japan; danced at raves in Denmark; seen free-jazz in New York; snorkeled the reefs of New Caledonia; and almost passed my own bowels in the Asian subcontinent. A full seven years had passed since I was last overseas, trekking through India and South East Asia, and whilst my digestive system had never fully recovered, the entire time back at home I had only one real goal. To leave again.
It took a bit longer than originally hoped, but I knew that this time I was leaving Australia for a long time. I had a return ticket with a 12 month used-by date that I knew I wouldn’t be using — Europe beckoned. Cooler climes and infinite possibilities awaited, namely more culture and less sport. But that could wait an extra month — the flight to Europe had to stop somewhere, so why not check out the surroundings? China, circa 2005, was not to be missed — mid take-off, reaching for modernity, rewriting the world’s statistics in the process. More than fifty cities with over five million inhabitants. Half the world’s construction cranes remodelling Shanghai, and Beijing in the midst of it’s pre-Olympics makeover.
I had started in Shanghai, loved it, and then taken the overnight train to Beijing. After being rattled by even more jackhammers I then opted for an Air China flight south to go and see some of the minority peoples of China — the ancient city of Dali, the beautiful mountains and rivers outside Guilin, and one of the true wonders of the world, the rice terraces of Longji –– where agriculture began, where we in fact first started to alter the earth’s climate.
But I didn’t understand much of that then as I ignorantly did my bit to alter the earth’s climate too. Hopping around China by plane was literally like taking a bus. Albeit a rickety old bus driven by a one-eyed, one-armed bandit. Buying plane tickets just days before departure always seemed to ensure an impossibly good deal — thirty dollars here, forty dollars there — it was just too easy. The landings were far from smooth though — as if every pilot you ended up with was on his first training day. On one flight I was sitting next to a Frenchman who had a pilots license. He was pretty sure that this tight-leftward-bank-whilst-still-ascending-maneuver that our pilot was currently executing was well beyond the realms of accepted practice in order to maintain our climb and not just literally drop out of the sky. It wasn’t a reassuring observation.
But we arrived, this time to Guangzhou, en-route to meet my father with one more flight from Guangzhou to Wenzhou, where I would be greeted by a driver, holding my name up on a card at the airport. I’d seen so many other Westerners received that way at airports in China, I can’t say I wasn’t excited to get the same royal treatment myself.
This was the thing. Traveling in other parts of Asia, most other Westerners that I had met were also travelers. But in China, it was pretty much all business. Everyone was after an opportunity. There was money to be made. So being a westerner traveling solo was surprisingly relaxed. None of the hawkers targeting you at every turn like in India. None of that invasion of your personal space by drug dealers and carpet salesmen like in the great beautiful subcontinent. None of the chaos. Once in Shanghai a young couple from the country had asked me if I could give them a job, but I never felt hassled, or bothered, or tested like I had in India, and that came as a surprise. Because in China, the tourist is not a westerner with a backpack — it is a bus full of Han Chinese tourists, local tourists, who have come to observe the minorities, to look at the natives. And the minorities play the part, dressing in their traditional garb, combing their impossibly long hair, or posing for a photo, all for a fee of course. And then they too go out and buy a satellite dish for cable TV. So unfortunately all those towns in the south just felt like theatre, abundant in visual splendour, but spent, watered down and waning. The locals interest already lay somewhere else, in commodities, and their traditions seemed to have become merely a means to an end.
So there I was, looking at the plane that would take me from Guangzhou airport to Wenzhou, where I would spend just two nights with my father before heading back to Shanghai and then continuing on to Europe. The plane had landed and the previous passengers were disembarking. I had watched the gangway be driven somewhat shakily up to the plane but had thought nothing of it. This was a brand new airport, designed by German architects, all glass and stainless steel and very noughties in its presentation. This was the future, as the inhabitants of the now had imagined it. And China was on that future’s precipice. I saw the previous flight’s baggage unloaded and then the next flight’s baggage, my flight’s baggage, loaded onto the plane. The last passengers disembarked, and I looked away for only an instant, or perhaps some thirty seconds, but when I turned back to the plane, the future had just lost it’s promise — and the immediate future of my flight had been inexorably altered. The aforementioned shaky gangway had collapsed, and was now hanging, embarrassingly, nakedly, five or so meters lower than where I had last seen it. Five meters lower than where over a hundred people had just walked upon it. The single supporting arm with wheels that had maneuvered the gangway to the plane’s fuselage had buckled underneath it´s own weight. That sleek streamlined modernist German design suddenly spoke more of China’s cost-cutting engineering incompetence than it did of a bright modern future, and the only thing saving that gangway from collapsing to the ground was… the door to the plane, ripped off its hinges like a half opened tin can. Waiting passengers flooded the ticket counter én masse demanding to know what would happen to the flight. Could they fix the plane? How long would that take? Were there any other flights going to Wenzhou?
I sat back and watched the ensuing panic. One thing was clear: there was no way that that plane was fit to fly, and no way that a problem like that could be fixed in a few hours. The poor flight stewardesses didn’t seem to know that, or didn’t have the authority to make such an announcement. We had to wait for management to work it all out, but it was clear, we would have to wait, and wait we did. Eventually we were told that a reserve plane would be found to take us to Wenzhou. Hmmm. An Air China reserve plane, I thought. So far all the flights I had been on had had Swedish written on the seats and safety cards. SAS planes, sold on to Air China after what, ten years service with SAS? Twenty? And now a reserve plane for the second hand planes would take us to Wenzhou… this could be interesting.
I was fortunate enough to befriend a wonderfully gracious Syrian man, in China on business of course, who bought me coffee, lent me his phone, and then barely even troubled me with small talk. I managed to get through to my father´s interpreter to relay the information that we would be delayed for an as yet unknown amount of time. It eventually became six hours extra wait for an approximately one hour flight. And the reserve plane? When it did show up it fulfilled all my expectations. Propellor driven. Tired paintwork. Dirty as well. The only thing missing were live chickens and goats amongst the passengers. But we got to Wenzhou, without drama, which for a city of seven million was really just a tiny little out house of an airport. No glitz here. No gangways. Bare bones functionality, and all on the ground floor thankfully. But there, in the arrivals hall, waiting for me as promised, was a man with a sign with my name written on it. The luxury!
Wenzhou wasn’t quite where I was going as I discovered — we had a two hour car trip ahead of us yet. But it was in Wenzhou that it had all begun. “It” being China´s inexorable growth, the giant´s awakening. In 1978 when China began it´s modernising reforms, Wenzhou led the charge to lure in foreign money, with thousands of small enterprises starting up, the locals already known for their business acumen. The city evolved districts themed economically; “China’s Shoes Capital” and “China’s Capital of Electrical Equipment” etc. My father’s work was further inland, and upriver, in “Leather City” — pre-footwear, remember. So on we drove, in darkness now, just me and my driver, unable to communicate with language, passing factory after factory, twinkling beside the highway, creating all that cheap useless crap that we bought at home in two dollar shops, or designer stores. And in Leather City, there were hides upon hides upon hides. Damn there were a lot of cow skins there. And after all the cow skins we came to the hotel where my father was waiting.
He was in the company of his interpreter, plus his current client — girlfriend in arm — and the client’s assistant/underling — also with girlfriend. I arrived too late for dinner, and my father had to go and entertain his clients — who were relatively toasted by this point—- but not before setting me up with a meal. In the restaurant there was literally a mini-supermarket where you chose your key ingredients and then named the manner in which you wanted it cooked. Awesome. I was completely alone, there were no other diners.
But there were three waitresses on hand to deliver the food and assist me whenever needed. Mostly they just waited, and stared without actually staring at the lonely westerner eating his dinner. They pretty much blended into the wall paper. I ordered a beer, and it came, luke warm, as was the case all over China. Still can’t work that out. Cold beer is hard to come by in that country. I ate for ten men, and then I was off, led by staff to my father who was hunkered down in the neighbouring building, underground, in a windowless room, singing karaoke with his Chinese clients. Chinese opera it was. The Mao classics. Clearly everyone knew those wailing tortuous songs, but another beer or another plum wine and it was all just priceless. And bizarre.
Sitting in a karaoke room in some backwater industrial town in China with my own father listening to a young drunk Chinese man ” all twisted teeth, big glasses and bad English –telling me how he wanted to learn everything from my father, how my father was a very great man. And then watching his drunken boss launch into more Mao Opera renditions, on repeat since 1960. But then suddenly the microphone was thrust at me, and I had to step up. Who knows, but my fathers deal may be resting on my performance, so what the hell was I going to sing? An English menu of songs was discovered, nothing from after 1970 it seemed, and so I settled on House of the Rising Sun. I kind of knew that one… kind of.
I gave it my best, but had never really known the text, and so reading it, indeed singing that song became an epiphany in itself. It’s the tale of a man who has blown it all. He’s lost his woman through drink, and lost his money through gambling. I didn’t grow up with my father. My parents divorced before I can remember, but alcohol played no small part in that particular event. So to sit in a windowless room and essentially serenade my own father with a song about wasting a life through drink and gambling was not entirely without resonance. It was a moment. An unspoken moment that would not be easily forgotten.
Back in his hotel room, I sat together with my father. He loved those trips to China. Mainly for the food. Also for the cash payments in American dollars, but mostly for the food. And the food in China is fantastic. OK it all tastes a bit the same after a while — the MSG thing gets a bit too familiar. But to be brutally honest just the lack of fat people on the street is testament to the Chinese knowing how to use food to live healthily. There’s over a billion of them too, that has to say something. So we sat in that hotel room us two, and for maybe the first time ever we shared a beer together. And it was cold. My father had been there before, and what was the the first thing he did when he got to a hotel? Turned the minibar up to full.
The last flight back to Shanghai was perhaps the most revealing about Wenzhou. The airport is very unassuming, and you have to walk out onto the tarmac to board your flight, but the plane that would take us to Shanghai, whilst still Air China, was a brand new Boeing 737. The smoothest most professional flight I experienced in my brief time in China. There were lots of dark suits and briefcases sitting on that flight. All business. Tells you a lot about where the money is.
I am sure that in the years since then a lot more has changed. Rail has blossomed, wages are going up, people are striking. The Olympics have been and gone, and a carbon tax is soon to be implemented. Maybe even hazardous wastes will have to be dealt with responsibly. And then who knows, certain jobs might start returning to the West. China’s rise can’t go on forever. I hope it doesn’t crash, but I wonder if it has reached it’s peak. I’m glad I had a taste. I’m glad that I witnessed these truly remarkable times in China’s history. May we all find double happiness.
And to cold beer.