New beginnings

East Lake Garden has been returning to life after the two week New Year holiday, although I’m glad to report that the construction site remains silent, muddy and desolate. The mosaic of windows in the block opposite our kitchen is beginning to light up in the evenings. Young men drop off their elderly parents, who emerge from the car laden with gifts; couples and children are coming back from visits to their home towns to get ready for work and school, which starts next Monday. They too have gifts – at dusk, the child in the flat opposite us plays with a big remote control car that has flashing, white lights. The English language newspapers reported much hand-wringing over the large amounts of money children received or expected to receive from relatives. Parents were grateful, but pointed out they had to reciprocate. Some people spend two month’s salary to fill the red envelopes to the required levels.

Unfortunately, the weather seems to have taken a backward step, and it is colder than before our trip away. Nevertheless, white plum blossom is out and birds are singing vociferously – they must know that spring really is on the way. Many of the small local shops around the estate closed for at least one week – including the water shop – but these too are now back in business. Waterman, his wife and son all came to greet me when I went to order our ‘liang tong shui’ – two barrels of water – on Sunday afternoon. The supermarkets kept going, and their depleted stocks of fresh goods have been replenished. Abendbrot resumed its deliveries today, so we once again have excellent brown bread.

Yesterday Alice gave us a hand-cut, red, paper new year’s gift of the character for good fortune – fu – which we now have displayed in our sitting room. She seemed eager to come back to work, even though admin staff were required to come into the university last Saturday to get ready for the return of students on Monday. Too many family visits perhaps?

Like us, many staff and international students went on sun-seeking holidays. Popular destinations included Thailand, Vietnam, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. I’m looking forward to asking a couple of students who went to visit the families of their Chinese girlfriends, how they got on. Apparently, a key issue was to avoid being present at the New Year’s eve dinner as this would indicate to the gathered relatives an intention to marry the girl…..

I’m delighted to have passed all my exams, especially Elementary Mandarin part 1. In the second semester, I’ve started on a new history module about Ningbo. This is based entirely on primary sources and yesterday a group of us made our first trip to Ningbo public archives. Our task was to find out from original documents what scientific and intellectual contribution was made by American Protestant missionaries to life in Ningbo from the late 19th century onwards. The choice of topic meant that there were records in Mandarin and English to suit the make up of the student group.

Foreigners are treated with slight suspicion at the archive, and my American fellow student and I were required to show our passports. However, once we were settled at a table in white gloves, with our cache of crinkly brown, type-written letters, budgets and meeting notes from 1928 to 1935, an official photographer emerged and asked to take our photos. To show the archive in use? To show friendliness towards foreigners? To make sure we weren’t up to anything subversive? Who knows? Apparently the archive is mainly used by irate local people trying to prove their ownership of land and property, often a bone of contention in Ningbo’s rapid urban development. There was a reminder of this as immediately outside the archive, hoardings are up covering the construction of the new Ningbo metro system.

We studied the records of the Hwa Mei (Sino-American) Hospital, funded mainly through contributions sent by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. Of course, these were probably random snippets that have survived by chance, but they still revealed a lot of information. The salary of the doctor and superintendant was several thousand dollars, while the annual budget for rickshaw coolies was 10 dollars. The superintendant was very exercised about buying a new x-ray machine that would be of the standard expected at a small American hospital. However, he was anxious to take more holiday than usual in 1935, probably because of the ongoing war with Japan, although he cited ‘family reasons’ for extending his ‘furlough’. The woman treasurer resigned in order to focus more on evangelism. One meeting was all about how to invest 10,000 dollars sent by an American in memory of her husband, surely a huge sum of money in the late 1920s. I wonder what she would have thought of the fact that after the Communist ‘liberation’ of 1949, the hospital had a new life as Ningbo Hospital Number 2. The kind of new beginning she would have wanted?

A Chinese student and I travelled back to the campus by bus together and compared our experiences at the archive. He was slightly frustrated as he had been refused access to files about Catholicism in Ningbo. The excuse was that these weren’t mentioned in our research description on arrival, but he thought that they were probably deemed too politically sensitive, although he wasn’t sure why. For much of the journey I attempted to answer his question about the difference between Catholics and Protestants. Quite a challenge when the person you are talking to doesn’t know what Christianity is and also has limited English. There are large – about 12 million strong – communities of both denominations in China nowadays, although the Catholic community exists outside papal control. Presumably there is not much interest here on who will be providing the new start at the Vatican.


From spitting to sniffing – visiting Japan from China

We knew we’d got back to China yesterday when a woman sitting in the adjacent aisle got up from her seat, opened the overhead locker just as the plane hit the Shanghai tarmac, took out her coat, put it on and moved towards the door to make sure she got off the plane first. ‘Remain in your seat until the aircraft has come to a complete halt’ – in three different languages obviously didn’t apply to her. The air crew restrained her and she ended up on the same coach to the terminal as the rest of us, but somehow this behaviour epitomised the difference between China and Japan – the latter a country where people queue on the platform, and wait on pre-marked lines to get on the train. It is difficult to imagine what the Japanese people on the plane made of the usual scrum in Hongqiao airport, as the flankers jumped the ‘queue’ to get through as quickly as possible the chaotic attempt to re-screen everyone’s luggage as they enter China.

So how else does Japan differ from China? We were asked on three separate occasions to answer questionnaires about our experience of Japan during the six days we spent in Tokyo. The first time was when an adolescent boy approached us in the precincts of the Senso-ji Temple – the most important and spectacular Buddhist temple in Tokyo. He was in school uniform – Prince of Wales check trousers and blazer – looking curiously like a British public school boy. Girls wear pleated skirts in the same material, and 19th century style sailor suit tops. Both sexes undermine the formal effect by sporting white socks and trainers.

The boy explained to us in stumbling English that his homework was to find out what we liked about Japan. We told him we liked the cleanliness, the order and the unfailing politeness of everyone we met. He looked surprised. I suppose he found our answer boring in the extreme, but presumably he thought that all over the world people bow to each other, are helpful to everyone and that drivers always show respect for pedestrians. Of course he had experienced the famous Japanese toilets from birth – hot seats, bidet, shower and drier functions. We didn’t mention the toilet seats to him, but believe me, they are an extraordinary part of the Japanese experience.

Hygiene is high on the Japanese agenda. While spitting is very common in China (I noticed on the BBC website today a local authority in England is to introduce fines for spitting and urinating in public – I wonder how that would work in China), it would be unthinkable in Japan, where coughing or sneezing are considered antisocial. Many people wear face masks to ensure they cannot infect others, and as my husband, an experienced Japan-hand, kept reminding me, it is not done to blow your nose in public. Sniff behind your mask!

The second time we were asked to complete a questionnaire was in Kamakura, a lovely seaside town with temples and wooded hills, easily reached by a suburban JR train. This time a fully professional researcher asked us about our impressions of Japan and Kamakura. We gave much the same reply – but as we were standing in the exquisite garden of the Hase-dera Temple we added a lot more about the beauty of Japan – the sense of design, the architecture, the gardens, the food, the tranquillity. The researcher looked happy and rewarded us with little wooden bookmarks with pictures of Mount Fuji. We had already been delighted to be able to see Fuji from the 25th floor lobby of our hotel; the mountain appeared to float magically, snow covered, over sunlit Tokyo.

That day we had lunch overlooking the sea, in a small restaurant serving vegetarian food offered by the Buddhist community at the temple. Large, predatory black kites hovered on the thermals, sometimes diving and skirmishing for food, while windsurfers sported in the bay below, where low-rise traditional buildings hugged the shoreline. The gardens outside were still wintry, but yellow witch hazel and pink camelias were in flower, while water cascaded down the hillside, artfully diverted through bamboo pipes. Beauty at every turn.

Our final survey was administered at Haneda airport, as we waited for our flight back to China. A young man in his early twenties, slightly dishevelled, asked us if we’d answer his questions. They were the usual ones about how we’d found Japan – plus a lot more detail about where we’d been and how much money we’d spent. We didn’t tell him this, but we didn’t spend a huge amount, as on three occasions we indulged in the most wonderful ‘take-a-way’ dinners in our hotel room. These were purchased in the famous basement food halls of the great Ginza department stores that sell bento boxes with sushimi, sushi and tempura -amongst many other delicacies. He was inept as a researcher, but charming to chat to. It turned out that he was a political science student who’d spent a summer in Dublin learning English at UCD! I don’t think he expected to meet a live Irishman in a Japanese airport, but he covered up his confusion well. We enjoyed talking to him as it gave us a chance to reflect on the many things we’d seen and done. One of his questionnaire-answer categories was ‘strolling the streets’, something we did a huge amount of. Tokyo streets must be among the most exciting to pace, linking elegant, gleaming skyscrapers with palaces, parks, temples and museums, the latter containing fantastic collections of ukioy-e prints, which show you what it all used to look like.

China is about to overtake Japan as the second largest economy in the world – if it hasn’t already done so. This fact alone is enough to explain the tension between the two countries, manifested at the moment in the Daioyo/Senkaku islands dispute. It is not difficult to imagine why two nations with such profoundly different approaches to life should be at loggerheads.

There is one troubling aspect of Japanese culture, and that is the way young women seem to be infantilised by fashion, visible as you walk through the expensive shopping precincts of the Harajuku district of western Tokyo. Fur, frills, high heels, short skirts and lace are everywhere. Popular motifs are rabbits, kittens and teddy bears. There is an entire shop dedicated to Barbie (a lot of pink) and Hello Kitty is a Japanese invention. Punks and rockers who used to strut their stuff in nearby Yoyogi park have been outlawed.

As we taxied along the runway in Shanghai, we noticed another plane, also inward bound from Japan, decorated all over the fuselage with Hello Kitty motifs. Despite there sometimes anarchic behaviour in always getting to the front of the queue, there is something positive about the muscular competitiveness of Chinese women, in contrast with the conformity and passivity of Japanese femininity.

Two days in Taipei

Taiwan has lived through several invasions over the centuries. The Portuguese named it Formosa – beautiful island – and beautiful it certainly is. While we couldn’t get to the wilder mountain landscapes that form the spine of the island, or the beaches in the south, we were able to soak in natural hot geothermal springs in Beitou valley, in the foothills of jungle-clad mountains, just 40 minutes from Taipei city centre. The public baths – four pools with temperatures from 45 down to 30 degrees – were surrounded by lush green plants, pink blossom trees and hibiscus covered in yellow flowers.

After the Portuguese and the Dutch, the Japanese came at the end of the 19th century and Japanese influence remains very strong, not only in the culture of bathing, but in the prevalence of Japanese cuisine and politeness – including bowing – that is much in evidence. Five people helped us with our luggage into a waiting taxi this morning when we left our hotel. At the baths elderly men and women made our experience even more memorable by showing us exactly what to do, where to sit and how long to stay in the water. We were the only Westerners and clearly objects of fascination. Many people spoke English and some quizzed us about where we’d come from and what we thought of Taiwan.

The Taiwanese have their own language, but they have been forced to adopt first Japanese as their official language, and then Mandarin, after Chiang Kai-shek turned up with the Nationalists as he fled from China after defeat by the Communists in 1947. The legacy of CKS is everywhere in terms of monuments, parks and of course his political party, the KMT. He and his son ruled as dictators until democracy was finally introduced in 1996.

For someone visiting Taiwan from a base in Ningbo, the relationship with China is intriguing. Taipei boasts the greatest collection of Chinese historical art in the world, because CKS shipped 600,000 pieces out of China during the civil war and then built the National Palace Museum to house them. This is a bizarre and somewhat pompous replica of some of the buildings in Beijing’s Forbidden City – set in a hilly, wooded suburb of Taipei. The greatest number of visitors to the museum appear to be Japanese. While tourist visits from Japan to China have fallen by 80% because of the negative effect of the Daiyou/Senkakou islands dispute, they are clearly holding up in Taiwan.

China is extremely sensitive about Taiwan, which it considers to be part of the motherland and not a separate country. China bullies officialdom and ensures that Taiwan cannot use its own name at international events, such as the Olympics. Taiwan has no seat on the UN since the USA recognised the PRC as the ‘real’ China and ensured it took Taiwan’s place in the late 1970s. Taiwan has in effect been abandoned by the USA once the island no longer had strategic importance in East Asia. Roadsigns in English and baseball coverage on TV seem to be the only legacies of the US presence, although it is a Taiwan-owned company, Foxconn, that notoriously makes all Apple’s products. But even these factories are now on the Chinese mainland, and not in Taiwan.

However, as we learned from a Taiwanese friend, although they think they will probably eventually be absorbed back into it, the Taiwanese consider China as rather backward economically and socially and consider themselves to have a better standard of living. It struck us that this view might be overturned if our friend visited a rapidly developing city such as Ningbo. To us, this second tier Chinese city (the people we spoke to in the public baths in Beitou had never heard of it) is much more affluent and modern that Taipei. Ningbo already has a bigger population.

After we had visited the National Palace Museum, on the way back to central Taipei we got off the bus at the Chiang Kai-shek residence park. This is one of 15 residences that the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang owned in Taiwan. Despite the latter’s disapproval even when she had moved to the USA after her husband’s death, the lovely house and gardens were eventually made available for public use. As well as a rose garden and fabulous orchid house we particularly enjoyed seeing Madame Chiang’s limousine – a huge sedan with the registration plate EGO 123.

This morning we flew to Japan and have spent our first day in Tokyo, where everything appears to be shiny, new and confident and without any crises of identity. I’m looking forward to the full Tokyo experience, but hope to return to Taiwan before too long.

Cultural Melting Pot

Confusion starts as soon as you arrive at Ningbo airport. We couldn’t see our flight for Hong Kong on the departure board. It turned out this was because we needed to be in International Departures. Despite the rhetoric about ‘one country, two systems’, it seems that going to HK is visiting a different country after all. We had to give up our residency card and fill in a landing card for HK border police, and do the same again yesterday when we went on a day trip to Macau – another ‘special economic zone’. The economy of the latter is 1.6 billion dollars worth of gambling – more than Las Vegas.

Just as our guide books told us, Hong Kong feels very different from mainland China. There is a new Chinese language to deal with – Cantonese – but one of the legacies of empire is the prevalence of English, at least on road signs and the brilliant transport system. In the more Chinese areas English is not necessarily understood, but you feel less embarrassed about speaking it. Cars drive on the left and road markings are the same as in the UK. But what is very different from China is the behaviour of drivers. They are pussy cats! Drivers stay in their lanes, they use indicators and they don’t hoot at everything that moves. In fact, although the streets are very busy, it feels very quiet compared to a Chinese city. The hills on Hong Kong Island mean that there are no e-bikes, so you’re not at risk from the silent menace.

While we immediately focused on finding museums and other evidence of high culture, it is clear that the main activity for most visitors to HK is shopping. While having a very stylish haircut, the hairdresser tried to engage Fintan in a conversation about where his wife was shopping that day. She couldn’t quite grasp why we would find a visit to Marks and Spencer of interest, given the choice of luxury stores available. He didn’t attempt to explain his interest in buying thick cut marmalade.

However, we’ve clearly behaved in a more conventional fashion in terms of the number of restaurants we’ve visited. Eating in Hong Kong is a wonderful thing. The ethnic mix has resulted in a truly magnificent range of cuisines, and we’re attempting to taste as many of them as possible. So far we’ve eaten Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Belgian and Portuguese food. We are staying, it seems, in the restaurant district on Wellington Street (pure luck) and have about 10 local diners to choose from for breakfast. I think breakfast is the meal for which I most crave familiarity, but not many of my morning comfort foods are available. In the Chinese diner we avoided snake soup (a winter speciality) and settled for beef and noodles, with an omelette.

The presence of a strong Buddhist culture in south China means that there are plenty of vegetarian restaurants – not something I’m aware of in Ningbo – and we’ve tried some of these as well. One was actually in a Buddhist monastery on Lantau island, where we took the spectacular cable car ride to the entirely inauthentic tourist village next to the giant golden Buddha atop the peak.

The weather is gloriously warm – another welcome difference from Ningbo – and we’ve been able to take plentiful local buses out to small towns and beaches away from the urban melee. Hong Kong was simply dense urban sprawl in my mind before I came here. In fact, there are many quiet, rural areas that are easy to access. We sat on a deserted beach in Stanley and watched fishing boats, windsurfers and further out to sea, vast container ships.

For the first time since arriving in China last September, we have been buying a daily newspaper – the South China Morning Post. There is no democracy in Hong Kong – there never has been since the British arrived in 1842 – and probably the newspaper gives a very limited view of the issues, but it is enjoyable to read something current as we travel around or linger in cafes. The paper does make it clear that there is concern about what will happen to Hong Kong once the 50 year agreement for ‘one country, two systems’ runs out in 2047. As Hong Kong investment is driving the boom in mainland China, including our new local shopping mall in East Lake Garden, I think it is doubtful that Beijing will want to disrupt the economy here in any way. Perhaps a bit more democracy here could be a model for the rest of China?

One community here which seems to be very well organised is the huge army of domestic workers – mostly female – from the Philippines. They make up the biggest non-Chinese ethnic community. Today we observed them gathered in droves in the city, to talk, play cards, dance and generally have fun. Groups were picnicking in Hong Kong Park, while others sat on cardboard or plastic mats on the sides of the over street walkways and in Statue Square, where traffic had been stopped for Sunday to accommodate them. There was a strong sense of girl/women power emanating from the dance we watched.

Yesterday we visited the Protestant cemetery in Macau, a small, shady enclave in the middle of the city, itself a striking mixture of Cantonese and Portuguese cultures. We were looking for the tomb of a British artist, George Chinnery, who worked in Hong Kong and Macau painting portraits of colonists in the first half of the 19th century. We located his rather grand gravestone, and also read many of the memorial inscriptions to sailors, soldiers, entrepreneurs and civil servants who facilitated the existence of the two colonies. They had come from the Netherlands, the USA and the UK. Many seamen had died during the 1840 war, when Britain seized Hong Kong – including a certain George Spencer Churchill, fourth son of the Duke of Marlborough. I wonder what his famous descendent would have thought of the handover back to China in 1997. This event is recorded in every detail in the Museum of Heritage – including a film of the ceremony, with Chris Patten shedding a tear. You can even see a copy of the menu for the handover banquet.

After a few days in Taiwan, we are heading off to Tokyo next week. For our last night in Hong Kong I think we will sample some Japanese cuisine, to get in the mood.