Chinese tourists in Britain

During our ‘furlough’, as the early 20th-century American Presbyterian Missionaries called their time back at home, I have continued to notice comments about China. Perhaps the most unexpected came from the owner of the apartment we rented in Inverness. She was eager to get into conversation with us when we revealed we had come from China to holiday in Scotland and explained that she often rented out her flats to Chinese students. ‘They go wild for the whisky,’ she informed us. I found this a bit difficult to believe, knowing quite a lot of Chinese students and never yet having met one that drank any alcohol, never mind whisky, but maybe things change after a sojourn at a British university and a holiday in the highlands.
There was certainly a significant number of Chinese people sightseeing in Scotland, perhaps trying to escape from the searing heat which is afflicting China this summer. Reports from friends and colleagues in Ningbo have been that the temperature has reached 42 degrees. It seems that people don’t need to go to work once the mercury hits 40 degrees, so the government always announces that the temperature is 39! I imagine that the thermometer on our fridge door in East Lake Garden will have reached well over 40, although Alice tells us that Landlady has finally sent round someone to put up a blind over the kitchen window that gets strong sun in the early morning. We are hopeful that as a result the kitchen will be less like an oven when we return next month.
What did those Chinese tourists think of the Scottish sights? I longed to ask them as they trudged round the battlefield of Culloden in the rain or queued up to go into Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness. Since my brief acquaintance with academic tourism literature I have realised that it is not just in China that tourists are corralled into sacralised ‘scenic spots’. Loch Ness actually has quite a lot in common with Hangzhou West Lake. Stand here, look at this view, listen to this unlikely legend etc. etc. However, I must say I was relieved that there was no bronze model of Nessie rearing out of the water as probably would have been the case in Hangzhou.
One of the highlights of our trip was watching dolphins at Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth – they seem to play and jump for joy after they have fed. I didn’t notice any Chinese down on the beach at Chanonry; perhaps the experience is a bit too disorganised and random – a bit too authentic, especially if the dolphins don’t turn up. I have nothing to compare it with in China. We have still to venture forth into a ‘nature reserve’ or even a zoo and I’m not sure we will go and see the pandas at Chengdu, but you never know. It is a popular excursion for the visiting undergraduates at Ningbo. I’m told that holding a baby panda is one of the most expensive 10 seconds it is possible to experience.
Last week I finally made it to the British Museum to see the fabulous Percival David collection of Chinese ceramics. It was a relief to escape from the scrum of the Pompeii exhibition. Just as on the TV programme I saw last month, most of the other visitors were Chinese. To my surprise, there is some labelling in Chinese characters, but only to give the dynasty and place of origin. There are no bilingual explanatory boards as there are in Shanghai. Again I wondered what the Chinese visitors made of their experience, especially as the first two exhibits proudly state that they are the most important Chinese vases in existence anywhere in the world. This is because they are the earliest dated examples of blue and white ceramics (early 13th century) from Jingdezhen, the biggest imperial centre of porcelain production. If I were Chinese I would be wondering what exactly these wonderfully sophisticated vases were doing in London and why they hadn’t been ‘returned’ to China. But then maybe the visitors fall for that brilliant PR message that the BM is a World Museum, usefully keeping so many collections safe for everyone to enjoy. And given the ravages of the Cultural Revolution it is quite a persuasive argument.

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