Typhoon!

It has been a dramatic final week for us here; first there was the Shanghai stock market crash and then there was, according to some reports, the strongest typhoon since ‘the communists took power in 1949’. I can’t help wondering if there is some connection between the two events. Perhaps the typhoon is supernatural punishment for the encouragement of unbridled speculation, 80% of which is the result of millions of individuals buying shares. Of course, because of its terror of social instability, the Chinese government has intervened to stop further falls on the stock market. However, even the might of the PRC was unable to stop Typhoon Chan-hom.

There has been at least 10 days of stifling, humid weather in Ningbo, sometimes accompanied by rain. The sky has been overcast and the temperature fell by about 10 degrees from highs in the mid- 30s. It was quite chilly at night, which was annoying as we have sent all our warm clothes away in the shipping crate, expecting only intense hot weather. On Friday there was a sense of foreboding, and locals told us that this was typical pre-typhoon weather – only about one month earlier than usual. As we have never been in Ningbo in August, we had not experienced the usual run of tropical storms.

We don’t watch television, except the sports channel, as the spoken Chinese is too fast to follow, so we are usually out of touch with local news. Of course, the Chinese staff on campus knows exactly what is happening and last week, as he was responsible for a student summer school at UNNC, Fintan began to get weather bulletins from administrators warning of a severe typhoon coming in from Taiwan.

I began to ask my Chinese teacher about typhoon etiquette. She was calm and unconcerned, saying that you basically get enough food and water in stock, stay indoors and don’t drive anywhere because of potential flooding. Sure enough, on Friday evening about 9pm, a text message arrived on my phone in Chinese. It was a typhoon red alert and reiterated Yona’s common sense advice. I was delighted with myself, as after three years of study I could read the warning, including the injunction not ‘to go towards dangerous places.’

On the estate, the tall ranks of apartment buildings seem to create wind tunnels and a way of judging the growing strength of the wind was to look down at the trees bowing and straining in the gardens either side of our flat. The gusty wind and heavy downpours made for a noisy night, and all day Saturday we felt we were in the middle of the storm. From looking at English language websites and responding to concern from friends in the UK I realised that the typhoon actually hit the coast near hear on Saturday afternoon, but we couldn’t really say when the peak came.

Bored in our empty flat, Fintan ventured out in the afternoon, but soon returned soaked, having abandoned his broken umbrella after a few minutes. He reported on debris and leaves spread on the road and in the late afternoon we listened as a group of men in orange hard hats gathered downstairs with a chain-saw to clear large branches that had fallen on a car. There was much shouting of ‘Yi, er, san’ – ‘One, two, three’ – and characteristically loud and animated discussion of how to proceed.

This morning, the weather calm and the storm having passed, I went down to have a look at the damage. As well as two days’ worth of household rubbish, there are small branches and leaves everywhere, and the displaced peasant farmers who look after the estate are out in force patiently clearing it all up with their sticky brushes. There is a pile of sawn branches near where the hard-hats conferred yesterday, but no sign of any dented cars.

People are emerging, with a few runners in shorts trying to throw off cabin fever. Grandmas are putting out washing in the light breeze and the estate is returning to normal. I don’t know how other places have been affected, but I assume we got off lightly, seeing that the government evacuated 800,000 people along the coast. My Chinese teacher’s in-laws were more in the path of the storm and I asked her how they had fared. ‘Oh, they were fine, they just had some flooding to deal with,’ she said, as usual downplaying any drama. I look forward to hearing a bit more detail tomorrow.

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Using Chinese in different situations: from rivers to roads

Although our stay in China is rapidly coming to a conclusion – less than three months to go – I find myself still wanting to learn as much Chinese as possible. Part of my motivation comes from the satisfaction of being able to take visitors around without too much stress and from the sheer enjoyment of being able to engage with Chinese people and find out a bit more about their lives and opinions.

For example, on a burning hot day out in the countryside near Yangshou/Guilin, an elderly man kindly invited us into his very bare and poverty stricken house to shelter from the sun. Probably he didn’t speak a lot more Putonghua (Mandarin) than me, but we managed to converse a little. He talked about his sons and proudly showed us studio portraits of himself and his wife, and they agreed to pose for us to take more photos. His wife grimly kept her mouth shut, so as not to display her broken and missing teeth.

Another day on a bamboo raft, floating down the Yulong river in the glorious karst landscape, I talked to my boatman. He and the older man propelling my friends’ raft chatted in the local dialect and then called out to other passing boatman. ‘This foreign woman can talk Putonghua and she lives in Ningbo’, I heard a few times. Chinese tourists on rafts were manoeuvred closer to me, so that they could observe such an extraordinary phenomenon. More opportunities to pass the time of day and ask them where they were from and if they were having a good time – ‘hao wan’ – having fun, as the Chinese say. Many of our visitors have remarked on the jollity of Chinese people – unremittingly negative press about China back in the West has meant people are surprised to see the very public displays of sociability and relaxation amongst Chinese crowds and tourists.

All the work I put into studying the local menu in our local restaurant back in Ningbo had not been in vain. One night my friends and I chose a small Sichuan restaurant just down the street from our hotel in Suzhou. On the menu there were very limited pictures and no English. It was one of those menus where you have to tick what you want to order – very daunting. I could recognise the characters for black fish (recommended by Yona), spice (chilli), potatoes and cabbage and ticked these. Back came the waitress with a host of questions which I didn’t understand. ‘You decide’, I said. This wasn’t good enough and she showed me on another table what the fish might look like. Light dawned slowly – it was all about presenting the fish in one shallow metal dish with the vegetables, and a small flame underneath. Would we like it like that? I assured her we would.

Sure enough, when the fish came it was delicious – fleshy, with few bones and floating in a sea of spicy sauce with potato and cabbage. My English friends showed impressive chopstick skills and we polished it all off with aplomb, washed down with weak Chinese beer. The meal was such as a success that we all agreed to return to the restaurant on our last evening in Suzhou and eschew the rather formal restaurant in the hotel.

This time I was better prepared. I realized that one question had been about the weight of the fish – how big a fish did we want? (This has been confirmed in a recent conversation class). I agreed to the weight that was suggested. We attempted to choose a different sauce but were firmly told by the waitress that this would be too spicy for us – so once again we did as we were told. We didn’t regret it – a second heavenly meal followed, this time with a sauce of preserved or ‘sour’ vegetables.

Sadly, my improved language skills were only partially successful when dealing with a taxi driver in Shanghai on the final part of our travels. Our plane took off late from Guilin and we arrived in Pudong airport at 11.30pm. ‘No underground’, an official told me firmly. We muttered about the aspiration of Shanghai to be a world city if its major transport link closed down so early, but resigned ourselves to queuing for a taxi.

Unusually, the queue moved quickly and we were ushered into a Shanghai cab. From the first rev of the engine we knew what we were in for. Joining the highway, the driver put his foot down. ‘There is no hurry, please drive slowly’, I said. The driver looked at me for a second. ‘Mei wen ti’, he said scornfully. ‘No problem.’ No way was a foreign woman going to tell him how to drive his taxi. I shut my eyes. Sweat dripped down my face. The journey on a good day takes about 40 minutes. We drew up at our hotel in the centre of the city after 20 minutes. The dial showed 140 kph most of the way. The speed limit was mostly 80 kph.

The fare was 201 yuan and I offered 210, waiting for my change. You don’t tip in China but the driver expected me to give him the extra 9, because he had got us there so fast. For the first time in three years I lost my temper – in Chinese. Words poured out. Forgotten vocabulary jumped into my head. ‘I asked you to go slower. You should have listened to me. We were terrified. You are a terrible driver. No, I won’t give you extra money.’ And so on. My friends stood outside the car looking on in amazement. The driver of course had no idea why I was so cross, took his 200 yuan, slammed the door and drove off. Foreigners!

Revisiting old haunts: Hangzhou and Shanghai

As we enter our last few months in China, friends and family have realised that this is their last chance to visit us here and we are experiencing a welcome flurry of visitors. My improved Chinese means that the tour guide skills I can offer have hugely improved since our tentative attempts at travel in our first year. Guests sometimes ask me if it is boring to go back to the same places repeatedly, but I can assure them it is not! Most tourist destinations are so huge that each trip offers something fresh, and in addition, it is gratifying at last to be able to navigate places and get to restaurants and ‘scenic spots’ without difficulty, even showing off a bit of conversation in Mandarin on the way.

For example, I’ve been to Hangzhou twice over the last few months; Hangzhou was our first day trip outside Ningbo back in 2012. Since then Ningbo and Hangzhou have become connected by high speed train, both have fancy new stations and Hangzhou has a new metro system. During my first attempt at being a tour guide for friends last September I made the embarrassing mistake of not realising that we’d arrived in a different station and getting us lost on the metro system. This month I was on my mettle and navigated the metro without mishap.

The West Lake is the main attraction of Hangzhou (it has been since at least the 12th century) and a circuit of the lake combined with a traditional lunch of beggar’s chicken and/or lake carp makes a good day’s outing. Especially last week, when the sun shone, the temperature rose to 25 degrees or more and the magnolias were in full bloom. Despite the modernisation of the city, elderly locals still gather to dance and to sing opera at the water’s edge. On our return I read a Guardian article by Anne Karpf about how unfriendly modern British cities are for old people, from struggling to cross wide highways to the lack of places for social interaction. It is generally the same in China of course, but here parks and other public spaces like those in Hangzhou at least seem to be more welcoming to the elderly.

We accompanied our last pair of visitors to Shanghai, where they were embarking on a grand tour of the country. Although we have been to the city many times, there are still surprises. On our very first visit to Shanghai in June 2012 we were told how single men came to People’s Square to look for a wife, but we hadn’t seen how this ‘would like to meet’ ritual actually took place. Last Sunday afternoon while showing our friends the park, we came across a long path dedicated to this purpose. Hand written, laminated A4 sheets, some with photos, but many without, were laid out on the path, showing the birth year, height, income and general prospects of the hopeful groom, although there were a few hopeful brides as well. Round the corner, people (perhaps parents of unmarried children) sat with more ads, but here they were stuck on top of open umbrellas which formed platforms on the pavement. A man approached me and asked me if I had a daughter. For the first time in China, only having sons seemed a disadvantage!

For many months we had been meaning to visit the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, also on People’s Square. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Urban_Planning_Exhibition_Center
This museum has a huge scale model of the entire urban area of Shanghai and new buildings are added as they are completed. You can walk around it on a raised platform. It occurred to me that this would be a brilliant introduction to the city, helping to orientate visitors and show the layout of the old city, the 19th century concession areas and the Bund, so our visitors finally prompted me to go there. Another floor is dedicated to photos of old and new Shanghai and it is fascinating to see pictures side by side of neighbourhoods in say 1980 and 2004, with low rise tumbledown courtyard houses and people on bicycles transformed into high rise blocks and cars on eight lane highways. It has to be said that the photos are all taken on a sunny, clear day, and the terrible pollution that shrouds Shanghai most of the time is not to be seen!

Our next set of visitors will be visiting China for the second time; their previous visit was before ‘reform and opening’ so they will be experiencing the changes recorded in the Shanghai photographs. I’m very interested to find out what they will think of new China.

Shanghai and Kyoto: a contrast

Before setting off for our National Day break in Japan, we went to see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at the Shanghai Cultural Centre. This is yet another vast new venue in downtown Shanghai, in the heart of the French Concession area. It is cunningly constructed downwards, so that it doesn’t conflict with the generally low height of the concession housing. The theatre is a white, metal oval, revealing its extent only as you penetrate its gleaming, marble interior. It apparently occupies the site of the old dog racing track and a flower market.

The whiteness within contrasts with a giant stained-glass mural of brightly coloured exotic plants, with turquoise predominant. In front is a glassed-in fountain tower, complete with a light display. Was this the usual Chinese hotel-reception style, or something a bit more unusual? We couldn’t quite decide.

The interior was a bit more restrained; wood was the main material with bamboo-like lines etched in metal. Sadly the designer couldn’t quite quell the desire for hotel-chic, and a large part of the ceiling was covered in glittery strings of glass lights.

After the experience of teenage hysteria when watching Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus, I was intrigued to see how the audience would react to Bourne’s all male swans. There was a sprinkling of little girls in pink frocks and I wondered how they would deal with Bourne’s interpretation of Swan Lake, with his angst-ridden prince.

In fact, although there was an audible frisson when the prince and the Swan first touched and danced together, the audience was extremely attentive and thoroughly appreciative of the performance. Their ‘good behaviour’ may have been due to the signs that were carried around by two usherettes before the performance and during the interval telling them not to take photographs and to keep quiet.

Exhortations to behave ‘properly’ are not needed in Japan, where people stand obediently at road crossings with no traffic waiting for the green man. I find myself slightly nostalgic for the chaos of crossing the road at Metro and the creativity of the Chinese as they attempt to outwit the red lights and the traffic police.

Every morning our hotel provides the Japan Times and this morning we read that there is an aspiration to increase Chinese tourism 20 fold, from 1 million visitors per annum to 20 million. From the number of Chinese voices we are hearing already, and Chinese enthusiasm for Japanese food, I’m sure this is not unrealistic. However, I wonder if Japanese sensibilities will be able to cope with coach loads of Chinese tourists.

Today we visited the Katsura Imperial Villa, one of the most famous and influential combinations of architecture and landscape. Getting there involved going to the Imperial Ticket Office in another part of Kyoto, queueing up to get an application form, filling in our passport numbers, queueing up again and being allocated a tour slot two days in advance. We had tried to do this on line over the previous 6 months, but the Imperial Website was impenetrable.

We trailed around, carefully walking on the stepping stones. A palace guard followed behind the tour to make sure no one strayed off the path. We were scolded at one point for standing on the moss. The tour guide spoke in Japanese and the rest of us were given an audio guide in English. The gardens and buildings were exquisite and probably the highlight of our visit to Kyoto. But I couldn’t help wondering about how the Imperial Villa was going to deal with all those Chinese tourists that are about to start invading.