Saturday, August 25, 2007
Part Twenty Five
on a boat cruising up the Yangtze river through some of the most scenic landscapes in the world. I was the national guide accompanying a group of American tourists – and he was a photographer on assignment from a Hong Kong travel magazine.
The 4 or 5 day trip upstream from Shanghai to Chongqing was one of my favorite trips during my six years as a tour guide. This time, we had a new ship and the crew were all from Chongqing, a place well known for its small, beautiful women. How attractive they were in their new uniforms !
During evening dinner on the second day, I noticed a new passenger who had just boarded that afternoon. He looked very shy and quiet, sitting at the dinner table all by himself. He was Chinese, but didn’t look like someone who had grown up in mainland China. When I passed his table, I said hello and he politely greeted me, but the conversation ended there. After dinner, my co-worker and I decided to visit the sitting lounge up at the bow of the ship, and as we were chatting, the newcomer walked in and took a chair opposite ours. I had been wondering about this person was ever since we first met, so I walked over to introduce both myself and my co-worker to him. You could tell from his face that he was delighted (and he told me later, that he was wondering about us too – but was too shy to start a conversation)
After that evening’s introduction, we were all looking forward to the next opportunity to chat or share a meal together. He did not speak Mandarin very well, so our conversations were a mixture of English, Cantonese and broken Mandarin. But we all enjoyed the company very much. We had some good conversations and ended up exchanging addresses at the end of the trip.
A few weeks later, as he was passing through Beijing on his way to an assignment up north, he stopped at Beijing for a few days since I had volunteered to show him the city. I invited him up to my room, and after a cup of tea and we headed to a park. It was raining, but neither of us minded. We strolled around the lake, and he got very serious about taking a lot of photographs.
We spent a whole morning and afternoon together, talking about that Yangtze river trip and a little bit about ourselves. You could tell he was a very shy, reserved person. He loved China, but during his trips to the mainland, he told me that he came across so many unthinkable incidents, and he did not know how mainlanders could survive in this kind of system. Unbearable and unreasonable restrictions and rules; he hated them so much, sometimes he wanted to never set foot in China again , but the beautiful country was so irresistible – and, of course, visiting and photographing it was his job.
When he was in my apartment, he told me that he was amazed at how well we lived. That was the first time that he had ever been invited into someone’s home on the mainland. That day went by too quickly, and as he was leaving in the evening, I stood on the platform at the station, waving until his train disappeared out of sight. I admit that I felt a bit lost.
A few days later, I received a long letter from him – and fell in love. We arranged for me to visit him in Hong Kong – and soon we were talking about marriage.
How to describe him ?
He was not too short, about 5 feet 9 inches, with a small structure, thin but not skinny. He was very near sighted, and always wore a pair of glasses. He looked well educated, but not like a professor. He was a very serious person, but he could also be very funny. He enjoyed food, but was never wasteful – and it was only after we met, that I, too, discovered that food could be enjoyable --- not just something to fill an empty stomach. He did his job with a great deal of passion, and saved every penny he could throughout out his life. He was a gentle, sincere, and rather old-fashioned person; definitely a gentleman, and also very romantic.
He did not talk about his family that much with me before I went to Hong Kong.
I knew that both his parents had died, and he had a brother and sister. His parents had joined millions of others from Guangdong province who came to Hong Kong after the revolution – arriving in the early 1950’s – soon after it was announced that the Hong Kong border was going to be closed. His parents were poor and lived in the Kowloon district, one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
In late 1984, I was able to get the special visa to visit Hong Kong. No passport was required, but getting permission to cross the bridge to other side was no small matter. Again, I used my backdoor connections – this time, my brother-in-law could help me since he was in the police department. Once approved, my gentleman friend bought me a 10 day tour Hong Kong package. The first 6 or 7 days I stayed at hotel with my tour group but the last three days we were on our own, so I moved into his apartment.
The living condition of his family shocked me.
Their tiny apartment opened off a second floor balcony that hung over Tung Choi street (or “Ladies’ Market”) . – a street that was filled with shoppers and vendors until 3 am. It was always hot – it was always noisy – and I have no idea how anyone ever got to sleep.
And this limited space was shared by his brother and sister who was married with two small children. His sister and brother-in-law were very friendly and their hospitality made me feel at home very soon, but I never got a chance to meet his older brother, because he worked at night and only came home during the day.
My friend offered me his bed while he slept in the living room. None of his sister’s family spoke mandarin, so we had a very hard time communicating with each other. The next day, while he was away at work, he asked his sister to take me to a restaurant for dim sum – and that was my first time to have real dim sum. I loved the food, but did not like the noise in the restaurant, since Cantonese people speak very loudly, and I have no idea what they’re saying.
The bedroom was basically a closet – with just enough space for a single bunk-bed (above a desk) – on which he and his brother slept in shifts – and they both shared a kitchen with their sister’s family.
He was the only member his family to get a college education - thanks to a community college (he had qualified for Hong Kong’s more prestigious schools, but could not afford to attend them) – and after graduation he began working as a photographer for a travel bureau, which, like many Hong Kong businesses, was eventually bought by the People’s Republic.
So in sense, we both worked for the Chinese government – except that he wasn’t a Chinese citizen – indeed, he wasn’t a citizen of anywhere – since Hong Kong did not automatically grant citizenship to the people it took in during the fifties. He was a resident alien – with a green card.
He was very hardworking – and more frugal than even my family had been. He wouldn’t even pay for small storage locker to stash his heavy luggage when we went off on a date – but he was not cheap when it came to buying us dinner. That’s one thing about the Cantonese – they spare nothing for good food.
During my 10 day visit to Hong Kong, my observation was that Hong Kong was a good place to visit, but not to live , except for the very rich. . I was not longing to be rich, but I was also not ready to join the poor. I was much better off back home.
We saw each other over an 18-month period – but since were both working and traveling, we’d only get together every three months or so – so just as with my first romance – much of our communication was by letter – and I wrote some very long ones – seven or eight pages of heart-felt feelings.
But again – the letters I sent could never match the letters I got– because regarding the Chinese language, I only had an elementary school education.
We were getting pretty serious about each other – and I remember how when we were together one evening in Shenzhen– just at sunset -- I began to cry. There was no special reason – it was uncontrollable – maybe it was just the anxiety that I’ve always felt when the sun is going down – but he was certainly puzzled – and taking my hand he addressed me as his wife.
But how could I become his wife ? Where would we live ? Being so over-crowded, Hong Kong had strict regulations about the immigration of Chinese – and we would have to wait seven years after marriage before I could live there. And even after I did – what kind of job could I have ? I never wanted to be a housewife.
Meanwhile – how could he live in Beijing – he could barely speak Mandarin . And poor and crowded as people may be in Hong Kong – nobody there wants to join the teeming, impoverished billion on the mainland – with its periodic waves of political turbulence.
And I’m not sure that he could ever adjust to life in the People’s Republic – as exemplified by the following incident the occurred during our trip to a small town near Canton.
He was supposed to travel there and write an article about the area. It was one of those untouched areas undiscovered by tourists. It was a beautiful small town that didn’t yet have any modern, updated hotels, so we stayed in a local, old fashioned hotel, and we were the only visitors..
We rented two rooms, and they put us far apart, so he stayed all the way at one end of the hotel and I stayed at the other. . The shower did not work in his room, so he came to my room to shower, and then we spent the evening together in my room talking. At 10:00 pm, he told me that he should go back to his room, because the floor boys had seen him coming to mine and they had been looking at him strangely. But we were having such a good time , I did not want it to end , so I begged him to stay a bit longer, and he agreed. Then half an hour later, somebody began pounding loudly at my door. Mr. Hong Kong got up and immediately opened it , then a group of people came in, and began to question us. They accused us of adultery – but they could not prove it since we had opened the door immediately. Nevertheless, they kept us both in the room and continued with the interrogation. . I was so mad, and angry! They threatened to report me to my travel agency, and then threatened him to send him back to Hong Kong and forbid him to return. They tried very hard to have our confession, but we had nothing to hide. Finally, I began to threaten them. I told them, that my father worked for the Security Ministry, and I would ask minister X (I mentioned his name) who was the number 2 boss in security to investigate this hotel. I told them they would be in big trouble. After that, their attitude towards us changed and eventually they let us go. I never heard anything from them again – and my boss never got a letter from them either. ( I think they had nothing to do and waited to catch us in bed. , but they did not get what they wanted.)
My Hong Kong friend was so in love with me, that for a while , he even talked about moving to the mainland. But after that incident, he never mentioned it again.
During the last three months of our relationship – all we talked about was how could we make a life together. We were no longer young enough to throw caution to the wind and sacrifice everything for love. But we could never figure out how to work things out.