2001, NANCHANG, CHINA
“You went to China and spent half your time in Nanchang?” I could see by my friend’s expression that she thought I’d gone off the rails. To her it was as if a tourist from China planned to linger only a day or two in New York and San Francisco, with the core of her trip played out in Des Moines, Iowa. The city of Nanchang, about five hundred kilometers northeast of Hong Kong in Jiangxi province, certainly wasn’t competition for the glitter of Shanghai or the charm of Suzhou. My friend, Elizabeth, her three-year-old daughter Isabel, Elizabeth’s friend Judy, and I had traveled together from New York City, and had reluctantly cut our time short in the tourist meccas, because Elizabeth had things to do in Nanchang.
The major part of our trip was as a group of four, but, in traveling with friends, I nearly always find little pockets of adventure on my own, and this trip was no exception. The Lonely Planet guide to China dismisses Nanchang as “nondescript,” condemning its streets of boxy concrete buildings as “color deprivation at its worst.” So we were startled when, on the ride in from the airport, a Western-style department store of several stories suddenly emerged like a mirage of brilliant light in the desert of darkness. All glass and glitter, it bustled with customers, even at eight p.m.
More surprises awaited us at the Gloria Plaza Hotel. We had arrived on December 20th, and had looked forward to escaping the madness of Christmas in the States. This was China, after all, so we were unprepared to hear strains of “Away in a Manger” as we entered the hotel. In the lobby we gazed at a table loaded with stacks of stuffed animals, gift-wrapped boxes and a Plaster of Paris Santa Claus featuring painted two inch-long eye lashes. Gingerbread houses were draped with blinking white lights, extravagant sweets were for sale, and Elizabeth pointed out a chocolate delicacy labeled “Youlog.” Someone had worked hard to make us Westerners feel at home. The jolly sounds of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” followed us through the halls each time we left our rooms.
The dining room resembled a poor man’s Trader Vic’s, complete with touches of thatch on the ceilings, and replicas of wooden boats tacked to walls. The buffet dinner was tasty, and offered ample choices of Western and Chinese fare. The servers―renamed "Betty", "Carrie", "Ron" and "Susan", for the convenience of us Westerners―were friendly and helpful. I joyously gobbled up delicious cabbage hearts, and tried cracked hardboiled eggs swimming in soy sauce, which were terrific. But we all passed on pig's blood, goose intestines, sliced pigs ear with jelly fish and some kind of cat braised, I think. I wanted to expand my cultural horizons but, not yet, Lord.
The next morning I woke as the light of day pushed through ragged openings in a blanket of smog. My friends were still asleep, and I didn’t want to wake them, so I decided on a solo foray into the neighborhood. Although the area near the hotel had an industrial feel to it I passed a few apartment houses, some of which featured carcasses of small animals hung, like laundry, on balconies. Hmm. How different “animal carcasses” sounds from “beef,” “drum stick,” “steak,” and the like. Perhaps some “roasts” or “short ribs” would land on the hotel’s menu for the pleasure of us Westerners who don’t care to eat cats.
As I meandered, I discovered that the streets were busy, even at seven in the morning. Some men and women pedaled along the streets, carrying impressive loads of sugarcane and boxes or bags of mysterious cargo on their bikes. A man squatted over a grate in the sidewalk to brush his teeth. He looked satisfied at finding a practical solution for caring for his teeth, rather than someone to be pitied for his apparent “homelessness.” As I thought about that, a pile of slimy, bloody, fresh-caught fish grabbed my attention. I stepped past the mass of creatures pathetically struggling for life, and picked my way carefully down wide stairs, slippery with water sluicing toward the river I could now see below.
At the bottom of the steps men and a few women swabbed decks or unloaded their catch. Dozens of sampans, about the size of rowboats, their wooden bodies topped by straw-covered bonnets, jammed the harbor. Boats just like them had been taken out on the waters of China’s seas hundreds of years earlier. I felt I had walked back in time, where the basics of life never changed. Later back in the hotel, Judy and Elizabeth were anxious to go out, but first we all wanted lunch. In the dining room, we were warmly greeted by "Carrie", a waitress who had gone out of her way to befriend us the evening before. After breakfast while I waited for my friends to make a brief stop in the restroom, "Carrie" and I chatted. She surprised me by confiding that she didn’t like her job, and planned to resign soon. Perhaps she would work in her husband’s business, she said. But that was a problem, because her father did not get along with her husband.
"Carrie" explained that soon after her marriage her husband had visited her father’s heater factory, had taken a close look at how it was run, and promptly opened his own heater business. The competition meant that her father was able to eek out only a meager living. With only a short pause, "Carrie" looked at her shoes and murmured, scarcely above a whisper, “I know my husband loves me, and I love him.” Then, inexplicably, she looked up at me and asked, “Do you think I should get a divorce?” I wasn’t about to play instant-Oprah, so I was relieved when my friends appeared, just in time to save me from an awkward response. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what I had missed in not continuing the conversation. Even the few comments we exchanged provided a glimpse of the culture unlikely to happen on a proper tour with a proper guide.
For our afternoon excursion we settled on the Tianning Temple where we joined other visitors and a few monks in long brown robes praying at altars. The more subtle statues were painted in gilt, others in a garish orange-yellow. Three-year-old Isabel followed the example of local people, kneeling on a low bench, and bending from the waist with palms together. We adults were more restrained. Brilliant cerise sticks of incense and fat red candles burned beneath larger-than-life golden replicas of Buddha. Renditions of fierce dragons sent Isabel into shrieks of delighted fright.
Our time as tourists in this allegedly dreary, boring town passed like a blink, we had not been out in the evening at all. My friends decided to call it a day, but I wanted to see what, if anything, went on after dark. It was about nine when I decided to explore a side street toward the back of the hotel. I discovered numerous pocket sized restaurants, and a few cooks at work right on the street. They stood over small fires, and juggled long-handled woks, as they tossed greens into the air. I had walked three blocks when I noticed a building with a wide doorway, where a number of twenty-something, dressed-up men and women congregated. I approached and they giggled at me. A man slightly older than the rest of the group stepped forward and in halting English asked what I wanted.
I asked, “Is this a hotel?”
“Dancing,” he said. That response made me eager to go inside, but the charge, the equivalent of twenty dollars, was too high for a visit of only a few minutes. I explained my situation, and the man beckoned me to follow. Up several flights of winding stairs we went, and at each landing I was surprised to see paintings or sculptures of glamorous naked ladies. Perhaps this was a brothel? A strip joint? Nothing so exotic, I discovered, on arriving at the third floor.
I entered a hall where tables and chairs formed a half-circle in front of a small stage. No one was dancing. Adults and children of all ages, eschewing the available chairs, crowded close to the stage. I joined them. A middle-aged man in a suit, shiny with wear, held a blank sheet of paper aloft in his left hand. He turned it this way and that, so that we could see that it had no bulk, then rolled it into a cylinder. A moment later a green, silk scarf materialized in his right hand. Slowly, he poked it inside the end of the cylinder. Next he pulled a pink scarf from the opposite end, and unrolled the paper to show that it was once again a simple flat sheet. Adults and children laughed delightedly.
Someone pushed through the crowd and asked in English whether I would like a drink. I was sorry to decline, but it was after ten, and I held out the faint hope that, back at the hotel, I could persuade my friends to return with me. I wondered how many entertainments we might have missed each night, right at our doorstep, in this city where Lonely Planet claimed there was nothing to do. As I walked out toward the stairs, I thanked the man who had escorted me to this delightful entertainment.
As we reached a landing, he paused and began to twist his hands together. Clearing his throat, and looking over my right shoulder, he said he had something to ask me. After apologizing several times, he finally blurted out that he wanted to mail a teapot to a friend in Michigan, but the postage was prohibitive. Would I mail it for him from Seattle? He had been kind to me and I wanted to say yes. But I could imagine myself at an airport, claiming that a stranger had given me an item to carry on the plane. What a scenario for unexpected consequences! I declined, but asked how much it would cost for postage from Nanchang. Forty dollars, he said. I guessed the tea pot had cost less than five dollars, which made the situation seem preposterous. Still, I felt sad that I could not comply with what seemed a small favor. The mystery of the tea pot still intrigues me.
On the way back to the hotel, I was passing another club when a woman standing at the entrance gestured to me to come in. I stepped to the doorway, and paused just long enough to see a large hall, where there were several dozen of what appeared to be church pews. On a stage at the far end a tiny man in a Santa Claus suit raced back and forth, with the pace of a frenetic talk-show host, spewing fast patter into a microphone, while periodic bursts of laughter erupted from his audience of perhaps a hundred people.
So much for my “gray-on-gray” trip to Nanchang. All those small happenings took place along one street of perhaps three blocks. At odd moments I find myself picturing a return trip. I could walk more streets, find a fluent English speaker, and conduct in-depth interviews of each person I had met.
Or, instead of all that, I could explore some “nondescript” U.S. city, such as Des Moines, Iowa. There’s no telling what delights I might encounter in such a place.