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WINTER HOLIDAYS IN CHINA
by Marion D.S. Dreyfus
Just returned from Shanghai, and a heavy 5 days it has been. Shanghai is 100 times the cost of Wuhan, not exaggerating.
We just gave the maids here - 4 of them, all sweet, not exactly house-afire types - my idea of a great gift: Fabulous plush animal slippers, which none of them owned and needed when they wake up late and open the doors of doom for us after they fall asleep and the hotel is locked. They squealed and squealed. they never get Xmas and New Year's gifts here and it was a novel experience for all. We gave the two males big tins of Cadbury's. Bought a 'hand-painted' scroll in Shanghai for less than I'd pay in Wuhan, and I liked the scroll, but it did not cost a hell of a lot, though they originally quoted a laughable price.
Supper the other night cost me a thousand times what it costs me in Wuhan, and it represents 300 times what I could buy elsewhere in Shanghai (but of course not in a toney place).
Glad to have left Shanghai, as it was killing me. The visit to Sun Yat-sen's home bothered me - my eyes streamed throughout, thinking of my Mother, who often mentioned him. We had hanging scrolls from him - or I think they were - a gift from cousin Two-Gun. I am not certain, but the stories made an impression on me and that is partially the reason I am here today. My Mother's mentioning Sun and the whole China connection is to me very deep and very unquestioned.
The idea of visiting first the synagogue Ohel Moishe from 1927-1949 yesterday, then Sun's home today, was deeply significant to me personally, and I will take some time to process it all. I know that the anomaly of a Jewish english female coming to China to find "roots" that never existed for her here is - well, anomalous. But on many levels, I feel connected to the city of Shanghai and the country. Not in all ways. Not connected particularly to the peculiar city of Wuhan, whose air greeted me palpably when I flew back tonight. The air is sooty and reminiscent of London's before the anti-coal-burning edict of '5. Gritty, hazy, miasmic.
The services I had hoped to find yesterday in the Jewish "ghetto" shul, Ohel Moishe, on a renamed street following the evisceration of all taint of French settlement in the city, was a jolt. I had wanted to meet with my people and daven, the last day of chanukah 2003.5764. The 2-square-mile area of narrowish streets (lots wider than expected; lots wider than the Italian forebear of the infamous ghetto), established by the Japanese in obedience to the command of the nazis to eliminate the escapee Jews who had found themselves in the safe-harbour of Shanghai, was full of the drying clothing and impedimenta of the Chinese who now live there with perhaps little consciousness of the myriad Jews from Russia, Poland, Germany and Hungary who fled there for safety from 1937 until after the War was over.
The first shock - though pleasant, after a second - was a smiling traditional face of a Chinese man in a traditional round cap - no pigtail, though - greeting me as I alit from the taxi. He smiled broadly and said "Shalom!" I was floored. Then, of course, realized that it was pretty obvious: A car draws up with a Caucasian lady in front of the synagogue of the Jews. who else might she be but an MOT? What more logical greeting than to be heralded genially by "Shalom!" from a friend?
The guide inside was quite sweet, not unknowledgeable, and lectured us for an hour or so on the history of the small, unimposing, Attic-feeling place that more evoked Anne Frank than it did the residents of the small multistory house of worship where coveys of Jews had nested for years, undestroyed by the Japanese.
As I wound my ways with the other three people present - a couple from Washington DC and a lovely girl called Lily, a gentle Chinese guide who was 'supplied' with their tour - up the winding stair and into the warren of tiny rooms that housed family after family, chamber pots and multi-tier food carriers reminding me that there was no real WC or kitchen in these premises, I was again mournful and resentful of the centuries of torment visited upon the Jew for being - a Jew.
The furnishings in the bed-sitting room upstairs over the ohel were dark wood, plain as Amish, and without pretension. Near the thin bed was a wired fan that gave mute testimony to how desperately hot must have been the months between winter and winter here high up above the service area of the shul The temperature in Shanghai is always 5 to 10 degrees Centigrade higher than Wuhan's (I could understand the weather reports as of the second week or so that I was here), and even without the sweltering swampiness of Wuhan, Shanghai must have been hellish up in the airless aerie of the synagogue building. Add to that the chamberpot and its clear rarity of emptying - it must have been stressful on all sorts of levels that transcended just the life-and-death question.
Why the Japanese failed to obey the dictates of the nazis [to destroy the Jewish community] was that Russian Jews had sent massive infusions of rubles to the Japanese at the turn of the century in order to ensure that the Russians could not be too successful in damaging one escape valve. In consideration of the millions of Jewish gelt that wended into Japanese coffers, the Japanese saved their slaughter for the Chinese, not the Jews.
There is a Chabad in Shanghai, and though I had intended to visit the rabbi, who had been kind to me via email when I plaintively worried about yontef alone here, I never made it to his Chabad House, in an entirely different area of the city.
There was a gallery of art annexed to the Ohel Moishe, a tiny courtyard gave way to the airy gallery newly opened some 6 years ago. There were artworks by Jews and non-Jews dedicated to the idea of the synagogue, to the Jews of Shanghai, to the important people of the kehila there 50 years ago. Among the 10 prominent Jews mentioned on a painting showing a robe inscribed with symbols of china and Jewry was the name "Two-Gun Cohen" - a relative of mine. My new camera failed to work again, and I gather my batteries, though brand new, are not enough. I regret not having gotten a photo of the painting and sculptures - many are of quite excellent quality. The several dozen artworks have been donated to the gallery. I wanted to buy a few, for sentimental reasons as well as for art appreciation. I carried with me all the time the image of my friend Hesh, who was born there, and whose life was marked for decades with the unfortunate name that identified him as having been born in china. Now it seems an embarrassment to think we all did so with some glee and amazement. Did it seem upsetting to him? Would we ever call anyone the equivalent today?
Around the corner, some blocks away, is a "Roadside Park" where elderly women in traditional dress stood on one leg and did many of the movements that I do on sundays in my Tai chi classes here. But I was startled for a moment, seeing them. A tiny vest-pocket park, it featured a grandma and her infant grandson both jumping rope, the tot being notably inadequate to both turning the rope and jumping at one time. The grandmother was quite boxer-like in her agility and frequency of jumping. She stuck it out and persisted in her instruction.
We were seeking the Tablet that memorialized the Jews of the past here in this neighborhood. Finally, we discovered the black tablet with its white lettering in English and Hebrew and Chinese. And wonder of wonders, my little ornery Canon worked! I managed to get a picture of the tablet... I think/hope/trust/pray.
No one paid it any especial interest. Only we four, not especially visible in the park with numerous turns and twists. Still, that it is there, recently installed,some years ago, designated a proper memorial for the well-liked former inhabitants, was a triumph without question.
I asked the Chinese guide in the shul what had happened to the 7 shuls that had been in the region. One, he said, is managed by the municipal government, and Hillary and Bill had visited 5 years ago. Not the synagogue we were in, but an august presence with a large and impressive facade. Inside, however, the furnishings are either in seedy condition or entirely gone. The other five synagogues were demolished for a large edifice and businesses of sundry sort.
A companion asked where the Jewish cemetery was. The guide answered it had been bulldozed. But I saw from my brochure on the Jewish section of the city that there is still a Jewish cemetery not far off, though evidently the guide did not know about it - somewhat puzzling, given his careful pride in discussing the Tallis and Yarmulke the Rabbi wore, and the face that the 'bimah' is no longer there, as the Jews who returned to Europe after the war took the Torah and the bimah.
We were asked for a Y50 contribution, and we did not know if it went to the upkeep of the synagogue or the guide. but it did not matter. the sadness and bittersweet pain of the encounter reminded us of the price of being Jewish. Even then. Even now.
You know Sun Yat-sen's accomplished widow, Soong Ching Ling, died a month ago, aged 105!!?? She lived on the Upper East Side - Fifth Avenue - for many years by the time she died. Her husband died of cancer on 12 March 1925. He was of course a medical doctor in the US when he returned in 1918 to China. Many of his instruments, frightening to contemplate, in fact, reside still, pristine, in his closet, which the guide showed me. I tried to find parallels to our time, and found many. The men in his photos are all spiffily attired in Savile Row suitings. They wear hats. Ties. Shiny Wall St-type heavy Western shoes. They do not smile, as befit the time. But the photos of Soong show a thoughtful and stunningly beautiful woman in her mid and late 20's and later. She had servants (I asked) despite the nature of so-called egalitarian reform. But she hardly looked as if she did any housework. The home is modern, with current furniture and furnishings a comfortable person would consider even today. (The privileged always live both large and futuristically, I find. Catch-up always take decades.)
The tour of the home was in English, which surprised the few of us gathered to see the home. The furnishings and household implements are the originals, and we were asked, just like in the US, to wear plastic booties over our street shoes as we walked through the home.
Soong Ching Ling also lived in a tony home in rural Connecticut. She was a woman of doughty demeanor, and a certain asperity of spirit. She used to say "The only thing that's Chinese about me is my face." She was a beautiful woman, really stunning. Her home had few photos of her, and even those were rare, as women hardly counted for much 100 years ago. She had smarts, and produced many writings and various works. She attended college in the US (was it Wellesley, Barnard or Holyoke? I do not know) and spoke flawless English. I am sorry she is gone. (Who was it who opined: "The death of any man diminishes me...?")
I was so sad that my cousin, who was his bodyguard, was not mentioned in his home, or was known by the English-speaking (sort of) 'guides' in the house, a beautiful residence that was very comfortable and well-furnished for the time, and airy and bright, built by a French designer. The Canadian Chinese community bought the house for Sun, in appreciation of his efforts in the revolution of China, and I couldn't help noticing how all the meetings shown in photos on the walls were terrifically Western, all in suits and Western garb, nary a skirt or tunic among the bunch.
All of the Jews who lived in the city, not amazingly, were dressed the way they had in Russia or Poland, as they were transitory people. Thus they looked like major fish out of water, with beards and traditionally frock-coat religious garb. On the walls in the synagogue was a note of the 10 most influential Jews in China in that period - and among the 10 names was my cousin's, Two-gun Cohen. It all makes me miss my Mother very, very much. I miss her, anyway, all the time, and not a day goes by when I don't rue her being gone. Being here emphasizes that huge loss for me.
Bought a major rug, silk on silk, at the factory in Shanghai. When you flip it around, it is a whole other coloration. It has a silvery sheen and it is too nice to actually put on the floor.
We're in Li Jiang, a 800-year old city. The native, very non-routine inn is enormously maze-like, a la Chinese compounds of 100 years ago... It extends in every direction with long pavillion-type passageways lined with red-painted banisters and wooden configurations, deep green foliage abutting everywhere, and marble or stone-lined walkways. Some of these passages are outdoors, some in. Some cross a street.
Old town Li Jiang is lantern-hung, all wood, tiny in scale and resolutely picturesque from second to second. Girls in native costume. Lit candles near tables ablaze with replica candles in petal-like lotus affairs and pose demurely while holding onto some device or other (often a cell-phone). Service in 'restaurants' is slow to glacial, like the setting. When I mistakenly asked for bread for my soup, the lad in rustic local costume departed to another restaurant (!) for close to half an hour, spending more of his energy in flirtation than in remembering the order.
Breakfast was a huge plethora of Chinese and Tibetan buffet delicacies, specializing in pickled vegetables, michi - the local delicious rice-noodle - five kinds of bread-like things I passed on, potatoes, stewed vegetables, various sorts of meat products I ignored, cocoanut milk, mulberry and pineapple juice (I combine the latter two and drink the first for lunch). Oranges are peeled and we are given them in self-contained slices. Seaweed in various colors and tastes are a fave of mine. Things that looked like potatoes turned out to be apples. Things that look like fruit were not. But it was filling and colorful and did the trick to get me up the mountain, up the T-lift in absolute pristine silence.
The people are often Tibetan here, and the food is almost the same as in Wuhan, without the passionate addiction to chilis and spice that dogs my chopsticks down there.
Last night's attempt to find an internet cafe resulted in being invited to a wild beer party with local indigenous who drank up a storm and shared their sunflower seeds and tangerines until the wee hours. The city is preserved buildings from hundreds of years ago, and there are three parallel and docile rivers that run charmingly through the city a la Venice without the boats. the rivers are a mere few feet across, and demurely run in channels, bricked lined slightly below street level.
Tried to buy herbal medicines today..., but they all looked like dried mushrooms, I didn't believe it when my interlocutor told me to steep them in wine and drink after a month...So I abstained.
No one had ever heard of a synagogue in Kunming, BTW. I asked and asked. Best I got was "We have Ca-THOH-lic and Po' TEST-an place, but never heard of that thing." That is true here too. I have to tell them I'm Muslim to get them to understand my dietary don'ts.
My camera is lost - just bought less than a week ago. When I noticed the camera was gone yesterday, I ran all around trying to find it, but no luck. I gave up, since hundreds of locals passed by wherever it fell or was taken. I think it is bashert to lose it, and as I am so fortunate in health and many other things, it is after all only a camera and maybe something good will result, so I give myself to the day and try not to feel cross with myself and/or whoever it was who deprived me of the thing.
Just came back from meeting a holy lama, in a lamassery where the lama, in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) put his body between the Red Guards who wanted to destroy his lamassery and the extrraordinary tree in its compound, a camellia tree that is listed in the World Landmark association as the world's most prolific (or most beautiful) bec. it produces more than 2,000 camellias per year. I just had the privilege of meeting this man, who is now deaf and lives alone high up in the mountains, and supplied with necessities by buddhist adherents or wealthy patrons, who spoke Tibetan to us, smiled a beatific smile and watched as a man chopped wood in front of us, in the sparkling midday sun and in the luscious clear air of northern Li Jiang, 38 K from the Old City at the base of the mountains. He saved the tree by telling these vicious crazed marauders "If you destroy this tree, you must also kill me. My life is devoted to saving this tree." and they spared him, and the tree.
I joined the group we saw at breakfast in the little 'restaurant' on the shorefront, in seeing the most impoverished Buddhist temple ever. There were ageing pigs' feet and legs drying on the rafters, and on the other side of the dowel above me, aging pig entrails. The sweet Mohso girl talking to us spoke for 15 long minutes, of which I understood about 5 words, one of which was pork and the others of which were numbers. I had to remove my scarf and enter using my right foot. The men used their left feet to enter.
I was the only one not to bow numerous times to the Living Buddha image after she struck the gong several lingering times. I can't get out of my mind the image of worshipping strange gods, so many repetitions of which I heard growing up in grade school, high school and even college. Can't erase that training. Still, I mean no disrespect.
We had severe skidding problems all day, and it took 8 1/2 hrs to get back. Just got back, 7:15 pm! The sheer drops we stared at every time we had a sticking or skidding problem were fairly frightening. We all got out and pushed the bus many times.Me in my 4-inch boots. At one point I skidded under the bus, and a fellow pusher of the stuck bus dragged me out before the spinning wheels could drag me under and maim me. There were many tribesmen on the high passes - and those same urchins (if they are Chinese urchins, does that make them Churchins?) selling spoiled apples, sunflower seeds and pears - who negotiated with each and every stuck car, bus and van. Charles told me this is how they make a living, unsticking cars in the winter. Luckily, with 11 of us, we had enough armpower to move the bus off the ice and gravel numerous times. We were fairly frightened of falling over the side in many of the hairpin turns, I don't need to tell you. What had seemed idyllic yesterday as we wove around these huge mountains and steep declinations, scrub brush and Chinese pines growing out at odd angles from the red earth and rocky soil, was full of menace today.
I enjoyed lunch with the group (although every meat dish had pork in it so I ate spinach, rice, tomato and eggs, string potatoes (stewed), squash/pumpkin, tofu and chili and celery. Still, it was nice eating after fasting all day on the road! and we sang songs after we worried about falling over the precipices. (No joke.) I was asked to sing, too, and I sang a Hebrew song called "HaYamim Cholifim," about the power of song to linger and prevail.
In Xi'an, a city of upwards of some 5 1/2 million souls, a city so ancient it was the capital of China in its earlier incarnation of Chang An, 2,000 years ago, there are some 60,00 Muslims who live on the "West" side of the city that is quadranted into four directions, with the South being the hippest, and the East and North having recently undergone governmental renovations. The government has tried to transfigure the run-down Arab quarter in the west of the city, but the inhabitants will not permit the renovations, according to my informants, residents and guides of this city, a long-time attraction because of its thousands of terra cotta soldiers from the old Qin (Chin) dynasty in the early part of the first millennium. These terra cotta figures are housed in barracks museum enclosures some 60 miles from Xi'an proper. They are magnificent in every way.
(These figures, unearthed accidentally by farmers digging a well, were created and then ceremoniously buried in astounding abundance, standing at attention, no two faces of the approximately 6,000 soldiers alike, with ancient actual weapons clutched in their encircling right hands, are supposedly listed as among the eight wonders of the World. They are, quibbles about landmarking status aside, stupendously interesting, along with their quadratic steeds and the one-time chariots that bestrode the earth between the soldiery meant to guard the tomb of the cruel emperor who ruled unpleasantly for some 50 turbulent years.)
The Moslim sector in town is run-down, and the area houses the same kinds of souk familiar to visitors to Turkey, Morocco and Israel - indeed, most of the Middle East. They sell foodstuffs, trinkets, beads and masks, sunflower seeds of varying sizes and sweetness, and assorted clothing. The interesting aspect of the group is that, having come to the country apparently as soon as the religion was handed out or distributed or murdered for by the illiterate pederast, they have been here some 1,300 years or so. They have intermarried such that they may wear the rounded kepis and adopt the hijab, which indeed they do, but their faces are difficult to distinguish (especially the females) from native Chinese. They speak Chinese and they comport like the indigenous Han, 92% of the population - i.e., the Chinese people.
Interestingly, however, they are non-assimilationist, even after all this time. They put up vast fights about attending schools, and prefer to have their children (as a 'minority,' the government grants them exclusive rights to have twice the number of permitted children, in order to promote their ethnicity and perhaps market value to the tourist trade, or the like) help them in the store, restaurant or kiosk. This presents a quandary to the government, as they then tend to be less literate and culturally broadminded than their peers, the ambient Chinese. Again, this comes to me from the lips of locals, not myself.
In visiting their local mosque, intriguingly, I saw a number of arresting things. The mosque, like the quarter in general, is exceedingly short of a new coat of paint. The mosque, however, more resembles a Buddhist temple than it does mosques I have seen/visited in majoritarian Arab countries, Singapore and the East. The same exotic architecture, flipped finials on the edges of buildings. The red color predominates, obviously the color of Chinese luck - especially evident today and yesterday everywhere on the streets from exploded fireworks.
The prayer chambers have the expected prayer mats and Oriental rugs for worshippers. The high doorstep to keep out the evil eye who might roam in uninvited. But the only signal you are seeing not a Buddhist lamassery but a mosque is that golden Arabic letters adorn the red columns flanking the prayer rooms, instead of Chinese calligraphic characters. The very laocoon pathways and numerous shrine-like side buildings echo the Buddhist set-ups in most temples I have seen here. There were no worshippers when I visited, as it is winter, and the mosques are somewhat beside the point on the Chinese New Year, anyway. Visitors to the city seek acquaintanceship with their ancestry, not an adoptive one. The rubbish boxes in the gardens of the mosque, however, gave me a start: They were pictographed on their swinging metal doors by a hand with a finger pointing into the metal enclosure. The word "bin" was prominent near the pointing finger. For a very silly moment I wondered if that "bin" was a codeword for "...[Laden]. Which inanity of course stems from not enough chocolate in my system.
According to guides and others, the population in Xi'an and Cheung Du and elsewhere in the Western part of the country - which features most of the Muslims - have receive many benefits as an ethnic 'minority' for these many centuries. But the population has been restive, and has demanded additional benefits in social terms and religious grounds. They demonstrated some years ago, seeking even better land (they now have choice property, according to my informant in Kunming) and exemptions of various sorts. They want to pay no taxes, and have no restrictions common to other minorities here in China. They are likelier to complain than any of the other 56 minorities in the country, according to my sources. Everywhere, they seem to balk at sending their children to the schools attended by all the other minorities and Han children. Again, their population in Xi'an is a mere 60,000. That hardly measures as significant among the 5-plus millions of the city, but they are a consistent and reliable thorn in the government's side, according to all reports. That's after 1,300 years or so.
I got here by floating for four hours on the Li River, past mountains that evoked all those unbelievable and tranquil scrolls by Dan Duang from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911, though Dan was hundreds of years before late Qing). The mountains are truly pointed and humped in a way I have not seen in other countries. I floated past an idyllic scene that was the site of the Y20 bill. Exactly copied from life, as I saw today. I ate on the barge, managing to avoid the ubiquity of pork and spice - analogous to saying that I will eat with all parts of my body, except for my right and left hands. Do-able, but difficult at best.
I had honeyed taro, pallid greens soup, chicken and carrots, lightly sauteed and delicious peanuts, a soft meat dish, celery and red and green peppers, tangerines, Guilin Beer (which I saved and gave to a nice man), fish balls that evoked matzoh balls more than fish, rice, pickled tofu in chili, huge spinach-colored snails and tiny sunset-colored prawns. I was not the favorite of the serving people, as they had to remember to give me separate soups and whatnot so as to avoid pork dishes. If you didn't drink beer - too bad.
While we ate (about 60-70 celebrating Chinese families boisterous with their holiday and delighted to be together on this lovely voyage to Yang Shuo), handsome teenaged or older men rafted out to us, stood on the narrow, precipitous gunnels and displayed jadeware and carvings to us, inside, from both sides of the glass-enclosed dining area.
I must now decide whether to go on a bike run through the country, raft downriver on a bamboo raft-palanquin, hit the caves solo, or just vedge here (not likely, by my temperament).
My camera was stolen last week, brand new; that was after someone heisted a lot of my money. This week, someone stole all my passports, my credit cards, my backpack with gifts and a necklace from my now dead friend and all of my pens and money I had just taken out on a credit card to pay expenses. I have to fly to Guangzhou for a new passport, and new exit and entry forms from the Chinese, which I am told they will stick me for another Y840, which I just paid them 3 weeks ago. I am feeling very edgy and distrustful, poor and upset. The man lifted a brand new backpack that was itself expensive and probably irreplaceable, and many things like my P D James book, "Death in the Holy Orders" which I cannot find anywhere in China.
Also he stole my vacation, since my priceless notes were stolen too. There were 26 pages of notes that I use for writing and articles. All the experiences and people and places and names and costs - all gone. Also gone, all the names and cards of people for the past month. and of course I have no credit cards to bail me out. Much of what I see is now of no interest, since I do not feel excited by anything except the prospect of someone unearthing my backpack and belongings. I had to go to two cities to make reports. I had to have my university fax me copies of my passports. They came out distorted and faint, but will have to do. The embassy has been helpful in Beijing and Guangzhou, but they cannot do too much beyond charging me again for a new passport if my ID passes muster.
The police are nosing around the village in which it occurred, and my sweet bike guide, Ping, along with Aussie friend David, teacher in Nanning, resident of Denmark, Australia (a tree and cattle farmer on small scale in 6,000-person Denamrk) also spent two days combing the farmers and locals for guilty looks and likely perpetrators.
Marion D. S. Dreyfus is a journalist, a film critic and an intrepid traveler. She is currently in Wuchan, China, where she teaches at the University and does a radio talk show. Her address is: Marion D. S. Dreyfus, Reception centre 8301, Huazhong University of Science & Technology, English Department, Wuchang Branch, Nanhu, Wuchan, Wuhan 430064, P R China
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