The billboards stun me as we enter Communist China. Years before when I crossed into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, before the wall went down, the sudden lack of commercial advertising I found relaxing though the absence of color was a little dreary. A few propaganda posters created only the slightest visual static. Wide, colorful ads on the billboards across from the Guangzhou train station, my entry city to The People’s Republic, hit me flush in my preconceptions. Here are big splashes for Sony, Nike, Mitsubishi, Motorola. This is a different twist of Commie, thinks I.
Beyond the panoply of ads a small market, half covered, half exposed, offers a spread of lively hot-pot restaurants. This is 1986, one of new China’s first forays into private entrepreneurship. The perfume rising in the steam from hot-pots simmering at each of the tables is sweet and enticing. The market displays an abundance of dog sold as meat. You can get it freshly slaughtered and skinned. You can buy thighs, shoulders, quarters, half a dog. Dog carcasses hang on meat hooks across the butcher blocks. You can get a live one and have it butchered, or take it home alive in a wicker basket to prepare yourself. The dog they prefer to eat is the black chow. They lie in rows across tables, dark tongues hanging out. After I am in Guangzhou for a few days I realize the pressure of population and scarcity of living space make it impossible to think of dog as pet. The favored pet is the songbird. On weekends people stroll through the parks carrying their birds in cages, and they relax in the balmy weather with conversation and birdsong.
We settle at one of the outdoor hot-pot restaurants. They serve a savory broth bubbling at your table in a chafing dish over the blue flame of a Sterno can. The server brings a platter of veggies and instructs on the sequence of cooking them. She then brings some meats and offers similar instructions. Then she asks a question that Rafael translates for me as, “Would you like some fragrant meat?” “Of course,” I quip in my wise-ass way. “We sure don’t want putrid meat.” She brings a portion of fragrant meat and drops it into our broth. After this specialty simmers a while a perfume, lightly floral, engulfs the broth. Not until I’ve eaten a bit of it does Rafael explain that “fragrant meat” is the euphemism for dog. It tastes quite nice, like nice dog, and the bouquet it adds to the soup is the direct opposite of the smell of wet dog. The experience expands my appreciation for man’s best friend. I can hardly look at a well coifed poodle, for instance, without thinking, “yum yum.”
We hire a pedal cab to take us from the train station to our hotel on West Lake in Hangzhou. The hotel boom around West Lake hasn’t yet begun, and ours is probably the most upscale in Hangzhou at the time. It is called, I think, West Lake Shangri-la. It takes more than an hour for the pedal cab driver to struggle up the hills for two miles over rough pavement, pulling the weight of Rafael, myself, and our luggage. A tough way to earn your renminbi. The hotel is a sturdy, rambling brick and stone building of some twelve stories, built as a luxury hotel by the British, probably in the twenties, and run down since the revolution. Its spaciousness and the worn grandeur of its furnishings offer a taste of faded luxury. Our room doesn’t cost much, and comes with an invitation to their New Year’s dinner. The accommodation is large and comfortable. Some of the lamps, the telephone, and other amenities, don’t work, but the beds and towels are clean, and there is hot water occasionally. They have hired a Swiss hotelier to get the place back into shape, and their goal is obviously five stars.
Large stone tablets incised with calligraphy are set in the ground all around the perimeter of West Lake. We walk among the people through the mysteries of this storied lake. Pagodas, temples, pavilions come in and pass out of view as the mists wander through. When Rafael stops to read an inscription on one of the steles—a passage of Lao-Tzu, a poem of Li-Po or Tu-Fu, a Confucian aphorism—people gather to ask that he read it to them. The people are literate, but have been taught only the simplified characters, and the ones on the tablets are traditional and more elaborate. The people can’t read them, so most of their written heritage is hidden from them. He tires of this after an official cadre member, who has been trailing us, interrupts him to lecture everyone on the greatness of The People’s Republic. We leave her standing tall in her Mao suit as she continues her propaganda lecture to the people who had been interested in the poem Rafael was reading for them off the stone. On the way back to the hotel we stop at a friendly dumpling house and eat a couple of dozen dumplings, to the great amusement of the clientele who have never seen white ghosts suck down dumplings at their restaurant before.
We have only the most casual clothes, but are welcomed anyway into the formal dining room for the New Year’s dinner. It’s in a large ballroom, the dance floor surrounded by tables. On one end a stage and bandstand presents a dance band, playing American swing music from the thirties and forties. You might expect them to roll out Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to entertain the befuddled Western tourists sitting at the tables. The ambiance is derived from some Busby Berkeley film, a dinner club look from a depression era Hollywood frippery. Five waitresses tend each table, in our case five of them against two of us. Rafael overhears them discussing every slight detail of our behavior, every move we make with knife and fork to attack the dinner of turkey, stuffing, broccoli, sweet potato, and finally plum pudding. They watch us closely. They make careful notes.
After dinner they encourage us to go downstairs for a New Year’s bash, to a bar and lounge in the basement, where more contemporary rock music is being piped in. There are only a dozen or so round-eyes, but suddenly the room fills with young Chinese, dressed in suits and ties, the girls in dark blue pinafores. When Sly and the Family Stone comes on, Rafael gets up to dance, and proceeds to get his freak on. I get up too and do my appreciation of rock and roll. The Chinese kids start to dance too, and seem to be enjoying themselves. Rafael couples tentatively at some distance with one of the girls. This begins to feel almost like a party, when suddenly, as mysteriously as they appeared, the Chinese crowd turns like a school of fish on some inaudible, invisible signal, and swoops back out the door. We round-eyes are alone. The music fades. The evening is over. Xmas dinner at the Shangri-La in Hangzhou has been accomplished.
It becomes obvious, finally, that they set this up as a laboratory for the great tourist rush they expect to attract as the doors of Chinese commerce swing open to the world. They anticipate that it’s coming, and will encourage it, and use us to prepare themselves. The turkey, by the way, was dry and tasteless, the gravy gummy, the cranberry sauce too sweet, the sweet potatoes like cement. The broccoli wasn’t bad.
Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.