Sunday, June 30, 2013

Red Songs...

A couple of years ago, 2009 to be exact, I went back to Chongqing, a city I had last been to in 1980.

In 2009, Chongqing politics were thoroughly dominated by the charismatic and contradictory Bo Xilai, the  Party secretary of Chongqing and a member of the Central Politburo. His ambitions didn't stop there; until his downfall, he was thought to be a favorite for membership in the very top of the leadership structure, the Politboro Standing Committee. Instead, after a bizarre series of events that included his police chief trying to defect to the US Consulate in Chengdu and his wife accused of the murder of an English fixer, Bo lost all his positions and was expelled from the CCP. It's a story so filled with melodrama, revenge, family rivalries, sex and murder that it stretches the plausibility of fiction. Journalist John Garnaut does a great job of explaining the whole case in his "The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo." It's 86 pages long and well worth the read. The subtitle is "How a Murder Exposed the Cracks in China's Leadership," but I also think it has a lot to say about some of the broader contradictions  in Chinese politics. Although Bo began his political career in the faction associated with former CCP Chairman Jiang Zemin, which tends to follow a more pragmatic, market-based approached to development--one for which all its successes in some areas has created a huge amount of economic inequality and proved to be a fertile environment for systematic corruption--he ended it as a "populist," pushing a more egalitarian economic agenda but also a heavy-handed Maoist-style cultural campaign -- the singing of "Red" Cultural Revolution songs, for example, appealing to a nostalgia for a time when there was more of a sense of shared goals and community. Well, except for the massive economic disruption, chaos, family members denouncing other family members to revolutionary committees, the forced dismantling of old social bonds, and so on. And the anti-corruption campaign that had brought Bo much acclaim and approval was later revealed to be equally corrupt -- one faction of the wealthy and powerful forcibly looting another.

At the same time, Bo represented a huge break from the traditional Chinese leadership -- pale, gray men with identical suits and haircuts who presented the appearance of consensus, despite whatever maneuvering went on behind the scenes. Bo wore sharp suits, loved glad-handing and kissing babies, like an American-style politician, and his wife was known as the "Jackie Kennedy of China," that is, before her murder conviction.

The Chongqing that Bo Xilai helped build bears little resemblance to the city I visited thirty years ago. Even the natural landscape has been altered or obscured, and made unfamiliar. "Chongqing is a mountain city," my friend Xujun would often say, but development blocks the mountain views. Even the Yangze is smaller than it once was, its banks filled to make room for yet more development.

Of all the Chinese cities I've visited, I've never seen one that more closely resembles Ridley Scott's "Bladerunner." A dank fog shrouds the city much of the time, making the mornings dark. Rank after rank of impossibly tall, impossibly skinny apartment buildings, crammed so close together that sunlight could barely penetrate, that I swear you could stick your hand out your window and shake hands with your neighbor across the way. Add to that the chaotic traffic that overwhelms the streets and highways, the city's layout that follows no discernible plan - all it needs are a couple of omnipresent blimps with video advertising (there are of course massive video screens on the sides of buildings and the requisite giant LED signs, at least).

It's fascinating, in a dystopian kinda way, and down in individual neighborhoods, actually pretty pleasant, with abundant street-life, trees and in the newer areas, charming landscaped areas that I still find a rarity in Chinese cities.

Thirty years ago, my friend Paul and I had come to Chongqing to meet up with his parents, who were on a vacation tour provided by their university for Spring Festival. We thought it might be fun to travel down the Yangze with them, be taken care of for a while. Traveling in China at that time was very difficult - they were not at all used to independent travelers, for one thing, and we spoke very little Chinese.

Also, no one had warned us about what it was like to travel during Chinese New Year. Who knew that about half the population of a billion plus Chinese left where they were and went someplace else, all at the same time? Looking down at the Chongqing river docks, watching the ferries load up, resembled a scene out of some World War 2 documentary: refugees fleeing the encroaching Japanese, carrying any and all of their belongings they could manage tied up huge bundles, lugging entire doors and lashed to carry-poles, television sets. Okay, the television sets do not fit the WW2 comparison. But it seemed impossible that these mobs of people and all of their things could fit onto the ferries they tried to board.

We stayed at a place that stuck in my memory for years, because compared to most of the "proletarian" architecture of Chinese cities at that time (Soviet Russia, you have a lot to answer for, architecturally), it was a memorable building: a giant round palace that resembled a carousel, topped by a gold knob. It's still standing today, much remodeled:

The main building is actually a theater. The hotel was in outlying wings. Like most everything else at that time, the facility was rundown and mildewed and overwhelmingly beige, though I do recall new, boxed television sets piled in one of the hallways, waiting to be installed.

My main memories of Chongqing thirty years ago are these:

We visited a number of revolutionary historical sites. This was much more interesting to me than you might think. Though my knowledge of Chinese history was sketchy at best when I'd arrived in China, I'd become fascinated by the late Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai - I still am, in fact. At the time, amongst the teachers and returned students I knew in Beijing, Chairman Mao was not very popular. Once, in fact, Paul's parents threw a "White Elephant Party" for the teachers whom they worked with and taught advanced English. This is when you bring something you don't want any more and give it away, in exchange for something that somebody else doesn't want any more. One of the teachers pulled out a bundled handkerchief. Wrapped in it was a pile of Mao buttons. He grinned, then chuckled and said, "White elephant."

Zhou Enlai, on the other hand, was still regarded as "the Peoples' Premier," one of the few sympathetic figures in the upper echelon of the Party's leaders, the man who'd tried to keep the country running and who mitigated some of Mao's worse excesses. This is not an entirely accurate representation of Zhou's role during this time - he was nothing if not complex, and it is impossible to summarize anything about him so neatly - but it is not entirely inaccurate either. I'm always drawn to ambiguous characters, especially those with a hint of tragedy.

He was also very handsome, with an actor's ability to portray emotion. "I think that is part of why I like him so much," Xujun said to me recently. "I just like to look at him." Me too.

I got into the habit of buying any Zhou Enlai souvenirs I could get my hands on - not many, compared to the masses of Mao memorabilia left over from the Cultural Revolution - some posters and some buttons and a couple of thin books and comics about his early life. I'd also ask people what they thought of him. There had to be something bad about the guy, some dirt. One person reluctantly told me that "maybe he had a girlfriend who was not his wife. But maybe this is just a rumor." I sort of hoped it was true. You don't want a person to be perfect.

Zhou spent a lot of time in Chongqing during
World War 2the Anti-Japanese War, as the Communist representative to the Nationalists during the United Front period, mixing with Allied diplomats and journalists, spies and underground organizers.

So I was really happy about getting to see Zhou Enlai's office. Zhou Enlai's bedroom. Even Zhou Enlai's bathroom (I have a slide to prove it). My memory of what and where these places were, exactly, was pretty hazy.

Thirty years later, Xujun took me up to the Red Craig Village. This was the Communist Party Delegation headquarters during the United Front Period. Up in the mountains, overlooking the modern city at a distance, it's really a beautiful spot. Peaceful.

"Did you visit this before?" she asked.

I couldn't remember. I wasn't sure. Nothing looked familiar. It didn't look unfamiliar either. I just didn't recall. "The place I went to might have been in town," I said.

"Maybe it didn't make a big impression on you," Xujun said.

This wasn't the case, not really, but it was thirty years ago, and my memory has always been spotty and strange when it comes to recalling events. Ask me about song lyrics and tunes, trivial factoids, foreign languages, all that stuff I remember and remember well, but what I did yesterday, not always so much.

We wandered through the main building, looking at the photographs, the offices, the staff sleeping quarters. Here was Zhou Enlai's office. I wasn't sure if I'd seen it before or not. He did have another office in the old downtown part of Chongqing. Maybe I'd never been up here before. The office was blocked off by two stanchions with a retractable ribbon barrier. The bedroom was through a doorway at the back of the office. "Go in and take a photo," Xujun whispered. "Come on, I'll stand guard!" I didn't want to - I'm a great believer in following the rules - but finally I agreed and went in.

The bedroom is small, taken up almost entirely by the bed, at the bottom of a short flight of stairs. Now that looked familiar.

When we got to the library, I knew.

There on the wall was a framed piece of calligraphy, the characters done in an unusual, "modern" style. I'd seen this before. I remembered it exactly. I'd been so struck by the unusual form of the characters, the almost whimsical modernity of them, that I'd taken a slide. Now, here they were. "Now I remember. Yeah, I've been here before."

As I explained to Xujun, there was another reason that my memories of Chongqing were a little hazy, and that was because I got violently ill the next day. I felt a little out of sorts in the morning, when the group was going off to tour someplace else (I have no idea what or where) and decided that I'd stay at the hotel, beige and mildew and all. Shortly after they left, I started throwing up. I swear it was the soggy cauliflower and gristly pork dish we'd had the night before. Whatever it was, I kept throwing up, and by the evening I was really in sad shape.

It was determined that I should go to the hospital and see a doctor.

At this time, it was almost impossible to travel in China without being assigned a "minder," usually from Liuxingshe, the official China Travel agency. Paul's parents school group had two graduate students who traveled with them. In addition, different minders took care of the group in different cities.

The Chongqing minder was a piece of work. In years he wasn't all that much older than I was, late twenties, thirty at most, but he was a thoroughly nasty little man. I don't know why he hated us, what we'd done that had provoked his ire, but loathe us he did.

So, I had to go to the hospital. He was to escort me there. Paul came along too. He didn't arrange for a car. No. We were to walk. It was freezing cold. The streets were frozen mud. No sidewalks. Hardly any streetlights. Now and again workers pounded bricks and metal for some mysterious purpose that required them to work long after dark.

I'd walk a half a block, boots crunching in the icy mud. Stop. Grab onto a pole or a fence or whatever I could find. Throw up. Walk a little further. Throw up some more. Walk. Shiver. Puke.

We got to the hospital. It was not reassuring. A concrete block building, bare slabs of gray cement. Dimly lit, the occasional bare bulb. No decoration. The exam room had a steel table and a chair in it and not much else.

The doctors and nurses, however, were very nice, wonderfully kind, in fact. I immediately felt better, especially after they gave me a shot of some sort and some pills to take. They spoke to our minder, with Paul hovering in the background.

The minder turned to me and smiled. "They say they think you have appendicitis. They say you might need an operation." His face loomed over mine. "Are you scared?"

I had to laugh. "What do you think? Like I want to have an operation? Of course I'm scared."

He retreated.

"I don't think that's what they said," Paul whispered to me. "I think they said it might be appendicitis, if it doesn't get better."

And in fact, that's what the doctors had said. If I didn't feel better in a day or so, I should come back, just to be sure it wasn't something more serious.

It wasn't. I recovered.



  1. Lisa, you've seen more than most China "experts." And also heard the loveliest three words I could possibly imagine in your circumstances: "It's not appendicitis."

  2. Lisa, I LOVE it when you bring me back to that China-- the only one I have seen--so exotic, so fascinating. Our minder was wonderful. He even came to visit us in the States. We corresponded for a decade or so, but then I lost track of him. I wish I could find him again and know what became of him in the modern China.

  3. thanks all! it seems to me that too many of my best stories revolve around food poisoning, though.