Saturday 30 April 2016

My old China: I was twenty years too late for Peking

Ironically, North Korea in the 1960s and 1970s had far higher living standards than China and North Koreans would frequently congratulate themselves on not having fallen into the chaos and backwardness of their giant neighbour. It was only in the early nineties, with the end of Russian and Chinese subsidies, that the North Korean economy collapsed. 
James Palmer, Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao's China (2012)
Many years ago a young Romanian friend, Alexandra, was about to go to China and asked me for advice. I gave her three pieces of advice: to observe, not judge and to eat dog. She told me she did all three. I have just come back from China and only followed the first of these. 

Tourism in Peking leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Literally. The taste of Starbucks coffee and Starbucks baguettes.  

A shiny, very modern mega-city has been created by order of the Party in a place which
twenty years ago was another world, impoverished, wretched and fascinating. They've destroyed much more of the old city since then than they did in the Cultural Revolution, to make way for shopping centres and skyscrapers. Communism and capitalism here link arms in a sort of Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The modern world in arms (acknowledgements, Evelyn Waugh).

If that sounds like I didn't enjoy my visit, I did hugely. I had a great time, mostly because I met two great people who share the same name and who have lived there for many years: James Palmer, the writer, and Scott Palmer, the lawyer. Both were incredibly kind and know China very well. They communicated their enthusiasm for the place and explained it.

I bought a ticket for £325 taking me from Bucharest to Peking, by way of Istanbul and Kiev, intending to go to North Korea. Deciding that this was not the moment for North Korea, I saw China instead. For this I'm very grateful, because I shouldn't have chosen to go there otherwise. 

A 24 hour stopover three years ago had told me it was cooked, modern, self-conscious. I like uncooked places. My perception was right, but China is very interesting and very important.

Peking reminded me of a vastly larger, richer, in every way more substantial Dubai. A huge, modern, Mammonish city thrusting into the heavens. Rajani Palme Dutt, the British-Indian Communist writer, applauded Mao's genocidal Great Leap Forward (universally admired even on the anti-Communist British Left) for 'truly storming heaven'. This time the Chinese are truly storming. 

It has to be said that the Chinese Communist Party, by forgetting Communism, is doing what it exists to do, raising the condition of the people. And they have done so without ceding any political control. 

They have achieved far more than what Gorbachev ever dreamt of doing in the Soviet Union. It would be interesting to know why Chinese Communists succeeded and Russian Communism fell into the sea. And whether North Korean communists will follow China's example or collapse.

What would China be like had the Nationalists, not the Communists, won the Civil war? She would be exactly like Taiwan. Meaning richer, happier, freer, equally corrupt and even more powerful.

Peking - apart from the scammers inviting tourists to drink tea or to take rickshaw rides that lead to God knows where - is an easy city. Signposts and the underground have English subtitles, though few people speak any English. But the monuments feel as if they have become Disneyfied, plant for the hugely lucrative tourist industry. That is what a developed tourist industry means and why I like to avoid it.

This is most true of the Great Wall, which I visited on my last day, grudgingly, knowing I had to do so. It reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor's description of Athens in the 1960s taken over by docile flocks of tourists, led by guides with all Manchester at heel.

I went to the Mutianyu stretch of renovated wall, which is very beautiful, supposedly built two hundred years before Christ but really built in 1987. At least somewhere inside the wall we see is a stub of six hundred year-old wall. 

Mutianyu had plenty of tourists but many fewer than at Badaling, the closest piece of wall to the city, which I had been warned off. Badaling is the Blackpool of the Great Wall. You can get to Badaling by tram and my guide told me it is completely fake.

As I ascended in the cable car I was with a jovial bunch of sixty-somethings from Lancashire who had paid £1,700 for a 9 day tour of China taking them to Hong Kong, Shanghai and some other places. In real terms, that's cheaper than a package holiday in Spain in my 1970s childhood. We laughed at the instructions forbidding romping and frolicking in the cable car.  Foreign English is a gift that keeps on giving.

Forbidding spitting too. The Chinese, by the way, seem to expectorate a huge amount, very visibly and audibly. I am not sure if the reasons are cultural or genetic.

I got chatting to three people travelling alone, all very experienced travellers, who told me they disliked China. I said to a Palestinian-American who particularly disliked the place that I loved every country I'd ever visited (I forgot the U.A.E.) and he replied
So did I before I came to China.
i knew what he meant. Still, I managed to like the place. I drank excellent lager in a bar on Lake Houhai, a nest of karaoke bars frequented by Pekinese not foreigners. I liked the strangeness of the remnants of imperial China, getting lost in the labyrinthine hutongs, the good restaurants. i liked the charm of most people I met. It's a city with very many conmen, conwomen and scams but many more very hospitable and kind people. 

Most Chinese are not good-looking but, as with the Spanish, those few that are, the women anyway, are very beautiful. 

A city where belief in Marxism has been replaced by a Guizotian belief in enriching yourself. A city which feels very materialistic, as cities in developing countries always are. In fact I think the alleged spirituality of Asia, to risk a huge and shaky generalisation, is a chimera. Europe with its churches and monasteries and deep Christian roots is probably much more spiritual.

Tourists are everywhere. Except on the Great Wall almost all that I saw were Chinese. There are an awful lot of Chinese. One feels like part of a seething anthill. Can one say that?

The Forbidden City, despite the tourist ants, is magnificent and entering I thought immediately of Mervyn Peake, who grew up in China and must have taken the idea for Gormenghast, the timeless, ritualised, formulaic city-empire which he invented, from Peking. It is magnificent, as are the temples and the Summer Palace, but none of these for me were beautiful. I only saw beauty in the lakes with their little chinois bridges, in some of the sculptures and in the landscape, not in the architecture. 

Chinese buildings in their gaudy colours look very like Chinese restaurants. Buddhist and Confucian temples remind me of rides on Southend pier and seem not very much more spiritual.  

Best part of Peking are the hutongs, the alley ways that are the heart of the city, full of little grey-brick houses, some with courtyards. The hutongs date back centuries, but in the last fifteen years have been colonised to an extent, but not entirely, by restaurants, bars and expats. Romanian readers know what has happened to Lipscani - this is happening to Peking but over an area stretching for miles. 

It is too late for the Confucucian, Gormenghastian city that Mao invested in 1949 or for his dour, semi-industrialised Communist city, but the hutongs are fun and full of cool young expats having the time of their lives. 

Scott told me that when he went to China in the early 1990s there were almost no cars, bicycles were ubiquitous. A vast traffic choked series of ring-roads and highways has been built with the extraordinary rapidity that only dictatorships can manage. This really has been a cultural revolution and, unlike Mao's, a benign one.

Except that huge amounts of old Peking were and are being demolished, including many historic buildings. I see why the American historian I once shared a railway sleeping car with thought that Chinese cities were alive and European ones, London alone excepted, were museums. 

The Chinese transformation is philistine, rapacious empire building of the sort that created late nineteenth century London. Now I am told to find a relatively unchanged China you have to go to the western provinces where the population is not ethnic Chinese.

Twenty-five years ago, as in Eastern Europe, there were no good restaurants and the few there were closed at ten. I should have infinitely preferred it then, but then I loved Bucharest in 1990. Better that China should be engaged in the great cause of cheering us foreigners up than the great causes that Mao believed in.

[Note to people visiting Peking - go to Dali Courtyard, a sublime Yunnanese restaurant with a great ambiance, where the chef decides what you eat and you always eat very well. I know because I went three times.]

[Note on the heading to this post, 'my old china' - it's a working class expression much used in England and is cockney rhyming slang. It's short for 'my old china plate' = my old mate = my old friend.]


  1. Very much enjoyed your take on China. I remember sitting in an out-house one very frosty early spring morning after an all-night wedding party in Maramures in 1981. A light snow had fallen on the hills over which the crescent in the door offered a perfect view. Watching, in turn, the men and horses on distant hills ploughing their fields and then shifting gaze to the awful kitsch of the western glossy magazine pages taped to the inner walls of the out-house, which indicated the high social standing of my hosts, I remember thinking that someday soon “civilization” was coming. Romanians would no longer have to freeze their nether regions, plumbing would be in-door, and the objects pictured in the magazines would be in their closets and driveways. … And they would lose everything I was admiring through that little crescent.


  2. A very enjoyable read. The Gormenghast reference struck a chord too. James Bendall

  3. David in Banja Luka3 May 2016 at 17:20


    Me old china, your readers may enjoy further enlightenment wrg cockneyese ;) :

    Scrolling through the comments at the end of the list is even more entertaining.

  4. "It would be interesting to know why Chinese Communists succeeded and Russian Communism fell into the sea. And whether North Korean communists will follow China's example or collapse."

    In the mid-80s' US, I remember wondering why Gorbachev's 'Perestroika' & 'Glasnost' seemed more common buzz-words than Deng's economic reform although it had emerged earlier. I thought at the time maybe the West was feeling culturally closer to the Soviet Russia while China looked more foreign.

    But, besides the Chinese culture at the individual level has always been much more entrepreneurial (I think), I believe the US with its full hearted economic, financial and technological supports was the deciding difference between China and Russia, especially since Bill Clinton. Clinton gave China the Most Favored Nation status in 94 that come with the privileges and tax breaks. That in turn paved the way for China into the WTO and the global economy.

    Had the CCP China not had the US support, not entirely sure if the Chinese economy would still have fared as successfully as it has.