The first time I went to China was in 1984. I didn’t need a map. You could only travel in groups back then with a government handler to navigate the way and guide thoughts. We travelled from Beijing to Xi’an in a decommissioned military airplane reserved for the exclusive use of Party leaders and foreign tourists. From Xi’An to Luoyang we took a train that required eight hours to cover a distance that now needs just half that.
In Susan Sontag’s short story “Project for a Trip to China,” the unnamed narrator is invited on a junket by the Chinese government. The project unfolds as a loose association of daydreams, epigrams, facts, and memories triggered by the promise of this future trip.
By lunchtime, Beijing had reached 102 degrees and our four-year old twins were hungry. We’d spent the morning exploring the shadeless Yonghegong Lama temple and now sought out the refuge of the simple vegetarian buffet nearby where my vegetarian husband and I had had a transcendent meal on our last trip six years before. To our dismay, it had been, according to a nearby security guard, demolished. One of our twins emitted hangry squeals, the other went boneless. The air was dense with humidity and pollution. On our way to the temple from the subway stop at the top of Yonghegong Street, we’d passed another, fancier-looking, vegetarian restaurant and so we elbowed our way all the way back up the narrow corridor of manic Buddhist commercialism thick with incense and the calls of hawkers selling religious tchotchkes and crowds of midday worshippers and tourists; we drowned in sweat.
Every summer, we boarded the sleeper-train from Shanghai to Jiangxi and I squeezed through the crowds to claim the top bunk in a tight compartment shared with two strangers. The train always smelled of feet and instant noodles, and I loved the 16-hour journey because it was the only time I was allowed to have the MSG-flavored noodles. I rolled onto the scratchy bleached sheets that stuck to my sweaty body, and pressed my head against the cool metal bar to peek out the window, upside-down. Rocking to the train’s steady sway, I felt the soft, comforting crease of the cash my mother had sewn into my underwear against my thighs, in case of pickpockets. Meanwhile, she sat bent on the bottom bunk, purse clutched to chest, glancing up at my dangling head and legs, muttering, “Behave, you are a city girl.”
Morning air pumped off, cannabis-induced despondency
Replaced him and her. Far away, his ball-playing days,
His cap floating on the river, his soft tissues
Like severed seaweeds. This happened in 1976.
By KEANE SHUM
There used to be an actual line. That we had to actually wait in. We used to line up from the elevator bank in the Harbour View Hotel across the bridge and over to the Great Eagle Centre, or double-backed towards Central Plaza, and we used to wait.We waited in the balmy near-summer heat if it was the prom after-party, or in the wincing wet cold when we were back from college for the holidays. We waited, we paid cover, we had tickets. We were young.
I got caught in a deluge the other night, and when it hit me, it hit me just like that, italicized, like the rain was coming down so hard even the words to describe it were soaked and falling to the ground. I was in the back streets of Sheung Wan, an old part of town on the outskirts of Central that rests against the side of a hill. Steep stone staircases run up and down and through the area, and on a sunny Sunday morning you can play snakes and ladders with the past, sliding down to a street of antique stores that sell Bruce Lee posters from the 60s and twin-lens reflex cameras from the 30s, or climbing up to peek inside the few Edwardian mansions that remain, the once proud homes not of colonial officials, but of the Chinese compradors who even then—or maybe especially then—had a thing about putting the white man in his place.