Category Archives: Travel

China Diary: Night and Life

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As we stepped out of the car, I could have sworn I felt the music. The beats from Little Green Bag took charge, as the four of us strode ahead under the cover of a smoldering gray blanket that was the Guangzhou sky.

Along the way through the vibrant streets of the city, everybody seemed to be going somewhere. There’s a strange buzz on the roads, the kind that can never be seen when the sun’s out.

The beautifully structured five-star hotels, the immaculately manicured greenery and the painstakingly maintained infrastructure, all playing gracious hosts to traders from across the globe who had congregated there.

Walking along, marveling at the sight, I pondered over how China had opened up to the world. Just then a sinister hiss broke my chain of thoughts.

Behind me, in the dark corner shaded beneath a foot over-bridge stood a man with a beaming smile. His dark skin soft and shining with perspiration; his body shaking nervously. “Hash brother, do you want some hash?” he inquired politely. He was the first to put that question to me that night; but he certainly wasn’t the last.

A few yards ahead lay our destination – Cama. As we entered, green and yellow spotlights performed a drunken dance along the dark walls of the club, while the manger guided us towards one corner. Four men, seated along the length of the bar, its glass top drenched in condensation from their beers.

We sat in silence; the music didn’t encourage conversation. Yet, there’s something to be done here; an insane pressure mounting on us. There’s a stereotype to be adhered to. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s all designed for an alcohol-induced adrenaline rush. So we did what we had to.

Faked a grin; looked straight ahead into the crowd feigning interest or deep thought as we sipped beer, bobbing our heads to a song that we didn’t understand; periodically we returned to catch each others gaze – a wink or a nod affirming that we were indeed so cool – while occasionally pretending to have an amusing or insightful observation to share, if only the music wasn’t so loud.

Right next to us sat two women. Dressed in snug, cheap leather, they waited patiently. Their steely eyes only hold you long enough for them to deem you worthy of an effort. A warm smile isn’t what cuts it here. There has to be something more tangible on offer.

As I turned away; I realized the other side of the hall was filled with more of the same. Only those women, mostly eastern European, seemed to have found their partners. Whites, Asian, Middle-Eastern or Africans, money doesn’t discriminate.

A while later, as the clock struck 11, the crowd began to swell and so did the premium on space. Four lackeys taking in their drinks slowly, as though they were being consumed through a drip, were beginning to fall out of favour.

It was now time to put up or shut up; play the game or cop out like a wimp; be the man or…well…not be the man. It’s time to have some fun, I told myself.

So having guzzled my beer down, hailed the first cab  I found, and a wandering drive later, I was alone in bed watching CNN.

Ah now we’re having some fun…

China Diary – Underwear Politics

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It’s just a measure of how things have changed. Forty minutes of doing the daily rounds at the Canton fair, I now found myself slouched on a chair, craving an extra dose of caffeine. That, however, wasn’t the stimulus that was on offer.

Now here I was, lazily spread out on a rickety chair, prepared to spend hours in underwear heaven. Oh, just how things have changed. Home seemed far off; the world of politics and journalism that I had once inhabited seemed like a distant, haunting memory.

So I did the best I could; there’s no better way to put politics out of your mind than discussing the intricacies of women’s undergarments. No, I am not a pervert; it’s just the job now.

From size, cut, style and print, we went on to prices, while I excitedly snapped up pictures. My love for the past had to be left aside, locked inside a dark room in the far ends of my brain.

Well, that was until I reached in and grabbed a fancy pair designed as military fatigues with the Union Jack plastered all over. The strap proudly read: “Help for Heroes!” Well, could that be seen as tacit Chinese support for the Western war on terror? I wondered.

Underwear for Heroes

‘Shoo, shoo, get rid of those thoughts,’ I chided myself, as my brother raised a fuss about the high prices of goods this year.

In response, our host offered a warm smile. Knotting her hair into a bun, she wrapped herself in a crisply ironed blazer. “Cotton prices are to blame,” she explained. “Cotton is very expensive now in China and so there’s nothing that factories can do.”

‘Ah, commodities and economics! Much better,’ I thought to myself, as my brother interrupted her. “But I’ve heard that cotton prices in India are expected to drop and that should make a difference here in China too,” he said.

Our host agreed wholeheartedly. Business apparently had not been great this year. From all the feedback that we’d received from different factories and traders, material prices, the economic stresses in the West, the prospect of the RMB appreciating and the flare-ups in the Middle East were breaking hearts in China.

“Oh in that case, the Chinese government will intervene soon; they will make sure that cotton will go down soon,” she responded.

‘Can we stay away from politics and policies and talk underwear,’ I prayed in vain. However, the next few minutes saw a spirited exchange between my brother and our host – both of them agreeing how the Chinese government would intervene soon, particularly if prices of cotton dip in India. Losing business is not a problem for the Chinese; it’s losing business to India that is a concern.

But then she went quiet; retreated into somber reflection. I wondered whether it was a sense of remorse or guilt at having accepted that her government does play global games, flexing its economic might.

For all those who wonder what the Chinese feel about their government, in my limited experience, while there may not be many public gatherings to discuss issues, people here tend to talk about governance freely but rather opaquely and generally believe that the Party knows best and is acting in their interest. There’s little criticism or analysis of policies; those are matters that they don’t seem to bother with, unless in very private gatherings. “It,” as one local put it, “is a matter for the government to decide and not for me to worry about.”

Yet, just the number of times that they mention their government in routine conversation, shows how the state’s shadow looms large over their lives – it’s probably impossible for them to not talk about it.

“Cotton can be a weapon,” she said abruptly – as I fiddled with more intriguing samples that had “happy,” “naughty,” “sad” printed on them. There was even a “Funderwear!” Hmmm, could there be a market for “wear your mood” undergarments, I wondered.

“In the last few years, there were protests by labourers and most factories had suffered due to a shortage of workers. Now workers are available, but business is still struggling because of fabric prices and the prospect of RMB appreciation. The government cannot allow this to continue and orders to shift; lesser the business, greater the social unrest. And that is something that the government cannot afford,” she continued.

Jesus Christ, give me a break, I thought, returning to the chair, craving caffeine. Scanning through the pictures that I had taken, I decided that it was best to ignore the discussion until they were both tired of it. Who wants to keep talking about democracy, governance, policies etc? So I left them to it and decided to take the time and enjoy cricket on my phone.

Right then, it beeped – an innocuous alert for a notification. BBC Breaking News: “Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden ‘dead’” God, there’s just no getting away, is there?

Come to think of it now, I guess it’s just a measure of how much ever change, some things always remain with you.

China Diary – Arrival Games

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I crossed the yellow line and took my mark. “Spy” is a game I often play at immigration counters. It’s the only real entertainment that one can draw during exhausting journeys. So after careful deliberation during the long wait in the serpentine queue at the terminal, I had settled on the perfect balance of behaviour.

A gentle nod of the head was all that I would offer while I’d slip my passport through that narrow cavity in the glass that divided me from the officer. His stern gaze caught mine before it slipped back into the pages. As rehearsed, I put into practice my best act of nonchalance.

Right toe tapping slowly and deliberately; hands steady and dry, where they could be seen; eyes glazed and squinted mapping the space; jaw moving with rhythmic purpose, munching on an imaginary chewing gum; and tongue clucking occasionally to express displeasure at the time that was being taken.

It worked like a charm (I know how deluded that sounds) and seconds later I was stamped into the country, running through a maze of tunnels. For a moment, lost in the mass of humanity, bumping bodies and over-zealous salespeople grabbing at me and calling out in a language that I couldn’t understand, I stood paralyzed.

That was until I decided to engage in another one of my games. This one’s called “Treasure of the Catacombs.”

In an instant, the music began to take shape. Pinching the dry air before me, I adjusted my imaginary hat. The plethora of pens – exchanged for business cards from cheerful volunteers – that dangled around my neck now acted as the coils of the trademark whip.

Stepping on to the escalator, I looked into the distance – a vast network of caves teeming with people who barely realize that treasure that surrounds them.

As my father wondered aloud at the size of the crowd despite it being the May Day holiday, I quipped with a slow head-bob – “That’s why they call it a jungle, sweetheart.” He stood there unmoved, uninterested as I held the smug pose. I know my Harrison Ford impression isn’t the best, but throw me a bone here, I pleaded in vain.

A few steps on and we now stood at the mystical gates that open only when the voice of the unseen sorceress speaketh the right words.

A bell tolled and magic words were heard. We braced ourselves, as the crowd gathered around, hoping to be the first ones to hop into the train. On second thought we were never even in the race. Like an ocean struggling to flow through a narrow crevice, people squeezed through continually, until another bell tolled.

This time the sorceress uttered another command and the gates began to cave in, dividing those trapped in from those outside.

Frustrated at missing out, I slapped my hand at the glass, while catching the eye of a young lady who stood staring at me from the other side. “Hold on baby; I will come for you; I swear, we’ll get those bastards,” I cried. She looked dazed, amused and finally broke into giggles, at the sight of a stranger blowing kisses.

Right then, a loud alarm called for an intermission in the movie I was making.

To my left, an unfortunate woman had been caught between the train’s gates. As in case of most underground networks, the doors have a sensor system and complain but give way in case anyone’s caught in between. But here the lady seemed to be wedged in, struggling to squeeze through.

Announcements continued; I couldn’t understand them. Everyone around watched helplessly, as she tugged and pulled, squirmed and screamed for what seemed like eternity. The doors, however, would just not yield. Finally, much to everyone’s relief, she managed to drag her foot and handbag through, as the train began to move.

 Perhaps it’s my prejudice; but all I could think at that moment was – “Welcome to China; there’s no give here; you must always do as the unseen voice of the law asks you to…”