So much of my own life is history now. I was listening to a podcast about Kunming, the capital of the Chinese province of Yunnan, which lies north of Vietnam and east of Myanmar. Two millennia ago, it was an important city on the southern Silk Road. The podcast was an account of how the city had changed rather violently in the last decade after the city’s planners instigated an epic modernisation programme of street-widening to make way for cars. New roading, I heard, has ploughed right through historic neighbourhoods. And the old quarters had been pulled down and replaced with apartment buildings and shopping centres. That means I wouldn’t recognise Kunming now. In 1984, my then husband and I spent several months travelling independently through China, returning from Sydney to our London flat. It was quite an undertaking in those days. There was little tourist infrastructure. And the week before we left on the trip I discovered that I was pregnant. But I was young and strong and I figured it would be fine – and so it proved.
|An old quarter in Kunming.|
We stayed in Kunming and its vicinity for about ten days. In 1984, the medieval town structure and rows of historical housing around the bird market were still extant and traffic consisted mostly of bicyclists. I have only a few photographs of my time there. It was before phone cameras, of course, but even so – when I was travelling I often didn't take many photographs. I told myself it was because I didn't want to look at people and things through a lens, that I wanted to Be Here Now, and that these experiences would live in my memory. But I did not realise when I was a young woman how undependable memory can be. Fortunately, I always kept a journal.
|A Yi woman walking down Dongfeng Road|
MONDAY 27 AUGUST, 1984. I walked down Dongfeng Road East this morning, following a Yi woman to see where she would go. As I made my way, I noticed a surprisingly large number of elderly women hobbling along on tiny feet encased in black bootees. Their feet resembled hooves and I supposed them to be among the last of China's foot-bound women. The Yi woman entered a dimly lit haberdashery and I did too. I tried on a black velvet beret that was too small and watched her while she bought a length of braid. There were bolts of fabric and racks of padded Mao jackets in the store and creased western-style suits. There was a poster on the wall of the ideal one-child family – a fat-cheeked boy perched between smiling parents. Next to the poster were diagrams of uteruses and a cross-section of a penis being vasectomied. The shopkeeper and the customers gawked at me as well they might.
|I was pregnant on this long trip through China and I did a lot of sleeping.|
TUESDAY 28 AUGUST, 1984. I slept late, until eight-thirty. The cleaner in the guesthouse was not pleased with this decadent behaviour and roused me so that she could get on with not cleaning the room. I woke with the desire to add some calcium to my diet. A German tourist had told me the day before of a shop that sold goat’s cheese. I walked along Dongfeng Road again, passing the tall hemp plants that seem to perform the role of municipal shrubbery here. I couldn’t find the shop, but I liked wandering around the old quarters with their two-storied red and green wooden buildings. Every so often a whitewashed alley intervened and led me down cool, quiet passageways that arrived at maze-like courtyards surrounding small houses.
|The courtyard compounds are called yi ke yin, meaning 'seal'. When viewed |
from above, the squared layout of these compounds brings to mind the
traditional rectangular seals used to stamp documents and paintings.
Other doorways, back on the main street, offered glimpses of scary dentist’s rooms with foot-pedal drills and ancient equipment.
|A dental surgery.|
In the evening we were joined by C and V, two students from St Martins art school in London. We went out to a food stall in a marketplace we had spied nearby, and ordered a dish of diced potatoes, steamed green beans and chilli. It cost about eighty pence. As we were eating, at a trestle table under a droopy canvas awning, an elderly man approached us with one of the cooks from the stall at his back. He said in British-accented English, ‘The cooks want to know what you think of the food.’ We answered that it was delicious, which it was.
He pressed his hand to his chest. ‘It is Yunnan food. Will you order another dish?’ We agreed to that and presently a plate of sliced egg and tomato and sweetcorn arrived, accompanied by two small bowls, one of salt and the other of crushed, dried chilli. We asked the old man to sit down with us. He asked where we were from. He had a way of repeating our answers as if they were a delightful revelation.
‘Ah, you’re from London!’
He was a railroad engineer who had learned English at university in Shanghai. He had been assigned (he uttered this word with a raised eyebrow as if we might get its import) to Kunming in 1976. ‘The dialect here is particularly impenetrable,’ he said. We called for the bill and a cluster of people came forward to speak to the old man. He satisfied their curiosity about us and then said, ‘It is a pleasure to practise English. Usually I have to rely on Voice of America broadcasts.’ He waved a hand at the marketplace. ‘This has only been here for a month. They tore down the Working People’s Cultural Palace, which was erected during the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution is over, you know.’ He asked us if we would accompany him to an ice cream parlour. ‘There are young people there who would like to talk to you.’
Our entrance caused a stir at the ice cream parlour. A group of young people, about ten of them, shuffled towards our table. The engineer invited them to sit down. He turned to us and said, 'They are glad to have the opportunity to ask questions.' They wanted to know: where we were from, the average wage in Britain, our impression of China, an account of the weather in London, the incidence of typhoons in London, and the difference between public architecture in Britain and in China.
But the subject they were most interested in was our appearance. C wore over long and one short earring (it was the eighties!) and we were both dressed in black. Our interlocutors wondered if we women belonged to a sub-group of society – they had not seen other tourists dressed as we were – and if this was a particular London style? We replied that it was and other westerners might recognise us as belonging to a sub-group. I saw that our style intrigued this group just as we were fascinated by the appearance of minority tribespeople with their striking costumes. They saw us, in our fashionable outfits, as anthropological or sociological constructs. They wanted to know the significance of everything. What did C wear one long earring and one short earring? Did it matter? Why was I wearing a hat and C not? Did this denote that one of us was married? Why were we wearing black? What did it mean? When C explained that she tinkered with her look just to be different, to express her individuality, some of our questioners indicated that it was a lot of effort for such a trivial outcome.
Did low-class people, they inquired, eat while they were drinking or was it only high-class people who took food with alcohol? They asked us if we ever drank champagne. When we said that we sometimes did, they sucked in their breaths and nodded knowingly.
And the end of the evening, everyone in the group thanked us. They wished us a long and happy life. One young man said he hoped that a typhoon would not strike London and laughed to indicate that he knew he was making a joke.
It all seems so distant now. The ice cream parlour is gone without a doubt, the people scattered, the engineer long dead. But I like to remind myself as often as I can of these small human-to-human encounters. Those young workers in their Mao jackets and we tourists in our western costumes, somehow managing to become if only fleetingly a part of one another's history.