30/3/97 In Xiamen the day after Deng died
|Sunday, March 30,1997
The Sunday Times, Page 4
In Xiamen the day after Deng died
Like the rest of the world, l would not get to know about the death of one of this century's greatest figures until the following morning.
When I first heard the term dian la zhu or "light-the-candle", I was mildly alarmed. I remembered the term Dousing the Candle which inverted the principle of the husband's superiority from the 17th-century classic erotic novel Rou Putuan, or The Carnal Prayer Mat.
The comic novel by Li Yu, still banned in China, traces a Zen acolyte's very naughty path to enlightenment, hence the title Carnal Prayer Mat.
But lighting the candle, as I found out, means going to a dark restaurant-cum-lounge where the tables are lit by a candle each, and dining to the strains of Beethoven and Mozart played by a three or four-man ensemble.
The place Xiao Li took me to was a big hall, as most restaurants still are in China. Only a few other tables were occupied, but she told me that young yuppie lovers would come here later in the night, to sigh at one another in the candlelight and hold hands and make pledges they might regret in the harsh light of day.
We had a set western dinner, and shared a bottle of Dynasty wine. Connoisseurs would sniff at the plonk, but I liked it, just as I like the sweet, fruity Californian and South African white wines.
Afterwards, we went to the esplanade to look at the lights on Gulangyu, the resort islet 700m across the water which after the Opium War (1840-1842), when Xiamen was forced to be one of the five treaty ports, was used by the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Germans and Americans to set up consulates.
In 1903 it became an International Settlement.
Now, it is a tourist attraction, where vehicular traffic is banned, although some 7,000 wealthy or privileged households actually live in the low conserved buildings which boast a cocktail of western architectural styles.
The lights were pretty, but Xiao Li said we were too late. There would have been more
lights earlier in the evening.
Across the road, outside the landmark Lujiang Hotel, I saw knots of young women in black leather mini-skirts and knee-high boots, smoking cigarettes and prospecting for customers.
Most of them had pale, almost luminous skin. Xiao Li told me they were not native Hokkiens, but girls from the poorer rural north, some from as far as away as Harbin in Heilongjiang on the Soviet border, who had been lured to this coastal city by the newly-created wealth.
Xiao Li herself came from Shandong three years ago to work as a tourist guide. She led mainly group tours from Shanghai and Beijing.
She could hardly speak Hokkien and did not care to learn the dialect because, I suppose, like a typical northerner, she has a disdain for the crude, even if now wealthy, southerners.
IF THERE was no CNN channel on the TV in my room in the Holiday Inn Harbour View Hotel, I would not have known of Deng's death the next morning. The news was flashed across the screen during the Larry King Show.
I quickly turned to the national and local channels, expecting mourning music and grim commentaries, but found the usual late-morning soaps and cooking shows instead.
I went to the window. The street below appeared normal with people going about their business as though nothing had happened.
But the man who had set China on the path to a world economic power after its more than 300 years of backwardness had died! The love story on the national channel seemed so absurd, so callous.
Was it just another day for the Chinese? Of course, it wasn't. But ever practical people, they did not want any more of the kind of disruptions that attended the deaths of Zhou Enlai, and- still vivid in the memory- Hu Yaobang, which led to the Tiananmen Incident.
Deng too would probably have wanted it this way.
I mourned his death. He was so close to realising his wish of witnessing Hongkong's return to China.
I felt I had to do something, however small a gesture it might be. I remembered Lynn Pan saying to me in passing some time last year that she would like to write a tribute to Deng for The Straits Times should the great man die.
I called her at the Chinese Heritage Centre in Singapore, and asked if she could do that tribute.
"Oh. I merely mentioned it really. I've got all these notes on him, but they are not organised. I don't know if I could do it," she said. "When do you want it by?"
"All right, I'll try," she said.
Lynn, author of several books on the new China and a primer on the overseas Chinese, and for the past two years director of the centre, is first and foremost a writer and a journalist.
She would do it, I was sure, and it would be an authoritative piece.
I called Felix Soh Straits Times' indefatigable Foreign Editor, to ask if he would use it. He agreed readily.
Down at the lobby, I told Xiao Li I had decided not to go to Nanputuo, the temple and monastery which was originally a Ch'an or Zen centre built during the Tang dynasty. This was my last day in Xiamen, and I had planned to see it again before I caught the late afternoon SilkAir flight home.
I had visited it on the first day of my week-long stay in Fujian and had been impressed by it. It reminded me of the temples in Kyoto, where the influence of Tang China I could see so clearly now.
There would be throngs of tourists at Nanputuo. I would rather we went to some place quiet.
We walked up Zhongsan Road, named after Sun Zhongsan or Sun Yat Sen the city's main thoroughfare and went up to the Yuping Temple or Tiger Brook Rock, on the lower slopes of Mount Yuping.
This was a Buddhist monastery built during the Ming dynasty, but which had fallen into disrepair and was almost ruined during the Cultural Revolution.
Venerable Hong Chuan of Singapore was initiated as a monk here in the '20s. He returned in 1985 to hold an earth-breaking ceremony for its reconstruction, fulfilling a vow he made when he left China.
There were no tourists here, only some local faithfuls chanting in the main hall of the temple. We sat in the tea house outside and looked down at the city spread out below us, as we filled our small cups of tea.
I kept harping: But how could life go on as usual today? It's just so sad.
Xiao Li, who is 25 and too young to have seen what tremendous transformation Deng had brought to China did not wish to dwell on it.
She said: "Yes, it's a pity. Only 18 weeks more, and he would have fulfilled his last wish. But it's your last day here, let me take you to Zhongsan Garden."
IN MY weaker moments, I resented my peasant ancestry. My grandfather and father had come from rural Tong'an county, in the larger Xiamen. I sometimes wished I were not a Hokkien, but someone whose ancestors were from the north, say from the more refined Beijing or Shanghai.
The Hokkien I grew up speaking is coarse, and I still cannot get away from its tones when I speak English. I can't bear to listen to my recorded voice.
But if, as George Orwell said, everyone gets the face he deserves when he is 50, then mine, although I am still three years away from that age, has become unmistakably peasant-Hokkien.
Look at my new photo above taken by George Gascon. I have enlisted the help of one of the best photographers in Times House, but even he could not make me look more regal and less like someone who has not been touched by culture or grace or scholarship.
But I was glad l liked Fujian. I liked Xiamen; and Quanzlmu, II liked the cleanliness and orders, and I liked the fact that there was the sea lapping on one gide, and huge stone mountains on the other.
I had the time, too; to read Jonathan Spence's The Search For Modern China and Wang Gungwu's collection of essays in China And Chinese Overseas, and I guess I can claim a certain pride in that I am descended from a people who through the centuries, had always been adventurous as traders and entrepreneurs and even pirates whenever they left the farms for the cities.
So they rarely ended up as refined Confucian scholars- but no matter.
Eh-sai. Can do, lah.