Wednesday, February 29, 2012

imperialism meets the cultural revolution

About a dozen years ago I took a trip to South Africa.  One of the tours offered was a visit to the homes of the poor in Soweto.

It struck me as the height of bad taste.  The brochure showed white tourists crammed into a tin roof shack with bewildered residents.

That feeling came welling back when I was informed we were going to visit a hutong (the old neighborhoods of Beijing), dine with a local family in their home, and, to top it off, ride in a rickshaw to look at a family courtyard home.  It had the sad scent of British imperialism slathered with white liberal guilt.

But I was wrong.  Very wrong. This portion of the tour turned out to be one of my best memories in Beijing.  With the exception of the rickshaw ride.

Everything about the dinner was good. A Chinese family has turned their parlor and kitchen into a tourist restaurant.

Over twenty of us shoehorned ourselves around two large tables and had a delicious home-cooked meal.  Nothing fancy.  The usual stir fry choices.  But it was tasty and filling.  The entire family pitched in to serve us.

Not too far in the past, most of Beijing looked similar to their neighborhood.  Narrow alleyways surrounded by low small homes and shops.

But most of the old neighborhoods are gone.  Having been seized and leveled for high-rise apartment buildings.  These were the type of homes the seniors we saw at the Temple of Heaven once lived in before they were expelled to the outer edges of Beijing.

Then came the moment I dreaded.  Our pedicabs showed up to pedal us several blocks to a courtyard home.  I tried to opt out, but the distance was too far.

I should explain.  Nothing smacks of the imperial era as much as the rickshaw.  Human feet toting white people about.

It is an honest living.  But, as Thomas Jefferson aptly noted: "[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." 

I did my best to enjoy the ride.  The neighborhood was fascinating.  But I could not help but feel sorry for the driver lugging two heavy white guys in his rickshaw.

The highlight was the courtyard home.  At first sight, it did not seem very special.  Just a cluster of older buildings around a courtyard.

The place became very special when the owner told us about the history of his family.

His father, who still lives on the property in his 90s, purchased the home in the 1930s.

The current owner and his sister grew up in the house -- until  the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.  Because the family appeared to be bourgeois, ten additional families were moved on to their property.

His sister was taken away to a rural reeducation camp to plant rice -- far from Beijing.  He was sent away closer to the city.

He soon returned.  But his sister was not allowed to return until the 1990s.  And the last of the ten families left the property less than a decade ago.

He told this tragic tale with no emotion.  It was what it was.

One of our group asked how much the property was worth.  We should have been ready for the answer.  After all, our guide had told us that an average priced condominium in Beijing of about 1000 square feet would cost about $600,000 (US).  Stand alone homes are reserved for the very wealthy with starting prices in excess of $1,000,000 (US).

Based on the property's location, its status in a protected district, and its historic significance, he estimated its value at $15,000,000 (US).  But it is not for sale.  And no one in our group offered to buy it.

Outside the main home is an altar to the family's ancestors.  But the altar on the home's coffee table is just as telling.  A bull.  A replica of the bull on Wall Street.  Symbolizing a prospering market. 

We visited many impressive sights in China.  But I will remember that brave man standing against the tide of history and quietly saying: "Stop."

It is through such man that China will have a better future.


John Calypso said...

Feeding 20 of you - maybe they were secretly shooting an Top Chef episode ;-)

You provided a couple reasons why I would never go on an organized tour - thanks for the reminders.

Felipe Zapata said...

Quite a number of nonwhite societies have had imperial eras. Quit feeling guilty. Virtually any nation, given the opportunity, will show its bully side.  It's human nature, and certainly not restricted to white people.

Again, no hair shirt required. 

jennifer rose said...

Don't go a-feeling guilty about riding in the rickshaw. When Obamama gets through with the US, you'll be pulling one, and the last thing you'll want is some customer fretting with his soul over whether to hire you, never mind that there'll be no rice in your bowl that evening if he doesn't. And your house? There will be more families living in it, too. And probably cooking up God-knows-what in your hot tub. 

Steve Cotton said...

 I'm not certain guilt is the appropriate label for my pedicab experience.  I react the same way to pedicabs in The States.  And they are devoid of an imperialist past.

Steve Cotton said...

 That makes me feel a LOT better.  But I will be down here trying to coax some growth out of heirloom tomatoes.

Steve Cotton said...

 There are drawbacks to group tours.  But it certainly was an efficient way to see a lot of China in a short time period.

Joanne said...

My nephew used to pull a pedicab in Toronto.  He's a 6'4" white guy.  It was good money and he was in his early 20s.

Steve Cotton said...

 My Jeffersonian principles keep getting in the way.  I know libertarians  are supposed to encourage individuals to pursue their own courses and make a living as they see fit.  But there is just something about pedicabs.  Probably too many Sydney Greenstreet movies.

sparks said...

I missed you in my Pedicab days in Hawaii back in the late 70's.   Bought a one way ticket and peddling tourists on Waikiki was the first job I found.  Then 2 200lb mid-westerners wanted a go to Diamond Head and that was the beginning of the end

Steve Cotton said...

 Yikes!  Talk about an uphill business cycle.

al said...

Always have had mixed feelings about tours, particularly the inevitable visits to "authentic" homes or workshops of native folk etc. But sometimes if you shut off your critic filter and listen you can learn some interesting stories. And in a place as huge and foreign as China I can't imagine any other way to travel. 

Steve Cotton said...

 And I learned a lot by just listening to the homeowner.  His was a very interesting ale of survival.

Kim G said...


That's hysterical.....laughed out loud. 

Kim G
Boston, MA
Where it's not just midwesterners any more who are 200lb.

Steve Cotton said...

Too true.

Sharon Smith said...

I was in china in August and returning in a. Week with a group of students from Canada. Your stories brought back fond memories I too really enjoyed having lunch with a local family and interacting with them. Beat food we had on our trip. Looking forward to sharing this amazing country with my students...such a diverse country.

Steve Cotton said...

It is an amazing country. What I could not shake, though, was the feeling that I was visiting Germany in the 1930s. The feeling that everything looked so attractive, but there was rot somewhere.