Thursday, June 28, 2007

In Hankou, without watches

I am greatly looking forward to the imminent visit of my old friend Richard and his wife in a couple of weeks. They come to China, singly or together, almost every year, and have been threatening/promising to come and see me here in Beijing almost every year since I first came here. And yet, somehow, it has never quite come to pass.... until now. Quite apart from the fact that I love having guests and showing people round (though they will scarcely need my tour-guidery!), there will be a fitting sense of balance and completion about this visit - a closing of the circle - because it was they who gave me my first China experience, more than 13 years ago now; it was they who first lured me to this country.

That was probably the greatest holiday of my life. (Certainly the longest - nearly 3 months!) I had so many wonderful adventures then, so many great times, so many extreme drinking experiences (mostly frenetic baijiu banquets with the English Faculties of the various small universities and teacher training colleges I was visiting) - more of which deserve to be written up on here one day.

However, I think perhaps my favourite memory of all, the best evening I enjoyed during that first visit to China, was one of the simplest.

Richard was teaching at the Jianghan University in Hankou. His Chinese wife had gone far across town (Hankou is part of the sprawling 3-city conurbation of Wuhan: it was then one of the biggest cities in China, although it has since been rather outpaced in its development by scores of cities along the coast) to visit friends, and was staying over for the night - so we were enjoying some rare time alone, a chance to catch up on old times.... a lads' night out.

For some reason I can't now recall, Richard suggested we leave our wristwatches behind in his apartment (I think he might have been concerned not so much about the possibility of being robbed as simply the fact that a watch was a luxury item, and, as such, an undue fascination/taunting provocation to the locals, a potentially unwelcome prompt to conversation). We didn't go very far, or do very much. It was early summer, and already steamingly hot (Wuhan is notoriously one of the 4 - or is it 5? - 'Furnaces', the hottest cities in China). We just went to the nearest hole-in-the-wall restaurant, a few yards across the street from the University gate, pulled up a couple of stools at a collapsible formica table on the sidewalk, and ordered some beer and dumplings. And talked. And talked and talked. And, of course, ordered a lot more beer. And, here and there, a few packs of pickled garlic shoots (a great snack, which I have yet to discover here in Beijing). We developed a wordless camaraderie with some Chinese drinkers at the next table, and exchanged a number of rounds of beer with them. And talked and talked some more.

Nobody else had a watch either. There were no clocks. We had escaped - into a world without time, into a blissfully calm, unhurried, infinitely extended mellow moment: the kind of experience encapsulated in the U.A. Fanthorpe poem I posted over on Froogville this morning.

When we did finally turn in (having to climb over a low wall into the 'foreign guest house' compound in the University, the bao'an - the distinctly unthreatening gate "guards" - having long since retired for the night), I think we were guestimating that it was shortly after midnight. It was in fact more like 4am.

It's good to lose track of time. Liberating. Cathartic. I don't think I've ever done it again quite so thoroughly since that night.


Tulsa said...

Do you really love being tourguide? Did I comment on that at some point or we really the only two people I know who enjoy tourguiding???

Part of it is I love meandering around cities. I usually get to know a new city fairly quickly, simply because I'll read everything I can get my hands on about it, then I'll walk everywhere I possibly can.

And having guests to tour just gives me the perfect excuse to do it all over again, so the city is new to me, again, too!! And I get to enjoy the innocence of the first glance at the wondrous (or not so wondrous) sights vicariously.

And I love your timeless/watchless story. different corners of the globe and different eras of our lives definitely approach the concept of time and necessity of a watch differently.

And I like how you point out that the original reason for leaving the watches behind was to avoid standing out as being a "have" amongst the "have nots". I would often decide on what to wear or not wear depending on where I was headed. I've never been much for jewelry, but even the little I might wear certainly came off as I'd venture beyond DC's NW quadrant into the NE or SE... of course it never occurred to me to just NOT go to places where my safety could be compromised based on a piece of metal. What would be the fun of not exploring? Much better to leave the watches behind.

Richard said...

Nice to be remembered so fondly - although the wristwatch thing sounds odd. I simply can't recall ever thinking in those terms and I've never had a watch that was worth anything either. On the other hand I often leave a watch behind for the kind of reason your posting describes - if it isn't necessary to know the time I tend to prefer not to. I guess I was thinking out loud and you as a newcomer in the country were trying 'to do the right thing' and read more into it than was there.

richard said...

I recall an evening in a pub called, delightfully, 'The Love' on the outskirts of the city of Durham where we were playing pool in a back room with a hatch to the bar so we never went into the front of the pub and cheerfully lost track of the time. When we finally left it was something like 2am and we had found ourselves in a 'lock in' and we were shown how to leave through a back exit. The front bar had what seemed like blackout curtains and a solid clientele sititng in near darkness. This was something like 1990 so it was all highly illegal and great fun and I don't suppose I was wearing a wristwatch then either.

The pub-sign was a pair of lovebirds.

Froog said...

Well, the watches thing was definitely your idea rather than mine - but I think I said in the post I couldn't remember now what the heck the reason for it had been.... so I was just hypothesising in retrospect.

That bar in Durham you mention was actually called 'The Loves', plural. Sorry to tamper with your happy recollection of that detail. And it was longer ago than you think. A very long time ago. God, we're getting so old.

'The Loves' was one of the first places to be commemorated in my 'Favourite Bars' strand - back in December, I think, I wrote a post about an occasion when I took my dad there for a late-night lock-in.