Category Archives: China

Long shadows, short memories

 ‘Most of us have short memories. This is not strange, for there is too much suffering in life,          especially in China.’

Incense shadows cropped 3

When I was a 17-year-old secondary school student, thinking about what I wanted to study at university, I decided that I wanted to learn a new and difficult language. I narrowed my choice down to four: Arabic, Russian, Japanese and Chinese. I discounted Arabic immediately; as a woman I couldn’t imagine it would give me a wide range of options. At the time (in 1983) the Soviet Union seemed entrenched and I wondered where Russian studies would take me. I was also discouraged knowing that instead of an academic year abroad it was only possible to go there for three months. Japanese was appealing, and in the early 1980s, with Deng Xiaoping opening China and its economy up it seemed that there was a world of possibilities in East Asia. A year later my exam results were in and I was on my way to study Chinese at the University of Leeds and as part of that, a year as an overseas student at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Shanghai in the autumn of 1985 was not the city you would see today. The shiny futuristic Pudong was still farmland, there were very few cars apart from taxis and official limousines, a lot of old Shanghai still remained. During that year I travelled both with school trips (to Beijing and Kunming) and on my own (to Chengdu, Lhasa and Guangzhou). I got to know Shanghai, I poked around in the dusty corners of the city and when I needed a break I went to the foreigners-only Friendship Store or Jessica’s at the Jinjiang Hotel and bought nutella, croissants and coffee.

After I graduated in 1988 I spent about eighteen months working in the UK, and in February 1990 I returned to China, this time to Shenyang, to teach at a college there, but also to brush up my Chinese. At the time, it felt like I had been away from China for a long time, but looking back today after far more years it doesn’t seem long at all. I am also amazed at my younger self, that less than twelve months after June 4th 1989 I was heading back. Shenyang in 1990 was a lot like Shanghai in 1985-6. Visiting Shanghai later in the year I was struck by how much it had changed already. By 1996 the Oriental Pearl Tower was already open, but looking rather ridiculous and stranded in what was not yet the 21st-century city of today.

In some ways I feel a bit of a fraud writing about China these days, because I haven’t been back in so very long. But China has and will always have a special place in my heart. Even though Japan has been good to me, has been home for over twenty years, China got under my skin first. Hearing Chinese spoken around Tokyo by the many tourists that visit Japan now, it stops me in my tracks, opens up a different part of my heart and my mind, pings me back to those early days at Fudan.

So here I am again, marking June 4th, and this year it’s twenty-five years since the Pro-Democracy movement was crushed on the night of June 3rd and 4th. At the time it didn’t seem possible that the Chinese leadership would manage to hold on to power, that surely something would change. But I also remember in the months after June 4th attending public meetings with Chinese students studying in the UK, with human rights groups, and hearing the students speak of their aims. They wanted democracy. What would that look like? How could it be achieved? There were no answers. It was a dream. A wonderful, shining dream.

Twenty-five years later, the Chinese Communist Party  still has its grip on power. There have been plenty of reports in the last few days about the Chinese human rights activists detained in the run-up to the anniversary, the international news broadcasts blacked out, the Internet search terms blocked. On CNN a reporter went to the campus of Beijing University and asked students if they knew what today’s date signified. They looked mystified, asked if maybe it was a public holiday . . . the reporter expressed his disbelief to the camera. Chinese students these days must be so ill-informed! Do they have no curiosity? How can they not know?

I would say, of course they know. They know at least enough to know not to know. The ill-informed student would spill all kinds of beans to the camera. The savvy student is cautious. They may not know as much as we think they should know, but this generation can find its way round some of the roadblocks China’s leadership sets up in cyberspace. They have smart phones and know how to use social media. They know not to speak to every foreign journalist with a microphone and a video camera. A people that has gone through all the upheavals that China has in the last sixty plus years knows what it takes to protect yourself against the Chinese Big Brother.

China doesn’t have the political freedoms the young people in Tiananmen Square dreamed about, sang about, died for. But while their leaders could slam the door on their demands, it couldn’t (and didn’t want to) slam the door on economic development, and so a lot of Chinese people have some of the freedoms spoken of, yearned for, in 1989, at least in the cities. (The ever-increasing gap between the cities and the countryside is another matter.) People have the money to travel, to buy the technology that connects them with the rest of the world. Not all of it, but quite a lot.

They know that today is not an ordinary day. They will know that their government is keeping the lid on whatever they can today. They may not know as much as we would like them to know, they may not be willing to blurt out their thoughts to a passing journalist, but today is not an ordinary day and I am sure people are aware of that. Chinese people have to develop antennae sensitive to what can be said, and to whom. To not have that awareness could be dangerous. Just because they know not to say everything we want to hear out loud does not mean they are not thinking all of it, and more.

In 1925, Lu Xun wrote:

‘Most of us have short memories. This is not strange, for there is too much suffering in life, especially in China. People with good memories are liable to be crushed to death by the weight of suffering; only those with bad memories, the fittest to survive, can still live happily on.’

To have come through the Great Leap Forward, the famines, the Cultural Revolution, and 1989, to be resilient through it all, a short memory, at least publicly, might just be the best way to get by.


June 4th 1989. Never forget.


My neighbour Tokyo

neighboursTokyo is a huge, crowded city. Not so enormous that you can’t walk around it in a day, but full of millions of people. It’s easy to feel small, isolated, lost. It can also take a long time to make Japanese friends. I’ve written about this before; I don’t think it’s unreasonable on the part of any Japanese person to take their time getting to know someone, and in fact think that British people are exactly the same. Neither culture displays the same ready friendliness someone from North America would. It’s easy to think this is some kind of closed-off, unfriendly attitude on behalf of Japanese people in general, especially when you first arrive and really want to get to know people.

I came to Japan after living in China, where the business of making friends is completely different. In Chinese it’s quite normal to announce the formation of a friendship not long after meeting someone: 交朋友吧? (Jiao pengyou ba? Shall we be friends?) Together you agree to a friendship, you are now friends.

In most countries it doesn’t work like that, and certainly not in Japan. I have a lot of wonderful Japanese friends, but I’ve been here over twenty years. That is not to say that Japanese people haven’t always been friendly, but friends? That took a while. I’ve made this point before, but I will say it again; Japanese people are the same with each other. In cities, houses and apartments are small, it is not common to invite someone into your home. People meet in cafes, bars or restaurants instead.

My nearest neighbours are not friendly at all. In fact, I would categorise them as Not Friendly and also Somewhat Antisocial. Although our buildings are only a couple of metres apart, someone plays the piano after 11pm quite regularly, I can often hear someone using a hairdryer at 2am, and I have seen their adult son try to start a fight in the street because a delivery truck was trying get past his parked car. Now that summer is here, they delight in wind chimes. One wind chime can be a pleasant sound, an occasional gentle tinkling on a hot day. My neighbours work on the principle that more is more, and quite regularly line up five or six to ring manically in a strong breeze. The man of the house likes nothing better on a Sunday afternoon than to go out into the narrow road and practise his baseball pitching by bouncing the ball against the wall. They appear to love loud, repetitive sounds. It can be annoying, but since I have seen evidence of their very un-Japanese willingness to be confrontational I have never said anything. By contrast, the family who live at the end of the road are always friendly and greet me whenever I walk past. When one member of the family inadvertently watered me along with her flowers one day she even spoke English to offer a mortified apology.

The shops in my neighbourhood are always friendly. If I go into the small drugstore next to the station and buy cold medicine I will receive a handful of cough drops too. The employees in the tiny post office are more helpful than their counterparts in my local post office in the UK. Even the people in the convenience stores, working early and late shifts and sometimes not seeing me for weeks on end are  smiley and sometimes stop for a chat. I know it’s not the same as other countries. Most shops in neighbourhoods, even in a city like Tokyo, are still locally-run, and apart from the convenience stores they are not usually part of a chain. They all know their customers.

So this is my neighbourhood. The shopkeepers are friendly, but my neighbours are a mixed bag. Some greet me, others do not. I don’t know their names, they don’t know mine. Apparently the police will have checked with them when I applied for permanent residence, and no one torpedoed my chances. I must be doing all right separating my rubbish and have not alarmed anyone with overt displays of antisocial behaviour (unlike my immediate neighbours, I may add).

My brother lived in an apartment in London for a number of years, and every summer I stayed with him for a few days. I saw other people in the building but apart from a nodded hello I never spoke to them. I don’t know how much my brother knew them either. This is big city life in a country where the people are naturally reserved. It could be Tokyo, but it could also be London. People are busy, they spend their days on crowded trains and working hard. Of course we all want a little space, somewhere we can retreat to.

It takes time to make friends here, but the ones I have made are truly wonderful. I’m happy in my neighbourhood and with my neighbours, although I am slightly wary of the ones right next door. I appreciate being allowed to have my own little bubble in the heart of this great city.

June 4th all over again

June 4th 1989. I wonder if you remember where you were that day. I do. It had been a strange few weeks leading up to that day.

On April 15th I had been part of a small group going from Sheffield to London to welcome a delegation from Anshan in Liaoning province in north east China. Anshan and Sheffield were twin towns (sister cities), linked because of the steel and coal industries. I remember waiting outside Sheffield Town Hall with the woman in charge of the city’s relations with its twin towns, listening to sirens. A lot of sirens. We waited for the car that would take us down to London, and we asked ourselves what on earth could be going on that there would be so many emergency vehicles on the roads.

As we made our way down to London we listened to news reports and gradually learnt what had happened at Hillsborough. How so many Liverpool fans had been crushed to death in the stadium. By the time we reached the hotel that evening it was clear that something heartbreakingly awful had happened. There were 96 fatalities and the relatives of those victims are still waiting for the whole story and justice.

The next day we met the six people who had come from Anshan, and then began several days of surreal sight-seeing. I was the interpreter, but I was told not to mention what had happened in Sheffield. We were to tell them just before we got back to the city. We went to Windsor, to Eton, to Stratford-upon-Avon, and in the evenings we watched the news and carried the sadness in our hearts.

As we approached Sheffield I told them what had happened, and explained that the city was in mourning. We hoped they would understand if people seemed subdued. They listened carefully, then asked, ‘How many people did you say had died?’ ’96.’ ‘And they were from another city?’ ‘Yes, they were from Liverpool.’ ‘Only 96 people and not from your city, then . . . ‘ I remember feeling amazed at the cold-hearted calculations.

There was something else on the TV news every day. Something else we were not to mention to our Chinese guests. There were protestors in Tian An Men Square. They had gone there first to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, but like the protestors in Turkey today, it quickly became a bigger movement. The students wanted democracy, and they besieged the Great Hall of the People for weeks. President Gorbachev visited China during that time and could not enter the building from the square because of the on-going protests. It went on for about seven weeks, and then on the night of June 3rd/4th they sent in the soldiers. How many died that night? No one knows. Hundreds? Thousands?

I remember going to church on the 4th and someone asking me what was going on, they thought I might understand it since I had lived in China. After all the optimism, after the occupation of the square for weeks without violence it had all become terrifyingly bloody. I had no answers.

One year later I was living in China, teaching at Shenyang Teachers’ College. It was a strange time. I had gone back as much to improve my Chinese as to teach English, but with the exception of 2 brave young women it was difficult to find Chinese people willing to be friends. I asked if I could get a daily newspaper; I was told it would be arranged, but it never was. My students doubled as the censors of my mail, they knew my news from home before I did and weren’t afraid to tell me so. But quietly, I heard the personal stories of some of the students. How they had all been told to go home in May, do not go to Beijing, do not pass go, but really many had gone, showing their student cards and getting a free ride to the capital.

There had been a small pro-democracy movement on campus; the leader was being held somewhere. He was released and one day appeared at the back of my class, back against the wall, nervous, suffering from eczema, too anxious to talk much. I heard that he had been held for months in solitary confinement, with nothing to do. He had been alone with his thoughts for a very long time. As suddenly as he appeared, he was gone again. I don’t know where he went. He might have dropped out, just gone home to his parents. I hope that’s what happened.

On June 4th 1990, all classes were cancelled. Apparently not because it was the first anniversary of what had happened in Tian An Men Square, but on some pretext. It was a strange, quiet day, made stranger by the entire phone system in the college not working. The people who had told me they had been to Beijing the previous year had no desire to try the experiment again. One day around that time I was in the centre of Shenyang with one of my brave friends and an elderly lady noticed she was of college age and started speaking to her about the events of the previous spring. ‘Are you students going to do something again this year?’ she asked. Of course not.

June 4th, 1989. The Chinese students’ version of the Statue of Liberty held her flame aloft with both hands, I remember a student being interviewed and explaining that she needed more strength to hold up democracy in China. I remember watching the student leaders, in pyjamas, attached to drips, on hunger strike but meeting with the politicians, arguing their case. Their lost cause. In the years since, the leaders from those days have left China, a new generation of activists has emerged. So far, Chinese democracy has not. The economy is booming, but the gap between the urban rich and the poor in the countryside grows wider and wider. The Chinese people I know are hard-working, friendly, truly, you could not find a more loyal friend. They know who they are, they know the history they come from, and they are proud people. Like the people of other countries, they are not well-served by their leaders in many ways.

Twenty-four years ago there was a generation of students who were optimistic, or maybe naive, or both. They thought their leaders would listen, but in the end they didn’t.

incense smokeJune 4th 1989. Never forget what happened that day.