Monday, August 02, 2010

The Lost Green Balloon

Off topic. Nothing China. Just a few words about a little girl.

My daughter just turned three. She got her first helium balloon on Saturday. She brought it home from a party, proud as punch. For the whole of that afternoon, wherever she went, the balloon did follow. She took it outside. "Don't let go, Lulu", I said. Lulu let go. The balloon, so sluggish and obliging inside the house, slipped through her fingers as if it has been waiting an eternity for the chance of flight. We watched it make its great escape into the firmament together. I assumed it would be a gentle lesson in basic physics. It turned out to be a hard lesson in loss.

It's been incredible to see that first tragedy of my daughter's life play out. After the event, she didn't stop crying for a full hour. Real crying. Wailing. Inconsolable wailing. Thereafter, it's been forever on her mind. I said the balloon was off on adventure. It might make it to China. Chinese grandma and Chinese granddad might even find it and bring it back. The consolation was momentary. "But how will it come down?", "How will they find it?", "Think balloon will pop."

Tonight, at bedtime, we went through our daily ritual of bidding the world goodnight. Each night, we come up with a long list. Things and people. To start with: Goodnight Things.

"Goodnight Cup," she starts. As always.
"Goodnight bed, goodnight curtains, goodnight ceiling, goodnight wall."

"Goodnight balloons," I say, gesturing towards the bunch in the corner of the room, provided by English granny by way of ameliorating the sadness.

"Yes, goodnight balloons. Goodnight green balloon. But not this green balloon. Goodnight one green balloon. In the sky." A face stained with trouble and angst.

More than two days after the event, my daughter is laying in her bed, troubled. Deeply troubled. Deeply, sadly, shatteringly troubled by the plight of her balloon, her friend, flying by itself, lost and lonely, into the night.

A threshold has been crossed. My little girl has just realised the world is unkind, and that things disappear, things are lost, things die, and those thing don't always come back. And seeing her learn the lesson is one of the saddest, most beautiful things I have ever experienced.

That's all.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

China's Weakness - Reflections on a Two-Month Stay in the Hinterland

I've been thinking a lot lately about something James Fallows, former China correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, said. "China has many more problems than most [people] can imagine, and its power is much less impressive up close," he wrote earlier this year. Having just returned from a two-month stay in Zhaoqing, Guangdong province, a city seemingly condemned to permanent 'third-tier' status, Fallow's observation resonates. Bombarded, as one is in western Europe, with news of China's inexorable rise, its single-handed salvation of the world economy, its world besting infrastructure projects, its can-do spirit, its new billionaires, its gobbling up of African and Latin American resources, its super-smart hackers, its warehouses stuffed with US treasuries, its easy to get a serious inferiority complex: China is the future, the west is spent. We might as well start kowtowing now in the hope of mercy down the line. And then one spends time in China, away from the glitz and glam of the showcase cities, and it takes only a very short period of time to realise the idea of 'China as superpower' is quite preposterous.

None of this should surprise me. I've lived in China long enough to know better. However, the power and penetration of the news media's favoured narrative on China is overwhelming, particularly if you take your lead - as I increasingly do these days - from the business press (it feels almost galling to write those words, but I canne deny the truth. I'm a paid-up Economist subscriber). The reasons for the existence of this favoured narrative are, I suppose, complex, and range from the political (a need for a more easily defined model of an 'enemy' than any that Al-Qaeda could provide), the historic (the near-destruction of our entire socio-economic system in 2008 opening up the possibility that there may be an alternative), to the pyschological (the confusing attraction-repulsion one feels towards hulking brutes [think of China as a nation-state Stanley Kowalski]). However, an important part of the explanation must lie in the fact that those charged with reporting China to domestic audiences back in the west are, to a man, based in the showcase cities, immersed in a sub-strata of Chinese society which I know, from experience, to be tremendously exciting, impressive and utterly unrepresentative. Obviously decent reporters will routinely get out and see life outside the FCC bubble but its my suspicion that, regardless of a journalist's professionalism and work ethic, the bubble in which they exist will come to be seen as the norm, with the impoverished, brutish and backward hinterland being seen somehow as exceptional and exotic. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, made a similar point during the recent NPC when he urged overseas journalists to get out and report more of China's problems (presumably as a means of easing political pressure by dampening expectations of what China can and can't do).

China is an increasingly polarised society. Yes, there does exist a supremely impressive, educated, forward-thinking elite asking really interesting questions in science, engineering, and IT etc. which exists almost exclusively in China's major metropolitan centres (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chongqing), cities that are, in parts, genuinely developed and genuinely impressive. But, for my money, rather than leading China into its destined golden age, it seems this elite (and perhaps even this group of 'first-tier' cities at large) is growing more and more distant from majority China, which languishes, frankly, in mind-boggling inefficiency and ineptitude. If superpower status is conferred by statistics, China is doing just fine. If it is conferred by genuine economic and political strength, China is a long way from where it needs to be. Much is made of China's double digit growth. Yu Yongding, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a former member of the central bank's monetary policy committee, said in 2008 that for China, "a growth rate of less than 9 percent could be called stagnation, while other countries would regard it as high growth." Seeing life up close in small town/city China, I suspect more and more that the reason for this is that the nine per cent is cooked by government investment, much of which is squandered in inefficiencies, and bank loans which are unlikely ever to get repaid, with only a few percentage points of genuine, real growth. Heck, I'm no economist, and its probably unbecoming for me to try to write like one. I am fairly sure that anyone who relies on official statistics in China is playing a dangerous game. I guess all I know for sure is what I have seen, and what I see is astonishing inefficiency in a system - a public system at least - that operates according to knee-jerk dictate, and that remains entirely blind to genuine need. Anyone who retains faith that the Communist Party of China can reform itself, along with the nation it governs, is ignoring both the reality of life in majority China and the very powerful lessons of history.

My chief piece of evidence to back this up is the 'redevelopment' of Xinghu Dadao, the road that runs in front of the place I've stayed for the last two months. The major change has been to widen the road to four lanes each way, which is itself an inefficiency as two lanes would be more than sufficient were drivers educated to actually understand and follow basic rules on the road (as opposed to adopting the current Darwinian system whereby haulage trucks do as they please and scooter drivers give way obligingly, regardless of logic, decency or right of way). In the eight years that I've been in or around China, nothing has changed in this regard. My wife cannot drive for toffee but has a driving licence earned by holding the steering wheel of a large truck as it made a straight path along a highway for a few miles. But that's a whole other story: back to the matter in hand.

Xinghu Dadao has been earmarked for redevelopment for some time and, during my last visit, back in June 2009, work was underway. Familiar as I am with the whole 'China sprouts skyscrapers quicker than vegetables' cliche (mainly because I've used that exact cliche myself in some of my more frothy travel writings on China), I fully expected the project to have been finished by the time I got back to Zhaoqing in January this year. It wasn't. The chief change was that the pleasant greenery in the central reservation and the large roundabout just below the apartment window had been replaced with freshly churned earth in anticipation of a totally unnecessary new layering of greenery. Nevertheless, almost as soon as we got back, there was a flurry of activity. The roads around the roundabout were macadamized with indecent haste (aside: I have spent years wondering why roads in Zhaoqing were not tarmacked in the same way as they were in, say, Hong Kong. My wife's answer, very typical in China, was that, somehow, conditions locally were sufficiently 'different' to render this technique to be 'unsuitable'). Work began at 6.30am and, one night at least, went on till past 3am. It didn't take a huge leap of logic to figure out that somebody in local government had their eye on Spring Festival, two weeks away, and had a promise to keep. And then, suddenly, everything stopped. Spring Festival came and went, and still tools stayed down. Some time soon after a lone workman came and drilled the area around one of the drains in the newly finished road, leaving a gaping hole virtually in the middle of the road. A flimsy cordon was erected and remained there until I left last week.

The pavements were equally as haphazardly done. Large swathes of the hugely oversized new walkway had been complete, but no one section was properly finished, so that - if you were, as I was - walking with a pushchair, you were better off on the road. As with so many things, pavements in China are there to create the impression of modernity and convenience, but try and use the damn thing as a pedestrian and you'll soon realise where priorities really lie. The chief problem was that the work was patently being carried out by people who had no clue what they were doing. I walked past the workers on a daily basis. They spoke Mandarin and looked every part the 'migrant labourer'. They appeared good, decent, honest people. But the fact remains that clearly nobody had ever trained them to do the job they were currently doing, and for all their sweat, they were doing it badly. I was only in town for around two months and some of the sections that were freshly paved back in February were actually falling apart by March.

The same was true of every aspect of the work. Trees were torn out and replaced by near-identical trees etc.etc. I talked to many people about this. My wife's argument was fairly typical: the incompetence was quite deliberate. Leaders wanted to do the job badly so that it could be done again in a couple of years time. Or, conversely, they had no interest in ensuring it was done properly as they would be moved onto different projects, different places by the time things began falling apart. To my wife, such a project was merely a means for local leaders to earn money from contractual kickbacks etc.etc. I tried to argue that at the macro level, you can't really 'make money' by wasting money. Somebody, somewhere, has to pay and the needless haemorrhaging of money and resources is damaging to both the economy and to the environment. But the more I thought about it, the more I began seeing, and understanding the short-term logic of this Soviet-style central planning system. Employment is bolstered, local industry is boosted and leaders are happy. As long as someone else is paying, things are fine. But the question remains: who exactly is paying?

Some time later I rode out past the newly paved section of Xinghu Dadao. About a kilometre east, the road disintegrated into dust and ruts. A friend suggested that it would be years before this section was worked on as it was not part of the central showcase zone. In China, a road to nowhere is a very useful thing political. Those trying to use the road for a more traditional A-to-B purpose are not the priority, clearly.

Xinghu Dadao is just one example is how things work when one gets out of the major metropolises and runs into the brutal backwardness of small-time China. There are many, many more. Sometimes it felt as it everything in Zhaoqing was built in order to disintegrate. Nothing lasts, nothing is preserved. Everything is run into the ground, trampled by the sheer weight of numbers and scuffed up and manhandled by a society in which there is no notion of the common good, and no sense of needing to work together to maintain and preserve. Out in Zhaoqing, community has ceased to exist, it seems to me, and selfishness is almost pathological. The universal hopelessness in the face of the power of local government has absolutely created the justification for almost everyone - ordinary, normally honest people - to act with total selfish abandon on the basis that everyone else is at it. There is no sense of participation, only a stoic acceptance that things are the way they are and that one needs to find a means of getting by in spite of the adversity.

All of which has given me the very distinct impression that, for all the headlines, and all the achievements, and all the bluster, China - try as it might - will never be able to defy the lessons of history. The stitches will come unpicked; the train will judder off the rails; the steamroller has to run out of fuel - use whatever metaphor you like. To reiterate, I'm no economist, I'm no politician, I'm not even an 'expert commentator'. But I do feel emboldened by knowing that my perspective on China is from that of 'majority China' - the small, slightly backward, 'developing' city - and, boy oh boy, it's not a pretty sight.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Colin Thubron and Me

I was up at the Royal Geographic Society in London this past week for the Travellers' Tales Festival. Luckily (given the cost) it was everything I had hoped it would be, adding up to a huge shot of inspiration straight into the central nervous system of my writing career. There were one or two lessons in humility on offer too. No matter how high up the ladder I may (or more likely, may not) get, I hope that, were I ever to be invited to speak at an event for which the paying public was forking out more than £100 to attend, I would put in a modicum of effort by way of preparation. A textbook example of how to do this was Colin Thubron's, fascinating lecture on Sunday afternoon (which I hope to transpose and post selections of, as I get the chance this week). It was a joy from first to last, peppered with ancient quotes and fascinating insights. Thubron really is that most desirable of hybrid entertainers, a scholarly raconteur, a guy who can charm, and educate and inspire all at once. There were disappointments: Steve McCurry, most famous for his National Geographic shot the famous Afghan Girl, proceeded with his lecture along the lines off, 'Here's one of my pictures, and here's another one, and this was taken in Panama, and this guy was really funny...etc.etc.', though I think this was more to do with the nature of the man, rather than any malevolent intent to jip the audience out of a few bob. Then there was the odd debacle. The Telegraph's Travel Editor, Graham Boynton, conducted an 'interview' with his fellow Rhodesian, Alexander McCall Smith, and it was painful, and fairly boring to boot (through no fault of Smith's, I should make clear). There did seem to me to be a certain arrogance and contempt on display when, after about 10 minutes, Boynton said, 'Mindful of the time, I thought I'd open up questions to the audience', which could well have been translated as 'I haven't got a clue what to ask next, so, go on, do your own work you snivelling wretches'. Few hands went up, and the questions were mainly about the TV version of Smith's books. Literary it was not.

No matter, I still left the RGS buzzing. I swapped business cards with the editor of Conde Nast Traveller, the online travel editor of the Guardian and Time Out's group chairman. I had the great pleasure of running into the man who kick-started my own travel writing career, Shanghai legend Mark Kitto (whose first book, China Cuckoo, was published last week) . However, as lovely as it was to see Mark after many years, the biggest thrill was reserved for last when I got none-ovva-than Colin Thubron himself to sign his latest book for Lewis and Louisa, even managing managed to offload a business card on him in the process. I asked if he had ever been to [my Chinese hometown] Zhaoqing.

No, he said.

I live out there, I said.

Oh, are you a teacher? he asked.

No, I'm a travel writer, I replied, my adoring tone conveying not one iota of the indignation I was now feeling.

Oh, what have you written? he asked, as if in challenge.

Oh, just some guidebooks for Frommer's, the AA and a small American publisher.

Oh, I haven't heard of those, he sniped. Miserly old bugger. No, no - I jest (see, I am still adoring). He was a gentleman and there was little derision in his tone, as you would expect from a man commonly dubbed England's great living travel writer. Competing with a start-out guidebook writer is slightly beneath him and any competiveness implied in the above was merely in my head. Though, as I recall, it was about at this point that I said, 'Well, if I may be so bold, let me give you a business card'.

I actually used those words. If-I-may-be-so-bold.

Poor bloke probably didn't know what hit him - some Basingstoke Barrow Boy talking like Uriah Heap and claiming to live in a part of China that even he, the quintessential windswept English adventurer, had not been to. Apologies Mr Thurbon. And thank you very much for signing my book for the kids. If nothing else, you have two guaranteed future fans. I'll make sure of that, don't you worry:)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Talkee True?

Check out this hilarious and fascinating excerpt from a 1932 copy of Shanghai's Cathay Hotel Magazine which lists some essential pidgin English phrases that all colonials could use to communicate with their native underlings. Language really is an amazingly flexible thing. Stuff like this makes me want to retrain as a linguist - well, that and burn my passport.

Elaine Chow at Shanghaiist makes the point that several pidgin English phrases have entered common usage in the Western World, among them "Long time no see (好久不见)" and "no can do (不能做)". To Elaine's list the expression "chop chop" should probably be added. It didn't occur to me at all that this (rather odd) turn of phrase has its etymological roots in colonial-era China.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Dirty Cantonese Air

Here's an interesting image. This the state of Guangdong's air on February 16th, 2007. Blue indicates very clean, green indicates clean, yellow is a bit mucky, orange is bad, red is severe. I copied it from a website that I monitor daily: the Pearl River Delta Air Quality Monitoring Network website ( It's a joint project between Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department and its Guangdong equivalent (though I have a hard time believing such a thing exists), and basically lets me know whether it's safe to open the window or not.

Normally, the mesage is clear. Stay at home, shut the window and seal all bodily orafices. The people of Zhaoqing have this idea that their city's air is spring fresh when compared to the likes of Guangzhou or Hong Kong. It's not. What this map has revealed to me over the course of the last four months is that filthy Foshan is the chief polluter in the area and a perennial stain hangs over the city. This stain expands and contracts and tends - contrary to popular myth - to blow in an westerly direction, thus making the Zhaoqing air utterly choking, most of the time.

But, lo, in the last few days things have suddenly picked up. The picture above (which shows Guangzhou under something of a cloud) is actually less complimentary that the one from the 15th in which - for the first time ever - the WHOLE of the province was green. What's going on?
The answer, of course, is very very simple. I'm rather brain-frazzled with work at the moment and didn't put two-and-two together. My wife, fortunately, did. 'It's the holidays, stupid,' she said, poking out her lower lip with her tongue, opening her mouth and making a 'Durh (you really are a silly bugger)' sound. 'You know, New Year? Factories - closed, workers - gone home....get it?'. I did. And I became frightened. Part of me hoped that Guangdong's air pollution was somehow innate - just the way it is in this part of the world. This map puts that myth to bed.

If one doesn't own a factory, and one doesn't work in a factory, and one has a passport allowing him to travel freely, one should really get the hell out of here. One feels.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Just finished reading this book. The 223 pages took me just three days (which is fast for me, though I know there will be some who scoff). Truly gripping stuff. If I knew that economics could be this interesting, I might have actually bothered to read the business pages all these years.

On one level, the book provides an account of China's mammoth influence on the global economy and the threat it poses to cherished European and American notion's of free-market capitalism (predicting the end of globalisation while it's at it). But of more interest to me were the beautifully written little snapshots of situations, cities and people that really capture what it is like to live in China today.

Probably my favourite passage in the book runs as follows...

[In modern China] trust is a commodity constantly under siege. Poverty and the competition for scarce resources impinge upon it. The ideological vacuum that replaced Communism undermines it. The daily diet of propaganda disorientates it. The venality of officials devalues it. The ascendancy of a value system dominated by money hollows it out. What is left is a society in which describing someone as ‘honest’ can just as easily be a gentle criticism as a compliment.” [China Shakes The World, Ch.7, pp153-154]

...I like it because it's so bloody true.

China Shakes The World was written by one James Kygne, former Beijing Bureau Chief for the Financial Times newspaper. The book is his first, apparently. It's a stunning work. Buy it. Now.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Fong's Wedding

For the first time in two and a half weeks, I wake up under the dreary concrete-coloured skies of south China. It’s as if someone has gone up in a fleet of helicopters and unloaded several tones of concrete powder into the atmosphere. It’s humid, it’s sweaty and, worst of all, today I must work. It’s good work, though. Today is my friend Fong’s wedding day. And by virtue of the fact that I own a camera and a flashgun, I am designated photographer.

Chinese weddings are a bit different to what one goes through back in the West. The most obvious discrepancy is in the fact that Fong, and his bride, Fei, officially tied the knot several months ago. The legal part of wedlock is completely separated from the ceremonial stuff. At that time, Fong and Fei would have gone down to the local registrar and signed a form or two, had a couple of bits and bobs checked and with purity ensured, walked away ‘married’. I understand getting divorced is similarly straightforward.

The ceremonial, and celebratory bit, normally comes later, often, a long, long time later. In China, it’s not that uncommon for a married couple of wait a couple of years before they invite family and friends to share their joy, happiness and cash. The tacit understanding is that one normally has the big day before the belly gets too big. Indeed, with Fei five months along now, Fong is arguably cutting it fine.

When the Chinese celebrate, they do it with food. The day begins with ‘Yum Cha’ – the classic Cantonese steam-basket breakfast with Fong’s nuclear family and friends. Actually, I had no idea this was part of the day until I turned up in shorts and t-shirt to find Fong welcoming us wearing a shirt and tie. ‘Have you bought the camera?’ he asks, quite reasonably in the circumstances. I had not. I turn to Ling. You didn’t tell me the wedding starts now, I point out in a mildly accusing manner. She didn’t know either. For all this country’s energy, endeavour and spirit, clear communication can still sometimes be a problem in China, even among friends. This is one wedding that I sense is not going to run with Swiss precision.

We all pile into a fleet of cars and go on a roam of the city, remembering to pick Fei up from the hairdressers on the way. There’s zero ceremony when the young lovers set eyes on each other for the first time. Fong gets out of the car, at least, but I sense it’s more to marshall the cars behind than it is to complement his wife on her hair-do. Having driven around for fifteen minutes or so, we head to Fei’s hometown, way over in Gao Yao, on the far side of the Xijiang River. The place is surprisingly beautiful. It’s like a citadel, with a wall on the outside and clusters of densely packed houses, separated by narrow alleys, within. Fong and Fei go hand in hand, walking around these alleys now. They head off in front, with friends and family trailing, carrying great big baskets stuffed with live chickens and rice wine. For the moment, the chickens are alive though that won’t last long. If they had any sense, they’d peck the top off the rice wine and really enjoy their last half hour of life.

Fei’s home is a hive of activity. The family has gathered. Some are in the kitchen, hacking the hell out of the chickens; others are sitting around drinking tea. The happy couple loiters, chatting. Before long, Fong is summoned to the village temple. It may be the family temple. According to Ling, the village is essentially just one big family anyway, so either description will do. The place is stunner. It’s been cleaned for the occasion and there’s a real historic ambiance within the four walls. Natural light floods in from a gap in the roof. The architecture is fabulous. I didn’t know this kind of thing still existed. It’s invisible from the main roads that I normally use. I must remember to get away from the main road more often.

The ceremony is an oddity. Fong essentially has to make sacrifices to Fei’s ancestors. ‘They already know Fei, but they don’t know me,’ Fong explains. ‘I must introduce myself.’ He does this with the aid of a bound, stuffed and – presumably – recently killed – chicken. As Fong moves around the temple, so does the chicken. There’s also a pre-packaged pig and a basket of fresh bread. Fong lights some incense, burns some paper, throws three cups of rice wine over the ground and bows solemnly. He repeats the process outside the temple.

The fun and games then really begin. The huge belt of firecrackers that had been slung over a wooden beam within the temple is, suddenly, ignited. The designation fire-starter comes pegging it out of the temple doors with ears firmly clamped in his two hands. Inside it looks like all hell is breaking loose. A thick black pall of smoke is growing in volume by the second and tens of explosions rock the building’s foundations. The process is repeated a short while later. The shot below shows our resident pyro, once again, running away from the scene.

Then it’s back to the village hall for a big feast. The dishes just don’t stop coming. Fong tells me he’s paid 5,000 RMB for all of the morning’s activities. That’s a major sum of cash. Given that we’ve only eaten breakfast two hours prior, it’s an utterly impossible amount of food to digest. It’s the same story on every one of the twenty or so tables. Maybe a third of the food that was bought out is eaten. I am assured that, out here in ‘the village’, wastage isn’t permitted. The food will be recycled. When I see the chef coming round and dumping all the leftovers into one massive dog bowl, I pity the poor sucker who has to eat it tomorrow.

While we are eating, Fei’s uncle lets off a massive firecracker immediately outside the front door of the dining hall. During the cacophony, one lady has the courage to get up and close the door, frantically wafting smoke away from her nose and eyes as she does so. Nevertheless, the blast still fills the dining hall with putrid smoke and possibly renders a few people deaf. I am in hysterics. It is such a seemingly improper thing to do. Just as people are tucking into their food, this elderly and respectable member of the community goes nuts with the gunpowder. And yet there’s not a trace of admonishment for him. Not one person enjoyed what we just went through. Not one person is enjoying the smoke in their mouths and eyes now. Nobody is smiling, or obviously celebrating, and yet nobody looks angry or upset or disapproving. My friend Eric asks me what on earth I am laughing about. Nobody else finds it in the least bit funny. ‘No!’ Eric says. ‘This is part of the programme. It’s normal. Just nobody knows when it’s going to happen.’ I can’t help think that waiting until we had finished eating would have been a better idea, but nobody seems to agree. After laughing for a few minutes, I need to leave the building. The smoke has got into my lungs and I am in fits.

Across the way, this elderly lady looks on. She’s smoking a pipe the size of a small submarine and is weaving baskets between her withered fingers. I try to speak a little Mandarin to her. Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t a clue what I am on about.

We step back out through the red debris and get back into the cars for the return journey to Zhaoqing. We are allowed a few hours off before the evening festivities begin. My break time is cut short when Fong telephones at 5.30pm to say that we are needed immediately at the entrance to the hotel when the banquet will take place. We rush down. The guests have been told to arrive at 6pm but protocol dictates that the bride and groom – mother and father standing at their side – should wait around for an hour so as to greet each and everyone personally, whether they are late or not. Nearly everyone is late. Each group that arrives hands either Fong, or Fong’s father a red packet stuffed with cash, which is then passed over to Fong’s sister who tucks it away in a big bag.

Finally, at 7pm, we head inside. With everyone seated, Fong and Fei enter the room to applause and a chorus of a Canto-version of Here Comes the Bride from a bunch of Fong’s mates. The cutting of the cake takes place immediately and I am barely finished checking the pictures before I am summed to the front to give me speech.

Ling, bless her, has helped me prepare. In between taking pictures of Fong’s guest arriving, I paced back and forth memorizing my lines. Despite the fact that I didn’t expect to have to speak this early, the work pays off. Thing go well. It is, however, a bit unsettling to get the loudest round of applause merely for introducing myself. My flowing prose and heart felt words of pride and affection couldn’t match the sheer novelty value thrill of seeing a ‘foreigner’ speak Chinese. It was all downhill from there.

Fong then gives a speech. Ling later tells me it was a very formal promise to care for Fei as long as he lives. She said that it was a bit stilted and stuffy, but I guess that’s what a wedding should be about – a formal, sincere promise to your bride, made in front of heaps of family and friends who will – hopefully – apply the necessary pressure to keep you to your word.

Then the feast, then the rounds of toasts and party games (the groom’s friends have an absolute obligation to tease the bride and groom with little tricks like the one the West, I guess this kind of principle applies during the stag/hen dos, in China, it’s during the banquet). Unlimited alcohol is part and parcel of every hotel’s wedding banquet deal. With the relief of having completed my speech, I try to single-handedly ensure that whoever is paying gets full value in this respect. I even leave with a barely started bottle of red wine under my arm.

And so, an hour or so later, it suddenly ends and everyone gets up and leaves. The Chinese have a great knack and finishing things clinically, and with little sentimentality. Weddings are no exception.