Smells, Spaces and Tea-Houses in the ROC

The passport stamp at Chiang-Kai-Shek international airport in Taipei stated that I had entered R.O.C. – the Republic of China. Once upon a time, in fact not that long ago, the only Republic of China recognised by most countries in the world was that tiny island, Taiwan. And I am sure that once, not so long ago, you would not arrive and feel that something was missing. But it took me a while to identify that missing feature. The first hints came with the cracks in the tile floor, the old fittings in the bathroom, the faded decorations in the main hall: this was an airport not undergoing renovation. Most airports one visits (and I like to visit as few as possible) are in the process of one or another or multiple upgrades – to improve your flying experience, they claim, but really to fleece you more readily. But not at Chiang-Kai-Shek airport. Everything seemed to work, the airport staff alert, but there was simply no need to upgrade, for this airport was not expanding.

Walking the City

The fate of Chiang-Kai-Shek airport, and indeed the legacy of the man himself, was tied up with the convoluted politics of that island. I had time enough to ponder such matters in the days to come, but for now my thoughts were broken off by the arrival of our guides: Michael and Yu-Yeh. He felt rather important, having been delegated to chaperone an overseas ‘professor’ – a title that stuck no matter how much I tried to disabuse him of the moniker. Yu-Yeh had far greater depth, preferring to stick to her Chinese name.

We buzzed off on the freeway to Chung-Li while I got my bearings. Freeways are not among the most beautiful of human creations, easily run down, full of heavy metal pollution, scars on the landscape. But the trucks belching along beside us were battered, the articulated buses tipped up in the middle, and the air was a permanent soup. It was obvious that this part of what is really a beautiful island was the dumping ground for filthy American-style industry. Thankfully we slipped down to Chung-Li soon enough, but not before I had asked about their names.

‘How come you are Michael?’ I said. ‘And you are Yu-Yeh? One in English; one in Chinese’.

‘Huilin is my Chinese name’, said Michael-Huilin.

‘And Lisa is my English name’, said Yu-Yeh Lisa. ‘But I don’t use my English name much’.

‘How does that work’, I asked. ‘Do you get two names at birth or do you choose a name that means the same in English? I remember a girl of five who moved to Montreal a few years ago. Her name was unpronounceable for English speakers – Xi Xun I think. In a week or so she became Michele’.

They both laughed. ‘No, we simply choose an English name that we like, or perhaps that has a meaning we like’.

‘So you are like a parent choosing a name for its child’, I said. ‘Except that parent and child is the same person – you – choosing a name for yourself at your own birth!’.

They dropped me at the university rooms where we were to stay for the night. Simple rooms, firm beds, disposable indoor slippers (which I still love to get), a fistful of travellers’ toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste.

But we were to go to a Hakka restaurant, deep within Chung-Li. The sun had set and we had to walk the city to get there. Anyone who has threaded his or her way through an Asian city will tell you about the new and battered motor-scooters, with parts and people hanging off them at curious angles, billowing smoke and pushing through the smallest opening, brushing pedestrians and cars on their way through, or about the bicycles themselves, ancient, bearing loads of every conceivable and even inconceivable item, or about those who choose to ride with face masks at silent protest against the poor air quality, or about the people weaving and winding their way through the organised chaos, dodging puddles and cars and motor scooters and bicycles and piles of vegetables and fruit and tables with goods.

But what intrigued me about Chung-Li (and, I was to find later, Chinese cities in general) is the organisation of space. It is though it is organised to ensure the immediate presence of human breath: shops much smaller, often mere alcoves with a pot and a few plates, signs impossibly large and bright in the night sky and of course tumbling over one another. In any other culture it would be would call a crowd, crammed, claustrophobically suffocating, but not here. It is perfectly possible to find a quiet spot of one’s own – a table in a corner where two or three could sit quietly and talk, a chair in a place not stepped in as often, a chance in the to and fro of people to reflect quietly, oblivious to the world a hand’s breadth away.

Visitors from Taiwan to my town – Newcastle – comment on how few people there are on the streets – and this during the busier times of the day. To me, of course, the streets seem full enough here, while those in China are at first overwhelmingly dense.

But our group threaded its way without wavering to the restaurant, where we were treated to a magnificent array of food, from succulent and mouth-watering vegetables, through glorious fish dishes and those that used parts of animal and plant I had never imagined possible for food, to a final triumph: a vast bowl of soup with every conceivable and inconceivable ingredient. From this we poured out helpings into our small bowls and sipped from the bowls themselves.

Not only was it a celebration of simplicity and the sheer pleasure of eating, but it also began to explain why Chinese toilets smell the way they do (the habit of throwing the toilet paper in a large bin, emptied every hour by some poor soul, only enhanced the aroma). After a few days of eating such food, my turds too began to have that distinctive, rich and earthy smell that only Chinese food can produce. The subtle transformation of the interlaced tastes of the food into the pungent and aromatic smell of what comes out the other end is impossible to describe, but it is certainly not the dull and cloying smell of a Western ‘poo bat’.

People

With a camel hump of a stomach and more Chinese beers than I care to remember, it was time to leave. But not before we had said our profuse thanks to the proprietor and cook. The reverential passing over of business cards – with two hands, a bow and an admiring study of the card (and its frequent spelling errors) – along with the introductions in strict order of rank were all done with comments about how the proprietor was a very good friend of our host, whose wife also is Hakka.

Our group was a grand mix: Kenpa, the impossibly young professor who seems to found the elixir of youth, Philip, the academic entrepreneur who kept talking of settling down quietly and writing but enjoyed the hurly-burly of deals and travel and opportunities, and Gan, the old Chinese theologian who wrote in German, for Germany provided one strong model of the intellectual life even here (that his wife was German no doubt strengthened the links for him).

In fact, it was during his presentation later on that I felt as though I had suddenly joined the United Nations. Gan had handed out a thick wad of notes for his lecture, all of it written in pompous German; he delivered his talk in Chinese; but we had a translator working away simultaneously, whispering English into one ear while the Chinese seduced the other ear.

Here too the question of status returned with a vengeance. Too used to the intellectual flexing and subtle competition between silverbacks that characterises intellectual life in the USA, here there was no question about one’s status: prominent place markers indicated that the professors should sit in the first row (partners were given the status of professor to ensure their place in the first row), the slightly less important guests should sit in the second row, and the unidentified riff-raff was permitted to sit in the outer row. No contest, no need to put on a posing routine, no worries.

But it did mean that a faux pas was all too easy to make. The keynote speaker, who had already horrified people by blowing loudly into his handkerchief at dinner in the midst of a swine flu epidemic, decided to stand rather than sit during his talk. He felt more comfortable standing, he said. So when my turn came to speak, I turned to my colleague and said,

‘Should I stand too?

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘That’s only for the president (of the university)’. At the brief opening ceremony and opening of the gathering, the president had stood while every one else sat. Even in his absence we were to show our respect by remaining seated.

The catch is that I am not one for such genuflection to external marks of status and privilege, preferring the first name basis of comrade for any transactions. So I found greater pleaser in our student guides, Michael and Yu-Yeh – especially the quiet and profound Yu-Yeh. They took us to museums and local eateries, but the crowning moment was a tea shop (minus Michael).

Yu-Yeh and two student friends ensured that status and respect was thrown out the window, for one a butch lesbian and the other a Marxist radical who could tell what side of the mountain the tea came from and how it was cut. The three of them led us through the rituals of the tea shop – the serving board with pot and small cups, the way to pour the hot water over the leaves and into the pot, how long to wait, how to pour and drink, and what was best eaten with the different teas. The English might pretend that they know what tea is, the Indians or Sri Lankans might proclaim that tea is their natural drink and flog it off to the world, but the Chinese know that tea is theirs by origin, that the skill of growing, drying and drinking is not learned in a lifetime or even in a century or two, but that it can become part of cultural wisdom only after the odd millennium or three.

Politics

Over tea politics was never far away, especially with a theologian, a lesbian and a Marxist. The first thing I learned, to my surprise, is that Marxism is a vibrant topic of inquiry and debate. But I should have known, given the mainland’s proximity, and yet I had assumed that Taiwan’s resistance to the mainland, US military protection and economic favouritism of that tiny island would have ruled Marxism out of court. Not at all: the proximity of the mainland and the fact that Taiwan has for too long been the dumping ground for the fag-end of filthy capitalist industries means that Marxism is a lively option indeed.

But the overwhelming political filter through which so much passes is the relation to the mainland: to cooperate or not to do so – on that question hung so much. With a surging economic superpower across the Formosan straight, isolation and belligerent talk meant economic exclusion. Cooperation, on the other hand, may mean jobs but it also raises fears that China would act on its long-standing policy of reintegrating Taiwan within its borders. As I was there, the ruling political party was distinctly on the nose and soon to be ousted, not least because of its isolationist stance. With the change of government that followed and the abandoning of the old Chiang-Kai-Shek polemic, direct flights and even passage by ship had been opened up once again. Above all the flow of goods and human interaction has sped up, revealing once again that a soft takeover is far more effective and subtle.

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