Beijing’s Power

Why is Beijing so appealing?

It took me some years to realise its appeal. Initially, Shanghai felt friendlier and more appealing. It has always been a port city, at the intersections of the world. Foreigners have been in Shanghai for centuries, leaving their mark in the fabric of the city, in its architecture, spatial configurations and even culture. Somehow, a massive city like this seemed to enable one to find a corner in which to be at home.

Beijing, on the other hand, was too vast, too polluted, too constrained, too fast, too foreign, and simply changing too much. In my early years, I had gone a little crazy, preferring to get out of Beijing whenever I could, taking the train to various corners of China while supposedly a resident and working in Beijing.

But gradually it grew on me. More recently, I found myself wanting to pause in Beijing, for a reason that was not entirely clear to me.

Initially, I simply stayed in my apartment, venturing out for food and exercise. But after a week or two, I found myself setting out to the find out a bit more about this constantly changing city.

It helps if you know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone … (guanxi). Things happen this way, from getting a phone to finding an apartment. Speaking a bit of the language makes a huge difference, but you will always be a foreigner, even if you were born and bred in Beijing. But if you know someone, then you may as well be a local. No more special prices for foreigners. No more smiling deals where you think you have bested someone in bargaining only to find you have not. Guanxi goes a long, long way.

Initially, I began to think it might be the beautiful days, with clear skies and crisp air. I kid you not, for Beijing has plenty of these (as well as plenty of days where it is better to stay inside). A clear Beijing day calls you outside in a way that you cannot resist.

Or perhaps it was the food. Again and again, I found that a famous chef in charge of a major restaurant had decided to go back to basics and make one dish she or he loved best. It may be a simple noodle dish or dumplings, but all attention would be focused on making sure that every iteration of the dish was as simple and as perfect as it could be. No second best would be allowed.

Perhaps it was the language, which I had been learning slowly but surely, putting it together piece by piece. I am not a natural when it comes to learning language, for I need to work persistently and doggedly until it ever so slowly becomes part of my ways of thinking.

Or perhaps it was the regions of Beijing, from the huangsheng (close to the old imperial centre, within the second ring road) to the jiaoqu or shijiao, the outskirts of the city. Here are the villages being absorbed by the ever-expanding limits of the city. Here are the small plots where one can grow vegetables. And here are the traditional compounds (siheyuan) where one can ‘buy’ (really, a long lease) a place to get away from it all.

Perhaps it was the seriousness with which Beijing takes public transport. For instance, the metro is one of the best in the world. Already, its 550 km take 6 billion passenger rides a year (almost the total of the world’s population). Within ten years the total distance will almost double. You can literally get everywhere in the expanse of Beijing by metro. Why would you drive, as the beautiful people like to do, or indeed take a taxi, as foreigners do?

But I finally realised that Beijing’s appeal is none of these things. Or rather, they might be part of it, but they do not constitute the main reason.

Quite simply, Beijing is the centre of power. Not just any power, but the centre of the most powerful socialist state in world history. To be sure, Beijing has been a capital for a few centuries, but even this makes it a relative latecomer on the scene of political power in in light of China’s long history. But it oozes power. Power is part of Beijing’s fabric. It is not for nothing that the communist party chose it as their capital. Here the communist party continues to wield power, with President Xi Jinping invoking Chairman Mao in a way not seen for quite a while. Here security is a paramount issue, so much so that you know when a major event – the annual parliament, a meeting of the politburo, a congress – is happening due to the security personnel everywhere.

And here Chairman Mao lies in state at the fulcrum of this power, in Tiananmen, the gate of heaven. This is socialism in power, and it fascinates me, draws me in, makes me want to be part of it and understand it.

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Crumpled Shirt and Dirty Shoes

Sartorial elegance: the ability to appear stylish and well-groomed without appearing so. Although it applies as much to one’s hair, shaving and smell, its key is the cladding that one wears to cover the body. After all, the word ‘sartorial’ comes from Latin word sartor, tailor.

I had always prided myself on not requiring the usual signals of sartorial elegance. I would wear what I wanted when I wanted, without concern for style or fashion. As long as my single pair of shoes fit the shape of my feet, were comfortable, and could be worn on all occasions – from hiking up mountains to weddings – I was happy. As long as the pants could be worn for a week, be washed overnight and be dry the next morning, I was content. And as long as the shirt was clean and dry, I could not ask for more.

In China, others were not so happy.

For an eternity they tolerated my sartorial preferences. They did so with a glance, a stare, a polite smile. Until at last of them dared to ask.

‘Doesn’t your girlfriend or wife care for you?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, standing still on the footpath.

‘Well, your shirt is crumpled’, she said. The others in our group murmured agreement.

‘It’s a t-shirt’, I said. ‘Who irons a t-shirt?’

‘And when you signed the new contract last week, you wore a crumpled shirt’, she said. ‘And it was not tucked in. It was hanging outside your pants!’

‘Are you serious?’ I said. ‘I haven’t owned an iron for more than 15 years and I prefer to wear my shirts out’.

‘What about your girlfriend or wife?’ she said.

‘She is even more scruffy than I am,’ I said. ‘Crumpled shirts, old and torn clothes hanging out, hair messy … a grungy look, we call it’.

This was the moment for genuine consternation. How in the world could a woman not be concerned with creases, crumples, and tucked in clothes?

But that was not the real issue.

‘Anyone who looks at you does not think about whether you can take out the creases in your crumpled clothes’, she said. ‘They immediately think your girlfriend must not really care for you. They will think badly of her’.

‘It has got nothing to do with anyone else’, I said. ‘I prefer not to worry about these things’.

‘And your shoes’, she said.

‘What about my shoes?’ I asked.

‘They are muddy’, she said.

‘Well, yes,’ I said. ‘I have been hiking a couple of days ago, so they have some mud left on them’.

‘Your girlfriend really doesn’t care about you!’

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Meeting Isabel Crook

‘Put that down, mum’, he said. ‘Someone is here to see you’.

He strode into the room, while I paused at the door and looked inside to see Isabel Crook for the first time. Books spilled out of ceiling-high shelves and were piled on the desks that surrounded her. Sitting in the only free space in the room, she had been reading. She did not look up at first, but focussed on putting the book in its place. She stood and walked to the door of her own accord.

Her 60-something son and began to introduce us, somewhat loudly.

‘Hello, I am Isabel Crook,’ she interrupted. ‘Pleased to meet you’.

I replied in kind, with a clear and strong voice.

She smiled. Her no-nonsense hair may have been grey, and she may have been slightly stooped and a little shrunken. But the sparkle was still in her eye and I immediately saw the origin of her son’s energy.

It was the middle of May, 2015, in an apartment built in not long after the communist revolution. They had lived there ever since the 50s, in Beijing.

In the common room – for eating, guests, discussion – she paused and pointed to a poster on the wall: ‘This is priceless’. A youthful Mao Zedong was watching over a long line of marching men and women, holding the red flag aloft.

‘You can’t read the writing now’, she said. ‘It has faded over the years’.

‘Why priceless?’ I said.

‘These posters were all over Beijing when it was liberated in 1949. I managed to get hold of one. It was amazing. We looked all down the streets … students all with red triangular flags waving … the incoming army … cavalry, which was very exciting. It was the most joyful event I’ve ever watched’.

Isabel Crook, along with her husband, David, had been with the Red Army on that victorious day. Most men and women had walked thousands of kilometres in order to get from Yan’an to Beijing But since Isabel was pregnant with their first son, Colin, she was provided with the comfort of travelling in the back of a truck. Given the conditions of the roads after decades of civil war and the anti-Japanese war, I am not sure an old truck in 1949 would have been so comfortable. But she was obviously a tough woman.

We – Isabel, Michael (her second son) and I – sat and talked over a cup of tea. We talked of Mao, Deng Xiaoping, China today, Marxism, as also of families and the initial matters of what one is doing and why. Later, a couple of other people joined us and we made the most of the spring weather to have lunch at a simple outdoor restaurant somewhere on the edge of the Summer Palace grounds.

Isabel and I gravitated towards each other – as we did on later occasions – given our common interests in Marxism and indeed religion. She was born to Canadian missionary parents in Chengdu, China, way back in 1915. While she was brought up as a Christian in China and attended a Christian school, she followed the path of so many, from Christianity to communism. Crucially, her parents – Homer and Muriel Brown – were Christians with a social conscience, although they looked askance at communism (and Isabel’s future husband, David Crook). They reconciled themselves to the fact that a social cause was better than pure self-interest.

After anthropological study in her parents’ home country, Canada, she returned to China in 1940, under the auspices of the National Christian Council in Sichuan province. By 1942 she joined David in England, where she joined the communist party and where they married. Further study ensued, only to return to China in 1947. She has remained there ever since, becoming a participant-observer in the communist revolution itself and especially socialism in power. Many are the jobs Isabel has had, from anthropological researcher, through language teacher to lifelong social activist. Indeed, her commitment was of the sort that led one to action – to supporting an actual communist revolutionary movement on the ground.

Her story has been told many times (as of David), from foreign sources to many outlets in China. Her 100th birthday was saluted by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), her commitment to education and research is often noted (playing down her communist credentials), and even the Wall Street Journal managed to come up with a story. Of more interest are the accounts on CCTV and, above all, the website that tells her own story, simply called ‘Isabel Crook’. With all this information available, I do not need to dwell on all the details.

Her witness of socialism in power is, for a foreigner, second to none. In Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn), a communist area of Hebei province, she and David witnessed the profound effects of land reform already underway. She saw first-hand millennia-long practices being dismantled and replaced with socialist approaches. As she observes: ‘The land reform was obviously going to change the whole future of China’s history, because it would get rid of the feudal system … it would put the farmer in power, rather than going on with the old way’. The result was a hugely influential book, written by her and David, Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.

And of course, there was the teaching. The new China would need people skilled in English, so they were asked to stay and teach. Over the years, their work would become one stream that fed into what is now Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Over dinner one evening, I mentioned to Isabel that I had been to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Her eyes lit up.

‘I have had students from North Korea’, she said. ‘Ten of them, sent by the government to study English’.

‘How did they go?’ I said.

‘They were very good,’ she said. ‘Although one struggled. I believe in giving marks for actual performance, so his grades were not so good. As they boarded the bus after the course, this student was crying. “Why is he crying?” I asked one of the others. “He knows he will be reprimanded for not doing so well in the course and failing his country.” I wanted to stop the bus and hug him’.

She also experienced socialism in power during the Cultural Revolution.

‘During the Cultural Revolution, I was suspected of a being a spy. So I was put in prison for three years’.

‘Did it make you doubt the communist movement?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, she said. ‘My sons were on their own, but I knew they could manage’.

‘What did they do?’ I said.

‘They were teenagers’, she said. ‘And they knew how to take of themselves. One day, they realised their visas had run out, so they sent the youngest to the immigration office, hoping they would be deported. The woman behind the desk simply stamped the passports – another two years!’

We laughed.

‘Another time’, she said. ‘Before I was imprisoned but during the Cultural Revolution, one son was in hospital. I was on my way to visit him and the gardener out the front said, “Your son is fine”. In reply to my complete surprise, he said: “I’m the doctor. I am doing my duty as gardener now”’.

‘But what did you do in prison?’ I said.

‘I knew they had made a mistake and decided to make the most of it’.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘I asked for something to read’, she said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘The Selected Works of Mao Zedong’, she said. ‘I read the four volumes through many times. I even noted how many times laughter appears. Do you know how many?’

‘No’, I said.

‘Two!’

We laughed, with Isabel assuring me she remains as ardent follower of Mao Zedong.

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Only in China

Is it still possible to have a unique experience, one that you cannot have anywhere else? Or has the world become thoroughly homogenised? Sometimes it seems so. Wherever you go, it is the same experience, over and over again. A European city centre, a restored historical village, a hotel room, a museum, food, coffee, beer – in one place after another they seem eerily the same. Should tourism begin on Mars, it too would have the same experience.

I beg to differ. It is the unexpected moments that are unique, moments that can easily pass you by in the myriad events of everyday. To see them, you need a peripheral vision, a seeing out of the corner of your eye; or, as I prefer, a relaxing of the shoulders, a slowing of the breath and an easing of the mind so that you can catch them before they pass.

Mao’s Statue

We had been talking about a possible trip to Suzhou, a little up the road from Shanghai. She was keen to show me around the fabled town, with its canals and boats and cuisine. Indeed, beautiful girls come from Suzhou … or so goes one of the sayings.

As a neophyte to matters Chinese, I asked: ‘what time suits you best?’

‘How about Friday morning?’ She said.

‘Excellent’, I said. ‘Where shall we meet?’

‘I’ll meet you by Mao’s statue – the big white one at the front gates – at 9.00 am’. She said it as though it was the normal suggestion in the world.

Student party meeting

Over a simple lunch of long noodles, two students and I sat talking. Spring it was, after the first rains of spring in a cool Beijing. They had wanted to take me to a kosher dining hall, provided for the Chinese Muslim students. It had the reputation for good quality clean food. We had lined up to order our dishes and I tried to read the menu on the wall above. Some characters I could recognise, some not. They translated where necessary while we waited our turn. Soon enough, the dishes were ready, announced on the loudspeaker. We picked up our bowls, found some seats and slurped away.

The dapper student looked at his watch and made to move.

‘Excuse me’, he said. ‘I need to go to a student party’.

‘A party’, I said, thinking it was one of the regular student parties that happened with extraordinary frequency. ‘At lunchtime?’

They laughed.

‘No’, he said. ‘It’s the student branch party meeting. I am the secretary’.

It hit me: ‘Are you a member of the student branch of the communist party?’ He had not struck me as a typical member, but then what is a typical party member?

He smiled. ‘Yes, and I am the secretary, so I need to be at the meeting’.

Young Pioneers

Intrigued, I began to ask students about party membership. At an afternoon gathering some weeks later, we discussed reasons for joining the party. Some said it was for a better job, others because a grandparent was a member and had influenced them deeply, and others because they felt they could contribute on their own small way to the collective good.

‘What about young pioneers?’ I asked.

‘We have that in the schools’, a young woman said. ‘It is a mark of honour to be invited to join the young pioneers. It may be for academic achievement or for sport or even for some service’.

‘Were any of you members?’ I asked.

Nearly all of them nodded.

‘Do you have young pioneers in your country?’ Said the young woman.

Of course, every country should have such an organisation.

Foot Binding

A slightly older student, of about 30, had finally realised her dream to come to Australia and spend a year of study here. She spent a good deal of the time travelling and a little less on her study.

In one of our many discussions, she said:

‘When I was six years old, my grandmother said to me that I should have my feet bound, just like her. I was really frightened and lay awake at night’.

‘She must have been born before the communist revolution’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But she was very traditional in her attitudes’.

I had thought that such a practice had been abolished with the communist revolutionary victory of 1949. Perhaps not in the minds of some.

She continued: ‘During the revolutionary war, women used to fight in the Red Army. They would have natural feet and cut their hair. When one of them was captured by the Guomindang nationalist forces, she would be shot immediately. They assumed that if she had natural feet, she was a communist. The practice of foot-binding goes back to the Qing emperors. Since they were Manchu nationality, they made the majority Han women bind their feet as a sign of subjection – or at least those of the upper class. It became a custom.’

‘Did your grandmother ever make moves to bind your feet?’ I asked.

‘No’, she said. ‘But it really frightened me, since children are supposed to show deep respect for grandparents’.

That’s Socialism

Another young woman and I were walking past a student dormitory, where washing hung in the windows.

‘How many students share a dormitory?’ I asked.

‘Six to eight for undergraduates’, she said. ‘Four for masters and two for doctoral students’.

‘Does anyone have a single room?’ I asked.

She laughed. ‘No, we all share’.

A little later we had eaten in a dining hall and were on our way out.

‘I usually eat there’, she said. ‘The food is cheap but freshly cooked’

‘Who else eats in a dining hall?’ I asked.

‘Everyone’, she said. ‘Students, professors, gardeners, maintenance workers …’.

She paused for a moment and said: ‘That may be socialism! I guess we have it in ways we do not realise’.

East-West – A Myth

East-West: this distinction is pervasive in many an Asian or indeed Eastern European country. You need not be there for too long to realise how pervasive it really is. My recent experience is from China, where I am based for up to four months each year. Here the distinction takes on a particular form, where ‘China’ stands in for whatever the ‘East’ is. Some examples:

Chinese food (Zhongcan) – Western food (Xican)

Chinese medicine (Zhongyi) – Western medicine (Xiyi)

Chinese medication (Zhongyao) – Western medication (Xiyao)

Chinese clothes (Zhongfu) – Western food (Xifu)

Chinese culture (Zhongguo wenhua) – Western culture (Xifang wenhua)

Chinese language (Zhongwen) – Western language (Xiwen)

Chinese style (Zhongshi) – Western style (Xishi)

The list goes on and on. More specifically the opposition ‘zhong-xi’ means ‘middle-west’, with China being the ‘middle’ and indeed embodying the ‘East’. The comparisons run through Chinese thought and perceptions of the world. However, ‘Western’ is a slippery term indeed. Try to pin it down and it excludes most of the world and refers to ‘Western’ Europe, but the next moment is means the whole world apart from China. It is clearly a northern hemisphere distinction, focused on the Eurasian land mass with its complex history of imperial struggles, massive migrations and shifting powers.

As a result, I refuse to use the terms. They obfuscate rather than illuminate. One solution is to use other terms, such as ‘Chinese’ (zhongran) and ‘foreign’ (wairan), but this risks the ‘inside-outside’ binary. Another solution is to specify exactly what the reference means, by referring to the specific place in question. But this risks identifying something as characteristically French, or Russian, or Korean or indeed Chinese.

Perhaps it is better to analyse the function of the terms ‘West’ and ‘China’. I suspect that ‘West’ really functions as a mythical category. I use the term ‘myth’ quite deliberately. Due to the complex history of the term, it refers simultaneously to a fiction and a deeper truth, to a construct with little basis in reality and to a form of language that seeks to locate a truth that cannot be expressed in the usual referential terms. The various myths of the world’s origins comprise one example, the myths of an ideal future world another.

The fiction is that the ‘West’ as conceived in such a binary opposition simply does not exist. This ‘West’ moves about so adroitly, changes its meaning and shape so effortlessly, that it will never be found. So what is the deeper truth?

I suggest that says much more about China (on indeed any other place that likes to use the ‘East-West’ dichotomy). From the eighteenth century, it became clear that China was losing for a time its millennia-long status as the world’s leading power. As it did so, the obsession with the ‘West’ began in earnest. Again and again, comparisons were made between ‘China’ and the ‘West’, with people moving between one category and the other. Sometimes they rejected one in favour of the other, at others they sought a mediation between them. But all the time, the search was to find what ‘China’ really means. It was and continues to be a search for self-definition by creating a mythical other that is everything ‘China’ is not.

Indeed, the great Chinese story, Journey to the West, insightfully captures this double sense of a mythical ‘West’. The Buddhist monk from the Tang dynasty court and his three comrades make an immensely long journey to the ‘West’ – in this case India! – to find copies of the Buddhist Scriptures. But when they arrive, they find that the ‘West’ in question is nothing like what they imagined. The Scriptures they are given are blank pieces of paper on which nothing is written. It turns out that the journey itself is the real discovery, for it is a parable of self-enlightenment.

Misfit Seeking a Home

Home is a place we have never been, but we will know when we arrive. Perhaps this a saying for someone like me, who has always felt a misfit, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

Why a misfit? It may be due to an idea that does not fit, or a hope that has little hope of being realised, or a sense of life that others find odd, or indeed a politics that many dismiss as wayward. Above all, I have never quite felt at home.

I have wondered whether this sense is due to being a child of immigrants. I was born in the adopted country of my parents. On the one hand, this country was far better than the place of their birth, for otherwise they would not have immigrated. On the other hand, the new country failed time and again to match the standards of the old. The result is that I grew up familiar with two places, but at home in neither. I know intimately the country of my parents’ birth, but could not live there. And I know intimately the country to which they immigrated, but feel restless there too.

I have tried to find a home. Some decades ago I found myself in Montreal, the second largest French-speaking city in the world. I threw myself into life there, relishing the sharp demarcation of the seasons with 70 degree (Celsius) variations between summer and winter, the political and cultural tensions between a francophone and anglophone, the militancy of the local Indigenous peoples, the rediscovery of cycling everywhere, and the busy life of an increasing family (two of my children were born there). Above all, I felt I had found myself and gained clarity about what I loved to do and that I wanted to so it for the rest of my life – to write and think and set my own agenda. I was ready to adopt the place and live there forever.

But there was a catch: the possibility of imagining I could do so was predicated on the knowledge that my time there was limited. We had gone to Montreal for a fixed period, so I always knew it would come to an end. So I lived as though I was leaving, sinking into the place and relishing each moment and each experience, knowing that I might not have the opportunity of doing so again. In this case, home could only be imagined on the premise of departure.

More recently, I have come to spend some time each year in China. At times I speak of China as my second home, for it can feel that way. Why? For some it may be the language, with its unique system of writing characters rather than a phonetic script. Language, it is felt, is the door to a people and its ‘culture’ (whatever that word means). For some the appeal lies in a long history, going back millennia. Indeed, many Chinese are proud of that history, feeling that it is the oldest continuous history in the world (it is not). For some it is the philosophical heritage, embodied in the traditional ‘four classics and five books’ which come from the time before the first unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BCE). Here Confucius looms large, so much so that his legacy is always reinterpreted in each generation, especially when rapid change is under way.

Nevertheless, none of these provide the core reason why China has the potential to be a home. For me, it is the utterly intriguing history of Marxism and its practice in socialism. Understanding Chairman Mao and then the second crucial phase of ‘opening up’ since Deng Xiaoping is of extreme importance. Above all, I seek to understand and experience socialism in power, especially how the many challenges are met. So I read, study, travel to revolutionary places (‘red tourism’), ask many questions and try to listen.

Yet I know that my sense of China being a potential second home is predicated on a particular lack: it can only be a home because I am a foreigner who will never live there permanently.

It seems that this misfit will never find a home, that I am bound forever to seek one. How should one understand this reality, beyond a process of marginalisation from the majority? Let me return to Ernst Bloch’s insight: home is a place we have never been, yet we will know it is home when we arrive. Bloch speaks of utopia, by which he means the desire called socialism as a constitutive feature of human existence. Yet he draws this insight from a biblical if not theological awareness of our necessary homelessness in this world. In this respect, our perpetual wandering, searching for a home, is an implicit recognition that the home we seek is not to be found where we might expect.

Make Way for Ducklings – at the Gogol Bookshop in Harbin

I have always been fascinated by Harbin, the capital of China’s most north-easterly province, Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River). Built as part of the first Trans-Siberian railway more than a century ago, it formed a major hub on the strip of land the Russian tsar had prised from the Chinese Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty of China. The strip of land was for the railway, since it cut a straight path to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. For the time being, it saved the big loop north that would otherwise have been required.

So Harbin was built by the Russians, to serve as a major point along the far eastern route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The city has Russian names in its core, quite a bit of Cyrillic appearing here and there and not a few Russian Orthodox churches. Yet not many Russians are in town these days, unless one goes into one of the seedy dance bars. Soon after its construction, Harbin and the railway line became the site of almost continuous war and occupation. The railway had made the Japanese belligerently nervous, for the Russians could now ship a large number of soldiers at ‘high’ speed (18 km per hour at first) across Siberia. So the Japanese attacked in what became the Russo-Japanese War in the early twentieth century, soundly defeating the Russian fleet and army. It was one of the factors that led to the first Russian Revolution of 1905. Within a few years, the Japanese carried on their belligerence and invaded the area they called ‘Manchuria’. But they found themselves facing the formidable foe of the Chinese communist People’s Liberation Army, which united with other forces (including Koreans) and began an insurgency in the area against the Japanese occupation. Eventually, the Russian Red Army appeared, fresh from taking Berlin and a trek across Siberia to join forces with the locals. They drove out the Japanese and forced their surrender at the end of the Second World War. Harbin was a major focus of all these wars.

At last, I had managed to get myself to this fascinating city. I marvelled at the tall, strong Dongbei (north-eastern) people, was moved by the museum dedicated to the anti-Japanese resistance and war, examined the old buildings established in the last days of the Russian autocracy, was struck by the curious effect of Russian Orthodox Churches in a Chinese city, and tried to translate between the Chinese and Russian signs.

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Many were the shops selling traditional Russian items. But they were staffed by Chinese people and those purchasing the items were also Chinese. My guess was that the products themselves had also been made in China.

But I longed to visit Guogeli Dajie (Gogol Street), so my hosts took me there after a typical Dongbei meal of dumplings and ‘bing’, a type of wrap or roll that you construct from various items spread out on a large plate. Strolling along the cobbles, we happened upon none other than the Gogol bookshop.

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Recently refurbished, it is Russian-themed with dark timbers, boasting luxurious armchairs which invite you to sit for a while and read. It rises from the street on a number of floors, full of books in Chinese and some foreign languages (Russian and English included). Throughout, it has old pictures of Harbin and its churches. It too was full of only Chinese people.

After perusing a number of books and all the pictures, we heard a child’s voice through a microphone. She was almost lost in a massive chair in the centre of the shop, reading a book to all of us. It turned out to be the beginning of a public reading hour. I was told that during the hour, anyone could read a book of choice for 5-10 minutes.

Soon enough, a shop attendant came up to me and asked if I also would read a book. I shook my head, saying that I could not read enough Chinese to do so. ‘But you can read one in English’, I was told. I went upstairs and found a children’s book called Make Way for Ducklings. It was written in 1941, but I thought it appropriate for a grandfather to read to the children present. When my time came, I sat in the big leather chair under the bright lights and began reading.

The story concerns a mother and father duck, who were seeking a place to have some chicks and raise them in Boston. They eventually found such a place, only to realise that it was a pond in the middle of town and far too noisy and dangerous. So the drake set out to find a quieter place, which he located while the chicks were born. As they set off to the new place – a quiet island in the middle of a larger pond – they encountered the streets and traffic of a large city. At that moment a policeman came to their aid and held up everything so they could make their way safely to the new home. By this time, it dawned on me that I had read this story before, at a much earlier time – 1989 or 1990 in Montreal. Having borrowed it from the local library, I had read it to my two older children when they were little.

Now, some 25 years later and a grandfather, I was reading the same book in English to a Chinese audience in a Russia-themed bookshop in the north-eastern city of Harbin. Not quite what I had ever imagined.

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