Archive for September, 2009

In Xinjiang on the Old Silk Road

by on Monday, September 28th, 2009


Xinjiang Province

Xinjiang Province

Recently news of tension between the local Uighur [Uyghur] population and Han Chinese in the Chinese province of Xinjiang [pron. Shinjahng] has appeared in the Western media. The Chinese government has managed to sell former U.S. President Bush, Sr. on the idea that the PRC is cracking down on Al-Qaeda. Several excellent videos are available on YouTube. Among them are reports of Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur activist in exile in the U.S., whose life story is told in the documentary “10 Conditions of Love.” Some links are listed on the panel at the right, along with historical accounts in Wikipedia.

In the mid-1980s, foreign students traveling in China were much less fettered than journalists have ever been. They often left their badly-taught Chinese language classes armed with a determination to see the minority areas (which were usually closed to foreigners) and their university ID cards (which along with a bit of arguing would often get them into Chinese-only hotels). They encountered a lot of prejudice against the “national minorities” in China. I talked with one young Australian who described a the well-educated, official Uighur interpreter and the shocking way the Hans on their trip treated her.

My friend Nicole describes the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet as occupied countries controlled by force. Nicole was a middle-aged student of Chinese. In the spring of 1985, she wrote me, “I’m sitting in the square of this town selling shoes. Hundreds of people have come to look at me. Business is brisk.” She tells her story in Australian English with a French accent.

Nichole’s story

As soon as the train left Gansu Province, the passengers and the conductors started warning me about the Xinjiang people—that they were all crooks, all thieves. They created an atmosphere of distrust and fear. I met an American girl whose papers and money were stolen, but it was not a Xinjiang man who did it. It was a Han.

In Turpan I met up with five young travelers from New Zealand and Australia who called themselves the Gang of Five. I helped them get accommodation in a Chinese hotel because the tourist hotels were too expensive. The desk clerk said, “Meiyou, meiyou,” [not available], so I just sat down and asked for some boiled water and some tea. They expect us to walk away. Otherwise it means work, it means problems. If just sit and wait they have to deal with you.

I arranged a tour—to the caves, the tombs, all the usual things—and hired a cart to take us to the big mosque. Both the Uighur tour guide and the Han cart driver wanted to drop us off before we got back to the hotel. Apparently neither man had a permit. They also wanted more money than we’d agreed on. You couldn’t say only the Xinjiang people tried to rip you off.

We spent a week seeing the sights in Turpan. I’d expected something more exotic, but Turpan is the kind of place you want to hang around, very much like North Africa. There was a big bazaar and little alleys. There were some tea houses where they drank sweetened tea like in Morocco. The tea houses were upstairs, and you could just sit and watch the people going down the streets. Some women wore veils. It was really colorful. You could really stay a long time there—very cheaply, too. Some foreigners just hung around the streets and the parks smoking marijuana. They had no intention of leaving.

Most of the Hans who settled in Xinjiang were very unhappy there. A lot of them moved to Xinjiang for the same reasons that people went to Australia and America at the time of the immigrations. I talked to some who must have been in Xinjiang for ten, twenty, thirty years. They said, “The language is different, the people are different, and the customs are different.” They were stuck there for the rest of their lives. They complained that the quality of life was worse and education for the kids was worse than in Sichuan or Hebei or Hunan.

I said, “Why did you come in the first place?”

 “The government painted us a picture of the place as something beautiful, a land of riches, a land of prospects, and we came for a better life.”

It was interesting to watch the relations between the ethnic groups. The Moslems barred the Hans from entering the mosques, although foreigners could go in. On the buses the Chinese always wanted the window closed, and the Xinjiang people always wanted them open. On the way to Kashgar, the windows stayed open even through the desert. You ended up with white sand on your hair, your eyelashes and your clothes. The Xinjiang people were heavy smokers like the Hans, but they smoked marijuana all the time. Maybe I was stoned all the way.  

I stayed in Kashgar a week. You found a lot of nationalities there, but the population was mostly Uighur. The city had an Arabic flavor. They had a market where on Saturdays they sell animals, carpets and good custom-made leather shoes and boots. Fewer people wore Chinese clothes than in the East. The men in Xinjiang wanted their women in skirts, not trousers like the Chinese. They wanted a woman to look like a woman and a man to look like a man, and the man wears the trousers. The man I was traveling with for a while—that comes later—kept tell me that my trousers were ugly. He wanted me to wear a skirt. The Xinjiang women wore long underwear like the Chinese, but on top they wore nylon stockings and on top of those they wear skirts. The women also wore very, very bright clothes, bright colors and a lot of silver, exactly like some Arabs.

After Kashgar I set out for the Southern Silk Road, although I had some trouble buying a ticket to the next town on my route. The Southern Road was not open, and the Chinese had made less of an impact. In some places I felt I was back in the Middle Ages because of the clothes, the cattle, the habits. The people all had a lot of kids—seven or eight—the more the better.

I got stuck in a small town. I tried to get a lift on the mail truck, but the driver didn’t want me. The passengers—Xinjiang and Chinese—argued in my favor, and the driver got so angry he threatened to throw everyone off the truck. I managed to get a bus, anyway. On the way we stopped at a sort of Chinese hotel in the middle of the desert—barren all around, no trees, nothing. The hotel had a lot of broken windows and broken doors. There was no toilet. It was the most basic I ever had.

I went out to eat, and there was a Xinjiang man, a passenger on the bus, sitting next to me. He gave me some melon seeds and some raisins. He said he was going to Omian [a fictitious name].

I said, “So am I. We’ll go together.” I was thinking in terms of being on the same bus.

When we got to the town where I had to change buses, there was no bus for ten days, so he said, “Well, I’ve got a truck. You can come with me.”

 “I have to buy a ticket? How much?”

  “No no no. No ticket.”

He was selling shoes for a factory, and the shoes were on the truck with the driver. He’d apparently just taken the bus for this side junket.

So we went by truck. It was nice. There was a lot of drifting sand, and honestly, we couldn’t see the road. The Southern Silk Road got smaller and narrower until it became just a track full of holes in the desert. You couldn’t see the difference between the road and the sand dunes. The road was very bad, but very funny. We laughed.

We got to Omian, where I was stuck for a week. That’s where I sold shoes. I sat in the market with the shoe boxes all around me. I sat and wrote some letters. People came from all around to look at me.

I had already noticed that Xinjiang people had much, much bigger houses than you find in Eastern China, maybe because the land was not so heavily populated. A family had at least three big rooms with a huge kang bed-stove from wall to wall, with all their bedding against one wall. There was a low table as well. It was very comfy. At night the whole family slept on it together. It was a bed, a dining room, a sitting room. It was marvelous. In North Africa the Arabs had big sleeping platforms too, with bright carpets all over. [The kang or bikang is similar to the Korean heated floors.]  

Most of the time, the family was outside in the courtyard, which had vines with grapes. It was really beautiful, like the South of France. They all had a little garden at the front and one in the back. The married children each had their own quarters within the same compound around this courtyard. They had a winter kitchen in one of the rooms, a small colonial woodstove, and a summer kitchen, a stove made of an old drum and a bench with a wok in it.

I was taken to see the shoe merchant’s friends and relatives. In every home they offered me bread, grapes, melons and tea. The bread, which they made all the time, was made with leavening and white wheat. Their oven was like a big jar heated underneath and on the sides, and they stuck the bread on the inside of the jar. They didn’t eat much rice, mostly noodles, perhaps with lamb, tomatoes and green pepper. In one home I had a meal of lamb and rice, and it tasted so much like couscous I thought I was back in North Africa.

The shoe merchant told all his friends that we were going to get married and he was going to live in France. He was already married, and he had two grown-up kids, but he said that was no problem. His wife didn’t want him, and he didn’t want her. In Xinjiang he had a beautiful social life selling shoes. He went from village to village, and he had friends in every village. It was a man’s world. The women just cooked the food and fed the men. I told him that if he lived abroad might not miss his wife, but he would miss his friends and the conversation.

“Oh, but I’ll have your friends.”

“But you don’t speak any English or any French. How will you get on with my friends?”

 He said he was going to come. He didn’t even ask me if I wanted him. .

 I liked having a grown-up there with me. He took me around on the back of his bicycle like a Chinese. We went on walks in the moonlight in the desert, with the mountains and the white desert sand. It was beautiful and romantic, but that’s all it was. He tried to flirt, but luckily the social circumstances didn’t permit any improvisation. I say “luckily” because it’s unpleasant to have to say no.

His friends were from his army days. After 1949, when the Chinese entered what was then the Second East Turkistan Republic, the Xinjiang men were drafted into the army. He was drafted at sixteen. In six years of the Chinese army he never learned to speak Chinese properly, which I think shows a lot of resistance to the culture that conscripted him.

One day I mentioned the East Turkistan Republic, the independent republic the Xinjiang people tried to set up. The Chinese government invited the five leaders to a discussion in Beijing, and they all died in a mysterious plane crash in Kazakhstan airspace. He remembered. He said, “My mouth says certain things, but my heart beats differently.” I thought that was an interesting way of putting it.

In Omian I saw about fifty public security and military men going up and down the street in their jeeps and big guards standing in the corners watching. It was “hygiene inspection.” After the police and military there were two ambulances with about ten Chinese and ten Xinjiang men. They entered every shop and every household, and they checked for “dust.” By this time I had seen enough to know it was an excuse to go into every building and check for counter-revolutionary movements and people collecting arms. One of the women told me they had nothing to fear.

I was waiting for a truck which the shoe merchant’s friend in public security was trying to find for me. It would take me over the Xinjiang border to Tibet where another truck would take me all the way to Goldmud. My truck didn’t come, and I asked everybody, “Where’s my truck?”  

Finally someone said, “Public security said not to give you a lift.”

“I’ll go and see them.”

I met the public security officer on the street. He was very stern, and he tried to scare me. He took me into a back room, and I just sat down and made myself at home. He asked me what I was doing there. I’d been there a week. He’d never bothered me before. I’d been to a party at his house. I had even danced with him. I think it was because that mob that descended on the village had asked what a foreigner was doing there. For a week I had gone into people’s homes, and I was entertained everywhere. Now all of a sudden I was an undesirable observer.

“Well, I’m going from Kashgar to Lhasa.”

He explained to me that the way to go is to Liuyuan, then Goldmud, back to Urumqi because the Southern Silk Road is not open to foreigners.

“I didn’t know. Okay, I’ll go back.”

The next day I got a ride on one of the ambulances. There were two, one with the Chinese and one with the Xinjiang people. It was so funny. They had a lot of tire punctures, so many I thought it might be sabotage. At first I traveled in the ambulance with the Xinjiang people, and when their car had trouble I was put with the Chinese. We also got bogged down in the sand several times. Everybody got out, and we tried to push, and it got worse. So it was lovely. Some people were working on the car, and others built a fire. It was cold out on the desert.

Once when we stopped at a village, the man in charge of the medical inspection said, “You’ll be okay here because everybody’s Chinese in this village.”

I always feel better with the Xinjiang people. They have blood in their veins. They’re really warm.

That’s what I learned about the nationalities when I traveled. I became aware of the Hans as an entity. Before I went to Xinjiang, I knew they had a lot of nationalities in China, but I thought it was like France, where you have people from different provinces. It’s not like that. They are different ethnicities, different cultures, who have nothing in common with the Hans. The Uighurs speak a Turkic language which is written in the Arabic alphabet. The music is Arabic too.

The other day I was listening to an Urumqi radio station. There was some beautiful, warm music, and I loved it. They translated the words into Chinese, and it was just propaganda. The song went, “I love China. I’m a communist, and when you’re a communist you never have any problems.” That’s why it’s possible for the Han Chinese to be there. There are so many Xinjiang people willing to work for them. Then I remembered why I like Xinjiang. The people have great energy. You can feel them living, breathing. They’re alive.

In and around a Chinese Shipyard

by on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Xiamen harbor from Gulangyu

Xiamen harbor from Gulangyu


The setting is Xiamen in 1985, just as in “A Walk in a Chinese Port Town.” Derek and Elizabeth are a lively, gregarious couple in their late forties. Like  many New Zealanders, they have a wonderful sense of adventure and a desire to try all sorts of new things—from sailing around the South Pacific to taking off with the rest of the foreigners for the new restaurant in town.  Both Elizabeth and Derek have been around boats all their lives. 

Derek: When I was working in Australia as a boat building supervisor I got a telegram asking if I’d like to build boats in China. Would I?  So we sailed off to Guam in the middle of the typhoon season. Then we left the boat in Guam because of the weather and later sailed  it to Hong Kong, where it’s sitting in a marina at great expense.

The company’s only been building pleasure boats here for three years, and the standard is quite reasonable. It’s still slow progress because the workers don’t really understand what they’re making.  It’s a boat, but it’s not to be used for work. The first question they asked was what type of fish this yacht was built to catch. We had a terrible job to explain to them, “Look, people won’t pay for a rough piece of timber. It’s got to be sanded and varnished until it really shines. They’re going to pay a lot of money for this yacht.” The concept is totally foreign, a toy for your leisure. Somehow you’ve got to show the worker what he’s building it for. But just taking them for a sail wouldn’t help that much. They don’t understand the money that goes into leisure. Our boats are finished off three times as well as the houses they live in. A yacht that’s put on the market has to be perfect—the upholstery, the varnish, the engine installation. It’s got to have a refrigerator, a freezer, freshwater system, hot water on tap. The workers haven’t got any of that in their houses. So how can they understand putting it in for a person who’s only going to use it once a month? You can teach them how to build a truck. They know what a truck is and what a truck does.  A luxury item is totally different.  But they are doing it, and they’re doing pretty well.

Elizabeth:  They want to do things their way, though. In New Zealand the first thing an apprentice learns is to clean the jagged ends off any metal he cuts. You always run a file round, and it takes all the ends off. It’s a second’s work. Derek showed them and showed them, but they wouldn’t do it. Then one day the senior engineer pulled himself up under some metal that hadn’t been cleaned. He had no shirt on, and he tore his back badly. He’s got quite a bad scar there now. Derek just looked at him and said, “Well?” Now they clean off the metal. Once it does sink in, you hear, “Ah, but we’ve always done it like that.”

They have a metal drill which you pull down with a lever, and it drills through the metal.  You do it very slowly because it heats up, and you’ve got to keep the bit wet and sharp or it just polishes and the metal gets hotter and hotter. Once Derek walked in and saw the drill wasn’t going through, so they’d put another length of tube out from the handle, and they were swinging on it about eight feet out in the air, swinging with all their weight trying to get the bit to go through the metal. All they were doing was burning it. So Derek tore in and showed them how to do it again.              

Derek:  To my knowledge they don’t have trade training here, just the master worker system, so if a worker has been poorly trained by his master worker, those faults are perpetuated right through the line of tradesmen. The only kind of training we offer is just sheer persistence. The workers resist change very badly, the older ones particularly. I guess that’s probably so everywhere. You show them what you want, and then you go back later and say, “No, that’s not right. Do it again.” They keep using up your precious raw materials until they get it right. Then you sort of relax and think, “Well, that’s OK, they’ve got that under their belts.” Then a week later—or nine months later—you’ll find that they’ve reverted to the old method and the results are poor again. You ask them why, and they admit they don’t know. So it’s been a long, hard struggle.

One thing we’ve noticed is that some people in China work terribly hard. There are these young girls, young, thin little things carrying these great slabs of concrete. Building stones are brought in by ship. At the yacht factory we have a little dock there where we launch the yachts when they’re finished. The skipper will bring in this boat loaded with stones, forty tons of granite. All he does is drive the boat and tie it up. Two girls unload it. They pick up a slab of granite suspended from a bamboo carrying pole and lean against one another while they walk down two very springy planks, sometimes at quite a fair angle, with this granite slab held between them.  They do that for hour after hour, and they’re talking and laughing and chattering all the time they’re doing it. It obviously doesn’t worry them. 

Yet in the shipyard there are guys who do absolutely nothing. The cadres [party leaders] or group leaders just drink tea. I can’t see the equality in the system. The master shipbuilder has one long nail [a Confucian status symbol because it’s a sign he doesn’t work with his hands]. He has a thumbnail several centimeters longer than his other nails. He uses it to point out things on the plans. 

Ninety-nine percent of our materials come from somewhere else. What we’re exporting from China is labor. We have two types of workers in the shipyard. The iron rice bowl workers are the lowest paid but have a guaranteed job for life. Then we have a temporary unit who are not members of our danwei [work unit]. They get paid considerably more, but they do not get any benefits, no sick leave or retirement. I don’t know whether they’ve elected to become independent workers or have been thrown out, but they are now private enterprise people working wherever they can get work.

From what I understand, Deng Xiao Ping is trying to get rid of the iron rice bowl.  That’s the best thing that could happen to China. The iron rice bowl breeds laziness–of course it does. If you know that you will get paid and you can’t be sacked, you sit around and do nothing. We’ve got some of the laziest people I’ve ever seen here, but I can understand why. You can kill yourself with overwork and still get no more for it and no thanks.  Only the cadres can get any political points for working hard. 

Elizabeth:  There are a lot more free workers now because they can earn more.  If they work hard, they get a lot more money.

Derek:  We were the first in town to put in a time clock.  The Chinese management were very much against it and accused us of bringing in capitalistic ideas, using workers as slaves and so on. The funny part is that now when it breaks down, as it does from time to time, the Chinese management come to us in a great state and urgently request spare parts. They can’t figure out the wages without the time clock cards. So it’s obviously been a success. They can now see the benefit of an impartial means of keeping track of the workers. 

Elizabeth:  But it makes you laugh. Everybody’s washed, clean, ready to go, on their bikes with their belongings all loaded up and ready to ride away, but they can’t touch the time clock until five o’clock. The girls have changed from work clothes to colorful, nice clothes. Everyone is standing around having little jokes and laughing, and at five o’clock there’s a dive for the time clock. They’re fast off the mark, just like we are when we want to get home.

Derek:  Of course they still sleep during the lunch hour. We have a two-hour lunch break. The ones that don’t go home for lunch or go to a cafeteria pull out sheets of plywood and their pillows. The stores [supply room] people just shut the stores door and go in and sleep. They have quite a long sleep at lunchtime—an hour and a half. We find that if they don’t get their sleep, they’re absolutely useless in the afternoon, totally useless and grumpy. Usually, the workers in the yacht factory are easy enough to get on with. We tease a lot. I’m standing in the store and a guy will come up and he’ll touch the hairs on my arm and go “WHHUV,” and I’ll touch his arm and say taitai [lady] because the Chinese are almost hairless. So we have a laugh. 

Elizabeth:  They’re repulsed by your hairiness, really, though you’re not very hairy.

Derek: They have quite a few fights among themselves. They shout. They’ll harangue at one another and talk and shake their fists and point their fingers and waggle, and then they’ll walk off two paces and think of some other devastating insult, and they’ll turn round again and file in back at the guy. This’ll go on for half an hour sometimes, but only once in eleven months have I seen someone actually try to swing at somebody. He took his shirt off and gave it to his friend to hold.  He was obviously going to pummel this guy, but some of the group leaders got in and separated them. I don’t know whether they really are or whether it’s just their style, but they sure appear to be very angry.

But gosh, they’re terrible smokers, aren’t they?  I read somewhere it’s estimated that there are two hundred million smokers in China. One in five smokes. It’s unusual to find a man who doesn’t smoke. They offer cigarettes all the time. They don’t hold out the packet with the cigarette in it, they take the cigarettes out individually and hand them to people. 

I asked the company interpreter, “Why is this?”

“You can’t start a conversation or do any business unless you offer a cigarette first.  That’s the key that unlocks the door.”

Non-smokers carry cigarettes to offer. That’s the way they get a clerk in a government department to do something for them. They’ve got to offer a cigarette. They don’t see how we could conduct business without offering a cigarette around. 

There’s constant smoking and spitting.  In the shipyard everybody spits, women and girls as well.  They seem to clean their bronchial tubes from the toenails up. In the engineering shop, I just told them I find it totally unacceptable. I don’t care  if it’s their custom, it isn’t mine, and I don’t want to be exposed to their germs. Please spit outside. So now they go hrhrhrhrhwuugyycht, and then they walk to the window and go ppucht out the window. At least that’s better than all over the floor. Right through the fiberglass factory and the joiner shop they’re just spitting on the floor all the time. [People spit at work and in the classrooms but not in their homes.]

There’s got to be something significant in this—the Chinese managers of the shipyard have built their office over the top of the toilet block [which may be flushed out only once a day or so].  Now of all the places to build an office, over the top of a Chinese toilet is not it. The stench is absolutely incredible, and it wafts up into the office through the windows.

I asked whether the toilet drained into the harbor. Oh, my goodness, no. It’s sold. There’s a contractor who comes and empties the tank every now and again, and he carts it away for the gardener who buys it.

Last week we talked to some of the people in the shipyard about distributing a bonus to the workers and give us a list of the people who got money. They said, “We can tell you where 80% of it’s going and give you a list of workers, but the other 20% will be going to ‘friends of the shipyard.'”

“What do you mean ‘friends of the shipyard’?  They’re not doing me any good.  I want all the money to go to the workers.”

“I’m sorry, we cannot do that, and we would rather not distribute the bonus if you insist on it.”

“OK, where does the other 20% go?”

The “friends of the shipyard” are people who look after transport, the people who transport the raw materials here, and the people in customs and immigration department who help us to make things easier for us. This is the payoff of government departments. Otherwise there’d be blockages, and we wouldn’t get supplies or wouldn’t get them quite as fast. When we get supplies in, the yacht parts all come through, but the office supplies don’t. Invariably, we will find that several packets of ball-pens are missing, or scribbling pads or marker pens. We say, “Where are they?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  That carton was broken.” 

My God, you can see it was slit open. Customs are taking their tithe as it comes through.  And there’s stealing on the railways.  Every sixth crate mysteriously happens to drop and burst.  I’m not saying we’re any better. But with all their idealistic speeches, I had expected more.

We sail the boats the three hundred miles to Hong Kong because we can’t ship them from here.  At least we can say the product is ocean-tested. Then in Hong Kong they’re picked up and put in a crate and on a freighter for the States. When we sail from here, politics demands that we take two Chinese seamen with us because the yachts are registered here as Chinese vessels. So our delivery crew consists of a waiguoren [foreign] skipper and two Chinese seamen. We’ve got to have special permission from the Chinese to take them to Hong Kong, and of course Hong Kong’s paranoid about people hopping the border, so we have to look after them until we can put them on the next boat. They used to have to live on the yacht until we could put them on the next boat out. But now we just guarantee that they will catch the boat. These are responsible guys with families in China, so it’s hardly likely that they will skip off.

When you enter a foreign port, you’ve got to have several papers. You’ve got to have your clearance certificate from your last port, sometimes a health certificate, a crew list, a manifest of the cargo and sometimes a de-ratting certificate, which means that your vessel has been declared free of vermin. The Hong Kong officials don’t worry about that. I suppose they think there are so many rats in Hong Kong they couldn’t care less about a few more Chinese ones coming. But the Chinese insist on giving us one.  It costs 40 kuai [yuan]. 

 We say, “We don’t want your de-ratting certificate.” 

“No, we insist.  You’ll need it at your next port.”

 “Hong Kong doesn’t need a de-ratting certificate.”

“Oh, yes they do.”

“No, they don’t.”

“Yes, they do.”  

They want their 40 kuai. 

The last time, we paid, got the certificate, and the skipper tore it up in front of the officials and dropped it over the side.  They looked astonished. 

As in any country, government departments are a bit obdurate and obtuse. But generally we receive reasonable treatment.  One of the directors of the shipyard is also a director of the development corporation, so he helps smooth the way through the various departments.

We’ve just received an order for two training boats from the Shanghai marine college.  They’re going to buy these two modern Western yachts, and they’re going to teach their people how to sail modern four and a half rigs. We seriously believe that they will be competing for the America’s Cup eventually.  They’re obviously going to enter international yachting competition.  It will take them many years, if they make up their minds to do something, they’ll do it.