Beijing, 31 January 2013

OK, my meeting in Davos was a little more humble than the one that just finished. We didn’t talk of global trends or the next big crisis, nor were television newscasters knocking at our doors begging for an interview. No, we were talking about e-waste and what to do with the growing mountains of broken computers and discarded mobile phones that we generate.

It was still summer, or so I thought. After all, the meeting was taking place in the first week of September. But the morning after I arrived it snowed. I could NOT believe it! My wife and I had made plans that after the meeting she would join me and we would visit the area. But we weren’t about to go visiting in the snow. That was the end of that little holiday.

Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because I realized that the meeting was actually a waste of time, whatever it was, I was not in a receptive mood.  I found Davos to be a pretty nothing place. There was no part of the town that I found worth looking at, no building worth admiring, no vista to stop in front of … nothing. Just a series of anonymous-looking modern buildings along anonymous-looking streets.

Well, to be fair, there was one thing that has stayed with me and that was the train ride up to Davos. At Zurich airport, I took a train to the small town of Landquart, which stands astride the point where river Landquart meets river Rhine, still a modest river at this point on its journey to the sea. There, I changed to a narrow gauge train, which took me up to Davos. This line is part of the Rhaetian railway network (lovely name, that; it comes from the original inhabitants of the high mountain valleys of these parts, the Rhaetians). The train runs up the valley of the river Landquart to Klosters, where it turns off and begins to climb up to Davos, 10 km away and 400 metres higher. It is a truly lovely ride, reminiscent to me of the ride in the Micheline about which I wrote a post recently. Maybe it’s because the train doesn’t go too fast, or maybe it’s the narrower gauge or the single line, or maybe it’s because the trees are allowed to grow up close to the train, or maybe it’s the way the train twists and turns through the very peaceful fields and woods … but somehow in this train you feel so close to nature.

Camera : NIKON D700 . . . Focal Len : 70.0 mm . . . Shutter : 1/640sec . . . Aperture : f/9.0 . . . ISO : 200 . . . Original : Digital 12MP NEF

davos train-2-Küblis-Saas

Camera : NIKON D700 . . . Focal Len : 42.0 mm . . . Shutter : 1/640sec . . . Aperture : f/9.0 . . . ISO : 200 . . . Original : Digital 12MP NEF

Camera : NIKON D700 . . . Focal Len : 40.0 mm . . . Shutter : 1/500sec . . . Aperture : f/8.0 . . . ISO : 200 . . . Original : Digital 12MP NEF

When I took it, I was alone in my compartment, so I pulled down the window (in itself a small miracle in modern trains), stuck my head out of the window, and just let the hayfields and pine trees whoosh past me, all the way to Davos.

davos train-9

Pity Davos and the meeting were such a let-down.


Davos train-1: http://www.railography.co.uk/photos/schweiz/910/files/10-D-1857.jpg
Davos train-2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/aa/RhB_K%C3%BCblis-Saas.jpg/640px-RhB_K%C3%BCblis-Saas.jpg
Davos train-3: http://www.railography.co.uk/photos/schweiz/910/files/10-D-1840.htm
Davos train-4: http://www.railography.co.uk/photos/schweiz/910/files/10-D-1833.jpg
Davos train-5: http://www.streetviewfun.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/googletrainview-550×309.jpg


Beijing, 29 January 2013

There was a time when China was famous the world over for its bicycles. To the few who were able to get into China, it seemed that the roads were just a torrent of bicycles.

File photo of people pushing their bicycles across a railway track during rush hour in Shanghai

That torrent has dried up to a mere trickle. Some of the older expats whom I meet talk with a certain wistfulness of the bicycle culture that still existed when they first arrived in China ten-fifteen years ago, a culture where it seemed that every able-bodied Chinese had a bike. Now, there is just a torrent of cars, a torrent which is growing exponentially with every passing year and fast becoming a flood.

car jam-2

So it looks like China’s bike culture has effectively vanished. But there is one sub-species of bicycle, if I may put it that way, which still flourishes in China, in the form of a tricycle which I have only ever seen here in China.


The design is really very basic. Absolutely nothing fancy here, one has the feeling that a series of pipes have been soldered together and three bicycle wheels have been added. As you can see, the key to this bicycle is the barrow at the back, which is used to carry. And boy, does this humble machine carry! All day, every day, you will see hundreds if not thousands of these tricycles criss-crossing every city of China, most often being pedalled by one of China’s army of migrant workers, carrying every blessed item you could possibly imagine. And sometimes, the volumes being carried are awesomely ginormous, from furniture:


to cardboard:

tricycle carrying cardboard

to polystyrene:

tricycle carrying polystyrene

To old telephone casings:

tricycle carrying phone casings

To car parts:

tricycle carrying car pieces

to a whole van, for Lord’s sake!

tricycle carrying minivan

Inanimate objects aren’t the only things carried. Farmers use them to carry their pigs:

tricycle carrying pig

their ducks:

tricycle carrying ducks

and who knows what else, while this woman is using it to carry kids

tricycle carrying children

and this husband his wife.

tricycle old couple

I have to say, I do find that this particular husband is treating his wife rather cavalierly. There is a version of this mode of travel where the wife rides as would a queen, sitting regally on a throne-like armchair while her husband pedals slowly in front of her.

tricycle old couple-7

I’ve noticed that the couples always seem to be retirees. Young Chinese don’t go around like this. But that’s fine by me; I’m almost retired. I have decided that I will buy one of these throne-tricycles and bring it back to Milan. Like that, when my wife and I have finally joined the ranks of the retirees, I will be able to slowly pedal my lady wife around Milan in the style that she deserves and is accustomed to.


Bicycles in Beijing: http://heckeranddecker.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/bicycles-in-beijing.jpg
Car traffic jam: http://www.intellasia.net/en/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/china.car-market201211afp.jpg
Tricycle: http://www.tariksaleh.com/moscaline/chinabike/cargobig.jpg
Tricycle with furniture: http://cargocycling.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/furnituretrike.jpg
Tricycle carrying cardboard: http://ph.cdn.photos.upi.com/collection/upi/sb/2870/a5da8edd413c5f72aba13e80f2d0dc3a/Trash-trawling-as-a-career-in-China_2.jpg
Tricycle carrying polystyrene: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01410/tricycle-polystyre_1410326i.jpg
Tricycle carrying phone parts: http://www.mutanteggplant.com/vitro-nasu/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/ewaste.jpg
Tricycle carrying car parts: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/01410/Tricycle-car-bumpe_1410335i.jpg
Tricycle carrying minivan: http://bitcast-a.v1.dfw1.bitgravity.com/nightmobile/cars/images2/120000/1000/800/121834.jpg
Tricycle carrying pig: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01551/pig-tricycle_1551633i.jpg
Tricycle carrying ducks: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01410/Tricycle-ducks_1410329i.jpg
Tricycle carrying children: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/images/stories/large/2009/08/31/abortions-china-51343014-small.jpg
Tricycle husband carrying wife: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/en/focus/xin_7c24924aea7a11d7b21c0001030784d9_bike.jpg
Tricycle old couple in fine style: my photo


Beijing, 28 January 2013

This morning, I walked along the opposite side of the canal to go to work. I wanted to see what someone had written into the snow that thinly covers the ice. I took a photo. Readers interested in seeing it are referred to the postscript I have just added to my post “Clear, Pure, Clean, Peaceful”.

It so happens that a path has been cleared in the snow next to the script, which carries to the other side of the canal. Many people take a short cut across the ice to the other side. I hesitated. Crossing across the canal would shorten my walk to the office somewhat. But crossing ice like that always makes me a little nervous. Decades ago, when I was fourteen, I had ventured out onto a frozen lake where the ice got progressively thinner from one side to the other. As I trotted across, the ice began to creak and crack ominously. I beat a hasty retreat and all was well, but sometimes – especially if I venture onto iced-up water bodies – the sound of that creaky-cracking comes back to me; stuff of nightmares. So I hesitated.

I finally decided it was alright and set off across the canal. The cleared ice was very transparent, although the view through it was bent and warped by the unevenness of the ice. As I looked down through the ice, I saw a multitude of bubbles, of all shapes and sizes, ghostly white, trapped in the ice. Perhaps it was the slight trepidation I felt as I walked over the ice, but suddenly it seemed to me that I was seeing the last bubbles of air exhaled by a host of people who had got trapped under the ice. I half expected to suddenly see the ethereal face of some drowned person looking up at me through the ice.

I reached the other side. Silliness … I shook the feeling off. But as I turned around to survey the canal, I remembered a shard of T.S. Eliot’s poem. The Wasteland.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.


Beijing, 27 January 2013

In earlier postings I have already mentioned my natural inclination to notice the physical characteristics of people, as opposed to my wife’s inclination to notice people’s characters. Teeth fall into the category of things that I notice about people.  And boy, do I notice Chinese people’s teeth! In the politespeak of today, they do have some “challenges” here …

This fact was brought home to me forcefully by my recent trip to the US, which I suppose could be considered the Nirvana of Pearly Whites. It seems that everywhere one looks there are only straight, white, gleaming teeth. I throw in here some random photos I found on the internet as examples of the American Look.

American beautiful teeth-2

FNC-FAN2028543 - © - Oliver Rossi

American beautiful teeth-1

In what I suppose could be considered the optimal natural condition – that is to say, no smoking, no eating of sugared foods or of heavily processed foods, youth not yet subject to too many of life’s sorrows – teeth in China can be pearly white but often will not approach the currently accepted ideal of straightness. Again, here are some random photos from the internet.

crooked teeth china

crooked teeth china-3

crooked teeth china-6

Given the way middle-class Chinese parents dote on their single children, if I had Chinese children today I would be encouraging them to become orthodontists, not doctors or lawyers. I’m sure it is a sector that will be seeing explosive growth in the future, with huge amounts of clients willing to pay top money.

chinese dentist

If that were the only problem plaguing Chinese teeth! But alas, it is not. Smoking is taking a terrible toll, as I see all too often in the various officials whom I meet and who readily whip out a fag to puff at all hours of the day – and probably night. So many, so, so many, have badly stained and discoloured teeth and diseased gums. As they blatter on about all the great things they are doing, I sit there trying not to stare too obviously at their teeth. Smoking is a terrible problem for men in this country. 60% – 6 out of every 10! – Chinese men over the age of 15 smoke.

chinese man smoking-5

chinese man smoking-4

China Tobacco

Blind old man smoking a cigarette in a street of Shanghai, China

Apart from the lung cancer, the emphysema, the heart attacks, apart from all of that, smoking is destroying Chinese men’s mouths.

Luckily, only a small proportion of women smoke – for the moment …No doubt it will grow, as it has in other countries.

chinese woman smoking-2

And then a very large number of Chinese have grey teeth. I was told by a doctor that a lot of this has to do with the burning of coal indoors. Chinese coal has quite high levels of fluoride in it. When people burn it in their houses, the leaky stoves emit smoke – and fluorides – into the homes. High intake of fluoride when you are children leads to permanent discolouration of teeth.

This photo is an extreme example of the problem of smoky stoves:

stoves china-4

In houses, this is more the norm.

stoves china-1

Note the round things in the bottom right-hand corner of this photo. This is the way coal is sold to households in China, coal dust pressed together with a clay matrix into cylinder slices with a set of holes drilled through them. There are thousands of itinerant sellers in all cities selling them.

stoves china-3-coal

Of course, poverty is also a major cause of bad teeth. Bad diets, little if any access to dentists, lack of money to pay for dental care anyway, ignorance about how to look after their teeth – all these take a terrible toll on Chinese teeth. Foreigners are often dazzled by the glitter of big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but they are really just facades. In the countryside, there is still a huge amount of dire poverty, of a type that I have never seen in Europe. When I was a child, there were poor people in Europe, but not as poor as the poorest in China.

And so I see lots of older people who have terrible, terrible teeth.

old Chinese man with missing teeth-3

if they have teeth at all

Old man with crooked and missing teeth in the 11th century village of Xidi, Anhui Province China

old Chinese man with missing teeth-2

But I am optimistic. It will eventually change, and everyone in this country – more or less – will have beautiful, beautiful teeth, like these.

chinese beautiful teeth

chinese beautiful teeth-2

Which reminds me, I need to go and brush my not-so Pearly Whites.


American beautiful teeth-girls: http://www.xtcian.com/4GirlsPickupsApr03e%28bg%29.jpg
American beautiful teeth-boys: http://previews.agefotostock.com/previewimage/bajaage/c526f975894aefa5e91ae07607b0529f/FNC-FAN2028543.jpg
American beautiful teeth-boy and girl: https://studentnet.kp.org/snet/static/common/images/pplLaughing.jpg
Crooked teeth China-woman 1: http://www.whatsonxiamen.com/ent_images/87ee2cfde9b7689ecf4efdf9_yaeba1.jpg
Crooked teeth China-woman 2: http://www.tofugu.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/yaeba-header.jpg
Crooked teeth China-man: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/thumblarge_400/1242791240jCjI3E.jpg
Chinese dentist: http://www.gzdentist.com/images/ys.jpg
Chinese boys smoking: http://golivechina.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/smokingchina2.jpg
Chinese young men smoking: http://i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2011/04/30/en_hatton0430_480x360.jpg
Chinese middle-aged man smoking: http://diepresse.com/images/uploads/8/e/9/420073/china20081005202611.jpg
Chinese old man smoking: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get/I00009J1awSe4ZOI/s/900/900/Shanghai-China-2011-blind-old-man-smoking.jpg
Chinese woman smoking: http://cdn.ph.upi.com/ol/upi/059db3fe9ab24ab031764d837a371ffe/CHINESE-WOMAN-SMOKES.jpg
Smoking stove-interior: http://funtier.net/kamleung/0111hs/img_2179.jpg
Smoking stoves-exterior: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110718/images/news423-i1.0.jpg
coal sellers: http://www.china-mike.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/china-heating-coal-vendors-cart.jpg
Old Chinese man with missing teeth-1: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_hJREGwPF6vQ/SIiAn9oiQrI/AAAAAAAACHM/df8mUsQ5-dE/s400/oldchina.jpg
Old Chinese man with missing teeth-2: http://www.alamy.com/thumbs/6/%7BA835226E-4F95-4DB1-9C53-1FB840FB1C06%7D/AEHE89.jpg
Old Chinese man with no teeth-2: http://trackme7.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/old-chinese-man.jpg
Chinese woman with beautiful teeth-1: http://thewomanlife.info/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/white-Teeth.jpg
Chinese woman with beautiful teeth-2: http://www.divaasia.com/action/PageImage/5666.jpg


Beijing, 24 January 2013

The air is clear, the sky is blue! Finally, the grey murk of the last week or so has gone! I don’t know where it’s gone and I don’t care. All I know is it’s gone. When I walked out into the street this morning, my heart jumped on seeing the blue, blue sky. I’d almost forgotten what a blue sky looked like.

As I walked along my piece of canal, a man on the other side burst into song. If I’d known the tune I would have hummed along. As it is, I smiled benignly at the lady who was walking her dog and she smiled benignly back. I didn’t even mind the very uneven paving stones in the canal path which threaten to trip me up every day.

As I walked into my secretary’s office, she cried out “it’s only 62!” She had already checked the PM 2.5 readings on the US Embassy’s twitter feed and was preparing her daily air quality report to all staff. We laughed in sheer pleasure.

The air is clear, the sky is blue, hallelujah!

blue sky 002

blue sky 003


Shanghai, 24 January 2013

The bullet train pulled out of Beijing South Station forty minutes late, starting its five-hour trip to Shanghai. After a gentle canter through the outskirts of Beijing, the train powered off when it reached the countryside, reaching peaks of 300 km/hour – small screens over the doors helpfully clocked the speed. It was quiet in the train, disturbed only by the sudden jerk to the left caused by trains whooshing past in the opposite direction – and by certain passengers talking very loudly on their phones.

After reading a few pages of a dense report, I gave up and stared mournfully out of the window. The weather was cloudy and foggy, throwing a bleak and bleary light over everything. The land was flat, flat as the Po River plain in northern Italy. There was a thin covering of snow, not enough to make the scene beautiful. The field strips were small, reminding me of the fields around Neusidlersee to the south of Vienna. Some had been planted in corn – the stalks were still standing, some had fruit trees, but most were bare of anything. Copses of poplars broke the horizontal monotony. A few villages flashed by, a group of houses huddled together in no particular order, some proudly bearing a solar water heater on their roofs. Often, the country’s modern development would intrude, with bare, broken, worked-over ground waiting for the concrete and asphalt to arrive.

The countryside was empty save for shepherds leading small groups of sheep through the bare fields, particularly the corn fields, where the sheep were stripping the standing stalks of some nourishment. The shepherds were probably Muslim Chinese who had migrated centuries ago from the west of China and are now scattered throughout China’s eastern seaboard. They brought back memories of northern Italy, where you can also see shepherds who have come down from the mountains and are feeding their herds in bare winter fields.

The only other presence was the dead. Countless gravesites dotted the landscape. You can tell a Chinese grave by the way the earth is heaped up in a conical mound over the deceased. Groups of four or five of these mounds were visible at the corner of almost every field, or so it seemed. There was no wall around them like we would have in Europe, nothing to separate them from the world of the living. Often, there would be dark trees, pines perhaps, planted nearby to keep the dead company. They reminded me so much of the cypress trees that flourish in the graveyards of Italy.

Darkness slowly set in and everything outside my window dissolved in the murk. As we started slowing down to pull into our first stop, I sighed, put on my reading glasses, and hauled out the dense report again.


Beijing, 22 January 2013

Readers of my posts will perhaps know that I have a certain fondness for Chinese porcelain. So it should come as no surprise to them to hear that when I read in the China Daily of an exhibition at the Capital Museum on porcelain I immediately suggested to my wife that we visit it. Which we did this weekend.

The exhibition was of porcelain ordered by the Empress Dowager Cixi (the last real imperial ruler of China). I’m afraid to say that it was a disappointment. The porcelain on show was undoubtedly of the highest quality, but the designs were … well, twee is perhaps the best way to describe them. Lots of canary yellow background, and lavish use of birds and butterflies as motifs.

Somewhat disconsolately we went to see what else the museum was offering. There was an exhibition from Taipei, from the Museum of World Religions, and for lack of anything better we visited that. It was nothing special, just a collection of religious memorabilia from various world religions. So we left that exhibition even more disconsolate than before and went to the museum shop. We were running a listless eye over what was on offer when something caught our attention. It was a small something – we were not sure what it was – which, critically, had written on it “MIT chapel”. We had to buy it.

museum purchase 002

I should explain: my wife and I were married in that chapel, I was doing my graduate studies at MIT at the time. It’s a lovely chapel, designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Probably his most well known works are the old TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. He did many other big works for corporations and governments, but he also did a number of smaller, more intimate works like the MIT chapel.

From the outside the chapel doesn’t look like much, just a small circular brick building set down on a lawn and some trees.


Snow makes it more interesting.


The interior, on the other hand, has a wonderful feel to it. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the chapel is the altar bathed in light streaming down from the skylight above it, while the installation over the altar leaves you very much with the sense of angel dust raining lightly down from on high.


Then there is the wall. Outside, it is a normal circle. Inside, it is wavy and is roughened by bricks sticking slightly out of the wall.  It also holds a regular pattern of bricks that reminds me of the ventilation systems used in brick barns in northern Italy.


And then there is the organ, small but perfect, in its organ loft.


Our friend who volunteered to take the photos failed miserably (he forgot to press some button or other on the camera), so we have very few photos of the wedding. But it is all still fresh in our minds. My wife wore a pink tailleur and I a dove grey suit. She kept that tailleur for many years, while a rapidly increasing girth meant that I had to abandon the suit quite quickly. We had come up with our own vows – the parish priest had grumbled at this, asking why we wanted to abandon the beauty of the traditional vows, but we had insisted. A copy of them slumbers on together with all the rest of our stuff in storage in Vienna – we have carried them with us everywhere we have gone. We had our rings designed by a goldsmith in Milan: double gold bands, which echoed the design of the engagement ring I had given my wife from the same goldsmith. My mother-in-law, who was a great lover of music, chose the organ music (not Mendelssohn’s wedding march …). My parents and a couple of siblings had driven down from Canada, and the rest of the chapel was filled with university friends from MIT and Johns Hopkins, where my wife was doing her graduate studies. After the wedding, we had all gone downtown to a restaurant on Boston Commons for our lunch. No speeches, nothing like that; just good food. Because of timing, we had gone on our honeymoon before the wedding, in the Shenandoah Valley, together with my mother-in-law (I liked her a lot …). Immediately after the wedding, we started classes again.

So I’m sure my readers understand why we just had to buy that article with “MIT chapel” written on it (which, by the way, turned out to be a small case containing a tiny pad of ruled paper, a ruler, and an unsharpened pencil – quite where the connection was with MIT remains a mystery).


MIT chapel: http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/1297993341-mit-chapel-wikimedia-commons2-375×500.jpg
MIT chapel-winter: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/6339334.jpg
MIT chapel inside-altar: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3383/3478369283_08678cfd7a_z.jpg
MIT chapel inside-wall: http://jmcvey.net/sylva/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/chapel_interior_wall2.jpg
MIT chapel-organ: http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/1297993330-mit-chapel-caribbeanfreephoto.jpg


Beijing, 18 January 2013

Readers of my posts will know that I walk along a piece of canal on my way to and from the office. During these walks, I watch how the change of seasons are reflected – literally and figuratively – in the waters of the canal and the willows that grow along its edge. This year, winter came flurrying in with a blustery storm in late November which damaged a number of the willows along the canal.

Winter-2012 005

Then came a snowstorm, which left a modest covering of snow and which quickly disappeared. Thereafter, the temperatures plunged and the canal froze over. With no snow, the ice was initially buffed clean by the wind, but the wind soon died down and over a period of a week or so a thin layer of dust settled on the ice’s surface; winter is very dry in Beijing. One morning, as I turned off the bridge to start my walk along the canal, I noticed faintly etched in the dust a Chinese character. I was intrigued. What had been written? A name? Two names, united in love? Or something stupid like “Wash me”? Or worse?! Given my illiteracy in Chinese, I had no idea. So I took a photo.


I showed it to my Chinese secretary. She studied the photo a minute and said “it says, qīng.”

And what does it mean, I asked?

Clear, pure, clean, she told me. Peaceful, also.

Clear, pure, clean, peaceful … The writer must have been feeling good when he wrote it. Was it love? Just a happy moment? Whatever it was, I thank him. Later wind has effaced the character, but every time I walk past the spot I get a warm feeling.


Since writing this, snow has fallen and has covered the canal’s ice with a thin coating of snow.  Someone went out and wrote in the snow. This one I could read:

love 002


Beijing, 17 January 2013

There are only a few weeks to go to the Chinese New Year and the Chinese newspapers are full of articles on people’s plans for the festive period and on the country’s transportation infrastructure bracing itself for the onslaught of Chinese who will be travelling home or – more frequently now as they get richer and move into the middle classes – travelling abroad for package tour holidays. As I read, I was reminded of a wonderful piece in the New Yorker written by the magazine’s Man in Beijing, Evan Osnos. Two Chinese New Years ago, Osnos decided to join one of these package tours, the “Classic European,” a bus tour visiting five countries in ten days.  It’s a sympathetically amusing article and I would urge any of my readers with an interest in social trends in China to read it. It can be accessed at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/18/110418fa_fact_osnos. Here is a photo from the article.

chinese tourists-8

Osnos’s piece reminded me rather of a 1969 film, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, a romantic comedy about a group of American tourists doing a bus tour of nine European countries in 18 days.


Osnos mentions in passing a sub-trend in Chinese tourism, that of Chinese lovers of poetry who go on a pilgrimage to Cambridge (the Cambridge in the UK) to gaze reverently at a clump of willow trees growing on the banks of the River Cam. The reason for all this is a poem which is wildly popular in China: 再别康桥 “Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again”. It was written by Xu Zhimo, a famous romantic poet of the early twentieth-century.

Xu Zhimo

Xu travelled in the West for a number of years. He spent a year in Cambridge in 1921 and on a second trip there in 1928 wrote the poem. He died a few years later in a plane crash in China.

I don’t read (or speak) Chinese, so I’m afraid the poem in its original form is closed to me. However, there is what seems to be a standard translation (every Chinese website that I looked at carried the same one) which is really quite pleasant on the ear. But before I quote it here, I am moved to first cite the poem in its pinyin form (without tonal marks, which I find confusing and quite unhelpful since I don’t hear the language’s tones), to give other Chinese-illiterate readers like myself a small taste of its rhythm and rhyme.

Qingqing de wo zou le, zhengru wo qingqing de lai;
wo qinqing de zhaoshou, zuobie xi tian de yuncai.

Na hepan de jin liu, shi xiyang zhong de xinniang;
boguang li de yan ying, zai wo de xintou dangyang.

Ruanni shang de qing xing, youyou de zai shuidi zhaoyao;
zai Kang he rou bo li, wo ganxin zuo yi tiao shuicao!

Na yu yin xia de yi tan, bus hi qingquan,
shi tianshang hong rousi zai fu zao jian, chendianzhe caihong shide meng.

Xunmeng? Cheng yi zhi chang gao, xiang qingcao gen qing chu man su,
manzai yi chuan xing hui, zai xing hui banlan li fangge.

Dan wo buneng fangge, qiaoqiao shi bieli de shengxiao;
xiachong ye wei wo chenmo, chenmo shi jinwan de Kangqiao.

Qiaqiao de wo zou le, zhengru wo qiaoqiao de lai;
wo hui yi hui yixiu, bu daizou yi pian yuncai.

And now for the translation:

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here
Quietly I wave good-bye
To the rosy clouds in the western sky

The golden willows by the riverside
Are young brides in the setting sun
Their reflections on the shimmering waves
Always linger in the depth of my heart

The floating heart growing in the sludge
Sways leisurely under the water
In the gentle waves of Cambridge
I would be a water plant!

That pool under the shade of elm trees
Holds not water but the rainbow from the sky
Shattered to pieces among the duckweeds
Is the sediment of a rainbow-like dream

To seek a dream? Just to pole a boat upstream
To where the green grass is more verdant
Or to have the boat fully loaded with starlight
And sing aloud in the splendour of starlight

But I cannot sing aloud
Quietness is my farewell music
Even summer insects keep silence for me
Silent is Cambridge tonight

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here
Gently I flick my sleeves
Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away

I can’t resist adding a few pictures here of the river Cam. It is a river that flows quietly through Cambridge, as quietly as the poem itself flows across the page.

Cam with willows

Henry VIII chapel and Cam


I came across the text of the poem for the first time through an English Lit class I held with a Chinese student (class is a big word; it was more a pleasant discussion around English literature every Saturday morning, over a cup of hot sweet soya milk). After we had gone through a few English poems he brought me this translation of  “Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again”. I was touched and wanted to give him in return an English poem with a river as its theme. But what?

I went on a search and came across the poem “The River” by Sara Teasdale.


Teasdale, an American poet, was more or less a contemporary of Xu. She died in 1933.

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

I had never heard of Teasdale, and a look at her other poems did not impress me, but this poem, at this time in my life, spoke to me. Who doesn’t reach my age and sometimes wish he could slough off the pessimism which comes with the passing years and be young again, fresh and optimistic?


Chinese tourists: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/assets_c/2011/04/110418_osnoschinese01_p465-thumb-465×310-68686.jpg
Film poster: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/9f/If_It%27s_Tuesday.jpeg
Xu Zhimo: http://cfile25.uf.tistory.com/image/1768563E4F8F1F6C23B5BE
Cam with willows: http://www.baihuisoft.com/Uploads/201179154340875.jpg
Henry VIII chapel and Cam: http://ts1.mm.bing.net/th?id=H.4921582377371804&pid=1.9
Cam and Clare college: http://anyluckypeny.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/clare-college-bridge-university-of-cambridge.jpg?w=870
Sara Teasdale: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/uploads/authors/sara-teasdale/448x/sara-teasdale.jpg


Beijing, 16 January 2013

My previous posting on a message in a bottle has reminded me of a story that happened to me a year or so ago. It all started when out of the blue I received an email from a woman who was quite unknown to me. After telling me that she had got my email address off the Internet, she cited me an address in Edinburgh and one in Canada, and asked me if I had ever lived there. It so happened that the Edinburgh address was where my wife and I had lived in our last two years as students at University, while the Canadian address was that of my parents.

I didn’t know what to make of this email. How had this complete stranger found my old addresses? I looked her up on the Internet and discovered that she was British, so some sort of connection with my past was possible. But she was obviously at least ten years younger than me, possibly more, so it wasn’t someone I had known in the past whose name had changed, nor was it someone with whom I could have had a common acquaintance of my generation. So who was she? Was this some kind of scam? Was some murky story in my past coming back to haunt me? But what murky story could that possibly be? I’m not a very murky person.

After a few weeks of mulling it over – I was on holidays at the time – I decided that I couldn’t resist the temptation to know more. So I wrote back to her, warily admitting that I had indeed lived at those addresses and so I was probably the person she was looking for. I then politely asked her what this was all about.

She got back to me quickly, thanking me effusively for replying. She then explained the background. One day, she and her boyfriend were browsing around in a used books store in Royal Tunbridge Wells in the south of England. For those of you, like me, who have never been to this pretty little town, I append here a picture.

Royal Tunbridge Wells

In the store, she told me, she had stumbled across a small book in the front of which a piece of paper had been slipped with my name and the addresses in Edinburgh and Canada written on it – as well as the fateful phrase “please forward if possible”. My correspondent was electrified by that last phrase. She felt that fate had sent her a message-in-a-bottle and she decided there and then that she was going to track me down and hand over the book.

So the hand-over took place through my daughter in London. No doubt my correspondent was highly pleased with herself. But I was left with an even deeper mystery. Who had wanted to give me this book? And why?

The book is quite special. It is entitled “The Secret of Happiness” and subtitled “Fiat Voluntas Tua”, or Thy Will be Done.  It is a rigorously Catholic self-help book, written originally in French by a certain Canon Raymond de Saint-Laurent, and published in English by Aubanel Publishers, Dublin, “Printers to His Holiness the Pope”, in 1951.

book cover 002

According to the book’s back cover, the reverend Canon was the author of many such books with titles like “A Cure for Shyness: Causes, Consequences and Remedies”, Self-Control: Ways of Curing Yourself from Being Emotive, Expansive and Impulsive”, and “Optimism: How to Acquire Mental Poise”.

Who had thought I would be interested in this book, or that it would help me? I’ve never needed help to be happy.

The book itself gives no clues other than the inserted note. There are no names written in it, no dedications, no marginalia. In fact, the book looks unread. Not surprising really. I flipped through a couple of pages, it’s enough to send the most hardened insomniac into a deep Rip van Winkle-like sleep.

Casting around for possible suspects, I first thought of my mother. She had from time to time during my boyhood sent me pious books to read, but mostly on the lives of worthy saints, presumably as exemplars for me of a better life. I also vaguely recall that in my puberty she once gave me a book on Sex, written by a Jesuit priest. All I remember from it is an affirmation that after heavy petting it was quite normal for girls to have backaches … But I quickly eliminated my mother. The writing on the note wasn’t hers, she hadn’t lived in the UK since the book was published, and why would she put her own address in Canada?

I then thought of an Aunt, sister of my father, who lived to the south of London and in the general direction of Royal Tunbridge Wells. She was a very religious person, High Church of England – only my father had converted – so she might have owned this book. And she did always send us books for Christmas. Perhaps when she died and the contents of her house were dispersed this book somehow ended up in a used books store in Royal Tunbridge Wells. But this scenario didn’t seen likely. The type of books she sent us was detective stories and the like; I really couldn’t see her wanting to send me this book.  Nevertheless, in order to pursue all lines of enquiry, I sent a scan of the note to one of her children to see if he thought it was her handwriting. He replied in the negative.

Given the religious nature of the book, I then thought of my godparents. I eliminated my godmother immediately. She was French, a dentist in Haute Savoie. I had met her a few times, and she had never struck me as the type of Catholic who reads books like this. And why would the book have ended up in Royal Tunbridge Wells? My godfather made for a better candidate. He was English and lived in the south of England somewhere, so it’s imaginable that books dispersed after he died ended up in Royal Tunbridge Wells. From the diary my father kept at school and university, which I had recuperated from a dusty shelf after he died, I discovered that my godfather had been very instrumental in encouraging my father to convert to Catholicism when at University, so I knew he was a strong Catholic. But we were never close; I had only met him once. Could it be that as a last act of his godfathering he thought of sending me this book? There is no way of finding out. He’s dead and I don’t know any of his children, to whom I could have sent the note to check the handwriting.

And so the leads have all gone cold, and I am left with the unsolved mystery. I stand on the metaphorical beach holding in my hands the message that arrived to me in a bottle. I will spend the rest of my life scanning the horizon, wondering where the message came from and why it was sent to me.

man standing on a beach-2

And saddest of all, although I love reading books I will never read this one, because it is a type of book that I would never, ever, read!


Royal Tunbridge Wells: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8078/8367015396_c8c90646e0_z.jpg
book cover: my picture
Man staring out to sea: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8078/8367015396_c8c90646e0_z.jpg