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A Letter From China

The Wonders of China - Part Seven


By Cynthia Muak

Wonders 7 - Gunpowder
(awaiting part six)

Chinese New Year (CNY) in the Departure Lounge at the airport had always been chaos, so this year we planned to welcome the Year of the Monkey in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region.

On the first day of the Chinese New Year, we departed for Zhuhai from China City Ferry Terminal. The hall was packed with approximately 5,000 people, but the crowds were orderly as queues began forming in front of the respective immigration counters. I heard from others in the queue that there was another huge crowd on the ground level waiting to enter the departure hall as soon as it was cleared.

Only one point was obvious to me. Chinese new year meant big bucks for tour operators! We were to spend 5 days sighting around the PRD area only, 2 nights in Baiteng Lake Holiday Resort, 2 nights at Zhuhai Holiday Resort Hotel, yet our little holiday did not come cheap because it was Chinese New Year. Not only was half the population of Hong Kong on the move, it seemed almost a quarter of China was on the move too.

At last we arrived in Zhuhai. Our regular guide, Mr. Lee, was there to greet us: all smiles and with the usual auspicious new year wishes and a few boxes of Zhongshan's famous almond biscuits as presents for us. Nice way to start the new year! The kids were excited - they were told first stop that morning was the biggest amusement park in Zhuhai: Pearl Amusement Park, a low budget knock-off of Disneyland. Not just roller coaster but also a go-kart track.

That park had almost everything. Apart from the usual carnival rides and game stalls, they had some serious entertainment, a well-stocked zoo, and very spacious, landscaped parklands. Master Driver watched over the kids who were crowding around the go-kart tracks, while Guide Lee herded the rest of the kids to the zoo area and the many game stalls. Us adults went walking the parks and admiring the beautiful flowers. We were really impressed with the flower exhibition - row after row of potted peonies; then came multi-petalled chrysanthemums; peach plants with a profusion of blossoms and buds, exotic orchids from the highlands, etc etc. We were reluctant to move on to other sections of the park. The flowers had captivated us completely.

We had brought along with us plenty of CNY goodies, so we sat down under a stretch of pavilions, munching away at the goodies and enjoying the flower display. CNY songs were blaring out of public speakers all over the place. This added a festive air to the gaudy decorations all around us. This was the second Chinese New Year we had spent on the mainland. The first was at Guilin, but what a great difference in feeling and atmosphere! At Guilin, PLA soldiers patrolled in droves all over the tourist spots; made us feel uncomfortable with their presence.

Way past lunch time, we rounded up the kids; they were so very reluctant to leave. I could see why - the go-kart track was almost monopolised by them! We were driven to a small floating restaurant for seafood. I had to mention this because it was here that, for the first time we ate scampi with their long claw-like pincers intact. Maybe we had them before, but if they were served shelled we wouldn't know the difference. Here, served steamed in their shells they looked awesome and tasted so fabulously fresh. After such a late lunch, we were tired and Guide Lee decided it was best to get us settled into our hotel.

We didn't know what to expect. Guide Lee had told us the Baiteng Lake holiday resort had been recently redeveloped and refurbished to meet Hong Kong standards. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the resort. There were 30 of us and we were checked into a cluster of nine villas: two housed six pax each. The teens immediately claimed these as their own. Three housed four pax each, and the remaining four smallest bungalows housed two pax each. We allocated one to Guide Lee and Master Driver so they could stay, eat and play with us during the new year holidays.

We were surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens with lakes, lotus ponds, ornamental bridges, and potted kumquat plants of various sizes, peach blossom trees, willows and bamboo groves. Everyone was very happy with their lodgings. No mad rush and jostling with other new year holiday makers. That in itself was a great relief.

Before dinner (in China, dinner is usually served quite early, about 6-ish), Guide Lee took us to the Baiteng Lake shopping complex, which was about 10 meters away from the resort property. Lo and behold! What did we see? An entire complex of stalls selling, believe it or not, fireworks items of every description and fire crackers of every size! One was even named 'Super Thunderbolt' and the size was bigger than a Coca Cola can. We thought firecrackers were banned.

The enormous selection was unbelievable. The entire gang went wild, to put it mildly. You see, in Hong Kong anyone caught selling or setting off fireworks or crackers was liable to a HK$ 50,000 fine plus 6 months imprisonment. I was quite surprised by this open, blatant display and asked Guide Lee whether playing with fireworks was an offence in China.

He couldn't say for the rest of China, but as far as he knew the law in PRD (Pearl River Delta) concerning fireworks was flexible; and especially when we were talking of Chinese New Year, and an item invented by the ancient Chinese. All Chinese festive occasions needed to start with a loud bang, the louder the better; the more the merrier! Firecrackers were definitely the answer.

Few substances in history have had as profound an effect on human history as 'gunpowder', for good or for bad. According to my research, the invention of gunpowder or 'flaming medicine' (huo yao) is usually attributed to Chinese alchemy. It was first invented accidentally by Chinese alchemists in the early Han dynasty, while attempting to make an elixir of life that would give immortality to the user.

The main ingredient in many of the failed elixirs was saltpetre, also known as potassium nitrate. It did explode with a flame and a bang when exposed to an open flame. Ancient text from that era stated: smoke and flames result so that the alchemists' hands and faces were burnt and even the whole house where they were working in burned down. Their experiments also showed that saltpetre when mixed with sulphur would ignite spontaneously.

By the Tang dynasty, the ancient Chinese had worked out a formula for the explosive mixture, adjusting the ingredients to suit the various needs. They used this discovery to make flares for signalling.

A monk, Li Tian, who lived during this period near the city of Liuyang in Hunan province, was said to have come up with the idea of inserting gunpowder into the hollow of a bamboo stick: when thrown into a fire the gases produced by the ignited powder caused an immense build-up of pressure and blasted the tube apart. The Chinese believed the bang was powerful enough to scare off evil spirits, and thereafter incorporated firecrackers into many of their religious events. The Liuyang people began to experiment with this new discovery and soon they devised aesthetic and colourful formations for the gunpowder, apart from warfare. To this day, the Liuyang region of China produces more of the world's fireworks than anywhere else.

As early as 904 AD, the Song dynasty used gunpowder devices against their primary enemy, the Mongols. These weapons included flying fire (fei huo), an arrow with a burning tube of gunpowder attached to the shaft. Flying Fires were miniature rockets, which propelled themselves into enemy ranks and wreaked terror among both men and horses. It must have seemed like fearsome magic to the first warriors who were confronted with the power of gunpowder.

Other Song military applications of gunpowder included primitive hand grenades, poisonous gas shells, flamethrowers and land mines. The first artillery pieces were rocket tubes made from hollow bamboo shoots, which were soon upgraded to cast metal.

The first illustration of a cannon comes from Song Dynasty in a painting, circa 1127 AD. This depiction was made 150 years before Europeans began to manufacture artillery pieces.

The earliest record of a written formula for gunpowder appeared in the Song dynasty (11th century). Knowledge of gunpowder spread throughout the old world as a result of the Mongol conquest (13th century). And the Chinese formula for the making of this explosive mixture first spread to Arabia by way of the Silk Road, then on to Greece and Europe. Firearms came to dominate early warfare in Europe from the 17th century.

At Baiteng Lake shopping complex, we never spent so much money so quickly, without even the slightest squeak of protest. We made every stall owner happy. We bought a bit of everything from all of them. Before we left, we told them we would be at Baiteng another night so if they had new things they should show them to us the next day. Nothing dangerous. We were there to have fun, not to destroy property or ourselves.

That night Master Driver and Guide Lee helped us look after the kids while they were setting off fireworks and firecrackers. The vendors had earlier sorted out the different fireworks in batches and marked them accordingly. To gain maximum effect of the explosions against the dark sky, we were advised how to set off, when to set off, where to set off and at what intervals to set off the various fireworks batches. All night the kids were running around, screaming their heads off, that the fireworks display they were setting off was better than the one to be set off in Hong Kong the next night. Honestly, even the sparkling wands swirled around by the younger children looked great against the dark, clear background, not to mention the more intricately designed fireworks.

Two mah-jong tables were set up for gaming. Another table covered with fruits, cookies, nuts and drinks was set up at another corner of our private garden. Small firecrackers were let off at regular intervals, while fireworks were set off almost non-stop. I had never heard the kids laughing so much, so excitedly. My son (the ringleader of course) would run up to me every so often, encouraging me to keep playing mah-jong. "Don't stop, mom. Everyone's having such a great time. Especially Guide Lee, who is helping us."

'Kids'. They always knew where to hit you - your weakest point. This time it wasn't mah-jong; it was Guide Lee. You see, his fiancée had emigrated to Canada to join her uncle 2 years ago. Guide Lee was waiting for his exit papers to come through, so he could join his future wife in Canada. We didn't know whether he would still be in Zhongshan the next time we visited Guangdong, so we had insisted that he spend this festive holiday with us so we would have some happy memories. His Department Head, a Miss Chan, was understanding too. (Their travel agency had received so many 'thank you' letters from me commending Guide Lee on his exceptional service. Guide Lee told me that every time Miss Chan would pin my letters up on the office's notice board and reminded his colleagues to provide similar service to their customers. They should not complain when Lee was rewarded with big bonuses.) She allowed his best friend who was tour bus driver to partner him on this job, because there were going to be only 12 adults in this tour party. Much supervision was needed for the young ones.

Enough ruckus for one night. We closed shop at 2 am, making sure everyone understood we would meet at the main dining complex for breakfast at eight. We were told the dim sum was really, really good. They had hired a Guangzhou chef to oversee the Dim Sum Section of their Chinese kitchen.

The next day, of course the children all voted that we should visit Pearl again. We did go because it was on the way to Zhongshan anyway. We wanted to take the children to visit Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's ancestral house in Cuiheng, then have lunch at Fu Wah Hotel at Shiqi - its restaurant served the best Cantonese food in Zhongshan. Also, office of Zhongshan Travel was in Fu Wah. We had brought along a box of chocolates for Miss Chan. Of course we had brought along presents for Guide Lee and Master Driver too but we would only hand over to them at point and time of farewell.

Coincidental that ancestors of four members of our group came from Xinhui. I promised them that we would visit Xinhui so at least their children could say they had visited their parents' ancestral hometown. I wished they knew the exact names of the villages their ancestors came from. No matter. It was good we made it there since this was their first trip to China. If it wasn't me leading the tour, they wouldn't have come. At Xinhui we bought the area's very sweet mandarin oranges. And of course, their famous dried orange peel and Chinese fan palm crafts.

My friends' ancestors came from Xinhui, yet they knew zilch about Xinhui history. Guide Lee told us in the early years around 420 AD, Xinhui covered a very large area made up of 12 counties: Xinhui, Taishan, Enping, Kaiping, Heshan, Shunde, Xinxing, Gaoming, Zhongshan, but through political and administration changes and upheavals, Xinhui's boundaries had changed drastically too. The last time the area had been reduced was in 1152, and Xinhui's border has remained as it presently is.

We visited Mt. Guifeng, where court official Su Tungpo had been a frequent visitor for inspiration for his poetry and writings, when he was exiled to southern outposts by the southern Song Court, to guard the Yamen Fort at Xinhui. Walking along the battlements of Yamen Fort, with cannons facing the wide expanse of the South China Sea, it was not difficult to imagine battle scenes with cannon balls being fired ever so frequently. In fact, it was at Yamen Fort that the Southern Song army in 1279 AD, made its last stand against the invading, all-conquering Mongolian army. The then prime minister Luk Shiufu, determining that he and the boy emperor (family name Zhao) should never be caught, strapped the 8 year old child onto his back and jumped off the cliff into the waters below.

Legend has it that days later, a monk found the body of a young boy in a yellow robe (traditionally yellow was the colour reserved for the royal family) floating in the open sea. Birds sheltered the body. After collecting the body and upon close examination, the monk discovered the royal seal which confirmed the body was that of the boy emperor. Quietly the monk buried the body, and it wasn't till years later before word of this grave got out. Now each Qing Ming (Chinese All Souls Day), the Chiu (Zhao) Association of Hong Kong visits the grave and pays its respect. (Legend and photo provided by Henry Chiu).

My friend, also surnamed Chiu, was so overcome when told of this legend, that he promised as soon as the new year holidays were over, he would contact his clan association in Hong Kong to ask about the Qing Ming visit. His family would surely be interested to join.

Going back to Yamen Fort, being a look-out point for border patrol, I can believe its effectiveness in those days. You see, in 1552 Francis Xavier wanted to enter China, and his boat was sailing along this part of the country. The area around the Fort would be the perfect landing spot but I guess it was not possible for his boat to get too near due to border patrol and cannon balls. He had to wait for his Chinese contact off the coast of Taishan (before coming into view of Yamen Fort). During his wait, he became very ill. His assistant decided to transfer him from the boat to the nearest land, which was the beach at the south-western part of Shangchuan Island. A few days later Francis Xavier died. The Jesuits from Hong Kong Wah Yan College have since built a small chapel in Shangchuan in his memory.

Enough of sad-sad and sightseeing for one afternoon; we drove back to Baiteng and the fireworks stalls. Needless to say, the programme for the rest of the evening was repetition of the previous night.

After breakfast the next day, we checked out of Baiteng Lake. We set off for Mt Huangyang near Doumen, to visit Jintai Temple, a 'must visit' Zhuhai tourist spot which had been in existence since 1772, and not too high up on the southern face of Mt. Huangyang. It took us 2 hours to walk through every corner of the temple's extensive grounds. A very special vegetarian lunch had been prepared for us. I am not a big fan of temples, but my friends told me the temples at Mt. Danxia (northern Guangdong) were more impressive in that they had that 'serene aura' about them. It was obvious to them Jintai was more 'money conscious'.

Then we were driven round the mountain and ended up at some tea plantations. The scenery looked very much like the tea gardens we had visited one time in Taiwan. They had several varieties of tea, including Lingzi. Except one patch of their garden was devoted to peach trees all in full bloom in various breathtaking shades of pink, from very light to very dark.
One tea variety was very, very similar in look and taste to Silver Needles, but at a more affordable price. We bought all the stock they had. They regretted they did not have time to stock more. A few months ago, some American Chinese visited their plantation and bought up their entire inventory. What they had processed since was not ready for sale. We went away quite happy with what we had purchased.

At the bottom of the hill was a small sundry stall. Someone noticed they had a small stock of fireworks, mostly sparklers, for sale. On the insistence of the younger members of our group, we bought a small batch of these wands for them. When we asked whether they had fireworks with the more exotic designs, they told us these go out of fashion rather quickly so they didn't stock them. Out of fashion??!!? Apparently, fireworks are like fashion wear - a new collection designed for every new year, with new formations, colours and innovations. Each new year, during a display, the fireworks explode with the new design. One year it was clusters of exploding stars, the next clusters of shooting stars, one cluster bursting atop another in rapid succession, another year it was shooting multicoloured spiralling cloudbursts, etc. etc. Now we know.

The kids were whining and getting restless. No fireworks that night so they wanted to get to the hotel to check out their advertised electronic game centre, and maybe make reservation for tennis. It was almost five and we were tired too. Anyway enough shopping for the day so it was time to check in. This hotel resort was modern compared to Baiteng's traditional Chinese architecture. The kids ensconced themselves in the games centre, while we adults went for reflexology to ease our tired feet.

We had been warned that there would be a lot of walking the next day, and were told to wear sensible shoes. So, after breakfast, Guide Lee took us to Shuanglong mountain in Qianshan, where the Agricultural Experimental Centre was set up, to view the rare vegetable, fruit and flower farms. We bought whatever fruits were available for sale, especially figs, tiny pineapples, huge persimmons, and chestnuts. The flowers were gorgeous. Peonies, lotus, and orchids were the queens there. Scented roses were blooming everywhere. Each family bought a few small rose bushes each. We even gave Master Driver and Guide Lee one rose bush each for memories sake.

After a sumptuous dim sum lunch, we continued on to the Royal Stone Archway in Meixi, Qianshan town, a site I had specifically asked to see. As our bus approached the village, we could already hear the 'pi-li-pa-lah' of firecrackers, some exploding near, and some from afar.

Soon we could make out the silhouette of the archways. This is actually the residence of Chen Fang (in Hawaii known as Chen Afong, the Afong family) whom I had read so much about after his 1906 death. I was initially interested because there were some parallels in his story with Dr. Sun Yat-sen's:-
1) Chen Fang was born in 1824 and is officially stated in English language records that he came from XiangSHAN (Zhongshan), same place as Dr. Sun Yat Sen. (I think there is confusion here. Chen Fang actually came from Meixi in XiangZHOU which is in Zhuhai.)
2) In 1849, he arrived in Hawaii to join his elder brother. (So did Dr. Sun when he was 13).
3) Leaving behind a wife and baby son. (Later years, so did Dr. Sun).
4) Chen Fang took a 2nd wife in Hawaii (Dr. Sun amassed 4 wives - a wife in almost every port).

When Chen first arrived in Hawaii, he was contracted to work as a labourer in a sugarcane plantation for 3 years. After that with his savings, he opened a small retail shop with another Chinamen he had befriended. While this partner took care of the shop, Chen hired himself out as a cook. He became the best and most highly paid Chinese cuisine cook in Honolulu. With enough money saved, he became a partner in a sugarcane plantation and opened a sugar and coffee mill. His shop was soon selling coveted Chinese cloths, quality dishware’s, tea and spices to American and British residents, and Hawaiian court ladies.

In a brief 6 years after arriving in Hawaii, Chen Fang became the leader of the Chinese community and made his fortune in retailing, real estate, sugar, and rice; (and opium). For a long time he held the government's opium licence. With his two brothers, he also had stores in San Francisco and Hong Kong. He was the first millionaire in Hawaii. He married a Hawaiian princess of mixed blood, and went on to father more than a dozen children with her.

In 1862, he returned to Meixi taking his eldest Hawaiian son, Anthony Afong, with him to visit his Chinese family. Before he left Hawaii, he had transferred some of his wealth to Meixi, as he was going to expand his importing activities. He stayed in Meixi for a while so his Hawaiian son could attend the local Chinese school and be brought up according to Confucian ways. During this time, a second son was born to him and his Chinese wife in Meixi. When he returned to Hawaii, he brought his elder Chinese son, Chen Long, back with him so he could attend a local British school and be brought up immersed in western culture. Chen Fang showed he was a man of foresight.

As his business expanded, he also operated a ship that carried cargo between Honolulu and Hong Kong. He also contracted Cantonese labourers to work on the island's huge plantations. In no time at all Chen Fang was appointed Commercial Agent in 1880, which meant his residence became the de facto Chinese Consulate and flew the Imperial flag. He became known not only as the first Chinese Consulate General in Hawaii, but also as a 'Business Giant'.

At Meixi's Royal Stone Archway, there were three archways initially, but only two remained now. The one in the middle was built in 1886 (12th year of emperor Guangxu reign). There was a serious flood in Zhuhai that year. Many people in the village lost their homes and had nowhere to find shelter. Chen Fang learned of this while still in Hawaii. He donated 3,000 tael of silver and sent it back to China asking the Imperial Court to use it for relief to the victims. The emperor was deeply moved when he heard about it, and ordered a monumental archway to be built in honour of Chen Fang. The emperor also honoured Chen Fang with the title of Senior Official of second Order.

Chen was devastated when his eldest son, Chen Long, died in 1889. On top of that in Hawaii, after a series of financial and political setbacks, and when the Hawaiian government adopted anti-Chinese policies following the rebellion of 1887, Chen Fang removed the majority of his capital to Hong Kong where he made investments in real estate, shipping, banking and merchandising ventures. He returned to China for good in 1890. His son Anthony again went with him because by this time he was bi-lingual and capable of handling most of their commercial projects on behalf of his father. Chen's business ventures in Hong Kong made him richer. His first fortune made in Hawaii fuelled his China enterprises and philanthropic work.

Chen Fang's first grandson, Chen Young Nian, asked the Imperial Court to build the Archway on the left to honour his father Chen Long. Chen Long was named Feng Zheng Da Fu and his wife was Wu Pin Tai Yi Fu Ren.(some kind of Royal Doctor honour).

The Red Guards destroyed the Archway on the right during the Cultural Revolution, so it was not known whom the archway was honouring. It is said that when the Red Guards attempted to destroy the other two archways, all the villagers in Meixi sat around them. Their action prevented the archways from being totally destroyed.

Past the archways, we arrived at the grounds that housed Mr. Chen's residence. This palatial villa was built according to Chinese, English, and Hawaiian styles, to celebrate the mixed blood flowing through his children. At the rear was the cemetery for his family members.

The entire area covered 126,000 sq. meters. We were thankful there was a tea pavilion amidst the vast beautiful gardens for us to sit down, rest our tired feet and enjoy some very delicious snacks. There were other historical artefacts to see in this place but we were too exhausted, we said enough was enough, so we returned to the hotel to rest.

For the fourth Chinese new year night in Zhuhai, it was only right that we celebrate with a grand seafood dinner before we left for home. Zhuhai has coastline on three sides, and at Doumen it faces the South China sea; its seafood supply chain should be endless. After all, its landmark is a statue of a beautiful Fisher girl. Incredibly fresh, fresh seafood extravagantly cooked and presented at half of Hong Kong prices. Believe it or not!

After dinner, we still had energy for a few rounds of mah-jong. The hotel had a large game room and we had booked two mah-jong tables for 9 pm. We went to check out the hotel's Electronic game centre. It was enormous. There were at least 200 machines installed in the Children's Section; another 500-600 machines in the General Section. Beyond that, the area was sectioned off and clearly marked For Members Only, meaning not for our children, which we were happy with. We knew the kids would lose track of time playing at the different machines, so we told them they had to be back in their rooms by 11 pm. We would be leaving right after breakfast the next morning for the ferry terminal.

Back in Hong Kong, we soon finished all the foodstuff we had brought back from Zhuhai. But what could not be erased from our minds, were the beautiful images made by those Chinese fireworks displays that exploded across the Zhuhai sky. Interesting item of note though: our kids spent about 4 hours setting off fireworks each night at Baiteng Lake Resort. Yet, for these fireworks, we were sure we did not spend more than 0.1% of the cost of a professional display. A 10-minute show handled by professionals could involve setting off at least half a ton of explosives at about HK$ 3 million if what we read in the newspapers was true!
(Bang! Bang! Bang!)

A royal snippet, in case you are interested:
The Gunpowder Plot, to kill King James VI of Scotland and James I of England (same person 2 titles) and his government, on the 5th of November 1605 was foiled. Guy Fawkes was caught with barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords. Henceforth, 5th November has always been remembered as Guy Fawkes Day in England. Displays of fireworks used to mark the occasion. I don't know whether this practice still exists today with relative costs so exorbitant. It's interesting to note, though, that most people do not realise that 'gunpowder', 'fireworks' and 'firecrackers' were invented by the Chinese yet there is no celebrated annual occasion to acknowledge this fact. But Westerners joyfully celebrate any occasion of choice, no matter how insignificant, with fireworks so much so that very soon they may brain-jack gunpowder as their own invention!

Watch out for the next installment of 'Wonders': The Grand Canal.

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Cynthia Muak and Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference link back to this website.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from this work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

The views and recollections expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of those of China Expats. Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.

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