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A Letter From China
A Visit with Uncle Sam

Regular readers will know that Uncle Sam is a very long-standing friend of mine, and one of the very first people to befriend me when I first came to China some eight years ago. We originally met one morning at the local corner shop outside of the ‘Garden’ I lived in at the time. A Garden is a secure housing complex with many high-rise apartment blocks and sometimes detached houses. They are very common in China and often have many amenities such as swimming pool, restaurant, gymnasium – you get the idea I am sure.

On the morning in question I was headed for work a short walk away as Uncle Sam pulled up to the corner shop on his scooter to collect one of his kindergarten staff. I will always remember his impeccable British accent greeting me, “Good morning, how do you do?”

Needless to state that over the years our friendship has grown and we have become ‘Brothers’, meaning we treat each other as if we are family. The Cantonese for this is ‘sow juk’ meaning ‘[you are my] hand and foot’. Uncle Sam is in his late 60’s and I seem to remember slightly more than ten years my senior. He has lived in Shunde county of Guangdong (Canton) for twenty years, although his family hail from Hong Kong.

It always makes me smile when on very rare occasions we have both been referred to as ‘foreigners’ – for he was born on a small family fishing boat in Hong Kong. He was successful, working for international hotel chains and working his way up from dogsbody to steward for the Hilton Group. With them he spent four years working in Holland, before returning as Head Steward to a company hotel in Hong Kong.

Some years later after experiencing the high-life tragedy struck when his wife died, a business venture went pear-shaped, and then he suffered a very serious health complaint. Funny how these woes always come grouped together – isn't it?

Like me he is a survivor and he adapted to a lifestyle that suited his body – becoming a Buddhist and vegetarian. He stopped drinking and smoking, enjoying western life if you prefer, but settled for something he finds more fulfilling. Sometimes he tells me I am his naughty younger brother, for I still indulge fully in the pleasures of life. Like many Chinese, when he says he is Buddhist he actually means he is Daoist – let me explain…

Buddhism is to follow the path in simple terms. Daoism is sometimes considered to be more renegade and open to personal interpretation, especially by the monks themselves. However, that stated they all hold family values as central to their beliefs and practically in their daily lives. Just today Uncle affirmed this by stating at our luncheon table that his greatest thoughts in life are guided by looking after his own family – elders, sisters and brothers, and the younger generations now coming of age. But it goes further than this – because it encompasses a spirit of community and network of friendships that are also central to his life and his beliefs.

I can applaud these sentiments, especially after the disgraceful happenings on the streets of London and England a few weeks ago. Or was that about something else entirely? For your information, the Chinese see the recent riots as being totally without honour, and everyone here was totally shocked by those animals that robbed the Malaysian student whilst proffering aid. It has tarnished their opinion of all foreigners – and that includes you and me!

I do have my own opinions and prefer to keep my own counsel; as perhaps I alone of very few here have a deeper understanding of what it was all about – and I mean the far wider implications, actions, non-actions, and responses by those who should be leading us by example. In Daoism this could never happen, although the response from the local community to rebuild their streets was quite heartening and in line with Daoist thought.

One final point, I have used the spelling ‘Dao’ because this is the normal Anglicisation of Cantonese people as spoken in daily life. Most of you will no doubt prefer the Mandarin ‘Tao’ – which means exactly the same thing. However, should you look closer then you may be right to conclude that all Chinese consider themselves to be part of the Greater Whole that is modern China. Perhaps by using the spelling Dao I am echoing the locals by specifying that the Cantonese family is closer still, but never outside of the whole for far longer than 2, 000 years!

Yes my friends, it is sometimes very easy to forget just how very ancient China and its culture truly is.

In our daily lives Uncle Sam and I have kept in touch regularly since our first meeting. You could say that we are both dreamers – or more kindly say that we both have ideas to change the future for the betterment of all. Whilst we have shared many of these dreams over the years – our marina being one of many examples; we are not the same. Uncle Sam and I are both outgoing and sociable types that work well in tandem. This is because of our differences.

Uncle Sam uses his personability to network, and he is extremely good at networking in every moment of his life. He takes our grand ideas and gets others interested in them, including Chinese Government, high ranking party members and Chairmen of private companies.

I am similar, but Vilma defined my skills a few weeks ago when she said I was the ‘facilitator’. By that she meant that I take all the separate parts and make them into a new whole. This can require: structured planning, administration, and vision to see how it will work out in practice. Thus my skills are practicable creativity if you prefer – as I guess Denis and his family would never have stayed at Vilma’s grandmothers house in Gaogong if it were not for me to act as the glue to run through everything … but that's more than enough about little me.

I had not seen Uncle Sam for some time and we had planned I would go for lunch on Friday. I confirmed on Thursday evening and had a vague timetable in my head centred upon catching the fastest stagecoach in the east around 7 o’clock-ish. I woke at 2.30 that morning and was in time to welcome my wife home for the evening. I had few hours sleep and was a bit out of it. I managed to potter about for half an hour before deciding I was really tired, so we went to bed.

I woke naturally once more just before 7 and then lay awake listening to Siu Ying's mobile ringing incessantly. It was actually stopping me getting out of bed, as if I did then I would need to deal with it somehow – for it was very invasive and distracting. However, Siu Ying reacted first and got up to find it in the living room, and answer it. Apparently it was one of her friends inviting us to Chinese morning tea.

I followed her lead and made us both a coffee before checking my mail and getting my head around today. By 7.20 I was decided to catch the 7.50 bus and started to dress ready. Just after the half hour I was ready to go, but she called me back to say her friend may be able to drive me. I told her not to bother, kissed her goodbye and left.

I made it down and to the main road within a minute and smoked a cigarette in full knowledge I was at least ten minutes early. Then the minutes began to drag, as I knew time was passing and the said charabanc was not. Siu Ying called to say her friend was waiting to take me to Gaogong, and he was near the supermarket where we buy the milk = 200 yards up the road. OK, seems like a plan, as this bus is definitely not coming in the near future.

Arriving outside the supermarket I stop and find the driver I know a little, and then my wife also waiting for me. She is coming out for the day trip and this suits me just fine! Obviously the coffee took longer to make an effect on her system, but it is good between us.

The journey is unremarkable, except that we top up with petrol, and then a little later drop by a hole-in-the-wall repair shop to put air in both the front tyres. Just enough time for a cigarette and then we are on our way once more. We go by the expressway that later becomes the main G15 highway and all is good. Nearer our destination there are miles of new construction where the existing dual carriageway is being widened to a 4-lane superhighway with additional hard shoulder. When Chinese improve roads they do not mess about!

Everything was going extremely well until I got my mobile out to check the time. 9.08 am and we are incredibly early. The trip had taken an hour and we have virtually arrived already. I consider ringing Uncle Sam to let him know, but decide to wait until we are actually at the ferry.

I look to my left and can see the two islands, the first of which we will eat at today, and over passed the local main road (G325) that also bridges the mighty West Pearl River at this same point. We amble down the other side and come near civilisation, when a rumble from the front of the microbus indicates we have a flat tyre. The driver has a quick look and decides to keep going, as repairs here will be expensive! We begin again as a repair truck pulls up in front and reverses back to us, but we dodge it.

Our speed is perhaps slightly more than I would have driven at, but we manage several miles, all the time I am aware that the other road running along side us has miles of auto repair shops and tyre fitting bays. Basically we are on the wrong road. Then as we come in sight of the main exit, so the noises from the flat tyre become volcanic eruptions as pieces of hot wet rubber fly off the now totally destroyed pneumatical.

This time our driver gets out and shakes his head. The repair truck has followed us down the road and now offers assistance. There are great arguments about service and charges, but we are stuck you know, and so we agree something and the lads get to work after a docket is signed.

You may not know that this is what I did for a living for more than ten years after leaving school – first as a tyre fitter with Goodyear, and later after spells with a several distributors and years with a truck tyre remolding company. Then I started my own company and was the first to offer ‘radio-controlled’ services in the west midlands region of UK. Believe me, back then the first radio was made by Pye, was just small enough to fit under the seat of a transit van, and was run by ‘valves’! This was at a time when UK was inventing Telford and Tamworth, and my service was to repair any tyre on-site within 30 minutes of the original call; which normally meant the wheel was not removed, ever.

The reason I was successful was because a busy building site relies upon several vehicles, the most important of which is the rough terrain forklift truck or Manitou. Imagine there are gangs of carpenters, roofers, first and second fix, all relying upon supplies at regular intervals. Once the Manitou stops the whole building site soon grinds to a halt. The national tyre services all sent somebody out to remove the wheel and take it back to the depot for repairs, often returning it after lunch. Hours pass as the machine remains idle. My 30-minute guarantee to fix the damaged tyre on-site meant they saved a lot of money and most often the site never ran out of supplies.

Perhaps I spent 12 years on the sides of British motorways, mainly repairing truck tyres, and I came close to death on a couple of occasions. These distant memories flooded my brain as I watched these two Chinese lads attend to our present needs. The microbus did not have a spare at all, so a new tyre was required.

My first concern was when the lad doing the paperwork asked to use the vehicles own jack, which proved to be a scissors type thing, and rather lacking in substance. This was located under the small bonnet, which also housed the handle, radiator, differential and drive shafts, and a lot of water pipes. This was not where the engine was located…

The lad in charge battled bravely on, freeing the wheel nuts when he needed to and then continuing to jack the vehicle up. With perhaps 1 inch remaining until the scissors jack was fully extended, and by that I mean it was vertical, so plan B was put into effect. I have the sure presumption that the vehicle jack would be incapable of actually lifting the wheel and inflated tyre clear of the ground. Ho-hum!

Then the breakdown driver appeared after inflating another tyre on a separate rim. He brought with him a real professional jack which amazed me, for it was pneumatic = no heavy pumping. I could have done with one of those all those years ago. Brilliant!

At his first touch of the wheel nuts I knew this guy knew exactly what he was about, and was the actual worker of the two. No messing, clean, efficient, and within two minutes we were ready to leave. That was impressive! Siu Ying paid for the replacement wheel, which cost us Y150, or £15 – which is actually not bad.

However, every silver lining has a dark cloud … and ours was technical, so perhaps I was alone of the three of us remaining that understood. From a glance I knew the tyre that came off was a ‘185 R 70 12’ (185 mm tread base, radial, 70% profile, 12 inch diameter wheel). What went on was a ‘155 R 13’ (155 mm tread base, radial, normal profile, 13 inch diameter wheel). The wheel removed was also an alloy wheel, and the one fitted was old-fashioned metal – but that is actually irrelevant-ish.

However, health and safety issues on Chinese roads are a bit of a lottery really, as this would be totally illegal in UK. It may be in China as well, but I doubt anyone apart from myself would know this. What is illegal is driving or being a front seat passenger and not wearing a seatbelt (Y200 fine), making a mobile call whilst driving (Y200 fine), smoking whilst driving (Y200 fine), not wearing a crash helmet on a motorbike – yes you've guessed it Y 200 fine. However, you can ride pillion sidesaddle, and have up to a witnessed 5 passengers on a 125 cc motorbike, and 6 witnessed on a scooter, and no problem as long as they are all wearing a building site issue (copy) hard-hat!

You have to laugh to keep from crying sometimes …

So we are again eating up the miles, as the junction and exit we were gallantly trying to make for approaches and turns out to be closed. This is because the intersection is being upgraded to include a light railway in both directions either side of the highway. Not content with this, the main road that bends 90% just here is becoming an underpass, whilst above is being added a flyover for those going straight on.

The junction was already a culmination of six roads, so the improvements are very welcome, except there is no advance notice this junction is closed. The next junction is 10 miles up the road – so no … we would never have made it with our flat tyre. What is also noteworthy is that there are no diversion signs when we exit, or advice as to how to get back to the last junction.

I actually picked up the problem in advance, understanding just enough of a brief chat between the driver and my wife – neither of whom bothered to tell me about it; the one person present that actually understands the local roads hereabouts. Asi es la vida!

The driver pays the girl at the toll and then asks for directions to ‘Gaogong’ They both speak Cantonese and I understand perfectly = ‘Go up this road for a while, then turn right at the main road’. You are with me on this, correct?

So we go up the road and at the first minor set of traffic lights, we do not go straight on – even though a bus clearly marked as going to Gaogong passes us. No; instead we make a 180 and start heading back in the direction from whence we came. I am being totally ignored of course, even though I know where we are … or at least where we were. I do know we are heading towards the local Buddhist Mountain called ‘Xi Qiao’, and that it is becoming incredibly close.

I had already worked out that soon we would come to an intersection where we would turn left, thus going the long way into Gaogong. Our driver still will not listen to me, and instead stops passers’ by who have no idea what he is talking about. Eventually he pulls into a petrol station where the cheery girls tell him – ‘Go straight on and turn left when you see the sign for Gaogong’. Apparently instead of getting an award for directing them myself, this is ignored in favour of thanking the girls at the petrol station. I found that quite rude you know!

Thus our 5-mile detour becomes 20 as we head the wrong way into a place I know very well. I have a feeling I know where we will come out, and blow me down with a feather – but I am spot on once more. Shame the other two here aren't listening to me, nor my local advice – but it brings fun and is not a problem at all : -)

I tell the driver to turn right at the traffic lights in my practiced Cantonese, something he does whilst not acknowledging me, and so we eventually get to the ferry – which of course is on the other shore. I take out my mobile in order to call Uncle Sam and notice the time is now 10.50 – so we lost an hour and a half due to the puncture and closed exit. I call him and he says we are early, and I cannot disagree.

Later I will realise I should have learnt a lesson from this, but I did not…

Not many on the ferry this crossing remembers me, but the journey is short and soon we arrive at my old home. Uncle has improved it substantially in many little ways, and one big one – for now there is a WC on the first (Second) floor. Otherwise the home looks slightly less lived in inside, and more lived in outside – I guess this is Chinese Face.

Uncle greets me in regal style and soon proffers a beer he has chilled especially for me. We take time to chat and catch-up, whilst others mill around and explore the house and surroundings. This is the first time proper that I have returned to a home I used to inhabit where somebody else is now living. The experience is ‘OK’, for the small changes have not affected the essence of this place, somewhere I found to be very relaxing.

Later I learn that the room that used to be my office is now Uncle Sam's bedroom = our safe haven from the world outside and the same thing essentially for both of us. The one room we both feel most comfortable and private in. Small world it seems, but what is such between ‘brothers’.

Today we will dine at Au San’s restaurant, and Uncle has procured ‘Wu Tao’ or Chinese potatoe, which is just slightly out of season as yet. The bulbs are eight inches long and six inches wide, but are not blackened which is unusual aging. Au San’s restaurant is very familiar to me, but also undergoing changes, for they are extending the main dining area with a false floor stretching out over the river bank and much metal construction.

This is an excellent development and sure to enhance the facilities greatly. However, you will perhaps remember that the restaurant is their secondary business - after selling fish and seafood in bulk. Uncle has invited two groups to join us, and they each arrive within time. It seems he met them completely separately, and they just happen to be neighbours! He turns to me and says, “Small world”; and I cannot disagree.

Eventually we split into three large tables with perhaps ten people at each: Kids with mothers, mothers, and our table full of boys. There are eleven people in all at our table once it finalises: and all bar Mr Laam speak Cantonese. 4 also speak Toisanwah, and most understand the majority of Mandarin except myself. Two of us speak English, with my wife adding a third through her understanding of the language, if not her spoken words of reply.

Later I task Mr Laam, because I discover he has lived locally for 6 years and still cannot speak the local language. He tells me that he can understand a lot of it, but speaking a reply in time is beyond him. I concur, as this is very much like my personal situation. However, I do try to speak Cantonese which he never does = Mandarin rules I guess.

Modern Han Chinese seem to accept this presumption, except for us all the way down here in Guangdong. Nationally I guess we are considered to be ‘the unmentionables’, because Mandarin always passes us by. Whilst he may have been surprised to discover just how little Mandarin local people understand, he certainly caught my attention when he stated that they all speak Mandarin + their local language in his home town. I made the mistake of asking where this was in Cantonese, and understood the Mandarin reply, ‘Fujian’. My real mistake was to ask which town, the reply being – and I kid you not “Fuk Cu”.

Well I creased because he cannot be serious – except he was! Now I am certain Uncle understood, but he was totally dismissive of my bubbling humerity, and so much so I had to wrestle my mirth and hold all within. Trust me, if you ever wanted to bollox your cv, then move to Fujian Province and I guarantee you a winning address!

I'm not sure I ever recovered from that moment, “Fuk Cu” becoming explained as being a city opposite to Toiwan (Taiwan / Formosa) across the straights of contention. However our meal did progress and true to his word Uncle set the wheels in motion for our ‘party’. This seemed to consist of his sister (Anne) and my wife preparing an awful lot of vegetables for the patrons, whilst I was left as the only one to drink beers. I tried very hard to do my duty!

Meanwhile the guys are still making the extended patio using arc and acetylene torches with no eye protection whatsoever. I got my retinas scored once from a glance the wrong way – but when the restaurant filled to overflowing they stopped and set aside to drink beer. China can be like this, but then Brit's – I guess you do not know that German factory workers are allowed two free cans of beer per shift. This is true today, never doubt me - the dispensers on the shop floor are chilled!

The meal was at best mediocre, when I have sampled excellent food here before. The Wu Tao were too young, had no internal blemishes, and were served undercooked and basically ‘rare’ These need to be well done, and also the strips of suckling pig and gravy, as they come together to create a new culinary delight. Oh-no! I had three rather under-cooked ingredients that were several miles away from coming together. Ho-hum!

The rest of the meal was more or less the same, to the point where until the cockles arrived my wife and the driver had eaten very little, and I was trying to persevere with the under-ripe Wu Tao to waning enthusiasm. Later Siu Ying told me the Wu Tao were too young for cooking, although I remain convinced they could have been ok if they had been cooked for another ten minutes – or three times longer!

This day other guests were enjoying chicken and two ordered massive fish, so big I had to take a photograph. They must have been at least 2 foot long and were de-scaled using a wire brush – whilst still alive. They were not the usual carp either, so I was interested to know what they tasted like, but instead we got some form of well-fried sardines that were ok, but that was it.

In due course the meal came to an end and we made to leave for the ferry. We dropped several people of at the house and used the toilet in knowledge of the long journey ahead of us. The ferry was in and loading, so our trip to shore was quick. This time several remembered me, including the skipper and his right hand man. We had a short chat and later Number 2 spoke with my wife, enquiring as to how we were doing and wanting to hear about Rhiannon. You may remember this crew took us to shore after midnight when Siu Ying's contractions started coming way too often. Little things like that mean a lot you know.

Both Siu Ying and I guide our driver out of this town he has never visited before, both of us repeating several times to go down the road until we hit the main road. He keeps trying to turn off, but we stop him each time. Finally we get on the G325 and I say ‘Keep going straight on until we get to Toisan’. You would presume this was a simple instruction, yes?

It turned out not to be, because after crossing the river the driver then takes us by surprise and veers off the main road and starts looking for a signpost. I know that before the junction here was upgraded and new roads built, the G15 was accessed by going under the road we were on, so I presume this is what he is looking for. It soon becomes obvious the new interchange has been completely remodelled and the old entrance and exit have been removed. My wife and I quickly become concerned and we both tell him to get back on the road we were on.

The driver is having none of this and soon picks up on a road sign for Gongmuen (Jiang Men city), and determines to use this road despite a heavy argument with my wife!

So let me put this into perspective, let’s say you are going from Birmingham to Bristol in UK – then you would go on the M5 right? Our route is such that we will tag the M1 and drive the long way around the M25 before picking up the M4. It really is that large a detour. However our driver is very happy with his decision, whilst my wife and I settle down to endure a needlessly long and boring trip.

Within an hour we are in Gongmuen, but taking main roads I have never seen before. I know the centre and west of the city quite well, and our destination lies west of the city. Our route takes us right around the north, east and then south of the city; and not once do I recognise any road or building along our route. All in all we are driving around the city for over an hour before we finally pick up signs for Hoipeng (Kai Ping), and later Toisan. I think to settle as the Toisan signs become more frequent, until at an interchange where the main traffic flow to Toisan is left, our driver goes to the middle option and takes a B road. I look at Siu Ying and she simply yawns and cuddles up to me on the seat, draping her legs around mine as she goes to sleep.

Eventually we come to signs for the G15, but hop on the connecting road we used before, which is the S29 I think? One junction later and we exit to a town that was the mid-point of our journey on the way out. I look at the clock and find two and a half hours have passed due to our diversion, when before we covered the intervening distance directly in a mere thirty minutes.

Now you may think that taking five times longer to make the trip would be greeted with scorn and derision, but this is not the way China works. Instead the driver is praised because he managed to battle through ceaseless obstacles and managed by his determination to bring us all safely home.

Later I asked Siu Ying why he went the way he did and she told me he was lost and did not know the way. I queried this by stating that we did, and had told him to carry straight on. Apparently this information is not helpful and instantly dismissed. The driver was in charge of driving and navigation, and that is an end to it.

Less that thirty minutes later we are back home in Toisan, the driver this time taking a less used route that I know to be a lot quicker, and delivering us to the local wet market. Here I leave and with a large beer in mind, stop first to buy a large bottle of orange juice which is nicely chilled. My Cantonese is up to the task and we laugh and joke about my simple, yet effective use of the local language.

Minutes later I am home and take a moment to reflect, for now when I speak Cantonese I simply take a rough idea in my head and speak without any conscious thought. The words come out just the same way that they would do in English, and with the same degree of lack of consideration. I also consider that in future I will never presume that our driver actually knows where he is going. However, it does appear that all roads (Eventually) lead to Toisan!

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of 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.

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

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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