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Silkworms and Snow: Frontier Town

by Cornelia 

Posted: 10 February 2006
Word Count: 1968
Summary: Whilst working in northeast China I was posted for a few days to a town on the North Korean border. This is the second of two parts.
Related Works: Sikworms and Snow - A Border Incident • 

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I had thought Tonghua unsophisticated before I stayed in Ji’an, sixty miles away on the river that marked the border with North Korea. Not much more than a cluster of brick single-storey houses with red tiled roofs, Ji’an gave the impression of a large village, the Changbai mountains on three sides and the wide Yalu River on the fourth. Ji’an didn’t have pavements, or even lighting, beyond the central highway leading away from the river. The discovery of ancient historical sites on the outskirts had encouraged tourism for a while but it had now reverted to its former status, a surveillance point for possible military activity on the opposite bank

'Welcome to Ji'an. I'll beat you at ten-pin bowling later'. My young UK colleague Katharine, who had already been here for ten days, referred to the town's only source of entertainment, an alley in the hotel. No wonder she was pleased to see us and hear about our advnture at the town border, where had been held for three hours. Eventually, when the boss had finished his siesta, he told the mayor we were legitimate and the company driver brought us through.

We three foreign editors spent our days working alone in our hotel rooms, breaking only for meals. Our task was to proofread papers compiled by the Chinese editors for the upcoming national competition. There were written papers with comprehension passages and oral papers with questions to be checked and monitored for suitability. These would be used in interviews with competing teachers the following weekend, to decide which of them should be rewarded with a spell of study-leave in England. The questions were mainly to test what the candidates knew already about life in England, although others were more controversial.

One or two questions in the ‘general conversation’ section didn't survive scrutiny at the meeting after the papers had been checked. ‘Ah, the confidence of youth’, opined elderly Joseph, when Katharine insisted on keeping ‘What is the meaning of life? The question, ‘What do you think of ladies’ window-shopping?’ earned my veto on grounds of sexism. Political correctness had not gained so much as a toe-hold in China, as far as I could see, but it had to start somewhere. Joseph discarded ‘Would you like to have a sex-change?’ because he thought it might embarrass the candidates. My curiosity to meet the teachers grew, not to see how they would cope with the questions but because I wanted to know something about their experiences of teaching English in China. Could it still be true that Middle school, the equivalent of our secondary schools, had classes of around sixty pupils?

Katharine and I, after being confined to our hotel bedrooms all morning, were ready for a walk around the town after lunch, despite the dazzling brightness of the mountain air. First we strolled along the rows of a meagrely stocked market where some of the vegetable produce on sale was just heaped on the ground, then along by some small shops of the sort that were just one room at the front and another for living in at the back.

Glancing into the dark interior of a larger store, I was startled to see a stuffed deer, with reddish-brown fur and paler spots on its back and large antlers. This was a deer product shop, specialising in the antlers which were an important ingredient of medicines produced in the Dongbei region. I had seen them before, on sale in a gift emporium in Tonghua, sliced into wafer-thin sections and mounted in presentation boxes alongside dried ginseng roots, as if they were works of art. Indeed, in their monochrome shadings of cream and grey they resembled Chinese landscape paintings.

I took a photo from the shop doorway. Like many of the animals I photographed in China, such as the puppies that gambolled in front of Korean restaurants, or the single woolly sheep tethered beside a heap of straw in a Changchun street, their endearing appearance contrasted with a probable grisly fate. Katharine had lent me her umbrella as a sunshade, but we soon retired from the sleep-inducing heat and resumed our proof-reading back at the hotel.

The presence of the boss in the town led to an evening of discomfort for Joseph, although it was entertaining for me. The whole company group, some thirty or so of us, were to be treated to a meal at the town’s leading restaurant, specialising in Mongolian Hot Pot. We three foreigners, that is Katharine, Joseph and I, were to sit upstairs in a private booth with Mr. Bao and his retinue, which on this occasion comprised his two bodyguards and three of his favourite secretaries. He was a man who, for good reason, found safety in numbers, although it didn’t make the atmosphere comfortable for the retinue. A short, well-built man with an expressive face and a genial, outgoing manner, he was also quite volatile and could change from mirth to anger in a twinkling. I sat next to Joseph, who grumbled, ‘I always feel hungry after hot pot dinners’. He ate almost nothing in any case, but, as before, kept the beer flowing as we sat around a table which barely allowed for movement around it.

There was a large stainless steel bowl balanced above a gas burner in the centre of the table, filled with steaming broth, and a revolving shelf around had heaps of lettuce at regular intervals. 'Oh, here comes the rabbit-food’, said Joseph, sotto voce. As well as the small saucers of dressings and sauces to mix according to personal preference, there were a few dishes of almost transparent slices of meat arranged in circles plus other parts of a cow that we don’t eat in the West, at least not in grey, chewy and unrecognisable lumps. ‘How can this be marrow’? Said Joseph, holding up what looked like stringy gizzards.

I didn’t manage to eat much food myself, because the gas, fed from a cylinder under the table, was turned up so high. Just as I’d managed to spear something on a chopstick, I’d have to withdraw because the flames were licking around my wrists. I put some sliced potatoes into the broth, but by the time they were cooked they disintegrated and I couldn’t retrieve them. I made up for this by drinking beer, very welcome in the increasingly hot and stuffy atmosphere. Meantime, Mr. Bao chatted in strongly accented Chinese to his companions and occasionally addressed us with a laugh or a remark to indicate how amusing we were in our futile efforts to cope with hot pot etiquette.

After the meal Bao invited Joseph and me to join him with his bodyguards for a stroll along the main street, the only one with lights. We admired the jolly alfresco restaurants which lined the street, reminding me of the ones in the Singapore suburbs, with their makeshift striped awnings and strings of fairy lights. In fact, Ji’an had the air of a frontier town, especially at night when there were few vehicles about, the surrounding hills concealed in the darkness beyond the lights of the main street. The young Chinese editors had gone off back to the bowling alley in the hotel, some in the taxis like small canopied carts mounted on motorbikes, which carried four passengers for 1 Yuan each.

Our walk led us to a platform overlooking the wide Yalu river, and we stood for a while looking across to distant lights on the Korean side of the water. Mr Bao became increasingly expansive about the delights of the scenery, waving his arms in a proprietary manner as if Ji'an, too, came under his jurisdiction. For all we knew, it did. His nod to the mayor had been required for us to enter the town when Joseph and I were held at the border, and he no doubt had his contacts, or 'guanxi' here, too. When we resumed our walking, he irritated Joseph by announcing that he had recruited four young Americans to work in the Tonghua Teacher Training College, of which he was Principal. Pleased with himself, he boasted that he now ‘controlled all the foreigners in Tonghua’.

‘What does he think I am, a puppet?’ seethed Joseph, seething, as we walked behind the boss in the direction of the hotel. After a while, Mr. Bao summoned his car, which had been following us, and we were driven back to the hotel.

Almost as suddenly as we’d been told of the departure for Ji’an, one morning we were told to pack and be ready by eleven. Joseph advised me to get ready earlier and wait in the foyer so we could get good seats on the company coach. Mr. Bao was still in town and emerged to oversee the packing of computers and other equipment into the luggage holds. The Chinese editors, having been there for ten days, were looking forward to reunions with colleagues back in Tonghua, despite the distractions of in-house ten-pin bowling and restaurant meals.

Katharine, nervous in case she was to be singled out as a travelling companion for Mr. Bao, was relieved when she was allowed to get on the coach. On the journey back on the winding road through the mountains we discussed our plans for the October holiday. I had a yearning to see tombs and cultural sites, in which Tonghua was sadly lacking, so was thinking about going to stay in Shenyang, the capital of the northeast. Katharine looked forward to the seaside delights of Dalian, and Joseph spoke wistfully of a hotel in Changchun that was perfect for a ‘retreat’.

There was one more ‘treat’ in store before we returned to Tonghua. The coach came to a stop around mid-day and we had lunch on a terrace alongside a stone cabin. With a stream in front and framed by trees, it was all very bucolic, as Joseph remarked. The stream was be crossed by an extremely wobbly bridge made of ancient wooden planks with a wire handrail, adding to the charm. The restaurant was full of workmen who, after a while, came out to play cards at tables on the stone platform overlooking the stream, which widened to a form a pond. There was an hour’s wait and Joseph ordered beer, which Katharine, he and I drank whilst Joseph told us some more stories about the previous year’s quarrelsome expats, disputes apparently started and encouraged by the boss.

Mr. Bao and the bodyguards joined us for lunch on the terrace, at a table reserved for us. As well as the usual steamed rice and a thin soup the meal consisted of an assortment of stewed beans and aubergines and green peppers served up in metal bowls which almost filled the entire table and, a first since I’d been in China, a dish of stewed chicken. I ate quite a bit of this before I noticed the chicken parts included heads and feet. Joseph lifted a chicken head deftly in his chopsticks and placed it on my plate. I felt its half-closed eyes on me for the rest of the meal, but by now I was learning to pretend such events were normal, and just ignored it, so as not to provide too much entertainment for the boss and his cohorts.

The ever-present sense of menace I’d felt since leaving Tonghua began to recede as the coach passed through the streets of the mountin city and on to the company house on the outskirts. Here the very mountains and river seemed somehow friendlier. Whether it was the short-notice moves, the close-quarters presence of the boss or the border guards at Ji’an that accounted for the feeling of unease I couldn’t really tell. All I knew was that I was glad to be back.

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