‘You are in mainland China’, the hotel receptionist said severely.
I was actually aware of this since we were setting off to watch the evening flag-lowering ceremony in front of the giant picture of Mao in Tiananmen Square, and had only thought to check the time of sunset first. We went anyway, waited for the sun to sink, and amidst marching and saluting the flag came down. There was a big crowd, including many small children, looking on in respectful silence. These military setpieces always seem quite camp to me (not including our own lovely Trooping of the Colour, of course) and the show in Tiananmen Square was no exception. The wasp waists cinched with white belts and boat-shaped caps of the uniformed ranks beside the not-a-bit-conspicuous starched white shirts and tight black trousers of the plainclothes men, all of whom had cheekbones like Nureyev, seemed ready to break into a high-kicking number at any moment. Perhaps it was not quite as chorus-line as the pouting and strutting at the India/Pakistan nightly border-closing ceremony, but it was close.
And then, in the thickening dusk, at the very second when the officer handed the tail of the tightly furled flag to his second in command, all the lamps in the huge square blinked on and the portrait of Mao blazed in a rim of light. Genuine theatre, and very effective.
The business about the hour of sunset was just one of the numerous times in China when I reached for Google or Wikipedia or Twitter. When was the Great Wall built? What’s the difference between T’ang and Ming? Where to eat the best Peking duck? Ah. None of these American-biased information sources is available, of course.
Ashamed to discover my own dependence on digital access to facts, history, instant news, opinion. Not to mention the ability to post pictures of spider kebabs, me on the Great Wall, me in noodle bar, my plate of Peking duck, and to exchange messages via Facebook and Gmail.
So, we had a fascinating visit to China – too short – and I was deeply impressed, even inspired, by the changes that have taken place since my last visit, eighteen years ago. It’s a huge, pulsating, varied and chaotic city. But apart from the asphyxiating traffic it seems generally a happier and less challenging place to inhabit than London.
This comes from Hong Kong, where I’m watching the zigzag flashes of an electrical storm reflected in the glass towers surrounding the harbour. Drama upon drama. And even though Hong Kong now belongs to China, I’ve got Facebook and Safari and Gmail. More to come.
Keep in touch please…it’s a long road ahead.