Spitballs and Bicycles OR Ten Weeks in Fuzhou

Fuzhou Travel Blog

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It was a cold and stormy night (I have always wanted to start a story this way, just never had the chance to) when I landed in Fuzhou. To tell you the truth, it was not actually stormy, in fact, there was no rain but it was very cold indeed. My teeth were chattering the moment I left the airport. I guess, I should have paid attention to what Chris (my Australian supervisor over there) told me about the weather before I left for China. He said it had snowed for the first time in 50 years a couple of days before I arrived. One of my Chinese colleagues had even managed to build a snowman. And I had thought it would be like Genting Highlands!

So there I was, a Malaysian standing outside Changle Airport (Fuzhou has jurisdiction over 3 cities, Changle is only one of them) with nothing on but a pair of Giordano jeans and a Guess denim shirt and no other form of warm clothing facing the onslaught of subtropical weather nearing it's Final winter days (visit Canada in January- Advisor). Well, the locals insisted that it was spring already (just because they were still celebrating Chinese New Year which is actually called the Spring Festival over there) but it sure felt like winter to me! Chain smoking my final pack of made in Malaysia Marlboro Lights didn't actually help much. Getting into the cab as soon as possible with its windows wound up did.

Reflecting on the few weeks before I actually went to the Mainland, things can be quite amusing. Especially the taunts and repetitious jokes that I had to endure from friends and colleagues before I left for my teaching stint. So where the heck would you be posted Mike? China? Go find a wife there. Get married. Settle down. Don't come back. Which part of China? Fuzhou in Fujian? That's Fukien (that was the spelling on the old maps of China circa 1970s as most of the places in Western atlases are still pronounced according to the Cantonese dialect unlike current maps that uses Putonghua [that's Mandarin to the uninitiated] names right? So where would you be teaching? Fuzhou Napier College of Fuzhou University in Fuzhou City of the Fujian Province? That's definitely a lot of Fs in one sentence. Not to mention crude jokes like "Are you sure you are not teaching at Fukien U instead of Fuzhou U?" Trust me, I heard them all.......

To give you an idea of how old Fuzhou is as a city, here's an excerpt from (this saves me the time and effort of typing it all down in my own words!);

........"The capital of Fujian province, Fuzhou has been the political center of Fujian since the Qin Dynasty and was the temporary capital of China at the end of the Song and the Ming dynasties. It has also been an international port with foreign trade since Han Dynasty and was a ship making centre during the Song Dynasty".

If you know your Chinese history, you will realise that KL is an infant compared to Fuzhou.

Traces of Fuzhou, an international port in the past, can be found when one visits Mawei District. Still standing is the Luoxing Tower (translated literally it means the Hollow Tower) which was an infamous landmark for sailors during the old days in their journeys. It has been renamed the Chinese Tower today. Other notable places of interest in the district include the Navy Museum as well as the Majiang Memorial Hall, a structure marking the battle between the Chinese and the French.

There are still quite a few ancient buildings left in Fuzhou. But if more isn't done to preserve them, I suppose they will be gone pretty soon judging from the pace of development in China. Like K.L, Fuzhou has its twin towers. Unlike the Petronas Twin Towers, these two are really ancient. Think along the lines of 1000 years. They stand overlooking one another. One is white (Bai Ta or White Tower) and the other black (Wu Ta or Black Tower). But don't expect them to be as high as the mighty phallic symbols of KL, after all they were built eons ago. They are just eight to nine storey high pagodas.

Fuzhou also has the oldest wooden building south of the Changqiang (Yangtze, to us). Its an olden temple called Hualin. Other notable structures include the Temple of Confucious, and the Xichan and Kaiyuan temples. For those interested in architecture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, there is an area in the city called Three Lanes and Seven Alleys. One can find houses built a few hundred years ago that is still being lived in. However, I had not realised I was actually in the area when I was searching for it on the tourist map on one of my outings as the area is already interspersed with a lot of new buildings. Perhaps, in a few years to come these remnants of ancient times may disappear altogether giving way to development.

Like a lot of places in China, Fuzhou is famous for its beautiful parks and mountains (they are more like hills but the Chinese word for hill and mountain is one and the same). In fact, the ancient name for Fuzhou is Sanshan (Three Mountains) as three mountains namely Wushan (where Wu Ta is located), Pingshan and Lushan (where Bai Ta is built) triangulated the location of the city in the past. However, Fuzhou has grown a hell lot larger since. Fuzhou is also known as the City of Banyan trees as their planting was decreed by a past ruler. In fact, on one of my wanderings, I came across a 1000-year-old banyan beauty at the Forest Park on the outskirts of the city.

Well, I guess that's more than enough of me playing tourist guide for now. I do not want to be accused by any politicians in Malaysia for not doing my bit to promote KL as a patriotic tax-paying citizen of the country but selling Fuzhou instead on behalf of the Communist Party of China. This is especially 'sensitive' since yours truly is Malaysian Chinese. For all I know because of my 10 weeks sojourn over at the PRC, those blokes in the establishment may actually feel that I'm suffering from Stockholm syndrome even though I was never held in captivity. For what's its worth I do feel like I'm a prisoner in my own nation at times but not in China even though it's a commie country. Odd but true. At times the PRC seems a heck more liberal than sunny Malaysia.

Let me tell you a little about the place I lived. Some of you may be thinking that they stuffed me into a rat- hole but seriously , accommodation in China can be very comfortable if you can afford it. I got placed on the 20'h floor of a 25-story apartment in a room overlooking the Xihu (West Lake, there's the infamous West Lake of Hangzhou in the Zhejiang Province but the one in Fuzhou is much smaller but not any less beautiftil) and Zuohai Park. Great view! Imagine waking up daily to a picture perfect lake with morning mist flowing across its surface. Sure beats the view from my home in Cheras. I just end up staring at the back of my neighbour's double story terrace.

Rental is pretty cheap here by KL standards. A three room fully furnished apartment with two bathrooms, kitchen, dining hall and living room plus a balcony cost less than RM650. However, never compare KL's cost of living with cosmopolitan cities in China like Beijing and Shanghai. It's more' expensive to live in those places than KL. Living in Fuzhou, however, is a lot cheaper.. A plate of fried rice costs only RMB3.00 (that's less than RM1.50). Two big bottles of beer from the supermarket is RMB7.00 (that's less than RM 1.70). If you return the bottles when you're done drinking and also the caps (sometimes you stand to win prizes if it's indicated within) you stand to get rebates as well. So sometimes it works out to even less than RM 1.00 a bottle. Cheap food and booze, what else does a man needf(especially if the man is MP- Advisor). Sure there's more but owing to the age of the readership of this newsletter, it's best that we leave the subject untouched!!

Nevertheless, the PRC is not always as rosy as I have mad out earlier. During my First couple of weeks I went through an adjustment process. Even though our cousins in the Mainland may share a lot of things with us culturally but socially there are still some differences. After all, I'm a third generation Malaysian Chinese who grew up in a Catholic neighbourhood that's predominantly populated by Indians, attended a government controlled high school with a quota system making most of my former classmates Malay. Let's see how I can put things in a better perspective so that I do not offend my comrades from the Mainland. For your information, I do have intentions to return, as I do like it there despite minor misgivings. Don't need anyone to put a bomb on the plane before I get off.

For one, those guys back in the Mainland sure do spit a lot. On an average, a person from Fuzhou coughs out a Titanic sized spitball every half an hour. Statistically if you were to collect phlegm from all 1.3 billion people in the PRC in a day you will have more than enough to drown everyone within the Klang Valley. However, bear in mind that this is only an observation made by yours truly and it is not supported by any empirical data. If it was, I am sure the entire population of West Malaysia could be wiped out. Some of these guys (I mean this in the most gender neutral form of the word as a lot of ladies have this habit as well) have clearly no sense on how disgusting the habit seems in the eyes of foreigners. They spit in lifts, restaurants (mind you, it's on the floor not the spittoon), sidewalk, classrooms (I saw a parent do that during the Parents-lecturers' meeting) and almost everywhere you can think off. However , one thing you admire about them is that they do it so well. I have never had the misfortune of being hit by a spitball (touch-wood) as of yet but I did accidentally step on quite a few (it's unavoidable, they are everywhere). Mark an X anywhere and I bet these guys can hit it on the dot.

The second thing is the traffic in Fuzhou. This doesn't apply to the whole of China, just Fuzhou. Those guys over there drive like maniacs. A lot of cars rush pass red lights. Army trucks never stop. Most cab drivers don't even bother to apply their brakes. In fact I seriously believe they use their horns a lot more often than their brakes. You never see people in K.L honking at one another that often as it is considered offensive to do so but these guys over there use it almost every other minute. If you are on the highway on the fast lane, you just honk at the guy in front of you who is hogging the lane till he moves over. In KL this will definitely spark off another road rage incident.

On top of that, there are bicycles everywhere. When you are driving not only do you need to avoid cars, trucks, trishaws, motorcycles, pedestrians but also the thousands of bicycles that hog the streets of China. In Malaysia, anyone worth his or her salt owns a Proton; in China I guess that is replaced by a bicycle. Trust me, for those of you who think traffic in Bangkok is bad, you ain't seen nothing yet. However, an expatriate friend of mine from Fuzhou insists Jeddah is worse (been to Mumbail-Advisor). Nevertheless, after a few weeks in Fuzhou, I just got used to the situation. If you are familiar with "Chaos Theory", you will understand what I mean. There is indeed order in chaos in everyone and everything is chaotic but the moment someone decides to be funny and maintain some degree of order that's when shit starts to happen. Road accidents, in this case.

Finally, a word or two on the infamous public toilets of the PRC. For ethnic groups in Malaysia who use water to cleanse themselves after doing their biggie in the loo, you're in for a big surprise. Firstly, not all public toilets have facilities for you to do that. Don't expect a hose in the cubicle, you should thank your lucky stars if there's water. Secondly, some cubicles have no doors. The locals just do their stuff next to one another in low partitioned cubicles. Hey, it's a commie country, I guess this is their idea of a communal dump. (Sorry, could not resist saying that!. Even if there is a door, there's a high chance that there isn't a lock attached to it. I accidentally opened the door to the cubicle when one of my students was doing his stuff in the college toilet once, so to save yourself the embarrassment always check First. You can either knock or just peep over to make sure, as the partitions are really low. However I'm not saying that all public toilets in China are like that, some are so well maintained that you can sleep in them while others are just a long drain with partitions built over them.

Well, all things said and done, I did enjoy my 10-week stint in Fuzhou. Despite minor social differences, Fuzhou has some of the most fabulous food I have ever tasted and places I have ever seen; students I have ever taught and friends a man could possibly be associated with. If anyone does ask me whether I will take up another posting over at the PRC, SARS or no SARS, I'm your man.

Article taken from Ceteris Paribus August 2003 Edition
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photo by: asturjimmy