I’d like to end the year with a very personal story of my Christmas experience in Guangzhou/China.
I had wanted to escape Christmas at home, the celebrations, the cold weather, all the food – that was one of the reasons I travelled to Hong Kong, I wanted to spend time with MRN, my host, who had invited me over and I wanted to return to Shamian island, a lovely spot in the sprawling city-monster that is Guangzhou, a few hours drive from HK.
It gave me a good excuse to fly away.
Still I knew it would be a lonely Christmas, despite being used to have always been out flying on Christmas during my career.
Little had I imagined that it would be become a trip of friendship and sharing the Christmas spirit with the man in charge to drive me, take care of me and assist me during my journey.
After I obtained my Chinese visa in HK, a task that involved a visit to their consulate in Central to learn that they no longer issued “express” visas to foreigners and fearing I would not go very far on a Shenzen visa as a proper visa would be required to enter the “mainland” proper, we ( MRN’s personal assistant Mr A. and I ) proceeded to China Travel services in Mongkok, a government run travel service that issued my visa on the spot for a very hefty fee and I was finally able to take that part of my trip.
MRN had arranged for a HK limousine service to put a luxury van and a driver at my disposal for the entire trip.
So on Dec 24-th, after checking out of the Shatin Hyatt Regency I gave my suitcase to Mr A for safekeeping at MRN’s house and was introduced to Jason, my driver and assistant.
Quiet, unassuming, very polite and helpful, I took an immediate liking to him and his straight character. After filling out my immigration forms to leave HK and enter China, we set off, reaching the border point at Lok Ma Chau after a short 20 minutes drive through the rolling hills of the New Territories.
Funny to be crossing the border there, the only point connecting HK and China, as many moons ago, during one of my first flights to HK in the 1970′s Lok Ma Chau was a trip I took to peek over the border into the “closed middle Kingdom”. We were a few of us who took the train then from HK and spent half a day getting there, peering into China from binoculars from the hilltop and then getting back to bustling HK for dinner and a few beers.
It’s a bustling border crossing now, efficient, automated and quick. I had to leave the van and pass immigration control to be picked up on the Chinese side by Jason.
We continued on the motorway passing the city of Shenzen, modern high rise towers documenting the economic success of the special Economic Zone first created there by Deng Xiao Ping. The driving became more hectic and the traffic more undisciplined as the mainland Chinese drivers lack the patience, experience and education to make proper use of the motorway.
Quite a change from orderly and clean HK. It was constant lane changing zigzagging without any signals or warning in front of us and I admired Jason’s disciplined and expert manoeuvring.
We passed Dongguan, another big city and another “factory to the world” and finally crossed one of the arms of the Pearl river into the sprawling, giant city that is Guangzhou.
Inside the city’s maze of ring motorways and flyovers we were stuck in a huge traffic jam shortly before reaching our destination, Shamian island.
An accident must have happened way ahead of us and sure enough, after a while we could hear the wailing of an ambulance behind us trying to make its way to the accident scene. Jason and I were horrified at the way none of the cars would make way or budge aside to let the ambulance pass.
We arrived at Shamian after a three and a half hour drive and were immediately disconnected from Guangzhou itself.
Small and very colonial European, Shamian was a sandbank in the Pearl river estuary where British and European merchants were allowed to set up a trading post in the 19-th century by the Quing dynasty, the buildings distinctly European, tree lined streets, churches and all beautifully preserved to this day.
My love for this place comes from having visited it many times during my flying career as we were accommodated at the White Swan hotel on our one week lay-over when flying into Guangzhou ( or Canton, as the city was previously called.
The White Swan, a luxury hotel that was China’s first joint venture Hotel, was being thoroughly renovated and closed for a few years, so my host, MRN had made reservations at the quaint Shamian hotel just a few meters away.
After a quick check-in I took Jason across the street to Rose’s Garden next to the river for a leisurely lunch of fried rice and a cigar.
This is where I had sat many times enjoying the tranquillity and the views with my wife and my crews after the long flight.
It was good to be back.
Having the hard part of the trip behind us, we started talking and swapping stories.
I learned that Jason, 48 years old, had been born in Guangzhou himself, but emigrated with his parents to HK when he was only 3.
No memories of his childhood left, but he had a desire to find his grandmother’s house – a task he set off after lunch but not before he had convinced himself that I was safe and comfortable on my own – alas without success. All his old neighbourhood had been razed in the building frenzy he was to tell me later.
I set off for a walk through the busy island, busy with locals that is, as in my 3 days there I hardly saw more than half a dozen foreign tourists, the White Swan being closed down, the main source of foreign guests, many there from the US to adopt orphans and do the paperwork at the nearby US consulate.
Enjoying myself with the locals, playing with the kids who would be afraid and curious at first and then egged on by their parents to say hello to the visitor and have a picture taken, talking with the extremely friendly Chinese, watching all the newly weds having their pictures taken in front of the exotic western buildings and having a relaxed great time.
For memory sake I went back to the hair-dresser where I’d have my hair cut while smoking a cigar and I was welcomed back like a long lost friend.
Hard to exchange in my non-existing Cantonese and her extremely limited English – but, as always, a good time and a cheap and good haircut at the Youth hostel where the salon is located.
I had made reservations for dinner next door at the restaurant and, after a beer with Jason by the river we proceeded there.
Somehow we both didn’t like the menu, no duck, the shrimps and prawns in the aquarium dead, no Tsingtao beer, lots of shark-fin tails that disgusted us – we looked at each other and decided to ask the friendly waitress a rude question : What good restaurant with local food could she recommend ?
I now became Jason’s guide, as I knew the area quite well and a lovely slow 30 minutes stroll through the back alley’s and lanes behind Shamian later, we had a table at the old and giant Guangzhou restaurant, duck, chicken, pork, Dim Sum had been ordered, cold Tsingtao bottles on the table and – only in China or Cuba – the non-smoking area we were in was conveniently turned into a smoking place enjoyed by all the local patrons with a passion.
It was Christmas eve and Jason and I would talk about our different traditions and rituals for the festivity.
It was then that I learned what a sad significance Christmas held for my, by now, good companion Jason.
He had met his wife, a most beautiful woman from the picture he showed me, during Christmas time. Married happily, a beautiful and intelligent daughter, a happy life, hard working as he had always been being the eldest son and having only a basic education before having to work very early on to help his siblings, life was good.
But his wife had died after a fight with cancer exactly 10 years back on Christmas day.
It was heart breaking even though Jason was trying to overcome his personal grief and sadness in front of me.
We were sharing a very particular Christmas, me alone by choice, he alone by destiny.
And about all this, destiny, karma, fate, friendship and many more topics we talked both during our dinner and later having a beer and cigar by the river. Two lonely drivers sharing Christmas in Guangzhou – and becoming friends.
We walked back again through the old alley’s and lanes full of life, people, shops, vitality and traditional customs. Jason exclaiming how this had the air of a long gone age, he mentioned the 1940′s and how this should be preserved and not razed like most of the city, and indeed, we could see the premonitions of “progress” looming in the shopping malls and high rise buildings and western Hotels that surrounded the neighbourhood like an invading enemy army ready to destroy it.
The next day I again became his guide as I took him around the city markets and sights before we headed back to Shamian for more long conversations over watermelon and pomegranate juice. No need for the van or for Jason to drive it, it was parked the entire duration on the island.
I was happy to hear that Jason considered the time with me a vacation – he had only had 4 days vacation this year. Being used to the hectic, no-time-to-spare way of life in HK with 15 minutes lunch breaks and everybody too busy and tense working and making money to enjoy time, he would delight in sitting by the river under the big old trees for hours just exchanging experiences and opinions.
It was Christmas day and he would send a picture and message to his daughter about us sitting and enjoying the colourful boats cruising by and I would call my wife and family to say how happy I was.
The next day Jason wanted me to share breakfast with him – Dim Sum breakfast.
After ordering some of the most tastiest and delicious Dim Sum we drank lots of fantastic tea, a ceremony we enjoyed, and I learned that actually Dim Sum is basically the excuse to have tasty snacks while drinking tea.
Later, back at Rose Garden and enjoying my morning cigar over coffee with Jason, we reflected on the karma that had brought us not only together but bonded us into friends.
He explained the meaning of the tattoos on the back of his hands, the monk who had helped him get rid of the ghosts that had tormented him for long, long years. He told me of the gruesome accident he suffered and almost left him paralyzed and in a hospital for almost a year and the pain he still endures. Of the wish he had his daughter would have a good education and a university career – and of his own wish to visit school after his retirement and complete his education.
When we arrived back in HK later that afternoon, saying good-bye to Jason was to me like parting from a long lost family member that I had discovered not by chance, but by karma.