Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Visit to Luduke

What is the appropriate response when you encounter an error on radio or TV? Some weeks back listening to an interview with historian Michael Burleigh about the Vietnam war on BBC radio's Night Waves, I heard him say that the Chinese built a railway to Hanoi. This is incorrect. It was the French who built the railway, from Haiphong to Kunming, at the height of their empire in Southeast Asia a little more than a hundred years ago. It's a wonderful narrow gauge line that runs through some of my favourite parts of the world. I've travelled on it and through a good deal of the surrounding countryside.

So what is the most appropriate response? My reaction was to send an email to Michael Burleigh with information about the railway and the surrounding area that I'd learned during my travels. He may have read it, but I received nothing in return. While writing this email, I searched the internet for 'Luduke,' a tiny village in Yunnan that I have twice visited. The French had visited earlier, around the time they were building the railway, and had left behind a Catholic church, and memories in the villagers that remain today. I wrote about my first visit to Luduke and posted it years ago on the internet. My search revealed very little and it seems that my little travelogue has disappeared. My visit was only possible because of my curiousity and persistence. It seems a shame that historians or anyone else is not able to benefit from my efforts. I think the most appropriate response may be to revive this piece and post it again to give anyone interested in this part of China a chance to read my hard won account of a visit to Luduke.

I knew there was a church in the village. What I didn't know was whether or not it still had any meaning to the people who lived there. Decades of suppression may well have destroyed its influence. Once over the pass, we continued along the roughly cobbled trail into the valley and soon the village came into sight. As we approached, the tinkling of cow bells that had accompanied us faded and I had my answer. Clearer and clearer came the sound of singing from inside the church.

I first heard about the village, Luduke, from the curator of the Wenshan prefectural museum in Yunnan, China. A display of local hill tribe costumes had caught my eye. There were about thirty on show, and the curator told me that the display was just a small sample; the costume of each tribe varied slightly from village to village. As an example, he told me of Luduke, where several families of the Yi tribe live. Like the Yi in other parts of Yunnan, they wear a coat embroidered with many colours, and studded with silver buttons and coins. The clothing of the hill tribes reminds one of the days when they were the family's most valuable possession.

The interesting feature of the Luduke Yi clothing was the cross sewn onto the back of the coat. It reflected the influence of French Catholic missionaries who had once lived in the village. Luduke was not too far away, but getting there would involve a three-hour bus ride west from Wenshan followed by a three-hour walk along mountain paths. Most of the inhabitants of Luduke were not Yi, but Hmong, a people who live in some of the most remote valleys of Southeast Asia. I was told that the church still stood and in 1986 the prefectural government had designated it as a historical site. Catholic churches are not common in China, and churches in obscure villages are even rarer. I decided to pay them a visit.

The journey was tiring but uneventful. From Wenshan, a bus took me to Pingjiu. There I met local officials who introduced me to a farmer who could guide me to Luduke. His field of hot peppers waiting to be picked meant that his services wouldn't come cheaply. After some haggling we arrived at the amount of Y100 (US$12), a price four or five times higher than guides would demand at less busy times. We set off together and made our way over the hills. In the distance I heard the sound of blasting. The minerals that had brought the French to the area during the last century still lay under the mountains in quantities large enough to interest modern miners. These days though, the minerals are sent north to fuel China's industrial development. The French built rail link between Kunming, the provincial capital, and Hanoi today provides the French (and other tourists) only the chance to take in the beautiful scenery.

When I arrived in Luduke, I headed straight for the church and my guide returned to his peppers. The singing I'd heard was part of the schooling that the church provided during the day. Only forty families lived in the village and a government run primary school behind the church competed for students. Children could attend either or both of these schools and there can't be many Chinese villages so well endowed with educational institutions. Roman letters on the blackboard at the back of the room made me think that some sort of crazy English lesson was being taught until I realized that the language was Hmong. Interestingly, the teacher used the International Hmong script rather than the one promulgated by the Chinese government. This is undoubtably due to the fact that the bible and other religious works are published in Thailand in International Hmong and almost nothing is available in Chinese Hmong. Children were taught religion and the Hmong language. Selections of their homework, essays on Christian morals in Hmong and Chinese, were posted on the compound walls.

Villagers speak of a temporary church that stood until 1906 when it was replaced by the one that stands today. Many of the windows are broken and small plants sprouted from between the cracks in the blocks, but the structure still seemed sound. Inside was clean and the floor was smooth concrete. A dozen or so low benches and tables faced the altar, a high table decorated with a vase of plastic flowers and a candle stick. On the walls were Chinese posters of Jesus and Mary, and on the wall beyond the altar was a large red cross made of paper. A small booth served as the confessional. It was comfortable considering that in another church I had visited, the confessional was outside in a storage room and the faithful had to confess amongst piles of pumpkins. The steeple was eight metres high and was the tallest structure in the village. Of course in a place where the average income is Y200, there are no banks or commercial institutions to compete. The top of the steeple was empty, as the bell it once housed was confiscated by the government in 1963. Its whereabouts today is still a mystery. The church forms one side of the compound. At the back there is an office, private rooms, and a kitchen/dining room. Opposite the church is a storage room and the front of the compound is walled off with an ornate gate admitting entry. The courtyard in the centre is paved with stones and swept clean. Women drape their laundry to dry over the flowering bushes.

The teacher took me to the office where I met the village headman who was also responsible for the church. I signed a guest book and had my photograph taken. The only name that I recognized as foreign was that of a priest from Malaysia who had visited during the previous year. When I asked about documents left behind by the priests, I was shown a photograph of a young bearded French priest, Father Ma as he was known to the villagers, who had served the village for thirty years. His long black robe made him look like a wealthy Chinese merchant of the time as much as anything else. He died in 1940 and is one of two priests buried in Luduke. The first priest had come in the 1880s and a succession of six priests served the village until 1951 when the last was sent packing by the government. The village is still without a priest, but since 1980 when the ban on religious activity was lifted, a priest from Kunming comes once or twice a year to give communion, hear confessions, perform marriages and so on.

We had to go out and do some walking to see further evidence of the priests' work in the village. From the room where we talked, I could see a large gathering of children in the courtyard surreptitiously watching me. The population of Luduke and other villages in the area was either very young or very old. Everyone else had left the village to work for wages. Whenever I established eye contact with the children they'd quickly look away or move out of sight. But once they saw us get up to take a walk, they lead the way to tour the sights.

We walked along part of the five kilometres of path cobbled under the priests' supervision, past the wells that they had dug to a remote part of the valley where the two priests are buried. A tall stone cross stands over the mountain side gravesite overlooking the cornfields. A close examination reveals the repairs made after the cross was damaged by a Red Guard raiding party that visited the village. During the cultural revolution, anything deviating from the teachings of Chairman Mao was strictly banned and religious activity in the village had to be conducted at home in secret.

By the time we got back to the church, supper was ready. I was invited to join the headman and his family in the compound dining room. A prayer was said, I could recognize the Hmong words for "Maria" and "Amen", and we sat down to eat. Supper was a modest feast consisting of pork fat, pumpkins, some greens, and rice laced with corn kernels. Our meal reflected yet another aspect of the priests' efforts. Almost all the crops of Yunnan, corn, potatoes, pumpkins, and tobacco, were introduced from the West. The rice was a treat in honour of my visit. Poor soil and an altitude of two thousand metres meant that all rice had to be bought at the Pingjiu market and brought back to Luduke. Incidentally, on Fridays the villagers abstain from eating meat, following a custom now abandoned in the West.

After supper, we chatted in the courtyard and I quickly ran out of cigarettes. In China it is considered rude to smoke without offering to the other men present and I was the only one in the village rich enough to buy cigarettes. Just as the sun set, a bell was struck signalling that the evening service was about to begin. About thirty people showed up and as they entered the church they crossed themselves and genuflected before they sat, women on the left and men on the right. The teacher I had met when I arrived sat in front and lead the congregation in prayer, reading by the light of a coal oil lamp. Everyone seemed to be wearing crucifixes around their necks and many carried flashlights in preparation for the walk home. Morning and evening prayer services had been held in the church every day since the lifting of the ban on religious activity.

One of the men I had been speaking to before the service beckoned me to go outside. He'd arranged one of the women of the Yi nationality to dress in her finest clothing for me to see. Her back did indeed have the cross on it, even though the ten Yi families of the village no longer followed the Christian faith. I was told that they had worn this design since the priests came and continued to wear it right through the turmoil of the cultural revolution. The Hmong also wore a cross on their backs, but it was not so striking as that of the Yi. While I was in Wenshan I met a manganese dealer from Beijing and I told him about my plans to visit the church in Luduke and what little I knew of the place. He said it was inconceivable that the villagers would have been allowed to wear the cross during the cultural revolution. I can only assume that the Red Guards must have been blind to such subtle expressions of faith.

In a village without electricity, there is not much to do at night except sleep. With a feeling of trepidation, I went to the rat infested storage room that was to serve as my bedroom for the night. It wasn't the rats that worried me however. I brought along a Hmong phrasebook and leafing through it, noticed that the word for "lice" has two definitions in Hmong, one for head lice, and the other for body lice. I feared that the Hmong must be on very intimate terms with these parasites to honour them with their own distinct names. But the bedding was spotlessly new and I had a comfortable night's sleep.

In the morning, after a breakfast of noodle soup, I accompanied the headman back to Wenshan where he had some errands to take care of. On the way back I thought about the remarkable survival of the church. The building continues to stand, and in every sense is still the centre of the village. Isolated from the Catholic community, oppressed by the government and terrible poverty, the villagers had every excuse to abandon their religion. But they kept their faith and the church flourishes.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hollywood Vegans

Hmmm, vegan!

Have you ever seen a Hollywood movie where the police chief was not an ill-tempered black man? You probably have, but not recently. Have you ever seen a Hollywood movie where the vegan didn't prepare and serve inedible food and wasn't a fussy and fanatical hypocrite? You probably haven't, ever.

The stock character has been with us long before movies were made in Hollywood. Vegans, meanwhile, are a relatively recent addition to the scene. How did they get such an overwhelmingly bad reputation so thoroughly so quickly? They are fussy, it must be conceded, but I think the key to the question lies in their example making others confront habits and thoughts they'd prefer were left unquestioned. That is never a pleasant thing. Does the target audience of these films find some pleasure in putting these vegans in their place? A guilty conscience is quite capable of shooting a messenger. Especially a fussy messenger.

Vegans I've met have been thoughtful people and their food is tasty and nutritious. Their depiction in the world of film is false and undeserved. I suspect the Hollywood image is the result of laziness and willingness to pander to a complacent audience. Maybe even cave in to pressure from a wealthy and politically active meat industry. My advice? Speak out against these negative characterizations and don't let these stereotypes take root.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

More Fiction of the 21st Century

I've been writing for the past month or so about some authors of the new century that I've discovered. Only four names have emerged which I can recommend without reservation. There are other books though that I've come across that stand out and merit a mention. I can refer here to actual books specifically rather than the author's work in general because having enjoyed these books I've gone on to read other novels by the author and I've found them disappointing or unremarkable, or found other reasons not to pursue the author's work.

I'll start out with Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. This is a dystopian science fiction story about an aging, lonely man, Lenny, a lover of books in a society where youth and celebrity is prized above all and the smell of an old paperback book is thought to be disgusting. America has become a police state and the Chinese are busy buying up anything of value. Can Lenny and Eunice find happiness in this world? Get ready for some super sadness.

I already quoted a selection of Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic; or, The Sexual Intellectual in a previous posting not long ago. As I think I mentioned, it's little more than a series of rants on a large and sometimes surprisingly diverse series of topics. Eventually, it gets exhausting though in parts it is fresh, informative and fun. If I ever come across any of Theroux's other novels, I'd be happy to give them a look, but his work is relatively obscure.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke's first novel is a fantasy about witchcraft and witches in early 19th century England. Fantasy is not something I typically read, and I doubt I'll be on the look out for Clarke's next work, but the author is a highly accomplished writer and has given us something which surpasses Tolkien (and that's not saying a lot) in imagination and story telling. Those who have a higher tolerance for fantasy should find this novel immensely enjoyable.

Finally, I should add a couple more novels that are notable for their mixing of fact and fiction. 2003 Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello is one, and Ian McEwan's Solar is the other. Both mix fiction with polemics: thoughtful meditations on animal rights in the former, and energy in the latter. I will probably get around to reading more of both these authors eventually, but I'm in no hurry. There's still lots to be read of the previous century as well as novels of this century by novelists I've long been familiar with. Right now, with my exploration of new novelists of the 21st century at a close, I'm returning to new works by old favourites. I'm a good way into Murakami Haruki's 1Q84. Too early yet for a definitive recommendation, but at just over 200 pages into an 1,100 page book, I'm giving 1Q84 a provisional thumbs up.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

David Mitchell

David Mitchell may be famous these days as author of Cloud Atlas, the expensive Hollywood spectacle released last year. I thought Cloud Atlas (the book) was a fine piece of fiction. Good enough for me to go on to read his latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Cloud Atlas is composed of 6 very loosely interlocking stories set between the 19th century and some point in the Star Trekish future. Each story gets some 50 pages devoted to it, is then abruptly cut off and the next story is taken up. Once this is finished we cycle back in much the same format and the stories are concluded. It's an ambitious work and Mitchell is able to pull it off. There is a convincing feel for setting, detail, character and dialogue. It was much more absorbing than the disappointing movie version - television pacing, attention deficit disorder editing, full of explosions and car chases.

While Cloud Atlas was half historical fiction and half science fiction, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is wholly historical. It's set entirely in and around Nagasaki, Japan about the year 1800, when the Dutch maintained a trading post there, and the aristocracy of Japan were beginning to question the old regime and push for modernization. The hero, Jacob de Zoet, is a young clerk sent by the Dutch East India Company to Dejima. He spends several decades there, becoming entwined in various intrigues. Again, Mitchell shows great ability in depicting the times and place. I'm not a fan of historical fiction, but it is clear that Mitchell has done his homework. I lived in Edo Machi, Nagasaki, just across the river from the one time artificial island, Dejima, which during the period of the novel was Japan's sole outlet to the larger world. I know the town and history well, and Mitchell has done them justice.

I'm not sure that I'll be looking forward to Mitchell's next work. but what I read of his did stand out among the dozens of other novels I looked at as polished and compelling pieces of fiction. It may not last, but it will do for now. Here's a short excerpt from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:

There is a wide square of sand and grit, deserted but for a few soldiers. This plaza is named, van Cleef told him, Edo Square to remind the independent Nagasaki populace where the true power lies. On one side is the Shogunal Keep: ramped stones, high walls and steps. Through another set of gates, the retinue is submersed in a shaded thoroughfare. Hawkers cry, beggars implore, tinkers clang pans, ten thousand wooden clogs knock against flagstones. Their own guards yell, ordering the townspeople aside. Jacob tries to capture every fleeting impression for letters to Anna, and to his sister, Geertje, and his uncle. Through the palanquin's grille, he smalls steamed rice, sewage, incense, lemons, sawdust, yeast and rotting seaweed. He glimpses gnarled old women, pocked monks, married girls with blackened teeth. Would that I had a sketchbook, the foreigner thinks, and three days ashore to fill it. Children on a mud wall make owl-eyes with their forefingers and thumbs, chanting 'Oranda-me, Oranda-me, Oranda-me': Jacob realizes they are impersonating 'round' European eyes and remembers a string of urchins following a Chinaman in London. The urchins pulled their eyes into narrow slants and sang, 'Chinese, Siamese, if you please, Japanese.'

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Jonathan Lethem

Of the handful of authors I've discovered in the past year or so since I started exploring the fiction of the 21st century, Jonathan Lethem is the one I can enthuse over with the greatest passion. His novels, like those of Tom McCarthy, are verging on science fiction and are influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and P.K. Dick. Lethem adds his experiences growing up in Brooklyn, New York and his appreciation of popular culture. His feel for character and setting, and the English language is stronger than either Vonnegut or Dick.

I first came across Lethem reading his latest novel Chronic City. The main character is a quasi-celebrity, an ex child actor in a TV sitcom who is now married to an astronaut stranded on a crippled space station orbiting the earth. The drama makes excellent fodder for obsessive news/gossip coverage and his waning celebrity status has been given a boost. He is befriended by an obscure part time writer of DVD liner notes and full time conspiracy theorist. He's drawn into a new circle of acquaintances and finds himself at the edge of a new unreality. How far does he descend into the rabbit hole, and what's at the bottom? That's the story of Chronic City.

Fortress of Solitude is a bit of a departure for Lethem. It's semi-autobiographical with only some of the fantastical elements of his other work. We follow the main character from the age of six when his bohemian parents move into a black neighbourhood of Brooklyn, anxious to push the logic and idealism of racial integration to its conclusion. The boy makes friends, both black and white, and gets caught up in the worlds of comics and graffiti art. At the end of the book, the hero is in his forties, living in California, working in the music business. Fortress of Solitude is about race relations, particularly, how the hero copes with the almost daily racial hazing he is subject to as a child. He is never actually hurt physically, but he's humiliated, shamed and forced to hand over whatever coins he's not secreted away. It's also a story of his neighbourhood and its gentrification, begun with his parents' decision to make it their home. At the end of the book as he visits, he finds the streets full of French restaurants and bistros. Those of his black friends who didn't flee or end up in prison are marginalized.

Here's a couple of paragraphs from near the beginning of his latest, Chronic City:

“But I know your secret.”

I was startled. Did I have a secret? If I did, it was one of the things I’d misplaced in the last few years. I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten from there to here, made the decisions that led from my child stardom to harmlessly dissipated Manhattan celebrity, nor how it was that I deserved the brave astronaut’s love. I had trouble clearly recalling Janice, that was part of my sorrow. The day she launched for the space station I must have undertaken to quit thinking of Janice, even while promising to keep a vigil for her here on earth. I never dared tell anyone this fact. So if I had a secret, it was that I had conspired to forget my secret.
Perkus eyed me slyly. Perhaps it was his policy to make this announcement to any new acquaintance, to see what they’d blurt out. “Keep your eyes and ears open,” he told me now. “You’re in a position to learn things.”

What things? Before I could ask, we were off again. Perkus’s spiel encompassed Monte Hellman, Semina Culture, Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, the Mafia’s blackmailing of J. Edgar Hoover over erotic secrets (resulting in the bogus amplification of Cold War fear and therefore the whole of our contemporary landscape), Vladimir Mayakovsky and the futurists, Chet Baker, Nothingism, the ruination Giuliani’s administration had brought to the sacred squalor of Times Square, the genius of The Gnuppet Show, Frederick Exley, Jacques Rivette’s impossible-to-see twelve-hour movie Out 1, corruption of the arts by commerce generally, Slavoj Zizek on Hitchcock, Franz Marplot on G. K. Chesterton, Norman Mailer on Muhammad Ali, Norman Mailer on graffiti and the space program, Brando as dissident icon, Brando as sexual saint, Brando as Napoleon in exile. Names I knew and didn’t. Others I’d heard once and never troubled to wonder about. Mailer, again and again, and Brando even more often—Perkus Tooth’s primary idols seemed to be this robust and treacherous pair, which only made Perkus seem frailer and more harmless by contrast, without ballast in his pencil-legged suit. Maybe he ate Jackson Hole burgers in an attempt to burgeon himself, seeking girth in hopes of attracting the attention of Norman and Marlon, his chosen peers.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Julian Barnes

According to Wikipedia, Julian Barnes has been publishing since 1980, but it was only last year, on the heels of his being awarded the 2011 Booker prize, that I got around to reading anything of his.

The book in question, A Sense of Ending, is not typically my cup of tea. It's a short book, divided into two parts. The first part introduces the main character and his adolescent school mates. They grow up, get girlfriends, and drift apart. One of the gang, the most intelligent and sensitive, commits suicide. In part two, the main character is older - retired and looking back on his life as somewhat of a disappointment. He receives a letter from a lawyer informing him he's received a bequest, bringing back the days of the first part, causing him and us to look at them (and him) in a new light.

As I say, it's not something I would ordinarily read or find myself recommending to others, but the novel is very well constructed with a strong narrative. There's no question that it deserved the Booker award. It led me to read Arthur and George of 2005. It's moderately fictionalized account of a true set of events in England around the year 1900. Arthur is Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and inveterate rider of hobby horses. George is George Edalji, young solicitor in Birmingham, son to an Indian countryside clergyman and his Scottish wife. George is the target of an anonymous barrage of hate mail and is eventually sent to prison on very dubious grounds for slashing local farm animals. Arthur steps in and campaigns to clear George's name. Again a well constructed novel with a strong narrative, vivid characters and a solid grasp of the period and setting.

I'm not sure whether Barnes will be remembered a hundred years hence, or that he's doing much these days to push the novel into new directions. He does, however, stand out among his contemporaries as a highly accomplished and capable novelist. He's a couple of paragraphs:

The asylum sent Arthur his father's sketchbooks. Charles Doyle's last years had been miserable, as he lay unvisited at his grim final address; but he did not die mad. That much was clear: he had continued to paint watercolours and to draw; he also kept a diary. It now struck Arthur that his father had been a considerable artist, undervalued by his peers, worthy indeed of a posthumous exhibition in Edinburgh - perhaps even London. Arthur could not help reflecting on the contrast in their fates: while the son was enjoying fame and society, his abandoned father knew only the occasional embrace of the straightjacket. Arthur felt no guilt - just the beginnings of filial compassion. And there was one sentence in his father's diary which would drag at any son's heart. 'I believe,' he had written, 'I am branded as mad solely from the Scotch Misconception of Jokes.'

In December of that year, Holmes fell to his death in the arms of Moriarty; both of them propelled downwards by an impatient authorial hand. The London newspapers had contained no obituaries of Charles Doyle, but were full of protest and dismay at the death of a non-existent consulting detective whose popularity had begun to embarrass his creator. It seemed to Arthur that the world was running mad: his father was fresh in the ground, and his wife condemned, but young City men were apparently tying crepe bands to their hats in mourning for Mr Sherlock Holmes.