THE SEARCH FOR PEACH BLOSSOM SPRING
My First Encounter with Don Quixote’s Freston the Magician
New York to Hong Kong on board Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airlines. Sixteen hours plus a one-hour stopover in Vancouver. While 33,000 feet up in the air, I decide to brush up on my rusty mandarin, both written and spoken. I also draw up a list of useful phrases, phrases which I hope I never have to use:
- I think I dislocated my shoulder when I fell from the cliff
- Are you sure this flimsy boat can make it through those roaring rapids?
- Shouldn’t there be a pillow on my bed?
- Shouldn’t there be a bed in my room?
- I think I lost my passport/glasses/wallet/sanity when the boat tipped over
- You don’t reuse the needles, do you?
- I’m sure it’s great medicine but I’m allergic to toad eyebrows and mosquito dung
- But I had no idea this was illegal in China
- But I thought the officer in charge said this could be resolved without a prison sentence
- Isn’t it prejudicial for the judge to call me a ‘barbarous, out-of-province, long-nosed, foreign-devil’?
- But shouldn’t the verdict come after the trial?
- Please don’t pull the pin out of the grenade until I’m off the bus/ferry/boat/train/balcony
- The gentleman says to tell the customs official that he is not smuggling Chinese coins in his chest; he has a pacemaker.
- Excuse me, there must be a mistake: this isn’t my laundry/luggage/wife/husband
- But before I took your pills I wasn’t coughing/vomiting/seeing double/unable to walk
- But that baby doesn't even look like me
It wasn’t long into the flight when I learned that there was a child in the seat directly behind me. I learned this because of his almost constant habit of kicking the back of my seat. This in turn prevented me from sleeping and gave me horrible jet lag which was to cause several problems.
It is embarrassing to relate that I checked into the wrong hotel but it was not entirely my fault. To get a lower rate, I had booked through an Internet site and the Internet site had the Hong Kong hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong at a very good rate. There was some confusion between the hotel and the Internet site about my reservation both on line and when I arrived in Hong Kong but I was given a room. Seven hours later, I was asked to come down to the front desk with my paperwork and thereupon discovered that instead of checking into the Hong Kong Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, I was supposed to have checked into the Kowloon Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Although I was told I would have to leave there would be no charge because it was obvious that the hotel and the Internet site had missed obvious signs also.
I pack and walk over to the nearby Kowloon Hotel. A sweet, young Chinese woman behind the desk looks at my passport and checks her computer.
Sweet, young thing: “Oh, we have you down for an early check-in.”
Me: “I did check in early; I just checked into the wrong hotel, that’s all.”
Sweet, young thing: “Oh.”
Me.: “But I am in the former British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, right?”
Sweet, young thing: “Yes.”
Me: “Well, there you go, then, I’m in the right city, at least, so no harm done.”
I could see the Caucasian lady in charge trying unsuccessfully not to laugh. She probably thought I had never been to Hong Kong before when in fact I had first arrived in Hong Kong before anyone behind the hotel desk had been born. So there.
I call my former secretary and suggest we have lunch so I can get her (Chinese) reaction to my search for Peach Blossom Spring. She says to meet her in the Sogo Department Store in Causeway Bay.
Me: “But where, exactly?”
Former Secretary: “At the Cosmetics Counter.”
Me: “Why the Cosmetics Counter?”
Former Secretary: “Because it’s by the front door.”
Me: “But what if they try to sell me lipstick or something while I’m waiting?”
Former Secretary: “Then be sure to get the right shade.”
Ha, ha. Everyone in Hong Kong is a comedian.
My former secretary has put on a few pounds, but the rich brown eyes in her still youthful face have the same cynical gaze I remember from years before; the one she reserves for when listening to the madcap schemes of foreign-devils. Over a Thai meal, I barely finish outlining my plan of finding Peach Blossom Spring before she makes her views clear: “I don’t think you will find it.” Honesty, not tact, has always been her strong suit. “Anyway, why didn’t you go in the spring when the peach blossoms were out?”
A good question, of course. A very good question. The truth is I didn’t have my act together enough to get there by then. But there is something else: T’ao Yuan-ming said the fisherman found peach trees in blossom lining both sides of the river’s source and that there were no other trees; but he never said which month it was. My belief is that the poet meant that the fisherman found a magical place where the peach trees are in bloom whatever time of year. My former secretary finds that very funny. In fact, every now and then throughout the meal she covers her mouth with her hand and laughs and repeats her belief that she doesn’t think I will find it. Ah, ye of little faith. I let her pay for the lunch.
I learn from a newspaper report that the American Ballet Theatre will soon arrive in Hong Kong to present a spirited version of Don Quixote. According to a press report, the ballet will be “enhanced by the wholesome American style of dancing, and will no doubt offer a splendid evening, and send everyone home happy after its joyous ending.” In the various translations of Cervantes’ Don Quixote I have read, the ending was anything but happy, in mood falling somewhere between Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind but I’m a firm believer in giving people what they want.
The message lights in my hotel room do not work properly and I miss several calls. Finally, I realize there is a problem and call friends who assure me that they had in fact left several messages. The assistant manager sends up a bottle of red wine as compensation.
While walking through the streets, heading for dinner, I notice that Hong Kong is as vibrant and bustling as ever. The dramatic skyline seems to have still more and even higher buildings; the shipping in the magnificent deep water harbor teems with as many craft as ever.
While crossing the harbor on the Star Ferry, an English businessman sitting beside me is speaking into his cellphone: “Well, we would have no problem in monitoring their assets inside China…well, when you say ‘asset disposal program,’ what do you mean?…Yes, that would be the typical transaction cycle.” I change my seat.
At dinner, friends complain of the poor economy, growing unemployment and bemoan an economic slowdown, but with the exception of certain Manhattan neighborhoods there is not a more dynamic place on earth.
I first saw Hong Kong in 1967, fell in love with it, and came back to live in 1970. I arrived from Taiwan with just under one American dollar in my pocket and when my contact failed to meet me at the airport, I allowed a van driver working for one of the small hotels inside the notorious Chungking Mansions to take me there. There are many stories of Chinese arriving in Hong Kong with no money but leaving as multi-millionaires. I at least accomplished the first half -– the arriving with no money part. But I’ve always wondered if there was ever a case of the opposite: someone arriving with lots of money who left a pauper. I suppose not; Hong Kong, “Fragrant Harbor,” is not that kind of place.
Chungking Mansions is a short walk from my hotel and I am pleased to see that it is still here and is every bit as tawdry, unsavory and down-market as before. As soon as I approach, an Indian man steps in front of me to offer me a suit and a Chinese man approaches to sell me a watch. In the garishly lit hallways, beyond the money changers and sari shops, energetic, enterprising and ever-restless people from Africa, China, the subcontinent and the Middle East are haggling, bargaining and making deals. The hum of human activity seems to be as steadfast and relentless as the hum of fluorescent lights above their heads. Odors of exotic dishes and sweating bodies flood my nostrils. I stand before several of the building’s lifts to read the signs: “The Delphi Club mess, Pakistani mess (Pakistan and Indian halal food), Khyber Pass Club mess, Ashok Club (Nepali food), Sher-T-Punjab Club and Mess (Indian and Muglai food), Everest Club (best Nepali and Indian food), Gurung Army Store, New Hawaii Guest House, New Peking Guest House, New Asia Guest House, Super Guest House, Tom’s Guest House, Himalaya Guest House, Tokyo Guest House, Welcome Guest House, Fortunate Guest House, Ocean Guest House, London Comfort Guest House, Hollywood Guest House, Columbia Guest House, Happy Guest House, Shanghai Guest House, New Washington Guest House, Dragon Inn, Hang On Tailors, and (ominously) one of the signs simply reads, “Big Brother.”
But, of course, the city has changed. In the 70's my friends had middle-aged amahs with green jade earrings and black samfu; now their maids (as well as the “Suzy Wongs” in Wanchai) are young women from the Philippines. And in the 70's, before diesel engines changed their fishing methods, Hong Kong residents could look out upon the South China Sea and observe fleets of Chinese junks with their beautiful, butterfly-wing sails returning from their fishing grounds. Now one is more likely to spot a container ship. And, of course, the British flag is no more.
There is an old saying I have always liked. It goes something like: “Decent girls don’t go to Hong Kong; nor do respectable youths travel by the Fatshan boats.” An admonition probably created well over a century ago but I wish I had been in Hong Kong at the time the warning was thought necessary, and I have spent an inordinate amount of time imagining what went on on board those Fatshan boats.
At last I manage to track down professor Tan Shih-lin on the phone. We talk mainly in English and he tells me he is “in the picture” as “they” have told him about me. I assume he means the people at the university in Kwangchou (Canton) but, being a paranoid writer, I realize he and “they” could be part of a group opposed to anyone finding Peach Blossom Spring, just as Don Quixote’s powerful enemy Freston the Magician dogged him at every turn.
But I have a few questions for him. The story of Peach Blossom Spring is told in story form but in Professor Tan’s book he includes a short poem about Peach Blossom Spring, also by T’ao Yuan Ming. However, his is one of only two books I have ever come across which includes the poem. His answer is what I had suspected: the story of Peach Blossom Spring was actually a preface for a poem of the same subject, but over the centuries the Chinese have chosen to include only the story in their “gems of Chinese literature,” not the less favored poem, which in any case, basically just repeats information from the beautifully written preface.
However, in the story version, it is said that the clothes of the people living in Peach Blossom Spring are “not unusual” but in the poem it says the clothes were “of an ancient cut.”
I ask Professor Tan if he can shed any light on this discrepancy. He tells me that the poet’s implication regarding the dress both in the prose and in the poem seems to be that the people of Peach Blossom Spring were of Han stock, i.e., they were neither of ethnic minority stock nor were they immortals or other-worldly beings. The settlers had an abiding adherence to traditional Han culture, without having, in the course of five or six hundred years, even slightly altered established rituals and fashions in dress. It is a very clear explanation, one that solves an age-old mystery other translators have grappled with.
He warns me that there is a Peach Blossom Spring set up for tourists near Changde (the former Wuling) begun in the Ch’ing Dynasty, as well as several others in other parts of China, all more recent; all claiming to be the real Peach Blossom Spring. (Not unlike here in New York City, the long simmering dispute over which of several is the real Original Ray’s Pizza.)
Before I hang up, I decide reluctantly not to ask Professor Tan the question I would really like to have an answer to. The back cover of his book mentions that he was born in Nanjing “with a German background on his mother’s side....Only after the ten years and more of great upheavals across the nation did he settle down to teaching at Jinan University (Kwangchou).”
Of course, the phrase “great upheavals across the nation” refers to the Great Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 when, during the years of fear and madness, millions of Chinese were denounced by one another and tortured and murdered. It is not difficult to imagine the horrors Professor Tan, with his “German background,” must have suffered before it could be written, “did he settle down to teaching.”
That is why I understand perfectly when he hesitates to give me his address. He mentions he is “hopelessly out of touch with life around me” and that it would be difficult to reach him there and instead gives me a name of someone in the United States who can relay letters. Much like those who retreated into Peach Blossom Spring, Professor Tan may well have had more than enough of his fellow man. And this is the unasked question I had: why had he chosen to spend several years of his life translating the complete works of this particular poet; a poet “unstained by worldly dust,” a poet who refused to bow to a “country bumpkin” official for “five pecks of rice a month,” who quit officialdom to retreat to a life of farming and nature and wine and poetry? Was it because it is the lesson the horrors of modern China has taught him as well? As his introduction says, “In a culture predominantly Confucian, where rank and emolument were the coveted reward for scholastic pursuits and where promising scholars were expected to distinguish themselves in public life, T’ao Yuan-ming’s complete break with time-honoured conventionality was without precedent.” And on the same page the quote from Tao’s “Back to Country Life:”
A captive in the cage for years,
Back to nature I’ve found my way.
I can’t help but wonder if the above quote reflects the view and the experience of both men.
The China Travel Service is practically around the corner from my hotel. The businesslike, middle-aged woman there takes my picture, attaches one to my application for a visa, and hands me back three copies. I soon learn that The China Travel Service has perfected a technique to ensure that photographs taken there never dry.
She carefully peruses my application. This is the fifth time I have traveled into China and I am not a complete fool when it comes to indicating my profession on official forms. For example, I know better than to write my profession as “journalist” or “writer” or “novelist” or anything involving the reporting or divulging of information. Smuggler, scoundrel, ne’er-do-well, even serial killer, perhaps, but never "journalist." Be it ever so humble, no government anywhere in the world likes a journalist or -- God forbid -- a foreign correspondent. A smuggler, at least, is a kind of businessman. So I have written what I regard as the most innocuous of professions: “Musical Theater Lyricist.” I also know enough about Chinese psychology to know that they would lose face if they had to admit that they don’t know what a musical theater lyricist is, and, thus far at least, no one has ever questioned me on it.
In the place for Purpose of Trip I have written “To find Peach Blossom Spring.” The woman stares at that sentence for several seconds without blinking (but as each second passes the wrinkles on her forehead deepen), then picks up an ominous looking black pen, draws a line through the five words and above them writes “Tour.”
If Don Quixote de La Mancha himself showed up and wrote in his reason for entering China as “I, Knight of the Lions, bravest knight-errant ever to unsheath a sword, the man for whom the greatest dangers are expressly reserved, and wondrous adventures, and brave deeds of fearless daring, the undoer of wrongs and injustices, wish to enter the Middle Kingdom to joust in tourneys, to quest for grails, to undo injustice, to terrorize giants, to succor widows, to protect damsels in distress, to perform the most remarkable deeds of knighthood ever in this world seen, or which could be seen, and to treasure the fairest lady of them all, the beautiful damsel Dulcinea de Toboso,” I have no doubt that this woman would simply pick up her black pen, draw a line through it all and write “Tour.”
A man at another desk checks the train schedule for me. I explain I want to travel by train to Changsha, capital of Hunan province. The price one-way from Hong Kong to Changsha is HK$545 (about US$68). He tells me that the only train to Changsha leaves at three in the afternoon and arrives at Changsha at 2:40 the next morning.
Me: “Two-forty in the morning? I didn’t know there was a two-forty in the morning.”
Man behind desk: “Ha, there is! And don’t sleep too much.”
Me: “Why not?”
Man behind desk: “Because the train stops in Changsha for just a few minutes. And no one will come around to wake you.”
Me: “So what happens if I sleep through the stop?”
Man behind desk: “Ha, then you wake up in Beijing.”
Man behind desk: “Yes, that’s where this train is going.”
Me: “Then what happens?”
Man behind desk: “Ha, then you pay more.”
When I stop at a camera shop for new batteries, the salesman points out that my camera is old, the batteries will cost half as much as a new camera, and China probably doesn’t sell that type of battery if I need one. He offers to buy my camera for his collection of old cameras. I buy the new camera and sell him mine, but the way he looks my camera over –- as if it is a relic from the Warring States period -- makes me feel like a relic as well.
After I pack my bags I have time to look over the local paper. There is an article about wives from China being beaten and called “stupid China women” by their Hong Kong husbands.
Another article reports that a Hong Kong-based TV company will pay compensation to a woman from mainland China who works in their London office. Her colleagues are from Hong Kong and they apparently referred to her as their “country cousin” and “subjected her to months of slurs.” Menial tasks which no one wanted to do were described as having a “Chinese smell.” It seems the Chinese tendency to look down on outsiders –- “out-of-province-people” -– did not die out with the Ch’ing Dynasty.
The sign in the Kowloon Railway Station for Train K98 reads: “Dongguan/Guangzhou East/Guangzhou/Shaoguan/Changsha/Wuchang/Beijing.” The female conductors’ uniforms and kepi caps with rear sun flaps remind me of the French Foreign Legion as portrayed in old movies. The one in charge of my car hands me a small metal tag which I must return before I get off the train. I have no doubt that in this bureaucratic system, should I lose that tag, there will be trouble.
I find my compartment of four bunks, two upper and two lower, and sit on a lower bunk. An old Chinese woman comes in, checks my ticket, and motions that that is her bunk. I apologize and sit on the lower bunk opposite. A slender, young, bespectacled, Chinese man enters, checks my ticket, and explains that that is his bunk. Nevertheless, he encourages me to sit on it for now. No need to climb up yet. His name is Cham Yen and he is a Hong Kong Cantonese who is off to Beijing to spend the summer with his grandmother. He won’t arrive in Beijing until 7 p.m. the following day. He is a mere 19 years old and an only child. He has a large case of food that his mother packed for him and while we are talking she calls him on his cell phone to make certain he is OK. His father is a salesman in cloth material and buttons, in Hong Kong and China.
Just before the train starts to move, the fourth member of our compartment enters. He is a 20-year-old American from California named Brendan who is heading to Beijing to teach English in north China. He is sporting two small earrings in his right ear and wearing a cap. He could fit right in in Manhattan’s East Village.
Brendan has taught in China before and enjoys it. He mentions that he has only 500 renminbi (about US$55) left because he spent all his money in Hong Kong, so he plans to pass through Beijing and go right to his school without staying overnight in Beijing. He also passes on the advice to me that I should drink only bottled water in China but that since beer in China is cheaper than bottled water, I should drink only beer.
The compartment is cramped but all are friendly and soon we are on our way, heading for Changsha, approximately 900 miles to the northwest. We pass through the newly developed town of Shenzhen where married Hong Kong businessmen buy apartments in which to keep their girlfriends, and past concrete houses which give way to longer and longer glimpses of rural countryside.
Later, Brendan, Cham Yen and I persuade the workers in the dining car to let us sit in one of the booths a bit before they officially open. A major accomplishment on a Chinese train. Cham Yen explains that the way he pronounces his name is Cantonese and that when he goes to Beijing the characters for his name are read in mandarin as Chen Hsin. In China, the same Chinese character is pronounced differently in different dialects, so a Mr. Ng in Hong Kong would be called Mr. Wu in Beijing. It is as if someone from Tennessee named Gore arrives in Texas and his name is pronounced Bush.
I find both young men likable and unpretentious. Brendan also mentions that teaching in China is great except for some of those in administration, “the know-it-all 30-year-old’s.” Something about Brendan’s attitude toward 30-year-old’s makes me feel ancient.
The dining car fills up and at other tables just about everyone talks or rather shouts into a cellphone. At some point we briefly discuss the 1979 conflict between China and Vietnam which, according to Cham Yen, China won; and then with an expression of deep sorrow he adds, “but more Chinese died than Vietnamese.”
I have decided not to mention my mission in China unless someone asks what I am doing in China. As Chinese are a curious people, I am almost always asked. Cham Yen is no exception. I especially like Cham Yen because of all the Chinese I meet in China he seems the only one whose belief that I will in fact find Peach Blossom Spring is genuine.
Cham Yen has just seen Mission Impossible 2 and gives it a glowing review. This leads to talk of the late hero of Chinese martial arts films, Bruce Li, and how he died so young. The year was 1973 and I was living in Hong Kong at the time. Cham Yen says he wasn’t born then. Whenever I talk to young people about something I did in the past or about something that happened in my youth, they almost invariably say, “I wasn’t born yet.” Young people are beginning to piss me off.
I ask Cham Yen if he knows who killed Bruce Li. He looks at me and wrinkles his brow in puzzlement.
Cham Yen: “He died a natural death.”
Me: “No, he didn’t.”
Cham Yen: “He didn’t?”
Me: “What was his nickname?”
Cham Yen: “I don’t know.”
Me: “Li Syau Lung.”
Cham Yen: “Yes, that’s right!”
Me: “And what does Syau Lung mean?”
Cham Yen: “Little Dragon.”
Me: “And what does ‘Kowloon’ mean?”
Cham Yen: “Nine dragons.”
Me: “Right. Don’t you see? Bruce Li was living in Kowloon at the time and The Nine Dragons were jealous of the fame of the Little Dragon and so they killed him.”
Cham Yen laughs. But over a quarter of a century ago, at the time of Bruce Li’s death, every Chinese in Hong Kong repeated that version of the event, and everyone suspected that Bruce Li’s being born in the year of the dragon in the hour of the dragon also had something to do with his feud with the nine dragons. A new, less superstitious, generation has forgotten.
I tell Cham Yen I still remember a handmade tribute to Bruce Li hanging in a Wanchai alley just after he died. A large photograph of him was bordered in black and beneath the photograph were four Chinese characters: Ching Shen Pu Sz (“A Pure Spirit Never Dies”). It always amazed me how deeply Bruce Li was loved by the people of Hong Kong, especially the young. But it is not surprising that in a colony in which Chinese had no king or queen or flag of their own, the fighting spirit of a never-say-die Bruce Li underdog would become popular.
Cham Yen has a lovely innocence about him, which would not be surprising if he were from the mainland but is unusual for a Hong Kong Chinese. After we discuss a beautiful Hong Kong movie star who killed herself in the 60's, I ask him if he can name the four classic beauties in Chinese history and he admits he can’t. I name them -– Hsi Shih, Yang Kuei-fei, Diao Chan and Wang Chao-chun -- and point out that they all had tragic endings so it may be best not to be too beautiful in China. He says he is not interested in old beauties, only modern ones. He asks me if I like Chinese women.
I hesitate then decide to confess to him what I seldom tell anyone. How when I was about nine or ten years old, I would sit in front of the television set in Groton, Connecticut, “Home of the Nautilus, Submarine Capital of the World,” watching cowboys and Indians fight it out. And how my parents always thought I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up. And how the truth was I didn’t want to be a cowboy nor did I give a damn who won the battles. I only wanted to get a glimpse of Indian women. Living in Connecticut at the age of ten I didn’t even know what they were. I only knew every time I saw one of those young women emerge from a teepee I felt an inexplicable frisson of excitement pass through me. Something about the long braided jet-black hair, the high cheekbones, the almond eyes, the smoldering looks, the curvaceous form filling out the buckskin -– I was already, even then, a Caucasian male moth to a Mongoloid female flame and, had I been able to crawl inside the TV set, no doubt would have.
It was about that time that adult westerns were popular on American TV and my favorite was Cheyenne starring Clint Walker. On one of the episodes a beautiful Indian woman, trying to prevent him from turning her in to the authorities, gave him a doe-eyed look and said, “I can give you pleasure.” But Cheyenne wasn’t having any of that and he turned her in. That’s when I knew that that boy had some serious problems. Definitely a spur missing there somewhere. I never forgave him for that and I never watched him again.
Anyway, I tell Cham Yen that many years later I learned two more things about those beautiful “Indian maidens.” First, most of them weren’t Indian at all; rather, Italian- or Spanish-American actresses with makeup and blush or highlighter or whatever it is that clever women use to give the impression of having high cheekbones. Second, I learned that most experts still believe that twelve thousand years ago there was a land bridge between Alaska and Russia and that Asians crossed it and populated the Americas. Which explains why so many Native Americans resemble Koreans, Manchurians and Mongolians. Which means that at the age of nine or ten I was already afflicted with Yellow Fever. And before he can respond I tell him, as Americans would say, “I’m sick, I need help, but I’m the victim here.”
Cham Yen obviously thinks I am mad but he seems to enjoy my company. He says I am very humorous and wonders why Chinese can’t be humorous. Perhaps he hasn’t seen Jackie Chan movies. Or read the sayings of Chairman Mao.
When a lovely Chinese woman sits at a table a few seats behind us, I tell him that since he likes Mission Impossible so much, I shall give him one. I ask if he can see the woman behind us. At first he doesn’t understand the mandarin expression for “behind.” Finally, he understands, looks in her direction, then asks in English: “What did she do?”
Brendan and I crack up. I explain that she didn’t do anything. Like a crystal clear lake surrounded by China’s magnificent mountains, she is beautiful; she doesn’t have to do; she just has to be. I explain that his Mission Impossible is to put the man she is with out of the picture and get her over to our table. Cham Yen completely blows his mission.
He does get up to ask for more bowls for his noodles and is abruptly told by a member of the dining car staff to sit down. He complains that northerners are rude. I mention that northerners think southerners are loud. He ponders that a bit then says, “Maybe so, but they are rude.”
Outside the window a strange mixture of Chinese houses passes by, resembling nothing so much as Pueblo Indian homes. Or is it my Yellow Fever kicking in again? Before long, the train reaches the “Frontier Inspection,” where everyone and his baggage must leave the train and line up to present his passport. The lines are long, the June day is typically hot and humid, and the somewhat disheveled Chinese officials have their hats off and their shirts outside their trousers. I pass through the passport line and head for the luggage inspection. The Chinese officials hardly glance at my large plain brown bag but they take notice of my shoulder bag. On it is a cow, a barn, and the slogan, “Bouchercon ’99 -- Mischief in the Midwest.”
Bouchercon is the world’s largest convention of mystery writers and mystery fans wherein hotel waiters gradually and rather nervously get used to middle-aged writers and fans and librarians sitting around discussing how to commit the perfect murder. Its last convention was held in Milwaukee, hence the slogan. However, I now realize, assuming the Chinese customs officials read English, they might be thinking that I mean to create mischief in their Midwest. And, indeed, a case could probably be made that anyone entering Hunan Province to search for Peach Blossom Spring is most likely up to mischief. But they wave me through and I pass outside the building.
While waiting for the others to exit customs, I notice a dark-complexioned vendor in blouse and well worn trousers selling a selection of Chinese vegetables. She is probably in her mid-thirties but, like so many Asian women, appears much younger than she is. She is one of those women you sometimes glimpse in Asia and other parts of the world where people are still struggling with concerns in life more practical than the enigma of feminine pulchritude: incredibly beautiful but enmeshed in a poverty which has allowed her no opportunity to use her beauty to better herself. Had she been born inside a palace during one of China’s dynasty’s, she would have been a woman with the power to, in the Chinese phrase, “overturn a kingdom.” She knows nothing of what Thomas Mann wrote of the “profound leaning which those who have devoted their thoughts to the creation of beauty feel toward those who possess beauty itself.”
She wipes her brow and she stares toward the doorway of the shabby customs building, hoping for more potential customers. What I feel toward her is almost a form of worship. That which I can never achieve in words stands before me in the flesh, her beauty a form of taunting; a goal forever beyond my reach. I wonder what she would say if she knew that for one week with her, one night, one hour -- I would give her anything she wanted; my soul, my honor, my freedom, my entire collection of John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee.
A conductor passes by and I strike up a conversation. I ask what Changsha is like. He says he has never got off the train at Changsha. He doesn’t know anyone who ever has got off the train in Changsha. He asks me what I want to go to Changsha for. I explain that from there I will take another train to Changde and from Changde check out the Peach Blossom Spring built for tourists in the Ch’ing Dynasty and then start my search in the mountains and valleys and rivers for the real one. He nods, clears his throat with great zest and spits into the dirt, then ambles off, obviously sorry he asked the question. By the time he leaves, the lovely vendor is gone.
Back on the train it soon grows dark, the dining car closes at 9:30 and we return to our bunks to continue desultory conversations while listening to the click-clack of the wheels on the rails. There is no space for luggage except on the bed itself so I make myself as comfortable as possible but again and again check to make certain the alarm is properly set and the clock is beside me.
I have snatches of strange dreams in which farmers and fishermen welcome me to Peach Blossom Spring, lift me up and carry me toward a picturesque thatched cottage surrounded by peach trees in full bloom. I rock from side to side and seem to be slipping from their grasp when suddenly I wake up dangerously close to the edge of the upper bunk. I check the hands of my clock. According to the clock there is still an hour to go but then I realize I can’t hear the ticking of the clock. The clock has stopped!
And then it suddenly hits me: this is the work of Freston the Magician, powerful and persistent nemesis of Don Quixote and now me as well, and he has done his work diabolically well. With hindsight it is painfully obvious: What at the time I thought was merely an obnoxious, annoying, pesky, obese kid kicking my chair all the way on the flight from New York to Hong Kong was in fact Freston himself. How else to explain the fact that for the first time in my life I checked into the wrong hotel, the fact that the message lights were mysteriously not working in the right hotel, and the fact that jet lag from lack of sleep on the plane may cause me to miss my train stop in Changsha? All of which leads me to be more and more convinced of the presence of a Vast Conspiracy of Black Magic working against me as I try to find Peach Blossom Spring. Don Quixote was right: there are powerful enemies out there.
I jump up, frantically slide the compartment door open and run through the train. It is early morning and no one is around. In my frenzied rush I bang my knee on a sliding door but continue on, now with a decided limp, kind of like Chester on “Gunsmoke.”
Finally, I find a slumberous, disheveled worker sleepwalking out of his compartment on the way to what might euphemistically be called a men’s room. I rudely grab his arm and check his watch and find that it is the same as my clock which I realize I am still clutching in my hand. I place the clock close to my ear and then I hear the ticking. I give the worker a broad smile. The worker seems to think I am as strange as the foreign devils his grandfather probably warned him about and he quickly brushes past me.
I gather up my bags from the compartment and slide the door shut as quietly as possible. Now there is nothing to do but wait. I walk slowly along the worn red carpet lining the cars, beneath the fluorescent lights, listening to the roar of the train and occasionally looking out into the inky darkness of the Middle Kingdom. Signs on the train are everywhere: “Keep Quiet,” “No Throwing,” “No Spitting,” “No Smoking,” “No Peaches.” No peaches? Christ, I’m starting to imagine things.
A sign with a finger and three red drops of blood pouring from it reads: “Taking care of your hands.” They apparently mean not to get your fingers caught in the train door. I study the schedule on the wall for awhile, curse the communist use of impossible-to-read and horribly unsightly simplified characters, then pull down a seat and sit facing a wall a foot away. Considering that the windows are behind me, I wonder if perhaps the Chinese Frank Lloyd Wright-types who designed these cars placed the seats on the wrong side of the aisle. Not exactly the way the Jet Set travels but it will do; I concentrate on the fact that the train is speeding me through the darkness closer to my goal of finding Peach Blossom Spring.
Cham Yen appears, sleepy but unable to sleep. I don’t envy him his journey: it will be a tiring one. He reminds me that before I can leave the train I have to give back that little metal tag to the conductor in charge of our car. I search my trouser pockets -– I can’t find it. I don’t know what the punishment is for losing it but I know there will be one. In the dynastic penal code of the Chinese empire, they would specify how many strokes of the bamboo for each offence or how long iron chains and various wooden or iron fetters should be left on or how far from Peking those found guilty should be exiled or if a prisoner should be branded. Branded!
I begin frantically searching my luggage. And what if they regard the metal tag as some kind of seal or official stamp of office? In the Ch’ing Dynasty penal code it says, “All persons guilty of having been principals or accessories to the crime of stealing the official seal of any magistrate or tribunal, or any seal or stamp whatever issued by the Emperor, shall be beheaded.” Jesus Christ!
Or what if they assume I want to resell it and simply call it robbery? Even then the penal code says, “...he shall not suffer death, but receive 100 blows of the bamboo, and be sent into perpetual banishment at the distance of 3000 lee (from Peking).” One hundred blows of the bamboo?! That American kid in Singapore was bitching about four! Wait. Calm down. Think. Three thousand lee from Peking would be about one thousand miles. Where would that put me? Probably in Hunan province. Right where I’m going. But it would be perpetual banishment. I turn my shoulder bag upside down and spill out the contents. Where the hell is that damn tag? And if I can’t find a metal tag how the hell can I hope to find Peach Blossom Spring?
Or what if after they find my copy of Don Quixote and read about Freston the Magician they consult the Penal Code and conclude that I’m one of those “magicians, who raise evil spirits by means of magical books and dire imprecations, leaders of corrupt and impious sects, and members of all superstitious associations in general?”
And what of all those even more horrible punishments that weren’t mentioned in the Ch’ing Dynasty Penal Codes? Like strapping someone tightly to a cross facing east and cutting off his eyelids so that when the sun rises he will go painfully blind? Help! Or forcing a tightly bound naked man to sit squarely on the sharpened tip of a bamboo that can grow several feet within 24 hours? Heeeeeeeelp! Or what about how they used to send men to a room they called the “Silkworm Chamber,” because newly hatched silkworms and recently castrated males both needed a heated room in order to live? A eunuch! Jesus Christ Almighty!
Naturally all agreed that Ah Q had been a bad man, the proof being that he had been shot; for if he had not been bad, how could he have been shot?
Lu Hsun’s The True Story of Ah Q
I check my trouser pockets for the fourth time. Wait a minute, what about my shirt pocket? Yes! I find it! I find it! My eyelids are safe!
I wipe sweat from my forehead and begin stuffing clothes, books and sundry items back into my luggage. As I finish, the train is pulling into Changsha, and Cham Yen helps me with my luggage, shakes my hand, and wishes me luck. “You will find Peach Blossom Spring,” he says.
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