Chinese family history

Almost as soon as we got off the plane on Wednesday, Rosemary (my mum) dragged me from the tourist trap of the Bund, into some overcrowded, grimy backstreets hunting for the derelict cathedral where her parents were married and she was christened. The magnetic levitation train from Pudong Airport was great fun – not because it travelled at 431 km/h, the fastest train in the world, but because at some points the earth around us seemed to rotate at what felt like, but could not have been, an unnerving 45 degrees. It turned out that we were tilting, but so exactly as we cornered that you couldn’t feel any force.

In 1842, shortly after a war about opium (which sounds too inocuous, let’s just call it heroin but with fewer laboratories), the British and other western countries gained effective territorial control over parts of China. In 1923, short of work, my grandfather came from Dublin to Shanghai by slow boat to work as a chemist for Shanghai Municpal Council. In 1930, short of adventure, my grandmother flitted through Canada and Japan before settling in Shanghai to teach Physical Education at Thomas Hanbury Public School, just north of Soochow creek. There’s a love story here, but I’ll tell that another time (probably if I ever catch the trans-Siberian express).

We found the cathedral, where they later married, in a pretty bad state, which upset Rosemary (the photo, right, sets it off in a good light, so as not to distress too much). There were small trees growing out of the brickwork, and junk piled up in the entrance. Buildings and walls set closely round it, ruining the grand space it occupied originally. The guard was friendly and let us poke about, we’ve found them much less hostile than Rosemary did 24 years ago when she was last here. There was a posh Chinese language Christian bookshop near the entrance, and the junk turned out to be for renovation work.

We also found the old council building (photo left), and nosed inside. It’s lucky that the guards are friendly now, as it seems Rosemary won’t let any fear stop her from access to family history. It was grand inside, and there were lots of old framed photos of the building under construction, and of speeches from the balcony (see photo) to celebrate when the Communists took over rule of the city in 1949. My grandfather worked in here. He did lots of different things, mainly to do with water pollution, but also, for example, helping to develop tarmac suitable for the local weather.

Everyone puts their own interpretation on places. To the signs made by the government, everywhere is a Communist memorial – where the first party congress was, how much they are doing to clear up the environment. To my mum, everything is the old Shanghailander in her – architecture from a grand age, bridges that Japanese soldiers marched them over, streets where her mother used to shop. I’ll give my take on Shanghai in another post.

東南西北 (DongNanXiBei, EastSouthWestNorth)

A week on Tuesday I’m going to China again. Starting in Shanghai, which is on the East coast in the centre, at the mouth of the Yangtze river. I’m travelling with Rosemary, my mum (who I spent a few weeks with in Japan three years ago; see the last few articles here). We’re going to head for Chengdu, route still to be decided. Email me or post comments if you have suggestions, particularly if you know anybody living in China who could show us around.

Think for a minute, what have you read about China in newspapers and magazines recently? It’s almost certainly very distorted, a Western view of this rapidly changing, ancient country. I’ve been watching out for better sources of Chinese news. The best best place is EastSouthWestNorth (scroll down to “section 3 of 3: Blog posts” for the meat, and for the RSS feed). A guy in Hong Kong translates important mainland Chinese news stories and blog posts into English. Highlights from the last few months:

Roland Soong, who provides this vital, tenuous link between the Chinese and English language Internets, has also translated an article about himself. (Also thanks to Dan O’Huiginn for reminding me that it is easy to spend too much time reading in English. He proceeded to investigate Mongolia, South Korea and the Czech Republic more thoroughly).

Surrounded by miracles

On Christmas day I broke my collarbone (clavicule). Inattention on some ice in the street in Switzerland, and I fell before realising I was falling. I don’t know how I landed, as my body instinctively leapt up and sat against a shop window away from the street for safety. Clever thing, the human body.

A Frenchman came and asked me if I wanted a doctor (luckily basic French doesn’t disappear with injury). I thought I was just winded, but then realised I couldn’t lift up my arm. He kindly gave me a lift to the surgery and an efficient medical system filled me with morphine and gave me a sling. (Paid for later via the European Health Insurance Card which luckily Rosemary had told me to get earlier in the year. Apply for yours online).

After about six weeks, with no substantive further treatment, I had full movement of my arm back. I’ve got a pointy spike sticking out of the top of the shoulder, which I still feel every day because it is so weird (see photo right, which is a scan of the X-ray of my shoulder taken in Switzerland). There’s a lump of new growth bone just below it. That lump binds it to the other half of the collar bone, on into my shoulder blade. There are two amazing things about this.

Firstly, bone just heals like skin, binding itself together. It’s a living, breathing thing, not just a structure that can last buried in the earth for thousands, millions of years. Secondly, that the shoulder still works in full, despite now containing a bone of much distorted shape from the original. Imagine taking a complex machine made by man, such as a car, and randomly sawing one of the metal rods in half, then welding it back together haphazardly, and the machine still functioning.

I’m reminded of this because an old friend just rang up with bad news. His father has died of cancer of the pancreas. Not young, but not as old as we are lucky enough to expect to live in Britain these days. We both cried on the phone, and because we used to do an A-level in it together, talked about biology.

Cancers are in some ways very natural. It’s not an external evil, like BSE prions or HIV virus, but our own systems that fail. Cells naturally grow and reproduce, and cancers are mutant ones that fail to do that in a controlled manner. The body has several layers of protection which detect most cancers – my friend said particularly good at doing so in growing small children – and stops them before we even notice. But sometimes this fails, and the cell sucks materials from the rest of the body, and divides uncontrollably.

This year I feel like a miracle has returned me full use of my arm. However much we understand the process, it is simply incredible that the body can heal itself so well. I fell like a regenerating troll from Dungeons & Dragons. And yet also the same force for good can turn to destruction. And one day I too will die, this healing power not enough. A cancer out of control, a bus I didn’t notice, a heart stopping, taking our last unbelievable breath in this beautiful world.

Hitchhiking to Christ’s Grave

When I was a child there was only one thing considered more dangerous than taking sweets off strangers. It’s so ingrained in me by the ambient protection of society not to hitch hike that I have never even considered doing it. All sorts of unclarified bad things might happen. For example, people might have conversations with other people that they didn’t know already, or (gasp!) who belong to a different social class. Perhaps, like in China, people might learn to start paying each other for lifts, thus creating a more efficient and more capitalist transport economy, with the added side effect of being better for the environment. The consequences both for society, and in increasing everyones standard of living, could have no end of positive implications.

To make the inconvenient pilgrimage to Christ’s Grave at Shingo from Lake Towada you cannot use public transport. There isn’t any. Taking a taxi is plausible, but we suspect only very rich Americans would be willing to fork out the necessary hundred quid. So we decided to hitchhike. My mother would be shocked, except it was her idea and she was with me…

We took the bus round the lake to the road junction for Shingo and waited a couple of minutes for the first car to make the turn off. Rosemary held up a sign saying Shingo in Romaji – we didn’t know how to write it in Japanese characters, and figured we wanted someone happy enough with English to at least be able to read the alphabet. Amazingly the first car contained the sweetest of young couples on their honeymoon; she was four months pregnant. They took us not only all the way to Shingo, but on to our exact destination Christ’s Grave which is just outside the town (not that we ever found the town, it must have about one house in it, and only be ambiently different from the houses which are scattered anyway along the main road).

The grave area is very well maintained, with a surprising reverence. There were freshly cut flowers, a donation box, and a small museum which you could pay to visit. The explanatory sign reads thus:

When Jesus Christ was 21 years old, he came to Japan and pursued knowledge of divinity for 12 years. He went back to Judea at age 33, and engaged in his mission. However, at that time, people in Judea would not accept Christ’s preaching. Instead, they arrested him and tried to crucity him on a cross. His younger brother, Isukiri casually took Christ’s place and ended his life on the cross.

Christ, who escaped the crucifixion, went through the ups and downs of travel, and again came to Japan. He settled right here in what is now called Herai Village, and died at the age of 106.

On this holy ground, there is dedicated a burial mound on the right to deify Christ, and a grave on the left to deify Isukiri.

The above description was given in a testament by Jesus Christ.

This is a sweet story, and I’ll leave it to the curious to research the truth of the matter. Make sure you check up on any other alleged Christ’s graves in the world, and that when you are done you properly undermine any other beliefs which you have that are held on just as flimsy yet plausible evidence, but you didn’t notice this before. Our journey back was somewhat more arduous, but after about an hour of waiting two holidaying women took us all the way back to lake Towada.

(The picture is actually of Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps further south, but it is a much prettier photo than any I took of Towada, and you would never have rumbled me if I hadn’t said anything.)

Concrete Electricity Pole

Now I can finally reveal the goal of all my travelling, the destination which I’ve been striving for all these long, last five months. In Hakodate at the end of last week Rosemary and I finally made it to this technological mecca. For you to fully understand I will first explain some background.

Many people don’t appreciate the ugly aspects of the industrial infrastucture which enmeshes us, providing all the comforts which those able to read this have. It’s easy to stand on a once beautiful coastline and bemoan the oppressive lines of the new nuclear power station, or to look out from our efficiently built low price flat and complain about the aesthetics of the identical apartment building across the road. If you use electricity, what right do you have to complain about how it is generated? If you wear clothes mass produced by light factories, then what right do you have to lament their grim facia?

So it was with some excitement that I discovered Japan commemorates and celebrates the less-than-gorgeous, yet highly utilitarian. This by preserving her First Concrete Electricity Pole (see photo). There’s even a plaque next to it. The pole was built to replace previous wooden poles in order to reduce the damage to the city in the frequent fires of the time. Naturally a wooden pole is much nicer to look at, and I’ll remind you of that next time it burns down in an earthquake and you are left with no lights.

Inland Sea and Hiroshima

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East. – President Truman, announcement on Hiroshima

Japan has a sea with no waves, where only narrow connections to the vast Pacific add salt and stop us calling it a lake. It’s an enchanting place, the distinctive shape of the islands a familiar romantic myth from much Japanese art. Rosemary and I spent much of last week travelling from Kansai along the north coast of the sea to Hiroshima and back. This picture is taken from a hillside temple at the fishing port of Tomo no Ura; it gives a good feel for the dramatic but cosy views across the sea in the sun. Even better was the Sete Ohashi bridge which we crossed on a day trip to Takamatsu. It was a dreadful foggy day, and all we could see from the train was white mist with peaks of the islands coming in and out of view. Only seeing the tops made them all the more mystical in shape.

It’s tricky to go to Hiroshima without visiting the peace park and museum there, if only to try and convince your brain that this thriving city really was wiped out less than 60 years ago. I spent several hours looking at models of the city before and after the first atom bomb strike, reading to what degree and at what range buildings were destroyed by the heat blast, and studying in too much detail how people were damaged both with immediate death, and long term radiation sickness in those who went to help the injured. Nevertheless, standing near ground zero in the peaceful sunlight, my senses were unable to believe what my mind knows it once looked like.

I’ve grown up with the existence of atomic bombs, and so hadn’t realised before just what a dramatic, surprising and omnipotent-seeming move their first deployment was. The research project which created the bomb was in secret, and the one test run had taken place only three weeks before, also in secret. For this was the phrase “shock and awe” really made. The Japanese did not know what it was, until they found completely exposed X-ray film in the sealed vault of a hospital. Terrifyingly this bomb is but a mere trifle compared to those with which we are armed today.

The politcally correct question to debate at this point is whether the US was justified in using it. This is besides the point – the functioning of the war machine of a country made its use inevitable. One argument goes that ending the war quickly and with less total loss of life was the motive, but I feel that was just a side issue. More important was to test this new device in real action, and to show the world just how strong the US had become. Would any functioning military, a structure by its very nature designed to kill, surprise, shock and awe, really have missed this opportunity? Was the Rape of Nanking by Japanese occupying forces a few years earlier, which needlessly tortured and killed perhaps the same number of civilians as the bomb, less or more evil for using only conventional technology?

The inevitability of the US using their new device does not justify the action but it does explain it. It shows that in order to stop such things happening again more extreme measures are needed than just protesting “they should never have used it!”. Measures that affect how all wars are fought, and the very motive force of all armies.

The bomb also had a useful geopolitical function, giving Japan to America rather than to Russia, who may have claimed it had the war continued. With those terrifying reds of the USSR and China so close by its defense served the US well during the cold war, and continues to do so. Sometimes as I walk past Starbucks in modern Japanese cities I think of Japan as simply a large US naval base, albeit one with the richest of artistic heritages for its very own.

Japanese Gardens

I’m now in Kyoto, ancient capital of Japan, and complete overload of temples. Unfortunately you don’t get to see much of the insides of the temples, just darkened views of distant painted screens and laquerware. The temples with active worshippers all require advanced reservations to visit, so no insights into Zen Buddhism. Instead, just as in Myanamar I acquired a taste for Theravadin Buddha statues from Phil, I’m acquiring a taste for Japanese gardens from Rosemary (my mum). The Japanese seem universally excellent at all art forms, and particularly at generating weird and unique new ones. The peculiar list includes tea ceremonies, all over body tattoos (for the yakuza mafia only), and handmade paper as well as more “normal” arts such as lacquerware, flower arranging and video games. Good gardens have been grown in Japan for centuries, and some are maintained to this day.

What’s interesting about gardens? There’s a tension between letting the plants grow in a natural way, and controlling how they grow. At one end of the scale, every gardener does a bit of pruning. Otherwise you don’t have a garden you have a wild forest. On the other hand, the Japanese often carefully manipulate every trunk and branch to be exactly how they like – leaning trees over lakes at previously impossible angles, thinning foliage to create a view past the lower trunks, or creating precise geometrical shapes. This must require years of dedication and care, and a serene sort of patience not so much required when making computer games.

The garden designers do other interesting things, such as incorporate distant hills or buildings into the aesthetics of the garden, or creating viewpoints such that as you stroll new vistas are revealed and hidden round each corner. Then there are Zen gardens, which are quite fun and quite satisfying. These tend to incorporate patterns made out of stones, such as gravel raked in beautiful contours, so the occasional rock looks like it was dropped into a pool of pebbles and the waves frozen.