After a short break, some time with our families, and a few weeks honoring contractual engagements, we returned home and started reading about Chinese history, the various dynasties, the cities, traditional customs, the opium wars, the concessionary period, Mao’s l949 Communist takeover—everything we could find about China.
We were preparing for our contract with Pearl Cruises to take the Pearl of Scandinavia as cruise directors on her first series of voyages to the People’s Republic of China.
When the time came we took the 36 hour flight from Miami to Sri Lanka to join company executives, officers, and senior staff members, who converged on the Hotel Colombo Oberoi to await the ship’s arrival.
The ship did arrive after several months of dry dock in Denmark. In spite of all the TLC that had been bestowed on her, she looked a bit worse for wear, homely, squat, and no one’s idea of a luxury liner.
Inside, everything was a work in progress. Cabins had bathroom appliances begging to be hooked up, beds clamored for mattresses, exposed electrical wiring dangled from every opening…
Calling her a luxury ship was a stretch.
However, the job gave us an opportunity to see in depth a country about which we knew very little.
Booking a cruise on the Pearl of Scandinavia offered a gateway to an eager pubic that wanted to visit China: celebrities, members of the news media, and wealthy Chinese families, longing to visit the homeland of their ancestors, were clamoring for space on board. These cruises were for people who had been everywhere else, and were willing to don their sensible shoes, endure the dust and pollution that was everywhere, and eat meals ashore that contained ingredients not easily identifiable.
We joined the passengers on overland excursions on trains and buses, slept in hotel rooms where silver fish ran in all directions when the lights were turned on and where eager-to-please room stewards entered our rooms without knocking to deliver boiling water for tea. Many times we awoke to find someone standing near our beds, looking at us as though we were rare zoo creatures they’d never seen before. At first this startled Kimberly and scared her, but it became so commonplace that we accepted it as normal.
During our time in China we watched incredible improvements taking place in the country. Highways sprang up where single lane roadways had always filled with bicycles. Modern hotels with Western conveniences seemed to appear overnight, and thermoses of boiling water for tea presented by unannounced chambermaids at bedtime or upon awakening were being replaced by breakfast brought in by room service.
We often joked that if China continued to progress at the rate we had witnessed during our time there we should definitely learn to speak Mandarin, because that would be the world language of the future.
While we were in China people were still wearing Mao jackets in black, grey, or navy blue, and it was still illegal for citizens to wear jewelry, and penalties for those with more than one child in the family were severe. But, changes were coming, and it was clear that China would be a major player worldwide very quickly.
Kimberly discovered a hidden gem in Shanghai. An elderly group of Chinese men who had once owned antique shops that specialized in everything from porcelains, calligraphy, watercolors, carved furniture, ivory, jewelry, and woven silks, had been allowed to remain as “approved experts in their fields.” Their shops had been taken over by the government, but they were housed together in a large facility, where they continued to share their years of expertise, along with tiny cups of boiling hot tea.
On her first visit, Kimberly had entered the cubicle of a very old and toothless man named Mr. Ma.
She spotted a porcelain depiction of Li Tieguai, one of the Eight Taoist Inmortals, and recognized him immediately. The crippled non-conformist, who was forced to travel through eternity, hobbling on his iron crutch, carrying a jug of water and herbs to minister to the needy and poor, fascinated her, and she inquired about it.
Mr. Ma’s response was not what she had expected, and it was rendered as a not-so-veiled insult.
In his heavily accented English, he said, “No worry. You rich. All you English very rich!”
Kimberly, sensing hostility, but not quite understanding the nature of his comment, politely corrected him by saying, “Did you say English? I am not English. I’m American.”
“Oh, I make big mistake. So sorry. So sorry,” he responded, and asked her to join him for tea.
She accepted, and from that moment on a wonderful relationship grew. Every two weeks when we docked in Shanghai, she would take a taxi to the shop, and for a few hours, she and Mr. Ma would visit, have tea, and offering his elbow, he would walk with her around the building, teaching her about the glorious items housed there, and sharing amazing insights.
Her interest in Li Tieguai had not gone unnoticed by Mr. Ma, and although the figure had disappeared from the display case, he would always greet her by saying, “You visit Mr. Li Tieguai today?,” to which she would always reply, “No, not today. He is so beautiful, but he is much too expensive.”
Although tempted to purchase lots beautiful things she saw, she always resisted, knowing that with a simple purchase, her relationship with M. Ma would be likely to change. Together, as teacher and student having tea, they were equals, but buying something from him would have cast her in the role of another rich foreigner.
In time, she came to fully understand his resentment of the English, and other Europeans who had divided Shanghai into territories during the concessionary period, and had turned the Chinese people into disrespected servants in their own country.
As Mr. Ma explained to her some time later, the Americans had only wanted access to the waterways, and had never occupied the country in the way European countries, and especially England, had.
Nanjing Road, the main street in Shanghai had been a dividing line between “countries.” If a person wanted to cross from one side of the street to the other, and enter the “other country,” one had to pass through customs with a passport, and unless Chinese citizens had work permits, they could not enter.
Signs up and down the entrance points stated, “No Dogs. No Chinese.”
When time allowed, I would accompany Kimberly to visit Mr. Ma. We came to believe that he was unhappy with the Communist regime that had confiscated his business and his home, and had never been able to make good on many promises of reforms and a better life.
Mr. Ma was especially resentful of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. One afternoon during one of their walkabouts in the store, he pointed to an intricately carved rosewood table. He explained that craftmen his family had known had been making the interlocking pieces of the table for over 600 years, using a secret to build the highly prized furniture. There were no nails, and once the piece was carved and its interlocking pieces were assembled, there was no way to dismantle it.
Suddenly he became extremely emotional. “The technique is lost forever. The furniture of my friend had always been favored by foreigners. During the Cultural Revolution, his furniture was labeled too Western. He was sent to labor in the fields for re-education. He was not a laborer. He was not strong to work in rice fields. He died there. Drowned in a rice field. For what? For what?”
With clenched fists, he raised his voice as tears welled up in his eyes, eyes that had been witness to so much. He turned, and quickly walked away. It was a stunning moment. Anger. Trust. Open defiance from a Chinese man well into his eighties, shared with a young American woman. He was highly educated, had great dignity, and had managed to survive regimes, turmoil and hardship that few could imagine, which gave him the courage to express his feelings. To this day Kimberly cannot talk about Mr. Ma without tears welling up in her eyes.
During their last visit, he greeted her one last time with “You visit Li Tieguai today?”
She had taken him cigarettes, some pipe tobacco, and oranges as farewell presents, and explained that we were leaving China, going home, and would not be returning.
After their tea, Mr. Ma went to one of his display cabinets, and crouching down to the lowest shelf with a great deal of effort, he produced the porcelain Li Tieguai she had seen on her first visit three years before.
“Today, I give you special price. Li Tieguai go with you to America,” he said, smiling a great toothless grin.
Not owning the antique or the store, he was in no position to gift it to her outright, but the price he quoted was so low that not to have accepted would have been an insult. He was offering what he could, and Kimberly had wanted it the moment she had seen it, and assumed it had been sold long ago. She has always suspected that he hid it away, waiting for the moment when he would give her the opportunity to have it.
She gratefully accepted his offer, thanked him profusely, and Li Tieguai came home to live with us.
One of Mr. Ma’s last comments was, “Chinese people like Americans very much. No matter what governments say, the people remember, and you have friends here.”
Kimberly and Rafael de Acha