Our local air force radar station doesn’t officially exist. Its junior personnel are friendly when we meet unless an officer is about—then they cut me dead, as if I didn’t exist. So to get a call from the station was a surprise, more so when a serviceman told me his leaders were coming to the mountain and wanted to visit our coffee shop “to sample the western-style atmosphere.”
We were closed that day and I was going to a lunch banquet which was bound to involve serious drinking. But the chance to meet a senior air force officer was too good to pass up—not that I wanted to pry. I agreed to open specially, after lunch.
The lunch was attended by some police, one of whom asked me what I thought about Britain going to war again. It turned out he was referring to Syria; the Chinese press must have been getting ahead of themselves. I avoided getting plastered and my excuse that I had to open shop for the air force was accepted with grace.
I went to the coffee shop, opened up and waited. The visitors were late and when they eventually arrived they weren’t in uniform. In fact, they weren’t even in the air force. They were six suit-wearing executives representing a large state-owned company—one which denies all connection to the military—and they were in the area to check on a major property development.
One was a party “princeling,” a son of a previous leader. He had studied business at a well-known British university. Over a bottle of whisky he asked me to open a coffee shop in the development, rent free. I politely declined, whereupon his deputy asked if he could take some photographs. Seems like I was the one being pried into, not the other way round.
Another new year
The annual trip the Chinese make to their family homes over the new year period is said to be the biggest human migration ever. Train and bus stations look like refugee camps, city building sites fall silent and in the booming cities on the eastern seaboard, locals reclaim their streets.
There are other, less obvious signs that the Chinese new year has come around again. Rural China suddenly becomes sophisticated: the people returning from the cities are better dressed and speak better English. Youngsters on the streets greet you with real questions rather than the usual shout of “Hello!” followed by a giggle.
There isn’t much for the young to do once they have finished the round of family, friends and banquets. The wealthier ones might go travelling, maybe in their own cars, but otherwise they sit at home, watch TV, play mah jong and eat sweets.
I bumped into one student home from university in Xi’an in the street. He asked me, in perfect English, if I’d like to play tennis. I said I’d love to—no one else in town plays, aside from my family. But the temperature was just above zero degrees Celsius. I suggested we leave it to the summer holidays. He told me that it couldn’t happen then. Like everyone else, he only comes home once a year.