This is what I have noticed at various stages over the past couple of weeks.
We are living in a fourth floor city centre apartment that has been kindly lent to us by one of my wife's Lili’s brothers. We will stay until March when we move on to Guilin
. At 6 o’clock every morning we are woken by the loud chopping of wood by a man who lives on the ground floor to the rear of the building. For most of the day he carries on with his chopping, stripping off plastic, pulling out nails from the various bits of wood that he seems to acquire from some-where or other. We have been here for nearly two months and it has taken that length of time for him to acknowledge me. Every day, sometimes as many as three or even four times I have walked past, whilst with axe in hand he chops away, Always I have greeted him smiling and saying said 'Ni hao' (hello), only to receive averted eyes and a shuffle of his feet. But today, as I walked out of the rear of the building I was astonished and pleased to receive a rather shy smile and a 'Ni hao' back. It made my day I can tell you. As there are so few foreigners living in this large for us, (small by Chinese standards,) city of Liuzhou
, with its teeming 2.3 million citizens that it is understandable how shy some can be. Although this inbuilt shyness never seems to apply to the children and young girls, who are so ready to call out a ‘hello’ and a giggle as I walk along the street..
The apartment is situated 50 yards back from a wide road across from which I can see the office of the Bank of China, to the left as I look, I can see a small restaurant gaily painted in red and gold. To me this area is so interesting, every morning at 6 O'clock two ladies appear on the pavement pushing small hand carts, they park these to the front of the bank. Unloading they begin to set out tables and chairs that are more suitable for children than adults. To sit on one of these chairs the legs of which are only 6 inches high, or is it low, then balance a bowl of noodles on ones knees trying to slurp in the wriggly bits without making a mess, is, I can assure you, a work of art. The ladies light a coal fire under a massive pot that emits three foot flames belches out black smoke until the coal gets going, the flames quickly die down, smoke disappears, the pot is filled with water, ready for the days vegetables, meat and what ever else goes into the same boiling water. The first customers begin to arrive, park their bikes, motor scooters up on the pavement, sit at the tables and partake of their morning breakfast. From our window you can easily see the two women dishing away with enormous spoons, ladling out noodles, rice and other goodies to their obviously satisfied regular customers.
At 8.00 the bank opens and half an hour later the tables are cleared away and the two women, their hand carts now again fully loaded, depart only to be replaced by a man who appears to be in his early 70’s, who is always dressed in the same old grey suit, on his head he wears a Mao style blue cap. He looks like a kindly man, although his clothes are shabby and crumpled his black shoes always look new, smart and shine like a new pin. He gently places his own table and two chairs in the space recently vacated by one of the ladies, these are also knee high to a grasshopper, a large white sheet of paper and sketch book appear as he sits down to draw. These drawings are always the same, they consist of A4 size sketches in black ink of Chairman Mao and his cronies. He places samples for sale in the front of the Bank’s window then returns to carry on with his work.. On taking another look out of the window I notice that he has now replaced one drawing of Chairman Mao for one that is edged in red, (perhaps he has taken an order for that one), I can also make out what looks to be a drawing of Puyi the last Emperor of China. If this is so, does this mean that he has Imperial leanings away from the communist variety, or is there some deeper meaning a-foot here?
This afternoon I have to go over to the other side of the city, on my return will make a detour along the river bank that will bring me out on his side of the road, that way I can satisfy my curiousity in taking a closer look.
It is now 11.30 and the restaurant has opened it’s doors for the start of the day’s business. A pretty young girl dressed in a red and gold traditional long Chinese dress with a split up the side, stands behind a wooden diaz, welcoming the first customers of the day with a sweet smile and a constant ‘welcome welcome’ to every one. Every where that one goes, in shops, restaurants and hotels, the welcome is the same it sounds to me like a high pitched yell and sounds something like ‘Gwanning Gwanning’ this is always accompanied by a lovely smile and an offer to enter. She will, remain there until 2.30 when the restaurant closes for the afternoon only to open again at 5.30 till late. The man with the drawings has disappeared, perhaps to go to lunch. Just as well, for I can hear the local water tanker coming down the road blaring out loud music to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday to you’, this happy tune is to warn the population that they are cleaning the streets with a powerful water jet that not only washes the road but also sprays every-where, including the pavement, parked vehicles and the odd pedestrian that doesn’t hear it coming. Must be deaf. I know, because last year I got caught in the water jet when I went to find out what all the noise was about. Some Happy Birthday.
The man has returned, ‘Happy Birthday’ has retreated leaving the pavement once again to the teeming masses. School children are walking by dressed in their school uniform, they seem to be three sizes too big for them; very colourful in red white and blue track suits, the name of their school emblazoned on the back. Happily laughing, eating and drinking a funny drink that looks like and has the texture of, frog-spawn but close your eyes and it tastes delicious. The schools open from 7.30 a.m. till 12.00 they then take lunch until 2.30 when they return to carry on until late at night. School is every day with no week-ends off for good behaviour. Long hours these kids do. Western children would never put up with this. The pretty girl from the restaurant is preparing to shut for the afternoon. The Emperor Puyi has disappeared from the Bank’s window, perhaps he was washed away by ‘Happy Birthday’.
I am returning form my trip across the city. The air is comfortable and warm at around 23C. All the locals are in winter clothes, scarfs hats and overcoats. They eye me suspiciously in my pink short sleeve shirt. I wonder if it is the colour pink with its connotations, or just that I am wearing short sleeves? As I wonder past the man with the drawings. He smiles and says ‘Ni hao’ to which I return ‘Ni hao’ spoken like a true native. Unfortunately he then breaks into a fast flow of Chinese of which the only identifiable word is 'lao whai', (old out side person or foreigner). I gather that he wanted to know where I come from. Smiling, I explain in my broken Chinese, that I am from England, refraining from saying across the road. Falteringly, I ask him about the last Emperor Puyi’s picture that was side by side with Chairman Mao. To which I receive many ahhhs,., and ohhhs then another fast flow of Chinese at a much higher rate of decibels which is closely followed by a deep growl in his throat that resembles an express train roaring out of a tunnel, from where erupts a stream of spit to be deposited onto the pavement by my feet. At this point I smile and beat a hasty retreat. I gather that he wasn’t a fan of Puyi. Before I go I notice that he has a small gas stove under the table with a pot on it that was bubbling away merrily, the lid making a curious metallic rattling sound as it bobbed up and down. I wondered what that pot contained but after the demonstration of the spit decided not to ask.
As I enter the back yard to the flat the man is still chopping wood. Looks up and smiles through the smoke screen, coming from the ever present cigarette dangling from his lips. Wonder what he does with all that wood and stuff? If we are still here in a week or two, may well ask. It is now 5 o’clock back in the flat, made coffee, looked out of the window. The man has gone along with all his paraphernalia. The pretty girl has returned to the front of the restaurant. She has now changed into her red evening gown sporting a white fur stole, arms are folded, she looks very cold. A motorcycle pulls up onto the pavement, stopping by the side of the restaurant. There is a young girl that looks no more than four years old sat on the fuel tank between the arms of a man on the main seat, behind which is another small child that looks crushed between the man and the Mother who is taking up the rest of the rear seat. Four people on a motor-bike eh? The driver calls to the restaurant girl who, smiles, waves then disappears inside only to reappear holding gingerly, a plastic bag that very likely contains their dinner for the night.
Being very nosey is part of my make up, would love to stay and see more but have to change for a family dinner..
Amazing all of this happens ‘day in day out’ every day on a small piece of pavement in Southern China.