Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Shaoshan, Where the Search for Young Mao Zedong Begins......

Statute of Mao in Village Square. Being an avid history buff I would not let an opportunity to visit Shaoshan the birth place of Mao Zedong slip pass even though it meant getting up from my comfortable bed at 5.00am to catch the 6.30am Changsha-Shaoshan once-a-day train. I too did not mind sacrificing Hunan Civil Aviation Hotel's scrumptious Hunanese breadfast with, among others, congee taken with fiery fried anchovies and long beans and Hunanese dry noodles with generous dollops of hot chillied spices.
I walked out of my hotel at 5.50am and walked briskly along Wu Yi Dadao which was much shrouded in ghostly mists with only my footsteps breaching the silence of the breaking dawn. It took me only six minutes to reach the gate leading to the train platform but many of the seats were already taken up by locals with their huge polystyrene bags containing all kinds of personal effects and tourists who were all travelling light for the day-trip to the shrine dedicated to Mao Zedong.
While waiting for the train to arrive I put my time to good use by munching the "pau" or Chinese pies (bought from the railway station's side-stalls) which are ubiquitious throughout China and most places where there are any sizable Chinese communities throughout the world. The "pau" stuffed with different kinds of meat or lotus seed or red bean paste or plain veggie inputs are standard breadfast fare.
At the centre of old Shaoshan is a gigantic statue of Mao Zedong. Hordes of Chinese would pay their almost mandatory obeisance to the Great Helmsman by bowing three times in front of the statue in the presence of a phalanx of young soldiers from the Peoples' Liberation Army.
The Ancestral Hall of the Maos. Shaoshan is about 100 kilometres south-west of Changsha. The journey took some three hours with two stops in between. The first stop was at the major rail cross-road town of Zhuzhou which took us 40 minutes to arrive. A number of locals hurriedly disgorged and the train quickly moved but it did not pull out much from the railway station as it seemed to be moving backwards and forwards but not pulling away. Only when it started really moving did I realise that the locomotive had been furiously shunting the train. I discovered that I was no longer facing the head of the train but the back. I naturally changed my seat.
The next stop was an obscure non-descript almost nameless hamlet where again the remaining locals disembarked. By 9.30am our train pulled into Shaoshan railway station. The rail came to a dead-end as the last sector of the railroad was specially constructed in the 1980s to enable the Chinese to gain easier access to the Great Helmsman's birth place. Another six kilometres separates the new railway side of Shaoshan from the old village of Shaoshan.
Just across the main village street from the statue of Mao is the ancestral hall of those bearing the surname of Mao. The building is now the Museum of Chairman Mao and there were many photos and exhibits which charted the career and the times and life of Mao.

The Childhood House of Mao Zedong. Next stop the ancestral house of Mao Zedong and his birth place. The house is made of mud-bricks with a thatched roof and a stable connected to the main house. It has many rooms including separate bed-rooms for Mao's parents and rooms for Mao and his brother. There is a barn and a pen. Inside the house are exhibits such as kitchen utensils, beds, odd pieces of furniture, furnishings and photos depicting his parents and young Mao. So Mao'Zedong came from a relatively well-to-do farming roots based on living standards of China in those days.
In front of his house is a pond and as was common then and even nowadays ducks and fish were be reared by the Mao family. The Stelea Park. A visit to Shaoshan would not be complete if one did not visit the forest of stele which contains many tablets some in old Chinese calligraphy depicting many poems written by Mao. The Stelea Park comprise three elevated levels and it leads visitors along a winding path up to the summit of Shao Hill Peak or Shaoshan Feng. But if you want to choose the easy way up the Peak you just need to walk up the concrete stairway to the base station of the Cable Car. For a small sum you can spare your leg muscles as well as your lungs from working on an over-drive mode. On arriving at the cable car destination you would be ushered to a Taoist temple with fierce-looking warrior-deities standing guard. A few structures away is a shrine with the images of Mao Zedong and a few of his unlabeled Mao ancestors. Most people chose to gather around a bed of boulders and rocks behind the temple to relax and enjoy a breath-taking view of the surrounding Shaoshan country-side.
The Pavilion at Peak of Shao Feng (Summit). After strolling along the winding stone pavements and entering in and moving out of the single-storey buildings the most dumb-wit thing to do is to walk up or run up a hundred or so steps up the summit of Shaoshan Hill Peak. After much huffing and puffing aren't you glad that you have arrived at the gates of a Pavilion which sits on top the the peak? An old Chinese bell welcomes you. There is nothing exceptional about the peak-top Pavilion other than that it affords you a majestic view of the hills and valleys and dotted villages. But you have already done that thing at less lofty heights without any sweat and deep breath. So the brainiest thing to do is to beat a hasty retreat by making your way to the cable car station and head for the Shaoshan Railway station unless you want to be a one-day prisoner in Shaoshan village. But can you do for the night? Changsha is therefore a much safer bet!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Shaoshan, the Guessing Game

Masquerade by The Carpenters. This unveiled statute lies besides the statute of Mao Zedong, in the centre of the village-town of Shaoshan, the birth-place of Chairman Mao. As it is barricaded tourists were not allowed to go near. So we were all puzzled as to the statute's identity.
Is that the statute of Liu Shaoqi, the Chairman of the Peoples' Republic of China from April 1959 to October 1968? He was born on November 24 1898 in the village of Huaminglou 30 kilometres north of Shaoshan, Hunan. Liu Shaoqi was arrested in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution and accused to be the Number 1 "Capitalist Roader". He died incarcerated on November 12 1969 after he was expelled from all party positions in October 1968.
Ticket to Ride by the Beatles. Like many cable cars they link the foothill to the summit. What is the name of the mountain? Well it is Shao Hill Peak or Shaoshan Feng which lies north-west of the village of Shaoshan, close by.
Like A Prayer by Madonna. Deification of Mao Zedong. When Mao was alive he was a demi-god. After he joined Marx and Lenin in the Netherworld he was still revered and worshipped by some although the Communist Party of China now considers that he was 70 % correct and 30 % wrong in his deeds and actions. This ancestral altar with the image of Mao Zedong is found in one of the shrines close to the summit of Shao Hill Peak, Shaoshan.
Three Times a Lady by Lionel Ritchie. Who are they and where do they come from? They are local villagers living close to Mao Zedong's ancestral home in the village of Shaoshan. The villages comprise mainly farms and paddy fields.
On a Golden Pond by Katherine Hepburn & Henry & Jane Fonda. This is a typical rural scene in China, rustic and idyllic. This pond lies in front of Mao Zedong's ancestral house. His parents were relatively rich farmers. He considered that he came from a peasant background.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Changsha City of My Youthful Wonderment-Moving to the Greener-side of the City

Xiangjiang Bridge. Bridge to Knowledge & Prosperity. It is no longer Bridge over Troubled Water 70 years ago. As we were crossing over the long bridge which links Changsha city centre to its western suburb my sub-conscious mind was transported to the year 1938 (when my father who was then a 12-year old had just returned from war-torn China to peaceful Malaya). At that time the Xiang-jiang was dumped with bodies of innocent Chinese who were caught in the cross-fire between the invading Japanese troops and the valiant Chinese defenders from Changsha. On November 13 1938 the Chinese started to burn their city to render it worthless to the Japanese. The fire lasted for five days and the entire city was totally burnt down thereby destroying historical antiques of more than 2500 years' vintage. Today the western suburb occupies much of the vast grounds of Hunan's most prestigious institution of higher learning, the Hunan University. The city centre on the eastern side of the bridge is the most economically vibrant and prosperous section of Changsha. So China is nowadays frantically building bridges of knowledge and prosperty.
Yuelu Academy. The Power of Knowledge. Forget for a while about The Power of Love! Suddenly my somnolent condition was jolted back to full consciousness apparently from the sounds of laughing university students walking with their latest cell-phones and i-pods along the leafy narrow roads which wind their way around the campus. Close to faculty buildings and the residential colleges is a "must visit" site, the Yuelu Academy which is one of the four famous academia in China. It was established by Zhu Dong, a Magistrate of the Northern Sung dynasty. The Yuelu Academy accepted disciples through the Sung, Ming and Qing dynasties. It was only in 1903 that the Academy was transformed from a school of traditional Confucian learning to an institute of higher learning. In 1926 the Academy was officially known as Hunan University.
Aiwan Ting, (Loving the Dusk Pavilion). Musing & Day-dreaming. Our next task was to scale up the Yuelu Shan, a famous breezy hilltop and scenic spot lying a little north of the campus. On the way stop to rest your tired legs or re-energise yourself at the foothill's Aiwan Ting. This pavilion overlooks a placid pond surrounded by lush greenery. The small pavilion is one of Mao Zedong's youthful haunts. Here there is a tablet in Chinese calligraphy written by Mao. The tablet is a verse from a poem entitled "Ascending the Hills" written by soulful Tang Dynasty poet Du Mu. It reads:-
"A stony path winds far up cool hills
Towards cottages hidden deep amongst white clouds
Loving the maple trees at dusk I stop my cart
To sit and watch the frosted leaves
Redder than February flowers"
Men and women should not live by bread alone. We need to philosophise, day-dream ( but not have night-mares) and muse too.
Wangxiang Ting. Footloose and Carefree From the foothills narrow paths flanked by food and souvenir stalls
lead up to the park gates. From this point one can either meander uphill making for a-forty minute stroll through pleasant woodland to Wangxiang Ting a pavilion with majestic views of the city. However if you were running out of time or if you do not own a pair of strong calves or do not like to huff and puff then pay 20 Yuan and the motorised trolley would do the arduous job for you. We decided to join a group of Chinese youths already in the trolley car all set to go.
They were singing merrily on top of their voices a few Putunghua (Mandarin) songs. When they discovered that I was a foreigner (the only one) they invited yours truly to belt out an English song.
As it would bring joy to the Chinese youths if I were to fellowship with them I readily accepted their invitation. I was in a fix as I had to think of a simple melodious and bouncy tune with meaningful lyrics to suit the happy occasion. By quick thinking my mouth spontaneously blared out the song "You Are My Sunshine" the Louisiana State Song which was co-composed both lyrics and music by former Governor Jimmie H Davis with Charles Mitchell.
Surprisingly most of them could hum along to the music and a few even knew the lyrics. So we sang together :-
"You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy
When skies are grey
You'll never know dear
How much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away"
Oh my! my! They were on top of the world.

View of Hunan City. On top of the world feeling. From the balcony of the pavilion we stood in line to enjoy the spectacular view of Changsha city. Although it was a misty early Autumn day all of us had our breath taken away by the wonderful sight. Time to move on..............

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Changsha, Hunan, City of My Youthful Wonderment

Changsha Train Station. Chang'an (now Xian), Beijing and Hangzhou have always held me with awe as they had been dynastic capitals of imperial China. Changsha, however, have held me with wonderment in my teen years as the only ruler I knew in my formative years was Mao Zedong, then fondly revered as Chairman Mao and I knew that he was born in Hunan Province. The only place in Hunan I knew then was Changsha, its capital. Therefore in view of this early fascination with Mao and Changsha yours truly made a five-day visit to Changsha in September 2007.
The most popular way to get into Changsha from Guangzhou is by rail. So on one blustery and misty day I found myself taking the N556 Express Train from Guangzhou Railway Station. After experiencing the roar and din in the waiting lounge I was happy to exchange it for claustrophobia to board the train which departed right on the dot at 22:40 hours. The only memorable event in the train was that I had to struggle my way up to my third level berth in order to get to sleep. There were no ladders so I had to cling on tight to the bars and use brute strength to abseil up to my bed! Fortunately yours truly still retain some of his "Tarzan" skills! All night long I was in tranceland, neither awake nor in deep slumber as the train's bull horns roared hauntingly every time we passed a train station or an on-coming train. With one brief stop-over at the major cross-railroad town of Zhuzhou half an hour from our final destination the train slipped sheepishly into Changsha Railway Station at 06.50 hours on timetable schedule. The 780-kilometre journey took eight hours 10 minutes. I whispered: "Changsha, here I come". That's wonderment, I sighed.
The Changsha Railway Station lies at the eastern end of the City's main thoroughfare, Wu Yi Dadao or May First Highway which is a three-kilometre long straight road terminating at the Xiang River at the western end. The majestic Xiangjiang Bridge links the city centre to its quieter west bank suburbs.
Jiezi Dao or Tangerine Island. The City's name, literally "Long Sand" derives from a narrow midstream sand shoal or bar now called "Jiezi Dao" or Tangerine Island. On either side of the bridge there is a slipway road which leads to the island. In addition somewhere near the middle span of the bridge there is a spiral staircase to descend to the island. So yours truly ambled his way to the island past old stones houses prviously occupied by Europeans who had moved into this enclave after the foreign quarter in Changsha was totally razed during the riots over the raising of rice prices in 1910.I stopped short of rows and rows of vegetables and some fruit trees. No prize for guessing correct that tangerines predominate! Big Brother is watching me for any transgression, my mind kept telling me. At the water edge there were a few amateur anglers whiling their time away. Indeed time appeared to stand still in sharp contrast to the milling crowds half a kilometre away around the intersection of Wu Yi Dadao with Huangxing Lu the main shopping drag. Here one would not miss the two landmarks of modernity, Parkson's Superstore and Carrfour Supermarket. Aren't they the new gods or prophets we nowadays worship or pay homage to like Qin Shi-huang in BC times?

Chonglie Gate Pailou. As Changsha was the site of many fierce battles between the Chinese and invading Japanese during the 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese War one of the places where Chinese visitors would visit is the Chonglie Gate Pailou (Pailou means an archway of a memorial) in remembrance of their country-men who had sacrificed their lives fighting the still much detested Japanese.
There are two couplets on the archway. The one in the middle says:-"Smash the invaders and guard our nation." The other one reads:- "Fight for our country. Forget our safety. Devote our lives for the lofty cause."
Tianxin Pavilion. Moving from the world of quiet solemnity into the times of past imperial glory yours truly found himself close by at the site of one of the symbols of ancient Changsha. The Tianxin Pavilion is regarded as one of the four historic sites of Changsha. Here is a remnant of an ancient wall which is 2000 years old. The wall initially made of wood was first built during the Qin and Han dynasties. It was reconstructed into a stone foundation bed and brick wall in 1372 in the early years of the Ming Dynasty. The Tianxin Pavilion which has a history of more than 400 years stands majestically on the ancient wall. The main pavilion which is 14.6 metres high has three storeys and there are two subordinate pavilions that are connected to the main by a corridor. If one were into old Chinese architecture then this would be the place to marvel, gaze and even to eye-ball at the fine intricacies of carvings and handiwork. It is a great therapy to travel in a time machine to the days when the Ming and Qing emperors held sway. But not for too long because we would certainly miss our beloved world of PCs, i-pods, mobile phones, internet surfs, blogs, the "idiot boxes" and not forgetting our perpetual traffic snarls and shopping malls, bistros and the many other "happening places".

Friday, April 4, 2008

When Death Strikes & Bombs Rain Over The Sky of Ha Long Bay, Gulf of Tonkin

Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site (1994). The Dreadful Past. These days Ha Long Bay presents picture-perfect scenery of unmatchable beauty. There are about 2000 limestone outcrop small islands bobbling in the azure sea in the bay which forms part of the Gulf of Tonkin separating Vietnam and China. Between 1966 and April 1975 danger and fear lurked in the waters as the surrounding seas were the hunting ground of the aircraft carriers and the other war-ships of the US Seventh Fleet. From the aircraft carriers naval planes were launched and together with the giant B-52 bombers from bases in Okinawa and Guam bombing raids were made over Hanoi and the industrial cities in North Vietnam especially Haiphong. Submarines stalked Soviet and Chinese ships carrying war material bound for North Vietnamese ports. Aerial dog-fights between the North Vietnamese MIG-21 and the US F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers, F-105 Thunderchief fighters and A-4 Skyhawks bombers provided an unwelcome relief to the humdrum of daily life.One of the naval pilots shot down was Lt. Commander John McCain whose A-4 Skyhawk was hit by a Soviet-made anti-aircraft missile after dropping bombs over a thermal power plant in central Hanoi on November 26 1967. He ejected safely but almost got drowned as his parachute landed in Truc Bach Lake a short distance from the Presidential Palace and The Citadel. He was imprisoned in "Hanoi Hilton" and was released on March 15 1973 after the Paris Peace Accord. He is now Senator John McCain a presidential hopeful. Nowadays if you are mesmerised by the karstic landscape of Guilin you will certainly be enthralled by similar limestone crags but with the seascape thrown in.
Ha Long Bay cruise junks equipped with cabins. Reminiscence. Those were troubled times then. The years 1966 and 1967 were my Pre-U days and in the next four years I was an under-graduate. Like many youths of that generation we were influenced by the almost daily war protests and demonstrations in the colleges and universities all over the United States and many other countries. We were horrified by the shootings and killings of four students on May 4 1970 by the Ohio National Guardsmen. Anti-war songs such as "The Times They Are A Changin" and "Blowing In The Wind" both by pacifist-activist singer Bob Dylan were the "international anthems" of angry, disenchanted and alienated youths of that era. Our rallying cry was "Make Love Not War".
As the war worn on it became
increasingly unpopular and more young American youths had to be drafted into the military using public lottery draw based on their birth dates. My primary and lower secondary classmate SL Yee who lived in one of the shophouses along Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman) was drafted into the US army.He is a cousin of my travelling companion, Siew Kong. He saw fierce action in Vietnam and he survived the war to tell us horror war stories. He had emigrated in 1962 to join an aunt who operated a supermarket in Phoenix, Arizona as Chinese people then no longer operated laundry business and the men opened railroads throughout America unlike the 1800s and the early 20th century. Another secondary school senior joined the renown "Green Berets" (a movie of the same name was made in the 1970s) but after a brief stint in the jungles of Vietnam he fled to Sweden on political asylum as a "conscientious objector" either due to disillusionment with the war or he feared death. Mohamad Ali, (previously Cassius Clay), the boxer, too dodged military draft as he claimed that his religion forbids wars and killings.
We sang: "Yes, 'n' how many times must cannon balls fly. Before they're forever banned.......How many times must a man look up. Before he can see the sky. Yes and how many ears must one man have. Before he can hear people cry? Yes how many deaths will it take. Till he knows that too many people have died? The answer my friend is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind."

Ha Long Bay, Floating Fishing Village. Trepidation. Unfortunately my generation bore witness to many newspapers, Life, Time and Newsweek as well as radio and TV reports on suspense-filled events such as 77-day seige of South Vietnamese-US manned fortress at Khe Sanh by combined Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops from January 21 1968 to April 8 1968. The World's attention was also gripped by the Tet (Lunar New Year) Offensive launched by the Communist forces starting on January 30 1968 and ending on September 23 1968. The US and the rest of the World were outraged by Huynh Cong Ut's photo taken on June 8 1972 which showed an image of a naked terrified crying 9-year old girl Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing from a napalm attack on her village.
Ha Long Bay Islets of Imaginable and Unimaginable Shapes and Forms. Happier Times. Since the unification of North and South Vietnam on April 30 1975 but was immediately followed by the tragic fleeing of thousands of "boat people" (many of whom perished in the South China seas ) Vietnam saw better times from the mid-1980s. With the opening of her doors to foreigners, investments poured into Vietnam including many from Overseas Vietnamese known as Viet Kieu. Tourism too boomed and many of her visitors are returning Americans and Frenchmen or their descendants. They tried to re-live the lives of their loved ones in a land far away from home. Some 58,000 American soldiers were killed in Vietnam. Their names were immortalised on the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Monument in Washington DC. I had visited the Monument and recalled the air of solemnity at the site. Millions of Vietnamese perished but there were too many casualties to be accounted for or named. They were forgotten, unmourned, unremembered not even by name_even a number is more soulful.

Ha Long City's Bai Chay town. Friendship & Amity. With new friends at the tourist wharf where cruise boats to Ha Long Bay are moored. This photo shows yours truly with his travelling companion Siew Kong on the far right. In between were two young Chinese couples one from Shanghai and the other from Beijing. We met them on the cruise. So times are a changin' indeed. Vietnam now enjoys new-found friendship with China which had for centuries been their enemies. The most recent conflict was a border war with China in February 1979. Historically Vietnam had over the centuries swung between being a territory of China and an independent country. For some 1000 years from the Han dynasty to the Sung dynasty Vietnam was part of the Chinese empire. So Chinese culture and religious practices hold a strong grip over the lives of the Vietnamese people. Vietnam nowadays is very much a part of ASEAN in spirit, belief, thought and action. Another friend not easily forgotten was Markus Gamper an affable and jovial fresh university graduate from Heidelberg who was touring Vietnam with his much reserved fraulein. We, poking fun at him, called him Hans Fritz a throwback to our pre-teen days when we gobbled with gusto comics on the Second World War. In a similiar vein he addressed yours truly as Mr Lee in deference to Singapore's first prime minister and Siew Kong as Jackie Chan, a contemporary Chinese brand par excellence.
Don't you think this is true?: "Come gather 'round people. Wherever you roam. And admit that the waters around you have grown. And accept it that soon. You will be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin' Then you better start swimmin' Or you sink like a stone. For the times they are a changin' " Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are A Changin'"