David Tang

Diary - 9 February 2008

David Tang reflects on the storms in China, and on being 'Googled'

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David Tang reflects on the storms in China, and on being 'Googled'

My daughter telephoned to say, to my disbelief, that she was snowbound in Hangzhou, where it never snows. The city is regarded as the most beautiful in China, with swaying willows surrounding an old lagoon on the edge of which Mao Tse-tung loved staying. I always asked for the same bedroom that Mao chose at the West Lake Guesthouse — until one night in the same bed that he slept, I saw, standing by the window, a ghostly figure of a woman in white. It wasn’t quite Wilkie Collins, but enough to put me off ever returning.

My daughter will probably never return to Hangzhou either, as she was stuck there for three days and spent 20 hours queuing at the airport which couldn’t cope with the snow. Indeed, the whole of southern China was besieged by freak storms. It couldn’t have come at a worse time (like the tsunami on Boxing Day) as it is the time of the year when a huge number of urbanites travel to their rural homes for the Chinese New Year, which fell on 7 February this year — it’s goodbye to the Year of the Pig, and hello to the Year of the Rat.

An astonishing 200 million Chinese have been affected by the worst weather in 50 years. While it was perfectly normal in Peking (where I walked round in a jumper, hardened by my days at an English boarding school), in Canton alone 700,000 were stranded by the capricious cold weather that brought chaos to pylons and trains this last weekend. Day after day, 150,000 people stood sardined together on the platforms of the railway station. A woman was crushed to death. Conditions were manic. Premier Wen had to rush down from the capital to hug babies and calm things down. There were many ugly scenes, although in the true tradition of Cantonese enterprise, peddlers sold pot noodles, which usually cost the equivalent of 30p each, for £3, with a supplement of £2 for hot water — a total of a day’s wage for an ordinary worker.

The sheer number of people being affected emphasises that any human condition in China is hugely magnified. Not surprising when the population is nearly 1.4 billion. There have been criticisms about the inadequacies of the Chinese emergency services. But China has not known about such climatic ambushes for at least half a century. And if even America made a total mess of New Orleans, perhaps my compatriots might be forgiven for just trying to do their best. It certainly hasn’t helped that it’s happening during the Chinese New Year, the only time of the year when the country, like Norway in August, totally shuts down for a week’s holiday, with the maximum number of people on the move. It’s the only time of the year when tradesmen take three or four weeks off by ‘hanging up their woks’. Even in Hong Kong, the most efficient city in the world, services slacken to a 20-hour day.

Chinese families have been getting together for the New Year for two and a half thousand years. Mind you, the extended family of the Confucian tradition has virtually disappeared through the modern one-child policy. There are no more brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews — so three has become the standard unit of a family gathering. It’s rather sad that the modern Chinese home has been so reduced. We might now have to start feeling envious of the Italians — remember the full dinner table in The Godfather?

I am often asked about the Chinese zodiac signs. Essentially, the chronological cycle of the animals consists of the rat (2008), ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Ergo, you would be a rat if you were born in 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996 or 2008. For the other animals, you simply take one of these years as the nearest one before the year of your birth, then count the balance of the years along the order of the animal cycle. (So I was born in 1954, and I take the year 1948 and count 6 animals along and arrive at the horse.)

At the weekend, before I returned to Hong Kong from my last few days of shooting, I found myself going on the train from Newcastle to London (having shot at Biddick after a comfortable night in Tony Lambton’s bed, sans ghost). On the train, I was woken up twice by joining passengers who claimed that they had reserved my seats. I had to move on both occasions and only managed to find the last spare seat in the jammed carriage. It was hardly comforting to be told by the guard that I could have bought a first-class ticket for £200 and not found a seat for the 300-mile journey. It’s a far cry from the days, I remember, of the wondrous Pullman from Paddington to Oxford during whose short journey high tea was served — with Mother’s Pride sandwiches and toasted tea-cakes and proper builder’s tea in silver pots, and decent white tablecloths to boot!

Sitting opposite to me on the train was a complete stranger on his laptop computer. He suddenly started telling me who I was! I professed amazement as I did not know him from Adam. He confessed that he had, there and then in front of his screen, ‘Googled’ me. I inquired how he knew my name. He elementarily, like Holmes, told me he had noticed my surname on my bag and had heard my friend call me David. I was quite impressed, but shuddered at the thought of how easily I was identified and exposed. The experience was rather unnerving. His name (I asked) was Mark Simpson QC, whoever he is. I hope he is now unnerved.