By Cecilie Gamst Berg
Have I mentioned before that I love China? I love China. Last week as I sat shaking with fear on a flight from Lanzhou to Guangzhou in a plane that, it has to be said, looked like a dented old Coke can with wings, I started counting the China stamps in my passport. Wow! I had visited the mainland 74 times in four years. That's something like twice every hour.
I suppose the main reason why the world today is in such a sorry state (and always has been, come to think of it) is that people can't imagine that other people think differently from themselves. Some people want to kill people who think differently from themselves just to make a point, and I am no exception. I can't understand why some people don't love China like I do. I know people who have lived in Hong Kong for 10, 15, 20 years and have never visited the mainland. What can possibly be their reason? I don't necessarily want to kill these people but I certainly don't understand them. How can they have the world's best holiday destination right on their doorstep but never go there?
Shenzhen is a mere 45 minutes and HK$33 away by train and yet people spend thousands of dollars flying to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia for their holidays or just for the weekend. There's no accounting for some people's taste eh? And talking about money - my friends spend 20 and 30 thousand dollars on short holidays around the globe. During my three-week holiday in Xinjiang province I spent RMB 2500 - including this blasted flight from Lanzhou. If it hadn't been for that flight my holiday would have been perfect, just perfect, I thought as I sat shaking with turbulence, looking at the 74 little red round and square stamps. 74 trips of fun and happiness.
Then I started thinking: Why do I need the stamps at all? I look at my Hong Kong ID card, and it says clearly: Hong Kong Permanent Identity Card. That means I'm a Hong Kong person with a Hong Kong person's rights and responsibilities. I have the right to vote in our farcical "elections", I pay tax and give money to the various charities milling around town with their collection boxes on Saturday. So far, so Hong Kong person.
Now, Hong Kong is a city in China, right? That means Hong Kong people are Chinese people. And as a Hong Kong person I should therefore be considered as living in China.
But no, once on the other side of the border in the abovementioned glorious Shenzhen, I suddenly become a "foreigner." Hong Kong Chinese people zoom through immigration with their "Return To The Village" pass which is now a card they just slip through a machine, while we second-class Hong Kong people have to fill in a form, queue up and have our passport stamped.
I need a visa to travel in the country of which I'm a permanent resident. Isn't that weird? And also, exceedingly irritating? The only benefit of having a permanent Hong Kong ID card so far seems to be that I get a three year visa whereas before I only got a double entry each time. I went through passports like other people go through packets of tissues. Now, as I said, I've had the same passport since 2001 but it's getting full - 74 stamps times two, one for entry and one for exit, take up a lot of space. The visa is $600, a new passport is going to set me back another $600…it all adds up.
Thank God for China, so reasonably priced it's cheaper to travel around for three weeks, staying in hotels, than sitting at home in Hong Kong, eating instant noodles….
Yes, I love China. China is the temple I have to go to worship at least twice a month to feel sane. As soon as I cross the border I start getting That China Feeling and I start grinning That China Grin. Although I'm not happy to see the massive increase of cars on the mainland to the point where you can't breathe (apparently eight of the world's 10 most polluted cities are in China, a dubious record to say the least) and am sad and disappointed about the wanton and systematic destruction of her cities, there are also many things that have improved since I first set foot on Chinese soil 17 years ago.
One thing I was really happy to see the last of, is the FEC system. FEC - Foreign Exchange Certificate, was a kind of money that foreigners (and, I presume, Chinese with connections) could use to shop at Friendship Stores, pay for hotel rooms and buy tickets.
When we went to the bank to change foreign hard currency or traveller's cheques, FEC was the currency we got in return. It didn't take me long to find out that 1 FEC was worth 2 RMB on the black market. And in 1988's Beijing, there were not many people who weren't involved in the money-changing system in one way or another. I therefore had twice as much money as I had previously thought. Good.
But then I realised that I had to pay twice as much as a Chinese person when I wanted to buy for example a train ticket. What kind of wild system was that? Of course there was a black market for train tickets too, and only idiots bought them at the counter paying with FEC. But the system wasn't very practical. Changing money, finding people to buy tickets for you, all this took a lot of time. It was fortunate that I had a lot of time in those days. Of course living under this system I accepted it. It's only now that the system is no more, there is no FEC and we foreigners have to queue up and fight to get our tickets just like ordinary Chinese, that I see how strange it was. But no matter how I obtain the ticket, travelling by train will always be one of the things I love most about China.
Another thing I love about China is her fantastic parks. No matter how shitty the city, it will always have a least one park where you can feel you can be both far removed from the noise and dirt of the city and also feel transported to another, more gentle time of willowy maidens with long, billowing sleeves wafting through the trees and lakes like elves, whispering softly to smooth-faced scholars in silken robes. Every time I'm in China and I get to a new place, I head straight for the nearest park to spend some pleasant hours among the trees.
In the past, the pleasure of visiting the park used to be marred by the irritation of having to pay ten times as much as Chinese to enter it. It could be 10fen for Chinese and 1yuan for foreigners or 1yuan for Chinese and 10 for foreigners, but it was always ten times more at least.
Look, I don't have a problem with paying more for a better service. Of course it should cost more to enjoy the luxury of a bunk in soft sleeper than sitting up all night in hard seat, sleeping with your head on the table. I would gladly paid more to be carried through a park by four handsome men than walking through it barefoot. But I strongly object to having to pay more than everybody else FOR THE SAME THING because I have a different skin colour. It's nothing to do with the fact that I can afford to pay more. It should be: Same product, same price. End of story.
I'd love to see what would happen in…well, any other country, if they tried to pull the same stunt! You'd be hauled in front of the magistrate post-haste.
Thankfully the Chinese government has seen how absurd this policy was, and now foreigners and Chinese pay the same to get into parks, museums, monuments and fairgrounds.
So for years I've really been thinking that the price segregation and discrimination, apart from the HK Person/Foreigner kind of thing, has disappeared from Chinese soil and from Chinese thinking. (Of course a lot of people try to cheat me but they are private entrepreneurs, it's not official cheating instigated by the government. Also it's up to me whether I want to be cheated or not.)
That was until I spent my summer holiday in Xinjiang.
It had been a particularly strenuous trip, from Xinhe (新和) to Koerle. (庫爾勒) I didn't have a ticket so I had to spend the whole trip in the restaurant car. I love the restaurant car on Chinese trains - the food is great, the beer is cheap and there are always people who want to talk. This time the person who wanted to talk was a Khazakstani who came up to me and shook my hand as soon as I entered the restaurant car. He was already quite drunk, and said that we were the same because he had grey eyes and I have blue-grey eyes.
That boy loved his beer. I'm not a slow drinker, but every time I drank one glass of beer, he drank a bottle. During the five and a half hour journey he must have drunk at least ten bottles of beer. He didn't get hammered (ming ding da zui) exactly, but very very sentimental - well, maudlin. He talked about his horses, his yurt and his country, in a Putonghua that was quickly deteriorating so I had to struggle to understand what he said. When he started saying the same thing ten, twenty and thirty times I'd already had enough, and signalled wildly with my eyes to the train staff: Rescue me! But as I had no seat to run away to and the train staff didn't really care, I was stuck with him.
He kept those beer bottles coming relentlessly though, I'll give him that. When I finally staggered off the train around 1.30 in the morning, I had only one thought in my head: Sleep! Dragging my over-heavy bag to the nearest hotel, I looked forward to throwing myself on the bed as soon as I'd signed my name. Sorry, no rooms. Aiaaa, bad. Bad. The hotel across the street was also full. Would I have to sleep outside?
I got in a taxi and asked the driver to take me somewhere, anywhere. He took me to a 公寓. Excellent! Cheaper too. But there the receptionist told me the words I thought I never had to hear again: This place is only for Chinese.
A hostel, almost 2 o'clock in the morning, a woman so exhausted she can hardly walk and they tell her she can't sleep because of racial discrimination? It was unbelievable. Muttering angrily I trundled back to the taxi, whose driver was a smart man. We had already talked about my status as a Hong Kong permanent resident, and driving me to another gong yu a few minutes away he suggested I should exploit my status as a 香港同胞.
Oh miracle: It worked! The receptionist in the next hostel was all smiles, registering me under my Chinese name and Hong Kong ID card number.
For a reasonable price I got a very simple room without any luxuries but it had a clean bed and that was all I wanted. After that I used my Xianggang Tongbao status whenever I could, and why not? I'm a legitimate Hong Kong person although I have a different skin colour from most Hong Kong people. I have been turned away from hotels many times during my 17 years of travelling in China, accepting it meekly. This was the first time I thought "what a ridiculous rule."
Perhaps the reason officials would give as to why these inexpensive hostels are off-limits to foreigners are that they are too simple and "not suitable for foreigners"? That would be a weak excuse. In Hong Kong, foreign backpackers sleep eight to a room - a dirty and stinking room with both cockroaches and rats. I've done it myself. When you are young and travelling, price matters more than comfort.
Chinese people all over the world, both originating in Hong Kong and the mainland, are very sensitive to racial discrimination against themselves. They are absolutely justified to be so, because Chinese people have been exploited, abused and discriminated against for centuries. It's great to see China stand up and take its legitimate place among the great powers of the world.
But as China is winning victories on the world stage of politics, economics, sports and culture, perhaps she would do well to keep an eye on what's going on in her own backyard while shouting about injustices her citizens suffer around the world?