Tuesday, 14 November 2006
Digging a Hole to China
Alex Horne – 14th November 2006
High on our St Lucian fix (and with Paul's Stella swiftly sunk) Owen and I decided to indulge in a spot of showboating down in Old China Town - which, as we discovered on Day One of this project, is located in Limehouse.
According to the valuable and potentially inaccurate internet resource that is Wikipedia, this East End area was dominated by opium, gambling and hand laundry dens throughout the late 19th century. But, disappointingly for all sorts of addicts including ourselves, the whole oriental district was destroyed by the Blitz and all that now remains is a rusting statue of a dragon eating another dragon which is in turn eating the first dragon. I'm sure it's meant to have some sort of very meaningful meaning but Wikipedia doesn't mention it so I'm going to say it's a representation of a freak occurrence that did actually happen in one of the three lairs mentioned above. A dragon actually ate a dragon that was actually eating the other dragon – fact.
Anyway, we'd drunk half a can of beer each, it was still only 5pm, and we were determined to find a Chinaman in Chinatown so we ignored the blatant lack of Chinese remnants, put our heads down and charged into Canary Wharf, a more modern but still fairly fearsome giant. Unfortunately, whilst battling against the tide of determinedly homeward bound businessmen (all the time trying to ignore the fact that whilst these people were earning large amounts of money and creating stable livelihoods for themselves and their families, we'd been walking around London, asking people if they're foreign and accepting alcohol from strangers in a bid to complete an overambitious project for our own sense of achievement and the faint possibility of a very nebulous body of work at the end of it all) we failed to persuade anyone to take part in our scheme.
Instead we found a small sushi bar, largely ignored by the departing herd, run by two young Asian girls. Sushi? Asian? "So you're Japanese", I deduced, neatly putting two and two together and getting (minor but definitely discernible) racism. "No. I'm from China and she's from Malaysia", came the belittling reply. I know it's not really bad racism – I just presumed her nationality on the grounds of the grounds - but I did feel ashamed for slipping into a Q.I.-style trap and half-expected the word "JAPANESE" to flash up behind me and that howling alarm to really ram my mistake home.
I couldn't tell if Lei herself (22 years old with a BA in English Literature from Royal Holloway) even registered my error. I thought I could detect a slight "he thinks we all look the same" expression on her face but then I clearly can't read faces all that well. And I should say that Lei was our first representative to then deny our request for a photo. "I'll email you one", she promised. Two weeks later, I'm still waiting.
The rest of the conversation didn't go particularly smoothly either: I over-compensated for my narrow-mindedness by grinning weirdly and saying, "So, China! Brilliant! I love China!" This wasn't entirely idiotic – I had spent four months there whilst on a 'gap year', but because it was a 'gap year', I did spend more time socialising with my fellow intrepid English travellers than making any real Chinese friends or absorbing any real Chinese culture – something I've regretted ever since.
"Where in China?!" I persisted, thinking it was boundto be Quanzhou, the sleepy East coast town (population: 7.5 million) where I stayed back in 1997. "You won't know it", said Lei. "I will! I know China, I will!" I replied, desperately. "You won't", said Lei, conclusively. And that was that.
She was almost certainly right. I clearly don't 'know China'. But we'd found our Chinese representative fairly close to London's spiritual Chinese home and just as long as she gets in touch soon with a jpeg portraying her Chinese face, that's all that really matters – isn't it?