Teeming street life in Canton: a tourist's view

For the tourist in China, darkness can be a blessing, for it is only then that we ta-pi-tzum ("big-noses," or Westerners), no longer attract penetrating stares. One can move along city streets, usually very dimly lit, as just another passing shadow. This semi-invisibly makes observing the panoply of life in a Chinese city, certainly as rich by night as by day, much easier.

I spent several nights wandering through the city of Canton during a 10-day tour through two southern provinces for which that the southern Chinese city of 2 million was the first and last stop. Altogether there were 26 of us in the tour organized by the Chinese Government's travel office in Hong Kong. Usually little entertainment was planned for the evening, leaving ample time for roaming.

I caught my first glimpse of downtown Canton on a muggy Sunday evening, our first day in China, with two other Americans, one of whom could speak Chinese. After taking a taxi from t he Tengfang Hotel, located on the northern edge of the city, to the promenade along the massive Pearl River, we were immediately struck by the teeming street life. Strollers filled the tree-lined promenade shoulder to shoulder, youngsters were putting the grassy center of a large round-about to good use via numerous soccer games, while naked light bulbs announced that the rows of small shops and restaurants were open for business. Set against the backdrop of boats plying their way up and down the river, the ambience seemed nearly Mediterranean. Later we learned that Sunday is the traditional night off for the Cantonese.

Along the promenade, intermittent clusters of squatting men gave the sidewalk a greater density than usual. These clusters would invariably attract bystanders who followed the sidewalk activities with great interest. The object of their attention: card-playing. Did the games provide miniarenas for gambling , a forbidden activity in China but certainly beloved by the Hong Kong Chinese? We never found out.

On another night, walking back to the hotel, I noticed a huddle of six people around a small, first-story window. Stopping to take a peak, I saw that a medium-sized black and white TV was on inside. The flitting light revealed the faces of three generations watching elaborately costumed actors and actresses dancing and singing to a rather dramatic, cymbal-punctuated score. (I later learned that the program had probably been a performance of the Peking Opera.) The onlooking neighbors, some standing on wooden crates for a better view, were obviously enjoying the show and took little notice of me.

I wondered how long this family had saved to purchase this luxury item and how many members of the extended family had contributed. The average wage for industrial workers in the province (Kwantung) is 50-60 yuan a month, naturally higher for cadres and technicians. Small TV sets were over 700 yuan, while the largest cost almost 1,000 yuan in the city's department stores. Even if they could summon the requisite savings, had they also had to earn a purchasing coupon through good conduct at their place of work?

During the same walk, I came across a small park. There, under the shadows of old leafy trees were nunerous young couples, holding hands, talking quietly, embracing. Who says there is no time for tenderness in China?

Another night some of us visited the Cultural Park, a fenced-in area of low-cost entertainment downtown. The entrance fee was .10 yuan (divide by 1.7 for a dollar equivalent). A light musical comedy playing on a large, outdoor stage greeted the incoming visitors; its theme appeared quite removed from political drama. Wandering on, we found an outdoor roller-skating rink. The mass of bodies was so thick that a break in the counterclockwise flow rarely appeared. While taking in the scene, one member in the group befriended one of the Chinese onlookers, a young woman. After conversing with her above the din of the skates, Helen asked if she could take her picture. The young woman first hesitated, then yielded to our solicitations. The reason for her initial hesitation? She thought we were "foreign bandits."

Strolling further down the broad, asphalted thoroughfare, we found an outdoor cinema, playing to an SRO crowd. The snippet of film we viewed depicted a young , courageous fighter pilot in the snowy country of the north. Nearby, three boxes of grayish light were attracting a multitude of dimly visible heads. As we investigated the gathering, we realized that the three boxes were televisions , set into a viewing wall.

Continuing down the Cultural Park's major pedestrian avenue, we found ourselves walking toward a large arena, bathed in yellow from an overhead string of lights. I then recalled what someone had told us at the entrance: "Keep your ticket for the basketball game." As we presented the tickets, one of the uniformed attendants enthusiastically led us to our seats: a floor-level bench inside the screened-off court, obviously a bench of honor. On the court, a game between two women's teams was in the waning minutes, playing to a crowded, all-male arena.

At the buzzer, the women quickly retired and two men's teams took the floor for warmups. The start of the game was heralded by all members of the opposing teams lining up across from each other and then rushing forward to shake hands. We stayed for the first half. The most outstanding characteristic of play was the deft ball-handling and unselfish play.

A bus ride back to the Tenfang Hotel demonstrated the advantages of taking public transportation in China. At 10 in the evening, bus No. 3 was jammed with exiting visitors to the Cultural Park. Worse for me than the crowding was the 6 -foot ceiling that stooped my 6 foot 3 inch frame and thereby stirred numerous comments from amused Chinese fellow travelers.

A vacated seat provided my first conversation with a Chinese, excluding the guides. As a black-dressed grandmother and her grandchild emptied a seat, I motioned to one of the two young women standing next to me to take it. They declined and indicated that I should occupy it. I also declined and repeated my offer with an outstretched arm. They refused again.

At that point, a clear, deep voice from the back of the bus said, "please, take a seat." Very surprised and not wanting to offend local hospitality, I sat down.Turning around, I saw that the voice belonged to a rather tall, bespectacled Chinese man, probably in his 30s. Complimenting him on his excellent pronunciation (this facililty with the spoken language surprisingly held true for most of the Chinese we met), I then began a conversation. He told that he had first learned Russian during his university education in the late 1950s, but rarely used it now. The bus stop at the hotel terminated the conversation rather abruptly, but not before he wished me a "welcome to our city."

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