NEXT to me in the crowded hovercraft, Senor M. and his wife are patently unimpressed. We are reading the South China Morning Post as the coast of mainland China drifts by outside the hydrofoil window. We are paying no attention to the scenery. We are paying attention to politics. ``You like Boosh?'' she says, reading the election returns.
``What difference does it make now? The election is over.''
``I like Boosh!'' she avers, making a fist with a thumb pointed up in the air, ``El es hombre duro! Duro! You know what is duro?''
Any fool who has studied Spanish in high school knows what duro means, and being such a fool, I know. It means hard, strong, and everything Bush didn't used to be.
Her husband must also be duro to some extent, since Senora M. is getting on my nerves, and we've only been on the tour an hour. The other members of our group tour into south China are an Australian couple in the throes of newly married bliss, always petting each other and being solicitous; a pair of chinless French sisters, who I fear are half a bubble off plumb, they giggle at everything and make ooh-la-la noises that no one else understands; a retired English carpenter and his wife from Devon with accents almost as bad as the Australians; and me, traveling alone, collar turned up against the wind, squinting into the salt spray. (You get the picture?) I travel alone.
Our guide, Liu, got everything mixed up this morning. He picked up a couple named Barrows when he should have gotten the Barbers; an hour was lost thereby. Liu is not cut out for the guide business. He responded to this contretemps by running off somewhere, advising us, ``Please wait!'' which he pronounced, ``Plis wai!'' which in the hubbub of the Hong Kong traffic came out, ``iss way,'' which we interpreted as, ``This way!'' So we went running after him. He waved at us, running away even faster, ``Plis wai!''
``What did he say?''
``'E said, `This way,''' says the Australian girl.
``Tell the little bugger to slow down,'' says the retired English carpenter whose face is scarlet.
``My hoosbin! He cannot run like thees!'' says Senora M.
``Better get duro fast!'' I tell her.
``He cannot! He ees not so young!''
Which is true, as Senor M. later confides to me when things calm down.
The tour, which takes us up the river and inland from the pounding high-rise confusion of Hong Kong to the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou (Canton), is $100. We go by hovercraft to the mainland and then by bus 100 miles or so across the Chinese countryside. We pass through areas of hope and industrial regeneration as well as areas where the poverty and cultural neglect are pitiable.
Most interesting to me is the evidence of industrial growth that has come about as a result of senior leader Deng Xiaoping's move toward the economic middle ground. So far, many factories have been built - great, gray squarish things of very solid, uninspired concrete architecture. But there is nothing in them. The government order evidently specified that factories be built in great number, but nothing was on line to be made in them. Liu says some Taiwanese companies may move here, but he's not sure. One factory we passed was in the middle of a huge duck farm, millions of ducks swirling about the empty building.
The land is flat and, with the monsoon season approaching and the heat over, there's a gray sameness to the land. The trees are a dark, mature green. Some villages are very pleasant to see, being built of a rosy-orange brick with red tile roofs and decorated walls. Others, built more recently, are gray cement, with ugly, squared rooflines and bizarre colored tiles here and there to relieve the monotony. It turns out that a farmer advertises his financial success by the height of his house (no one lives on the land, since no one can own the land). Thus mini-skyscrapers vie for supremacy in the villages, four stories being about the tallest. And in the windows of the fourth story of the most prosperous farmer in town, laundry waves happily.
``Labor is very cheap in China,'' Liu tells us. In the new Special Economic Zones the laborers will get more money - almost one-quarter of the wage in Hong Kong. That's less than half of what people get in most industrialized nations. But it is important because the Hong Kong labor rates and costs are rising as the colony turns away from manufacturing to financial services. Rents there on industrial space are astronomical, but in China land is nearly rent free. In the Special Economic Zones people will be making less than 10 percent of what Americans do. And outside the zones, in the rest of China, they make even less than that.
We pass through a checkpoint. There are green uniformed soldiers everywhere. The bus crawls along behind Japanese trucks, Chinese tractors, and bicycles. Everyone is checked. But we are already well inside China. Why is there a checkpoint here?
``Only some people are allowed in the Special Economic Zone,'' Liu explains, ``and many would like to get in. They make more money here.''
This is part of Deng's reforms, and this controlling of the population away from the areas where the higher wages will be allowed has turned out a wise precaution. At least there was enough foresight among Deng's advisers to prepare for the inflation that accompanies higher wages. In countries like China, inflation often means higher prices for food. Inflation is one of the greatest fears in China at present, and the government is back-peddling on the reforms. This checkpoint is one example.
``But those are not soldiers,'' Liu explains carefully.
``No,'' he says, ``they are armed police.''
``Ah,'' What a relief!
We are allowed through the checkpoint. Liu is worried about the two French sisters, who seem to be enjoying their trip even though nobody can talk to them. I smile occasionally, but my high school French is even less than my Spanish. Liu seeks my counsel.
``I cannot speak French,'' he confides to me. ``Do you speak French?''
``Only a little.''
He seems troubled.
We stop at a photo opportunity - Peoples' Duck Farm No. 342, I think. We get out, cameras at the ready.
There are hundreds of thousands of white ducks. Perhaps millions. The mass of them swirl around a muddy lake, swimming in the brown water and pecking at each other. On both sides of the road there are ducks as far as the eye can see, and presumably farther than that. Liu gives a short disquisition on the Chinese love of duck. Then he asks me.
``Do you know French for duck?''
``I think it's canard.''
He goes over to the French sisters and makes a sweeping gesture, taking in the entire fluttering, quacking, swimming mass.
``Canard!'' say the sisters.
Everyone is very pleased. The French sisters make ah-oui noises and smile.
Liu is very happy and I have been of some small help.
First of two articles. Tomorrow: Dense bikes, big city.