Bicycle Jams and Sleeping Pandas. A slow train from Guangzhou to Kowloon prompts thoughts on where China is headed. TRAVEL: THE SOUTHERN CHINA SCENE

TWO miles down the road from Peoples' Duck Farm No. 342, the bus engine stops without permission. Our driver orders everyone out and we stand on the side of the road in China while the rest of the traffic bumps by oblivious to our fate. Our guide, the solicitous Liu, smites his brow. He is very serious about this guide business, but things haven't been going well today. He lost two of the passengers this morning. Then it turned out he had two French sisters along, and he spoke no French. And now the bus poops out here miles from our destination of Guangzhou (Canton). I fear Liu may be losing it again, so I engage him in conversation.

``Maybe we should have taken bicycles.'' Badinage sometimes calms the tensest Chinese guide.

``In Guangzhou you will see bicycle jam,'' he says, ``Have you ever seen bicycle jam?''

``Now that you ask, no.''

``Yes, we have millions of bicycles in Guangzhou.''


``We have 7 million people and 6 million bicycles in Guangzhou.''


``Soon we will have cars.''

``Good Lord. ... I mean, how nice.''

For now the Chinese vehicle of choice in the countryside is a two-cylinder diesel rider tractor, like a much larger Gravely tractor, costing the equivalent of $1,000 American. Made in China, they are put to all sorts of uses, much like the Model T Ford was when it came out. There are, as far as I can determine, three models.

Newer ones have headlights and seats, and radiators. But the older ones are of a design that goes way back, with cooling systems like the one-lung gasoline engines of the 1920s. There is a reservoir of water on the top of the engine. When it boils away, you stop and fill it up again. The overall impression is one of a tea kettle on three wheels, with a man hanging on for dear life. These tractors can till the fields and take the produce to market, and from the looks of most of them, they earn their keep.

``You see these little houses in the farm fields?'' Liu asks. ``Do you know why they are there?''

No one knows. Liu explains that when the vegetables are ripe they must be protected. And even though the farmers don't live out by their vegetables, they have to stand guard at night against wandering vegetable thieves who are displaced Vietnamese, stranded in south China. They are at a serious disadvantage, since they have no language and the government has made little effort to assimilate them. They are not liked by the Chinese. The Vietnamese have had a hard century.

Once the bus engine is fixed (probably a clot of duck feathers in the air cleaner), we go merrily on to Guangzhou.

``Soon we will stop for midday meal,'' Liu announces. ``This will be in a state-restaurant run by the government. So you do not have to worry. You can eat anything.''

The state restaurant is a large operation with three floors of dining rooms. No ordinary Chinese are permitted to eat here, and we are treated quite regally. In the men's room a uniformed attendant turns on the sink water for me, testing the water so it is the proper warmth before my hands are permitted to enter the flow. He hands me a paper towel. He hands me a second towel. Somehow the idea that we are used to such treatment back in the States has caught on here, or the Chinese government has determined to treat all its guests with the most fawning subservience. It's the last thing you expect in a people's republic.

The French sisters sit next to me during the meal and despite Liu's promise, we wonder about some of the food. There are chicken feet fried in batter, and there are saut'eed strips of tripe. They look at me for guidance.

``Uh ... um ... pas mange.''

Which isn't very good French, but it gets the message across and they pass.

Liu says that the government's population control is in trouble. If a family has more than the allowed one child they must pay a tax of 1,500 yuan on each additional child. The trouble is that this is a nationally applied figure. It's a lot of money in northern China, where the income is low. But in south China, 1,500 yuan isn't that much for those farmers who are now enjoying prosperity like they've never seen before. Many are willing to pay the tax for the additional child.

``The population goal by year 2000 is 1.2 billion,'' Liu says. ``But there is a problem: There's already 1.2 billion.''

The outskirts of Guangzhou are in total confusion with the squalor and open-air business of all third-world cities. New roads are being built, and the earth is a shocking red where the machinery has cut into it. Traffic jams up and the air is foul with diesel fumes.

``This is worse than anything in Italy,'' says Mrs. Barber.

``Italy has the worst air pollution in Europe,'' adds Mr. Barber gruffly.

``You know Madreed?'' chimes in Senora M., who is from Spain.

``No, I can't say that...''

``Madreed ees worst than Italy.''

``All right, wull ah've never been to Madrid, see?'' says Mr. Barber, a little put out.

``Een Madreed, your eyes, they make water!''

Senor M. agrees with his wife about Madrid having the worst air in Europe, but the air here is bad enough for me. I'm pleased when we finally stop to begin the walking part of the tour.

Guangzhou, one of the largest cities in China, is a southern city, relaxed, with a decidedly epicurean approach to life. It has been allowed to run itself in recent years, and it has prospered. There's money here now and a housing shortage. There is constant construction.

On some buildings the Japanese manufacturers have been permitted to erect advertising signs. Not very many, but still more than you'd expect in a controlled economy. There's a Mattel toy factory going full blast. The streets are clean in the center of the city, swept by an army of women with brooms. We visit the Guangzhou Zoo.

The big draw of the Guangzhou Zoo is, by government fiat, the pandas, and we are hustled over for a peek. Nothing doing. The pandas are well inside their cage and aren't coming out. Two other tour members, the Australian newlyweds, stand by my side.

``Winey cummin' at?'' the bride asks (which is Australian for Why isn't he coming out.)

``Odd anno,'' her husband says. (I don't know.)

``My bees dead,'' she suggests by way of grim humor. (Maybe he's dead.)

Senor M. is unimpressed by the zoo and the pandas. Mr. Barber, the retired English carpenter, gives him a fishy look. The senor tells him, ``We have beeger zoo een Madreed,'' and walks on.

``Shoulda stayed in bloody Madrid, then,'' Mr. Barber says, sotto voce, and gives me a wink.

It is easy to get a smile returned in Guangzhou, something that can't be said for Hong Kong, and the air is fairly clean. We see Sun Yat-sen's Memorial and the tallest pagoda in the city. The Australian husband and I climb to the top of this pagoda and stand leaning on the rail overlooking the city, which stretches out to the fuzzy, smoky horizon in all directions.

``Quatta plyce,'' he offers as a typical Aussie take-it-in-stride-ism.

And it is quite a place. The earth seems to breathe people. We look down on them as they eddy along the streets that contain the pagoda's courtyard. The older Chinese-style architecture with gracefully curved tile roofs is everywhere, but newer buildings pop up through the plentiful forestry of the city. The new buildings are typical worker housing. Still, they look more livable than the high-rises of Hong Kong. In Guangzhou wide main thoroughfares intersect tree-lined boulevards, defining crowded but tidy neighborhoods.

Of course, bicycles are everywhere. We stand looking over the rail, talking about this and that until we notice a small prayer meeting of some sort going on inside the pagoda. So we leave.

In the afternoon, the bicycle traffic reaches its worst. In the intersections there actually are bicycle jams. At slower speeds, naturally, no one can remain seated and the streets are masses of people pushing bicycles. Old women struggle in the mix with children trying to get home from school. No one pays any attention to motorized vehicles, whose speed is thus reduced to a walk. But from the window of our tour bus, if you can catch anyone's eye, a warm smile is flashed back at you, half bemused, half-apologetic, the smile of the frustrated urban commuter around the world. Liu tells us that, even though most of the traffic is by bike, there is still, on average, one traffic fatality every day in Guangzhou.

At the Guangzhou train station we get our tickets for the train back, which includes dinner. The train cars are large, and I suspect of a prewar European design. The windows all have lace curtains, which are clean and tied neatly in place. We are seated in the dining car, where the seats are numbered. This is the evening train, the last one back to Hong Kong. Businessmen struggle wearily around the many waitresses to the dinner tables with us.

Across from Senora M. and me, a Chinese commercial traveler in a pin-striped suit polishes off his dinner while we play with our food. We have something made of chicken, he has fish. A whole, rather large fish. For the Chinese, eating is an act of concentrated devotion. The fish disappears, except for the tail, but even that gets a good chewing on.

Back in the coach, the newlyweds have fallen asleep on each other. The retired couple is propped up against each other as they've probably been for years. Senor M. is snoring and the senora is reading in the dim light. The French sisters are talking quietly, and I'm looking out the window at the black night.

Once in a while a light goes by, there doesn't seem to be any need of light in the Chinese countryside at night. Everyone is in for the night. Even as we trace our way back to Kowloon, through the new Special Economic Zones there are few lights. Here, where the grip of central planning is the most relaxed and individual enterprise is tolerated, life is still regulated by the hours of sunlight.

It occurs to me that the average American's view of China is about as murky as mine is looking out this train window. The light of collectivism has failed, the light of Leninism burns dimmer with each succeeding Chinese leader, and the self-lit torch of common sense is about the only thing left.

Where they used to have Mao's thoughts, they now have inflation and regional inequalities to deal with. They have corruption and shortsightedness in high places to control. They have Japanese and Taiwanese companies prowling at the gates, hungry for cheap labor. They have 1.2 billion people to feed, and more every day.

The train carries us back to the crazy but predictable capitalism of Hong Kong. But where the rest of China is headed still waits for tomorrow morning.

Second of two articles. The first ran Thursday, Jan. 26.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Bicycle Jams and Sleeping Pandas. A slow train from Guangzhou to Kowloon prompts thoughts on where China is headed. TRAVEL: THE SOUTHERN CHINA SCENE
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today