Good Old Uncle Ho

Photo: Caleb Cole
Photo: Caleb Cole
By Jonathan Chandler, in Qingdao

Lantern Festival marks the end of Chinese New Year or Spring Festival as it is officially known here and the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China is in its annual nod-off.

Though glimpses of spring are in the air, right now Qingdao is blanketed in snow and a blizzard rages. With the big show happening in Beijing, there is also a lot of official activity here in Qingdao which is the apparatchiks’ favorite watering hole. Just 342 miles from Beijing and 41 minutes from wheels-up to down, they flock by the private planeload between meetings to conduct their more intimate gatherings and rumored rendezvous, or even, one might dare say, interludes of a romantic nature.

Consequently, there are extra security personnel everywhere, uniformed and plainclothes, standing with menace by flashing lit vehicles or in gaggles of corner boys and lurkers.

At times like these, the Internet is very slow and the roads are empty apart from racing black cars with tinted windows, and long, low and sleek or high and rugged 4 x 4’s… but always black. The streets are cleared of folk and the only beggar visibly condoned (indeed he is unique, Congress sitting or not) is the famous mendicant known to all ex-pats and tourists who ply the small foreign bar scene.

This gent has perfected the look: he is lined, wizened, walnuty and wears a grubby, torn ex-People’s Liberation Army green coat with stuffing spilling out of rips, tied around with rice twine. His ragged, stained black kung fu pants hang like the sail of a ghost ship over traditional rope-soled slippers. He has a long silver beard in the manner of a Tang Dynasty poet (or Good Old Uncle Ho Chi Minh if any readers remember the Vietnam War). His matted grey hair is bundled up inside a decrepit and filthy Mongolian snow-hat, ear-flaps dangling, crusty and foul. Rumors from old QD hands are that he has accumulated great wealth in his years of professional beggarism and has a Porsche Cayenne (a black one) parked around the corner. I often encounter this chap outside Old Jack’s Bar in the middle of town. Recently we became, for a moment, quite intimate.

It was a Sunday noon and I had set out for a walk along the beach before hitting Western Union for an overseas cash remittance.

All W.U. business is conducted in U.S. green, but currency exchange rates at the banks in China are bad and a hassle and not available on Sundays. This being China, however, there is always a white car parked outside the main branch of Bank of China right opposite the Western Union office. The system works like this: you are foreign, you approach the white car and within moments someone will materialize from around the corner of the bank. If no one comes, the security guard in his cubicle will come out and find the man for you. When the man appears he asks how much, opens the trunk of the white car and conducts the exchange in full view of passers-by (One time he wasn’t there and the Security Guard changed money for me himself, inside his cubicle).

I changed my reds for green and was about to cross the road to W.U. when from nowhere appeared the famous outstretched palm. Uncle Ho certainly knew where to position himself in the daytime before the bars opened. I apologized and explained in Mandarin that I only had US dollars. “Mei-jing, mei-yo wenti” (US dollar, no problem).

“Imagine it wouldn’t be” I quipped over my shoulder as I dodged the black cars.

That evening we were scheduled for the traditional annual opening of the business year company bash.

It was a long night of “gan-bei”-ing and we ended up in Corner Jazz Bar, a place of ill repute where locals and foreigners like to hunt and fight. Our table (four tables end to end) had two hundred bottles of Qingdao’s famous local beer in lines five deep and forty long. At three in the morning I found myself helping the 76th descendant of Confucious into a black 2010 Cadillac SRX 4×4, tipping his driver.

Then, tired and emotional, I staggered, slipped on the dirty snow and fell in an inebriated tangle onto the street. I reached out to gain purchase on the spinning world when I saw a familiar hand swoop down to help me up. In my palm was some of the money I’d pulled out to tip the driver. As I focused through bleary eyes, I saw that there was a nice fat red 100 Renminbi note (the biggest denomination on the Mainland) laced around my fingers.

The famous hand froze. I looked up, the beggar’s startled eyes met mine and as time skidded to a slow crawl, in one fluid movement I was tugged to my feet, the note disappeared and I was left swaying, cursing my luck. Of Good Old Uncle Ho, no sign but the flurry of snow in the purple night.

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