By Jonathan Chandler
The Wild East Magazine
Magpies… What was it? One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, hundreds of the frockers, a glut. A glut of magpies – building their intricate stick houses the size of an ayatollah’s turban, or a B52 beehive on the just-budding tees. Xi-que, (or in Taiwan ping-yin: Hsi-chui) – Latin: pica pica sericea.
The Thieving Magpie, a traditional bird of ill omen, is the only bird in town, or the deadzone, as we “locals” refer to it. How apt.
Spring doesn’t come to QD. It goes from Winter to Summer with one night of lashing rain and violent wind. Next day, all the construction workers are tops off and the cherry and magnolia blossoms are yesterday’s wedding confetti,
I will be only a little sad to leave this seaside town, with its massive public works, gigantic museums, conference centers, five stadia, Party HQ’s of various looming ugliness: all part of the trillions of renminbi in the government-slotted domestic stimulus package. And all empty.
A silent, lifeless showcase for Modern China – the global colossus that taste forgot.
But I won’t be sad to leave the educational institution upon which I wasted a little of my time. With its fake Eton ducktails and pinstripes, its portraits of the Duke of Wellington on the walls, its dormitories with matron whose only qualification was to be related to the boss, and mostly its complete absence of a business license with which to employ foreign experts.
The place is run by some over-“guang-chi”-ed Big Brothers — the “investment group”, with marketing as the main methodology, and big money, the goal.
The missing element, in fact, the missing elephant in the living room, is education, learning; the teaching of the little souls of the some of the richest kids in China.
Hey, just because they’re rich doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a decent education.
The whole enterprise is a tottering edifice which combines the worst evils of modern China with the flashiest of fifties spiv-ery: all done and dusted on the Mount overlooking the Baohai Sea.
Having got that dirty water off the chest there is the other problem with QD; the sea appears to be as dead as a barrel of salted cats, though a Geiger counter might disagree in staccato indignation. Better not tempt fate by dipping in a toe though!
My first morning in town on the eve of last August, full of good intentions after eighteen months in dirty ole Shanghai I rose at five, trotted down to the beach ten minutes away and immersed myself in a sticky gloop of opaque brown. I smelt sewage and slithered out as quickly as I could to run home and shower furiously. That’s the last time I went for a swim in QD.
But the Lutheran Church, bare and white on the hill overlooking the old port unadorned after being done over by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution – that lovable misnomer – is a place of infinite grieving silence. While the Granite Mansion, built on the pine-clad rocks of Beach Number Two, where Chiang Kai-shek, Noel Coward and George Bernard Shaw partied with Emily Hahn and her coked-up gibbon lover, “Mr. Mills”, (dressed in tweed three-piece suit), still echoes with hysterical laughter and the ghost of an occasional gunshot.
The beer, how could one not mention the beer? Went to a local lean-to under a blooming cherry tree on my last weekend where they just deliver the aluminum barrels onto the rough-cleared ground and tap them straight into pint mugs for 1.5 renminbi, that’s 8 cents US, or into 3-litre plastic bags for takeaway. The toilet is an unlit hardboard niche wall with two footpads in the concrete floor, a sort of GPS for your drunken willy. Ladies; just turn ‘round, crouch and let gush. No such thing as a sink but the barbecued meat, and mountains of clams were the best I tasted in the ten months I was in QD.
The locals are tough, uncompromising, but deal with that and they are great fun. Shandong is the ancient core of the Middle Kingdom and they are quite different, another race altogether, it seems, from the average Mainlander, Taiwan-born or otherwise.
It’s a strange place, full of empty, brand-new boulevards fronted by empty, brand-new buildings. All two-wheeled vehicles are prohibited and there are more new cars than you’d ever see on the streets of London, Milan or New York City.
So, cheers to Qingdao, I’ll be back if only for the craic, the crooked dazzling smiles of the young people and the sunset over Mount Fu.
Jonathan Chandler is a British novelist currently based in Qingdao, China.