The Great Boat Adventure

This woman lives in the oldest neighborhood of Hankou, in the tri-city metropolis of Wuhan, China. She can’t speak any English because she learned Russian in her school days. As she explained to our friend and host Gao Bei, one of her sons works for the Chinese navy, on submarine missiles. The other one works in Washington, D.C., for the Voice of America! She says that when they see each other, they are always joking that they can’t talk about their work, state secrets. I would say these are typical stories from modern Chimerica.

We set out from the Wachang side, crossing the Yangtze on a ferry. Our goal was to find a small boat, somewhere, and see Hankou and Hanyang – the commercial and industrial cities – from the water. So we set out walking towards the older side of town, where there was supposedly a market and some docks on the Han river, which meets the Yangtze here. Right where we began there was one of those blue fences covered with photos and slogans and I thought, there must be a big hole in the ground behind that thing. Further in the distance was a decrepit modernist building, Corbusier-style with a kind of control box at the top, which looked immensely intriguing. We went there with the desire to sweet talk our way to the roof. There was no one at the foot of the building. Jay maintained that looking for someone to ask was just multiplying the chances for them to say no: so let’s take the elevator. All these kinds of situations are immensely lackadaisical in Wuhan, you just do it and see what happens.

The sixteenth floor offered a narrow corridor, then an open view onto the city. They were destroying the neighborhood down below: but the roofs were still green with plants and bushes. The doors leading out to the roof were locked, let’s try the other side. A man in an apartment was looking, we gestured hello and went on to find more locked doors. Jay was speaking Chinese, then saying to us, he’s the manager. And he’s going to open the door for us! Which he did.

The roof seemed half-decayed, but in practice it was solid underfoot. The control box had no meeting room or party headquarters, just what looked like a water tank hiding behind some decayed windows and concrete. The view up there was amazing. Across the river were the endless towers of Wachang. Just below, the expected big hole in the ground was in fact immense, an open expanse worked here and there by backhoes. It was the future CBD (central business district). One building had been left standing in there, for workers’ housing. Huge half-finished towers rose in the back, with some storey-high Chinese characters and a yellow phone number at the top. Just call and I’m yours seemed to be the message.

Our more humble edifice, built in the eighties, was a danwei or workers’ housing estate, connected to the state-owned enterprise that manages all the traffic on the river. Rumors continually circulated that it would be torn down, but it still wasn’t yet anyway (this kind of information came to me from someone else, who had heard it from someone else – about half our group of eleven or twelve were Chinese speakers). Beyond the half-demolished buildings lay the oldest part of town where we planned to go. Once back on the ground, it seemed interesting to walk through the demolition zone.

It’s quite fascinating to be collectively bilingual. The foreign license of those without tongues gives freer play to those with them. It’s impressive to see gutted buildings, workers in the rubble pile salvaging bricks for reuse, bright red characters signifying “to be demolished” with other characters in black above them saying “not” – added by the inhabitants. Soon we were talking with those who still remained, despite it all, resisting. You get 6100 yuan per square meter for compensation, they explained. Approximately a thousand dollars, and there can’t be many square meters for each family. Obviously there will be no way for them to live in the city center (apartments near by are going from 16 to 20 thousand per square meter, we were told a little later). They were mad and they showed it, with dignity. Not so for the guy in the white shirt who came up to chase us off around that moment, gesticulating and threatening. We let him do it for a while, taking more pictures of the “not-to be demolished” characters and trying to look unfazed. Nothing doing, this guy was getting furious. So let’s cross the street and eat some noodles.

I was keen to go through an open iron gate and see what life was like in that older section, thinking it would be a glimpse of what was being destroyed. Actually the streets were winding here – not really the same environment at all. Behind every window it seemed that people were hanging out playing cards and mah-jong. Impossible to go fifty feet without striking up another conversation. There was a sweet and sometimes hilarious life in those crumbling two-story buildings. Shirtless old men next to boiling pots. Women knitting on chairs in narrow alleys. People leaning out to talk from second-floor windows. Bitter melon hanging to dry with the skivvies and the baby clothes. This was where we met the woman with the beautiful hairdo and the sons on opposite side of the new superpower divide. Such amazingly nice people.

She told us that she rented rooms, but since the people were so poor she didn’t ask much, otherwise how could they live? Another woman said she had come from the section that was now being destroyed. Another five years and this neighborhood would go, she claimed. Yet earlier, a well-dressed man had explained with pride that this was the oldest neighborhood in Hankou – not the oldest building but the oldest neighborhood, a continuous social relation. It used to be the richest, the fanciest neighborhood in the city. Would it come down soon? we asked. No, he said, it is not so easy as the buildings of a danwei, these are all private dwellings, it is much more complicated. I admired his confidence in a situation like that, where you have no power in fact, because at any law, convention or tacit understanding can be revoked just because they say. They say what? They say go away, we have business to do.

We could hardly tear ourselves away, the people were so friendly. I began to think that my naïve and romantic ideas about all that is lost in these waves of development are maybe not so naïve and romantic after all. There is something very different about those winding streets and the people who live for the sociable pleasures, so different from the bustle to get ahead and make a million, or at least a dime, which accounts for most of the ambiance in Wuhan. We found ourselves on the street of the garbage collectors, still looking for the boat, still looking for the market. Down that way, they said. Halal butchers with Arabic writing on the stalls. Suddenly a green painted mosque, set back from the street, with a friendly guardian at the open gate. Further on, amidst a market of plumbing fixtures and building supplies, the statue of Sun Yat-sen with a cane, engulfed by chaotic traffic and surrounded by blue construction fencing. Let’s go on, let’s go on. A big covered market, emptied, in the process of being revamped, upgraded, due to frequent fires in the storerooms, they said. It would all be display rooms soon enough, the same vendors would come back, they assured us. Progress again? It is hard to define and I am not being ironic.

Amazing, the things you can discover while looking for a boat. Old barges transformed into warehouses. Homeless people playing cards beneath the graceful new bridge. Floating apartment buildings, covered dories without motors, people who would come back tomorrow at eight and surely give us a ride for cheap. A poor man’s gambling salon on the water, with roses growing on the back and a man who gestured no pictures. A ferry dock with the usual ferry going back to Wachang. Did we want to take the tourist boat at 7:30? We had a powow and decided that in any case, it was time for a restaurant first. Another great meal ensued up on the second floor in some beat place where the glass noodles were the best in the world. We finally made it to the tourist boat at the last second. But it obviously wasn’t our dream. Let’s stay on the dock and keep the dream alive. Call it the great boat adventure.

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