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On Will Buckingham’s Sixty-Four Chance Pieces: A Book of Changes, and Being a Nun in my Past Life

Will book cover

‘Travelling without arriving, seeking without expectation of finding; Will Buckingham is a writer and philosopher of great humility and talent. Profoundly spiritual, entrancingly enigmatic, this magical book is about the author’s quest to understand the ancient Chinese art of divination and ultimately himself.’ 

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang, author of THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA, writes about Will Buckingham’s, cycle of stories from The I Ching, SIXTY FOUR CHANCE PIECES, A BOOK OF CHANGES.

It was a summer’s day that was meant to be hot but wasn’t, and I was off to Leicester to meet writer and philosopher, Will Buckingham, in a Turkish café.  I like Leicester.  It has a number of top attractions; the Creative Writing Department at De Montfort University, Halidram’s for Indian sweets, Sufi music, mangoes in season fresh from Pakistan, and the medieval Prince of The Car Park himself, King Richard III, who was recently re-buried in the Cathedral.  But the thing about Leicester, is every time I go there, I get lost.  And as I was driving round the roundabouts,  it occurred to me that reading Will’s wonderful new book Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, A Book of Changes, is like rather like going to Leicester.  You know you are going to get lost, and therein lies the joy!

The I Ching or Book of Changes is an ancient Chinese divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. Parts of the book are over three thousand years old.  The divination elements of the book are made up of sixty four hexagrams constructed of broken and unbroken lines.   At some point in the past each of the hexagrams was given a line statement, a sort of name and enigmatic explanation, and over the centuries commentaries were added.  Eventually the book came to be read as a work of philosophy, a jumping off point for greater metaphysical and moral discussions.

As a student of Chinese, I remember being perplexed by The I Ching.  I retreated to the Indian Reading Room in the Bodleian Library with its inspirational views over Oxford’s dreaming spires, and read Arthur Waley’s scholarly analyses, but wasn’t much the wiser.   Then one day in Taiwan I went to see a fortune teller in a temple. He looked long and hard into my young face, threw and broke his divination sticks a number of times, spent a long time huffing and puffing over his charts, and told me that I had been a nun in my past life.  And it dawned on me that probably no one really understood The I Ching at all, not even my professors.  Furthermore, when it came to the ancient Chinese texts with their dragons, ritual bells, blood sacrifices, wandering philosophers and sage kings, the ‘thicker’ one was as a student, the better.

Will mug shot

Will Buckingham

“All very interesting,” I hear you say, “but hardly the subject matter for a good read.” But you would be wrong. The genius of Will Buckingham’s ‘novel of sorts’ is he uses each as the hexagrams as a starting point to imagine fresh possibilities and construct a series of short stories and meditations.  In so doing he creates something unique, modern, accessible, and really rather special.

Since Chance Changes has no linear format you can start to read at any point; in the beginning if you are conventional, in the middle, at the end or anywhere in between.  You can even follow the instructions on how to you use straws and coins for divination, and find a starting point that way. I keep the book by the Aga and dip in when the fancy takes me, often between putting on the hot pot, chopping up the vegetables or folding the ironing.  Thoroughly researched, richly imagined and full of humour, each of the stories is an adventure.   Every day I have a new favourite.  Today’s is The Taming Power of the Small, which tells of the small god who lives between the flowerpots on the windowsill of the author’s house.  I thought a lot about this story a few months ago when my India visa was held up by fickle gods of bureaucracy who considered I might be subversive because I had written a novel.  Perhaps it is, in fact, The I Ching that is responsible for the proliferation of bureaucracy and ministries of circumlocution worldwide?

“I do not believe him.” (The window sill god) “But you can never be certain. So whenever I pass, I make him offerings of flowers, grains of rice, small coloured pebbles, seashells and the occasional raisin.  Just in case.”

Travelling without arriving, seeking without expectation of finding; Will Buckingham is a writer and philosopher of great humility and talent. Profoundly spiritual, entrancingly enigmatic, this magical book is about the author’s quest to understand the ancient Chinese art of divination and ultimately himself.

http://willbuckingham.com/

Amazon

A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang reviews Susan Blumberg-Kason’s GOOD CHINESE WIFE

This is a compelling but heart breaking and courageous memoir about Jewish Cover GCW Blumberg KAmerican, Susan Blumberg-Kason, finding romance with a man from Hubei in the People’s Republic of China, and the story of how this passionate love turned into a nightmare. I cannot help admiring the author for writing and sharing so frankly and openly such deeply personal and emotional issues.

A post graduate student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the 1990s, shy mid-westerner Susan, met tall, dark, handsome divorcee, Cai, who was a doctoral student at the University and had a daughter by his previous marriage.  For her it was love at first sight.  Her passion was overwhelming.  She ignored the difficulties as they struggled to communicate in his limited English and her newly acquired Mandarin, and hurriedly got to know each other through language exchanges and ballroom dancing. Cai’s love and commitment came across as confused from the start.   He had no intention of living in America, and as a citizen of the PRC he had no residence rights in Hong Kong either.  Susan, for her part, knew from experience that she could not live in mainland China which, in those days, was foreigner unfriendly in all sorts of ways.  For Cai, dating someone was equivalent to a declaration of intent to marry.  Instead of sensing danger Susan was bowled over by what was a highly romantic idea to her.

Blinded by her own passion, Susan married Cai.   But even before the marriage celebrations were completed problems emerge. On their wedding night Cai insisted on watching a porn movie.  Before long, Susan realised that he had a homosexual relationship with a Japanese professor, and enjoyed peep shows and frequenting prostitutes.  His response to her disquiet was to bully and degrade his new wife. Frightened, worried, distressed, even infected by her husband with a sexually transmitted disease that threatened her long term fertility, Susan did not talk to her family and friends and struggled to make the marriage work.

Susan Blumberg-Kason at the Miramar Hotel, Kowloon on her wedding night

Susan Blumberg-Kason at the Miramar Hotel, Kowloon on her wedding night

Things did not get better after their son was born and the couple moved to America.

“I had just assumed Cai would see the United States through my eyes.  But now I realized that way of thinking was both naïve and mistaken.  Of course he would view America through his own eyes, just as I saw China through mine, not his.”

As their marriage fell apart, one cannot but sense that Susan was romanticizing not just Cai, the man she fell in love with, but the idea of China and Chinese culture that she was so passionate about.  Cai was the personification of her romantic ideals. She not only married a handsome man but what she wanted to believe in of the China of her imagination.

Susan with her son by Cai in the USA in 1999

Susan with her son, Jake, in 1999.

This book is at the same time memoir, travelogue and historical document.  It not only tells of a bright, intelligent young woman whose trust, love and optimism were so cruelly betrayed, but also beautifully evokes the gritty hardship of life in 1990s China, and the gulf between the mainland and Hong Kong, and China and the USA.  But Susan was not just in love with Cai and China.  She was also seduced by cosmopolitan Hong Kong during the 1990s boom, and the final flurry of the British Empire; the neon lights, glitzy skyscrapers, Wanchai bars and parties, the islands, sunshine and swimming pools, and a city that promised endless possibilities to young educated expats.

The story is poignant not just because it tells of Susan’s coming of age, but also that of Hong Kong; the city that she fell in love with, and fell in love in, has had to face up to brutal realities since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 and the handover in 1997.  It is fair to say that the Hong Kong she describes in Good Chinese Wife is no more.   Powerfully touching and brutally frank this book, along with Jan Wong’s Red China Blues which tells of a Canadian American seeking to find herself in Maoist China, should be compulsory reading for all foreigners spending time in China.

Read more about Susan Blumberg-Kason’s THE GOOD CHINESE WIFE (Sourcebooks 2014)

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a British novelist and author of THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA

“Epic, tender, brutal; a story of little people are mercy of forces greater than themselves, the betrayal of ideals, the slow, agonising loss of the old China, and the search for a China that has yet to be found. The Woman Who Lost China Cover

 

 

 

WRITING CHINA Nottingham Festival of Words 2014

 

WRITING CHINA THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINAAn international launch event at Nottingham Festival of Words.

Monday 13th October. 7.30pm to 9pm at Nottingham Writers’ Studio.

25 Hockley

NG1 1FP

http://nottinghamwritersstudio.co.uk/

Tickets from Nottingham Playhouse

Bar and refreshments available.

China is fascination par excellence; the mystic, exotic and erotic Cathay, a land to be admired and feared. Romantic stories of Emperors and exquisitely beautiful concubines, Shanghai gangsters that put al Capone to shame, communist revolutionaries and bandits, incredible cruelties by a government that starved tens of millions to death in a couple of years, and now the biggest stock market offer of Alibaba, a Chinese Amazon that no one heard of until it floated at the New York Exchange.

This land of mystery and intrigue is a far away land no more. It is now here as the world gets smaller. When we shop at the local supermarket or nearly any shop, we buy Chinese products every day. If one banks with HSBC it is the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank that we trust. China is here now and our future is tied to it.

There is no better way to know China than through beautifully written stories of China and its people.

Rhiannon Jenkins writer and member of Nottingham Writer’s Studio, is excited to host a premier international launch event at Nottingham Festival of Words 2014, WRITING CHINA.

Joining Rhiannon on the panel will be novelist and philosopher Will Buckingham, and Beijing based writer and journalist Karen Ma. There will be wide ranging seminar style discussions on the China books we read and perhaps don’t read, Q &A, readings (very short!) and a chance to get some of the panellist’s personal recommendations.

Will Buckingham is a novelist and philosopher, currently based at De Montford University in Leicester. He has had a long-standing interest in China. His novel-of-sorts, A Book of Changes: Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, is due to be published in 2015 by Earnshaw Books. A Book of Changes explores the Chinese divination manual, the Yijing, moving between China and the West, the contemporary and the ancient world, myth and reality to tell sixty four stories of change. Will carried out research for the novel in China, and is heading back to China in 2015 to pursue research into the 6th century writing manual Wenxin Diaolong. www.willbuckingham.com

Karen Ma is a Chinese-American author and journalist based in Beijing. Born in China, Ma spent her formative years in Hong Kong and Japan, before earning an M.A. degree in Chinese language and literature from the University of Washington (Seattle, U.S.) During her 20 plus years living in Japan and China, Ma worked as a journalist and translator, taught Chinese at several universities and wrote a non-fiction book about cross-cultural romance entitled Modern Madam Butterfly: Fantasy and Reality of Japanese Cross-cultural Relationships, published in 1996 by Charles E. Tuttle.    Ma’s most recent book is Excess Baggage, a semi-autobiographical novel based loosely on her family’s experience as Chinese immigrants living in Tokyo during the post bubble years of 1990s, published by San Francisco-based China Books in 2013.   After a stint of five years living in New Delhi, India, where she started a Chinese-language program at the Indian capital’s foremost international school, navigating administrations and India-China tension to build a successful curriculum, Ma has now settled back in Beijing with her family and is busy researching her next book.  http://www.karenmaauthor.com/

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a British writer whose work contains strong international themes and focuses on historical, cultural and emotional fault lines. Rhiannon was born in Yorkshire, read Chinese at Oxford University, and has nearly thirty years experience of the greater China world. Her debut novel THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA was published by Open Books www.open-bks.com in 2013. It was listed by Rana Mitter in The Daily Telegraph in his ten book literary tour of China and has been well reviewed and sold internationally.  Rhiannon’s poem, Oxford is a Port won first prize at the Melbourne Festival in 2013.

Rhiannon is also a non practising lawyer and when she is not writing, teaches Chinese language and culture for business people on behalf of the UK Department of Trade and Industry. She lives in a traditional Nottinghamshire village with her husband and son, and is currently working on her next two novels. www.rhiannonjenkinstsang.com

TICKETS ARE AVAILABLE FROM NOTTINGHAM PLAYHOUSE and on the door if not sold out.  There will be a licensed bar.

 

 

 

 

 

And so THE WOMAN’S party draws to a close…

Happy Birthday THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA!Writer Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang

Today is the last day of THE WOMAN’S birthday fiesta week. I must thank all of you who have helped launch both THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA and my writing career; readers, friends, critics, publisher, agents, bookshop owners, family, DAD and, of course, YOU LOT, that is the wonderful crew down at Nottingham Writers’ Studio!

I leave THE WOMAN to stand on her own two feet for she is grown up now. But she will always be a very special daughter to me.  I have got some new and exciting non China writing projects in the bag…watch this space.

Before I go I would like to mention a few of the interesting English language China books just published or coming to publication in the near future.

Susan Blumberg Kason’s Good Chinese Wife promises a courageous memoir about her failed love affair and five year marriage to a Chinese man from the People’s Republic of China.  Publication date is the 29th of July 2014.  Ray Kwong has already given the book some cheeky tweets.  I am certainly looking forward to getting my copy!

Nicki Chen’s Tiger Tail Soup transports the reader into the heart of a war in China that started more than four years before Pearl Harbour and into the life of a woman who survived it.

And last but not least: Will Buckingham’s A Book of Changes: Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, is a novel of sorts that uses the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination manual, as a machine for telling stories.

So I sign off with one last global round of virtual drinks.  Thanking you all on behalf of THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA, gan bei and cheers!

And don’t forget today is the last chance to take advantage of Open Book’s discounts on THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA. Hurry up before they run out of plates!

Purchases must be made via paypal from my website or direct from Open Books. The USD paperback is reduced from $16.95 to $15.99 and ebook from $4.99 to $3.99. The GBP paperback is reduced from £10.98 to £9.99.

THESE Discounts are also offered today (Saturday 14th) at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio stall at THE LOWDHAM FESTIVAL.  LIMITED COPIES SO DON’T WAIT UNTIL THE END OF THE DAY!

The book continues to be available at the standard price from Barnes and Noble, Waterstones (ebooks only) and all international Amazon domain names including Amazon India. See the buy page of Rhiannon’s website for easy links or go direct to the host.

Happy First Birthday THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA

 

 

If Poetry Be the Food of Love

Talking chocolate cake with Jousefa.

Talking chocolate cake with Jousefa.

One of the most fun and rewarding things I have done this year as a result of THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA, came about after accepting an invitation to run a poetry and Chinese calligraphy session for a local Moslem childrens’ prayer and youth activity group, Mapperly Associates.  I have never taught before with people popping round the back corner of the book shelves to join the call for prayer and then coming back into the group a little later, all shy smiles!

"Can I show you something?"

“Can I show you something?”

The afternoon initially was a challenge because the children were of different ages and abilities and faiths.  The prayer group in Mapperly, Nottingham (UK)  runs an open house and all are welcome.  We had fun building Chinese characters in the first half of the session and then had a big international food tasting party as a prelude to our poetry writing workshop on food.  We enjoyed Indian wedding sweets and English Easter simnel  cake, amongst other delicacies!   I wanted the older children in particular not just to think about taste, shape, smell, colour and texture, but the way different foods and eating or cooking situations made them feel.

"Pizza pizza on the wall, who is the yummiest of them all?"

“Pizza pizza on the wall, who is the yummiest of them all?”

What a joy it was to see a little boy who “hates creative writing” come out with a super poem entitled Pizza Pizza on the Wall, and to watch the very youngest little girl, Jousefa, climb onto a stool alongside the big boys, and read out her work about a chocolate cake with a fairy on the top to the group.  In the best tradition of poetry, the children could have gone on writing and performing all night.  MASHALLAH!MSS group

And they asked me to choose a winner? First prize!

And they asked me to choose a winner? First prize!

 

MSS teaching

Learning a few Chinese characters!

For more information about the youth activities at Mapperly Associates in Nottingham, UK, please contact khanysaleem@yahoo.com

Tomorrow THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA’S birthday fiesta week comes to an end.  Now might be a time to take advantage publisher’s discounts on the book. Purchases must be made via paypal from my website or direct from Open Books.

The USD paperback is reduced from $16.95 to $15.99 and ebook from $4.99 to $3.99. The GBP paperback is reduced from £10.98 to £9.99.

Happy First Birthday THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA

Flights of Imagination

“Have you seen today’s Daily Telegraph?”  Last summer a friend I Happy First Birthday THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINAhad not heard from for years was on the phone.

“Well, THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA, is in it!”

I hurried down to our local village shop.  Sitting in the sunshine on the pub wall in front of the dovecote, I cautiously opened the newspaper.  Sure enough, my friend was right.

Rana Mitter author of CHINA’S WAR WITH JAPAN 1937-1945 THE STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL had included THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA in his ten book literary tour of China.  I couldn’t believe it; seeing my “WOMAN” listed alongside great literary names from the Chinese Republican period such as Lu Hsun and Mao Dun.  It was certainly a red letter day!

You don’t need to go to China to tour China, and there are a host of fantastic China books in English outside the bestseller list. Click here to read Rana’s suggestions-Flights of Imagination

We are nearly half way through THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA’S birthday fiesta week.  Don’t forget my publisher is offering discounts throughout the week on the THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA purchased via paypal on this site or direct from OPEN BOOKS. I  Don’t miss out!

 

 

GOOD MORNING AMERICA!

I have always wanted to say “Good Morning America!” on the e95c7b1a-8102-4ca0-9f61-77451a59899d_cyrus_webb2radio and not long after THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA was published I got the call!  American talk show host Cyrus Webb got in touch from Mississippi.  Would I like to be a guest on CONVERSATIONS LIVE?

I cannot say that I wasn’t nervous.  It was my first LIVE radio interview and I was following in the footsteps of Jackie Collins and other famous people.  I was also worried that I might make a terrible Anglo American linguistic gaff!  But Cyrus was the best interviewer and host.  Gentle and courteous he helped me get the best out of myself.  It was not until after the broadcast that he told me that it was I who was the 600thguest on his show!

Click here to listen to the show!

And don’t forget those discounts on THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA available via paypal links on this site or direct from Open Books.

The USD paperback is reduced from $16.95 to $15.99 and ebook from $4.99 to $3.99. The GBP paperback is reduced from £10.98 to £9.99.

Happy First Birthday THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA

Giving the “Chinese money grubber a human face,” what it means to be Chinese today, living in New Dehli, and Old Spice aftershave- my interview in Asian Cha with Karen Ma, author of Excess Baggage.

Sometimes, just sometimes, you meet someone on social media with whom you make a great connection, and it doesn’t matter if you are thousands of miles apart living completely different lives. It just works!

Karen Ma

Karen Ma, author of Excess Baggage in Japan in the 1980s.

It was like that when I met fellow writer Karen Ma, author of Excess Baggage, a novel about two Chinese sisters separated by the Chinese Cultural Revolution with one growing up in Japan, the other in China.  Karen and I seemed to have a lot in common. Both of our books, Excess Baggage and The Woman Who Lost China, tell China stories different from the ones more commonly told in English. Excess Baggage focuses on the Chinese diaspora in 1980s Japan, while The Woman Who Lost China turns around family torn apart by the Chinese civil war.  In addition, both Karen and I are wives and mothers, juggling our literary life alongside the demands of a busy family; kids roller skating in the dining room, euphoniums and mucky rugby kit!

When the opportunity came up to interview Karen for the Asian literary journal, Asian Cha, I jumped at the chance.  Karen deals with some difficult issues in her book, so I asked her some tricky questions; about “giving the Chinese money grubber a human face,” what it means to be Chinese today, her experience of being ethnic Chinese living in New Dehli, why so many Chinese seek to emigrate and what they expect when they move abroad, amongst other things!

Direct, like her characters in Excess Baggage, Karen gave  insightful and honest answers. Read the full interview in Asian Cha here.

http://www.asiancha.com/content/view/1691/443/

Karen Ma’s  Excess Baggage was published by Long River April 2014 and is now newly available in paperback and eformats from  amazon.co.uk.

http://www.karenmaauthor.com/

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of The Woman The Woman Who Lost China book coverWho Lost China, a historical novel about China, published by Open Books in June 2013.  Her work has strong international themes and is characterized by a focus on historical, cultural and economic fault lines.

 

The Woman Who Lost China- the first year!

Having a book published is at once a joyous and an agonising process. In some ways it is Rhiannon with the WLC booksakin to giving birth!  Books are a bit like babies. Once it has arrived it is as if you have always known it, and is impossible to imagine life without it or indeed before it.  Yet, only this time last year my first literary baby, my debut novel The Woman Who Lost China, was still a bump of manuscript in a tatty envelope at the front of my filing cabinet.  A chance meeting at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio led me to the publishers Open Books, who had the courage to take me on, and I have never looked back.  Contractual negotiations, editorial meetings, marketing meetings, proofs, cover designs, lead sheets, press releases, and a dose of last minute drama, and finally, at last, The Woman Who Lost China was live!

Just as sage parents warn that the birth is just the prelude to the real work, so it is with new novels. I have had a roller coaster six months doing interviews and talks; a guest lecture at The School for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, the honour of being  American talk show radio host Cyrus Webb’s 600th guest, returning to St. Anne’s College Oxford, my alma mater to join a book showcase, among many other exciting things.  The surprise of being listed by Rana Mitter in his Daily Telegraph ten book literary tour of China was hard to beat.  I could not believe I was seeing my book and name alongside many great and well known authors, some of whom I had studied as an undergraduate.

Without a doubt the best things about being an “emerging writer” have been getting critical feedback and meeting a whole range of wonderful people both in the UK and all over the world.  I am always humbled when people, with such busy lives, take time to read my work and what is more write to me about it, review it, or come to tell me about it; “your work made me cry”, “your work inspired me and helped me with my own project.”  I have been particularly touched by feedback from Chinese who on occasions have told me that The Woman Who Lost China is the story of their own grandparents, which they had never written.  I will also never forget when the grounds men at my son’s school told me they wanted to buy signed copies to “lay down” for the day I became a J.K. Rowling!

As the year draws to a close, there is a sadness, however, and that lies in the fact that The Woman Who Lost China, although available worldwide through my publisher’s site, and all the usual online retailers including Amazon,  is not available in any format on Amazon China.   Only last week a lawyer friend emailed from Shanghai to tell me that he had to wait until he went on a business trip to Kuala Lumpur to buy my book.   Taking a break today from work on my second novel to sip coffee and warm myself against the Aga, I cannot help but wonder who is lost, the Woman or China?

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of The Woman Who Lost China, a historical novel about China.

 

My First Visit to China

China was not fashionable in 1986. My Oxford contemporaries thought I was crazy when I announced I was spending the summer in a Chinese High School in Tianjin, on a British Council, American Field Service Study Programme. The main pre-occupations in the Junior Common Room, focused on obtaining mini pupillages at barrister’s chambers, placements at Goldman Sachs or the Conservative Central Office. For the leftists, it was about opportunities in the aftermath of the miner’s strike or joining the anti-apartheid campaigning.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang aged 19 leaving British shores for China for the first time.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang aged 19 leaving British shores for China for the first time.

I did not know what to expect when I got to China. There was just a sense of excitement and exploration. In the back of my mind there were images of mass Maoist rallies and the great glories of Chinese art and culture.  I much enjoyed and admired the latter in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. But it was to be neither, and was to be a huge shock.

For someone who had never been outside Europe and the United States, the journey itself was a slow cultural decompression deep dive.  It was impossible to fly over Soviet airspace at that time and money was tight, so I flew Pakistan International Airlines with ten compatriots via Dubai, Karachi and Islamabad, over the Himalayas to Peking- as it was still called in the English speaking world in those days.

After a stop over in Dubai the plane filled with Chinese oil rig worker bearing all kinds of consumer goods that were unobtainable in China. Boxes of radio cassette players, colour televisions, hair dryers and curling tongs filled the isles and overhead lockers.   Curly hair had been banned for women during the Cultural Revolution in China.  But I remember seeing the boxes of curling tongs for wives and girl friends as a symbol of the hope in the air that summer – a hope that was dashed in Tiananmen Square only three years later.

Karachi and Islamabad were a blue and white riot of noise and heat; mosques, gaudy buses, road side cripples and a man from Bradford with a handlebar moustache and a Yorkshire accent like the cricketer Geoffrey Boycott, who did his darndest to sell us carpets. When we boarded the plane in Islamabad the maintenance men were still fixing the emergency exit and the cracks in the inside windows with brown parcel tape.  We flew low over the Himalayas, the Chinese men smoking their way through the terrifying turbulence that sent tea cups flying and people bouncing around the cabin, hair dryers and televisions tumbling out of the overhead lockers. Luckily not many TV sets. But the views were worth it.

We arrived in Peking in the afternoon to a mountain of form filling. China was a closed economy and all foreign currency and electrical goods had to be declare on entry and accounted for on departure. My prized Ricoh camera had a whole form plus carbon paper dedicated to it. I shall never forget the faces of our hosts, the teachers from the school, who had come with the bus to meet us, tight with excitement, and something that I came to recognise as fear. We were to be the first foreigners to live outside the campus of the University of Nankai since the revolution in 1949, and we were their responsibility.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with her teachers from Tianjin Number One High School: Summer 1986.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with her teachers from Tianjin Number One High School: Summer 1986.

Driving out of Peking to Tianjin, now it was my turn to be afraid. Thousands and thousands of grey, blue and black Chinese gliding past my window on bicycles and not a car in sight.  It took several hours to get to Tianjin along a narrow road that in places still had chickens and pigs roaming free. And then it was dark, truly dark, for there were no on-coming headlights, no bike lights and few street lights, just walls, eyes, shadows and shouts in the dark.

In the morning I awoke to find a young woman sitting on the edge of my bed.  She was May (not her real name), the cousin of a teacher at Oxford who had written to her to tell her I was coming.  She wore a white blouse, green skirt, white sun hat and white gloves.  I gave her the gifts I had brought, tea and cloth for making dresses, but when she took off her sun glasses to thank me, I could see that she had been crying.

“When are you free to meet?  I cannot come to the school again.  They make me sign in here with my work unit and they ask all sorts of questions.”

Here was my first lesson about living in China, and I learnt fast. I soon began to understand the patterns of fang and shou, releasing and pulling back, that characterize so much of China’s development at all levels over the last quarter of a century.  On the one hand the school was able to provide beef, rather than pork for a Muslim member of our party, but on the other hand we were not allowed to use the school library.  The school provided four Flying Pigeon bicycles for us foreigners to use (no mean feat for this was equivalent to providing people with cars) but as soon as we left the school gates, we were tailed by Public Security officers. On this occasion, my minders were already loitering at the door. May shoved some stamps and her address into my hand and told me to write to arrange out next meeting. We fixed on the following Saturday.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang exploring Tianjin, North China: summer 1986

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang exploring Tianjin, North China: summer 1986

In pre air-conditioning summer heat, the routine at the school seemed relentless. Early morning classes in Mandarin, Chinese economics and Chinese history which were long sterile lectures from the Marxist perspective to the whirring of a single fan, Chinese art and before lunch taichi with Teacher Wu,  a Chinese Muslim whose father had been a great Master. The cooler part of the later afternoons were spent on excursions, to a Chinese prison, a park, a carpet factory, Nankai University, the new Tianjin port, and one famous afternoon spent driving around the new showpiece Tianjin ring road.

Movie making! Tianjin.

Movie making in Tianjin in 1986. With a Chinese actor in the Chinese TV version of The Last Emperor.

I looked forward to meetings with May.  But the first time I left the compound alone I was terrified.  I sneaked out the back way by the coal shed to avoid the gate house and the Public Security Bureau tail. Walking the streets I was the odd one out, people stared and occasionally a child who did not know better, would shout, “Lao Wai!”(Old Foreigner).  I had the impression I was living in a post apocalyptic black and white film that was running at half speed.  Thin people walked and cycled slowly and apart from the Russian trams, pretty much everything appeared to have been left where it had fallen in 1949.

Together May and I explored Tianjin, going between the different foreign concession

Tianjin street scene 1986

A street in the old French concession in Tianjin in July 1986.

areas.  I was fascinated.  As an old treaty port the city had been divided up by the foreign powers, hence there was a British Concession with mock Tudor houses and a French concession with a cathedral modelled on the Sacré-Cœur and a long boulevard with plane trees and houses with wrought iron Parisian style windows and balconies.  For a treat we went to the Kiesslings, the old German cafe.  Sitting under the grimy chandeliers eating strawberries and ice cream, we looked up the current exchange rate in the People’s Daily and exchanged British pounds and a few Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) for renminbi. Foreigners were not supposed to hold local renminbi but only shop in Friendship Stores with FEC. I wanted renminbi for local purchases and May wanted foreign exchange, so the deal was done.

As the summer wore on, not used to living with constant restrictions and surveillance, us foreigners at the school began to chafe at the bit. There were lighter moments.  We escaped one night to the Friendship Hotel to drink one beer each in the deserted 1950s Soviet style bar, there was a weekend in Peking and another time we worked as film extras for the Chinese television production of The Last Emperor, dancing in a ball scene which was filmed in the oak panelled ballroom of the former British Club in Tianjin.  Nevertheless both sides could see that if something were not done to diffuse the tension, there would be trouble, and so a free long weekend was arranged.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with a class mate at the Great Wall of China at Badeling. Summer 1986

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with a class mate at the Great Wall of China at Badeling. Summer 1986

Given the circumstances of the time it was amazing that May’s friend Bao Feng and her father, the Head Man in his village invited us both to go stay with them.  Telling no one where I was going except the Head of the British Delegation, I set off with May one afternoon on our Flying Pigeons to cycle to the village.  She had never been there before and was following Bao Feng’s directions.  We passed through several small towns and out into the countryside, riding along the middle of great empty roads which I soon realised had been built for the military.  Night began to fall and we were lost.  Far ahead on the road was a light.  We cycled towards it.  It was an army base.  Cool as a cucumber, May gave me her sun hat and told me to tuck my long red hair up in it, put on my sunglasses and hide in the shadows at the edge of the cornfield.  Then she pushed her bike up to the sentry box and asked for directions.

As last we arrived in the village after dark to a hero’s welcome, barking dogs, hot food and curious faces.  They had been worried and search parties had been dispatched.  That night I settled down to sleep with the girls on the kang, giggling together as we hunted mosquitoes amongst the shadows on the wall and told ghost stories.  I feel asleep underneath a picture of Bao Feng’s father meeting Chairman Mao on the occasion he had visited the village, and felt at home for the first time in China.

The next days were spent, cooking, talking, feeding the chickens and walking along the dykes and in the cornfields with the girls.  We talked of boyfriends and our hopes and dreams and yet for all of us there seemed to be a tension between the two.  With total linguistic immersion, at last I started to make sense of the rolling Rs of the local dialect and I could feel my Chinese coming alive. In the evenings the old people came to sit and talk.

“Yinggou? England? That is four days by train.”  But amongst the jokes and beer I began to hear for the first time the sub text, the real stories of the Japanese occupation, starvation within living memory, beatings, forced collectivisation and self criticisms. A morass of bitterness and suffering often mixed up in the tired memories of the old people.

Later when I finished the course at the school I travelled by train around China, eating sunflower seeds and sharing food with people on long journeys.  People were afraid, but kind.  Above all they wanted to talk, to show me their Grandfather’s stamp album filled with foreign stamps which they had hidden under the floor boards to save from the Red Guards, to tell me of the time spent imprisoned in “cattle stalls” and boiling grass and tree bark to eat.  I was young but I realised that people took risks to take me into their homes because they were pleased to see a foreigner back in China and I was a symbol of hope for better things to come.

In later years watching the energy, determination and at times utter ruthlessness with which China pursued economic development and modernization, I came to see it as born out of the period of intense national suffering, deprivation and indeed grief that had gone before.

The return flight to the UK was hair raising in a different way as we walked into the aftermath of a hijacking in Karachi, long before such things were remarked on, and were held at gun point in the sun on the runway by Pakistani soldiers.  It was a relief to be finally on the plane home, albeit with our bags still left at gunpoint on the tarmac in Karachi.  Deprived of milk and cheese for several months living on a Chinese diet, we begged the airline staff to ransack the galley for second and third helpings of milky rice pudding.  In Dubai we marvelled at western toilets and bought a Mars Bar in the Duty Free to divide between us, savouring the sweet, chocolaty taste.

Back in Oxford in the October of 1986 I was a changed person and I was angry. I finished with the boyfriend I had at the time and that made him angry too as I could not explain why. I wrote in my crude classroom Chinese to May in China, but worried about the people who had shown me hospitality, in case the wind changed.  Barely six months later I was back in the Far East again, this time studying and working in Taiwan and enjoying the glitz of the nineteen eighties boom years in Taipei and Hong Kong. But that, as they say, is another story.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of The Woman Who Lost China, a historical novel about China.  Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspectives and an interest in cultural and historical fault lines.The Woman Who Lost China Cover