I am delighted to announce that the UK book launch of THE LAST VICEREINE will be held on Wednesday the 11th of October 2017 between 7 and 8.30pm at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham. All are welcome. Entrance is free and there will be light refreshments.
Please click on the link below for the invitation. I hope you can join us.
Mercilessly brutal, terrifying, compelling
When Song Anyi arrives in Shanghai she is already broken. After her parents die her Uncle tells her to wait at home until he sends for her. But tempted by thoughts of freedom and bright lights in Shanghai, she disobeys and embarks on the journey alone. En route she is raped by soldiers and left for dead.
Delivered by farmers to her Uncle’s house in Shanghai, outwardly at least Anyi is nursed back to health. Her cousin, Cho, falls in love with her but Anyi is offered in marriage to a much older man. To cope with the shame of her rape, for which her Aunt blames her, she meets pain with pain, and starts to self harm. Determined to escape the arranged marriage and be mistress of her own fate, she has few options. Constrained by custom and social traditions, she turns to prostitution, specialising in violence.
Anyi becomes the Dancing Girl and her lover, Cho, the Turtle, the name for hangers on at the Metropole Gardens where she works. The two of them are trapped in the complex world of 1930s Shanghai: fighting to survive the depravities in dance halls, gambling houses, and opium dens against the political back drop of Shanghai’s international concessions, the gangsters, and the coming war with the Japanese.
Kao writes in a minimalist present tense, each word meticulously chosen and exquisitely placed in the manner of a poet. The rhythm of her prose was reminiscent of spoken Chinese. She carefully manages multiple points of view to good effect.
At first the violence is hinted at, masked, not entirely spelt out, but as the book progresses and the characters sink into more and more depravity and despair, Kao does not shrink from telling it like it was. The real power of this novel lies in the gradual unveiling of the brutal realities.
The historical setting too is well done. At times I would have liked to have seen more made of the political tensions around the battle for the future of China. This might have heightened the suspense. However, I appreciate that where to draw the line on historical background is always a tricky one for a historical novelist. On balance Kao has probably got it right.
The Dancing Girl and The Turtle shocked and horrified me with its brutality. But guided by Kao’s skilful narration, I had the courage to read on. Every page I searched for a glimmer of compassion. Just at the end when I thought there would be none, I was rewarded by the genuine friendship between Anyi and the “negro” bouncer at the gambling club.
I almost lost the plot in the chaotic denouement, but then the world of drug addicts, Japanese intelligence officers, gamblers and prostitutes who have lost the will to live, does not volunteer happy endings.
Karen Kao is a master of the Noir. There has got to be more to come?
THE DANCING GIRL AND THE TURTLE (2017) is published by Linen Press.
Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a UK based author. THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA was her first novel.
‘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.
“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.
Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang reviews Susan Blumberg-Kason’s GOOD CHINESE WIFE
This is a compelling but heart breaking and courageous memoir about Jewish American, 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.
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.
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.
An international launch event at Nottingham Festival of Words.
Monday 13th October. 7.30pm to 9pm at Nottingham Writers’ Studio.
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.
“Jordan? Are you crazy? It’s not safe!” My parents were entirely happy when I told them where we were going on our family holiday.
I confess that I was just a little anxious in the days before our departure, taking our 10-year-old son, a junior pupil at school in Nottingham (UK) , into the heart of Arab world at a time of such upheaval, to a country a stone’s throw away from the horrendous war in Syria.
‘Welcome to Jordan! Thank you for coming. I am Mohammed.” Our driver recognises us immediately at Amman airport and soon our son is apparently reading Arabic.
“IKEA!” In the darkness he recognises the familiar yellow sign on the store as we speed into the capital, Amman.
“I have two sons and three daughters,” Mohammed tells us. “Jordan is a peaceful country. I thank God for it.” He lifts his head briefly towards the roof and juts his chin in the directions of the other places that do not need to be named. We don’t want it.”
It was never going to be a relaxing beach holiday, but that was what we had signed up for, an adventure. A mix up over hotels is sorted by another Mohammed and we are sipping juice in the hotel lobby in an upmarket middle-class area of Amman; the kind of place that hosts weddings night after night, but despite the faux Venetian still life paintings on the walls, leaves an impression of brown and grey. Athletes in wheelchairs and headscarves roll soundlessly around the dusty marble lobby. Para- olympic teams from Iraq, Russia, Indonesia are also here to stay.
“Mummy,” my son is clingy in the strange room with Arab music coming from the TV, and I stroke head until he falls asleep, carefully unplugging the the switch with loose wires hanging from his bedside lamp.
Day Two and we launch ourselves into downtown Amman, armed with the hotel’s card with its address in Arabic, and stern warnings from the porters to make sure taxi drivers put their metres on and not to pay more than three and a half dinar for our fifteen minute drive into town. Amman is an ancient city built, not unlike Rome, on hills. Immediately I felt that I had been here before; a strange sensation that was to remain with me throughout my time in Jordan. It was not just the television pictures of the Middle East we have become accustomed to in recent years, but also the layers of visible history that we were to find everywhere; prehistory, iron age, bronze age, Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, Ottoman and the modern periods. Perhaps it felt familiar because modern Jordan is part of the biblical holy lands, the lands of the crusaders and the country made famous by Lawrence of Arabia. So many of our own stories have their origins in this rugged barren land.
The black, red and green Jordanian flags tug in the still chilly breeze in front of the massive Roman amphitheatre in the centre of Amman, the new city rising around it. Our son, power walks up to the top leaving us puffing in his wake. Later in the ancient Citadel on the top of the Jebel al-Qala’a hill, the muezzins begin the call the lunch time prayer. It echoes across the buildings, from hill to hill, and I know I have crossed a great boundary between the Muslim and Christian world. Our son climbs over the temple of Hercules with the remains of a giant hand from a thirteen foot statue lying in front of it. I think of Shelley’s poem Ozimandias. He thinks Percy Jackson. Magic just the same.
Day Three brings us three other families with children who will accompany us on our adventure, and our guide, Sam, with his pony tail, Polo Ralph Lauren T shirt and grey suede shoes.
“Complaints; I can do nothing about,” he says,” Problems; I can solve. And remember, in Jordan there are no prices. Everything is to be bargained for. Yala!” And we are off, heading north to the Roman city of Jerash.
You have to hand it to the Romans, they knew how to build a city. The templates are the same from one corner of the Roman Empire to the next; forum, baths, amphitheatre, streets, shops, fountains, and beautiful drains. But Jerash was different from the many Roman ruins we had climbed over on European holidays. Buried by sand for generations it has been rediscovered relatively recently and was huge and comparatively intact. The Hadrian’s Gate had been restored, columns still stood and there were Roman sleeping policemen in the roads to stop the carts racing.
Sam is scrabbling in the dust picking up something small, and soon the children are following his lead, collecting loose pieces of Roman mosaic lying loose all over, for anyone to find.
The girls are coming up to us, parties of girls on school trips with red roses in their headscarves or bonnets against the sun.
“I want to be a tour guide. I want to be a teacher.” They offer us almonds from their brown paper penny packets. But where are the boys?
“It is girls’ day, “says Sam. “It is better for us. The boys are not so polite.”
“Three cheers for the King! Hip hip horray!” In the amphitheatre someone is leading the school children in their chants. Three old soldiers in Arab military dress are playing tartan bagpipes, a legacy from the British era and no doubt now employed by the Jordanian tourist board. Suddenly Sam grabs my hand and that of my son and we are learning to dance, a slow stepping dance in a circle. People clap, cheer and join in, but not the school girls, who despite being desperate to be part of the fun, are not allowed. There are boundaries and we are beginning to see them in action.
Back at the hotel the children splash in the pool unaware of the issues facing their mothers. It is a locally run hotel and there are no men and women’s times but equally there are no changing rooms for women. The changing room is mixed. The message is clear. I sit in the shade. The young men pump iron in the gym whilst the older men stop for afternoon prayer, in the corner of the room where three prayer mats have been laid out in the direction of Mecca.
“Kentucky fried camel”, the children decide on the menu for the evening. We pick our way along the unmade pavement down the hill to the local take away.
“Pavements run out when taxes do.” My husband explains.
Chicken, lamb, kebabs, falafel, humous, the menu is simple but good. Munching away we watch the locals pull up with toddlers on their knees in the driving seat. The neon Arabic menus are reflected in the windows against the backdrop of the white mosque over the road and I am reminded of paintings of Paris done through café windows.
Day four and we head south along the King’s Highway on our way to Petra, stopping at Mount Nebo where Moses looked into the Promised Land before he died. A group of Indian Christians are loudly sing hymns.
“Poor Moses,” say the children, “forty years in desert.” To English eyes used to myriad seas of green the arid views across to Palestine and Israel are disappointing.
“We used to run day trips to Jerusalem from Amman,” Sam sucks on his teeth, “but not these days.”
For the adults it is the morning for mosaics; the mosaic map in Greek from AD 560 found in a Greek Orthodox church in Madaba and glorious images of birds and the tree of life on Mount Nebo. We lunch in the skybar of a small hotel in Madaba, the men local men slumber on the veranda smoking water pipes. The mosque to the left, the catholic church to the right with its giant Christmas tree outside fascinates the children. The afternoon gives the children eagles soaring across great canons and the dungeons of the infamous crusader castle at Karak, built in 1142. There is no health and safety in the castle, no grids across wells and Sam throws a piece of burning tissue into the dark gloomy depths and tells of the French crusader Renauld De Chatillon who inherited the castle and interned and tortured his Muslim prisoners, throwing them off the castle walls but not before he had put a box round their head so they stayed conscious as long as possible. On the way out of Karak we pass a statue of the medieval Muslim leader Saladin riding his rearing horse in the square.
“Once a tourist thought he was St.George.” Sam chuckles. “Very embarrassing!”
Heading south again we snack on apples and almonds and Sam stops for fossil hunting on the side of the road. The whole area was once a sea and the children pick up great specimens of shells and seaweed with little effort. Another stop is made to look for rare black orchids. In the distance we hear shouts and a small crowd of little boys come belting across the field. Their socks stuffed with cardboard for shin pads and tied up with string. They love to play football.
Day five has us waking up early in Petra to the sound of the muezzin in the mosque opposite the hotel who in turn wakes the cockerels. But the locals are in a good mood that morning, laughing huge belly rolling Arab laughs for someone had thrown a shoe in the face of the Prime Minister the previous day. Before we know it we are walking down the famous Siq, the narrow natural canon with towering walls that leads to the lost city of Petra and the famous Treasury as visited by Indiana Jones. The children are off, exploring the nooks and crannies, dodging the horses and carts and then we are there, standing in front of the Petra’s iconic rose stoned Treasury. But this is just the beginning. Sam is determined to make an adventure and we climb through the roofs of tombs and hike across great tranches of flat rock. There are times when you don’t need to understand a language to follow the conversation. Sam finds a scorpion for the children, which attracts the local boys who work at the site.
“Is that all you can find? What a tiddler! ” They come to Sam for play fighting and mock punches are exchanged.
“I have been guiding for twenty years. I have known all the children here since they were tiny.”
“Oye! Sam! Where have you been? I have been waiting for you all day?” A thin girl covered in black with her face veiled stands with her hands on her hips with definite attitude. She has two younger sisters with her and they are selling trinkets. Again they come to Sam for a fatherly hug.
“Happy hour!” They say. It will be happy hour all day. The elder girl is thirteen, the same age as one of the girls in our party. Sam pulls the veil away from her revealing the cheeky sun darkened face of a child with crooked teeth. Two girls from different worlds with the same needs are face to face, holding strings of coloured beads made in India.
In the afternoon we begin the long ascent to the Monastery.
“Don’t be tempted to take a donkey ride up the hill to the top,” Sam has warned. “There are cliffs and sometimes the donkeys go over the edge and the people too.” It is a steep pull. At the summit we collapse on the majilis floor cushions in a cave and drink mint tea, enjoying the views. Already the day is beginning to turn and the rocks are turning a deep red.
“Donkey ride?” the Bedouin boys ambush weary walkers at the bottom of the hill for it is another good few miles on the flat back to the Treasury and up the Siq. The children are keen, but the price is high. We set on the teenagers in the group to negotiate. The young Bedouin lean on the donkey’s saddles like a gang of pirates enjoying the sport for they know they have us over a barrel.
“That is your son? the Bedouin lad walking beside my donkey is puzzled. “But he is…”He pauses not knowing how to go on for our son is mixed race.
“My husband is from Hong Kong. But I am English.”
He nods. “Most of our visitors are English. Once there was a lady here who came and fell in love with one of us. She married and lived in a cave with her husband. But she was from New Zealand”
Marguerite Van Geldermalsen. I read her book, I Married a Bedouin. It was sad.”
“Yes. She went away to live but then came back. That is her son over there.”
My donkey begins to stall and I urge him on in the best English riding school manner. The young man nods, straightens the old donkey’s bonnet with its yellow flower and stows his whip under his arm. “This lazy donkey gives me more trouble than all the rest of my donkeys put together.” I ask him how his English is so good.
“School of life, university of hard knocks, if you want something bad enough.” He grins from under his turban, his eyes black with kohl like an Arab Jack Sparrow. We reach the Siq and the children are all safely dismounted and tips paid.“Have a lovely day!” he smiles, with the most perfect public school Home Counties intonation. Lawrence of Arabia in disguise, I wonder?
Day six and I watch my son eating his lunch of “upside down chicken with rice” in a Bedouin tent on the edge of the desert at Wadi Rum. Happy with his new friends, the children just take everything in their stride; language, food, watching Wolverine with Arabic subtitles last night after our Petra trek, and with boundless energy throwing themselves into the swimming pools at every opportunity. After lunch we pile into the back of pick-up trucks and head out into Wadi Rum, a place made famous by the English maverick TE Lawrence and Prince Faisel’s 1917 campaign against the Ottoman Turks and the struggle for Arab independence. The film Lawrence of Arabia with Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif was filmed here. Clinging on, we speed out across vast tracts of desert, the rocks and cliffs rising like cathedrals out of the sand. It is a place that knows everything; every script ancient and modern already written, every face already drawn by the wind into the red desert walls. Here the rocks appear to melt like great blobs of ice cream, there they are carved into rood screens of gothic lace.
“Stop here! All out for tea! ” We have not been driving long when we pull up at some Bedouin tents for mint tea. I decide I can cope with the desert if there is to be tea. Our drivers are having a heated conversation in the corner of the tent but Sam is there arms out to the side, palms raised, mollifying, haggling, persuading as he does throughout our trip, keeping us safe.
“Habibi! My friend!” Frowns turn to smiles, kisses and an embrace.
Back in the trucks we spend the afternoon exploring the desert. Sam shows the children how to wash their hands with a special local plant, we climb rocks and sand dunes and stop for the ultimate luxuries, cutting and eating a watermelon in the desert and looking at the wild spring flowers. As dusk falls the drivers put their feet on the accelerators and we race to the camp.
“YALA YALA! I think I am going to die!” The children screech with delight.
A few black goat hair Bedouin tents sit amongst the shelter of some rocks. The wood fire burns to welcome us to our home for the night. We have the place to ourselves and stretch out on the majilis round the fire to wait for the stars. The teenage children who did not know what to say to each other earlier in the week lie, crowns of their heads touching, staring up at the Milky Way. Sam has a constellation app on his phone and the younger children busy themselves with it, but this night I prefer to enjoy the glories without giving them a name. We feast on mezzes and barbeque. The fire cracks and Sam brings out a large bag of marsh mallows for the children. Now there are only shadows and voices. An Arab man comes to sit smoke by the fire and a couple disappear into the desert night. We pour wine and brandy into paper cups so as not to put alcohol in the Bedouin glasses. The children begin to sing “Dumb ways to Die,” a funny song off an ipad’ and then I hear the unbroken voice of my son singing alone, a hymn from school. “I am here Lord, can you hear me!” I know that in this darkness he is neither shy nor afraid.
The morning of day seven brings a camp fire breakfast and a couple of Bedouin likely lads with a train of camels for our return trek. They take care to match the child to the camel putting the smaller children at the front and back of the lines. Wise, I learn, for the camels in the middle tend to bunch and bang up against each other crushing the rider’s legs if he is not careful. Suitably mounted we set out across the desert with our guides. The children are the quickest to adapt to the sea rolling gait and strange saddles. It takes me a few minutes to realise that a camel is not a horse and I find it easier to ride with one leg over the pummel. The children are busy naming the camels, Fish Lips and Dozy, while I soak up the last minutes of desert serenity and awe.
Leaving the desert we head south to the port and resort city of Aquaba, following in the footsteps of Lawrence and Faisal along the Turkish railway line. Bizarrely, an old steam and diesel engine and a couple of carriages from the old railway have been left in a siding. We stop to explore. In touch with their inner child after a night camping, the Dad’s climb onto the carriage roof tops and run along the top leaving us mothers to restrain the children.
“Do as you father says, not as he does!”
It is Good Friday and Aquaba is heaving. Everyone, Jew, Muslim, Christian is on holiday. We take a glass bottomed boat out into the Red Sea looking at the corals and an old wreck. The strategic significance of the location is immediately apparent, for in this corner of the world Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia bump up against one another. After lunch we dive off the back of the boat to snorkel. I wondered what the Arab Israel ladies on the top deck in their headscarves and long abeyya coats thought of us all.
Day eight takes us north through areas of desert and oasis to the Dead Sea. Sam talks of the biblical dens of iniquity, Sodom and Gomorrah, which some archaeologists think might have been on the southern shore of the Dead Sea. It is a pitiless wilderness of grey rock and quick sand. We pass Lot’s wife on the top of a hill, who looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. Arriving at The Holiday Inn Dead Sea Resort, I think that perhaps it is five star hotels that are the new promised lands; acres of swimming pools in a country with a dire water shortage, American managed, staffed by Filipinos with pizza and ice cream on demand and wifi that works. The children certainly are in heaven! A close knit group after all the adventures they spend hours in the pools. Finally we persuade them down to the shoreline. A strange experience, for the there are no real waves in the Dead Sea, the water is too viscous, and there are no fish and no seagulls, just heat and silence. When you try to swim on your front the water pushes you up so you are left with your legs flapping in the air mermaid style. Giggling, we coat each other in thick black mud and stand Maori warrior style on the shore to bake and dry.
Day nine is Easter Day. Hotel staff dressed as bunnies hand out eggs, but none of them seem to know what Easter is. Passing the baby pool, Barney the purple American dinosaur, invites you to waggle your ears like a rabbit. I turn down a chance to visit Bethany Beyond the Jordan (Al-Maghtas) the site on the river Jordan where John the Baptist is supposed to have baptised Jesus. Sam has told me that the river is just like a stream and I do not want to spoil the visions implanted in my head since I was a child of a broad river with a green meadow full daisies and poppies on the far side;
“I looked over Jordan and what did I see? A band of angels coming for to carry me home…”
In the evening as the sunsets over Jerusalem in the West we take our last meal together.
“What was the best thing about Jordan?” we ask the children.
“The eagles, the scorpions, the dungeons, the camels! Everything!”
But I know, like Lawrence of Arabia, I have left a good bit of my heart in the cathedral of the stars that is Wadi Rum.
Self funding, Rhiannon travelled with The Adventure Company.
The tour consultant was Jude Plant at Trailfinders, Nottingham.
The freelance guide in Jordan was Osamah Salamh Twal (Sam) : email@example.com
Photography Andrew Johnston and Osamah Twal.
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!
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.
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!
For more information about the youth activities at Mapperly Associates in Nottingham, UK, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
I have given many talks over the course of the last year and each has been a joy in its own way. One that I will always remember was the talk I was invited to give at the School for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. It was an honour to be invited to address an academic audience, and as a graduate of Chinese from the University of Oxford, returning to a department of Chinese Studies was a home coming.
The occasion had a special poignancy for me as my old Professor of Chinese Art at Oxford, Michael Sullivan, had just died at the age of 96. An inspirational teacher, we had happy tutorials in the offices of the Ashmolean Museum looking and talking about the wonderful Chinese collection which is held there. As a tribute to Michael, at the end of my talk I read a section from THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA where Manying and her childhood sweetheart are blind folded and taken into mountain caves in wartime Chongqing to see the art treasures from the Forbidden City that had been taken there to save them from the Japanese and the bombs. It was very moving for me. When I was an undergraduate Michael was one of the people who gave me a sense of a beautiful and greater Chinese civilization that exists outside the agendas of politics and business. I owe him a great debt and THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA would not have been the book it is without his influence.
“A Life of Art and Friendship,” a special exhibition of some of the modern Chinese paintings Michael and his wife Khoan collected during their lives runs until September at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Only two more party days left in THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA’S anniversary fiesta week. Don’t forget to take advantage of publisher’s discounts on THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA purchased via paypal 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.