Kentucky Fried Camel; Nine Days in Jordan with Kids

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Wadi Rum Camel Trek. Photographer Osamah Twal

“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.

Temple of Hercules. The Citadel. Jordan.  A giant hand from a 13 foot high statue

Remains of a giant hand. Temple of Hercules, The Citadel, Amman.

“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.

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Hadrian’s Gate. Jerash

“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.

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Cooking lunch. 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.

3 Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang and guide Sam talking to Jordanian school girls at Jerash

Writer Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang talking to students at Jerash with interpreter and guide Osamah Twal.

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.3 Learning to dance. Roman ampitheatre. Jerash

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.”

Lunch in the Skybar. Madaba. Jordan.

Lunch in the Skybar, Madaba

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.Petra. The Treasury

“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?

3 Long climb. Exploring Wadi Rum

Exploring Wadi Rum

Day six and I watch my son eating his lunch of “upside down chicken with rice” in a 3 Upside down chicken. Bedouin camp. Wadi RumBedouin 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.

3 Dune bashing Wadi Rum

“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.3 desert camp

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.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang. Wadi Rum. Jordan.

Writer, Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang in Wadi Rum, Jordan

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.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is writer based in Nottingham, author of the novel The Woman The Woman Who Lost China CoverWho Lost China and member of Nottingham Writers’ Studio.  www.rhiannonjenkinstsang.com

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) : osamahstwal@hotmail.com

Photography Andrew Johnston and Osamah Twal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Poetry Be the Food of Love

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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

“A Life of Art and Friendship”

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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.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang at the School for Contemporary Chinese Studies, The University of Nottingham, UK

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang at the School for Contemporary Chinese Studies, The University of Nottingham, UK

The occasion had a special poignancy for me as my old Professor of Chinese Art at Oxford, untitledMichael 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.

http://www.ashmolean.org/exhibitions/details/?exh=94

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.

Happy First Birthday THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA

 

Flights of Imagination

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“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!

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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

Blog Hop: “I Get My Best Ideas in the Bath!”

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bath_EP_036

A big thank you to writer and journalist Karen Ma, author of Excess Baggage, for inviting me to take part in this literary blog hop!  Remember those chain letters we used to write as children?  This is the modern literary equivalent.  We get to meet all sorts of writers from all over the world and hear about their work, plus I get to work with Karen and the next author in the chain, Christy Fearn, which is a joy.

Karen Ma is a Chinese-American who has lived in more than half Portrait - Karen Maa dozen cities around the world before the age of 23, including Hong Kong, Kobe, Tokyo, Tianjin, Seattle and Qingdao. 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.  She worked in Japan and the U.S. as a journalist and began working on her debut novel, Excess Baggage, while living in China and India.  Constantly on the move, she now lives in Beijing with her husband and their two children in a 2nd Ring Road compound not far away from Tian’anmen Square

To carry on the chain I need to answer a few of Karen’s questions.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently writing and researching two new novels.  The first is a love story with international themes.   A story of innocence lost, the exotic and erotic.  It will be a much smaller work than The Woman Who Lost China with fewer characters but  I always set the bar very high for myself and am aiming for something magical;  a journey from youth into middle age.  The book after that is a much more ambitious project in research terms and I am looking forward to some hours in old student haunts; the oriental and Indian reading rooms in The Bodleian Library, Oxford (shhh! The Indian reading room has some of the best views of the city’s dreaming spires) and to packing my suitcase and hitting the road to do some location research.  The rest is currently top secret!

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang in Wadi Rum, Jordan

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Much of the “big hit” China related fiction in English that we have become familiar with over recent years has tended to highlight a limited number of themes and perspectives; the cultural revolution of the 1960s and early 1070s, 1930s Shanghai courtesans, imperial concubines, the contemporary “get rich quick” reform narrative, or the American born Chinese experience.  For a country such as China with such a rich historical and cultural legacy, this leaves huge gaps for the general Western reader. The Woman Who Lost China deliberately avoids the well trodden communist inspired narratives which in some ways have come to dominate our understanding of contemporary China, and takes the characters back to a point where they do not know the outcome of the Chinese civil war in 1949.  As a writer this was liberating as it enabled me to create four generations of Chinese characters in one family from the late Qing or the last imperial dynasty, and take them through the pre-communist Republican period, post war British Hong, the 1997 handover, finishing in modern day Shantou and Vancouver.  I hope I have told a different story, perhaps a forgotten one?

The Woman Who Lost China book cover

Why do you write what you do?

I write because I have to, because it is my way of relating to the world and the people around me.  For me it’s a kind of meditation, both internal and external and when I am writing I never feel as if I ought to be doing something else. As a young person I was fortunate to travel and study widely in France, Germany and Spain and I always kept a diary and wrote letters. My interest in the way people interact across cultural, linguistic, historical and economic fault lines probably dates from my early years.  At nineteen, I was studying and travelling in China at the end of the Maoist era. At twenty, I was studying and working in Taipei, Taiwan.  Although The Woman Who Lost China is a work of fiction, it was born out of my own China journey over a period of more than a quarter of century and was very much a story I had to tell.

How does your writing process work?

The formal writing process starts early in the morning after my husband and son have left for school and work.  I go into my study overlooking the garden and sit and write for a few hours.  The farmer who lives next door usually drives his tractor into the yard around 10.30am and I take this as a cue for a coffee break.

I am also a Member of Nottingham Writers’ Studio and get a lot of support from the wider community of fantastic creative people in the region and beyond.  I go on courses, talk to people who know the business and take feedback on board.

Often my most creative moments are not when I am at my desk. I have just spent nine days in Jordan and really switched off camping in the desert under the stars, but on my return I found my subconscious had been working overtime and a lot of things had slipped into place.  At home I get my best ideas when walking on the moor behind my house, chopping vegetables for supper or in the late evening when I am in the bath.  The latter predicament means I often traipse the length of the house, sopping wet, from the bathroom to study to make notes lest the muse abandon me and I lose the eureka moment for ever.

“Why don’t you put a paper and pen by the bath?” I hear you ask.  Alas, if I did that the ideas might not come!

Walking on the Moor. Tree and rape field

Walking on the moor in the spring.

Buy The Woman Who Lost China now!

And lastly it is my great pleasure to introduce the next featured author in our chain, my friend and colleague at Nottingham Writers’ Studio, Christy Fearn.  Christy is the author of Framed, a historical novel about the revolt of the Luddites set in the 1880s in Nottingham.  I love meeting Christy for lunch in Nottingham and walking the old streets of the Lace Market with her, peeking into St. Mary’s Church and visiting the Angel Tavern where some Luddites used to meet.  Her knowledge and her stories in Framed have made Nottingham in the early 1880s come alive for me.

Christy Fearn at her desk

Christy Fearn at her desk

Christy Fearn was brought up in Lord Byron’s childhood home town of Southwell. From an early age when she visited Newstead Abbey, she was fascinated by the local poet who had a tomb made for his beloved pet dog. She studied English Literature and Drama at Clarendon College and then York St. John University, where she wrote her dissertation about William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Byron and the Shelleys.

After graduating, Christy performed in the play ‘The Weathercock’ which toured Greece as part of the Britain & Greece festival. The play was a revival of the production in which Byron himself starred in 1809, before he went on his Grand Tour.

More recently Christy has given talks about Byron, Shelley and Coleridge as part of Lowdham Book Festival and the International Byron Society Festival. She has written a novel; ‘Framed’ about the Nottingham Framebreakers. Byron is a character in the novel, stepping in to aid the local Luddites and making his maiden speech in the House of Lords.

A self-confessed ‘Byron Nut’, Christy has a tattoo portrait of her hero, including the line from his poem ‘Maid of Athens’ – Zwή µou σaς aγaπώ in Greek which means ‘My life I love you.’

Christy has a passion for local history and literature, supporting the campaign to keep Newstead Abbey open, she aims to raise the profile of Byron as a local author.

She will be posting the next link in this chain in a week or so on her own blog. Don’t forget to check back!

http://christyfearn.blogspot.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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!

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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

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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

 

 

 

 

Review of the stage play 关系/Consumed

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Border Crossings in association with Shanghai Dramatic Arts CentrePoster for Consumed

Tuesday 19th March 2013 at the Djanogly Theatre, The Lakeside, Nottingham.

A poignant little gem of a play, it tells the story of the 1980s generation of educated Chinese.

When Tong Zheng returns to Shanghai to do business after years living in the United States, he is full of himself.  But lost in the neon and high rise, he does not recognise the China he left behind, except in the alleys and back streets.

Involved in the usual murky Chinese consumer shopping mall deal, he hooks up with John Bartholomew, a British businessman who has been living in China for ten years. A shadowy Neil Heywood type figure, Bartholomew speaks no Mandarin, but promises connections with the Mayor.  A bilingual love and business triangle develops and Tong Zheng is confronted with his past.

The deracinated characters float about a white and black minimalist set, anchored only by their mobile phones, and laptops, the Apple logo on their devices shines silver out of the darkness.  The characters rarely talk face to face but interact through technology, constructing a false reality out of a void.apple computer

The play runs bilingually throughout in Mandarin and English with translations appearing on chat line screens or deliberately getting lost.  It worked brilliantly for me, illustrating the lack of communication between the characters and the relationship between the West and China, both of which are alluded to as being autistic like John Bartholemew’s son, in the sense that Bartholemew never can really understand the boy.  I wondered, however, how much someone who only spoke one of the languages would make of the story. But that, perhaps, is the point of the play, for even elements of the title itself are lost in translation.

Despite the clever use of language and technology to illustrate the pace of change in China, the real power of this play lies in the message of the 1980s generation, and the songs of Deng Lijun are used to great effect to convey the mood of the time.  Growing up during the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution and clawing back a lost education, many were at high school or university during the heady days of the mid nineteen eighties, part of a great hope and drive to build something better after years of Maoism.  Yet these people were also the children of 1989 and with it the heirs of May the 4th 1919, and those that could, fled to the West in fear in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.  There is a hint of this when Bartholomew first meets Tong Zheng, asking him if he left because of politics, a question Zheng is quick to gloss over.8507669694_0f45566c51_m

As someone who studied Chinese in the West and in China in the 1980s and had friends and contemporaries who were at Tiananmen Square and other protests in China at this time, the gut wrenching moment in the drama came when Tong Zheng is forced to refer to full form characters that were used before the Communist revolution to express his feelings.

Guanxi/关系” he says, “this word we use so much to describe our precious business relations and other relationships; in the full form 關係 the character shows that it means bound together, bonded, tied, but I want 自由 / freedom.”

He goes on to refer to the character 爱 for love.

“In the simplified form it has lost its heart, but in the full form, 愛, it still has its heart.  I want to put the heart back into love.” he says.

This play is above all a cry from the heart of the 1980s generation of educated Chinese who, hoped and worked for so much, but know that they have been sold a dud.

“为什么, 为什么,为什么”? “Why, why, why?” a character asks at the end of the play.  I was haunted by it for days.

Photographer Richard Davenport

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

 

 

 

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