Thursday, January 27, 2005

House of the Rising Sun
In China Sun Yat-sen is akin to George Washington in the US. One is popularly known as "Father of modern China" or "Father of the Chinese Revolution" for his efforts to overthrow the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, while the other is the "Father of his country."
And, like Washington who seems to have spent a night in virtually every 18th century inn along the eastern seaboard, if you believe the frequent signs, plaques and memorials Sun apparently lived, slept or had tea at myriad locales throughout mainland China and Hong Kong -- that's when he wasn't honing his physician and revolutionary skills and rhetoric in Honolulu, Canada and Europe.
But I don't think there are any vending machines or gift shops in the middle of Mount Vernon. This came to mind yesterday during a day trip to Sun's boyhood home and museum in Zhongshan, a middle-sized mainland city between Shenzhen and Macau. Three gift shops and two vending machines are also part of the historical site, which due to repairs being made to the house (which he designed, but actually spent little time in because it built by his sister after the original was torn down) limited us to exploring the museum and Sun Yat-sen's next-door neighbor's property, where a young Sun used to tend his neighbor's water buffalo.
His wealthy neighbor was described by our gregarious and mostly-knowledgable tour guide, David Pan, as "Mr. Lu, a bean curd king." Lu's former home, complete with original portraits of his two wives and himself, was gorgeous and well-appointed, but in addition to being a bean curd czar he apparently was also something of a junkie. Among the elaborately carved wooden dragon chairs, canopied beds, an ancestral shrine and scatterings of gorgeous china dishes, two ornate, handsome opium pipes were also reverently displayed under glass. (The opium theme was repeated with life-size marble statues under a live banyon tree that depict an attentive young Sun and unidentified, equally rapt girl listening to tales spun by another neighbor -- an elderly peasant pre-revolutionary activist of sorts who is barechested, in shorts with an opium pipe parked on his lap.)
I briefly fantasized about one of my boyhood homes becoming a historic tourist site, but like Sun's closed temporarily for repairs, and visitors instead traipsing across the street to my former neighbor's property where I spent some time as a teenager smoking mind-altering herbs.
Tour guide: "Here we see the garage loft, with the original carpet remenants, Jimi Hendrix poster and black light where Justin and his neighbor's son spent inspiring evenings sucking on pipes, listening to FM rock radio and fantasizing about their 8th and 9th grade female classmates..."
Alas, that is not to be. The Sun museum, a large somewhat imposing structure that one reaches along a sumptious, shady tree-lined path is the finest of its type that I've seen on the mainland. It's well-organized and almost overwhelmingly comprehensive, covering not only Sun's 60-year life, but also detailing grandparents, parents, a sibling or two, his third wife (one of China's fabled 'Three Sisters' -- one of whom married Chiang Kai-shek) and his descendants.
It's also the only place on the mainland where I've seen what became the Taiwanese flag - the 12 pointed sun that was the symbol of Sun and Chiang's Kuomintang party which eventually lost to Mao. Displaying the symbol or flag is illegal in the mainland and Hong Kong. In the Sun museum, two originals were discretely folded under glass like creations from a Chinese Betsy Ross.
Our tour group, a junket sponsored by a Hong Kong tour company hoping to promote it, began the day early with a sleepy 8am, 90-minute ferryboat ride from Hong Kong to Zhongshan where stern-faced PLA soldiers at the border made of point of ridgidly scrutinizing our travel documents. It was the first time either I or my photographer, a well-traveled and extremely talented fellow named Simon (who once was the official Chinese news agency (Xinhua) photographer at the Clinton White House), had encountered PLA recruits doubling as border and customs clerks. He was also somewhat startled when they rummaged through his camera equipment and lectured him about bringing it all back and not disposing of it for a profit on the mainland.
"Why would I do that?" he asked rhetorically. "This is my job, my life."
While Zhouchang is actually a rather lovely, low-key, tree-lined town, complete with a relaxed pedestrian shopping mall sporting Portuguese-style facades, the bucolic effect was also briefly marred a couple times with the sight of local police strolling in pairs and threes touting light machine guns with banana clips sprouting from the chambers.
"Chinese New Year," explained tour guide David. "Police are afraid people make trouble."
In addition to shopping for jasmine tea, and illegal DVDs in an upscale audio-video store where I scored primo pirate copies of The Aviator, Meet the Fockers as well as 12 Grams and Baadasssss, we spent some time at a nondescript, rather shabby museum memorializing a 1960s-era commune and crusing on a tributary of the Pearl River in a catamaran to an "authentic" banana, star fruit and papaya farming community that seemed to be solely populated by the elderly and very young children.
"All the others have gone to the city where they can make more money," David explained as several crones tried to wheedle me into buying some bananas. There was also an enormous banyan "wishing tree" festooned with lightly-weighted red cloths bearing the written wishes of people - such as myself - who had paid 6 yuan to throw them into the branches.
"Your wishes are gone with the wind," David waxed eloquently. "Gone with the wind to be granted."
I asked him about some identical small black and white posters crawling with Chinese script and sporting cross logos that were glued to the cement walls along a village footpath.
"They are advertisements to treat sexual diseases," he said brightly.
"Is that a big problem here?"
"Not if you go to the place that is advertised," he replied.
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