Monday, 31 March 2014

Chongqing revisited, March 12 - 13

View from train between Chengdu and Chongqing
On Wednesday morning, a two hour train ride from Chengdu to Chongqing is a reminder of the stark contrast everywhere in China between modernity and tradition, between ugliness and beauty. The high-speed train departs from a vast, gleaming station and the ride is smoother and faster than Amtrak's Acela. The rural landscapes are in some ways timeless, but the urban sprawl at either end of the journey has few redeeming features.

Luxury brands have proliferated in Chongqing

It's great to be back in the city where Max and Audrey's story began - though the weather hasn't improved! Courtesy of the British Council, I'm staying at the Intercontinental (new since my last visit five years ago) in the downtown area near the Liberation Monument. I'm reminded that the 1940s monument was the tallest structure in the city twenty years ago - now it is dwarfed by buildings like my 40-storey hotel.

Fame at Chongqing's Rare Garden!

The British Council (working here as a section of the Consulate-General) introduced me to my invaluable Chongqing guide nine years ago, and they've turned up trumps again, organizing two events for At Least We Lived. The first is a literary evening at the Rare Garden, kind of a Chinese version of the Bookworm venues - a casual literary cafe for young Chinese, run by the deputy director of the local writers' association. It is in an edgy neighborhood on the south bank - an area built up beyond all recognition from the days when Audrey and her roommates found it 'more airy' than the north bank of the Yangtze.

I meet Paula Middleton, the Council Director for Southwest China, and Mark Woodham, the deputy Consul-General, to drive over to the Rare Garden. We begin the evening with dinner with the owner and some interesting guests, including an architect and the manager of the British Chamber of Commerce for the region. Paula moderates our discussion of At Least We Lived very skillfully - she really understands the book's themes and, though we move slowly because of the need for translation, it's a great session. The audience are intrigued by the idea of a wartime love story set in a time and place that many of their grandparents experienced, and I sign and sell the few copies of the book that I have with me.

The Rare Garden Literary Evening

View today from north to south bank
My second Chongqing event is a half-day workshop on 'the changes of British Consulate and Embassy in Chongqing and China-UK relationship during WWII'. It takes place at the Foreign Affairs Office, with a top table of 15 researchers and officials including the British, and a larger audience of 35 graduate students. The Council has funded a study of the history of British diplomacy in Chongqing that is being conducted by the Sichuan International Studies University (SISU). Researchers are to present their progress report, and I've been invited to chip in on my parents' experience of daily life in the foreign community.

My 30-minute presentation is of course much more personal than the historical overviews presented by four SISU researchers, but a nice contrast, I'm told! I show the best photos from Max's only roll of film of the city, and talk about some of the other characters of their day who wrote memoirs, like Berkeley Gage. I hope that the Council and SISU will keep me in touch on this interesting project.

Hot pot dinner with Sun Ying
I've come down with a heavy cold (blaming the polluted air everywhere), and am pleased to have a warming hot pot for dinner with Sun Ying. It's wonderful to see Sun Ying, who was my indefatigable interpreter and guide on previous trips to the region. She's added another string to her bow - building on her fluency in French and English, she is now training to be a wine expert. She's judging wine tastings, and may lead tours of Bordeaux - so enterprising.

Chengdu Bookworm, March 11

Author banners at Chengdu Bookworm

After an early morning flight to Chengdu, China's fourth largest city and capital of Sichuan province, I'm met by a Chinese volunteer who teaches English at a local university. Making the most of my brief stay here, she and a friend take me by metro (first time I've had to go through a metal detector to enter a subway system) to see a renovated old quarter and its Buddhist temple.

Burning incense at Wenshu Monastery
At my early evening session at the Bookworm, I'm lucky that the moderator, Paddy Booz, is a history teacher with a passion for WWII who can fill in background to my story. I put up some maps and photos, and find this works well wherever I'm speaking. We have a lively discussion with an audience that is a good mix of Chinese and expats. I stay on to hear a panel with David Vann, Musharraf Ali-Farooqi and Danny Laferriere on ‘Why We Write’, and sit in the cafĂ© to have a welcome chicken pie. This is a great local gathering place, enlivened tonight by a singer/piano duo as well as the festival events.

Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival, March 8 - 10

March is international literary festival season in China, and I'm thrilled to be touring five major cities as a guest of the Bookworm Festival and M on the Bund's Shanghai Festival - with extra hospitality from the British Council.

The Beijing Bookworm
I arrive in Beijing on March 8 just a few hours after Malaysian Airlines flight 370 was due to land there, and the plane's disappearance turns into the grim theme tune of my two weeks in Asia. My father, Max Oxford, investigated many a crash when he ran civil aviation in Hong Kong and Malaysia half a century ago - but nothing like this baffling loss.
The Opposite House Atrium

My first festival session is held on Sunday evening in the stylish atrium of the Opposite House - the hotel where I'm also staying. Fergus Naughton (from Jonathan Fenby's company, Trusted Sources) moderates a great discussion of At Least We Lived. I read a few passages and talk about the book, with several Beijing-based journalist friends asking apt questions. Some British diplomats are also in the largely expat audience. Friends take me out for an excellent Yunnanese dinner afterwards. Many plan to relocate from Beijing because of the noxious pollution - you shouldn't be able to smell the air, says one.

Opposite House Atrium from above

The Red Gate
On Monday other friends take me for a splendid lunch at Lost Heaven (also Yunnanese!), a smart restaurant in the historic complex that once housed the American Embassy. Then we stop by the Red Gate Gallery to see up close the watchtower made famous by Paul French's Midnight in Peking

At Least We Lived on display at the Beijing Bookworm
               That evening I take part in a panel at the Bookworm on 'Ways of Telling the Past'. Fellow panelists Paul Ham, an Australian historian, Janette Jenkins, an English historical novelist, and moderator Christopher New have refreshingly contrasting views on the topic. Most thought-provoking question posed to me from a crowded room: 'What did I leave out of my parents' story?'

Paul Ham, a volunteer, Emma, Christopher New & Janette Jenkins
We stay on afterwards for pizza and a drink in the busy Bookworm bar - also a chance to chat to the Festival director, Peter Goff.