13 nov 2009

Chinese box

for Sheldon Leader, Christmas 2008 in Ambrì

He had just been staying in Macao. A few days of being told about the ancient and disparate traditions brought in by the Portuguese: African, Balinese, Indian, all somehow surviving underneath the imperative pulse of the city. He was there on a Cultural trip and appreciated past and heritage, a topic generally dismissed by the people met in the other Southern Chinese cities. Not that he hadn’t enquired, but receiving peremptory answers. “Well we just don’t believe”, “For the Chinese people now it’s the future that matters”, “I still consider religion as superstition”, “To reform is to re-shape”; “We aim to utter the Chinese spirit through a Western narration”. And everywhere around him these answers had found clear confirmations.
In Macao, instead, people responded enthusiastically, but their answers dissolved in the glasses of hot water. He even had some difficulties detecting the alleged city pulse, which seemed smothered beneath the bi-dimensional ministry of casinos. (Massive building sites were everywhere, yet all the exertion only left behind these slender schemes of light, the resulting infrastructure a billboard for some general statement, delimiting the road and intimately addressing the driver). And to observe space itself mutilated doesn’t inspire much hope for time past.
The clearest heritage was the Venetian one, seemingly told with Vegas narration: the Venetian is a casino, among the biggest palaces ever built, its king a benevolent one who avoids imposing his verb, or is only an abstraction – in any case with plenty of devoted subjects. So to the Venetian he went, with the other Swiss writer sent on that Cultural trip, and they gambled together. Their opposite attitudes worked out smoothly and they multiplied the mock initial capital. The following evening they both agreed that if they had played again that wouldn’t happen. They were right. (They could have tried to drag conclusions on probability, but didn’t, possibly due to the overbearing presence of statistics in those Chinese days).
They had just been staying in Macao and were now back in Hong Kong for the last day of the Cultural trip. After the other cities, Hong Kong was like an old friend sometimes suffering from fits of fever, melancholy, madness, and a little amnesia. (Precisely an old friend). Walking on the steep streets groping among the steeper skyscrapers and the slanted market stands he ran into a large clay Buddha. Not particularly beautiful, its charm consisted mainly in excessive weight, large cracks along the back, a removable head. All elements not too unfamiliar after the short but intense immersion in Contemporary China, which would end that night after having dragged around the overweight luggage for eight hours more. He pondered. Then to the side he saw a Chinese box, red, decorated with tiny carved figures, their round heads part of an equation involving round lamps and perhaps a few moons. For the rest, bridges, trees, pagodas, clouds. Most of the women were bowing to men, as were some men, while a few appeared to be simply bowing to no one. The other guy, patiently unimpressed by the Buddha, also liked it. They tossed a Macao Pataca, the verdict was clear, the other didn’t change his opinion about the Buddha and bought nothing, he got the red box for a worryingly low price.
The program of their trip consisted mainly of tripe plus other delicacies such as duck tongue, chicken feet, fish jaw, shark fin – apparently food is of the utmost importance for Chinese culture, in a way substituting other kinds of traditions nearly lost and mostly ignored. And meeting writers who were told to talk about food (in a way, a topic substituting more controversial ones). That afternoon being no exception, after making the purchase they set out for the cultural lunch where the box created an immediate diversion, if only because he looked odd carrying it under his arm. For once, they had their meal without discussing the food – not knowing what they were eating didn’t bother them either; the box was dated anywhere between two and one-hundred-and-something years old; everybody agreed that here and there it was losing paint (sign of age), and that you could see clear wood beneath (sign of youth); he claimed it contained eight cats just to use the two words he had learned (ba, mao), obtained condescending laughter, was corrected on both words. To keep talking about language, though carefully avoiding the Mandarin-Cantonese issue, they risked further embarrassment and asked what the sound of the names of their girlfriends might mean in Chinese: his, “peaceful beauty”; the other’s, “hot thunder”.
A box is a space to be filled with things, the things in the box are dispensed from the present time. It is also for this reason that we aren’t quite sure if they are actually there when the box is closed, anyway confident that they might enjoy themselves wherever else they are. We suspect that this place could have something to do with the box’s decoration, or instead the decoration is where the present time sits for as long as the box is closed. He was thinking these things while, at the post-prandial meeting, someone was specifying undisturbed what he considered to be the most substantial differences between Mandarin and Cantonese, often using edible examples; hence, perhaps, the concern about being dispensed from the present time. But his thoughts, once in the box, were dislocated in a place surprisingly unappealing, one of the cities he had visited which, alongside others simultaneously, was built to propel the post-reform economy at maximum speed. In twenty years, millions of people from all the regions of China found themselves delocalized there, apparently without carrying any trace of those homelands, no idol no flag no curtain or flower at the window. If Macao was a fancy facade this was a vector, a straight line exclusively expressing purpose and strength. An undecorated box in which to be both alive and dead, a factory with a dormitory in which to spend a day that lasts years before returning to the countryside to sleep. Hopefully a bit wealthier, in any case having taken part in the construction of a colossal box where the future alone can dwell. The future will tell.
But then he didn’t really know much about Western conditions during industrialization, he thought, opening the box. It creaked a five-tone noise, Mandarin!, he suggested. Only the other Swiss guy laughed.
After the meeting, they bid farewell and rushed to Kowloon jade market to enjoy the distance-forming pleasures of tourism. The box under his arm was once again an attraction. The sellers, more interested in the box than in their own merchandise, wanted to know its price, denied it was possible, guessed its age, passed it on from hand to hand; he felt a little jealous. The two of them went through the crowd, even more conspicuously because of the box. When the sellers did bargain for their jade, the box would sit on the blankets they used as stalls. After that, in a cab, a bus, an x-ray machine, through customs and, finally, in the airplane closet. When it woke up it was in Switzerland, now filled with duty-free, and still a little Chinese air.
The Swiss German customs clerk, not quite the antonomasia for a jolly fellow, laughed through his mustache asking whether it was the “Schatzkasse”. The “treasure box”. His poor understanding of German nearly translated it into “cat box” and, if only for the consistency of his ignorance, he was happy with it.
He and the other parted, they came from opposite ends of the country. They had enjoyed each-other’s company. The Chinese box sat with him on a train. He pondered. Just as the first syllable of the word “future” belongs to the past and contradicts itself before the whole word is pronounced, a train erases its own surface through speed, hurrying towards a destination (is the present time allowed to sit inside the train?). Or, didn’t the Chinese calligraphers use to write ideograms with a long spongy pencil dipped in plain water, so that a symbol wouldn’t last to see the following one? Or, Chinese characters are still partly the same as they were thousands of years ago... So, while in his memory the Chinese skyscrapers started to look like hi-speed trains heading vertically towards a set goal, ready to let the next building take their place as soon as they got there, he couldn’t help feeling that he had just been in a country whose name is perhaps writ in water, but by such a number of hands that it remains visible. Though, for him at least, hardly readable.
He felt like praising the Chinese box sitting next to him, its light globes, its figures, so dedicated in expressing their respect that they didn’t seem to be repeating their act, nor frozen in it, but just performing it as slowly as a man grows or as the present takes its seat. The box sat with him on the train. The horizontal train, that took him back to the past he had left three weeks before and now was about to be the present.

First published, with Chinese translation, in: Foodscape, a Swiss-Chinese Intercultural Encounter about the Culture of Food
MCCM Creations Hong Kong

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