Brave new world
In all of my time in Asia I have never even once felt an urgent desire to visit China. Some of my acquaintances came back from a visit to Beijing to recount stories of appalling levels of lack of hygiene and discomfort. Others came back to proudly show off the ubiquitous photograph of themselves smiling atop of the Great Wall. Neither aroused my curiousity or made me feel a need to visit the place. But at the same time I felt that it was unavoidable, in the same way that visiting your grandparents is inevitable if you happen to find yourself in the same city, that I would end up with a visa from the People's Republic stamped into my passport.
The occasion finally happened last week when I joined some colleagues on a trip to Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.
"We should use the toilets here,"
insisted T., the only Chinese speaker in our group, when we arrived at the KCR station.
"You don't want to use the toilets in Shenzhen. I hate the toilets there. They smell."
So T. and I went into the small washrooms next to the Starbucks in Hung Hom station. We hadn't even left Hong Kong yet.
By the time we we passed through immigration to cross the bridge into Luo Ho, Shenzhen, P.R.C., I was expecting at least a change of paradigm - my imagination had worked up fantastic visions of a city with no toilets.
"What's this smell?"
I asked as we crossed the bridge in front of armed guards of the People's Republic.
"The perfumed river,"
D. said as he held his nose.
"You shouldn't be so shocked, there are places in the Philippines where women dive into sewers to get a peso coin,"
We entered into a walkway that led on to the first commercial complex over the bridge. Here I had my first view of the city. There were the usual sparkling black mirrored tower blocks you can find in any recently industrialised city. But here and there you could see structures that resembled European town houses, only they were rendered on such a gargantuan scale that they were the same size as the skyscrapers. A couple of these buildings looked even stranger because of their odd colour schemes - which made some towers look like pink icing sugar sculptures - or their incongruous onion-shaped domes. What little traffic there was consisted mainly of buses and taxis, none of them appearing to follow any rules other than some random lights but all of them shiny and new. Armed police walked slowly in the heat. There were half-naked beggars without limbs prostrating themselves on the white pavements and people walked past without giving so much as a glance, as if this was acceptable. The fiercely hot sun shone down on this phantasmagoric scene.
There was a commotion behind me. D. had given a little beggar girl some change, and now a small boy was clinging onto his shirt demanding some money too. T. started shouting at the boy but he took no notice of her, or the fact that he was now being dragged along by D. who was doing his best to detach him. We escaped the child by running into the car park of a hotel. The child swore at us.
"All the children are operated by the Triads here," T. said, as if that would excuse our own callous behaviour.
"They are usually kidnapped and as they grow older the Triad cut off their limbs so that they get more sympathy [when they are begging] and finally, kill them once they are useless."
There was real fear of the unhygienic - no one in the toilets of the five star hotel we took refuge in touched the doorknobs of the cubicles. The toilet seat wasn't even down. T. made us rinse out our utensils when we sat down for lunch in a restaurant.
Generally speaking, the stores were selling only counterfeit goods, most of which was so cleverly made they were almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The fake haute couture handbags and watches were cheap and tiresomely common. Tiffany's probably did not endorse the idea of their silver jewelry being sold inside Luoho complex, a byzantine maze of a shopping centre situated outside the train station.
"Aren't you buying anything? Or is this against your principles?" D. asked as he and T. picked out DVDs.
"No, not really," I said. But I could not bring myself to buy anything. I felt that the creators of the series of the Matrix films had probably been to Shenzhen. Everything I was surrounded by was a simulation, and nothing that I could see or touch was genuine. The only thing that was real was the fact that time kept on passing by. But is it the 'same' time if you are in a parallel universe? If I stayed longer I felt I would start doubting my sense of self.
In the end, the only souvenirs I allowed myself were two red date stamps in Chinese in my passport - proof of entry and exit. Or was some simulated version of me still wandering around the nightmare city, lost in transit?