Stand in the fallow rice paddies, look across to the nearest village at the foot of the mountains, then close your eyes. Imagine a red and white seersucker picnic cloth spread beneath a large basket holding fresh loaves, red wine, cheese and chicken drumsticks. Insects hum in the distance. Then imagine yourself walking up a gentle hill. On either side there are grapevines, then a small vegetable plot. The day is warm, the sky clear and blue; it’s all so close to perfection. Then ruin everything by opening your eyes. This is not Burgundy but the Chinese countryside, and old Mr Xiao is walking this way. He has news.
‘They are here,’ he says. ‘They are here for you.’
He refers to the Public Security Bureau from the local county, nearly an hour’s drive down a rocky road that has broken the suspension of many a cheap tractor. It doesn’t take much to make a tractor break down. Then again, it doesn’t seem difficult to repair tractor suspension. An old piece of shirt seems to do the job.
It is February 1996 and my first trip out of Beijing as a foreign correspondent. I have been in China for three months. Already I have serious doubts about my desire to build bridges between Australia and China.
From my sofa in Sydney’s inner west, China had seemed the much maligned land of some of my ancestors. Like my Scottish forebears who travelled via tea-dipper in search of trade and excitement on the South China Sea, I dreamed of heading to the great, mystical Middle Kingdom to be a small-screen diplomat. I believed I could be one step ahead of other correspondents because I had Chinese ancestry. I knew enough Cantonese and Mandarin. I was so enamoured of this vision, my expectations had only one way to go and that was down.
Just days after I arrived in Beijing, I knew something had gone horribly wrong. First, the giant, lumbering air-conditioner fell off the wall, and not long after that I locked myself out of my new, badly designed apartment. I telephoned the management office and in halting Chinese explained that I had misplaced my key. I obeyed orders, waited outside my flat, expecting the efficient management person to arrive shortly with a spare key.
Ten minutes later, the lift doors opened on my floor revealing three men: the man from the management office and two scruffy-looking peasants. The peasants were like sticks in ill-fitting, filthy Western suits and once-white plimsolls. One had a giant rope draped around his arm with a portion of it fastened loosely around his waist. The other stood with no rope, but his mouth wide open as if a bone were stuck in his throat. I later learned that this was a look of curiosity; it was a response I drew all over China.
‘Are you Miss Hutcheon?’ said Mr Management. I confirmed I was.
‘Miss Hutcheon, you are locked out? One hundred yuan, please,’ he said.
I handed him a 100-renminbi banknote which he pocketed immediately. Then he took two crumpled fifty-renminbi notes from inside his coat jacket, and handed one to each of the peasants. With the transaction complete, the lift doors closed and the three men proceeded up to the next floor. I heard some muffled urging and the sound of a door closing.
Ten minutes later, the man from management came back down in the lift to join me as I waited outside my from door. Five minutes after that, the two peasants opened my front door from inside the apartment, as if they were greeting a guest coming to dinner. Their mouths were still open. The one with the rope around his waist was red-faced and a little breathless. I didn’t know whether I should invite them in, or whether they should have invited me in, but I thanked them regardless.
The life of a peasant (China’s colloquialism for farmer) in the city became a fascination for me. What could be more simple for my first major story than finding a former peasant turned rubbish collector, filming him on his daily rounds, and then travelling back with him to his home village?
Meeting Xiao Liangyu wasn’t difficult. He was twenty-seven, came from Anhui and had been in Beijing for two years. The ABC’s researcher and I befriended him, inviting ourselves to his house one evening for some warming dumplings on a freezing Beijing night. Then we began to film a story about his life, and how he made his living.
Xiao Liangyu’s job was to collect recyclable rubbish, usually cardboard or newsprint. It’s a booming trade in China. Many migrants come to Beijing to make a living this way, earning at least two hundred dollars a month, 50 per cent more than an average factory worker. But because people such as Xiao Liangyu are former peasants and speak with thick, regional and very un-Beijing accents, they are the focus of ridicule and derision. But Mr Xiao was no fool. He had somehow obtained a special permit, enabling him to retrieve rubbish from Beijing’s prestigious Qinghua University.
When the gatekeeper at the university spied us filming Xiao Liangyu, he decided the rubbish collector was getting too much of the wrong kind of attention. The gatekeeper apprehended Mr Xiao and had him detained. His rubbish cart was confiscated and he was roughed up. When we saw him again the next day, despite our apologies for what had happened, he was very forlorn. When he eventually cracked a smile, he revealed a cut lip. His gate pass was gone, unlikely ever to be returned.
The pass, together with his cart, were his only means of survival. Without his rubbish collector’s permit, he was unable to gather the on-campus detritus that was going to make him wealthy, allowing him to fulfil his dream of becoming a chauffeur to the New Rich. It took much cajoling for him to agree to continue with our little project. We promised we would be more careful. I cursed the pea-sized brain of the gatekeeper, who took such a mean swipe at a harmless man.
Hefei is the ugliest city in China, although many cities vie for the title. There is something crass about buildings with blue glass windows, sputnik-type rooftop ornaments and street-cleaning trucks that play ‘Jingle Bells’. There appears to be a grave problem with any architecture that is old and crumbling. And if the local architecture doesn’t kill the atmosphere, the sulphuric acid in the air does a pretty good job.
After a two-hour minibus ride into the countryside, we arrived in Xiao Liangyu’s home village, Xiao Cun. Xiao Cun is a village with no telephones, but thanks to an efficient village electrification scheme carried out by the Communists in the 1950s, most of the farmhouses possess a single light bulb. In Xiao Cun, five out of six people are farmers, or peasants, as they are officially known. Our arrival in the village was noted by the local Communist Party secretary and reported to the Public Security Bureau and the Foreign Affairs Office of Wu Wei County. My unplanned journey to see the Chinese countryside in its uncensored splendour was about to hit a snag.
Xiao Cun isn’t a place you just happen upon, even if you passed by on the main road from the capital Hefei. Xiao Cun is well-hidden and the path that takes you there is rocky and uninviting. Then again, I invited myself. The villagers of Xiao Cun, most of whom are surnamed Xiao (hence the name of the village), correctly think their village is beautiful. ‘Mountains and water’ is the lyrical refrain cited to us, these two key topographical features being all-important to the Chinese. In warm weather rice is grown. When the weather cools down, rapeseed, wheat and cotton are pressed into the hard earth.
Each family keeps an assortment of farm animals: ducks, geese, chickens. In the spirit of equality, the animals live in the house with their owners. Throughout the night they grunt, chatter, yell, fan and befoul the ground that passes for the farmhouse floor. During the day, the animals wander about the yard or rest indoors as they wish. Such freedom makes them happy-and succulent.
But old Mr Xiao is in front of me, waiting to take us back to the Public Security men, China’s police. I have just finished interviewing his son, our friend the rubbish collector. We pack up the camera equipment, take the tape out of the camera, and insert a fresh tape.
We swap the tape labels and scribble ‘scenery’ on the boxes in case we are forced to hand them over. At the bottom of the path I can see a large crowd, adults and children, a muddle of suit-jackets, Mao suits, bright colours, hats and scarves.
The peasants stare at us open-mouthed, as if we are newly arrived orang-utans at a zoo. We fake jollity as we saunter into the farmhouse, stepping over the threshold into the dark living room. The chickens and geese fain offence, scurrying out of our path.
Sitting in the middle of the room, at the dining table, is a policeman from the county. His hat is comically large, like a child borrowing his father’s, or a new recruit who just missed out on the last size thirty-six. Next to him is a man who introduces himself as an officer of the county’s Foreign Affairs Bureau. (Every province, city and county seat has a foreign affairs office, to handle outsiders of any sort. They provide employment for millions.)
But now, here as I sit in front of them, they do not look happy to be employed. The Public Security man is wearing a badly filling uniform, much like the two peasants who were lowered through the window to open my front door. The military-style hat barely fits him, so he removes it. The gentleman from the Foreign Affairs Office is looking very serious. He takes my pristine Blue Card, my journalist’s accreditation. I imagine it being torn into small shreds and a headline flashes into my head—‘Coming Home! Australian Journalist expelled from China’. I hoped and prayed there were no prison farms, nuclear waste dumps, mental hospitals, orphanages or small Buddhist reincarnations in the vicinity. It would be hard to justify being within cooee of any of these.
Still, the badly fitting Public Security outfit mumbled and nodded to the Foreign Affairs Bureau gentleman.
Would it be a small cell, confessions, manacles, Amnesty International pleading for my release? Should I go to the toilet now while I still had my dignity?
‘Don’t you know you’re required to register?’ says the lacklustre official from the bureau. ‘Everyone knows that foreigners must first register. It is written in the back of your passport.’
I stare at him in disbelief. Registration? Is this a euphemism for something else? The producer and I look at each other in disbelief. Maybe, we would just get told off. Should we mention that our Australian passports carry no such useful advice about registering when visiting the Chinese countryside?
We begin a long, seemingly fruitless discussion about the purpose of our visit. We want to film the countryside, the quaint countryside, the good earth, the cradle of Chinese civilization. The Foreign Affairs Bureau man repeats, we came and we did not register.
After three-quarters of an hour maintaining sombre expressions, we are told to front up at the local police station the next morning. They forget to tell us to stop filming.
So we continue, finishing our interviews, inviting ourselves into people’s homes, hearing their stories, catching a glimpse of what their lives are like.
It is a humbling experience to travel to places like Xiao Cun. In 1996, most villagers still have only one change of clothes, one light-bulb, one hard day after another ahead of them. They live in a world far removed from the economic miracle most Westerners associate China with.
Night falls, and we munch on egg and spring onions. The villagers treat us like royalty.
We bunk down in a large farmhouse past the dam, down the path at the bottom of the village. Journalist, producer, researcher, cameraman and sound-recordist share a very large double bed. We unravel our sleeping bags, slip in fully clothed, and politely wait for the hostess to switch off the crackly black-and-white television. Her two children stand at the foot of our bed and stare at us, as we try to maintain our dignity, attempting to remove layers of thermal underwear while remaining inside the sleeping bags. The kids’ eyes are wide with curiosity. If only they could take us to show-and-tell.
The morning light sets off the farm animals at six-thirty in the morning. A cock crows less than two metres away. It is a very loud cock. I imagine him looking fine with coriander on a large plate. The children are at the foot of our bed, still wide-eyed with curiosity.
Two taxis have been organized for our journey to meet the Public Security officials in the county seat an hour away. The villagers ignite fireworks to wish us luck on our trip.
I walk down a corridor lined with police lolling on sofas or chairs, smoking. Perhaps it’s the start of a new roster. In a large room, five of us sit with an equal number of officials, who offer us tea and probe our ulterior motives. They smile a lot and offer us Marlboro (fake) cigarettes. We sit with them for an hour, and the producer is asked to write a confession. What we did, why we did it and how sorry we are. Then we are allowed to leave.
That first excursion into the Chinese countryside taught me two vital lessons: the first, that officials are usually very tiresome; the second, that to register is a guiding principle. I have become adept at registering. (To this day, in the box where it says ‘Sex’, I always put a ‘y’, just to see if anyone notices. Nobody does.)
Arriving back at the apartment building in Beijing, I was distracted by some shouting, and looked up.
Hanging out of a window eight storeys up, a scruffy man dressed in Western-style suit and once-white plimsolls hung from a thick rope. Another peasant in identical clothing held onto the rope from inside an apartment. They did not appear to be cleaning windows.
By this stage, nothing could shock me.
Ah, I thought knowingly, some unlucky soul has locked their door keys inside the apartment. Feeling a sense of satisfaction that I knew what was going on, I rummaged for my own keys and walked into the building. Someone behind me was shouting.
‘Miss Hutcheon, Miss Hutcheon!’
It was the man from management.
‘As a new resident, don’t forget you will need to register.’
I registered like an expert. And accepted the kind offer of ‘Sex’.