Xi tells me that in Mao’s time being rich and even dreams of getting rich were considered social crimes in China. But when his successor, Deng Xiaoping, assumed power in 1978, his first speech announced that helping every Chinese citizen become rich was going to be the driving force for the future of China. This process began before Xi was born so she has never known anything different. But her parents and grandparents tell her that Deng and his policies were controversial at the time, especially since Mao and most of the people on the dais when Deng assumed power had twice purged Deng for expressing less radical ideas. But the entire country celebrated the news instantly because—Xi assures me—everyone in their heart wants to be rich.
Before Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, it had been a British protectorate since 1841 (except for the years 1941-1945, when it was occupied by the Japanese). Even before the British took possession of Hong Kong in 1841 (following the Treaty of Nanking, ending the First Opium War), Hong Kong had an international reputation as the nexus of the considerable—and dirty—Asian drug and sex-trafficking trade, and all that came in its wake: obscene amounts of money, corruption at every level of government, and a brutal underworld. During most of its occupation, Britain didn’t even bother to rule the island, using it only as a base from which to keep an eye on China.
When Mao pushed Chiang Kai-shek out of China in 1949, he didn’t follow him and his two million followers into Taiwan or Hong Kong for fear of involving the British. Chiang set up the Republic of China’ government in exile in Taiwan, and declared martial law. He also reached back a hundred years and reinstituted Qing Dynasty laws—which gave him absolute power as a stand-in for the emperor—in a time known by the locals as the White Terror.
The adoption of Qing Dynasty laws—which also legitimated serfdom, servitude, male polygamy, and took away all rights of women, poor people, non-Chinese and any minorities; disempowering almost all of the local population when Chiang arrived—was the platform on which Chiang planned to return to the throne.
Chiang had ruled China twenty two years as Chairman of the Nationalist Party until he lost the civil war that followed the end of World War II. (His Nationalists and Mao’s Communists fought side-by-side against the Japanese.) Chiang believed that when Mao fell out of favor—which never happened, of course—he would return to China and resume power.
In Chiang’s fight with Mao, the Chinese people fought against him, so Chiang first had to win back public support, and he chose the curious way of promising to return Puyi—the last emperor—to power, who had been overthrown and exiled in 1912. Worse, the Japanese had returned Puyi to the Chinese throne in 1934, as the head of its puppet government. Puyi was captured by the Russians and remained an unclaimed prisoner of war from 1945-1950, and then was a Mao’s political prisoner for ten years.
Chiang’s dream of returning the emperor to the throne lasted until 1967, when Puyi—who had been rehabilitated by the Communist Party and now lived a quiet life as a gentleman gardener—died. Chiang would continue to rule Taiwan until his death in 1975, but the British took over Hong Kong in 1971.
In November 1971, things had gotten so bad in Hong Kong that the British sent Crawford Murray MacLehose, Baron MacLehose of Beoch, to act as governor of Hong Kong, an office he held until May 1982. MacLehose was six foot three in a country where most people didn’t break five feet. Hong Kong still celebrates MacLehose as the man who in a little over a decade overturned a century of squalor and brought civilization and free education and low-income housing to Hong Kong.
MacLehose landed in a country where three-year-olds were working in factories, where twenty family members were living in apartments that were fifty feet square, where sanitation and indoor plumbing were non-existent, and most households slept with their pigs, chickens, or donkeys (useful because Hong Kong is basically a series of peaks atop a vast underwater mountain chain).
MacLehose made the first nine years of education compulsory (it’s presently twelve) and fed the kids who came to school. Then he began to build low-income apartments until half the population was living in public housing with running water and sanitation. He had Chinese recognized as an official language alongside English, which meant that for the first time since 1841 all legal proceedings and business could be conducted in Chinese. He fired anyone he suspected of corruption, and repealed the Qing Dynasty laws and installed British Commonwealth law.
Then he began to build the infrastructure of a modern city. There was no mass transportation system on the island, so MacLehose oversaw the construction of the Mass Transit Railway, for the easy and cheaper transportation of goods and people from the rural areas to the city and back. Then he built a trolley system that connected the city and port (although mostly only the British used it). Community and arts facilities were expanded. MacLehose worked the neighborhoods, setting up anti-littering campaigns and neighborhood watch programs.
In his first two years in office his government spending grew by over 50%, which made things difficult for him back in the U.K. Still, he persevered. He introduced public parks and paid holidays. He increased protections for the elderly, introduced infirmity and disability allowances, sick days, unemployment insurance, and created programs for the disabled and disadvantaged. Multiple wives were not allowed under British law, but any man could keep the ones he had obtained under Qing Dynasty rule, but he would be responsible for their welfare, and could not continue to keep concubines. Women—including wives and ex-concubines—were offered free education and instruction in birth control.
In 1979, MacLehose raised the issue of Britain’s 99-year lease with Deng Xiaoping. It was due to end in 2040, but MacLehose thought that Britain should return the island to China as soon as possible, as well as several islands in the area that had been legally ceded by the Chinese government to the United Kingdom following several 19th century wars.
Although it’s difficult to remember now, at the time no one knew what would happen when the Chinese reclaimed Hong Kong. Few believed the Chinese would allow Hong Kong to continue undisturbed but, sixteen years later, Hong Kong’s constitution remains unchanged, guaranteeing western-style free speech, press, and religion. Hong Kong has access to Facebook (which mainland China does not). Hong Kong remains under British Common Law with a parliament and sixty democratically elected representatives. All laws must be debated publically. International businesses (especially banks) continue to operate without interference, even though they are taking rapacious amounts of Yuan out of Hong Kong every year.
China has even made it easy and fashionable for mainland Chinese to travel to Hong Kong, whose neon consumerism outshines anything in New York City or Los Angeles. Xi tells me this is because Deng was presented with Hong Kong at exactly the right historical moment, and Hong Kong was presented to China at its best possible moment. It was kismet Xi says proudly, and smiles.
I have never seen Xi as happy or at home as she is in Hong Kong. She is among the first generation of Chinese to grow up with access to Hong Kong and the internet and cellphones. But when I ask her if she would like to live here she gasps and shakes her head, frowning. She enjoys Hong Kong, but prefers being home with her parents and grandmother in Chengdu. She could never be happy living in Hong Kong. She tells me that when you introduce yourself in China, first you give your family name, then your personal name, then the town in which you were born. What was fun about visiting Hong Kong made it impossible for her to live here.
All of the most expensive labels in the world have crowded storefronts downtown: Cartier, Yvs Saint Laurent, Rolls Royce. With all of the business transacted on the island, instead of paying income tax, most families in Hong Kong split the island’s surplus annually.
Imports from the West are very heavily taxed throughout Asia, and an underclass of professional shoppers has evolved in Hong Kong. The very rich can pay someone in Hong Kong to buy an iPad or a gallon of Maker’s Mark and transport it to Vietnam or Laos significantly cheaper than buying the same item in Hanoi or Vientiane. These professional shoppers split up at dusk and sleep on the sidewalks in front of stores where word has spread that a shipment of genuine L’oreal or Faberge is scheduled to arrive overnight.
Only in Hong Kong does Xi put on her sunglasses for our after-dinner walks. The bright neon reds and greens bounce in her lenses when she talks. As we wait to cross at an intersection, I watch Xi examine the women coming out of Ralph Lauren and Nieman Marcus. It is disrespectful to stare, which is why after dark all of the Chinese women—both locals and visitors—are wearing sunglasses.
Xi has saved the best of her wardrobe for Hong Kong. Shimmery, bright, kinesthetic, simple, boldly accessorized. She can dress up in ways that are unacceptable on Mainland China, and she likes the way she looks. Each time she catches her reflection in a shopwindow she smiles, becoming even more beautiful. I can’t keep up with her and she waits for me as a model might, in the best possible light, smiling at the fashions as they pass.
Walking through the gem center of the city, we come across a row of shamans underneath a train flyover. Xi explains that this is the center of the city, where the two main avenues meet. The “two worlds” are closest at crossroads; the larger the intersection, the more important, the more aligned with the cardinal directions, the more ancient, the more well traveled, the greater the opening between the worlds.
This was the main intersection in Hong Kong, in the exact center of the city, and there are crossings for people, cars, and trains. Everything is drawn here, everything passes through here, all roads begin or end here. All hearses are drawn through this intersection—including those headed for the Catholic cemetery. The missionaries have been here for centuries and when MacLehose realized that he couldn’t afford the kind of education system he wanted, he reached out to several religious organizations, and various Christian faiths arrived and built schools and churches. Most educated adults in Hong Kong have been taught in Christian schools. They wear crosses, they go to church on Sunday, but in every other way they are animist. Even the cross has less to do with Christ than with the four directions.
The cement around the shaman is covered with blankets and fruit. Fistfuls of smoking incense sticks stuck into earth-filled pots “clear the air.” Patrons stand quietly for an hour or more, carrying everything they’ll need for the ritual they want performed. Most of them are young women, but there are young men as well. Xi explains that most of the people who come to the shaman are looking for a successful marriage or a child. Or they are here to have a ceremony performed to honor their parents or grandparents, living or dead. Some come in hopes of appeasing an unhappy ghost or a string of bad luck, or to attract extra money—something people here pray for in good times and bad.
“You can find anything in Hong Kong,” Xi tells me. Every time she returns to Hong Kong she has shopping list of things for her family and friends and neighbors back home, and increasingly for the friends of her parents and friends and neighbors. It is now half a day’s shopping, and each visit the list gets longer. Soon she will have to bring an empty suitcase.
What happens if someone opens your bags and accuses you of smuggling stuff into the country? “There would be nothing that is illegal to bring back,” she says. And the quantities aren’t remarkable. She is a professional in the tourist business, crossing half a dozen times a year. She knows these people by name and they know her. No one would think to open her bags.
So you’re a professional shopper too? “Yeah,” she laughs, “But I sleep one step off the streets.” She’s exaggerating, but not by much. On our overnight sleeping train from Beijing and Chengdu, she shared a berth with three strangers while—as a single traveler with a travel company—I got my own berth. When we were aboard ship, she shared a berth with a paying customer and prayed every night that we would call her cellphone only in emergencies.
Chinese who have traveled abroad—including Xi, who spent the 2000-2001 school-year as an exchange student in a high school outside Portland, Oregon—are aware of what they are missing, but even those who have never left their small towns are very aware of what they have now as opposed to the generations of war and stagnation before them.
Today the main conflict between the generations is that the parents and grandparents expect to be taken care of in their old age, as they took care of their parents and grandparents. This has been the way in China for its entire recorded history, but it has intensified since the “one-birth” policy. (Xi points out that the “one-child” policy is a misnomer—of course parents are not penalized if they have twins or triplets. No one is forced to have an abortion—they merely have to pay additional taxes to cover the costs of an additional child to the State. But most Chinese parents chose on their own to have an abortion in the event of a pregnancy, which is almost always due to the failure of their birth control method.)
In every previous generation, children were married off well before they reached eighteen, especially the women, who would have been considered almost too old for marriage at eighteen. The bride would become pregnant almost immediately, and she would stay at home raising their child, while her husband was becoming established in a respectable and dependable career, so he could care for their parents as their only children should.
But the children today are more interested in cellphones and fashionable clothes and anything they’ve seen on TV than on saving money or beginning a career. Well into their twenties this generation is largely unemployed and single and living at home. Their parents see their comfortable retirement slipping away and there is nothing they can do about it.
When she was sixteen, Xi applied for, and was awarded, a one-year scholarship in the U.S. The additional expenses were paid by her father. Xi is very aware that her parents are unusual in wanting their daughter to have anything she desires. In most of the single-child households in China, only a son is educated past high school. Almost no investment is made in a daughter’s life outside of what is absolutely necessary, as she eventually will be married off and leave the family. There is a common belief that a woman is better off uneducated, not knowing what she’s missing. Her fate was to bear and raise a child, to care for her husband’s needs, to run the household, and to take care of their parents.
Xi was the first person in her family and neighborhood who had ever been abroad. She didn’t know a single person to ask what it might be like. She was nervous that she might not be able to keep up in class, that her host family might not like her, that the students would laugh at her clothes or her English, that she would be homesick and wish she’d never left China.
Her fears turned out to be unfounded, although she did miss her family and friends at first. She quickly learned that she didn’t have to study for classes, and she began to spend a lot of time with her host family’s only child, Mark, a year out of high school. Mark was living at home and working at a local pizza shop, driving his own car, and saving money for college. He would patiently help her with her homework at night, although sometimes after he went to bed she would correct his errors.
One day he explained how to skip school. He would call the school nurse and report that his daughter had developed flu symptoms and he was calling to warn her that there may be a brewing epidemic on campus, and then tell her that his daughter would be staying home today, and probably the rest of the week, just to be certain. Then he hung up the phone and said, “That’s all there is to it. You’re out for the rest of the week.”
At first they watched TV and played video games with the curtains closed. In China the police would stop to interrogate any school age child during school hours. But that evening when she called her closest friend and explained what had happened, Xi was told that Mark was telling her the truth. No one would question her unless she called attention to herself. So the next day she allowed herself to be convinced into going to the movies and later they shared a pizza where he worked. She blushed when she realized he was suggesting that they were on a date. Xi used some of the money her father had sent for extras on her ticket and some money for gas, since Mark got their pizza for free and she drank only water.
When the school year was over, Mark and his mom and dad drove the four of them down the coast, staying in San Francisco, and then driving down to L.A. At Disneyland, Mark played Whack-a-Mole until he won a large panda bear and handed it to Xi. It was almost as tall as she was.
Xi cried her last two days in the U.S. She insisted on carrying the stuffed bear with her to the airport and onto the plane. But she was flying on September 16th 2001, and they wouldn’t allow anyone with a foreign passport—even a 14-year-old girl—to take a huge stuffed bear onto the plane. Mark’s father suggested they could check it, but he was told that they would have to cut the bear open and empty it out, and they would not be able to sew it back together again. It was decided that Xi would have to leave the bear with Mark and have it shipped to China.
As it slowly became clear to her that she would not be allowed to carry the panda onto the plane, Xi fell onto the floor and began screaming, refusing to let go of the bear, ever, and kicking at anyone who dared to come close. Her frustration had been building for over a week—leaving Mark, the end of her great adventure, how distant she felt from her friends. How would her family respond when her homecoming tears were not tears of joy? Suddenly she realized how alone she was. Everyone—Mark included—wanted her to just get on the plane and get it over with. Mark pleaded with her to calm down and said he would keep the bear and she could come back—maybe at Christmas?—and bring it back with her when things got back to normal in a couple of months. Or he could mail it to her in China if she wanted.
Returning was a new idea, and his parents agreed that she would be welcome, and she allowed herself to board the plane without the bear, believing that soon she would be back to get it.
Xi’s parents could refuse her nothing. They would pay for her plane ticket and the $188 visa application fee.
When Xi showed up for her interviews, the Chinese State Department officials frowned when they looked at her application. We can approve this, they said, but are you willing to take the chance that the Americans will turn down your application? The application fee is non-refundable. But, Xi insisted, I have already been to the U.S. and I came back and there was no problem. I am going back to stay with the same family. Here is their letter saying they invited me back to their house for Christmas. Here is my return ticket. Why would I be rejected?
The Chinese officials shrugged and stamped her exit visa and told her she needed to get her entry visa stamped by the Americans. They apologized for worrying her needlessly, and made sure she knew how to get to the American consulate, what she would need to bring, and their hours. Be prepared to wait, they said, and laughed.
When she got to see the Americans, they frowned too. They asked only three questions: Why was she going back when she had just been there? Was there a boy in this family? Was he of marriageable age? The official turned to her father and in front of his daughter, wife, and mother-in-law accused him of sending his daughter to the U.S. to find a husband and get a green card and bring the entire family over. Then he stamped “Refused Entry” in red ink on the top page of her application and went back to reading a newspaper.
No one in her family ever mentioned the United States again. At Christmas the stuffed bear arrived with a Christmas photo and a note from the whole family. Xi scanned the letter for Mark’s handwriting, and read that part over and over again, and then she threw everything away. When she got a job as a tour guide, the first thing she did was repay her father’s one hundred and eighty eight American dollars.
There is only one traditional street market in all of Hong Kong and it’s in old-town Hong Kong City, now underneath the world’s longest moving sidewalk. It’s the kind of market one finds on Mainland China—vendors selling fresh vegetables, flowers, incense, charms, herbs, meats, medicines, live fish, and strange things I don’t recognize. Xi points to the local newspaper and its front-page story, critical of the Chinese government. We pass at least half a dozen downtown demonstrations that would be illegal 100 miles north.
One group we pass holds up signs with photos of members of the Falun Gong who have been tortured or murdered by the Chinese government. The Falun Gong are a religious group led by Li Hongzhi, who has been prosecuted by the Chinese government for crimes against humanity, fraud, graft, sexual improprieties, and theft. His followers believe the Falun Gong and Li are being harassed and persecuted by the government on religious—not legal—grounds.
But, Xi tells me, Omie, one of her best friends, had a widowed mother—Tung—who received a phone call two years ago after her annual check-up. She had cancer, but it was caught at an early stage and hers was one of the easiest cancers to cure and it couldn’t have occurred in a better place. She would not be using her cervix again and she would not miss the piece they would cut out. Not only was it non-invasive surgery but there would be no visible scar. She wouldn’t even have to stay overnight—the procedure would be done in the office, and she could stay as long as she liked, but would be home by dinner. She wouldn’t feel a thing. She would have to get regular check-ups from now on, but it was unlikely that the cancer would reappear or cause other problems. There would be no long-term side effects, no convalescence, no real danger. The expense was well within her means.
But Tung allowed herself to be convinced by a neighbor to go to a gathering of the Falun Gong that evening. She was taken into a backroom and examined by one of the Falun Gong’s doctors. He took her pulse for a very long time while at the same time looking into her eyes with a tiny flashlight. Then he stood behind her with his fingers on her shoulders, moving his face to her right ear, and then her left, sniffing. Then he waved his hands over her head while walking around her in a circle with his eyes closed. Then he handed her a brown wooden bowl and turned his back. Then he stirred it with chopsticks and bent over and inhaled deeply.
He told her that she did have cancer, but it was only a symptom of a more serious condition of decay that was spreading through her body. He told her that all illness is spiritual in nature, and we can have the flower cut out but if we don’t remove the roots we will find the illness reappearing with a different name or in a different place, each time more deadly than the last. And if we die without curing this sickness, it will not only cause us to lose all joy in this life and leave too soon, but it will also drag us down in our next life as well. Perhaps this illness was not even her own but an ancestor’s. She owed it to her future self to heal the cause of the disease now, for this life and the next. Then he put his arms around her and they prayed together and he asked if she felt better. She did. This is just a taste of the warmth and health and joy he assured her would come if she embraced the teachings and practices of the Falun Gong. Then he left.
The priest held her cold hands in his warm ones and silently looked into her eyes for a long time as if he was reading something written on her retinas. He told her he could help her through this health crisis if she admitted that it was actually a spiritual crisis that could only be healed by turning her life over to God, and God’s emissaries. The priest told her about some of his previous cases—all much more advanced and dangerous than hers. The sickly people in his “before” photographs were almost unrecognizable in the “after” photos he showed her of the same families living healthy and prosperous lives after joining the church.
And she was lucky. Most people came to the Falun Gong as a last resort, when nothing else had worked. She had found her way while she was still healthy, praise God. Still, he would visit her every day and give her private instruction in the movement practices and moral principles of the Falun Gong. Oh, I can’t afford that, she insisted. But it wouldn’t cost anything, he told her. We do accept donations, but we never charge those whom God has guided to our door. But it is true that the more generous she was the more generous would be the result. Those people in the photos—he showed them to her again—gave everything and were given life in abundance in return, and their riches were replaced a thousandfold.
He told her that she should recite a prayer every morning before she got out of bed and every evening before she went to sleep. She should write this prayer herself and she was to address it to the cancer, and she was to thank it for bringing her to the Falun Gong.
She was a little nervous when he insisted that it was important that she make a choice, one or the other. If she chooses the Falun Gong, she must be loyal to her choice and forego all other treatments.
Tung told him she wanted to take instruction in Falun Gong, secretly thinking that she would like to try it for a week or two and see if she felt better. She could always have the surgery later. Even her doctor had told her that.
Tung spent weekday mornings and afternoons with the priest. Each day he would look deep into her eyes and tell her that she looked better than the day before, that he could see the love working inside. Then they would do the Falun Gong exercises—a version of Qi Gong—and later he would instruct her in the war in the universe of those on the path to enlightenment by the spiritually dead. Her cancer was evidence that she was on her way to becoming spiritually dead, but now she had a chance to redeem herself.
Later—when she became too weak to stand—“Your spirit has taken over your body!” he cried out with a hallelujah—he would guide her through the exercises, which she would perform in bed with her eyes closed.
By the time Omie arrived home after school, the priest would be gone and the other argument would begin. There was nothing Omie could do if her mother refused treatment. As long as she was not mentally incompetent she had a right to make her own healthcare decisions.
When Tung was no longer able to get out of bed, Omie had an injunction signed by a judge. At her evaluation, the judge asked Tung what her healthcare plan was and she told him that with the assistance of a priest of the Falun Gong she was becoming so pure that no evil could exist inside of her. The judge declared her lucid and capable of reasoning and thus able to make her own decisions regarding healthcare.
Xi—who was standing at her friend’s side in court—immediately announced she was moving in to help care for Tung. Omie was not keeping up with schoolwork and she wasn’t sleeping or eating and had fainted more than once already, and her mother was only going to get worse.
When even the priest had to acknowledge that Tung was not getting any better, he told her it was because her heart chakra was closed. With a closed heart chakra, the love from the universe and the priest couldn’t get in. This was good news, he told her—now we know what the real problem is and how to treat it. The cancer itself was a side effect of a closed heart.
Since she could no longer leave her bed, she could not do the kind of good deeds that would open her heart, but she could give money to the church and they would perform good deeds in her name. Her illness was the result of hoarding the money God had given to her in trust that she would do good with it as He believed she would. But she had failed Him as Eve had before, and took what didn’t belong to her, thinking she could get away with it, so far gone she didn’t even realize how depraved she had become and still was, deceiving them both for many months now, even when her wasting body was all the evidence he needed of her depravity. If she had been capable of being saved, of becoming God’s servant here on Earth as she claimed she wanted to be, He certainly would have been even more generous in refilling her pockets. But if she refused to give up her riches, even when they were killing her. Her deeper love was for Mammon. What evils are you hoarding even now? But she had given everything she had, she told him. What about the apartment? Who will use the apartment when you are gone? Your daughter will surely live with her husband. If Tung left the house to the Falun Gong, it would house many families fleeing persecution in the north. Good works would continue to accumulate in her name even after her death. And she would miss nothing. The apartment would only become theirs when she no longer needed it.
Once she signed a will giving everything she owned to the Falun Gong after her death, the priest stopped coming. Tung was in constant pain and unable to communicate until her death. Luckily, she died very quickly.
Until Tung’s illness, the subject of the Falun Gong was a popular political discussion between Xi and her friends. Xi would test her arguments for American-style free speech and freedom of religion against her friend’s arguments for the government’s responsibility to protect the people from charlatans and thieves.
But now Xi hates the Falun Gong. The priest didn’t attend Tung’s funeral because he was waiting with a court order at the apartment to meet Omie and Xi on their return. Omie was not allowed to enter the apartment unless in the company of a deputy from the sheriff’s department—which she would have to arrange and pay for—and then only to collect as many personal effects as she could carry in two hands. She could bring no one with her, even to wait outside. She would be limited to her bedroom and any personal effects in the shared bathroom and hall closet. This courtesy will expire in seven days, as per this court order. And Omie could never return.
Written by Randy Roark
Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.