Regular readers will know that Uncle Sam is a very
long-standing friend of mine, and one of the very
first people to befriend me when I first came to China
some eight years ago. We originally met one morning
at the local corner shop outside of the ‘Garden’ I
lived in at the time. A Garden is a secure housing
complex with many high-rise apartment blocks and sometimes
detached houses. They are very common in China and
often have many amenities such as swimming pool, restaurant,
gymnasium – you get the idea I am sure.
On the morning in question I was headed for work
a short walk away as Uncle Sam pulled up to the corner
shop on his scooter to collect one of his kindergarten
staff. I will always remember his impeccable British
accent greeting me, “Good morning, how do you do?”
Needless to state that over the years our friendship
has grown and we have become ‘Brothers’, meaning we
treat each other as if we are family. The Cantonese
for this is ‘sow juk’ meaning ‘[you are my] hand and
foot’. Uncle Sam is in his late 60’s and I seem to
remember slightly more than ten years my senior. He
has lived in Shunde county of Guangdong (Canton) for
twenty years, although his family hail from Hong Kong.
It always makes me smile when on very rare occasions
we have both been referred to as ‘foreigners’ – for
he was born on a small family fishing boat in Hong
Kong. He was successful, working for international
hotel chains and working his way up from dogsbody
to steward for the Hilton Group. With them he spent
four years working in Holland, before returning as
Head Steward to a company hotel in Hong Kong.
Some years later after experiencing the high-life
tragedy struck when his wife died, a business venture
went pear-shaped, and then he suffered a very serious
health complaint. Funny how these woes always come
grouped together – isn't it?
Like me he is a survivor and he adapted to a lifestyle
that suited his body – becoming a Buddhist and vegetarian.
He stopped drinking and smoking, enjoying western
life if you prefer, but settled for something he finds
more fulfilling. Sometimes he tells me I am his naughty
younger brother, for I still indulge fully in the
pleasures of life. Like many Chinese, when he says
he is Buddhist he actually means he is Daoist – let
Buddhism is to follow the path in simple terms. Daoism
is sometimes considered to be more renegade and open
to personal interpretation, especially by the monks
themselves. However, that stated they all hold family
values as central to their beliefs and practically
in their daily lives. Just today Uncle affirmed this
by stating at our luncheon table that his greatest
thoughts in life are guided by looking after his own
family – elders, sisters and brothers, and the younger
generations now coming of age. But it goes further
than this – because it encompasses a spirit of community
and network of friendships that are also central to
his life and his beliefs.
I can applaud these sentiments, especially after
the disgraceful happenings on the streets of London
and England a few weeks ago. Or was that about something
else entirely? For your information, the Chinese see
the recent riots as being totally without honour,
and everyone here was totally shocked by those animals
that robbed the Malaysian student whilst proffering
aid. It has tarnished their opinion of all foreigners
– and that includes you and me!
I do have my own opinions and prefer to keep my own
counsel; as perhaps I alone of very few here have
a deeper understanding of what it was all about –
and I mean the far wider implications, actions, non-actions,
and responses by those who should be leading us by
example. In Daoism this could never happen, although
the response from the local community to rebuild their
streets was quite heartening and in line with Daoist
One final point, I have used the spelling ‘Dao’ because
this is the normal Anglicisation of Cantonese people
as spoken in daily life. Most of you will no doubt
prefer the Mandarin ‘Tao’ – which means exactly the
same thing. However, should you look closer then you
may be right to conclude that all Chinese consider
themselves to be part of the Greater Whole that is
modern China. Perhaps by using the spelling Dao I
am echoing the locals by specifying that the Cantonese
family is closer still, but never outside of the whole
for far longer than 2, 000 years!
Yes my friends, it is sometimes very easy to forget
just how very ancient China and its culture truly
In our daily lives Uncle Sam and I have kept in touch
regularly since our first meeting. You could say that
we are both dreamers – or more kindly say that we
both have ideas to change the future for the betterment
of all. Whilst we have shared many of these dreams
over the years – our marina being one of many examples;
we are not the same. Uncle Sam and I are both outgoing
and sociable types that work well in tandem. This
is because of our differences.
Uncle Sam uses his personability to network, and
he is extremely good at networking in every moment
of his life. He takes our grand ideas and gets others
interested in them, including Chinese Government,
high ranking party members and Chairmen of private
I am similar, but Vilma defined my skills a few weeks
ago when she said I was the ‘facilitator’. By that
she meant that I take all the separate parts and make
them into a new whole. This can require: structured
planning, administration, and vision to see how it
will work out in practice. Thus my skills are practicable
creativity if you prefer – as I guess Denis and his
family would never have stayed at Vilma’s grandmothers
house in Gaogong if it were not for me to act as the
glue to run through everything … but that's more than
enough about little me.
I had not seen Uncle Sam for some time and we had
planned I would go for lunch on Friday. I confirmed
on Thursday evening and had a vague timetable in my
head centred upon catching the fastest stagecoach
in the east around 7 o’clock-ish. I woke at 2.30 that
morning and was in time to welcome my wife home for
the evening. I had few hours sleep and was a bit out
of it. I managed to potter about for half an hour
before deciding I was really tired, so we went to
I woke naturally once more just before 7 and then
lay awake listening to Siu Ying's mobile ringing incessantly.
It was actually stopping me getting out of bed, as
if I did then I would need to deal with it somehow
– for it was very invasive and distracting. However,
Siu Ying reacted first and got up to find it in the
living room, and answer it. Apparently it was one
of her friends inviting us to Chinese morning tea.
I followed her lead and made us both a coffee before
checking my mail and getting my head around today.
By 7.20 I was decided to catch the 7.50 bus and started
to dress ready. Just after the half hour I was ready
to go, but she called me back to say her friend may
be able to drive me. I told her not to bother, kissed
her goodbye and left.
I made it down and to the main road within a minute
and smoked a cigarette in full knowledge I was at
least ten minutes early. Then the minutes began to
drag, as I knew time was passing and the said charabanc
was not. Siu Ying called to say her friend was waiting
to take me to Gaogong, and he was near the supermarket
where we buy the milk = 200 yards up the road. OK,
seems like a plan, as this bus is definitely not coming
in the near future.
Arriving outside the supermarket I stop and find
the driver I know a little, and then my wife also
waiting for me. She is coming out for the day trip
and this suits me just fine! Obviously the coffee
took longer to make an effect on her system, but it
is good between us.
The journey is unremarkable, except that we top up
with petrol, and then a little later drop by a hole-in-the-wall
repair shop to put air in both the front tyres. Just
enough time for a cigarette and then we are on our
way once more. We go by the expressway that later
becomes the main G15 highway and all is good. Nearer
our destination there are miles of new construction
where the existing dual carriageway is being widened
to a 4-lane superhighway with additional hard shoulder.
When Chinese improve roads they do not mess about!
Everything was going extremely well until I got my
mobile out to check the time. 9.08 am and we are incredibly
early. The trip had taken an hour and we have virtually
arrived already. I consider ringing Uncle Sam to let
him know, but decide to wait until we are actually
at the ferry.
I look to my left and can see the two islands, the
first of which we will eat at today, and over passed
the local main road (G325) that also bridges the mighty
West Pearl River at this same point. We amble down
the other side and come near civilisation, when a
rumble from the front of the microbus indicates we
have a flat tyre. The driver has a quick look and
decides to keep going, as repairs here will be expensive!
We begin again as a repair truck pulls up in front
and reverses back to us, but we dodge it.
Our speed is perhaps slightly more than I would have
driven at, but we manage several miles, all the time
I am aware that the other road running along side
us has miles of auto repair shops and tyre fitting
bays. Basically we are on the wrong road. Then as
we come in sight of the main exit, so the noises from
the flat tyre become volcanic eruptions as pieces
of hot wet rubber fly off the now totally destroyed
This time our driver gets out and shakes his head.
The repair truck has followed us down the road and
now offers assistance. There are great arguments about
service and charges, but we are stuck you know, and
so we agree something and the lads get to work after
a docket is signed.
You may not know that this is what I did for a living
for more than ten years after leaving school – first
as a tyre fitter with Goodyear, and later after spells
with a several distributors and years with a truck
tyre remolding company. Then I started my own company
and was the first to offer ‘radio-controlled’ services
in the west midlands region of UK. Believe me, back
then the first radio was made by Pye, was just small
enough to fit under the seat of a transit van, and
was run by ‘valves’! This was at a time when UK was
inventing Telford and Tamworth, and my service was
to repair any tyre on-site within 30 minutes of the
original call; which normally meant the wheel was
not removed, ever.
The reason I was successful was because a busy building
site relies upon several vehicles, the most important
of which is the rough terrain forklift truck or Manitou.
Imagine there are gangs of carpenters, roofers, first
and second fix, all relying upon supplies at regular
intervals. Once the Manitou stops the whole building
site soon grinds to a halt. The national tyre services
all sent somebody out to remove the wheel and take
it back to the depot for repairs, often returning
it after lunch. Hours pass as the machine remains
idle. My 30-minute guarantee to fix the damaged tyre
on-site meant they saved a lot of money and most often
the site never ran out of supplies.
Perhaps I spent 12 years on the sides of British
motorways, mainly repairing truck tyres, and I came
close to death on a couple of occasions. These distant
memories flooded my brain as I watched these two Chinese
lads attend to our present needs. The microbus did
not have a spare at all, so a new tyre was required.
My first concern was when the lad doing the paperwork
asked to use the vehicles own jack, which proved to
be a scissors type thing, and rather lacking in substance.
This was located under the small bonnet, which also
housed the handle, radiator, differential and drive
shafts, and a lot of water pipes. This was not where
the engine was located…
The lad in charge battled bravely on, freeing the
wheel nuts when he needed to and then continuing to
jack the vehicle up. With perhaps 1 inch remaining
until the scissors jack was fully extended, and by
that I mean it was vertical, so plan B was put into
effect. I have the sure presumption that the vehicle
jack would be incapable of actually lifting the wheel
and inflated tyre clear of the ground. Ho-hum!
Then the breakdown driver appeared after inflating
another tyre on a separate rim. He brought with him
a real professional jack which amazed me, for it was
pneumatic = no heavy pumping. I could have done with
one of those all those years ago. Brilliant!
At his first touch of the wheel nuts I knew this
guy knew exactly what he was about, and was the actual
worker of the two. No messing, clean, efficient, and
within two minutes we were ready to leave. That was
impressive! Siu Ying paid for the replacement wheel,
which cost us Y150, or £15 – which is actually not
However, every silver lining has a dark cloud … and
ours was technical, so perhaps I was alone of the
three of us remaining that understood. From a glance
I knew the tyre that came off was a ‘185 R 70 12’
(185 mm tread base, radial, 70% profile, 12 inch diameter
wheel). What went on was a ‘155 R 13’ (155 mm tread
base, radial, normal profile, 13 inch diameter wheel).
The wheel removed was also an alloy wheel, and the
one fitted was old-fashioned metal – but that is actually
However, health and safety issues on Chinese roads
are a bit of a lottery really, as this would be totally
illegal in UK. It may be in China as well, but I doubt
anyone apart from myself would know this. What is
illegal is driving or being a front seat passenger
and not wearing a seatbelt (Y200 fine), making a mobile
call whilst driving (Y200 fine), smoking whilst driving
(Y200 fine), not wearing a crash helmet on a motorbike
– yes you've guessed it Y 200 fine. However, you can
ride pillion sidesaddle, and have up to a witnessed
5 passengers on a 125 cc motorbike, and 6 witnessed
on a scooter, and no problem as long as they are all
wearing a building site issue (copy) hard-hat!
You have to laugh to keep from crying sometimes …
So we are again eating up the miles, as the junction
and exit we were gallantly trying to make for approaches
and turns out to be closed. This is because the intersection
is being upgraded to include a light railway in both
directions either side of the highway. Not content
with this, the main road that bends 90% just here
is becoming an underpass, whilst above is being added
a flyover for those going straight on.
The junction was already a culmination of six roads,
so the improvements are very welcome, except there
is no advance notice this junction is closed. The
next junction is 10 miles up the road – so no … we
would never have made it with our flat tyre. What
is also noteworthy is that there are no diversion
signs when we exit, or advice as to how to get back
to the last junction.
I actually picked up the problem in advance, understanding
just enough of a brief chat between the driver and
my wife – neither of whom bothered to tell me about
it; the one person present that actually understands
the local roads hereabouts. Asi es la vida!
The driver pays the girl at the toll and then asks
for directions to ‘Gaogong’ They both speak Cantonese
and I understand perfectly = ‘Go up this road for
a while, then turn right at the main road’. You are
with me on this, correct?
So we go up the road and at the first minor set of
traffic lights, we do not go straight on – even though
a bus clearly marked as going to Gaogong passes us.
No; instead we make a 180 and start heading back in
the direction from whence we came. I am being totally
ignored of course, even though I know where we are
… or at least where we were. I do know we are heading
towards the local Buddhist Mountain called ‘Xi Qiao’,
and that it is becoming incredibly close.
I had already worked out that soon we would come
to an intersection where we would turn left, thus
going the long way into Gaogong. Our driver still
will not listen to me, and instead stops passers’
by who have no idea what he is talking about. Eventually
he pulls into a petrol station where the cheery girls
tell him – ‘Go straight on and turn left when you
see the sign for Gaogong’. Apparently instead of getting
an award for directing them myself, this is ignored
in favour of thanking the girls at the petrol station.
I found that quite rude you know!
Thus our 5-mile detour becomes 20 as we head the
wrong way into a place I know very well. I have a
feeling I know where we will come out, and blow me
down with a feather – but I am spot on once more.
Shame the other two here aren't listening to me, nor
my local advice – but it brings fun and is not a problem
at all : -)
I tell the driver to turn right at the traffic lights
in my practiced Cantonese, something he does whilst
not acknowledging me, and so we eventually get to
the ferry – which of course is on the other shore.
I take out my mobile in order to call Uncle Sam and
notice the time is now 10.50 – so we lost an hour
and a half due to the puncture and closed exit. I
call him and he says we are early, and I cannot disagree.
Later I will realise I should have learnt a lesson
from this, but I did not…
Not many on the ferry this crossing remembers me,
but the journey is short and soon we arrive at my
old home. Uncle has improved it substantially in many
little ways, and one big one – for now there is a
WC on the first (Second) floor. Otherwise the home
looks slightly less lived in inside, and more lived
in outside – I guess this is Chinese Face.
Uncle greets me in regal style and soon proffers
a beer he has chilled especially for me. We take time
to chat and catch-up, whilst others mill around and
explore the house and surroundings. This is the first
time proper that I have returned to a home I used
to inhabit where somebody else is now living. The
experience is ‘OK’, for the small changes have not
affected the essence of this place, somewhere I found
to be very relaxing.
Later I learn that the room that used to be my office
is now Uncle Sam's bedroom = our safe haven from the
world outside and the same thing essentially for both
of us. The one room we both feel most comfortable
and private in. Small world it seems, but what is
such between ‘brothers’.
Today we will dine at Au San’s restaurant, and Uncle
has procured ‘Wu Tao’ or Chinese potatoe, which is
just slightly out of season as yet. The bulbs are
eight inches long and six inches wide, but are not
blackened which is unusual aging. Au San’s restaurant
is very familiar to me, but also undergoing changes,
for they are extending the main dining area with a
false floor stretching out over the river bank and
much metal construction.
This is an excellent development and sure to enhance
the facilities greatly. However, you will perhaps
remember that the restaurant is their secondary business
- after selling fish and seafood in bulk. Uncle has
invited two groups to join us, and they each arrive
within time. It seems he met them completely separately,
and they just happen to be neighbours! He turns to
me and says, “Small world”; and I cannot disagree.
Eventually we split into three large tables with
perhaps ten people at each: Kids with mothers, mothers,
and our table full of boys. There are eleven people
in all at our table once it finalises: and all bar
Mr Laam speak Cantonese. 4 also speak Toisanwah, and
most understand the majority of Mandarin except myself.
Two of us speak English, with my wife adding a third
through her understanding of the language, if not
her spoken words of reply.
Later I task Mr Laam, because I discover he has lived
locally for 6 years and still cannot speak the local
language. He tells me that he can understand a lot
of it, but speaking a reply in time is beyond him.
I concur, as this is very much like my personal situation.
However, I do try to speak Cantonese which he never
does = Mandarin rules I guess.
Modern Han Chinese seem to accept this presumption,
except for us all the way down here in Guangdong.
Nationally I guess we are considered to be ‘the unmentionables’,
because Mandarin always passes us by. Whilst he may
have been surprised to discover just how little Mandarin
local people understand, he certainly caught my attention
when he stated that they all speak Mandarin + their
local language in his home town. I made the mistake
of asking where this was in Cantonese, and understood
the Mandarin reply, ‘Fujian’. My real mistake was
to ask which town, the reply being – and I kid you
not “Fuk Cu”.
Well I creased because he cannot be serious – except
he was! Now I am certain Uncle understood, but he
was totally dismissive of my bubbling humerity, and
so much so I had to wrestle my mirth and hold all
within. Trust me, if you ever wanted to bollox your
cv, then move to Fujian Province and I guarantee you
a winning address!
I'm not sure I ever recovered from that moment, “Fuk
Cu” becoming explained as being a city opposite to
Toiwan (Taiwan / Formosa) across the straights of
contention. However our meal did progress and true
to his word Uncle set the wheels in motion for our
‘party’. This seemed to consist of his sister (Anne)
and my wife preparing an awful lot of vegetables for
the patrons, whilst I was left as the only one to
drink beers. I tried very hard to do my duty!
Meanwhile the guys are still making the extended
patio using arc and acetylene torches with no eye
protection whatsoever. I got my retinas scored once
from a glance the wrong way – but when the restaurant
filled to overflowing they stopped and set aside to
drink beer. China can be like this, but then Brit's
– I guess you do not know that German factory workers
are allowed two free cans of beer per shift. This
is true today, never doubt me - the dispensers on
the shop floor are chilled!
The meal was at best mediocre, when I have sampled
excellent food here before. The Wu Tao were too young,
had no internal blemishes, and were served undercooked
and basically ‘rare’ These need to be well done, and
also the strips of suckling pig and gravy, as they
come together to create a new culinary delight. Oh-no!
I had three rather under-cooked ingredients that were
several miles away from coming together. Ho-hum!
The rest of the meal was more or less the same, to
the point where until the cockles arrived my wife
and the driver had eaten very little, and I was trying
to persevere with the under-ripe Wu Tao to waning
enthusiasm. Later Siu Ying told me the Wu Tao were
too young for cooking, although I remain convinced
they could have been ok if they had been cooked for
another ten minutes – or three times longer!
This day other guests were enjoying chicken and two
ordered massive fish, so big I had to take a photograph.
They must have been at least 2 foot long and were
de-scaled using a wire brush – whilst still alive.
They were not the usual carp either, so I was interested
to know what they tasted like, but instead we got
some form of well-fried sardines that were ok, but
that was it.
In due course the meal came to an end and we made
to leave for the ferry. We dropped several people
of at the house and used the toilet in knowledge of
the long journey ahead of us. The ferry was in and
loading, so our trip to shore was quick. This time
several remembered me, including the skipper and his
right hand man. We had a short chat and later Number
2 spoke with my wife, enquiring as to how we were
doing and wanting to hear about Rhiannon. You may
remember this crew took us to shore after midnight
when Siu Ying's contractions started coming way too
often. Little things like that mean a lot you know.
Both Siu Ying and I guide our driver out of this
town he has never visited before, both of us repeating
several times to go down the road until we hit the
main road. He keeps trying to turn off, but we stop
him each time. Finally we get on the G325 and I say
‘Keep going straight on until we get to Toisan’. You
would presume this was a simple instruction, yes?
It turned out not to be, because after crossing the
river the driver then takes us by surprise and veers
off the main road and starts looking for a signpost.
I know that before the junction here was upgraded
and new roads built, the G15 was accessed by going
under the road we were on, so I presume this is what
he is looking for. It soon becomes obvious the new
interchange has been completely remodelled and the
old entrance and exit have been removed. My wife and
I quickly become concerned and we both tell him to
get back on the road we were on.
The driver is having none of this and soon picks
up on a road sign for Gongmuen (Jiang Men city), and
determines to use this road despite a heavy argument
with my wife!
So let me put this into perspective, let’s say you
are going from Birmingham to Bristol in UK – then
you would go on the M5 right? Our route is such that
we will tag the M1 and drive the long way around the
M25 before picking up the M4. It really is that large
a detour. However our driver is very happy with his
decision, whilst my wife and I settle down to endure
a needlessly long and boring trip.
Within an hour we are in Gongmuen, but taking main
roads I have never seen before. I know the centre
and west of the city quite well, and our destination
lies west of the city. Our route takes us right around
the north, east and then south of the city; and not
once do I recognise any road or building along our
route. All in all we are driving around the city for
over an hour before we finally pick up signs for Hoipeng
(Kai Ping), and later Toisan. I think to settle as
the Toisan signs become more frequent, until at an
interchange where the main traffic flow to Toisan
is left, our driver goes to the middle option and
takes a B road. I look at Siu Ying and she simply
yawns and cuddles up to me on the seat, draping her
legs around mine as she goes to sleep.
Eventually we come to signs for the G15, but hop
on the connecting road we used before, which is the
S29 I think? One junction later and we exit to a town
that was the mid-point of our journey on the way out.
I look at the clock and find two and a half hours
have passed due to our diversion, when before we covered
the intervening distance directly in a mere thirty
Now you may think that taking five times longer to
make the trip would be greeted with scorn and derision,
but this is not the way China works. Instead the driver
is praised because he managed to battle through ceaseless
obstacles and managed by his determination to bring
us all safely home.
Later I asked Siu Ying why he went the way he did
and she told me he was lost and did not know the way.
I queried this by stating that we did, and had told
him to carry straight on. Apparently this information
is not helpful and instantly dismissed. The driver
was in charge of driving and navigation, and that
is an end to it.
Less that thirty minutes later we are back home in
Toisan, the driver this time taking a less used route
that I know to be a lot quicker, and delivering us
to the local wet market. Here I leave and with a large
beer in mind, stop first to buy a large bottle of
orange juice which is nicely chilled. My Cantonese
is up to the task and we laugh and joke about my simple,
yet effective use of the local language.
Minutes later I am home and take a moment to reflect,
for now when I speak Cantonese I simply take a rough
idea in my head and speak without any conscious thought.
The words come out just the same way that they would
do in English, and with the same degree of lack of
consideration. I also consider that in future I will
never presume that our driver actually knows where
he is going. However, it does appear that all roads
(Eventually) lead to Toisan!