73, The Island,
Island life is a slow paced life. It is for the islanders, a series of daily routines built around the hours of daylight. That is, all the hours of daylight! Their routines are supplemented by seasonal routines such as planting and harvesting; fishing and the height if the river; fruits ripening on the bough; and school timetables. There are also special events and days of celebration, when the whole community or extended families come together for perhaps a Wedding or special entertainment. I will detail these during this missive, and also let you glimpse the world I have chosen to live in through my own daily life – which can be quite different from that of the majority of inhabitants.
This can be read as a stand-alone ‘Letter from
The house is a three storey detached with tiled courtyard to the front, large lockable gates and room for a couple of cars to park easily. There is a side walkway leading to the back garden, which is largely overgrown. Both front and back have a couple of large, well established trees. The one nearest the house out front looks like it is bearing some form of ripening Chinese Grapefruit.
The front door leads straight into the downstairs living room, which is about 24 feet long by 14 feet wide. In the far right corner stands a traditional family altar – an ornately carved and embellished box of special wood. It stands about 8 feet high by 2 feet square and has an open front with cupboard beneath. This is a Buddhist thing, but it is not used to worship any gods. Instead it is more like a family shrine to the ancestors. On special days 3 joss sticks are lit at every one of these, with rice wine and foods placed out for any hungry departed family members to enjoy. If they don’t eat it, then the living family will consume the left-over’s later (Always served as-is = cold). The room also has a long TV type sideboard with the only drawers in the house. The room is completed by a traditional 3-seater settee and armchairs, a dining table and 6 chairs, a couple of low tables, and various assorted stools. Apart from a traditional Chinese bed, this is the only furniture we have provided, and with the addition of our own padded sofa, the room is essentially complete.
middle of the internal wall is a doorway. I say doorway, because there are only
2 doors in the entire house, these being the downstairs and first floor
bedrooms. Opposite this doorway are the stairs leading up, a cubby hole
beneath, and the downstairs bedroom to the left = to the front of the house.
Turning right is the dining area, and behind is a passageway about 5 feet wide.
This immediately houses the kitchen, whilst turning right again (Behind the
living room) is a washroom, and later the shower and toilet. There is no rear
door. Except for the toilet, all water outlets are via a hole in the wall set
at floor level. This is very traditional for rural Chinese properties in
Climbing the steep and narrow staircase brings us to the first floor (USA English = second floor). There is a small landing atop the staircase, with more stairs from it leading up. Right is another bedroom with lockable door. It is empty, but features two large windows that look south and west. South (Front) also supports a balcony with flowers and shrubs growing in profusion. West overlooks an abandoned property that is home to many large banana trees bearing ripening fruits. This room later becomes my office, and is a very peaceful and relaxing room. Returning to the landing and opposite the head of the stairs is another large room – the same size as the living room below it. It has large windows set in the east wall, while a door opens onto a large balcony over looking the front courtyard and extending the width if the property.
Climbing the stairs again brings us to the second floor. Right is another bedroom, although smaller then the one below (The balcony out front is bigger). Overhead is an open floor space ideal for long-term storage. Opposite is a door leading out to the flat roof and very large patio area. The patio extends to 3-sides of the property, and there is always a cooling gentle breeze blowing with views over the surrounding landscape. Nearly all the nearby houses are only 2-storey, so our view is uninterrupted and we can even see the river from here.
All this for Y500 per month, or about 47 quid! I have leased this place for 5-years, and already been quoted Y4, 000 by our Landlady to add another first floor bedroom plus shower/toilet. I am in no hurry to do this, but just wanted the principle to be accepted.
So what can I now add? Well, let’s start with the windows and window frames of downstairs and the staircase, which are molded in concrete from casts! Most windows are screwed into the frame, but a few are nailed. It appears to work, but would perhaps be a tad odd in other regions of the world. Most of them don’t quite fit properly, but do close if the correct technique is employed. Incidentally, a lot of the older boats scattered around the island are also made from concrete = don’t knock it until you try it!
One of the first disruptions to daily life has been ‘Ant Attack’.
Chinese ants that invade your kitchen are black, and smaller than their
By returning to live at ground level, I was expecting to be plagued by cockroaches – I hate the things and operate a ‘Zero tolerance’ policy. Surprisingly, I have seen very few, and apart from a couple of nymphs, all have been found upside down and already dead. This leads me to ponder a more pernicious topic … what eats cockroaches?
Our other household guests include some rather nasty looking
yellow and black wasps, which enter through the upstairs windows. These are nothing
like the normal
Similar hornets occupy areas of a farm in Kai Ping where we are due to plant tomatoes very soon. However, these things are twice the size of our household variety and definitely to be avoided. It seems one or two of their stings will not kill an adult human, but they have a persuasion to prefer to attack en mass = people die! The local farmers catch them and put them in jars full of honey in order to make ‘Chinese Medicine’; although I am convinced it is some form of Hornet Poitin (Poteen)!
Apart from the odd dog, chicken or duck wandering in, our new home is fairly free from unwelcome guests, with the sole exception of mosquitos. These are proving to be trickier to deal with than their city counterparts, and so our nightly ‘Game of Death’ commences as the sun sets. My favourite weapon is the rechargeable, electronic mossie bat; whereas Siu Ying prefers the ‘flat-hand-squash’ method. Both are equally effective. Our plan is to fix mosquito nets to the door and all windows, but this will take time and inclination to complete. In the meantime we have become aware of small movements and react quickly. It seems they prefer white meat, something Siu Ying is keen to exploit by killing them when they land on me. I think she cheats sometimes and just likes hitting me? To be honest, they are not a problem, just an inconvenience, and there are only a few most evenings. Our 4-poster bed is now draped in a mosquito net, so we sleep soundly and unmolested – or should that be ‘unmosquitolested’?
Let’s leave the bugs and wildlife behind now, whilst I relate some more minute about our life (Apologies for the lack of accent on the preceding word characters, but this pc only speaks Chinese, and I can’t find where Microsoft have hidden the charset on Chinese Vista/Office).
From ‘Island Ahoy!’ You will know that our refrigerator was unhappy with the move, and had taken to only operating at the extremes = it got everything frozen and then waited until everything was at room temperature before switching on again. Not useful. It did get better for a while, but after 10-days we got really fed-up with it. We were out for a meal on the island when Siu Ying made some calls, and then decided to rush home. Interesting? I departed also, but stopped for a couple (of beers) at the main island shop on the way home.
Returning home I was informed that the ‘Island Refrigeration Expert’ had been round and identified the problem = no gas. This made sense to me, and was part of the correct diagnosis. It seemed he would be back next evening with a ‘truck’, and take it home for repairs. Ok.
The very next evening, around 7pm he rocks-up with a youth who has a commercial tricycle – one with a cargo space. They load the fridge onto the trike and depart with the fridge in a horizontal position. Hmmm, maybe ok if going for repairs?
Same time next eve, and the Island Refrigeration Expert + a
different lad and ‘
Well, it fires up and gets to work immediately, and within 30 minutes I have cold beer. Result! It’s been a ‘boster’ ever since and well worth the 10 quid it cost me to get it working properly
From previous you may also know that my computers have been plagued by Gremlins over the last 8-months. My Sister says these are real, live, ethereal beings! I am pretty sure they have not followed us to this island home, or if they did, they have found it not to their liking and departed hastily.
Anyways; I had taken the main computer downstairs ready to
head-off to Gaogong (Jiu Jiang, the main town close to the island), as soon as
I located a suitable repair shop. Our Landlady (Mok Tai) and her husband (Mok
San) dropped by to kill some time one recent evening, and to take us to see the
island Cantonese Opera (That’s another story for later). During chatting, Mok
San notices the pc, and this is apparently what he does for a living. Language
concerning the internals of computers can be a problem for the uninitiated in
I think this may mean ‘tomorrow’, as he hasn’t returned with it yet. When he does I will update this paragraph (Or section?) accordingly.
Note: This will become (and already is) an ongoing saga. More next time in ‘Island Life 2 - Carry on up the Restaurant’.
Native Chinese curtain track fixtures are intolerable things. These are the things that support the pole that carries the sliders, which affix to the attachments that have to be removed before you wash the curtains. The curtains were washed. There were a pile of fixtures and poles, and my lovely office does get a tad hot during the afternoon, so curtains to stop the sun are essential for a cool lifestyle. The wall fittings are made from a thin Chinese pig-iron which is chrome plated on the good ones or aluminium plated on the cheap ones. Ours are painted with silver paint. What happens during production, is that the base is extruded from a tube to form the wall anchor. This means the metal surrounding the screw fixture points is especially thin. It breaks incredibly easily on the chrome plated ones, and other versions more so. I was happily fixing these, when Chinese guests arrived, and one later insisted on helping me. Durrr! I knew what would happen, so started unraveling some thin rope to use instead.
Ours appears to be one of the few island households that does not have cable TV already installed. I have no problem with this, and can watch what I want on the internet, or go without. No problem. Like all households on the island, ours does have a cable TV box on the back wall, one that was never connected. Therefore we can’t just buy a box to get it working, but we also have to have the cabling installed to the correct room – and it has taken us a few weeks to work out which room this should be.
Meanwhile, having missed episodes one and four of 24 Day 7, I decided to use ‘catch-up’ TV, only to find Pearl now only supply this service to their Hong Kong viewers. Well up-yours also! Found this on first YouKu.com, and then later on Ku6.com. Lost 2-days watching the entire thing all the way through – that is from the primer called Redemption, to Hour 24. 26 hours in all, and what a blast! They even played sequentially with no ads!!!
The link is prominent on my website:
Meanwhile, Siu Ying had been watching TV at ‘Auntie’s’ house. After suffering me watching Beyond one evening (Very famous HK rock band), I decided to play a movie off Ku6. It was an Andy Lau: Police/Kung Fu thingymagig. She got into this, and later asked me for more films. Her next choice was another Andy Lau, but this time with less Kung Fu and more ‘Romance’. Must be a ‘girl’ thing?
Needless to say, I now get booted off the computer every evening so she can watch films. She has now discovered Chinese TV serials – which go on forever, and I mean 50 x 1-hour episodes for Christ’s sake! However, being a man experienced to the wiles of women, I have learnt to treat this as a bonus – because if she is happy now, then I know I will be later! Last night I experimented, and too my surprise, found that our wireless internet also works downstairs. She was extremely happy with me, and I got a very big ‘bonus’!
But that is our private life, and none of your business. Got you guessing though hahaha!
Our downstairs loo (Toilet, WC) is a modern sit-on style, and was installed at our landlord’s expense prior to us moving in. They also installed a pedestal washbasin. Cracking!
Well, the western style toilet still sits upon the ‘footprints’ of the ‘Chinese Trap’ beneath, and there is a vent hole at the back large enough to vent any large gaseous build-up, or allow small and medium sized snakes and other wildlife egress. This does have dedicated plumbing to the septic tank, and after 6-weeks of occupation, nothing uninvited has appeared … yet!
The toilet does have dedicated plumbing, unlike everything
else = wash basin, washing machine, and the kitchen sink; which effluent all go
through a small gap in the wall at floor level. It appears to be ok, and works.
Water goes out and nothing comes in, I think? However, the pipe from the washer
to the outside had a crack, which is now a separation – so basically, every
time the washer empties the water comes into the room instead of taking the
dedicated outside channel. We passed a plumbing store yesterday on
It does not rain very often here, in fact only twice so far in 6-weeks. However, when it does rains it pours down. For some time I have been wondering how the skylight in our wash room would cope, especially considering the 2-foot square glass panel has a very large crack in it which at points is large enough to put a pencil through. You understand my concerns? In actual fact, it is a sort of free shower during typhoons, as water spills in from the entire flat roof area adjacent as well. This is excellent if you are in the mood for a cold shower, but not so good if you are desperate to go to the toilet in the room beyond, which only has this single entrance. Fortunately Odd-Job called by the next day, and I pointed at the wet floor, then at the skylight. He replied by way of mimicking a sealant gun. I am sure he will remember to do it … sometime?
There is also a smaller skylight in the shower/toilet room, and this is quite a fascinating construction. Measuring about 9 inches square, this has a piece of glass complete with crack covering two thirds of the opening. The other third has a floor tile on it. These three pieces are held in place by sealant, and features an additional house brick on top, which is also sealed in place. Interesting design! It does appear to be storm and typhoon proof, but gives a very occasional drip if the are a few days of continuous rain. It is positioned right above the toilet, and drips tend to land infrequently on the back of anyone sitting there contemplating their universe; and especially when you least expect it. I will get Odd-Job to have a go at this also when he has time.
Odd-Job is actually very busy these days, as he has just
bought a new home complete with several fish ponds. Let me explain; these are
commercial fish ponds for fish farming, and probably 100 yards square. There
are 4 of these ponds, and in between is a small track and associated building –
probably the size of a
Meanwhile I had invested in a water-tight bog-roll holder, only to find it was too small to take even the smallest Chinese toilet roll. I fitted it and installed half a toilet roll using their supplied ‘sticky-back-plastic’. Next day I found it lying on the floor. Hmmm? I know this won’t work, as this is also the hand-held shower room. I file it in a box labeled ‘For future considerations’.
From the same source I also bought a bathroom mirror and accessory thingymagig. It also has ‘sticky-back-plastic’ fixing options; and I wonder…
So yesterday I bought a tile drill and a masonry drill. I promise you I will get around to charging my western drill tomorrow, so I can fit this mirror using screws.
This is a total nightmare, and the whole supply for the entire house is maybe enough to run a 60 watt light bulb, boil a kettle, and charge a mosquito bat. Needless to say, where there is one single outlet I need a dozen. Zhou San quoted us for this = 4000 RMB for me, or 540 for my wife. A bit of a difference perhaps, but he does live next door; and things do get lost in translation. My concern was that he had never mentioned changing the circuit board, never mind replacing the main feed wires to the building – which in the west could probably run “a 60 watt light bulb, boil a kettle, and charge a mosquito bat”, plus possibly: a ‘Perky Coffalator’. Certainly not on the same planet as a multi-computational office – let alone my TV, DVD, CD, and other requirements. ‘QiXin!’ (Cantonese for ‘Crazy’)
Then last week Uncle brought round a boy who was a trusted electrician he had used for years. I do believe that my money should go to island people first, but I know myself first-hand that Mr. Zhou did not give me the answer I required. Uncle knew this also. This guy raised his eyebrows when I said I needed 12 socket outlets in ‘this room’, and again when I said I needed 20 in ‘that room’.
Congratulations! He immediately went outside and looked at the existing power supply. You do not need to understand a language when a tradesman looks at something and shakes his head. I already know this for Christ’s sake. Then he tracks back the main household feed to: a yellow wire, a green wire, and a white wire. Result: This has to be replaced at source, and I immediately have trust in this guy.
He will start (And probably complete) the whole house rewiring tomorrow = Excellent! Less than Y1, 000 to install everything to international standards. But I now ‘very worry’ about the thick white wire, as it is not the earth as I had so stupidly supposed. There are only 2 other wires (1 green and 1 yellow)…
I will explain this in more detail later, as it is another unrelated topic. Suffice to relate that we are becoming used to running extension cables all over the house, inter-linked with the only two downstairs wall sockets that can carry a power load. From ‘Island Ahoy’ you may recall that one of the most useful wall sockets is useless – this being the one feeding all the kitchen appliances + washing machine, electric micro-oven, and Perky Coffalator.
Island homes have their own peculiarities, and are very fine, and are very large. I have visited several. Apart from my own, they sort-of go like this:
1. A big communial room downstairs, just inside the front door. Behind will be a screen where ‘The Parents’ sleep.
2. Stairs will be adjacent, and often in the corner of the parents room.
3. Downstairs normally completes with other bedrooms or community rooms of a very generous size.
4. The first floor (Second floor for Chinese and Americans) will feature one or several bedrooms, and possibly a rainwater fed WC. There will also be one or several balconies large enough for a table or two of reprobates; and a flat roof above with no ladder, which you will also want to explore.
5. Some have an extra floor, so please interpolate; as the basic design is exactly the same
What I have noticed is that these homes are shielded from the sun by large, old trees. The gardens grow vegetables, whilst outside the main door is usually concrete, or occasionally tiled like our own.
So what is interesting?
Let’s begin with the courtyard, which will normally be large enough to park half a dozen cars, excepting the gateway is only large enough for a 3-wheeler trike. There will be large patio areas, and seating in the form of low walls or granite blocks beneath the trees. There will also be a few out building, one of which will always be the kitchen. This will have a 3-burner, wood fired, ‘Chinese Aga’. There is normally a wash room next door for washing plates etc. This can sometime be an open wash stand. Regardless of which method is employed, the drainage of waste water will be through a missing brick set at ground level, into next door’s garden. Many island homes also have an outside storage hut, and these are all brick-built by the way (btw). This is normally used to keep burnables for firing the ‘Chinese Aga’. In about 30% of the homes, the toilet and shower are also situated in separate buildings in the courtyard = handy for guest I suppose?
Other points of note are that there is typically a bedroom at the top of every staircase, and this will be open plan. In fact, just like our own gaff, there are seldom any doors fitted to rooms. Staircases will be very narrow and steep, meaning if I walk down a stair normally, then my size 10’s (44) have nothing for support under the balls of my feet.
Virtually all homes, including run-down-shacks in the middle
of nowhere, will have TV and cable. All houses have a cable box fitted as standard
outside, whether actually connected or not. A few have satellite, but as in the
rest of this part of
To finish this section I will now update you that we have cable TV installed and working tremendously well. Picture quality is governed by our TV set, and not the connection – which is a mild wonder in itself.
Let us return to yesterday, when I was editing this missive. I hear a shout from outside, and a guy with mate seeming intent upon attracting my attention. I let them in, and it appears he is the islands ‘Capable Cable Connection Consultant’. Given my wife left our home only one hour ago, met this guy ashore, and he is now here to install, I reckon that is excellent service. Shame no one bothered to tell me about it = ‘Asi es la vida’.
So like with the telephones and modem, I take the cable box and put it by the TV and point at it. Mr Capable Cable Connection Consultant immediately understands – well it isn’t rocket science is it? Rocket science (Which the Chinese invented) is basically extremely simple also btw, just in case you ever pondered, but I digress…
The Capable Cable Connection Consultant already knows where my cable box is – located on our back wall. He has a cable reel, and with the assistance of ‘Gullible Gordon’, proceeds to make box connections, and then tack it to any available piece of wall that is suitable. My suspicion was that he would follow the route set by the Chirpy China Telecom Guy = come through the window housing, but he does not to my surprise. Instead he carries laying cable along the wall, and on our front wall, then drops down from ahigh to the mains electricity inlet. So far so good. Then he takes some pliers and before I can stop him cutting the big white wire (Which I had presumed was the building’s Earth), he has chopped it. It was the old TV feed. I am immensely relieved he is ok. And then I wonder…
… You see (Mentioned above), that I am now looking at two, and only two other wires which are the electricity supply, return, and earth for the house. I decide this is interesting, rather than worry about if our home does or does not actually have any Earthing point. I go inside for a cigarette whilst I ponder the imponderables of Chinese electricity supply services, and he attaches to the old cable. No Earth. Hmmm?
Gullible Gordon appears and takes the cable box out of its packaging. He is not very good at it, and gets very confused by the flaps on the lid that all similar boxes come with. I think to assist, but decide I need some humour instead, so watch the show as it takes my mind off the ‘Earthing’ problem. Eventually he extracts the cable box, and things progress just in time for the arrival in my lounge of the Capable Cable Connection Consultant. Then its switch-on … and everything works first time!
So we now have 200 or so TV channels, including 3 in English (At least), and many in Cantonese, which is also very OK. I think I will be in for a very, very big bonus from my wife later when she returns from ‘shopping’.
It is now three days later, and my wife is still watching TV. I am not sure she is even aware there are two people living in the house? No bonus for me then … and there is a drought instead! Ho-hum!
British readers will read between the lines here, and know she is actually extremely happy; as I am also. Mind you, I did manage to catch the F1 Abu Dhabi Gran Prix (Live), during one of her naps. She awoke, brought me a fresh beer, and then she proceeded to cook me: Ham, 3 eggs and chips, accompanied by real bread and butter. Bostin’!
But enough of my small life and associated trivia. Let’s move on and discover ‘The Island’ and its’ people…
Again, I will copy this introduction from ‘Island Ahoy’, and inset text for those who have already read this earlier.
The island is over 1-mile wide by about 5-miles long. It is surrounded by a dyke to prevent seasonal flooding; something nearby islands suffer from every few years. The last time this island flooded was back in 1962, or 47 years ago. The commercial centre of the island lies 5-minutes walk away, although there are also shops to either end of our small lane, with the far end adjoining the island school. The centre consists of a couple of corner shops, government building, police station (Which is always closed), a medical centre (Which is always open), and a restaurant that’s more akin to a large and rambling island canteen. There is also an internet café somewhere nearby, and early morning market (6am!). There is a smaller evening market here also (6pm), with mainly hawker type stands and some small produce (Fruit and veg, but no meats)
I have already worked out that my wife (Siu Ying) has a serious problem with ‘maps’. Or rather, they are lines on a page to her, and do not relate to real life in any shape or form. OK. I can deal with this, as maps are generally ‘A Boy Thing’. So one night we go for a meal – it was actually our first wedding anniversary, but we were both so tired that the floating boat restaurant was fine. Unfortunately: the next 6 meals we had were also on this same restaurant, and jolly fine though that restaurant is, it was every meal for 4-days!.
So our wedding celebration was small-key, but suited us enormously. On the way home I commented about the surroundings, mentioning we were looking at ‘Hok San’ (He Shan in Mandarin) – or simply put, the opposite bank of this massive river. She was convinced it was Gao Gong (Jiu Jiang) we were looking at; but I discarded this idea because we had been drinking a little.
A few days later we were at the island centre, and walking back to the ferry, for our destination was Gaogong, she starts berating me for not going to catch the ferry on the Hok San side. Well, there is no ferry, just a collection of small fishing boats, so I (Stupidly) ignore this. But she keeps yattering at me about how stupid I am, and why I don’t go and catch the nearby boat, instead of us walking 1-mile across the island to the other ferry.
I eventually conclude, that she thinks this is actually the same coastline, and not the opposite side of the island. Please don’t laugh, as I love this crazy girl very much. However, it does quintessentially highlight peoples’ perceptions, and how these relate to everyday life.
This sort of goes on for several weeks, before one eve we walk to the centre together and she says: “Gordo Hoksan”, then turning 180 degrees points and says: “Gordo Gaogong”. Fantastic! Correct! She has now worked out that we live on an island, and one way is south, and the other north. I love her for this, as it is a fascinating. ‘Gordo’ means ‘There’ in Cantonese btw.
I have been more concerned about Siu Ying making friends and finding things to do. But she married a foreigner and is street-wise and outgoing, so my concerns were diluted. It took her less than 4-hours to make good friends with Donna, the clipsy-dipsy bicycle repair woman. Her days start at 5am, and she repairs punctures on bicycles, tricycles, and even motorized conveyances such as scooters and motorbikes. She also repairs the engines of scooters and motorcycles. In between times, she rears ducks and chickens, and is always followed by a very faithful dog called ‘Chaoi’, although you would call him ‘Scragamuffin’.
Siu Ying is a very smart girl, and she soon cottoned-on to the fact that she could get (Buy?) vegetables from Auntie next door. She could also buy other vegetables from the other Auntie, almost next door, and yet another ‘Auntie’ down the lane. Then there are times ‘Uncle’ can help. Basically any older person on this island is called either Auntie or Uncle! I guess this could actually be correct, as apart from Zhou San and Mok Tai, everyone else on this island either has the family name: Au (Ou) or Li. = probably 50% vs 40 % of the entire islands inhabitants.
Siu Ying also went out one night to play what you relate to as ‘Mah Jongg’. She learnt a lot that night, and I will leave this one here for now, as it has not repeated. Nevertheless, she also made new friends and acquired a local reputation, and she is now very well known. Sure, we are a crazy couple!
One day Donna rocks-up at my door, in company with Chaoi and another girl I will name Mellissa. Perhaps Meddling Mel is more correct, as she later sampled in quantity, many of the foreign spirits I have in a cupboard. She was extremely ‘Mellow’ when she finally left many hours later.
However, Siu Ying was out gallivanting when she first rocked-up, and Donna sort of ‘dumped her with me’. So we chatted in Cantonese, and because she was excited a foreigner could actually understand Cantonese, she became more animated and spoke faster as time progressed + also using more complicated words.
My level of Cantonese is probably that of any 3/4-year-old, but the words I know are adult words = hence the confusion. So as she drinks my spirits of straight Gin and Smirnoff (And ‘Boy!’ can she put it away!), she gets excited, and I get bored. Fortunately Siu Ying rocks-up quite soon; so I leave the girls to giggle and gaggle – or whatever it is females who don’t know each other at all, do with such great enthusiasm together? I escape to the real world of my computer, headphones on, beer to hand; and am gone ‘Out of here’!
Sometimes ‘girls’ can be “very crazy”, you know?
Me making friends.
Island life begins an hour before dawn, and being a ‘Night-Person’ ‘The AM’ is something I frequent most days – if from the other end of the clock. My prerogative.
At 6.30 the local
Remember, this market officially opens at 6.30am. But then again, this market officially closes at 7.30 am. Nope!
Traders will still be there at 8 or 9 am, and last to leave
will be the ‘Many Meats Marketing Mama’. She sells every meat, and also
vegetables. Dis-co-ordinately, she also sells the very best tomatoes I have
ever bought in the whole of
During one of my excursions I noticed an infrequent visitor who sells plastic chairs, tables and stools. I was intrigued, as we had a spare plank about a foot wide and 6 feet long left over from renovating our Chinese 4-poster bed. I had a look at the stools, and they appeared fine and quite sturdy. The price was Y12, or just over a quid. These sell in the local supermarket for Y36, so this was a bargain. I bought four and took them home, put three along the dinning room wall, and put the spare plank on top. Result: an instant low-level work surface. Very cool, and a snip at Y48. However, this market is not usually my personal reason for being there at that time of day (Or is it still night?)
Sik Juk (Congee)
I prefer to go and sample the local cooking delights instead most mornings. Well, it’s my prerogative, and I enjoy it.
The first guy arrives at 4am, and samples some rice porridge washed down with a glass or two of rice wine, and then buys his take-away meal (For lunch I guess?), and he is gone by 5am – unless he gets into a rice-wine drinking session with some other island reprobates…
This is not quite my thing, but I echo real islanders’ lives here. For me, 4am is a tad ‘smart’, so I usually aim for the 7am slot, with very good reason:
On my first visit I was interested to discover what was happening, and looking around mildly bemused, I was welcomed by Fatty Arbuckle the owner. He took personal charge of me and I was soon seated inside one of the many large rooms with a glass of canteen tea, a bowl of rice porridge with ‘things’ in it, and a side dip of herbs soaking in peanut oil and soy sauce. Absolutely delicious!
This soon became part of my daily routine for the next few weeks. I always sit at the same table, and so do the regular crew. Maybe 7.15-ish is the best time for me to catch up with my new friends: Jolly Jack, Likely Len, Gangling Gordon, and the Cadubury Brothers
On my second morning there I investigated the outdoor
cookery, a lean-to shack about 5 feet wide and 12 feet long. This is where
Peter Perfect the Porridge Master seems to live, accompanied by his erstwhile
companion Dimsum Dave. The staff uniform is old vests and assorted shorts for
the men, whilst the women wear jeans and casual tops. I watched Peter Perfect
for a short while, noticing he makes each large bowl of ‘Sik Juk’ (Congee in
I next join the table where the guys are already assembled and Jolly Jack is holding court in his inimitable way. I think if I could understand what he is laughing about; this might become a tad vexatious so early in the morning. However, I find it hilarious and stimulating. From time to time Likely Len picks up on a point and so serious discussions result. He has prominent eyebrows, which are used to great effect when he gets on his horse about something. However, he is not quite a morning person, so his input is often quite short. Gangling Gordon is usually the first to start bandying the crack (verbally interacting) with Jolly Jack. He is definitely a morning person, and a gentleman. The Cadubury Bros. are not morning people at all, and usually add little to the animated conversations happening around the table. Sometimes the elder one, Eric, will comment upon something; or on other occasions Earnie may inject an insight, but mostly they enjoy the crack and keep their own counsel. I am not actually sure if they are brothers or even related to each other in any way, but they look as if they are elder and younger brother, or perhaps father and son? I don’t know, and the answer to this conundrum will not alter the way the planets spin, so I remain happy in my view of the world.
What is interesting is that I have become an accepted part of their clique. My table manners are fitting, as is the way I interact with them. By observation I have learnt to go and get a glass from the store behind the kitchen. Then I nod at Peter Perfect and join the table, pulling up a chair as necessary. Next I mop the place setting with a handy rag left for the purpose, before opening the vacuum flask and half-filling my glass with water. Next I clean the inside and outside of the glass using my thumb. Before replacing the top of the flask I fill up the teapot, wait a few seconds before topping everyone else’s glass up, my own being the last to be filled. Then I sit down. I offer everybody who smokes a cigarette, which they accept. And that’s how it goes. My large bowl of Sik Juk arrives shortly after, but it is very hot, so finishing the cigarette brings it down to the ideal temperature.
What else can I add? Well, Mrs Arbuckle (Fanny) looks after all the money and floats around from time to time keeping an eye on things in general. Her stature is that of an old fashioned hospital Matron, and although she is a very nice lady, she has no time for messin’. I pay my 4RMB to her when I can catch her – as she is always on the move. Sometimes the guys pay for me, and I have tried to pay for their breakfasts – so far without success. It will happen I am determined. You see, they take it in turns for one of them to pay for all 5 each day, and must have some sort of routine going between them. Other staff come and go on different days, and work differing times; apart from ‘Lovely Lil’. She is a very hard working girl and is always running around cleaning up the mess we leave behind. The only other permanent member of staff is Dancing Daisy, the Dishwasher Daily, who comes round occasionally when she runs out of bowls to wash.
I have now actually covered most of the hours at this market and eatery between 5.30 and 8.30 am, plus looked in at 10.15. Before 7am there are mainly schoolchildren and their Mothers. After 10 is time for the local rice wine enthusiasts to have their morning fill. I have sampled rice wine with the Sik Juk on two occasions, and it was an interesting and mellow way to begin the day. Needless to say, I didn’t get much work done later on either of those days – but I can understand the attraction for pensioners with nothing better to do than while away the hours in pleasant and comfortable surroundings.
Having not really seen who uses the other rooms, it is hard for me to comment on the general patronage. However, the users of the largest room = the one I am in, are quite interesting. Each group has their own table and clique, except for Simple Simon, the island simpleton. He is a lovely guy, but has some sort of brain problem that renders speech pretty much impossible. He looks like he has a brain problem, and is accepted as part of the island culture. Obviously, he has a Carer, which will be family no doubt. He is harmless, and fascinated by me, although we hardly ever have discourse. Like the Monty Python sketch I suppose: “A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse!”.
At 7am the other crowded table contains eight people who
seem to have a small rice-wine thing going for them. Nothing excessive of
course, but I would probably entitle their group ‘Slightly all the time’ (from Soft
Machine 3). This group is led by Arthur, the Artful Dodger. He wears glasses
that have an inspecting intensity about them, or is that really his eyes
behind? He is a very interesting person who I am sure will feature prominently
in future Letters from
I have met Arthur the Artful Dodger on several occasions outside of the island, usually resulting in small toasts of rice wine. This also reflects the last person I will mention at this point; ‘Diligent Derek’. Again, he is an oldster and probably well passed pensionable age. He is a character, but not really a morning person as he usually appears for Sik Juk and sits quietly on another nearby table around 7am. He has a very pleasant and comforting demeanour, and a flashing smile that is winsome. He is also a lethal drinker of rice wine when the mood takes him. I discovered this at a local wedding reception, and recognizing him, went over to say hello and offer a small toast. Damn me, but he came back over a few moments later with another reprobate, and started to toast me – after topping up my beaker with rice wine. Well; hero’s come, and hero’s go. It was too much for me (Given I was well on my way with beers), so I told my wife to take the toast for me. This is acceptable practice. Gobsmacked! I mean, I know my wife pretty well, and I know she can drink, but…
…She sinks 500ml (Whatever they are?) instantly. They then
hang around chatting, whilst I am toasting glasses of beers with others on our
table. Before I finish my glass, they are at it again, this time three of them
will full beakers of Bah Zhao. Straight down! Now this stuff tastes a little
‘oily’, and I would probably not even bother using it for cooking: cleaning
drains perhaps. Before I finish topping up our tables’ beer glasses, the other
three have already downed their third glass of this rocket fuel. That’s about 3
pints of industrial strength ‘cleaning drains fluid’ at 32% within 2 minutes!
Our friends depart and I check my wife – she is fine and wonders why I am
asking about her welfare? Her cheeks are not red, and she carries on as if
nothing has happened. I have a lot to learn about drinking ‘industrial strength
cleaning drains fluid’. For a comparison (
Moving along with this mind-blowing master-class of mendacity, our next topic features the other end of the day, and the evening market. This is a much smaller affair, with no proper market occupation, and just a few local stalls spread along the street – and I do mean street, as goods are just dumped in any convenient space and sold to passersby. There is not really much to buy unless you are into fruit, but Auntie Maud always has an infectious smile and waves whenever I pass along.
I am sorry to admit that purchasing fruit is usually not
high on my list of ‘Must gets’, so I shake the hand of Fatty Arbuckle, and
wonder his restaurant is still open. We slap backs and do boys stuff, before I
reach my preferred of the two island shops. The other is fine also, and both
run Mah Jongg schools with the very latest in technology, automated tables.
These are a true wonder of the Chinese world: So imagine that if betting were
I stop at my preferred village shop, which is owned by a lovely guy I may call ‘Instant Ian’. His son is now the official owner I think, but you know where the power lies. His wife is very lovely and looks after their grandson, this being the product of their son and Amy, the island English teacher. That’s right; she has very good English, and is a small reason why I prefer this shop to their competitor.
I take to stopping by quite regularly for a beer or two, as this shows my face to the locals who I know are all talking about me. I have some sort of celebrity status, being the first foreigner to live on this island, and probably the first one most of them have ever met. So my role is also as Ambassador for the British peoples and foreigners in general. It’s old hat to me now, and I am myself, behave myself, and enjoy each moment and what it brings.
Instant Ian is a star and we get on well together, although he always has one eye firmly focused on his clientele and business of course. I like a beer, especially when finishing the day or looking for artistic interpretations. Therefore I took Ian aside one day and asked if he could deliver a crate of my favourite beer + a carton of cigarettes about every week or so. Interestingly, he called his son to fix the deal re dosh, and they decided to charge me Y70 for 24 x 640ml of my preferred beer, ‘Old Jiu Gong’ = a very good price, and what I paid in Foshan for 20 bottles and no crate. This has now been going on for a couple of months, and every time I call round and pay, he immediately sticks a crate on his motorcycle and heads off to my home. I usually meet him returning back with the empty crate before I have even gotten back home. Instant Ian – Total Service – What a Star!
During the National Days Holidays = 1st October
for about 2-weeks, many adolescents and students returned home from work or
university, mainly the latter. Most spoke good English and we had some very
interesting discussions about all manner of things. Whilst they were initially
interested in the world outside of
Cantonese Opera comes
Cantonese Opera is a parody, and called Yue Opera locally. In fact, Yue is another word for ‘Cantonese’, and is used as the single-character number plate identifier for this Province. During the Holidays, the local government paid for a visiting professional troop to come to the island for three nightly performances. I can’t say that I was particularly enthralled with the prospect, but decided to try and make one event for an hour or so. Well – the best laid plans of mice and men…
Those who know me personally will be aware that I am not very good with this thing called ‘Time’. Therefore me actually attending one of these shows would likely be an act of arbitrary coincidence. However, I had noticed a large stage had been erected in the island central plaza – a grand name for the only free bit of paved available space just outside the medical centre and behind the government building. Therefore I knew something was going to happen, sometime?
I had been away on business one day, and returning on the last ferry, and was mildly surprised to get a strange call from Siu Ying saying she wasn’t at home and was at ‘The Shop’. We only have one house key, so I presumed this was my clue to meet her there. I was one of the last off the ferry – which is all Chinese hustle re debarkation and stuff. One young lad who I didn’t think was an islander was having trouble starting his scooter, and whilst everyone else passed him by, I watched him push the machine off the ferry and begin to push it up the steep ferry rampart. You do not need language to understand, just compassion, so I jumped in behind him and added my weight to his labours. We soon got the scooter to the top of the ramp, at which point he tried it again an it started first press. Hmmm! Must be female then hehe! In gratitude he offered me a lift, but I actually fancied the walk, so politely declined.
Whilst I was a bit shattered by then, the walk did me good
and as I headed for home, I thought a beer wouldn’t hurt, so checking she
wasn’t at home already, began to walk to the island centre. I met Siu Ying
returning to meet me, so we strolled to the centre arm in arm under a starry
sky. Upon arrival I saw a throng of people and amongst the first was the young
lad I had just helped. He waved a cheery ‘Hello’, and began talking animatedly
to his mates, who also waved their hello’s in turn. The place was like
I thought that was my duty done, but by coincidence, I ended up there the next evening also, as we had run out of sugar. This night the local students were onlooking, and several stopped by to chat. I decided to have a beer and go with the flow. I was soon set upon by a gaggle of girls who I considered to be ‘Seniors’. One was especially attractive, and knowing Chinese girls always look many years younger than their real age, decided she looked about 14, so must be 18 at least. Her English was very good, and she had a photogenic quality most models would envy + her make-up was very well executed. I named her ‘Charlie’ after the perfume, as she didn’t have an English name. Her 5 girlfriends were of similar disposition and so we passed a couple of excellent hours practicing English and having a laugh, whilst on-stage they strangled more cats! Again my wife was somewhere nearby, but I only saw her when she came to buy some juice and a few oranges from Auntie Maud. The night ended pleasantly and she stopped by to say goodnight, as I was by then chatting with the local crew. One of the guys was new to me, but he had good English, even though his Cantonese was worse than mine. We talked in a mixture of languages, before he headed off, as did I shortly after.
The third day of this saga was eventful and informative. I had inadvertently got bladdered at lunchtime (A business meal including many bottles of rice wine), and the very last thing I needed was to go out drinking – which is what we did! So Siu Ying drags me off to the final show, and I order a very large bottle of orange juice with bits in it. Excellent! Siu Ying joins her seated friends whilst I re-hydrate and take on vitamin C. I suffer an hour or so, and decide to slink off – only to be met by Li San, the island administrator. He is a very lovely guy, and also one I need to be good friends with. This is not a problem, as we are good friends anyway. Unfortunately, he orders me a beer and we sit together to enjoy the show. Surprisingly, this is the first time I had actually stopped to listen properly to the show, and to my delight, my small understanding of Cantonese was enough to make this very entertaining and quite a laugh. I did seriously enjoy one hilarious sketch, and the show as a whole was pretty professional. The costumes were amazing!
Li San and I were seated outside the local shop, sitting on their
chairs in the middle of the adjacent lane, drinking beers from the bottle and
chatting to passersby. It took me a couple of bottles, but I eventually found
my beer goggles, and from then on things became a lot more entertaining. One of
the first to stop was a girl from
I am finally getting into the drinking groove when the show winds up. 3, 000 people disappear in an instant, along with my wife … somewhere? The guy from the night before rocks up for a beer and we share toasts and cigarettes. It turns out he is the Shows Director and so animated conversation ensures – again in many languages. Being the final night he does not stay long, but returns to organize dismantling of the stage – for they leave at 2am for another place and performances. The island ferry is on standby to take them and their 52 seater coach ashore, and this opens a window for me personally = the ferry isn’t actually restricted to the stated hours (5am to 9.15pm). I later learn from Li San (Yes he is still here and matching me pint for pint, and cigarette for cigarette), that the ferry is 24 hour on standby 24/7/365; and for me it will cost Y100 from shore to island at any time of day or night. All I need to do is give them a call …
The ferry is actually a floating pontoon, with roll-on, roll-off symmetry. It usually conveys 100 pedestrians, half a dozen cars, a lorry, and many motorcycles on each trip. It is propelled by a tug, which is swapped daily for the sister tug. There are actually two of each, but the other pontoon is currently being renovated. It is a commercial ferry, and features Western style standards of safety and operations. It has 5 crew aboard + others for boarding and landing. The crew sleeps on board at night = the 24 hour availability.
The day before the Island Opera performances, I was onboard
when I noticed a lot of men in white shirts with big badges. These turned out
to be the Maritime Police, and they were making an unscheduled inspection of
the ferry and crew re safety and seamanship. No problem = these people are very
professional. The ferry is large enough to transport a couple of juggernaughts,
and has done so. However, the largest lorry I have seen so far was a massive
6-wheeler. Normally they are 4-wheeler fish trucks or Hino tippers. Whilst the
Hino’s are rare, they are the Foden’s of Old England, and perfect workhorses.
More normally it is the tricycles that transport live fish from the
Even though this part of the mighty
Previously I have alluded this part of the
This seems a good place to separate the written from the unwritten, so I bid you adieu for now. Fair thee well.
Let’s catch up next time when we will return to the Island
in my next missive, ‘
Thank you for your time and perseverance of my small world