Sometimes I’m not sure this is what Chairman Mao had in mind.
It’s Golden Week in China. Translation: a one-week national holiday celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic on Oct. 1, 1949. In other words, last Thursday was China’s Fourth of July, and felt like it, at least in Guangzhou. The rainy season there is over, and the heat and humidity have tapered off to roughly New York City summer at its hottest.
On Tuesday night, returning from a swank pre-holiday reception at the White Swan Hotel (rendered white indeed, empty-feeling and cold after a recent renovation, though the atrium waterfall remains), I found my passport with residence permit waiting. By then, Thursday travel – my original plan — was prohibitively expensive. But I could get a cheap flight Friday evening to Sanya on Hainan Island and rebooked the hotel I had previously canceled, thus salvaging Golden Week.
The delayed departure left me in the city for National Day. I spent it much as I spend the Fourth in the States: at the pool, followed by lunch at the Happy Monk, an open-air Anglo-Irish pub (Magner’s hard cider on the menu!) at the Happy Valley Mall across from campus. I felt as if I should be eating hot dogs (ubiquitous here as “beef sausages” on breakfast buffets and in bakeries as glorified pig-in-a-blanket), and the Happy Monk does have them on the menu, loaded with cheese, pickles, sauerkraut, you name it. But even as a child at my cousins’ holiday “doggie roasts,” I was always a burger girl, so ordered the Happy Monk Burger – a real burger, meaty and juicy, covered with a slice of lean bacon and real sharp cheddar.
In New York I’ve skipped the Macy’s fireworks the last couple of years in favor of cheap tickets for Lincoln Center Theater. I kicked myself for not having wondered sooner if Guangzhou might have some – in America every city and town seems to have its own fireworks on the Fourth — but language and Internet barriers made it impossible to find out. Then, from Pearl TV in Hong Kong, I learned that the national fireworks take place over the harbor there, this year for the first time since a ferry hit a fireworks-viewing boat in 2012, killing 39. Had I known sooner (and had a residence permit), I might have gone to Hong Kong to watch and, not incidentally, straighten out my computer problems. Instead, I watched on TV like most of China.
Having learned of the fireworks on Pearl TV’s English channels, which had pre-show coverage on its 7:30 nightly news, I naturally assumed they would cover the fireworks live. But no. I started channel-surfing. CCTV 1 had a concert, perhaps from the National Performing Arts Center in Beijing, with singers who seemed to be celebrities giving emotional renditions of what I assume were patriotic songs to a cheering audience. Continuing to surf, I found the fireworks 24 channels later on Pearl’s Chinese channel. They were spectacular, as might be expected from the country that invented them. Especially intriguing were the opaque red clouds, solid as the color on the Chinese flag, that formed from time to time. I don’t know if they were designed or a result of the overcast sky, but they were stunning.
Twenty-four hours later, I was flying to Sanya — coincidentally, the setting of the Mao-era ballet “The Red Detachment of Women,” performed at Lincoln Center this summer by the National Ballet of China. I had long been curious about what a Chinese beach town might be like; I missed seeing one on my last trip five years ago. Would it be honky-tonkish like Revere Beach or the Jersey Shore? Would it be glitzy and loud, the way modern Chinese seem to like their architecture? One thing it would certainly be, I had been warned, was very crowded as every family in China took advantage of Golden Week to go on vacation. In other words, just like Fourth of July.
Sanya Bay turns out to be elegantly restrained, and not at all crowded — a little like a newer Miami Beach, with the occasional convertible zipping along the Ocean Drive equivalent. Most hotels are as massive as the buildings in Guangzhou, with a few small ones like the one I chose, blindly but wisely, on Booking.com. Hotel shops (there are no others along the beachfront, just a few vans) sell the usual beach paraphernalia: rubber-ducky floats, emergency swimsuits and pareus, drinks and snacks (seafood jerky, anyone?), sunhats but no sunscreen under $25. Lavish buffets – a godsend for the only person in town who can’t read a Chinese menu – serve up breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the entrances, signs plead with diners to take only as much as they will eat; in a country that once suffered widespread famine, disposing of food waste has become in a major problem. (Four of my sophomores are currently finalists in the Enactus World Cup, a major international competition for student entrepreneurialism, tackling food waste as their project.)
The Mao suits I photographed 30 years ago are long gone; now the Chinese, or at least the women, love to dress up. In Guangzhou I had been admiring the pretty summer dresses on women around town and working at the university (undergraduates dress like undergraduates), but I didn’t expect to that style to carry over to the beach. Here young women wear lacy cover-ups and high wedge sandals. One at my hotel pool seemed to be in a bridesmaid-style dress, turquoise and sleek, but minutes later she was next to me in the pool wearing only the top—her swimsuit – with the skirt tossed onto a chaise. Others sport bright red lipstick on the beach, matching their pedicures. Little girls wear what can only be described as tutus. Of course they all carry umbrellas; God forbid they should get a tan. (The women who peddle fruit and long strands of “pearls” on the beach are covered head to toe, some in native costume.)
Five years ago, I got the impression that the Chinese don’t learn to swim – “my mother says it’s dangerous,” a student from the Guangdong coast told me – but they do. They were in my hotel pool when I arrived at 10:30 p.m. and at breakfast time the next morning. At the beach they seem a little timid, and at the hotel where I had dinner last night, a signed warned against swimming off the beach, since conditions were “unstable.” On the day I arrived there were the gentlest of waves, yesterday a bit of surf that reminded me of the calmest day at Watch Hill on Fire Island. I took several dips, but pretty much alone.
Today it’s pouring rain; my skin can use a break after two days of hazy sun. Over the music playing from my laptop – Debussy’s “Mer,” John Luther Adams’s “Become Ocean” – I can hear the waves, one of my favorite sounds. The surf is stronger than yesterday. I’d still go in, but it would upset the Chinese, who already think l’m crazy for sitting in the sun. I can see them on the beach, huddled under the thatched umbrellas and the ones they carried there – umbrellas under umbrellas.
So hutongs have given way to holiday hotels, famine to food waste, uniformity to fashion. “The Depression is over,” I used to tell my mother, who was scarred by it for life, and so is the Long March. The workers’ paradise has become a beach resort, and the workers are solidly middle-class or better. It may not be what Chairman Mao envisioned, but maybe it’s what he had in mind after all: people enjoying their lives, like the happy family of four cavorting in the pool beneath my window in the rain. I may have to join them.