Every three months, I had to return to Hong Kong from Wuhan to renew my three-month China visa. On my return I would notice changes. Seat belts became compulsory on one occasion, or there were fines for honking one's horn unnecessarily, or unregulated motorcycle taxis were banned as the state regulatory python tightened its grip.
I soon learned that unless one was attached to an established news organisation, it was not advisable to enter China as a "journalist." So now I fashioned myself as a writer engaged in trade promotion and zipped through, though often with my heart in my throat, gripped with a fear of being zapped by customs. I was never sure whether I would get through until I was through, only relieved to be greeted by Anna or Haifeng at the airport for the 40-minute ride into town.
Once there was a bad turn at the Shenzhen airport when I was pursued by a four-man police squad led by a female, then hustled back to my now opened bag, the contents of which were spread out on a steel table. What caught their eye was a tin of Brasso polish. Wherever I go, I take my brass unicorn, then tarnished after months in Wuhan.
Being a loyal royal Canadian, I fancied myself represented by the unicorn on the royal coat of arms. I had been pleased that our Governor General's Foot Guards, with buttons in groups of twos, were fashioned after the Coldstream Guards, which had been a Cromwellian unit, unlike the Grenadier Guards with its buttons in ones, which had accompanied the king from his exile in France. I also liked the manner in which the unicorn came to the royal armorial bearings with the ascension of James I, on the death of Elizabeth I. The Stewart dynasty's Scottish unicorn had replaced the Tudors' griffin or dragon.
It seemed to me that Canada was loyal to the crown, acknowledging the superiority of the heraldic lion—but only conditionally, as the Coldstreams did, agreeing to back the restoration of the monarch on the basis of a new contract which, like the unicorn as its Celtic element, provided Scotland and Ireland a seat at the high table of state.
Since my army days in Camp Farnham, I always treasured that hour in the evening sitting at trestle tables when we did our "boots and brass." Brasso was one of those smells of wellbeing, an absence of yapping corporals and bellowing sergeants that pursued us from dawn till dusk. It was a time of cocoa, when one could find the officer on duty if one needed him without him finding you out for some wrongdoing. That evening smell of Brasso was what I craved, so I brought back a can from Hong Kong to revive the feeling and give my tarnished unicorn a much-needed shine.
What alarmed the Shenzhen airport police was the skull-and-crossbones warning on the can, indicating poison. That much they understood, but little else. No one spoke English, and they all lunged at me when I tried to demonstrate that it was only dangerous if taken orally. My move panicked them into thinking I was committing suicide. My reaction, making calming gestures with my hand, settled them down. Then someone arrived who knew something of Western ways and identified the warning for what it was. Now that all parties were relieved, my bags were closed and I was sent on my way accompanied by sheepish smiles for causing the needless fuss.
It was at times like this when I felt close to the Chinese, that they were so much more like Canadians in not wanting to push things further than necessary. I found Americans needlessly confrontational, and the British hypersensitive to challenges to their authority, as if it were offensive not to bow and scrape in their presence. The Chinese and Canadian officialdom at this level were alert and probing, but not pushy. Then again, it takes two to tango. It also requires the "inspectee" to be open, cooperative and as helpful as possible with the inspector.
China has become a scary place since. In 2012 when president Xi Jinping came to power, the country became greatly more authoritarian. It was much the same in Montreal, where a new authoritarianism had taken over since the 1970s and continued in this hateful course, cutting back on natural growth of their minority English-speaking population.
Back when Montreal and Wuhan were open cities, free of the mundane personal restraints that existed in Toronto and Hong Kong, there was every hope for the future and the place where I would make my home.
Of course, things were rougher in mainland China. But having knocked about the world, slept outdoors here and there, I was immune to the usual discomforts poorer countries must endure. My immunity was tested by the severe heat in summer and the cold of winter, not as bad as Canada but nearly so when one considers the absence of even primitive British heating standards.
My constant companion was Haifeng Deng, or Deng Haifeng, to render his name in the proper Chinese way, which we seldom did, as we officially operated in English regarding the hopeless promotion of the Wuhan Financial Fair. The more fruitful efforts at Coal Fair booth recruitment involved more Chinese than English, but as India had emerged as a big coal producer, there were many sales calls there, too. This enlarged my role in making calls and writing sales letters.
Wuhan lacked Hong Kong's efficiency, but the real problem had less to do with the mainland's technical shortfalls than with the failings of India. Nor was it just a technical hardware problem. People who were supposed to be there weren't, and no one knew when they would be back. And when you finally got hold of them, they turned out to be the wrong person, with the right person unavailable as well.
But soon life, with its new cast of characters at the office, took on a pleasant routine. I walked down the stairs of my building to a small courtyard parking lot. It was a Bank of China building, I discovered, but the insistence that all tenants be bank employees had long since gone, though the building still housed a fair number of them.
My brother, Joel, and Sandra rented a People's Liberation Army flat in Shanghai that bordered on the luxurious and was enclosed in a high-grade gated community. It seemed that the PLA treated itself well and got better digs than the Bank of China. Which didn't surprise me, as my mother had said after her many trips to Russia and Iron Curtain countries that army officers earned far more than doctors.
In those early days in Wuhan, I awoke to the sound of roosters' crowing as one might expect on a farm. This was shortly followed by the sound of car horns honking with no sense of emergency. The purpose was to announce to the swarms of bicycles and pedestrians that a car was coming. The honking had a childish look-at-me air, telling all: "I have new car, ain't I great?!"
So many of the cars were new. The only old ones—no more than three or four years old—were taxis and police cars, except for those cool-looking Beijing Jeeps that looked like a poor man's Land Rover. I coveted them anyway and would have loved to drive one in Canada. It was the only car I ever wanted—probably unwisely, as I heard they were unreliable.
The interesting thing is that Wuhan cars, old and new, were almost all French—Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots. This resulted from one of the quirky things about the place.
We have already covered how Wuhan staged the first cyber revolution in 1911 that ended 2,000 years of imperial rule in China and ushered in the Republic of China entirely by accident.
As also described, the 80-odd foreign Treaty Ports along rivers and coastline of China were falling into decay after World War I, with the Russians abandoning theirs after the Bolshevik revolution and the Germans having surrendered theirs to the Japanese after their defeat in 1918. And after a serious gunboat battle with the British in 1926, Chinese nationalists, though defeated in battle, found London no longer had the will to defend these micro colonies far from home.
But France held on without opposition and prospered. Then came the Japanese invasion of China in the '30s. This distracted Chinese nationalist attention from the occupants of Treaty Ports. They were even deemed useful conduits of material support against the Japanese. Into this confusing mix came the Chinese civil war, punctuated with its on-again, off-again Nationalist-Communist alliances against the Japanese.
Then came that quirk of history that profoundly affected French fortunes: the 1940 German invasion of France which, unlike their first go-round in 1914, achieved French capitulation.
But there was a wrinkle in the works. Not having the forces to occupy the whole of France, much less its scattered imperial holdings in the Americas, the Mideast, Asia and Africa, the Germans could not take on more. Having already occupied Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, the Germans had to be satisfied with Paris and, more importantly, northern and western French coastal provinces that housed their Atlantic submarine bases, from which they could sink supply ships and starve out Britain, just as the Royal Navy starved out Germany in World War I.
What affected French treaty ports was the creation of Vichy France, the puppet regime that ran the French Mediterranean ports and much of its landlocked interior. The wrinkle was that Vichy was left in charge of French colonies, whose substantial military forces became reluctant German allies. Because Germany was now allied with the Japanese, who had treaty ports themselves, Imperial Japan protected French interests in Wuhan, which was permitted to continue operations as well as it could until the Japanese surrender in 1945.
One of the results was an enduring French presence in Wuhan. There were several French car plants in the area, conveniently located in a city that was known as a steel town.
And this was where I revived my French proficiency to its highest level, as we shall discover at the end of a composite account of a typical day.
A husband and wife manned the main gatehouse to my building, which didn't seem to need such a service. Nonetheless, they opened the gate at 5 a.m. and shut it at 2 a.m. This I learned when I found myself locked out after coming home late one night and had to spend the night outside. I soon learned I could gain entrance by squeezing in between two bent bars at end of the jail-like fencing if I completely exhaled and made myself thin. It was definitely a reason not to become too corpulent, a real risk given the quality and the abundance of the food, which I came to relish like no other.
The first temptation of the morning began not 20 feet away, where a family was selling delicious spicy dumplings in plastic bags, which I looked forward to each day as a snacky breakfast. They were cooked on an oil drum, which had been turned into a jerry-built stove burning wood scraps, mostly discarded chopsticks. Beside my building, there were other blocks of flats, some fronting on the streets and avenues that enclosed the lane that was now teeming with people with swarms of kids with red kerchiefs hastening to school. I never got the impression that China's one-child policy had much of an impact on gender ratios. There seemed to be as many girls as boys in the lanes and schoolyards I passed.
Next to our gate was a small shack or shed no more than 15 by 15 feet crammed with stacked groceries as if it were a micro-supermarket.
This illegal structure housed a husband, wife and a girl in her early 20s. At night they moved the rows of stock and rigged it for sleeping, shutting the broad frontage with something like a garage door shutter to seal off the structure at night.
While I ate my dumplings from the man at the oil drum, I often saw the grocer's daughter primping herself as women do, brushing her teeth at the public tap, even washing her hair, and looking like every other office girl in town.
Being a gweilo, a rare sight in Wuhan, I got on friendly terms with them all. Being from "Ja Na Da" might not have been as exciting as being from "Mei Guo" (beautiful state, as the US is called) or Ying Guo (English state, as the UK is called), but everyone smiled and was pleased that I so evidently enjoyed the food they made.
Some even used my new Chinese name, Ma Guo Ming, which much to my delight meant "national country horse," recalling my old fantasy of being an Irish dragoon. I love the Black Watch, of course, my old regiment, in the way one loves one's family, but I longed to be a dragoon.
Not that I wanted to join the cavalry. I look askance on cavalry, those who fight on horseback, who I think have existed to provide the rich a free ride. I have experts on my side who say the French would have won the 1415 Battle of Agincourt if only the cavalry had absented themselves from the field. There are many other such cases, I am expertly assured.
No, dragoons are mounted infantry, who rush to the area where they are needed, usually a collapsing flank, then dismount and fight on foot. They are the ready-on-the-night, last-minute men.
Ironically, and certainly not what the government wanted or expected, much of the economy of China was conducted under the radar in the back lanes. After I went to work, stalls would proliferate, selling this and that; and at noon and in the evening the oil drum furnaces, now burning coal, were topped with cauldrons of seething noodles, spices, onions and chicken bits. There would be ladies to shine your shoes.
Although the spicy food was seldom disappointing, its preparation generated serious air pollution. And if an insensitive brute like me says air pollution is a problem, it is; you need no other opinion.
Which occasions a recollection of a standing Wuhan joke: "Why are Wuhan girls so beautiful? Answer: Because their faces never see the sun."
Of course, it is true that Wuhan girls are beautiful, undoubtedly more beautiful than anywhere else in China, perhaps even more beautiful than girls in the rest of the world. And for good reason. That is because Wuhan was the third-level educational centre for three surrounding provinces with 70-odd colleges and universities. So the place is swamped with co-eds, arriving and staying for as long as they were at their most beautiful stage of life and being replaced with fresh beauties on their departure. In terms of demographics, it was like 1965 North America, when half the population was below the age of 25.
There are two ways to work. I can take a bus or take a 20-minute walk through Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) Park.
Typically, I would walk to work through the park, which had something of a children's zoo involving a basic aviary, a playground merry-go-round, swings and things. Beyond that were paved footpaths, with well-tended shrubbery and expansive lawns, spotted with fountains and pedestrian roundabouts centred on sculptures. One, I remember, was an eye-catching example of what one can do with strips of shiny metal to create a suggestion of a man in a heroic pose, something that might go well in the lobby of the Alcan building in Montreal, I thought. The vast park, perhaps a quarter of the size of New York's Central Park, was filled with artificial lakes and waterways with steep little Chinese bridges here and there. There was a large pagoda at one end, where they served tea later in the day. The interconnecting ponds would also have paddle boats to rent later, evident when I walked home from work.
What was striking was how many functions organised groups performed there. This was true in Hong Kong, too, where exercise groups would form in parks on an ad hoc basis and joiners would follow along as best they could until they finally knew the drill and fully joined the group numbering between 30 and 60. But these were impromptu activities of individuals. One got the feeling that activities in Wuhan were licensed.
Some of the biggest groups in Zhongshan Park were largely female choirs of 20 to 30 who sang what sounded like patriotic songs under the firm direction of bossy-boots ladies who reminded me of the mean apartment building commissar in the Dr Zhivago movie. There were also groups of mostly male fencers engaged in what looked like ritualized sword fights. There were dancers, mostly women, who would be out in larger numbers at night, often accompanied by male partners. They would dance to popular numbers from ghetto blasters.
Most intriguing of all, and I wished I had taken more time to learn more about them, were groups of five to 10 old men sitting on park benches, each with a giant artist's paint brush with a long handle. In turn, but in no particular order—rather like rising to speak in a Quaker meeting house—each would rise, dip his brush into a bowl of water, write a few words on the pavement, and return to his seat. His fellows would contemplate the aphorism until it evaporated, which didn't take long in a city known as one of the "four furnaces of China." I don't remember much talking among them. I often imagined myself sitting among them one day, as a red-coated Chelsea Pensioner with a tricorn hat in London.
And then out of the park and into the office across the street.
I won't deal with humdrum office life. Once all hope had been squeezed out of making yards on the hopeless Wuhan Financial Fair, we hardly did any work at all. The entire concept was so ham-fistedly communist. At the same time, it wasn't that at all. Rather it was everyone agreeing to pursue a hopeless course as long as it could be creditably pursued, knowing that its pursuit was what kept our rice bowls filled; and that was the motivating factor from the highest to the lowest. So everyone joked about our job being waiting for chi fan (lunch) and returning to the office to wait for chi fan (dinner).
One of the things we did was hire someone who spoke English, and I was given the task of judging the English competence of the dozen applicants. As I could not keep track of their names—several even had the same name—we gave them numbers. We finally hired Number 4. She was not only best at English, she also passed my local geography test. All applicants were female.
We chose well. Not only was No. 4 the cutest of the lot; she also agreed to teach me Chinese. I wanted to learn the writing, and how to use a Chinese dictionary. It was hard going, and as I have often said before, I am a terrible student. I gave up on the tones right away. Chinese is such a language of homonyms, and I would say in hyperbolic moments that Chinese only has 7,000 words, but with seven billion ways to use them.
Sandra would occasionally fly in from Hong Kong, demand this and that and fly out again. Carmen was there much of the time, and as her mission had some evident purpose I followed up on her leads as best I could.
One time, I interviewed a German coal executive and decided to draft a story for the South China Morning Post. I then called the SCMP's financial editor, and he liked it. Said I should come up with more.
I thought I had hit gold at last. I expected to see my story in print in a day or two. But nothing. I called him again and couldn't reach him. Another call revealed he was no longer with the paper. Further inquiries showed he had been sacked. I called his replacement. He couldn't find my story, so I sent him a copy. He said it was just the thing and said he'd use it. But again nothing. I phoned him again, but he had been reassigned and was unavailable. An interim editor had been appointed, and although she said she did not know what my enquiry was about, it sounded as if she did. She was not interested in having me send her a fresh copy. So that was the end of that.
Social life took over. Haifeng, the bright university graduate from Wuhan U, was the leader of the pack. Anna and No. 4 tagged along from time to time. Often it was a dinner out at a noodle shop or going to the swimming pool and jumping off the high diving board. Or having Haifeng take his new driver's licence out for a spin, the rest of us riding him mercilessly as he stalled and screwed up the clutch, with the girls shrieking in mock horror at the sound of grinding gears.
We would go swimming in East Lake outside of town. I terrified them by swimming far from the shore. No matter how far I went, and I must have gone a quarter mile, every time I dove to the bottom it was always little more than a fathom and covered with spongy fallen leaves.
Haifeng had a friend in the regular army who was the driver for a senior officer. He was on call 24/7 and was to have the car perpetually ready. What made his life tolerable, even profitable, was that the senior officer was forever on the road, going to one base after another from one end of China to another, and was hardly home at all. So Haifeng's friend had a car to drive around in, a nice place to stay, plenty of money and fridge-raiding rights at the general's house. He frequently hired the car out for trips to and from the airport, and with his PLA uniform and military number plates got priority treatment everywhere.
One night we all went out for beer in Wuchang across the river, where university students boozed the night away al fresco on a vast array of trestle tables covered with plastic sheeting. They taught me one drinking song and I attempted to teach them the North Atlantic Squadron. But Haifeng, being a bit of a prude, could not bring himself to translate the admittedly lurid lyrics regarding the cabin boy and the skipper. Anyway, it was good to see that students have wild nights out pretty much the same way the world over.
Haifeng was a little hard to figure. He was smart and a decent stick. I recalled with disappointment how on our visit to his alma mater he was dismissive of the charming older university buildings with their terra cotta pagoda roofing. He said he far preferred the newer, but by no means new, Soviet-style packing-case gothic vertical slab of the main university building, where Mao spoke long before he was there.
We went to visit the museum that the Red Chamber Barracks had become, where the Sun Yat-sen revolution started in 1911. But they had the Chinese Nationalist flag on display, now the flag of Taiwan. Despite this reverence for Mao, he regarded the Nationalist flag with a reverence I had not seen before. I did not think this meant he was pro-Taiwan, but that the flag itself represented China as a national entity rather than a political one.
Most nights I went home alone. First came a hearty meal of back lane spicy noodles served on a throwaway white plastic cooked food container common the world over, together with throwaway chopsticks. I sat with other home-from-work guys at a trestle table covered in that ubiquitous flimsy transparent plastic sheeting, then headed off to the Blue Sky Café, not 10 minutes’ walk away.
The Blue Sky was a foreigner's bar and restaurant run by a highly educated multilingual Mauritanian black guy in his 30s who had lived in China all his life, the son of a diplomatic bod with a permanent Beijing job with the UN. The bar was American style with subdued lighting, its decorations in blues and browns hardly noticeable in the gloom. No more than 15 or 20 per cent of the patrons were foreign, but the rest were interested in speaking English for the most part, which made the place almost aggressively friendly, another attraction for the sociable.
The other feature was that if there was a strong second language, it was French, because those French car plants and other facilities made Parisian tastes and sensibilities a palpable residue of life in Wuhan, the only city in mainland China where France had a consulate.
My routine in my nearly nightly calls at the Blue Sky was to start practicing my Chinese characters at the bar with the help of the barmaids, who were glad to help and test me before it got busy. Then came the Alstom engineers from their steel works, one who married locally and lived there 20 years. Although Alstom is a French engineering giant, these guys were German-Americans, but of a breed that was so Teutonic yet naturally American I could easily imagine how German almost made the grade as an official language of the US.
A Scottish English teacher from the PLA Naval University of Engineering joined us. His job was to teach merchant sea cadets enough English to pass muster with docking authorities, who insisted on enough linguistic competence to manage berthing operations in seaports worldwide.
Over the months and years, I learned about the process of making steel from the Alstom men and about the travails of the dour Scot trying to get men to say words laden with "Ls" and "Rs" without mixing them up. Of course, the English students are mostly men, and the last thing they want to do is make the funny noises one must when learning another language. They had my sympathy.
There was the homosexual AIDS contingent, French guys, from some UN programme operating out of the nearby Tongi Hospital. AIDS was still a cause celebre and like SARS and Covid; my nonchalance was and is morally unacceptable, and we did not get on. Though I did learn that they had found that my indifference to what had been previously known as the "gay plague" was shared by soldiers, or "militaires," which I found comforting. I almost always rejected fashionable fears as they peaked and troughed as public enthusiasms. And my views were regarded as toxic whenever the topic came up.
Most nights I would find a number of French guys in the pub, usually visiting quality-control inspectors there to ensure that their locally-made French cars had doors that closed properly. They spoke no English and at last, however poor my French was, it was better than their English. As important for these purposes was that there was no animosity between us. One can understand a British South African being edgy with Afrikaners while being on perfectly good terms with a Dutchman. It was much the same between French and English Canadians. There is a lingering antagonism in one case and none in the other.
The result was that my French revived. So much so that when I returned to Lamma on a visa renewal sortie, I amazed Montreal friends with my cut and thrust at a lively debate with a French guy in one of our waterfront pubs. It was one of my most gratifying experiences.
I returned from the Blue Sky, sometimes stopping at McDonald's, which served spicy burgers, according to local taste. Otherwise, it was pretty much like any other McDs except for the luxury cars in the parking lot. There might be a beggar outside, typically a mother carrying an infant with toddler assisting in the begging. I give highest coin, lowest bill to beggars, whether a pretty co-ed UNESCO canvasser or a dirty derelict. In general, I found no more beggars in Wuhan than in Hong Kong, and no more in Hong Kong than in Montreal or in Ottawa.
When home in the evening, I had three diversions. One was to read the history of China from one of two vast tomes. Another was to practice my Chinese characters, which I found almost addictive, though I did not relish looking up things in the Chinese dictionary.
There are two forms of Chinese. One is the "traditional" in writing, or Cantonese when spoken, almost exclusively in Hong Kong, and the other is Mandarin, "simplified" when written. And when rendered in Roman characters, such as street signs, "Pinyin." Using the dictionary involves counting the number of strokes and points of a character, most often each serving as a suffix or prefix syllable to a word, then finding out all the characters with the same number of strokes and points, then scanning that list to find the one sought and learning what it means—looking for the Wong you want and making sure it is the right Wong and not the wrong Wong. I often mutter darkly to myself that I thank the Chinese for the spoon, but they did us no favours with dictionaries and chopsticks.
I guess my favourite activity when alone was playing on the internet. I kept my legislativenews.org site fed as there seemed to be no impediment accessing the legislative websites of the UK, Australia, Canada and the US from Wuhan. I could get the BBC and Drudge before they went bad. There were few blockages that I could find. I did notice there was no reference to the Tiananmen "Peterloo" disturbance, but that was about the only one I could not find.
I wondered if this comparative freedom on the internet had to do with Wuhan's status as a national educational centre. My brother said he could not access the BBC or the South China Morning Post from his PLA flat in Shanghai, and I later learned firsthand of restrictive slowdowns of service when researching almost anything in Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong. Again, I am talking about those comparatively free and easy days before Xi Jinping arrived in 2012.
I toted my Toshiba laptop between office and home, and mixed work and pleasure in both places. Not that LNS was pleasure. As a labour of love it was still labour, reading through the Hansards and the Congressional Records for material and distilling it into stories at a rate of five a day. But LNS soon came to an end when I could not get my credit card to work to pay the bill, and being the cyber klutz I am, could not figure out how to make it work. My former ward and putative son, Derek, whose Red Beaver bus company had been long abandoned, had disappeared into the ranks of the Occupy Wall Street movement, or some such. And his website was where my LNS had been attached. Now it was one of those chunks of electronic debris floating about in cyberspace, irretrievable by me.
I had quite a knack for internet research, which sadly did not extend to skills in remembering passwords or access codes. One of Sandra's schemes was to sell residential properties outside China to rich mainlanders, who were buying Hong Kong flats at an accelerated rate. Maybe they could see a Beijing crackdown on the horizon. We bet that they might like to get their money out well beyond Beijing's grasp and into Canada and Australia, and we might broker a deal or two. She figured everyone would be going to the US market. So I was set to research Canada and Australia. We made a few yards but found regulations more restrictive than anticipated and getting more so as time went on.
Like Montreal, the action was leaving Hong Kong, but it did not have the same effect on the local property market. While buying properties beyond China was not as promising as it first appeared, one could still buy in Hong Kong, which sustained a runaway residential building boom despite our declining corporate prospects. In Montreal, the same drain had kept the rents low as they rocketed to the highest levels in the world in Toronto. The process was near hydraulic. But in Hong Kong, the more mainlanders chose to get their money out of mainland China, the more flats they bought in Hong Kong and the more the rents soared, as did property values. SARS had an impact on lowering rents, but that scare was long gone.
While the Wuhan Financial Fair prospects petered out, my research skills improved, and I enjoyed internet debates on news groups with various people, mostly Americans and Canadians and to a lesser extent, Brits. While beyond infancy, the World Wide Web was not much past toddlerhood. I had been an active member of the British regiments news group since the late '90s, which was by far the most active and international at the time, drawing ex-soldiers and military historians from the Coldstream Guards to the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. That was most enriching for someone like me, with lots of stories and military lore from palm to pine, from the Cape to Cairo.
Hot topics then were US and European immigration. My views on immigration were far more liberal then than they are today, knowing how the world has changed and that immigration has been weaponized as an attack on Western civilisation to undermine free market values by massively importing people who do not believe in them and who owe their improved status to leftists backed by the MAB (the media, academic bureaucratic) complex.
So having battalions of military-aged men cross the Mediterranean, flooding the EU with the active assistance of leftist NGOs, or "caravans" of illegal immigrants arriving by the brigade from Mexico must be stopped in my mind. But that had not happened back then, and my attitude was more welcoming.
Back then, the presence of such malignant forces was not evident. My thought was that anyone who wanted to go to another country could and should go, and all should be welcomed if they did not live on the parish—hard refugee cases excepted, of course.
I even imagined that if welfare recipients and old age pensioners wished to go to a country where their money would go further, then why not? Perhaps a new environment might provide new opportunities. And if a Pakistani doctor wanted to set up a practice in Canada, then let him. The only condition would be that he would have to have his qualifications posted on his wall, so people knew what they were getting.
In those internet debates, leftists opposed immigration without admitting that was what they were doing, evasively saying they were not against legal immigration, only illegal immigration. After a bit of poking about on the internet, I found some plainly hostile statements from the AFL-CIO labour federation, wanting to slow down and in other ways curtail the flow that threatened to bring down the cost of labour. They had to concede the point.
But AIDS was the big thing back then and what I called the "AIDS for the people movement." AIDS had been around as an issue for nearly 20 years, but in those early days, it was the "gay plague," suffered by homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians and heroin addicts—derisively known as the 4H Club. When it first surfaced, the tabloid press—Star, National Enquirer, Globe etc.—didn't touch it, only wanting to fuss over diseases of normal people. The tabloid press liked herpes: normal people got that. Herpes was harmless, yet incurable, and it frightened girls. Just what the doctor ordered.
So AIDS was left to the straight press to fret about. But as much as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian etc. fretted and wept, the response was underwhelming. It didn't affect girls, and men are so much harder to scare. In short, no one cared about the 4H Club but themselves and causeniks forever on the lookout for something to complain about.
Just as a tidal wave of apathy nearly drowned out the state-inspired craze over global warming in later years, AIDS was about to succumb to profound public indifference. This gave rise to the AIDS for the People Movement. This came with the proclamation that this was a disease not limited to the 4H Club, but everyone, man, woman and child, was at risk of getting it too.
This was the position of my leftist interlocutors and I found them difficult to contend with. And it was then I found the CDC, Atlanta's Centre for Disease Control, to be highly partisan and disingenuous in not providing the information one naturally sought. Like what was the male-female ratio of AIDS victims? This could not be found. While my interlocutors had no proof, except to say that everyone said AIDS was a disease that put everyone at risk, I had little to gainsay them though I looked high and low.
Nonetheless I found an area of the world where AIDS did infect females and children. Ironically, that proved my case—in that the exception proved the rule. As far as I could determine, generalized AIDS occurred in one region alone, along the East African truck route from the Sudan to South Africa. But elsewhere in the world, the spread of AIDS took on patterns common to North America and Europe, in which victims were overwhelmingly male and homosexual.
It turned out that plentiful and cheap prostitutes, who haunted East African truck stops, put detergent in their vaginas to increase pleasurable friction, and in doing so caused ruptures and lesions susceptible to fecal matter introduced after anal sex. This infected women with AIDS and the condition was passed on to their children congenitally. Years later when travelling in the Eastern Cape and Natal, I had occasion to eat at a truck stop and see lone girls dressed to the nines, apparently waiting for custom.
But I finally won the argument when I ran across a paper by a medical doctor specializing in AIDs treatment in San Francisco. In his survey of hundreds of patients, he noted that it was exclusively a disease that afflicted males, and exceptions were so exceptional as to be statistically invisible. I quoted him and invited my internet interlocutors to call him at the telephone number he so helpfully provided. That ended the debate.
Things were not working out, or shall we say the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (Wuhan Sub Council) had worked out a way to put the Wuhan Financial Fair to sleep, which did not involve us. Months later it was said that the fair did occur on a much smaller scale than anticipated and was left to fade away.
One ironic outcome was that what the central planners first thought would make a good cyber park made a perfect inland container depot. Wuhan has grown from 7.3 million to 11.1 million, so such a development seemed more than justified.
So we packed up and returned to Hong Kong. It wasn't the last time I went to the city, but it was the last time I called it home—more's the pity.T