the self-portrait sessions
sex over 50
odds & ends
tisza river project
© 2011 by Susan Silas
odds & ends
Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong, 3 October 2014
I arrived with my husband in Hong Kong at night. We were tourists about to spend a month in China. Somewhere an entire day had vanished. The hotel room was clean and well appointed. An electronic shade revealed a
glass wall exposing the bathroom to the sight lines from the king size bed. Oddly, there was a piece of paper in
the middle of the perfectly made bed. It was a letter from our hotel. An apology letter. It seems that the protesters
in the center of Hong Kong were a phenomenon that the hotel felt obliged to apologize for. They understood that
this was inconvenient for us and wished to provide us with information about the areas in the city to avoid. They
were no where near the hotel. The next morning I went to the front desk and politely asked to have these areas
pointed out to me on the map they provided for us. We set out for those locations immediately after breakfast.
The center of the protest was around Admiralty Station. We got off the train a stop too soon and walked along
the Gloucester Road, slowly winding our way uphill and into the center of the protest. The street was closed to
traffic and there were students sitting in the middle of the street, talking, on laptops, sleeping. The crowd was
fairly thin. This was the morning of October 3rd, a Friday. We stopped to talk to several small groups of young
women. They spoke English reasonably well. One of them talked about the promises
and said with dire earnestness: "I will never trust the government again.&
They explained that many students had left for classes during the day; it was a quiet morning, relatively empty.
Everyone would return later they assured us. Meanwhile, they were there holding down the fort. There were
medical stations, recycling stations, garbage collection areas. There was an abundance of umbrellas. It began to
rain. We were graciously invited under a tarp and left with a bright yellow complimentary umbrella. We were
situated on what amounted to an overpass and below us in the near distance we watched as more and more men
in uniform gathered. It was not clear what they intended to do. The government had tried to disperse the protesters but seemed to become more cautious about its tactics as the protest grew and international attention began to
focus more closely on Hong Kong.
That night we turned on CNN and the protest filled the screen. Just as we had been told, the crowd had swollen
to thousands of people. They were at Admiralty and near Wan Chai and in Kowloon across the bay. The report
showed a second small group of protesters pushing against the students. They were identified as shop keepers
angry with the protest; working people whose businesses were negatively impacted and who wanted the protests
to come to an end before they suffered financial ruin. The CNN correspondent reported this at face value. But it
was clear, even to me, an outsider who had landed at the airport a mere 24 hours before, that these men, and they
were all men, were not shopkeepers but hired thugs organized by the government. Less clear was the position of
CNN. Did they accept that these people were in fact local shopkeepers? Would they be stopped from reporting if
they suggested otherwise? They seemed to be colluding with government propaganda. A friend's nephew, working for CCTV (China Central Television), the state broadcasting company in Beijing, later confirmed that these
kinds of news events are orchestrated by the government often. Rather than shut down all news of the protests in
Hong Kong the government chose to shape the reporting and its content and meaning.
I was told many times that the Chinese in Hong Kong don’t think of themselves as Chinese. Later that was clarified; it meant that they didn't identify with the Chinese of the mainland, that they looked down upon the mainland. This was not something I could intuit or feel or confirm in any way, especially without access to the language. And it may be that this belief sustains Hong Kong in some way. For the moment, all of these young people
were holding the government in Beijing at bay. But it was also clear that the government in Beijing, while biding
its time, could not afford to lose this battle and that it had no intention of losing.
I wondered if Beijing would have been wiser to have left Hong Kong entirely alone after the handover. Once a
power struggle began, Beijing would have to prevail. Clearly Beijing was chastened by the world's reaction to
Tienanmen and didn't wish to repeat it, especially not just before the world's economic leaders were scheduled
to arrive in Beijing for the APEC CEO Summit, the gathering of world leaders to discuss Asia-Pacific economic
issues. The mantra before the Olympics had been, "No bad news before the Olympics." Perhaps the same held
for APEC. Watching the police in Hong Kong holding hands en masse to form a cordon around the protesting
students in an attempt at non-violent crowd control was a curious spectacle.
We moved on to the mainland two days later, arriving in Yángshuò, in Southern China. Even in the countryside
there was a building boom. Bicycling around Jiuxiàn Village we encountered an American, who happened to live
on Riverside Drive. He was working in Beijing in a capacity he never quite explained. He talked about the way
neighborhoods were being uprooted and moved to large apartment blocks in smaller cities. I had the sense that
one advantage of this policy was to break down organic ties developed over time in the hope that the displaced
persons would look to the state rather than each other for community. It was National Day in China; a week long
holiday and hoards of Chinese tourists flocked to the countryside to take small paddle boats down the Li River. Men played cards and couples drifted on the water, as workers loaded arriving boats onto trucks and hauled
them back up river.
In Shanghai, I thought to look up the city's population. A little over 23 million or nearly four times the population of New York City. But more astounding is the population of China at 1.357 billion. With the U.S. at 318.9
million, China has over one billion more people than the United States. Does population explain the conceit of
wanting to be buried with over 8,000 terracotta warriors and their horses and chariots? When you see all of these
soldiers lined up in a building larger than a typical Armory and think that someone living in 210 BCE had all of
these sculptures produced before his death so that he could be buried with them, it's hard to imagine how it all
gone done in a life time. We are told that not one soldier's face matches another's; each is unique. One is held a
bit too far back to discern whether or not that is true. The day after we visited, a hotel guest told us that she met
the farmer who discovered the army in 1974. He was signing books for visitors. We were also told that it was a
great fortune that the discovery of the terracotta army came so late, just two years before Mao's death, because he
surely would have destroyed the whole lot. It took a while for the government to understand what they had on
their hands or how many tourists it would draw, but they know now.
We arrived in Beijing, the final leg of our journey, on the fast train from Tàiyuán. In Tàiyuán, we had a bit of
a mishap. We had the manager at the hotel we departed from in Pingyáo that morning write out in Chinese,
"Please take me to the train station." Cab drivers do not speak English, nor can they read pidgin Chinese. The
cab driver dutifully drove us to the train station. It looked pretty down. There were crowds of shabbily dressed
people sitting outside the station on the ground and it was unclear if they lived there or were waiting for a train.
But what seemed unimaginable was that the "fast" train would arrive at this station. As it turned out, Tàiyuán has
two train stations; the driver simply took us to the one more familiar to him. With help from a very kind station employee, we found our way to the fast train station. The contrast was startling. The station was a tall glass
structure with a grand approach and an immaculate interior. There were two levels and station employees in blue
uniforms with their hair pulled tightly into chignons, would glide by, perfectly still, on Segway PTs like life-size
electric dolls. I often had the sensation in China that the future had arrived long ago and that the United States
had been left behind in the present. Even something as simple as shopping made me feel that way.
One could liken the Apple Store in Hong Kong to a modern day palace and much the same can be said of the
grandeur of all of the other brand name shops Westerners would recognize. And in keeping with China's disdain
for intellectual property rights, sellers of pirated or knock off IPhones sit on the sidewalk directly in front of the
Apple Store doing a brisk business completely unmolested. And there is no shortage in this "communist" country
of people exiting stores with enormous shopping bags. The stores on the mainland, in Shanghai and Beijing were
just as grand. They made Madison Avenue look downright quaint.
That China has accomplished so much in the past few decades is indisputable. I could see the advantages of
autocracy. Long range planning is possible. A hundred year horizon is thinkable because the government will
not be up for election every four years. There is no anxiety about plans being upended or overturned. If China
decides to build a fast train, then it gets done. They do not suffer the inconvenience of individual property rights
or expectations of fair treatment. They simply decree what will happen and then move forward. It's grim on the
one hand and on the other, they accomplish astounding things that will never be possible in the United States.
Beijing is grey with pollution most days and I wore a Vog dusk mask every time I left the hotel. Our friend's
nephew took us to dinner at a popular Peking Duck restaurant. He acknowledges to his dismay that he has made
decisions as a younger person that are not especially wise. He went to China to work as a journalist. He realizes
now that he might have liked a job in the Foreign Service but can't imagine being accepted with a job at CCTV
on his resumé. He was hired to help the station with new media and online networking and is amused by the
amount of time spent trying to keep him in the dark about what is happening at the station. He imagines that the
Chinese want him to go home and report that Chinese television is just like CNN or MSNBC. He tells us that his
colleagues are incredibly relaxed. Unlike in American journalism, no one has to hurry to get a scoop or compete
to get a story out first. The government decides what the story is, how it will be told and when. He recounts that
one of his colleague's parents actually wanted to join the communist party. Of the population of 1.357 billion
in China, only about 90 million people officially belong to the party. Those parents were rejected because "they
are too poor." The party desires the upwardly mobile middle class as members. He tells us that there are a lot of
shady ex-pats around. "Anyone with a heartbeat who can speak English can get a job here." He hopes that doesn't
reflect badly on him.
On the anniversary of Tienanmen he is asked to look over all of the international news and give a summary of
how the anniversary is reported in newspapers and online blogs around the world. He describes to us the deep
dismay at the station when he reports that news of the anniversary is on the front page of many newspapers and
that the coverage is not particularly favorable toward the government in Beijing. They then behave as if he had
written those reports himself.
Tienanmen Square is enormous. With all of the reporting on the massacre at Tienanmen I never properly understood its scale. We decided to visit Mao Tse Tung. It seemed like something one ought to do if one had gotten all
the way to China. I began asking which of the buildings on Tienanmen is Mao's Mausoleum. No one seemed to
understand what I was asking. I don't speak Chinese but I assume that absolutely everyone in China has heard
of Mao, even if most of the visitors to Tienanmen on a given day have no idea what happened there in 1989. I
am finally told by someone in the tourist office that no one can understand what I am saying because I am not
pronouncing his name properly. She repeats it several times. The difference seems terribly subtle to me, but evidently, not to a Chinese speaker. I have to leave my camera in a building across an eight lane boulevard from the
We get on line. Visiting hours are from nine to noon. We have already passed through a security gate to get
onto the square. It's much like airport security. The line snakes up to the front of the building, where we diverge
into two groups and head into two squat buildings on either side of the main staircase and entry, where we go
through yet another security check and where some Chinese are physically frisked. This does not appear to be a
treatment meted out to tourists.
Upon emerging from the security check there is a stand with bouquets of yellow flowers that can be bought and
laid at the feet of a grand statue of Mao in the lobby of the Mausoleum. Our journalist friend tells us these yellow
flowers are removed and recycled back to the vending area to be resold. After the laying of flowers a hush falls
over the crowd. On the occasion of our visit, we were the only non-Chinese in sight. We were told that the visitors are primarily from outside Beijing. People from the countryside and smaller cities.
One doesn't often have occasion to visit a corpse outside a funeral parlor. They tend to be a few days gone and
then they are buried or cremated or perhaps cast out to sea. This body had been lived in for 83 years and had
been vacated for 38 years at the time of our visit.
I was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that I was on line to visit the corpse of the greatest mass murder of
the twentieth century. By some estimates the total number of people whose deaths can be attributed to Mao is
30 million. That makes him hands town the winner of the contest, with Hitler at roughly 12 million, Stalin at
around 7 million and Tojo at approximately 5 million. In fact, the three runners up together can't hold a candle
to Mao. Clearly, this was not the reason why all of the people around us were there.
We were diverted to the left and into a room with an enormous glass vitrine. Inside of it, an illuminated and
ghoulish face seemed to hover slightly above a reclining body. It was hard to get a good look. He seemed close,
yet very far from us. People around us wiped their eyes. I felt an enormous urge to laugh. We were shunted by
quickly, and within seconds emerged out in the open air behind the building, trapped between two stalls filled
with Mao tchotchkes and many photographs, but none of the reclining Mao we had just seen.
On our last night we returned to Tienanmen to photograph the square at night. It was closed to the public. Cordoned off in anticipation of APEC. The larger than life vase of flowers was well lit, a giant centerpiece on a giant
square with no memory of its past to speak of. As the protests continued in Hong Kong, I wondered if it would
be possible to erase memory in Hong Kong with the same effectiveness as it had been erased on the mainland.