An Englishman in the People’s Republic, Part 2

Tom is a tall, gregarious, generally enthusiastic Englishman in his late twenties who studied at Fudan University in Shanghai and Xiamen University in Xiamen, Fujian Province. In Part 1, Tom talked about sex, privacy and surveillance in the PRC. In this segment he talks about food, drink and hashish.

Tom’s story


For me the whole time in China has been an enormous culinary and consumer experience. I’ve spent two and a half years in China—half a year of that in Taiwan. I haven’t done anything here except consume, buying things or eating and drinking. Yes, eating and drinking are the most important things in my life, and they are for most Chinese people as well. I love it.

It’s really great in the morning to be sitting in a restaurant having dimsum. It comprises some fried and many different steamed dishes. They come in little long [bamboo steamers], and they’re all sorts of different things, dumplings with prawns and beef, all sorts of dumplings, and chicken feet, which are very bony but very succulent. The variety seems to give everything a very rich taste. Most items in the restaurant I went to in Guangzhou were three or four mao [ten to thirteen cents]. A few are one kuai [1¥ or 33 cents].  The waitresses were very friendly, I used to chat them up, and they would help me get what I wanted because there was a bit of a mad rush in the mornings, a big hubbub of a mass of people. It’s just noise. I know it’s a cliché, but the Cantonese must be the noisiest people in the world. It’s really great. You can go in and sit down and say, “We’re going to drink tea.”  You can just have a pot of tea put down next to you, and you can choose things off the dimsum trays as they come around, or if you don’t want to eat anything you just pay for the tea, which costs virtually nothing. If you want, you can just sit and take something every hour or not at all.

Coming away from Zhongshan University in Guangzhou just over the bridge and past the statue you see the Overseas Chinese Hotel. There’s a wonderful pastry shop right near there, maybe as part of the hotel. There’s another one on a street opposite Shamian Island. It’s just a little store front run by two guys who make the best egg custard tarts I ever tasted. We used to go along there about ten at night—they stayed open until 12:00—when they were just baking them fresh… aahHH!  Two mao [7 cents] each. All the pastry’s good. I think that’s quite a new thing, actually, baking. I don’t think it’s traditional Cantonese. Or perhaps it’s just started up again because they didn’t have the materials and it wasn’t something the state deemed necessary to produce. They make good savory bread in Canton as well—not sweet, like it is here.

The snake restaurant in Guangzhou is excellent. But, really, you need to spend about 7¥ or 8¥ [$ 2.33 to $ 2.66] for a meal. Then you’ll get a lot of food as well. You can also get snake in our favorite Cantonese restaurant here in Xiamen. The other night it was Mike’s birthday, and we went to the Guangzhou restaurant and ordered some dishes. Then we saw someone lifting this snake out of a basket. So we canceled some of the dishes and had this snake. They said one snake costs 12¥. We chose the snake. You could say, “I don’t want that one. I want another one.” He just picks it up with his hand, totally unconcerned.

“You say it’s poisonous?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

For 12¥ [$4] you’ve got a dish of snake meat–not a big dish, but delicious–and they use the bones for soup. I lifted the cover of this soup tureen, and this bony head was looking at me. After we ate the soup we took the carcass, and we stretched it out. It was about a meter long.

Snake blood is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. In Taiwan I’ve met men of eighty who say they’re still having an active sex life and who put that down to drinking a glass of cobra blood every month at $80 U.S. a glass. In 1983, when Tom and I were in Taiwan one of the biggest male–and also tourist–attractions was the snake market. It’s behind this massive Buddhist temple. People will go to the temple and give offerings for fertility, and then the man goes to drink snake blood. It’s really quite a horrible sight. They’re just rows of stalls–like restaurants–with every imaginable type of snake, live in cages or already pickled in big bottles.

There’s a man standing there shouting to attract customers. He shows you the snake, holds it in front of your face and says, “This snake’s very good. Come and try my snake.”  Some of the hawkers have the snake’s natural predators, like ferrets, and they have fight between the two and take bets. If the snake wins, which it usually does, there are customers for that snake’s blood.  They slit the live snake at the top and at the bottom and run a hand down it to get the blood to drip into a glass. They might have a half glass of blood. They keep the sex organs because they’re very precious. Then they fill the glass up with an incredibly potent alcohol, and they give you two “energy” pills to take with your glass of snake’s blood.

Now here’s the sordid side of this. Right next to the snake market is the main red-light district of Taipei, which is basically one big red-light district. There are streets and streets of dilapidated houses filled with very young girls. The men, after they’ve drunk their snake’s blood, go to the brothels and get laid. We didn’t go in, I hasten to add. In Taiwan today, as in China before liberation, a lot of the peasants sell their daughters into prostitution for two or three years. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, girls have very little value in the house. So you recoup some of the money you wasted on them in the first eleven or twelve years. After all, the boys are the important offspring because they’ll look after you in your old age.


There was a place in Shanghai near Fudan University. I don’t know if it’s still there because they’re making the area into a tourist center. We used to call this place Rick’s Cafe. It used to be a real dump, like a really filthy baozi and hundun joint [for dumplings and wanton]. They had this enormous vat—about two meters in diameter—with a plastic tube leading down to this kettle. You’d go in and pay a mao fifty or two mao [less than ten cents] for a big bowl of beer, and they’d just pour it out of the kettle. I used to go down there very often at night about 10:00. I thought it was excellent beer because it was quite flat, like English beer. When you pour it out there’s usually no froth, maybe just a few bubbles on the top. Chinese beers are usually somewhere in the middle between flat English beers and heady German ones. Qingdao and the local beer here are a bit gassy for me. If you pour them fast, you get a good head, and it will stay there for quite a while. Here, if we’re feeling like drinking a beer we’ll probably go to the bar on Zhongshan Lu [Sun Yat-sen Street]. It’s really sleazy. It’s dark, they’ve got terrible music, and the people are very friendly.

Ah, yes, drinking customs. I should say first that I like drinking, but I’ve never been a fast drinker. I sip drinks, even beer. The Chinese will fill up a glass, even with a foreign brandy, and just drink it down. You’re senseless after that, and you miss the taste. But then if you’ve been drinking baijiu [white grain alcohol] all your life—the taste of the grain alcohols isn’t so nice, but the effect is. You get very heady. They don’t affect your stomach, but the next day they can give you an almighty headache.

In Taiwan, which is the same as Xiamen—same language, same games—we used to go and eat out a lot in sidewalk restaurants. When you as a foreigner go there, people you’ve never seen before always start to want to buy your dinner for you. It’s amazing. People have the money to do this. They want you to sit and eat and drink with them. Well, we don’t mind having our meals paid for if people want to do that for us. But that gets you into drinking games. There’s one where you have two people each throwing out a hand and shouting out the sum of the extended fingers. There’s rock-paper-scissors, where instead of counting fingers it’s matching up a clenched fist, or the hand held as scissors or a piece of paper. The one who loses has to drink a glass. I don’t know the number of times about two or three o’clock in the morning I’ve had to make excuses and stagger off, having lost at a drinking game. Some people are very good at it, because it’s all a matter of tricking your opponent. It’s a skill, not just luck. It’s quite good to watch when you know what’s happening.

Guests and newcomers on the scene always have to be toasted. I don’t know why, but you are, and that means you have to drink a whole glass down. Obviously Chunjie [Chinese New Year] is particularly difficult. You can’t say no, it would just be rude. We went to visit a Chinese family, and we’d brought a bottle of dry red wine and a bottle of very sweet white wine with us. The men in the family—the father and three brothers—had all sorts of stuff, and they were fetching in people to drink. Even the women were drinking at Chenjie, quite a lot, in fact, but they weren’t being toasted as much. They could just sit and drink. After a while, because we kept toasting them, and we were obviously not getting as drunk on this putaojiu [wine] as they were on the rice alcohol, they insisted that we polish off this weak stuff we were drinking. So we had to move on to this Shaoxing wine, which was horrible for us and got us quite drunk, which is what they wanted, being the hosts. The object of the games and the toasting is to get people drunk, maybe not paralytic, but definitely tipsy. Losing control is looked down upon.

Obviously, during Chunjie you have some heavy drinking. I don’t know about alcohol problems. I don’t know how you could find out about alcoholism here. In China of course you very rarely see people sleeping out, but even when you do—in Guangzhou I saw a lot of people sleeping out in the streets—rarely do they have a bottle of alcohol. I’ve seen a few people staggering around over Chunjie, but that’s an exception.


I wonder about drug addiction. China is usually not thought of as a drug-producing nation, though it’s starting to get that reputation. They’re growing opium in Yunnan and they’re going to transport it via Guangxi and Guangdong to Hong Kong [in 1986]. North Americans coming out of China to the States, especially flying direct from Beijing or some other city in the PRC, are just not going to meet officials on the alert to search people for drugs.

When we arrived in Shanghai we were all psyched up for going a year without, we expected to find no drugs, no vice of any kind, and we found all kinds, including this American student who had no money but a kilo of hash. He just hung around the Peace Hotel looking for Canadian or American businessmen who looked not be too conservative, and he sold the kilo he’d paid 70¥ [$25-28 at the time] for about 1,500-1,600 American dollars. Can you imagine a kilo of hashish?  It’s a big slab, a big block. This stuff is very condensed, it’s green and crumbles easily. It’s more like Lebanese hashish than any other I’ve seen. It was excellent—very potent. Some of the best hashish I’ve ever had. I heard that in some places outside Urumqi it’s 50-70¥ a kilo. I was told to take a small bit and roll it in my fingers to get most of the oil out of it, but you don’t really need to. It’s very potent.

We bought 10¥ worth—a film canister full—which lasted us the better part of a year. That was great because we could sit in our rooms and roll up a cigarette and say to our Chinese roommates, who were supposed to be reporting on us, “Ah, British tobacco, very aromatic, isn’t it?

“Oh, yes, British tobacco is very aromatic.”

Not the faintest idea, absolutely none.

In Xinjiang people were very friendly and invited you to smoke in their houses, and it was possible to buy hashish, though I didn’t.

Now I’ve heard a story that two foreigners were in Urumqi, and they bought 20¥ worth of hashish off this old Uyghur, and they were smoking it in their hotel room. Most people in Urumqi do know what hashish is, and they know it’s illegal. It’s all right for them, [the minorities], but the Han Chinese don’t smoke it.

The fuwuyuan [maid] knocked on the door and said, “Do you think you could stop smoking hashish here, please, because it’s illegal.”

They continued smoking.

She came back and said, “Look, if you don’t stop I’ll have to tell the gonganju [public security or police].”

They continued smoking.

The gonganju came along and said, “Sorry, it’s illegal. Where did you buy it?”  They told them who they bought it from. The man was arrested and put away for five or ten years as an example. This so incensed the Uyghyrs—understandably—that they won’t sell it to foreigners anymore. But in Shanghai they’ll sell it to you. When you change money on the street [from Foreign Exchange Certificates to Reminbi] and you’re trying to get a better rate and they’re not going to give it to you, you can ask for a lump of hashish.

I’ve seen marijuana growing in Beijing, and it grows in Dali. I’ve had some Dali marijuana which was very potent, but I don’t know whether Beijing marijuana was or not. In places like Bhutan, the farmers grow it as a crop or else it grows wild, I’m not sure which, but they feed it to the pigs.

We had a harvesting expedition in Xiamen after someone had spotted this field of what looked like marijuana. It must have been in October, and there were four or five of us who cycled out there, it was a blistering hot day, and this field was a long way from here. It did look like marijuana or one of the hemp family. I assume they use it for rope. There were fields of it. There were all these peasants working in the fields, and they all came and watched us hacking away and tearing the best leaves off. No one seemed too bothered about it, so we harvested two or three carrier-bags full and cycled back feeling very pleased with ourselves. We kept it for about a week in a private place, dried it out in the sun, and then tried it. It was very disappointing. Virtually no effect. But it was a nice day-trip out.