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What does 7 nights in Teochew Town do to a man?

As the saying goes in one peculiar song: “One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble.”

Question: Now what does seven nights in Swatow, China do to an average Teochew Singaporean?

Answer: It changes his view of China.

That was what happened to me.

Swatow is the key county and city in the teochew area [Chaoshan district] of Guangzhou Province, People’s Republic of China. It is also where thearea’s only small airport is located.To get to Swatow, I had to take a flight to GuangZhou Baiyun Airport and a domestic transit flight to Swatow Airport.

The first thing i noticed about Swatow airport is that it is small. It is also not only small, it also shares the runways with a small People’s Liberation Air Force airbase. The military planes i saw were clearly fighter aircraft with camouflage markings and there were also hardened and camouflaged bunkers for the planes.

Before i accepted a client/friend’s invitation to visit Swatow China, i had thought that Swatow was some idyllic village with an emphasis on either cycling, simple agriculture and fishfarming or fishing. I had thought so because i myself grew up in a Kampong in Changi, Singapore and a bicycle shop in Joo Chiat, i had found out that my ideas of where my ancestors came from were very much influenced by the imagination fuelled by childhood memories.

Before i left for China, another friend warned me that China was mighty busy busy and that there would be people everywhere and that the place would be very crowded, i would be more tired out by the jostling with the crowded than i was jostling with the crowd in Singapore.

However, when i reached Chaoshan [ChaoZhou plus Shantou(Swatow) and others], what struck me was that Swatow is not actually crowded. Each of the counties might have a population much bigger than Singapore’s but it is certainly not as crowded as Singapore.

Chaoshan has a road traffic system that is nothing short of unnerving for the obedient Singaporean. Over here there are no traffic rules it seems, when you approach a junction, everyone just starts turning or going the way they want, nobody acutally stops. The key is that you just have to not go too fast and everythingwould sort itself out by way of your reflexes and control and the other road users’ reflexes and control.

The bulk of ChaoShan’s vehicle population is a curious mishmesh of old Suzuki bikes and Honda scooters and copies of the same, most are well-worn and dusty but there is certainly no doubt that they serve theirmasters and their purposes well. The riders do not wear any helmets. They very often carry more than two persons per bike. I have seen toddlers in sandwiched between their riding parent and the handlebar. I have seen bikes carry up to 3 adults or 5 children at one go.

There are also numerous modified vehicles adapted for further transportaton, and bulk freight use. Large numbers of bikes and scooters and modified bikes and tractors. You have to see the contraptions to appreciate the ingenuinity of the people who modified them.

I have eaten a plate of dumplings for RMB5 [In Singapore something like that would have cost SGD5/-], A soup for RMB6. I am also being pampered by my client in being brought to various restaurants and treated to all sorts of teochew delights. I have been personally responsible for the deaths of several fish, frogs and fowl which were slaughtered simply because I agreed to step inside some restaurant.

The people are friendly, hospitable and unselfish and simple folk who go about their daily chores. No one harasses or accosts you on the street simply because you are not a local. One of my bosses’ employees took me out for breakfast on a scooter yes without helmets. at the roadside stalls, parking is free, the police do not bother about where you park. There are no traffic wardens. I get the impression that people are generally poor. Average worker takes home about RMB1000 per month or less but that is enough to cover their living expenses. Though the impression is that the place is thoroughly 3rd world and the people are generally poor, they do not seem to be unhappy,  in need or destitute unlike some people in Singapore. I saw not a single beggar or homeless person in my trip here so far.

I am brought out on many day trips about the various counties and i made a trip to a part of Tenghai which could have been my ancestral hometown if identified correctly. Therefore other than getting fat from all the good food in Chaoshan, I also receive daily lessons on the use of Chanshan language or teochew dialect. I have learnt several things which i can bring home.

ChaoShan is a huge district many times of Singapore. People can buy a new scooter for several thousand RMB. Choose from the list of availablelicence plate numbers without any extra cost. The people do not seem to be taxed much or the place seem overcrowded and everything seems to work.

The title of this post is actually incorrect. I slotted to spend 8 nights in Chaoshan. So far its just the 5th night, and i am getting impressed.

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October 8, 2010 - Posted by | Life

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