Letter from China: Guangdong and Fujian

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin


A continuation of First letter from China: Sichuan

Ip Man small

Bust of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s shifu, in Foshan, Guangdong


When we try to leave Sichuan for Guangdong (Canton), Jeffrey Chu, my Shanghai-based Taiwanese-American friend, Kirit Kiran, the Delhi-based photographer, and I are faced with the contemporary traveller’s worst scheduling nightmare: the Chinese national holidays. Our journey comes near the end of the weeklong holiday around October 1st, the national day of the People’s Republic of China, when in 1949 Mao Tse-Tung declared that “The Chinese people have stood up!”

There is certainly a lot of standing to be done. We stand in Emei, as hordes of domestic tourists—some with walking stick and camera, others dressed to the nines—flood the usually peaceful Emei shan, mountain. When we reach Chengdu, we stand outside the quaint boutique hotel I booked through booking.com; they are overbooked, and don’t have a room for us, and so after two hours of calling around they find us another hotel thirty minutes away.

We stand at the Chengdu train station, as the accommodating ticket saleswoman tries to find us a decent passage to Foshan, one that doesn’t require more than one transfer. Even though we are travelling on the Friday, three days before the holidays end, there are no seats left. We stand at the bus station, where we finally find three tickets on a bus that will cut through Yunnan, China’s southernmost province that borders Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, reaching Foshan in twenty hours, the ticket lady says. Finally, we stand as we psyche ourselves up for what will be the longest bus-ride of the journey.

When we board the bus at 1pm on Friday, the conductor tells us the journey will take twenty-four hours. Fine. The bus is comfortable, with reclining cushion seats and ceiling-mounted LCD screens that alternate between Chinese music videos, Chinese movies, and Bruce Willis flicks. As we watch Live free or die hard, i.e. Die Hard 4 (2007) and A good day to die hard, i.e. Die Hard 5 (2013), I marvel at the fact that Detective John McClane has now been with us for twenty-five years.


We eat well, as the Sichuanese driver insists on eating only Sichuanese food at familiar restaurants. Our stops, therefore, are determined by the locations of Sichuanese restaurants from Chengdu to Foshan. While the food is good (pictured)—often three vegetables, three meats, a fish and a soup—the toilets are abysmal.

One of these is the worst toilet of our trip, and probably my life. If you, dear reader, are one who gets queasy easily, please skip two paragraphs now. When one walks into Chinese toilets, there is a good chance that cigarette smoke might irritate you. As I walk into this one, somewhere in east Sichuan, I instinctively start coughing and my eyes start tearing. It is not cigarette smoke, but ammonia. I feel like I’m in science lab again and have just dunked my head into a vat of toxic chemicals.

My feet stop and my knees start to swivel, but my bursting bladder, teased by the uncertainty of toilet stops, overrules them. As I walk further in, eyes squinting, I notice the common urinal, a long drain, on the right. To the left is the dumping drain, hovering above which are three Chinese men, squatting and facing me, their trousers down to their ankles, each persons’ buttocks one arm’s length away from the next. They are smoking furiously, and when their smoke blows past my face, I breathe in desperately, for it is a brief respite. I walk to the right, do my thing, and quickly leave. On the way out, an old man sitting at a wooden table asks for one yuan (twenty cents), which I chuck at him.

In fairness, this toilet is one of the few exceptions. Overall, I have been fairly impressed by Chinese toilets, partly by their cleanliness, more by their ubiquity. In India, a common problem is simply the lack of public toilets; hence people, especially men, relieve themselves wherever they want. If development can be measured by lavatory performance—facilities and habits—then it would appear that China has achieved in under a decade what it took a place like Malaysia more than two. For those of us who cannot dump in the company of others, many toilets today, even in relatively small towns such as Wudang, have private cubicles rather than communal drains.

In the end, the bus journey takes thirty-one hours, eleven more than we had initially been told. Foshan is far more developed than I had expected—something I seem to be saying about every Chinese city every time I visit—and as we stand on the seventeenth-floor balconies of our apartment-hotel, we marvel at the tall buildings and construction, feeling like lemmings in a matrix megalopolis.


We are in Foshan to find out about Wing Chung (Yong Chung), the school of martial arts practised by Ip Man (1893 – 1972), Bruce Lee’s shifu. Throughout my journey, the movie industry’s role has frequently arisen in conversations, ranging from the well-documented and popular like Shaolin wushu (kungfu) to the undiscovered and obscure like Orissa’s paika akhada. Wing Chung is probably the martial art form that has most recently felt the force of film. Over the past five years, a slew of films on Ip Man have been released, beginning with 2008’s Ip Man starring Donnie Yen and most recently this year, The Grandmaster featuring Tony Leung.

Well before Wing Chung was popularised on the big screen, however, another southern Chinese martial art, Hung Gar, was made famous by movies about Foshan folk hero Wong Fei Hung (1847 – 1924). Mr Wong was a wushu proponent and traditional Chinese medicine physician, portrayed most notably by Jet Li in Once upon a time in China, the first of six films in the series.

Our first stop is the Foshan Zu Miao, or ancestral temple. This large complex is a sort of historical catch-all for Foshan, featuring everything from jade sculptures to the city’s famed ceramics artwork, to Chinese ancestor worship and “foreign invader” statues, to, inevitably, a memorial hall each for Ip Man and Wong Fei Hung. The memorial halls are a strange combination of real-life history and filmography, in a sort of tacit acknowledgement that the movie characters today greatly outsize their inspirations. In fact, the entire second floor of Wong Fei Hung’s memorial is a homage to his film portrayals.

A plaque reads:
“The movies created by Huang Fei-hong is fantastic in the world movie field. There’re totally 100 ones have been produced since 1949, which is flourish and has broken Gninness [sic] World Record.”


Demonstration at Wong Fei Hong memorial

It is also in Foshan that I realise just how important lineage is for a shifu’s reputation and popularity. Liang Jia Ming, the first shifu we meet is a student of Lun Jia, who in turn was a student of Ip Man. It turns out that every other shifu has some connection to Ip Man or Wong Fei Hung. By contrast, Emei wushu has no recent, popular heroes to whom the current generation can ascribe their skills to, which is party why the art form has had difficulty attracting students.

Mr Liang’s connection to Ip Man is emphasised on websites and in person when we meet, though not in a self-important way—he is one of the most unassuming people we’ve met. Indeed, we are quite shocked by the casual, friendly relationship he maintains with his students. There are three students there on Sunday afternoon when we meet. Mr Liang (pictured) sits us down and starts making tea, in the formal, ceremonial manner that Cantonese do, brewing and filtering on the large tea “table”—an elongated wooden receptacle—that serves as the centrepiece of many living rooms here.


After they practise by themselves for a while, one of the students, Jacky Ting, strolls over and sits down next to us. He lights up a cigarette, and Mr Liang joins him. He pours himself some tea, and starts chatting. Having just completed high school, he is leaving in a month to study engineering in Germany. Jacky’s English is very good, and for the first time in a while, I don’t need Jeffrey to translate. After he finishes his cigarette, Jacky walks back to the training area and continues his practice.

I can’t help but compare that episode—practise, smoke and drink tea with shifu, practise—to the much more deferential student-guru/shifu relationships I’ve observed everywhere else. The camaraderie is nice. Is it just Mr Liang?

Apparently not. Even the students of Mak Yao Ming, an older shifu who we meet the next day, have a friendly, communal relationship with him. Wing Chung’s more egalitarian training structure could reflect the art’s emphasis on self-training and improvement. We see students spending hours perfecting basic postures in front of the mirror and punching thin air in the middle of courtyards, with very occasional instruction from their shifus.

The art form’s most distinctive symbol of self-improvement is the wooden dummy (pictured), instantly recognisable to martial arts’ fans after Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series. Practitioners spar intensely with this dummy, eyes glazed, staring ahead, arms swinging and pronating smoothly, delivering powerful but seemingly effortless blows to the horizontal beams, creating a bit of a ruckus—it sounds as if somebody is using a wooden mortar and pestle, or knocking two baseball bats together, to no particular rhythm.

wooden dummy

Wing Chung also has my favourite form of sparring thus far. In an exchange coined “sticky hands”, two practitioners stand a couple of feet away with their arms entwined (Jacky and Yi Fan pictured). Their arms start swivelling and circling around each others; from a third-person’s perspective, it can seem like an intimate upper-body dance of sorts. But they are really trying to tap the other’s face. To defend oneself, each practitioner is using his/her sense of touch to feel and anticipate even the slightest movement from the opponent; hence the constant, sinuous movement. Perhaps to heighten the sensitivity of their touch, some of them perform “sticky hands” with their eyes closed.


We also meet shifus who teach Hung Gar and Cai Li Fo, another one of the five southern styles. After speaking with them, it seems to an outsider like me that there are very few differences between the three styles, perhaps the biggest being Hung Gar’s close association with lion dancing. On Monday evening, Mr Liang asks us to follow him thirty minutes out of the city centre, to a small village for his weekly lion dance practice, with a group of Hung Gar practitioners. Inside their small, newly-built wushu hall there is an ancestral altar, above which hangs a family tree chart, tracing their lineage to Wong Fei Hung.

Perhaps the biggest surprise there is not the lion dancing, but the village’s annual dragon boat race. It takes place on the narrow river channel that slices through the village, with these long, torpedo boats accelerating and drifting around impossibly tight angles. One of our hosts plays a DVD for us to watch. It is the Formula 1 of dragon boat racing (see video below), and it makes the wide, linear races I’ve watched in Singapore seem like child’s play.


We are a bit sad to leave Guangdong, especially after the great dim sum we’ve had. But Fujian is next, and I’m very excited. A plurality of Chinese Singaporeans, including my wife, are of Fujianese descent—Hokkiens. Despite the Singapore government’s best efforts at suppressing dialects in favour of Mandarin, from as far back as I can remember, I heard Hokkien spoken everywhere—on the streets, in markets, in school.

I grew up more familiar with Hokkien than any Indian language. When I enlisted in army, I grew even more proficient in Hokkien vulgarities, the cussing language of choice. Aside: Given that my wife’s generation speaks barely any Hokkien, it is interesting—and depressing—to think that in twenty or thirty years time, Hokkien in Singapore may be limited only to swear words, with the Singapore Armed Forces its primary fount.

I grew up with Hokkien, the language, and Hokkiens, the people, all around me; and now I am married to one. Fujian is, after Kerala and Rajasthan, the one place that holds some strange adopted ancestral attraction for me. For Jeffrey, of course, the bond is real. He, like most Taiwanese, is also of Fujianese stock. The month before we visit, his mother was in Fujian visiting relatives. From some coastal parts of Fujian one can look out over the sea at Taiwanese islets. As I am to discover, despite the sixty-plus years of political tensions between China and Taiwan, the Fujian ren still seem more closely integrated—culturally, socially and economically—with the Taiwanese than with any other ethno-linguistic group in China.

Our first stop is Zhangzhou, where we meet one of the funniest, warmest shifus of the trip, Li Shuan Yun, who owns a TCM cum tui na clinic. We spend a riotous afternoon and evening with him and his buddies, over much alcohol, which elicits from them those very Hokkien words I heard everyday in the army, here said in jest. I will describe Mr Li more in a future post.

While in Zhangzhou, people we meet suggest we go to Xiamen, which I also find out is where my wife’s paternal ancestors are from. So we decide to spend a couple of days there on the way to Quanzhou, where the so-called Southern Shaolin Temple is. We spend two days on Xiamen’s spotless beach, from where we visit a touristy, car-free island called Gu Lang Yu. Despite it being heavily marketed and positioned for tourists—including caravans of newlyweds and their photo entourages—I am nevertheless enchanted by Gu Lang Yu’s mix of Chinese and colonial architecture; quaint sidewalks; and overall laid-backness.


Gu Lang Yu island, with Xiamen and the mainland in background

It is in Xiamen and Gu Lang Yu that I start to really appreciate just how many young Chinese are striving for a better work-life balance. The pace of life here seems slower. We meet a twenty-something year old chap from Inner Mongolia, who studied in Xi’an before moving to Xiamen, finally settling on a job running a youth hostel because he was sick of sales. “Many young couples from places like Beijing and Shanghai are moving to cities such as Xiamen,” Jeffrey says. “They are looking for a better quality of life.”

In Gu Lang Yu I also develop a newfound appreciation for contemporary Chinese design and aesthetics. Some of the shopfronts and decors are as fashionable and trendy as I’ve seen anywhere—perhaps the closest comparison being swanky streets in other rich East Asian cities like Seoul and Tokyo.


Meanwhile, in Gu Lang Yu, Kirit and I finally see the ocean again; the last time was in Chandipur beach, Orissa, some 7,400 kilometres away (see Travel note from India: Chandipur beach, Orissa). The whole time in China, random Chinese, having never before met Bollywood royalty, ask Kirit to pose for photographs. We commemorate this ocean occasion by turning the tables on them: finding three young, hapless girls and getting Jeffrey to take a photo of us.


But the primary reason I will always remember October 12th 2013 on Gu Lang Yu beach is because that very afternoon in Singapore, my elder sister was giving birth, making me an uncle for the first time. The saddest thing about being on a long research trip like this is that I invariably miss important life events of those close to me. As Jeffrey, Kirit and I sit on the beach, watching the waves gently roll in below a darkening sky, I wish I could be transported home for just a few minutes to see my niece, a fellow Snake. WhatsApp provides some comfort.

We are in Xiamen and Gu Lang Yu for all of two days, so I don’t want to draw too many conclusions about anything, but the trip has sparked some ideas. We spend a further three days in Quanzhou, one of Fujian’s historical business and trading centres. We spend much time at the the Southern Shaolin Temple—an old offshoot of the original in Song shan—which has undergone a revival over the past two decades following concerted attention and investment by the city government. Zhen Fa, the shifu there (pictured), spends a day with us and then treats us to a wonderful vegetarian Buddhist meal. I will talk more about “Nan Shaolin” in a later post on Shaolin.


All the while, I realise that I’m growing more and more comfortable in Fujian. The reason is language. Finally, the little bits of Hokkien I picked up over the years comes in handy. I’ve travelled to many countries and learned drippings of many languages, but never before have I met locals so intrigued and perplexed when I speak—no, say a few words—in their vernacular. There are several moments in Fujian when shopowners stop dead in their tracks, jaws dropped in disbelief. And all I’m saying is playschool stuff, for instance “Neng kor” instead of “Liang kwai” to refer to two dollars. Never before has language broken ice so effortlessly.

“You speak Minang Hua?” many of them ask me, in reference to their language. Very few here say “Hokkien”. The people are Fujian ren, and the language is Minang Hua. The reason they are so bewildered by my superficial grasp is that only locals speak Minang Hua. It is very unlike the Cantonese dialect, for instance, which partly because of the film industry is familiar even to non-native speakers. Perhaps the most common dialect phrase one hears everywhere in China is mai tan, the Cantonese phrase to ask for the bill at a restaurant. By contrast, if we discount Taiwan, few in China outside Fujian speak Minang Hua. Hence people would never, not in their wildest dreams, expect an Indian to.

I’m enjoying myself, and as I walk around I start to utter little bits of Hokkien for no particular reason, just to see who might pick up on it, which will open the way for a short viewing of my wife’s photo on my phone and my shpiel on Singapore’s many Fujian ren. Jeffrey and Kirit soon tire of this mindless self-indulgence, and start to leave me on my own whenever they hear my broken Hokkien.

No doubt, Jeffrey is also increasingly nostalgic. “This reminds me of living in Taiwan” is something he repeats throughout our trip. The highlight of the prodigal son’s return is a rendition of Teresa Teng’s The moon represents my heart, the most famous Chinese song, in the park with an old man on the eve of his son’s wedding.

Finally, we realise much later that Kirit is also in a bit of a muddle because of language. On this, his first trip to China, we have travelled through the southern Chinese states of Sichuan, Guangdong and Fujian—three places where the air is filled with as much local dialect as Mandarin. Only much later, when he has the chance to listen to sustained Mandarin, does he start to pick up words and phrases.

There is much more to be said here: about the differences between north and south China; Qing and Ming dynasties; Communists and Kuomintang; and language. But let’s leave all the more serious stuff for the book.

The story continues at Letter from China: It’s Wu-dang!

More photos:

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 10.43.23 pm

The bus-ride takes us from Chengdu (A) to Foshan (C). We later take a train to Zhangzhou, a car to Xiamen, before ending in Quanzhou (D)


Lion-dance drummer in Foshan


Cantonese opera practice in Foshan




Guangzhou, where we transit for a day on the way to Zhangzhou








One of Gu Lang Yu’s several cathedrals


Walk to the beach, Gu Lang Yu


Dancing cat, a cafe built into an old underground bunker, Gu Lang Yu


Dancing cat, a cafe built into an old underground bunker, Gu Lang Yu


Gu Lang Yu


Gu Lang Yu


Diego in Gu Lang Yu


Nan Shaolin, the Southern Shaolin Temple, Quanzhou


Nan Shaolin


Lao Tzu (Laozi), a famous Daoist philosopher, Quanzhou


There is a saying in Quanzhou that when one lies down, be as flat as this ancient 2.5km bay bridge that was once surrounded only by ocean.


Below series of shots is from a wonderful Buddhist vegetarian meal at Nan Shaolin






Wild mushroom soup




Above series of shots is from a wonderful Buddhist vegetarian meal at Nan Shaolin




A satay curry noodles in Zhangzhou


Duck, Foshan


Squid, Xiamen


Wonderful pastries from a Taiwanese bakery, Quanzhou


A “beef” steak, actually pork, at the Noble Steak House, Quanzhou




A cake of pu-erh tea


Chinese just love taking photos with Kirit

4 thoughts on “Letter from China: Guangdong and Fujian

  1. Hello, I have been a silent reader of your blog….. I enjoyed it tremendously. do you intend to take a side trip to Kinmen island? A Singapore passport allows you to do that…… the experience is quite surreal…..

  2. Thank you for your interesting post, China is quite fascinating indeed, in the spite of the problems there.

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