Thor's China Diary

Dining with the Governor 

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The invitation came in the obligatory crimson with gilt lettering. Jiang Zhuping, Governor of Hubei Province, invited Thor May to dinner at the Shangri La Hotel, in honour of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Six pm sharp. We (ah, not an EXCLUSIVE invitation after all) were instructed to assemble for a bus pickup at 4.15pm, so this thing had an even longer lead time than joining the queue to Mao's mausoleum .

Along with the card came a set of instructions, in Chinese, which my students translated along the lines of coat & tie obligatory, applaud when the honourable whoever makes a grand entrance, don't dip out early because the won ton soup is off... etc. Not being Chinese, none of my fellow "foreigners" had understood a word of this and made a panic rush back to their apartments to re- dress for royalty. The Shangri-La Hotel was appropriately imposing, with acres of marble flooring and armies of minions to line the red nylon strip of VIP carpet. We were directed up an escalator to a vast banquet room, lit by chandeliers with insect swarms of black stage lights spotted across the ceiling way above.

If protocol governed the order of seating, my crew rated pretty close to the shoe cleaners in the gutter outside: the very last back row of tables. In the diminishing distance was a podium for the glitterati, set off by a huge, tacky lemon yellow backdrop, the crimson national flag in one corner, and an appropriate slogan for the hour slashed in hanzi across the centre. Perhaps, as in the best feudal tradition, merchants also rated lowly, because our table was shared by the regional manager of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, who kindly invited us to open foreign currency bank accounts with his branch.

There are distinct advantages to sitting unnoticed at the back. You can yawn with the assurance that no TV camera will immortalize your dental fillings. The speeches mostly consisted of listing the names of everyone worth naming (no, I wasn't worthy), and of eighteen people to receive the bronze gong award (I jest not: a weighty replica of an ancient temple bell). Since CCNU has one of the only two native Russian speakers left in Wuhan (a roly-poly babushka from Kiev) she was duly honoured with a gong and couldn't stop giggling. Banquets are supposed to be about food, but they must have overspent on the poster painters because by the standards of any downtown Chinese cafe what we got to sniff hardly amounted to an entrée. Americans, that is, the mob that I'm lumped in with here, are relentlessly polite people, but I noticed that one, after making all the obligatory nice noises, headed out of the banquet hall on a scavenging mission and returned furtively nursing a puff-pastry concoction from the hotel pastry shop.

As happens with these things, it was all over very suddenly. The loudspeakers struck up the national anthem, which was a clever way of getting everyone out of their chairs, and some gent crisply translated on the PR system: "the dinner is over. Goodnight!".

Well, I still wouldn't know the Governor from a noodle seller. I'm not even sure he came. However you want to describe the modern Chinese state, it's as caste-based as India almost. Mingle with the guests? Good grief no. Wary fellows with crewcuts and too much muscle under their dinner jackets watched the foreign friends out into the night. What am I complaining about? The real cost of the dinner went into the red show bag that each guest was given to tote around. It contained a gift-wrapped silver (??) display plate, edged in gilt, with an engraved remembrance of our historic presence at China's big birthday. There was also a weighty coffee table book in tasteful dark green, celebrating a photographic memory of Hubei. This book is, in fact, rather attractive, a good hobbit gift.

"Dining with the Governor" copyrighted to Thor May 1999; all rights reserved

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