Whistling On A Bike In China. 1987

I would only have six weeks but I wanted to know how the Chinese people survive. What they laugh at. How they play. What we have in common. I came with a mouth organ and some of my music and before I left I had sung, danced and played with many of the different people I had met in China.

Guangzhou, a big city in Guandong province, was freezing cold, with millions of people swarming through the streets, I hired a bicycle and cycled alongside thousands of other cyclists, through mad traffic, with bells ringing, and horns blowing, the air was smoggy with fumes; the modern, functional buildings had been built quickly, cheaply and were ugly not a good first impression. But Guandong is a frontier city. You have to go into the countryside, where most people live, to find real China.

Leaving Guandong province (which the English call Canton) by very slow train, in the hard sleeper class, but with blankets and Hot water, eating place, I met a young man called Spirit of the Forest; who spoke good English. He had learned it at University after teaching himself initially. We talked in the bitter cold with a bucket of hot coals near our legs. Like most Chinese men, his uncle chain-smoked. Spirit had no religion but respected his ancestors. He thought that Hong Kong would probably still not be open to the Chinese after 1997. He told me that to leave China, a Chinese person must have a sponsor or family in the country they choose to visit, and given the choice he would choose to visit Australia, the USA or England.

Speaking of Chinese life he said that contraception is available free from hospitals, but abortion must be paid for. He believed that the Cultural Revolution was not good for the population, it prevented people from speaking freely, and also from learning English and meeting foreigners. But he and his uncle agreed that China had improved since its Liberation in 1949. Spirit worked up near Beijing on Railway construction, he was trying, with difficulty, to transfer his job to work here in a pottery factory.

I was trying to learn Chinese as I travelled. I met a young man trying to learn English, so, with a phrasebook, he would pronounce the Chinese words for me and I would try to sing them back, and then I would speak the English words for him to repeat. But dialects and accents change so much from place to place, that trying to speak Chinese became a complicated singing game. Now and again folks would discreetly approach and ask me to change my Foreign Exchange Currency for 'Renminby' or 'Peoples Money'. Only foreigners are given F.E.C. for their money to spend here. There are six 'F.E.C' to the pound. On the black market, the rate of exchange was nearly double. For one hundred F.E.C. you would be given approximately one hundred and eight Renminby. Which you might spend on food or odd things but some places, like hotels, still demanded F.E.C. notes. Chinese people wanted the F.E.C. to buy Western goods such as cigarettes, make-up or stockings from the special stories. Which they might keep or sell later. This two-tier money system did not seem very efficient because it invited corruption. I thought that perhaps some kind of entry tax on foreigners might make a two-tier currency system unnecessary.

Markets offer remedies, herbs and weird specialities: Birds heads, sea porcupines, powdered Armadillos, and bats wings. Dried snake is good for chest pains. A Guilin (Gwaylin) food Speciality was a snake hotpot. I met someone who had eaten reindeer penis.

My diet was Lima beans and vegetables with hot and spicy sauces, bowls of hot noodles, rice, eggs, chicken, pork, and fish. A difficult country for a vegetarian to survive without losing weight. My favourite meal was at a friend's home, they had prepared dishes of meats, fish, vegetables, sauces, and quail eggs, such a rich variety lovingly cooked by friends who took pride in showing their culinary tastes and skill.

Leaving Guilin, I took a bus to Yangshou, a small town on a winding river, where people live on the boats that they build. It was a misty rainy climate. In the Market, you can see live river fish, pigs and Comic stalls, or rent a comic and sit reading it over hot coals to keep warm. Here the mountains are peculiar shapes, more like big mounds, it looks like they made mountains out of molehills.

Cycling is a good way to see the countryside, slowly and deliberate. You are never alone in the middle of a field, but you will always come across someone, somewhere. Me and Deasy, my companion hired a couple of bikes and cycled towards Moonhill, past the famous Banyan tree which seems to grow its roots under and above the ground. On our way an old woman led us, climbing up rocks to show us the caves in her village, inside where cattle take shelter and fodder is kept dry. We pedalled on to find the Black Caves. Here we were given a torch each by an attendant who guided us through the stalactites. Tapping the stalactites they rang and shuddered dry notes like a marimba. I could hear them dripping, huge stone curtains towering above. One I counted, dripped every seven seconds. Here in the belly of the mountain, it was warmer and quiet.

After a long day, we went to a small restaurant to eat. There was an old guitar hanging up on the wall. I pulled it down and started to pick some tunes on it. After a while, the restaurant owner and the kitchen workers pulled back the tables and we were all dancing and singing together and laughing. Some Western tunes that the Chinese know are 'Auld Lang Syne 'Edelweiss', and 'Midnite in Moscow'. The owner of the place, Charlie (after Charlie Chaplin.) sang a song, "If you're going to marry, don't marry any others marry me", and a march they called, "Sons of the Dragons", they gave us a drink of brandy for playing, we all shook hands, cook, waitresses, friends and Charlie.

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, was much more peaceful, there was less horn-blowing! The sun shone, but it was cold in the shade. Blind masseurs wearing white coats offered their services for a small fee on street corners. Using acupressure would stimulate pressure points and relax tired muscles. Other people offered to clean out your ears with what looked like a sharp knitting needle. A chiropodist was busy cutting and dressing a man's foot and a dentist searched someone's mouth.

There are few flowers grown or cultivated in Yunnan province. The few they had were displayed inside pots and were put out in the city square. Food is the priority, vegetables, broad beans, and rice; they have to feed a billion people so no space is wasted.

The Chinese wolf their food down and don't talk at meals. They have a saying "Every grain of rice that you leave in our bowl will be a tear that you shed before the day is out".

At the building of the ethnomusicology dept (I'd been given the address by The Music Workers Association in Guanzhou.) I explained that I wanted to hear some Chinese folk music and singing. At first, they were distant, until I played them a tune on my mouth organ, which excited them. A friendly woman, Qing offered me some tea. She told me it was the wrong time of year for festivals, where folks would gather together especially to sing, and that towns near the Laos-Vietnam border were out of bounds, she did suggest a couple of towns to visit to find live music, but I decided just to follow my ears and nose instead.

Qing told me that she had begun singing opera and classical music with a company. She sang a few phrases for me as we walked down the stairs. Now she had a job collecting and researching folk music. She had a son 11 years old and earned 200 yuan a month (£30). In this department field recordings are transcribed, and foreigners aren't allowed to hear tapes but Qung discreetly let me hear some singing that she had recorded. She asked me to play again for her friends, she wanted to record my singing on her tape machine. So I made up a song about arriving in Kunming, and then a phone rang in the middle. I copied her phone ringing with my mouth organ, everyone in the office was laughing and clapping. She asked me all about my song, when and where I wrote it. What style was it? She recorded all these questions and my answers.

Qing's colleague gave me a book of Yao people's songs which he had notated. I asked him if the Yao people themselves understood the notations, "No, they pass on the Songs orally". Decorations and inflexions in the voice were impossible to notate. They asked me to come back to see them on my return.

Two blind folks were busking and signing on the streets of Kunming, near the railway station. A woman singing and playing the accordion and a man bowing a two-string fiddle called an Erhu, the bow hair is played between the two strings and pushed to scrape against one or the other by the second finger of the bowing hand. A soulful sound like a weeping voice in the hands of a good player, or perhaps, like a musical saw but richer and more controlled. The songs they sang were popular songs of the province, they also played requests from the crowd who gathered around them. Nothing was contrived about their singing, their voices were full and natural, unlike the voices of the people I heard singing opera, who I assume were singing an affected style as characters in a story.

One blind Erhu player played through a small battery amp. He didn't seem to play any tunes but held a conversation with his Erhu, short scratchy phrases, which he'd answer vocally, and were much enjoyed by the local children. In Green Lake Park at weekends people sang folk opera pieces together, not in costume, but as couples singing for each other and the crowds that gathered. They were accompanied by banjo and Erhu and were enacting a story, taking turns to sing and gesture or dance. It was inspiring to see these older couples of 60 years old, performing to each other, their only prop a silk scarf or a hat. Other folks in the park played dominoes or brought their knitting, while they listened.

Some Thirty Yi people danced a slow circle dance, they chanted together as they moved together holding each other. Two men, dancing as part of this circle, accompanied their chanting on a three-string instrument called a Sansuo. Others would come and join the circle of women and men. It felt as if they were creating some kind of healing circle because of the spirit in the dance steps and through the intonation that joined them all. Returning to the park another day, I met some women who danced and sang together. I joined in some dances, and we improvised together, laughing at our attempts and surprised at our success. These women were accompanied by musicians playing najos, Erhus, Drums, wood blocks, and flutes, it was exhilarating to see the affection they had for each other, a contagious sense of joy and sisterly love. These were pleasure-loving people, teasing each other. We mimed and copied each other's gestures, and made up our own steps for each other to follow. One woman gave me a hat to use as a prop, and the three of us started clowning together and dancing freely. The crowd laughed and applauded our antics. Then my companion astonished the crowd by doing a cartwheel across the space and led the women into one set of steps, and the women-led her into other dance steps. I don't know many formation dances, but I suddenly found myself teaching and dancing the 'Hokey Kokey' with them and 'Ring a Ring O Roses', they loved it, and I laughed at myself as they followed my steps diligently and tried to sing the words. There was a deep crowd and they applauded warmly. They loved the idea of using spoons for percussion when I played them. There were many Sani people there, Sanis are part of the Yi tribe. As I left these new friends I shouted "De Maka neerly" which means "see you again" in Sani. The crowd laughed in surprise and clapped again because not even many of the Han Chinese would speak their language to them. It was easy to attract a crowd in China without doing anything, folks would stare at you eating, and some kids were fascinated by the hair growing on my arms. So I didn't feel nosey staring at them back. Here, in Greenlake Park, was a definite meeting place for folks out of town, tribal peoples gathered here to listen to their own tribal singer sing a long story or ballad while another clapped the rhythm, it was like a kind of rapping. The song also had some humour and truths for folks who laughed in places at the story. Older women in the crowd mouthed the words of this song as the performer sang, lasting some eight or nine minutes.

China is a huge country and travelling is slow, so I planned to spend all of my time just in this, the southwestern region of the Yunnan province. I decided to head for a town called Dali, before Chinese New Year, so that I could watch the town change as New Year arrived. Taking the bus from Kunming, up through the mountains. We stopped in Chuxion. Here I saw bowl makers, melting scraps of aluminium, then carefully dusting and tightly pounding the earth into the mould box, and casting these basins on the street. One young boy pumped air into the fire using bellows by hand to raise the temperature needed to melt the pieces of metal.

A man with pieces of snakeskin, string, and wooden rods was making and selling erhus (2 string fiddles) on the street. In Chuxion an English teacher invited me to his home to drink tea as he needed to practice speaking English. His name was Cong, short for Confucious.

We asked each other questions about our lives and our countries. Cong complained that prices were too high, that public officials were also merchants and they held up supplies to keep up prices. He didn't agree with the modernisation programme of Deng Xiao Ping, saying there was not enough food, and people need to stay on the land and not leave it and work in factories. Mao and Chou en lai were more popular with the people, he said. Politics and the solutions to problems were too complicated to explain, He told me he wanted to go to the USA, to teach Chinese history and learn English.

Cong told me about the young girl we were playing with. She and her family lived in this same compound her father had gone fishing with dynamite some 12 years ago, he had blown his hands off and also been blinded by the explosive. The girl's mother was deaf, so now her grandpa had to be their breadwinner. He was old and the work was too much for him. This 'bad luck' made them a poor family.

The Town Dali lies slightly North West of Kunming up in the mountains by the side of Erhai Lake. If you go further west you come to the Burmese border, and to the North West is Tibet. The tribal people who live here are called the Bai people. There are 20 different tribes in the province of Yunnan. Achang, Bai, Benglong, Bulang, Dai, Dulong, Hani, Jingpo, Jinuo, Lahu (which means "Roasting Tiger meat" in their own language) Lisu, Miao, Naxi, Nu, Pumi, Tibetan, Wa, Yao, Yi, Zhuang. There are a total of 56 minority tribes living in the whole of China, all have their own unique language and dress. The Han Chinese are the majority tribe in China, it is they, who we believe are "The Chinese" because they outnumber the minorities by millions.

A tribe has to be officially approved as a separate nationality by the state council. The Jinuo people, for example, became China's 56th Nationality in 1979. (The decision was made based on findings that they have a language (belonging to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan family), customs, economic structure and psychology or their own not shared with other peoples.

Bai people from the surrounding villages of Lake Erhai, including Dali, come to Shapin market on Mondays to buy and sell furniture, fishing baskets, spices, meat, poultry, clothes, cloth, and tools. From early in the morning people swarm into the town, built upon the hillside, carrying wardrobes upon their backs, and with horses and carts bringing goods. The women do most of the selling and buying, handfuls of peppers, sampling seeds, fishing baskets, jewellery, embroidery patterns, shawls, and baby clothes. A shoe repairer would repair a torn sack with his sewing machine. Engravers would carve characters on print blocks by hand, in tiny detail, intricate and fine. These craftsmen work outside in the sunlight rather than blinding themselves under artificial light, cramped inside a dull workshop.

Even the smallest children shouted "hello" or "Ni hao", as I cycled through villages. The Bai are warm, open people with earthy humour, they are more colourful than the Han Chinese.

At Erhai Lake fishing families prepare their boats, 50 feet long, wooden boats using straw matting, which turns them into shelters on the water. Men make and repair nylon fishing nets. The boats are punted in and out of the harbour by long poles. The kids help their families and work on the boats from a young age. The boats are also used for transporting sand and cement. Around the lake is farming land, Women come and wash freshly picked vegetables near the boats in the harbour.

I went to take a hot bath in Dalis' bath house, where women and men bathed separately. There were eight marble bathtubs in continuous use. It was cold outside. We all stripped down and waited, sitting on one bed each for a turn to bathe in the piping-hot water. A deaf-mute man ran the baths bellowing and mouthing people's directions, "Your turn" "Next" "Time Up" After they had soaked for a while, he'd rub down the Chinese men with their flannel while they lay down on a wooden board. I got out of my bath, he beckoned me over, and I lay down, He massaged me through a towel, drying me at the same time, and then, using Eucalyptus oil, he pummeled my back. All good for blood circulation. His grandpa had taught his father who taught his son the art of acupressure. A wood furnace heated the water inside a boiler. Everyone came out of the baths shining and flushed. All the boys, the men seemed as skinny as me, I didn't see any overweight Chinese on my visit.

New Year's Day, by the lunar calendar takes place between the end of January and the middle of February. In Dali the spring festival was explosive, with kids lighting fireworks, tossing them in the air, under feet, and into puddles which made the water fly as they exploded. Reams of bangers carried into doorways exploding and raining with fire, deafening, like machine gun war. Cow horns are blown and gongs and drums are beaten in the villages. Days before the actual arrival of New Year people get busy slaughtering hogs, chickens, cattle and sheep and making bean curd, rice wine and glutinous rice pastry, women embroider holiday garments. People hang up New Year pictures and gather for a family banquet. The next day young people clad in new clothes gather in open lots, in or outside the village, to sing and dance. There were two different dragon processions, curling and weaving their way down the main street, underneath one dragon, a long line of energetic men twisting and running across the street led by Suoni horn players and drummers. Groups of girls dance light steps with tambourines, and sing, led by a flute and banjo player. A monk Character with clappers and an old man chased each other around in some kind of playful theatre ritual, as the new year swept away the old year. Kids played a tune they had learned on the instruments that they were being taught. A girl of eight or nine played the accordion, others performed a song and dance piece, and another girl struggled with a tune on an electronic keyboard, all throughout, explosions of fireworks drowned her melody. A young girl of about 14 played a 4 string instrument called a Pipa, with delicate, beautiful fingers, creating harmonics on the fretboard and dexterously flocking the strings with every finger. Older men played hammer dulcimers, cymbals, and racks of bells and a zither.

A funeral procession passed. White is the colour of mourning here, white as snow in winter. Led by musicians. A gong player and a man blowing a reed instrument called a Suoni horn which is very hard to blow, it needs a lot of wind, as does a bagpipe chanter. It's like trying to blow up a hot water bottle. I wanted to visit Shilin, just south of Kunming. Here was the famous Stone Forest. I wanted to spend the night in Shilin so that I could walk around the forest early in the morning without the crowds. Though I did enjoy watching the many Chinese tourists come to see the forests, clambering all over them, and having their photos taken on Camels and Mules which are painted to look like "exotic" Zebras.

In the evening I heard there would be folk dancing in the big Hotel, and busloads of tourists would come here for an excursion to see the forest and hear songs and dances. The dancers danced with pitchforks and acted out fertility dances, courtship songs and dances.