In the morning we got up early mainly because I couldn’t sleep very well, jet lag’s a killer for me and even going one hour forward throws my body clock into absolute mayhem. And China’s way more than an hour in front of Saudi. We went down to have a look at the hotel breakfast, which sadly was Chinese through and through. I’m sure that Chinese travelers look on bacon and eggs with the same horror as I reserve for Congee (an awful rice based porridge thing, usually but not always with meat and vegetables floating in it) and fried noodles in the morning.
So we skipped that, and having tried the hotel’s abortive attempts at coffee we skipped that too and headed off to Dong Men. Dong Men is the busiest shopping center in Shenzhen. And in the relatively early morning as we headed off I was struck by how little traffic there seemed to be on the roads. In hindsight I know we must have had a miracle morning, Shenzhen is home to over 10 million people at a conservative estimate and congestion is the usual order of the day in mornings and evenings though it’s nothing like big cities back home.
Fortunately for me the lack of traffic meant that we got to Dong Men before the shops had begun to open and it meant we could sit back and relax with a Starbucks, prior to the serious business of the day. This was buying an engagement ring and a wedding ring. Thanks to some ultra-complicated living arrangements Zhang Min and I had gotten engaged over the phone, and this was the first time I’d seen her since then and while I could have bought rings in Saudi or Dubai (or even Bahrain) I wanted her to be able to choose (so I couldn’t get blamed for them not being to her taste) and more importantly I wanted them to fit.
In another of life’s joyous moments the jewelers was right behind Starbucks and she chose a nice solitaire diamond engagement ring which came in two parts a yellow gold band with the diamond on it, and a white gold band which clipped over it with a heart framing the diamond. For the wedding ring we went with a simple white gold band, and I still don’t have a wedding ring as when I brought my chunky Western fingers up for display the staff laughed fit to burst and said I’d have to wait 8-10 weeks for them to order one in.
And before Dong Men had even started to spring to life, we’d made our escape into another taxi and we were off to visit her sister briefly before heading back to the hotel to collect our bags and move onto Chengdu.
Zhang Min’s sister runs a small business in the back streets of one of the many small neighbourhoods of Shenzhen. Her patch, somewhat unsurprisingly, is packed full of people who mainly come from Sichuan province. Because Shenzhen is only 30 years old, almost nobody who lives here, comes from here and that’s just as true for the Chinese as the foreign contingent. Every local I’ve ever met here spends 5 minutes telling you how much they love the place, before sighing wistfully and telling you how much they want to buy a house in their hometown and get the hell out of here.
So these little neighbourhoods act as mini hometowns until their occupants can raise the funds to rejoin their own people. Her sister’s little café cum underground mah jong den, is a bustling place full of happy gamblers and chancers from all over China. As with all Chinese owned businesses almost everyone inside smokes like a chimney and the floor is always coated, during times of occupancy, with a thin layer of ash. This is of course no problem for a chain smoker like me.
What is a problem is the chairs, they’re made of thin plastic and are clearly designed for dwarves. No matter how I try and position myself on one, I can’t convince myself that they won’t collapse under my weight and I can never get comfortable.
Once I’ve kind of got myself settled, her sister thrusts a cup of tea under my nose which I politely decline and then after a bit of a discussion between her and my wife a runner is sent to fetch some beer instead. I must be the first laowai (foreigner) that most of the players have ever seen as there is some excited interest and a lot of disappointment on both sides when it becomes clear I speak no Chinese and they speak no English. This is good for my wife though as she earns a lot of face as an interpreter, as I face a barrage of questions. “Am I rich? Why am I so fat? Isn’t China wonderful? Why aren’t you getting married in England?” and so on.
In fact everywhere you go in China, you’ll find that strangers approach you and ask a variety of intrusive (and borderline rude) questions if you stand still long enough to allow them to. If they speak no English, many will be content with staring and pointing at you and shouting “hello!” at the top of their lungs. Braver souls will come and push your belly (if it’s on the large side like mine) and make disapproving sounds.
I like the atmosphere inside my sister-in-law’s business but after an hour of listening to the tiles click endlessly as the mah jong table’s shuffle away, and the non-stop chattering in Mandarin I’m a little bored. So I make my excuses for a bit, and wander round the area instead.
It has a certain ramshackle charm, while the buildings are uncomely and run down with cracks in the walls and various beautiful colours of mold adorn the sides, they are different from other places. And there’s a moment when a chap comes by dressed in what I still see as a traditional “coolie” hat, balancing a pole with baskets on either end brimming with fruit, and begins to negotiate the narrow passage way between two blocks smiling and pitching his wares to people on either side, when I decide that I might just like Shenzhen after all.
This is a fleeting visit however, and soon the afternoon’s games come to a close and my wife drags me off to another taxi and on to the beginning of our journey to Chengdu.