ZAO MEN, Qi Dong Province, China – As the kids’ horns brassily blend with the thumping of a uniformed drum and bugle corps – some of the fanfarers actually in tune – you feel swept up in a scene from a movie. It might be a film entitled “Hail the Conquering Angel.”
Fireworks crackle. Schoolchildren in warmup suits, white, blue or red, are passing out flowers, singing and chanting welcoming sentiments, waving and smiling at us big-time while scarlet banners draped between street light poles salute the annual return of the Chen family to their ancestral village.
It’s a holiday in this town. Even if I didn’t know Zao Men from Chow Mein, it doesn’t matter. Glad-handed by association, we, too, are an honored party to the two-day party that is unfolding. We arrive as friends of James Chen, guests of his father, Robert Chen, a sufficient endorsement. Besides, obviously not Chinese, my friend and roommate Aurelio, and I are somewhat exotic, the only caucasians to stray to this rural community, a four hour drive north from Shanghai.
The shouts of “Huan Ying!” (welcome) are meant for us as well. Hospitality flows endlessly like the broad Yangtze River that required 40 minutes for a crossing by ferry on the way here.
Once a poor, no-name crossroads settlement, Zao Men, has prospered, largely through the generosity of the Chens, and grown to 35,000 inhabitants. It is a township now, the mayor, Shi Ya Jui, proudly tells us, and a township needed a name. It wasn’t a difficult choice for him, the city council and the communist secretary. What else but Zao Men, to commemorate the prodigal son, Chen Zao Men – Robert Chen’s father – who ran away to Shanghai and hit a commercial jackpot. And as a gift to Robert Chen, the town’s current angel.
“Oh, my grandfather was a prodigal all right,” laughs James Chen. “A great character. A gambler, womanizer, a maker and loser of fortunes. Gambled them away. But soon made more.
“He was a penniless 17-year-old farm boy when he hitched his way to Shanghai – a considerable journey to an unimaginable metropolis in that day. He worked his way up in pots and pans, then owned the factories making them. In 1949, when the communists took over China, he got out to Hong Kong, taking a new wife and my father.”
Robert Chen, quiet and modest, is a drip off the old bloodline only as a financial maven, presiding over businesses in Asia and Africa. Portly, grayhaired, kindly, he seems somewhat embarrassed by the jubilant turnout and celebration, but pleased by the tributes paid his father and the positive results of his own philanthropy.
Chinese, but an international mix of passports, the Chens move about the world on a variety of family business routes. James, astute in-command, is a British citizen domiciled in Australia. His charming mother, Daisy, and studious sister, Margaret, are U.S. citizens, papa a Singaporean. Regardless of where they may live or travel, their once-a-year destination is Zao Men.
Although the nameless commune was painted communist red after 1949, the Chens – their patriarch’s escape clearly forgiven – wield a green brush. They have planted about $ 3 million in local improvements and opportunities, with more to come each year.
We had departed Shanghai by chauffered van, the glittering city fading quickly into the background. It is no longer grampa’s Shanghai. Having visited last in 1977, I was astounded by the transformation, stunned by the architecture – great, imaginative fingers of buildings pushing the clouds – and the stylish folk, the cars. They have replaced the drab, one-costume citizenry on bicycles of my last look. The elegant Four Seasons is an overpowering contrast to the humble guest house that was considered the best hostelry offered then.
That sleepy China of my memory is now awake and hot. But in the dry, flat countryside it was apparent that life could still be dirt hard. Wagons pulled by donkeys and carts loaded with bricks, laboriously pushed by hand, can be seen on the busy, narrow two-lane road, along with people walking. Skillfully slaloming the van, the driver was constantly on the horn. We passed handworked cornfields and hovels, new brick homes and small factories, numerous construction sites, fishermen lining a canal.
The van attracted gawking. Who could be traveling with a police escort, and jumping the long line of patiently waiting cars and trucks to proceed immediately onto the Yangtze ferry? Influence and respect mark the Chens’ path.
Barge traffic on the silty Yangtze is heavy, the boats on their way to and from the nearby Yellow Sea. Landing at Hai Men, billed as the “door to the sea,” we had entered the Qi Dong district, soon to be enmeshed in the festivities of Zao Men.
Homecoming for the Chens was in full force. Hail the reappearing benefactor!
It amounts to a grandly-enlarged version of the tennis champion Andre Agassi’s reception when he – an admirable benefactor himself – drops by the extraordinary charter school and the boys and girls club he has built in a troubled neighborhood of Las Vegas. While those are happy, enspiriting occasions, there are no musicians, pyrotechnics, floral tributes, performances, demonstrations, children’s processions, banquets such as greet the Chens. This is a test of grace under social pressure, and the family handles it well.
Homage is paid to previous generations at sculptures of Robert’s father and grandmother, portraits of his grandfather and grandmother. Tours are made of the Chens’ works: the hospital, three schools (one with a modern computer lab), the cultural center and other projects. Before leaving, they will meet with the town fathers to discuss expenditures for 2005.
However, it is the eating – splendid, succulent, seemingly unending – that is the most demanding and daunting aspect. Who can count the courses and the delicacies to challenge even the most willing fresser as one meal flows into another?
“We will go into a food coma,” Margaret rolls her eyes. “Courage! But what a way to go.”
Challenged at two luncheons a dinner and a breakfast before being liberated from long tables, we gnaw away bravely among communist party officials and other area dignitaries.
“Save room,” Margaret keeps saying at servings of such as hairy crab, corn pudding with scallops, spinach and pork fried dumplings, shark fin soup, jellyfish, yellow croaker fish, clam pancakes, glutinous onion dumplings, giant prawns, fava bean vegetable soup, fried eggs and lamb chops in a congee, lima beans and shrimp, fried sharkskin, boiled yams, spongy corn, sugared wheat germ balls, bamboo shoots, quail soup with legs and egg, pickled cucumbers, knife fish, pumpkin congee, red bean paste rolls, all sorts of fruits from grapes to watermelons…on and on.
The courses are punctuated with toasts in a clear booze called mao tai — and cries of “Kan pei!” (bottoms-up). Intake of mao tai, Chinese white lightning distilled from sorghum, is something like gulping high-test from the pump.
A floor show accompanying dinner features a brilliant girl violinist and singing-and-dancing elementary school kids in costumed skits with a western flair. One was called “Snow White and Seven Little Indians.” The other had 10 mites garbed as Santa Claus and prancing to “Jingle Bells.”
Friend Aurelio says, “Is this really happening? Or is it the mao tai?”
A side trip to Cape Yuantao Jiao, a burgeoning beach resort on the Yellow Sea, had given us a chance to walk some of it off amid palms beside a marsh.
Where would we spend the night? Zao Men doesn’t look promising. Not to worry. A few miles away is Qi Dong City. Almost apologetically — “We are small, but we are growing” – mayor Chow describes his city of 1.6 million. But, he hopes, we will find suitable the Hotel Qi Dong, which is also festooned with calligraphied praise of Robert Chen.
He is right. The place is merely lavish. A handsome marble lobby could accommodate a Miami Heat game, and the hotel provides every imaginable comfort including bidets and a buzzer alerting you if the room door is ajar.
Who ever heard of Qi Dong City? Just another Chinese surprise. But I was disappointed not to be greeted by more fireworks and another drum and bugle corps.