Of course, borders are sexual, at least for men, for you’re about to enter a normally forbidden territory. This buildup, anxiety and euphoria is lessened if the border is a mere formality, or if you have a strong (and stiff enough) passport. For women, border crossers can promise adventure, for they may deliver you to another world, after entering yours.
For two weeks, I’ve been hugging a border. I type this in Si Ma Cai, just four miles from China, though the trek there is not level, and there’s nothing on the other side but wooded mountains.
Just last week, though, I was in Lao Cai, where each day I could stroll along the Red or Nanxi River and see what the Chinese were doing on their streets and balconies, or inside their windows. Along the bank of the Red River, a few men were fishing against a green backdrop of towering wild grass and bamboos. I fleetingly glimpsed two women walking their dogs.
Most of the time, though, there was no life. Most stores were closed. Unoccupied hotel rooms had their curtains always drawn. At mid-morning, a four-lane avenue leading to a grand gate and steep steps, a magnificent vista, had but one motorbike moving.
Normally bustling, Hekou and the Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture have become unnaturally void and silent, even as their multi-colored lights still dazzle at night. Thanks to the coronavirus, much of China is locked inside. Though seeing a Chinese in public is not quite like spotting Elvis or Big Foot, it is rare.
I came to Lao Cai from Dien Bien Phu, on a minibus that took ten hours, with stops to pick up passengers and to eat lunch. There was a friendly Chinese who communicated with me via a translation app. About forty-years-old, he alternated between looking eager and subdued.
Learning that I was Vietnamese, he asked, “Will you help me to find a wife?”
“Sure, when we get to Lao Cai,” I laughed.
“A beauty pageant winner?”
“Yes, of course. There are many.”
“A Vietnamese wife is too expensive,” he cranked up the humor. “Three hundred thousand dong [$13] for just half an hour!”
Since a conversation of this nature could only go so far, we didn’t say much more. A few hours later, the Chinese turned his attention to an Argentinian man, sitting right in front of me.
His opening, “I’m from China. I go back to China tomorrow. I’m only playing in Vietnam. Where are you from?”
When the Argentinian said something nice about China, the Chinese surprisingly retorted, “Dictatorship!”
Most people onboard were headed for trendy Sapa. In 1995, I saw its famous 1935 church still in ruins. It had been shelled by the Chinese during their 1979 invasion. A local told me people had fled in terror to the hills. In 2020, I opened the minibus window to better scan all the new, brightly-lit hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars.
Lao Cai was completely destroyed during this barely remembered border war, and was abandoned for a dozen years. Both sides laid down thousands of mines.
This remote region has long been fought over, however, for it’s a lucrative trade route between Yunnan and Vietnam. Opium shipped downriver while sea salt flowed upstream. Fattening on taxes, the Black Flag bandits were based in Lao Cai. Tai and Hmong Lords staked out territories.
Trying desperately to retain their identity, there are ethnic groups here almost no one has heard of, such as the Kháng (down to 14,000 people), the La Chí (13,000), the Phù Lá (11,000) or the Pa Dí (just 2,000). Much larger groups, though, are also losing this battle, and yours, too, of course. Cultural castration is a worldwide pandemic. We’re all being unmanned.
As the British rushed to reach Yunnan via Burma, the French got there first through Lao Cai, in 1886. In 1906, they linked it with Hanoi by a railroad that cost 12,000 Vietnamese and Chinese lives, plus 80 European ones.
When the Englishman Archibald Little came to Lao Cai in 1911, this was what he saw:
LAO-KAI presents the same contrast to Ho-k’ou, that the Model Settlement does to the Shanghai city; on crossing the railway bridge that now unites the two towns, one passes abruptly from filth and disorder into wide macadamised streets lined with shade trees; clean white bungalows, one and two-storied, a small bund with pontoon wharf—a miniature Point de Galle with the same tropical air and vegetation, but also a close, steamy atmosphere due to its situation in a narrow valley distant 265 miles from the sea. There are few or no Chinese in Lao-kai (it costs them about six shillings a head to enter French territory) and, in the siesta hour, in which we landed, there were apparently no inhabitants. The military are stationed on the right bank and have to cross the rushing river by ferry to come into Lao-kai; the piers of a high bridge, solid circular pillars of brick and stone, were erected some years ago, but the idea of completing the bridge seems to have been abandoned. The chief buildings are the offices of the administration, a spacious Custom-house with godowns attached, the offices of the "Messageries Fluviales," the Post Office and the Hotel Fleury, where we put up, also a roomy military "cercle," pleasantly situated on a bluff overlooking the river, and a bandstand in the central "Square." Towards evening, after an enjoyable dejeuner at the hotel, we sat on the verandah listening to a military band, we having happily arrived on band-day, and felt that in crossing the Nam-ti we had re-entered civilisation; but we pitied the folk whose duties relegate them to this depressing spot, with little to occupy them, no sports, no society, nowhere to go; hemmed in as they are by pathless jungle.
A century later, Hekou has surpassed Lao Cai in tall buildings, array of shops and modernity, for China is no longer mired in “filth and disorder.” Things can reverse fast.
Just before we entered Lao Cai, the Chinese showed me his phone, “Can we stay together at the hotel?”
I didn’t exactly welcome the idea, but thought that perhaps the man was low on cash, and since it was only for one night, maybe I could deal with it. The best solution was to find a place cheap enough so we could each have our own room.
“We’ll find something in Lao Cai,” I answered.
Just like at Dien Bien Phu and Sapa, there was nothing in Lao Cai I could recognize. We got out in the darkness and cold. With excitement and relief, the Chinese pointed to a guest house right over the minibus company’s office, but after one look at its barely lit stairs, I shook my head, then led him down the street.
Sure enough, there were guest house signs nearby. Walking into the first one, I found out that it only cost $7.30 a night, so fine, we were set, but after the Chinese pulled out his passport, the owner said no.
“But he’s been in Vietnam for a whole month, brother,” I protested. “He’s only in Lao Cai to go back to China, tomorrow.”
“No, no Chinese, my kids are afraid.”
Chuckling incredulously, I could say nothing more to persuade him. Since I wasn’t about to abandon my Chinese friend, I asked the owner hypothetically, “So can I stay here? I’m Vietnamese.”
Grimly shaking his head, the man couldn’t wait to get rid of us diseased monsters. Again, we marched into the darkness and cold. “Don’t worry,” I said, “we’ll find something,” and we did, just two doors away.
At Quyen Linh Guest House, a room without a private toilet cost just $4.29, so that’s that, for that’s all they had, and it was cheap enough that neither one of us had to hear the other snore, fart or dreamingly babble through the night.
For that price, I didn’t expect much, but my bed didn’t smell funky or sour, and though voices, music or footsteps did occasionally penetrate my thin walls and seemingly nonexistent door, I slept fine.
On a dingy wall, there were even two pencil drawn hearts, enclosing heartbroken poems. The first one began, “A small room during a long, desolate night / Suddenly my heart saddens and longs for him / The word wealth sounds so romantic / Squashes my life with its poor girl’s fate.” Since age deepens poverty, the poor girl is probably even more destitute, or maybe she’s a princess, intertwined with some toad.
The next morning, I walked several miles to scope out the new Lao Cai, and before noon, had moved into a better situated and cheerier hotel, though still cheap. I’d stay there for ten days. I wanted to be as close to the border as possible.
Before leaving Quyen Linh, I did chat with its owner to learn that he was a native, and hadn’t just lived through the Chinese invasion, but fought against it, as a militiaman.
“How much training did you get?”
“So how did you know what to do?!”
“You know, brother, us Vietnamese hear so many war stories growing up, we became accustomed to it as children.”
Although the Lao Cai region is the second poorest in Vietnam, the city itself has done extremely well in the last two decades, as a key gateway to trade with China, and with a daily influx of Chinese tourists. With the eruption of the coronavirus and the closing of the border on January 29th, all this commerce suddenly stopped, so I found myself in a stunned and prostrated city, though not nearly as comatose as what’s across two thin rivers.
Many Lao Cai businesses clearly target Chinese. Sichuan dry hot pots are widely available, and at Dang Chau Quan, the menu lists prices only in yuans.
Sign at a burger joint, “CORONAVIRUS / STORE TEMPORARILY CLOSED.” At a health and beauty store, “TO FIGHT AGAINST THE CORONAVIRUS / WE ASK THAT YOU ALLOW US TO WEAR MEDICAL MASKS / WHEN CONDUCTING BUSINESS.” At a Chinese restaurant, “BECAUSE OF THE VIRUS / THE RESTAURANT WILL BE CLOSED TEMPORARILY / WE WILL ANNOUNCE LATER WHEN IT WILL REOPEN.”
I entered the café at the upscale Muong Thanh Hotel, to find it completely empty, and there was nothing in the pastry case.
“There are no pastries,” I said to the cashier. “Will there be some later?”
“There won't be any all day,” she answered.
Normally, the short bridge between Lao Cai and Hekou is streaming with trucks, private cars, tourists and porters, pushing or pulling ridiculously large loads on primitive wheels. What I saw earlier this month, though, was a nearly always empty crossing. Once, there was a forlorn tourist walking home, and another time, a father and his small daughter entering uncertainty, if not fear, after their too brief vacation.
I saw two vans disgorge Chinese tourists, all looking grim and wearing medical masks. Hardly talking, they wearily walked towards the grand exit gate. Pulling stylish luggage, they were all cheerfully dressed, however, in that casual and adolescent fashion derived from Gap, Old Navy and American Apparel. One pony tailed girl had “LOVE AND COURAGE” on the back of her hoodie.
Surveying the border, I ran into a soldier one afternoon, but he wasn’t in uniform.
“Why are you taking so many pictures, uncle?”
“Ah, just curious! It looks so dead over there.”
Astride his motorbike, he still eyed me suspiciously, “You shouldn’t take so many photos at the border of a friendly country.”
He actually said that. Putting my camera away, I opined, “If they run over here, we’ll have a serious problem.”
“But they can’t. We have our patrols.”
“But the border is so long. If this virus gets worse, many of them will decide to flee over here!”
“We’ll catch them.”
I have my doubts, for smuggling has always been a huge problem along this border. There are many sections where you can just wade or even walk across.
In Lao Cai, I sometimes hired a motorbike taxi guy. Born in 1962, he had had three wives. The first, he left. The second died while pregnant when a car hit their motorbike. The third left him almost a year ago, with their three-year-old daughter. Missing the child terribly, he showed me many photos of her exuberant self, and once almost teared up. His dark face quivered.
“I’m the nicest guy,” he professed, then later admitted he had been in several jails, where he managed to beat up the meanest “bearheads” from just about every province in the Red River Delta.
“Why were you in jail?”
“Ah, it’s nothing. Just making a living.”
The second wife is most relevant to this piece. Running a smuggling operation, she hired many porters, and got pregnant by one of them. Seeing her belly bulge, the married lover ran away, only to return four years later. Jumping into her bed again, he also had a juicy proposal. Instead of goods, why not smuggle gullible women, for a lot more cash? Many Chinese men were desperate for a wife.
She agreed, and got rather loaded, until a tricked bride escaped back to Vietnam, which landed our smuggler in prison for seven elongated years. Out, broke and chastened, she somehow found a new man, so there’s a second chance, after all, until that mass of steel smashed into her.
On the minibus from Lao Cai to Si Ma Cai, a woman told me, “Many women from this area got tricked into going to China. Some, we haven’t heard from in twenty years, so we don’t even know if they’re dead or alive.”
Some, she’s still in touch with, “They’re married, with children. We talk through Zalo or Snapchat. They tell me everyone stays inside now, with only one person leaving the house to buy grocery when absolutely necessary.”
An emblematic event from this novel crisis is the massive banquet held by Wuhan on January 18th, for they did this knowing full well 62 Wuhanese had already been infected. Catering to 40 thousand families, organizers wanted to break the world record for most dishes served. In retrospect, this diseased feast was a celebratory funeral for those who would soon die.
Two months into this crisis, the death toll has breached 2,000, with many more to come, almost certainly. This outbreak has triggered some of the darkest speculations, moreover, and even wishes.
Many believe it has been bioengineered, and released into China by the United States. This contention is seemingly supported by the fact that only Orientals, with nearly all of them Chinese, have been killed so far, but if China’s industrial paralysis continues, the American economy will also collapse, so why would Washington trigger this? Already, the disruption to the global supply chain is causing major turmoil.
Others agree that it is bioengineered, yet released by China itself, accidentally. If this is true, why did China invent a bioweapon that’s aimed at its own people primarily?
Some are cheered by the prospect this coronavirus will kill millions, if not billions, of Orientals. The wish to see an entire group disappear can’t be that uncommon. This elation will be snuffed out if non-Orientals start to die from the coronavirus.
A universal culling yields another schadenfreude. If life is a competition of all against all, a battle royale, then the last man standing wins. Vain, each loser enjoys seeing others fall, for each death witnessed seemingly adds to his longevity. Laughing, he is not dead.
It is dark now. There are voices outside my window. Earlier, I could hear cheerful bells from the water buffaloes, feeding across the road. In Si Ma Cai, these lumbering beasts shit even on sidewalks, so you just get used to it.
Here, the mountainous landscape is indeed spectacular, but it has been much deformed by man. That’s always the first sign of civilization, then come priests, slaves, temples, a few thoughtful paintings, lots of garbage, fake everything then, finally, some global gargle to allow this exhausted planet to finally heal.
Soon, perhaps all this will die away, then I can finally go to China, to see what’s left of China, or maybe there won’t be any me left, to go to any China. At least I’ve seen China, so to speak, at least much more of it than 14 million congenitally blind Chinese!
Tall grass will grow from our already cracked sidewalks. Roaming free, the water buffaloes will tinkle our bells.