Woman's China Tale Proves That Race Is Doubly Damning The Castle of one's Skin

November 13, 1994|By IAN JOHNSON

Beijing -- Americans may be obsessed with race, but they're not the only ones. In China, race defines who you are and how you're treated -- be it seeing a movie or having your bottom pinched.

Take my friend Tinne (pronounced Tee-nee), a Singaporean art student who has lived in Beijing for five years and will soon be returning home.

The other day she had the sort of evening from hell that reminded me that race relations could have a greater bearing on this country's future direction than economics or a particular leader's death. What made her story so interesting is that she's ethnically Chinese, yet not a Chinese citizen. That makes her a foreigner (she also thinks of herself as one) and yet is often taken for a Chinese (and sometimes thinks of herself as one), giving her a double-whammy of China's racial mess.

The night started with Tinne and her two white American girlfriends watching a Chinese movie from the 1980s, "The Burning of the Summer Palace." It's about the Yuanmingyuan, literally the Garden of Perfect Brightness, which was destroyed in 1860 by French and British troops under the leadership of Lord Elgin (yes, the same guy who carted the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon to London.)

The garden was designed by Jesuit missionaries and Chinese architects and was reputedly a masterpiece of garden architecture, mixing white marble buildings with Chinese-style pavilions and pagodas.

The looting of the Yuanmingyuan and its demolition is still one of the most powerful symbols of China's humiliation by Western powers.

The film, unfortunately, is a piece of junk, a crude attempt to show that most peasants were proto-Communists waiting for a good leader while the Chinese emperors were good-for-nothings who could have resisted the Westerners if they hadn't listened to their concubines.

But whatever the film's merits or failings, it seems hard for any Westerner to watch the film and not squirm a bit. Although the French and the British destroyed the Yuanmingyuan, other Western countries, including the United States, happily

piggybacked on the Europeans' success and helped carve up China.

Foreigners looked funny

Yet after the film was over, Tinne's friends couldn't control their laughter. The foreigners in the film looked funny, they giggled, and spoke with funny accents. As Tinne's friends left the theater slapping each other's backs, several Chinese looked on with disgust. They didn't know what the foreigners had been laughing about, but it hardly seemed the right time or place to be breaking out in good cheer.

Later, over a drink, Tinne tried to explain to her friends why she had liked the film when she first saw it years ago. In one scene, a soldier holds up the Qing dynasty's flag as his countrymen gallop by, throwing spears and arrows, into a hail of artillery fire and rifle fire. They are mowed down by the hundreds but, inspired by the flag, keep coming. She may be Singaporean, but Tinne's ancestors came from China, and she had felt proud that the soldiers were portrayed as brave, if terribly outgunned.

The women, a lawyer and paralegal at a big New York law firm that hopes to expand into China, didn't get it. The film was a flop, and that was that. The giggling went on.

It may be too much to expect everyone to understand another culture's traumas, but it struck me as a bad sign that the foreigners now flooding into China have so little sympathy for the country where they're earning a living. I don't mean that they should have agreed with everything Tinne said, but they didn't try to understand her at all.

Gave him a mouthful

The evening continued at a restaurant, where one of the women was pinched on the bottom by a Chinese man. She told Tinne but was too lazy to confront the man. But Tinne, feeling like a stand-up-for-your-rights Westerner, walked over and gave the guy a mouthful. Not realizing that she was a Singaporean, he blasted back at her, saying she was a traitor to China for taking sides with the foreigners -- a response many Chinese get when they help out foreigners who are being ripped off or bothered in some way by Chinese.

Damned again, she thought, this time for for sympathizing with a foreigner.

So with the evening winding down, the group went to Poachers, a second-rate bar and third-rate disco that has become the unofficial hangout of Beijing's 50,000 or so foreign residents.

Poachers is the sort of place that can get ugly in the early morning: too much alcohol and too few other outlets for Beijing's foreigners.

Maybe Tinne herself had had one too many or maybe she was just acting like the assertive Singaporean she is, but when some lout from the U.S. Embassy grabbed her on the bottom she didn't think twice. She tapped him on the shoulder and said not to do that again. He smirked and ignored her, so she flicked a couple of drops of beer in his face and asked for an apology. He told her to buzz off and refused to apologize.

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