Nonchalant revelation

It’s Saturday. I leave in a couple of days. Clara has had more communication with Ms Guo at the Station toilet. She was asking what time I’d be taking the Aiport Bus on Monday morning. Apparently they want to take some more photos before I leave. I couldn’t be sure which bus I’d take so she and her supervisor, Ms Li Guihong, would like to say goodbye this evening. We arrange to meet at the toilet at 5.30pm.

We are on time. I stand back while Clara chats to them both. Yong and Flora stand further back. They are filming for his documentary about Square Mile. Clara gasps volubly. “What’s going on, Clara?” “ They want to take us for dinner to say goodbye to you.” What shall I say to this? “What do you think, Clara?” “I think we could say yes.” “Ok. Could you say I’d be delighted.”

Yong seems to think it’s ok for him and Flora to come along too, although I don’t think anything is actually said about this. I trust his ability to read the situation. Yong is a documentary film-maker and lecturer, studied in California, a man of experience.

We cross Shilong Road and Ms Li Guihong chooses a well-lit, traditional restaurant with extra seating upstairs. We start to sit at a large circular table but Ms Li Guihong is not quite happy with this and negotiates a private room. She mentions that her daughter will be joining us. Six for dinner, one on camera one on microphone, one slightly overwhelmed. Is this another ‘turning of tables’ as when Ms Guo grabbed my camera a month ago? How can they be taking us for dinner? They are cleaners. Ms Guo beams at me across the table. I’m thinking about how many situations and expectations have been confounding. This is another. Ms Li Guihong is ordering, camera is rolling. She asks me what I’d like to drink. “Tea will be fine.” She insists on ordering wine, her gestures implying that a foreigner needs alcohol. A bottle of Great Wall Red arrives, along with a very large lazy Susan made of glass.

The lazy Susan

The lazy Susan

Ms Guo beaming

Ms Guo beaming

Yong and Flora filming

Yong and Flora filming

The waitress is wearing a uniform of transcendent red. It goes beyond fashion to an eternal scarlet of knowing.  Ms Li Guihong’s daughter Sun Ruyi arrives in a short white quilted jacket, looking like an international student. Coincidentally she’s also studying at Clara’s university and is about the same age. They start to make friends. Ms Guo talks about her own six year-old daughter, Zhang Xinru. Clara’s parents are factory workers, and her spoken English is impeccably non-American. Here around this table I feel the encapsulation of China in transition. The quiet power and ambition of the hard-working mothers. The sophisticated, genteel daughters. Ms Guo’s will be next in line.

The menu and the transcendent scarlet

The menu and the transcendent red

Ms Li Guihong expresses embarrassment at not being able to speak English. This in turn, embarrasses me. The food keeps coming. The lazy Susan keeps turning, bamboo shoots, tiny shellfish, a large flat fish, deep-fried coated meats. She asks her daughter to practice her English on me, while Yong boldly suggests that I should give her an English name. “She’ll need one.” I go for ‘Sarah’ as it’s phonetically close to Sun Ruyi.

The flat fish

The flat fish

Conversation is flagging and I feel a little awed by the generosity of this meal and the naming of Sun Ruyi. But it’s time for photos. We pass the cameras around. Yong is still filming. Perhaps we’ll find a way of talking more freely now the meal is over. I mention ‘cleaning’ and how I see it in society. Ms Li Guihong agrees. Now we’re moving. I don’t talk about cleaning as art. This is not about art. Or is it? I speak to her for the first time about the exterior toilet and its interior bamboo grove, and how much this affected me on my first visit. She calmly says that this was actually her idea. The glass case was left empty by the builders. After several months she decided to take action. And plants are her hobby; we’ll have seen that from our visit to their ‘home’. She decided it was appropriate for the glass case to house native plants, hence the bamboo. The mystery is solved. The designer is amongst us. The artist is the cleaner after all.

The portrait with Ms Li Guihong and Sun

The portrait with Ms Li Guihong and Sun Ruyi

1 comment to Nonchalant revelation

  • Kathryn Edwards

    Goose-pimples, honestly.
    Have to confess a certain sadness that your time there is ending.
    But, ah: what ripples your visit will have made!


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