Mud Fight

The area around the drum tower is thick with people. Tourists from all over the province, Kam youths and twentysomethings on vacation from their urban jobs – hipster girls from Canton pretending that this is all jolly larks, and their boyfriends in basketball shirts and baseball caps, like inflatable gangsters that have yet to be attached to a pump nozzle. All are clustered around the carp pond in the village centre, munching on melons and chanting the Chinese equivalent of Why Are We Waiting, while old men chuff on cheroots and the grannies wonder if anyone is coming in for lunch.

If you wish to hold a Kam fishing competition, you will first require a rancid area of water the size of a tennis court. Be sure to throw all your trash in it through the year, and for extra fun, try slaughtering half a dozen cattle the day before and hosing their terrified bowel evacuations into the water.

You will then need to get drunk. I mean, really drunk. I mean, try to make sure you can barely stand, and that the only thing which can hold you upright is the possibility that one of your mates is leaning in the opposite direction and you can cancel out each other’s collapse.

Smear mud on each other’s faces, then dress up. Leaders might like to wear a nice blue ballgown, others might prefer an Indian feather headdress, a policeman’s uniform, or perhaps a comical construction worker’s outfit. Because this is rural, tribal China, absolutely nobody will draw the obvious conclusion that you have just turned yourselves into a blackface parody of the Village People, accompanied for some reason by Jason from Friday 13th and a bunch of men banging gongs and letting off firecrackers.

Then jump in the pond, and RELEASE THE CARP!

The village men completely ignore the carp, and instead turn on each other in a free-for-all, splashing each other and the crowd, dumping mud on each other’s heads, and occasionally paying a vague homage to the idea that they are supposed to be feeling in the water for fish, in the manner that Pan taught me up in the rice paddies the other day.

Some of the observers, not dressed as the blackface Village People, but certainly locals, also jump in. Then, two of the locals grab one of their friends and push him in. I look around me to see if we are filming, and see instead Pan, our local fixer, sprinting straight for me. I turn with him and we jump together into the pond, whereupon everybody starts splashing us and whooping.

This is, it turns out, what happens. All new arrivals are thoroughly drenched by everybody else for a while, until people get bored and return to the job at hand, which is supposedly looking for the carp. At the time, however, I don’t know this, and presume simply that the entire nation of the Kam has turned on me and flung gritty, muddy water into my eyes. Somebody dumps mud on my head, and I chase around after Pan like a big muddy bear.

I am sure it all looks quite spontaneous to the crowd, although I have been preparing for this for weeks. I have arrived at the pond wearing my aqua shoes, not my boots, and although I look no different to an outside observer, I am actually wearing old clothes from last year’s shoot – one of the advantages of having five identical outfits. I am not wearing my watch and my pockets are empty, and I know I have a complete set of fresh clothes waiting down at the hostel.

Pan, however, hasn’t thought this through quite so hard, and sloshes over to the edge of the pond to dump a muddy confection in the director’s hand, which turns out to be his wallet, phone and keys.

The Village People Construction Worker has caught a fish. He brandishes a golden carp to the cheering crowd, and then flings it at them, eliciting squeals of delighted anguish from the Cantonese hipsters. Behind me, I hear girlish shrieks, and see that a trio of mud wrestlers have leapt out of the water and grabbed our Camera Assistant, who is protesting in terror as they threaten to throw him and the priceless lens bag into the water. Luckily his pleadings fob them off just before the filming would have been prematurely ended by the ruining of half our equipment.

The fight continues, with further findings of carp. I, however, come out with little more than a pencil, two empty bottles and a soggy cigarette packet. When the director adjudges that I look sufficiently ridiculous, I slosh out of the water and stand in front of the camera to do a piece to camera about tribal traditions. I then slosh off through the crowd down to the hotel.

Mr Wu is deep in his cups with his drinking buddies, who have also discovered the joys of the director’s French menthol cigarettes. They are off their faces by the time I reach the hostel, and he looks up to see me standing outside the terrace like a mud-spattered spaniel. I salute him.

“Ah,” he says in the best English he can manage, “gooder.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals. These events features in Route Awakening S03E01 (2017).

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