It’s Saturday, so we must be in Weihai, a city I have hoped to visit for 20 years. It was formerly Weihaiwei – The Guard Against the Majestic Sea, site of an ancient fort that warned against Japanese pirates, and a redoubt for the Qing dynasty navy. It was where Admiral Ding Ruchang stood up to the Japanese invaders even though he knew he stood no chance, and went to his death by imperial command, proclaiming to his sailors: “Fight on, though your swords be broken.” Later on, it became a forgotten backwater of the British Navy, the summer anchorage for their Asian fleet, mourned by its magistrate, Reginald Johnston, former tutor of the Last Emperor, as the “Cinderella of the Empire.”
But I’m not seeing any of that, because we are out on a spit of land dotted with wind turbines, looking at seaweed. The village here is full of little thatched cottages, their roofs made of dried sea grass. Mr Wang the brown-skinned village elder hugs me like an old friend, and shows me the piles that look suspiciously like hay, but actually comprise marine produce.
“We used to just grab it from the beach,” he says, “but there isn’t any left anymore, so we have to buy it from people who demolish old cottages. I honestly don’t know how we are going to repair our roofs when we run out of recycled stuff.”
He is desperately proud of his thatching, proclaiming that it is warm in winter and cool in summer, wonderfully waterproof and even fireproof. When I tell him that can’t possibly be true, he pulls out his lighter and sets fire to a few strands, which resolutely refuse to burn.
Frances is supposed to be interpreting for the other Jonathan (the director), but has trouble following Mr Wang’s Rongcheng accent, a form of Chinese with harder tones and simplified vowels, suitable for shouting from ship to ship. Oddly, it doesn’t trouble me at all, and makes no more or less sense than any other Chinese, and it has echoes of the classical forms and southern dialects. He doesn’t say jia for house, he says gya. He says gyu instead of jiu for old. Instead of Nihao for hello, he says Niho. I don’t regard any of these shifts as particularly earth-shattering, but for Frances, who is from Taiwan, he might as well be speaking Martian.
I explain that I often can only pick out a couple of words from a fast Chinese sentence and have to fill in the blanks on the fly, so it really makes little difference to me what someone’s accent is.
“That’s kind of how I listen to you and Jonathan talk.” she admits. “All these British terms are very hard. I keep having to wonder, what is a bollocks? What makes someone a muppet? And is it good if they are having a larf?”
I am going to have to climb a rickety ladder onto a rooftop in order to do something practical. Wang, who is in his seventies, refuses to come up, but is filmed standing at ground level snickering at my incompetence. Jonathan’s colleague, Yu the Chinese director is deeply fretful that making me climb onto the roof of a cottage is beyond the call of duty, but I explain that it is precisely the duty that I have, and eagerly climb up the roof to perch on the apex with a deeply sun-tanned old man in a baseball cap with a super-extended brim to hold off the hot sun.
“Who the hell are you?” he asks, and Frances shouts up that I am a foreigner come to learn about his culture. Thatching a Chinese roof with seaweed turns out to be rather easy, as you simply stretch it out into parallel lines and then jam it into the roof with your body weight – a resource I have in abundance. We laugh on the roof together as the drone circles us, and I ask him if he even stops to admire the view – the long lines of wind turbines, and the sea that reaches all the way to Korea. Oh yes, he says, although I can’t stop for a fag up here. Don’t listen to Wang. This stuff isn’t as fireproof as he thinks.
The Chinese director acts like I have been juggling chainsaws for the good of the production, but in truth I have been in far less danger on the rooftop than the crew, who are hanging by their fingertips – the A and B cameramen are only prevented from tumbling off by their assistants holding their belts, and Boomer the Boom Mike is perched on a ledge like a monkey.
“Here, try some of this,” says the unnamed roofer, passing around some strands of the sea grass. “Seriously, just lick it.”
Me and the B Cameraman gingerly tongue the hundred-year-old seaweed, requisitioned from a demolished cottage somewhere else in the bay.
“See. It’s still salty. After a century!” he proclaims.
Lunch is an open-air seafood banquet with Mr Shouty, a man whose entire life has been spent yelling up at the topmast on fishing boats, and who seems to have no volume control. But he is beaming when his wife and daughter put the food on the table and I proclaim it in all truth to be the best sea food I have had in my life. There are whole crabs, clams and oysters, freshly gathered that morning, and fish caught with a line. Speaking as someone who often cannot tackle seafood without retching, it is a revelation, even better than the food I had in Hainan. The crew have helped me by loading me up with baijiu beforehand, on the assumption that if there is anything dodgy about the seafood, the alcohol will kill it. We sneak some more firewater into our glasses whenever the crew change their batteries, and Ruby the Interpreter looks on longingly – she is obsessed with clams and mussels, and if left unsupervised, can often found behind an entire midden of empty shells.
We end the day on a nearby beach, where I deliver a speech about what Shandong must have meant to the people of Confucius’s day. Chinese civilisation was centred on the Yellow River valley, which must have made the coastline seem like a magical place, the end of the world, where there was nothing to see towards the east but ocean. It was on a beach like this, I suggest, that the First Emperor met the Daoist priest who suggested to him that if he had conquered the world of the living, the new frontier was surely to conquer death itself, an experiment that he could invest in by sending a fleet of ships into the rising sun, in search of the isles of the immortals.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events appeared in Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018).