Xizhou, where we have been living in splendour and opulence for the last three days, was once a trading town on the Tea Horse Route. In 1941, it was the site of a forward radio station for the Flying Tigers and the transport aircraft bringing supplies over The Hump from Burma. Which explains an awful lot about the attitude of the Bai people here. When they ask me if I am an American, it is not out of ignorance but out of admiration, even now, for the pilots and soldiers who were stationed here to fight the Japanese.
What shock and awe there must have been, when one of these little valleys, glowing quietly in the afternoon sun, a pagoda on the hills, farmers in the fields, the clanging of cowbells and the calls of the birds, suddenly had its tranquillity shattered by the roar of shark-toothed American planes, screaming out of the sky in pursuit of Japanese fighters.
The breakfast room at our hotel is festooned with Flying Tigers memorabilia, wartime maps of China, the sunburst symbol of the Republican Chinese, pictures of Clare Chennault and his flyers, adverts for the (terrible) John Wayne film, and wartime bonds posters, exhorting “CHINA, THE FIRST TO FIGHT!” and “HELP HIM SAVE CHINA.” I try to explain the story to the crew, but I get quite tearful whenever I have to talk about it.
Our hotel is owned by Brian Linden, an American of Swedish extraction, who came to Xizhou eight years ago and has been fighting to persuade the Chinese to value their heritage instead of bulldozing it. He’s responsible for several sites in Xizhou, and appears to have been quite influential in the preservation of the surrounding area, which is clean but quaint and authentic, riddled with little shops and tea houses. He is in the process of restoring the radio station, too, which he intends to turn into another Flying Tigers museum, complete with a Boeing flight simulator that will allow visitors to relive the terror of navigating across the Himalayas.
Brian first came to China on a scholarship to study Mandarin. He met his future wife at Nanjing University, and was soon talent-spotted to play the lead in the Chinese movie He Came From Across The Ocean (1984), a dismal weepie about an American student who comes to China to study, but contracts fatal Encephalitis B. He spends much of the latter part of the film moping about the fact that his looming demise does not permit him to help China more. Brian reveals that there was no actual script, and since he was going to be dubbed anyway, he was told to simply talk nonsense for minutes at a time, while the crew made sad faces or happy faces behind him as a rough guide to his motivation.
“At first,” he says, “I tried to say what was going on in the scene, but then my shots stretched to five minutes, to seven minutes, so I just started repeating song lyrics. In the movie, my character is saying: ‘I am here to help the Chinese’, but if you can lip-read, I’m actually saying: ‘On a dark desert highway / cool wind in my hair….”
Brian is my easiest interview yet, since it is the first I have been allowed to conduct in my native language. We have lots to talk about. We are both the sons of antique dealers (he still has a shop selling Chinese antiquities somewhere in the mid-West), and since he was also once a cameraman, he takes an enthusiastic interest in the equipment we are using. He has never seen LED lighting before, and is amazed by the power and adjustability.
He is also something of a hippy turned businessman, and I have to steer him away from pat responses about how nice the Chinese government is, and rehearsed speeches about passion and travel. But we are soon commiserating with each other about the frustrations of having to obey Chinese laws when the Chinese can’t be bothered themselves.
“My fire prevention codes in this building cost me $120,000 for all the gear and alarms,” he sighs. “The guy next door has an illegal hotel, and all he needs is a bucket of water.”
He is also determined to encourage among his visitors the concept of heritage (an historical appreciation) as opposed to their fractured sense of tradition (which should mean a sense of how things are done, but tends with the Chinese to mean a sense of how things are done last week).
He explains that he faces constant frustration with the “hotelisation” of Chinese tourism, which values nothing but selfie sticks and gimmickry. His hotel provides a traditional experience, but the Chinese guests complain that they don’t have TVs in their rooms.
“They build a hotel somewhere with a 60-inch TV in every room, and then some guy builds one next to you with 65-inch TVs, so the Chinese want to stay there because it is ‘better’. Why are you people watching TV, you’re in Yunnan!?” he wails. “They go on vacation and you ask them what they did, and all they tell you is how great it was that their bathroom had a television in it.”
I think the director is becoming slightly exasperated that I am just having a conversation with Brian rather than pursuing a particular National Geographic agenda. But I get him back on to track by asking him about the merchants who built the house we are staying in.
“They didn’t just build things for their families,” he says. “They contributed to the local community. They built libraries, they built schools. They had a sense of obligation to their neighbours, and you don’t see that any more. Now they just take their money and run away to America. I am trying to show them, they can spend it here. They can live here. They can love it, here. I don’t want to see Mediterranean houses and California-imitation houses by the side of the lake. I want to see houses like this.”
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening season two (2016).