paul merton in china (3/4)
Comedian Paul Merton continues his six-week tour of China for Five. Paul’s trip takes in the major cities as well as some of the most remote backwaters this vast country has to offer. Tonight, Paul sees a Chinese opera, travels down the Li River through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and heads to Guangzhou, where he meets some Chinese Christians.
The journey resumes with Paul still in Chengdu, where he is having an “off day”. His Chinese translator Emma takes him to an opera to cheer him up. Things start promisingly, with a remarkable performance of ‘face-changing’, whereby the actors’ masks change colour with the flick of a fan. But Paul is less impressed with the singing. As the epic performance proceeds, he and several other audience members nod off, before he can take no more and walks out. “I don’t want to be rude about somebody else’s culture,” Paul says, “but it’s horrendous.”
Troubled by an upset stomach, Paul visits Chengdu’s Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where an English-speaking nurse named ‘Piggy’ helps him through a consultation. After describing his symptoms in intimate detail, Paul is prescribed a potent tea and subjected to a full body massage by a dedicated team.
Pounded back to health, Paul heads to Guilin, famed for its extraordinary mountainside rice terraces. From there, he travels up the Li River through incredible gorges. The boat deposits Paul in Yangshuo, a “modern, rather brash resort”, and he checks into a hotel named Fawlty Towers, where staff answer to the names of ‘Basil’, ‘Sybil’ and ‘Manuel’. “This has to be the bizarrest example yet of the Chinese giving themselves English names,” Paul says.
Paul ventures out into the unspoilt countryside on a bike. “Incredibly, only half an hour’s bike ride from Yangshuo and I seem to have cycled back 100 years,” he says. That night, he witnesses traditional cormorant fishing, where fishermen use birds to catch fish in the river. Cords are tied around the cormorants’ necks as they dive for fish so that they regurgitate the larger fish for the fishermen to collect. “It’s such an incredibly good idea!” Paul declares.
From the heart of countryside, Paul travels to Guangzhou, formerly Canton. Located near Hong Kong, the city is home to a thriving international community and has been referred to as the modern “workshop of the world”, with the region’s heavy industry accounting for 40 per cent of China’s exports. Paul is rather taken by Guangzhou, especially the waterfront at night, where brilliantly lit “camp boats” pass in front of a skyline reminiscent of a “cleaned-up version of Blade Runner”.
Church bells on a Sunday morning draw Paul’s attention to the city’s large Christian population. Now the fastest growing religion in China, Christianity is cautiously tolerated by the government, who nonethless censor services. Paul visits an ‘underground’ church where 82year-old Samuel Lamb preaches to a huge congregation in his house. Such is the size of the crowd that the service is played on TV screens in different rooms. Mr Lamb has spent over 20 years in prison for his insistence on preaching “everything in the Bible”. “We are not against the government,” he says. “The government is against us.”
Elsewhere in Guangzhou, Paul joins a running club for westerners, which turns out to be more of a “pick-up joint” for Chinese women to shop for Western husbands. He also meets westerners who are adopting unwanted Chinese babies. Paul is intrigued by this “rather extreme example of the Chinese takeaway”, and talks to the mothers-to-be to find out more.