I seldom venture from the posh Parklane Hotel here in Dongguan. It’s grand enough to take it personally. The surrounding avenues and architecture are monumental, a person could get lost crossing the road. So I am reluctant, you understand. And I normally arrive late on a muggy southern China night and leave early the next morning so there has been no need. Today is different. They will pick me up in the smart car tomorrow. I arrived last night. That’s a whole day. The size and weight of this hotel is smooth, heavy and closed like a high-class prison, I must escape.
I walk round the shiny black capsules picking up busy people to drop them off at considerably less shiny factories. I skirt the complicated fountain and the carefully arranged dull green of the gardens and head for the broad expanse of avenue. It has taken me all day to muster the courage to leave my cultivated captivity.
I have stood indecisive in the aircondtioned room far above, staring out the window that won’t open, across the vast avenue lined with disciplined, wan greenery, at the bulk of a shocking pink shopping mall. To the left is the elevated hotel swimming pool surrounded by the kind of worrying green you see at mini golf venues. There is no-one around.
Down on ground floor I make it across the immaculately landscaped sidewalks, dodge through the barely disciplined traffic and take a swift left away from the shouting pink of the mall.
That’s when I notice a real avenue, the kind artists paint. The light falls differently here. It bounces off the faithful repetition of tree upon tree turning the air silver green, the pale pattern of white trunks almost spectral. I am at least a century from the brash cacophony of the mall.
I look at my watch. It’s 4.30. I start walking down the center. I stroll like I belong, but see no sign of another foreigner like myself, not one. This is not where tourists go.
Even the workers here seem caught in a surreal pause.
I see the benches. I notice small parties of people beginning to arrive. Mostly they are elderly and slow, some of the feet that shuffle and swing wear old, worn slippers, surprised to be outside.
Men sit on one bench, all five of them, women on another a decent distance away. The pattern is repeated all down the avenue. They sit every which way, crossed legs swinging. The conversation is not animated the way it is when you tell something the first time. It is unhurried and unsurprising. No-one turns to each other aghast. Not much gesticulating, more the air of an upright but companionable afternoon nap. A very small, very old woman perches at the end of a bench, facing out. She is looking down the avenue like it is her life.
The women are more subdued than the men. For years they have been at home at this time, tending to serious things, food and children. They look a little wrung out, a little tired. Their clothes are dated, more communist drab than the sharp assertive garb of their children. The shirts are like faded men’s shirts the pants are no-nonsense synthetics with sagging-bottoms, once a color like mauve or pale blue.
The men’s benches are livelier, like a pub if you ditched the beer and held it outdoors. The men face inwards, they even laugh, they’re passing the time like they always have. A perpetual pall of smoke hangs over them.
Young people march swiftly through, six abreast, like invading conquerors. Men, shiny and new in immaculate white shirts, black pants, black shoes, black computer bags. The young women click sharp black heels and dare to sit alone in bright, assertive colors on benches.
It is 5.30 and getting dark. There are many people out here now, I cannot go back. I am drawn into this other space, this rare opportunity to glide through and pretend to be unnoticed, seeing different people doing the same things under a different sun. I must get to the end of this avenue before I let myself turn round.
I am loping almost now. Light and delighted. This is where all the city people are now, away from the monumental architecture that dwarfs them, away from the drab exertion that fades shirts, held now in this timeless tunnel of green that will be gentle with them.
On the way back to the hotel I pass a police officer in a parked police car. His mouth is open, his eyes are closed. The law is asleep. I pass the shouting pink mall because I have to, garish pink and blue balloons flinch to the beat of distorted music so loud you can’t hear it. I look around, there is no-one here…