Article by Rose English
Grande Amore, Grande Deluso so the Italians say – Great Love equals Great Sorrow. I am getting old now and during my life I have been lucky or unlucky enough to have been in love many times. I have loved being in love. In many respects I have lived for love and on occasion it was fortunate I didn’t die for it too. Love led me into many reckless, romantic, foolish situations. In its pursuit, nothing was ever too much trouble, effort or, for that matter, expense. I look back now and see that I was enslaved, not to my lovers but to love itself. I lived by the belief that earthly redemption came through communion with another. From an early age I was addicted to the excitement of seduction, intimacy, tenderness, passion and in service of these pleasures I ignored or at least endured the inevitable river of sorrow. The love of my life, my Grande Amore, Grande Delouse was a man named Li Yi Bai, the son of peasant farmers, a child of the Mao generation born in the deep mountains of central China. This is our story….
In the 90’s, my partner, our daughter and I moved into an old temple in an ancient town located far away from any major city. We’d been assisted in finding this unique home by a Party member who worked for the Foreign Affairs Bureau. In view of how things turned out, the person concerned would probably prefer to remain anonymous. We arrived one morning in August, delivered in a black sedan (courtesy of the Bureau) with all our possessions, rucksacks and boxes loaded in the boot. A reception party, minus the vital translator, was waiting for us in the school playground. Gifts were exchanged, photographs were taken and the Mayor, the leader of the Town Council, the Headmaster, the deputy Headmaster, the head of the maths department, the Chief of Police and a young lady who introduced herself as First Officer of Tourism, unloaded the car, shouldered our belongings and off we set along the cobbled main street. Our procession generated a good deal of interest among the residents sitting in their open-fronted shops and several of them got up to join the wake of children who grew behind us like a tail.
It was the age and integrity of the town’s architecture that had persuaded us to move here. A few of the buildings could be dated back nearly half a millennium, while most others were at least two or three hundred years old. Surrounded by mountains and serving the many scattered villages and hamlets, the town had grown organically as a trading post where successful merchants built their wooden shops and small, elegant courtyard homes. On sunny afternoons a few Han tourists would find their way into town by chance but no foreign tourists crossed the threshold of this time-locked hideaway for the whole three years we were in residence. During our first two weeks, and again later after all was known, every time we ventured onto the streets we felt like extraordinary examples of a new race, which, in some ways, I suppose we were.
Our temple home lay at the far end of the main street, opposite the tin can lady’s shop and next to the couple who sold fried dough sticks every morning at dawn. The temple frontage was unadorned. During the Cultural Revolution when monks had been forced to become farmers, the temple was stripped and turned into a communal grain store. By the mid ’80’s, when the production brigades disbanded and collective farming initiatives had reverted to individual enterprise, the grain stores fell empty and a man called Er Xie (“two shoes”) moved in and slept wrapped in a sack under the incense shelf in the prayer hall. A couple of seasons before we arrived, the deputy headmaster and his wife, having done some sort of deal with the local council, had taken out a lease on the temple. Er Xie had been evicted, the kitchen renovated, a cook installed and the temple was now a private dining room and part time restaurant.
We sat down for lunch at a large circular table in the area which would have housed one of the ferocious temple gods. The big doors on the street side of the room were open and we ate with an audience. Li Yi Bai, the missing vital translator, rolled up at the end of the cold first course, just as plates of steaming deep-fried river fish were arriving. Smiling broadly and seating himself in between my partner and the Mayor, he effortlessly lifted the mood of our self-conscious gathering with his warmth and bonhomie. The food was good, the baijiu flowed and the party began to get drunk.