Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

A beautiful squalor: photos from Che Fang

Her hand is a smile opening him to this place – Che Fang; the bitter twists of steam from oil drums used to fry dumplings and egg cakes on this nameless path to the school where he teaches …

…the Chinese mist gentling the bareness of people’s lives here, the threadbare clothing and shoes. The breeze is sharpened by snow, brimming with rumoured tears, a history we have not read but which wears and tears at bodies and minds.

Over the centuries history fashioned trails and huts into streets and buildings crumbled, a slow shattering against his fingertips, the bark or plaster shuffling to the ground. A necklace of trees droops around the newer roads and shops, around the throats and shoulders of canals and shacks, knocking his heart open. Downpours turn the leaves to laughter, shivering and splitting their sides.

Here, in Che Fang, the moments are years dazzled with leaves and the grain on walls smeared with graffiti: requests and pleas in Chinese for repair work, plumbing, fixing scooters, new business cards. The rain has hungered over here from the north, showers with the sharpness of teeth. Tiny ivory hail splintering against pebbles and raincoats.

That man over there trudging in a stillness that knows no end, each step a spadeful of grief thudding into shallow graves called streets.

Her hand is a smile opening: she is the sock lady he once spoke of, a face that has never known makeup; a map that has been slowly, peacefully, wrenched and detailed further with new paths in the half-lit years of fingers shedding skin in the grasp for food …

The sock-seller and her daughter.

… and then, yet again, the rain, thwacking on bark and skin and eyes, prising open the fragrance and the reek in everything. Each drop snapping against twigs and leaves, elderly elven women scolding, tut-tutting. The rain is always womanly to him, dancing against him, a cat rubbing thighs and torso.

The sun on giant rows of knuckles which appear in the mist as the backs of men loading bricks and rubble onto a truck. Or the tailor squatting in the filth, dabbing up cloth to the quarter-light. And the welder, immersed in his Guy Fawkes display. Then the dust-rain lifts again and now they, and the street sellers squatting on mats, are fists banging at the door of the heart, in another rain, a ghost-rain, which never stops.

Each pearl of mizzle wishing to be a blessing, scalloped against her cheeks, each the tiniest of shelled oysters.

There is a sniff of sea in everything, the mist eddying against remembrance and the presence of boots spanking the pavements, obliterating the sound of rain which comes and goes, tries to leave and stays, has to stay, as does that mother or grandmother pressing close an infant in her arms. Rocking back and forth, stilling the baby’s yowling, delighting in their weeping, because it’s so real, so real: a crying which is the leaves in a breeze which surge and breathe into his ears.

And knowing many here sometimes don’t understand what he says, the only “foreigner”, laowai, in Che Fang. This knowledge is in that man learning not to stare at him, the alien; a potato man now learning to nod, to just grin and go on turning sweet potatoes on the pan on the back of his cart.

The sweet potato-selling man

In the veins on the back of the potato man’s hands, the deeply mottled skin, are centuries of his ancestors gleaming through the thrum in the red beneath the blue in his veins.

The skies seem to have never been blue. They have always been lead. A heaviness informing the lightness of the soil beneath this laowai’s muddy sneakers as he squats on a low wall and watches. Here, between the alleyways piled with garbage, are small plots of vegetables, hoarded for these times of iciness.

It all brings to his remembrance the richness of abandonment. He recalls being seven years old, his first day in a boarding school in Bloemfontein. The crisp linen on rows of dormitory beds puckering his nose, the sudden polish on floors sharp against his face. The other children will only arrive in two days’ time. He gapes out a dormitory window at the car his parents slowly get in (always slowly in memory) and drive away. Later on in life, like now, he thinks there should have been a final wave up at his second floor window, a last goodbye. Just the ironed rows of children’s beds and cupboards around him, steeped in silence: unopened books, unopened fellow children.

This place, Che Fang, has that silence.

A “village” abandoned somewhere on the outskirts of Suzhou. Each moment filled with people, (people-mountain, people-sea as the Chinese describe crowds), or their ghosts, their history, lingering among the rain on leaves and scavenged refuse piled up to sell, and vegetable beds between the alleyways and tiny shops … each moment that long wished-for wave goodbye, those backs turning on him.

These words kindling the leaves and streets and canals, all these smiling hands and clenched faces, blurring them with a glow, the texture of memory, always here, tapping the heart open.

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    • Andre

      Hi Rod, very nice, been missing you and wondering if you and Marion were ok.

      I always look forward to your contributions.


    • Benzo

      Rod, nice to see you back.
      Interesting and poeticly nostalgic take.
      Is this the background of the China the world experiences as the new imperial power??

    • Albert

      This is very special diction – the words say so much – even without the photos.

    • Rod MacKenzie

      Hi Andre – thanks, yeah things have been tough…. but I’m back

    • peter

      The way the world is headed and not too far away now either. Hold on tight to your dreams, they could shortly turn into a nightmare. It seems that there really are people like you Rod who care, but all in vain. Strangely enough there are some like myself who admire your efforts in a world where few care anymore. Hold on to your beliefs and standards, they could be all that you have left soon. May you,your loved one’s and friends be blessed.

    • Balt Verhagen

      Dear Rod

      Welcome back indeed.

      How this description and pictures of small-town existence evokes the China my wife and I had the privilege to experience in 1993. The memory and wounds of the cultural revolution were still fresh in people’s minds – especially the “intellectuals’ “, The non-functional toilets, water standing everywhere, or barrenness, the squalor and also the endless little enterprises and tiny shops, the food cooked on the streets,the dumplings from steaming baskets, the man in Xi-an at night with his little table and few chairs producing, deftly, with only his hands, before our eyes, the hank of fine noodles from a clump of dough and presenting them briefly cooked in bowls of soup, the seemingly endless road from Hohohot westward to Bao-te with the endless grey, barren villages…I had often wondered after the economic transformation and obscene luxury of the capital and Shang-hai: what had happened with these small towns and villages.

      You just sang it and showed me….

    • Dave Harris

      Very enjoyable read Rod. Thanks for the pics too.
      An interesting glimpse into some of the forgotten corners of China in its meteoric economic rise in the last few decades.
      As I said before, you excel at this kind of writing. Just try to avoid religion and politics, OK 😉

    • Pam Miller

      Such a moving description of life in a small town in a world power.

      Your word images have been with me all day. Thank you.

      It made me think about similar places in my own country. Thank you.

      It made me more sensitive to those I see on street corners. Thank you.

    • Karl

      What an exceptional tapestry of verse and image. You’ve really captured the spirit of Suzhou now in this piece Rod. It’s amazing to travel just twenty minutes from a shopping centre and find yourself in a land that the 21st century forgot.

      You must have a great rapport with the local community to capture such exceptionally intimate and beautiful pictures. Chinese peoplea re very good at shielding their face at a moments notice, if they don’t want to be photographed.

      This is the best piece of writing I’ve read on the internet for a long time. Keep it up mate!

    • Mike McGrath

      Welcome back, Rod. Lovely to see that again

    • Hans de Boer

      Hi Rod,
      Good to see you back, missed your insight to life in China. Having been a expat in China for 7 years (Nanjing, Chongqing, Shanghai, Suzhou) your writing brings back some wonderful memories.

    • il

      Nice touches, Rod. Like so many communities in the developing world, China has a long way to go towards spreading the wealth and prosperity around.

    • Chaz in China

      Hey Dude,well done.
      I believe this type of writing, is you at your best.
      Maybe its this kind of prose that JM Coetzee referred to when he encouraged you to continue. In my humble opinion this is your best to date, and as Dave says, dont do the religion and politics thing.
      “Its sad and its sweet, yet what it says is complete”.
      Ming Bai Bro, Ming Bai

    • Ansie Zondagh du Toit

      Most beautiful writing, please release a book, just get some sharper photo’s (for the book) You are extremely talented. Loved the “unopened books, unopened fellow children.” Such visual language. Thank you very much

    • Rod MacKenzie

      Hi Ansie, thanks for the comment – my book is out on China, called Cracking China, see links to my profile above this on the right,

      The pictures were unfortunately much better than what Thought Leader was able to duplicate on the blog.

      Thanks Chaz, man man zou….
      Thanks everyone

    • Bev Tucker

      wonderful images of your town, Rod

    • Rod MacKenzie

      Hi Bev thanks…. my town?? Anyways I don’t live in Che Fang, just work there, its forty five minutes from where I currently live, I look forward to Che Fang unfolding into spring and then into summer….

    • Yuhan

      Hi Rod, Suzhou is a beautiful city! I like your photos! I’ve never been there, but would like to travel there someday in the future…By the way,I went to Shanghai when I was six, but can’t remember much about the city (>_<)。。。