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Trip 37 — Jeju and Xiamen Walks

Friday, 21 July 2023

"He's that young‽" I spewed loudly late last night. Then I ransacked my bookcases for my copy of Keith Houston's "Shady Characters," a guide to nonstandard punctuation. If I couldn't render the interrobang — an exclamation mark superimposed over a question mark, or perhaps the other way around — properly, I needed to know which of the two should come first. (It seems either is OK.)

Then I returned to Lai Changxing, a farmer-turned-smuggler who helped China's port city of Xiamen rise toward the heavens, financially and literally. It's because of his influx of cash that many of Xiamen's skyscrapers, and one of China's largest airport terminals, came about in the late 1990s. He was in the process of building an 88-story tower — the number eight is lucky in China — when he was blackmailed and betrayed by a business partner with gambling debts, and he fled to Canada. Observed in a series of suspicious sessions in a Niagara Falls casino, Lai was taken in by police, confined to temporary housing in Vancouver, tried, and eventually extradited back to China.

Oliver August's "Inside the Red Mansion" is the journalist's hunt for Lai in the years leading up to his hearings. The Red Mansion was Lai's seven-story bordello on Xiamen island, where he plied prominent members of the Chinese government and the Communist Party with lavish entertainment and meals and a bevy of "Miss Temporarys." In the fuzzy years of quasi-freedom after Maoist rule, Lai's shenanigans were tolerated insofar as they kept the money flowing in. Once China had no more use for him, they were quite content to shut him down, and few people were willing to talk about him openly.

Throughout the book I imagined Lai enjoying several decades of an opulent, behind-the-doors lifestyle, culminating in the downfall of a Hugh Hefner type of perhaps 60 years of age. It wasn't until page 234 that I learned he was sitting through trials in Vancouver as a man of only 44.

"He's that young?!" I'm several years older and the only things I remember smuggling were two mangos from Costa Rica in 1991. I've never been a shady enough character to raise billions by nefarious means (sometimes I wish I had the guts) and I've never paid a bribe (I'm stingy enough that whatever I proposed would surely have been met with laughter). This guy built a whole city in his 30s.

The Xiamen that Lai left behind was a dense landscape with modern highrises typical of China's boomtowns and monstrosities abandoned in a half-finished state. What might the island look like a quarter-century later? Far more built-up, no doubt. It has three lines of a new metro system. China has opened 44 metropolitan rail systems since 2000. Perhaps none exemplifies China's rapid construction more than the Caojiawan station in Chongqing, originally put in service in 2015 with the appearance of a forlorn bunker in a weedy, rocky field, and now the center of a busy residential area.

The Red Mansion was briefly opened for tours but was then converted into a training center when visitors failed to see Lai's grandeur in a bad light. I may not make it inside, but I'm curious to see the mark Lai left on the island and its people. And I'm eager to get back to China soon after its recent relaxing of the world's most stringent Covid-19 restrictions.

Mr. August's book is liberally strewn with Chinese expressions, many of them based on food. "Sow melons, reap melons." The equivalent on Jeju island in South Korea is "If you plant red beans, then you will harvest red beans," a maxim repeated throughout Lisa See's "The Island of Sea Women."

Ms. See's novel is the tale of two friends on Jeju who grew up through the Japanese occupation in the 1940s and the administration by the United States immediately following. The American period included the "April 3 incident" — really a seven-year stretch of terror starting in 1948 in which dissatisfaction with the upcoming elections, which seemed to hinder Korean independence and solidify the division between north and south, resulted in the installed police force's purging anyone suspected of opposing the new regime.

A particularly bloody day was January 17, 1949. Following the discovery of two dead soldiers, a thousand people were rounded up in the courtyard of Bukchon village's elementary school, and at least 300 people — possibly multiples of that — were killed. Throughout the April 3 incident, perhaps ten percent of Jeju's population was murdered.

The "sea women" in Ms. See's title are the haenyeo, Jeju's female seafood divers. For two discrete weeks each month, when the tides are favorable, they free-dive for conch, abalone, octopus, sea urchins, sea slugs, and other creatures. The haenyeo's breathing technique results in a pitched whistle when they come up for air, known as sumbisori, and is similar to the use of blowholes by whales and dolphins. The pressure on the ears over a lifetime means that haenyeo tend to talk loudly.

Apart from the obvious challenges in free-diving, the seemingly innocuous animals they hunt pose their own dangers. An abalone can clamp onto the tool used to pry it from the surface, thereby keeping the diver underwater unless she can extract herself. An octopus can suffocate a diver. (In "Fortunate Isle," my Tenerife book, Ronald Mackay talks about yanking octopuses out of crevices and slicing off the tentacled arms that try to drown their captors. The Abecedarian Walks are definitely giving me a greater respect for the collection of seafood.)

Haenyeo work together in collectives, dressing in wetsuits by a fire and discussing where to hunt. Haenyeo were traditionally the main earners in the family, selling their catch in order to send the boys to school. When pregnant, haenyeo often worked right up to delivery, perhaps even giving birth at sea. Their gossip inevitably turned toward the role of men in their society.

"How can a man enjoy a meal when he contributes so little?" quips one character in Ms. See's book.

"You can't blame our men for drinking," says another. "They have nothing to do and no purpose to push them through the day....And think how it must be for them to live in a household that depends on the tail of a skirt."

Not all men spent their days lounging under the village tree, of course. Some cooked and cared for the children while their wives were in the wet or dry fields, and the two protagonists' husbands in the book had jobs. But this was mainly a society with women in charge.

The tradition is dwindling fast, however. Nearly all haenyeo today are over age 60.

I spent two days on Jeju in 2016, enough to see some of its natural beauty and sample fantastic grilled octopus from a stall by the sea. This time I'll have a week and a half to round the island and try to reconcile today's Jeju with its frightening history and unique traditions. I'm sure I won't tire of the seafood, but I'll leave its procurement to the professionals.

Go on to Jeju day 1