people's republic of desire

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 12:00am

Ask any Chinese and they'll tell you that China is undergoing sweeping changes at an incredibly fast rate. Building construction, highways, and new goods for sale in new shopping centres have changed the face of Beijing and Shanghai. But some things never change.

Take queues. Queues, for practical reasons, are not a part of the Chinese psyche. And far be it from me to suggest they should be. If you want to queue for something, let's say movie tickets, then be my guest. And, while you're at it, feel free to politely yield to those who seem to be in a bigger hurry than you. After all, it's the civilised thing to do. But don't expect to see your movie. Not that day, anyway.

It just isn't practical to queue because you'll only be beaten out by anyone with less dignity, and sharper elbows, than you.

When with foreign guests, Niuniu refuses to engage in such tactics, and so she often feels embarrassed because she is the last to be seated in the restaurant, last to get a cab, and first to be turned away at the ticket window. However, when not entertaining foreign guests, she can be as rough and rowdy as anyone. She loves to come away from a ticket window, proudly clutching the spoils of the ticket war, leaving a wake of disappointed people.

Today, Niuniu is pushing her way towards the ticket window of the Beijing Fine Arts Museum. Tickets to the popular exhibition of European expressionism are limited. She is packed amid a throng of winter-coated bodies reeking of garlic and boiled cabbage - and she is having the time of her life. But, suddenly, Niuniu is attacked from behind. She is being pushed and poked at by a squat old woman, who has obviously been part of a mob before. Niuniu feels a fleeting sense of compassion: she remembers the 'silver seats' on public buses in California, and how people would yield a seat to a senior either out of kindness or fear of legal action. 'But this is China!' she thinks. 'I must stick to my guns. If I yield, I will only be taken advantage of by every other old lady in this horde.'

Niuniu feels the rush of competition brewing, as the old woman continues to make bodily contact. She faces forward, ignoring the woman behind her. She has about three metres before she reaches the window, and even then her position is not guaranteed.

She'll need to have her money out and on the counter clearly before the others and hope the cashier chooses her offer over the others.

Niuniu takes out some crumpled bills from her pocket and makes one last surge towards the window. Pushing hard, the way in front momentarily opens up when a young girl stumbles to the side. But Niuniu is not moving forward. She is being held back. Niuniu can't believe it. The old woman is holding Niuniu by the belt of her coat. That isn't even in the rulebook.

Now, you might ask, isn't patience rewarded in Chinese culture? Didn't Hu Jintao wait 14 years before being elected president? Yes. But keep in mind that Hu wasn't waiting in line for tickets to the European expressionism exhibition.

'You feisty old lady!' Niuniu screams, more in awe than in anger.

'Ay! Wait! I want to buy tickets!' the old woman is screaming along with the others in the crowd. Niuniu decides to unleash some Three Kingdoms-style war strategy on her opponent and quickly backs up, stepping on the woman's foot lightly as a distraction before making a final rush to the window.

Niuniu forces her arm into the window and is now waving her bills feverishly at the cashier. She has made it. The cashier reaches for the money - but not swiftly enough. The woman is back at Niuniu's side and, this time, tugs at her coat sleeve, pulling Niuniu's arm - and, more importantly, Niuniu's money - out of reach of the ticket seller.

'This is unprecedented,' Niuniu thinks. She turns round - to discover the woman is her parents' neighbour, Grandma Liu. 'Why'd you have to step on my toe, you brat,' Grandma Liu says, smiling. 'I ought to tell your father. Never mind. Let's get our tickets, then go have tea together. I'll pay!'

The hostility melts away. For the Chinese, insiders are always insiders, and outsiders are always outsiders. As she clutches the tickets just placed in her hand, Niuniu thinks: 'Chivalry is alive and well in China. You just have to know where to look amid the rudeness.'

Changes are evident everywhere in China. Just look at the skyline. Indeed. Niuniu ponders that for a moment before making a note to remember the coat-belt tug and arm pull for her next time in a queue.