• Wed
  • Oct 1, 2014
  • Updated: 7:25pm

Graham Earnshaw

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 May, 2010, 12:00am

PAPER BOY I began as a junior reporter at the South China Morning Post. I started learning Cantonese from the first day. I was fascinated by Chinese writing and used my reading ability to compete with the local reporters. I was born in England. My parents emigrated to Australia when I was 12. I went to university in Sydney and failed magnificently, which gave me the opportunity to come to Hong Kong to work. If I'd passed I would've been a boring lawyer in Sydney. I then worked for Reuters news agency. I've been in the media all my life. I enjoy doing it, most particularly with regard to China, which is the only thing I know anything about. Having spent most of my life here, now, at 57, with age comes perspective for pontification and analysis. I was Reuters China bureau chief for two years then Asia chief, which was a fantastic job, covering everything from Pakistan to New Zealand.

HERE AND THEN Hong Kong has changed completely since I came in 1973 but [it] is also exactly the same. There's the same bustle in Causeway Bay and Wan Chai. Most of the buildings have been replaced but the feel of the streets has remained the same. There's more money around now; there're not the hawkers and workmen barefooted, who you saw in those days. The opium addicts down on the wharves near Sheung Wan; that's gone - and everyone is wearing much better clothes.

The first time I went to [mainland] China was in 1978, before the third plenum of the 11th Party Congress: that was the turning point for China. In those days, you waited weeks, if not months, for a visa. I got into a tour group that went on a strict path through Guangzhou and Foshan. There were visits to a primary school and an arts factory. It was all Cultural Revolution China. In the evenings, we were off by ourselves and the city shut down at about 8.30pm, and it was complete darkness, maybe one street lamp running at 10 volts about 100 yards away. We walked to the river and it was such an eerie experience as there was nobody anywhere. We found one little noodle restaurant open and I clearly remember the grimy gloominess of it: the total Cultural Revolution monochrome sense of living life in isolation from the world, just one step beyond poverty and hopelessness.

A SPOT OF TROUBLE I was working in Tokyo in 1989 and the students had been camping out in Tiananmen [Square] for several weeks. Reuters needed reinforcements, so I came back and reported it. I [was] there on June 3, all night. I watched the tracer bullets across the sky. I sat on the side of the road and watched the tanks roll in. It was a key moment in China's history, which continues to define the way China is today. The fantastic turbo-powered economic growth rate of the past 20 years is a reaction, a response, a way of offsetting what happened in 1989.

CROSS COUNTRY The Great Walk of China is a book I published recently about walking from Shanghai to Tibet. I walk at least one weekend a month and each time, I start - to the millimetre - from where I stopped the previous time. Why did I decide to walk cross China? Because it was there. Also because I have a slight leg problem, to do with an operation on my hip, so I can't run, but walking is one of the best ways to stay fit. If it's sun, snow, rain, I go. I just take some bread, cheese, chocolate. I eat very little. In fact, I think most of us eat far too much.

Along the way I talk to the people I meet. Most have never seen a Westerner before and it's as if I've come from another planet. But I smile and say nihao to everyone, to show I am normal. I talk to grandmas, children, village officials. From those conversations I gain an insight to the terrific changes China is undergoing. The pollution shows that that economic progress has come at a cost. [So do] the families with the middle generation absent. There are now two guys who've been inspired by what I've done to do their own walks - a Swedish guy who is walking from Beijing to Kashgar and an American who is walking from the North Korean border to Kunming.

My plan is to walk beyond Chengdu, to the frontier of Han China, find a village where they speak Tibetan, then declare victory on my walk from Shanghai to Tibet. Then I'll turn south to Guiyang and walk east back to the coast. It'll take me six to seven years. I've finished the book but there's no reason to stop walking. When I can no longer walk, I'll buy a Segway [a personal transporter]. Or crawl.

ROCK OF AGES One of my claims to fame is that I was the first person ever to play the kazoo on the Great Wall. I can't remember what I played - My Old Man's a Dustman, probably. I also played guitar on the roof of the Potala [Palace], in Lhasa.

I've been in several bands in Shanghai. Cui Jian is the rock 'n' roll godfather of China and he applied to join our band - this is probably my main claim to fame - and I turned him down. He was playing the trumpet and didn't have the rock 'n' roll feel at all. But my main reason for turning him down was he was only 21 or 22 years old at the time and [I felt] that to have him involved in a foreigner rock 'n' roll band would not be good for his future. In fact, I was being naive, not him. He knew the situation far better than I did. On balance I think it would have been great if we had let him in. But he found a way into rock 'n' roll without me.

The Great Walk of China, by Graham Earnshaw, is published by Blacksmith Books and is priced at HK$130.

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