The mainland and smoking - where men are concerned, anyway - are like lips and teeth. One can exist without the other, but miserably. Guys light up as they walk into lifts, restaurants, shops, taxis, massage parlours … nowhere is off-limits for the fuming Chinese male.
Some years ago, shortly after departing on an already full overnight sleeper bus from Dandong to Beijing, the driver started letting on stray passengers without official tickets, until every square inch of the vehicle was filled with people, as well as blankets, sheets and pillows (all presumably of the cheapest material available). The staff quarters on the Mayflower would have seemed like a ballroom in comparison. All of the men - perhaps to allay their fear of death as the bus careened all over the road for 10 hours - smoked.
I spent the night in a state of hyper-alertness, terrified of perishing in a fireball. And that's when I decided to stop smoking.
Now, only seven years later, it is eight months since I had my last cigarette. I think I'm out of the woods because I have only thought about smoking fleetingly and in an abstract manner since I had that final one. I was never a "must have a smoke before getting out of bed" type anyway; my thing was "drinking without smoking is meaningless", which, apparently, makes it harder to shake. Three glasses of wine can take the edge off the most cemented of resolutions.
Ironically it was the home of smoking, the mainland, that did finally cure me of the habit: I went to Guizhou province for Christmas with two non-smokers, and after a few days away from all the triggers that made me smoke at home, beer accompanied by food instead of cigarettes actually tasted better. By the time I got home I was reformed.
So, on a recent weekend trip to Shenzhen, something hit me for the first time. I was staying in a nice hotel but - yuck! - the room stank of millions of old fags. Now I could see the point of non-smoking rooms. Opening a window just doesn't cut it.
In the morning it was time for my favourite dim sum - crispy taro cakes. But what was this? At each of the three tables surrounding mine were geezers puffing their way through packets of vile-smelling fags, thereby making it almost impossible for me to swallow, let alone enjoy, my succulent titbits. Oh no! Is this going to be my life in the mainland from now on? Have I conquered the scourge only to find myself unable to eat?
I went cold turkey in the mainland. How can I convince 300 million Chinese smokers to do the same?