Doing my bit in the long, mostly uphill, battle to make Cantonese a world language, I've come into contact with people from all over the world, of all colours, shapes, sexes and … you get the picture. Some sink into oblivion without trace, others become friends for life.
Among the latter is J, from Germany, to whom I owe a lot, for he was the one who piqued my interest in travelling through Guangdong. Until I met J I had only really explored the north of China, but when he told me about Zhaoqing, praising its quaint charm, narrow winding streets and outdoor markets, I immediately got on the train.
Set on the banks of an enormous lake with scraggy crags (karst or limestone formations of the kind that has made Guilin famous) was the most charming little town, with a few narrow streets, lots of trees, grass, excellent Guangdong hovelage (traditional houses) and, best of all, a huge outdoor market with dai pai dong-style restaurants.
Last month, I went back to Zhaoqing for the first time in eight years, to take a trip down memory lane and also to show this wonderful town to three of my students. In particular, we were looking forward to an excellent meal at the outdoor market.
But where was Zhaoqing? Sure, the lake and some of the scraggy crags are still there, but now it costs 79 yuan (HK$93) to get near them. The lovely little bars along the lakeside in which I played so many games of cards have been torn down and replaced with a four-lane highway and luxury flats. Where before you could cross the main road safely in a matter of seconds, it now takes almost 10 minutes, through an intricate tunnel system.
I must have visited the place more than 10 times and felt myself fairly familiar with the layout as it once was, but now I couldn't recognise a thing and was completely unable to find my way around. If it hadn't been for the lake - where we were helpfully advised to "not dabble": a worthy addition to signs all over the scraggies telling you, in English, No Striding! (don't run) No Precipicing! (don't sit on the edge) And No Tossing! (don't throw stuff) - I would have had no idea where I was.
Fumbling my way blindly down a highway blocked with honking cars, fashion shops lit like morgues blasting out pounding house music, I asked about the market.
"Gone. The local government has banned outdoor eating," I was told.
Sic transit gloria mainlandi. I should have known that my memory lane would have turned into a screaming autobahn.