Among our friends in China were Muslims. Some were Hui Mulims — Han Chinese Mulims — and some were Turkic Muslims from the province of Sinkiang. We spent a lot of time with these people, and it opened a world to us we would not have otherwise seen. I wish I had more photos of that REAL world, but I have what I have.
In the center of the city there was even a Muslim restaurant, the only place in the city where you could be sure to get food that had no pork. The food was delicious — lamb, mostly, but also goat and beef. It also meant the pastries were made with butter not lard. Since baked goods in China were very, very rare, and it was a little hard to swallow (ha, ha, I’m so funny) when they tasted like your mom’s Sunday pork roast, pastries from the stand outside the Muslim restaurant were a treat.
The restaurant had two floors. The top floor was an old bath house and the tables were set up in the shallow green and white tiled tubs that had once been a place for people to soak off the day’s worry. We ate there often. It was always fun.
It was in this restaurant I learned my first words of Arabic which were useful later when I taught students from Saudi Arabia. It was the gathering place for migrant workers and traders from the remote Muslim provinces of China, way out there on the Old Silk Road. One afternoon, after I’d been in China ten months or so, and was used to seeing only Chinese faces, Chinese coloring, I was stunned by the bright green eyes of a Uigur man sitting on the steps of the restaurant. I did what so many Chinese had done to me. I stopped and stared. He grinned, laughed, and pointed at my eyes. I’m sure I blushed, and we both laughed.
One of our students, Ali, was from Sinkiang and he really liked Jim. Ali felt he had more in common with us than with the Han Chinese all around him. From a Muslim perspective the Chinese were dirty. One of the things Ali objected to most strenuously was the way the Chinese would set the well bucket on the ground. “Never do that. The ground is unclean, unclean.” You have to understand that we all were living in a world with wells. Not so much in the city, but definitely in the countryside. He objected to the way the Chinese would spit anywhere. He passionately objected to pork which was kind of a problem with some pig dying publicly every day and all number of pigs wandering the streets of our village.
Ali took us to see the mosque in Guangzhou. It is very old place, though the mosque has been rebuilt several times because of fires. It is famous for the “smooth pagoda” — the single minaret that rises above the Chinese style building and served as a lighthouse when the Pearl River Delta was not as built up with silt as it has been for a long time. It has been rebuilt twice, again because of fire.
At that time, religion was regarded as superstition and the mosque was a tourist attraction as much as a religious place, so there was someone selling tickets to get in, a young Hui Muslim girl. At first she did not want to let Jim and me in, but Ali explained that we were Christians and Christians are followers of Moses and are, therefore, Muslim.
The mosque was a beautiful mixture of Chinese and Arabic aesthetics. It was serene and lovely, a quiet, clean and beautiful island in a crazy, noisy city of bicycle bells, truck horns blaring, people yelling, and endless construction. From that day, a little part of me has been Muslim.
There are legends that one of the earliest Mulim evangelists came to Guangzhou in the 7th century.
Personally, I believe the legend. An old Chinese Muslim manuscript has a lot of credibility to me. One of the most beautiful places in Guangzhou was the tomb of Said Waqqas. I read just now that the tomb now welcomes “hordes of visitors” but when I was there, it was little known except among local Muslims. There were two people taking care of it on the day of our visit. They showed us everything — far more than we could understand.
It was there that I first saw and smelled plumeria blossoms, Ji Dan Hua — Chicken Egg Flowers — they were called, white with yellow centers like chicken eggs. For more than a decade I did not know what they were called in English, but in San Diego I searched everywhere for them. There were many things I encountered in China and knew only in Chinese.
Below is the most beautiful photo I took during my entire year in the People’s Republic of China. Unfortunately, it was taken with Ektachrome which I have learned in this process of scanning slides doesn’t hold up to the vagaries of time, and shifts radically to the blue end of the spectrum. When I first saw it, I was disappointed and a little angry at my ex for loading his camera with experimental film. While I wish I could see the scene again, the whole image is in my memory anyway.
The big white area in front of the woman is a floor covered with fragrant Ji Dan Hua, drying in the sunlight. She’s walking carefully, putting one foot in front of the other so as not to step on a single blossom.
In case you don’t know the flower, here’s a photo.