new internationalist
issue 261 - November 1994

When the throne-lady smiles
Little did Victor Fung suspect, when he fell in love, what it would mean to make
a mistake and blow his connections in China.

My wife-to-be was five years old when she did the terrible deed. The year was 1973, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The boy, one of her classmates, started playing around, saying Chairman Mao’s name out loud, calling him stupid. And she began aping him.

I was 12 and sneaking my first smoke behind my junior high back in Calgary, Canada, listening to the Stones’ Angie, wondering how to cut my next class without getting caught.

When Xu Ji – that’s my wife’s name – got caught, she and her partner in crime were forced to bow to the Chairman’s statue at the school gate every morning before being locked up in separate rooms. Then she was shipped out to the countryside with her father. Her mother was kept in the city and told to report every day to the school’s assembly hall where she had to parade on the stage, chanting slogans from the Chairman’s Red Book. Endlessly, day after day, back and forth. She was pregnant at the time and gave birth to a stillborn boy, a brother Xu Ji never knew.

So the question her mother wanted me to answer when I was asking for Xu Ji’s hand in marriage was: how could I prove that I was going to take care of her little girl? Was I willing to write out a contract then and there and sign it?

I told her: ‘Mom, I may look Chinese, but I’m a foreigner and maybe some foreigners aim to take advantage of Chinese girls, but I’m not one of them. If you won’t take my word for it then go ahead and write up a contract and I’ll sign it.’ Once I’d given in she lightened up enough to flash me a smile every odd blue moon or so.

We decided to head south to Hainan, a sort of pre-honeymoon honeymoon. Hainan is the Hawaii of China, an island 32 hours south by train from Wuhan in central China where I worked. You can get away with a lot in Hainan because it is one of the five ‘Special Economic Zones’.

It was a shock to return to Wuhan and discover my waiban (translator and minder) had upped and run away to America while I was gone. She left all done deals undone, including a place for Xu Ji to stay in my foreigners’ hotel.

Maybe I just wasn’t thinking straight when I kicked up a fuss. The truth is it was a mistake, and a big one. I’d blown my guanxi, my connections. Without them you’re dead. I started to learn first-hand what it means to make a mistake in China.

They called Xu Ji to a meeting from which I was barred. She checked into another hotel for locals – no ifs or buts. Then they began to pick away at me. No more visitors or phone calls without ID and official reason. All visitors out by 9.30pm. No exceptions. No female callers. My own mother couldn’t get through to me. Then they kicked me out of my room altogether.

So I said to Xu Ji: ‘Let’s get married’, like an idiot-foreigner, expecting all our problems to be solved in a couple of days.

We went on down to the Home Affairs Office, a two-hour bike and ferry trip across the river. Wrong office.

At the Provincial Office, buried in a back alley, the lady sat on a rattan chair like a throne. ‘Five yuan, please,’ she said as she handed us a little red book of instructions.

We went to Shiyan and got security clearance and permission from Xu Ji’s work-unit leader to marry.

Back in Wuhan next day I took my records to the throne-lady. ‘No, no, you must get proof you are single from your Embassy,’ she said.

So we went to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. The High Secretary asked me: ‘You ever been married?’ ‘No.’ ‘Good enough for me.’ Typical Canuck.

‘No, no, you must get the affidavit translated,’ the throne-lady said. ‘I’m a waiban, I can translate it for you right here,’ Xu Ji said. ‘No, no. It must be an official translation by a special professor,’ the throne-lady insisted. He charged us more than half a month’s salary and took three days to translate one paragraph.

And we still had to contend with the throne-lady – on the days she was in. More often than not she’d be away – on personal business, her colleague would say. I visited that Provincial Office 14 times, Xu Ji 17 times.

‘Listen, Xu Ji,’ I said, ‘why don’t we just buy the old lady a small gift, maybe a bottle of perfume and maybe she won’t be so damn ornery?’ Xu Ji – raised too good a communist – kicked and hollered but finally caved in. And it worked like a charm. From then on the throne-lady was all smiles.

When our certificates were finally ready she phoned us up that very day and told us to come on down. As we arrived she was gluing our pictures to red plastic binders. A hush descended as she turned to the safe and took out the Holy Seal. With due ceremony she pressed it with a mighty chop down onto the certificates. Whomp! Once for Xu Ji. Whomp! Once for me. ‘By The Authority Of The State And The Will Of The People I Hereby Give You This Wedding Certificate,’ she said.

And that was it.

We were alone in our hotel room and Xu Ji was sitting by herself at the desk, the marriage certificates in front of her, a tissue poised delicately between her fingers, carefully dabbing at the photos to wipe off traces of glue. Every once in a while she’d hold it up to the light, then dab at it, then hold it up again, over and over. That was when it finally struck me. We were married.

Victor and Xu Ji now live in Canada

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New Internationalist issue 261 magazine cover This article is from the November 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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