A Singaporean's 'journey to the north'

By Alexis Hooi (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-04-22 09:44

"You're here to climb the mountain?" the owner of the roadside hun tun (dumpling soup) stall asks me in the city of Tai'an, Shandong province.

A strange question, I think, since every visitor to that part of town is there to scale China's most sacred peak, Taishan.

But her weatherworn face suddenly lights up in amusement when she learns I am a Singaporean making a weekend trip from Beijing, where I now work.

"Singapore? Haha so that's why you've got such a weird accent! We've many friends and relatives who've gone to work in your country.

"Are the hun tun there as good as ours? How much would a bowl cost?" she asks.

As a late-night, after-work, Chinese drama junkie, I can't help but draw parallels with a popular series now being aired, Chuang Guan Dong (Trailblazing through the East of the Gate). It follows the trials and tribulations of those pioneers who left Shandong peninsula for better lives in the vast, fertile lands of the northeastern region that was Manchuria, where more than 20 million migrants settled in the first half of the 20th century.

It is a familiar story. I, for one, am a product of former southern Chinese generations who sailed from their homeland for similar reasons - at that time to free ports in the tropics further south.

And it wasn't too long ago that I was also one of those who still think of Singapore as an El Dorado for Chinese citizens. No paved streets of gold as hoped, but clean nonetheless. Plenty of better-paying jobs too, with an efficient government and a blend of food and language they know well, thrown in.

But in a fascinating U-turn of human movement, here I am in China, what Beijingers call a "Bei Piao", someone drifting to the capital or northern cities to seek his fortune. Just part of the growing number of Singaporeans heading up to China - and only a drop compared with the flood of other foreigners with the same idea ...

Once at the summit of Taishan, visitors are suitably rewarded with unforgettable scenery - temples perched among venerable pine trees, literary allusions to the mountain's peerless beauty carved onto cliff faces, sunrises that leave one speechless and a sea of clouds below that stretches into the silver ether.

What I find most apt to cap off my climb though, is the "Gongbei Shi" or North-pointing Rock - a natural, lifeboat-sized outcrop on the edge of the peak.

"Go North", it seems to entreat.

As for that 3-yuan ($40 cents) bowl of dumplings in steaming hot broth? Five times cheaper than what I'd pay back home, and the best I've ever tasted.

(China Daily 04/22/2008 page20)


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