'Xièxie,' I say, concentrating on turning each letter 'X' into a sibilant 'sh' whilst attempting to trail away the tone on the first syllable. Thank you.

Bamboo Curtain by Craig Pay

Bamboo Curtain by Craig Pay

The border control officer remains stony-faced and hands back my passport. He breaks eye contact and waves me away with a lazy hand. I step past his Perspex-screened kiosk to be greeted by another uniformed officer, a woman, who points at the small rucksack over my shoulder and then points again at a nearby bag scanner, just like the ones they have at the airport.

'What about my camera?' I say, fingering the strap around my neck. She shakes her head, saying nothing, so I drop my rucksack onto the scanner's black rubber conveyor belt where it's swept along and swallowed up by the machine.

There are no Tensabarriers here to create snaking queues, but then it isn't very busy, no Chinese people other than the border control officers, just half a dozen Westerners, including me, standing in this concrete hallway. There's no body scanner to walk through. The security seems relaxed, almost non-existent.

As I wait for my rucksack, I look inside my passport. Freshly-inked stamps indicate my departure from Hong Kong and my arrival into China. The visa slip that was glued across one page by a clerk at the Visa Application Center in Manchester now bears a biro-circled '1' next to where it says 'ENTRIES'. My backpack reappears from the other side of the scanner, so I pick it up and loop it across my shoulder. I step past the female officer as she waves me to keep moving.

Shenzhen, in Shekou Industrial Zone, is an hour's journey from Hong Kong Island by passenger catamaran. During the journey, the grey choppy water hammered echoes into the underside of the hull and sprayed up the windows, lending a murky pall to each photo that I tried to take of the passing shoreline. Inside the cabin there were rows of cushioned airline seats and two flat-screen TVs on the front walls running the same Chinese news channel.

Shenzhen is a brief stopping point on my journey. The city sits huddled up against the Chinese side of the border with Hong Kong's New Territories. Hong Kong may have been handed over in '97 but it still remains a Special Administrative Region, freely accessible to most Westerners. To pass through to China requires you to pass through immigration control, and that requires a visa.

After leaving the catamaran behind me, I'm to join a tour group on a coach that will head to Guangzhou (pronounced 'G-wong-jo'), a city that Westerners like me used to call Canton. I'm interested in British colonial history for a novel I'm writing. The British have a distinctly shady history when it comes to their dealings with the Chinese people during the nineteenth century and I want to get a feel for the place that they used to call Canton.

Our tour leader-English name Michelle, Chinese name pronounced 'Lee Kay Pow'-leads us along the hallway and we turn a corner into something that looks like a busy shopping mall. Standing there is a soldier dressed from neck to toes in camouflaged uniform and wearing a helmet with a tight black strap under his chin. He's holding a shotgun in both hands and staring straight ahead, ignoring us.

We glance at each other and I hear one of the men in the group mutter with what sounds like an American accent, 'Well, we sure arrived in China.' Then a lady, an Australian, says, 'They're just loading the ATM.'

She's right. Kneeling on the floor next to the soldier (who of course is just a security guard) are two civilian-dressed men swapping boxes in and out of the back of a cash machine.

I glance around at the members of our party. Western faces smile back at me. The American guy just frowns.

We walk through the shopping mall and out into a concrete-slabbed courtyard. The sky is still overcast, but it's pleasantly warm. The courtyard is dotted with circular planters, each one home to two or three spindle-trunked trees; each tree supported with a pyramid of bamboo scaffolding that reminds me of the building sites back in Hong Kong. Each planter is surrounded by a low circular wall that also serves as a seat, and sitting around the courtyard are perhaps a dozen or so Chinese people. I see trainers, jeans, smart suits, jackets, skirts. Ordinarily muted colours. One young man is wearing a purple hoodie. They're using mobile phones, smoking, chatting. Most have luggage, the kind with telescopic handles and the tiny wheels that you pull along.

In the distance I see palm trees and a white blocky building with gold Chinese lettering across the top under a nest of mobile phone masts. On the other side of the courtyard there are three wide billboards, bright red and covered with white Chinese lettering. For a moment I wonder whether this might be something to do with the government, and then I see that one of the billboards is advertising a soft drinks can bearing the phrase 'SINO VIVE' and the image of a very Western-looking guy giving the thumbs up.

Later, I will discover that they drive on the right side of the road here, compared to back in Hong Kong where they drive on the left. The road signs and markings between the two places are also very different, more American here to my British eyes (which is perhaps ironic). Hong Kong streets feel British to me, with several bearing names like Gloucester Road and Fenwick Street and even Lambeth Walk. Even the Hong Kong street signs look like they could have been lifted from London's Chinatown, with the same black font on a white background written in English as well as Chinese. And all the pedestrian crossings bear the same familiar red and green men, even if each crossing is accompanied by a sound that I can only describe as a loud chirruping cicada that speeds up when it's safe to cross.

For a moment I wonder whether I was seriously expecting everyone to be wearing overalls and sporting Chairman Mo caps. I shake my head and head towards the waiting coach.

Craig has a Creative Writing Masters from the University of Bolton. He has been published several times already and has a particular interest in genre writing, particularly science fiction. He runs a writing workshop and has published a creative writing magazine called Cutaway.


by for www.femalefirst.co.uk
find me on and follow me on