The Hong Kong Chinese in 1992 were very different to their country cousins over the boarder in mainland China. HK Chinese enjoyed a modern western ideal and freedom.
In 1994 just across the border the PRC were gathering and waiting for the govenor Chris Patten and the British Government to finally hand Hong Kong back ending 150 years of British occupation of Hong Kong and the surrounding 235 islands they occupied since the 1842 first opium war.
I crossed the China / Hong Kong border sometimes 8 times a week and soon developed a nodding friendship with many of the PRC border guards who after the first few weeks of stamping my passport turned my officially stamped PRC work permit in to a large red blob stopped bothering to open or even look at my presented passport and simply waved me through the border with a bored nod.
Never being a smoker I began buying 500 cigarette cartons when passing through the no mans land duty free shop between the Hong Kong / Chinese border, these I often accidently left on the counter as I passed through.
During Chinese holidays the border became so crowded the cues often stretched back a kilometer or more, adding hours to the journey.
Patrolling guards often pull me from the cue and esort me past the crowd and through immigration and the border knowing they would more than likely gain a packet or two of cigarettes for their trouble.
I was waiting in a very long cue one day when a scuffle broke out a little way ahead, several PRC border guards moved in quickly.
I was some way back and paid little attention until two PRC guards I recognised approached me and after a moment hesitation pulled me from the line, showing a little more determination than usual in their task, formally escorted me toward the disturbance.
I came upon a PRC captain having an animated discussion with two Chinese buisnessmen in suits obviousely returning from Hong Kong.
Standing off to one side with three slightly uncomfortable looking PRC guards was an very agitated sightly built young woman in her mid twenties with long bush of bright red hair and freckles clutching a knapsack to her chest as though to prevent its theft.
Upon recognising me the captain stopped his conversation and approached.
I understood in my limited Chinese there was a problem with the red head woman, he shook my hand then escorted me to her, smiled then re returned to the two business men.
I introduced myself to the red head then asked her what had happened.
She looked at me with some suspicion for a moment, her voice still containing a trace of venom as she asked in a very broad Scottish accent, “En oo the foock ar yoo”?
I presented her with my business card as I informed her I knew the captain and guards they had asked me to help.
She began explaining the two business men behind her had grabbed her by the hair then tried to rob her.
I looked over at the two men in suits, both in their fourties and from overhearing part of their previous conversation with the captain were all speaking Chinese standard (Manderin) not the local Cantonese leaving me thinking they were more than likely from the mainland and not HK.
By now a more PRC guards were gathering about us in a loose circle.
“Im here to help, you said they pulled your hair”? I asked, adding “Did they try to grab your bag”?
“Noo, ey ad a goot hold on it” she went on, the red flushed colour in her face was faiding and returning her to a much whiter complection highlighting her numerous freckles.
The guards standing about were talking amongst them selves I was also catching parts of their conversation in Chinese.
“Should I point my gun at her”? One new arrival asked.
“Not without the captains permission” his mate said.
“Why ar yoo here” she asked.
“To help” I replied as the Captain and the two business men approached us.
“????!!?? only hair”,one of the businessmen explained as he drew near, I couldnt understand the first part of his conversation.
The red head moved behind me, wary of the approaching businessmen as well as being surrounded by chinese in uniforms.
“No one here will hurt you” I explained noticing the captain approach.
“Does he know her”? One of the guards asked another.
“They are both Bái yōulíng” His mate replied. I translated his Mandarin to mean Gweilo a common Cantonese slang term for foreigners meaning ‘white ghost’ or forigner.
“Oh ow do hey know Iy don no ya from a barh of soop” She explained.
“You explain, mistake” the captain asked.
“Mo man tai” I replied in Cantonese,“No problem”.
“We cross border” the captain added keen to clear the problem from the crowded hall.
“Cross border”? I replied to the captain.
He smiled and nodded.
I turned to the redhead and explained it was only her hair the businessmen were interested in they just wanted to feel your red hair, in China it is rare, unusual, red is also a lucky colour, western hair to the Chinese feels like silk compaired to their much thicher, courser black horse hair, long red hair like yours will attract a lot of unwanted interest, they meant no offence, it was only curiocity, they obviousely dont speak english other wise they would have asked your permission first, now if your going to spend time in China either get a hat, a hair cut or and hide it or you will just have to get use to the chinese wanting to touch it.
“I wonder if he is asking her for her address” one guard said behind me.
“Ask her to bed” someone answered.
“Shut up and form up” replied the captain.
“Soo whet heppens noow” she asked suddenly noticing the PRC guards were now moving to form a loose square about us.
“The captain has offerede to ecort us through immigration”, I replied.
“then?, wot, den n just oo the fuck are yoo really” she asked, suddenly becoming suspicious.
“You are free to visit china if you still want, Im no one, the captain doesnt want an international incident in his crowded hall and has agreed to let us through customs” I explained.
“How com yoo cn orda the Chineeze to do stoof, I dont know oo ya really ar”? she asked
“I cross this border four or five times a week and have done so for quite a while, they all know me, thats all, now please they would like to escort us to the border” I explained.
I was relieved to see her join us as the group moved off in a sort of very loose square formation.
As a group we walked the two hundred meters to the crowded immigration counter where people were cleared to allow me to present my passport, it was instantly returned without being opened, I turned and watched as she passed hers over, the guard opened it, found the large red visitors stamp and stamped his over the top then tossed it back without showing further interest.
The escort group moved on to the main departure hall where the captain finally halted, turned and smiled, I opened my briefcase and handed him a carton of cigaretts, he shook my hand then the group broke up and returned to their patrolling.
She stopped,”ee ei notced ee didnt even botha a look et yor passport, oo are you exactly, som sota a spy”? She asked.
“No” I smiled,”Im not some sort of spy Im exactly what it say’s on my card, I’m just a quarry manager working in China” I replied, walking toward the large doors that lead out onto the impossibly crowded streets of China.
She had stopped to read my business card once more before catching up with me just as the large doors slid open allowing the noise, sights and the dust of China to hit her full in the face all at the same time, she stopped in the crowded doorway.
I waited a few moments then taking her by the hand said,”Welcome to China, this way I’ll buy you a hat, and put you on the train to Guangzhou”.