"Michael, cigarette?" a Chinese policeman says to me, putting a foot upon the step near me where I sat sipping a beer in front of a convenience store. "Sure" I say. He lights it for me, and we have a small chat, while beside me, nine street kids slurp up steaming noodles, oblivious to the both of us. "Ni hun how!" (you very good!) the policeman says. "Miko hun how!" the kids all chime in. I smile, a bit embarrassed. Those kids and that moment will stay with me all my life. They are the Rose Kids of Canton.
I was living in mainland China in the bustling city of Canton (actually Guangzhou, third largest city in China) doing a variety of jobs, and enjoying every hour, every day of my life there. I came there not knowing a single word of Chinese, and less than two years later, I was communicating rather well with the locals. There were only a few extracurricular activities an expatriate such as I could do there. We could access two English language TV stations out of Hong Kong. Buy a limited number of paperback novels from one major book store, and of course exchange books with friends. Other than that one could take up a hobby like Tai Chi or calligraphy. Even in a large metropolis like Canton expats had limited choices so most of us met up quite regularly in a neighboring pub, letting loose our frustrations and shared anxieties.
Near the center of Guangzhou, a number of watering holes existed, as there were several international businesses and consulates there. And where expats congregated, so did a variety of opportunistic enterprises: prostitutes, grossly maimed and deformed beggars, ethnic minorities selling various strange wares, and children selling roses.
Over time I was as familiar a face to the street people in that area as they were to me. Because of that, I developed a somewhat friendly, albeit, aloof rapport with some of them.
One particular night after leaving a pub on my way to another, the rose kids surrounded me. Some of the children were as young as three, while most were between five and ten years of age, with one preteen supervising them all. They all had small bundles of singly cello-wrapped roses that they would attempt to sell to passersby. I never bought any from them, but I would occasionally pick up one of the smaller beggars and carry him or her a few steps, and try to get a smile out of them. Since they all knew me I was successful every time.
On a whim I invited them all into a nearby convenience store. At first they were hesitant, but with a little bit of coaxing, and a reassuring smile from the store attendant, they entered with wide eyes and smiles. In my ignorance, I thought they would load up on chocolates and soda, but they all went straight to the instant noodle bowls, and obediently lined up at the register, waiting for me. I asked if some wanted milk or juice as well; a few opted for that, but most were happy with just the noodles. I paid the cashier, and then helped the younger ones with adding the boiling hot water from the dispenser nearby.
When I paid for the last one, I went out to find one of the youngest kids sitting on the steps, slurping his noodles happily. I sat beside him, sipping the beer I had bought. He looked at me with the most soulful eyes and asked me, "You hungry?" in Chinese, while holding up some noodles adeptly with his chopsticks. My eyes watered up, and I accepted, slurping the hot noodles while he looked on, beaming; he was no more than four years old.One of the most life altering moments in my experience there.
It wasn't long afterwards, perhaps two or three days later, I did the same thing for four or five prostitutes, and again, they wanted noodles, as well as juice, milk, and cigarettes. I realized I couldn't do this every night, so I told the children once a week. The hookers were another dilemma, because those girls would take advantage if I didn't watch it. One time when I thought only three girls were going in to the store, one motioned to some more hidden in the darkness of a small side street, and I very nearly got stampeded by another four girls. I could see the headline in tomorrow's paper, "Expat Trampled To Death By Ravenous Prostitutes."
My name became well known on the streets soon after. I would hear my name, "Michael!" being shouted from a short distance anytime I came near the bridge. Even the security guards who patrolled the streets (or should I say walked the streets; they never helped anyone) knew my name by then.
Because of this name association I had, a funny thing happened to me one night while I helped a very drunken friend get back to his apartment. As we approached the bridge, a chorus of girls saying my name greeted us. "You slept with all of them?" My drunk friend asked. "No, not a one" I told him, unconvincingly. Past the bridge and down the next street I could see another gaggle of girls on the next corner. I thought to myself, "please don't shout out my name" but of course they did, and by now my friend is laughing hysterically, saying "Yeah sure! You never slept with any of them!" What saved me was when we rounded the corner of the next block. The rose kids were there, avoiding the security men who for once were actually enforcing the laws. "Michael! Michael!" they shouted as they ran to me and my companion. "Oh! I see now, everyone just knows your name!" my friend said, and with that, he reached into his pocket to give them money. "Wait!" I told him, as I picked up one of the tiniest girls, "just follow me". We all walked into a small store and as the rose kids went about getting their noodles, I explained to him what was going on. "Let me foot the bill this time!" he exclaimed. And so he did, and from that point on, he also became their benefactor. Although I am no longer in China, several of my friends remain. I was told in a recent phone call that "our" rose kids ask about me. He also says he has passed the torch to other expats as well, and so the tradition continues, and now and again I think about them with fond memories.
© COPYRIGHT 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Mike Lovett aka China Mike