Each morning at Guangdong’s Shantou university, I awake to the sound of birdsong. Normally this would be a good thing. But I have been living in agrophobic Hong Kong where birdsong means the cry of foul avian flu carriers. After the SARS deaths caused a negative blip in the Hang Seng stock index, the vigilant Hong Kong authorities have been very concerned about the impact unspecified communicable diseases might have, especially on tourism. This view is not necessarily shared by the rugged villagers of Hong Kong’s New Territories who are rather fond of our feathered friends and who , as a result, have been tucking into roast birds and rice before Confucius was a boy.
The Hong Kong Civil service are not easily discouraged by this rural intransigence. Every television bulletin seems to contain images of weeping grandmothers being led away as a strike team composed of police, vets and cultural advisors, exterminate the family’s pet ducks. There are government ads on television warning that the best way to beat the avian flu is to eat plenty of vegetables and avoid sleeping with chooks. This may be sound advice but its not particularly comforting. The press can be quite alarming. Hong Kong must be the only place in the world where a picture of a dead magpie provides the centre for the front page lead story in the major daily newspaper.
Mainland China is a little more relaxed about the flu. On arrival at Shantou airport, one is asked to fill in a little, rudely printed form. One should tick the appropriate box if one is suffering from HIV/aids, psychosis or hepatitis. Howevere, one should immediately notify the authorities if one has a fever, watering eyes or, curiously, a “snivel”. The last category would obviously exclude snivelling Australians although there is no indication as to what would happen if one admitted to it. Everybody just gets a stamp and goes through.
Life in China is becoming much more sophisticated. For about A$6, I bought a bottle of 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon. The label boasted that , “the wine presents a limpid and clear ruby colour”. It was called “Greetwill” which I assumed was a misprint of “Great Wall”, since there was a photo of the celebrated barbarian exclusion device on the label. However, having drunk a little, I have come to believe that “Greetwill” is a misprint of “Great Swill”. It certainly has a lingering aftertaste, but not quite as promised. It starts with a soft burning sensation, not unlike inhaling Kowloon smog, before it explodes in the brain’s central cortex like a New Year fire cracker. Mao must have drunk quite a bit of it before he declared the cultural revolution, made the professors wear dunce hats and told people that otherwise unqualified “barefoot” doctors could cure anything from tinea to african sleeping sickness.
I confess it does become more accomodating after the first glass.
But will it stop the avian flu?
Only time will tell.