Photo: Glenn Belverio
Dear Shaded Viewers,
I’m traveling to Europe on Wednesday, my first trip abroad since the pandemic started. But I’m remembering that this won’t be my first time traveling the world under such circumstances. In 2003, I traveled around mainland China during the tail end of the SARS epidemic. I was a guest editor for a Hong Kong-based magazine called WestEast, and one of my assignments was to travel to the town of Dengfeng, in Henan province, to write a story about the kung-fu students at Shaolin Temple.
Under normal circumstances, there would be a lot of Scandinavian dudes at Shaolin, being all zen and trying to find themselves by studying kung-fu. (Nevermind that Buddhist study was forbidden at Shaolin and the monks who roamed the temples were rumored to be Communist Party employees who were there to give the tourists a Crouching Tiger-style thrill.) But at the first whisper of SARS, the Euro men all fled back to their countries. There were also zero tourists there, and my photographer (Matthew Brookes) and I were the only foreign visitors.
There were dozens upon dozens of Kung-Fu schools with Chinese kids between the ages of 5 and 15 constantly flying through the air, staging mock combats with their hands and also prop weapons. I remember walking into a courtyard where a group of about 100 6-year-olds were practicing, and when they saw me, they cheered! They were all over the moon to see this lone foreigner. I interviewed the kids through my interpreter. (Matthew was somewhere else in Shaolin taking photos. He kept talking about trying to find the legendary, probably mythic monk who lived up in nearby Shaolin Mountain—shades of KILL BILL 2—and at one point I couldn’t make contact with him and feared he had gotten lost in the mountain in the dark.)
The massive hotel I stayed at was deserted and spooky, like the hotel in The Shining but with a pagoda roof. I had a lack-of-caffeine headache the entire time I was in Denfeng because back then, you could only find coffee shops in big cities like Shanghai. I remember coming down to the hotel’s cavernous breakfast room, as the lone diner, to be greeted by a phalanx of workers, all smiling at me and thinking, What the hell is he doing here? The breakfast buffet wasn’t what I was used to when I was being spoiled with mountains of dim sum in Hong Kong. There was nothing at this breakfast buffet I dared eat. The only thing I remember was a pile of what looked like twigs that had been raked up from the nearby forest, and maybe some suspicious-looking mushrooms.
I begged them for coffee and after a long moment of trying to explain to them what I wanted (no one spoke a lick of English), one of the workers disappeared into the kitchen and after a very long interval, returned with a jar of instant coffee that looked like it had been sitting around since the days of The Long March.
At one point I remember being in an area where there was a long line of souvenir booths and when the anxious sellers spotted me—a tourist, finally!—they stamped toward me swinging beaded necklaces, Chairman Mao manpurses, rubber kung-fu axes and Shaolin Temple commemorative oven mitts. I barely escaped with my life!
Anyway, here’s one of the photos (above) I took of the adorable kung-fu students who definitely seemed to be living their best lives. I was envious.