WASHINGTON: Early one Saturday morning in Wuchang, Hubei Province, during the Communist Party chairmanship of Hu Yaobang, I decided to explore the southern bank of the Yangzi River. A moderate-sized, late 20th-century vessel decked out like an early 15th century Ming Dynasty sailing ship was berthed there.
I had seen the ship from the bridge on bus rides north from Wuchang (武昌) into Hankou (汉口), one of the three traditional districts that with Wuchang and Hanyang (汉阳) make up the supercity of Wuhan (武汉). Today, 13 districts comprise Wuhan, a city of more than 10 million people and now known as one of China’s “ten furnaces.”
A boat on the Yangzi River
Having taken the ferry across the river instead of the bus few weeks before, I was familiar enough with the turf to feel comfortable nosing around. On my approach to the seemingly sleepy ship, glazed terracotta food storage pots, wrapped to prevent breakage, were stacked below the flood wall. They looked as if they had materialized from an ancient woodcut book illustration.
The only sound was the muddy river water washing gently against the embankment. After walking the length of the ship, I turned back and amidships shouted, “Hello! Is anyone on the ship?” or “Wei! 喂!! 有人船上,吗?”
I kept up the shouting, confident that someone must be there, or if not, that I would find my own way on board. A minute or two later, as I shouted looking for an entry point, someone popped up from below deck, a healthy young man who looked to be in his mid-to-late twenties.
“Hello. What do you want?” he asked.
“I would like to see the ship. May I come aboard?”
“等一下,” he replied, as he fished up a weathered 2” x 12” plank from the deck, dropping one end into the mud at my feet.
After I balanced my way onto the deck, we exchanged pleasantries, and I asked him what the ship was about. He explained that it was a movie set for films about China’s classical era and that he was its caretaker.
As he gave me a quick tour, he noticed my camera and asked if I’d like my picture taken on the set. He’d clearly done that before or had seen it done before, though I was too thick-headed about it at first to follow his direction with any alacrity. Finally, it dawned on me what he had in mind.
As you might guess, it was a pleasant enough experience for a weekend morning.
I thanked him and disembarked. He pulled up the plank, and I walked a little further downriver (I enjoy shipping and such). That’s when I encountered, seemingly out of the blue because I hadn’t seen him coming, a rather impetuous fellow smoking a cigarette. He wore a dark blue sweater on which in a white rectangular field on the front was the word, “Sakura,” which, I believe, is the Japanese word for cherry blossom, and a common image used for some Japanese businesses. He behaved like an actor, a policeman or some kind of spook, and it was difficult to tell which it might have been.
Here is the oddity, and why I’m writing this story. Besides wearing a Japanese sweater, he insisted that I take his picture, which I was certainly happy to do. He said he wanted me to give him a print when the film was processed, again which I was happy to do.
“What’s your address?”
“No, no,” he replied.
“Where should I send it?”
“Bring it here,” he said.
“I don’t know when I’ll be here next,” I said.
“Just bring it here,” he insisted.
Easy enough, I thought, knowing I wouldn’t likely be back for quite some time, if ever. Besides, how would I find him?
“Ok, see you later,” I said before I left, puzzling over his request and puzzling still.
Lunatic, or what, I don’t know. Could he have had any consciousness of leaving me this anecdote from a life experience that can be captured only though travel?
David Alan Coia is a writer, editor and educator based in Arlington, VA.