After graduating from high school, I left Nanchang for Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, and studied at Sun Yat-Sen University, majoring in Chinese Language and Literature. It was in early nineties when China, in the wake of Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown, quickened the pace of “Reforming and Opening up”, especially in the southern Pearl River Delta region. Instead of immersing myself in the study of classic and contemporary Chinese literature, I spent most of my time reading translated literature from around the world. My favorite writers at that time included Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Brontës, Stefan Zweig, Yasunari Kawabata, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Marguerite Duras, and Albert Camus.
My first novel“February Flowers“ is a coming-of-age set on a university campus. When the book was published, I did a multiple-country book tour. During the tour, I was asked a lot what it was like to be a college student in China. Here’s an excerpt from the book. Though I didn’t give the University a name, its inspiration is my alma mater, Sun Yat-Sen University (Zhongshan University), located in Guangzhou.
The University sat alongside the Pearl River – a big compus, separated from the outside by a high brick wall. The main entrance looked over a long, wide road lined with tall palm trees. Between the trees, flowers blossomed all year round. At the end of the road was one of the university’s oldest buildings. It had a multilevel green tile roof, brick walls, and a copper-studded double door. It was now used as an auditorium, where admission and graduation ceremonies were held. These kind of old buildings could be seen everywhere on campus, some hidden by luxuriant trees. Most of them were office buildings, like the one occupied by the Admissions Bureau behind the Bell Tower.
The shabbiest buildings on campus were the undergraduate dorms. Most of them were white, rectangular, made of cement blocks. On each floor long, external hallways went straight from one end to the other with nothing in between. All the rooms were identical – a square open space with one double door and one window. The door and window trims were brownish and looked like they hadn’t been painted in years. In the middle of each floor was an eight-sink washroom and a bathroom with cold water only, so students had to go to the public bathhouse next to the canteen for a hot-water shower. The toilets were the squatting kind and some of the doors were missing. There was nothing interesting about these dorms, let along romantic. They were said to be styled after Russian steelworkers’ accommodations of the fifties. It was probably joke but I had no desire to investigate further.
West Five was one of these buildings. It didn’t become all female until two years before I came to university. From that time on male students were no longer allowed to enter the door and a high brick wall surrounded the whole building. The only entrance was through an iron gate that had a duty room built on one side of it. Two women in their sixties, both called Dama – meaning “old auntie” – took turns managing the duty room and the only phone in the building. The phone was connected to a speaker installed right above the doorframe of each dorm room. If someone asked for one of the girls, the Dama on duty would dial that girl’s room number and pass on the message.
Every day before dinner a crowd of guys would wait outside the duty room and keep the Dama busy dialing room numbers and passing on messages. The girls who were called would meet their boyfriends outside the duty room and disappear with them beyond the brick walls. Then, a few minutes before the gate was locked at 11pm every evening, another crowd would gather. After saying goodbye to their male escorts, the girls would go back to the dorm. The crowd would reach its peak on Friday and Saturday nights, when the queue extended well beyond the iron gate. Some of the guys clutched bunches of flowers, stuffed animals, or gift boxes. Doma’s voice would become hoarse and impatient, yelling room numbers and names in a never-ending stream. West Five would be transformed into a huge dressing room, with dolled-up girls swinging down the stairs, the air filled with a heady mix of perfume, lotions, and nail polish.”
To read “February Flowers”, please visit here.