Chengdu Worldcon 4: The people you meet along the way

(This follows three previous posts about Chengdu WorldCon: Doctor Who, the pandas, and other panels and events.)

The very first person I met in Chengdu, at the spanking new Tianfu Airport east of the city, was a volunteer with a placard with my name on. They kindly took a commemorative photo.

It was a real thrill to discover that 尼古拉斯·亨利·懷特 – Nígǔlāsī Hēnglì Huáitè – is the Chinese version of my name. There was some confusion as to which was my family name and which my given name, but I was making the same mistake all the time in the other direction. I resolved to at least learn to write 尼古拉斯 by the end of the trip. (See below.)

Communication in China in general is greatly accelerated by the use of translation apps. When I mentioned that I got stuck behind a group of Austrian students trying to argue their way into the Forbidden City, the conversation was taking place by means of the museum staffer and the students typing furiously at each other on their phones. I noted that they were using English and not German for the non-Chinese end fo the exchange. There are several translation apps, and I didn’t develop a strong preference for any of them, but I did resort to them in case of grievous emergency.

This is probably also the place to mention that security on the way into the convention was heavier than most people are used to; you had to step through an electronic scanner and then a bored security guard waved a metal detector over your front, limbs and back and motioned you to proceed.

Readers who have memories of shopping in central Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s will be scratching their heads at the idea that this is anything out of the ordinary, and it was less intrusive than I had experienced at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City a few days earlier. But Arthur Liu comments that it was excessive by Chinese standards, in a piece well worth reading in translation.

Once inside the Zaha Hadid-designed venue, however, you got an immense buzz of untramelled activity. Like a lot of people I tried filming walkthroughs, but unlike many people I didn’t have an easy way to upload them at the time. This is my look at the main concourse and fan area.

There is immense curiosity about Westerners in China. Vince Docherty and I found that as we were staffing the Glasgow 2024 stall (with help from Ann Gry), people were coming up to us all the time to ask for autographs, selfies or (if they were journalists) interviews. Ken MacLeod, who is one of the Guests of Honour for Glasgow 2024, also helped out at the stall. When Vince put on his tartan, he was mobbed by adoring throngs.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, massed ranks of uniformed schoolchildren were brought to the convention by their schools, waving cheerfully to us as they passed.

We wondered if Vince was benefiting from his resemblance to Chengdu Guest of Honour Robert J. Sawyer; but I have photographic confirmation that they are in fact different people.

I did my best to work on my Chinese penmanship.

Judge for yourself.

Changing topic a little: Chengdu city and Sichuan province (once known in English as Szechuan) are well known for their spicy food, which locals kept warning me about, though it was well within my range of tolerance. I befriended an English teacher, I, and her little boy G, and on the Friday evening, they and G’s music teacher father L took me out to the Lakeside Ecology Hotpot, generally known by its Chinese name 茅歌水韵, Maoge Shuiyun, in the Suoluo International Ecology Park about 10 km southeast of the convention centre.

Sichuan hotpot is sheer delight. You get a shallow communal bowl of simmering spicy sauce, and a large number of strips of raw meat (and other ingredients) which you dangle in the boiling and highly flavoured water until they are cooked. I especially loved the thinly sliced pork kidney, and tripe, which I don’t remember ever having had before. Unfortunately I did not think to take a photo until after we had finished our meal.

Meanwhile there was a floor show on a platform in the middle of the small lake which was surrounded by the restaurant, featuring music, dance and even a clown, which I must say had little G’s full attention while we grownups talked about adult things such as Europe, China and education. I and L are from Yibin, 260 km south of Chengdu and the capital of one of the Sichuan province prefectures. It has a population of 4.6 million, greater than Croatia and not much less than Ireland; and I had never heard of it.

I strongly recommend Maoge Shuiyun if you happen to be in northwestern Chengdu. You don’t have to believe me; see the ecstatic reviews here. I enjoyed the convention very much, as I hope previous posts have made clear, but it was also nice to get away for an evening with friendly and hospitable company.

Back at the convention, I was very pleased to meet two Chinese writers in particular. My colleagues in Beijing had told me not to show my face in their office again unless I got a selfie with Liu Cixin, Guest of Honour of Chengdu Worldcon and author of The Three Body Problem; I tracked him down at the Hugo after-party, and he duly obliged.

At the pre-Hugo reception, despite its flaws, I was able to track down Shanghai-based writer Xin Weimu, who you may remember I raved about when writing up the Astounding finalists. Although her fiction has not yet been translated into English, she is completely fluent (having studied in Yale and Georgetown) and has written some non-fiction about aspects of Chinese society, which you can read here. We had a long conversation which was very educational for me. (You will note that I adapted my Doctor Who sash, given to me for the panel a couple of days earlier, for a different sartorial purpose.)

As Jeremy Szal points out in his must-read report of the convention, this was probably the most international Worldcon ever. I was maybe one of two Irish participants, and as far as I know the only Belgian participant (I had both passports with me); but other countries and continents were represented in numbers that I have never seen before. I made and renewed many other friendships among my fellow international guests – guys and girls, I love you all! (Well, almost all.)

Unfortunately I didn’t get many photos (apart from those already posted here), and I’m not going to name more names because I will forget people. In fact, the only other picture I have of talking to new friends is with Lisa Trombi of Locus and Arthur Liu of the Chinese Science Fiction Database, at the Hugo party, blurred by the bright lights. Symbolic, perhaps, and it seems an appropriate place to end.