Full Moon - Madness, Mayhem and Murder

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Sunday, April 1, 2007


Once I asked the director of the documentary Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock, why he decided to make a movie about eating McDonald's every day for a month. He told me he got the idea for the doco while getting bloated over Thanksgiving. "It just seemed like a really great BAD idea."

Well, the same could be said for the events which unfolded in Lijiang over the last 12 hours. It was a mix of fun and frivolity with danger and death. It was two separate events, one left a lot of people laughing, and the other left some people crying.

I am telling you this, as in the distance I hear the night watchman approaching, with his 'all is well' gong. I am pleased I am home, sipping a cup of hot chocolate. It is just after midnight. The recent quote from the England camp at the World Cup cricket comes to mind: if you think the members of the English team retire to their rooms at 9pm with a cup of hot cocoa, then you are on another planet.

First, I have to tell you this. Tonight was the Full Moon. And here in Lijiang the sun set around 7.30pm and the moon, up it came, orange, full and ripe.

Now maybe you know the folklore surrounding the Full Moon. You know, the craziness induced by the full beam of the moon on earth. If if can influence the tides, how about the sea of blood in our veins?

You've probably heard how the Full Moon can bring out the worst in people: more violence, more suicides, more accidents, more aggression. It's been called the Lunar Effect, and even the Transylvania Effect. And afterall, our word lunacy comes from the Latin word for the moon.

I've also heard it from doctors and nurses who say they don't want to be rostered on in the emergency room around the Full Moon, because they get busy with strange cases, plus people lose more blood around that time. One study over five years entitled 'Human Aggression and the Lunar Synodic Cycle found aggravated assaults occur more around the Full Moon. Another study over three years found there was a significant increase in animal bites - from rats, horses, dogs and cats - around the Full Moon.

Most other studies have had difficulties in proving that just because there is a correlation between two variables, it doesn't mean that one causes the other. But how do scientists explain what happened today?

I met a Chinese friend this afternoon in the old town square. On the way there, in the main street leading to the square, I noticed one of the shops was closed and people were standing around looking. It was unusual, as shops here usually stay open til 11pm. There was some water splashed around in front of the shop, and I noticed some stains from blood. Perhaps a fight, I though. Afterall, here occasionally in a place like this when people are rushed and trying to buy things before their tour bus leaves, a bit of pushing and shoving can break out. In fact, just the other day I learnt how to say 'get out of my way' because tour groups often walk five-abread, blocking the narrow lanes around the old town. And in a bizarre form of entertainment in China, the usual restrained folk sometimes get into heated arguments and fists fly, much to the amusement of an ever-increasing crowd.

So when I met my friend I thought perhaps a storekeeper had had an argument with a customer. Something of that sort.

'Did you hear what happened?' my friend said. 'Today, this afternoon, there was a murder. A man, he went crazy, and ran around with a knife. He hurt maybe 20 people and he killed two people.'

'Did you see it?'

'No, I was in my hotel. But he came past where I was staying on the hill, and just lashed out at everybody. And he killed a baby and the mother.'

Now, this was news to me, and was taking time to settle in my brain.

Lucy went on. 'It is so scary. That's why there are so many security guards and police around.'

I had seen lines of police with batons trot in unison back to their stations around the old town half an hour before. The damage from one person and a knife seemed excessive. Surely one man with a knife couldn't injure 20 people and kill two?

'One of the people he got was a foreigner. He cut her arm here,' she said, cutting her hand across her forearm. 'She was hurt but will be OK. She lost lots of blood. But those people that we cut here,' she motioned across her throat, 'well they are in big trouble and those people die.'

I was still trying to comprehend it all. That here in this peaceful, holiday town I rampaging knife-wielding man would rip through the centre of the tourist district. I recalled how last year there was a spate of attacks around Lijiang. A chef at a bar and restaurant where foreigners sometimes go was knifed. A couple were held up at knifepoint by a man demanding money. I joked at the time with a foreigner living here that they should rename the place 'Stab City'.

With this reeling around in my mind, and the belief I have that Lijiang is actually safer than most places I havd lived in, we went for dinner. Lucy, a college student from Beijing who studies business in Chengdu, was still quite shaken by it all.

We dined at a popular guesthouse, where perhaps two dozen travele worked their way through plates of white beans, cauliflower, white mushrooms, vegetable curry, cucumber with chilli and rice. At our table were four Japanese, two who raved on about my country New Zealand. 'Japanese people they go to New Zealand and put on so much weight. When I lived there, I would go to Pak n'Save and buy a big cartoon of hokey pokey icecream and every night scoop out some into a bowl and eat it. It was so good.'

Later, one of the Japanese returned to his guesthouse nearby and came back with a three-stringed instrument, which he played, accompanied sometimes by a Spanish man who had a flute. Then the Japanese man with the black goatee beard - and the love of Tip Top hokey pokey - announced there was a Full Moon party that night.

'Where?' someone asked.

'In the street, in the square.'

'Who is organising?' asked someone else.'

'Us Japanese.'

Most the diners seemed content to laze after their meal. The Israelis smoked cigarettes and took turns to check out the Israeli outdoor store website that has up-to-date information on every destination imaginable. An older man from New Mexico went around videoing everybody in the way that puts everybody on guard. Who wants to be videoed while on holiday and in a post-meal slumber.

So off went the Japanese to their guesthouse down the road, and a few of us followed, curious to see what outfits the Rising Sons had for the party.

At Number Two guesthouse one man brought out a glass makeup box and in a way that suggested he did this everyday, he applied foundation on his friend's face, then using red and black paints he put on designs - spirals, symbols, red lips, swirls. Soon all three men were transformed into performers, and the Japanese girl was talked into joining the fun. So were two Israeli men who had been reading at the guesthouse, and Lucy too agreed to have her face painted.

It was her last day in Lijiang and during the meal earlier she'd struck up a conversation with a guy next to her. He didn't speak much English and was a little shy. 'Maybe in developed countries people don't learn other languages,' she told the rest of us at the table.

'Maybe the same for China too,' the Spanish guy said.

'I really fancy him. He is so handsome.'

'Well, maybe you don't have to use language to communicate,' said the Spaniard.

'But I really want to talk to him. It is such a bad thing that we can't talk.'

'Not necessarily. Would your parents like him? Probably not, given now the Chinese don't like the Japanese because of how they invaded China and what they did. So maybe it is a good thing that you can't talk with him anymore.'

The invitation to go to Guesthouse Number Two meant that Lucy could see the Japanese man again. When we arrived, the guy in question emerged from the shower with a towel around his waist. He walked past Lucy and she turned to follow his progress up the stairs. ' I am getting a great impression of Japan,' she said to me.

When he came down wearing a flimsy thong-like pair of underpants, well our Lucy was beside herself. Maybe that was why she decided to join the party.

I went home, got my camera, and also my accessory: a mask. A mask I got for a photo project that I had to stop. It involved taking photos of someone wearing the mask at prominent places and landmarks around Europe. The mask was of Osama bin Laden. Another really good BAD idea. I did it in Amsterdam, along the Seine in Paris, but when I tried take a photo by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, I realised it wasn't the time or place: police, armed and mean-looking, were everywhere.

Back to Lijiang. Tonight. Imagine the scene if you can. People with faces painted, some in costume, me in a mask. A sense of intrepidation. The scent of rice wine on some people's breath. A trip to the mirror to check appearances and disguises.

Then we set off towards the entertainment district. On our way out, a group of people staying at the guesthouse arrived from diner, and pleaded to know what we were up to. The American chased after us, like it was the biggest opportunity of his life to capture yet more film footage. 'You'll find us in the main square,' said the Japanese man leading the adventure.

'But where,' our anxious American kept asking.

'We'll see you soon,' we chimed in, keen to get going and sure we'd see them shortly - we didn't see them again til the end of the evening, as they took their time getting ready and it must be said, they had a different energy than our group.

Led by Kiyotaka, we made our way along the shop-lined lanes and alleyways, saying hello to all those we met. Most people seemed surprised and laughed on seeing a group of people dressed up and merry. Some jaws dropped, a child cried, shopgirls scampered, customers turned and did a double-take.

We made our way into the Sifang or main old square and then moved along the main canal street lined with bars and cafes. Reactions ranged from deadpan no responses to people - well mainly young women - running into the backs of their establishments and hiding. Groups in booth seats waved, some invited us over for photos, others pointed out and laughed.

We did a quick circuit outside the main bars, then made our way further along towards the Water Wheel, scurrying along the lane when we heard police were coming. In some places were went in and danced in loud bars where Chinese tried out their latest dance moves. In more empty places we joined on stages girls in Naxi, Muosu and Tibetan costume. Cameras flashed and visitors from Shanghai and Beijing got out their mobile phones to have photos with us.

I got singled out for attention. 'Laden, laden,' people would say. Lots of Chinese men shook my hand. Their girlfriends posed with me for photos. I get annoyed when Chinese people assume a peace sign is the only way one should pose when having one's photo taken, but this gesture seemed strangely appropriate.

Behind the mask it wasn't too hot, but the mask sometimes slipped and I was wary going up and down stairs, and when climbing up on the stone benches beside the canals I took care not to get off balance and fall over into the water below.

Our merry band went from bar to disco, up and down the street, inside and outside. Around 11pm we stopped to stock up on bottled water, and then after a few hours of fun, some had to leave to get some sleep before early departures to Zhongdian and Chengdu.

It was weird for me to be in some familiar surroundings and some strange places, with my identity hidden. When we met the other group and it seemed they didn't share our spirit, we decided to head home, take off the makeup, take off the mask, have a nightcap, and sleep. When the third person from the other group tried to take off my mask, I walked out the bar, and headed home.

As I walked down my lane, the moon cast a shadow across the cobbled alleyway. What a crazy day. What a strange night.

And this year, the year when China hopes to launch its lunar fly-by programme. Within the next 15 years, they hope to have a man on the Moon. Now how crazy is that?
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