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China's Great Armada
JULY 2005
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In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Brian Strauss



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China's Armada






    Daniel Tan is a Baba, a member of a fascinating culture descended from Nyonyas, Malay women who married Chinese men in the 15th century and gave birth to a new mixed race. I met him in Malacca, Malaysia, his hometown.
    Baba-Nyonya families observe Chinese religious practices, but their women wear traditional Malay sarongs and their kitchens are pungent with the tropical odors of the Malay Archipelago. When the Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century, tile-roofed shop houses in the style of Lisbon lined Malacca streets. Later, Dutch imperialists brought with them cream cakes, tobacco, and clay pipes. Eventually the British would add their language and high tea. Daniel and his parents are a living encyclopedia of that history; they all speak perfect English, Malay, and two dialects of Chinese.
    It would be hard to find a more adaptable people, a community with a greater natural curiosity about the rest of the world's ways or a more pronounced willingness to learn them. So I wasn't surprised when I received a letter from Daniel—addressed to my home in Tuscany—asking questions about Italian life. What surprised me was that he had somehow managed to write in very readable Italian. Here was a true Baba, an instant adapter.
    Daniel, I should add, is ten years old.
    The young Sri Lankan Army lieutenant was apologetic. He couldn't let me pass his roadblock without special permission. It stood about ten miles (16 kilometers) south of Jaffna, above a tropical beach at the cease-fire line between government troops and Tamil Tiger guerrillas. Everyone expected the cease-fire to collapse and the island's civil war to resume soon.
    We chatted while he waited for orders from brigade headquarters. At first the conversation was about the usual things: where he'd grown up, how the national cricket team was likely to fare against India. Then, suddenly, the lieutenant said he expected to die in the next few weeks. "There are only half a dozen of us at this post. The Tigers will make very short work of us."
    In fact, the cease-fire held. But four months later the Indian Ocean tsunami struck. Since then, I've often thought of the young lieutenant. The sea had been so close to the roadblock that it lapped right up to its perimeter of sandbags at high tide. He hadn't told me his name. "We're not allowed to because the rebels might go after our wives and children," he said. I'll never know if he survived that terrible day.
    Photographer Michael Yamashita and I dined with Chinese colleagues at a Nanjing restaurant. It was in Nanjing, in 1842, that China was forced to sign a humiliating treaty that granted enormous powers to the West and was a major element in the xenophobic ideology of Mao Zedong and his Communist Party of China.
    Mao would have turned redder than ever at the sight of the restaurant. Its name was Cultural Revolution, its sultry waitresses were garbed in Mao caps and low-cut versions of the military-green uniforms once worn by the People's Liberation Army, and its menu included "revisionist pork" and "Red Guard duck."
    They were conscious parodies of Maoism's lunatic excesses—and a very quirky measure of the political distance China has traveled since Mao himself died in 1976.
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