Luoxi, China’s No.1 Soccer Fan
(An excerpt from "Angels by the Murky River: Travels Off the Beaten Path" by Shivaji Das. Cover photo: Shivaji Das)
It’s a cold, cold day in Shenyang in North-East China. Lobo and I are walking the streets of this old city which was once the capital of the Manchus before they went on to rule the whole of China. Apart from the tombs and palaces that are designated as World Heritage sites, modern Shenyang is a bland maze of glass and steel fortresses emblazoned with western high-street brand names. If we had taken a stroll in the wee hours—assuming there weren’t any people on the streets—it would have been impossible to take Shenyang for a Chinese city, if not for the frequent dubious looking KTVs.
In this whirlpool of ever-marching-ahead, we suddenly find a narrow street, with shops selling musical instruments on both sides, and in the corner, a small glass door, decorated heavily from the inside with tassels in all shapes and sizes. Suddenly, it occurs to both of us that I had once bought a dizi (Chinese Flute) that I had never bothered playing for want of a decorative tassel. We knock on the door.
We are not prepared for what we see on the other side of the door. It’s Lao Tzu, the Chinese sage, in Texan-Cowboy-Lands-In-The-Moon attire! He has a perfectly square face with a beak-shaped nose guarded by a long moustache. Lao Tzu has the customary white beard, Chinese style. He is wearing a black cowboy hat, plaid cowboy shirt, white half-sleeve space jacket with ‘Harry Potter’ written on it, red trousers, and white space boots. At least 20 trinkets are hanging from his wide leather belt along with knives, wooden guns, large Chinese calligraphy brushes, and steel chains. Lao-Tzu is also wearing a football pendant from a polyester lanyard.
Lao Tzu, in his cowboy reincarnation, is also not prepared for us. His mouth opens, startled; a foreigner in this part of the town? He signals us to come in and in a swift move, takes a soft toy from a shelf and gives it to me. It’s a Chinese impression of Barney. Perhaps Lao Tzu has taken me for a child, much oppressed by some Asian tiger mom.
After we exchange greetings, Lao Tzu invites us for a cup of tea at his work station. We forget about our hunt for a tassel.
"I am Luoxi, China’s number one soccer fan. I am always there to support China whenever there is an international soccer match."
His shop comprises two rooms with high ceilings, the first opening into the second. The walls are lined with wooden cupboards; large calligraphy frames hanging from them. Luoxi, China’s number 1 soccer fan, is also a calligrapher of some repute. Framed photographs of his, look at us from all across the room.
He explains the photographs to us, "That’s me leading the cheering for China in South Korea during the World Cup. That’s me in Japan. This is at the Asian Games."
In his photographs, he is always dressed like a space cowboy, sometimes holding a huge Chinese flag, His back facing the game, leading the cheering squad.
Luoxi, China’s No.1 soccer fan, is approaching 60 and his energy is infectious. He looks at us with big eyes and a lot of curiosity. He asks about us and whenever I say something, he replies with a loud, "Hao! Hao!" or "good, good".
He invites us to the inner room, "Let’s drink some tea in the honour of this international friend" - a term commonly used by the Chinese people to address foreigners.
The inner room is smaller and has a traditional Chinese tea station in the centre. There are countless soccer memorabilia strewn about the room—on the cupboards, on tables, hanging from the walls—soccer-themed drinking cups, plastic World Cups, plastic statues of players and player cards.
"Some day, I want to build a museum with all these. A soccer museum!" Luoxi, China’s No.1 soccer fan’s eyes always have a look of astonishment, as if goals were being scored every moment around him.
"People can’t understand me sometimes. I have lost all my money for soccer. I have separated from my wife and son because of soccer. I just can’t afford to be missing when the boys from China are playing."
He goes on about the tea ceremony in detail; washing the cups first with hot water, then pouring it out gently for all of us.
"May there never be a war again between India and China," he says.
He gives us little chance to talk, a habit typical of Chinese men from the northeast of the country.
"I have been all around the world. I went to the world cup in South Africa but I had to come back because China was playing another match here; I just had to come back.”
He shows us a pamphlet of himself, "That’s me in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia." He is in his typical attire, overlooking the blissfully grazing sheep, his moustache a good 20 years younger.
"Isn’t the tea good? This tea is very special. Let’s again drink to India and China. Let’s celebrate this chance encounter."
The tea pot, emptying itself in customary small Chinese cups, is taking an eternity to finish. But we are enjoying the warmth inside.
He takes us back to the outer room to show us his calligraphy. "This one won an award at an international competition. That one was selected as one of the best in China a few years back."
"I also make my own seals." He shows us a few one by one.
"Wait, I know what I should do for you." He spreads out a long sheet of paper and stands in front of it with his legs spread out. With a unique style of holding the brushes with two hands, close to his chest, he quickly writes down:
"May the people of the four continents be friends forever."
At that point, all the tassels and stuffed toys fixed to the door move. A young man has come in. Luoxi, China’s No.1 soccer fan, gives him a nod and explains our presence to him, "They are my international friends from Singapore."
The young man keeps addressing Luoxi, China’s No.1 soccer fan, as the 'Master'. He is much impressed with master’s latest work for us and expresses it fervently.
"I will use some special seals for this one," says Luoxi, China’s No.1 soccer fan, "Look, this seal is carved like Guanyin [Buddhist deity of compassion, popular in China]. I know you Indians are all Buddhists. This seal is just right for you.
"I will give you a certificate, too. If you sell it someday, you might just get rich."
We thank him for his generous gift. It is now time to say goodbye. Luoxi, China’s No.1 soccer fan, does it in style by posing with us for photographs, first with one of his pistols in his hand, then, "Wait, wait!" He takes out a flag of China from his pocket, spreads it and holds it for the clicks. He is certainly a pro when it comes to posing.
We are delighted to get this work of calligraphy from a master but our company with this token of international friendship is short. On our way to Shenyang airport, we are terribly late, reaching the airport only 20 minutes before departure. To our delight, Shenyang airport has a special counter for late passengers and we are allowed in. Soon the announcements begin calling for us, but the announcer must have been struggling with my name and so just kept calling my wife’s name and me as "her friend". We run to our counter and when we get on board, realise with a heavy heart that Luoxi’s gift is lost. Only the certificate of authenticity remains with us.
Over the next few years, I follow Luoxi’s activities. He is featured in articles by two local newspapers in China. In one, he talks of his failing health. At some point, he moved from Shenyang to set up shop in a tourist-trap sounding place—calligraphy complex—in Suzhou. China, the land where soccer probably originated, was hitting a low, Chinese soccer being riven by corruption scandals recently. The ageing ailing Luoxi has been replaced by Xi, as China’s No.1 soccer fan. He is none other than Xi Jinping, China’s current premier, whose love for soccer has at times flooded the media and sent Luoxi from a small oblivion to a smaller oblivion still.
ABOUT THE BOOK
"Angels by the Murky River: Travels Off The Beaten Path" (Yoda Press) is a collection of travel narratives that stay off the beaten track. During the course of his travels, the author encounters people who would not typically attract a tourist’s attention---homeless people in Mumbai and Seoul, ageing anarchists in Melbourne, the crew on board a container ship, poverty-stricken diamond miners in Indonesia, renunciant monks in the material city of Singapore, farmers-turned-painters in Morocco and China, an elderly couple who scribble love poems on walls of small-town China while not daring to meet each other, Filipino women boxers and beauty pageant specialists, and a group of migratory mothers-in-law, to name a few.
These are narratives that capture human resilience in the midst of adversity, our passion for cherished ideals, and our capacity for creativity, kindness, and humour, irrespective of our backgrounds, and no matter what may be the traveller's destination.