As the races went on we streamed sweat in the sun and my attention wandered. I noticed a large two-story stucco building near the pool and was astonished to see that every window was filled from sash to sill with curious faces. Dozens and dozens. I asked about that and was told it was the local straw-fan factory and that the workers had been given time off to look at us. "They are very interested," said Mr. Li. "There have been a few other foreigners here since the Liberation, but you are the first Americans they have ever seen. They will be telling their friends about your visit for years and years."
The meet over at last, we rose, applauded and received in turn from the swimmers some sort of imperial salute as we began a leisurely walk through the narrow stone streets of Tao Chiao. The straw-fan factory workers had now emptied into the town square and we strolled (perhaps we were swaggering by now) past a couple of hundred of them, clapping and smiling. I clapped back, flashed a peace sign at times and waved majestically, my new messiah complex overcoming me. I hoped against hope that my long nose, round eyes and thick mustache would give the straw-fan workers something to remember.
Pigs wandered across our paths with some unhurried ducks and geese that were dyed an unsettling fuchsia or chartreuse to show who owned them. A few baleful homely yellow-eyed dogs trotted about, and we were told they were kept for eating. We walked for a quarter mile or so past a solid wall of factories and then came to a narrow canal spanned by an arched bridge that curved up perhaps 12 feet over the water. I went to the top of the bridge and paused to look up-canal. Chills ran through my spine, numbness set in. For 100 yards up the stream, both banks were packed with people five or six deep. I turned the other way and was astonished to see the same thing there. Thousands of people were gathered. I glanced down into the sparkling brown water of the canal and—lo!—the surface was absolutely carpeted with the heads of children lying on their backs in the water waiting for Cooke and me to cross the little bridge.
There was something absolutely papal about the scene and I raised my hands. To bless them?—well, no, I merely began to applaud. So did they, and the clear hot morning was suddenly filled with this strange ovation.
Then, as if on signal, the smiling faces of the swimmers began to move together, floating like a flowing carpet beneath the bridge and down the canal. Cooke was frantically snapping pictures, and after the last of the water children drifted beneath us he said to Mr. Li, "Please ask them to swim back upstream and do it again. I'd like a few more pictures." And they did.
Reluctantly we descended from the bridge and went off to lunch in an airy bright house, the commune meeting building. We sat at a large round table and ate a sumptuous country meal—a two-foot carp steamed in ginger sauce and greens, slices of ham in a tangy sauce, a baked whole chicken served with its head lying on the plate, its claws neatly crossed upon its breast, some kind of liver served in more ginger sauce (thinking of the dogs, I felt obliged to ask about its origin and gratefully learned that it was pork liver).
We talked about the origins of the Swimming Village and Li Shu-ling, who was a leading member of the Revolutionary Committee, said, "When Chairman Mao issued a call for physical fitness in 1958 we saw that, being surrounded by water and a warm climate, swimming would be our best reply to him. We were encouraged in this by the Sports Federation in Canton. Now we are quite famous and a propaganda film has been made of our village swimmers."
I asked Li Shu-ling what sports there had been in Tao Chiao before the Liberation, and he shook his head and looked very sad, gazing morosely for a moment at the savaged carp upon the lunch table. He then spoke dolefully, looking occasionally at Chao Po-ping, another leading member of the Revolutionary Committee.
"Oh," said Li, "this village was filled with toiling masses then, laboring the day from dawn till night. We worried about food then, not sport, not swimming. Those were evil times, I tell you." And Chao began to speak, also sadly. "The village of Tao Chiao was the headquarters then for a bandit chieftain. A hooligan, a thief, a robber, a man who was even a traitor for the Japanese during that war. He was a local despot, and the peasants lived in mortal terror of the man and his band."
Li picked up the tale, "His name was Phoenix Nine, and his grandfather and father before him had been robber chieftains, too. Phoenix Nine grew rich through the expedient of levying illegal charges on local people. If they refused to pay him, his running dogs would beat them, bully them, perhaps kill them in their beds. There was fear at every doorstep in Tao Chiao. Indeed, there was fear all around, for Phoenix Nine, that vandal, that jackal, controlled all the waterways, too, the canals and the rivers, and no boats could pass with produce for market without paying a fee to his band." Li wagged his head sadly. Chao said, "Can you imagine China's famed Swimming Village in such a state—terrorized by a tyrant, a hooligan? It was so. After the Liberation he escaped the country. Phoenix Nine now lives in Hong Kong, we are told, rich and fat and exploitative as ever."