I have Gough Whitlam to thank for being one of the first tourists into China once it opened up in the 70s. Somehow my mother and I ended up on a two week tour around the mainland when its notions of travel comfort were rudimentary to say the least. It was an extraordinary experience and worth writing about in earnest at another time.
For all the misguided and ham-fisted attempts to meet the needs of some of their very first Western guests, their commemorative gifts presented to us each time we departed a friendship store, hotel or school were on par with the exquisitely tasteful and beautifully packaged offerings the Japanese also bestow on you.
Our tour group had been warned in advance that this would happen frequently and we were encouraged to bring our own trinkets to offer in kind; pins bearing our linked flags, for example. Nothing over the top, but something of a keepsake for those who’d accompany us on our adventures over the fortnight.
It was with some horror, then, that a number of our tour party had fathomed that the perfect gift in exchange would be a Mountain Devil.
For the uninitiated the Mountain Devil is a bushy shrub found in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, and gets it name from the horned woody follicle that stems from it, having the appearance, at least in silhouette of a devil.
The locals latched onto the idea of taking the devil head and attaching pipe cleaners to it to create a body of spindly arms and legs. Then these newly fashioned Satanorexic Gumbys would be dressed up in a red cape with another pipe cleaner creating the trident of a pitchfork. These became quite the souvenir in Katoomba during the 60s and 70s.
Before long and not content with the mono-thematic demonic look, the outfits branched out (if you’ll excuse the pun) into kilts, Little Red Riding Hoods and ballerinas.
Kitsch doesn’t begin to describe the abomination that was the costumed Mountain Devil, but for some of us having grown up with them, they had a certain curious charm to them.
One ill-thought through problem stemming (apologies again!) from their organic matter and cobbled together construction was that, contrary to what should be an essential requirement of souvenir, ie. withstanding the rough and tumble of crammed suitcases, the poor delicate Mountain Devil didn’t travel well at all.
Unfortunately our tour group neglected to check on their stash before presenting them to the Chinese delegates. On opening their parcels they looked in, frozen stiff for what seemed like minutes, to find some half smashed bulbous twigs in some flattened bright pink netting.
The complete look of utter bewilderment on their faces almost stopped time itself.
Trying to explain through an interpreter that when they were intact, they were meant to be devils dressed as ballerinas, didn’t really seem to help much.
There is so much of that fortnight that will remain with me forever, but sadly the Mountain Devil fiasco is right up there with the Great Wall of China, Forbidden City and Peking duck.
Suffice to say it comes as no surprise to me that the Chinese refer to us as White Devils.