Better Read Than Never: “Rudy Kong” & Dragons, Donkeys, Dust

Faithful readers may have been expecting a different BRTN, the third part of the series of summaries I’m doing on John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization. Today’s review is of a decidedly less weighty book, a borrowed one that I finished a while back and have to return to my friend Ladon, who lived parts of it. JRS will return soon.

Dragons, Donkeys and Dust: Memoirs from a decade in China

by Rudy Kong (Bing Long Books, 2010)

Teacher Conradi had a story to tell, actually ten years worth of them, the tales of a foreigner spending an unexpected decade in China. Not only China, by the way, but my very own neighbourhood, the modest and reputedly lovely small city of six million where I’ve spent a half decade of my own: Dalian, the number-two burg in Liaoning province. Conradi is a Canuck, too, and spent his time teaching in the Canadian-based high school that I at one point thought would be my professional home and visa-provider. He left town not long after we came, but he left behind a book and a few mutual friends. I’m glad to know him.

The first story of Dragons, Donkeys and Dust is told in Conradi’s pen name, Rudy Kong. Much as Chinese young people usually choose, often with startling or laughable results, an English version of their name, “RK” is the anglicized version of the Chinese name that this Canadian ex-patriate was given by local friends. Conradi begat Kong Ruidi begat Rudy Kong. (This strikes me as a mild and fairly sane version of an Internet game that has replaced the old “Telephone” fun of seeing how much a message changes with repeated re-telling — put a phrase into Google Translate, and watch what happens to it after sloshes through a few languages. My son loves this.) I’m guessing at how his pseudonym came about,

And away he goes! He spent ten years in China, and all he got was three kids, a million memories, one book (so far) and this cool portrait.

but Mr. Kong has dozens of tales, and he is an engaging and appealing story-teller. He’s a foreigner who genuinely lived in China. He wasn’t here to score a quick million, or view a changing China from the safety of his chauffeured SUV, or to cure his chronic bachelorhood with a compliant (or financially or geographically ambitious) local woman. He brought a bride with him. They birthed their children in Dalian hospitals, only of the many ways in which his wife deserves a medal. Together, they travelled and learned and taught and adventured all over their home and adopted land. I never met him, but wish I had. (Heck, my 40-years-dormant career as a hockey goaltender might’ve been revived!)

Family and friends back in Canada wanted to understand what in the world this young and growing family were doing over there – and what were they thinking? – and so school teacher Kong decided he’d better finally get some of his adventures recorded. He also was determined “to provide a glimpse of the ‘real’ China, however biased my views may be, to counter the ignorant and superficial coverage that China gets in the Western media”. There are many stories of the teeth-grinding frustration and frequent absurdities of living here as an uncomprehending Canadian, especially for this family, which tried to do previously unattempted things among local people who were completely unused to foreigners. But Kong genuinely loved the experience, the people, even the challenges of living in Dalian’s kai fa qu (special economic development area). In a way and to an extent that most ex-pats never approach, he and his family made it their home. They were in that world, and of it, and this is what made the book so readable and fun for me.

A typically passionate Canadian when it comes to hockey, Kong was central to the development of Hockey Night in Dalian, and was in the middle of shinny shenanigans all over northeastern China – none of which turned into international incidents, though not for lack of gusto. Hockey not only brought the Canadians together, but proved a vivid source of fascination for his students – Phys. Ed. class had never been like this before! – and the local community. A few broken bones, and a near-drowning playing early-spring pond hockey, were small prices to pay for the joy of sport, but these hockey tales are only part of it. The book is filled with evidence (it is the evidence) of the sheer desire of Kong, his buddies and their ever-willing families to squeeze the most out of their Liaoning lives, and this is what makes the book juicy. Visits to Tibetan monasteries, road rallies to the the North Korean border on antique Chinese electric bicycles, the perilous bureaucratic minefields of driving licences and home-building, a stick-swinging brawl with a police hockey team, drunken revelry in Tiananmen Square, even a cloak-and-dagger sort of pilgrimage to the village where the current Dalai Lama was born: these are just a small sampling of the adventures that Rudy Kong rushed into with great energy, huge curiosity and a major helping of why not?

I found myself envying him. He’s got his book out there, for one thing. He’s no literary stylist, and had it come from a more professional publishing house, frequent small errors would’ve been avoided. Still, I was swept along by his enthusiasm, his obvious affection for the country and what it had given him, and his skilful way with a simply told, breezy story. Kong gives just enough historical and geographical shading to ground the stories in an understanding of what China is like, and to show that he was not some brainless impulsitron careening around the Middle Kingdom. Readers feel like they’re in a cozy fireside chair, a choice beverage at hand, meeting a likeable friend with whom they have a lot of catching up to do. What’s more, as my own family’s China period appears to be in its final year, I read Dragons, Donkeys and Dust and wondered if we’ve squeezed all that we could have out of our Dalian days and nights. Rudy Kong, Teacher Conradi, now back home in British Columbia with hardy wife and three bicultural kids, surely did.

As he wrapped up this labour of love, Kong mused on his motivations for writing it, and realized they’d changed. “I see now,” he wrote, “as the book comes to a close, that perhaps its greatest value is…for me, a therapeutic preparation to say goodbye to this marvellous land and people who have both challenged and nurtured us.” Be that as it may, for those who have experienced China, and those who have only wondered what it must be like to live there, the homely, straight-talking but sympathetic memoir of “Rudy Kong” is a surprisingly good place to start.



Comment (1)

  1. Nathalie Helgason

    Hi James,

    Thank you for writing this refreshing review on Adrian’s book. You have a beautiful way to describe it, I have enjoyed reading you (and the book). Kudos to you for sharing your review in the Focus on Dalian, most interesting article I read in a while.

    It’s mainly thanks to Adrian and Sarah Conradi, who made our arrival in 2003 welcomed in Dalian. They also made our adaptation to the environment and the culture smoother. As you nicely said, with a major helping of “why not”, we are still here in Dalian and enjoying every moment of it. We bought our house together with the Conradis and went through the same nightmares. Conradi still comes once a year for the University Fairs so hopefully you will get the chance to meet with him.


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