The Chinese’s mango mania
EVERYONE knows that Chinese media and cyberspace are heavily censored. So I took the Chinese posts on the boycott of Philippine mangoes with a grain of salt, or should I say a dip of bagoong. Online pictures of Cebu dried mango packaging marked with a big red “X” and comments like “Buy Thai instead of Philippine mangoes” reminded me of times when mangoes and nationalism met.
I remember when the Philippines had an issue with Mexico over mangoes. Ours were not accepted into the United States, while those from Mexico entered freely. The problem was that the Mexican ones were marketed as “Mangas de Manila.”
Mexico traced the history of these mangoes back to the Galleon Trade, when mango trees from Manila were sent to Acapulco and propagated there. They were really mangoes from Manila in the 16th century, but the 21st century variety exported to the United States are not.
I remember browsing in an antique shop (off Hollywood Road, in Central Hong Kong) that specialized in Chairman Mao Zedong memorabilia. My attention was drawn to two glass domes engraved with a face of Chairman Mao. The image had rays emanating from the back of his head, like a halo on Catholic religious imagery. Inside one of the glass domes, was a jade mango resting on a silk-covered base. The shopkeeper said these were made to commemorate Ferdinand Marcos’ gift of mangoes to Chairman Mao. As a collector of things Filipiniana, I don’t know why I didn’t even ask for the price of these relics of Mao-era China.
On successive visits to Hong Kong I walked the length of Hollywood Road in search of these mango containers, but they were gone. The search, for me, has become like a quest for the Holy Grail and I am glad the internet gave me more information on these objects.
The translated Chinese text on the glass dome I have been searching for reads: “Respectfully wish Chairman Mao never-ending longevity / To commemorate the precious gift from the great leader Chairman Mao to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team—mango / 1968 August 5 (Replica) / Given by Beijing Metal Smelting Equipment Parts Factory Revolutionary Committee.”
If you can find one with the original wax mango inside, it will set you back over $10,000!
Alas, the mangoes commemorated did not come from the Philippines nor Ferdinand Marcos, but from Pakistan. In August 1968, the foreign minister of Pakistan called on Chairman Mao in Beijing and gifted him with a crate of mangoes. Mao disliked fruits and considered mangoes messy to eat, so he sent these as a recycled gift to the “Worker-Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams” stationed at Quinghua University after the violent suppression of student “Red Guards” there. Unlike the Philippines where recycling gifts is frowned upon, in Chinese culture it is socially acceptable and is known as zhuansong, literally “turn-around and give.”
The workers who received the mangoes had never seen a mango before and they were overjoyed by Mao’s gift, reveling at his “sacrifice,” at not eating the mangoes and sharing it with them instead. Since Mao could not multiply the 40 Pakistan mangoes to feed a multitude, these were distributed to various Beijing factories where they were venerated like holy relics. When the mangoes started to spoil, some were injected with formaldehyde or covered with wax, then replicas were made and a mania for mangoes followed.
Li Zhisui, personal physician of Chairman Mao witnessed this in a Beijing textile factory and recounted it in his book “The Private Life of Chairman Mao”:
“The workers at the factory held a huge ceremony, rich in the recitation of Mao’s words, to welcome the arrival of the mango, then sealed the fruit in wax, hoping to preserve it for posterity. The mangoes became sacred relics, objects of veneration. The wax-covered fruit was placed on an altar in the factory auditorium, and workers lined up to file past it, solemnly bowing as they walked by. No one had thought to sterilize the mango before sealing it, however, and after a few days on display, it began to show signs of rot.
“The revolutionary committee of the factory retrieved the rotting mango, peeled it, then boiled the flesh in a huge pot of water. Another ceremony was held, equally solemn. Mao again was greatly venerated, and the gift of the mango was lauded as evidence of the Chairman’s deep concern for the workers. Then everyone in the factory filed by and each worker drank a spoonful of the water in which the sacred mango had been boiled. After that, the revolutionary committee ordered a wax model of the original mango. The replica was duly made and placed on the altar to replace the real fruit, and workers continued to file by, their veneration for the sacred object in no apparent way diminished.”
The “mango mania” is captured in a poem: “Seeing that golden mango/Was as if seeing the great leader Chairman Mao… Again and again touching that golden mango/the golden mango was so warm.”
At its height, the mango mania led to a riot in Guizhou Province, where armed peasants fought over a black and white photograph of a mango! And when a dentist in a small village in Sichuan commented that Chairman Mao’s mango resembled a sweet potato or “kamote,” he was arrested and executed.
In the autumn of 1974, Imelda Marcos gifted Jiang Qing with mangoes. Madame Mao distributed these in a Beijing park but the effect was not the same. She was later imprisoned and tried as the leader of the notorious “Gang of Four.”
* * *
Comments are welcome at email@example.com.