I recently found myself in the awkward position of having to call someone to ask whether they were still alive or not.
The man in question, Doctor Ho, and I have met before. One spring-fresh morning in 1999 I cycled to his rural clinic outside Lijiang in Yunnan, where I joined a flock of travellers clustered in his front room and waited for my diagnosis. Even back then he seemed the epitome of a venerable Chinese gentleman, with a white wisp of a beard and an idiosyncratic command of English grammar that lent profundity to his speech. This year he will be 90.
No ordinary village doctor, Doctor Ho has been visited by VIPs as disparate as Princess Diana, Deng Xiaoping and Michael Palin, and along with tens of thousands of foreign tourists. He owes this heady fame to a visit from Bruce Chatwin in late 1985. Mr Chatwin wrote an article about the encounter for the New York Times and within a few years, Doctor Ho and his clinic had made it into all the major China guidebooks, where they have stayed for the last three decades. I was fact-checking one such guide, when I found myself needing to confirm the Doctor’s continued good health, hence my awkward telephone call.
My first visit to see Doctor Ho was memorable, albeit for unexpected reasons. We were shown well-fingered letters from former patients as we waited, including one thanking him for curing the writer’s cancer. Admirably, Doctor Ho does not charge a fee for his consultations, each patient paying what they can, income from richer visitors subsidising treatment for poorer locals. In the end, however – perhaps having seen us for what we were (tight-fisted backpackers) – we were given paper cups of ‘health tea’, ground herbs floating on its surface, rather than personal audiences. I drank two cups, gave a small donation, and set off back to Lijiang. Half a mile beyond Doctor Ho’s village a wave of nausea overcame me, and I vomited into the storm drain, and continued to do so all the way back to my hostel – at one point needing to lie down in the long grass at the roadside, clutching my heaving stomach, while my companion tried to suppress his laughter.
Ten years later, in 2010, we stopped in Doctor Ho’s village to see what had changed. As we walked down the main street he appeared in a dishevelled lab coat, seemingly unchanged since my earlier visit. “Come in! Come in!” And so we joined him in his clinic, now wallpapered with press clippings and piled with ragged guestbooks. Then, like the ‘Media’ page of a corporate website, the Doctor began listing the coverage he’s enjoyed across the world – over 500 articles in 40 languages – pulling out articles as proof. Eventually, having failed to stem the flood of publication names, we stood up and made polite noises about needing to get back to Lijiang. I was half looking forward to trying some more health tea, but none was offered. Doctor Ho merely nodded and kept leafing through sheafs of photocopied articles as we left.
A few weeks ago, I dialled his telephone number. Doctor Ho’s wife answered.
“Is that the Baisha Clinic?”
“Ah. Yes. I’ll get Doctor Ho for you. [Fortissimo] Husband! Husband! Telephone!”
[shuffling and banging, crescendo] “Wei? Wei?!”
“Hello, is that Doctor Ho?”
“Erm… Hmmm… How are you? Er, I mean, how’s your health these days?”
“Very good thank you. You know I’m a famous doctor? My health is excellent.”
“Er, yes. I’m actually writing a guidebook, and you’re mentioned in it, and, umm… [Diminuendo] I just wanted to check that you were, you know, still working?”
On hearing this, Doctor Ho switches to English, “Aha! Yes, I’m not dead yet!” This having been one possibility I had considered, I blush, furiously and perhaps audibly. The doctor continued, “Please come and visit me. You know I have many visitors, many writers. Please send me what you write! I will give you health tea…”