IN the last year of UK rule in Hong Kong, I went to stay with friends living and working there. I thought it would also be a good chance for a day-trip into the Chinese People’s Republic.

It was hardly a tourist destination in those times. Its rulers felt not at all sure they wanted Westerners wandering around. Everything had to go through official channels, so in Hong Kong I applied to the New China travel agency to see what they could offer an intrepid traveller. They were obliging, so long as I was prepared to accept an individual guide.

That was how I found myself waiting by a jetty at Kowloon at 6am (the Chinese like an early start). I embarked on a ferry heading up the Pearl River with a big crowd of locals on board: I was the sole non-native. I had had scant time for breakfast so I bought a pot of noodles in broth with a scrambled egg on top. Everyone stared, no-one smiled.

We arrived at the river port of Panyu to go through immigration. I had prepared an elaborate mime intended to make sure I got a Red China stamp in my passport. The man on the desk looked at me as if I was mad. “You wanna stamp?” he asked: bang, and through I went.

Outside, young Mr Tang, who was to be a most civil and resourceful companion, stood waiting. Our car at once ran into a couple of hours of traffic jams (nowadays Panyu is one terminus of the Guangzhou metro). Ample time for conversation, then: Mr Tang’s command of standard English was so perfect I assumed he had spent time in an English-speaking country. But no, he had never left China. I feared he must have made some ideological error to finish up in a lowly job as a tourist guide, but he was not forthcoming.

I tipped him lavishly throughout.

Just as well, because after reaching the middle of Guangzhou I soon grew tired of the normal round of sights. The Chinese cities we are now viewing any day on TV, with their tedious vistas of corporate towers and high-rise flats, are absolutely typical. This is a nation with little interest in conservation. Except in a few tourist hotspots, it prefers to tear down and rebuild, in parallel with its zeal to tame nature through prestigious infrastructure. Central Guangzhou boasts a single ancient pagoda, then several landmarks associated with Sun Yat-sen, revered founder of the Chinese Republic. By lunchtime, I had had enough.

“Mr Tang,” I said firmly over the last grains of rice, “I would like to see the life of the people.”

That was how we ended up in a huge market, as frequented by ordinary Chinese. They picked through an arresting variety of produce, brought to town by peasants from their personal plots – lots of dead meat, with stomach-turning internal organs on display in the open air, and live meat, too.

For example, a cage held a family of nervous owls, a mother owl and a brood of owlets. I turned baffled to my guide: “What are these owls here for?”

Once again a Chinese looked at me as if I were mad. “To eat!” said Mr Tang, “to eat!”

Too soon it was time for me to go to the railway station for the 80-mile trip back to Hong Kong. The broad-gauge train dawdled along, giving time to dine and, if the traveller so wished, to watch a video of Rangers getting smashed 4-0 by Juventus in 1995. After the border at Shenzhen, the names of the stations appeared in Roman as well as Chinese characters, and this was all I had to tell me of arriving back by night in a last outpost of the British Empire.

It has taken me until the coronavirus crisis to put these disjointed memories into some kind of context. I doubt if the street markets in Wuhan, or anywhere else, are much different from the one I saw in Guangzhou.

They don’t exist as pretty spectacles for tourists but to supply locals in their typical tastes, of which every nation has its own.

While Americans slosh chlorine over slaughtered beasts, the Chinese prefer to eat the right animals, in the sense of strengthening in themselves the quality each is supposed to represent: harmony is the key to health. It may be a more sensible idea than chlorine, but it still does not induce concern for the creatures’ conservation or welfare.

Snake, for example, is reckoned in south China to be warming in winter. In Hong Kong I tried some snake soup for myself, and I’ll swear I felt the better for it. Unfortunately, before they go into the soup, snakes slither about in all sorts of muck in the undergrowth. They are notorious as a source of fungal organisms and septicaemia, which can spread to us. It is supposed to have been from infected live snakes, on sale in a market, that the coronavirus jumped species and entered the human food chain in Wuhan. When a virus does this – it is not uncommon – lethal mutations can be the result.

Western tradition has a deep streak of suspicion about food, of which the most extreme feature is religious fasting. It goes back to ancient Israel, and continued into the Christian era. It seems to me today’s vegans, atheists though many may be, are yet working out in trendy terms a persistent spiritual psychosis in our culture, a fear of pollution and a horror of the unclean.

It enables those ready to submit to the purifying discipline to say to others, “I am holier than thou,” (useful in politics too).

While in the West the most potent religious symbol is a broken and bleeding Christ on the cross, in China it is a chubby Buddha who pats his belly and smiles benignly on the world. His venerators (I think worshippers would be the wrong word) agree we are here to enjoy ourselves, to which a sense of sin is a hindrance. So in terms of food, if something is edible, just go ahead and eat it.

In fact, the Chinese delight in selecting the rarest titbits, in contrast to our European qualms, often inbred from childhood, about anything we have not had before.

My gastronomic understanding has deepened because I’ve long been friendly with a Chinese family settled in Scotland, making it in the hospitality industry. When at length I was invited into their home, I found a male chauvinist, hierarchical structure.

The men growled the orders, and the children of the household waited at table on their elders, hovering expressionless to take the plates away, just like the waiters in some local restaurant.

In their generosity, my hosts wanted to test me with dishes ever weirder by Scottish standards. This process culminated in being presented with a steaming dish of spicy pigs’ fallopian tubes.

I manfully munched my way through it, to their evident approval. They said, “You eat like a Chinese,” – a high compliment. I’m sure they think Scots are culinary wimps.

In 2020, we have seen the coincidence of Burns Night with the Chinese New Year, so the family organised a Chinese Burns Supper. There was no haggis but for them the nearest equivalent, a boned knuckle of pork stuffed with glutinous rice.

I tucked in with gusto, and a good time was had by all. East met West. In the multicultural 21st century, we will see more of this. It may be a world of greater jollity, though also of greater jeopardy.