Farewell to the King


“We Banged the shit out of this Kok, huh?”
“Can you please just be normal?”


We have bid adieu to the colourful boats and brightly lit tuk tuks; I’ve called in an air strike on the Milius references; The river city is behind us and I’m sipping Americanos under a suspiciously blue Beijing sky.

As the gf and I stepped onto the Airport Express after our red-eye from BKK, I wearily looked out at the hazy dawn sky and deadpanned “Ah, the city that never wakes up!”*

City dwellers are not often noted for paying much attention. Sure, there are some Walter Benjamins, some Rebecca Solnits, some Iain Sinclairs and Rachel Lichtensteins, but there’s also a hell of a lot of dozy fuckers.

I recently read an article suggesting that neurotic people might actually live longer and more creative lives than the permanently chillaxed. This article was illustrated with a photo of ‘Beaker’ from The Muppets and started with something like “If you spend your days bumbling around like Woody Allen…” which was enough for me to relate instantly.

I’ve always tried to tread that fine line between beach bum and overthinking bag of nerd, but it’s a tough tightrope to walk. Sometimes I’m acing it like Philip Petit, sometimes I’m alarmed to find myself upside down, sans trousers, clinging on by my Kung fu slippers.

There’s a modern psychiatric syndrome known as ‘The Truman Show Delusion’ where people (presumably fame hungry schizophrenics) believe that they are living in an unscripted reality TV show surrounded by actors. It says a lot about modern society.

I would like to stress my clinical sanity, but returning to the Jing from elsewhere can indeed feel like entering some kind of simulated environment. Well, every city is a ‘simulated environment’ isn’t it(?), but I mean something from The Prisoner or The Thirteenth Floor, perhaps even some place where Paul Giamatti and Ed Harris are actively trying to drown you.

The ‘Truman Show’ feeling was particularly strong when I lived in the ‘burbs of Tongzhou, but returning to Happy Valley, not a million miles from those Southeastern outskirts, always seems to come with a dose of surreality).


“We’d like to check out please.”
“Haha, it is the truth this time?”


 

There’s actually an earlier, darker draft of The Truman Show script where (spoilers) it’s not immediately obvious that the character is on TV, the audience is left to figure out the clues for themselves before all is finally revealed at a pivotal moment that doesn’t have the same impact in the finished film. The ‘classic’ moments like the elevator with no backing and the studio light falling from the sky (something I a least 70% expected to happen when I lived along the Batong Line) are still there; but this is a burnt-out Truman with shattered dreams: a middle-aged man in a very literal sham marriage, a man who laces his coffees with Jack Daniels, who visits prostitutes, who shrinks away from confrontation but who reacts with outright violence at the growing conspiracy around him (the scene where he threatens his ‘wife’ with a kitchen knife, tame in the film, is actually terrifying in this early draft: a script that Slavoj Žižek could build a 500 page philosophy book around).

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To me, the most interesting thing about this alternative Truman Show (a screenplay written by the creator of Gattaca and Lord of War, among other downbeat movie worlds) is that it’s set not in a planned-community seaside town but in a soundstage reconstruction of NYC: the urban environment that has given birth to such dystopias as Taxi Driver, Jacob’s Ladder and Synecdoche, New York.

Plato has already told us what happens to the people who walk out of the cave: Truman reaching the soundstage roof, Number 6 driving a machine gun laden lorry out of The Village, that bloke from The Thirteenth Floor who drives off the edge of the world. They all end up, well, if not like the guy from Jacob’s Ladder then at least ‘not often thanked’.

Overthinking the city, any city, can be rewarding. That’s why the psychogeographers keep stacks of notebooks of their urban observations.

The film ends earlier than the script, with Truman stepping off the boat on the threshold of his new world. He never makes it onto the roof to confront his creator.

Filling notebooks is one thing. Escaping, it seems, is quite the different kettle. Iain Sinclair keeps threatening to move to Hastings, but we all know he will die a Londoner, just as Walter Benjamin never made it to the border.

I like it here. I’m not saying that I’m stuck in Beijing, not at all. I’m just saying that we all are.


*(Here all week. Tip the waitress. Etc.)

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How Grey Was My Valley

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“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.” – Frank Zappa


When I first arrived in Hong Kong the reflection of the crescent moon was dancing across the harbour. It was so bright and spooky that it took me almost a minute to figure out what the bloody hell it was (it looked like an armoured demon tring to rise up out of the water). When I took the airport express (with my arse still smarting at the insertion of a $100 ticket), the water was again crystal clear under skies of azure. If life came with a soundtrack, it would have been that irritatingly catchy song by Sugababes or Destiny’s Child or whoever the hell it is. That one about being on a beach.

In contrast, when I arrived at PEK the visibility was so poor that its no exaggeration to say that I couldn’t see the runway until we’d landed on it. The soundtrack was now The Hunt For Red October. I was almost immediately fighting my way off the subway at rush hour. When I got to Happy Valley, the lift in my apartment building smelt suspiciously of shit (presumably because something or someone had recently shit in it).

The following day I decamped to foggy Zhongguancun to drink strong black coffee, draft a blog entry and wonder if I was insane just for using the return ticket from Hong Kong.

In the Arthurian legends, there’s a moment when the knights of the round table gather at the edge of a forest to begin their search for the Holy Grail. They all draw swords and begin hacking their way through the woods. Each knight enters the forest at a point of his choosing, and a point where there is no path.

That’s the schtick: you gotta choose your own path and your own point of departure. I’m far from the first person to admire the metaphor behind this moment (mythologist and philosopher Joseph Campbell, the most misunderstood of Hollywood ‘content creators’, draws attention to this in a lot of his writings).

The guidance of others is, as always, not only useless but against the rules. Listening to other people is about my least favorite way of spending precious time. I take everyone’s advice with at least a dash of salt (a whole shaker full if the other guy’s a Baby Boomer). Nevertheless, I have a couple of pointers that could be useful for anyone who ever plans to visit the Kong:

TAKE POCKET MONEY
The Bank of China handily issued me with HK notes of $1000 and $500. The subway machines don’t even take fifties. When I tried to pay for a curry, the bewildered chap at the till asked “don’t you got no change?”

Before you go, stock up on those little metal coins (most of which look like cogs in some fiendish steampunk machine).

USE PUBLC TRANSPORT (CAREFULLY)
The subway was my chosen mode of transportation for pretty much the whole trip. I’d heard too many horror stories of lying taxi drivers wildly inflating prices at the end of journeys.

Beijing Metro, although packed to the gills and stinky as hell, is easy to use. I would almost certainly go so far as to say that it’s less complicated and more user friendly than the London tube. No zones, no long-winded line names, just numbers and bilingual station announcements to help you navigate your way around the behemoth.

Alas, the HK metro is a baffling rabbit warren of idiocy. When I left for the airport in what I assumed would be plenty of time, I found myself stuck in some Kafkaesque purgatory of complex interchanges and misinformation.*

AVOID CHIT CHAT
I didn’t meet anyone during my trip who didn’t speak English. Most of them used their skill in this fascinating language to try and sell things, usually suits or cocaine. I’ve mentioned this before**, and I still find it hard to believe anyone would be foolish enough to enever a bar or a tailor’s shop or a watchmaker’s with someone who just chatted them up in the street. Still, too many travelers have returned from Hong Kong with tales of scams and rip offs.

I had a great trip, even if it was all too brief. I haven’t seen the sky since. But it is, as always, good to be back.


*The soundtrack at that point was the Joker’s theme from 60s Batman.

**(see https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/04/18/tea-shopping/)

No Time Like The Present

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“Life as we know it is only possible for one-thousandth of a billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, of a percent. And that’s why, for me, the most astonishing wonder of the universe isn’t a star or a planet or a galaxy. It isn’t a thing at all. It’s an instant in time. And that time is now.” -Prof. Brian Cox


It was a balmy zero degrees in the Jing when I touched down about 2am local time on Sunday. Seeing the city from the air, all lit up like Spirited Away, really brought home how absolutely massive Beijing is. Flying towards the sea of lights, I had a feeling that could be compared to returning ‘home’ (or at the very least a feeling like I’d been cheating on my muse for a couple of weeks).

The now-familiar journey went smoothly: through customs, with its unfriendly sign that just reads ‘FOREIGNERS’ and  its unsmiling uniformed staff; the equally baffling taxi journey from terminal to home via where-the-actual-fuck-is-this-bit; the unpacking of the suitcase and the fitful, unrefreshing sleep until noon.

Spring Festival decorations were still everywhere (as was, confusingly, Xmas music). The gf had yet to return from her hometown, so I took the subway alone towards Nanluoguxiang, only to write it off as far too busy at the weekend. Instead, I took a stroll along the hutongs around beautiful Houhai. The ice is slowly thawing around the edges of the lake but the brave and the foolhardy are still skating and zorbing on the surface, performing figures of eight and other, less graceful feats in the shadow of the drum and bell towers.

There is a traditional Chinese curse that says “may you live in interesting times”. It’s sad to think that if US president Fucktrumpet has his way then in a few years this could all look like the smoky final verse of 99 Red Balloons. Still, whatever may or may not happen in the future, I’m consoled by the fact that right now I am here in a city that sometimes feels like home.

A Room With a View

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“I’m not doing this to break records. I’m doing this because I enjoy it. Not to mention the best reason for climbing a mountain…”

“And that is?”

[telly cuts out]


After living out of a battered suitcase since November, I’ve finally got an apartment. Moving house is always kind of stressful, and moving in China comes with even more potential snafus: having to stir instant coffee with a chopstick; trying repeatedly to register as a landed alien without all the relevant paperwork; remembering that you still don’t own a decent pair of shoes.

The first viewing began inauspiciously. I rode the bus through a neighborhood that looked like China’s answer to the question “can we shoot an N.W.A video here?” I began to think that the ‘scenic area’ was ironically named. “If this is Happy Valley,” I quipped to no one in particular* “then I’d hate to see the Sad one!”

Luckily, it turned out that the bus was just passing through some communist shithole on its way to the new apartment complex. Happy Valley Scenic Area is a veritable consumer kingdom, with the same shit as everywhere else: amusement park, KFC, Pizza Hut, even a Tesco (the first one I’ve ever seen in China).

The apartment is modern, spacious and bright. I assume that the estate agent was trying to sell it as thus in the first place, but my Mandarin is terrible.

We’ve got the Chinese version of Netflix**; great if you want to watch constantly buffering Tom Cruise films or the bottom of Jackie Chan’s canonical barrel. I tried watching Star Trek V last night but just at the point where I realized it was absolute wank (about three minutes after the credit sequence), the film turned itself off and I decided, presumably like everyone else who’s ever started watching Star Trek V, just to get on with something else.


*(no one in particular understands me here, let alone gets my sense of humour)

**(almost half as good as having Netflix!)

Airpocalypse Now

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“When you grinned back your mouth was filled with iron filings.”

–  Iain Sinclair


For the last few days Beijing has looked so much like a dystopian shithole that I keep looking over my shoulder, expecting Harrison Ford to burst out of the smog and ‘retire’ me. The Air Quality Index today measures well over 400*. Even indoors, behind glass and concrete, the air is a not-so-balmy 200 or so.

Many Beijingers (and denizens of other Northern industrial Chinese cities) have already fled the coughing and spluttering masses for fresher climbs, some even retreating into the mountains. The Guardian newspaper has reported on a ski resort in Chongli crammed to the gills “like a refugee camp”. Other people, including stubborn foreigners, have stayed put in the Jing, stuffing their head into a mask or an air purifier, and tweeting gripes from behind a VPN.

The writer Iain Sinclair, when asked what his former hometown of Port Talbot meant to him, said “easily available cancer… you took a knife and fork with you just to cut the air.” Here, he’d need a fucking chainsaw.

Rumours abound that the government is actually going to do something about this. Certain motor vehicles are already temporarily banned and, believe it or not, there are even whispers of planned scaling backs on factory production. For now, though, we have to make do with a Red Alert warning, the closure of several schools and kindergartens, and helpful suggestions about staying indoors, drinking hot water or holding your breath for awhile.

Questions that non-Jingers have rightly been asking are things like “why?” “wtf?” and other dumbfounded queries as to our motivation for actually being here. Why trade the Rockies or the English countryside for an industrial wasteland that looks like a nocturnal emission from Terry Gilliam’s set designer? I can’t speak for every foreigner in Beijing, but I think I do speak for a rather large cross-section of local talent when I say that, often,  I haven’t actually got the foggiest.


*Anything above 100 is considered ‘unhealthy’. 300 is ‘dangerous’.

Wayfinding

“Strangely clean, lacking in texture, like video games before they’d learned to dirty them up”
– William Gibson, on Vancouver


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If someone had told me a year ago that I would miss Beijing I’d have thought they were as crazy as the ‘brain infected’ old man from Shogun Assassin*. That I’d miss China? Maybe. That I’d miss my slinky, shoe-washing co-teacher? Certainly. But that I’d miss the smoggy North Capital itself? Nah.

There is a joke that certain people once whispered in pre-Brexit Britain**: “What’s the difference between yoghurt and Canada? Yoghurt has culture!” A similar joke is told here in Vancouver, except ‘Canada’ is pronounced ‘Calgary’ and ‘yoghurt’ is pronounced wrong.

The tricky thing about evaluating ‘culture’ is that it’s a pretty subjective concept. To me, culture is like a planet’s atmosphere: something fiendishly complicated and occasionally life-supporting that builds up in the right conditions over a long period of time***.

I’ve spent most of my 2016 working in a hostel in my adopted homeland, making beds and scrubbing vomit from washroom floors. Some might say it’s a step down from teaching the children of wealthy Chinese families but if you’d ever worked for the same company as me in the Beijing boonies, you’d know that it’s actually an improvement!

But I have missed the Jing, which is why I’ve decided to go back there. I like Vancouver. The people are, on the whole, both dope and chill, usually because they spend a lot of time smoking dope and/or chillin’.

To my eyes, Vancouver is a young city. Not jailbait young, but certainly not creaking at the knees under the weight of its own mythology (like, say, London or Paris). Van City, therefore, comes with all the advantages (and disadvantages) that youth has to offer: It’s beautiful, the air is fresh, there are as many mountains as skyscrapers; it’s got bicycles and beards and artisan coffee shops coming out the wazoo. A veritable Utopia for a pretentious hipster type such as myself! It’s even relatively safe to cross the street without worrying about being hit by a car.

So what has prompted me to return to the not-so-mysterious east? Why the sudden urge to re-enter the dragon? Why do I want to become Ben the Foreigner again? Was I polishing some fans at work when I suddenly inhaled dust that triggered a wistful memory of Tongzhou’s fecal smog? Had I run out of toilet paper and become misty-eyed at the recollection of squatting in a hutong with a red-raw medieval arsehole?

The short answer is, “No, don’t be silly.” I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that, like Stallone between Rocky 5 and Rocky 6, I retired too early. That there’s more of China still to experience.

I’m also a little tired of hearing myself start almost every conversation with the words “when I was in Beijing…”

I arrived in Hollywood North the same way I left the Big Dustbowl: with mixed feelings. There is, of course, the temptation to disappear into the woods like Emily Carr or Henry David Thoreau, to play at being Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans or to go on some sort of shamanic quest (at least as far as Banff). But there is also the temptation not to bugger about with that sort of thing and to face the fact that I’m still more interested in where the sun rises than in where it sets.

I told you I’d see you on the next adventure. Are you ready?


*see https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/hello-world/. (I’m not made of film references!)

**(before nearly everyone there started Googling ‘How To Move To The Great White North’)

***(NOT something that happens instantly in scientifically inaccurate movies at the push of a button while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eyes are popping out of his head).

Training Montage

“All in all not a bad guy – if looks, brains and personality don’t count.” – The Coen Brothers


Before coming to China I was, like pretty much everyone who is both creative and working class in the UK, on Jobseekers. I was in a difficult position, where I was under-qualified for most of the media positions I was applying for* and so overqualified for the other jobs that no one believed I was genuinely passionate about cleaning the toilets in Home Bargains (I actually find that cleaning is a pretty meditative experience. Some of my best ideas come to me while I’m ironing of doing the dishes, but that ain’t what Home Bargains want to hear, apparently). Luckily, my ‘careers coach’, probably a frustrated dreamer herself, could see that I was serious about my writing: sending scripts and stories to the right people and constantly applying for jobs. She was actually a fairly pleasant individual.**

One thing that they make you do after six months on the dole is a training regime to help you polish up CVs, ace difficult interviews and deal with the constant tedium of bitter defeat and crushing rejection. It’s actually not a bad idea for a struggling writer to do such a training regime! I met people who are still turning up as characters in my stories to this day, mostly as dickheads (“Finding a job is a full time job, isn’t it?” Well, no actually. In fact it’s literally the opposite, you daft bastard!)

The training included writing up mock application forms, acting out mock interviews and trying desperately not to mock any of the people delivering the training.

Once, when ‘brainstorming’ what we might ask potential interviewers, I came up with:

Me: What’s your company ethos?
Trainer: What’s that mean?
Me: Well, do you have a good ecological policy? Do you use sweatshop labour in Indonesia?
(This was shortly after the roof of a sweatshop building had collapsed and killed 1,130 people)
Trainer: Uh, okay. Good question. Maybe… try to get the job first?

Trainer: When is it appropriate to turn up for an interview in jeans and a t-shirt?
Me: When you work in the performing arts.
Trainer: Really?
Me: Yeah, if you turn up in a suit people think you’re well pretentious!
Trainer: Okay, well when else is it appropriate to turn up for an interview in jeans and a t-shirt?
Me: Media. Tech start ups. Construction, maybe.
Trainer: Okay, let’s move on.

One other aspect they covered was ‘personality’:

Trainer: Not everyone wants to be a fireman. Not everyone has the ability to work in a call center. Apply for the right job for your personality.

I don’t like personality tests. At university we had to make a ‘group documentary’, and our tutor had the idea of grouping us all by personality using the Myers Briggs test.The results were predictable: everyone absolutely hated the groups they were in. My group was made up of people who were all too imaginative/abstract/conceptual to agree on a documentary subject while being too warm/compassionate/introverted to do anything about it except slag each other off behind our backs. I eventually went out into Northampton town centre on my day off and shot my own documentary without the group. “Great,” beamed my film tutor, clapping his hands together, “that’s exactly what an INFP should do!”

The personality test that Job Centre Plus used is not as universally recognized as the Myers Briggs. They grouped us, like a scene written by Ricky Gervais, as ‘birds’.

Yes, that’s birds. I wish I was joking.

“You are a sparrow. Often quiet, you find it difficult to get what you want. You settle for the nest that you are given.”

“You are a cuckoo. Sometimes appearing manipulative…”

That sort of shit.

To what would have been my genuine surprise (had I given anything other than not a single shit), I was the only one on the training course who was an ‘eagle’.

“You are an individual with the ability to soar to great heights. The sort of bird who would happily devour every other bird in this room, shit them out of its arsehole and tell us that our test is a load of wank.”

It wasn’t all bad. One day they made us apply for several online jobs, just to be sure that we weren’t  taking their fifty pounds a week and scratching out balls with it. “Have you thought about jobs abroad?” said one of the trainers, “you seem like the kind of bloke who wouldn’t have a problem relocating.”


*I even went for an interview as social media writer for a school, and was so desperate to get back into the workforce that I ignored the fact they wanted someone with graphic design experience. “Are you,” asked a wise friend of mine with narrow eyes and gritted teeth, “sure about this?” “Yes,” I lied. “I’ll be fine right up until they ask me to design something!” This was indeed the case, and they were rather underwhelmed with the new ‘school logo’ that I drew them in MSPaint.

**The days that she wasn’t in, however, were sheer torture. I came very close to asking one hatchet-faced old bint, “Have you got any jobs here, love? I reckon I’d make a great patronizing cunt!”