There is Nothing For You at Huagong Station

“Please stand firm and hold the handrail.”


Slightly anxious about the forthcoming U.K. general election (mainly because the only thing most British people are good at is making stupid decisions really loudly), I hopped onto a rented bicycle and tried to out-pedal my woes. I had, as usual, no idea where I was going.

I rode out past Happy Valley subway station, following Line 7 for twenty minutes or so, through muddy puddles and past huge cement trucks that trundled towards me from the opposite direction. My journey along this part of the line was abruptly cut short. A huge blue fence blocked further access in every direction except the one I’d just travelled in. The only escape was Huagong metro station, and even that lay concealed within a stretch of blue Labyrinth.

A mysterious man in a deck chair marked the entrance. Whether he was paid to be there* or simply enjoys sitting in the rain outside fenced off subway stations remains unclear. He didn’t smile. When I made it into the bowels of the station, I found I was Huagong’s only customer (perhaps its only customer ever). You know those seventies movies where a white guy walks into some ‘ethnic’ bar and the music stops while all of the patrons turn in shock and anger. That’s pretty much what happened on this wet, grey day in the Jing.

The cleaner, an ancient Mervyn Peake character who had been dutifully polishing ticket barriers that no human would ever pass through, nearly dropped his cloth as he stared at me the entire time I was there. I expected him to start pointing, letting out an unearthly screech like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Seriously, the first and last thing I saw at Huagong was this dude’s uncomprehending bald head as he stood in exactly the same position, mouth open, damp rag hanging limply from his hand.

The only other people at the station were two security officers, one male, one female. Both wore expressions that said “wtf is this man doing in Huagong?”

With the knowledge and freedom of a man just passing through, and the optimism of one who hopes never to return, I took one last look at the station, said a silent and emotional farewell, and boarded the train for Hufangqiao.


*(Possibly by David Lynch or the ghost of Federico Fellini)

The Year of the Rat

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“Even when you are not paralyzed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.”

– George Orwell


I rode a crowded bus the other day (there is no other type of bus in Beijing, that is literally the only appropriate adjective in this case) and there was a video monitor displaying footage of car crashes here in the capital, appealing for witnesses.

I took two things away from the blurry, cctv footage of people being knocked off motorcycles and being dragged from wreckage, one being that most drivers here really are dopey as fuck. The second was this: I couldn’t see a bloody thing. No faces, no distinguishing features, no articles of clothing. Nothing that would have reminded me,  had I previously seen the original flesh and blood incident, that I was actually there that day.

It made me think: if all of these cameras are here to keep people safe, why are the police appealing for witnesses and showing us blurry footage of people we’d never recognize in real life even if they lived next door (unless their face actually looked like pixels. That would, admittedly, be suspicious as all hell).

Urban explorer Bradley Garrett points out in his indispensable TED talk The Value of Trespass, “If you want to control people’s behaviour, the most effective way to do that is to make them think they are being watched all the time. People will monitor their own behavior if they think they’re being watched. This has always been the dark secret of installing CCTV cameras in cities. The cameras don’t even need to work.”

This week, I jumped on the American bandwagon and read George Orwell’s 1984 for the first time. I had often meant to. It’s exactly the sort of thing that I should have read as a student when I was into Kafka stories and Berkoff plays. I tried it once but, like Naked Lunch, gave up a few chapters in. On that occasion, I had written it off because it was making me feel depressed, but I did pretty much live in Victory Mansions at the time. This time I finally won the victory over myself and made it all the way through.

Another reason it has taken me so long to read 1984 is that it casts a very big shadow. It’s one of those stories that has bled so violently into western pop culture that I always felt I knew it before ever cracking the spine on my ¥20 paperback version. Other novels, TV shows, movies and adverts have paid lip service to its ideas, some have actually gone pretty much as far as full-on fellatio.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a firm favourite of mine, was originally to be titled 1984 and 1/2 (an allusion not only to Orwell but also to Federico Fellini’s brilliant movie 8 1/2). Even in the 21st Century, Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem basically just promoted Big Brother to Management, giving him a social media account and a VR helmet. Management watches one rogue employee in a ruined chapel through ‘ManCams’, including one not so subtly mounted on a decapitated crucifix.*

I was born in 1984. I also, like everyone from England, pretty much lived in 1984! When I returned to England from Beijing (a place that most British people who’ve never been here refer to as ‘oppressive’) the first time, I was absolutely horrified to pass through a huge Orwellian machine that scanned my passport and face before I was set loose in London, home of half a million CCTV cameras. In the Jing they just stare at me with a wooden face and then give me a little red stamp.

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1984 is, obviously,  a warning. It’s what can happen if people are apathetic. I remember when New Labour planned to bring ID cards to the UK, something they had previously dismissed out of hand as ‘fascist’ when first proposed by the Tories. I was amazed that a ‘first world’ government would do something so invasive to its citizens, but I was even more amazed to discover that I was one of only a handful of people who was actually angered by the idea. I remember one conversation with a family member who said they didn’t remotely object to ID cards because they had ‘nothing to hide’ (which, as Edward Snowden tells us, is “like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say”).

I lost a lot of faith in the soon-to-be Airstrip One that day, gesticulating wildly and shouting “I’ve got nothing to hide either, that’s why I don’t need a fucking ID card!”**

I am not, despite what some people think, a fan of ‘political correctness’. I object to most derogatory phrases and to military video games and to ultra violent horror movies, but I object far more to anyone thinking they have the right to tell me what words I can use, what games I can play and what movies I can watch. I have every right to refer to someone who insists on running a low watt bulb as a ‘twat spastic’, just as you have every right to be offended by that.

And I do not, by any means, think that the word ‘blackboard’ is racist, or that ‘brainstorm’ is derogatory towards retards.

There’s a nineties movie that only a handful of people have ever seen called EdTv, an MTV generation glimpse into the very near future of our own oppressive, mediocrity-obsessed present, where the value of anyone’s story is its potential to be branded, franchised and sold to the baying masses. With superb timing, the film came out the same year as the original series of ‘reality’ surveillance show Big Brother.

EdTv is essentially a less clever, less subtle version of The Truman Show. The plot is this (yes, genius, there are spoilers coming): An ailing network hits on the idea of taking reality TV to its logical extreme, following around the ultimate Gen X archetype, a schlubby video store clerk, and broadcasting his boring-ass, beer-swilling, blue collar existence 24 hours a day. For the first 48 hours, everyone hates the show but even so nobody can stop watching. By day 3 everyone’s heart has melted and the programme becomes a massive hit, reversing the network’s fortunes and making a big star of its working class hero. But in a desperate bid to secure ratings, the network executives start interfering with Ed’s life, forcing him to split up with his girlfriend and engineering ‘chance’ encounters with English supermodels as well as digging up embarrassing moments from his family’s past. Ed realizes that fame and fortune has come at a terrible price, and threatens to quit the show. But he has signed a contract, and his friends and family have all signed release forms, allowing the network to follow Ed and everyone he cares about with a video camera 24/7. It’s only when he turns the tables on the oppressive executives by digging up anecdotes about their own past and broadcasting their secrets on live TV that the plug is finally pulled.

That’s one thing that’s wrong with the Big Brothers of the world: they aren’t interested in transparency, they’re interested in control. They want to know everything about you, but they don’t want you to know anything about them.

I’ll tell you some things that offend me. I do not expect you to take note.

I’m offended by people who think that because they have a strong opinion, that it deserves to be respected or at least listened to by everyone (I can understand the Buddhist principle that ‘the opposite of what you know is also true’ but I don’t, for example, give a shit what either Gallagher brother thinks about other people’s music, or believe that Nick Griffin was ever a serious politician).

I’m deeply offended by the word ‘landlord’.

I find using internet comments to ‘stir debate’ an offense that should be punishable by death.

I’m offended by the term ‘twat spastic’.

And I find it offensive that so many people are totally blasé at the thought of their every move being scrutinized by someone.***  I even find the term ‘under surveillance’ pretty offensive, not least because I for one am so fucking over it!

It was said by whoever I’m about to paraphrase that those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. It would be sad if Orwell just got the date wrong. I  hope that enough people are paying attention, and that those who are willing to learn won’t end up standing idly by and watching some absolute Big Wanker fuck everything up anyway.


*The Zero Theorem brilliantly pokes fun at the dotcom ‘bubblegum dystopia’ worlds of most modern tech companies: the kind of migraine-inducing offices that look more like a playground, as if riding down a big yellow slide or playing in a psychedelic ball pit will increase an employee’s productivity in some way. One journalist memorably pointed out after a trip to Pixar studios that it feels like an animator couldn’t even nip to the toilets for a quick wank without it being encouraged as part of their creative process.

**My faith never really returned, especially after a conversation with someone else who smacked my gob with “yeah, but some people are just smarter than us, aren’t they? They’re the ones that should be making the decisions, not us”.

***(and, therefore, by anyone. There’s no surveillance equipment that can be used only by ‘the good guys’).

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.

Finishing Touches

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“And… cut!”


Yesterday marked the end of my trip to the land of apples and Borat. My friend and I eventually won our Napoleonic battle with the elements to gather enough footage for the video project. The Soviet era lenses that we’ve been using have given the footage a very cinematic look, and I can’t wait to see the finished short.

It’s true that some days we only got outside for a grand total of thirty-five minutes, tops, before the very real threat of frozen johnsons drove us back inside for copious amounts of hot tea, but we eventually wrapped after a sub-zero legend trip towards the river, plus a couple of pick-up shots the following morning (shortly before the power went down in the apartment complex, which meant packing my bags and showering in dwindling daylight before writing this at the airport and posting it from my apartment in the Jing).

The troubles of the world have been weighing a little heavy recently, although I again see hope in the fact that the likes of George Orwell and Hannah Arendt have begun climbing the bestseller list, as if people have realized that switching off the X Factor and educating themselves instead is possibly the best defense against the forthcoming zombie apocalypse.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Republic of Kazakhstan, but it’s been grest to notch up a second Asian country to my travels and to spend time with friends I hadn’t seen for over a year. I hope to return one day. Possibly during the summer next time!

The Hitchhikers Guide to Reality

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“Curiouser and curiouser”


I was sitting in a café here in ‘the Stan’, chatting to my arty friend about the circumstances that have led us to Brexit, the Trump presidency and other instances of weird and stupid shit that doesn’t seem to be making the world a better place.

It’s nice, having recently written about games and people’s distraction with them, to see world events like the women’s marches and other instances of people standing up and being counted, as if they suddenly are more interested in the world around them than the ones they’ve been building in Second Life or The Sims.

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Before leaving China I was, with some trepidation, having a chat about the country’s lack of protests (the very famous exception from the late 80s not exactly being a popular topic of conversation there). One young Chinese woman was telling me about her visit to Spain where she was talking to an activist who asked her to spread the word in her home country. “Of course,” she said, only to be handed a pile of anti-Chinese-government flyers which she immediately chucked in the bin.

In the café I discussed the seemingly mad but somehow believable conspiracy theory that the Large Hadron Collider has tripped us into some hellish alternative Alice in Wonderland dimension that was foretold in an episode of the Simpsons!* We talked about quantum field theory, non-violent resistance and six more impossible things before breakfast, chatting so much ‘pub physics’ that we probably looked like a Monty Python sketch.

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As Winston Churchill says, “Men ** occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” To me, the thought of a young Chinese person fearfully tossing the truth in the bin is sad, but understandable given the cultural context. But the thought of a young American person doing the same, at a time when facts have become meaningless in the face of half-witted debate, where American journalists are arrested and detained just for doing their job, is nothing short of a tragedy.

I could personally give some credence to the theory that we’ve shifted into some bonkers new dimension; that our reality is just another virtual reality; even that our universe is housed in the equivalent of some kind of really powerful PlayStation. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t treat our games very seriously indeed.


*I haven’t seen the episode in question but it sounds like that show, like 70s Doctor Who, got really good at predicting weird crap.

**[and women, natch]

No Country For Old Ben

“Ignorance is piss.”


I haven’t blogged for quite some time, not least because I don’t currently live in China. After exiting Beijing several months ago, and spending a depressing week in drizzly Oxfordshire, I decamped to Vancouver (where it rains just as much but the people are, on the whole, warmer, friendlier and much less rampantly xenophobic than they are in the UK).

I may not currently be qualified to write about being a bewildered foreigner in China, but this is still my blog and I felt a need to spit out some vitriol regarding the recent Brexit ‘victory’ in my former homeland.

The rest of the world is a little confused, partly because of moronic Neanderthal-level grunting that seems to translate as “I voted leave but I didn’t expect to leave” and “can we have another referendum because I’m not actually sure what I was voting for?” Rumours abound of persons unknown frantically Googling ‘what is the EU’ hours after casting their vote to take a massive shit on it, raising the not entirely unfounded question here in Van City, “if you were undecided about the issue or, heavens forbid, have a fat trumpet-shaped head that’s incapable of forming a coherent thought, why in the blue fuck did you bother turning up to vote?”

By 8am the morning after, Nigel ‘Chaplin tache’ Farage was on breakfast television gleefully weaseling out of every promise that had emerged from his ugly, smug, whiter-than-white face during the run up to the referendum. Even Gove and BoJo*, who had previously been scrambling to find the metal bar on the exit door, now feel that a ‘period of reflection’ is needed, political-speak for “What the Southeast Jesus have we actually done, and where are our trousers?”

‘Great Britain’ has, alas, long been a contradiction in terms but now too is ‘United Kingdom’. The isolated city-state of London (a single eye of civilization in an otherwise hysterical land of the blind) voted to remain, as did Scotland** and Northern Ireland, two nations that were dragged into the formerly ‘united’ kingdom against their will by floppy-haired racists and have now been dragged out of the EU by their 21st Century doppelgängers. For me, the only surprise is that some IRA nutter or disgruntled Glaswegian fishmonger hasn’t started lobbing bombs or discharging shotgun barrels in the middle of densely populated English market towns.

I have long ago soaped and rinsed my hands of that dreary little island in the middle of nowhere, that once great nation and sceptered isle floating in the sea like a slightly overcast dog turd. I’m lucky. I’m already a citizen of the land of hockey, poutine and smokable pain relief, and by Monday I’ll have begun the application process for my passport here in the great white north, with the intention of eventually returning to Asia for a period of (trousered) reflection before hopefully travelling onwards to all 27 countries that the UK has just ignorantly turned its back on.

And Scotland.

*(watching with faces like two smacked vaginas, amazed that anyone had actually swallowed their own discharge)

**(despite what president-to-be and fucknumpty elect Donald Trump seems to think)

China in Your (Giant Metal) Hand

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Michael Bay movie Transformers: Age of Extinction. If you haven’t watched it yet… don’t bother.

“Why is the huge space magnet picking up every metal thing in Hong Kong, except the one car that it’s actually tracking?”


I’ve always been a bit of a film nerd. I don’t watch as many films as I used to, because I find most of them formulaic, predictable and thoroughly underwhelming. Plus I usually annoy people by saying, ten minutes in “well that guy’s on the way to pick up his kids, who think he’s a loser, from his ex-wife” or “she kidnapped herself,” or “she’s an ex-Nazi war criminal who can’t read, isn’t she?”

This evening, I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction. It hasn’t renewed my faith in movies.

I’m puzzled that Edward D. Wood Jnr. holds the legendary distinction of ‘worst film director ever’, mainly because there’s a film director called Michael Bay. His filmography includes such notable arse as Armageddon, The Rock and the Transformers movies. I have nothing personally against Michael Bay. It’s just that once I was watching a double bill of Bad Boys and Bad Boys II and the electricity cut out about ten minutes from the end of the sequel and I realized, swearing in the dark and wondering if I had a torch, that it wasn’t actually humanly possible for me to give less of a shit how a movie ended.

I still don’t know or care. Maybe something explodes for some reason.

When one critic asked Michael Bay the question on everyone’s lips (basically, and I’m paraphrasing here, “why are your films so shit”) Michael Bay pointed out (and I’m paraphrasing again) that he actually made them for fifteen-year-old boys and that it wasn’t actually a crime. In my opinion, making propaganda movies about Pearl Harbour in the wake of 9/11 xenophobia and aiming it at fifteen-year-olds should be a crime, but maybe that’s just me?

From what I know of film history, Michael Bay started (like the much better filmmaker David Fincher) as an intern for George Lucas. I know I’m in a minority, but I don’t consider George Lucas a particularly great filmmaker, either. At the risk of giving people a little too much credit, Lucas and his mate Steven Speilberg (along with some other filmmakers of the late seventies) essentially created the ‘blockbuster’ era of filmmaking. To me, it’s synonymous with the dumbing down of mainstream Hollywood movies, ushering in decades of big-budget films that are good, but only ‘McDonalds’ good; The reason you crave them is because they’re salty and sugary and addictive, with the same amount of nourishment and nutritional value as a trestle table.

To me, the trouble is that most of these films are for fifteen-year-old boys, but they’re being watched and taken seriously by grown ups. If you’ve ever read the brilliant novel Jaws by Peter Benchley and compared it to the film version, the movie is undeniably great. But it contains none of the subtleties of the novel, and all of the ‘grown-up’ stuff such as Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife and Quint’s foul mouthed tirades are completely excised. A similar fate befell First Blood, which unleashed the Reaganite all-American serial killer John Rambo upon the world.

Spielberg once said that he felt he had to make Schindler’s List as an apology for turning the Nazis into comic book villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark (coincidentally, the first film that Michael Bay interned on). Stanley Kubrick, who gave up on his own epic Holocaust project The Aryan Papers after Spielberg began his, once bemoaned that the problem with Shindler’s List was that it’s about ‘success’, when the Holocaust was, in reality, all about failure.

So I’ve got nothing personally against these filmmakers, other than their often irresponsible filmmaking (I previously used Saving Private Ryan as an example of American whitewashing of history*). Neither have I got anything personally against Transformers. I grew up on the cartoon show as a kid (Beast Wars anyone? Anyone?), and rediscovered it on DVD a few years back. I even applied for a job writing transmedia content for the franchise,** a job I no doubt would have enjoyed. Looking back, I find the original programme a little too violent for my sensibilities and, no matter how naive and un-cynical you are, it can’t be seen as much more than an advert for Hasbro’s line of action figures. Did anyone else wonder why so many characters ended up dying, only to have shiny new characters appear out of nowhere with the wisecracking guest vocals of Eric Idle?

I have several beefs with the Age of Extinction movie, which I know you are all very concerned about, so read on:

Firstly, like most of Michael Bay’s films, there’s a lot of product placement (not just for action figures, but for other more subtle things that fifteen-year-old boys might want their parents to buy them). For those unfamiliar with the questionable practice of ‘product placement’, it’s the filmmaking equivalent of giving lucifer a big hand job, where advertisers offer money or revenue streams to film studios in return for James Bond using a Remington razor or Captain Kirk ordering a Budweiser. For example, I found it unlikely, as well as morally reprehensible, that the clones in Michael Bay’s The Island,*** who live in a near-future underground colony cut off from human civilization, play the XBox.

Secondly, in case you were wondering what the hell this blog post has to do with China, the film commits another cardinal sin that always makes my shit-list. It’s a worrying trend in Hollywood movies of late.

The Chinese government only licenses ten or eleven foreign movies to be screened yearly, which is why there is no Chinese word for ‘Michael Cerra’. Every single one of these movies has to adhere to strict censorship laws and none of them are allowed to portray China in anything other than a flattering light. A lot of films try to adhere to these rules just to be in with a chance of reaching the Chinese market (which is why patient zero in World War Z, a Chinese person in the novel, became a Taiwanese person in the Brad Pitt movie).

About a third of Age of Extinction is set in Beijing and Hong Kong. Lukfook jewelry and Ice Dew spring water (owned by Coca Cola) both get screen time amid the carnage of giant robots kicking the crap out of other giant robots with assistance from the Chinese Air Force. It’s also made explicitly clear that one of the reasons that Stanley Tucci’s balding fatass is constantly fawning over Li BingBing’s character is that she trained with the Chinese police before studying for her MA (which, in Michael Bay Land, counts as character development). It even earns her the affectionately patronizing nickname ‘princess’.

Ah, which brings us to our next point…

There are three female characters in the movie. One is Chinese (Tick!) One is a nineteen-year-old blonde who has two handsome men arguing over who has the right to ‘protect’ her. The third, Sophia Miles, has about ten minutes of screen time and, I assume, only turned up because she wanted a trip to China.

Also, for a film that’s constantly on about patriotism and how great the U.S. Of A is, Bay doesn’t seem to spot the irony behind an intergalactic menace, a highly-trained black ops guy and Kelsey Grammer’s government douchebag all being brought down in Hong Kong by a stubbly young Irish bloke, Chinese jet pilots, and a bunch of giant alien robots (one of which, as if Hollywood is hedging its Asian bets, wears a Samurai hat, speaks in haikus and sounds suspiciously like character actor Ken Watanabe).

Finally, can we talk about the casting of Mark Wahlberg as an inventor and roboticist? Yes, you heard correctly: that’s Marky Mark, late of the Funky Bunch (a man once interviewed wearing a wrist splint because he fell over playing the Nintendo Wii), portraying a bespectacled creator of automaton. Call me crazy, but I personally found him slightly more appropriately cast in Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, playing a meathead bodybuilder who’s audacious kidnapping plan was brought down by the fact that he had the IQ of a cheese sandwich.

Michael Bay’s next film, 13 Hours, about an American security team defending a diplomatic compound in Benghazi from Islamic extremists, will be released in July 2016.

It hasn’t received a license to be screened in China.


*(see previous blog: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/a-crock-of-shit-now/)

**(see previous blog: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/07/19/origin-story/)

***(an easy contender for the accolade of ‘shittest film ever’)