Level Six


“I had an idea that everyone here spent their lives in making little sacrifices for objects they didn’t care for, to please people they didn’t love; that they never learned to be sincere and, what’s as bad, never learned how to enjoy themselves.” -E.M. Forster (about 95 years before Fight Club)


Midway up the bubblegum hued ‘SoShow’ shopping mall lies a dragon’s horde of West meets East nerdvana: Beijing Comic City. Transformers, Gundams, vagina-mouthed predatators (including some from the actual movies), all are here. Plastic Schwarzeneggers, plastic Tyler Durdens, even plastic Adrien Brodies if that’s the way you choose to swing.

I know several people who would almost literally excrete some substance or other into their underpants just upon arrival. I, thankfully, am not one of them (but I’m pretty sure some of the other gentlemen that were wandering about are).

I went in like Malkovich: baseball cap and sunglasses, not because I wanted to ride the portal to a world that no man should see, but because I feared a SoShow-induced migraine. Far from looking or feeling like some sort of bell end, this fashion disaster helped me fit right in with many of the pasty faced, shifty eyed, non-descript customers. The whole mall looks like it was designed by a psychopath with synesthesia, possibly while wearing the tie died skin of his dead mother as a pair of overalls.

IMG_2447

If I haven’t made the place sound enticingly horrifying enough, just imagine how much of an eco-system can be generated by a plethora of sweating, smoking overweight Beijingers obsessing over Naruto and One Piece. It’s like Comic Con dreamed up by a seedy, unclean Trump-era heteronormative man sitting around in his underpants and guffawing like Jabba the Hutt.

To the right kind of (slightly south of clean) mind, a whole afternoon could be spent on floor six (let alone the rest of the mall, which hosts a KTV, an ARG gaming center and the hippest of hipster bars). That’s why I went in the late evening.*

There was no piece of plastic powerful enough for me to give up some hard earned qian to fawn over and unbox, although I was admittedly taken with some 90s era turtles of the ninja/mutant/teenage variety.

Instead I ate a tuna-and-egg sandwich and sipped a coffee to quiet my buzzing head, took off the They Live sunglasses… and went to another mall.


*(on Saturdays it’s open until 9.30).

Advertisements

Sanlitun is Still a Bit Shite


“Been spendin’ most our lives livin’ in a wankers paradise.”


Beijing is cooking under a chemical haze once again. Insects and arachnids have come out of the woodwork, like late-eighties/early-nineties Cronenberg. It’s hard to be motivated to do much. Even so, I went with the gf and a Chinese friend for a coffee in Sanlitun the other day.

Sanlitun (which genuinely seems to translate as “small area about half a kilometer from Dongzhimen”) is where wealthy tourists can go in order to fool themselves into thinking they are not in Beijing. It’s a westernized, gentrified section of the city that looks exactly the same as a westernized, gentrified section of any other city anywhere on Earth. It’s home to the world famous bar street, overlooked by the equally world famous Opposite House hotel, whose celebrity clientele (including ‘The Bieber’) almost certainly leave with a false impression of Chinese courteousness and plumbing.

This is a fashionable quarter of a pretty unfashionable city. It’s easy to imagine Camus and Sartre sitting in the Bookworm, perusing the lending library and shouting over each other between sips of cappuccino, while De Beauvoir mutters about patriarchy under her breath. It’s easy to imagine Hemingway ganbei-ing mugs of Yanjing and threatening to punch the locals at Heaven Supermarket, while Joyce sits outside with a dram, complaining about the sun in his eyes.

Sanlitun is that sort of place.

IMG_2305

During my last visit, this area was most notorious for the sex tape recorded in a clothing shop dressing room, and an unrelated grisly Samurai sword attack outside the same store a few weeks later. Since then, I had heard the rumours that large chunks of Sanlitun have been bulldozed, with local businesses disappearing to make way for more Ethiopian restaurants, vegan leather notebook shops and Mercedes showrooms. After seeing online photos of the reconstruction work, I was interested to see the reboot for myself.

It looks exactly the bloody same. The only noticeable casualties are the guy who used to sell black market DVDs, the most ridiculously chaste sex shop in the world, and a stall dubbed ‘the psycho pervert shop’ that sold hunting knives and fright masks to I-don’t-wanna-know-who. The ‘specialist’ coffee shop run by a grumpy American* seems to have mercifully changed hands, unless he now runs a wine bar that probably doesn’t serve any wine.

The bookshops are nothing to write home about, the steak is overpriced, and I still don’t know or care what The Largest Adidas Store In The World (TM) has to offer. The mugwumps and human-insect hybrids are all out in force. Sanlitun would be a great place to stage an IRL remake not just of Cronenberg but of Dawn of the Dead.

After a little wandering and a couple of Americanos that cost twice as much as dinner would half a kilometer away, a bus took us out of the sweltering heat and dropped us somewhere back in China.


* See: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/06/28/wankers/

 

A Touch of Silk


“Oh, you come back again, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Unintentionally.”


 

I believe in the power of signs. If I see something, anything really, that I feel could be interpreted as a sign or portent leading me somewhere, I tend to follow it. I’m aware that it’s a dubious practice. Life is a random series of uncontrollable events, and some have accused me of outright insanity for trying to impose a narrative structure on anything as chaotic as my own human life. Nevertheless, when I saw a (very literal) sign that said:

IMG_2301

I thought, “Sure, why the hell not.”

Back in my salad days of substance abuse and Bacchinalian excess, I used to hang out with a brilliant but troubled young poet. We used to chat pseudo-philosophy, exchange pub physics Judo moves, read work to each other; all that sort of rakish, no-homo, lower middle class stuff. I’ve still no idea if I was Dante to his Virgil or if it was the other way round, but either way the  seven circles of Northampton’s Abington Street were pretty much our oyster. We were often greeted at the Penny Whistle with a weak grin and a “You guys, again?”

One night we visited a strip club. My poet friend correctly pointed out that every bloke should visit a strip club so that they have at least an inkling of what it’s like to be constantly harassed by attractive people who just want your money but won’t actually stoop to petty theft. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was a perfect training ground for Beijing’s legendary Silk Street market.

Everyone here speaks a single, perfectly-rehearsed sentence of  English. Like doe-eyed, heavily accented automata programmed to say things like “Hi, you want suit?” or “Hey, you really want tablecloth, right?” or, in the case of one poor bastard in a toy shop whose job seems to be sitting behind a spinning, whirring neon something for who knows how many hours a day, “Hello… uh… UFO?”

If Daedalus, master craftsman of the ancient world, had fallen through a tear in the space/time continuum and found himself in modern China, perhaps he would have been set the task of designing this place (possibly with the devious assistance of HH Holmes), before being exiled to a little tea shop somewhere deep inside.

The entrance itself warns of the labyrinthine horrors within, like the psychic barriers of Cirith Ungol: A  Hall of Fame displaying huge photos of Christine LeGarde, George H.W. Bush (who’s face appears spattered with a mysterious creamy white substance), and other people described simply as ‘Celebrated Businessman’ or ‘Former Estonia First Lady’. Whether these people ever solved the multicursal mystery and lived to tell the tale is undocumented, but I would not be surprised to find a spent Belgian ex-Prime Minister quietly touting Mao t-shirts somewhere inside.

IMG_2299

A display case promising ‘High Quality Goods’ stands tellingly empty. This is a Kafka story. An Escher painting. A Quay Brothers film. One of those Christopher Priest novels where the geography just doesn’t add up.

I lasted twenty minutes before confessing all of my earthly sins to a complete stranger, pulling the ripcord on my wax wings and riding the thermals to the nearest coffee shop. I sat shivering over a very strong Americano at a table overlooking others entering Silk Street, soon to abandon all hope.

IMG_2298

The Fellowship of the Jing

IMG_1900

“It’s a shit’ole, but a loveable shit’ole.”


After weeks of clear blue skies, the smog has rolled in again, just in time for a British mate to feel the tang of disappointment during  a fly-in visit from Shanghai. The two of us took in some of the sights around Line 1 together, but halfway through our little tour the heavens opened like The Wizard of Oz, leaving us dashing through the dusty wet streets and swearing casually.

We visited a couple of bookshops and wandered through Xidan’s ‘garment city’, which is Beijing’s version of a Guillermo Del Toro set (right down to the hirsute beasties trying to sell you sweatshirts at inflated prices). After spending too much money on books and hipster glasses, we took a couple of Beijing babes out to dinner for buy-one-get-one-free ‘burger burger’ in Sanlitun, keeping the ladies absolutely enthralled by discussing our most used phrases as bewildered foreigners in China (mine is “what the fuck is this arsehole doing?”)

IMG_1904

I was not surprised to learn that my ‘brother from another city’, although enjoying Shanghai immensely, was glad to be back in the Jing and has missed it to some extent. He likes the food here and he says that the subway is slightly cheaper (even if its users are a little on the vaginal side). Mostly he missed the banter. We had more banter than you could shake the proverbial at.

This morning I woke up with a skunk of a hangover so I ganbei’d a couple of strong coffees, watched that David Duchovny ‘comedy’ where he saves the world from an alien sphincter and wondered wtf had become of my life. The sky may look like Laurence Fishburne’s living room in The Matrix, but I’m still happy to be here.

Sole Searching

img_1122

“Bad taste is better than no taste at all.” – Jonathan Meades


I need new shoes. My urban restlessness has finally taken its toll on my Doc Marten boots and they have, after several years’ faithful service, finally worn themselves down to a leathery nub. My Vans aren’t doing much better.

Shoe shopping, like clothes shopping in general, can be a bit tricky for me. Firstly, it’s difficult to hack through the jungle of Beijing’s many and varied garment markets (especially when wearing a leathery nub). Secondly, I have the fashion sense of Slavoj Žižek.

There’s a movie where a shabby-looking Bradley Cooper asks “who, other than a homeless person, would go out on a weekday dressed like this?” Some wiseacre, obviously unaware that it was a rhetorical question, answered “Ben!”*

Several years ago someone offered me a bag full of hand-me-down t-shirts (at least one of which I still own), which were sitting next to a black bin bag full of old rags deemed unfit even for the charity shop. I hastily incorporated both bags into my regular wardrobe.

Although I have recently flirted with hipsterdom (trilbies/bandanas/jumpers), my default setting remains a sort of ‘Stasi chic’: rumpled shirt, jeans, leather jacket, little notebook full of observations about other people.

To me, ‘semi-casual’ is synonymous with ‘socially awkward clusterfuck’. I’ve always just sort of assumed that every colour and pattern goes with every other colour and pattern, often with a hat on top.

Long story short, I went to Xidan shopping district** looking for shoes. The gf came along, but flat-out refused to translate “how much for the sports coat adorned with howler monkeys?”

I spent two hours in Xidan and I didn’t purchase so much as a slipper. I’ve since tossed the nubs in the cupboard, soaked my barking dogs in a bowl of hot water and am now searching online for a pair of boots, resigned to a weekend spent in scabby old Vans.


*The character goes on to explain himself by saying “That’s right, I’m a writer.”

**(where I previously purchased another faithful pair of shagged out trainers [pictured] that now belong to a hobo in Vancouver)

Hutong Highs

img_1701

“What does this hat say?”
“Double Happiness.”
“Woah, that’s a lotta happiness.”
“Yes. And so ugly.”


This afternoon, I put on my finest trilby and joined my girlfriend for a wander around some of the Beijing hutongs*, starting with the usually gorgeous (and damned near unpronounceable) Nanlouguxiang. I add the word ‘usually’ because Nanluoguxiang is currently a building site. The entire hutong is under some kind of mad renovation, with centuries old architecture and hip boutique shops temporarily obscured by huge blue fences and fuck ugly grey scaffolding. Workmen with heavy Army surplus jackets and weather-beaten faces sit idly smoking cigarettes while tourists lament the closure of yet another gentrified retail space.

Some of the shops remain open, but we didn’t really linger. I was there just long enough to receive strict instructions from gf that I was not, under any circumstances, to buy a beanie hat with ‘BEIJING’ emblazoned across the front of it (“It is so last century! You will look like my mother!”)** The sales lady tried her best to sell me some Tiananmen Square socks instead, before accepting that I was being dragged out of the shop.

We strolled along Wudaoying hutong, always a favourite of Westerners for its bars, bicycle shops and vegan food joints. We passed through Yonghegong, a stone’s throw from the monks of Lama Temple and the tourists of the Temple of Confucius. We dined on tofu and pork in nearby Bexinqiao.

We then took the subway to one of the strangest, most out-of-the-way concrete monstrosities of a shopping mall that I’ve ever laid eyes on. There was a cinema inside showing Tim Burton’s latest movie (which probably made it to China because Terrence Stamp gives the main character some RMB at one point).

What an enjoyable time, even if the sky has been as grey as an old man’s ball bag all day.

I can’t wait to see the look on that girl’s face when she sees me in my BEIJING beanie!


* The hutongs are a network of narrow alleyways snaking through Beijing and other Northern Chinese cities. The dwellings range from the snug & comfortable to the tragically impoverished. Nothing better sums up the Chinese clash of super-modern and almost-medieval.

** Yes, gf is a bit of a hipster.

A Ship Called Wanda

“Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal!”


Shopping, like anything here, can be a right baffling snafu. Visiting the technology supermarkets of Zhonguancun (China’s answer to silicone valley. A question that I’m not convinced was ever actually asked), usually unfolds with a Game of Death-style, level-by-level battle, only instead of enlightenment or character actor Dean Jagger awaiting you at the top, it’s just a phone charger that never bloody works.

Like everywhere else in the world, Beijing has erected the Xmas decorations. I’ve swapped black Americanos for white chocolate mochas, and I figured it was time to check out Tongzhou’s largest shopping mall. Those who know me well know that I avoid Xmas like clichés about the plague. Firstly, I’m an atheist. Secondly, I find it pretty disconcerting that people can be reduced to tears by an animated bear selling alarm clocks from John Lewis, but can’t muster a given fuck over child poverty. Thirdly, when the capitalism wall comes tumbling down I’m gonna be the first one rushing away with an armful of bricks in the hope of building something better (at least 25 miles from civilization). In short, I avoid it because I’m a bit of a miserable old bastard. So much so that if I’m ever visited by a trio of spirits who try to convince me to change my ways, I’ll be drawing the curtain and telling them to piss off out of it.

The Wanda Plaza in Tongzhou is shaped like a giant cruise ship, and (unlike some of the other Wanda plazas in the capital) is about the same size. It’s not West Edmonton big, there are no diesel submarines or water parks inside, but it’s pretty damned big.

The street outside the plaza is guarded by impressive twenty-foot tall sculptures of Chinese cyberpunk warriors, who issue you with your first challenge: figuring out, Lara Croft style, which one of the seven front doors actually opens. In the Jing, you get used to things like standing in a long queue at a single checkout while the other 29 stand empty.

Next up is: what do you actually want to do when you get inside? If you want food then you have to go straight up to the Big Boss level and then fight your way down arse backwards. If you want to visit the cleanest and brightest KFC in Beijing, it’s on level 2. If, for some reason you feel like suffering for your sins, there’s a Chuck E Cheeses style hell on earth on the same level. Korean design shops are a staple, as always, so if you want to buy colorful stationery, hot water bottles or other cutesy shite, then you will find it pretty much everywhere. Ditto multicolored clothes from the west. Anything a disgruntled hipster or cynical Gen X type could possibly want to give less of a shit about.

I also went shopping in the Qian’men shopping precinct, located near the very similarly named and much more famous Tian’an’men.

It filled me with exactly the same level of Christmas cheer.