I Walk The Line

“The fruits of idleness are more precious than the fruits of labour.” – Walter Benjamin


Some of my days in the Jing are (deliberately or otherwise) busy and exciting. Others are more like yesterday and today.

It rained like Vancouver the other night. Happy Valley, for whatever reason, suddenly burst to life and is currently full of sounds. A  traditional funeral procession passed through the puddles underneath my apartment building. I was woken this morning by a man shouting Mandarin numbers into a megaphone for reasons that elude me as usual. There’s a lot of music coming from the nearby park.

Yesterday I decided that I didn’t want to spend all of my downtime watching two short seasons of Eighties telly, so I set off (collar up against the elements) with the original intention of investigating what lies at the end of Line 4. I don’t know what there is at Biomedical Base subway station, but the name implies some real Resident Evil shit.

I dismissed a trip there as just too damned far in such shitty weather, so I ended up at some hipster joint outside Hufanqiao: a place that did nothing to dispel the Vancouver feeling.

I treeked through the drizzle along a fair chunk of Line 7 (my own back yard in Beijing terms). I saw bugger all. Absolutely sweet Football Assosciation. I think there was a 7-11 at one point, that was about it.

I basically did nothing all day, which can be a wonderful thing to do. It again reminded me of my Vancouver days, just walking and sipping coffees and wondering when the gf was going to get out of bed (this time without a time difference between us, she’s just lazy!)

Today is no more exciting. We’ve got the plumber in, which will hopefully go better than last time.* I’ve got to change some money at the bank and do other grown-up sort of things. I’ll probably have another coffee at some point.

I find it all quietly blissful… Apart from the megaphone, of course.


*See: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/lost-in-google-translation/

Walking to Hollywood

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“You went to Macau and you DIDN’T get in a junk boat? Who goes to Macau and DOESN’T get in a junk boat?!?”

– Loud American douche


I took the subway out to Hong Kong island. Actually, I first took the subway absolutely nowhere, dropping HK$9.50 for a two way trip through a turnstile. But, eventually, I wound up in Central Hong Kong.

I didn’t do anything special there. I walked, sipped a coffee, watched birds wheel over skyscrapers in the hills, lived a little bit more of my life.

I saw a film being shot, in an alleyway behind the appropriately named Hollywood Road, with what would be considered a skeleton crew in the West.

I found an HMV, where I bought some rock and roll books. I sat reading about a young Lou Reed under the Hong Kong Observation Wheel. I sipped another Japanese beer, listening to an American loudly berate his companion over his choice of transportation during a recent trip to Macau.* It made me glad to think that I’ve hardly spoken to a soul all day (and that whatever else I may be, at least it isn’t American).

My brief trip to the Kong will soon be over. By tomorrow evening I will be back ‘home’, probably on the couch watching a Stephen Chow movie while the gf bubbles excitedly about weapons she’s bought in a fantasy video game. My tacky plastic sunglasses will be in the drawer. My passport will have another red stamp in it, and I will be dreaming up the next adventure.


* “Hey, let me just stop you there for a second. [answers phone] Hi. Yeah, just got back from Macau. well, to be TOTALLY honest I found the whole thing a little… PROBLEMATIC, ya know…”

Chungking Express

 

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“Junk boats and English boys
Crashing out in super marts”
– The Gorillaz


As the landing gear came down, the theme tune to Enter The Dragon was in my head. The flight was turbulent, the meal was rubbery and – at the very point when I was expecting to descend – the pilot swung out across the ocean and begged the question “so are we off to Thailand then?” before he eventually did everyone the courtesy of actually landing the plane.

The bags arrived 40 minutes after the plane did, but I still made the very last metro all the way to the hotel (which is not the place to stay if you ever want to swing a cat).

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But, hey. Who am I to complain?

The Cantonese translates as ‘Fragrant Harbour’. The Mandarin, slightly more prosaically, as ‘Smells Good Bay’. To us Westerners, it’s Hong Kong. Beijing was never somewhere I dreamed of visiting (much less living), but this always was (second only to New York on the list of places that I only believe in because I have actually seen them). Like that other fairytale city, HK is my kind of place.

Tacky, scruffy, eccentric, formerly British. If the Kong were a person, it would probably be me. There are shades of the Imperial past here, but it also feels like the model for Beijing in the future: somehow multicultural/globalized/capitalist and yet still Chinese as fuck. Maybe the sun never set on the Empire after all. Indian food, African music, American toilets, British manners; they’re all here. You can’t cross the street without being offered a watch, a three piece suit or hashish. People even queue here. A Beijinger in a queue is like a hen with testicles.

I woke myself up this morning with a strong glass of coffee and a quick scan of Facebook and Twitter (which have become novelties these days). I breakfasted, like the middle class wanker I aspire to be, at a Starbucks overlooking my first port of call: Chungking Mansions, star of arguably the greatest of HK movies.* The ‘mansion’ is a horseshoe-shaped hellhole of pawn shops, guest houses, eateries and other rip-off merchants. I loved it!

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I then did what I always do, set off on a walk with absolutely no plan whatsoever. I wandered some of the other arcades and visited the Garden of Stars, where I discovered I have the dainty hands of Brigitte Lin.

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I took a single poorly framed photograph of the Peninsula hotel, headquarters of the invading Japanese army in 1941.

I strolled along the seafront of West Kowloon, watching women do yoga on the beach and men fishing in the harbour (my eyes lingered on the yoga a little more than the fishing, let’s be honest). Then along Temple street, home of cheap DVDs and blatant prostitution.

All this before lunchtime. I had lamb tikka masala and then sampled something that I hope will reach Beijing sooner rather than later: buy-one-get-one-free Japanese lager.

A long weekend is not enough time to get to know this place, but the first impression is that it mixes most of the things I like about China and Britain and has filtered out a lot of the stuff that I don’t. It’s cleaner than Beijing. More cosmopolitan. More comfortable.

But, at this point, I wouldnt go so far as to say that it’s more interesting.


*If you have never seen Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, I urge you to do yourself a favour.

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.

Sole Searching

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“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

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“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.

Adrift in Wangjing

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“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance, nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling. Then signboard and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet.” – Walter Benjamin


Chaoyang is Beijing’s largest (and fastest-growing) district. One of its 24 sub-districts, Wangjing, houses both the hotel I’m currently staying in and 798 Art Zone. Yesterday, I put 2 and 2 together and decided to visit my favourite of Beijing’s tourist attractions.

798 is a former complex of Communist factories, designed and built in the 1950s with the assistance of East German architects and Soviet consultants.* In the early 2000s, this rundown, ramshackle James Bond set was repurposed by contemporary artists into what has become a community of galleries, shops and overpriced eateries.

Some have argued that the Art Zone has become too commercial of late. It is true that you can barely move for film students, fashion photographers and people offering to sketch a caricature, and I even noticed that it now has a 7-Eleven. But it’s also true that we shouldn’t be hipster jackasses, and should accept that the place still has character.

Although the best adjective to describe pretty much any district/sub-district/area/block of the Jing is ‘big’, 798 is within walking distance of the hotel. When I set out on foot at 7am, however, I had allowed myself the luxury of forgetting one thing that everyone knows full well: my sense of direction is terrible.

I like to walk. Walking has always been my chosen mode of transportation and exploration, whether it be over the fields of Northamptonshire, through downtown Vancouver or across the mean streets of Manhattan.

A book that has had a particular effect on me, one that I’ve read and reread several times over, is Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice, detailing his mad pilgrimage from Munich to Paris to visit his ailing friend at her hospital bedside. I have since discovered other great tales of perambulation such as Will Self’s airport walks, Iain Sinclair’s nocturnal wanderings around London,** and John Clare’s trek from Epping Forest to the village of Helpston after fleeing the mental asylum in which he was incarcerated (and where, coincidentally, I worked for some time about a century and a half later).

There is even a subgenre of writing and filmmaking that explores themes of ‘place’ and ‘walking’: psychogeography. At its simplest, psychogeography is just an unnecessarily stuffy label to describe going for an unplanned walk in an urban environment. The one thing that most psychogeographers seem to have in common (other than being eccentric, having at least one decent pair of shoes, and almost always being a little pretentious) is that they are barking mad. Let’s not forget that Werner Herzog is the fella who insisted on continuing an interview after being shot because he didn’t feel it was “a significant wound”.

I wish to state, for the record, that my own epic, shambolic ramble to, around and away from*** 798 was almost entirely accidental, and the only reason I recorded it in depth was because I was making notes for my journal. I am clinically sane. Next time I go to 798, it’ll be by bus. And I will not be going for another walk for a very, very long time.

If you’re interested in the details of my walk, you can read my ‘field notes’ below:

I set off down the main road outside the hotel. There were a lot of men walking dogs but nobody wiping anybody’s arse this time. One yappy poodle started barking at the token foreigner. I followed the road as it snaked around a bend and, following nothing but my own unreliable internal cartography, crossed at a stubborn set of traffic lights onto ‘Hugang Zhongjie’. Walking past Wanghe park, which doesn’t actually seem to have an entrance anywhere in its perimeter fence, I found myself amid the graffiti underneath what is apparently part of the Jingcheng Expressway.

Pulled off course against my will, I was stuck following a narrow channel between the expressway on the left and a fiercely-protected palatial golf course on the right. I eventually joined ‘Dingcheng road’, far from where I intended to be and far from impressed. Over a bridge with a flowing river underneath, both of us forced along a pre-ordained route. A park on one side of the strees, razor wire on this side. The city really pushes back against the walker here! I found some kind of twisted shortcut through the rubble behind the facade of ‘Northern American’ villas, out the side of yet another battered park. Only when I reached the end of that particular road did I discover:

1. That I’d just walked some of the Wangjing Loop, a ‘green space’ connecting several parks and pedestrian areas.

2. That I was still nowhere bloody near 798.

I found a coffee shop to warm up in. Although my Chinese is in fact passable enough to ask “Where the fuck is 798?”, unless the answer is “straight on”, “turn left” or “turn right” then I’m clueless. Sipping my coffee, checking the compass on my phone, and heading in the new direction I had intuited, I passed the Trek Bicycles shop, where I used to catch the bus to 798. If I had remembered (or had bothered to write down) the bus number, then I’d have happily climbed aboard. At the very least I was encouraged by the memory that it was almost certainly just a very long straight line from this point onwards.

Past men fishing in the river. Past the three rainbows statue. Past Futong station, around the corner from the hotel. Oh. Oh, Jesus Christ. I was that lost was  I?

Past Wangjing South station, where I had the vague idea that I knew where I was going. Past rundown apartments with white shirts dangling on the line, where I had the less vague idea that I hadn’t a fucking clue where I was going. I stopped taking notes. I kept walking. At about 10.35, with the nagging sense that it was all slightly familiar again, I reached one of the Art Zone gates. I didn’t stay long. I only wanted to buy a bloody notebook!

On the way back to the subway station, I got lost.


*(how red is that?!?)

**(any writer who can make Hackney Wick seem like Alice in Wonderland must be applauded)

***(not necessarily in that order)