Red and Gold


“Hey look, a museum about how great Mao is. You don’t see those too often around here!”


The Communist Party was engaged in an extensive meeting here. You may have heard about it. It took longer to get through than the Council of Elrond, and was about as interesting. The bright side, though, is that the shopkeepers’ doorways and community workers’ armbands aren’t the only thing turning the colours of the flag.

There are two reasons that I hadn’t been to Fragrant Hills (on the outskirts of Beijing) until last week: one is that this epic mountainside park is located literally the opposite side of the city to my flat; the other is that every other bugger in the Jing always seems to be there. It’s the sort of place, along with the relatively nearby Summer Palace, that any tourist simply has to ‘do’: a vast region of parkland that changes colour with the seasons. When the gf, probably hungering for the wilderness of Mongolia again, heard that the leaves were shifting into autumnal hues, we packed some snacks and set an alarm for 6am.

Neither of us are natural early risers (the morning shifts in Vancouver hostels used to wipe me out) but the two of us got out of bed on time. By 8 o’clock we had travelled a vast chunk of Line 7 and almost all of Line 4. At Beigongmen metro station we found the bus to Fragrant Hills, along with the central throng of other buggers. It took us two attempts to reach the end of the cattle-like enclosure that had been installed to deal with the endless flow of would-be mountaineers, listening to shouted instructions over a megaphone by a little old lady who had wandered in from the mysterious realm of Jim Henson’s subconscious. “Do not wait for seats,” she roared over a megaphone in Chinese, “you will find no seats here. Mwahahahaha!”*

The bus took about three chapters of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and almost every inch of my patience before we mercifully reached the gate at about 9.30am. Those of us who had woken at 6 were in no mood for the boiled eggs or jianbing being proffered by the street food vendors, nor for the public toilets that tried to rob ‘Smells Good Mountain’ of it’s otherwise deserved moniker.

Red and gold koi carp swam around the ponds of Tranquil Heart Garden and Tea Shop (the ‘and tea shop’ portion sadly revealing itself as a haggard old pagoda shuttered up in shame at having revealed its last legs). We were a little surprised to see that hardly any of the trees were sharing the colours of the fish or flags, most of them stubbornly clinging to their green summer shades under a slightly hazy sky.

A chair-lift style cable car system connects the lower rungs of the park to the mountaintop above. Despite looking rickety and bringing to mind images of Clint Eastwood kicking people to death in Where Eagles Dare, I felt it would be nice to ride to the top and then climb back down. Future visitors beware, however, the city spoils you: we got to the gates and realized that card and WeChat payments are unacceptable for this venture, and neither of us had brought any cash. Putting conspiracy theories about forcing the populace to exercise aside, we began our two way journey up the stone stairs hewn into the mountainside, travelling across terrain littered with green trees, discarded water bottles and torn popsicle wrappers.

Our journey, like the endless meeting of papa Xi’s, became long and arduous. At one point we stopped, like Sam and Frodo, to eat a sausage on a stick. I lost my British reserve and became Gollum at one point, telling some hippy-looking chap off for tossing a wrapper on the floor about seven inches from a bin, but he just shrugged and probably pretended not to speak English.

We made it otherwise unscathed, drawing our imagined swords in victory, sipping a lemon tea and eating some pork and pepper at the top. The journey back was made a little easier by stops along the way: temples, pagodas, pavilions, souvenir shops.

All told, we were at Fragrant Hills for several hours. We sprung ¥20 each for a taxi home, something we both agreed that none of our British friends would have done; instead they’d have tightened their sphincter and joined the two-hour bus queue. We soothed our barking dogs with a foot massage and had a well deserved BBQ dinner. All payed for via WeChat, of course.


*No, I did not make that bit up.

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What Lies Beyond Jiangtai?


“Look I’mma spoil this one early on, okay. The answer is not much!”


I was curious, having recently been commuting to and from Wangjing, why so many bodies were stepping off Line 14 at Jiangtai metro station. “Do these people,” I quietly wondered, “know something that I do not?”

I walked two square blocks beyond Jiangtai trying to find out. I passed a handful of office buildings before reaching a dead-end hutong with a huge rubbish tip wedged in one corner. This is central Beijing in ‘rampant shithole’ mode. Forgotten back alleys strewn with stinky filth, full of unappetizing restaurants serving cheap and easily accessible bacterial dysentery.

The big surprise was that Jiangtai station lies near 751 D Park, a communist Santa’s grotto and the back passage (in every sense of the phrase) to 798 Art Zone. A lot of car and tech companies have premises here. More businesses nestle at the Universal Business Park across the road. Does this explain the mad morning and evening rush of the numb, commuting proletariat? Possibly. They certainly don’t seem to be sitting around any of the bars or coffee shops of the art zone itself, but some fan themselves in the factory shadows, resting at plastic tables outside cramped hutong residences. Most of the locals have a smile on their bewildered face as a foreigner strolls past, presumably having taken a misstep on his way to the Zone.

Inside 798, I encountered a couple of my colleagues on an excursion of their own. We exchanged greetings and idioms of the ‘small world’ variety. “Did you come from Wangjing?” One of them asked. I explained that, no, I had actually just wandered in from Dickensian Jiangtai, with no idea how close I already was to a decent pint of beer.

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.

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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/

 

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.