Long Live the King


“This is very impressive, I think it’s actually the best temple we’ve seen so far.”
“Yes. Shall we take a selfie?”


I spent the summer of 2015 in Southeast Nowhere, Beijing, scratching my balls and watching Michael Bay movies. The following summer was spent sweating through housekeeping duties in a hostel in downtown Vancouver. This year, I figured it wouldn’t break the bank to have an actual fucking holiday.

I considered disappearing, Sean Flynn style, into deepest Cambodia. I considered going to a hotel in Saigon, putting The Doors on full blast and staring at the ceiling fan. Eventually I settled on swapping TsingTaos for Singhas on a five day urban break in Bangkok. The gf was keen to come with me, her first time away from mainland China.

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My knowledge of Thailand is limited. Like, ignorant limited. In fact pretty much my only experience of the country was Thai boxing and Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. I’m not saying I was expecting tuk tuk chases that ended with someone jumping through an exploding ring of barbed wire, or someone lying under an idyllic waterfall making love to a fish, I’m just saying that I really know bugger all about Thailand.

 
First thing to do was make sure we had enough money for our stay. Make seriously sure. The Thai government has started doing random checks at airports to ensure that people can actually afford their stay, as a way of cracking down on broke-arse hipster twats coming over and begging in the streets for enough cash to continue their travels.

 
We flew from Bejing in the early afternoon. Customs and baggage claim took a little longer than I’d have liked, so it was about 9pm local time when we finally got to the hotel. We had an exquisite dinner at the restaurant next door, stocked up on supplies from one of Bangkok’s 3,648 7-Eleven stores, and then I raided the mini-bar for Singha number 1 before falling asleep.

 
Coincidentally, our first full day in the kingdom of elephants turned out to be the king of Thailand’s birthday: the perfect day to visit Wat Pho temple and The Grand Palace, along with absolutely every other fucker in the entire country. We had chicken noodle soup by the river, watching the festivities from a fairly peaceful distance before heading to Chinatown for a coffee and getting hit by a hella downpour.

 
We spent the next couple of days getting used to the Metro and the taxis and trying to learn the Thai for “are you fucking joking, mate? That’s too expensive.” (turns out that the syllables are unpronounceable and that most people speak English anyway).

 
The gf is open to the idea of urban drifting* so we did a fair amount of walking during our stay. We’ve seen a lot of temples. It’s been humbling to sit on the floor (soles pointed away from the Buddha, of course) and contemplate one’s place in the great web.

 
We went to check out of the hotel this morning only to find that July has 31 days (who knew) and that we’ve actually got one more night here in glorious Krung Thep.

 

Meanwhile, a friend in the U.K. has started shooting that short horror film that we wrote together. The cinematographer is my arty mate from the Kazakhstan trip, who’s soon trading Astana for Cairo**. In a way, I kind of wish I was shooting it with them. In another way, though, I wish them well and I’m in Thailand.

 
When I made my first stab at becoming a screenwriter a main inspiration was John Milius, writer of Apocalypse Now. While director Francis Ford Coppola was going insane in the jungle, dealing with typhoons and infidelity and heart attacks as well as Brando and Hopper sized egos, Milius was lazily writing the surfing epic Big Wednesday, spending his days sipping whisky on a Californian beach and his nights riding a dune buggy with a bare-breasted Margot Kidder, shooting the bulbs out of street lamps with an antique shotgun.

 
I always felt that the writer won.

 

 

I still do.


*at least with the safety net of Google Maps (a novelty for her)

**he’s shown me the rough cut of the Kazakh video we worked on, which is quite the mini-epic.

 

Master of Puppets


“You ever want to be somebody else?”
“I’d like to try Porky Pig.”
“I’ve never wanted to be anybody else.”
– Easy Rider


When I was a kid I guess I wanted to be some kind of action hero: an Indiana Jones; a Luke Skywalker; maybe, at the very low end of that spectrum, a Bob Hoskins as Mario. One day I swung through the cavernous tomb of my own bedroom cupboard with a bullwhip that my aunt had brought over from India. the whip snapped, the railing on the cupboard collapsed and my mum frantically took me aside and told me I was going to have three kids and a mortgage instead.

My parents used to tell me off for staying up late, for watching too many movies, or for showing off to my friends. Overused parental catchphrases included “stop filling your head with nonsense” and “don’t play up just because you have an audience”. My kindergarten teacher used to call me ‘foghorn’, although that disappeared under a layer of shyness and social awkwardness a few years later.

Fact is, I now get paid to shout like a foghorn and play up to an audience. Turns out that filling your head with nonsense can actually be quite the lucrative investment. I’m not exactly flashing the qian but I can afford to live the way I want to for once. I don’t even have to dress like a hobo or live on junk food anymore (I still do sometimes, but I don’t have to).

 


“Ah,so you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown.”

– Doctor Who, The Three Doctors


 

As a college student, despite briefly flirting with the idea of training as a stuntman, a puppeteer or a functioning alcoholic, I suppose I wanted to be a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Harry Dean Stanton. I once jokily berated a new guy on my acting course for turning up in a Hawaiian shirt. “That’s my gig, man! I’m the guy who wears Hawaiian shirts around here.” For some reason, instead of socking me in the mouth or telling me to piss off, the guy just stopped wearing Hawaiian shirts; as, a few short years later,  did I.

Eventually I settled on the idea of just being me.

I sometimes lamented the painful truth that I rarely left the streets of my East Midlands hometown, but I always reminded myself that Socrates never left Athens. I visited Athens once and I thought it was a shithole. If his shithole was good enough for Socrates then, I reckoned, my shithole should be good enough for me. But then I became aware of an even more painful truth: certain parallels in questionable personal hygiene aside, I am hella not Socrates.

But eventually I had a wash, grew into my own skin, and became a little more comfortable with myself.

 


“A puppeteer told me he loved me today. I know, I can’t think of anything more pathetic!” – Catherine Keener


 

A couple of years ago, when I was looking for an escape hatch from Tongzhou (a slightly less comfortable shithole), I applied for a job with Sesame Street English as a curriculum writer. Sesame Street was and is one of the many ESL companies in the Jing that the guys I worked for in the suburbs couldn’t compete with on any level. Sesame Street was the sleek, predatory shark while the now bankrupt company I was with at the time were, even then, the upside down goldfish.

On the whole I like teaching drama more than ESL. Maybe I like it more than I’d have enjoyed writing for Ernie and Grover. My first full semester as a drama teacher is now over. A couple more days of teaching a summer camp and then I’m on holiday. I’d like to think that my grand, poorly drawn stage designs for next term will contribute to the juvenile drama centre equivalent of Michel Gondry meets François Delarozière, but the truth is gonna be… well, much less French for a minimum.

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I like my job here, even if I’ve always had mixed feelings about the theatre. I like anything that’s an art form, and I like a storytelling art form a thousandfold more. I like that theatre at its most basic is just one or more person performing in front of one or more other person, which is what I’ve been doing with me life since I was a kid.

It’s comforting and interesting to know that the cavemen in Wangfujing were once doing the Neolithic version of what I teach, and that future eight-limbed generations, perhaps people who don’t have to work for a living and can just tell stories for the sheer post-humanity of it, will be performing dramas long after someone’s pushed the big red button on our current society.

But British people are supposed to be cynical and rip the piss out of anything as wanky as the theatrical arts, especially if it’s popular in France.

I’ve got mixed feelings about teaching, too. Robert McKee, who’s not exactly short of opinions, once barked that “the world is full of people who teach things that they themselves cannot do” (and he must know, let’s be honest). Or, as the hoary old caveat has it: those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, probably just teach anyway.

Most teachers I know, when they are honest, will jovially admit either that they are doing something creative in their spare time and wish they did that for a living, or are approaching burn-out. Some, bless ‘em, are doing both. You can use your own imagination and judgement to decide which category I fit into.

Banned in Malaysia


“Why don’t you get a job at the Burger-Rama? They’ll hire you. My lord, I saw on the TV they had this little retarded boy working the register.”
“Because I’m not retarded, mom. I was valedictorian of my university!”
“Well you don’t have to put that on your application.”


Okay, so I have a confession to make. Don’t let the title scare you, it isn’t that. Basically, I watched three movies directed by Ben Stiller. And none of them were terrible. Not a single one.

Although I like movies that are ‘saying something’ (at least to me), I also like a good laugh (usually just to distract me from the existential dread that comes with riding a merry-go-round on the outer fringes of a galaxy slowly circling the plug hole). Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find a film that can provide both.

I’m not a fan of stupid, gross out, or wide-of-the-mark comedies, which is why I tend to steer clear of all that ‘Frat Pack’ stuff. I lean more towards the Paul Giamattis and Bill Murrays of this world than the Vince Vaughns or Owen Wilsons.* I like at least half of Jim Carrey’s output and probably less than half of Will Ferrell’s, but I try to go into each Hollywood comedy with an open mind. Sometimes I’ve been rewarded with Stranger Than Fiction or Cold Souls, sometimes I’ve just sighed my way through the sequel to Dumb and Dumber.

I’m not saying that I suddenly think Ben Stiller is a neglected American auteur or anything like that, but after watching the first three films that he directed I must admit I’m surprised at how enjoyable they all were.

I don’t think any of us are going anywhere, so let’s have a mostly spoiler free chat about ‘em…

REALITY BITES

In 1994, ‘The Stiller’** made his directorial debut with this movie about disgruntled and confused Huston-based Generation Xers. It stars a sassy, enjoyable and pre-kleptomania Winona Ryder alongside Ethan Hawke, who’s Texan charm turned up in pretty much everything circa 93 to 98 (before starting to bug everyone for awhile and then eventually coming back into fashion). The slightly older (or older seeming) yuppie character who tries to foster Winona’s artistic career is played by the star of The Ben Stiller show.

If you like Clerks or Dazed and Confused, this is that kind of movie. Only less so.

THE CABLE GUY

My favourite in this trilogy of watchable semi-precious gems was The Stiller’s second feature from 1996. It was most notable at the time for spending a cool and then-record-breaking $20 million on Jim Carrey in the lead role (no wonder underwhelming lead Mathew Broderick looks so pissed off all the time, am I right?). The first-time scriptwriter also became a millionaire for his troubles, even if he was rewritten by an uncredited Judd Apatow (who went on to supposedly better things that have always failed to poke me in the funnybone).

The comedy here is broader than Reality Bites, and the story is weirder. Broderick moves out of his girlfriend’s place and he makes casual conversation with the affable and titular fella who installs cable in his new pad. This turns out to be a mistake, as the cable guy goes on to interfere with Broderick’s life in increasingly bizarre and outright psychotic ways.

The film has a bunch of ‘emerging comedic talent’ cameos: Jack Black (plus the ‘other guy from Tenacious D’ thrown in at the end), David Cross, Eric ‘my kid sister is Julia’ Roberts, plus the star of The Ben Stiller Show. Most of these people are pretty amusing, but there are some scenes that just fall flat – most notably a medieval dueling scene that will have you questioning wtf. Also, I don’t know what a one million dollar screenplay or a twenty million dollar performance should look like, but I’m pretty sure this ain’t it. It’s all a little bizarre and more than a little creepy in places, but a decent enough film with plenty to say about late-twentieth century culture (or lack thereof).

An intro to the ‘difficult third film’:

I have this feeling that in Hollywood, directors almost always stumble on the third go. after two hits, the third film is almost always their ‘bloated epic’ (aka, ‘big fuck-up’). I assume it has something to do with them getting bigger budgets and more power after their early success. Stick with me here on this mini-thesis: James Cameron’s first hit was The Terminator, which he followed with Aliens. His third film is that Ed Harris in a submarine movie, The Abyss. Terry Gilliam’s first hit was Time Bandits, which he followed with Brazil. His third film is the still legendary flop The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. For Ridley Scott it goes: Alien, Blade Runner, Tom Cruise fucking about in Tim Curry’s kitchen. David Lynch’s third film is Dune. Richard Stanley didn’t even make it that far, he spent his third movie hiding in a tree dressed as a monkey, watching through a pair of binoculars while someone else directed it.

Which brings us to…

ZOOLANDER

Bloated epic this may be, but it was the biggest surprise in The Stiller’s triptych of early work. I thought I’d hate this movie, and I’m still not entirely sure why I didn’t.

Charlie Kaufman (who hasn’t yet directed a third film), said that “with a screenplay you’re creating a world; consider everything: every character, every room, every juxtaposition, every increment of time as an embodiment of that world.” In fairness, Zoolander does just that. It’s a screenplay supposedly co-written by The Stiller himself (although we should always be dubious of Hollywood directors taking co-writing credits).

When judged on the basis of things like realism, pacing or conventional plotting then Zoolander should pretty much be an unmitigated disaster (in a way that the other two films are not), but as a zany Austin Powers-like world with its own internal logic, it becomes… well, sort of a zany Austin Powers-like world with its own internal logic.

The movie is colourful, silly, and absolutely loaded with celebrity cameos (including then jackass and now POTUS, ‘The Donald’, who even then didn’t know how to poke fun at himself). Performances and scenes once again vary. Davids both Bowie and Duchovny*** are solid gold, while other sequences, including a particularly unfunny moment where Owen Wilson and the star of The Ben Stiller Show jump about bashing a computer and chattering like monkeys, seemed to take up my entire afternoon. I’m not quite sure what the story (about two rival male models teaming up to prevent the assassination of the Malaysian prime minister) was actually trying to say but as Stanley Kubrick tells us, having something to say is secondary to having something you feel.

Not that I have any particular idea what The Stiller ‘feels’, either. Each movie had a vague sort of message about media manipulation, but let’s not forget that these stories are all directed by the successful son of two affluent television performers. I do know that he chooses his cinematographers well, and his movies have fairly good soundtracks. He also likes casting himself and members of his immediate family. And he seems to think blackface and being non-American are both funny for some reason.

Benjamin E.M. Stiller has gone on to make three other films as director, including the controversial Zoolander 2. I haven’t seen any of them, and I don’t even know if they’re on Chinese Netflix.

I did try watching Greenberg (which he didn’t direct), but I thought it was boring and I gave up early. There’s also one on there with a poster of Jennifer Aniston and a weasel, but I doubt I’ll bother to be honest.


*Although any longtime readers know that I, like any decent human being, liked The Internship and Dodgeball.

**(and I don’t know or care if anyone actually refers to him as this)

***(who’s performance as a former hand model turned X Files conspiracy theorist has washed away the ashen taste left by his own flaccid directorial venture the other day)

 

Strings That Tie to You


“I’m just a little person; One person in a sea; of many little people; who are not aware of me.” -Synecdoche, New York


On a recent commute home, the subway train suddenly lurched to a halt with the stink of burning rubber. I’m not quite sure What The Actual happened, but when we eventually limped into Chaoyang Park station, everybody poured out of the vehicle and onto the platform. Obviously this is not an exclusively Chinese phenomenon, but in this particular major metropolitan area, it caused a whole bunch of disgruntled Chinese bodies (and one or two laowai) into a fairly narrow passageway, which is a pretty much guaranteed way for me to start losing my shit.

I’m not, as I’m sure you’re aware, a ‘people person’. When it comes down to particular, reasonably well informed individual ‘persons’, sure. When it comes to the potential of the human species as a whole (assuming we can ever advance ourselves beyond the stage of ‘slightly evolved fish with legs’ and fulfill our destiny as a collective unconscious housed in some sort of studious megabrain), definitely. But people as a zombie-carpenter-ant-kinda-collective whole? Not a fucking chance, broheim.

I had spent the day doing what my Chinese employers had asked us to do: trying to design a drama event around the theme of a ‘beautiful encounter’ (whatever the eff that may be). Some of the native speakers had taken this theme to heart, going so far as explaining to the local staff the concept of ‘serendipity’. Others had pretty much given up at the starting line and admitted it was just gonna be another day pretending to be a frog.

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Any idiot with a less-than-half-arsed grasp of quantum mechanics or Charlie Kaufman movies knows that there’s a string attached to every decision we make. For every event, an infinite number of variations of that event, each branching off into all sorts of different directions. Basically, everything that can happen, does happen. Just not necessarily in the same universe.

Stepping onto the platform with several dozen other commuters left me with a slightly uneasy feeling. Before this unscheduled stop, I actually thought of stepping off the train. Was this just because I had ambitions to take a deep breath and refresh myself? Or was it something else? Was I possessed with the arcane knowledge that the ride was soon to be over?

Is there a universe where something more serious than burning rubber occurred in that tunnel outside Chaoyang Park? I remember reading an interview with the occultist and documentarian Richard Stanley,  who said that returning to his hotel room after a particularly hairy experience covering Afghanistan in the 80s, he couldn’t shake the idea that he had actually died in combat, and that he was now living in some kind of netherworld. Perhaps the fact that I can empathize with this just says that I’ve been spending too much time on the Beijing metro.

Maybe I just wanted to step away from more than the train. It’s been a little tempting recently to check into the city’s nearest and largest jug and grow a Diogenes level beard, or hike into the Chinese mountains and start living like Spider Jerusalem in issue one.

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Like I said, I’m not a people person. I’m not even a natural city dweller. There’s a line in Apocalypse Now where the protagonist describes a character from New Orleans as “too tightly wound for Vietnam. Probably too tightly wound for New Orleans”. I’m probably a little tightly wound for anywhere.

There is nothing ‘natural’ or even ‘organic’ about a city. It’s an island of glass and concrete full of way too many bodies living in the sky and travelling under the earth while breathing small particles of each other in and out. But that’s what makes a city so interesting. A city as epic as Beijing even moreso.

 

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

 


“I hear you’re a racist now father. How did you get interested in that sorta thing? Should we all be racists now? Only the farm takes up most of my day and at night I just like a good cuppa tea; I mightn’t be able to devote myself full time to the auld racism.” – Father Ted


I just got caught in a downpour on my way to Zoo Coffee, where I wanted to put on a movie and test my now disproven theory that I’ll watch David Duchovny in literally anything. With rain hammering down outside, I found another mini-storm on the internet. As usual, people are very vocal about the casting of the latest Doctor Who. This time it isn’t that he’s “too old” or “not enough of a mincing hipster”, it’s that he, well… he’s no longer a ‘he’ at all. The news that a quasi-immortal shapeshifting alien has finally found the ability to regenerate into something other than a white male aged 28-58 has come as quite the shock to an angry, vocal, chronically uneducated minority of ‘fans’, as if this casting decision will suddenly affect their daily life in some hideous way. The BBC is even being accused of political correctness.*

Some have questioned how the TARDIS, a  near infinitely large craft that transcends dimensions, will have enough room for tampon dispensers, and that the next thing we know it will be James Bond who’ll be female or, God forbid, perhaps even ‘ethnic’.

When Colin Salmon and Idris Elba were once considered for Bond, there were those who suggested that they “weren’t English enough”, seemingly unaware that the fact they were both born in England actually makes them at least 99% (perhaps even slightly more) English than Pierce Brosnan, George Lazenby, and Sean Connery. Combined.

After fifty years of asexual men in silly jumpers (and an episode where the moon turned out to be a giant egg) are you really going to take the Doctor less seriously in a a dress? Call me crazy, but I’d even be happier to watch a female Bond than I would to watch almost any of the ones that start with Roger Moore at the end of the gun barrel (national treasure or no).

The poet I mentioned a few entries ago (the fella who’s sort of a fusion between Dante, Alan Watts and the guy who wrote the soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has a philosophy. He won’t print his own t-shirts in XL or above, because he doesn’t like the idea of unhealthy, overweight people wearing his merchandise. Like me, he never liked that it’s socially acceptable for people to say things like “you look like a scarecrow” or “you look like a skeleton”, but that its suddenly not cool for us skinny folk to reply, “yeah, and you like like a pregnant elephant you rude motherfucker!”

He took a lot of flak for this view, but I always respected him for it. I took a lot of flak for my un-PC comments about many of the 40-watt bulbs that walked in our circle at the time, including some of his own pooh-flinging mates.

In a free society (if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms), everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how bizarre/offensive/despicable/smeared-in-their-own-feces it may be, but if you don’t like the idea of a female Who might I suggest that you simply don’t bother watching the programme anymore? ** I don’t like the idea of American figure skaters and slinky Greek assassins falling in love with a leathery old belt, which is why I switched off whichever one that is after whispering the word ‘dogshit’.

I have nothing against fat people. I have nothing against the late Roger Moore. I have nothing against the kind of people who want to fling internet pooh at the poor actress chosen to portray the thirteenth Doctor. Nor do I give a particular fuck who plays Doctor Who or James Bond (although I’d admittedly be a little more hesitant if either of them were suddenly played by an American). Because absolutely none of this has any bearing on how I choose to live my life.

The rain outside has cleared. The storm has passed. We can’t unwatch Moonraker or David Duchovny’s self-penned directorial debut, but we can choose to ignore them.

Let’s move on.


*That hallowed and ancient organization may be many things, but politically correct has never been one of them. Ahead-of-its-time has never been another: a female Who has been rumored, on and off, since Tom Baker left.

**And I’m not posting this suggestion as a reply to other people’s Facebook comments or tweets for the same reason that I don’t have a comments section on my blog: because I consider ‘online debate’ a mild learning disability.

250 Lines of Definition


“The future is now! Soon every American home will integrate their television, phone and computer. You’ll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel and watch female mud wrestling on another. You can do your shopping at home, or play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam.” – The Cable Guy, 1996


A colleague and I were recently waxing nostalgic about the 1990s. We agreed that today’s knowledge-at-yer-fingertips world is marginally preferable, but we are both happy to have grown up in a slightly simpler time when a 3 and 1/2 inch floppy was nothing to be ashamed of, and when Netflix binges involved changing the cassette every two episodes.

Ours was a weird time: 7-11 wasn’t just a name, it was opening hours; TMNT cereal turned everyone’s shit green; we suffered weird, violent 16 bit hallucinations at the robotic hands of Earthworm Jim; and – for one night only – Paul McGann was our generation’s single Doctor Who.

The early nineties was a time of flipping POGs, blowing the dust off Nintendo cartridges, and taping shows on bootleg VHS (I’m old enough to remember my mum reminding me not to ‘get the little one’ from the video store, a warning against the dangers of Betamax).

The latter part of the decade was, in that pre-9/11 world, a time of looking forward: fiber-optic broadband in every home, Nu Metal in every nightclub, digital cinematography in every film. People weren’t worried that their neighbour might be an extremist plotting holy war, they were worried about the millennium bug and Bill Clinton’s dong.

I spent most of the nineties not staying in the same place, being U Haul-ed to various small towns in Alberta before seeing in the new epoch in one of England’s least interesting villages.

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Before video games started outselling Hollywood blockbusters, before The Sopranos and Breaking Bad finally turned television into a legit art form, movies were the dominant pop culture medium. 1999 is often cited as one of the great years for cinema: While James Bond hung from a thread above the millennium dome and George Lucas dropped the ball on Star Wars, young music video directors were breaking through with future cult classics like Fight Club and Being John Malkovich.*

Meanwhile, two film students used videotape and guerrilla marketing to show that an improvised folk horror about three kids and a fictional witch can make the sort of money that most of Hollywood only dreams about. A couple of brothers (at the time) from Chicago proved that it’s possible to make a science fiction kung fu action thriller that has a philosophical core (at least until it collapsed under the weight of its own cross-platform, multi-sequel bullshit). These were films that summed up ‘our’ decade and, more importantly, said and meant something.

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We Generation X-ers felt no highs or lows. There were rumours of those who did, but they were just put on Ritalin by their douchebag parents. Our spokespersons were the sort of people who dressed up as a bat instead of confronting their problems or who moved into derelict houses with their imaginary friends to plot Year Zero revolution. We didn’t even spot the irony in a monologue about how we’d never be famous or have rock hard abs being delivered by Brad Pitt.

Here in the present, there is a wave of eighties nostalgia. Touted soon-to-be sequels include Bill and Ted, The Goonies, and The Dark Crystal. Christian Slater’s agent has woken up after a long winter’s snooze where the speed dial was set on straight-to-DVD. I guess we have to wait a decade or so for Fight Club Too or Being John Malkovich Again, or yet another X Files movie.

Even if we do have to put up with a Matrix reboot.


*(a film that I swear I at least occasionally shut up about).

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/