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.

 

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.

The Fellowship of the Jing

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“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?”)

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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.

Ganbei’d in Dongdaihe

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”


I have a pretty low tolerance for corporate bollocks. I recently “lol”-ed my “a” off when I saw an online advert for something called ‘netbonding’, which, the slogan assured me, was “even stronger than networking!” The advert raised an important question for me, which was “why don’t you piss off, right now, and never reappear in my life?”

Another kernel of corporate shite that I can’t stand is the idea of ‘team building.’ It’s fair to say that I feel the same way about ‘team building’ as I feel about One Direction or intestinal parasites: proof, if any be needed, that there is no god. I am deeply suspicious of any company that has so little faith in their ‘team’ that they think getting together for a walk in the woods, or a game of laser tag, or slapping each other on the back while building an exact replica of a little Lego house before an egg timer goes off, is going to help ‘build’ them.

With such strong opinions on these matters, I’m sure you can imagine how thrilled I was when the principal of my teaching centre raised the suggestion of spending our weekend off taking a ‘team-building’ trip to the seaside town of Dongdaihe. I was so thrilled, that I almost introduced her to a famous English saying that begins with “no” and ends in “fucking way is that going to happen.”

Even so, I climbed into the rented SUV with an overnight bag for a three hour drive to Dongdaihe, China’s answer to the town from Jaws. It was, surprisingly, almost exactly the same as any English seaside town: inflatable turtles, beached fishing boats, lots of casual racists. As if that wasn’t enough to remind me of home, it was absolutely pissing it down with rain.

Upon arrival we all went for lunch, which was made up of enough sea life to fascinate Jaques Cousteau. The octopus was quite good, but when I finally extracted a snail from its shell, it flopped onto the table judgmentally, looking like it had just burst out of John Hurt’s chest. I’m now considering vegetarianism. Seriously.

After lunch, it was suggested that we all hit the wet and freezing cold beach, but I displayed my team spirit by making it clear that the only thing I was hitting was the sack (I was up at 4.30 for a 5.30 start, and I didn’t get much sleep in the car).

When I woke up to everyone returning from the beach, I was roped into some games, including one where we all stood in a circle passing a football to each other while a man banged a drum with a chopstick. It made about as much sense as any English ‘team building’ I’ve done, so I went with it. I even found, eventually, that I was having something that, by some stretch of the imagination, might be referred to as ‘fun’.

In the evening, I explored some of the town with a handful of colleagues. There was an onshore amusement arcade, including a mini-circus that I avoided like the plague after realizing that animals were involved. I stopped in a shop to see if I could use their toilet, only to be invited into their home! I could tell, from my limited Chinese, that the shopkeeper was excitedly telling his wife there was a foreigner in their toilet.

We had a seafood dinner and then retired to our rooms until a seafood breakfast. Unfortunately my friend and roommate was sick as a mo fo all night (probably with seafood poisoning), so neither of us got any sleep. The following day, we went down to the beach. I fell asleep in the sand (most of which returned to the hotel with me) and scrambled over some rocks. We had a seafood lunch and then had ‘free time’ until our seafood dinner, which was spent with a group of other poor bastards from another teaching centre who had arrived for their own ‘team building’ adventure.

I was approached by a pretty young lady who suggested a ganbei competition. Ganbei is the ancient Chinese art of downing a beer in one (although I’ve started using the term “ganbei’d” in casual conversation as a synonym for “clusterfucked”). She only had a small plastic glass and I only had a little left in my bottle, so I acquiesced. I was horrified, though, when she returned with two 500cl bottles of Yanjing. So, with everyone responsibly whooping and hollering at us to “ganbei, ganbei, ganbei”, I started to ganbei. She had swallowed the lot and spewed it back up before I even got to the end of the neck.

It was a result I was perfectly happy with.

Going Native

“It’ll be just like Swiss Family Robinson, but with more swearing! We’ll live like kings! Damn hell ass kings!”

– Bart Simpson


It irks me slightly that some foreigners come to Beijing and do exactly the same shit they’d do at home. Some people think it’s an achievement to learn the Chinese words for ‘coffee’ or ‘coca cola’ and then sit about watching Doctor Who or Coronation Street online. Don’t get me wrong, you can do whatever floats your boat, I just don’t understand why anyone would come here to see the four walls of a hotel room in Sanlitun bar street.

The writer Geoff Thompson often states that there’s ‘no growth in comfort’. It’s a philosophy I agree with, and I’ve spent the last few years trying to escape comfort zone after comfort zone, usually one baby-step at a time. There are some things I’ve already done in China that most tourists haven’t. Descending into the health and safety snafu that is the Shihua Caves is one. Urinating in front of a man who had his arse hanging out, a cigarette in his left hand and an iPhone in his right, was another. Last week I took a free kung fu lesson from an 84-year old man in a park across the road from Tian’an’men Square, a literal stone’s throw away from the Forbidden City. I’m pretty sure I will take some more lessons, but even if I don’t it was quite the life-changer.

Last night was also incredible. I went with two friends on a camping trip to the Great Wall of China. I am not a poetic enough writer to do our trip complete justice, but the basic Cliff Notes version unfolds like this:

It was a bugger to get to. Half an hour on the Batong Line, as always. Then Line 1, Line 2, and an hour on the bus. We stopped for lunch in Miyun County, technically still part of Beijing. If anyone there had seen a foreigner before then they were hiding it well. There were many excited gasps of “Wàiguóren!” and “Lǎowài!” as we wandered around. After lunch, it was another hour-and-a-half journey by bus, a short taxi ride and then a hike up onto the Wall. We each carried a rucksack full of bedding and a carrier bag full of food and drink. It was far too hot for tents. Every single one of us, to a man, forgot our toothbrush.

We trekked along a crumbling and unrestored section of the Great Wall, gathering some firewood along the way. I felt like a character from The Lord of The Rings (especially when we spent about an-hour-and-a-half climbing some bloody stairs). We found a stone watchtower where we dumped the firewood and the food, before heading onwards to the highest point we could find: a second watchtower, crumbling and roofless, that was propped up in three corners by metal scaffolding. The fourth corner no longer existed, and all of the others looked like a single swift kick would put them out of their misery. My two companions wanted to watch the sunset from there, but they were swayed by the token wiseass in the group when I said that there was no fucking way I was traversing the wall back to our food in the darkness with a single torch. Instead, we headed back to ‘our’ tower and started a fire.

We watched the sun go down from a hilly vantage point, sipping bottles of Yanjing. As my friends snapped some photographs of the incredible view, a thought occurred which I said aloud: “Guys, how easy would it have been not to be here right now?” Very easy, we decided. We spared a thought for all of the people not on the Great Wall of China that night, probably sitting in a comfort zone somewhere. Then we returned to the fire to tell some stories, cook some food (luckily one of us is a former catering student), and get down to some no-homo male bonding.

When the firewood ran out, we drifted off to sleep on the stone floor. The following morning we ate breakfast and then trekked back down the wall to answer the call of nature, before making the long commute back into the city. Within moments of getting off the bus I had an urban headache. In a way, it was nice to return to civilization and wash away the smoke and sweat and body odour, but in truth I would have happily stayed slightly outside of my comfort zone for a few more nights!


(If you want a slightly more practical account of our trip in order to plan your own, my friend Cameron writes a travel blog, which you can read here: https://cameronhackinchina.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/sleepy-great-wall/)

Things That Seem Like Clichès (But Aren’t…)

“You are English. You like beer and football, yes?”


As mentioned in a previous post, the racial clichè that Chinese folk swap the ‘r’s and the ‘l’s is utter bollocks (although in my experience, a lot of people have trouble differentiating ‘v’ and ‘w’, and the phonic /th/ can be difficult for some children). There are, however, certain things that seem kind of ridiculous but are absolutely true.

For example:

People really do squat.
In England, the idea of waiting for a bus in the ‘Frogger’ position is kind of laughable, but a surprising amount of people will sit in a squat as a way of relaxing. In the park, in the street…

…Yes, even there.
My first experience of Chinese public toilets came unfortunately soon after my first (and last) experience of ‘smelly tofu’, an ingredient so foul that no one has even bothered to come up with a euphemism for it. The term is a literal translation from the Chinese for ‘smelly tofu’.

Like China itself, squat toilets are a fusion between ultra-modern tech and medieval wtf. They flush automatically and are usually cleaned by well-dressed and attentive gentlemen, but that totally fails to draw attention from the fact that they are a hole in the ground. Wiping can be a surprisingly baffling task, too. Sometimes the paper is inside the cubicle, sometimes outside. Sometimes it’s not supplied at all. If you’re lucky, you’ve had the forethought to pack your own tissues after realizing the (literal) pain in the arse that can result from searching in vain.

People really do shout “Aye-ya!”
In the same way that a British person might say “bloody hell”, or an American might shout “holy shit”, Chinese people often shout “Aye-ya”. If a kid falls over at school: “Aye-ya!” If the lift is taking too long: “Aye-ya!” If you know the Chinese for “I don’t understand”: “Aye-ya, you’re Chinese SO good!”

Most people speak their mind.
I’ve always been a skinny dude. I find it difficult to gain weight. I always used to find it annoying when people in the UK somehow found it socially acceptable to say things like “You look like you could do with a good meal, mate” and then looked at me like I was an arsehole if I was confident enough to reply “yeah, you look like you could do with lending me one of yours.”

I’m over that now, because I’m so used to people saying “You are SO skinny” or “I think you should eat many delicious dishes” or “did you have breakfast?” or even having a man at the pool shout “Aye-ah!” And start poking me in my concave chest.

Most people smoke. And spit. Everywhere.
Spitting and smoking are as inexplicably popular here as One Direction are in the UK. When the smoking ban was introduced in England, everyone moaned about it and then made a strong cup of tea to steady their nerves. When the smoking ban was introduced in China, everyone moaned about it and then lit a cigarette.

It is also not uncommon to see a little old lady walk down the street and, just as you are thinking “aw, what a cute little old lady,” seeing her press her finger to her nose and hock out a huge stream of mucus onto the pavement. You kind of get used to it.

Pretty much everyone sings karaoke…
You are not getting the most out of Beijing unless you’ve spent at least four hours at the local KTV karaoke club, sipping TsingTaos, spitting sunflower seeds all over the floor and singing Stop Crying Your Heart Out at the top of your lungs until it offends your own tone-deaf ears.

…And have shite taste in music.
A female Chinese colleague once asked me to explain the ‘meaning’ behind a song by some mincing pork-pie hatted Caucasian hipster (I assure you, I have no idea which one. They all look the same to me.) I begrudgingly agreed, listening to all of the lyrics and then explaining them: “There is man,” I said. “Mouth breather. He stands at window telling girl he is sorry that he broke her heart. Girl tells him to go away.”
“Ah,” said my colleague. “Is sad song?”
“Is bollocks song!”

Later, I asked the same colleague, “Do you like Rolling Stones?”
My colleague stared blankly before saying, “Who is he?”

The only suitable response I could muster was, “No fucking waaaay!”