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.

Farewell to the King


“We Banged the shit out of this Kok, huh?”
“Can you please just be normal?”


We have bid adieu to the colourful boats and brightly lit tuk tuks; I’ve called in an air strike on the Milius references; The river city is behind us and I’m sipping Americanos under a suspiciously blue Beijing sky.

As the gf and I stepped onto the Airport Express after our red-eye from BKK, I wearily looked out at the hazy dawn sky and deadpanned “Ah, the city that never wakes up!”*

City dwellers are not often noted for paying much attention. Sure, there are some Walter Benjamins, some Rebecca Solnits, some Iain Sinclairs and Rachel Lichtensteins, but there’s also a hell of a lot of dozy fuckers.

I recently read an article suggesting that neurotic people might actually live longer and more creative lives than the permanently chillaxed. This article was illustrated with a photo of ‘Beaker’ from The Muppets and started with something like “If you spend your days bumbling around like Woody Allen…” which was enough for me to relate instantly.

I’ve always tried to tread that fine line between beach bum and overthinking bag of nerd, but it’s a tough tightrope to walk. Sometimes I’m acing it like Philip Petit, sometimes I’m alarmed to find myself upside down, sans trousers, clinging on by my Kung fu slippers.

There’s a modern psychiatric syndrome known as ‘The Truman Show Delusion’ where people (presumably fame hungry schizophrenics) believe that they are living in an unscripted reality TV show surrounded by actors. It says a lot about modern society.

I would like to stress my clinical sanity, but returning to the Jing from elsewhere can indeed feel like entering some kind of simulated environment. Well, every city is a ‘simulated environment’ isn’t it(?), but I mean something from The Prisoner or The Thirteenth Floor, perhaps even some place where Paul Giamatti and Ed Harris are actively trying to drown you.

The ‘Truman Show’ feeling was particularly strong when I lived in the ‘burbs of Tongzhou, but returning to Happy Valley, not a million miles from those Southeastern outskirts, always seems to come with a dose of surreality).


“We’d like to check out please.”
“Haha, it is the truth this time?”


 

There’s actually an earlier, darker draft of The Truman Show script where (spoilers) it’s not immediately obvious that the character is on TV, the audience is left to figure out the clues for themselves before all is finally revealed at a pivotal moment that doesn’t have the same impact in the finished film. The ‘classic’ moments like the elevator with no backing and the studio light falling from the sky (something I a least 70% expected to happen when I lived along the Batong Line) are still there; but this is a burnt-out Truman with shattered dreams: a middle-aged man in a very literal sham marriage, a man who laces his coffees with Jack Daniels, who visits prostitutes, who shrinks away from confrontation but who reacts with outright violence at the growing conspiracy around him (the scene where he threatens his ‘wife’ with a kitchen knife, tame in the film, is actually terrifying in this early draft: a script that Slavoj Žižek could build a 500 page philosophy book around).

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To me, the most interesting thing about this alternative Truman Show (a screenplay written by the creator of Gattaca and Lord of War, among other downbeat movie worlds) is that it’s set not in a planned-community seaside town but in a soundstage reconstruction of NYC: the urban environment that has given birth to such dystopias as Taxi Driver, Jacob’s Ladder and Synecdoche, New York.

Plato has already told us what happens to the people who walk out of the cave: Truman reaching the soundstage roof, Number 6 driving a machine gun laden lorry out of The Village, that bloke from The Thirteenth Floor who drives off the edge of the world. They all end up, well, if not like the guy from Jacob’s Ladder then at least ‘not often thanked’.

Overthinking the city, any city, can be rewarding. That’s why the psychogeographers keep stacks of notebooks of their urban observations.

The film ends earlier than the script, with Truman stepping off the boat on the threshold of his new world. He never makes it onto the roof to confront his creator.

Filling notebooks is one thing. Escaping, it seems, is quite the different kettle. Iain Sinclair keeps threatening to move to Hastings, but we all know he will die a Londoner, just as Walter Benjamin never made it to the border.

I like it here. I’m not saying that I’m stuck in Beijing, not at all. I’m just saying that we all are.


*(Here all week. Tip the waitress. Etc.)

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.

 

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.

 

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/

 

There is Nothing For You at Huagong Station


“Please stand firm and hold the handrail.”


Slightly anxious about the forthcoming U.K. general election (mainly because the only thing most British people are good at is making stupid decisions really loudly), I hopped onto a rented bicycle and tried to out-pedal my woes. I had, as usual, no idea where I was going.

I rode out past Happy Valley subway station, following Line 7 for twenty minutes or so, through muddy puddles and past huge cement trucks that trundled towards me from the opposite direction. My journey along this part of the line was abruptly cut short. A huge blue fence blocked further access in every direction except the one I’d just travelled in. The only escape was Huagong metro station, and even that lay concealed within a stretch of blue Labyrinth.

A mysterious man in a deck chair marked the entrance. Whether he was paid to be there* or simply enjoys sitting in the rain outside fenced off subway stations remains unclear. He didn’t smile. When I made it into the bowels of the station, I found I was Huagong’s only customer (perhaps its only customer ever). You know those seventies movies where a white guy walks into some ‘ethnic’ bar and the music stops while all of the patrons turn in shock and anger. That’s pretty much what happened on this wet, grey day in the Jing.

The cleaner, an ancient Mervyn Peake character who had been dutifully polishing ticket barriers that no human would ever pass through, nearly dropped his cloth as he stared at me the entire time I was there. I expected him to start pointing, letting out an unearthly screech like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Seriously, the first and last thing I saw at Huagong was this dude’s uncomprehending bald head as he stood in exactly the same position, mouth open, damp rag hanging limply from his hand.

The only other people at the station were two security officers, one male, one female. Both wore expressions that said “wtf is this man doing in Huagong?”

With the knowledge and freedom of a man just passing through, and the optimism of one who hopes never to return, I took one last look at the station, said a silent and emotional farewell, and boarded the train for Hufangqiao.


*(Possibly by David Lynch or the ghost of Federico Fellini)