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)

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/

Welcome to the Suck

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“You can blame it on the weather;
Now your life has turned so grey.” – The Joykill Collective


Early Thursday morning a cloud of dust and ash, apparently from a raging Mongolian forest fire, swept across the city. I woke up to the greyest sky I have ever seen in my life and a balcony floor that looks like Joe Eszterhas’s lungs.

A colleague said that they fell asleep beneath a starry sky around 3am and woke up three hours later under a very literal dense black cloud. It was bad, even by Beijing standards. In fact, it was the worst I’ve seen. Some estimates put the AQI at 500, some as high as 900. If schools and businesses had had more warning, they would almost certainly have closed. I spent the day dressed like Lawrence of Arabia and speaking like Tom Hardy in the Dark Knight films:

Me: Is there an air purifier in here?
Chinese Colleague: Yes. I have turned it on, and I closed the windows.
Me: Excellent. Let us drag the elite from their decadent nests and return the city to its people.
Chinese Colleague: What?
Me: Nothing.

I spent the evening in front of the telly, trying to cheer myself up with beer, barbecue and Being John Malkovitch.

Yesterday was a completely different story: The sky was blue, I was talking like July Andrews* and it was so windy that just moving in the streets was a chore. Online videos show bin lids whizzing around like windmills. Some rental bikes were dragged from their moorings. One poor bastard was struck and killed by a falling billboard in Wudaokou.

“Real,” as Dan Ackroyd would say, “wrath of God type shit”. And just another element of Beijing that I’m unlikely ever to understand.


*(post surgery, but it’s better than nothing)

Fear & Loathing in Russiatown

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“My only feeling about this place is that it’s [a] shithole.”


Ritan Park is decorated with murals of solar mythology and decals of three-legged phoenixes. ‘Ritan’ translates to English as ‘temple of the sun’. Turns out that ‘sun worship’ once meant more than lazing about in the garden wearing a pair of budgie smugglers. Who knew?

When it comes to irrational fears I’ll admit that I have a wee handful: organized social events, confined spaces, things that live underwater, pretty much everything invented by man or woman since 1993. But I’ve tried never to use being afraid of something as an excuse not to try it. For example, potholing, sleeping on tour bus bunks and riding the Batong Line at rush hour have all contributed to desensitizing me toward claustrophobia. And I still attend parties even though I would absolutely and with every fiber of my being rather take a one way trip across the event horizon of a black hole.

The gf is really only afraid of two things: foreigners, and the feeling of embarrassment that comes with not quite understanding what foreigners are saying. She has, of course, been taking the occasional leaf out of my potholing manual by confronting some of her predjudices.

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And so, after a visit to the solar temple of Ritan Park, we crossed the road to Ya Bao Lu, Beijing’s ‘Russiatown’ (and its front running candidate for Weirdest Street). My only personal experience of Russia was a five hour stopover at Moscow airport with nary a ruble for a cup of coffee, so for all I know Ya Bao Lu is as Russian as Omar Shariff. There are Russian speakers (and pidgin Russian speakers) there, many of them hidden away in underground garment markets.There’s also more Cyrillic signage than you can shake a Yevgeny Zamyatin paperback at. There are even places that look suspiciously like Fat Tony’s legitimate businessmen’s club, including establishments that can apparently figure out the logistics behind shipping even more Russian-style crap from the motherland into the heart of China’s capital, presumably on your dime.

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Walking around one particularly monstrous shopping mall (four entire floors of which were devoted to shoes lurking behind curtains), we both tired of broadening our horizons. Having had our fill of fur coats and Doctor Zhivago hats and, realizing that I had scraped the very barrel of ironically xenophobic clichés, we left Ancient Treasure Road and headed over to Wangfujing for beer and glass noodles.

How Grey Was My Valley

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“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.” – Frank Zappa


When I first arrived in Hong Kong the reflection of the crescent moon was dancing across the harbour. It was so bright and spooky that it took me almost a minute to figure out what the bloody hell it was (it looked like an armoured demon tring to rise up out of the water). When I took the airport express (with my arse still smarting at the insertion of a $100 ticket), the water was again crystal clear under skies of azure. If life came with a soundtrack, it would have been that irritatingly catchy song by Sugababes or Destiny’s Child or whoever the hell it is. That one about being on a beach.

In contrast, when I arrived at PEK the visibility was so poor that its no exaggeration to say that I couldn’t see the runway until we’d landed on it. The soundtrack was now The Hunt For Red October. I was almost immediately fighting my way off the subway at rush hour. When I got to Happy Valley, the lift in my apartment building smelt suspiciously of shit (presumably because something or someone had recently shit in it).

The following day I decamped to foggy Zhongguancun to drink strong black coffee, draft a blog entry and wonder if I was insane just for using the return ticket from Hong Kong.

In the Arthurian legends, there’s a moment when the knights of the round table gather at the edge of a forest to begin their search for the Holy Grail. They all draw swords and begin hacking their way through the woods. Each knight enters the forest at a point of his choosing, and a point where there is no path.

That’s the schtick: you gotta choose your own path and your own point of departure. I’m far from the first person to admire the metaphor behind this moment (mythologist and philosopher Joseph Campbell, the most misunderstood of Hollywood ‘content creators’, draws attention to this in a lot of his writings).

The guidance of others is, as always, not only useless but against the rules. Listening to other people is about my least favorite way of spending precious time. I take everyone’s advice with at least a dash of salt (a whole shaker full if the other guy’s a Baby Boomer). Nevertheless, I have a couple of pointers that could be useful for anyone who ever plans to visit the Kong:

TAKE POCKET MONEY
The Bank of China handily issued me with HK notes of $1000 and $500. The subway machines don’t even take fifties. When I tried to pay for a curry, the bewildered chap at the till asked “don’t you got no change?”

Before you go, stock up on those little metal coins (most of which look like cogs in some fiendish steampunk machine).

USE PUBLC TRANSPORT (CAREFULLY)
The subway was my chosen mode of transportation for pretty much the whole trip. I’d heard too many horror stories of lying taxi drivers wildly inflating prices at the end of journeys.

Beijing Metro, although packed to the gills and stinky as hell, is easy to use. I would almost certainly go so far as to say that it’s less complicated and more user friendly than the London tube. No zones, no long-winded line names, just numbers and bilingual station announcements to help you navigate your way around the behemoth.

Alas, the HK metro is a baffling rabbit warren of idiocy. When I left for the airport in what I assumed would be plenty of time, I found myself stuck in some Kafkaesque purgatory of complex interchanges and misinformation.*

AVOID CHIT CHAT
I didn’t meet anyone during my trip who didn’t speak English. Most of them used their skill in this fascinating language to try and sell things, usually suits or cocaine. I’ve mentioned this before**, and I still find it hard to believe anyone would be foolish enough to enever a bar or a tailor’s shop or a watchmaker’s with someone who just chatted them up in the street. Still, too many travelers have returned from Hong Kong with tales of scams and rip offs.

I had a great trip, even if it was all too brief. I haven’t seen the sky since. But it is, as always, good to be back.


*The soundtrack at that point was the Joker’s theme from 60s Batman.

**(see https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/04/18/tea-shopping/)

The Human Velocipede

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“In the early part of January 1869, I was at Spencer’s gymnasium on Old Street, when a foreign-looking packing case was brought in… A slender young man, whom I soon came to know as Mr. Turner of Paris, followed the packing case and superintended its opening; the gymnasium was cleared, Mr. Turner took off his coat, grasped the handles of the machine and, with a short run, to my intense surprise, vaulted onto it and, putting his feet on the treadles, made a circuit of the room.”

– John Mayall, describing London’s first bicycle


I decided it was about time that I joined 8, 999, 999 other people in this city by going for a bike ride. I considered buying a fixed gear racing bike and having it sent over from Tianjin, until the gf pointed out that bike theft here is almost as popular as steamed dumplings and pointing at foreigners.

Although my favourite way to experience urban drift will always be on foot, the sheer vastness of this place often counts against it. The metro is obviously useful for getting around but it cuts Beijing up into little subterranean pieces, and I never get a sense of where bits of the city are in relation to other bits of the city. Buses are a way to cut the Jing up with more of a view, but it still doesn’t give me the same sense of ‘knowing’ as walking does, feeling the connection between pavement and boot heel.

Beijing, like any decent city, is bicycle friendly. The only problem being that pretty much everyone using a vehicle here is a total asshat, a fact that unfortunately extends to cyclists.

In the early twentieth century, Alfred Jarry (acclaimed playwright, cyclist, and douche) used to drink a bottle of absinthe, paint himself green, and cycle around Paris with a riding crop, swatting at stray dogs and irate pedestrians. The paint and the whip may have disappeared, but Jarry’s attitude seems to have distilled itself into the soul of many modern cyclists.

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Several bike rental apps have sprung up around the Jing, allowing people to feel the wind on their face and escape the crowded hell of public transport. With the simple tap of a serial number or the scanning of a QR code one can cycle the Jing for as cheap as ¥0.5 per half hour, thanks to companies with names like ‘Blue GoGo’, ‘MoBike’ and ‘Ofo’.* Admittedly, some of these apps have given rise to predictable behavior:  bikes tossed in the river, serial numbers filed off, bikes stolen/chained up/spray painted a different colour.

Back in Vancouver, I read an interesting little book called Cyclogeography by Jon Day, a former London bicycle courier. The book does for cycling what Haruki Murakami does for jogging in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running or what Geoff Thompson does for bashing people’s heads together in his martial arts memoir Watch My Back.

The book, an obvious but irresistible pun on the word ‘psychogeography’, weaves together several non-fiction narratives about European bicycle tournaments, cycling history and autobiographical tales of internal maps of London’s backside, the ‘unspaces’ that very few ever bother to look at (alleys, loading bays, fire exits, etc.)

I enjoyed Day’s descriptions of illegal ‘alleycat’ races and of watching the London riots from the relative safety of a bike saddle, as well as his phrase ‘Cartesian Centaurs’, describing the kind of people who are drawn to riding. I’m not one of them. I’m not a natural cyclist. I spent most of the nineties on a mountain bike in the Albertan wilderness, but the last vehicle I owned  was a cheap Aldi p.o.s. that my dad was giving away (or, as he is so fond of saying, ‘practically’ giving away). Shortly after I inherited it, the bike was stolen from a friend’s shed. I’ve been walking ever since.

I don’t quite agree with Iain Sinclair’s philosophy that cyclists can’t enjoy the environment around them as much as walkers because riders are so preoccupied with simply staying alive, but I do agree that cycling is not as meditative as sipping a coffee on the subway or taking one step after another in a decent pair of boots. There is, however, an undeniable thrill that comes with riding up and down disabled ramps, weaving through gridlocked traffic and shouting ‘bellend’ at people who don’t understand you, all whilst brandishing an imaginary riding crop.


*(my hope that they will eventually homogenize into ‘GoGo MoFo’ is, at this point, a mere pipe dream)

The Year of the Rat

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“Even when you are not paralyzed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.”

– George Orwell


I rode a crowded bus the other day (there is no other type of bus in Beijing, that is literally the only appropriate adjective in this case) and there was a video monitor displaying footage of car crashes here in the capital, appealing for witnesses.

I took two things away from the blurry, cctv footage of people being knocked off motorcycles and being dragged from wreckage, one being that most drivers here really are dopey as fuck. The second was this: I couldn’t see a bloody thing. No faces, no distinguishing features, no articles of clothing. Nothing that would have reminded me,  had I previously seen the original flesh and blood incident, that I was actually there that day.

It made me think: if all of these cameras are here to keep people safe, why are the police appealing for witnesses and showing us blurry footage of people we’d never recognize in real life even if they lived next door (unless their face actually looked like pixels. That would, admittedly, be suspicious as all hell).

Urban explorer Bradley Garrett points out in his indispensable TED talk The Value of Trespass, “If you want to control people’s behaviour, the most effective way to do that is to make them think they are being watched all the time. People will monitor their own behavior if they think they’re being watched. This has always been the dark secret of installing CCTV cameras in cities. The cameras don’t even need to work.”

This week, I jumped on the American bandwagon and read George Orwell’s 1984 for the first time. I had often meant to. It’s exactly the sort of thing that I should have read as a student when I was into Kafka stories and Berkoff plays. I tried it once but, like Naked Lunch, gave up a few chapters in. On that occasion, I had written it off because it was making me feel depressed, but I did pretty much live in Victory Mansions at the time. This time I finally won the victory over myself and made it all the way through.

Another reason it has taken me so long to read 1984 is that it casts a very big shadow. It’s one of those stories that has bled so violently into western pop culture that I always felt I knew it before ever cracking the spine on my ¥20 paperback version. Other novels, TV shows, movies and adverts have paid lip service to its ideas, some have actually gone pretty much as far as full-on fellatio.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a firm favourite of mine, was originally to be titled 1984 and 1/2 (an allusion not only to Orwell but also to Federico Fellini’s brilliant movie 8 1/2). Even in the 21st Century, Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem basically just promoted Big Brother to Management, giving him a social media account and a VR helmet. Management watches one rogue employee in a ruined chapel through ‘ManCams’, including one not so subtly mounted on a decapitated crucifix.*

I was born in 1984. I also, like everyone from England, pretty much lived in 1984! When I returned to England from Beijing (a place that most British people who’ve never been here refer to as ‘oppressive’) the first time, I was absolutely horrified to pass through a huge Orwellian machine that scanned my passport and face before I was set loose in London, home of half a million CCTV cameras. In the Jing they just stare at me with a wooden face and then give me a little red stamp.

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1984 is, obviously,  a warning. It’s what can happen if people are apathetic. I remember when New Labour planned to bring ID cards to the UK, something they had previously dismissed out of hand as ‘fascist’ when first proposed by the Tories. I was amazed that a ‘first world’ government would do something so invasive to its citizens, but I was even more amazed to discover that I was one of only a handful of people who was actually angered by the idea. I remember one conversation with a family member who said they didn’t remotely object to ID cards because they had ‘nothing to hide’ (which, as Edward Snowden tells us, is “like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say”).

I lost a lot of faith in the soon-to-be Airstrip One that day, gesticulating wildly and shouting “I’ve got nothing to hide either, that’s why I don’t need a fucking ID card!”**

I am not, despite what some people think, a fan of ‘political correctness’. I object to most derogatory phrases and to military video games and to ultra violent horror movies, but I object far more to anyone thinking they have the right to tell me what words I can use, what games I can play and what movies I can watch. I have every right to refer to someone who insists on running a low watt bulb as a ‘twat spastic’, just as you have every right to be offended by that.

And I do not, by any means, think that the word ‘blackboard’ is racist, or that ‘brainstorm’ is derogatory towards retards.

There’s a nineties movie that only a handful of people have ever seen called EdTv, an MTV generation glimpse into the very near future of our own oppressive, mediocrity-obsessed present, where the value of anyone’s story is its potential to be branded, franchised and sold to the baying masses. With superb timing, the film came out the same year as the original series of ‘reality’ surveillance show Big Brother.

EdTv is essentially a less clever, less subtle version of The Truman Show. The plot is this (yes, genius, there are spoilers coming): An ailing network hits on the idea of taking reality TV to its logical extreme, following around the ultimate Gen X archetype, a schlubby video store clerk, and broadcasting his boring-ass, beer-swilling, blue collar existence 24 hours a day. For the first 48 hours, everyone hates the show but even so nobody can stop watching. By day 3 everyone’s heart has melted and the programme becomes a massive hit, reversing the network’s fortunes and making a big star of its working class hero. But in a desperate bid to secure ratings, the network executives start interfering with Ed’s life, forcing him to split up with his girlfriend and engineering ‘chance’ encounters with English supermodels as well as digging up embarrassing moments from his family’s past. Ed realizes that fame and fortune has come at a terrible price, and threatens to quit the show. But he has signed a contract, and his friends and family have all signed release forms, allowing the network to follow Ed and everyone he cares about with a video camera 24/7. It’s only when he turns the tables on the oppressive executives by digging up anecdotes about their own past and broadcasting their secrets on live TV that the plug is finally pulled.

That’s one thing that’s wrong with the Big Brothers of the world: they aren’t interested in transparency, they’re interested in control. They want to know everything about you, but they don’t want you to know anything about them.

I’ll tell you some things that offend me. I do not expect you to take note.

I’m offended by people who think that because they have a strong opinion, that it deserves to be respected or at least listened to by everyone (I can understand the Buddhist principle that ‘the opposite of what you know is also true’ but I don’t, for example, give a shit what either Gallagher brother thinks about other people’s music, or believe that Nick Griffin was ever a serious politician).

I’m deeply offended by the word ‘landlord’.

I find using internet comments to ‘stir debate’ an offense that should be punishable by death.

I’m offended by the term ‘twat spastic’.

And I find it offensive that so many people are totally blasé at the thought of their every move being scrutinized by someone.***  I even find the term ‘under surveillance’ pretty offensive, not least because I for one am so fucking over it!

It was said by whoever I’m about to paraphrase that those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. It would be sad if Orwell just got the date wrong. I  hope that enough people are paying attention, and that those who are willing to learn won’t end up standing idly by and watching some absolute Big Wanker fuck everything up anyway.


*The Zero Theorem brilliantly pokes fun at the dotcom ‘bubblegum dystopia’ worlds of most modern tech companies: the kind of migraine-inducing offices that look more like a playground, as if riding down a big yellow slide or playing in a psychedelic ball pit will increase an employee’s productivity in some way. One journalist memorably pointed out after a trip to Pixar studios that it feels like an animator couldn’t even nip to the toilets for a quick wank without it being encouraged as part of their creative process.

**My faith never really returned, especially after a conversation with someone else who smacked my gob with “yeah, but some people are just smarter than us, aren’t they? They’re the ones that should be making the decisions, not us”.

***(and, therefore, by anyone. There’s no surveillance equipment that can be used only by ‘the good guys’).