A Touch of Silk

“Oh, you come back again, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Unintentionally.”


 

I believe in the power of signs. If I see something, anything really, that I feel could be interpreted as a sign or portent leading me somewhere, I tend to follow it. I’m aware that it’s a dubious practice. Life is a random series of uncontrollable events, and some have accused me of outright insanity for trying to impose a narrative structure on anything as chaotic as my own human life. Nevertheless, when I saw a (very literal) sign that said:

“GO TO SILK STREET”

I thought, “Sure, why the hell not.”

Back in my salad days of substance abuse and Bacchinalian excess, I used to hang out with a brilliant but troubled young poet. We used to chat pseudo-philosophy, exchange pub physics Judo moves, read work to each other; all that sort of rakish, no-homo, lower middle class kind of stuff. I’ve still no idea if I was Dante to his Virgil or if it was the other way round, but either way the  seven circles of Northampton’s Abington Street was pretty much our oyster. We were often greeted at the Penny Whistle with a weak grin and a “You guys, again?”

One night we visited a strip club. My poet friend correctly pointed out that every bloke should visit a strip club at least once so they can have at least an inkling of what it’s like to be constantly harassed by attractive women who just want your money but won’t actually stoop to petty theft. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was a perfect training ground for Beijing’s legendary Silk Street market.

Everyone here speaks a single, perfectly-rehearsed sentence of  English. Like doe-eyed, heavily accented automata programmed to say things like “Hi, you want suit?” or “Hey, you really want tablecloth, right?” or, in the case of one poor bastard in a toy shop whose job seems to be sitting behind a spinning, whirring neon something for who knows how many hours a day, “Hello… uh… UFO?”

If Daedalus, master craftsman of the ancient world, had fallen through a tear in the space/time continuum and found himself in modern China, perhaps he would have been set the task of designing this place (possibly with the devious assistance of HH Holmes), before being exiled to a little tea shop somewhere deep inside.

The entrance itself warns of the labyrinthine horrors within, like the psychic barriers of Cirith Ungol: A  Hall of Fame displaying huge photos of Christine LeGarde, George H.W. Bush (who’s face appears spattered with a mysterious creamy white substance), and other people described simply as ‘Celebrated Businessman’ or ‘Formerly Estonia First Lady’. Whether these people ever solved the unicursal mystery and lived to tell the tale is undocumented, but I would not be surprised to find a spend Belgian ex-Prime Minister quietly touting Mao t-shirts somewhere inside.

A display case promising ‘High Quality Goods’ stands tellingly empty. This is a Kafka story. An Escher painting. A Quay Brothers film. One of those Christopher Priest novels where the geography just doesn’t add up.

I lasted twenty minutes before confessing all of my earthly sins to a complete stranger, pulling the ripcord on my wax wings and riding the thermals to the nearest coffee shop. I sat shivering over a very strong Americano at a table overlooking others entering Silk Street, soon to abandon all hope.

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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/

Big Ben

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“I’m KING of the WORLD!!”
“Please stop saying this.”


The gf and I recently took a trip to the southwestern suburbs of Fangshan, my first visit to the boonies since I lived on the opposite side of the compass in Tongzhou. We had lunch in a little Muslim restaurant surrounded by smoking, spitting locals.

Then we explored World Park, which does what it says on the tin: it’s an amusement park themed around different countries of the world, featuring various scale models of famous monuments. Even the bridges that cross from Asia to Africa or America to Europe are tiny versions of Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Golden Gate, and so on. After towering over a Lilliputian Angkor Wat and worshipping at a 1:2 scale Stonehenge, we stopped off at one of the many snack bars and enjoyed an instant coffee for the decidedly non-miniature price of ¥12 each, warming our insides with the sweet tang of rip off.

The park was, like anything in Beijing (especially during off season), a little rough around the edges. The double staircase of Persepolis has loose paving slabs; grass is growing through the Taj Mahal; the Eiffel Tower is a no go because some hipsters from a trendy magazine are doing a photo shoot there. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.

Fangshan may not be on anyone’s bucket list, but I actually plan on seeing more of the suburbs in the near future. There’s always more of the world to see.

Where The Art Is

“This is where you cross the road to Liyuan station. If you’re really lucky you might even make it to the the other side.”


I recently acquired a roommate, a young Russian guy who is still in the wide-eyed, jet-lagged and slightly bewildered stage of his Beijing journey. So far, his most used phrases are an English one that can be reduced to the acronym ‘wtf’ and a Russian one that loosely translates as “fucking internet!” His sudden appearance has led me, and other colleagues, to dust off some of the hidden gems of Tongzhou and show them to him. It hasn’t taken us long.

Dagao is an art district here in Tongzhou, pretty much round the corner from where we work. Beijing is pretty hip when it comes to art. When I lived in Beiyuan I used to make frequent trips to 798 Art Zone, which is built on the empty shell of a former communist munitions complex. I loved 798 as soon as I set eyes on it because the artists have taken something ugly and pointless (a factory of death) and turned it into something quite beautiful (art).* Dagao is a mini-798, where you can look at subversive military art and dinosaur graffiti while sipping a coffee or a glass of reasonably-priced European wine.

What other delights does Tonghzhou hold? Well, before you pack your bags and book a flight, let me warn you that Dagao is about it. Unless you want more booze. Or coffee. There are plenty of Starbucks outlets here as well as Maan coffee, where they give you a sad-looking teddy bear instead of a table number while you wait for your piping hot Americano. There are also a couple of clubs, the best of which seems to be ‘WJ’. I have gone from stumbling around with one colleague desperately looking for a glass of Chivas Regal to stumbling around with another outside of the WJ club, where they give us a free bottle just for turning up and being white. Almost certainly the fake stuff, but it works just as well.

One night while exploring with a friend, I came across a massage parlour in the nondescript basement of a nondescript building. It was more respectable than you might imagine, they wore little sergeant pepper outfits but made it clear at the outset that no ‘extras’ were involved! I can’t tell you how nice it was to have a relaxing massage at half-midnight on a work night (right up until they put flaming hot cups on my back and twisted them until the flesh bruised. I could have done without that bit to be honest).

There’s a dingy all-night Internet cafe, thick with cigarette smoke and full of sweaty nerds hovering over the mouse, numbly playing violent war games. I only saw it from the outside but, creepily, it looked to me like everyone was playing exactly the same thing.

Tongzhou is, you may have gathered, not the most exciting part of Beijing. It somehow manages to tread that fine line between being heaving with people and being dull as balls (kind of like China’s answer to Kettering). It can be, as my Russian colleague has found, both overwhelming and yet somehow infinitely underwhelming at the same time. It is the strangest place I’ve ever lived (including the counterculture commune that I used to stay at), and yet for the past few months I have found myself referring to it as ‘home’…


*There’s also an art district in Shaungjing, which is frequented by wankers who think 798 has become “too commercial”. I went there during Spring Festival but it looked exactly the bloody same as 798 to me!

Wankers

“I’m not making any specialty coffees. I’ll make an Americano, but I’m not making any specialty coffees.”
“Why the bloody hell do you run a specialty coffee shop then?”


In one of Beijing’s free magazines the other week was a photo of a smiling American chap making a specialty coffee, followed by an interview about his specialty coffee shop. It made me laugh, because during Spring Festival I was there with some other people, and the previous conversation unfolded. He didn’t smile once. You may have gathered that he didn’t even make any specialty coffee.

Like any city-dweller, I’m now used to the fact that I’m surrounded by wankers. I’m used to being barged out of the way by wankers on the subway. I’m used to wankers pushing in front of me in the queue for the squatter. I’m used to wankers shouting “foreigner!” and taking a picture of my scowling face.

Until I came to Beijing, I thought that being a wanker might be a very British affliction. In fact I remember some wanker asking my friend how his day was going, and when he replied “fantastic, thanks!” the guy eyed him with suspicion and said “Never mind, some wanker will be along to ruin it soon enough.” I doubt he even realized the irony of his own statement.

I feel sorry for wankers, because I can only imagine that they must wake up feeling like a wanker, spend their entire day being a wanker, and then climb into bed with the sneaking suspicion that they might, in fact, be a bit of a wanker.

There are lots of different categories when it comes to wankers, but my least favourite subspecies is the Pretentious Wanker. As I was sitting in the coffee shop sipping my Americano, one of my companions was telling me how aromatic his overpriced non-specialty coffee was, before going off on one about its texture and darkness and about how sugar ruins coffee.

“Would you say this coffee is dark?” he asked me.

When I told him, as I was spooning in some sugar, that I hadn’t a fucking clue, he turned to someone else and asked them the same question, before shouting “For god’s sake, don’t look at the coffee!”

I haven’t been invited for coffee with those people again, maybe because they think I’m a wanker.

The fact is, though, I find it very hard to feign a given fuck as to whether my coffee is dark or light or incandescent or even radioactive. I only ask two things of my coffee: “Do you taste nice?” and “are you relatively inexpensive?”

And I only ask one thing of people before I decide to spend any amount of time with them: “Are you, or are you not, a wanker?”