Selfies By the Sea

“Wtf is that chicken looking at?”
“He’s staring at you because he can sense you are a foreigner.”

The gf and I rode the bullet train to Dalian, a seaport city in Liaoning province. We took pot noodles and sausages with us, and tried our best not to buy any wildly inflated thing on the train. When I wasn’t distracted by the stunning Chinese scenery (which was not often), I read a magazine and did a little writing.

As we left the Jing, one of the old green sleeper trains was chugging into the station from Qiqihaer, Mongolia, a two day journey that made our own six hour hop seem like peanuts. The travelling was effortless, but buying the tickets and navigating Dalian would have been damned near impossible for me without a Chinese-speaking companion.

Our first mistake was checking into a hotel on the outskirts of the city. Whereas the centre of Beijing is easily accessible from Fangshan or Tongzhou, Dalian only has two metro lines: the Dog Arse Line and the Cat Shit Line. We relied on a taxi for the first night, before moving somewhere closer to downtown for the remainder of our stay.

After that it was plain sailing: strolls along the beach at Fisherman’s Wharf, cold drinks in the sun at Binhai Road, way too much Scezhuan food near the hotel. We met up with an old University friend of the gf’s for BBQ one night. She spoke about as much English as I speak Chinese but my people spoke to her people and we all had a lovely time (and a wonderful meal, as usual).


No trip to Dalian is complete without popping into both the Forest Zoo (rated AAAA) and Tiger Ocean Park (rated AAAAA), but our second mistake was trying to cram both into the same day. My feelings about zoos and aquariums are complicated,* and Asian zoos tend to get a bad rep, but I found both of these to be  comparable to the equally well-tended Coex Aquarium in Seoul and Dusit Zoo in Bangkok. We saw sea lions being fed and we watched sharks and turtles swimming overhead. Penguins posed for photographs and other birds ran about, as free as… well, birds. We rode the cable car and we drooled over The Castle Hotel (¥3000 a night), both of which reminded me of childhood favourite Where Eagles Dare (because relating actual experiences I have to movies I grew up with is something of a hobby of mine, as you must know by now).


We don’t have a telly at home, so it was novel to see a little international news (in English) at our more modestly priced hotel, including coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe.

I downloaded a film for the return journey: Sick of Ben Stiller comedies and underwhelming horror, I chose Spike Jonze’s surprisingly touching Oscar tale of a charming pervert waking up with a boner for his silky-voiced computer. It was partially shot in Shanghai: somewhere that’s still on the very-slowly-shrinking list of Chinese cities to visit.

* some of them summed up here:

The Jing in the Spring


“Anyone for tennis?”

Spring is here. Beijing has a four season climate, but the winter and summer are long and the other two seasons are short. The perfect time for sports jackets and t-shirts is a small window of opportunity.

In China, there’s often an old-fashioned view of English gentlemen spending the springtime at picnics, loafing about in straw boaters and plus fours while lazily batting around a tennis ball and munching cucumber sandwiches. I can’t speak for all English people*, but for me it’s pretty much a half truth. I don’t own any knickerbockers, and badminton is far more popular here than tennis. But when it comes to picnics with the gf and friends, especially in idyllic Chaoyang Park, I’m there quicker than you can say “ants and random dust storms”.

Cháoyáng Gōngyuán is a beautiful and vast green space, the largest park in the city. By a fine stroke of serendipity, the 2017 Beijing Book Fair was out in force the very day we chose for our luncheon, meaning the opportunity to browse at least a handful of used English language paperbacks (a veritable treasure trove by Beijing standards). I nearly bought a copy of the restored text version of William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine but I hastily dropped this idea (and the book itself) when I noticed it was a little too used, with a suspicious yellow crust across the back cover. This raised questions that I don’t even want to ask, let alone answer.


Aprés park, we popped into Zoo Coffee and wandered around Blue Harbour, a riverside shopping area and bar street at the far end of the park. Blue Harbour is reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan’s cosmopolitan Village, but instead of polite, colorful, numbered denizens it’s just the same cynical hipsters you get everywhere in the Jing. We took selfies at the Italianate fountain, dismissed a ‘British’ pub as both inauthentic and far too expensive, spent at least half an hour in another beautiful bookshop and then, as always, had Chinese food for dinner.

As I finish writing this entry, a handful of days later, the weather has already turned sweltering and the sports jacket has gone into the cupboard.

*or ‘ex’-English people

Selfies in the China House

“It’s very European style, yes?”

Clocking up two new* Chinese cities in as many weeks is not too shabby, really. This weekend I took a 35-minute journey from Beijing South Railway Station to our southeastern neighbour, with the gf as my enthusiastic guide.

Tianjin is so close to the Jing that it isn’t too difficult to imagine them one day merging together like the municipal equivalent of a supermassive black hole. But it’s a slightly different world; one of European architecture, polite taxi drivers and lower wages. A world where a stroll along the river Hai acts as compensation for the fact that the air is still thick enough to taste.

We arrived fairly late at night, grabbed some food from the finest establishment we could find (7-11), and drank a glass of rosé with our cheap Korean noodles. In the morning we had some French cakes and listened to The Clash** before hitting the streets of northern China’s largest coastal city.

Tragically, the city is best known (if it’s known at all) for randomly bursting into flames a couple of years ago and killing 173 of its hardworking citizens. But there’s more to this place than chemical explosions and online conspiracy theories about American missile attacks in the wake of a decreasing yuan (shh!)

Tianjin is a hipster’s paradise: antique shops, pretty gardens, clean one-way streets with bicycle lanes that people actually stick to; half an hour away from the big smoke and not in danger of becoming cool anytime soon.

We packed a lot in over a weekend, strolling through the Italian Style Town, taking a river cruise to Ancient Culture Street, shopping in aleys that could easily have been Oxford or Exeter. We had coffee in Wu Da Dao, surrounded by world architecture (Tianjin has a huge English, French, and Italian influence, adding to the weird sense of otherworldliness). I sipped a couple of G&Ts in a bar near the hotel, and we sampled BBQ tofu at Liao Ning Lu snack street.


The China House was a highlight: a AAA grade tourist attraction (whatever that may be) and Tianjin’s ‘Selfie Central’. The building incorporates pots and pottery into its design, including snaking tentacles of porcelain throughout. I’m not quite convinced it was worth the ¥50 entry fee (or required quite so many uniformed private security people), but it was worth a visit.

Hopping on he train to somewhere that is closer than London is to Northampton is an absolute no-brainer,*** and we’re very likely to take a return trip in the not too distant future. Not bad for someone who’s comfort zone once ended pretty much on the doorstep of the Racehorse pub.

*(‘new’ for me, that is. I hear they’ve been around for quite awhile. This one since 1404)

**(“What is this? Pervert music?!?”)

***(at least with a Chinese speaker to book the tickets!)

The Fellowship of the Jing


“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?”)


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.

Honesty & Cobblers

Me:” What do you think of my new hat?”

Co-teach: “I think it is quite like pervert.”

I like honesty. There’s an old cliche about policies, and about where honesty ranks in terms of them. One of the many films I watched on DVD over mid-autumn festival was the engaging sci-fi epic Interstellar. One of the characters in that movie is a NASA robot who’s ‘honesty’ setting is at 90% because brutal honesty is not often what humans want to hear, especially on a mission in uncharted deep space. “Honesty,” said John Lennon,* “won’t get you a lot of friends, but it will get you the right ones.”

Like all the English teachers at my company, I work with a Chinese co-teacher. Her name, for the sake of anonymity, is Co-teach. Earlier this evening, I met Co-teach at Xiabu Xiabu for a hot pot. She speaks almost fluent English which, for someone who’s never been outside of China, is quite an impressive achievement. Instead of studying the language, she pretty much taught herself English by watching and re-watching Sherlock and Once Upon a Time. This is also quite impressive, because most native English speakers who watch that sort of stuff over and over again only learn how to significantly lower their social skills.

She also ‘gets’ English jokes (which, according to my cursory and superficial research,** is a sure sign that you understand a language very well). An example being: –

Me: So the interviewer asks, “what do you consider to be your biggest weakness?” The applicant says, “honesty.” So the interviewer replies “I don’t consider honesty a weakness.” And the applicant says “I don’t give a fuck what you think!”

Co-teach: Haha. She didn’t get the job!

Me: Exactly!***

Like most Chinese people I’ve met (and the human  character Anne Hathaway in Interstellar), Co-teach’s honesty setting is way above 90…

My uncle once told me that the first thing you notice about a person is their shoes. According to Co-teach, this is an old Chinese saying. It’s not something I’d given much thought to because, call me old fashioned or cynical or whatever, but the first thing I usually notice about someone is me minding my own fucking business.

Nevertheless, I learned about this saying during a weird conversation that Co-teach and I had at Xiabu Xiabu. I didn’t, unfortunately, record the conversation so what follows is a Crimewatch-style reconstruction. I have removed some of my more colorful responses (the blue ones) which are marked by an unambiguous “…”

Co-teach: May I give you some advice?
Me: Sure.
Co-teach: You should wash your shoes.
Me: Wash my -?
Co-teach: Shoes.
Me: Why the … should I do that?
Co-teach: Because they are dirty.
Me: They’re dirty because I live in Beijing. They’re white. White shoes in Beijing will always get dirty. It’s very dusty here!

(I initially thought that was the end of the conversation, but as well as Chinese honesty, Co-teach also has a more British streak of stubbornness.)

Co-teach: I wash my shoes.
Me (pointing at her Nikes): You washed these?
Co-teach (nodding): And brushed them.
Me: You washed and brushed your shoes?
Co-teach: Yes.
Me: … me, I barely have time to shower in the mornings! Have there been complaints?
Co-teach: About what?
Me: My shoes. Have parents said “this teachers shoes are too dirty!”
Co-teach (Pause): Noooo.
Me: You just hesitated. You had to think about that!
Co-teach: There have been no complaints.
Me: Has anyone refused to sign as a student, after one of my demo classes, because they thought my shoes were too dirty?
Co-Teach: No.
Me: Then I’m pretty sure my … shoes are fine.
Co-teach (diplomatically): You could wash them at work?
Me: I’m not gonna wash my … shoes at work.
Co-Teach: There is a brush. At work. There is a brush.
Me: I’m not gonna brush my … shoes at work either!

(We lapsed into silence, and Co-teach regretted bringing it up.)

Co-teach: I should not have said this. About your shoes. I knew you would be angry.
Me: I’m not angry, Co-teach, I’m just not going to wash my … shoes.
Co-teach: You are angry,
Me: I’m not … angry, Co-teach!
Co-teach: You swear when you are angry.
Me: I swear all the … time! I’m … happy, you’ve given me something to blog about!

(Co-teach then launched into a children’s song that goes ‘Brush, Brush, Brush my Teeth’, but she wittily replaced the lyric ‘brush’ with the lyric ‘wash’ and the lyric ‘teeth’ with a lyric that I’m sure you can figure out for yourself.

(I had an idea. Then, Instead of dropping the subject, I mentioned my idea to Co-teach.)

Co-Teach: What idea?
Me: If you feel so passionate about the shoes, then I can give them to you and you can wash them. You did a good job washing your shoes. They look very clean.
Co-Teach: I cannot do this.
Me: Why not?
Co-Teach: Because [her housemate] will see me and she will ask “why are you washing Ben’s shoes?”
Me: Okay, you’ve got me there.

(After dinner, having avoided the thorny subject any more, we said our goodbyes.)

Co-Teacher: I will see you at work tomorrow.
Me: Yeah, I’ll be the poor … at the sink who’s turned up half an hour earlier to wash his … shoes.

*(And I honestly know I’m at the risk of belabouring the point here)

**(I read it in a book once and have yet to summon the enthusiasm to fact-check it)

***(Another example being: – when the punchline is delivered on a Chinese joke, I usually just chuckle politely or say ‘oh yeah?” My honesty setting is just above 90%)

A Wild Ride Through the Night

“I am not racist. I like Kobe Bryant.”

The other night, I went with some friends for some lovely Israeli food.* On the way back we missed the last train home on the Batong Line by sixty seconds, exactly double the time it takes to be swamped by illegal taxi and ‘sherpa’ drivers at the turnstiles.

I ended up in the back of a (legal) cab, listening to my friend interpret the driver’s tirade about wanting to shoot Japanese people. It’s a sad fact that the recent military parade has certain chests swelling with nationalist pride and, to some people here, foreigners have become temporarily as popular as oral hygiene. Also, many Chinese people have yet to forgive the Japanese for invading in 1937 and trying to enforce things like table manners and not shitting in the street.

Luckily, this balding would-be Travis Bickle had about as many bullets as he did brain cells, so his one-man guerrilla war against the Land of the Rising Sun was restricted to pointing his hand like a pistol, giggling inanely and spouting things that I couldn’t understand or laugh at. I just stared blankly and edged towards the door, slightly grateful that Chinese cars don’t come with seatbelts in the back. It was pretty clear that if this guy ever did have a gun, the only people that needed to worry were those standing in the vicinity of his own kneecaps and feet. It was also pretty clear, if I’ve learned anything from my time as a heavy metal roadie, that he was coked off his tits.

I split the fare with my mate (the cost was mostly just financial) and then passed a couple of other Chinese guys who greeted me with a friendly “hello, fuck you!” My reply was to wittily dash across the street grumbling to myself and spend the rest of my weekend forcibly unclenching my arsehole.

The whole affair reminded me of the week I once spent in Glasgow (another city I visited for work rather than pleasure). Everyone there was still holding English people personally responsible for medieval war atrocities and talking about the battle of Stirling Bridge, a brief skirmish that was dramatized in the film Braveheart as the battle of Stirling (presumably because some Hollywood exec considered it bad cinema to have Mel Gibson tell a bunch of English guys to get the hell off a rickety wooden bridge). Trying to explain that I wasn’t even born in 1297, let alone giving a single fuck, became too tiresome so I just pretended I was Canadian.

My Russian roommate has gone. He’s been moved to a flat with a Ukrainian woman, who apparently hates Russians for invading her country and killing her mates. He has already pointed out that he’s never killed anyone, let alone anyone’s mate, but some people seem suddenly keen to tar entire nations with the same brush.

To say that Japanese people should be shot, or that Russians are killers, is racist. To say that all Chinese people are racist is, of course, racist. Like any racist statement, it is untrue. It would be like saying that every Scotsman is a thick, aggressive bellend: a statement based on nothing other than the ‘fact’ that every single one I’ve ever met has been.

We all have our prejudices: I don’t like corporate douchebags, politicians or aggressive nationalists. I don’t like people who blame their problems on other people, or people who hold younger generations responsible for ‘the sins of the fathers’. Even some people might get into every one of those bags for the right reasons, I have a pretty open mind.

I’m not saying we should all join hands under a rainbow flag and sing in perfect harmony about how insanely awesome everything is, I’m just saying that it takes less muscle power to smile than it does to frown, and it’s better for your skin. It probably takes less muscle power to shrug off the fact that there’s a lot of countries out there (and that yours is statistically unlikely to be the greatest in the world) than it does to stumble around with a nose full of blow waving an imaginary gun at an imaginary enemy.

Did nobody see that crappy remake of Planet of the Apes (the first, and by no means last, of Tim Burton’s genuinely bad movies), in which the orangutan Paul Giamatti says “Can’t we all just… get along?”

*at Bite a Pita, in Sanlitun. I recommend it. The little old lady who runs it with her husband is a fan of Hebrew literature, and I’ve spoken to her before about our mutual love of Etgar Keret’s short stories.

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!