Ten Rows of Teeth

“Characters you’ve created occasionally stop by to say hello, or try to hunt you down and eat you.” – Steven Hall


I sat in bed the other night, sipping a bottle of Nongfu Spring and reading over some old journals from my Vancouver days. Although I enjoyed that time in my life: sipping craft beer, strolling along the beach and exchanging ridiculously literal small talk with Canucks, I don’t actually miss Vancouver that much. Most of the travellers that I met there lamented the fact that they had moved to Canada to get on with their life but had just found themselves in the same dull routine they’d been trying to flee from: minimum wage jobs, drinking in the same bars, going to the movies to escape the crippling spiritual emptiness. It’s a lovely, beautiful city (albeit one punctured with many needle marks), it just never felt like home to me.

One of my favourite contemporary novels is The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall, a slipstream narrative that puts a fairly original spin on the old cliché about someone waking up with no memory of who they were the day before. The only clues that the protagonist has about his life are a breadcrumb trail of notes and packages that arrive, claiming to be from his past self, explaining that a predatory ‘conceptual fish’ has devoured his memories.

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In one of my journal entries, I wondered what would happen if I had woken up sans memories like the hero of RST (or Memento or Dark City or a dozen other stories); how would I feel about the guy from my past who writes down these little life notes? Would I like him? Would I understand his thought processes? What would I deduce about him just from the many pen scratches that he’s left behind in various colorful notebooks from hutong bookstores?

Well, the first thing I’d probably notice is that he complains a lot. Secondly, that he’s pretty bloody keen on writing. He’s lazy and procrastinatory, swimming in a sea of neuroses, but he enjoys life and makes quite a lot of strides towards his goals, sometimes doing breast stroke, sometimes doggy paddle. I don’t know what Amnesia Me would make of all this, but I kind of like the guy.

There was one thing I quite enjoyed about the lackluster TV adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 (and it is certainly not the way the date is written, nor is it the lead performance by People’s Choice nominee and surely-at-least-a-little-dead-inside James Franco). It was that whenever time traveller and very occasional actor James Franco tries to change anything in the past (usually with a sort of Shatner-esque dramatic flailing that many Americans often mistake for performance art), the past pushes back against him. Every time he tries to change something in the sixties, he is nearly run over or set on fire or shouted at*.

There’s one scene, if I remember correctly, where Empire-Award-nominated polymath James Franco is driving through the streets of Dallas searching for a lone gunman in a book depository,** shouting at no one in particular “We gotta be prepared, man! We’re going up against… The Past!” Then, BAM. Flat tire.

If I am ever likely to be assassinated, and somebody finds a magic cupboard that will send someone back with three years to adequately plan and execute a brilliant rescue attempt, please do not send the guy who failed to kill Tobey Maguire on three occasions.

In that Star Trek film I watched recently, the one when I had no voice but was still trying to swear at the telly for showing me a really long widescreen nineties TV episode about silly foreheads, the bad guy describes time as “the fire in which we all burn”.

Is the past really some kind of predator? One that swims around waiting to bite or burst into flames and ruin the day of Captain Picard or multiple-MTV-movie-award-nominee James Franco?

To be honest, I find the little packages from my past self kind of liberating. It’s fun to see what has changed in the year or almost-year since these journal entries, and what has stayed the same. It’s fun to see journeys taken and not taken, little predictions proven right or wrong. Hobos and junkies encountered and written about.

Maybe the past, or time in general, is against us or downright out to get us. But I rather doubt that it actually gives a shit about us. And I doubt we should give much of a shit about it. Except to occasionally read about it, see what we can learn from it, and then go shark hunting with a harpoon made of words.

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*Admittedly, the past doesn’t do all that much when he starts boning a Hitchcock blonde old enough to be his grandmother, but whatever.

**(this is a fantasy story after all)

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)

Twenty Minutes into the Future

“Coming to you live and direct…”


Inspired by my recent virtual reality trip, I began a search for some decent science fiction and/or fantasy movies to watch; a search that almost instantly reached a nadir. I looked fruitlessly for David Cronenberg films on Chinese Netflix. I watched The Signal, a story that basically ‘borrowed’ from earlier (mostly nineties) sf movies, complete with Laurence Fishburne and plot-twist-you-saw-coming-from-at-least-as-far-back-as-1998. I then, with the deep sigh of someone who’d pretty much given up on life, watched Ghost Rider, a 120-minute phone call from the late Nicolas Cage. Yes, I’m aware that he’s not clinically dead.

Re-evaluating my life (and the life of science fiction cinema), I finally stumbled upon episodes of the 1980s cyberpunk series Max Headroom.

a few years ago, after shooting my final student film,* I turned to scriptwriting. For several intense months, I decided I’d be best suited to the kind of existence of that mad shut-in from Twin Peaks: the guy who just grows orchids and takes notes on other people’s lives and shouts at the people outside his constantly knocking door. Writing, despite the wisecracks and backbiting that I’m sure every would-be creative gets, became my full time job.

I spent my spare time watching and researching episodes of pretty much every science fiction and fantasy show I ever enjoyed as a kid, from nineties classics like Buffy and X Files to sixties oddities like Thunderbirds and The Avengers (McNee, not Marvel). I watched almost all of Star Trek: The Next Generation and far too much of eighties Doctor Who. I even sat through the inaugural episodes of Power Rangers, Reboot, Samurai Pizza Cats, and that really weird show where Ron Perlman lives in the sewer because Linda Hamilton won’t go out with him. I did, however, stay absolutely the hell away from both Space Precinct and Bill Shatner’s Tek War.

This was not idle viewing; this wasn’t even pleasurable. I took notes. I paid attention to each writing credit and I looked into each writer as much as I could, to see how they got started in scriptwriting. Some of these individual episodes stood the test of time. Others were about Japanese cats who delivered pizza.

It was a strange time.

Somehow Max Headroom passed me by. Set in a dystopian future ruled by television networks, the series is a spin-off of Channel Four’s bonkers chat show about celebrities being interviewed by a floating head (supposedly computer generated, but actually just a Canadian in a rubber mask).

I’ve seen enough TV to know that the original Channel Four pilot film is good. It’s shot by music video directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (who went on to make that awful ‘dark fairytale’ movie of Super Mario Bros**, but let’s not hold that against them). The pilot is good enough that it actually approaches brilliance in places: A smoky, neo noir vision of the very near future, a shoestring eighties Carpenter or Gilliam or maybe even Ridley Scott, brilliantly filmic (ironic for a story that revolves around a stolen and hella futuristic Betamax tape). Compared to the sort of garishly lit and costumed capering that Colin Baker was up to on the other channel at that time, this is almost modern art!

The always enjoyable American-born, Canadian-raised and British-trained Matt Frewer plays crusading journalist Edison Carter, determined to expose the secrets and lies of the oppressive networks, including a cover-up of the fact that a batch of new 3-second advertisements are so hyper-intense that they cause certain viewers to spontaneously combust! After an accident that his employers are keen to hush up, a computer whiz kid creates (for reasons that just about make sense) a computer generated version of Edison Carter’s head. This glitchy, sarcastic programme goes rogue and becomes the eponymous Max, named after the last thing that Carter saw before he lost consciousness: a barrier sign in a car park.

Edison’s British companion is played by Amanda Pays. The name may not be recognizable, but the face and hairdo may well be. She played Token British Girlfriend in a bunch of late eighties and early nineties stuff, having the great fortune of portraying Fox Mulder’s fawning, kinky, poorly-written ex crumpet in a mercifully brief X Files gig. You remember? The one who used to chortle haughtily over a strong cup of tea, say things like ‘naughty bugger’ and wistfully recall humping Duchovny atop Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s grave (presumably while he was turning in it). In fairness to Ms. Pays, her patchy performances are mostly down to other people’s piss poor writing.*** She would almost certainly be able to act her way out of a paper bag, assuming that the exit was clearly marked and someone had poked an Amanda Pays sized hole in it.

Two episodes in, the series (actually British, although it was shot specifically for an overseas audience) is about half as good as the film. Gone is the swearing, gore, Pythonesque humour, male nudity and pretty much all subtlety, presumably because American audiences don’t care for that sort of thing. There are nicer leather jackets and haircuts for the now-American cast, some poorly choreographed action sequences, a handful of racist and sexist jokes, and some intriguing near-future mullets. It’s watchable enough, but not quite the grounbreaking stuff I was hoping for.

Like a lot of sci-fi, this series is not only very slightly ahead of its time, it’s totally of its time: This is early MTV stuff. Shit couldn’t be more eighties if Cories Haim and Feldman turned up with a brick phone snorting a line of New Coke.

But, speaking as a dude sitting in a hazy neon metropolis at a time that a big American head is tweeting absolute gibberish, it’s kind of hard not to laugh.


*Tired of expending all of my energy trying to explain to teenage emos that no, picking up the wire that they’d left dangling in shot was not that difficult and yes, it actually did, cinematically, make quite a difference.

**A film that my Facebook friends will crucify me for taking a massive piss on, probably because they haven’t seen it since 1992. Seriously, I have shit out better mushroom kingdoms after a night of Yunnan hotpot!

***Has that X Files guy even been to England?

The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part Three): “The Joker’s Warpaint”

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” – Robert Burton


This is the third and final part of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries.

For part one click here: 

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-part-one-the-bittersweet-notebooks/

For part two click here: 

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/05/12/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-part-two-three-hundred-and-sixty/

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“Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” – Kurt Vonnegut


In the first of Tim Burton’s now-dated versions of the caped crusader myth, which I recently re-watched for the first time since childhood, the psychotic Joker is portrayed as an ambitious but petty thug with an aptitude for chemistry and art. After falling into a vat of chemicals and emerging looking like Sylvester Stallone’s mum, Joker terrorizes the people of Gotham with some poorly-lit MTV infomercials for tainted fashion products that turn people into ‘works of art’.

Like most people, I much prefer Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning ‘agent of chaos’ version of Joker, the mad dog chasing cars who “doesn’t even know what he’d do if he caught one”, an anarchist torturer with unevenly applied greasepaint slapped on his unwashed, pallid, mentally-ill face.

Some Marxist writers and thinkers (Zizek springs instantly to mind) have stated that they actually identify more with villains like the Joker and Bane than with the Dark Knight himself, feeling that where Batman represents the capitalist status quo the villains usually offer a socialist or anarchist worldview, albeit one brought about by the ‘regime change’ of terrorist action.

However, what the sort of IRL, mentally divergent cunts who put on fright wigs and shoot people because they’re ‘inspired’ by movies like Batman or Old Boy or Taxi Driver, seem to forget is that these characters are fictional. They only exist to drive a narrative forward and to butt heads with other characters.*

They are also bell ends.

Even so, a terrorist villain as frustrated artist was an interesting angle for Tim Burton and his screenwriting team to choose. It wouldn’t be the first time some absolute helmet took their artistic ambitions and pissed them away into more Machiavellian pursuits: In the mid-20th century there was an Austrian fella who, after being absolutely ridiculed in the art world, turned to politics. He finally took Europe by storm in 1939 with a little piece of his called World War Two. Here in the 2010s, even Dubya turned out to be a frustrated painter all along.

What is an artist anyway? It’s just someone who can see something that others can’t, and then articulates that vision through a chosen medium in a way that is, hopefully, understandable to at least a handful of people.

My day spent searching for multimedia gems in China’s capital led me from the virtual reality floor of the 798 Art Factory to the very real third floor of a building in Blue Harbour shopping precinct.

The Yang Art Museum is known locally by the slightly odd but decidedly delicious acronym YAM.** I knew, when I found a xeroxed copy of Guy Debord’s La Société du Spectacle (in French, alas), that I had come to the right place.

I was here to see the exhibition ‘Rebel Cities’, an effort by multiple artists, many of whom were engaging in “research and activism at specific – often socially and geographically marginalized – places in Beijing.”

No photography was allowed in the gallery, and I don’t really like photographing art that much anyway. The map is, of course, not the territory: Seeing a photo of the Sistine Chapel is not the same as standing under its ceiling, any more than watching a virtual herd of elephants is the same as shitting your pants in a Jumanji-level stampede. I did scribble some notes (most likely indecipherable to anyone else) a habit that I actually picked up from the coffee shop companion and gallery-owner-to-be mentioned in the previous entry: “Your writing about it can be the photograph.”

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Mostly I just wandered around looking. After a morning of interactive virtual reality it was nice to passively watch the work of painters, filmmakers and typographers from the city; to soak up some of the hard work of creative Beijingers who are as inspired by their own urban space as I am.

A crumbling semi-shithole of a space it may be. A space that I spent my morning escaping from as tenaciously as the beaten down protagonist from Brazil. A space that the clown prince of crime would have no hesitation in razing to the ground while laughing hysterically. but a space that, for now at least, I call home.


*Conflict, as anyone with even a cursory interest in film or literature knows, is drama.

**They even have an enticing loyalty card called the Super Yam.

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)

Bananas Wearing T-Shirts

“99% of people are sheep.” – Oliver Stone

“99% of people have to be told what to think.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

“99% of people are boring idiots.” – Slavoj Žižek


I was sitting in a Tiki bar somewhere in Beixinqiao, with a Penguin Modern Classics edition of Walter Benjamin essays in one hand and a macadamia Chi Chi in the other, wondering if I had finally achieved my teenage dream of becoming a cut-price Hunter S. Thompson.

The man behind this particular bar was a miserable brit in a Jacques Cousteau hat, two surprising things that we had in common that day. The only thing wrong with the picture was that I was surrounded by other people, dealing with small talk instead of perusing the book I wanted to read.

There’s a misconception about me that I don’t like other people. I can see, in my wildest dreams at least, why someone might get that impression. The truth is more complicated: on the whole, I find the human race incredibly fascinating; I just don’t always enjoy being counted as one of them.

It’s true that the more people that are around the less I am likely to be enjoying myself. It’s also true that I find it deeply annoying when people yawn or swipe their phones during a conversation and then wonder why I rarely initiate conversations with them. It’s also also true that I was in no way surprised to learn that humans share 40% of their DNA with a banana. Sure, that extra 60% accounts for things like literature, mathematics and tie-dye t-shirts, but that doesn’t really sound like a fuck of a lot of Deoxyribonucleic Acid to stop you from being a delicious herb or someone who really, really likes Match of the Day.

There’s a photograph currently circulating the internet of Mark Zuckerberg strolling past row upon row of people plugged into virtual reality headsets. Apparently the last blogger to post it (in what Facebook perceived to be a slightly negative light) got both cheeks nailed to the wall and then handed to him. Why anyone would post a picture of their CEO looking a little like Himmler inspecting the troops, or Saruman beaming at his obedient Uruk-hai, and then get tetchy about people who say it looks a little creepy is (as always) none of my business.

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The photo reminded me of a Life magazine shot, later used as the cover of a book called The Society of the Spectacle (coincidentally written by Guy Debord, mentioned in the previous entry): A bunch of sheep/idiots/Uruk-hai/whatever staring vacantly through old school 3D glasses, a look of sheer ennui on their gormless faces. (The same look I see on the Beijing Metro during rush hour).

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I have absolutely nothing against VR. I think it’s a brilliant new step in the evolution of storytelling.* I like immersive gaming and filmmaking, and I even like fantasy, fairy tales and science fiction. But do I like the people who want us to spend 24 hours of our day there?

Can I get a “hell no”?

Once, in a Canadian city that shall remain nameless, I passed a man who was sky high on something a little stronger than life, shouting at a rubbish bin and telling it to stop changing shape. I stumbled off feeling sorry for him and thinking “Jesus man, I know reality can be tough but it’s not that bad!”

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Putting my cards on the table, though, I like people. I like the thoughts they have, the art that they create and, sometimes, the environments that they build. But close contact with other humans usually gives me the spiritual equivalent of herpes.

One thing I actually like about Beijingers is that, on the whole, they mind their own business. The barman and waitress and busboy aren’t hustling for tips because, firstly they don’t get any and secondly, they’re almost always the same person and are therefore too busy to give a shit about you.** Ditto the people crammed onto the subway, who are so busy playing games or watching soap operas that it’s a wonder their eyes don’t bleed.

George Orwell once cheerfully predicted, “if you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” In my humble opinion, the boot is already wedged up the other end, and not enough people are pulling it out, taking the glasses off and getting out of the fucking theatre.


* (in a way that 3D is not. 3D just lets you watch the same crap films in a slightly different way.)

** I still cringe at the very memory of someone (more than one someone in fact) wiping the table and giving me some variation of the phrase “Oh, reading a book, eh?”

A Zed & Two Noughts

img_1709“Beijing Zoo is a paradise with its luxuriant vegetation, elegantly meandering water systems, scenic landscapes and various animals in good health.” – Xicheng District Tourism Administration


And so another Xmas has passed, and the western new year has trundled towards us like an old Chinese lady on a moped who doesn’t give a damn that you aren’t supposed to mount the pavement with those things. If dancing on the table with other foreigners at KTV and watching mawkish Hollywood fare with the gf didn’t exactly melt my heart then it has at least defrosted it slightly.

I spent Boxing Day at Beijing Zoo. I have mixed feelings about zoos. A travel writer whose name escapes me once said that if all zoos are animal prisons then Beijing must be death row. I think that’s unfair. Although mainland China isn’t exactly renowned for its track record when it comes to animal rights, looking at Beijing Zoo as nothing more than the Alcatraz of the animal kingdom, where an ironically cast Patrick McGoohan keeps a beady eye on the red pandas, is as ignorant as it is laden with references to classic Clint Eastwood movies.

When I was in Vancouver, I met a lot of international travelers (it goes with the territory when one works in a hostel). Many of them would ask about popular tourist destinations or just ‘things to do’. When the Vancouver Aquarium was mentioned it was often dismissed outright with some variation of “I don’t do zoos or aquariums”. It’s easy to empathize with such a philosophy (I absolutely do not ‘do’ animal circuses, for example). It’s also easy to turn up a nose and say that no one should visit a zoo in a million years, and that people should only visit animals in their natural habitat. But the bare-faced fact is this: the average Chinese person has about as much opportunity to go on an African safari as the average Kenyan person has of visiting Yonghegong. Everything from wages to potential visa snafus count heavily against it.

Beijing Zoo, whatever its faults may be, is a chance for educating people, young and old, about the fauna of the world. I’ve now been there twice and I don’t feel that the reputation it has in some quarters is deserved any more than other zoos I’ve visited (in London or Calgary, for example). In an ‘ideal’ world, zoos wouldn’t exist. But neither would sweatshops, coal mines or The Jonathan Ross Show.

It’s admittedly a mixed bag. The panda house is very impressive, while the king (and queen) of the jungle aren’t blessed with quite so much space. The elephant enclosure is, in my opinion, inadequate. So much so that the Chinese colleague I went with the first time refused to go in with me.

I urge you not to take my word or opinion on this, and to make your own visit. The (financial) cost is ¥10 on the door, with the panda enclosure costing ¥5 extra (assuming you avoid the ridiculously overpriced gift shop). I have yet to visit the aquarium, which has less to do with my moral compass and more to do with the extra cost of ¥150.