A Ship Called Wanda

“Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal!”

Shopping, like anything here, can be a right baffling snafu. Visiting the technology supermarkets of Zhonguancun (China’s answer to silicone valley. A question that I’m not convinced was ever actually asked), usually unfolds with a Game of Death-style, level-by-level battle, only instead of enlightenment or character actor Dean Jagger awaiting you at the top, it’s just a phone charger that never bloody works.

Like everywhere else in the world, Beijing has erected the Xmas decorations. I’ve swapped black Americanos for white chocolate mochas, and I figured it was time to check out Tongzhou’s largest shopping mall. Those who know me well know that I avoid Xmas like clichés about the plague. Firstly, I’m an atheist. Secondly, I find it pretty disconcerting that people can be reduced to tears by an animated bear selling alarm clocks from John Lewis, but can’t muster a given fuck over child poverty. Thirdly, when the capitalism wall comes tumbling down I’m gonna be the first one rushing away with an armful of bricks in the hope of building something better (at least 25 miles from civilization). In short, I avoid it because I’m a bit of a miserable old bastard. So much so that if I’m ever visited by a trio of spirits who try to convince me to change my ways, I’ll be drawing the curtain and telling them to piss off out of it.

The Wanda Plaza in Tongzhou is shaped like a giant cruise ship, and (unlike some of the other Wanda plazas in the capital) is about the same size. It’s not West Edmonton big, there are no diesel submarines or water parks inside, but it’s pretty damned big.

The street outside the plaza is guarded by impressive twenty-foot tall sculptures of Chinese cyberpunk warriors, who issue you with your first challenge: figuring out, Lara Croft style, which one of the seven front doors actually opens. In the Jing, you get used to things like standing in a long queue at a single checkout while the other 29 stand empty.

Next up is: what do you actually want to do when you get inside? If you want food then you have to go straight up to the Big Boss level and then fight your way down arse backwards. If you want to visit the cleanest and brightest KFC in Beijing, it’s on level 2. If, for some reason you feel like suffering for your sins, there’s a Chuck E Cheeses style hell on earth on the same level. Korean design shops are a staple, as always, so if you want to buy colorful stationery, hot water bottles or other cutesy shite, then you will find it pretty much everywhere. Ditto multicolored clothes from the west. Anything a disgruntled hipster or cynical Gen X type could possibly want to give less of a shit about.

I also went shopping in the Qian’men shopping precinct, located near the very similarly named and much more famous Tian’an’men.

It filled me with exactly the same level of Christmas cheer.


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!

A Crock of Shit Now

“Tongzhou… Shit. I’m still only in Tongzhou.”

September 3rd 2015 is an important date for China. It commemorates 70 years since they single-handedly won the Second World War by punching Japan in the ball-sack. If you missed that little slice of history then that puts you on par with pretty much everyone outside of China, but in fairness to the Chinese government it’s no worse than Spielberg’s D Day, where Americans storm the beaches of Normandy with absolutely no assistance from other Allied nations, or that movie about how awful the Asian Tsunami of 2004 was for a family of white people.

Celebrations are taking place in the form of a parade. Thousands of soldiers will march through the streets of Beijing as military aircraft take part in a majestically choreographed display of nationalist dick-swinging, Putin-style.*

Where in Beijing is the best place to watch this patriotic event? Well, if you hoped to watch it in, say, the streets of Beijing (where, let’s be absolutely clear, the event is taking place), you are shit out of luck, friend. You can’t. The streets of Beijing are closed. There’s a parade on.

Apparently, the best view you will have of it is at home in your living room, waving a red and gold flag in front of the state-sponsored television.

The Beijinger magazine is already calling it ‘the anti-fun parade’, which sounds like a pretty accurate description to me: having recently seen so many helicopter gunships swoop through domestic airspace that I feared either an international diplomatic clusterfuck or an illegal Chinese knock-off of Apocalypse Now.

The military is looked on with reverence here. ‘Military chic’ is always in fashion, and anyone from a plastic-gun toting kid to a wooden-cane toting codger can be seen wearing a red star on their green t-shirt or a big blue security force jacket (which is why one should always be suspicious if one is stopped by a ‘security official’ or a ‘soldier’) The people of China tend to shower their military folk with respect and accolades, which comes as something of a shock to me because the people of the UK usually just shower squaddies with rocks and ‘c’ words.

So, from which vantage point will I be be viewing this yawn-inducing spectacle of nationalist shite? The same one as always: the barred windows of a Tongzhou teaching centre classroom, trying to explain to some kid in a camouflage t-shirt that ‘crocodile’ does not count as a ‘qu’ word…

*(anyone who enjoys riding shirtless on horses while wrestling polar bears that much has issues. Stubby, needle-dicked, latent homosexuality issues).

Ben & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“Have you got a name for your bike?”
“Yes. It’s got four letters, it begins with ‘c’ and it can’t be uttered in the daylight.”

It’s summer in Beijing. It’s too hot to walk anywhere. It’s too hot to sit on the bus. It’s definitely too hot to be crammed on the Batong Line trying to read Leaves of Grass with some dude’s armpit in your face. That’s why I bought an electric bike from a friend of mine for £30. That’s about a quid for each mph, or about a quid for each minute before the knackered battery (which weighs about the same as a baby African Bull Elephant) starts giving up. It has a headlight and an indicator which, like any Beijinger, I choose to ignore most of the time. It keeps, like David Bowie in Labyrinth, pulling slightly to the left.

In the winter, I occasionally borrowed a friend’s moped for the short ride to work. I felt like the protagonist of a French New Wave movie, waving at pretty Chinese girls while majestically weaving in and out of city traffic. My relationship with the new bike is a little more complicated. It’s like having a friend who you enjoy hanging out with but who’s never quite there for you when it really matters. The kind of mate who you end up occasionally shouting at or kicking or calling all sorts of names associated with the female pudenda*.

Weaving majestically is not often on this bike’s agenda. Words like ‘sputtering’ ‘stuttering’ and ‘wtf’ are more appropriate. Waving at Chinese girls without being tipped over the handlebars remains unlikely. But it always seems to serve its purpose, which is leading me from A – usually along some slow, meandering, inconsistent route – to B.

It reminds me of the character Columbo, who bumbles around for 45 minutes, annoying the crap out of the celebrity guest star before suddenly proving that they are, in fact, the murderer.

It reminds me of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who, who spends six weeks arsing about on a space station before suddenly using his knowledge of electro-magnetism to repel an invasion by the Cybermen.

It reminds me of relying on a sat nav that keeps leading you astray but, just as you are screaming profanities at the top of your lungs, suddenly announces proudly “You have reached your destination!”

As a matter of fact, the bike reminds me of myself, and of a lot of my friends both here and back home. All of us flawed and slightly eccentric (two absolute musts to be a friend of mine), often unreliable and occasionally downright useless, sometimes even a bit of a heinous fucking cunt.

But always getting there in the end.

*I swear like a marine, by the way. I’ve only met two people in my entire life who use four letter words more than I do. I try to bowdlerize myself a little here in the blogosphere.

Tea Shopping

“Wow, you so handsome!”

When I first arrived in Beijing I felt like I was in a very small boat on a very large ocean. I had no map or compass or even any sense of direction. However, I soon heard a number of stories from a friend of mine, all of which seemed to end “and then I legged it down the street in a pair of flip flops.” The very idea of this particular friend successfully navigating the city made me realize that I was going to be fine.

In Tongzhou (where I live) and Beiyuan (where I used to live), foreigners are a rarity. Most people are not shy about staring, gasping or even taking your photo. Only the other day a middle-aged woman started poking the freckles on my arm without even asking. I’ve had people rush up to me to ask if I have an umbrella or if I speak Latin or just to tell me how shaui (handsome) they think I am.

In Wangfujing, though, if someone is telling you how shaui you are it’s because they’re trying to rob you blind. Wangfujing is a great place to visit if you like arcade games, or want to know what a squid on a stick looks like, or are easily distracted by really useless shit. It’s also the part of Beijing that is world famous for its teashop scam. I’ve been approached (or ‘tea-shopped’, as I like to call it) three times, and it always unfolds like this:

You are approached by either a ridiculously attractive woman or an hirsute old lady who looks like the villain from a Sammo Hung movie.

They say exactly the same thing as the last person who tried to tea-shop you: “Wow, you so handsome! Where you from? How long you been in China? You want to learn Chinese? I help you learn? Maybe we go grab a beer and coffee?”

At this point, if you’re the type of person who gives your credit card details to email contacts who’ve mysteriously moved to West Africa and run out of money, then you accept this offer of ‘beer and coffee’. You head off with your new Chinese teacher to a dingy little tea shop down a pungent alleyway. She orders you a pot of tea, then mysteriously disappears out of the squatter window, leaving you negotiating with some burly tea shop owner over a huge bill that’s landed in your lap.

Then you leg it down the street in a pair of flipflops.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid Chinese tea shops. There are some very reputable, enjoyable tea shops in Beijing. Not long ago I was in one in Nanluoguxiang with another friend of mine. We met a couple of Chinese students who we sat with for half an hour, sipping complimentary samples of oolong, jasmine, flower tea and various other delights. After awhile one of the students lowered her voice conspiratorially and said, “Is it true that there are real vampires in England?”

I considered making a political statement about the Tories, but my friend just said “No. No it’s not.”

“Ah,” sighed the young woman, sadly. “Unrealistic.”