Saturday, March 17, 2007

End of the line

My last day in Beijing, I decided to check out a wine bar some friends had told me about, in a hutong by the Lama Temple. The Vineyard Cafe is charming, with a decent selection of wines at (for China) decent prices. I spent a while chatting with one of the owners, Will, and promised that I would bring in a bottle from California next time I was in town - California wines don't seem to have the market penetration in China that the Australians and South Americans do.

I didn't have wine, though, since I was returning to California the next day and would have plenty of that soon enough. Instead I tried an imported British ale, Abbott. It was very good, fresh, and compared to the Yanjing and Qingdaos I'd been downing, strong.

Which might explain my decision to ride the #1 Subway line all the way east to the end. Yes, including the Ba Tong extension.

You ride the #1 subway line west, you're heading in the direction of some of greater Beijing's prettier scenery, the Fragrant Hills. I was tempted to go that way, to the end of the line at Pingguoyuan, catch a taxi to the temples there. But after that beer, I was more in the mood for something weirder. I mean, who knew what was out at the eastern end? Some place called "Tu Qiao." Nothing in my "Lonely Planet Beijing" about Tu Qiao, or anything out that way (though when I briefly emerged at Shihui East to transfer to the Ba Tong extension, I saw signs for a "Red Sandalwood Museum." Next time).

I noted that one of the stops on the Ba Tong was called "Tongzhou Bei Yuan" That was sort of intriguing. A lot of artists live in the countryside around Tongzhou, though not right off the subway, from what I knew. I could have made arrangements to go and see some of the studios, but I'd already visited a number of artists' communities and galleries. It's not the art that interests me so much as the environments in which it operates, and there isn't supposed to be a real scene out there - a lot of artists have moved to Tongzhou to get away from those kinds of bohemian distractions.

But if Tongzhou Bei Yuan is any indication, this is a pretty post-modern version of the scholar or Daoist's retreat to the countryside.

"That area has got to be the butt-end of Beijing," one of my friends remarked later. "It's where depressed urban professionals live to commute to their boring jobs in the city." I don't know about the degree of depression of the residents, but it's true that the scenery is not exactly inspiring.

A couple of stops before the Ba Tong extension, the subway emerges from underground. The landscape that passes by the windows is flat, featureless, the ranks of apartment blocks and malls and older white tile fronted businesses wrapped in a grayish yellow haze. The area didn't strike me as impoverished; there are plenty of new, glassy buildings, but at first glance there's absolutely nothing to distinguish this place from any other part of modern Beijing, any other part of modern China, for that matter. Sometimes, you could see what it had been like, before Beijing swallowed it up: remnants of red-brick commune buildings and factories, the occasional temple surrounded by restaurants, travel agencies, laundries, appliance stores and netbars.

It's the kind of place where, you look out the window around Tongzhou Bei, and see some new, upper-middle class type apartment buildings, solid, stocky constructions of rusty brown slabs and marble trim, and the buildings are called: "Rotterdam," "Toronto," "Marseilles," "Bordeaux," and "Seattle."

I mean, why "Seattle"?

Why not, I guess.

Otherwise, the most notable moment of my ride to Tu Qiao came when a female dwarf tried to cheat me on the price of an English-language Beijing Tourist Map.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A day in Beijing

In all of my recent trips to China, I've gone someplace I've never been - or at least haven't seen in 25 odd years. Except this last trip. I had some vague ambitions - visit Kaifang, maybe, or Putuoshan - but I justed ended up going to Beijing and Shanghai. I hung out with friends, explored random neighborhoods, read a few books. I mean, it's not as though I haven't seen plenty of temples and historic sites, and I find that I just as much enjoy slowing down, wandering around, looking at "ordinary" things - trying to take the measure of what the rhythms of life are like in this place, imagining my own life, in a way, if I'd ended up here instead of there.

My last two days in Beijing, I'd thought maybe I'd go visit a mountain village I'd read good things about - you know, a scenic, quaint sort of place, the China of one's imagination rather than the urban realities that I'd been experiencing. But I didn't get around to it. Instead, one day while looking for a restaurant, I went the wrong way and came upon Tuanjiehu Park - and the "hu" in "Tuanjiehu."

Tuanjiehu means "Unite Lake." Though Tuanjiehu is a pretty cute little neighborhood, I figured the lake part was one of those left-over place names, a palimpsest from the Ming Dynasty or some time when there was a lake, back when this part of Beijing just inside of the 3rd Ring Road was countryside instead of city. But the lake is a more recent artifact, from China's Maoist past, though at times that era seems as impossibly remote as any other dead emperor's. Tuanjiehu Park was founded by workers, who were exhorted to create a peoples' park on the site of an old cement works. Or papermill. Unfortunately I didn't take notes. Along with the lake, it features a "southern style garden layout," pavillions, a roller rink, a "children's carnie" and a massive artificial beach and pool with wave machine. The beach was closed, unfortunately, drained and faded in the last days of winter, its blues and yellows bleached and peeling. But it's a nice park. Fat goldfish swim in the murky lake. At the entrance, an older man wrote lines of calligraphy with a giant brush on the pavement, using water for ink. The characters were beautiful, it seemed to me, and watching him write them was poetry itself, the way he handled the massive brush with such a light touch and precision; then watching the characters shrivel and fade into blotches on the cement.

I strolled through the park. In one area, a group of middle-aged ladies practiced a drum and cymbal dance routine, marching in circles, led by the cymbal player. Further along, a man wearing hipster black sunglasses played a traditional Chinese tune on a saxophone. I loved that, thinking, it was so nice for once to hear someone making live music, not to hear some cheesy, distorted recording blaring in a public place. I got that around the next bend, at the roller rink.

Back at the entrance, some elderly men and women had begun a tai chi session, and a few high school students had gathered to watch a younger man attempt the water calligraphy.

"Hello!" one of them called out to me. "Hello!" And then: "Welcome to China!"

"Xie xie nimen," I called back.

They giggled, said, "oh, she speaks Chinese," and in a way it surprises me that people in a city like Beijing, where there are so many foreigners who speak Chinese would still be surprised by a foreigner who does (and mine is not great). Regardless, I walked away with a big smile on my face, because how many times does someone out of the blue welcome you to their country?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Drinking with the Manchurian Hairdressers

In Shanghai I stayed with my friend Tim, who has got to be the perfect host. However, there was a price to be paid for his hospitality, he warned me. "We have to go drinking with the barbershop guys."

I thought this seemed like a fine idea. I'd met the hairdressers last year, the staff of the barbershop where Tim gets his hair cut. Apparently they're always bugging him about when he's going to bring some of his American friends by. They are quite a colorful bunch, mohawked, streaked and dyed hair, fancy embroidered jeans and Renaissance-style shirts. All of them are from Harbin, in Manchuria, though the Boss (e.g., "Laoban") has lived in Shanghai since he was a kid.

I wasn't sure why the occasion had an element of dread for Tim, since he likes the guys a lot. Plus, we were only going about a half-block from Tim's apartment, to a restaurant across from the barbershop.

I started to get an idea when I saw the amount of beer involved. "Harbin" Brand, naturally.

There were five of them, and Tim and me, and we started with a case of large bottles - I don't know metric well enough to tell you how large, but they're big. Everything seemed to require a toast, and toasting is "Ganbei!" - meaning you have to drink it down.

Well, I'm a girl, right? I figured I had to be exempt from some of this.

I figured wrong.

"Lisa," Laoban would say. "Nide yanjingde yanse zhen piaoliang." - "Your eyes are such a beautiful color." Now, the Boss is probably a good 10 years younger than I am, a stocky guy with the sides of his head shaved and somewhat bloodshot eyes (he'd already been out drinking today, he informed us, and his head wasn't feeling very good, but such was the importance of this occasion that he made the sacrifice of drinking more. Much more). This did not stop him from being a real flirt. Laoban liked my eyes, told me I should wear bright colors more often and not so much black, and all the guys liked my standard Beijing accent. I told him that I was way too old for him. He insisted this was not the case.

Then, somehow I ended up with a new husband, the kid Tim had nicknamed "Mozart" because of his hairdo, which could certainly be described as baroque. Mozart looks like he's about 18, with delicate good looks and a high-pitched voice - if they were still casting men in the female Peking Opera roles, he'd probably be a prime candidate.

I can't remember quite how this happened, because I think we'd finished the first case of beer by this point. After that, it was never one more bottle, it was always two. Laoban insisted.

Then we had to sing. This is one situation where all those years of singing in a rock band pays off. I belted out a couple of verses of "Hang On Sloopy" (something I can manage regardless of degree of drunkeness). The guys were surprised and impressed. If you are going to find yourself in the role of performing dog, it helps to know the tricks.

But like Tim said, he wouldn't go along with the barbershop boys if it weren't in good fun and good spirits. The next day, I had two text messages from Mozart, addressed to "Beautiful Friend," asking how my day was going.

Friday, March 09, 2007


Much has been written about the differences and rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai. In the past, I've always come down on the Beijing side. How not? The time I spent in Beijing in '79 had an inestimable impact on my life, even if it had its traumatic aspects. Besides, I didn't actually visit Shanghai until 1993, for the first Shanghai International Film Festival. At the time I was too jaw-agaped with the vast changes in China to even absorb much about the character of the city.

When I visited Shanghai again last year, I came away with a much more positive impression.Shanghai may be a chaotic mega-opolis, but it strikes me as more pedestrian-orientedthan Beijing - at least there are more neighborhoods that you can easily walk, especially along the Bund and the French Concession.

Shanghai people have a reputation in China as being, well, a little stuck-up and unfriendly. I didn't find this to be the case. For one thing, there are so many "New Shanghai People" - "WaiDi Ren" from outside of the city - that the character of Shanghainese has changeda great deal. You don't hear nearly as much Shanghai dialect as you once did,which used to be a way of excluding outsiders.

Northerners are considered more uncouth, but also more friendly and genuine. Why citizens of the cultural capital of China are regarded as somewhat uncivilized, I couldn't say. I will note that taxi drivers in Beijing are almost universally Northerners (many with near-impenetrable Dongbei accents - so "rrr" ladened that they would be prime participants for "International Talk Like A Pirate" Day). The shopgirls that work in places like Silk Alley and Hongqiao Market are almost all from the South. These are the kinds of shopping areas where you will get ripped off right and left if you aren't careful, end up with counterfeit bills, pay far too much for fake brands, even if you do speak Chinese and are therefore "a friend of China, so I give you the special Chinese price!". I ran into plenty of girls who gave me that speech. I also had some of the nicest encounters of my trip, chatting with some of these women, the ones who didn't try to rip me offor treat me like a cash machine on legs. One, another person born in the Year of the Boar, immediately tied a second red string around my wrist, just to make sure I had enough luck to get through the trials of my animal year. If you didn't know this, your animal year can be a very good year or a really bad year - there's a lot of energy and challenges you have to deal with, apparently, and it can go either way. I figure I need all the luck I can get.

Anyway, I always feels a little silly making blanket generalizations about millions of people, even if Chinese themselves tend to do it.

One thing I'm pretty sure of, however. Beijingers swear more than Shanghai people. My friend Tim, a long-time Shanghai resident, tells me that Shanghainese consider expressions like: "ta ma de!" pretty strong stuff. I'd always heard that "ta ma de!" (literally, "his mother!" but used like, "son of a bitch!" or "dammit!") was very mild and even used in mixed company. Certainly it's nothing compared to what I heard in a Beijing net bar the other day. This was one of the dumpier netbars I've ever been to, off Jiu Gulou Dajie - that's Old Drum Tower Street for you waiguoren, probably one of the most picturesque areas left in Beijing. This bar is down an alley, up three flights of stairs above some weird-ass department store selling cheap shoes. Dimly lit, painted beige and third-world green, sagging and dusty gold curtains, upholstered metal chairs with gaping holes in the seat, the only decoration occasional posters of warrior chicks in armored bikinis. A smoke-filled room with "no smoking" signs on the wall. Row after row of young Chinese guys played online games - maybe three women in the place, other than the workers, and one foreigner (me).

The gamers were a rowdy bunch. The guy next to me was particularly intense, with a friend coming over now and then to perch on the arm of my chair and offer advice on killing attacking demons. Everyone was cursing like crazy, shouts I could hear from the other side of the room. Stuff that Chinese friends had taught me and expressions right out of one of my favorite books, "Outrageous Chinese - Beijing Street Language." Stuff like: "Wo c**!" "Sha b*!" "Ma b*!" and, I believe,"Shou c** ni ma b*!" which is far too nasty for me to translate on a public forum.

The guy's little elf avatar must have really gotten nailed by one of those demons...

I found this whole scene incredibly entertaining. For one thing, how often do you get to have your spotty knowledge of Chinese obscenities confirmed? For another, I had used Chinese netbars as frequent settings in the novel I just finished, the one I submitted to the First Chapters contest at I got mostly positive responses from the opening chapter of my submission (that's all that has beenposted so far), but one complaint I had from a number of readers was the amount of profanity. I'd thought the language appropriate to the tone of the book and the narrator's voice, but apparently this really flips some peoples' switches.

Now I'm thinking, "Hah!" Because if a gamer next to me in a netbar says stuff like "Wo c**!" and all that talk about some guy's mother's hoo-hah every five seconds, I figure I pretty much got it right.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

"Great Firewall, Oh How I Loathe You!"

I'm here in Beijing, in a net bar off Qianmen Dajie. Qianmen is the street that runs from the end of Tiananmen Square, on a straight southern line leading out of the old Imperial City. I hadn't been to this part of Beijing in a few years, and like everywhere in this construction-crazed mega-city, things have changed.

The entire length of Qianmen itself is covered by giant, two story high temporary walls with murals on them that say, more or less, "The world loves Beijing. The world will love Qianmen! Welcome Great Olympics!" or words to that effect. Qianmen, it appears, is getting its Olympic facelift, leaving the avenue for now no sidewalks, no storefronts, just walls blank save for the ubiquitous slogan.

I walked a ways down Qianmen until I saw a path between the scaffolds, leading into a narrow lane where hawkers set up adhoc stalls selling shoes, clothes, phonecards and toys. Following that a ways I found myself on Dazhalan Street, a traditional shopping area of teashops, restaurants and small department stores - the kind of place that looks more like the China in your imagination than the one that actually exists, for the most part.

This is one of the last remaining areas of hutongs, the old alleyways and courtyard homes traditional to Beijing, left in the city, and it's impossible to tell from the decaying condition of many of the medieval buildings whether the intention is to repair them or knock them down. Everywhere you look, some monolith skyscraper goes up, some of them taking up entire city blocks. Beijing is not a pedestrian friendly city; in spite of its monuments and historic sites, it has few public spaces for its residents to gather. Most everything of that sort is behind walls, through gates, and in a way Beijing's new development is a new iteration of that tradition. Inside these massive new buildings are shopping malls, offices, restaurants, net-bars, gyms, luxury apartments - huge interior spaces, mazes where people do their business and live their lives.

I'm staying in Chaoyang, in a small hotel off Tuanjiehu, a place that looks more like Beijing's past than its rushing present. The area is hard to navigate, with its narrow lanes, low-slung - no skyscrapers here; the tallest buildings theold-style brick apartment blocks, six stories at most. Across the alley from my hotel are a little laundry, a small convenience shop, a place that sells purified water systems. There's an elementary school up the street. I don't need an alarm; the kids wake me up every AM promptly at 8. It's a pleasant place, quiet most of the time, except for around 3:30, when the kids get out from school and their parents come to pick them up, and that kind of noise is the sort that's mostly joyful.

I like it here, in Beijing. I find it oddly comfortable, in spite of the fact that it's a far from omfortable place. Oh, there are definite downsides. The Great Firewall, for one - the internet censorship system that restricts the flow of information. It's oddly arbitrary - I can read Salon, the New York Times, the Washington Post - until suddenly I can't, because some article or another was deemed threatening or unsuitable.

The night I got here, I was delighted to find that blogspot was no longer blocked, at least not in Beijing. I could access the blog, log in and write a post. However, I couldn't publish the post. Damn you, Great Firewall! You tease me with this pretense of openness!

But I figure it's just a question of time. The Great Wall didn't keep the barbarians out; the Great Firewall can't stop the blog-hoards forever.