Everything is Big in Beijing!
All of a sudden I had a rush of excitement inside the Chinese embassy walls – we were ostensibly within another country already where other customs, languages, and procedures prevailed. When my girlfriend and I started preparing for a trip to Beijing from Saigon, Vietnam, where we live, we began visiting the bureaucratic compound on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, actually the consulate, the embassy proper being in Hanoi. It was gated of course, and behind large walls, with guards young and low-ranking, manning an entry guard house, and an intelligent-eyed host-type person, an older, Chinese gentleman, thin and tall with glasses and salt and pepper hair who spoke Vietnamese and a few words in English canvassing the courtyard for small problems to solve and ways to be helpful. I say ‘ began to visit’, because you must drop off your passport and visa application with the correct number of photos and then return with payment to pick up the processed papers, and in my case, return to have pages added to my passport (by visiting the U.S. consulate) and return again to start over. This otherwise tedious form filling and line waiting actually felt exciting, for me at least, as it packed a double-Asian punch. The week before we were to leave I ate the wrong thing at a seaside hotel buffet and spent a few days purging and then building back strength through the miracle of (once again) assimilating food. The day we were to leave, still mildly weakened, I spent the morning scurrying around town to my bank, then the Bank of China, then to a woman I know who changes money, and then to a nearby gold shop that my friend directed me to, gold shops being the established money-changers in Asia (where I should have started). This was all to secure some Chinese cash so that upon landing after midnight (which we were scheduled to do), we would have cab money, and could buy a bowl of noodles and a beer if necessary. I considered it possible that since we were landing so late, the sleepy airport might have the ATM down some dark and barricaded corridor, inaccessible. As it turns out, it was inaccessible to me for reasons other than administrative obscurity or some other form of Chinese mystique. In the early afternoon on the day we were to leave I began slowly, methodically packing, searching in my mind for the thing I would forget. Would it be the phone charger? How was the underwear count? My girlfriend, having packed the night before, arrived home eager and charged to get to the airport ahead of schedule, and not get locked in any rush-hour nonsense. That fuzzy spot in my brain, as yet unsatisfied, yielded to this energy so that the show could go on. “Ah I must have forgot something important” I thought. “But what is it?” My socks, my jeans, cameras and other such junk all bundled in my two bags, in my pockets were my passport, my ticket information, even a wad of Renminbi! Ah, deceptive ruse, the cash in hand, concealing unavoidable obligations of a thousand invoices yet to come. Turns out I had forgotten my bankcard; it’s void hidden beneath the sixty bucks in Yuan extending beyond the borders of my wallet. Just the first in a series of fiascoes we somehow seemed impervious to. Luckily I had already rooted out a potential disaster by testing my friends Beijing local sim phone number, determining that at least one digit was out of whack. With his corrected phone number in our arsenal (though without even our own sim card for days) we ventured into China, arrived at his apartment, and spent the next five days examining the city as tourists and guests, and as ourselves. Among other difficulties, the cab drivers couldn’t make out the address on the custom taxi-card we had printed for my friend’s apartment. (Cab drivers in Beijing usually don’t speak or read English to the profound degree that you should be equipped with Chinese character addresses of your destinations. Handily, there’s an ‘app’ for that). Either Beijing is so big the cabbies don’t know their way around, or there was some confusing misdirection in our translated ‘simplified’ (guessing ’twas the kooky name of the apartments-International Wonderland), which allowed them to find the neighborhood but not the correct block. Regardless, we arrived at my generous friend’s pad without incident. Other issues: we couldn’t get the intercom for our friend’s apartment to work right for us, his internet was down and connection problems plagued two local cafes, (when clear access to email and online banking and a few other internet services could have solved several problems). We spend one morning at a Starbucks style coffee shop futilely setting up a paypal transfer to cover our funds situation. Unfortunately, every time I try to use paypal, it finds it suspicious that I would want to use my account and subjects me to a 9 gate extra security protocol designed to somehow prove that I am not only myself, but am at home (and not traveling, a forbidden activity in the modern techno-digital era, or so it would seem). Our mission otherwise disastrous I met an American free-lance journalist using the space as his office for the day, working on a story about a new Tibetan prime minister of the government-in-exile. I acquired the address for his web page, an interesting lead. Luckily none of these potentially gate-barring forces caused any real problems for us at all due to an alliance of friendliness that smoothed it all over. If I hadn’t had such a friend in Beijing as the one that I had, we might have had to sleep in the airport and beg the airlines to send us home early, though perhaps I could have arranged some cash between my bank and a partner bank with some heroic effort on my part and gracious allowances from otherwise faceless corporations. But there it was, a big heart in a big city, with hardly anything but big places waiting for us. During our trip rumors of war ricocheted through the capital with digital speed. An attack on one of Qaddafi’s command and control centers killed a son with the same name as a more important son, also killing other family members. Qaddaffi claimed to have been there himself and survived the attack though witnesses who later arrived at the scene said no one could have possibly survived the wreckage and argued that Qaddafi was merely posturing for sympathy. The expresso conversation centered on whether such an attack constituted a targeted assassination attempt, (a more-or-less established habit of U.S. foreign policy), or whether giving direct orders to tank brigades through a satellite phone against entire civilian centers and their war councils and fighters made you no longer a protected head of state, or family member of a head of state, but a military combatant, and thus a legitimate target. The foundations of this discussion didn’t have a chance to cool down before being blasted into a higher profile a few days later. For our first day of touring we skirted through the Forbidden city without crossing any of the ticketed gates, except for the large garden park, and also entered Tienanmen Square. I was surprised to see the face of Mao, gazing from Tienanmen Gate. A young soldier, on guard, falling fast asleep in eight second intervals while standing up with locked knees, in front of this monument, was unable by duty to breath deeply, or shake off his somnolence. There was also an odd array of t-shirted men in jeans methodically arranged as guards on the series of bridges connecting the city that was forbidden with the street fronting now vast Tienanmen Square. A uniformed man for every three t-shirts, all behind the same yellow rope, in the same chest-and-eyes forward stance, without even matching informal wear. We traversed the underground tunnels, which led to the square, passing through a security check, as riot gates prevented street access. My guard-gazing continued in this vast steppe of the world’s largest public square where I spied inside a waist-high plexi-glass box with a gate, on a faded red carpet-covered one-man dais, ultimately surrounded by a tattered cinema velvet rope line with four accompanying stanchions, an alert, erect military man standing guard (with several identically positioned comrades strategically placed). These fellows had greater leeway to step down and take a refreshing 30 pace march than the Mao guard had, as I witnessed one do, before stepping back into his ‘impressive’ perch. When I later discussed difficult Chinese matters with someone I trusted I expressed dismay at the lack of self-awareness about how several power-postures come off. “They’re aiming at an internal audience” my friend said ” who understand the force behind such gestures, and fear that force”. There are more serious matters to address but I couldn’t get over thinking that of the five-point program for specialness being performed by that soldier’s perch: 1) rope and stanchion, 2) special glass box, 3) red carpet, 4) elevated platform, only the 5th one, the soldier’s uniform was really necessary to convey the gravity of his presence in such a historic location. (Ah- I forgot his special umbrella stand, another striking symbol of his strength). I did notice a slightly self-conscious face on a policeman patrolling the square on his Segway. Cover it with a tattered red carpet and install an umbrella stand and no such doubt would enter his mind I tell you! Thusly outfitted so starkly, he failed to deter the joy of a fox-faced girl, spending the afternoon with two of her friends posing for pics in front of the twin jumbo-trons. A scattering of random soldiers throughout the square marched in centipede units or alone, executing a fascinating rotate and stop motion. History perhaps shows the importance of having an alert police and military force in the square. But does it make the government look strong? Such vigilance did not prevent an old man collecting bottles from peeing in one however.
One of the things Beijing is noted for are its alleyway neighborhoods composed of courtyard houses. These neighborhoods are known as Hutongs. At one point the houses were single family residences, then during periods of social upheaval and further urbanisation, began being divided into multi-family arrangements, with a communal kitchen and shared courtyard. They are in a dual state now of being prized as a quintessential heritage of Beijing and also having their survival be threatened from a government bent on modernization. Many were torn down in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, for example. There is a move to protect what remains, including the adapted reuse as restaurants, bars, cafes and entire Sunday-walk enclaves of shopping and everything else already mentioned. We really enjoyed dinner at such a Hutong complex, a Yunnan specialty place named after a well-noted city in that province, Dali. Afterwards we had a fine beer and a single malt scotch in a small, beautiful establishment across the street supposedly owned by a Mongolian rock star. It was decorated, detailed and furnished with salvaged hand- carved doors and sashes and ephemera such as yellowed party identification cards and old photos of long dead people. A place to really gaze through a glass at candlelight. My girlfriend is Vietnamese, and there was an almost expected pattern of people speaking Chinese to her in expectation that she would understand. We didn’t know how to say Vietnamese in Chinese, she would just shake her head and say “English”(The basic gist of the various names the Chinese have used for Vietnam are variations of something meaning Southern Kingdom or as R. said, “guys, you’re actually still us, you’re just down there”). The bar man here followed suit and after first being surprised at Que’s inability to respond to his Mandarin, nodded in recognition and then made a playful gesture about the shape of her SE Asian nose, she smiled and joined in by stretching her eyes.
We visited Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor served as head priest, conversing and giving sacrifices to ensure a good harvest. I could not help but to compare these imperial sites with the imperial cultures of the Yucatan, if only to understand similarities in the sensibilities of human displays of power and divine connection. Though the Chinese dynasties repeatedly collapsed, the sites since their inception were either continually developed or, if left to decay, restored again in a timely fashion in a situation where the surrounding human society never depopulated. The Mexican sites collapsed in a process still undergoing study and all organic structures (such as a wooden building using a pyramid or other stone platform as a foundation) are no longer visible to the eye. Temples such as the Castillo, the Bell Tower, and the South Gate were clearly intent on reaching the sky as a man-made mountain and stairway to heaven. Large incense burners often sit at the entrance to such stairways, to mystify with smoke, and elephant shaped gutters carry water away. And the Eagle and Snake, or The Dragon and Phoenix, or the Feathered Serpent stand as foundational images. To be clear, there is no established connection between ancient Mexican and Chinese culture, and although several outlier claims do posit such contact, no evidence convinces the mainstream of experts who study such things. To me it’s just curious, and as I marvel I don’t imagine any Mayanist or Sinologist would be impressed with my thoughts. Nonetheless, it was poetic enough when one of these cultures came up with this stuff, let alone both. (To clarify further, Chichen Itza is said to have been built in 600 AD whereas The Forbidden City was built maybe 8oo years later, though I am not yet clear on when the first ‘reptile and bird’ ceremonial grounds or any other cultural component were developed or built in either culture).
At the Ming Dynasty tombs situated perfectly in a valley in a series of valleys and mountains outside Beijing the grimness of the historical obsession with power is emphasized by a ceremonial hall deep underground complete with throne and candle, though under intended conditions, there would be no oxygen to light the candle. A deep wind whipped the banners and blew dust from the Mongol desert around us. This is the coldest Que has ever been. At the mountain restaurant we witnessed a westerner with his Chinese wife, their son, and her mother argue loudly with a waitress. We could not figure out what they were arguing about but my girlfriend was able to use this as a lesson to warn me against learning Vietnamese and Mandarin as a means of being an asshole in more than one context. We were here to visit the Great Wall and the town turned out to be 100% tourist- ready with ski lifts to carry us up to the mountaintop and a toboggan attraction to carry us down as well. I opted to hike instead because of my love of hiking; a mistake only within the foreshortened scheduling our tour operators had designed. Despite this tragedy, of spending two hours of a twelve-hour tour at the Great Wall when that was our only real goal, so that the tour guides could bring us to silk and jade centers were we were educated on these topics while before being provided with vast shopping opportunities we ungratefully declined. It was the ‘exit through the gift’ shop bait and switch. Nevertheless we experienced the Wall in a real enough way, as a visitor to a not overcrowded, restored section on an intensely picturesque mountain ridge. It really looked like “The Great Wall”. The field of play for the soldier went something like this: ascend wall, walk wall, live in guardhouse, (fire cannon, drink tea) descend wall to mountain town to gamble, drink, visit prostitutes, re-supply etc. Repeat for life. The base town, before serving soldiers, recreates itself by now serving visitors. The architecture thus is a large wall with a walkway wide enough famously ‘for a carriage to pass’, punctuated by guardhouses and then occasional stairs for any necessary ascending and descending. Nevertheless, the added field of the mountain adds a parametric level to the architecture, raising it from its blocky simplicity to an avant-garde level, its serpentine contours conforming to an unpredictable horizon, its demands for field performance unwittingly foreshadowing the most forward-thinking architecture today by releasing the line. Really stunning to see in person and I can’t wait to one day visit the wilder sections and do some hiking and camping there.
Inside my friend’s apartment we could flip through design books and read Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist and Patrik Schumacher’s Auotopoiesis of Architecture Volume 1, a fascinating analysis of social systems and the avant-garde applied specifically. We could ponder such things in private or at a cafe. We could visit imperial culture sites and observe the obsession with power displays and bigness. We could sense and witness and read about an intellectual ferment. And we could at times witness the blend of all this, such as at the Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium, where artist Ai Wei-Wei briefly collaborated as a commissioned artistic consultant for design, with a Swiss firm of architects before distancing himself with anti-Olympic comments. And so he is now residing in jail, one of the world’s foremost artists of this era, after a long series of skirmishes with the authorities, as a signal from power that no one is protected. Ai, as an international artist, transcends nation and culture, but also is epically Chinese, portraying perhaps a Confucian struggle of a proper scholar with an errant emperor. His father, Ai Qing, was a famous poet who also suffered official displeasure. Looking at the level of ferment in Beijing and Shanghai (where Ai Wei Wei’s studio was bulldozed in a surprise attack from zoning officials) I speculate on the nature of the avant-garde in general. There can be self-consciousness within, or an accusation from without, that the avant-garde is arch, recklessly bold, or even destructive to the mainstream. The focus on the new can cause instability or anxiety for the existing. On the other hand, the moment the new achieves enough stability to have a recognizable form, it becomes the rage, not as a threat we are enraged against, but an emblem we are clamoring for. Schumacher, in a new and yet resonant manner for myself, describes the hallmark of perhaps all valid avant-garde activity in his description of the practice of architecture. For Schumacher, avant-garde architecture is engaged in an act of research and the avant-garde firm is properly a research laboratory (in contrast to a mainstream firm, whose focus is on delivering the state-of-the art). The ultimate concern for these affairs comes from within the borders of a communication system where any act is a ([n] internal) communication. Such a description of the foremost thinkers as researchers rather than some villainous “other”s strikes me as insightful and humane to all parties. The communication system of central concern for Schumacher is architecture, existing with it’s bold borders alongside uncountable other social systems, among the most stable being the legal system, the finance system, the political system, and so on. The communications aimed at the public from whatever social systems within Beijing are often big. They speak of an obsession with central power. Ai Wei Wei with his communiqués of, for example, shoddy school construction that culminated in the unnecessary deaths of Sichuan schoolchildren is researching and discussing the central power with the central power. By cutting itself off from such research and conversation the leaders are attempting to change the borders of a system that has evolved along with human history. Are they trying to exist as a system without research? Or can they successfully brand any dissident as an outsider from the system, akin to a military opponent, along the lines of a terrorist with a satellite phone and thus unprivileged to communicate? Why is it that the dissident comes from within the system? Why are university towns full of dissenting intellectual weirdos? Is it that the impetus to communicate new or oppositional designs comes from having Empire stamped on your soul?
We spent our Sunday walking in the Hutongs, watching girls with rabbit ears pose for photos (a year of the Rabbit fad). We purchased a chess set and a kite that’s attraction was that it was actually a tethered system of kites. We mildly debated eating from, then bypassed, a stinky tofu stand, and witnessed a shop that was an experiment in absurd pricing for sub-ikea design, testing China’s emerging middle class’s appetite for Western style, and its attendant price-gouging in a city where the common person can probably still buy a nutritionally rounded meal for less than a dollar. We relaxed for an uncountable couple of hours by a lake where pedal-boats are rented in an outdoor shisha bar. Many bastard taxi-drivers throughout our trip refused to pick us up but the ones who helped us represented an array of cool. Many of them were women in their thirties, with an attractive blend of toughness and an ability to smile when they chose. The coolest guy who drove us sang to himself while holding a pair of walnuts aloft that he circulated across his palms in an act of mental and physical hygiene. We sent our last day inside the Forbidden City, where I bemoaned the endless processions that must have taken place. Later that day, before we got misdirected into an expensive high-end tourist attraction restaurant, we met a funny pair of friends who wanted us to drink with them because they thought we looked interesting. “There’s so much money here,” the guy, Johnny told us. “I’m just an actor, not even a real one, a clown, and I can make 15,000 a day”. He was from a Northern European country and had been living in Beijing for ten years. His friend clearly had Chinese parents (the world agreed she looked Chinese) but was from the Ukraine, and was 100% acculturated as a Russian-Ukrainian. She considered it one of the banes of her life that as a Beijing-er, people would inevitably triangulate her as Mongolian(= Russian + Chinese Q.E.D.). The pair interviewed a street-sweeper walking by to prove their point. They both declared America to be the best country in the world and warned that if you said the wrong thing in Beijing, you might just disappear, due to a helicopter extraction or some such similar fate. They looked visibly worried when discussing such matters. I found further confirmation of these types of concerns (without the drunken hyperbole) after I looked up the writings of that journalist I met at the coffee shop. His name is Paul Mooney. Please read his article about a human rights lawyer existing in a standoff with police. Our host told us that the authorities even control the weather, and indeed they do! The truth is, none of this deters me from considering this an interesting place. It goes with the territory so to speak. The injustices I learn about disturb me, and I hate the fact that in speaking my mind, maybe I am someday making myself a target. But If fate sends me to China, I should continue my research, find a favorite fruit vendor and say ‘so be it’. All day long we heard on the taxi radio chatter about Obama and Bin Laden, unable to predict what for. That night we ended up in the airport, much like I did on September 10th, 2001, returning from a family friend’s wedding in California, sleeping and waiting for our ticket counter to open.