Monday, September 26, 2005

798 Photo Gallery, Da Shan Zi.

"Charm and Strength - Mao Zedong and the Chinese Contemporary Artists," at the Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art.

Factory 798 grounds, Da Shan Zi.
Sat. Sept 24

Took a 15 minute taxi ride this morning to "Qi Jiu Ba," in Da Shan Zi. The industrial factory neighborhood in northeast Beijing, named for Factory 798, is now a collection of artist studios and galleries. You can find good art bookshops here, a few trendy cafes and the occasional tour bus of giggling, young Korean women. My Chinese is not yet good enough to ask what the factory used to make. Some of the artists are still struggling, others have struck it rich. Western curators and embassy officials have left business cards at some studios. Da Shan Zi is not listed in either of my guidebooks, which is a good thing.

At the 798 Photo Gallery, black and white photographs showed a spectator trying to get a better view by balancing on the rear platform of his bike; a rural performer holding a bicycle aloft - in his teeth; and the front tire of an early morning commuter emerging in an otherwise empty hutong alley. The bicycle is a member of the Chinese family, the photographer, Wang Wenlan, wrote. At rush hour, cyclists in China are like a mobile Great Wall, he added, and "when you are in the midst of it, you feel like you are the blood in the veins of society, lively and vigorous, sensing endless potential."

Playing in the background was a continuous loop of a Leonard Cohen song: "I'm turning tricks. I'm getting fixed. I'm back on Boogie Street. You lose your grip, and then you slip ... you ditch it all to stay alive, a thousand kisses deep." I could have been in west Chelsea in Manhattan.

Some say this is where young people today have the most freedom in China. A book I saw described the photographs of Song Yongping's parents in old age, ill health and death, juxtaposed with pictures of his parents as young party loyalists. Song's point was reportedly to show a modern revolutionary couple "whose youthful strength and ardour were spent serving a cause that gave them no support or comfrort in their last days."

At the Marella Gallery, photos of the artist Li Wei with his head buried in the ground were supposed to partly reflect typical Chinese behavior. Losing face is a terrible thing, so nothing is expressed directly and everything is oblique and only hinted at. A published description of his art said Li was hiding from international terrorism as well as from China's rapid economic change and globalization, which was "driving humanity toward serious international conflict" which in turn was often reflected in personal, domestic conflict.

Mao as pop art remains a popular theme here. At the Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art, there's a painting of him with Marilyn Monroe and several elaborately decorated porcelain figures of Mao that evoke Elvis or Liberace.

One of the more personal exhibits was by the artist Song Dong, whose mother was born into a prosperous family but then became impoverished. Her KMT officer father was imprisoned for seven years. After his release, her mother died. Other hardships followed.

The Chinese saying "Wu Jin Qi Yong" refers to the traditional Chinese virtue of frugality and translates as "waste not." Song's mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, saved everything that might have a possible future use: plastic wash basins, scraps of cloth, old TV sets and phonograph players, clay pots, shopping bags, clips and pens. When her husband died in 2002, her collecting worsened as she tried to fill the void and hang onto the past.

Her son's art was a big room full of Zhao's household goods, arranged by her in neat piles against a wood frame house that represented her modest home.

"Today's young people can hardly understand the joy and sorrow involved in this type of collecting," the curator at Beijing Tokyo Art Projects wrote. "How could such messy, suffocating stuff make up an intimate environment, generating illusions of safety and even evoking secret memories?"

Song wrote that the project had helped his mother emerge from her grief. He had found a way to help clean out her house without angering her. And he had proved her right: all those things finally did serve some purpose.

Song Dong's "Waste Not," a display of objects collected by his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan, 67, over several decades.

Zhao Xiangyuan's shopping bag collection, sandwiched between her collection of old shoes and string.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Looking north from the main bar strip in Sanlitun (all neon, beer signs and touts trying to entice foreigners to eat in their restaurants), into the leafier embassy neighborhood.

This is where I take my Mandarin classes. He laoshi, second from right, is the first of my five teachers each day.

Every morning at 8:15, nearly 2,000 students have morning assembly right under my window. Sometimes they stretch to marching band music but yesterday it was aerobics-style calisthenics to pop music.

Workers hanging lanterns and a bicycle repairman chatting with neighbors in a Sanlitun hutong next to my favorite gelato shop.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Was supposed to meet fellow students for dinner but instead spent last night dealing with a psycho leasing agent and his partner. Had the gracious help of the office and office staff. And the police were great.

I had thought the whole thing was over after the last crazy visit, but at 7 pm, agent Li called again. I explained that he needed to call my colleagues, in part because my Chinese isn't good enough but also because the office is handling my rent. He claimed not to have the number. I insisted he had it and told him I watched my "tong shi" give him the Washington Post number last time. I hung up, called the office and asked them to call Li. Two minutes later, Li was outside my apartment door, again.

The last time he was here, Li came by three times in one evening. The third time he brought three of his partners or bosses. They shouted, demanded money, tried to push their way into my apartment, banged repeatedly on my door and switched off my electricity. After that, we called the police, who said that if the agents ever came back, we should call building security or the police and they would come and tell them off.

Li did call again, saying he was downstairs. Cops didn't come because he wasn't at my door. This time he was, knocking and phoning at the same time. I called security, who were supposed to keep Li off my floor. They didn't understand me at first. I told them if they didn't call police, I would.

Security came up and talked to Li but he refused to leave. He continued to knock until one of guards stood with his back to my peephole. Li stood aside, trying to call his boss. Meanwhile, Phil called the police, then came over himself. Soon there were two cops, two security agents, the head of security, the Washington Post bureau chief and agent Li, a small party on my doorstep.

The female cop seemed to be in charge. She asked Li where he was from, then said, "This is Beijing. You can't just knock on people's doors demanding money. Are you from the north?"

Then Phil and I and agent Li all climbed into a police car, which sped off to the local station with its lights on, no siren. Li, clearly uncomfortable, wanted to make another call but the cops told him to get in the car. We were at the station for two hours. The desk officer had no discernable facial expression. I didn't realize that he was one of the police officers who had come to my apartment before, shortly after Li's first first visit. It turned out his surname was the same as mine. And he was on our side.

He spoke to us privately, then spoke separately to agent Li and his belligerent boss. The boss told other bystanders in the police station that he was being cheated by a foreigner, who expected special treatment. When I said “ta shuo cuo le,” (he's incorrect), he called me a bitch and accused me of lying about my lack of Chinese.

Later, one of the Post's senior researcher arrived to help translate. I asked Li's boss if he had a sister, a daughter, a mother, and whether he expected them to be treated the same way, harassed and stalked for money. Foreigner, my ass, I said loudly. The researcher translated that too or something very close to it.

We had no contract, no agreement with agent Li or his company. We didn't know that a second agent would show us the same apartment, at a better price. We hadn't deliberately gone around them. We repeatededly said they should call or visit the bureau to resolve any dispute. Or hire a lawyer. We'd be happy to meet them in court (renters don't generally pay the agent's fee. Li demanded more than twice the fee my landlady paid the second agent).

But they preferred to bang on my door, and said so. They told the police that they would continue to come see me because they knew where I lived, and because I was in "their" apartment.

Suddenly, after the desk officer spoke to Li and his boss, they promised to stop harassing me ("sao rao" in Mandarin). I'd love to know what the police actually said. Li's boss promised they wouldn't call, visit or even go to the bureau. I said they were welcome to come to our office, but they said they wouldn't waste another minute on this. It's finished, closed, they said, walking out of the police station in a huff.

On the one hand, they really lost face and I wondered whether it's really over. On the other hand, another observer said, they knew they were wrong. That's why they didn't want to pursue it legally. So it's over.

Getting around by bike is great. I now park it in my apartment. I'm not the only one: each morning all the mountain bikes in the building come down by elevator.

Crossing guards here are armed with whistles, red flags, bullhorns and a sharp sense of limit lines. They scold and shout at cyclists who nudge just so slightly over the white line, waiting impatiently for the light to change. In some things there is such order here, in others absolutely none.

My routine for now means rising about 7:30 and starting for class at 8:30. After three hours of drills, reading comprehension and pronounciation practice from three different teachers, I am ready for lunch. Most days that means a $5 bowl of rice and meat at a Japanese restaurant next door, where the waitresses are slowly teaching me the whole menu. The other customers are either Japanese or Chinese businessmen or other foreign visitors or students. Then it's back for two more hours of character class. The teachers dictate and I write words – and now, whole sentences – on a white board. The other students are embassy staff, graduate students, lawyers, businessmen, American, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish and Dutch.

Then it's home for several hours of homework. Sometimes I stop at the Post Office ("xinfeng" for envelope) or the grocery store ("yan" for salt and "tang" for sugar; they're sometimes both in unmarked clear plastic bags) or today the visa office ("wei shenme" for why, as in, why is my year-long multiple-entry visa now cancelled?).

I also stopped for a gelato and did my homework outdoors watching workers dig up the road with jackhammers. Everywhere you look they're tearing down hutongs or simple two-story brick apartments to make way for gleaming high-rises or hotel, office and shopping complexes. At the next table was another foreigner speaking fluent and rapid Mandarin to two Chinese friends. I could make out that they were talking about the quality of coffee Americans are used to drinking at home (were they planning to open a restaurant?). Then they moved on to a discussion about Iraq and American and Islam. I traced my characters and listened with envy.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The northeast view from my apartment in Sanlitun.
Yesterday afternoon I bought a brand-new bicycle for about $20. By this morning, it was stolen from the tented bike hut on the grounds of my apartment building - a tent that has a security guard. I hadn't even used it once.

Unlike most Chinese cyclists, I didn't simply chain the tire to the frame. I secured it with a heavy "motorcycle" lock to a sturdy pole. I purposely bought a plain, local brand bike with smallish wheels and no gears. Unfortuantely I got it from a shop directly across from my apartment building, so they knew a foreigner had just chained a brand new bike in the tent.

"Mei ban fat," said one of my Chinese teachers. Nothing I can do about it. Most people lose three or four bikes a year, they said, especially students on college campuses. So this afternoon, I spent another $20 buying another lock and repairing the brakes on a used bike belonging to one of our office staff. Fingers crossed.

When I told my taxi driver the story, he looked amazed. He had heard of stolen bikes – but before I had even sat on it? He laughed and told me it didn't matter whether I bought an old one, a new one, or used three locks. It was bound to be stolen again.

A new bike is about a week's worth of taxi fare to and from school, so it's worth trying again. Looking forward to seeing so much more of Beijing this way.

Does anyone make a bike lock that can't be cut or picked and is big enough to chain a bike to a tree? Could be a market here.

As for helmets, I really ought to get one. But no one wears them here. Motorists are supposedly fined heavily for hitting cyclists, who have their own bike lanes here.

Even bike shop owners otherwise looking to make a sale told me not to bother. Their rationale: you'll look like a foreigner. But maybe this is the one time I really want to look like a foreigner.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Dongyue Temple - a Taoist temple where worshippers can offer prayers to a spiritual bureaucracy of departments on official morality, happiness, justifiable wealth, wandering ghosts and 15 different kinds of violent death

Friday, September 16, 2005

Sept. 12, Tuesday

Across the street from a jampacked Ikea store is the Bian Yi Fang Peking Duck restaurant. Had lunch there Sunday with a classmate of my Dad's, from St John's University in Shanghai in the 1950's. His children and family friends from California joined us eating duck at least four different ways but no one was quite sure what was salty, sweet, dark, white or whatever. Among other topics, there was animated discussion of the rising stock market and current housing prices: they said they wished they had gotten in earlier so they could have made some money. A daughter-in-law works for Chevron managing "downstream" products like lubricants. New cars and the demand for gas were skyrocketing in part because cars are still relatively cheap in China, she said.

Moved into my new apartment Sunday and watched the 9/11 anniversary commemorations live on CNN. The next night, I got a visit from a leasing agent demanding money for showing me the apartment. We rented through a second agent who offered us a better price. We broke no rules, signed no exclusive agreements and had no idea the second agent was going to show us the same apartment. The Post's Chinese staff navigating the apartment search said it was no problem. But the agent had a problem and came back three times, bringing his bosses / goon squad with him. They tried to push their way into my apartment, turned off my electricity and shouted and banged on my door. I called the landlady, building security and Phil Pan. Only day two in my new home and already I've got the police in my apartment. They sided with us, but the agent's bosses told Phil the next day they were coming back. We're too angry now to pay them a dime. The experts around me say they believe the situation is settled for now.

Sept. 13, Wednesday

Visited the Dongyue Temple just north of Jianguomenwai Dajie. Originally built in 1319 and since restored, Dongyue is a Taoist temple with dozens of small rooms with statues in them – sort of like small chapels. Each "department" describes a spiritual bureaucracy in uniquely Chinese fashion. There are departments for jaundice, for signing documents, for halting the destruction of living beings, for official morality, for false accusations, for wandering ghosts and for 15 different kinds of violent death.

Worshippers leave red wooden ornaments or amulets hanging from the front railing of the most popular departments, such as those for longevity or happiness or for the Door God who wards off evil and brings fortune to a home. The department for controlling bullying and cheating has no red tags. The hall of descendents - where people pray for many healthy children – has hundreds of red tags. There is heavy emphasis on getting credit for good works. At the Department for Determining Individual Destiny, people are encouraged to "perform merits to avoid falling in with low-class society." Even Hell has a fair trial court.

Sept. 14, Thursday

Started Mandarin classes today at TLI-IYU. I'm doing five hours a day not including an hour lunch break. Three hours in the morning for speaking Chinese, new vocubulary words and comprehension of sentences using both characters and Pinyin. In the afternoon, two hours of character drills. Not sure I can maintain five hours but will try. All the Japanese students at TLI (who already know many of the characters or Hanzi) are in class for six or more hours a day. Plus they hire tutors.

Everyone in Beijing is helpful when I open my mouth and the most fractured Chinese comes out. It's not like Hong Kong, where people would ask why I couldn't speak Chinese (Cantonese) properly. Taxi drivers, supermarket clerks, hotel staff, waiters, bartenders - all are patient and eager to help me find the right words.

Last night in a Yunnan-style restaurant down an alley off the main bar strip of Sanlitun, I ordered a delicious noodle dish called Guo Qiao Mi Xian, or "Crossing the Bridge" noodles. Long ago, a wife made her husband lunch each day but it grew cold as she walked it across a bridge to his worksite. So she improvised, carrying a hot soup and raw ingredients. The fatty soup would congeal and the layer of fat would keep the soup warm. When she crossed the bridge she removed the layer of foot and added the ingredients, cooking them on the spot. Including bottled water and rice wine, dinner was less than $5.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Sept. 9 Friday

Friday was my first free day after a three-day search for an apartment. The fourth day was spent in bureaucracy, more of which is to come (After paying nearly $900 for a comprehensive physical in DC so I wouldn't get stuck with needles in China, the international visitor's medical center at Heiping Hospital rejected my US documentation because there wasn't enough medical terminology proving that I didn't have syphilis).

Got around by myself without any trouble, but so can any tourist. You just need to pronounce where you're going and know a big landmark next to it. I beat out a line of locals rushing for taxis by shouting "Kai Lai Jiu Dian," the Chinese name for my hotel, but the driver probably just liked my destination.

Visited another journalist today who lives in a 30th floor three-bath, three-bed apartment in a big complex with a health club and pool. Very modern, very white and very expensive (US$3,000 per month).

Took a taxi to the Wanfujing pedestrian street and the Oriental Plaza shopping mall and got a real dose of consumer Beijing: large pharmacies, pearl emporiums, tourist trap curio stores and food shops with wall-to-wall bins of Chinese sweets, dried fruit and jellied candy, all packaged like brightly-colored holiday ornaments. The street is full of neon and people strolling, many wearing those lovely ankle sock pantyhose.

When they say you can get anything in China, it's true. From Lindt chocolate to Walker shortbread, from Biotherm to Clinique makeup, from cheap foot massages to Easy Spirit shoes. The imported chocolate biscuits I bought were expensive and stale; but the five-mushroom soup in the Gloria Plaza hotel's Cantonese restaurant was delicious.

I went into Adidas to see who was buying pricey athletic gear and authentic running shoes when fakes are available all over town. It was mostly young men and one tall Chinese guy with an impressively long set of dreadlocks.

The upmarket Oriental Plaza is packed with designer stores (Givenchy, Paul Smith, St. John, Valentino, Swarovski ... Missoni and L'Occitane are coming) and also more affordable gear (Esprit, Kookai, Nautica, Swatch). But all of it is expensive by Chinese standards. At one end there is a Volkswagen car dealership. There is also a BMW Lifestyle store: sweaters, luggage, coats, no coupes.

The Grace Kelly nail salon in the mall is deserted, probably because a basic pedicure and French manicure costs $26. In the tiny strip of boutiques in Sanlitun Road near my new apartment the same thing costs $8.

In open market stalls across Beijing you can bargain a fake Kipling nylon handbag down to $4 but at the omnipresent Starbucks, Chinese consumers are paying more than $9 for half a pound of beans. A cup of Starbucks coffee ranges from $1.50 to more than $2. The Wangfujing Starbucks was crowded with young Beijingers. Hotels and restaurants here seem mostly to not have heard of decaf.

I bought a cotton skirt and a light coat at Esprit. Because those two things cost so much by local standards, they gave me a pair of khaki pants for free. Hemmed them for me on the spot. And gave me a VIP card for 20% off future Esprit purchases. What service. Actually the pants took half an hour and I absent-mindedly went back to the hotel without them. Will go back for them tomorrow: they will remember me as the idiot who couldn't speak Chinese, who wore extra large and who forgot her pants.

I managed to bargain for some tiny "jade" ornaments, the kind with embroidered cord that you can attach to your cell phone if you want it to be ke' ai (cute). I probably saved twenty cents, but it was thrilling to be able to do it in Mandarin.

Sept. 10, Saturday

Met the agent and landlord at my new apartment this morning to sign the leasing contract. Needed translations of Chinese instructions on the microwave buttons and dishwasher dials. Learned how to turn on the electricity. You buy electricity at a bank; they give you a card which you insert in a meter outside your apartment door to see how many kilowatts you have left. Then we all trooped over to the local police station for a residency permit. Technically I have to come back next week after taking my residency permit to the visa office (where foreigners clear out their paperwork), the police said. But then they admitted that no one ever does.

Had lunch at a restaurant in the suburbs called The Orchard, organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club. The restaurant, owned by an American couple, is in a beautiful apple orchard in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. The grounds have been irrigated to include a carp pond. Nice to get away from the highrises.

Met other journalists but also an Australian woman with a local NGO who then helped me navigate the subway. The fare is 37 cents to go anywhere on the East-West line. Only slightly more, I think, for the other line. Ticket ladies take paper tickets from you and rip them up. No maps with fancy graphics or electronic strips but the platforms are as wide and clean and the ceilings as high as in the metro in Washington DC.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Looking north from my hotel near Jianguomen. The Post bureau and corporate apartment are in one of the tall peach-colored buildings on the right.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Sept. 7 Wednesday

Found the apartment: a studio in a modern high-rise near Nan Sanlitun Lu for about US $600 a month. Convenient, close to shops and restaurants and a comfortable, well-lit place to study.

Withdrawing money from a Citibank ATM to pay my rental deposit was a separate challenge. At 430 pm in Beijing, customer service says it's still Tuesday in New York. Because of the Labor Day holiday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are counted as one day. By Thursday though, Citibank Beijing is saying it's the US bank that's placing limits on my withdrawals, and US Citibank is saying it's Beijing's fault.

A trip to the international visitor's health center at Heiping Hospital was like a trip to the DMV. You're sent upstairs only to be sent downstairs only to be told to come back tomorrow because there is no one to help you today.

Sept. 8 Thursday

At 10 am, Heiping Hospital was crowded, organized chaos as foreigners and Chinese lined up trying to get their health exams and health records in order. Some visitors spoke Mandarin but many did not. None of the staff seemed to speak English. Some people didn't have enough money and lined up for nothing. Others walked into the private exams of other people.

On the streets, the most popular car seems to be the Volkswagon. A Chinese car called the Qi Rui, or the Cherry, is also everywhere. Taxi drivers say it costs about US $20 to $25 to fill up a tank of a mid-sized car. The traffic is horrendous as thousands of new cars are aded to the streets each week: drivers say they can see the license plate numbers jump exponentially.

Lunch was a bowl of noodles at a Taiwanese takeaway in the French supermarket Carrefour. A basic bowl with meat and vegetables was just under 8 yuan, or less than a dollar. You pay slightly more for a vegetarian version, more for dumplings and more for a hot, unsweetened soy milk on the side. But it's all very cheap.

The market was jammed with shoppers buying mooncakes, plastic hangers, toilet paper, bed sheets and cleaning liquid. It's cheaper than Ikea, and some say more popular than the big discounter Walmart, which got here after Carrefour and apparently annoyed consumers by starting life here as a members-only store where you had to pay to shop.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Sept. 3, 2005 Sat

Took off from San Francisco at 2:20 pm PST after paying to upgrade to business class. Debated for about 10 seconds before considering the 11-1/2 hour flight. Definitely worth it. The adventure begins.

Sept. 4, 2005 Sun

Smooth landing at 4:50 pm Beijing time. No lines at immigration and barely any at customs. The Post's driver, "Xiao Xie," picked me up with a big grin and a sign with my name on it. It all seems so easy.

My colleague Phil Pan is "Xiao Pan." Apparently I am Small Fan. Practiced my Mandarin on Xiao Xie as we slogged through traffic. He thinks I'll be fine but I'm not convinced. I have to resort to my Chinese notes to continue the conversation.

Phil takes me to a nearby noodle restaurant, where he showed me how to use my new smartphone. Then we toured the two-bedroom apartment I'll inherit next year. It's spacious and filled with beautiful old Chinese furniture. Phil has a one-minute commute across a courtyard to the office.

Meanwhile, my convenient but average hotel completely ripped me off the first night until the local Post staff renegotiated the rate for the rest of my stay, saving 57%.

Sept. 5, 2005 Mon

Met Grand Aunt Xiao Bi-lian after breakfast, my paternal grandmother's step-sister. She was delighted with a photocopy of two old photos, one showing her and her sister as young girls at a Shanghai birthday party circa 1938, the other showing Dad and his mother, who she refers to as "sister."

Bi-lian brought along her "daughter" Wang Lei, who is actually her paternal granddaughter. But Lei Lei, 26, doesn't call Bi-lian "Mah Mah." Lei was an only daughter and was sent to live with another only daughter cousin so the two would have each other for company. As a result, Lei follows her cousin in calling Bi-lian "ah boo." which is a term for a maternal relative.

Spent the afternoon apartment hunting near the Taipei Language Institute in East Beijing; it's mostly expensive high-rise complexes which seem to totally isolate their inhabitants. One living room view took in eight construction cranes. Tomorrow we search closer to downtown.