Beijing

That’s where I am now, and shortly after I landed I remembered all the things I love and hate about it. Not that I ever really forgot. And I definitely love it more than I hate it. But there were the usual frustrations.

Like when my taxi driver dropped me off at the hotel from the airport and drove away without giving me my change. It was only ten kuai, but still.

I decided to make this a budget trip and booked my hotel reservation at Ru Jia at Jiaodaokou. I stayed there with Lisa several months ago and we liked it. What’s not to like for 248 kuai a night at a good location? Alas, this time the main building was occupied and they sent me to a room in an ancillary building. I knew the second I stepped into the room that I was in trouble. It smelled like a toilet. A chinese toilet. And I mean it. The bathroom door was shut and when I opened it it was like being punched in the gut. The toxic vapors, freed by the opening door, soon permeated the room. I went to the front desk and they switched me to the room next door that was even worse, if such is possible. A lady from housekeeping came in and sprayed the room with a Chinese version of Glade, and for a few minutes the stench of human waste was replaced by a sickly lemony scent that soon dissipated and left the room with the same ungodly odor. I knew I had to leave.

Thank God my Chinese friend Ben had met me at the hotel.He recommended a place down the street, Green Tree Inn on Fangjia Hutong near Yonghegong, where I quickly checked in and was assigned a comfortable if spartan room with no foul smell. It was a haven. And it was even cheaper than Ru Jia. For those traveling budget I highly recommend it, and its environment is super-cool, surrounded by coffee shops and bars that in a few months will no doubt turn into another commercialized Nanluoguxiang. But for now, it’s wonderful.

The best thing about Beijing for me is always the people, both my Chinese and foreigner friends. There is nothing like them in Phoenix, I’m afraid. Brilliant, funny, generous, it’s for them that I always return to Beijing, and each time I’m with them I wonder how I could possibly have left China. Actually, back in America I think about it every day.

We all get used to China’s miserably slow, restrictive, ultra-paranoid Internet, but each time I come back it’s something of a shock. It is slower than ever, and my proxy only makes it seem slower yet. Sometimes you want to throw your PC against the wall.

Tonight I went to the gorgeous National Theater to see the opera La Boheme performed by a Korean company. The audience was largely Korean as well. I have absolutely nothing against Koreans, but I had never sat with them in a opera before. They talked through the performance, rummaged through crinkling plastic bags, giggled, got up and walked around… The Chinese and Westerners in the audience were outraged, and an usher finally came in and told them to shut up. Seriously, it was that bad. I paid a lot for these seats, and the performance was ruined. At one point, a Korean boy sitting in front of me simply stood up on his seat and started shouting at his mother, who did nothing to discourage him. I simply didn’t understand it. I’ve been to many operas with a Chinese audience and never saw anything like this. Luckily the performance was good enough to drown out the din of talk and laughter. But I, and many around me, were infuriated. I turned around a one point and stage-whispered “Shut Up!” to little avail.

As always, I love the youth and vitality and vibrancy of the city, the irrepressible attitude of the people. I loved less so the stacks of garbage on the alleys around my first hotel, and the usual Beijing oddities that make it Beijing, but all in all I am more enthralled than taken aback.

I had no definite purpose in coming. The city simply beckons me since it is in so many ways my home. That’s never gone away. I’ll strengthen my network, go on some interviews, and pursue some opportunities related to the project I’ve been working on for several months, the one that keeps me from blogging like I used to. For all the aggravation, I am very glad I came. There’s no place like home.

I’m going to be rushed, but if anyone wants to meet up please tell me and I’ll see what I can do. And now, as the lingering jet lag and the strain of a long day come together, I think I’ll pass out. If anything of interest transpires I’ll be sure come back and let you know.

Disclaimer: This post was written in a vintage jet lag/exhaustion stupor. Hope I am not flush with embarrassment when I see it in the morning.

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

” I’ve been to many operas with a Chinese audience and never saw anything like this.”

Hand on heart – this has happened at every single event I’ve been to in mainland China and Taiwan, even Church recitals.

May 14, 2012 @ 12:02 am | Comment

From the Yangzi River down to Guangdong, my impression is the same as FOARP’s. Re Taiwan, I only went to the National Theater and Concert Hall in Taipei, and never to any other similar place in Taiwan, but the audience was calm there. And there wasn’t much noise in an audience in Tianjin either.

May 14, 2012 @ 12:41 am | Comment

Song of the Article

One Night in Beijing
-Shin and the Gang

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSf9G5x7rMI

love and peace

May 14, 2012 @ 2:01 am | Comment

People are usually more respectful toward a performance when it’s not in their native language.

May 14, 2012 @ 7:20 am | Comment

WIsh I were there with you, Richard! I am homesick for my second home, too…

May 14, 2012 @ 12:59 pm | Comment

Dangit, come to Shanghai and I’ll stand you a lunch at the Shangri-La. Won’t touch Beijing with a 50-foot barge pole.

May 14, 2012 @ 1:40 pm | Comment

I have absolutely nothing against Koreans

Oh, sure you don’t. Just admit it—you’re anti-Korean. Confess! Confess!

May 14, 2012 @ 1:43 pm | Comment

I may be officially dead, but I simply just had to exhume myself from cyrogenic storage when I saw the comment about never experiencing disruptive behaviour from Chinese audiences.

The year: 2002. An otherwise uneventful year apart from its palindromic numeric qualities and the long overdue death of The Queen Mother – a glorious woman who singlehandedly saved Great Britain during the Blitz, and with her other hand bankrupted and destroyed the UK’s once thriving dental industry. A young Meursault was studying in Beijing and having daily fun reading exciting textbook articles on Ding Wenyue and her American friend John sampling delicious Peking Duck; Ding Wenyue and her American friend John praising the Great Wall; and Ding Wenyue and her American friend John urinating on the flag of Japan. Whereas most youngsters were into the latest hip sounds of Phil Collins and The Carpenters, my refined tastes were geared towards the works of the great Gershwin.

Imagine my joy when I heard that a performance of Porgy and Bess was to be performed at the Great Hall of the People. Not only was I going to witness a fine example of early 20th century opera, but I was going to experience it within the gilded rooms of a palace dedicated to people just like me. My Korean room-mate was also an opera buff (as a sidenote: it is possible to be a “buff” of anything apart from opera? I’ve certainly never heard of any of my my fellow expats in Southeast Asia refer to themselves as Prostitute Buffs) so he put down his hilariously stereotypical dog lunch, and we made our way to the Great Hall.

Tickets had been surprisingly easy to purchase, which should have been my first cause for concern. Though our tickets said we were to sit somewhere near the back, there were enough empty chairs to sit where we liked. I parked my rear in the seat normally reserved for the Vice-Governer of Ningxia Province (it had good toilet access) and got myself ready for some good opera. My Korean friend was excited too. Seriously, we were both totally erect for some Gershwin.

The spell of contentment was sadly lost however, roughly about 0.43 microseconds after the curtain rose. As the familiar strains of “Summertime” made themselves heard and the actors were revealed, a commotion spread through the predominantly Chinese audience.

“HEIREN!”
“Black! They’re all black!”
“Why are they all so black?”
“HEIREN!”
“Where are the Chinese actors?”
“BLACK PEOPLE!”
“Mummy, why are the actors made of chocolate?”

(That last one is a lie, but you get the idea)

This wasn’t just initial shock at seeing an all-black performance. The loud and aggressive comments directed towards the Sino-racially challenged actors continued for the entire first half, with every appearing actor blissfully unaware that their audience were discussing their every blackness. By the interval most of the audience had walked out, and in the second half when it became very obvious that there weren’t going to be any Chinese actors or references to Three Represents Thought, the remaining dregs crept out as well. Thankfully, this lessened the cacaphony of racist abuse, though it was embarrasing when the actors gave their curtain call and realised that their audience had shrunk to about 12 people. And one of that 12 was Hua Guofeng who had fallen asleep during the last NPC and hadn’t been disturbed since.

I did have a slightly better experience of Chinese audiences 5 years later when I watched a production of The Sound of Music in Hangzhou, but I suspect that was mainly because the actress playing Maria had really massive tits.

May 14, 2012 @ 2:04 pm | Comment

Meursault just won the internet.

May 14, 2012 @ 6:20 pm | Comment

Brilliant post, it’s article like this that humanizes the blog and makes it one of my favorites.

I absolutely agree with you on the people part, something in the air that just attracts fascinating people to Beijing. My friend and I were just talking about the same topic this past weekend (we both lived in Beijing). I am sure there are similar souls back here in the U.S., but perhaps they are more spread out, whereas in Beijing the relatively small expat community makes it feel like they are everywhere.

May 15, 2012 @ 5:34 am | Comment

The Sound of Bloody Music. Back to your Gansu duck farm, Mersault and I’m sentencing you to an additional 24 hours of Schoernberg (sic).
ditto # 9

Richard, those were North Koreans you were dealing with. Folk in the South have far better audience manners.

May 15, 2012 @ 9:52 am | Comment

When I was in China in 1979, there were very few artifacts of western culture. One of them was bootlegged tapes of The Sound of Music. “Doe A Deer” (or whatever the song is actually called) battled it out with “Home on the Range” for western songs most likely to be performed at banquets or on the 6 AM wakeup guangbo on trains.

May 15, 2012 @ 12:43 pm | Comment

Have to say, just never was as in love with the BJ set as folk above. Shanghai’s more my kind of place – less fetishisation of dead culture, cliquishness, and trying oh-so-hard to be authentic.

May 15, 2012 @ 3:59 pm | Comment

Hello, I wanted to say I believe that the Internet should be kept open in all nations including China since freedom of speech is a good thing as well as freedom of religion for all since it helps to bring trade and properity to a nation and especially in allowing the Holy Bible to be published and given to the Chinese people to be read. Since it is God’s preserved word it only brings blessings to people who believe and practice it. And it gives the way to God’s heaven through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who died for all our sins on the cross,was buried,and rose from the dead the third day,was seen of men,and went back up to heaven. And is the way to miss hell and go to God’s heaven. For more info,HolyBible dot com and fbnradio dot com. Sincerely ;

May 16, 2012 @ 6:39 am | Comment

Gil, I so disagree about Shanghai, but maybe that’s because my circle of friends is so much smaller there. If Beijingers are inauthentic (which I don’t think they are), the Shanghainese are more so, interested in fashion and appearance above all else, or at least that’s been my experience. But these generalizations are always dangerous and usually wrong.

Yes, Merisault does win the Internet.

I do think most of the noisemakers at the opera were Korean; my friend told me they were speaking that language. I’ve been to so many shows here and never had an experience like that. The theater was half-empty, and my friend said it was because the Chinese don’t much like Koreans, and it was an all-Korean production. Who knows?

Agree with dpark that what makes the expat community so wonderful here is that they are tight-knit and not spread out all over the city. Their circle is relatively easy to enter, many go to the same places, and they are oh so smart. I’m sure the same exists in Shanghai, I’ve just never been able to find it.

May 16, 2012 @ 10:12 am | Comment

By George, you must be winding us up with that trinitarian beyond-the -grave fairy story.

Fetishisation par excellence: 60 million Chinese students torturing the hell out of violins and pianos learning to play Mozart and other dead Western culture stuff. That calls for a second Cultural Revolution which I would wholly support.

Now, if Bo had his retro Maoist priorities in order…….

To a point, technology is ideologically neutral, so China gets a free pass there, but the massive embrace of christianity and western classical music…..bad enough in the West and truly sickening in the Celestial Kingdom.

That language = hangul and Koreans like Chinese folk even less, believing they are rather remiss in the personal hygiene department. A commonplace (true) view which shocked me at first after departing a country saturated in political correctness.

Nothing like a long tour of Asian duty to get rid of nanny state pc speak and values.

May 16, 2012 @ 11:45 am | Comment

Nice post. Makes me miss bj too. I remember the hutong you stayed at,the cafes etc were just moving in in 08 when I left.

May 17, 2012 @ 7:51 pm | Comment

First they take Wudaokou,then they take Wangjing…Koreans in Beijing are overwhelmingly of the Southern persuasion. My favourite ethnic Korean in Beijing remains Cui Jian, who gave us Nothing to My Name, the rock and roll anthem of Tian’anmen Square circa 1989.

May 18, 2012 @ 7:43 am | Comment

Sort of (well actually) O/T.

Spare a thought for Bo Xilai. He has definitely lost his shit eating grin, his hair has turned white and is also probably falling out. Interrogation, back to the cell to rewrite his confession in ever increasing detail. Repeat process a few times and hey, he has implicated sour puss security killjoy Zhou.

His strugggle session scribbles now probably reading better than a whole book shop of Officialdom Fiction, not that it will ever hit the news stands and HKs airport book shop (which is actually pretty good but darn expensive).

The Bo/Gu/Zhou series in not however the main game in town. As KM noted in his Theories of Surplus Value Part 3, it is the economy, Comrade, and the Sino economy is not exactly in crash hot condition: real estate bubble in process of bursting, mountains of provincial bad debt, declining exports, mucho bankrupties in the private sector and the central govt has virtually run out of economic levers to push. It took a long time, but there is no staving off of some basic economic realities.

You know the Celestial Kingdom is in the process of slow but certain economic decline, when third rate yakuza standover merchants like North Korea are holding your fishing vessels for ransom. Sort of like Somalia expanding its franchise into the Bohai Sea.

Tremendous developments which will bring out the snake in all the near neighbours who have had a gutfull of the PRCs hubris.

May 18, 2012 @ 7:54 am | Comment

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