“Is life so pleasant on the Yellow River, Signore Cante?”
“It is not. But it is my life. It has got into my blood. I cannot give it up. You know what it is to get China, or some part of China, into one’s blood. It is a vice, like taking opium. We know that it is bad for us, but life would not be worth living without it.”
– Daniele Varé, The Maker of Heavenly Trousers (1935)
I love Beijing. I really do. The hutongs, the ruddy faces, the tawny streets – I love it all. It’s one of those places that holds a strange gravitational pull for me.
Despite having been to the capital for more times than I can count, I would still revisit it in a heartbeat. As a case in point, I’ve been coming back to Beijing every year like clockwork since 2013, making it a grand total of 3 visits in 3 consecutive years.
There’s a quaintness to it I just can’t get enough of.
For a city, Beijing is not particularly ‘nice’ or ‘exciting’, and the weather extremities don’t exactly make it the most pleasant place to live in either, especially with the recent pollution index going through the roof and all.
During this time of the year, the air is laden with thick smog, but the ambiance is weighed down by a similar, albeit latent, kind of saturation, one that is pregnant with history’s reckoning, as the memory of the PRC’s 1949 establishment, the hopes of Deng Xiao Ping’s Reform and Opening Up policies and the consequences of wide-scale development in the past two decades all come to bear.
Unlike its glamourous cousin down by the Yangtze, Beijing’s beauty lies not in the kind of cosmopolitan aesthetic so characteristic of Shanghai (or Hong Kong), but in its self-consciousness as the cultural cradle of a 1.3 billion-strong nation, in its status as the birthmark of a national conscience. To call it a diamond in the rough would be to cheapen its complexity with cliché; it’s more reminiscent of a pearl – however unalloyed, it oxidizes when exposed to air, after which it assumes an amber tint that exudes a vintage allure.
I’m often wary of regional generalisations, but if I had to pick one word to represent Beijing, it’d probably be ‘grit’, as applied to both its environment and the Pekinese character in general:
1) Very small pieces of sand and stone, a hard sharp granule
2) Mental toughness and courage, firmness of mind or spirit
When I first stepped outside the hotel my bestie and I stayed at a few days ago, I could practically feel the Loess Plateau infusing my pores. By the time we skidoodled over to the bus stop, I had already inhaled a cocktail of SUV exhaust fumes and sand dune particles, or what I’d like to call my own S(UV)ex on the Beach: Beijing Remix.
Contrary to my more level-headed friend, I refused to wear a mask during the entirety of my 3-day stay, partly out of a native aversion to all forms of physical constraint (for the longest time I couldn’t wear necklaces or watches), partly out of a gung-ho desire to, eh, take in the real Beijing experience, even at the expense of my respiratory well-being.
Among the locals, I’d say that the percentage of mask wearers versus non-mask wearers is roughly 50/50. To be honest, I don’t think most of the Beijingers are too fazed about the smog ‘invasion’. They’ve pretty much seen it all as a yearly occurrence, and I suspect that the global media is ramping up on the alarmism to highlight the recent Paris Climate Conference, which I think is a good thing.
In terms of inciting a response or catalysing action from the Chinese government though, this hype-fest has yet to prove its effectiveness, at least from what I can observe of the city’s environs. Still, if you’re planning on going to Beijing any time soon, don’t take my watered-down version of the capital’s climate condition for word. Play it safe and make sure you stock up on a few of those 3M masks that make you look like Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs.
But anyway, I was impressed by how the locals took their less-than-ideal surroundings in stride. Again, their low-keyed attitude may largely be down to acclimatisation, but having to deal with that kind of environment on a daily basis ain’t no ride in the park. I recall hearing the broadcast of a health hazard reminder at Dengshikou metro station advising people to limit their outdoor activities, only to arrive at the Wangfujing market that night to see young girls munching on Tanghulus (糖葫蘆) and crowds haggling over open-air fried dough frittatas (煎餅果子).
In pursuit of the ‘real’, I decided to go rogue a la Beijing and munched and haggled and jostled against hoards for more munching and haggling – all sans mask or anxiety over my mask-less face.
Right then, my lungs were probably cussing the crap out of me, but at least my stomach was on cloud nine, so fair game I say. After all, for laymen gluttons who can’t have their cake and eat it too, this kind of anatomical favouritism is usually the last (if not only) resort.
A kind-of coincidence: When ladies in fitting rooms meet gents in trousers with pockets
There’s too much to document from my brief trip, so I’ll share just one fun observation that has stuck in my mind ever since my return, mainly because it relates quite uncannily to a novel that I read last month. The book is titled The Maker of Heavenly Trousers (1935), written by the early 20th century Italian diplomat Daniele Varé who was stationed in Beijing during the Interwar period.
The book is largely about two Westerners being clueless about love, and their cluelessness is made all the more apparent when placed against the distractions of an Eastern backdrop. Despite the novel’s Han setting, its genre is ‘mongrel’: part romance, part history, the narrative is pinwheeled with moments of cross-cultural satire and intervals of fantasy.
There’s a hilarious scene about mistransliteration when the male protagonist takes Kuniang, his ward (eventually his secretary and lover), to go shopping in Hata Mên (now called Chongwenmen, which is exactly the area I stayed in):
Besides frocks, Kuniang required riding-breeches, and for these we went to Ah-ting-fu’s new shop in the Hata Mên. I said I would wait outside with Uncle Podger, but Kuniang had hardly entered the shop when she appeared once more at the door and beckoned to me.
“You must see this,” she said. […]
I was puzzled, but followed her indoors. A rickety wooden staircase led to an upper floor, and on the wall above the steps was a notice in English:
Ladies Have Fits Upstairs
Kuniang laughed delightedly.
“You cannot possibly leave me to have a fit all by myself,” she said. “Please come too.”
So I followed her up the staircase.
[End of chapter] (p. 81, Penguin Modern Classics edition)
Now that’s what I’d call a saucy cliffhanger. Varé never really made it into the modern Italian canon, but there’s no denying that the diplomat-author is well dandy with his narrative turns (and twists too, if you read the entire thing you’ll understand this).
Anyway, the punchline is clear: Chinese shop-keeping wisdom 101 – good humour, not good English, is what rakes in the bucks. And if you look at my photo below, it appears that this mentality has stood the test of time:
This is taken right by the entrance to Tiananmen Square, where the queue you see is waiting to go through security screening. There are two lanes, one for people with bags, and the other for those without. The four Chinese characters literally translate into ‘No Bag Channel’, but the English transliteration expresses something quite different:
(the latter word doesn’t show up very clearly here – you’d probably have to zoom in and squint to make out the letters)
It’s ironic that most of the people in this lane tend to be men, as the ones I saw were almost certainly wearing trousers with pockets. Unless some of them were rocking male jeggings, which I’m not sure is (or don’t think should be) an actual thing, and in which case I’d turn them home-/wardrobe-bound if I were the security officer anyway. Or ask them to walk in butt naked because those eyesores they have on constitute an even graver affront to the solemnity of the Square. Mind you, this has nothing to do with gender stereotyping; it’s honestly just a matter of good sartorial judgment.
Tis a quibble of trivial proportions, I know. Anyhow, I think it’s great that Varé’s description and my random sighting coincide on a mistransliteration about clothing in Beijing. I kid you not, this legitimately made my day.
After all, it’s always the little things in life that count.
Happy 2016, everyone. May we all find beauty and bliss in the banal.