When your heads clouds over with plumes of dust and car exhaust and cigarette smoke, and the room feels like the inside of a boiler room, it’s comforting to hear a subtle, heartfelt song exhaled from the lips of your workmate. A Chinese ballad, half-hummed, half-spoken, not fully realized in the public realm of the office. He halts abrubtly when he notices I’m listening, coughs and stands up to leave. One minute closer to his one hour commute. One hour and one minute closer to ending the work day.
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She pedals across a few lanes of relentless traffic, maneuvering around impatient pedestrians, digging machines and the occasional unleashed dog. The back of the bike quivers with the weight of the days’ groceries and an exhausted toddler, sleeping her way through another evening sandstorm, absently gripping her mother’s sweater. When the cabs flick alongside her, daring her to compete, she stares forward, spits sharply and chooses to hang back, suddenly aware of her relative smallness in this world. Frustration levels into common sense and she relaxes her fingers on the handlebars. She gulps a breath and glances back at her now dreaming daughter.
In this city, cleverness pales against might, agility loses to brawn and bicycles steer clear of cabs. On the concrete track, the biggest monstrosities win with sheer bulk. I look over at the defeated bicyclist and imagine her inside a glistening black Land Rover, enjoying her strength and size and anonymity.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a young waiter, no older than fifteen and with a smile of uneven teeth, plucking a patron’s fedora from the coat closet. He ran a palm down the dent of the hat and surreptitiously placed it on his head. Swallowing a shy laugh, he glanced at his now dapper reflection in the mirror. A starched white shirt lapsed into sun-bleached black pants and a pair of dust-caked running shoes. His face, now framed by a swathe of oversized felt, looked even younger than before and he pantomimed a quick solo waltz for the waitress. He caught her eye and mouthed “Someday, someday.”
It’s soccer season in Beijing, and though it’s no replacement for the Columbus Park crew, I’m glad to have found a group of local soccer fans to keep me in the game. Shu and I have have been playing Sunday nights at the newly opened Red Ball soccer facility, just steps away from Yu Gong Yi Shan. The competition is stiff, but we’re down for it. (Now I just need to find some table tennis enthusiasts.)
A bit of meta-irony:
Just finished putting together a portfolio site for good friend Tom Barnes. Tom’s done some very smart–and some very funny–work for broadcast and film. Check the site.
Back in February, Shu and I got to see where some of Beijing’s local punk acts practice their craft. Buddy Li Bo, drummer for what may be Beijing’s only ska band, The End of the World, took us into a handful of basement-level practice rooms clustered around the Andingmen neighborhood. Photos from the trek were recently published in the current issue of Theme magazine.
I’m fascinated by the mundane. By the things that surround us without asking for attention. They exist, maybe serve a purpose or perform a task, and then fade into the background. Sometimes they simply get tossed into the bin – like a water bottle.
The water bottle, so easily overlooked, is an object of concern for many in China. Each day I hear the voices of men calling out to their neighbors, entreating them to offer up their empty bottles. These men ride three-wheeled carts through the hutongs, searching for bottles, which they can sell to the recycling center for a fraction of a penny.
I’d been thinking about the value of this mundane vessel and decided to collaborate with a local ceramic artist to honor the water bottle. Here’s the result:
The weather in Beijing can be strange. Some mornings you wake up to find the streets covered with a reddish silt carried on the wind from the Gobi desert. Other days, the air is filled with puffs of cotton-like tree pollen, drifting lazily like wish-blown seeds from a dandelion.
Innovation lives everywhere in Beijing. A paraplegic sails down the road in a contraption of his own design. One hand holds a burning cigarette while the other grasps a steering wheel that effortlessly controls a set of four wheels. He maneuvers his way through potholed streets with the efficiency of a cab driver, at 1/100th of the speed.
On the backs of carts, entrepreneurs strap entire moving pet stores, complete with rabbits poking forlornly out of cages and complicated goldfish filtration systems. Today a new vendor joined the parade, with a makeshift greenhouse perched on the back of his three-wheeler. Lilies and geraniums overflowed from beneath his improvised construction and the neighborhood seniors ambled over to get a better look. I suppose this is capitalism at its finest.