shu and joe

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what’s in a name?

March 19, 2006

I’m often attracted to a building by its windows. Large multi-paned windows. Windows that invite light and shadow. The old factory near Dongzhimen Beixiaojie just inside the 2nd Ring Road is just the sort of building I’m talking about. Walking past on a clear Sunday afternoon, I was seized by the thought of what it might look like on the opposite side of its dilapidated brick facade.

Shu and I slipped inside, past the gaze of a few curious men who were passing their day off in the building’s courtyard with their songbirds in tow. We made our way up the stairs, past open barrels of used motor oil and lines hung with drying workclothes to what appeared to be the worker’s dormitory. The stench of urine mingled with freshly steamed mantou as we made our way down the hall to an open door bathed in light. As we approached, a man in a yellow sweater filled the threshhold and smiled. Shu explained that we were curious about the building and were just looking around. He accepted our story without any hesitation and invited us to come in, have a look at his room and share some tea.

A moment of curiousity turned into an afternoon of conversation as Shu spoke with the man and his roommate, and I struggled to catch the details. The men, it turns out, work for a road construction unit. They don’t mind their jobs because their wage is better than what they would receive back home, and the work isn’t too taxing – they drive trucks full of workers to construction sites and then drive them home at the end of the day. Both men have been in Beijing for a couple of years, while their families remain in the rural provences of Hebei and Henan. The 28-year-old from Henan has two sons – the oldest is seven – while his 25-year-old roommate has just received news that his wife gave birth to a boy 10 days ago. He’s pround to be a dad, but has yet to decide on a name for his son. He asked us to help him, but we politely declined. Names here carry so much meaning – often bearing a parent’s hope for his/her child’s future. That’s not the kind of burden i feel qualified to hand down.

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Normally I wouldn’t get into an unmarked cab, but we were nearly due to meet a friend at the opening of Dongcheng’s new gallery space, XWhyZ, so Shu and I agreed to a 10 kuai flat-fee and headed to the 2-storey building off Nanmencang Hutong. XWhyZ joins the mere handful of galleries located inside the 2nd ring road, and, based on the work on display, it will certainly add some welcomed visual stimuli to the Chaonei’borhood.

The inaugural show featured the work of Tim McEvenue – sensitive portraits of corpulent men, some alone, some in groups, all on the edge of something tragic. Here are a couple of images. The first features Tim, whose cufflinks, I must say, were a nice touch:

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from the window

March 17, 2006

From the 10th floor you can look down at a maze of demolished courtyard houses, their gaping shells obscured by a curtain of dust. They say this wind blows in from Mongolia, kicking up rubble and dirt and bits of trash. “Stay inside today,” an altruistic co-worker advises. Down below people in windbreakers and polyester suitjackets ride miles on bicycles hauling everything from timber to toilet paper to ladies’ shoes across town. They push against the wind with half-closed eyes, saying silent prayers to ward off reckless cabbies and aggressive buses. Their wrinkled skin belies their age, adding years to young faces that might rather be facing books or television sets or computer screens.

From the 10th floor you can hear children singing across the street at 10:30am in the morning. Every morning. Some sort of uplifting, government mandated incantation that readies the young students for their day, fortifies them, reminds them of their role in this great universe of China. It must be difficult growing up here, with the pressure of knowing you are one in a billion and that success is a luxury and not a given.

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Someday it will be easier

March 12, 2006

The cabbie asked where we were going and I told him in stuttering Chinese, “Ritan Gongyuan.” I could see him grin and arch an eyebrow through the rearview mirror. “You’re not Chinese?” he asked slyly. I tell him I’m Chinese but raised in the United States. He pauses for a second and asks if it would be easy to drive a cab in America. Would he make more money? Have a better life? I responded that it would be hard to drive a cab without knowing English. Even if he did speak the language he’d be away from everything he knew, everything he was used to. He sighed and slapped the backside of his hand into his palm while asking another unintelligible question. I shook my head and admitted that I didn’t understand him. “Your Chinese is really bad!” he exclaimed. This, I understood. “When you come to America, I can give you a hard time about your English,” I told him. He laughed.

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it’s all just fun until…

March 11, 2006

Figures were released last week by Beijing News on fireworks-related incidents reported during this year’s Spring Festival. Here are the stats:

Number of fireworks-related deaths in Beijing: 0
Number of fireworks-related deaths in China: 63
Number of fireworks-related injuries in Beijing: 838
Number of fireworks-related fires in Beijing: 384

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northern boys

March 8, 2006

Northern boys have porcelain faces suffused with pink. Their eyes, black and mercurial, take in the world all at once, with pupils that absorb light and dark, colors and movement. They dart across ten lanes of zig-zagging traffic toting oversized duffle bags, laughing at bicyclists and daring cabs to run them over. Clothed in too-small sweaters and second-hand suits, they bend over to buff leather shoes, which have miraculously survived the journey from village to bus to train to the pavement of the big city. They grasp each other’s arms tightly, for fear of collapsing from the excitement of it all.

“Chao Yang Men.” They take turns reading the street sign, curling their lips around each character, tucking the precious words inside their homemade coats. “This is Beijing!” the ruddiest of them all shouts as he runs ahead, rioting dust into the air, bags billowing around him. Indigenous Beijingers lazily glance up from their meat pies regarding these newcomers with exasperation and suspicion. They harshly size them up, not realizing that these boys will soon be the men building their high rises and repairing their washing machines. Northern boys get hit by cars, fall from bamboo scaffolding, get pushed and shoved and disappear into the crowd. Missed by no one except their mothers.

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nights out when i should have stayed in

At 7pm on a Friday night, it takes approximately one and a half hours to drive 10 miles to the eastern part of Beijing. Traffic snarls past narrow alleyways, overtakes pedestrians and tries the patience of many. I sit, legs pressed to leather upholstery, absentmindedly nodding to a dancehall CD smuggled in from Antigua.

At the Guizhou restaurant, the food flares with heat and oil and the flavors of rural villages. The peppers redden lips while the beer flushes our faces and supposedly, deadens the lethal effect of the spice at stomach-level. In the center of the table sits a gurgling pot of jalapeno-laced soup filled with a whole fish, eyes and lips included. The bacon with chili and peanuts is the first to go while the spicy cabbage and pork comes in close behind. The table bows under the weight of endless dishes and emptied beer bottles, piles of fried rice and platters of scarlet-flecked vegetables. We eat until we’re full and then begin again, wastebands pressed against bellies, eyes misting over with steam and smoke.

Reggae seems to be the soundtrack for the evening as, hours later, I find myself sitting in the corner of a local bar staring up at a coterie of Caribbean performers. For a moment, it’s easy to imagine we’re on a Carnival Cruise complete with cloying tropical drinks and ear-jangling steel drums. As the ship rocks from bow to stern, I fumble my way to the deck’s bathroom with dampened palms and a newfound urgency. Droopy-eyed, muddled, land-legged, I think I’m going to be sick. Really not well, in fact.

Then the electricity goes out and the lights dim to black and the crowd cheers in unison and I gulp air like a mudfish.

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