Life is getting complicated in the capital. Here’s how: I’m presently living in a 150 kuai-a-night, no-questions-asked hotel overlooking a vacant industrial lot somewhere beyond the fourth ring road. A few gigs I had lined-up toppled like Mao-era tenements confronting the wrecking ball, forcing me out of the bedroom window. There was simply no way to make the rent, so I departed in the twilight hours, or my landlord Mr Chen, who lived across the courtyard, would have clobbered me with those kung fu chops he’d picked during his stint in the Peoples Liberation Army. All I’m left with now is what I could carry, which regardless to say, excluded Guolai the Pekinese who I’m supposed to be looking after for that no good gangster Old Wang.
I’m the only permanent resident in The Eight Lucky Dragons International Guesthouse, the sole foreigner within miles, wondering just how to pay for another night in this dunghill when A’Liao calls, complicating things further.
“Nihao Steve. Where are you? I haven’t seen you for ages.”
“I landed a hotel gig, performing in a fancy lobby, it’s a little out-of town though…”
“I thought you were done playing, what do you call them, Monkey Shows?”
“What can I say, I needed the cash. Bank a few thousand kuai and The Sometimers might finally be able to cut a new album.”
“You don’t even have an old album. And your plan assumes that the other three freaks you call friends have any money to pitch in.”
She had a point. Even if I was raking in the people’s pound, it was unlikely that trio of misfits had more than a few renminbi between them.
“You’re probably right, those idiots never have it together. You and I should form a band.”
Xiao Liao plays erhu in a crossover East-meets-West folk act called The Mixer. She has the right shape for a figure-hugging qipao, which is probably what caught Moose’s eye in the first place. He’s a sucker for that classic Suzie Wong look. After they’d been on a few dates I went out on a limb to remind him to stay focused. After all, she seemed like a keeper: elegant, cultured and cute as a panda cub. But he couldn’t stop sticking his lecherous passion pistol in every crack in the capital. “A real Pac-Man that one, gobbling everything-up,” observed Lao Li, the owner of C-23 Club over in Chaoyang. A’Liao got wind of his infidelities and has spent the last few weeks leading him on. He’s keen as all hell, you can imagine, but as time passes the realisation that there’s no chance she’ll ever play his Pink Floyd again will gradually sink in. She won’t admit to knowing of his infidelities of course; face is all-important in the Sinosphere. She’ll just keep him on the line long after the conversation has finished.
“What kind of band?” she asks, feigning curiosity.
“An earthy, unpretentious outfit. Let’s get away from the bright city lights and back to the roots. Do you have family in the countryside?”
“I have an uncle in Shaanxi who raises goats.”
“Perfect, we’ll stay with him and draw inspiration from the bucolic Yellow River scenery.”
“It’s coal country out there, all rock and dust. You should know by now, the Chinese countryside is poor, not like in Belgium.”
I refrain from reminding her I’m from the Britain, Wales to be precise, because that invariably invokes a comment about Braveheart. To most Beijingers I’m simply an old big nose from the Occident, my exact place of origin just somewhere else that they presume to be better, because it is assumed richer, and anywhere with money is better, according to the zeitgeist. If only I could take these poor bastards on a tour of the South Wales valleys. But then it’s in my interest to maintain the charade. “Yeah, our farmers have bucket loads of cash,” I explain. “They’re subsidised to watch daisies grow. It’s we city folk who can’t afford our daily bread.”
“You laowai are always talking about bread. You should go local, eat dumplings, they’re cheaper.”
I’d eat brazed pig’s ear if it were offered to me now! This talk of food is an untimely reminder that it’s only the complimentary hotel mints that are sustaining me. “You know of any good dumpling joints?” I ask goadingly. It’s okay to accept a meal from a Chinese lady as long as they offer to pay. Women hold up half the sky, according to Mao Zedong, who knew his fare share of women.
“My friend Ya’Hong just opened-up a great place at the mouth of Daju Hutong. They do dumplings with a twist, gourmet style. If I bring a writer we’ll get a discount for sure. You can do a review for one of those English magazines you write for.”
The last rag to commission a review from me was Weekend Out, but I washed back a few complimentary cocktails and ended-up brawling with the bar manager. The bar was a big advertiser so that more-or-less ended my career as writer in this city.
“Sounds great,” I bluff, “but I was going to go to the bank, my card has a problem and you know how long they make you wait…”
“No need, tonight’s on me.”
I’m not fooled by her generosity. She’s clearly seen an opportunity to build some guanxi – that interpersonal web of connections that binds Chinese society in knots. Rolling in with a foreigner on her arm promising some gratis publicity in the “international” press will inevitably win her some face, as well as a favour she can cash in down the line. That’s how things work here. It’s simply that complicated.
After a punishing bus journey through the capital rush hour I’m back downtown, within a stones throw of my old place. It feels good to be in the remit of civilization again. I’m starving, and smile graciously as I’m seated next to two leather-jacketed hipsters talking bands and smoking Zhongnanhai cigarettes.
A’Liao arrives late, but looks ravishing in a red qipao paired with dusty Shanghai Warriors – the grungy trainers favoured by the music crowd.
Her friend, the patron Ya’Hong, soon makes herself known.
“Hey Ya’Hong, this is the foreign writer I told you about.”
“Please to meet you,” she says in heavily lilted English, clawing my shoulder with witchy nails.
“It’s okay, he speaks Chinese.”
“Oh that’s great, I haven’t spoken English since college, you remember?”
The two girls laugh wickedly but seclude me from their little in-joke. I don’t enquire, that’s what they want. “Could I have a beer?” I ask instead.
“Of course, anything you want, just make sure we get a good write-up.”
“I imagine your photographer will be along shortly?”
“Uh, no need, today’s smart phone cameras are good enough. And there’s a great natural light in here.”
I don’t mention that the lens on my Huawei cracked last month when I threw it at a booking agent in Qingdao after he cut our fee in half, all because we refused to play a Taylor Swift song. As if we’d even know the chords! But in the karaoke culture that’s a tough notion to get across. You’re foreign, that’s a foreign song, now dance!
“Yes it is well lit here, I’m glad you noticed. I designed everything myself. Anyway, I must see to some other guests, you know the tax department is dining here tonight.” She winks nervously at A’Liao. “Try the egg and spinach dumplings, they’re our speciality.”
Jazzy Jiaozi proves to be a run-of-the-mill eatery with more attention paid to the décor than the dumplings – ordinary food at twice the going rate, principally because the joint is festooned with posters of China’s rock n’ roll forbearers like Cui Jian and Dou Wei. Splattered along the far wall there’s some bad graffiti with English phrases like I FUC YOU’RE MUTTER. The smell of spray paint infuses with the vinegar, soy sauce and tobacco smoke. Everyone’s ignoring the smoking ban, including the government officials. But I’m so hungry I couldn’t care less. Besides, A’Liao is paying, and nestles her foot in my crotch for the whole meal, which takes the edge off things.
“I’ll give them a positive review,” I tell her as we leave. “I promise.”
We wander through the Beijing backstreets heading into the cover of the old town. Despite having lived in the neighbourhood for the last eight months or so, everywhere still looks unfamiliar undercover of dark. As usual, it’s a starless night in Beijing.
“Can you believe that guy Moose? Just look at the texts he’s been sending me.”
I read through a series of mawkish messages following the “I miss you” and “you were special to me” theme. All are expertly designed to elicit a response. But the fish didn’t bite.
“What can I say, he’s a singer. They all have a sense of entitlement. Everything he wants, he takes.”
“Everyone you mean?”
We round another bend but I’ve already forgotten where we are supposed to be going, or if we even had a destination in mind. Central Beijing is a labyrinth of crumbling alleyways that, with the exception of the temples and palaces, are the last suggestion that this city has any history. It’s easy to lose yourself.
We find a muddled old convenience store and order two bottles of Yanjing.
“Do you think he’d be angry if he knew you were out with me?”
Knowing Moose he’s almost certainly out on a date himself. But he’s so possessive he would be pissed off. That’s just how he is.
“I doubt it,” I say smiling generously. “You two haven’t dated for awhile. Who knows, maybe he’ll squeeze some lyrics out of the experience.”
“Do I inspire you?” she asks, pulling my head down for a carefully choreographed kiss. Like all Beijing girls this year A’Liao is wearing a generous coating of blood-red lipstick made popular via South Korean movies.
During the post-kiss embrace I notice something familiar: A Qing-era flowerpot ringed with lotus flowers.
“Hey I know that old thing!”
“This lane backs onto my place. I wonder if…”
“You used to live here? In that four-walled courthouse!”
“That exact one, I’ve seldom approached from this direction.”
How strange to have gravitated back to my old abode like a homing pigeon. But then I recall some unfinished business. Handing A’Liao my bottle, I push a crate against the wall and begin to climb.
“Steve, where are you going?”
“Just a minute.”
She hasn’t time to sip her Yanjing before I’m back, Guolai in hand. I just knew this lazy canine wouldn’t have strayed too far.
“What the fuck is that?”
“Um, well, it’s Old Wang’s dog. Relax; it’s a placid thing. I think it’s anaemic. ”
The stupid fur-ball seems entirely unaware that I’d just rescued him from being sold to a Guizhou hotpot joint.
“Oh he’s so lovely,” A’Liao remarks, embracing the sub-nosed little tyke. Would you believe the Ancient Chinese dubbed these pathetic creatures Lion Dogs without a hint of irony?
Beijing’s mist is almost edible. The arsenic smell of coal burns at my sinuses and there’s a chill suggesting that winter is near. I hear footsteps pattering across the asphalt but there’s nothing visible in the shadows. Then suddenly that guttural voice of Landlord Chen starts yelling, “Steve, where’s my money you big-nosed scrotum licker?”
I take Guolai from A’Liao and draw away from the light of the store. “Baby,” I say. “Run!”
Life used to be simple. During the fat years it felt as if anything was possible. A whole generation of liberal arts majors who’d spent their formative years making amusing shapes out of egg cups and toilet rolls could get by comfortably in boomtown China. A guitar, a knack for penning the occasional story, a command of the lingo and I was doing fine. There was just so much demand for foreign exotica, garnished with such a healthy dose of corruption; it felt as if the China dream machine could take you anywhere. It was one of the few places on earth where you could make your hobby your full time job and never pay taxes. But the good times had to end, I suppose.
I look out of my window at the city formally known as Beijing now lost beneath a blanket of smog – the visceral payback for such unrestrained decadence. Even heaven has been soiled. This, in a country that initially refused to build factories for fear of disturbing the ancestors! Things are seriously out of joint, but who am I to fix anything? I briefly let my mind wander down other paths I might have chosen before the necessity of finding a way through the day consumes my attention.
I call Antoine. “Salut mon frère, have you recovered?”
“More or less, I’m still on a diet of ice cream and yogurt but I’ll survive.”
Antoine had his tonsils out. He’s thirty-two. It’s rare at his age, but in the filthy Beijing environs such procedures are becoming commonplace.
“It’s actually been good, I’ve been able to work on the rock opera. But I need you to come round and check the English is okay. And I need a hook for the Tractor Factory stanza.”
“I’ll bring my guitar. But listen, I need to borrow a cool one thousand.”
“Putain! You’re broke again?”
“Yeah, that Datong travel guidebook project I told you about has been postponed until after they finish building a few more ancient buildings. I was banking on that.”
“I can’t lend you anything, I’m…”
“Antoine, I just have a cash-flow problem. Listen, Old Wang will be back soon and I’m taking care of his dog, for which, I might add, he’s paying me handsomely, so it’s just for a few days, all right?”
I glance down at Guolai. She’s lapping up a bowl of Mongolian milk entirely oblivious to the madness of the world. Life shouldn’t be this complicated. I mean, we eat, shit, fuck and sleep, just like dogs. But when money comes into the fray it’s a different story. I’m beginning to think the cash economy was mankind’s biggest mistake. And it was the Chinese who invented the paper IOU that I owe everyone.
“But I’m poor too, and Meizi is giving me all kinds of shit now, she wants me to become an English teacher. Me, can you believe it? A Frenchman!”
“Shit we’ve all done worse Antoine. Anyway, don’t lose hope, there’s a Chinese fortune out there for all of us. I’m on my way. Hold onto your tonsils.”
I dream straight through Tongzhou District, recovering my senses only when the bus traverses the Grand Canal. From here Beijing quickly rediscovers its antiquated charm as the suburbs submit to traditional farmhouses sequestered by fields of maize.
In Songzhuang I discover Antoine lounging around in silk pyjamas lavishly adorned with a flying dragon. He’s watching a Korean soap opera on Meizi’s TV set while lapping up an Old Beijing Yogurt.
I negotiated my way through a collection of naked Greek muscle men, effigies of the Buddha, stone lions and what I believed to be a life-sized sculpture of pop-rocker Wang Feng, a puerile sell-out if ever there was one. “What, no Haagen-Dazs?”
“Actually I had a tub. They’re closing down any business that rents a PLA property for some reason, so Jenny Lee’s is getting rid of everything cheap. But I finished it during last night’s jam session.”
Antoine came to Beijing with a jazz quartet and did the north China lounge circuit for a while. He got to like the dizzy city. But he found the mutiny of Beijing’s rock scene far more alluring than performing standards to middle-aged cadres and decided to focus all his attention on art. He’s a fine musician who can play just about anything. He even moved out of town to the Songzhuang Art Colony to save on rent and focus on his work. He’s currently interloping with a struggling sculptor from Hubei, who, for better or worse, loves him to death. But Antoine has discovered, as we all have, that this town no longer pays and he’s come-up with the zany idea that musical theatre will liberate him from his Beijing rut. After all the Nixon in China opera did all right. Every time I pay a visit he plays me a bit more of his rock opera, Deng Xiaoping: The Man from Sichuan.
“Listen to this,” he says, skipping over to a stand-up piano in the corner of the room. He then proceeds to play a syrupy ballad while wailing mournfully in French. “It’s when Chairman Mao banishes Deng to hard labour in Jiangxi during the Cultural Revolution. This is the emotional core of the whole work. When the audience will really feel for the little guy. I need you to pen some lyrics.”
We came up with The Man From Sichuan idea one drunken night after a gig in DCD. Deng’s story, from his impressionable student days in France, through the civil war and fabled Long March, life in a cave in Yan’an, the revolution and the turmoil that ensued, then Deng’s return to the political stage and opening-up of the Chinese economy – all told through the medium of popular song and dance. After all, it’s an epic story with enough melodrama for a typical Broadway audience. These people like dancing cats for god’s sake! But there are problems with the narrative, not least that it was Deng who ordered the tanks to open fire on protestors in 1989. Antoine thinks he can make things work. “We’ll just put it on a screen in black and white text, it will be a shocking end, to discover the hero is as ruthless as his predecessors, this will fuck-up their whole worldview and the people will leave all twisted.”
How this booze-infused banter became Antoine’s core exit strategy is anyone’s guess. Political leaders in China are sacred so they’ll certainly take offense at this decadent retelling of the paramount leader’s life. Any country gutsy enough to commission the work would risk enraging the Dragon, which nobody will dare do now the world is dependent on China for socks and electronic novelties. But I need money and am in no position to question Antoine’s madness.
“So how can I help?”
“I need a lyric for this part. I’ve marked the chapter in the biography so you can recap.”
“No need, I know Mr Deng like the back of my hand.”
A few hours later, having hashed out some dewy-eyed poetry, I leave with a thousand yuan and a promise of some royalties when the show debuts on the West End.
The British gunboats enforcing the right to push opium in nineteenth century China represented the second biggest foreign backed drug invasion in Chinese history. The largest was when Starbucks launched. Like the British incursion, things began slowly. A few years after they’d entered the Chinese market Seattle’s finest was still a novelty. But somewhere down the line, I’ve forgotten when exactly, coffee-culture exploded in the People’s Republic and now everyone’s getting their caffeine fix with St. Arbucks.
Not me! Call me old-fashioned but I still remember when coffee was reserved for those who frequented the Xi Canting – elaborate, often insane approximations of how the Chinese imagined European’s dined, replete with swinging seats, Romanesque frescos and invariably, a skinny chick playing a grand piano. They were a wonderful example of globalisation gone gaga. Now they’re fast dying-out in the wake of the internationalism that’s homogenising everything. The Eight Lucky Dragons International Guesthouse, however, still maintains an affiliated Xi Canting, namely Mr Pan’s Paris-style Seafood BBQ & Grill, and I decide to spend a day writing there while I figure out my next move.
I’ve been trying to get some fiction out in the world, having spent far too long penning commercial copy. My writing career began when I was hired as the Art & Culture Editor at the now defunct expat rag This is Beijing. In those days people still read magazines to find out what was going on. For a time, surfing the development wave, advertising supported a thriving publication and I spent three glorious years schmoozing the capital’s movers and shakers in five-star hotel lounges. After my magazine years, I began to freelance for various publications while gigging out with The Sometimers. A bit of tutoring on the side helped pay the bills. China was the global hot topic and the Beijing bar scene was exploding. Everyone wanted to learn English. Everyone wanted something written in English. I was doing just fine without a boss or regular office hours.
Who’d have thought the 2008 Olympics, China’s coming-of-age party, would actually be the highpoint? Since then the economy has gradually been slowing, while the Party has been stepping-up its control in a bid to compensate. Smart phones buried what was left of print. No editor has a budget for a China feature anymore, and anyway, they’re all bored with the same stories: the smog and subordination scenarios have less and less currency in today’s hit-driven world.
So I’ve decided to work on my literary career instead. It’s tough. I mean Chinese writers have plenty to scribble about, but foreigners, what’s interesting about us? Consider the typical boozy embassy staffer sniffing around the bars of Sanlitun while frolicking Filipinas sing the hits of Shania Twain over a tinny keyboard backbeat, boy, that’s rock n roll!
The story I’m working on concerns a family of Manchurians. They had been royals during Qing Dynasty. Like most of their kind they fell on hard times after the 1911 revolution. But the family retained their regal pretentions despite the disquiet of China’s tumultuous twentieth century. Of course pride got them nowhere. In 2011, exactly one hundred years since the fall of the Qing regime, three generations are all hauled-up in a rundown brick house pedalling bottles of Old Beijing Yogurt to pay the rent. The eldest son learns he won’t graduate college unless his family can afford to bribe the headmaster, which of course, they can’t. Staring at the smoggy sky through the cracks in his tattered roof, he leaves the house determined to reinstate the family fortune no matter what. He then embarks on a bloody crusade through the Beijing underworld – a sinister place inhabited by vexed Mongolian hit men and slippery karaoke girls.
That’s as far as I’ve plot-wise. It’s lame, I know, the Beijing noir thing has been done before. And my character development isn’t up to speed either. I just don’t know how to inhabit the psyche of this disgruntled Manchurian, despite having met a fair few in my time.
There can be no credibility to my story until I figure him out. And even if I can make the man believable, I’m still not quite sure what I’m trying to say about life, the human condition or whatever else it is that fiction does.
I swing for a while on my chair as if the motion might erode this creative roadblock. Hotel California is playing in the background. A decade ago, only a few Western songs were popular in China: Country Roads, Only Yesterday and Hotel California being the principle three. Since then a host of pop fads have come and gone, but the Big Three have endured. Whenever we signed-up for a gig the booking agent demanded at least one of these timeless foreign classics.
My phone rings, it’s Tang Xianji.
“Nihao Xianji, long time no see.”
“Hey Steve, how are you? I was wondering if you could do me a favour?”
“My son is ill again. I need to buy some medicine, can I borrow 300 kuai? I’ll pay you back next week, I’ve got a Monkey Show over at Houhai.”
“Of course,” I say. I mean, how can I refuse? It’s his son. “I’ll bring it over shortly.”
I’m actually relieved to be pulled away from the blank page and velvety harmonies of Glen Frey and Don Henley. I pay for my beer and stroll over to my room. The girl with the English nametag “Oh Yeah Li” at the front desk gave me two key-cards, unquestioningly. This has enabled me to keep the electricity on while I’m out. I’m leaving the TV playing just in case Guolai makes a noise. I’ve hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the door handle permanently. No fresh sheets or towels, but it’ll be worth it when Old Wang coughs up for the return of his beloved mutt.
For such a small thing Guolai has made an astonishing mess. There’s claw marks in the bed and hair everywhere. She’s made World War Three of the litter trey I improvised in the bathroom with some dried rice and a flowerpot. Bang goes my room deposit.
I dish out the last of the dog biscuits, pocket a few notes and step outside into a city sagging beneath the weight of what feels like untreatable melancholy. I flag a motor-rickshaw. “How much to Caochangdi?”
When I arrive Tang Xianji is drinking baijiu and smoking nervously, while his lofty wife pushes a mop around the apartment. His son is lying on the sofa feverishly, wrapped in a towel bearing the Superman logo. As I go to check on him I see the bold yellow typeface actually reads Specialman. “What’s wrong with the little guy?”
“He’s sick and my famous-artist-husband can’t afford any medicine,” says Li Na wielding the mop with intent.
“Enough already,” calls Xianji through a plume of blue smoke. “Brother Steve is here.” Xianji ties back his lion’s main of jet-black hair. He’s in possession of the quintessential Beijing artiste look; a t-shirt spattered in dry paint paired with skinny jeans and Shanghai Warriors. But like so many of his comrades, it’s a grind getting by in the art world.
“If Steve wasn’t available, what then?” Li Na continues. “This climate is killing Young Tang, I should take him back to Dali.”
“There’s not even a road in your home village!”
“But at least the food and water is fresh. I followed you here, listened to how you were going to become Mr big famous painter. And what do you do, play drums twice a week and presume that’s enough to raise a family.”
She’s provoked Xianji’s dormant punk rock spirit. “Once I sell a few paintings we’ll be rolling in it, trust me,” he retorts somewhat arrogantly.
“Trust you? I believed you when you pulled me off that catwalk and whisked me away to a life free from the sleaze of the fashion business in Kunming. But let me tell you, I made more walking back and forth than any of your paintings ever have, or will.”
“Go back to modelling if you want. Oh wait you’re too old and pregnancy has made you saggy. Without me you’d be standing in a paddy field with your arse pointing at the sun.”
“Enough please… both of you.” I intervene. “Not in front of the guest.”
“Sorry Steve, here, have a glass, this baijiu was a gift from Old Wang before he went away. It’s really good stuff.”
“All right, just one glass, baijiu sends me south,” I say toasting him. “Ganbei.”
“Have we got any gigs lined-up?” he asks eventually, red faced and mournful.
“We’re playing Jin Jiang Bar next Sunday,” I say consolingly, knowing it’s not much.
It’s tough for Xianji. We all have trouble keeping ourselves afloat, but he has to provide for a family. Three years ago he’d moved from the sunny southwest to the art district Caochangdi, reasoning that if Ai Weiwei was famous, well perhaps some of the village’s magic might rub-off on him. It hasn’t and he’s come to deeply resent his flourishing neighbour. “He just does politics, not art!” he complains, unable to cloak his jealousy.
His wife, a ravishing Dai woman, resents the move north almost entirely, though she seems to get along well with Mr Ai, who she bumps into from time to time at the market. “He’s very polite,” she says, perhaps to annoy her husband.
“How is the novel coming along?” Xianji asks, pouring me a second glass.
“The Manchurian Graduate? I wrote for a few hours today, it’s getting there.”
“Good, I can’t wait until you publish it. It is sure to be a bestseller.”
“Thanks Xianji.” He’s always positive, despite the fog of the future, he sees a glimmering light. But what choice does he have? The rest of us could go back to the cosy suburbs of the Western world that had yielded us anytime, but Ole’ Tang can’t fail. Drumming and painting and China are all he has, all he’s ever know. We drink a third glass before his son begins to stir.
“You best see to Xiao Tang,” I tell him pointing towards the scar below his eye. “You don’t want your wife to punch you again.”
Despite Xianji’s protestations, I know it wouldn’t be right to stay and drink with him while his wife nursed their son. I escape back into the Beijing night, pronging through the web of fragile aspirations sticking like the mist to everything and everyone.
Caochangdi feels as if it has been partitioned. The successful artists live in purpose-built studios, while wannabes like Xianji live in a grimy neighbourhood of red brick tenements serviced by tangled electricity cables and gurgling gutters.
“How did things get so complicated?” I ask the clerk in the corner-shop where I stop to buy a beer. But she just looks bemused at the sight of a tipsy, Chinese-speaking foreigner. Yet with the baijiu warming my veins I feel energised and hungry. So I follow a lane into a mottled neighbourhood that even the wrecking-ball appears to have forgotten. The hurriedly built houses are so close together the neighbours could kiss from window to window. The residents are all busying about with whatever it is that concerns them, mostly gambling over all night mah-jong tournaments.
I stop at a barbeque stand and order some skewers of lamb and another beer.
“Where are we?” I ask the Muslim Hui woman working the stand.
“Secret Village,” she replies.
Cute name, I think and chew the fat of the lamb, and drink some more. Eventually a young crowd settles just next to me. From their conversation I guess their outsiders working low-income jobs in the capital.
I catch the eye of a pretty girl wearing a black jacket that says “School Kills” in English, though she has no idea of course. “Ganbei.”
“Oh you speak Chinese?”
“That’s very impressive. What’s your name?”
I break my name down into Chinese characters: “Si-di-fu. And you?”
“I’m Xiao Hei.” She turns to her compatriots. “Hey everyone, this foreign devil speaks Chinese.”
Before long I’m toasting beers and making new friends. It turns out they are all from the same county, Wuwei in Anhui Province, and have found work in a nearby department store, hence their fashionable faux outfits.
“So what’s Wuwei like?”
“It’s okay, it’s quite big but mostly rural. But I’m not a nongmin,” she says using the word “peasant” that is often applied as an insult. “I’m from Wenchang Township actually but it’s quiet so we mostly hang-out in Wuhu.”
“It’s the big city that administers Wuwei.”
“Wu Hu,” I repeat breaking up the characters. “Does that mean, like, Weedy Lake or something?”
“Wow,” says Xiao Hei, offering me a toast. “Your Chinese rocks.”
The beer flows and before long we’re taxiing to a karaoke house in some remote corner of Beijing. Xiao Hei’s friends roll off the hits of the day, singing along with the bubble gum pop stars on the screen. More beer is ordered, a fruit platter and some nuts, while Xiao Hei dedicates a pop anthem to her newfound foreign friend. “This one is for you si-di-fu.”
Beijing’s a rotten stew of a place. And then you run into some regular people and they can be so unbelievably hospitable. The gloom lifts, and you feel positively human again. I give Yesterday Once More my best shot, “every sha-la-la-la”, and a few Beatles numbers, “la-la-la-la”, though I refuse outright to partake in Hotel California.
More Anhui folk arrive, pointing and laughing at the rogue foreigner, “halloo!” But intent on out-singing and out-drinking their friends, they award me no special favours. Except Xiao Hei that is. Though she proves to be a competitive crooner, particularly when a Taiwanese ballad is cued-up on the machine, she joins me in swigging warm cans of Yanjing between numbers, making sure I get my fill of watermelon and pineapple chunks. The roll call continues. Each singer does their level best to perform the song exactly as it is on the record, manifesting that old Chinese preference for repetition.
Despite the gleam from her pleather skirt and the way she shuffles in her heels, Xiao Hei is impossibly cute. Her eyebrows arch like diamonds above inquisitive cheekbones. Girls from the provinces, I begin to think, are so less contaminated. They exude a kind of rectitude that the cynicism of the city erodes. I’m drunk now of course, the bass is rattling my stomach and the smoke makes my eyes water as if I’m somehow moved by toe-curling Mandopop. But I’m feeling sentimental, perhaps it’s my age, the sheer intensity of surviving in this distant outpost so far from my genesis for so many years. And when Xiao Hei sits adjacent to me I fondle her fingers and I realise how cold I’ve become when her body heat warms me.
“You good?” she asks but she can’t hear my reply above Wang Feng’s Beijing, Beijing. More songs, more beers, then like liars dice we tumble into the corridor, fondling our way past interchangeable voices vibrating indistinguishable doors. The foyer is lit up like a fluorescent nirvana but beyond the doormen it is dark and only the headlights of taxis make any sense of the night.
The ring roads of Beijing are seemingly endless, you never know which one your on. A thousand miles of concrete encircles us, closes in on us, and leads us inwards towards our final destination like poop in a toilet bowel.
Oh Yeah Li is asleep at the counter of The Eight Lucky Dragons International Guesthouse. Above her the three clocks marked New York, Paris and Beijing all tell the wrong time. Just as well, I think, as Xiao Hei and I enter the elevator.
“Hit number nine.”
“Nine is auspicious, it means you’ll live a long time,” she slurs before biting my lower lip.
We dance across the tobacco-stained carpet, and after a tense moment wrestling with the lock, find sanctuary within my room.
“You left your TV on,” Xiao Hei observes heedlessly while unstrapping her shoes.
I sit on the bed and we kiss tenderly, and I get a real hard on. I pull her closer and am ready to go. But she pushes me away, remarking “shower” before disappearing into the bathroom with one of the grubby hotel towels.
I lie back on the pillow, wondering how long I can maintain this Olympic gold erection. I imagine Xiao Hei dropping her clothes. I hear the shower go on, her testing the waters with her toes.
“Wo de ma ya!” I suddenly hear her scream.
I sit up, shaking through the delirium of the booze.
“She emerges, her hair half sodden, the towel wrapped around her like a badly fitting toga.
“There’s a dog in the bathroom.”
“Oh that’s just Guolai.”
“And there’s dog shit.”
“Yeah, I need to walk her, I was going to do that tonight but I met you and…”
“What kind of man are you, living in a hotel with a dirty animal?”
I glance around the room. The wallpaper is peeling and electric fan on the celling has dust dating back to the Han Dynasty. I have to admit it doesn’t look great. The rotten place is festooned with business cards from whores.
“It’s not so bad,” I claim haplessly, but Xiao Hei is clearly ruffled.
She begins to get dressed. I crawl seductively across the bed and try to calm her down but she shakes me off.
“Listen Xiao Hei…”
“No, I should have known, just look at you, your clothes, your trainers…”
“You, you’re a nongmin, a fucking peasant!”
I walk around the Temple of the Earth until Guolai has shit at all points of the compass. It’s easier than it sounds as all the city’s scared spaces are laid out with close attention to cosmic symmetry. Of all Beijing’s public gardens I like this one best, perhaps because it is decidedly less remarkable than the others and therefore less touristy. The only other foreigners I ever see here are Russian fur traders who frequent the park to smoke.
Once I’m confident the dog is empty I break my last 100 at a Lanzhou Pulled Beef Noodle Restaurant near the South Gate. I wash down the broth with a bottle of baijiu. I know the stuff is gut-rot but what’s a poor boy to do? There’s no way I’m meeting A’Liao sober, not after the week I’ve just had.
The alcohol takes the edge of the walk, which is good, as the rush hour has left the city at a standstill. The cross-town romp takes an hour but feels much longer as there’s little to entertain the eye beyond identikit apartments and long congested roads.
When I get to Wande Mall I discover the main foyer is closed, apparently in preparation for some kind of big event. I can just about distinguish some scaffolding through the grimy doors.
I find A’Liao carousing the shelves of a nearby jewellery store. She is dressed in black, from her come-fuck-me-boots right up to her Prada sunglasses. But her skin is white as goose feathers, a combination of sun deprivation and cosmetic whitener. Only her glossy vermilion lips hint of any vigour.
“You’re late.” she complains, evidently annoyed with herself for not keeping me waiting. “And what the hell is that?”
“It’s Guolai, you remember, Old Wang’s dog. Isn’t she cute?”
“Yes, but you can’t take her bowling.”
“I didn’t realise we were going bowling.”
“Well why else would we be meeting at this time of night?”
“To get dumplings…”
“Come on Steve. It’s too late for dinner and too early for drinks.”
“Well maybe there’s a place we can leave her, an animal crèche or something?”
“In China! Listen my mum gave me these vouchers, they expire tomorrow and I want to go bowling.”
“I appreciate that but what can I do? I have to look after her until that no good gangster gets back. He’s paying me.”
“So you’re a pet-sitter now, I thought you were a rock star or something…”
“Listen A’Liao, relax, please. As soon as I get some money I’ll take you bowling.”
“How much have you got?”
“On you now, how much?”
I pull out my wallet. “Well I haven’t been to the bank yet so maybe 50, 60…”
“That should do.”
She snatches Guolai from my grasp and leads me down an underpass. I had no idea there was a bowling alley behind the mall. Indeed, I had no idea people in China even bowled. But the distant echo of pins collapsing suggests there is, indeed, games yet to play.
After some tense negotiations with one some brain-damaged doorman from the countryside A’Liao tells me they’ve tied Guolai to the banister in the emergency stairwell. “They’ll watch her for 50 kuai, no problem.”
That leaves me with ten yuan and change. The cheapest beer in the Beijing Bowl is a hefty 25.
A’Liao brightens up considerably once we’ve shooed-up and began blasting balls down the lanes. She’s surprisingly competitive, winning the first five sets with ease and jumping around embarrassingly whenever she gets a strike. “Diaosi!” she calls me. Loser!
I stage a comeback in the sixth set but it’s short lived. By the eighth I’m already conceding victory to a five-foot tall girl from Shandong. As A’Liao grows more elated I begin to comedown from the alcohol. With no beer to postpone the hangover my mood crashes like a motor rickshaw carrying too much polystyrene on a windy day.
We have a second game, which is neck-and-neck until the seventh set when A’Liao bowls an unprecedented series of strikes. Her glee repulses me. The all-black-outfit is doing little to compliment what few curves she has. She doesn’t arouse me in the least, I realise. And I find myself wishing for a home to go to.
Then my phone rumbles in my pocket. I look down at the name on the screen. It’s Moose.
The court of Empress Wu Zetian is festooned with peony flowers. She sits atop the Dragon Throne flanked by her eunuchs – sexless servants to the imperial state. She is aging but remains beautiful, and I can see clearly now how few men could ever refuse her commands, were they amorous or political. A Mongolian is playing the nose flute, arching his back and dancing a prairie jig. There are several other exotic performers including a Persian acrobat and a snake charmer from Kabul. The Tang Dynasty truly is as cosmopolitan as the great histories suggest. Eventually it is my turn.
“And you sir, from where do you hail and how shall you amuse the Sage Queen?” asks a senior eunuch.
“Right, er, well my name’s Steve, I’m from Wales and I thought I’d do an old Bad Finger number for her majesty’s court today.”
Empress Wu, the mightiest ruler in the world, slowly arises from her thrown. Her dark eyes are as piercing as metal chopsticks. “You! Foreign one!” she cries pointing towards me.
“Yes you majesty?”
“Do you permit your dog to shit in the Peony Gardens of sacred Luoyang?”
“Well that’s not my dog, it’s Old Wang’s…”
“Silence!” she cries. “You defy heaven itself.” She strikes her staff down on the stone floor. The earth shudders and the sky begins to crack. White light pours across the imperial stage and there’s a terrible roar as if a dragon has been unleashed.
“Now tell me, do you want bacon or just eggs?” she screams.
“Bacon or eggs?”
As I regain use of my eyes Moose materialises before me. He’s naked except for a baking apron. He looks like Peking Man having been unfrozen and awarded a twenty-first century lifestyle. But he’s holding a frying pan with intent so I resolve to answer.
“Just eggs,” I mumble peeling my face from the couch like a Velcro bootstrap.
“No worries brother, I’ll throw in three, you look like you could use a good meal, especially before the show today.”
“Boy you are dead-to-the-world. Remember last night, we discussed it over a bottle of JD. Wanda Mall is holding some kind of corporate function and we’re the entertainment. Four K per person, the hard times are over brother.”
A skinny girl wearing one of Moose’s Bon Jovi t-shirts emerges from the bedroom.
“What so noisy?” she asks in muddled English.
“Don’t worry, get back to bed honey, I’ll bring you breakfast just like I promised.”
She scowls then disappears, slamming the door decidedly shut.
“A new one?” I ask lighting a half-smoked Zhongnanhai I find between the cushions.
“Ying, no, we’ve been dating for years.”
“She looks about 12.”
“Are you kidding, she’s a graduate student at Tsinghua, her dad’s some big swinging dick over in Tianjin. Hey man, I told you not to smoke in here.”
I climb out onto the terrace where Guolai is barking at a moonless sky. There’s not even a wisp of mist. I wonder if the government has seeded the clouds to clear the smog; they were known to do that whenever an international event took place. But with the doomsday clock clicking two minutes to midnight I’m just grateful for fair weather. I take a seat and finish the cigarette.
“So have you seen A’Liao lately?” Moose calls from the kitchen.
“Um, no, why?”
“Nothing. She hasn’t been answering my texts. Maybe she’s been busy.”
I look back at Moose, his bare arse twitching to the Doobie Brother’s 1973 hit Long Train Runnin while he collates a platter of deep fried fodder. How on earth had I come to be in a band with this bozo? Sure he has a pair of lungs on him, and he’s a real crowd-pleaser, but his simian frame houses less artistry than a professional ten-pin-bowler, one occupation I often imagined he’d end up in. For Moose China was simply girls and gigs. After five years in the Middle Kingdom he couldn’t order a portion of fried rice in Mandarin, nor could he tell his Qing from his Qin. And what’s more he couldn’t give a rat’s arse.
I walk to the dinner table and sink into the chair to confront the eggs (sunny side up), an assortment of pancakes and what appears to be a rare kind of fungi, all afloat in a sea of oil.
“Don’t wait for me brother, get stuck-in, Antoine and Tang Xianji are already on their way in the van, we’ve only got two hours before,” assuming his game-show host voice, “it’s show time!”
“Have you written a set list?”
“Put new strings on the guitars.”
“Guaranteed a competent sound man?”
“Wow you are on the money.”
“Yaba daba-doo!” he yells.
“Who organised this gig anyway?”
“It was Old Wang.”
“He’s back in town?”
“Sure he’s been back for awhile.”
Before us a sea of ubiquity nods and waves. I look at the men who’ve supplanted sickles for sports bags. Those who’d cut the throats of swine sport boot-cut denim and polo shirts. They grasp frozen yogurts and Galaxy phones. Behind them European manikins haunt the windows like sexless fiends. The congregation toasts the ancestors with complimentary cans of Yanjing handed out by bikini clad girls at the side of the stage. And they ogle at us like children when confronting animals at the circus for the very first time, half curious, half amused, secretly sad.
We finish our final track, a solid rendition of Steve Miller’s The Joker and exit the stage.
“Encore, encore, encore,” chants the crowd.
I notice Old Wang smoking backstage. He’s talking with An Ne and Meizi. They pass Guolai between them, Eskimo-kissing the flat-faced pup.
I’m determined to hit him up for all the money he owes me, for the dog, the show, the delay…
“Steve! Come on. Can’t you hear, they love us.”
It’s Moose returning to the spotlight. Antoine and Xianji follow reluctantly. “Okay here’s one you all know,” Moose shouts and picks the opening bars of Hotel California on his acoustic. The crowd goes wild. Antoine joins in with the inaugurating bass solo while Xianji brushes the cymbals atmospherically. I plug in just in time for the verse; stabbing offbeat rhythms while Moose let’s the audience have it. Despite Antoine’s sore throat we muster three-part harmony in the chorus. I hope the monitor amps are working or we’ll fall flat out of key. By the second verse I’m loose enough to add some improvised licks, augmenting the elation of the crowd. Moose looks over and winks as we enter the second chorus. He’s on cloud nine. Then it’s the breakdown, sixteen bars of solo Moose. I notice Xianji is sweating. Antoine looks drained too. Beneath the stage lights, all is illuminated. Yet beyond the platform I can’t distinguish a thing. I wait for my cue cautiously clutching my axe. Moose sings, “you can check out any time you like but you can never leave,” and I play the guitar solo, note-for-note.