A Foggy Night in Beijing

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Went to Qianmen last night with TT, TT and TT’s mum.

The city was bathed in thick fog.

At Qianmen Street I remarked: ‘I had some tasty Peking duck near here.’

To which TT responded, somewhat cryptically: ‘Have you had Peking bullshit?’

We came to Tiananmen Square. It was closed off and smelled of chemicals.

TT explained that the last time his mum saw the square was back sometime in ’68 or ’69 when she and comrades journeyed there from the countryside to rally support for the communists. All travel, food and lodging was free. Everyone shared with each other.

We posed for pictures, standing stiffly in front of one of the imperial gates. TT takes the pictures too quickly. TT reprimands her for not giving a countdown. ‘Yi, er, san’.

TT’s mum looks bored.

We walked back to Qianmen Street, passing through the subway where throngs of people shuffled past a frail old lady/man who was being helped out of his/her wheelchair and onto the escalator.

We passed clusters of decrepit old-style houses with tufts of grass growing on the roofs. The hutongs that used to exist in this area had long since been ripped down and sacrificed to modernity. These were the last remaining islands, standing like a pile of dusty boxes in a newly-furnished living room. I wondered what sort of people would live in those shabby anachronisms in the heart of Beijing where property prices must be sky-high. ‘Could be rich people, could be poor people’, TT says. ‘Either way they don’t own the land, just the houses. The government can kick them out any time. No one owns anything in this country.’

He rolls his eyes at my ignorance. ‘Farmers are being thrown off their land all the time, to make way for government projects. Their only means of protest is to set themselves on fire.’

We walked down Qianmen Street. Everything about the street is fake. There is a tram running up and down it whose sole purpose is to shuttle dumb tourists back and forth. The shop fronts are all shiny and new. The bins are shaped like Chinese drums. The flagstones underfoot are polished and smooth. There are men dressed in imperial clothes armed with swords who have been stationed at various points along the street purely for the gratification of ogling foreign tourists.

The street served as a major commercial centre generations ago, but recently the government decided to tear it down and rebuild it from scratch. As a result the whole place has the feel of a film set.

We briefly looked inside a silk shop.

After emerging from the street we went to a nearby comedy theatre. TT explained that the place is owned by a famous Chinese comedian from Jilin, the northern province where TT studied and where my family lived for a few years. ‘He came from a poor peasant family. I know he sold his soul to the government’ TT says.

We checked ticket prices. The cheapest was RMB 600 (circa £60) and the dearest was RMB 5500 (circa £550).

The last performance of the day had already finished. A man was arguing with the ticket seller. He smelled slightly of liquor. TT was talking with a guard. At length the guard stepped in front of the disgruntled man and slid the window of the ticket booth shut, leaving the man with no choice but to walk away in frustration.

We also left. And TT was drawn into conversation with the dissatisfied customer.

The latter launched into a rant, which TT later translated for me.

He used to live on the site where the theatre now stands. It seems the government forced him out of his home. He was angry because he felt he should be entitled to cheaper tickets at the theatre as some sort of compensation. He was disgusted that local people had been pushed aside to make room for an entertainment venue which was too expensive for them to attend.

He felt betrayed by his government. I could sense the frustration in his voice. He said he wanted to tell his story to foreign journalists. He wanted someone to listen to his complaints. There was no other way for him to make his anger known.

We parted from the man, who got on a bicycle, waved a gourd at us and rode away.

We drove off down Chang’an Avenue in TT’s Buick. As we passed the gate of the Forbidden City TT aimed his finger like a gun at the huge portrait of the Chairman and shot him right in the middle of his great balding head.

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