Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Hutong hits of the 80s and 90s

I'm feeling much better now. The sun came out today. Blue skies all around. The mood in the streets reflected it. People were out in droves.

In the morning I packed up my computer and headed out in search of a Starbucks. Thought it would be a good place to write. I ended up finding a knock-off coffee shop. It didn't have Internet, but made a damn fine latte. The Chinese don't drink coffee, so I've ingested a lot of instant. I didn't mind paying the price of a full meal for my caffeine injection. Plus they served beer too. Got a fair bit done, even with the people outside pressing their noses against the window to see what the foreigner was doing. Felt a bit like being in a zoo.

With the crowds, the dog walkers were out in force too. I'm told pets are a relatively new fad that's come with prosperity. The government has tight rules on when you are allowed to take your dog for walks during the day, but no one seems to obey them. Most of the dogs are small and fluffy. Even still, many Chinese seem to steer clear of them.

I booked my flight to India, leaving Saturday. It cost a bit more than I was expecting because I have to grab a connector in Thailand. I also forgot how pricey the hotels in Mumbai are, because of the shortage of accommodation in the city. The place I was after, the Ascot, is booked. Most hotels there don't have Internet. To ease me into the transition, I'm staying at the Hilton Towers, a supposed 5-star hotel, though many of the online reviews would beg to differ. Got an ok web special price.

This evening after work I went for a walk along some Hutong, which are narrow east-west alleyways. The bulk of Beijingers live in small stone homes that have courtyards facing Hutong. It's like stepping into the past. People leave their doors open and you can look in and see them going about their lives cooking dinner, watching TV...bathing. In its quest to modernize China, the city is tearing down many of those dwellings to make way for ugly apartment blocks. My guidebook says 10,000 a year are demolished. You can see the rubble everywhere. It's sad really. All these colourful old homes ploughed under. Of course with thousands of rural poor streaming into the city every month, the only reasonable way to accommodate the influx is to build up.

While walking down one Hutong a man introduced himself. In fractured English he told me he was an artist who paints Hutong scenes and that the area I was in, with all the rubble, wasn't the real thing. I smelled a tout trying to sell me art, but I still decided to go with him to his home and see his paintings. It would give me a chance to check out one of the little dwellings. His name was Sonny, and he turned out to be a really nice, interesting guy. His home was cramped and cluttered, with a bed in each room. His easel was in the back, and he did indeed have some lovely paintings of Hutong in summer and winter, alongside "experimental" art that dabbled with topics such as the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard. One painting showed topless peasant women grinning. Another had a terracotta soldier standing guard as a Red Army fighter jet roared past. Sonny told me his father committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution. He clearly isn't a fan of the government so I won't post his face. He had an old PC computer and he showed me video of his niece singing gospel songs. I also saw his music download folder. There was some Richard Marx. ("This is a big song in America," he declared. I've heard Right Here Waiting half a dozen times here. It was the warm-up song to the Beijing acrobat show.) He also had Smells Like Teen Spirit. Pretty eclectic for a 60 year old. We exchanged business cards before I left.

I capped the evening with dinner at an out of the way restaurant that had nary a word of English on the menu. Ended up ordering liver. Blah. It's nearly impossible to get restaurants to give you receipts, because then there'd be a record of the sale and the place would have to record it for tax purposes. The black market is pervasive here. To shine some light on it, the Chinese government sponsors scratch and win tickets on meal receipts in the hope that customers will demand a copy. It can pay off. One woman I met won 500 Yuan. But most restaurants insist the printer is "not work."


Jutratest said...

Jason, I really liked that guy's paintings. You should have snatched as many up as possible.

Kirby said...

I have his card if you'd like to order something from him. I thought about it, but they're huge and I didn't feel like carrying a giant canvas mocking the Red Army down main street Beijing.