I write this not from Beijing but from Chengdu, in a hotel high above the Second Ring Road. It's warm and a little humid, and music has been floating through the window all evening since I returned from dinner - first it was Chinese opera; now it's violins and enthusiastic singing. Where it's coming from I have no idea - surely not the Happy Star Karaoke Bar next door, where no doubt the local fatcats are singing and drinking Baijiu with their young "xiaojie"? The music is layered with the continual honking of car horns and speeding traffic - a Chinese city symphony. Earlier it was a true cacophany, with long beeps alternating with short "parp parp" horns and the thrum of thousands of motor scooters. I am here to visit with sculptor Shi Jindian, who makes intricate and delicate wire representations of objects such as army motorcycles and jeeps, remembering a time when these were the only vehicles on Chinese roads other than bicycles. Perhaps ironically, as we drove two hours out of Chengdu to his house in the mountains today, we passed a long military convoy of camouflaged PLA trucks carrying soldiers. This is the road to Tibet.
I am reflecting on a hectic two weeks in Beijing since arriving from Shanghai. So far I have visited the studios of 15 artists, with 8 more interviews in the week ahead. Not to mention demoralising Chinese classes every morning - no wonder I am tired! I think of Gramsci's famous quote: "Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will," in relation to learning Chinese. But optimism, in China, is sometimes hard to come by, even for an "outside country person" such as myself, and being here for any length of time can be emotionally draining. The Chinese sense of humour is dark, like its history, and while I always find great kindness and friendliness here, people are tough - they have always had to be.
So, channeling Ian Dury and the Blockheads (yes, I am old!) here are my "Beijing Reasons to Be Cheerful":
- The classic Beijing “Big Wind” sprang up during the night on Wednesday and chased away the worst of the pollution that had blanketed the city for days. I woke to miraculously blue skies and a markedly more cheerful populace. Walking to my class under the trees and past the little shops was a positive joy, rather than a possibly life-shortening and grimly depressing race from door to door. Wearing a mask to filter the muck entering my lungs also fogs up my glasses and makes me even more than usually likely to bump into and trip over things.
- People sing unselfconsciously in the street, whilst walking, riding bicycles or motorscooters.
- In conversation with artist Bu Hua this week, she revealed that she wants her work to emphasise the beauty of her city, as well as its many social and environmental problems. She spoke of the willows, the red gates and the white bridges, abiding memories of her childhood, and ever since our conversation I have seen them everywhere. Even in the busiest heart of the city, a new park beside the water at the Andingmen bridge is filled with beautifully designed benches, all occupied by elderly ladies or tired looking workers. Flowers are everywhere, but there is a sense of the changing of the seasons – winter will soon be here.
- Men take their songbirds to the park and hang their cages from the trees
- The remaining hutongs - tiny narrow lanes with grey walls punctuated by red doors leading into courtyard dwellings hidden behind more walls - are real and vital living places, the last reminders of how the city once was. I visited an artist residency in a tiny hutong just off the bustling pedestrian street of Nanluoguxiang, filled with crowds of Chinese holiday-makers eating snacks. The street is filled with vendors of “xiao chi” (literally, little eats), mostly of the sweet and sticky kind. I know you are not supposed to like this street – so touristy, near the Drum and Bell Towers, so corny, so very uncool, so Disneyfied! And yet I DO like it, I like the happiness of the crowds moving through it, laughing and taking selfies, and the fact that two doors back from the thoroughfare you enter another space where life is lived in the traditional Beijing way. Men pick up their children from the elementary school gates on their bicycles or motor scooters, old people shuffle by carrying their shopping, and women chat at the doorways of their courtyards. And the grey walls themselves, cracked, crumbling, covered with painted over phone numbers, are beautiful palimpsests.
- People fly kites at the city walls each day
- I visited contemporary ink artist Bingyi in her Yuan Dynasty Temple in another tangled hutong. I walked from the subway across the Andingmen Bridge, exploring local streets where you rarely see a western face. In the middle of the road – 8 lanes of fast and unpredictable traffic – a man was selling live crabs from a plastic bucket, then another truck pulled up at the intersection selling cauliflowers and lettuce and was immediately surrounded by hard-bargaining Beijingers. Once inside the narrow grey lanes of Bingyi's hutong, and through the big doors, we spoke of her ambitious plan to “map” them– every courtyard and every house in old Beijing – through a process of artworks, video, photographs and published letters containing the memories of every inhabitant. This intriguing project will take years, but she is optimistic that it’s an example of art that can generate change.
- Many people take their musical instruments to the parks - which are also filled with dancers, exercisers, mahjong players, and every activity imaginable. It's a constant source of fascination for me.
- My slow, slow (oh so painfully slow) acquisition of language brings me joy as well as immense frusration. It is glacial, but there is a little progress. And it makes for funny encounters – I know what I want to say but often fail to understand what people are asking me, or their replies. Conversations are like absurd Dada performance art, as I mishear and misconstrue – generally realising much too late what they were actually saying to me. Whoever said Chinese grammar was easy can think again! I invariably get the order of words wrong, so most of my lessons consist of me saying obvious and trite things and being corrected, over and over again. Half understanding my teacher’s fast speech, I concentrate so hard that sometimes I feel I might spontaneously combust.
- And finally, I can't help delighting in the use of English, from the gruesomely named "Beijing Stomatological Hospital" to the "Envyou" Cosmetic Surgery Clinic that I walk past on my way to the subway. I feel it's OK to be amused, as my terrible Chinese causes so much amusement to others, a truly humbling experience. New housing developments have names that developers and real estate agents imagine are sophisticated and aspirational: "Florida Shores" or "Italy Mews". I drove past one turreted and crenellated compound of new apartments called, simply, "Golf". There was no golf course in sight anywhere. This naming process is the ultimate in semiotics. There is the abandoned Polo Club on Beijing's apocalyptic outskirts where no polo has ever, or ever will be, played. Restaurant menus are a particular favourite, filled with mangled English describing God only knows what. Sometimes you just have to take a stab in the dark. "What meat is this?" I asked the waitress in a very local restaurant last year. "Maybe pork?" she replied.