4/16/19

&: Diary (4)



(April 8th, 2019) No sleep the night before, out to Narita to get a Cathay flight into Hong Kong, few hours' layover spent charging my phone and wandering over to the outdoor smoking lounge (one benefit of flying out of the North Satellite Concourse, get to feel the night air), then boarded a red-eye into Beijing, line up to clear customs behind a few hundred Russians, crashed until dawn in the dingy sort of cubicle hotel (まんが喫茶-style), slept for an hour, then woke up, pissed in a bottle, ate a half dozen packs of Peanut M&Ms, and started re-reading Yu Miri's Tokyo Ueno Station until the sound of hacking and snoring got too bad and went to sit out in the terminal. It was as unpleasant as it sounds.



(April 9th, 2019) Another flight, into Xi'an on China Eastern with Nicky. Directed into a garish waiting lounge to wait for ** ** and Jia Pingwa, picked up in a Ford E-series with blonde wood trim and a wet bar in the front with a bottle labeled MATINET, checked into the luxury hotel built into the Tang West Market complex. I'd met ** ** and Jia once before, in the back of a bookstore at 798 in Beijing, before he went on to give a talk alongside Nick Stember, someone from Grove Press, and a publisher from Mexico, and I'd been too stunned to say much, but now that I was locked into a backroom with him in a hotel restaurant, I could ask him whatever I wanted, and nothing came to mind. The first of several bottles of Maotai was drunk. Drove across town to see a production of Yangmen Nvjiang 杨门女将 (the story of 11 widows?), a qingchunban 青春版 "youth version" put on at the Shaanxi Traditional Opera Institute Theater 陕西戏曲研究院剧场 by their Xiao Meihua Tuan 小梅花团. Got the first hint of the reception Jia Pingwa receives when he goes places, ushered into a side entrance, met with the director of the company who requested the author take the stage afterwards, settled for his two foreign guests going onstage, brought to the best seats in the house, then quickly hustled out while being mobbed by fans. An impressive show, and the young woman in the role of She Taijun 佘太君 was particularly impressive. I've watched hours of qinqiang 秦腔 opera on Youtube but to see it in person, even in an aggressively modern staging with lots of lights and smoke, that alone was worth the trip to Xi'an.



(April 10th, 2019) Woke up before sunrise and caught a taxi to the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, could only see it from across the park, sitting inside the temple complex, wandered down Xiaozhai Commercial Street 小寨商业街, walked all the way back to Keji Lu 科技路 and across the Second Ring Road. Received a carton of soft pack Zhonghua from the author. Took the conversion van a couple hundred kilometers southeast of the city to Dihua 棣花, a village split between a regular old countryside town and a section developed by the local government into a Jia Pingwa-focused tourist site, peppering Jia with questions along the way. Met Jia's younger brother, local cadres, walked through Jia's old home, down into a new street named Qingfengjie 清风街 after the village in Qinqiang 秦腔. The street features shops that pop up in the novel, like the pharmacy operated by Zhao Hongsheng 赵宏声, a statue of Xia Feng 夏风 and Bai Xue 白雪 being married and another of Bai Xue steaming mantou (like visiting a replica Macondo with Gabriel García Márquez). Had our first drink of baogujiu 包谷酒 by midmorning. Constantly mobbed by fans of Jia wanting to get books signed or pictures taken. Stopped at the Erliang Temple 二郎庙, saw the opera theater and pagoda. Strange feeling, hearing Jia talk about when he was a boy, climbing up to sleep on the lower floors of the pagoda, in this village he has written about so many times, because by writing about it, he has helped to destroy it, right? In a way, it's been preserved, and everyone seems happy to reap the benefits of Jia's popularization of this remote corner of Shaanxi, but it has been destroyed for him—he can't even walk down the street! Whatever was left of the old village has mostly been transformed or torn down, replaced with a simulation. We got a taste of that after lunch when we sat down to drink tea and were mobbed again by people trying to get signatures. Every conversation was interrupted by a request for a photo. We went in the afternoon to a restaurant down the road, with Jia's younger brother, the guy running the baogujiu shop, a local cadre, and a few other people, ate a meal of good bread, larou 腊肉, drank a bottle of Wuliangye 五粮液 and a bottle of Fenjiu 汾酒. I need to write about this soon, before I forget everything. That's the problem. Got back into the city late. Sat down at the desk in the hotel and tried to write. Watched RT and drank a Sprite out of the minibar. Fell asleep with the window wide open.



(April 11th, 2019) Went up to Sanyuan County 三原县 with Jia and Wang Shenghua 王盛华 to see the cave houses, similar to those in Jihua 极花. Once again, accompanied by local cadres and other enthusiastic county bureaucrats. Ate a boozy lunch in a cave, drinking more Fenjiu, featuring a local cop/antiques collector who after helping me to polish off a bottle begged off, slurring, "It's against the law to operate a car after drinking." Visited his antiques shop in the county town, where he showed us his book of mostly Han rubbings, took us around to the other antiques shops in the neighborhood. Went back into the city with Wang Shenghua 王盛华 , drank tea in his studio with his lovely personal assistant who was reading a copy of Huainianlang 怀念狼 at the desk when we came in. Another boozy dinner. Went out that night with ** ******** and friend to a KTV, both people I've talked to by email but never met in person, spent three hours in there, nostalgic rush of old China days, spent the time chatting with a young woman named **** **, quizzing her about the life of a KTV girl, making notes that I won't share here but can probably be used somewhere else, and the thought occurred to me again, that she was, as I repeated over and over again, encountering people in Xi'an and the countryside, "like a character in a Jia Pingwa novel" (the first time was the writer Wang Shenghua, the cultural entrepreneur with a plush studio, going down to the countryside to take notes for some story), a plucky girl from the countryside that fought with her husband and went first to the county town and then the city to work, etc. etc.... And strange to watch the drama of the KTV, the playing out of some idealized masculinity and femininity—I wish I had something more to say about that, and this note is kind of incomplete in a way that I think could be misinterpreted, but it reminds me of the Miura Atsushi 三浦篤 line quoted on Neojaponisme about the kyabakura キャバクラ as a "theme park of traditional gender roles." I feel like that day alone, I could part it out into a few pieces of writing, maybe a piece on Wang Shenghua? (I have to dig deeper into his writing), maybe something about the literary man and women (huge question mark placed here, but maybe draw from women characters in Jia's writing? return back to **** ** in a Xi'an KTV, Wang Shenghua's assistant, History of Modern Xi'an as Told by a Bar Hostess? I could probably write a brief KTV experience memoir, like Isham Cook [just to take a China-related example, but I'm sure I could do better, God, I hope I could do better—I mean, he is good at what he does, though, even if it makes me never want to fuck again] but without any poetic descriptions of vulva, probably hopefully less overheated, or maybe I should wait until I'm in my 40s or 50s to start doing that kind of thing, because maybe my then I'll be interested in fucking again and will have completely given up on everything else?) and something about the caves? I don't know. I feel like there's a lot there but it's bubbling just under the surface and it'll take a few weeks, maybe a few months for the memories to ferment into something worth writing. Returned home by myself, walking across the city. This entry seems so slim for a day on which so much happened.

4/8/19

&: Japanese walls (walls east of Ueno Station / トタン建築 / first attempt)



I don't know much about this area. It used to be called Takecho 竹町 but is now the district of Taito 台東 in the ward of Taito 台東. Satake Shotengai 佐竹商店街 in the center of the district is one of the district is one of the oldest shopping arcades in the country—that depends on how you define a shopping arcade, I guess, because it looked like it was a run-of-the-mill Tokyo merchants' street during its early life, rather than something evoking a Parisian arcade, and it wasn't covered until the 1970s when it was finally rebuilt after being leveled in the Second World War. Satake and the rest of the district feels distinct from the rest of the ward, nothing like Ueno and its park and arcades, or the rest of Shitaya: self-contained, with no gangs of tourists yet, and not many hotels, and not many office buildings around, either. The shopping arcade still has a pulse but doesn't look like it's drawn the interest of developers. I don't have much of a sense of the place, to be honest. But, yes, developers have not really been through to carve up the smaller lots, so there are still plenty of tin-sided buildings, most of them workshops or small factories, some restaurants. And I could have gone anywhere in the city to collect pictures of this corrugated metal siding, but this is where I've been walking, the past week or so.



This wall belongs to, if I recall correctly, what might have once been a workshop with an apartment over top but is now a garage with an apartment over top. These walls are everywhere in Taito Ward, especially in neighborhoods like this. Nothing is very old in Tokyo, and this whole area would have been a scorched wasteland seventysomething years ago, and most of the oldest buildings around here are from the '60s, put up to replace whatever went up temporarily in the late-'40s or '50s, and those shacks were definitely made of corrugated tin, too, and concrete bricks and scavenged lumber and war surplus building materials... It's hard to tell how old buildings in Tokyo are, usually nothing to give them away, unless they're incredibly old (and by that I mean, say, usually early-20th century) or incredibly new, but with these tin-sided buildings, you can usually take a guess, based on corrosion and rust and how much they've been patched over the years.



You can see the contrast. Off-white, brown, beige stucco vs. corrugated metal.

This is further to the north, between Iriya Station and Inaricho Station (I know this describes a huge area). The building that once stood in this empty lot was close enough to the tin-clad building to hide it. The street was formerly home to a number of small workshops, and older homes. The only business still operating on the street is a tofu factory. A new apartment block is going in here, now. Throughout the area, new asphalt has been laid down the alleys, new buildings sit alongside old ones. Most of the apartment blocks went up about a decade ago. The tin cladding marks this building out as belonging to the a former generation. The tin and its corrosion and rust and imperfections and asymmetry look out of place, suddenly, as newer buildings go up all around. I've talked about this before, the grey and beige local skylines of Tokyo, get up on a rooftop and you're in a forest of off-white lowrise apartment blocks, as far as the eye can see—maybe a bundle of office towers in there, maybe the Skytree in the distance. This is what it looks like at eye-level, all the off-whites rising around you...



Look at this: corrugated metal, exposed wiring, campaign posters (this one for a Matsuo Akihiro 松尾あきひろ of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan 立憲民主党). Like a concrete wall with stenciled and stickered xiaoguanggao 小广告 represents the Chinese city, this has to be the Tokyo version of that. This is the Tokyo version of, like, an old dormitory building in Chaoyang spraypainted with banzheng 办证 ads.

Because this is Japan, a land of obsessives, there are coffee table books, blogs and Instagram devoted to this totan architectureトタン建築, and I'm a latecomer to this, just like I am to everything else in this country. The Japanese are nostalgic for the Showa like Americans in the '70s were nostalgic for the '50s and maybe it's like me getting drunk, putting on a Pavement album and watching promotional videos for defunct malls on Youtube—just the innocence of the time (rather than Showa militarism and destruction, more the postwar boom times), the relative wealth and comfort of life under the string of Jiminto 自民党 Prime Ministers, building booms, bubbles... But so, nobody is going to save these buildings, which represent that time, since they're not pretty enough to save and probably not built well to survive a major disaster—these ones are still around because of a three decade economic slump, once the bubble burst.

4/3/19

&: Japanese walls (a wall in Nihonzutsumi)



Up until a couple hundred years ago, this area was a backswamp, a slimy wetland routinely flooded by the Iruma and then Sumida. The name Nihonzutsumi 日本堤 (Japan dike?) might originally have been written as 二本堤, referring to the two dikes in the area, one running between Asakusa 浅草 and Minowa 三ノ輪 and then another from Sanya 山谷 to Shodencho 聖天町. What is now the district of Nihonzutsumi within the ward of Taito was formerly way out on the edge of the city and known as a place that outcastes and other people relegated to the filthiest municipal chores, such as hauling night soil and tanning leather. It was not a safe place to live because it was prone to flooding. Eventually, the red light district of Yoshiwara 吉原 relocated from the center of town, and the entertainment district of Asakusa began to grow a bit further south, but Nihonzutsumi became the center of Sanya, a neighborhood whose name has been scrubbed from maps because of its association with outcastes and later the yoseba 寄せ場, an informal labor market, the doyagai ドヤ街, the collection of flophouses and shortstay rentals for workers, and the criminal organizations, dominated by the Kanamachi Ikka 金町一家, that were based in the neighborhood to act as labor brokers and skullcrackers while also doing side business in extorting workers, prostitution, gambling and loansharking.

The name was scrubbed, the string of building booms that brought workers to the city was snipped by the Japanese asset price bubble. The workers had brought life to the neighborhood and that life was drained out when most of those workers moved on, heading back up north or moving on to Yokohama or Osaka. Nihonzutsumi was still home to older workers that had nowhere else to go, living off benefits in the cheap lodging of the doyagai or sleeping rough in Tamahime Park, but the stigma the neighborhood carried meant that nobody was scrambling to snap up cheap property in Sanya. That's changed as the economy has recovered and the rest of the country begins to empty into Tokyo. Outsiders that don't know the history or don't care about the history are happy to live in a quiet neighborhood with fairly low rents and proximity to transit—that's why I moved there.

When I first moved into the neighborhood in early 2016, Nihonzutsumi was dominated by a long shopping arcade called Irohakai いろは会商店街. I remember walking through when I first arrived and noting its uniqueness in Tokyo, where the streetlife is fairly sedate. The roof of Irohakai offered shelter to the working men that still called the neighborhood home, and they'd sit under its shelter and pass around a bottle on a rainy day, take a snooze in the shadows when it got hot. There were a few cheap bars and restaurants along Irohakai that still catered mainly to those men. But the roof of the shopping arcade came down, the arcade's organizing committee disbanded, and people began selling their properties to developers. In just a few years, Nihonzutsumi has been transformed.

The walls around Nihonzutsumi are an expression of the neighborhood's disorderliness and decay (this is relative to the rest of the city, of course). It's one of the few places to see xiaoguanggao 小广告 like you see in China, stenciled torii discouraging public urination, advertising work or short-term rentals, and, instead of just the usual wall decoration of campaign posters, approved and unapproved graffiti by ESOW and affiliated street artists. There was a short-lived scheme to have the shuttered stores on the arcade painted, but they've mostly faded. The wheatpaste art just off Irohakai, looking back at older pictures, was once a colorful piece that stretched across most of the wall. I have in my notes that it was done by an Italian artist but the only references to it online suggest it might have been done by Swoon, an American artist. The smaller white cutout to the left is definitely her work, and another wheatpaste cutout survives right around the corner on one of the Irohakai shutters (I believe it was a liquor store).

It seems like, maybe in another city, cheap rents around Nihonzutsumi should have brought another kind of gentrification, like.... sophisticated young people who would be followed by coffee shops and vintage stores and remodelers of dive bars? (I'm trying to draw this toward a closing point, so this is a parenthetical thought, so but why did that kind of gentrification not happen? Let me speculate. First reason and crucial, there's not much old housing stock over there. Developers would prefer to build crisp new highrises for people that do their shopping and dining out around distant commuter hubs. Second, the stigma attached to the neighborhood is mostly outdated, but supposedly—and this is just what I've heard—it does remain difficult to do business there for various reasons. Third, it's too far away from anything interesting?) So, I can almost imagine this wall becoming some kind of neighborhood Instagram trap, with the liquor store around the corner being converted into one of those Showa-themed pubs where twentysomethings drink Hoppy and eat canned food. But as it is, as I write this, not having walked by that particular wall in a couple months, it might already be gone, replaced by God knows what but probably an apartment block or maybe a drug store.

4/1/19

&: Chinese walls (first attempt)



I took this picture in 2012 or 2013 in Gongrencun 工人村 in Dalian 大连 (or somewhere else nearby, at least Xianglujiao 香炉礁). I was staying in a cheap hotel in the neighborhood, walking around and getting feel for the place. I don't know what the area looks like now, but back then, it was grey and grim. There was an elevated highway running overhead, with three layers traffic dropping into a massive interchange, then wide roads running out to the airport and the northern suburbs. The uniform red and white or green and yellow signs on restaurants, the blue of the phone shops signs, the patches of brown grass, and whatever other shreds of color in the grey were dimmed by the dust blown in from the Gobi and the quarries north of the city and probably falling from the smokestacks of heating plants.

The city was experiencing a building boom, spreading out into new suburbs, turning portions of the central city into workers' slums. There were alleys of shacks around the laoloufang 老楼房, built from concrete blocks, mostly, and tin and tarps. Rumors had circulated for years of the relocation of residents from the neighborhood and many had already relocated out of more permanent dwellings, heading out to the suburbs. On walls down those side streets, layers of paint, paper and glue had formed over a few short years. You can see them, there: a grey wall, then grey oil paint and white glue and black graffiti and posters, and another layer of grey oil paint, glue, daubs of white, graffiti in black ink, posters, and then another layer and another, strips and shreds peeling away from the concrete or the lower layers, and stuck back down with a fresh layer of graffiti and then a fresh layer of grey paint. The graffiti, the xiaoguanggao 小广告, and the posters and stickers—chengshi niupixuan 城市牛皮癣, urban psoriasis, is the name it's been given—always win out, another layer always builds up.

The walls themselves are beautiful, but the content of the xiaoguanggao is informative, giving a brief look into the anxieties of the people that lived in this particular neighborhood in Dalian in 2012. The main poster is, I think, seeking a missing person, maybe a worker that went north, across the Bohai, from Shandong, lost touch with his family—and who came looking for him? Maybe it was a family friend, a cousin that was working in the city, too, and got word from the family... Who knows! And below that, tagged overtop, someone looking to rent a room with a shared kitchen. It was certainly one of the houses nearby, maybe one of those concrete shacks or maybe a room up in one of the crumbling apartment blocks. And on those walls were always the banzheng 办证 tags, put up by people that could handle the types of documents that a migrant worker in Dalian would need to secure a job or an apartment. The xiaoguanggao go up everywhere, but in a place like this particular neighborhood in Dalian, they covered nearly every surface. The wall itself has surely been knocked down already, along with the rest of the neighborhood.



I took this picture in 2017, somewhere off Hehui Jie 和会街 in Nanjing, a street that runs east to west between Zhongshan Bei Lu 中山北路 and Sanpailou Da Jie 三牌楼大街 in Gulou District 鼓楼区. Right around the corner, there are dozens of similar collections of grey walls, tiled pillars, and other surfaces that have collected years of stickers, tags, and coverups. The banzhengkezhang 办证刻章 ads are there, again, and a poster for a room rental.

I love the way it looks, for some reason. Maybe it's because I am from a place where private property is king and petty vandalism is strictly punished, and I live now in a city without any texture to its walls. Maybe I'm just nostalgic for Chinese cities, sitting here in Tokyo. There's something I love beyond the rough beauty of these fucked up walls, like... maybe what it says about how the country functions? a certain type of community? It's almost like a benign rot visible on the surface, the underground world bubbling up to the surface, an opportunity to see the private impulses and petty scams that underlie the system. And they're the product of dozens, maybe hundreds of people probably unknown to each other, working at cross-purposes: the young men that come through with stickers in the late evening or early morning and other young men with stencils or posters and then whoever is charged with scraping them off and whoever is charged with painting over them.



This was the view out the window of the my apartment in a city in Northern Jiangsu. I think there's probably a Walmart there, now.

I took the picture in 2005 or 2006, maybe to ask what the graffiti meant. I think that probably those characters—办证—were the first two characters I learned to write, since they were among the most common characters to see written in a Chinese city. Whenever I find myself standing at a urinal and have a Sharpie in my pocket, I'll write 办证, along with my first phone number in China, 15951469323.

I like the choice of red, the raking hand on the spraycan that gives each character a slant. I walked recently through several exhibitions of Chinese calligraphy at a museum in Ueno and another in Negishi and none of the work touched me as deeply as that brickwall scrawl.

Everywhere I lived, the walls were tagged, from that shithole in Northern Jiangsu to the pleasant xiaoqu 小区 I called home in Panyu to the filthy apartment block in Datong and every place in between. Always: grey walls with stickers on them, stenciled graffiti advertising the services of plumbers, maybe some more complicated little 4-color posters advertising student prostitutes or dick pills. It's omnipresent. From the hallway when you walk out in the morning, and then on nearly every surface in nearly every xiaoqu, either the xiaoguanggao or the coverups or both, and through every public space in the country.



This is somewhere in Chaoyang in Beijing, probably off Jintai Lu 金台路 or Chaoyang Lu 朝阳路, around that area (beside a shuttered restaurant called Fuji Jiangrou 傅记酱肉, if that helps) where everything still belongs to the People's Daily, I think. The wall is like a Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell painting, and I swear, they could cut that section out before they tear down the building, break it down into a tetraptych and ship it right to the Christie's Hong Kong saleroom.

I stopped beside the wall on a walk from the CBD to Sanlitun to admire the work and also to smoke a cigarette. I was thinking about, like, the elderly caretaker of a People's Daily residential compound coming out sometime in the early-1990s and discovering to his shock and dismay revolutionary graffiti spraypainted across the building—but then he gets up closer and sees it's just an advertisement for fake documents or a shared room. In a decade or two, will people take pictures of the last remaining xiaoguanggao like they do of the faded Cultural Revolution stencils? "The old political graffiti was covered up and replaced with advertising markings that celebrated in their own way the age of Reform and Opening and the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics..." In a thousand years, will people exhibit whatever preserved examples of the form remain, like the rubbings from the Longmen Grottoes that I saw at the Taito City Calligraphy Museum? I guess they do preserve the now relatively ancient graffiti at Longmen, though, right? And they're probably not going to touch the faded Cultural Revolution stencils there, either, right? Maybe a coffee table book of xiaoguanggao for nostalgic urban Chinese, someday.

But, no, probably not.



3/30/19

&: Diary (3)



(March 24th, 2019) Hitting midpoint deadlines on the Qinqiang project, the scale of the thing looms, all the notes we've generated rolling out behind us as we generate a corpus, the central text itself which stands at around 200k words, the notes, the emails back and forth, and everything else, so that previously uncomplicated decisions require now looking back through the writing we've generated. The problems with working on a translation together have mostly been resolved and I can see the benefits, not just in having an immediate proofreading/copy editing partner but in that I find myself less likely to become submerged in the original—or rather my own vision of the original—which has been a problem, falling into the world of the novel in my head and bending the translation to fit that vision. I have to justify to someone other than myself revisions to the text, word choice, subtle tweaks. It's always the case, even if you'd read the novel close enough to be able to have an opinion, come up with some ideas about it, you don't understand the book until you take it apart and begin translating it. You can drive a car back and forth everyday but it's not until you rebuild the motor, laying out each piece on the work bench or rags or garage floor and try to figure out how it was assembled that you can appreciate what's going on in the book. The larger themes, I think, tend to fade and you're left as you take everything apart, with looking how paragraphs and sentences and lines of dialogue are put together. With Jia, you're talking about a '49 Lincoln Cosmopolitan, kept alive by enthusiastic aficionados over the years, thinking of those Cuban jalopies, mechanics who slapped in new parts to keep it going, mismatched motor to replace the flathead V8, a new radio wired into the dash, so that it looks mighty fine going down the road, but once you put up the hood, it's a goddamn mess. You notice a line that manages to contradict one a few paragraphs up—I definitely didn't notice it the first time I read it!—and the wrong number there and a geographical inconsistency beside it. Now, deep into it, I have to refer back to my own work, Jia's work, and Nicky's work. But how beautiful to disassemble a great writer's work! And a great translator's work, as well! The finest way to appreciate literature and who else gets that privilege? I can spend an hour trying to get the tone right for a fight between the mute son of Xia Qingman and his uncle that ends with the uncle plugging a finger into the mute's asshole, then find myself researching gully reclamation projects for three quarters of an hour to pull the correct technical terms... But I'm taking a night off to drink Maker's and write some notes to take to Beijing.



(March 26th, 2019) Woke up just barely hungover, went out in the morning to a perfect early spring morning to get a bottle of ice cold milk tea from the vending machine across the back lane, then went back upstairs to finish some final notes, went off to Ameyoko. On the wrong afternoon in the summer, the narrow shopping streets down from Ueno are full of foreign tourists, soaking up whatever can be soaked up in Ameyoko. It seems unlike all other shopping streets in the city, somehow, less Tokyoish than the venerable 商店街 at Jujo Ginza or Joyful Minowa or Asagaya Pearl Center or the recently-disappeared street in Nihonzutsumi, more like the streets around Shibuya or Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, a more attraction grafted onto the old 商店街—yes, please stay in Harajuku to buy tourist stuff or go to some farflung but lively shopping arcade out past Ikebukuro to see the real deal, I mean—and its actual attractions might be uninteresting to someone visiting Tokyo for a couple days: the collection of American workwear stores where you can outfit yourself in Carhartt and also Visvim and get forty dollar made-in-Japan indigo-dyed cotton socks and the finest Okayama denim, and also the Chinese shops that have sprung up along the main drag, serving the women of Yushima (because in Japan proximity to a red light district always means good Chinese food, and that holds true for Kabukicho and Yoshiwara and the north side of Ikebukuro and even the red light district I stumbled into in Mito, and well, yeah, I'm sure that's an article waiting to be written: "Why is the best Chinese food in Japan always in red light districts?") and Chinese students that go to the language schools around Taito and the men that work in the big underground Asian market (what a secret paradise that no tourist seems to stumble into, located as it is down a secret stairwell in one of the nondescript buildings along the arcade) and perhaps some homesick tourists?

There's a reason that Ameyoko is the way it is, even if the former flavor is being wiped out. I should explain that, as best as I can. Mighty Ueno Station survived the Second World War but the area around it was burned to the ground, for the most part, and it was in the area south of the station entrepreneurs established a yami'ichi 闇市 to sell rationed goods and war surplus (this explains the continued presence of military surplus and workwear shops), and the hikiagesha 引揚者 returned from Manchuria to find the ruined city and set to work there beside the Korean and Chinese residents of the city, men arrived from all over the country to take part in the building booms that came along with rebuilding. When the city set about erasing the yami'ichi and other unofficial markets, they invited local businessmen to build in the area, and they organized into committees charged with looking after their shopping streets. The Koreans were sent out of the area, so there is still an area across the overpass called kimchi yokocho キムチ横丁, now mostly barbecue restaurants, kimchi shops and pachinko machine manufacturers, the Chinese and the rowdier elements were sent to nearby Yushima, the repatriated Imperial subjects from Manchuria who worked as tekiya テキ屋, selling ramen and snacks from street stalls in the neighborhood, were ordered to clear out, too, and the men and women that came from the northern hinterlands to work were pushed north to the slums of Sanya's doyagai ドヤ街. The process of remaking Ameyoko continued. It was cleaned up. In the '90s, the Chinese and Vietnamese, following another boom, found cheap lodging nearby, work in the neighborhood or within an easy commute of Ueno, and helped retake the neighborhood. And now it's surrounded by dozens of hotels, some of them converted business hotels, some of them brand new APA hotels, other chains, built because land was cheaper around Ueno than other central stops on the Yamanote...

So, on the right morning, before lunchtime, on the streets further east from central Ameyoko, it's a pleasant extension of the larger neighborhood rather than a tourist trap, and it's the best place within walking distance to get Chinese ingredients, get a cheap good meal at one of the kissaten. There's a place I like and if pressed to give the name I'd say I wanted it to remain a hidden gem but the truth is that I forget the name, but, maybe, if you know the neighborhood, you can figure it out: it's upstairs from a fancier place with glass windows, I think, and across the street from a chain ramen place, and the thing to get is the suancaiyu 酸菜鱼 even if all the salarymen eating lunch there are getting the fairly pedestrian lunch sets. The restaurant is run by a woman from, I think, Changchun, a Korean-Chinese woman who, I believe, used to be a flight attendant and then worked at a fancy department store—but whatever, the suancaiyu, some boney muddy fish and a mountain of pickled mustard on top with pickled green chilies and some rich fishy soup pure MSG. I'm too tired here to make some point about the how the smell of the place triggers some particular memories, the Dongbei accent from the waitresses, the cigarette smoke, homesick or whatever shit, but try the fish. When I go there with Asumi, it can take us an hour and a half to pick through the fish, spooning the gritty broth at the bottom over rice, but if I go there alone, I'm in and out and I'm more likely, to be honest, to head instead over to the main street of Ameyoko for a simpler meal of mediocre roujiamo and a Coke (trying to find something else, I find myself discussing the roujiamo of Ameyoko in an article on Chinese bookstores: In the alleys of Ameyoko, you can order a plate of liangfen and roujiamo with cilantro and peppers and eat it on a bench alongside the Chinese students and tourists and sex workers that come to the neighborhood for a taste of the motherland).

It's 4:55 in the morning and I'm dreading getting out to Haneda to take a flight into Beijing. That is the twist here, which I'm sure I could work into something: I'm happy to eat suancaiyu and slip into a northern accent talking to the Dongbei waitresses at a restaurant in Ameyoko but what a pain in the fucking ass to actually make the pilgrimage back to the motherland.



(March 28th, 2019) I flew in the night before, back in Beijing for, I think, the fourth time in a year, took a taxi into the city, ate a room service hamburger and a slice of cheesecake, passed out with RT's Watching the Hawks on. Woke up the next morning with no idea where I was, only figured it out dragging myself to the window and its view of the CCTV Headquarters. I went out into the kind of grey cold day that in my memory is what most days are like in northern China, walked down Guanghua Lu, up Jintai Xi Lu, back down Chaoyang Bei Lu to Hujialou, walked around Tuanjiehu Park (a "National 3A-Class Tourist Attraction" and also a "Capital Safe Tourist Attraction"), strolled through Baijiazhuang... I wish there was something to say here.

I feel like if I had made the walk many years ago that there would be some color to relate, something about the wide roads and the old housing compounds and the grey cement walls covered in strips and squares of grey paint to cover up entrepreneurial graffiti, layers of grey paint and white paint and black paint and graffiti, layers of grey paint in slightly different shades, weathered to different shades, flecks of white paper from rental posters, grey paint over the posters that weren't torn down... I always take pictures of those walls. I like the streaks and coverups on the walls in those old compounds, covering up a phone number promising fake documents. I used to have on the first laptop I brought to China, probably the first CECT phone I bought there, too, pictures of walls and the backs of street signs where there collected those grey-on-grey-on-black-on-white canvases. I was really into this book at the time, Streetlife China edited by Michael Dutton and a lot of it was about "subaltern tactics," the way the street responded to state strategies to control society, I guess is one way to put it, and it has some great essays in it, all from the late-1990s, about people on the margins, gay men and liumang and prostitutes, and it introduced me to Ge Fei and 第三只眼睛看中国 but the best thing about is its curating of scraps from the streets (following from the Walter Benjamin quote on the book being obsolete as a form and the author's collected research and notes and other extras being far more fascinating), sometimes in the form of photographs, or, say, including official documents, like, "A report from the Beijing City Public Security Bureau Beef Street Station," and lists of slang terms, parody images, pictures of tattoos, advertising graffiti and stickers, pinup girls, Cultural Revolution propaganda, cassette covers, book covers... I've gotten off track here, but that Michael Dutton book is probably best paired with Geremie Barmé's In the Red (which I must have picked up at some point but was reintroduced to me by Nick Stember last year) and its essays on the same streetlife Dutton was observing (I love the chapter on wenhuashan 文化衫)(and I don't have a copy of the book, but I believe Dutton devotes a full chapter to arguing against Barmé's take on rebellion vs. commodification, so there you go, read them as a pair). So, I mean, maybe that kind of thing was replaced by picking over web shit, since it's easier and probably can tell the reader more about what's going on since everyone has their head down staring at a phone, but, yes, the original point is that I hate the fact that I can no longer or no longer have the interest in or capacity to write about that kind of streetlife stuff in an interesting way and, but, second, I wish other people still wrote about that kind of thing (maybe it's still happening in academia? And it strikes me, I think, that I've read more about Tokyo streetlife in the past year, tracking down neighborhood details and color). So, let me pitch an essay to someone about grey walls with stickers on them and ugly coverups.

And but maybe if I could approach everything with fresh eyes, there would be something—here, maybe just a colorful anecdote, nothing more—to relate about the shop where I ate a bowl of zhajiangmian with cucumber and vivid pink shredded turnip on top, made conversation with a man who told me when he heard where I had come in from that he had gone to Tokyo in the '90s to help a friend of his run a massage parlor in Shinjuku. I don't know. If I was hearing it at 22 instead of however old I am now, I would have been able to take something from it. I sat down with a notebook at a café in Sanlitun and tried to write something—but that's all I could come up with, that I could come up with nothing of value, and maybe that's fine, at this point. I don't know. I've written a million words on my little neighborhood in Tokyo, even got into the process of selling a book on it (easier to do than a book about a neighborhood in Beijing, I think, still), and I think it's because I don't know what the hell is going on here, where I have a pretty good idea what's going on in a Beijing neighborhood, I think. Freshness! There's freshness in Tokyo, everything's new... I can get into just cataloguing things I see in a Tokyo neighborhood, describing the function and architecture of Yoshiwara kissaten.

I shouldn't admit this but I used to take pictures of people on the train or on the street in Tokyo. In Japan, all phones are sold with the shutter sound hardwired on, because of the Japanese innovation of upskirting. I once while waiting at Ueno Station for the Utsunomiya Line watch an amateur upskirt photographer, riding up a particularly steep escalator, snapping pictures. The scene ended with him being called out but he slipped off into the crowd. But anyways, I used to take pictures of people on trains—mostly the Hibiya Line since it goes through Minato and on to Roppongi, and mostly women, it's true, but because women are beautiful and maybe also mostly because women's fashion is more interesting, at least in Japan, a place where most men wear cheap black suits or another type of uniform—because it was the only way to take them in, fully... The way that people dressed was fascinating, and I'm sure everyone knows this about Japan, but it's not that long-dead Harajuku thing anymore and although there are a number of interesting fashion tribes still operating, it was all about the unique and clearly personal fashion... Like, let's just paint a picture, a woman in her 70s wearing Celine sunglasses with crescents of crystals around the rims like gleaming eyebrows, an acetate hairpin of the same smoked glass shade as the sunglasses, a Moynat Réjane handbag in crocodile, and of course an elegantly cut kimono, or let's say one of the Yoshiwara girls on her way to work, with mature Saitama gyaru style, Cecil McBee, a bit of Liz Lisa leopard print, pristine and clearly brand new Neverfull with all the accessories and hangy things attached to the handle and zipper... Unfortunately, it's fresh to me but there are people that know much more about fashion in Japan! And it's being written about and catalogued on various blogs, but I don't think anyone does it for, like, youth fashion shit in China, and I'd love to read an in-depth thing about, like, Beijing 20somethings wearing a combination of bootleg Philipp Plein/extreme techwear shit, or just... something. Maybe I'm missing out on it or I should move to Beijing and write about post-health goth. Also Japan has going for it that it attracts not just to academia but to, like, amateur obsession, colorful nerds, especially now that Japan only has subcultures (and among those colorful nerds, people from very different backgrounds [by that I mean black nerds, mostly, but also homosexuals, communists, and women, interesting flyover state renegades]) while China and Chinese area studies attracts a lot of careerist young men that dream of working for think tanks or guys that are into tech (I hate the cat ear American otaku but are they worse than a guy from the West Coast that does something with blockchain and is super into 3D printing? The answer is clear).

So, anyways, but I got to Sanlitun and got accidentally day drunk, called a friend I know from Tokyo who went over to work for a fashion retailer with a huge store in Sanlitun (and talked about fashion), drank lemon high balls on a patio while smoking cigarettes, sobered up with another walk and a double espresso, met up with Nicky to talk Qinqiang and deadlines, saw ***, who I'd seen earlier but was too nervous to approach since I'd forgotten her name, and something about her look that day—like, archetypal hyperintelligent Chinese young woman mode, if that makes sense, chunky sneakers and those purple velveteen sweat pants and a sweater with a complicated collar—who I'd only met once before but who struck me then and now as possessing an amazing intellect and tenderness and toughness. What a gem, and of course part of what I love about her is that she somehow always manages to encourage me in small probably unintentional ways (and I pushed her to help me with the mostly-dormant plans I have for the Liang Xiaosheng book I was working on, regarding maybe actually getting the rights)—and what would the world be without brilliant women encouraging mediocre men. Gave a talk on Jia Pingwa in translation with Nicky, Dave Haysom moderating (he made mention of reading my blog in the mid-2000s and that always fucks me up, realizing that anyone read it, and thinking about what kind of view they got into my inner life). Attack of impostor syndrome, holding forth on contemporary Chinese literature and Jia's work to a paying audience. (It remains disorienting sometimes to meet people even as in-the-big-picture minor as Nicky Harman [greatest living translator of Chinese literature, I contend] or Joel Martinsen or Dave Haysom or Eric Abrahamsen or Nick Stember. I am convinced I come off as an unpolished rube!)

Got drunk with ***** ****, went to a shitty club, slipped on my coat and disappeared out a side door on a trip to the bathroom, leaving a carton of Hongtashan on the table, staggered back toward the CBD, bought baozi on the way, ended the night lulled to sleep again by Tabetha Wallace's Wisconsin honk talking about machine learning and Predator double tap strikes on wedding parties in the Tribal Areas.



(March 29th, 2019) Flying back into Tokyo, I've often felt a sort of, like, despair or something, going from a lively, warm country that I feel a close connection to back to a place that I feel no connection to, find grim and dark and cold, at times, but my affection for Japan has grown since I've spent more time out of the People's Republic. I mean, it is a different affection for Japan... China is my passionate first love, the smart dirty girl I broke up with and shaved my head and wrecked my car and then wrote a novel about, and Japan is the sensible young woman that I've settled down with—I don't know if that really works but something like that. So, while fumbling at the ticket machine for the Monorail, a young woman in a pale yellow hat (an employee of Tokyo Monorail or perhaps JR East or the city government? I don't know) glided up and walked me through the instructions of how to transfer at Hamamatsucho for the Yamanote and I didn't have the heart to tell her that I had made the trip many times before (true, but here's some freshness!: I didn't know that there was a single ticket available for 500 yen that covers the Monorail and the Yamanote transfer). It was a nice welcome, that fake sunny smile and her carefully rehearsed instructions. So, freshness aside—and what a boring observation this will be—Tokyo is a very pleasant city. For all the darkness of the place, it is a comfortable, pleasant place, most of the time, and I found myself riding in on the Yamanote thinking, I should get off at Tokyo Station! I should get off at Kanda! I should get off at Akihabara! But I only got off a stop before Ueno (I always forget the name of the station but it's just south of Ameyoko... Okachimachi?) and took the long way home. I stopped into a curry restaurant with a long bar and found it natural to slip into the limited Japanese I speak, more familiar than Chinese. Maybe the trip back into Tokyo is only depressing if you fly into Narita and have to take that long ride in from Chiba on the train or the limousine bus?

3/10/19

&: Diary (2)



(March 9th, 2019) They took this house down in a matter of days and loaded most of it into the back of a truck. There's a smaller single-family home next door, to the right in that picture, but every other direction, it's packed in with highrises and apartment towers. There used to be a row of old homes on the block, leading to a café that's still there. But this was the last of two holdouts. If they take the other one down, and buy out the smaller apartment six-story tower beside them, there'll be room to put up a new development. Probably going to be a hotel, the way things are going. Right now, it's a muddy empty lot. You ever see Tokyo from a rooftop? I mean, still in the central wards, but outside of Shinjuku or Shibuya or Minato. It's just miles grey. Like, if you take the Yamanote through the section that starts at Ikebukuro, all those stations nobody talks about, Otsuka, Sugamo, Tabata, Nippori, grey apartment blocks as far as the eye can see. I always thought, the Skytree looks amazing, sitting over Tokyo's east end, but since it's planted in the least attractive part of town, the view directly below it, especially when the fog or smog rolls in and you can't see much further, must be depressingly grey. I've never been up it, though. Just the lower levels. Grey, grey, grey, though, from there, even. When I lived further east, around Minowa, the neighborhood had only about a decade of gentrification under its belt, only a decade out from being seen as a no-go zone for respectable residents of the city, a zone of outcastes and migrant workers, a few decades out from hosting street battles, labor organizers and workers on one side, organized crime and the police on the other, fifty years out from being a slum. That means that Minowa is still, for the most part, still grey but the grey comes in more interesting shades, with stretches of it rapidly gentrifying (that means, in Tokyo, putting up apartment blocks, nothing else) and stretches of it still looking as they did a few decades after the war. That won't last forever. But the area around Ueno is already lost. It's the perfect time to put in hotels. It's peak tourism. There's a new APA going up beside the supermarket near Matsugaya, must be at least fifty chain hotels in Shitaya, Negishi, Matsugaya, so even the character of the neighborhood feels less lively than it did in Minowa, more tourists than local residents. 観光公害 is the term used in the local media (观光公害 in Chinese, just simplifying the character, usually "tourism pollution" in English). The danchi 団地 that I live in feels marooned in a sea of fresh development, construction and demolition sites all around. Unlike most other public housing complexes, especially the ones outside the central wards, it's only one building and not really identifiable as a housing project, and I imagine it fit in with most other development up until a decade or so ago when they started to get ambitious with the highrises. When a hotel went up two lots down, it caused anger and confusion. There was a public meeting of the danchi's 自治会 (the complex's own governing board) and the neighborhood committee (in this case 下谷1丁目町会, and probably also the 坂本町会?), where residents were assured that there would be no disruptions from foreign guests. In the danchi, the average age of residents must be around 75, so the idea of a big hotel going in next door, and the changes it might bring, were upsetting. If you've been to Kyoto, or even over to Asakusa on a nice day, you've seen 観光公害 (but a friend that's lived in Asakusa since the '70s assures me that it's always been swamped, just with fewer foreign tourists before, and it's become an issue now that Chinese tourists are coming, a situation that it's easy to find out how the average Japanese feels about). The hotels are not replacing anything particularly interesting and the tourists are mostly glimpsed briefly as they come up from Ueno Station with their wheelie suitcases or stepping out of coach buses. There's no reason to hang out in Shitaya, either, so it's not like they're stirring up trouble. When the hotels and residential projects go up, the developers mostly rip down '70s and '80s-vintage apartment blocks. The neighborhood hasn't been lively since the residents of this danchi were in their 30s, probably, just a nice place to put apartments right between two Yamanote Line stations (Ueno and Uguisudani) and close to a Hibiya Metro Line station (Iriya) and a Ginza Metro Line station (Inaricho). There's still Asakusa (tolerable after dark) and Ueno (no worse than any Yamanote station area and better than half) close enough, if you want some liveliness, I guess. I should start going to 自治会 and 町会 meetings more regularly.



(March 10th, 2019) If I ever write a novel loosely based on me in my twenties, it will end with taking the K600 out of Guangzhou in November of 2013 (five years, three months, fifteen days ago). There's not a story there. I just saw a picture of the ticket I took, and I was thinking about it. I remember, I didn't tell anybody that I was leaving, or, a few people, I told them I was going to Tibet. I cleaned out my rented room and filled a half-dozen plastic grocery bags with garbage and carried them down to the front of the building. I didn't expect anyone to notice, at least for a few days. I didn't expect many calls. I was still using the battered Nokia phone that powered down if left on for more than a few minutes. Somewhere around Shaoguan, I got a call from the manager at Rebel Rebel, offering me a job tending bar, but I'd already given up on the city. What if I'd gone back? I could have gotten off in Chenzhou. Somewhere around Changsha, I got a text message from a woman I had met in Shenzhen. I forget now how we met. I wrote somewhere else once, a story about meeting a prostitute in Shenzhen, who I ate duck blood soup with and took a taxi to see the mural of Deng Xiaoping with, and I'm sure that story is true enough, in its own way, but I set the story in the wrong city, and it was this woman that I took a taxi with to see the mural and walked in a night market with. I was getting a visa in Hong Kong, spending a few nights in Shenzhen on either side of the time in HK. Was she working at one of those bars near the Petrel Hotel? I remember we went back to my hotel but didn't sleep together, took a shower together and laid on the bed, watching a show about pet tigers. All I can remember about her now is that she had unexpectedly curly pubic hair, soft and fine and light brown. She said the reason for the curliness and fineness and light brownness of her pubic hair was that she was an ethnic minority—I could scan the list of the fifty-six ethnic minorities right now and I still couldn't remember which one she told me. I sent a message saying that I was busy with work and that perhaps I could visit her in Shenzhen sometime soon. I didn't tell her that I was on the K600. I didn't tell anybody. I cleaned out my rented room and dumped whatever I couldn't carry into plastic bags and tossed them in front of the building. In a bag, I put  a few shirts, a pair of grey Levi's slacks bought before a job interview, my laptop, and some notebooks, whatever book I was reading. I bought a hard seat ticket that morning, the 23rd of November, and waited in a KFC until it was time to leave. I remember, somewhere north of Zhengzhou, they sold, at one of the stations, clay pots with rice and pork. I guess you could throw them out of the window, after you were done? I don't know. When the train was north of Beijing, it stopped at Shijiazhuang and I got off to smoke a cigarette on the platform. Someone took my notebook off the table where I'd left it. I watched it happen. I was too tired to care, just a notebook... Maybe I had something in there that could change this into something with a point. There might have been some moment I forget, some key observation. But there's nothing here. A few months after I got to Datong, I was in a detention facility out in the countryside and then I was on a flight to Beijing and then to Vancouver. That's a turning point, though, getting on the K600 that day. I don't know where I'd be, if I hadn't taken that trip.

2/1/19

&: Bananas

The Yunlong Mountain Tunnel was opened in 2002. It runs about a half mile through the center of the mountain. The city has spread miles and miles beyond its former borderlines but Yunlong Mountain used to be on the southern edge of the city. A highway runs through the bottom half of the tunnel and the top half is a pedestrian walkway. If you cut down Zhongshan Road to the park along Yunlong Lake, you can get into the tunnel, up a long concrete slope, and come out on the other side in Quanshan. I don't know how the place looks now.

I might have taken a taxi through the tunnel, couple years ago, but I wasn't paying attention. I couldn’t even tell you what year it was. But it was the last time I visited Xinran’s hometown. Think about it a bit harder, it must have been when I was in Dalian, and I took the boat across to Weihai or Yantai. I don’t have any memory of that part of the trip, except for seeing out in front of the ferry terminal in Dalian, a man had spelled out his girlfriend’s name in LED candles out on the tarmac, waiting for her to get off. I remember I took the bus from Weihai or whatever city on the Shandong coast, and got off at Linyi to take a piss and eat some bus station baozi. I remember that even then, there was so much distance between us—emotionally, of course, but also, we’d spent the last year, at least, living apart. It would have been the first time I saw her since she left me in Vancouver and went to Shanghai. It was a cold day and I remember that I took her hand, getting off the bus, and she was wrapped up in a parka and a facemask. We took a taxi out to her parents’ place, maybe wandered around a bit downtown first. The taxi hit a cat on the way out there. She loves cats. It felt like a bad sign. That’s all I remember. Her parents had finally moved into the house that the local government or whoever had promised them since their danwei housing was demolished in 2007 or 2008. Her mother washed my hair. As far as I know, she’d never told them that we were married, and hadn’t told them that we hadn’t seen each other in years. She probably hadn’t told her parents that she was going to school in Guizhou and running surveys out in the hills, either. I have no idea. She ran a hot rag over my head and dripped water from a basin, washing out all the grime of the ferry ride and the bus and Linyi.

The city had changed completely. There was a Wal-Mart. The city center had been completely remade by the new mayor. I listed places we used to go and most of them had been torn down. The dandan noodles place by Minzhu Lu Xiao Xue, gone. The barbecue shacks along the river, replaced with cake shops and apartment blocks. The shitty karaoke place by the Garden Hotel, long gone. We must have gone through the tunnel to get out to her parents’ apartment. Their apartment was in Taishan, almost down where the University of Mining and Technology had their campus. So, we have taken the tunnel. It was dark already. Her mom went out to get a roast chicken, which she always did when I came for dinner, and shredded it and put the meat in a bowl, sprinkled it with dried chilies. Her father didn’t drink or smoke, but they usually opened a bottle of baijiu, too.

The tunnel, though, I was thinking about it, today. Right after we met, Xinran bought a bike. She had a battered old early-1980s-looking bike before but she bought a low, pink thing to replace it, with tiny wheels and a basket on the front. She’d ride downtown in the afternoon and I’d meet her at her friend Liu Chang’s store down the street from Golden Eagle and Carrefour—long gone, too, and Liu Chang married the local weatherman. We’d get something to eat and I’d ride her back across town, usually stopping off at the lake to sit on the benches and try to finger her, or we’d rush home and get dinner at the restaurant in the xiaoqu opposite mine and beside her parents’ old danwei dormitory. But we’d always go through the tunnel, up that big concrete slope. I’d push to go all the way up with her on the bike, pushing as hard as I could to keep the pink bike’s tiny wheels spinning, then, when we got up in the tunnel, glide through.

I guess they set some big vaults down in that mountain, too. That always made me think it was older than I learned it was. I thought maybe bomb shelters. But anyways, there were big vaults in there, and they’d unload fruit to store. The upper half of the tunnel, there were vendors up there, people selling cheap crap, sometimes baozi or whatever, and always bananas. The trucks would come and unload their bananas into the vaults and women would come out and spread tarps and sell the fruit off of them. As the season went on and the fruit ripened and the prices markered on the cardboard signs of the vendors got lower, the smell of ripe bananas replaced the stench of diesel exhaust.


1/11/19

&: Diary (1)



(January 1st, 2019) I made a reservation a few nights ago, just after Christmas, at the Pullman in Tamachi and requested a room with a view of the tracks so that while I worked I could watch the green Keihin-Tohoku Line trains race the green Yamanote Line trains. At night, I took the train to Asakusa to meet and friend and then came back and walked around Shibaura for a while, going over the neat bridges that connect the artificial islands. I don't know what Shibaura looked like before, but these days, it's uniform blocks of off-white apartment blocks, massive public housing projects too expensive and coveted to look like my own danchi in Shitaya (or similar projects in Nishi-Kasai or Hashiba or out in the suburbs), Lotteria, a few chain izakaya, Chinese massage places, a few office towers, second-floor cram schools, and a koban. The commuters from Tamachi station disappear into the apartment blocks. Shinagawa or Gotanda, just down the line, are the places to get a drink or pay for some company, and Shibuya and Shinjuku are close enough to get a taxi home even after last train. This is what all of the central wards are going to look like in a decade: central retail and office development surrounded by uniform apartment blocks, office towers with restaurants at the bottom, and a few businesses hanging on at the periphery.

(January 3rd, 2019) I took a walk in the afternoon, cutting through an alley behind my danchi through our neighborhood of fresh little condos and crumbling mid-Showa buildings where mostly elderly residents hang on in single room manshon, and out through Uguisudani. The cheap hotels that run along Showa Dori are making their way into Uguisudani, too, with love hotels on the margins of the red light district rebranding as hostels and guest houses, so that there are now tourists—red-faced Americans in cargo shorts, as well as Indonesian girls in headscarves, on that day—walking through the dense quarter of hourly stay spots that serve the deriheru that stock for convenient delivery women and girls in the cheap apartments around Negishi. I always feel uncomfortable walking through without any business in the love hotels, especially before the evening commuter rush. I wondered what the tourists made of the place or how many of the details they could pick up—did they catch the men nervously, chastely saying goodbye at the north exit of the station to women whose mouths they just came in? I don't know. I stood in front of the cigarette machines outside the Smile Pharmacy (offering tax-free sales to tourists, too, shifting from selling the essentials of a red light district, perhaps) and I watched a bike cop come through and flush the Chinese streetwalkers out of the south side of the love hotel block, and followed them north. They were conspicuous in their inconspicuousness, nearly identical long grey parkas and big leather purses, the kind of middle-aged women that wouldn't look out of place on any block in the city. I cut back out into a more respectable part of the city and slipped into Nippori, the first place I ever saw in Tokyo, coming that day three years ago off a train from Narita. I thought about walking all the way out to Ikebukuro. I used to take that walk—same distance, similar territory, at least—every now and then, when the last Yamanote stopped at Ikebukuro and I'd have to walk out to Oku Station. But the trains were still running and I knew there wasn't much I hadn't seen between the two stations, so I took the Yamanote.

Ikebukuro is a place I've been through many times but I've never lived close enough to spend much time there, like Nippori or Uguisudani or Ueno, or even Roppongi. Its reputation as a sleazy shithole popular with commuters out to the suburbs seems to be accurate. Apart from that, it's worth mentioning that Ikebukuro Station has become one of the centers of the Chinese community in Tokyo. In a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books' China Channel, I wrote: Chinese residents and sojourners have made Ikebukuro a new Chinatown. If you want to eat suancaiyu or maoxuewang, you can find it there; if you want to buy an unlocked phone with multiple SIM slots and do it in Minnan dialect, there’s a shop in Ikebukuro; in a city that seems to encourage racist landlords to fuck with you, you can find a rental company in Ikebukuro that will find you a place in no time; and when see what the rent is going to be, there are legit (and less-legit) employment agencies that will have you working the same day. But like Uguisudani, you can miss what's really going on, unless you know what's going on. The shop selling maoxuewang is probably only advertising it on Wechat, and the phone shop is on the third floor of a nondescript building with a pharmacy and a massage joint below it; the Wenshengtang Chinese Bookstore that I wrote about is almost impossible to find even staring at Google Maps directions; there are Chinese grocery stores and restaurants on the north side of the station but you're more likely to get a sudden whiff of cumin and chili or pickled cabbage than you are to notice the storefronts.

(January 8th) We spent the past few days at the Shangri-La. It's only a ten minute drive from Shitaya but it feels like it's in another city. Our room looked out over Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace. We put on vintage luxury pulled from musty Asakusa thrift stores—European fashion brands bought up in the baburu jidai and perhaps sold on by filial sons and daughters come to move their parents from shitamachi to suburbs—and went out to walk in Ginza and spend our money unwisely (for Asumi, hand-painted Comme des Garçons shoes and a bottle of perfume, and, for me, forty dollar hamburgers). The truth is that like everywhere in Tokyo, it lives off tourist dollars, and most of it feels like any metropolitan collection of malls and department stores, but there's something left of the old Ginza (not pre-war Ginza, exactly, or even Ginza of the baburu jidai—just "imaginary Ginza," I guess: department stores and writers and trams and Shiseido models, scenes from Shimazu Yasujiro films, maybe Ozu, café culture, literati... all those signifiers mixed up together) on the backstreets, the shops that are off the radar of Mainland shoppers, the ancient kissaten, whatever cafés have hung on and haven't been replaced by Doutours or Starbucks, the tiny restaurants... We ate at one of the Michelin-starred tempura spots that hang on to basement real estate in Ginza, sitting at the counter with couples drinking Chablis—that felt like Ginza, at least. A middle-aged man drunk off imo shochu, there with a slightly younger date (a woman from his office, I thought), presented with a deep fried umeboshi hiding a nugget of chestnut: "What's in there?" The chef calls back: "You can eat it." "Is it an egg yolk?" "Eat it and you'll see." He orders another glass of shochu. The tail of the shrimp follows the head, placed on a slab of slate covered in a sheet of thick paper. I've never tasted any shrimp that sweet. The meal ends with iced coffee served in a ceramic bowl. We walked back through Nihonbashi and Yaesu, no salarymen on a Sunday night.

The next morning, I started planning another trip to Beijing. Another goddamn trip to Beijing. Five years ago, I would have loved the chance to spend even a few days in Beijing, but it's become a hassle. We sat on the bed plotting out the days required and I booked a flight on Air China and a stay at the Kerry in the CBD. The thought of clearing customs and making the trek into the city... It fills me with dread. There's nothing I want in Beijing, anymore.



I spent the rest of the final morning at Shangri-La watching the trains sliding into Tokyo Station, the Chuo racing the Yamanote north, the long aquamarine nose of the Tohoku Shinkansen sticking out from under an awning...

(January 10th) I made breakfast for Asumi and walked through Uguisudani to the Calligraphy Museum in Negishi. Although I've walked by it many times, I'd never been inside. There was an exhibition called Ou Gishi Shodo no Zanei, with Northern Wei and Jin Dynasty rubbings, many of them made in the 19th century at stelae and inscriptions from the Longmen Grottoes. The museum had the feel of any municipal institution in the country. I followed around the space a girl with inky black hair, wrapped in a parka, mouth and nose hidden behind a surgical mask. She studied each rubbing for so long that I couldn't help but wonder what she saw in them. To me, they looked like stenciled graffiti you'd find on a concrete wall, advertising plumbing services or counterfeit documents.



In the main building of the museum, I expected to see Japanese calligraphy but found instead rooms full of Chinese antiquities, Northern Wei, Sui and Tang stone carvings, including a seated Amitabha cut out of a grotto in Shanxi; there were bronze bells from the Zhou and jade from Lolang; hollow bricks from Western Han tombs and inscriptions carved in stone for patrons of a pagoda. It's hard not to think of how those objects must have been brought to Tokyo. Plenty of those blank faces and missing limbs at the Longmen Grottoes arrived in Japan in the '30s and '40s. Tens of thousands of books, artifacts and other objects were looted from Chinese museums. I pictured the stone blocks being uncrated at Yokohama, being examined by the art historians that went to Henan and Shandong and Shanxi at the turn of the 20th century to make the rubbings in the Ou Gishi Shodo no Zanei exhibition. It was the Japanese that helped discover the place, after all, guys like Okakura Kakuzo ("The first foreign explorer to visit Longmen was the Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura, who was later to head the Asian department of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Okakura stumbled upon the site half by accident in 1893, took some photographs, and returned home to Japan to lecture with his lantern slides of the Binyang (Pin-yang) cave's central grotto"), Tadashi Sekino, Seigai Omura. (I wish I knew more about Ernest Fenollosa and Okakura, so that I could put together some thoughts here, the place that these examples of Chinese art had in shaping Okakura's ultranationalist vision of a unitary Asia and his conception of Oriental art history, and this museum's collection is a legacy of thinkers like Okakura but I'm going to move on.)



I have this really intense memory of going to the Longmen Grottoes for the first time. It would have been 2006, as part of a—I didn't see this at the time—very early attempt to salvage our young relationship. We took a train out to Henan. It was a familiar place to her, I guess, since she had family in Henan, on her father's side, I think from around south of Zhengzhou. She used to spend summers out there. So, we went to Luoyang first, if I'm remembering this right, and stayed at a Seven Days Inn, took a bus out to White Horse Temple one day, then Longmen the next day. It feels like I'm recounting a movie or something but I remember being deeply moved by it, the view of the grottoes, looking down the Yi River. It was tied up with my feelings for her, and I couldn't help but see her face in the carvings, Vairocana lips and long, long Guanyin eyes.... I was in love and impressionable. It felt somehow like I was connecting with her on some deeper level, going out on a boat on the Yellow River or whatever. At this point, I'm not even sure how much of that I really felt and how much was just fantasy cooked up later. Also, part of it was that the entire place, the culture, it was all a mystery to me, still. Like, going to the White Horse Temple, I had no idea about anything, the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism and turtle dragons or even the Cultural Revolution. So but, goddamn Longmen, it made an impression. And just—it's surreal to see a chunk of it set in a climate-controlled room in a blank institutional room in a neighborhood of love hotels and chain izakaya in East Tokyo—like, is the real thing still there? It feels like coming across it in a post-apocalyptic situation, like the last artifacts of a dead civilization. I mean, it's still there—the statues and the stone and the inscriptions, most of them—so, it's weird to be confronted by a piece of it carved out of the real thing.

I could probably write something formal about the exhibition and the museum. I could set the museum, start with shitty love hotels, coming upon the museum like Okakura came upon the Longmen Grottoes, lay out a brief history of Japanese collecting rubbings of inscriptions, talk about the disorienting feeling of coming upon the stone statues cut out of their original locations? I'm not sure there's anything there and I don't know enough about the history, probably. There's probably more to say about the Japanese conception of Chinese art history or Japanese esthetic nationalism or whatever than about the objects in the museum.

12/14/18

&: A story about spending time in a detention center in Datong

This is a story about spending time in a detention center in Datong. It's not a typical story about foreigners ending up in detention in China. I neglected to register with the local Public Security Bureau but I wasn't accused of a crime and I wasn't deported. I don't bear the local Public Security Bureau any ill will. I was treated well, despite being very cold and bored.

The story starts with leaving Guangzhou because my life was shit or because I was depressed and wanted to run away from everything. I think that's the most interesting part of the story.

That was a year before I ended up in Datong. I flew into Shanghai from Vancouver, then got on a thirty hour no seat train ride to Guangzhou. It's very easy to explain what I was doing. I wanted to escape. I had let a relationship crumble and I had been fired from a job working at a liquor store. If I was going to work a dead-end job and watch my future slowly darken, I thought I might as well do it in Guangzhou.

After I arrived in Guangzhou, I scraped together a pretty good life: a slack job in Tianhe, a Xiguan girl that spoke English with a SoCal accent, a Hunan art school girl that dressed like Sherlock Holmes, an apartment in a xiaoqu full of water features and palm trees and illegally parked Panameras. It didn't last long. Maybe a few months. I wasn't trying to build a future, so it was easy to fuck around and abuse the freedom of not having to give a fuck about anything. I became nocturnal, haunting the clubs downtown and drinking too much. I went out every night. I woke up once in a hash dealer's apartment; I woke up a few times in massage parlors and on sidewalks. That makes it sound more glamorous than it was. I spent a lot of time locked in my apartment, pissing in Gatorade bottles, smoking weed and playing Secret of Mana. But I knew that things were grim. And I knew what to do, at that point. I had been through the cycle before: escape, fuck things up, escape to somewhere where the stakes were higher, escape, repeat. I felt things breaking apart. I found an email that had gone ureplied-to in my inbox for months, someone I had met in Vancouver introducing me to a friend that could offer me a job in Shanxi.

I didn't tell anybody that I was leaving. I cleaned out my apartment and filled a dozen plastic grocery bags with garbage and carried them down to the front of the building. I didn't expect anyone to notice, at least for a few days. I wouldn't get any calls. I was still using the battered Nokia phone that powered down if I left on for more than a few minutes. I put everything I owned—a few shirts, a pair of grey Levi's bought before a job interview, notebooks—in a bag that I could carry over my shoulder. I bought a hard seat ticket on the K600 that runs from Guangzhou all the way 2000 miles out to Baotou. I waited in a KFC until it was time to leave. I rode the thirty-six hours out to Datong, feeling the air growing colder every stop we made headed north.

Datong was cold. The old city was being torn down to put up a fake wall and a new temple complex. I could walk across the central town in a few hours. I survived on xianbing and sleeves of Oreos. I worked for a man with bad teeth and a lot of money, a low-level but authentic Shanxi coal boss who made the jump out of the coal business at the right time and diversified into heavy equipment, manufacturing, hotels and a half-dozen other sidelines. I worked for his cousin Huang, and was mostly left alone in a corner of an office that served as a travel agency and advertising company. The girls that worked in the office with me seemed just as idle.

I had no friends except a girl whose name I've forgotten now, who, seeing me sitting alone in a cafe, using the WiFi, entered, sat down, and then went home with me. After I slept with her, she insisted that she move in. We had relationship that was not unhappy but completely joyless. She doesn't figure much in this story. But I don't want to delete the references made later to her. I will call her Qiaoqiao.

As winter approached, I made a visa run to Hong Kong and ended up in Guangzhou with a new work visa, waiting for my flight back to Shanxi. I went out that night with a few former colleagues and clients. As the night wound down I found myself in a bar with a businessman from Uganda who ran a business shipping furniture and heavy equipment to East Africa, and a man from Syria who was married to a Mexican girl I knew through a friend. The Ugandan left as the Syrian and I took to take a taxi to a twenty-four hour private club. Over drinks he asked me for a long shot favor: I know a guy here, he said, going to medical school. His brother came over too and has gotten into a bit of trouble. Nothing serious. Nothing with the police. But the brother is very religious. He’s trying to get the kid out of Guangzhou.

I met the kid the next morning. Samir had grown up in Kenya, the son of a middle class Baluchi family, with a civil engineer dad who had two wives. (He discovered it when his dad ended up in the hospital and he ran into a boy who looked exactly like him in the corridor—his half brother.) The family ended up in a suburb of Toronto, claiming refugee status on bogus Somali passports. His passport said he was twenty two years old, but he had just turned twenty. In Canada, his two brothers became devout Muslims, active in their mosques. They married Pakistani girls and made plans to get out of the country. Samir’s phone still rang the call to prayer five times a day but he was more passionate about Bollywood, fashion and poetry. When his eldest brother went to Guangzhou for medical school, he followed. His brother had early suspicions. Samir could barely negotiate the city but he had had started fucking boys he met on a dating app, smoking ice and coming home fucked up at four in the morning.

Samir came with me to Datong. He lived in my apartment and came into the office most afternoons. The girls in the office loved him. He taught them Madhuri Dixit dances and they got him to take their lunch order down to the restaurants in the alley behind our office tower. I paid him out of my salary and made sure he was well fed. On Fridays we took a taxi to the mosque and I waited outside for him, chatting with the woman who came every week to sell frozen halal chickens from out of her Hyundai trunk. I translated what I remembered of the imam’s speech for Samir. We talked and got drunk together and ran through the shitty clubs. He made connections, somehow and it wasn’t long before he knew all the secret gay pickup spots in the city and where to buy poppers. I’m sure his brother wouldn’t have approved.

I tried my best. It's fucking wild to see someone that was around the same age as you when your life went off the rails putting their life off the rails in almost—without poppers and Islam—the same way. The night before we went to jail, I gave him a speech. I remember, we were sitting in the living room of our apartment. I told him that you can never be happy unless you learn to control yourself. It's not important what happened after that. We went out, I went home early, and Samir stayed out and got into some trouble.

In the morning, Samir came home with the police. They asked to see my passport and invited me to go for a drive with them. They filmed the arrest, so somewhere there is a video of me blearily answering my bedroom door and walking to the two black Passats that were waiting outside. A tall woman in a trench coat was in charge of a group of plainclothes cops. She apologized for disturbing my rest. I got into the backseat of one of the cars and Samir got into the other.

We were brought to an office of the Public Security Bureau. I was asked what my relationship to Samir was, if I’d been with him the night before and an outline of my activities over the last several days. We were taken to a hospital, pissed in cups and—I think?—had our blood drawn. I couldn’t talk to Samir but I tried to put him at ease, smiling over the nurse’s shoulder, making light conversation with the cops shuttling us around. They let slip that because I had a work visa I should be okay —detention but no deportation — but they were not pleased that I had never bothered to register at the local police station. We were taken to a KFC up in Beiguan and treated to lunch.

We got back into the cars and drove out beyond the edge of the city on an empty highway. We drove for an hour. It was late fall, the greyest season in a grey country. I talked to the cops that were riding with me, sitting on both sides of me in the back of the Passat. For a while, I thought that we might be driving to the airport, but I quickly realized we were going in the wrong direction and too far out of the city. I didn't care where we were going. When we pulled up at a walled compound and walked the gravel driveway up to a row of low, grey buildings, I knew Samir had not been able to read the three characters above them that indicated we had arrived at a detention centre.

In a cold room, we stripped our clothes off and were photographed back, front and side. We were given orange vests and flip-flops, and had any metal zips or buttons cut out of our clothes. One of the guards gave us a tour of our cell:

Put cold water in this bucket in the morning. Put hot water in this canteen. Shit and piss in this bucket. These basins are to get your food. This rag is to clean. Don’t touch the beds until it’s time for bed. Sit on these stools. Lights out at nine thirty. Out of bed at seven. Breakfast is at eight. Then you can go to the bathroom, dump your shit bucket and get water. Inspection is at nine. Lunch is at eleven thirty. You nap between one and two thirty. You eat dinner at four thirty. Any questions? Follow the rules and you'll be fine.

There were no other formalities. No interrogation, for sure. No reading of charges. No pre-trial hearing, obviously. One of the guards brought us steamed buns and pickled radish. We went to sleep. . No one told us how long we would be there. I had no idea that would be my life for ten weeks.

Every morning we were roused from bed by one of the guards shouting: Qi chuang! Get up!

There were three cells on our block. One of them was connected to ours by an outer walkway. The third cell was on the other side of a grid of metal bars. The other cells each held five men, who were slow to get up in the morning. Depending on the guard they might bang against the metal bars or shout individual prisoners’ names, or they might just yell. Samir was slow to get out of bed, too. I would warn him when I saw the guard walking across the courtyard.

I was up before anyone. I took pride in obedience to the rules. Even if the rules were casually enforced or ignored completely, I took pleasure in following them. On the walls of our cell were the rules of detention and the rights of prisoners. I read them until I memorized them. Nobody else seemed to give a fuck.

When I got out of bed, I pissed in the bucket in the corner, folded my bedding and exercised. I ran on the spot, did pushups, jumping jacks, more pushups, and leg raises while hanging from the upper bunk of my bed. The cell was cold in the morning. Snow had not fallen yet. But a dusty December wind blew through the screen of our cell door. Samir had been given an army surplus parka. I was wearing a tight orange sweater that the police brought to me after they searched our apartment. It belonged to Qiaoqiao and I'm sure she was unhappy not to get it back. Below the sweater I wore a grey V-neck that I had been wearing when the police came to the door. I also had a pair of Levi’s jeans with the metal button and the zipper cut off. It was tied through the front belt loops with a piece of rope. When I warmed up, I put on my fake leather jacket — zipper and buttons also cut off — with the orange prison vest over it.

The cell was large enough for eight prisoners. There were four bunk beds and a metal cupboard with three doors. In it we kept our plastic basins, toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and leftover food. There was a TV on the wall between a window and the door. In the corner of the room, high on the wall, was a camera nested in a mess of wire.

When Samir got out of bed, he washed the floor beside his bed with a rag and performed his ablutions. He poured hot water into a basin from the thermos and mixed it with cold water from our clean water bucket. He cleaned his hands and arms from wrist to elbow, rinsed his mouth and sprinkled water on his socks. He knelt on his army coat to pray. After he prayed he shook out his jacket, put it on and sat on his stool beside the radiator.

At seven-thirty we got our first chance to leave the cell. Samir refilled our thermos with hot water and refilled the clean water bucket. I emptied the shit bucket and went to get our breakfast. The prison cells were arranged around a courtyard with a tree and a fountain in the middle. Around the courtyard were classrooms, activity rooms and a room with a pool table, but nobody entered them and those rooms stayed shut while we were there.

The prisoners from the cells who dumped the bucket left the cell first. We walked together out of the courtyard, into the main building and out again into a concrete backyard. We dumped our shit and piss and wastewater into a steaming hole in the ground covered by a wooden trapdoor. Samir was too weak to carry the bucket, so the task was mine.

The officer on duty at the prison supervised the dumping of the shit buckets. They usually asked me how I had slept, then gave me a cigarette. Before the police knocked at my door, I started every morning scrounging for a pack of Zhongnanhai and smoking two of them while watching the English-language news on CCTV-16. Samir always told me he knew I was awake by the click of my lighter. After a week in prison my morning cigarette was less about feeding a habit and more the thrill of special treatment and contraband. We enjoyed the game of scoring cigarettes from the officer and guards more than actually smoking them.

Breakfast was the same every morning. We got it through a window that opened onto the courtyard. We each had a small plastic basin of pickled radish and carrot with steamed buns, and there was a larger basin to share, a thin porridge made from millet. After a week there was an occasional treat: fermented bean curd. The first time that the man who scooped the food into our plastic basins asked me if I wanted a special treat, he told me that we were respectful to him and never complained about the food. The bean curd was pungent and salty, the texture of cream cheese. I spread it on the still-warm steamed buns and saved my pickled vegetables for lunch. Samir drank the millet porridge and ate a steamed bun.

The period between breakfast at seven-thirty and lunch at noon was the dreariest and most hopeless time of the day. Time moved slowly. I tracked the passing hours by watching the sun move against the bars of the outer walkway. Samir and I rarely talked. The cell was cold. There was a radiator and he lay against it, dozing. While he slept I looked out of the window, listened to the sound of water in the pipes, and steered myself through private memories until I nodded off.

At 10:30am was cell check. Whichever officer was on duty would come to our door and we would sit on our stools and wait for him to call our name. When he called our name we put up our hand. We all had to keep our hands raised until he told us to put them down. This rule was explained to us on the first day.

There were three officers that rotated prison duty through the week. The first was Cai. He was in his mid thirties, married, and hated his job. He was writing a novel about Ming loyalists using martial arts to fight back against the Manchus. We discussed literature a few times and he mentioned he knew Cao Naiqian, a writer and Public Security Bureau officer in Datong. He didn’t think much of Cao’s writing. He said that if I stayed a few more weeks maybe he could set up a meeting. Some afternoons, Cai let me sit in his office. He didn’t smoke but bought packs for me. We chatted for a few hours about history or books or women. When other people from the prison wandered into his office he went silent until they left. He said: They don’t understand any of the things we’re talking about.

Zhang was the oldest of the officers on rotation. He looked like a cartoon cop, a tough short guy with a crew cut and bulldog jowls. He was the only one who stuck to the rules posted on the wall of our cell. He criticized the folding of our bedding. Once he walked us over to the neighboring cell and showed us their blankets, which were folded neatly. We tried to improve our folding and he never brought it up again. He was the gruffest of the officers but was free with his cigarettes and had been the one to dig up the parka for Samir.

Wang was tall and also had a crewcut. He was quick to discipline the other prisoners but generally unconcerned about the rules. One of the men in the other cells clearly had connections and seemed to be the source of the smuggled cigarettes that the prisoners passed around during our outside time. The cigarette smuggler was often let out of his cell for trips to a bathroom inside the guard’s quarters. Wang was the only officer who denied his requests and openly mocked him in front of prisoners and guards. When he came to check our cell he was always puffing on a cigarette. While the Warden looked over his shoulder disapprovingly at our floor or bedding, he would laugh and ask us when the fuck we were getting out.

The Warden was always looking over someone’s shoulder disapprovingly. He scowled at us when the officers gave us cigarettes. When he walked through the courtyard he was accompanied by a trio of boys in their late teens who fetched things for him, opened doors and lit his cigarettes. One of the boys had his hair teased up, dyed with purple streaks. He wore skinnier jeans than a prison guard should wear. Another boy wore a black satin jacket and thick glasses. They were clearly intimidated by the men in the other cells, who glared at them and pushed past them to get to the bathroom. I still don't know what the fuck was going on with the Warden or his boys. It seems fucked up, looking back, and I don't have an explanation.

Those mornings stretched on fucking forever. The boredom started to fuck with me. That was my only complaint. It only got worse. We had CCTV-1 but you can only sit through Boonie Bears so many times before it starts to grate. I used to take walks in my head, through places I had been before. Like, the walk out from Waterfront Station, down Cordova, cutting over to East Hastings, through the gates of Chinatown, back north to East Cordova and Oppenheimer Park, up onto Powell, with views out on the harbor, past the sugar refinery and the container terminals... The long walk from Kowloon Tong, over to Nathan Road, through Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei, all the way to Star Ferry Pier.

After the boredom, the cold was the worst. Some afternoons, there was frost on the walls. We both wore three pairs of socks. Our shoes had been replaced with flip-flops. Samir was always cold, even with the parka. He sat against the radiator most of the day. He ate very little and lost weight. I knew I could spend a long time locked up. I knew it didn’t matter. But I felt bad for Samir. It was his fault we were there and he had apologized over and over again. I hated to see him cold and hungry and hopeless. He vowed he’d stop fucking boys. He said he’d go back to Kenya, where his cousin ran a school, work with him there. Sometimes he didn’t talk all day and sometimes he wouldn't shut up. We dug deep to find stories we hadn’t yet told each other yet.

When I was cold, I exercised and sat cross legged on the floor on my army jacket with my feet tucked under me. At times I enjoyed the cold. I wanted to be uncomfortable. My move to the north of China was part of that impulse. In Guangzhou I had been living in a dream city without knowing it: loud, tropical hot, alive twenty-four hours a day. I thought about my last nights there, swallowed up in the crowds, going to Loft 345 to hear friends DJ, coming home at dawn with soft rain falling on the palm trees outside my apartment, everything made more beautiful and important by the slow decay of a hash high.

There was something profoundly peaceful and right-feeling about those morning in Datong, sometimes. I had kept running and running from shit, trying to feel something in my fucked up life, and maybe I wanted to breathe dust and to be cold and hungry and stare at the walls.

Lunch broke the monotony. Samir filled up our water thermos and I went to collect the food — usually more steamed buns and a basinful of boiled cabbage with lots of black pepper. The black pepper collected at the bottom of the basin and looked like dirt—or mixed with the dirt, I guess. There was also a store in the courtyard, staffed by an older woman and a younger woman, which was open during lunch- and dinnertime. The store sold instant noodles, shrinkwrapped hard boiled tea eggs, toilet paper and whatever prisoners requested. About a week into our stay someone from my company stopped by with cash and it was handed to me by one of the guards. I peeled off a few red bills and asked for cigarettes. We bought Orion choco pies, custard-filled spongecake and digestive biscuits, and ate them while we were allowed to watch CCTV-1.

I didn't recognize the man that came from my company. He seemed to intimate that the company was being shaken down by the PSB. He insisted we'd get out soon.

After eating lunch, Samir prayed again and we got into bed. Apart from these two hours in the afternoon and after lights out, we were not allowed to sit on our beds. That hour and a half in bed was a transcendent experience. It was the first time in hours we felt warm. Sleep made the time pass quicker. We knew the day was halfway done.

I used to think a lot about a trip I took to Lianyungang. I've written about it before, a fucking million times. I took mushrooms and slept beside an abandoned fishing village, out on a concrete pier. I had a sort of flash of enlightenment or something the next day, walking through the city, something about how, if I was going to be at my lowest, starving or freezing, I wanted to do it in China. It wasn't that I felt at home there. It was like realizing you can live in your favorite novel or something, for me. It felt like even living completely without purpose, I was still doing something, learning something about an unfamiliar place. Maybe it was bullshit, but it was like a peak life-in-China moment, and getting swept up into a Datong detention cell was the—despite whatever I felt or said about how it was profound or meditative or instructive—definitely the nadir.

After waking up, in the mid afternoon we got time outside. It was cold but the sun was bright enough to make it warmer than our cells. We walked down the outer walkway, wrapped up in our jackets, and I chatted with the other prisoners.

Most of the men in the other cells were petitioners, or men locked up for petty crimes that they wouldn’t specify. Most of them had been in detention centers before. One of them wore an army coat with the gold buttons still sewed to it. He had been in the People’s Liberation Army. His house had been torn down when Datong began construction on its replica ancient wall. When he petitioned in Beijing he was arrested near Zhongnanhai. He spent a night locked in a room in Beijing before policemen from Datong came to collect him.

Another of the men had his eye gouged out a few days before. He had gone to Beijing, too. The factory he had worked for was bought out by a private company. Then the company was sold and shut down, and the factory and employee dormitories were demolished. There had been promises of an apartment on the edge of Datong, and a pension. But he had received neither. He moved into a house in the old city and it was demolished, too. He got in a fight with a man while locked up in Beijing. After a trip to the hospital he was brought to the detention center.

Most of them would be released within four or five days. Their wives stopped by and brought them food. While we smoked cigarettes and talked, Samir prayed.

The nights were easier.

Dinner was the best meal of the day. Samir ate very little, even when he abandoned his halal guidelines and simply avoided dishes with visible pork. I ate basins of stir-fried pork and ginger, lamb stew with cumin, braised chicken and potato. The steamed buns were the best I had ever had, handmade and chewy and dense. There were handcut noodles with pork and wood-ear fungus. After dinner we watched the news on CCTV-1.

The radiators came on in the evening and the cell felt warm. On some nights, we laid out parkas on the floor after dinner, opened choco pies and watched whatever was on CCTV-1. By the time bedtime approached, I had forgotten how shitty the day had been.

When the lights went out at nine-thirty, one of the guards would shout: Shuijiao! Shuijiao! Sleep! Sleep! The radiators were almost blazing by then. We would undress and talk while we lay in our beds. It was peaceful and warm in bed. The lights stayed on all night.

Every day was almost the same. It was cold and boring.

I mentally prepared myself for two years. I thought: I can do this for two years. I thought there would be a trial. I planned to forego deportation and take the time in detention. I know this isn't how it works. But—two years, I would have been fine with two years.

I felt guilty about everyone that worried about me. I think that might have been worse than the cold and boredom.

Once a week someone from the Public Security Bureau would meet with us. I would translate for Samir. They asked the same questions. They let Samir call his brother in Guangzhou.

When I got my phone, I saw that there were long text messages from Qiaoqiao, saying, basically: Who the fuck is this? You claim you're the police but I know a police sergeant and you're going to be in trouble when I track you down. It went on like that. She called the phone whenever it was turned on. I guess the PSB were going through my text messages. But all they got were angry threats from a local girl. I find that touching, thinking back. The phone was useless and I had to write down a number to dial. I didn't call Qiaoqiao back.

The PSB people hinted that there would be a trial. A woman from the Canadian consulate came by and everyone in the detention center showed up to work with their uniforms on, for once. I can't remember what she told me. I think I called my mother. On the table in the conference room where we met her, there was a pack of Zhonghua, and I smoked at least five, washing them down with hot jasmine tea.

This story doesn't have much of an ending. One day, a woman that we had never seen met with us individually. She asked me if I wanted to come back to China. She asked if I could buy a plane ticket home. In the afternoon I sat with the guard Cai in his office and he told me: They’re just going to keep you here until your visa expires. Spring Festival is coming, and they want everyone out before then.

The necessary arrangements were made.

It was five-thirty in the morning when Cai came to our cell. It was dark outside. He told me that I would be leaving that day. I hugged Samir. Cai brought me across the courtyard to the guard’s office. He gave me a pack of cigarettes. On the security monitor I watched Samir pacing, tidying the cell. Cai said: You can leave now. They’ll come to pick you up soon. They’ll let him go in a few days, probably. I exchanged my flip-flops for my shoes and took off my prison vest. I sat with Cai for a while. The black Passat was waiting at the gates.

The woman from the Public Security Bureau handed me my phone and my wallet. We drove to my apartment and we met two men there. I packed a few things in the bag I had brought up from Guangzhou. I changed into new dirty clothes. The men were wearing grey slacks and plastic parkas. I walked with them to an airline ticket counter and watched as they tried to buy last minute tickets on a flight to Beijing. They finally secured three seats but one of the men had to make a last minute call to okay the expense.

When we landed in Beijing, the two PSB took me to a Real Kungfu restaurant for my last meal. After lunch they slept with their heads on the table.

The story ends there.

I sat in that Real Kungfu waiting for a flight out of the country. I've flown out of Beijing since then and I think I've walked by that Real Kungfu—or it might have been replaced with something else, by now. But at that moment, I thought that those were my last moments in the country. I had devoted so much time and energy to the place and the language and I assumed I would never be back. I sat up while the PSB men slept, watching the waitresses, braless in their red uniform polo shirts, stringy hair tied up, wiping down the tables after the lunch rush. When it was time to go, the PSB men tried to cut through the security line and were reprimanded by a teenager in an ill-fitting uniform. We took one last picture together. Maybe it went into the PSB file along with video of my arrest and a picture of me standing nude in a detention center reception room.

There's no conclusion. The story ends there. Maybe the experience dislodged the fantasy I had had since that day in Lianyungang. I'm not sure. The whole experience felt pointless. I went back to China a year after I flew out of Beijing.

No hard feelings.

(A version of this appeared on The Anthill and Alec Ash edited that early version. The site is gone now. Some of that Alec Ash-edited version remains here. Thanks, Alec.
Another note, too, that I've written versions of this story a few times and I notice myself fudging the facts here and there, leaving things out, for various reasons, mostly related to personal privacy and the privacy of people involved. That's just how it is. This is close enough, though.)