&: 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.


&: 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.


&: 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.