(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 *****, 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?
(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 ****1丁目町会, and probably also the ***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.