&: Chinese walls

(Eileen Chang details, folk art, urban novels)

This is Beijing, not too far from Dongdaqiao, if I remember correctly, in an area that seems to be called or was once called Nongfengli 农丰里. Looking online, there’s not much I can find. This is about it: there wasn't much there but farmland and grave mounds until the 1950s, when a factory was built to supply the People's Liberation Army General Logistics Department with blankets. Dormitories went up nearby, and then the 平房 were replaced with 楼房 '70s. Were those the same 楼房 coming down now? It's hard to say. I peered through that hole punched out of the poster...

Not much to see. There was a pile of smashed concrete, plaster, a bit of wood. It looked like the demolition had been halted, the remaining 楼房 saved, for the time being. There was a building site, deeper in the complex. That was about it, and the green and white 中基地产 sign that you can see the 地 of in the picture. But as I walked away, I glanced back, and saw an old upright piano with a wrecked keyboard, almost right against the wall, only visible looking back at a sharp angle.

Looking at the picture now, I’m reminded of a scene from Eileen Chang's "Sealed Off" 《封锁》that definitely didn’t come to mind on that sunny day in Beijing when I first took it. Zongzhen sees Cuiyuan through a tattered advertising poster...
Once again, she was startled and turned to look at him. Now he remembered, he had seen her get on the tram—a striking image, thrown up by chance, and nothing she could have planned. "You know, I saw you getting on the tram," he said softly. "In the window at the front of the tram, there's an advertisement with a piece torn out, and I saw part of your face, just a bit of your chin, through the tear." It was an ad for Lacova powdered milk, and it showed a fat little child. Under the child's ear, this woman's chin had suddenly appeared; it was a little spooky, when you thought about it. "Then you looked down to search for change in your purse, and I saw your eyes, then your eyebrows, then your hair." When you considered her features in isolation, one after another, you had to admit she did have a certain charm. (This was translated by Karen Kingsbury for The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature )
翠远重新吃了一惊,又掉回头来看了他一眼。他现在记得了,他瞧见她上车的——非常戏剧化的一刹那,但是那戏剧效果是碰巧得到的,并不能归功于她。他低声道:“你知道么?我看见你上车,前头的玻璃上贴的广告,撕破了一块,从这破的地方我看见你的侧面,就只一点下巴。” 是乃络维奶粉的广告,画着一个胖孩子,孩子的耳朵底下突然出现了这女人的下巴,仔细想起来是有点吓人的。“后来你低下头去从皮包里拿钱,我才看见你的眼睛,眉毛,头发。” 拆开来一部分一部分地看,她未尝没有她的一种风韵。
I'm sure everyone has read it, especially if you took an undergrad introduction to Chinese literature class.

It’s wartime Shanghai. An air raid siren stops a tram. Wu Cuiyuan 吴翠远, a professor, and Lu Zongzhen 吕宗桢, a banker, are trapped aboard. Zongzhen strikes up a conversation with Cuiyuan to avoid a run-in with one of his wife's relatives. A moment on the tram between Zongzhen and Cuiyuan reveals everything you need to know about the lives they lead, the society they live in, the city... It's full of carefully observed details: newsprint soaked up by the skins of baozi, polished walnut shells in a man's hand, tortoiseshell glasses, the tiny red cloth shoes on a toddler's feet, a beggar's song.

I just read it again to be sure that I was remembering right. I recalled it as a newspaper, that she saw him through. In my version of the story, he picked reads the newsprint off the baozi then picks up a newspaper from the seat beside him, to hide behind when his wife’s relative comes down the aisle.

I admitted here once that I used to covertly take pictures of passengers on the Hibiya Line in Tokyo. I swear it was innocent. There is a reason that mobile phones in Japan come with the shutter sound effect hardwired on and stuck at full volume. It’s a problem here, upskirts, downblouses, and just creeping up on girls. So, that’s why I want you to know my photography was completely innocent. My targets were immaculately dressed middle-aged women, getting on at Ebisu or Higashi-Ginza, taking a ride back downtown. Sometimes I’d sketch them in a short story, the perfectly set hair and soft, ancient luxury layers on them, the Hermès clutch, iced out knuckles, Ballon Bleu...

Beyond the quiet desperation in the story, the depiction of middle class neuroses, whatever, I simply like detail. I like Chu T'ien-wen 朱天文. I like her describing in《巫言》a taro purple with titanium buckles Louis Vuitton Epi Leather bag or devoting a page to describing the various uses of a pair of torn black pantyhose.

I’m talking about the city here, though. I am getting around to saying: I wish there was better writing about Chinese cities. I wonder if it’s because I’m an outsider, that the things I notice are not particularly remarkable. It feels like most Chinese writers that write about life in the city strip away the detail. Give a rough description of a city block, I can picture it, but I want more. Give me a book written in Zhengzhou, Lanzhou, Suzhou, Fuzhou, within the past decade, that gives up the gritty detail of the city. I can think of examples from works in historical settings, where the detail is meant to add some authenticity or illuminate something about the age. But a contemporary book, it doesn’t exist (a bold claim for someone that hasn’t read widely enough—I’m probably wrong).

This is down the street. Still around Dongdaqiao.

I'm surprised to see these folk art China Dream posters still up, after all these years. Still going strong. This one says something like: "Realize the dream / Sprinkle sunshine over China," or perhaps, "Realize China's dream / Send forth the sunshine," 圆梦中国 / 洒满阳光. The illustration is from a folk artist in Longmen in Guangdong. They are beautiful.

Nicer to look at than the militant calls to 扫黑除恶. Why hasn’t Beijing been completely taken over by 扫黑除恶 posters yet? I don’t know. Maybe there is no 黑 left to 扫 in Beijing, no 恶 that needs 除ing.

Folk art looks strange, put up here in a street in Chaoyang, sitting at eye-level, hiding a 小区 of ‘70s or ‘80s cream-colored apartment blocks.

I was trying to draw in a second point here, something about the Chinese belief in facade and artifice. Maybe there’s some way to connect that to the equally tenuous point about a lack of writing that fits my specific requirements for detail. The propaganda posters are always covering something up, as much as they are doing their job of spreading a message. They are something nice to look at, in this ugly stretch of city. They hide the details, like that poster up there would have hid the smashed concrete and upright piano, if it didn’t have a hole punched in it.

It’s normal not to look below the surface. You can put up a poster to hide the demolition site, and an X5 badge on a Shuanghuan, paint your face white and leave your neck natural tanned brown. This is lazy and essentialist.

I notice, though, in Japan, every aspect of the city will have already been catalogued and analyzed. Like, when I wrote about corrugated tin walls—I was late, there are already entire books written on the subject of corrugated tin in vernacular architecture, coffee table books with medium format shots of rusted tin walls. Exploring a new neighborhood, you will find that every element of it has already been discussed, whether the slums of Nishinari or the rows of luxury villas in Azabu-Juban.

There are reasons for that. Japan has a supply of highly educated idlers, born in the city, that grew up in love with the city.

The folk art is timeless, even if what it's depicting is dead and gone. It's good and right. What's the point of writing about the ugliness of the city? I don't know how many times I have been asked in China: "Why are you taking a picture of that?" And that might be a generic '80s apartment block or propaganda poster or some 办证 graffiti or a demolition site. It's hard to explain. It's usually something that I think is interesting, which I know I would struggle to find pictures of somewhere later, and might disappear before I get back.

Maybe everything is too temporary to bother putting down on paper! This street corner, which I photographed months ago, surely doesn't look the same now. Everything captured in these pictures, I keep hedging my bets: it might be gone now. The posters might be gone, the buildings might have been demolished, the street corner might look completely different now…

Why did Eileen Chang write about Shanghai like she did? Why did Chu T'ien-wen write about Taipei like she did? Why did Zadie Smith write about London the way she does in NW? There isn’t the same social or political impulse in Mainland China, I would say. You just wouldn’t write a book set in Beijing in 2019, some depressing corner of the place, out beyond whatever Ring Road signifies the boundaries of civilized city… I am blindly feeling my way toward a point here. That folk art represents the native place, the homeland, and writing should be—has been, for a hundred years—about the native place. That is why you get novels about Shanghai, written in Shanghainese, or evoking some particularly Shanghai vibe, usually set in the past, like Wang Anyi 王安忆 or Jin Yucheng 金宇澄 but you wouldn’t write about your adopted neighborhood in Shanghai, if you are a writer from outside the city. At best, you get a story about a character arriving from the countryside and pining for their native place. Nobody is really from this patch of city around Dongdaqiao, so nobody’s going to write about.

That’s too simple, but it’s getting there.

And why not: here's Qianmen, and maybe this is Dazhalan/Dashilanr 大栅栏, but I can't be sure. I thought I might return to my earlier point about artifice and facade.

I was there to visit Yangmeizhu Xiejie 杨梅竹斜街, stopped by Mofan Bookstore 模范书局 and Soloist, tagging along with Nick and Dong. But we wandered over to Dashilanr, too.

Qianmen is ugly. I visited it once before, probably in 2006. I know redevelopment in the name of preservation ends up fucking over people in the neighborhood and mostly benefits private developers, but the problem for me is that it just doesn't hold up. Glance in the wrong direction—a modern facade, an unfinished second story, overhead wires, whatever—and the magic is gone. A place like Dashilanr only works if you don't have the urge to peek around or poke at the facade.

It reminds me of the city wall in Datong, a massive fortress built of sinister-looking grey brick, meant to replace what had been a rather modest wall made of rammed earth, the most impressive towers and fortifications of which had been taken down in the '70s and '80s to put in roads. It looked cool, at least, but, the wall was under construction in spots around the city and I was disappointed to see that it was hollow, with a layer of bricks over a concrete and rebar skeleton. Fang'gu Jie 仿古街 in Datong, built around Huayan Si 华严寺, was another project that ended up kicking hundreds out of their homes, but the real crime is the scrolling LED signs and inflatable balloon arches decorating the imitation Ming buildings. And back to Japan, where there are plenty of fakes, all the castles were built from ferroconcrete in the '30s and usually rebuilt again after the Second World War, and you can buy tacky souvenirs and get Starbucks in the old entertainment district at Asakusa, but there is an admirable dedication to architectural and thematic purity. It's not that the castles made of rebar and concrete are perfect copies of the original, but they stand up to peeking and poking.

So, now, if I can draw together my two tenuous points (nobody writes about these places with care or detail because nobody is from these places, artifice and facade is tolerated) here, Qianmen is proof. Place like Qianmen (or a hundred other examples, neighborhoods in Xi’an, Nanjing, Kaifeng, Guangzhou, etc. etc. etc.) can be remade because nobody really cares. Nobody gives a shit about Qianmen sucking because it was never really a part of anybody’s city. Even if you lived in Qianmen or worked there, you were from somewhere else… The city is part of a project of modernization but not part of the homeland, can't be the native place (with exceptions, like I said), so it's not worth preserving or writing about.

Let's end it here.

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