&: Diary (12)

(November 11th, 2019) I know I've told the story before, probably even in another one of these entries, but whenever I fly out of PEK, I think of the time that I was escorted to my flight by junior members of the Datong Public Security Bureau. They were both in plainclothes, jeans and windbreakers, and when they tried to take a nap after our meal at the Real Kungfu, a waitress came by to scold them, and they didn't even bother trying to use any limited authority they might have had, but instead waved her off, like any cranky man in his early-40s would have: "What's it to you? He's still eating, isn't he? Go yell at those people over there, instead. Give me a goddamn break." The two PSB men slept and I watched those country girls, all with shiny black bangs, all braless in their red polo shirts, wiping down the tables after the lunch rush. When it was time for my flight, they walked me over to the security gate and were again reprimanded, this time for trying to sneak through, by a skinny girl in loose-fitting fatigues, who looked like a child soldier manning a roadblock after her rebel faction seized the presidential palace and raided the armory for belts and berets. But today, I'm unescorted, so I can get a ham-and-cheese and iced Americano from Costa and try to figure out one single article in an old issue of Dushu I found at the bottom of my bag while packing again.

Another observation I am not making for the first time: when I fly back to Tokyo, I am always struck by its disorganization and its chaos. Why isn't there a direct train line from Haneda to a larger hub? Why do I have to transfer at Hamamatsucho? This isn't an important criticism. I probably wouldn't notice, flying in from KIX. But I mean that my eyes are always dazzled by the scenery of Tokyo: advertisements all over the place, glowing shop signs, everything seems to be under construction or renovation and there are hundreds of square feet of signage telling travelers and staff about detours and safety precautions. But then, once again, conversely, Tokyo seems dreary compared to Beijing. Once you enter the first tunnel from one section of the station to another, surrounded by men that have changed from their Cool Biz summer-weight suits to the warmer uniforms of early winter, tramping in lockstep, nine o'clock at night and still on their way home through the bowels of a Yamanote Line station.

(November 12th, 2019) I was thinking, with the Bookworm closing in Beijing, how there was a distinct sort of expat-in-Beijing group identity, although that faded five or six years ago. There's that wonderful parody of David Blum's "Hollywood's Brat Pack," which namechecks the Bookworm (and also Jenny Lou's and April Gourmet and Element Fresh)... I always had a chip on my shoulder, living way out in the middle of nowhere, cities with millions of people that nobody cared about, like Datong or Dalian or Nanjing, or even Guangzhou. If I hadn't been invited last year to do an event at the Bookworm, thereby welcomed into what was left of that Beijing clique, and if I hadn't drank at a hutong bar with ***** *** *** **** ********* *** ****** **** **** ***—well, that cooled some of the burn of being shut out for so many years, lost in the wilderness. But it makes me think about the group of expatriates that hung around Tokyo in the early-2000s, around the same time as you had ***** ****** *** ****** ******** in Beijing, and the very different role they took, far less political, and more engaged with a local cultural scene, even sometimes making a name for themselves in that scene, often even publishing books in Japanese, while remaining mostly unknown to the wider world. This is comparing two very different countries, but I can't help but wonder if the slow exit of all privileged expatriate drifters and the closure of their Beijing haunts is not the sign of, say, creeping authoritarianism, but, like, some cultural confidence, a sense that there is no longer a need for what turned out to be mostly hostile foreign elements in Beijing—and it is creeping authoritarianism, perhaps, but also the liberal elements in China's capital that fostered the livelihoods of those people and those places simply moving on, either forced to abandon their liberal principles or realizing that it's all a bunch of bullshit. But also, this is just bullshitting here, and maybe I don't understand the function of these people and places or who was funding them... Just bullshitting here, okay? And I could also throw in, like, the diminished role of Beijing in culture? Like, all those years in Guangzhou or Nanjing, there were plenty of writers and artists and musicians doing interesting work in interesting spaces, but usually very self-contained, or feeding into regional scenes, while Beijing was increasingly seen as a place to go and make a living as a culture worker. This seems like a problem not so much with creeping authoritarianism as it is a problem that other global capitals have, with financialization and neoliberalism or whatever, a housing market that squeezes out interesting people and places. Again, this is just bullshitting.

Returning to Tokyo, I say once again: I would move to Beijing in a heartbeat, even now, for the right deal. But living in an East Tokyo slum and surviving off freelance checks is better than any offer I've gotten for a job in Beijing. There's nothing like a long morning walk through Matsugaya to Asakusa (not real Asakusa which looks like Disneyland now, but the southern half, which I suppose is actually Kotobuki) to put things in perspective. Maybe this place will stay the same long enough. Maybe Tokyo will slip underwater. Maybe tourism really has peaked and they can stop building hotels. Maybe a populist firebrand will rise to power and close key sections of the city to tourism except on weekends, and put up blocks of social housing instead of new apartments, and Taito Ward will organize production teams to finish the reconstruction of Sanyabori Park, giving porn-addicted incels and precariously-employed girl bosses the opportunity to mingle and form relationships with each other... Probably not. You know, racial nationalism and weak neoliberal reforms are the worst form of politics ever invented, and best case scenario for Japan would be something like Orbánism, rather than waiting for another real estate boom and the invention of robots to mitigate the need to import labor from Nepal and Southeast Asia. Fuck it. Maybe I'll move to Hanoi and watch the place go to shit from afar, or maybe I'll go back to Guangzhou. Maybe I'll stick around. Who knows? The walk from Matsugaya to Asakusa makes me want to stay, at least, and a late lunch of hamburg steak at a café that seems, in the absence of regular customers, to have been turned over by the owner to an expanding collection of house plants, and a stop at a supermarket up the street (Maruetsu is being renovated) that somehow still has soft, plump Aichi figs but also imported Italian ricotta.