&: Diary (10)

(August 21st, 2019) I have six currencies in my wallet. I can never figure out what tense I'm supposed to be writing these in. I had six currencies in my wallet, eating that hayashi rice at Narita. I have five currencies in my wallet now, writing this in a hotel room in Beijing, looking mostly at my own reflection in the window. This is the life I always wanted to lead. I was telling this to a friend a few days ago. Now, I'm even more unsure about what tense to write in because this is me adding to the entry a week or two later, editorializing, trying to drag some meaning, some point out of the observation that I had six currencies and then five in my wallet, because I know that somebody might read this. Sometimes I am writing these on the day they happen and sometimes I am writing them the next day or the next week. The tense is all over the place. I notice that.

Because I'm not sure what the point of these are. Stepping outside of the format for a moment. But I guess to be like a blog post as a blog post looked in 2005 or 2006. Meandering, pointless, maybe something in there to be carved out and turned into a piece of writing that I might get paid for, but mostly just a chance to talk about things that happened, maybe something to look back on in a decade, so I can say to myself, "That is what I was doing in August of 2019." I can be more honest if I have no point to make. I can say whatever I want, if I'm not saying it for any clear reason. I can censor sections (you're missing out on a lot, and that's just me putting it in to jog my memory later, and I should probably still be able to remember the names I'm covering up or my own private thoughts). Self-censorship, I can't stop. Even those asterisked out sections, there are things that I feel must be kept even more private.

Because what a strange experience to have a strange come up to you and say—not that they've read some published writing, a translation, something serious but—that they've read a "blog" you have written. It's even worse if it was something I wrote five, ten years ago. What's the point of writing these, then? It's half narcissism, half some other impulse to record shit I've done or said (so, I'm saying it's completely narcissism, I guess).

But so here it is, whatever it is.

I keep making this trip, or a trip a lot like it. This time it's from Narita to Incheon to Beijing, but sometimes it's Haneda to Hong Kong to Xi'an or Beijing. What I meant there was, my ideal life as I saw it when I was eighteen or nineteen or even twenty-five was flying places, for things, staying in nice hotels. I've accomplished that. Transpacific or a Korean Airlines flight between Narita and Incheon, Guangzhou to Changsha, Tokyo to Osaka, whatever the flight is, it feels like I've arrived—and now, look at me, I'm fucking sick of flying, dread it, fly enough that I've seen every film I want to see on the inflight entertainment system, fly enough that I've started to recognize flight attendants, fly enough that I have a favorite spot to stop at at Narita. I remember flying into Narita for the first time and remarking on its shittiness, the '70s vibe, all the exposed wiring, missing ceiling panels, but some of the new terminals are nice, even if they don't compare with HKG or ICN or SIN, and it feels like home now. Mitsumoto Tei, where I ate the hayashi rice is where I would eat, if there was one in the neighborhood. The lights are up too bright. The menu is dull, all yoshoku meat-on-rice dishes, steaks, maybe a pasta, if I'm remembering correctly, then beer and highballs, chain kissaten-grade coffee. This is the way it should be, though: definitely cheap imported beef, canned mushrooms, onions cooked barely translucent, then a desultory sprinkle of dried parsley. This is nostalgia food that I could never be nostalgic for. Comfort food, though, and that's universal. It's just sauce and meat on rice.

I bet this place was full of smoke up until a couple years ago, but I know I'll have to hike down to the smoking lounge right after. There's a place like this in Haneda, too. I can't remember or figure out the name. It feels like a neighborhood place, too. I mean that in the sense of it looks like a neighborhood restaurant, rather than it evoking some sense of the community of a neighborhood restaurant. I mean it looks like all the generic indie shops in East Tokyo, the kind of place, if you were in Hashiba or Senzoku, that you'd go in to wait out the rain or get a late lunch. Draft beer and curry rice. My Haneda spot is good for curry. It also has a smoking section. A third of the dining room is given over to this, like, shoddily-enclosed area with high tables and ashtrays.

They were playing "Boots of Spanish Leather," barely audible over the clatter of cutlery and the noise of the terminal filtering in. What a sad song to hear in an airport. "Is there something I can send you from across the sea / From the place that I’ll be landing?" It was playing so quietly that I might have just imagined it.

I watched the man across from me working at picking up every kernel of corn from his plate with a pair of chopsticks, before he gave up and took a spoon from the basket.

I went for a cigarette and I thought about a story I could write or that I have written before. I had been watching the floppy-haired kid working at Mitsumoto Tei. Big hair, frosted grey-platinum, boots with buckles, like he must've just rode his VJ21 in from Kozunomori. VWAAAAAAAMMMMM all the way down the highway, pulling into the lot too fast, waving to the girl that works at the currency exchange place. Airport people. It only works with a place like Narita, way out in the middle of nowhere, since they've got to live out there, too. I thought about flying into Beijing from Datong that time, going to the Real Kungfu in the terminal, while the Public Security Bureau men drowsed, watching the girls at work there, red shirts, all without bras underneath. I had just gotten out of a couple months in a detention center. Country girls with shiny black bangs, baggy red shirts with their nipples poking out.

I've tried to write about that a dozen times and it just amounts to: I saw women with shiny bangs and they were all not wearing bras and they reminded me of a hundred girls I'd known before. I've tried to write that down in some serious way many times before. But there is nothing to the thought but that. There is nothing deeper. That's what this is for.

Struggling with tense, again. But I can return to the notebook written that night: I am back in Beijing. It hasn't been long. Maybe a couple months since I passed through, and I was here earlier in the year, maybe February, March? It's a city I'm slowly learning to love.

(August 22nd, 2019) Awake at dawn to walk downstairs for a cigarette and a Diet Coke, then a taxi to Shunyi. I think you can picture what it looks like inside. This is the Beijing International Book Fair. So, booths, banners, publishers selling books into the Chinese market, and a small corner devoted to Chinese publishers trying to sell their books in the opposite direction, aided by grant money. I suppose it's good to meet people, but I didn't have much business there. I sat beside Jack Hargreaves and listened to a conversation on stage between two authors whose books I was unfamiliar with and their Spanish-language translator. I saw Giray Fidan. Just saw him in Xi'an less than a month earlier. Met Joy Zhou, a sweet and enthusiastic young woman that I have known for a while without meeting in person. I get the feeling that there is no future in this. As hard as it is to get an academic press to put out a book in translation, a Chinese publisher could just find a Turkish or Mexican or Egyptian press to put out a book they'd prefer they put out, smooth things out with grant money. If you want prestige, you get it translated into Swedish or French or Dutch. Americans won't read the books, fuck 'em. I can understand that approach. All the translators that the Confucius Institute flew in were mostly from outside of UK and America, too.

I don't understand how this business works. I can tell you that.

I left early. I had wanted to meet Han Song but he couldn't get out of work. He was going to do an event with Eric Abrahamsen and Chen Qiufan. I decided to skip it. I took Line 15 to Wangjing West, Line 13 to Shaoyaoju, Line 10 to Tuanjiehu, then wandered around Sanlitun for a while. I remember seeing the place when it was still a shithole. Can't say I give a fuck about the renewal project. That's how I feel about everything in Beijing that has disappeared. I'm sorry.

I met Tianyu Fang for dinner. What a handsome, good-hearted young man. I love his laugh. We agreed on everything but he could usually find a way to express it better than I could. My thinking on Chinese politics or culture or whatever is very undeveloped or it's very private. It's mostly restricted to private conversations. After dinner, we walked around Sanlitun and went to a bar, some obscene recreation of an Italian piazza, with an imitation izakaya at one end. I drank an Aperol Spritz. We talked for a while longer, mostly talking shit about Twitter people.

As we walked in front of Tai Koo, a woman walking with a child, about a year old, suddenly collapsed. She didn't stumble, just fell, broke her fall with her arms. She was maybe five, seven steps away from us. The child—a girl—started crying. I went and crouched beside her and pulled the girl close to me. I put my hand on the woman's throat to feel for a pulse. She was breathing. It looked like she was moving her lips. The girl was still crying, so I picked her up and stood, telling her everything was okay and making shushing sounds in her ear. She stopped crying. The police came out of the paichusuo and a crowd formed. A woman behind me said, in English, "You are such a good person." I wished she hadn't. I stood for a long time, holding the girl. Some people bent beside the woman but they had no idea how to help her. I had no idea how to help, either. People started to ask frantically if an ambulance was on the way. The police assured them that it was. Finally, one of the policemen asked for the girl and I passed her to him. I walked a few steps away, outside the ring of people, and stood for a while with Tianyu. I lit a cigarette. We walked to the intersection and said goodbye. I started walking toward Dongsishitiao Station. In the dark, under the stairs up to a pedestrian overpass, I started crying—I didn't cry, but started crying, the coughing start of a sob. Just a couple times. I said a prayer out of habit and superstition. * ******** **** ** ***** ** ** **** ***** *** *** ***** **** ******** *** **** **** ** *****. * ***** ** ** **** *** *** ** ****** *** * ***** **** **** *** ** ****** ** ** ****. ***** *** *** **** **********. * **** ****. ** *** * ****** **** **** ** **** *****. Beyond that, it's a strange feeling to live in a city, surrounded by people and never talk to them or touch them. But to hold a stranger, a little girl, while her mother was laying on the hot sidewalk, crowd around us, it was overwhelming. I think those human moments get rarer and rarer as I get older. They've gotten rarer lately, at least. I mean, like, touching a stranger, in some intimate way...? I guess. Or seeing something horrible or magnificent happen to someone, just out of nowhere. And even if they were more common in my life before, they were marked by shame and regret or a broken nose. It's not that I did anything, but the moment was overwhelming, just being there to experience it, holding the girl... I can't really explain it.

I walked all the way to Dongsishitiao Station then kept going, up to Dongzhimen, down Gui Jie to Beixinqiao, drank a Diet Coke out of the minibar, fell asleep with the TV loud.

(August 25th, 2019) Missing days. Ran into Eric Abrahamsen outside Beixinqiao that Friday, got a few drinks at Waiting for Godot, then walked over to El Nido. First instance of someone angry at me without having ever met me. Drank too much. Ended up vomiting on the floor in front of ***** *** *** and she was gone when I looked up. I'm sorry. Kept going, kept drinking, and did my thing of purposely antagonizing people, blacked out very briefly. ******* ****** **** ** *** ** * * *****. ******** ****** **** *** *** ***** ***** ** * ****** ********* *****. There's a reason I try not to drink to excess. I wrote drafts of apology emails and never sent them. I had meetings with publishers that Saturday, but I don't remember anything I said; I missed a few meetings with publishers, but I'm sure I didn't miss much. I wish I could figure out how to profit off this business in the short-term. But I spent most of Saturday and Sunday with ******. She brought me out of the post-drunk regret and the hangover blurriness.

She had gone to the Book Fair looking for a translator and I met her that way, when my email address was passed to her. I was sick of meeting with people, so I told her to come to my hotel room. We sat at the desk beside the bed. She looked younger than I guessed she was. She was thin, with a round face, and an underbite. She seemed to sometimes be on the verge of tears, as if the things she was telling me were things she had never told anyone before.

This is the story of ******. ****** is from *****. She has a round face and an underbite. She had a career at some low-level media operation. Her father was a medium-level bureaucrat that made the jump to the business world in the 1980s. He divorced his first wife and married a woman fifteen years younger than him. He ran into some unspecified political or financial trouble that I didn't ask too many questions about. He consolidated his holdings and decided that he would like to spend his late middle age as a writer. He wrote a handful of short stories about rural life but what people really liked were his stories about his later life, in politics and business. He was very honest about his dealings. Much of what he wrote couldn't be published. He became something of a minor celebrity in his small town in ***** and joined the local Writers Association on the strength of the few stories that were published (this is my own editorializing, since I have no idea what is required to join a provincial Writers Association). So, ****** never really knew her father. He was busy making money, and there was tension between ******'s mother and her father's second wife. She ended up going to ******* for school and never looked back. She remembers him going broke a few times, though. People would come around asking for money. One of the only memories of her father from when she was young was him dodging creditors, including his own sister, who showed up one day to confront him. That was about all she remembered. When ******'s father decided to become a writer, he wanted her to get his stories published. I'm not sure when he got the idea of having her help him. He showed her the stories that he had written, including the ones that could not be officially published and only circulated among his cronies, former associates, and local writers. She learned everything there was to know about her father. There relationship improved, a bit, but she also understood for the first time what he had done, how he had made his living. Some of the stories were about women her father had been in love with or unethical business practices and the ways that men who do business bond with each other. She read stories that he had written about her mother and there were stories that he had written about her, too. She realized that he didn't understand her and probably never would. She suddenly had an entirely new perspective on her father and her family. She wanted to help him because she felt a sense of devotion. He had looked after her, financially, even if she had missed other things from him.

Her goal seemed to be to translate her father's stories into English, have a bilingual edition published by a foreign press, then import them back into China. She didn't need many copies of the book, since it would only circulate among friends. I tried to explain self-publishing, which I know very little about.

I took her out to a dinner that night, which ******** had scheduled with Eric and a few other people at Xiao Yunnan, down some pretty, grim hutong northeast of Beixinqiao. I was uncomfortable because ****** was uncomfortable. I whispered in her ear to come outside when I went to smoke a cigarette. She told me she had to go and I said that I'd go with her, but she insisted that I stay. As we were talking, a girl and her mother stopped beside us. The mother of the girl wanted her to talk to me in English. We overheard them talking and ****** called the girl over. The mother said the girl had to recite an English article for her class. She wanted me to read it. I read it and her mother recorded it on her phone. The article was about Bill Gates.

The theme here is some cliché fucking thing that I get into a lot, China warms my heart and makes me feel human. I grew up in China, really, spent my twenties there, at least, and I miss the warmth. You'll get pushed around, but you never feel absolutely alone, even when you want to feel alone. I am at danger of being lazy and essentialist again, as usual, trying to praise something about the "Chinese character." I apologize. I understand it's not a "Chinese character" and it comes down partly to being a white man in a country where being a white man is still worth something, and I can speak Chinese, too... But I do see it among Chinese friends, among strangers, too. I don't want to get into some explanation of Chinese society, how it's organized, some kind of historical explanation... It's not unique to China, either. But I just think it's a real thing and it's nice, and I want to say it, that China warms my heart and makes me feel human. But, at least, you'd never see it in Tokyo, the little girl running around, shouting the English sentences she'd practiced, "Is this a motorbike? No, it's not!"— and she could introduce herself, "My name is Sophia. I am six years old. I live in Beijing, China. My favorite color is red." She had a handful of crabapples (or just tiny apples?) and gave me one. Some perfect little piece of city life that I never experience, living outside a city in China. I miss that, living in Tokyo. If we've had a conversation inside China in the last four years I've mentioned that. But I'm impressed by shit like scanning the Wechat of someone I've met by chance, end up talking to them later, maybe get dinner the next time you're in town, help them out with whatever, shit like that. I once got a job off a random Wechat swipe (or more likely random QQ number jotted down on a piece of paper). That communal spirit or communal lack of indifference and suspicion (yes, this is lazy and essentialist)—I've seen it so many times, trapped on an overnight train with no seats or with neighbors in a building or lost in the city or in a detention center... Just getting sentimental over a tiny apple.

I let ****** go and she told me she'd come see when she got up the next morning. I went back inside.


&: 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)


&: Talking about smoking and a translation of a very brief Jia Pingwa essay

I just stood and went to the kitchen, lit a cigarette off the stove, went out the front door into the hallway to pace, trying to think of something to write. The building I live in is hollow, a cube with a central column completely open to the sky. I usually see a few red embers burning on the upper floors.

I rarely smoke, past couple years, but I usually pick up a carton in China, or sometimes at the duty free in Haneda. If I'm meeting writers or publishers, people I know, they know a carton is a nice welcome gift. I rarely smoke, but I smoke when I'm in China. That's what I tell people when I'm there: "Well, I only ever smoke when I'm in China." That's not true. But it's mostly true. Here, I might pick up a pack of American Spirits, usually before going to a bar, or if I'm traveling, or maybe a soft pack of Lucky Strikes, if I'm pissed off and feeling self-destructive. That's rare, though. I usually only smoke in China. It's hard to say no. The cigarettes are good, too.

I had my first cigarette at twelve or thirteen, but I started smoking when I was seventeen. When I went to China for the first time, I was in my early-twenties and I smoked Zhongnanhai. When I went to Dalian, I think I was still smoking Zhongnanhai, but I might have switched to the five milligram version, and most of the time I was too broke to afford anything but Hongmei (so, I do recall smoking Hongmei when I was broke, but it might have been another cheap brand when I was up north). When I was in Guangzhou, it was imported Vietnamese Marlboro Reds, which everyone told me were fake and could only be bought from magazine kiosks or a few shops out in Panyu. In Guangzhou everyone smoked Shuangxi, which has a flavor like dried plums and peppercorn, nothing like it, and then for a few years it was Hongtashan, which I think are still the cheapest pack in most of the country. Hongtashan burn like a tire fire and taste like roasted sweet potatoes. Every time I get passed one of my former brands, it's a two minute nostalgia trip. A hit off a Shuangxi, I'm back in Tianhe, sucking one down after a pork cutlet sandwich from Queen's Bakery, sitting outside Yangcheng Center, waiting for Fifi to get off work, or—and always this particular memory!—sitting on a recliner at a massage parlor on Yide Lu, right near Haizhu Square, watching a Tyson fight on the built-in flatscreens with *** from ********. Hongtashan, I think I first smoked them on a twenty-four hour no-seat train from Shanghai to Guangzhou, after I ran out of my Zhongnanhai, and they always take me back to that hellish trip or to smoking in bed in my apartment in Datong, ashing on the floor. I wish I knew what cigarettes the guards at the juliusuo passed out, I'd like to go back there, just for the amount of time a cigarette takes, standing out by the hole we dumped our shit buckets in, feeling light-headed, freezing...

Part of it was cultural, of course. The ceremony of passing out cigarettes. I like the hometown pride, when someone says, like, "Oh, you're smoking Zhongnanhai, huh? Try one of these! This is what we smoke in Nanjing!"

I wrote a novel once called Chinese Cigarettes. It was okay, I think, but I ended up losing it, trapped forever on an Acer laptop with a malfunctioning hard drive. That was a long time ago, five years ago now, I guess. I still have pieces of it, spread around various notebooks and hard drives. I had two pieces of it published, one online and one in a more serious outlet. I'm too self-conscious to even edit them into something now. That's the problem with self-awareness, maybe. But the novel was about smoking cigarettes, mostly, and girls, being a slacker in early-to-mid-2000s Nanjing and Guangzhou. Part of it was meeting people I had known long-distance, having them refer to things I had written, and feeling deep shame. The same goes for this. I don't want anyone to read this blog. I have to write it, but I hope nobody reads it.

I smoke rarely but I'm still deeply addicted to nicotine. I discovered mint Skoal while working at a slaughterhouse in Moose Jaw, the first time I dropped out of school. It's more convenient than smoking and I swear to God, it doesn't cause cancer. So, I mostly dip Copenhagen now, usually wintergreen, and straight when I want to give my lip a break. Every so often, I fall asleep with a chunk in my lip and experience lucid dreams. That is one of the side effects of nicotine. I don't know if lucid dreams are real, but they feel lucid, maybe because I can remember them for longer than regular dreams. My pillowcase is stained with tobacco juice, drooled out while I'm dreaming my possibly lucid dreams. Brown dots, all over. Nicotine helps me focus. Skoal and self-help books are the reason David Foster Wallace managed to finish Infinite Jest. Copenhagen and sugarfree cola is the reason I got through the translation of Qinqiang.

I miss smoking, and the tobacco is good, so when I go to China, I smoke. It's hard to turn it down. I'm mostly meeting writers, editors, academics, and degenerates. Even during my chaste girls night in with some editors from Writers Publishing House, one of the young editors called for a smoke break. At my hotel in Xi'an, the boy manning the door caught me a few times coming outside to smoke, and took pity on me. "You can smoke in your room," he said, "I'll get them to bring you over an ashtray."

The cigarette I went to the kitchen to smoke was from a carton passed to me by Jia Pingwa, who must be gifted several dozen cartons a month, judging by the towers of tobacco in his studio. On his writing desk, which is dominated by carvings and piles of books, he has just enough space to work, a few pens, sheets of clean paper, a candy box to put completed manuscript pages in, and an overflowing ashtray.

Wandering around Xianyang International on the same trip, I picked up a copy of Walking Alone《自在独行》, one of dozens of collections of Jia's essay. I had spent the previous week turning down books from authors and publishers, not wanting to lug them home in the overnight bag I'd brought to Xi'an, but my flight was delayed and I needed something to read.

I've always admired Jia Pingwa's brief sanwen 散文 essays. They're accessible, plainwritten, standing in contrast to his novels. The tone is usually confessional and humble. I have translated a few of them (one is translated almost completely at the end of this entry, "Trip to Bijia Mountain," which has the earliest appearance of a scene that appears in four novels: inspired by a mummified holy man, a traveling doctor seals himself in a coffin, and his rotting corpse is discovered later), even published one ("Drinking"), but it's hard to imagine the sanwen having much of an audience in English translation.

Looking through the table of contents, I saw that I had read most of the essays. I am a habitual re-reader, and re-reading in my second language is even more rewarding. I did most of my reading of Jia Pingwa while flipping through a dictionary, trying to figure out radicals and stroke order. It's nice to re-read something I read five, ten years ago, now, for pleasure, and making more connections, not having to research barely-obscure allusions.

In the collection, I found a very brief essay about smoking, which you might have read, if you've read any of Jia's sanwen.

Somewhere over the Bohai Sea, I made a translation on the back of a Korean Airlines airsickness bag, which I carried home, through a layover, on the train back from Narita, but I can't seem to find it now, so, doing this mostly from memory, since it's short and I've read it many times, glancing over at the book if necessary, but taking liberties:
When you eat, you must shit, and when you drink, you must piss. A drag off a cigarette, though, is as simple as breathing in and out. The artist must smoke, of course, but the practice should be restricted to a select group. The cigarette must be to the smoker like the pistol to a policeman or the sleeping pill to the insomniac or the courtesan reclining on yellow bedsheets to the emperor. Unfortunately, the practice has become too popular. This state of affairs is completely unacceptable.
We must begin restricting cigarettes. I suggest that we start with asthmatics. They should abstain for their own sakes, but all the hacking and wheezing they do after a few drags off a cigarette is enough to put anyone off smoking. It gives the noble practice of smoking a bad name! Women should not smoke, either. The reasoning there is quite simple: in fengshui, women have a water nature—fire and water don't mix. And those unlucky souls with cleft lips should be banned from buying a pack, as well. Even if they could manage to clamp a cigarette between their teeth, most of the smoke would be wasted. The same goes for those that wear a long beard or an elaborate mustache. They may go years without incident, but there is a reason that the lawns around smokestacks are frequently blackened, and all it takes is a single stray ember.
Smokes should be a minority, but they are still in good company. We know that the buddha smoke, and so do the bodhisattvas. It might not be tobacco, of course, but they feel most at home in a cloud of incense smoke. What brings a weasel leaping out of his burrow? A puff of smoke, of course. We share the same fate as the turtle, too. The turtle's shell is scorched and stained, just as our fingernails are yellowed and made brittle. And I am a smoker, too. I was born in the year of a dragon, and a dragon must blow smoke.
I have never been much for the custom of passing out cigarettes. I have always thought it better to pass out money. Hoarding cigarettes is not a sin, but hoarding money certainly is. Smoking is an individual pursuit, too. If I want to destroy myself, it is my own business, and I don't need to include others. I have always held to another belief, too: smoke your local cigarettes. The character of a man is determined by the soil on which he was raised; stay true to your native place and stay true to your local cigarettes. For that reason, Chinese people should not smoke foreign cigarettes. That is why I stayed true to Monkey King for so many years. That was my local cigarette, manufactured from Shaanxi tobacco.
I once saw a couplet written above a temple in Hangzhou. It went something like this: "Life and fate both, must move at a gentle pace / For your own sake, spend a moment at rest." That may well be true. Perhaps life does move slowly for some, but it can be difficult to find the time to take a moment to yourself. I can't think of any better excuse than pausing to enjoy a cigarette.


&: Diary (9)

(July 28th, 2019) Hot in Xi'an, felt like opening an oven, walking out of the hotel lobby. Took a taxi with *** ****** across town, in from the Second Ring Road. Walked over and wandered around the expo for a while. Always surprising, I still think, the mixture of people at these kinds of things: parents dragging their kids over to look at test prep books, young urban women flipping through a Natsume Soseki translation, older couples browsing the selections from state publishers, rich and poor... Coming to something like this—the National Book Expo—it does remind me again, what an uphill battle it is, selling books on the other side, why Chinese publishers can't understand the lack of enthusiasm for their books, which sell in the millions at home and we're lucky to sell them to an academic press, authors that attract crowds of fans and nobody's interested in them outside of East Asia. I stood around with *** ****** and *** ** from *******, sat with her for a while, until I got word that Jia Pingwa had arrived. I went outside to smoke a cigarette just as a powerful, drenching rain began to fall.

Back to that, the way these books and authors are revered in their home country compared with how little attention they receive abroad, you have to see how Jia Pingwa is treated in Xi'an. I spent a couple days with him earlier in the year, and whenever we were in Xi'an, he was recognized wherever he went, and he almost started a riot at Shaanxi Traditional Opera Institute Theater when we tried to sneak into a performance of Women Generals of the Yang Family. I wrote about it before, but it's strange, to be in his presence and to be photographed almost constantly, by his own staff, by fans, by people on the street attracted by his small entourage. Even going around the city, the pressure was off: I was no longer in the position of distinguished guest from abroad but simply a minor member of Jia's group.

I knew that, on stage together, nobody would be listening to anything I said, or they wouldn't remember it. I knew I couldn't fuck it up too badly. Wang Chunlin spoke with the passion of a tent preacher about the greatness of Jia, how he stood above all contemporary novelists. Jia Pingwa rambled, as he usually does. I stumbled through my remarks. My spoken Chinese has degraded to a point where I struggle to throw around literary terms. Everything else, I can still get by fine. The limitation can be helpful, I think. It forces me to express an idea in simple terms, as briefly as possible. When it was all over, Jia Pingwa took a seat at a card table and started signing books. I guess the fans paid extra for the privilege. It looked like those idol handshake events in Akihabara, a burly security guard forcing people away from the front of the table if they lingered too long. I stood in the front row, my own little meet-and-greet, with Wang Chunlin, taking pictures with people that I have to imagine didn't know who I was, probably didn't know who Wang Chunlin was, either. Had my WeChat QR scanned a dozen times, later receiving heavily filtered copies of the photos taken.

Got in a Buick with Jia, ** ****, and Ma Li, who convinced ** **** to extend my stay by a few days, drove over to the author's main studio. I know everyone's been there before, but it was my first time. The antiques crammed into every space are probably worth millions. I'm sure he's written an essay about the place I could look up. A reception area, a loft with a studio for calligraphy, a bedroom, then a room with his desk, piled with books, an ashtray, a chair covered in shaggy pelts. I remember getting choked up, going to see an opera with Jia the last time in Xi'an, thinking about reading Ruined Capital with ******, sitting on the sagging bed in my room or the stone benches along Yunlong Lake, then, years later, meeting the man himself. I felt that way again, looking over his handwritten manuscripts, an outline for a novel in progress, a battered Zhang Ailing collection open on the desk with his notes in the margins.

Went out for dinner Jia, Ma Li, his editor, the head of the press, staff from the press. Drank twenty year Huashan Lunjian with mediocre Sichuan food. ** **** told a dirty story about Wang Shuo. Much talk of marital infidelity, the charms of Japanese women vs. the charms of women from various regions of China, gossiping about writers. Went back to my hotel room to finish off a bottle of Huashan Lunjian, watch RT.

(July 29th, 2019) Said it before, I treasure my time in China way back when, when I had nothing to do, complete freedom (at least with my time, money was tight) to do whatever I wanted, take a train, minibus, hitchhike out to wherever, screw around, drag myself back home hungover. All that stuff I wrote about taking drugs, fucking, writing, just generally screwing around, it came from, like, seven years, broken up between the ages of twenty-one to twenty-nine. The stupidest most free years of my early adulthood were spent in China, so I guess I still associate it with reckless, artistically fruitful behaviors, with snorting, fucking, dancing, hitchhiking, fighting. So, but when I come back, I'm seeing the country from the backseat of a taxi, maybe from the window of a hotel. Even if I did anything reckless, I'd be too nervous to write about it, maybe bury it in something else, but these days, I'm too busy writing for money to figure, like, let me sit down this afternoon and type out a story about bad expatriate behavior, file it away. I've said before I'd like to write a book about China—not a book about China, but a novel set in China. And I wouldn't need to write it, since the material has already been written, even published a few times, in literary magazines, some online arts magazine, some other bullshit. I'm a frustrated writer that just happened to live in China, not a Sinologist, I keep telling you.

I spent the morning walking around Tumen, partly because it was nearby and partly because I had just read Hu Zongfeng and He Longping's translation of The Earthen Gate. Not sure what I hoped to see there, maybe some evidence of a village swallowed up by the city. It seemed that whatever had been built in the first and second waves of urbanization was already being replaced, or in the process of being replaced. Took a taxi across town to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes with Giray Fidan, a true Sinologist, who developed an interest in Chinese philosophy as a young man, a professor of Chinese, with a book coming out about Kang Youwei's tour of the Ottoman Empire, working on a translation into Turkish of A Dream of Red Mansions.

Took a taxi back across town, went for a walk north of Tang West Market. *** ** from ******* called me down to her hotel room to drink a bottle of red wine, got there and sat drinking wine, then pink and blue Rio with a *** ** and a couple young women from Writers Publishing House, eating dried okra and shanzha candy, going out into the hallway every now and then to smoke with one of the Writers Publishing women. Topics of discussion included: date of Party membership (two out of four present), Devils on the Doorstep, Thai horror films, Scandanavian horror films, areas of Beijing where gay and transgender prostitutes work, whether or not Guo Jingming is gay, Angelababy.

(July 30th, 2019) Went to a museum with *** **, who took pictures of every single exhibit.

It's a fact of being a dirtbag for most of my life, especially in China, I'm still surprised to meet a person like her, Party member, steady job, born and raised in Beijing, shares anecdotes about traveling to Spain and New Zealand. I'm very familiar with the 低端人口, always rented in the worst parts of town, worked shitty jobs, spent time in a detention facility in Datong, first love was a girl whose parents were 下岗 workers, never lived in Shanghai or Beijing, knew some artists and writers but they were mostly barely middle class but they mostly just managed to get into some quasi-creative field and have enough free time or take a few years off to paint or write and maybe got lucky or hadn't yet bottomed out. I knew some rich people, but they were far from respectable. They had made their money filling sea containers with crap, shipping them off to the West Coast, or off coal or heavy equipment or trucking. Even the rich girl I dated in Guangzhou, she was local, parents had a few apartments in Liwan, I think, but I went over to her place once, cramped, found out she had a sister that was born off the books and hidden out in the village. She was probably going to go to a good school and—it was different, though. That was some kind of old Cantonese merchant money, and they were still tied to the village. Even at UBC, most of the 富二代 were from—like, in the grand scheme of Chinese wealth—from fairly modest backgrounds, rather than, say, serious (relative) old money, and, same thing, their parents made money off bullshit, selling crap. Not that *** ** has any money, I don't even know. But that respectability, something I rarely came across before. Her grandpa was probably a general or something. Who knows? Even the older people in publishing, they're old enough to have lived through some shit, plenty of stories about drunken antics with writers, shit like that. I don't know. Maybe it's because I've never lived in Beijing or Shanghai.

Had lunch with ** ****, who told the dirty Wang Shuo story, invited ** **, because I didn't think I had enough left in me to get through an entire lunch face-to-face with ** ****, who is friendly enough but is notoriously difficult, infamous in the world of Chinese publishing, supportive but tough. ** **, too, I didn't want to meet face-to-face. She **** ****** ** *** ***** ** *****. * **** **** *****. *** **** ** **** ****. She's a dancer, wears princess dresses everywhere, like an actress in some postmodern period drama, ends all her WeChat messages 亲. I found it odd, with her esthetic, that she's into Jia Pingwa, although perhaps it does make sense. She doesn't go for the entire throwback style and not like the streaming tradwife style, either, making sausage in the Zhejiang countryside, but some new age version, the princess dress somehow slightly Central Asian, tattoos across her shoulders. She's doing a doctorate at Suzhou University, or she's already done it, with her dissertation on Jia. I met her after the Expo event. We ate at an Anhui restaurant under the Second Ring Road. ** **** and I sat across a metal pan of braised duck. She took the bones and I took the square patties of duck blood. She stripped the meat off each bone, then crunched them up, saying, "我爱啃骨头." ** **** told me a story about once refusing to leave Xi'an until she got a manuscript from Jia. ** **** boasted of sales figures and told me that when she arranges Jia's speeches at Yale and Harvard, she'll make sure I'm along as a translator. She told me to move immediately to Beijing, or at least Xi'an. I nodded politely. ** ** didn't speak. I studied the edge of a strange tattoo on her wrist, mostly covered by her sleeve.

In the evening, went to visit Jia's second studio, then out to a restaurant. A man played the 尺八 for us, while a nun took our picture with her phone. When Jia clasped her hand as we left, I thought of Meng Yunfang and the young nun, Huiming (I noticed Howard Goldblatt translated 年方二八 as "twenty-four," but I'm sure that means she was sixteen, which makes what they've got going on even more forbidden). Got back that night and went out to meet with **** ********, * *** **** **** ******* *** ********** ** *** *** ***** *** * ***** **** *** *** ******. Went back to the hotel to sit at the desk in the room, smoke cigarettes, try to write something.


&: 迪兰先生, world famous Sinologist / 第29届书博会

I remember, trips to China used to be my escape hatch, when I got fed up standing behind the counter at a liquor store, renting some dingy apartment behind a youth hostel, or working overnight at a hotel, chasing homeless men out of the stairwell... I'd take whatever job, stay until I fucked things up, ended up starving or locked up, then do the cycle over again, go back home for a year or two, catch a flight back into Shanghai to try again. I managed to get a degree in Chinese, but it was mostly because I didn't feel like doing anything else. Part of it was trying to understand the girl I was with, as if getting a degree in Chinese, knowing the language and the history would somehow help me unfuck my relationship with her. I liked literature, I thought I could be a writer, so learning the language opened up an entire universe of books, centuries of writers that I'd never read, and I could translate them, too. That's how I came to this. I never imagined anyone would ever introduce me as a 汉学家, a Sinologist—makes me think of Pulleyblank, Kubin, Spence Malmqvist, guys like that, maybe Barmé, but mostly aging, resolutely anti-communist professors that are often photographed in robes and have Taiwanese wives. Those kinds of men don't really exist anymore, or they're retired. But I don't fit even with a younger breed of Chinese professors. I'm not in academia; I took a few classes in Classical Chinese but I still struggle to make sense of it; and I've never been interested in Chinese philosophy. But I don't fit anywhere else. Westerners engaged with China, if I can break them down into 士农工商-type categories would be Sinologist, China watcher (meaning mostly natsec think tank people, but also journalists), then the merchant and finance class. So, going to China to opine about Chinese literature, I must be a Sinologist. You look at the world of Chinese fiction in English translation, it's only China-focused academics working on it. Thirty-five books translated in 2018, just looking at fiction and poetry, outside of a few exceptions (Anna Holmwood, Jeremy Tiang are names that I caught), they're academics, rather than frustrated writers that just happen to speak Chinese.

I told a story over dinner the other night, about getting locked up in Datong. One of the men—Cai—from the Public Security Bureau was writing a novel about Ming loyalists using martial arts to fight back against the Qing. I'd see him once every morning when I went out to dump the shit bucket, once again later when he came in to inspect our cell, and he'd sometimes call me across the yard to sit in his office and smoke cigarettes. I think I brought up Cao Naiqian 曹乃谦, maybe he did, but he mentioned how he knew him, since Cao had been with the PSB before retiring. Cai had worked some of the same rural areas where Cao had worked, too, so he had his own stories, and he figured he might be able to get Cao to come visit me. It seemed ridiculous to me, even then, taking a meeting with Cao Naiqian while locked up in a Shanxi detention center. The meeting never happened, which is for the best. I was thinking about that, though, just five years ago I was locked up with petitioners, talking about Cao Naiqian with a prison guard. The year before Datong, I'd managed to get a story published in a literary magazine and got a thousand bucks, thought that was a big deal. So, I figured that was as good as it could get, and that'd be fine, maybe publish a short story collection with a small press, if I was lucky, hopefully not get locked up for too long, but if I did, who cares? And I was thinking about that, right before going on stage, introduced as a 汉学家, to banter with Jia Pingwa in my halting Chinese about a forthcoming translation of Qinqiang.

I did it, though. I'd met Yan Hui 颜慧 before, so she knew what to expect. Wang Chunlin 王春林 talked enough for everyone on stage. Jia Pingwa doesn't give a shit. And I tried to illustrate the difficulty of translating Qinqiang with the example of Xia Tianzhi asking Xia Yu to put on a recording of《辕门斩子》after he disowns his eldest son, the difficulty of putting context behind it for readers not familiar with 杨家将, despite the importance of it in the novel to the story of Xia Tianzhi and his wayward son, then I think I mentioned how I discovered《废都》and maybe a few other things.

(But as a world famous Sinologist, it is shameful to be stuck with being called 迪兰, not having thought ahead and chosen a suitably literary Chinese name. 王迪 was suggested to me as a possible option, since it's too late to make major changes. I thought about 皇帝轮, from the Journey to the West line, "皇帝轮流做, 明年到我家," get the King in there, also works as a transliteration of Dylan, but I'm not sure it works, and it's probably too late to solve the problem now.)