"Skoal vs. Copenhagen," Prairie Fire, late 2014 (?).





* Three rolls of Kodacolor 200, three rolls of Ilford Delta 3200, one roll of Fujicolor Pro400H.

* Konica Big Mini, the battery door broke off walking in Hong Kong. It was a week before our trip, I think, and I took the Metro from Panyu to the train station. I liked walking in the train station square in Guangzhou. I’d buy a pack of Hongtashan and a newspaper from a kiosk and sit against one of the cement tree planters, watching arrivals tripping out the station gates dragging their red-white-and-blues and busted suitcases, listening for scraps of northern dialects. I could sit in the square for an hour, maybe. I could pretend I was waiting for a train, ready to board a slow ride north, no bag to throw in the racks, ready to start over again. Or maybe I was waiting for someone, ready to meet the girl I loved at the train station KFC, take her suitcase from her and walk her to the line of gypsy cab touts and confidently give a local address and instructions about what bridges to take. Or, if I wasn’t going to sit there, wasn’t going to lean against the cement tree planters, I could walk to the other side of the square, get back on the Metro, go right back to Panyu, get off at Xiajiao, walk home. Or, no, I could walk east to Xiaobei, brush past the Russophone touts posted on every pink blossomed flyover trying to move hotel rooms or stolen phones, smile at the pinkscarved Tajik girls selling phone cards from behind cardboard counters, nod uselessly at the somber African traders scraping robes in the dust, brush off the drugdealers. But that day, I was going to walk north. I was going to go to Sanyuanli. I wanted to talk to Kristen.

She told me she was working at a clothing wholesaler somewhere in Sanyuanli and she’d moved out of her parents’ place in Baiyun. She was one of those brilliant polyglot Guangzhou girls, born into a tiny apartment in Xiguan, a three-room flat in a million dollar alley a short walk from Hualin Temple.

Xiguan, the old city. Xiguan, and basically all the rest of Guangzhou as it looks now was once farmland. Xiguan, where the West first entered China, in a way, and forever changed by that meeting but still pridefully hanging on to an older tradition. Lingnan culture and treaty port culture leftovers, the two story blocks built by local landlords to express their urges for modernity, the Thirteen Factories, missionary schools. And there's the phrase: 东山少爷, 西关小姐, something like Dongshan gentlemen and Xiguan ladies. Xiguan ladies were the product of the newly ascendant merchant class culture in Xiguan, young and rich and fashionable and missionary school-educated. Kristen was a Xiguan lady, even if the term was outdated: fluent in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and maybe French, she went to school in Hong Kong and a good university in the city, but she was trying to escape it, I guess, living with a Scottish girl in the student housing ghetto near Lujiang and working at a clothing wholesaler in Sanyuanli.

I met her at Perry's, friend of a friend, and we talked about Larry Niven and Robert A. Heinlein. I liked her and we ran into each other from time to time. We ended up staying out all night a few times, both too broke to take taxis home to Baiyun and Panyu. We ended up walking across the Liede Bridge once as the sun came up, so we could catch the first trains out of Chigang Pagoda. The last time I'd seen her was by chance. I was walking out of Lujiang Metro station. She told me to come visit her in Sanyuanli. I wanted to invite her to come to Huizhou with us.

I walked north of the train station, where I'd arrived in the city for the first time six months previous, getting off a slow train from Shanghai.

* In Shanghai it had been forty one degrees. I said goodbye to Xinran in Shanghai.

We took an airport shuttle to the train station, grinding through the lowrise suburbs of the outer city to a concrete dome surrounded by a concrete moat. She bought a ticket. I bought a ticket. I couldn't kiss her in the waiting room. We didn’t know when to say goodbye. I turned down her last offer of money. She had the first train. I bought a bottle of Coke Zero and a newspaper and a pack of cigarettes and smoked my first one in the waiting room bathroom.

I didn't have a seat on the train. I tossed my bag in a pile against the wall across from the the bathroom door and the car attendant's tiny office. Ten people shoulder to shoulder. Crouched down without moving my feet, rubbing legs and backs and calves with the people across and beside me. Rolled out of the edge of Shanghai at dusk, no windows, with twenty four hours ahead, a long night ahead and a day under the hazed over sun and then another nightfall before coming into Guangzhou. Twenty four hours. Kids, eighteen nineteen twenty years old, mostly coming from jobs in the north, going home to Hunan or Jiangxi. We crouched to sleep pressed together and in sleep, our arms and legs wove together and our heads tipped on shoulders. I woke up in rural Jiangxi. We stopped at every station, every surprisingly sprawling township and every cluster of villages made up of skinny towers looking out over ricefields and dirt roads. We passed concrete towers in the middle of fields, muddy green, kids swimming naked in drainage ditches looking up at our train as we pass. I finally fell asleep, hopeless for comfort, in the dust and ash and oil of the floor beside the exit doors, leaning against and leaned against by the boy from Fujian. The clack of railway passage turned into thick hypnagogic hallucinations the second I closed my eyes. I woke up in Shaoguan and stared out the window until the train arrived in Guangzhou.

* I bought a pack of Zhongnanhai King Size. I realized I didn't really want to walk to Sanyuanli or talk to Kristen. I was nursing a paranoid feeling about the time before the last time I saw her. It was at the old Perry’s. I couldn’t explain the feeling to myself and I didn’t want to. I took the plastic off the cigarettes, ripped out the foil and lit one. I went to the Guangzhou-Shenzhen ticket office and bought a ticket on a train leaving in ten minutes. I went out into the square again and back into another door into the waiting room. A bell chimed and everyone rose and walked through the ticket scanner and down into the industrial caverns under the station.

When I got to Shenzhen, I walked through the train station square. Shenzhen’s train station has little of the chaos and color of Guangzhou's central station square. It has more whores. On the concrete ramps down to the streets of Luohu, women pulled at my arm and said, Massage, massage, young girl.

The blocks around the railway station at Luohu and the crossing to Hong Kong are a brief explanation of how sex is sold in China. At dusk, the girls wrapped in pink crêpe paper rush to sauna backdoors and long black cars pull up to the front doors. Women patrol the narrow streets leading away from the train station. The alleys around Xiangxi watched over by chatting smoking aunties touting for the microbrothels on the floors above.

I checked into a hotel on the fourteenth floor of a towerblock near the Guo Mao Metro station and within fifteen minutes there was a knock on the door, a short girl in a short skirt, pushed up Southern nose. Viewed through Luohu, Shenzhen seemed to be populated by young women, young women in skirts, always a cigarette between their fingers. I told her I wasn’t interested. I watched a documentary about people that keep tigers as pets. I took a shower and stood in front of the window, looking across the ravine at a building of dusty green glass.

When it got dark, I went for a walk down Jiabin Road. Shenzhen still felt dangerous to me at night. The last time I’d been here, walking down Jiabin Road, a man had tried to snatch the backpack I had over one arm. He was wearing tattered army surplus pants and a T-shirt. I pushed his arm away and he grabbed my forearm and said something I didn’t catch. I twisted and grabbed for him and caught him around the neck and he lost his balance and fell hard on the sidewalk. I called him a thief. I found the incident more embarrassing than frightening. But.

I had a bottle of Heineken at an outdoor bar beside the Petrel Hotel, sitting beside two men from India, who asked me how much they'd pay to sleep with a girl within the next hour. They bought me another bottle of Heineken. I talked to the girls behind the bar, exchanged Wechat QR codes. I walked back to my hotel and went to sleep.

In the morning, I walked to Hong Kong.

I've always found the experience of crossing the border fascinating, walking from one country to another. I read this sentence last night: "It's a thrill to go on foot from one country to another, a mere pedestrian exchanging countries, treading the theoretical inked line that is shown on maps."

The Hong Kong crossing takes place in a rundown mall, a two floor warren of shops selling cigarettes and liquor and cheap clothes. There are travel agents that promise same day travel arrangements for People's Republic of China passport holders. Men lean against walls watching over two-wheeled dollies loaded with baby formula. Somewhere upstairs, there is a room, where visitors to Hong Kong are divided into lines, foreigners and PRC passport holders and HK SAR passport holders. My lineup is usually keyed up businessmen with overnight bags and families of foreign born Chinese heading back to Hong Kong and then home from a visit in the People's Republic. Through the turnstiles and into Hong Kong, the dingy mall is replaced with bright windows, a windowed walkway over the Shenzhen River, a first look at Hong Kong, brightly lit duty free stores, a 7-11, where I usually stop for a tuna salad sandwich and a Diet Coke with Lemon.
* My first time in Hong Kong, I flew in from Dalian. I bought my ticket that morning. I didn't pack a bag. I put my passport in my pocket and stopped at the Agricultural Bank for money. I had my camera, a cheap plastic Argus C4M Electro with a grinding automatic film advance, on my shoulder.

I was living on the edge of the city, the edge of the edge of the city, an urban village of 1950s dormitories still showing faintly the painted slogans of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and low tower blocks built a decade ago and already being replaced by taller tower blocks. Pao'ai Number Eight Residential District, a landfill reclaimed and planned with grey apartment blocks and wide avenues.

It was winter. There were dust storms. The air was grey. The city burned coal to keep us warm. I’d run out of money and gas and I cooked occasional meals of frozen dumplings in my rice cooker and pinched potatoes and carrots from a box that my crosshallway neighbors kept outside their door.

I was spending most of my time in another sector of Ganjingzi, the Dynamic Park, a cluster of malls and condo towers, where my friend Mike lived. One day, I went home on the empty grinding #38 bus from one side of Ganjingzi to the other. Below my apartment, a man was tending an oil drum stove with a burnt chimney and grey dogs rooted in the gardens and pawed aside stacks of green onions laced up with rattan cord. I walked up the six flights of stairs and opened the door and realized my power had been cut off.

Mike and I went out every night.I was having the most hopeless most fun time of my life.

I had dropped out of university for the final time only a few months previous. One day, I took the 99 B-Line down the hill from the university, through Kitsilano to the Broadway transit hub, took the Skytrain back to Richmond and sat alone in my room and knew I wasn't going back to school.

Xinran had left two months before that. We were both pretending it wasn't going to happen and we were polite about not mentioning anything. We had no money and she hated the city. We were living in a rented room in a duplex in Richmond, surrounded by property speculation millionaires and condo towers and mall parking lots. We'd moved three times in three months, from one single room rental to the next. One afternoon, we had sex and she cried after and I asked her if she was pregnant. I’m not sure why I asked that. She told me she was leaving. She loved me but she had to leave. We took the Skytrain to the airport and bought a ticket at the Air Canada desk and she left the next day.

When I was alone in Vancouver after she left, she wouldn't accept my phone calls. She told me that she didn't want to talk to me because she was still in love with me. She said she wanted to break her habit of being in love with me. I had failed at school and failed at being able to live with the girl I loved.

Mike and I went out every night. I didn’t care about anything.

[... redacted ...]

Mike and I went out every night. I got my nose broken.

[... redacted ...]

When I went back to the same club the next night, one of the bouncers called the police.

My first time in Hong Kong, I flew in from Dalian. Flew away from my cold, dark apartment and the city that was killing me. I bought my ticket that morning. I didn't pack a bag because I had nothing to pack. I put my passport in my pocket and stopped at the Agricultural Bank for money. I had my camera, a cheap plastic Argus C4M Electro with a grinding automatic film advance that I would later sell to buy food, on my shoulder.

I took the #38 to Shahekou and a clinking elevator up to the twenty sixth floor of an office tower and left with my tickets, official blue and official red and official grey wrapped in a folder splashed with windsurfers and garlands of orchids and a Polynesian girl with Cocker Spaniel eyes, flowers in her hair. I took the dusty stairs all the way down to the first floor, caught the #35 at Xinggong, got off somewhere in Pao'ai and took a taxi to the airport.

When I landed in Shenzhen, I took a taxi to the Luohu crossing. I had the map in my head and saw myself cutting across it, moving over the line. Entering Hong Kong on the MTR was a surprise: the temporary cityscape and the dust and the noise of Shenzhen are gone and the train is traveling through the Closed Area and then clean tropical parkland. I wrote down what I saw on my first visit to Hong Kong: "Hot winter day. Canals. Green mountains. Water buffalo in a lush drainage ditch, humid jungle rising behind. Kubota excavator dumped in a parking lot with its operator relaxing in the shade beside it."

I fell in love on my first visit. I remember walking on Nathan Road, thinking I might get a room at a hostel in Chungking Mansions. I remember breathing the dry blasts of airconditioning from Chow Tai Fook that rustled the grey-blue skirts of the doorways girls, breathing the perfume of dried scallops and Burger Kings. But I ended up in Wan Chai, lost in the thickest cut of the city, where there was no sky but only more dull stucco and streaky windows with houseplants and bedding dripping out, where it never got dark, where the city seemed to have been compacted together, mashed together with mighty hands until something stuck.  

I loved the confusion of the city, the individually curated apartment block windows, the constant sidewalk hustle, looking in the windows of a French bakery and buying boxes of film from a camera store entered through a Sri Lankan restaurant, the outdoor markets dug into the city, faces from all over the world.

I stayed at a place called Ming Court, which was above a Filipino grocery store and still deep down in the valley of towerblock and a pedestrian overpasses. I pretended not to speak English and negotiated a nightly price in Mandarin. There were mirrors on the walls and on the ceiling. There was no bathroom. The door didn't have a lock and the TV only showed cartoons and porn. Out the window, I could watch the Filipina girls stilting up Lockhart Road between New Makati and WILD CAT, gold lamé bikini tops, crooked brown legs, chatting in Tagalog, tapping the bottom of a pack of Lucky Strike Menthol Lights, tugging at passing rugby jerseys.

I ate my first meal of pork chops and macaroni and lemon Coke. I cleaned the layer of congealed fat off my spoon between my lips. I stared out the big window into the crowded street. I watched the girls lined up at a food stall across the street in hospital blue school uniforms and period drama heroine hairstyles taking gasps of curry steam mixed with winternight humidity. I took my camera from my shoulder and held it in front of me and couldn’t take a picture. I set the camera on the table and ordered another lemon Coke.

I thought Hong Kong seemed like the perfect place to disappear completely or start over or something else. I wanted to live in a cluttered flat in Wan Chai, eat lunches of toast and Horlicks in cha chaan teng, write a book. There was nothing waiting for me anywhere in the world. I had everything in the world in one pocket of my jeans, my passport, some money, my camera.  
I had begun disappearing in Dalian but I could disappear completely in Hong Kong, in Wan Chai.

When I returned to my hotel that night, I lay on the bed and heard the sound of negotiations, people fucking and the click of highheels on tile. I listened to a Filipina accent debating with a Northern English accent about whether an hour starts when you leave the bar or when you get back to the hotel. I sat on the bed in my room and I could see myself in four mirrors.

When I woke up, I checked out and drank fresh papaya and carrot juice and started walking through the city again. I applied for another F-visa for China. I walked in a circle and negotiated another night at the Ming Court.

* On this trip, I wanted to go to Wan Chai, too. I got on the MTR at Lo Wu and studied the map above the door. I thought I would take the train all the way to Hung Hom, cut across to Tsim Sha Tsui Station and take the Tsuen Wan Line under the bay. But I got off early, at Kowloon Tong because I always felt something about the name and I’d never gotten off there before.

The Kowloon Tong Station exits into a mall called Festival Walk. I stood outside the station, inside a ring painted around a trash can. I smoked my first cigarette after the crossing and the trip into the city. The mall is connected to Hong Kong City University and once I was inside the school, it took me a while to find a way out. Outside the school's doors, I bought a Twix and a pack of Marlboro Ice Blast.

* Trips to Hong Kong always make me think of Xinran, even though I’ve never been there with her. Maybe it’s because the first time I went, flying in from Dalian, she was on my mind. I was thinking about how I’d lost her. I was talking to her, then, and I texted her while I was waiting to cross the border. I tried calling her when I was over the border but my phone stopped working. I e-mailed her from an internet cafe in Central.

* I had a map of Hong Kong in my head and I knew that Nathan Road was within walking distance of the University. I walked south, down a curving hill, a quiet street patrolled by Filipina nannies pushing strollers. I saw a 7-11 embedded in a collapsed building. There were gated communities and flowery streets, Parc Oasis, late-nineties supercars behind iron gates. Men watering baskets of flowers hung from lightposts. Barbed wire and shards of broken glass atop brick walls. On Boundary Street, somewhere around the Boundary Street Playground, headed west toward Nathan Road, I took my camera out of my pocket and took a picture of an apartment block with a high wall that was covered in neon orange razor wire. I remember hearing a click on the sidewalk, something dropping. I kept walking toward Nathan Road. I lifted my camera again to take a picture of another wall and I noticed the battery cover was gone. When I got back to Guangzhou, I put two strips of tape over the battery.

* Dan was the one that suggested the idea of going on the trip. He lived a few buildings down from me in a palm treed housing complex called Olympic Garden. It was in Panyu, a suburb, formerly a distant urban neighbor of Guangzhou later absorbed into the metropolitan area. We lived on the edge of Panyu and the edge of the city.

Dan was working at an international school deep in Panyu. It was a thirty minute drive, maybe longer. It was beyond the furthest out Metro station. The school was run by a Hong Kong British family. It was connected to a housing estate called Hertfordshire, which was an oasis of green lawns and stout brick houses and pools in the furthest exurban grey and green of Panyu. He taught music to the children of diplomats and real estate millionaires, a few days of work a week, afternoons. I met him during the school’s summer holiday, when he had just arrived in the country and in Panyu and in our housing complex.

He had a week before he started work and I took him on a tour of the city as I knew it. We ate sujuk sandwiches from Chicken Express while brushing off the drugdealers on Xiaobei Lu, walked in the old city, drank at Perry’s, bottles of brandy from 7-11 mixed with Coke Zero, toured the sleazy elegance of Haizhu clubs and took a taxi back to Panyu for three in the morning barbecue. We spent the night in a rundown massage parlor in Haizhu, took handfuls of free cigarettes from the front desk, lay on recliners in our pyjamas, watched Tyson fight Tony Tucker. I i,ntroduced him to Liz, who was twentysomething, an art student, dressed like Sherlock Holmes, and teddy bearish thickglasses Coco, who followed us at a distance and never said a word. We caught shows at C-Union, smoked powerful shaggy GZ kush with sculptors at the Loft. I introduced him to another girl named Lynn, who was from Shaoguan and brilliant and shy. I introduced him to a girl named Melody, who spoke German and was studying music but just wanted to be friends.

My friend Henry hitchhiked to Guangzhou from Xinjiang that summer. I met him at a hostel in Guangzhou earlier in the year or the year before. He was hitchhiking to Shanghai with his friend Huazi. We were staying in a six person dorm with a tiny man from Fujian and two Japanese girls. The man from Fujian was chatty and had spent lots of time in the city. He was staying at the hostel to save money, doing some business work in the city, ran a company that sold power tools. He recommended brothels to us and made Henry blush and stammer. The Japanese girls both carried Nikon SLRs and I talked to them about film and the rain. Henry and I had both never been to the city before, so we went to see tourist sites together. At the Chen Clan Academy, two girls asked to have their photo taken with us. We went to arcades and he played Street Fighter while I sat beside him and smoked and took pictures of his opponents.

Henry hitchhiked across the country a few times. His dream was being proclaimed King of Hitchhikers. He explained that there is a developed, hierarchical hitchhiking community in China. He mentioned meeting one of the better known proponents of hitchhiking and self-promotion and decided that he would like to have that position. He felt that his major problem was a failure to promote his personal brand on social media.

When he came back to Guangzhou that summer, he slept on my couch. When he was planning to leave, hitchhiking north, we asked if we could follow him. We wanted to try hitchhiking in China. We thought we’d take the the G4 expressway, which runs north from the Hong Kong border, through Shenzhen and Guangzhou to Shaoguan and Changsha and Wuhan and then up all the way through to Zhengzhou, Shijiazhuang and ends its twenty three hundred kilometer run at Beijing’s Third Ring Road. Our plan was to stay out a couple days, maybe get to Shaoguan, take a bus back. We took the metro to Xinyuancun and walked and caught a taxi toward the G4 interchange. We stood on the side of the road for an hour and smoked cigarettes and then gave up and took a taxi back to Xinyuancun and the metro back to Panyu.

In November, when I told Dan I was leaving, he had the idea of taking a trip to the north, maybe try hitchhiking to Shaoguan again. I had the idea of going east to Huizhou and then down to the coast.

* Tracing a finger across the map, over the top of Dongguan, down and east to Huizhou. Riding the bus out through the domino towers of the Guangzhou suburbs that end only for a brief time before the beige blocks of Dongguan rise, and then into the hills and into Huizhou.

I hadn’t slept the night before. My sleep schedule was off. I put on the Ralph Lauren sunglasses I found on a shelf while working at Grapes and Grains on Whyte Ave. in Edmonton, big dumb aviators with gold arms that sat crooked after a year of being tossed on and off, smudged lenses.

I’m not sure how we ended up-- I’m not sure where we ended up. At the Huizhou bus depot, we chose a minibus at random, asked when it was leaving, bought packs of Zhongnanhai and climbed in and shoved our backpacks under the seat. I fell asleep as we left Huizhou, face against the back of the seat, curled into myself. I woke up as we pulled down front street in a summertime resort town of sorts-- hotels under construction, a sign for a nature preserve and a hot springs, and the shops along the main road set up for tourist trade, wooden baubles and Hakka specialties. I wasn’t sure where we were. I might have noted the name of the village or the name of one of the hotels but I’ve forgotten them now. When we got off the bus, a kid riding a bike with no chain rolled down the hill towards us and asked where we were going to stay, where we were from. He was wearing a school uniform, a plastic windbreaker and dark blue trackpants, hair cut in rows of asymmetrical spikes, sucking a mouthful of hardcandy. He said his family ran a hotel. We followed him as he kickpaddled his way back up the hill on his bike. We stopped at a restaurant with three walls and bought a Pepsi for him. The front street led to a hotel guarded with a black and yellow striped barrier. The shops along the street were mostly unattended. I took a picture of a mesh bag of wasps. The kid led us past the turnoff to the hotel and further up a steeper hill to a three storey home built in the style of an Alpine chalet, white mud and brown beams and a sloping roof tiled with red clay.

He led us inside. In the hallway, there was a pegboard with keys on hooks and a box of plastic flip-flops. A man shuffled in from another room and motioned for us to take our shoes off and put on a pair of slippers. He handed us one of the keys off the pegboard. He didn’t speak to us. He brought us down the hallway and upstairs to a room with two beds and two bedside tables. Off the bedroom was a bathroom with a squat toilet and a hot water heater and a drain. When we were inside the room, he told us that we could eat dinner downstairs at seven o’clock.

Dan and I went out and walked through the village. Beyond the few lanes of tourist shops, there wasn’t much, a few restaurants, hotels under construction, a school, and then roads leading out of town, signs for nature preserves and scenic sites. The village was in a valley with steep sides covered in thick forest. We walked back into the village. We stood in front of a shop filled with cages and mesh bags of giant wasps, thumblong green and gold and brown and black wasps. We bought beer and drank them while walking another circuit of the village. Dan bought a plastic rainbow-colored melodica. Wandering in the village, taking pictures of wasps in bags, drinking cans of Tsingtao was one of the few times I felt like a serious tourist.

* I’d lived in China, off and on, for the better part of a decade and had rarely felt like a tourist. I’d avoided any of the important tourist pilgrimages-- never been to the Great Wall, never been to the Forbidden City, never been to Taishan or Huangshan…. First, there was so much that was new to me that any block in any city held interest. When I lived in Dalian, I’d become a casual scholar of the history of Pao’ai. I dug for old maps and conducted my own walking tours of the district. I talked to the old men sitting outside the old state factory dormitories, who lived there when the Mao quotes went up in yellow paint on their walls and were there when the factories were privatized and then shut down. I think I was suspicious of tourist activities, and I didn’t have time, and I had enough to look at just wandering in whatever neighborhood I was staying in. Second, I was suspicious of tourist sites.

Xinran and I had once taken a trip west to Henan to see the White Horse Temple. We could have gone to Shaolin but the White Horse Temple seemed more genuine. We visited on a rainy day and stayed in a Seven Days Inn in Luoyang. It was beautiful but like most of the sites tourists visit in China, it had been rebuilt within the last thirty years, reconstructed almost completely, so its purpose as a contemporary religious site had been compromised and real history had been replaced with a modern vision. We backtracked to Kaifeng and visited a theme park devoted to Bao Zheng, which featured an animatronic recreation of his judgement of a famous case. We walked through what was left of the old city, which is gone now.

Xinran grew up in a state factory dormitory on the edge of Xuzhou and the places she grew up have all been submerged by the development of the last decade. Her parents’ factories were privatized, then sold. The factory was knocked down and a mid-luxury housing complex was built in its place. The fields of flax and scrubland across the dirt road from the factory were developed into suburban fingerprint whorls of apartment blocks and duplexes and housing complexes and a failed Xintiandi-style walking street. The apartment block, where she lived until she was in her twenties, became a grey island in a sea of pastel development. It was finally demolished and the people that lived in it were scattered around the city. Like a lot of people born in the 1980s, she has a feeling of nostalgia for the way that China looked and felt before the arrival of real estate booms and private development in the 1990s. I guess it’s the reason she shares my same interest in everyday streetscapes. Walking through Kaifeng, watching a procession of elderly walking up a cobblestoned street to a hidden church-- that’s what I remember from that trip.

When I lived in Datong, I lived in the shadow of a billion dollar ancient city wall. Construction of the wall began in 2008 on land that was once home to one of the better preserved old cities in Northern China. The few, scattered remnants of the city’s original wall were demolished as part of a project of “protective demolition,” “保护性拆除.” The sale of the land around the old wall and the land freed up by demolishing the old city allowed the space for the project and financed it.

There were a few places where parts of the old city remained. The one time I went up on the wall (I think it was 50 RMB to go up there, and it was windy and dusty and cold), I got a feel for what the city looked like before the wall cut through it. Part of the old city were intact on one side of the wall, while the other side was the rebuilt old city; one side of the wall was low, brick buildings, courtyards, dirt roads, and the other side was a version of the same rebuilt to a grandiose scale. The main street of the old city was turned into a pedestrian strollway (Fang'gu Jie (仿古街, literally [?] "copying-the-ancient street") lined with shops (mostly chainstore clothing retailers) and various tourist attractions. Huayan Temple anchored Fang’gu Jie, a temple that was once the heart of the old city, looking tiny and lively in old pictures but now expanded tenfold.

The rebuilt old city felt like a caricature of ancient China, a clumsy mix of different dynastic architectures, a Hengdian movie set. Unlike the older quarters of the city, it felt quiet and underpopulated, purposeless.

Geng Yanbo, the mayor of Datong, was one in a long line of China’s urban leaders trying to capitalize on a short mayoral term, add the redevelopment of a city to his resume, whether his project made sense or not. It reminded me of talk in Xuzhou about the central square, which had been rebuilt several times in just the last decade, each new mayor leaving his mark on the city. And it reminded me of the opening chapter of Abandoned Capital, a novel that opens opens with the arrival of a new mayor in Xijing, a stand-in for Jia Pingwa's adopted hometown of Xi'an. At the time of its writing, Reform and Opening was being brought back on track by Deng Xiaoping's Southern Tour, 南巡, and city governments outside of the first zones chosen for development, fueled by a rush of easy cash and the loosening of political reins, began experimenting with new urban planning policies. Like this:
...the city of Xijing appointed a new mayor that year. The new mayor was originally from Shanghai. His wife was originally from Xijing. Over the decades, new mayors always arrived hoping to win acclaim by putting their own personal stamp on the ancient capital. But they left office with the city in about the same state as when they arrived, shuffled off to another post with the smell of mediocrity clinging to their grey suits. Life in the city continued as it had for decades. This new mayor was no different but he had an extra pressure, living in the city of his wife's family. His wife was an understanding and resourceful woman. She scoured the city and recultivated old contacts. She found one man in particular, Huang Defu, who promised that he had the perfect plan for the new mayor. He told the mayor that Xijing was rich in two things, culture and debt. The history is well-known: the city was the capital of ancient dynasties and the citizens of the city tend to look to the past rather than the present. The debt was the result of former mayors borrowing money to pay for grandiose and failed plans. Over the last decade, as the coastal cities of China bloomed into financial and consumer paradises, Xijing remained backwards and undeveloped. Huang Defu told the mayor that the error of previous civic governments was trying to remake the city in the image of the coastal powerhouses. "This," said Huang Defu, "was impossible to accomplish in one mayoral term. So, forget about longterm planning and sieze on one aspect of development. Xijing lacks money and infrastructure and industry but there is a surplus of history and culture." None of the mayors of Xijing had attempted to exploit these. The new mayor was impressed with the plan. He was a humble man that was willing to take counsel from anywhere it came. He met with Huang Defu many times and eventually ordered his transfer from a local university to the municipal government offices to work as his advisor. The new mayor and Huang Defu travelled to Beijing to ask for funds. They returned with the necessary money and a plan for developing the culture and tourism sectors. The municipal government paid for the repair of the city wall and the dredging of the city's canals. Along the canal, they built an amusement park themed around local culture. They rebuilt three of the city's streets to mimic ancient markets: one street was an imitation of a Tang market and sold paintings and porcelain, the second street was an imitation Song Dynasty market and sold local street food and snacks, the third street was built to resemble an imagined Ming or Qing Dynasty boulevard and sold folk art, handicrafts and local products. The tourism sector boomed. But an unexpected side effect of the boom was the arrival in the city of a variety of migrants, homeless and criminals. Xijing became known as a city of thieves and whores. The citizens of Xijing became increasingly dissatisfied with their new mayor.
Every Friday, I went to Friday prayers with Samir at one of the two mosques in the city. The mosque near the railway station was popular with Uighurs and was small and friendly, but the mosque in the old city was closer and had a small market on Fridays. The mosque was built in the Ming. A Muslim community, many of them migrants from Henan, had grown around the mosque but had been displaced as the city redeveloped.

Our first time going for Friday prayers, we noticed the ticket booth and were stopped and asked for admission. We proved we were Muslims by being able to say “As-salamu alaykum.” When it was cold, I would kick off my shoes and sit in the back of the worship hall with the kids, watching the men pray. When it got warmer, I would stand outside and look stoic, while Chinese tourists browsed the mosque and peeked in the windows.

The city’s living history was being wiped away to make room for-- I’m not sure what, tourism and a tidier conception of history more in line with contemporary politics, nationalism. The old city was hard to explain using modern Chinese history and it was messy and expensive to fairly rehabilitate its twisty streets and pre-Republican Era homes. So, it was being wiped out wholesale and its inhabitants resettled. The resettlement and the rebuilding, even if conducted unfairly and in service of local political goals had some upsides, of course: the homes in the old city were unpleasant places to live, most without running water, most without reliable or safe electricity or wiring, cold in the winter.

But the wall was less defensible. Many of the people that I talked to in Datong dated the destruction of the old city's ancient structures and the wall to the Cultural Revolution. About that: first, the last two decades of development in China have brought more destruction of historical artifacts and sites than the Turbulent Decade; second, the Cultural Revolution and the Campaign to Destroy the Four Olds contributed to the destruction of the wall and the old city but the real story is more complicated.

About the wall…. Prior to the Ming, the city was an important trade center, linking Central China to the northern plains. It was claimed as a capital by the Jurchens, proto-Manchus that controlled the area until being driven out by the Mongol invaders that founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1271. Eventually, the Yuan faded and was replaced by the Ming. As the former nomadic powers that had swept through Northern China over the previous centuries were displaced by the new central Chinese power, Datong went from being a trade center to a frontier outpost for the new dynasty.

As the border looks at present, Datong is only a few hours by train from Inner Mongolia. With the Ming in power and trade with the north minimized, Datong became vulnerable to powerful Mongol groups riding down from the grasslands. The walls around Datong began to be built against the threat of northern invasion. Compared to the present wall, the walls of Datong at that time would have looked relatively unimpressive, nowhere near the height of the present walls and made of rammed earth, sometimes covered in raw brick and sometimes left as bare dirt walls.

The importance of the city wall was shortlived. The Ming slowly lost their grip on the north. By the time the Manchu-led Qing assumed power in Beijing in the 1640s, Datong's citizens had returned to practicing trade, rather than warfare, with the peoples of the Northwest. After the fall of the Qing and the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, Datong and the surrounding area were repeatedly thrown into chaos as warlords, the Japanese military, the Nationalists, and the Communists vied for control of Northern China.

The Ming wall was already crumbling in 1914, when a Nationalist provincial garrison commander named Zhang Hanjie tore down the northern city gate and several watchtowers in order to build a personal residence and a theater for himself. Suggesting later Communist renovations, Zhang Hanjie decided that European-style towers would look much better in place of the towers he knocked down. Liang Sicheng, son of reformer Liang Qichao, authority on Chinese architecture, and victim of the Cultural Revolution, declared it an unbearable atrocity.

By the time the Communists entered the city in 1946, the greatest damage to the wall had already been done. Neglect and scrounging for building materials had damaged the Ming wall beyond recognition. During the Datong-Jining Campaign of 1946, Communist troops laying siege to the Nationalist-held city delivered the final blows to the wall, destroying many of the remaining sections of the city walls and other fortifications and watchtowers.

In 1952, after the Communists came to power, the original bell tower, as well as the north, east, and west city gates were taken down. During the 1960s and 1970s, most of the remaining outer enclosure wall and the remaining watchtowers were taken down. The only sections of the city wall that survived into the middle of the last century were the dirt walls. The remaining city gate, the south gate, was taken down in 1981, when the city government broadened a road. Although the winds and rain of the plains diminished their size, the dirt walls escaped destruction because they could not be pilfered for building materials and were not important defensive structures. The early and nearly complete destruction of the city's fortifications led many to assume that the city had only ever had a dirt wall. During the large-scale industrial and urban development that took place in the 1990s, fueled by coal money, even the dirt walls were reduced to a few scattered segments.

I lived near a segment of the old wall, a hundred yard long mound of dirt. It was stuck between a shopping mall and a shopping mall. It collected shopping bags and other garbage, blown against it. There was no reason to demolish it. Developers had built around it.

The story of the new wall made no sense. The new wall was ugly. It was grey and fake and stupid. It was an inconvenient barrier through the center of town, a deadzone right in the heart of the city. Like most tourist sites in China, it was, at best, lame and fake and maybe at worst a destructive monument to corruption and historical revisionism.

* We went back to the guest house when it got dark. We ate a meal of bacon stirfried with hot peppers, tofu, smoked bamboo shoots. We ate alone at a low table in the kitchen. A woman brought our dishes to the table and brought us bowls of rice. After dinner, we went out again and bought more beer. The village deserted. There were kids sitting on bikes outside a store. They told us that there were Americans at the hotel up the street. We walked up the street. Apart from the kids, there was nobody around.

Below the hotel was a guard house and a barrier across the driveway. We walked around it and up the black asphalt driveway. We stood in front of the hotel and smoke cigarettes. We went inside and sat on a couch in the lobby. There were two cars in the lobby, late-1980s turbo diesel Mercedes sedans. They were behind velvet ropes. The hotel seemed to be empty, unstaffed. Nobody at the front desk. A store in the lobby selling bamboo wine and postcards, empty and dark. The elevator dinged and three men wearing corduroy and sweatpants, American accents, heads shaved to show only the shadows of pushed back hairlines, redfaced and drunk. They walked past us.

We sat on the floor in front of the couch, resting our hands on the low coffee table. The elevator dinged again and two girls left the elevator. One girl was short, hair greased into a blonde rug on her head, high cheekbones and red lipstick, pearls. One girl was short, maybe Spanish, darkskinned, skirt and leggings. They saw us when they walked from the elevator and we called them over. They sat down on the couch, above us. The blonde girl was named Abby. The other girl was named Maria. She was from Cuba. Abby had a bottle of brandy in her purse and we drank it. The girls said they were going to eat at a restaurant in the village. They were students at Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, studying Chinese. We passed the bottle of brandy. Chinese brandy from Yantai, the same brand I drank in Dalian. They asked us if we wanted to smoke some hash and we took the elevator back up their room. A bare two bed suite with a balcony. We sat crosslegged together on the balcony. Abby took a lump of hash and cut pieces from it with her thumbnail and rolled them into thin worms. She rolled joint with pouch tobacco and the hash laid on top of it.

We went back downstairs and walked through the village again. It was dark, scattered spots of spaces lit yellow beneath storefronts. We bought another bottle of brandy at the last store open and started drinking it while walking back to the hotel. In the room, I sat beside the Cuban girl and spoke to her in Chinese. Dan sat beside the American girl and talked about a project he was doing, something about controlling music with brainwaves and using it as a video game soundtrack.

The girls told us that their friends were having a party. I thought it was the men in corduroy and sweatpants we saw in the lobby. We took an elevator up two floors and knocked on the door of a room. There was no music. The room was full of people. Another bare two bed hotel room. One of the men in corduroy and sweatpants. Dan and Abby mixed into the crowd. I stood with the Cuban girl on the balcony and we smoked her Salem Menthols. She asked what I was studying at Sun Yat Sen, how long I’d been in the program. I lied: I said I was a graduate student, studying contemporary Chinese literature, a friend had invited me on the trip. We came late, so we didn’t get a room in the hotel. She wanted to leave and as we walked out, I gave Dan a signal with my eyes, which said: I am going to leave now but you can stay, good luck.

The Cuban girl and I walked around the grounds of the hotel. There was a garden inside of a low brick wall. There was a lawn and a parking lot, where a bus was parked. We pushed the button beside the door and opened it, walked on. We sat side by side in a bus seat and she put her head on my shoulder. I fell asleep and when I woke up I saw that that she was asleep and it was still dark and I nudged her awake. We walked down the hill, past the barrier and the guard house. We walked through the village to the guest house. The door was open. We walked upstairs to the room. She laid on one bed and I laid on another. When I closed my eyes, I immediately fell asleep.

In the morning, the sun through the window and the sound of voices in the hallway woke us up. We walked downstairs and up the hill. I found Dan asleep on the couch in the lobby, sitting up, head resting on his chest. I woke him up and the Cuban girl went to the elevator. Dan and I left and walked through the village.

We stood on the edge of the village, where a small highway seemed to begin. We turned back and walked into the village and bought bottles of water and Coke, beef jerky and a plastic bag of sandwiches made from fluffy white bread and sweetened cream and blueberry jam. We started walking. The highway had two lanes and no cars and twisted around mountains and went down into valleys and on both sides there was thick forest and occasional offshot roads with signs for scenic waterfall lookouts or mountain hot springs. A truck passed, a pickup truck with a steel cage on the back with pigs in it. We waved to it but it didn’t slow down. I had no idea where we were. We came to a junction and a small town. I forget the name of the town. We sat in a park surrounded by beige apartment blocks. We ate our blueberry and cream sandwiches. We walked down the street and found a bus depot. There were six buses in a mud parking lot. We found one leaving for Huizhou, already half full. We bought a ticket and sat in the back.



Central, Hong Kong
March 3, 2013



Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
July 12, 2013



Datong, Shanxi
December-February, 2013-2014.

We were woken at six in the morning by one of the guards shouting this: 起床! 起床! Twice. Depending on the guard on shift, they might shout it from across the courtyard or they might bang on the metal bars of our outer walkway. But always twice.

[... edited: awaiting publication ...]



"The 33 Transformation Bodies of the Bodhisattva Guanyin," Grain, Vol. 41.2 WINTER 2014.



Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
March 5, 2013


Dalian, Liaoning
December 22-25, 2012

When we walked in the door, Gigi pushed me onto the couch and kissed me. She had sticky blood printed across her upper lip. I rolled her away and she laid in her long coat on the couch and cried. I went to the shower to wash the blood out of the cut on the topside of my nose and sneeze and snort clotted blood and snot onto the bathroom floor. One eye turned red. Mike came back with two bottles of wine. We pushed the corks in with a Bic. She pinched her fingers down the bridge of my broken nose. Mike said: "You got blood all over the taxi." We drank Great Wall out of doublestacked McDonald's cups.

When I closed my eyes that night, smoky jacket tucked under my chin, I was instantly paralyzed by something like dreams, contextless and full of faces, faces pushing through the darkness toward me, faces reprojected in negative ghostwhite against a restless sleep's tachycardia darkblue. When I shook them away in fear, I was was awake, breathing hard, and fell back asleep to genuine dreams of nothing but my shoetip moving a crescent through a layer of dust on sidewalk ice, and dry snowdust on the back of my neck.


The city smelled like varnish, exhaust, sweet chemical smells. Under the overpass, three levels of traffic moved above us, elevated expressways stacked to run out to the lobes of the city. Motorcycles flicked by, lights spinning in wheel spokes. Horns squealed and honked and black Audis burped their low, digital grurp. Pigeons shuffled and flapped their wings and pecked at the pavement and patroled puddles of egg yolk light. Women with faces painted white. Men with faces painted as women with faces painted white. The Lin Lin Ballroom across the way: a cement block, a row of motorcycles and men leading their women down the front steps. Women spoke with southern accents, accents stretched by betel chews and green wet mountain trails into stone villages. Women shuffled and flapped their wings and pecked at the men as they pass. The men passed and bowed their heads to the heavycoats and tied back black hair, the signholders for the flop houses. A dozen doors to a floor, each one padlocked. Cigarette lights and cigarette smoke rushed to the concrete overpass ceiling. Escaped up into the city in a blue spitty mushroom cloud and mixed with smoke from a campfire of phonebook paperthin sheets bundled to burn, marked with holy characters. Unsentimental beneath a streetlight. Pure white clean smoke as he stirred with a gloved hand, flames inspired from yellow to black to grey to white and the grayscale tones in between imagined ancestors in pink nightgowns and tissuepaper beards flitting down, glowing like neon in puddles before being extinguished with water from a Pepsi bottle.

Blew a banner of smoke. Passed a bottle of brandy from jacket to jacket. Through the winter smoke, came a sudden smell of pineapples: a blueboxed truck with southern plates loaded with Hainan fruit. A man with black gloves, a black mask cut out the spines with a neat twist and dropped the skin onto the sidewalk.


I went home the next day, the empty grinding #38 bus from one side of Ganjingzi to the other. The city ends behind this block of apartments and the bus makes its final stop. Pao'ai Number Eight Residential District, a landfill reclaimed and planned with grey apartment blocks and wide avenues. Below my apartment, a man was tending an oil drum stove with a burnt chimney and grey dogs rooted in the gardens and pawed aside stacks of green onions laced up with rattan cord. Sixth floor. The power was still off but the heat was on, warming the floortiles. I spread my blanket on the floor and pillowed a sweater under my head and slept.



Foshan, Guangdong
September 15, 2013



Vancouver and Cumberland, British Columbia
June 20-22, 2011

You picked blackberries from the huge tangled bushes that leaned against houses marked for demolition. You started a muskrat sunning itself on the bank of a ditch and it jumped down into brown water. We took the Skytrain into the city and read the graffiti on the plywood covering the smashed windows of the Bay.


Tongue cocked back to run over wisdom teeth barely pricking out of gums.


Humped north Pacific islands, green dribs of land dumped across ocean the colour of airline VIP lounge upholstery. The Beafort Range and its dressing of steamclouds and its peaks collapsing down into ruined stone walls and lumpy hills and wiped down flat beaches chocolatechipped with mussel shells.

The wind blows down the smell of fog and trees, and runs its bellies over stands of poppies and twigs the milky stems of Scotch broom, and follows salmonberry highways lined with weedy ditches. The wind pulls out of empty driveways in fresh Strata development and drives down Dunsmuir under a weave of electrical line.

There's dew on the bull thistle flowers. Pines stretch across dark windows. Juniper hedges fall onto the sidewalk.

A drooping cradle of dead wires, and a row of flatfaced stuccofronted houses painted in dark purple, and a Ford Taurus station wagon slouched on the road with deflated tires and a magpie kicking across its hood.

The Legion, which bursts flat white off a neat lawn, a cube of pressed dust and a moat of poppies.

The low homes built for veterans of Ypres gas attacks and the blue paint softening on their clapboard.

The heavy brick of the homes belonging to the overmen and the colliery physician, their gardens once tended by the Japanese men that disappeared in 1942 and never came back.

The King George Hotel with its dusty velvet and stopped clock.

A convenience store and a butcher shop built of the same pure dust as the Legion but dulled to grey.

On the corner, the turret of the Royal Bank manager's Queen Anne smashed into the garden below.

Two deer stand in the shade cast by the Panda Gardens. They root in the flower bed, nosing between rhododendrons to snap up soft green fern shoots.


We walked into the store. There was a woman unloading a box of boxes of tape measures and sticker books and hair bands. There was a girl at the counter, typing on her phone. You assumed they were mother and daughter. There was a Korean pop ballad playing. There was a CD player on the counter, between plastic tubs of beef jerky and a glass case of electronic cigarettes. You bought a milk tea and I bought a bottle of Diet Coke.

Down the street, the bank's lawn was marked by a stone plinth and a plaque explaining that the bank had once been blown up with dynamite. Across the street, there was a bakery installed in the lobby of the old courthouse. We bought two lemon squares and the woman behind the counter put them in a paper bag. You held the bag in the palm of your hand and saw that it bag was splotched with oil. You wiped your hand on my jeans.

You stopped in front of the bakery to roll a slug onto its back.

Your hair was long that summer.

Your hair was long and straight and, in the sun that summer, it faded to a complicated dark brown. Your bangs were trimmed high over your eyebrows. Your eyebrows were wispy downstrokes. Your eyes were the same long, beautiful brushstrokes that I fell in love with.

We walked down a sidestreet that led off Dunsmuir and up a gravel path that led into the hills and the forest. We were passed by two women on mountain bikes with helmets hung on their handles. The gravel path disappeared and we walked up a dust path laddered with tree roots. The dust path disappeared and we cut our own path through the forest, watching a creek for guidance upward.

It was a hot day but the forest was cool and sunless. We walked down into a ravine, where a creek trickled now but where the water had once torn through and tossed trees and rocks along its floor. The ravine ended in a tall cliff and a waterfall. The trees and rocks thrown down from the mountaintop had collected below the waterfall. We climbed down through the white bones of smashed trees and took off our shoes. We smacked our bare feet against the smooth grey rocks. I tied my green Nike hightops around my neck and carried your Converse and the bag of lemon squares. I put my socks in my shoes and balled up your socks and put them in my pocket. We rolled up our cuffs and waded across the spot where the creek emptied the stone bowl that the waterfall was always filling.

We sat beside the pool and breathed in a faint mist from the waterfall. We ate the lemon squares from the paper bag. I folded the bag and put it in my back pocket. You climbed onto the big rock I was sitting on and pulled your jeans off and down over your wet ankles, wet feet. Here and there on your calves, a straight black hair with a single kink. You walked down the stone ramp that led to the point where the waterfall slapped into the pool and then you walked into the water until it came to just above your knees. You walked deeper into the pool, until the water rose over your thighs and soaked your panties and the bottom of your shirt. You turned away from me. I watched you but also looked up for the sun shining red through the pineshag to warm my face.


Guangzhou, Guangdong
October 21, 2013

The narrow buildings turn from Qing romance carved stone to angular art deco to baroque concrete angel-topped pillars. "Oh, you know about architecture?" Jenna. We used to come walking down here after dinner. We walked the arcade alleyway sidewalks, safe from the rain, and I drank chrysanthemum and honey tea from her Thermos lid. She invited me to her friend's wedding in Poland and introduced me to her friends and I stopped picking up her calls and I'm walking alone on Yide Lu, watching the last wrappings-up of the wholesale market, the final bundlingup in plastic tarps, men lifting the bundles to their hips and humping them up into sloppy towers. The night settles here first, under the stone and concrete ceilings. Aproned women from the tiny restaurants scrape folding tables and chairs onto the sidewalk.

I stop at a Circle K and buy a can of San Miguel and drank it in four pulls and balance the can on the sidewalk and walk away from it and through Haizhu Square, where the granite liberator hugs his bundle of flowers and grips his rifle. And the Pearl River greases its way through the city painted in brown-green-red neon towerlights, lit up by the soft haze of the city. I rub my fingernails smooth and dusty along the stone rail.

Two boys sitting on a stone bench. One of the boys bowed over a guitar, rolling his long orange hair over the neck of the guitar. The other boy singing into a megaphone.

And watch the hustlers coming out for their nightshift, parade formation according to rank: the sauna girls wiping red vinegar and grease off their dusty cheeks with pale arms, the bargirls with crêpe paper wrappings and hair slicked down, a friendly drugdealer from Ghana tugging sleeves while promising "you need that white, I got that white," the touts stumbling as they bend to roll up the cuffs of their pants, a man walking a monkey on a chain, the Polaroid men with prices tagged on their vests, the beggars in army jackets and headscarves. 

I flag down a taxi and take the long ride back to Panyu with my eyes shut. Nothing more to say.