* 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.
Posted by Dylan Levi King at 11:02 PM
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.
There were three cells on our block. One of them was connected to our cell by the same outer walkway. The third cell was on the other side of a wall of metal bars. The other cells each held five men.
The men in the other cells were slow to get up in the morning. Depending on the guard, they might bang against the metal bars on the outside of the walkway or they might shout individual prisoners' names or they might just yell.
Samir was slow to get out of bed, too. I'd usually warn him when I saw the guard making his long walk across the courtyard.
I was up before anyone.
I took pride in obedience to the rules. Even if the rules were casually enforced or ignored completely, I took pleasure in following them. On the walls of our cell were the rules of detention and the rights of prisoners. I read them until I memorized them.
When I got out of bed, I pissed in the bucket in the corner, folded my bedding and exercised. I ran on the spot, did pushups, jumping jacks, more pushups, leg raises while hanging from the upper bunk of my bed. The cell was cold in the morning. I exercised in a sweater that a friend had left at our house. Clarissa. The sweater was orange and black and tight. I'd worn it once before, on a night out that ended up with us driving to Inner Mongolia at four a.m. in a friend's Mazda. The police brought the sweater to me after they searched our apartment. Below the sweater, I had a grey V-neck shirt that I had been wearing when the police came to the door. I had a pair of Levi's jeans with the metal button and the zipper cut off when I was booked. It was tied through the front belt loops with a piece of rope. When I warmed up, I put on my fake leather jacket, zipper and buttons cut off, and the heavy green army surplus coat that the prison provided, orange prison vest over that.
The cell was large enough for eight prisoners. There were four bunk beds. There was a metal cupboard with three doors. In it, we kept our plastic basins, our toilet paper, our toothbrushes, our toothpaste, our soap, and any leftover food. There was a TV on the wall between a window and the door. In the corner of the room, high on the wall, there was a camera nested in a mess of wire.
When Samir got out of bed, he washed the floor beside his bed with a rag and did his ablutions. He poured hot water poured into a basin from the thermos and mixed with cold water from our clean water bucket. He cleaned his hands and rinsed his mouth and cleaned his arms from wrist to elbow and sprinkled water on his socks. He prayed on his army coat. After he prayed, he shook out his jacket, put it on and sat on his stool beside the radiator.
At seven thirty each morning, we got our first chance to leave the cell. We divided up the tasks like this: Samir refilled our thermos with hot water and refilled the clean water bucket with clean water; I emptied the shit bucket and went to get our breakfast.
The prison's cells were arranged around a courtyard with a tree and a fountain in the middle. Around the courtyard, there were classrooms and activity rooms and a room with a pool table, but nobody entered them and those rooms stayed shut while we were there.
The prisoner from each cell that dumped the bucket left the cell first and we walked together out of the courtyard, into the main building and out again into a concrete backyard. We dumped our shit and piss and wastewater into a steaming hole in the ground covered by a wooden trapdoor. Samir was too weak to carry the bucket, so the task was mine.
The officer on duty at the prison supervised the dumping of the shit buckets. They usually asked me how I slept. After they asked how I slept, they gave me a cigarette. Before the police knocked at the door, I started every morning scrounging for my pack of Zhongnanhai and smoking two cigarettes while watching the English-language news on CCTV-16. Samir told me he knew I was awake by the click of my lighter. After a week in prison, the morning cigarette wasn't as much about feeding a habit as it was about enjoying the thrill of special treatment and contraband, and a minute of lightheadedness. We enjoyed the game of scoring cigarettes from the officer and the guards more than actually smoking them.
Breakfast was the same every morning. We got our breakfast through a window that opened onto the courtyard. We each had a small plastic basin and we had a larger plastic basin to share. For breakfast, one of the smaller plastic basins was filled with pickled radish and carrot, the other was filled with steamed buns, and the larger basin was filled with a thin porridge made from millet.
When we had stayed for a week, breakfast involved an occasional treat: fermented bean curd. The fermented bean curd was scooped from a glazed ceramic pot in the back of the kitchen. The first time that the man that put our food into our plastic basins asked me if I wanted a special treat, he told me that he liked that we were respectful to him and never complained about the food. The bean curd was pungent and salty, creamy, the texture of cream cheese. I spread it on the still-warm steamed buns and saved my pickled vegetables for lunch. Samir drank the millet porridge and ate a steamed bun.
The period between breakfast at seven thirty and lunch at noon was the dreariest time of the day. We mostly sat in silence until we had to prepare for the cell check at ten thirty.
This account of our time cannot accurately describe the oppressiveness of the daily boredom and the way it made us feel. Time moved slowly. I tracked the time by watching the sun against the bars of the outer walkway.
In the morning, Samir and I rarely talked. I steered my thoughts toward individual fantasies: I thought about the walk through Crescent Park to the library; I thought about my trip to the hills with Dan and Tangxia, hiking alone in the hills, walking through the village we slept in, the giant hornets in mesh bags; I thought about driving the Trans-Canada between Maple Creek and Medicine Hat.
Samir and I took turns cleaning the floor of the cell with a rag. We refolded our bedding. There was a certain fold and we never mastered it. If it was Samir's turn to clean the room, I took off my jacket and did jumping jacks in the corner and more pushups until I was sweating. I ate leftover steamed buns and pickled vegetables. I brushed my teeth and read the list of prison rules again.
The cell check was always casual. Whichever officer was on duty would come at around ten thirty and we would sit on our stools and wait for him to call our name. When he called our names, we put up our hand. We had to keep our hands raised until he told us to put them down. This rule was explained to us on the first day. When the officers came, they asked us if we were cold and when we were leaving or how the food was or they asked what kind of girls we liked or they asked questions about our countries.
There were three officers that rotated prison duty through the week. We gave them Sikh names: Mandeep, Baldeep and Girdeep. I can't remember why we chose those names. They never shared their actual names.
Mandeep was in his mid-30s, married, dissatisfied with his job and with life in general, obsessed with wushu and Chinese martial arts. He was writing a novel about Ming loyalists using martial arts to fight back against Qing Manchus. He was impressed when I mentioned Cao Naiqian, a writer and Public Security Bureau officer in Datong. He didn't think much of Cao's writing but he said he knew him personally. He said that if I stayed a few more weeks that maybe he could set up a meeting. I wasn't sure that I wanted to meet Cao Naiqian. I wasn't sure he could set up a jailhouse meeting with him. I wasn't sure what Cao Naiqian and I would talk about. Some afternoons, Mandeep would let me sit in his office and we would play a very basic trivia game, where he would name writers and see if I could list one of their works and give a brief opinion on them. We talked about Jia Pingwa. I gave him a basic introduction to modern Taiwanese literature. We talked about sex a lot, too. He asked what sex with foreign women is like. I explained the basics of performing oral sex on a woman. He was fine with the practice in theory but balked when I explained the time usually required to produce results. We talked about local dialects in Northern China. We talked about martial arts. He showed me basic striking movements and I pretended to have some knowledge of wrestling. I clumsily showed him how to do a lunging double-leg takedown. I told him about the last time I was in a fight-- it was with Dan, outside of a 7-11 in Tianhe, and neither of us were taking it seriously, but I ended up smashing the back of my head against the sidewalk. I told him how I got the scar on my nose from a Nigerian guy's ring in a bar in Dalian. When other people from the prison wandered into his office, he went silent until they left. He said, "They don't understand any of the things we're talking about." He bitched about paperwork and having to sleep at the prison.
Baldeep was the oldest of the officers that rotated through the prison. He was short and bulldoggish. He was the only one that seemed slightly attached to the rules posted on the wall of our cell. He was the only officer that criticized the folding of our bedding. He walked us over to the neighboring cell and showed us their blankets, which were folded angular and exact. We tried to improve our folding. He never brought it up again. He only smoked Huanghe Lou with disco ball filters and was free with them on mealbreaks.
Gurdeep was tall and crewcut, always quick to discipline the other prisoners but generally unconcerned about the rules of the prison. One of the men in the other cell clearly had connections and was the source of the smuggled cigarettes that the prisoners passed around during our outside time. He was often let out of his cell for trips to a bathroom inside the guard's quarters. Gurdeep was the only person in the prison that denied his requests and openly mocked him in front of prisoners and guards. When he came to check our cell, he was always puffing on a cigarette. While the Warden looked over his shoulder disapprovingly at our floor or bedding, he'd laugh and ask us when the fuck we were getting out.
The Warden was usually looking over someone's shoulder disapprovingly. He scowled at us when the officers gave us cigarettes. When the officers finished checking our cells, he would sometimes lean in to tell us to clean our floors.
The Warden had his boys, too. We called them: Skinny Jeans, Pouty, Chashmish (or Glasses), and Black Jacket. They all looked to be in their late teens. Skinny Jeans had his carefully done hair dyed with purple streaks. He wore skinnier jeans than a prison guard should wear. Pouty looked like a sullen fifteen year old. Chashmish--it means, like, "four eyes" in Hindi, but maybe not that pejorative--looked to be barely out of puberty. He frequently looked frightened. When a group of four men from Wenzhou ended up on our cell block for a night, he was not able to bring himself to approach their locked door. Black Jacket wore a black jacket. He never spoke and nobody spoke to him. The fact that they were our guards was insulting and ludicrous. The other prisoners seemed to feel the same way. The more aggressive men in the other cells would stare them down or ignore them completely. Their presence in the prison was confusing and their only function seemed to be fetching water and unlocking doors for the Warden.
Lunch began at noon or slightly before or slightly after. Samir filled up our water and I went to have our plastic basins filled with our lunch, usually more steamed buns and a basinful of boiled cabbage with lots of black pepper. The black pepper collected at the bottom of the basin and looked like dirt.
After lunch, Samir prayed again and we got into our beds. Apart from the two hours in the afternoon and lights out, we were not allowed to sit on our beds.
The cells were cold. After the boredom, the cold was the worst. Some afternoons, there was frost on the walls. We both wore three pairs of socks. Our shoes had been replaced with flip-flops. We wore two jackets with sweaters underneath. Samir was always cold. He sat against the radiator most of the day. He ate very little and lost weight. When I was cold, I exercised and then sat crosslegged on the floor on my army jacket with my feet tucked under me.
I enjoyed the cold sometimes. I wanted to be cold. I've always tried to place myself in situations that involve physical discomfort or deprivation. My entire trip to the north was part of that impulse, which I can't explain. I moved from Guangzhou, where I felt as if I was living out all of my late-20s fantasies. I went out every night. I lived in the city I'd always wanted to live in without knowing it: loud, tropical hot, alive twenty four hours a day. I thought about my last nights there. I thought about being swallowed up in the crowds of people in the cement-carpeted spaces of Zhujiang New Town, going to Loft to hear friends DJ, coming home at dawn with soft rain falling on the palm trees outside my apartment and everything made more beautiful and important by the slow falling off of a hash high. When people asked why I left Guangzhou, I didn't have a good answer. But I wanted to breathe dust and I wanted to be cold and I wanted not to have all the things that I wanted. I wanted to live in a place that would provide a mild, poetic deprivation of physical comforts. Prison took the deprivation further.
At the same time, I felt bad for Samir. It was his fault we were here and he had apologized to me. But there was no use in showing that I was annoyed-- and I wasn't annoyed, even. I hated to see him cold and hungry and hopeless.
The mornings were particularly cold. The radiators faded. But it was warm in bed. I might have appreciated the general experience of physical discomfort but being able to get under the blanket and curl into a warm ball on my army jacket was heavenly. Samir and I talked for a few minutes and then we fell asleep.
At two thirty in the afternoon, the wake-up call came. The officers came for another cell check or didn't bother.
In the afternoon, we were allowed to TV. We had one channel, CCTV-1, but it showed three hours of a soap opera in the afternoon. We watched it from our stools. I provided a translation for Samir and we ate snacks.
There was a store in the courtyard, which was staffed by two older women. It was open during lunch- and dinnertime. The store sold instant noodles, shrinkwrapped hardboiled tea eggs, toilet paper, and whatever prisoners requested. We both had a small amount of money and once we knew our release date was coming up soon, we began buying snacks for our afternoons. We bought Orion chocolate pies and custard-filled spongecake and digestives and ate them in our beds or while we watched TV.
Visits to the store were the only time we were in contact with women. Samir occupied himself with fantasies about the prison guards and fellow prisoners but I loved the few minutes of contact a day with women. Near the end of our stay, one of the women brought her daughter to work with her. Her daughter was in her twenties, I think, maybe near thirty with the light brown eyes particular to northern girls. She complimented my Chinese. Her mother asked why I was in prison. Her daughter asked if I used Wechat. I wrote down my Wechat name on a piece of paper. She never added me.
After our soap opera was over, we sometimes got time outside. It was cold outside but the sun was bright enough to make it warmer than our cells. We walked in the outer walkway and flapped our jackets and chatted with the other prisoners.
Most of the men in the other cells were petitioners or men locked up for petty crimes that they wouldn't specify. Most of the them had been locked up before. They discussed why they were in prison.
On my first day, one of the petitioners asked me if I liked China. He was tall and he wore the same army coat as we did but with the gold buttons still sewed to it. While living in China, I had been asked many times, many times if I liked China. I gave my answer that was a few sentences long but meant: yes, I like it. The petitioner in the army coat said: China is black. His house was torn down when Datong began construction on a replica ancient wall. He had been arrested in Beijing a few days before, near Zhongnanhai. He spent a night locked in a room in Beijing and policemen from Datong came to collect him.
Most of the men were going to be released within four or five days. They smoked cigarettes and we talked about women.
While I talked to them, Samir prayed.
Samir became slightly devout in prison. He told me he was giving up drinking and smoking. He said he wouldn't seek out relationships with men. We had spent a month living together before but I had never seen him pray, except for Fridays. The call to prayer came from his phone five times a day and he went silent during it but he did not pray. On Fridays, we took a taxi to the mosque together. I waited outside and talked to the woman that sold Halal chicken from the trunk of her car, or the woman that sold raisins and almonds and flatbread. When we left, I would translate what I remembered of the Imam's sermon.
I learned more about Samir in prison. We talked. Samir told me stories about Kenya and his family. His family story was complex. He told me about discovering that his father had taken a second wife. He told me about his uncles in Toronto. He told me about chewing khat in Mombasa. I told Samir stories about Canada and my family. I told him about living with Xinran and sleeping on a camp bed in a one room apartment in Regina. I told him about taking coins from a fountain at a Buddhist temple to buy a meal of fried chicken when we didn't have enough money to eat. We were a captive audience for each other. He was a natural storyteller. I had never had the chance to sit face-to-face with another person and lay out the history of the last twenty years of my life.
Talking made the day pass a bit quicker. But often we didn't talk and Samir was depressed and sat in silence with his head against his chest, or I was agitated or bored or angry and paced back and forth across the cell.
The greatest anxiety came from the feeling that my detention had caused anxiety for people that loved me. I did not particularly mind being locked up. I felt anxiety and guilt over the potential of causing emotional distress for other people. And, at the same time, I was worried that nobody was even aware I was in prison. Samir knew that a week without making contact with his family would distress them. I knew it would be at least a month before anyone was distressed by me not making contact. Maybe it would take longer than that.
The fact that our detention was extralegal and indefinite was another factor. In my mind, I described the worst case scenario as two years in prison. Two years would be fine. Beyond two years, no. I felt that knowing that I needed to serve two years and dividing those two years into twenty four months and those twenty four months into days and those days into blocks of time would be preferable to a short term detention without a fixed exit date.
The nights were easier. Dinner was the best meal of the day. During the second week, we began to receive the same rations as the prison staff. The food in the prison was made in the kitchen and was exceptionally good. Samir ate very little, even when he abandoned certain Halal guidelines and simply avoided dishes with visible pork. I ate basins of stirfried pork and ginger, lamb stew with cumin, and braised chicken and potato. The steamed buns were the best I ever had, handmade and chewy and dense. We had handcut noodles with pork and wood ear fungus. We had basins of steamed rice.
After dinner, Samir prayed and we watched the news on CCTV-1. I know the reputation of CCTV's nightly news and it was essentially accurate. The news was like this: Xi Jinping or Li Keqiang visited or were visited by a dignitary from a foreign country, then there was a story about a policy decision accompanied by a shot of a Party leader at a lectern and hundreds of people writing notes, and then a story highlighting a Party policy goal like space exploration or rural electrification or stamping out corruption, and then there were a few international stories. After the news, there was sometimes a cooking show or a variety show or a game show involving parents placing wagers on their children in various games.
The night's programming ended with a mini-series about Chairman Mao. While we watched the Mao miniseries, we sat on our jackets and ate chocolate pies or custard cakes and drank hot water. It was on epside twenty-something, when we arrived, just exiting the 1930s. When Deng Xiaoping or Liu Shaoqi appeared, I would provide a brief biography that often required a fuller explanation. Telling the story of Liu Shaoqi involved an explanation of the Cultural Revolution and telling the story of Deng Xiaoping involved explaining Reform and Opening and what happened at Tiananmen in '89 and the Southern Trip in '92. He'd never heard of Tiananmen. I asked if he'd ever seen the photograph of the man in the white shirt standing in front of the tank. I realized Samir had very little knowledge of the country where he'd chosen to live.
When lights out came at nine, one of the guards would shout, 睡觉! 睡觉! Two times, again. We usually began preparing for bed around eight thirty, brushing our teeth and washing our face. The cell got warmest at night and the radiator was hot. We would undress and lay our army jackets on the bed and prepare our blankets. We often talked while we lay in our beds. Lights out was early and we had usually slept in the afternoon. We were happy to be warm. We told more stories and made plans for the next day.
I got out a day before Samir did. I wanted to stay until Chinese New Year but I left a few days before. It was early in the morning, while it was still dark outside. Samir and I hugged. I walked out of our cell. I exchanged my flip-flops for my shoes and I took off my army jacket and my prison vest and I walked out the door.
Posted by Dylan Levi King at 12:24 AM