18.2.15

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Edmonton, Alberta
February, 2015


The temperature dropped twenty degrees in a day. The ice fog from the river met the steam from the upgraders beside the Henday. North Edmonton landscape of gravel lots and apartment complexes in brown and tan or grey and a flyover view of a parking lot and Cineplex, Lowe's, Cabela's, a girl in a McDonald's uniform under flapping open parka crossing at the bottom pulling her cap off and stuffing it into her purse, and the few remnants of what used to be here, a smokestack tower from one of the packing plants beside Belvedere, and the Transit, and the Drake, the cenotaph on 118th hidden in twiggy bushes and snow. Called Samir from the Wal-Mart parking lot, looking out over 118th Avenue, and tried to explain again why I went the other direction, why I flew to Vancouver instead of Hong Kong and took the Greyhound to Edmonton instead of walking across the border to Guangzhou and taking the train to Xi'an with him. I remembered sitting on a detention center floor with him, army surplus parkas on the tiles, spread in the dustfree island we scraped away with hot, dirty rags. He told me about getting paid by men who picked him up in Lexus trucks to fuck him in hotel rooms, smoking meth, how he had both situations under control. I thought about the conversation we had on the ripped up vinyl couch in our empty apartment about: self-control. On Fridays, he would pray and then remain silent on the taxiride to the mosque and I would pace outside and listen to the ahong's calls for balancing Islamic education with the demands of the secular world and everything in this world would return to dust-- and a cloud of dust from the demolition of the old city was picked up by the wind and there was the sound of stones tinking against the windows of the mosque-- and the exclamations of duositimen! at sentence beginning and end, frantic pigeons rustling up into the eaves, kids walking down the back alley, tourists with yellow umbrellas gabbling, gathering at the gates to watch. I asked him if he went to Friday prayers and he said he didn't. He asked if I'd written anything and I told him that I couldn't because, I don't know, the entire city is empty and I'm not, whatever, thinking about anything. I spit into a Diet Coke with Lime can. I drove out of the parking lot and picked up Haru at the train station and we ate halfprice wings at Boston Pizza and snuck out the side door to smoke from her rarely touched pack of Accord Menthols. We parked beside the edge of the river valley and watched the river steaming hundred feet up to the Beverly Bridge, wrapping a freight train in smoke as it hit the mound on the west shore, as it hit the wooden bridge over Victoria Trail and entered the city.

12.2.15

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Edmonton, Alberta
February, 2015

I took pictures of the stained glass windows at Belvedere Station. In the landing at the bottom of the stairwell, a man slept on a bench. The cold air kept the smell of urine and smoke fresh and crisp. On the platform, two transit cops hassled a kid with dyed black hair and a denim bathrobe and a pentagram medallion. He tried walking past them and they stepped in front of him again. After a while, he pulled out a nylon wallet and ripped it open and showed them his transit pass. The kid with the pentagram tried to push past the transit cops again. They moved to block his way. Three girls stood at the bottom of the escalator, watching the encounter. The girls were wearing black parkas and black leggings and black boots. One of the girls said: They can't find any natives to fuck with. One of them stood close enough to the automatic doors to slide them open and filmed the backs of the transit cops with her phone. One of the transit cops heard the door slide open and began walking toward the landing. The girl filmed the transit cop coming toward her. He stood in the doorway and the automatic doors clicked rhythmically half open shut half open shut half open shut. The girl stepped back and continued filming him with her phone. She looked at me and said: You should take a picture of that, and pointed at him. She had a wide, calm face, with plucked surprised eyebrows and grease around her orange lipsticked lips. I put my camera up to my eyebrow and took a picture without focusing. A northbound train pulled into the station and the platform filled. The transit cop and the kid with the pentagram led the crowd. Both transit cops and the kid with the pentagram walked onto the escalator. The crowd followed them, riding the escalator under the stained glass. I walked out and stood under one of the heaters hanging from a rail above the platform. At the end of the platform, Century Casino rose over the low homes of the north side. Another southbound train came into the station. The doors clacked open. Haru had a pink scarf on. She was wearing her red vinyl skirt. We rode the escalator up to the pedway bridge and rode the escalator down to the parking lot.

On 50th Street, I was mesmerized by the hatched grey snow strip down the center of the lane lit by snow sky, the lights of the city reflecting back down in incandescent bulb yellow. Below the underpass, there was no snow. I listened to the traffic report.

5.2.15

4.2.15

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Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
April, 2013

This is a story I wrote for or about a friend. He lived in Moose Jaw and lived in Shenyang before that. He worked at a slaughterhouse, where I also worked, very briefly, following the first time I left university. He hated working there. His hands were destroyed by his work. His back was ruined. He was in constant pain. On weekends, Xinran and I would eat dinner at his home. He lived with his wife. They lived above the National Cafe for a while. The building was close to a hundred years old. He used to be a chef in Shenyang and sometimes worked outside of the city. The National Cafe was run by the same Chinese clan that owned several restaurants and businesses in town. They had been in the city since the late-1800s. They were all from Kaiping. My friend had no connection to them and thought they were arrogant. He could not speak English. He got into an argument at the slaughterhouse and stabbed one of his co-workers. He stabbed him because he ran out of things to say. The charges were dropped. The man he stabbed was an immigrant from West Africa. The slaughterhouse was eventually shut down. The company locked the union out and then went bankrupt. He got a job at a pork packing plant. It was cold inside. His body broke down.

We moved to Regina and then we moved to Vancouver and then I moved to Dalian and Xinran went to Guizhou. When we saw him again, he had stopped speaking to his wife. He had bought a house with his wife. He lived in the living room. He went to the casino every night. I went with him a few times and he would forget I was there and I would walk home down Athabasca. He would realize I was gone when his money was gone.

I wrote this story in one of the study carrels at the Moose Jaw Public Library. I submitted it somewhere and got a letter asking me to rework some part of it but I'd lost interest and never bothered. I lost the story and rewrote it in a notebook and lost the notebook when I stepped out for a cigarette on the station platform in Zhangjiakou on my way to Datong and rewrote it again. The first time I wrote it was the best.

This is the story:

That afternoon, he had gotten off early and driven home and began working in the kitchen. Yu Wen would not be home for a few hours. 

He rolled a pork shoulder from its pink Styrofoam tray, unstuck the blood pad from the meat, twisted up the wet plastic wrap and laid it on top of the vegetable trimmings in the garbage can. He thawed mackerel in the sink in a metal tray, letting lukewarm water trickle over the fish. He took a pork stomach out of the fridge. It was in a metal bowl. It was almost thawed and there were ice crystals inside of it. He spread salt over it and washed it with the same trickle of lukewarm water. He turned on the front left burner of the stove. The burner made a clicking sound as it heated under the weight of a pot. He blanched the pork stomach. He turned on another burner and set a tall stainless steamer on it. He put the pork shoulder into it and put the lid on it. He moved restlessly around the house. He turned down the heat on the steamer and locked the door and went out. 

He walked to the liquor board store at the end of Main Street. He bought a six-pack of Kokanee and walked home. He took a detour up Main Street. He stopped in front of a window of a storefront rented by an evangelical church. The church had created a display of large photographs of aborted fetuses. When he arrived on his block, he stopped in front of his home. The house was grey. He went inside and drank a beer. 

He put another pan on the stove and poured canola oil into it from a jug. He fried ginger and cloves of garlic and added peppercorn and cassia and anise. He dried the mackerel on a yellow disch cloth and laid it into the pan and shook a spray of sweet soy sauce over it. He sliced the pork stomach into shreds and put it back into the metal bowl. He poured sesame oil and chili oil and mustard oil and black vinegar over it. He added dark soy sauce to the pan of mackerel and put the a lid on the pan. The lid was too big and steam collected against its ceiling and dropped down onto the electric burner with white noise hisses. He chopped cilantro and added it to the bowl of pork stomach with a sprinkle of sugar and a sprinkle of white pepper. He went to his front step and sat on the cold concrete and smoked a menthol Accord and finished another can of beer. He went back into the house, through the living room with its pitted and worn hardwood floor. He lifted the lid on the pan of mackerel. He turned off the heat and lifted the mackerel out with the fingers of his left hand and the chopsticks in his right hand. He put the mackerel on a dish. He picked the points of anise and the sticks of cassia out of the dark soy sauce and poured the sauce over the fish. The mackerel was delicate and the dark soy pouring over it peeled away black skin and revealed white flesh. He went back outside and sat on the concrete step and smoked another cigarette. He drank another beer. He watched the men at the garage across the street loading an old truck onto a flatbed trailer. He went back into the kitchen and lifted the lid from the steamer and let the steam hit his face. He inhaled. He lifted the pork out of the steamer and laid it down into the broth that had steamed and dripped and steamed and dripped over the pork. He added a splash of soy sauce. He put the pork shoulder into a white casserole dish and poured the soup over it. Clouds of fat and gelatin floated in the broth. He set two metal bowls on the table. He laid chopsticks across -- 

-- the parking lot, a dusty wind blew up from the railyards. It was late summer. It was a cold morning. The letters on the aluminum sign over the door--HOCHELEGA PACKERS--had starbursts of frost on them. In the plywood gazebo beside the door to the line, a few men spit between their teeth into Styrofoam cups; a few men stood around an oil drum ashtray, smoking and shivering in white hard hats, ear plugs draped over their shoulders. 

He looked for Guo Sun. He cleaned his boots in the tray of disinfectant and went in. He took his long white jacket from his locker. He put on his boots. He walked toward the stairs down to the line and he saw her in the locker room doorway. She was pulling on her boots. She had a slit up the back of her rubber boots and two callused spots on their sides where her fingers had pinched and pulled them up over her calves. Her forearms were strong from folding sides of ribs and holding onto a knife handle through two layers of rubber and cotton gloves. He stood behind Guo Sun until she turned around. She smiled at him. Her lips were sticked pale pink. Her eyes were single pulls of a brushstroke. As she looked away, he smelled her scent for a moment over the background smells of disinfectant and boots and blood; she smelled like milk candy in a warm mouth. She walked downstairs without waiting for him. He watched -- 

-- the race between distance and the setting sun to rub out the last pearls of shorelight. He leaned on the railing and felt the diesel engine stutter as the ferry passed between two towers of grey stone. Grey gulls tipped from their path above the ship and flew toward the islands. He lost sight of them in the dusk.

He shook a cigarette out of a pack of Hongtashan. He cupped his hand against the wind and lit it. He reached back to tug his jacket collar over the back of his neck. Across the water, the bobbing lights of a container ship shone flat against the horizon. He walked down the side of the ship, his feet echoing rubbery and cold on the deck, past the open door of the first class kitchen. He stood for a moment in the heat and light of the doorway. A young man was working in the kitchen, brushing a steel pan with a brush. He watched the man's back. A push of breeze knocked a paper cup off the counter behind him and the man turned and saw him. He nodded at the man. He turned and walked back to the main observation deck, weaving among the people filing down to the cabins below. He stood for a moment at the railing and then joined procession down the steel stairs to the third class seating. He heard the messy sound of the space belowdecks and he felt the heat --

-- in the kitchen and the sweat trickling down the sides of his ribcage. He did not know where she was. He stood in front of the kitchen table. He picked a piece of mackerel skin off the fish and ate it. He sat on the couch in the living room. There was a picture on the wall across from the couch. It had been taken in Shenyang, at Beiling Park. The picture was taken after they were married. They were posed in front of a bed of marigolds. He was leaning against Yu Wen and she was leaning into him. Her shoulders were under his arm. Her face was round and she was smiling with her mouth slightly open. Her hair was styled plainly, straight on the sides, with bangs curled over her forehead. Her face was thickly powdered and she had two circles of red over her cheekbones. Her eyebrows were plucked and she had two greenish-purple brows tattooed over her eyes. After the picture was taken, their two families ate a meal together in a restaurant downtown and they spent the night at a hotel. A year later, his parents bought him an apartment in Shenyang. A year after that, Yu Wen got pregnant and had a miscarriage. A year after that, he went to work with a classmate in Xuzhou at the Haofulou Hotel. A year after that, he went back to Shenyang. A year after that, Yu Wen's friend Sha Sha moved to Canada and Yu Wen asked if they could go, too. A year after that, they boarded the plane and landed in Vancouver and then Regina and then took a Greyhound down the Trans-Canada. Sha Sha worked at a restaurant and they worked there, too. He worked in the kitchen and Yu Wen worked in the dining room. After a year, he went to the pork plant and Yu Wen had the money to go to the Beauty College. He looked at the couple in the picture. He looked at the marigolds. He stood and walked --   

-- down the rows of plastic seats, breathed in and breathed out blue cigarette mist. He bought a pack of Zhongnanhai and a paper box of rice and beef. He had a ticket with his seat number stamped on it but, when he went to the seat, he found it occupied by a man sleeping under a blanket of newspaper. The seats beside his were taken by a woman and her children. The woman looked up at him. Her face was tanned dark. Her shirt was rolled up over her flat breasts. She was feeding a toddler. The child had raw bald patches on his head. In the seat beside her, another boy cradled a dead sparrow in his hands. The sparrow was tied to his wrist with a string. On the floor in front of the sleeping man, a piece of newspaper had fallen to the floor. He took the paper and laid it on the floor in a corner. He sat on it and rested his head against the wall. The vibration of the diesel engines rumbled through him. Two men came and laid newspaper on the floor. He passed them cigarettes. They were brothers. They were headed home to Dandong for the winter. They had spent the summer and the fall digging irrigation ditches in towns and villages outside of Nanjing. Their hair was cut short and their scalps shone through it. They told him that it took them a week to walk from Nanjing to Yantai. They slipped their feet out of green khaki shoes and curled their toes on the newspaper. He ate his rice and they watched him. They traded stories about working in the city. He showed them his hands, which were permanently tanned from the flames of hotel kitchen stoves, speckled with shiny oil burns. He looked back down -- 

-- the edge-of-city stretch of Athabasca Street, where the city stripped down to stucco blocks and concrete lots. He pulled into the parking lot of a car wash. On the hill across the street, there was a cemetary and a trailer park. There was a puddle of brown water in the bowed curve of the car wash roof. The bays of the car wash were open and empty and someone had dragged a card table and a couple of chairs into one of them. He parked his van beside Guo Sun's yellow Sunfire. She opened her door and got out and they walked into the back room of the car wash through a door mounted with a sign painted on a hubcap that read Larry's Lunch. 

He poured two cups of a coffee from a carafe near the flat top grill. They sat at a booth beside a window. He sat across from her. She reached across the table and touched his arm.

He said: Who else am I going to talk to? She always says that if we were still in Shenyang, she'd leave me. He looked down at Guo Sun's neck while he spoke. He said: She told me that the last time she went home, her mother told her that there were plenty of men asking about her. He leaned across the table. I try talking to her but she won't talk about anything. She doesn't want to talk about anything. I've tried talking to her. She won't talk. I just can't take it. She won't talk to me. Guo Sun lit a cigarette and he pushed the ashtray toward her. He said: I don't even care if she wants to say the worst things about me that she can think to say. But to not even talk to me?

He looked out the window. The parking lot was mud. He heard the trains running down the valley, the squeal of wheels on track and the diesel drone --

-- kept him awake while the two brothers fell asleep curled together on the floor, heads pillowed on arms. He rested his head against the wall and stretched out on the floor. He tried to make his thoughts as clean as the diesel rumble and as steady as the push and pull of the brothers' breathing. He opened his eyes and saw the boy with the sparrow tied around his wrist. He was walking down the aisles of plastic seats. The sparrow trailed behind him. The sparrow's wings opened as it was dragged. The sparrow's wings swept across the dusty floor.

He put his jacket on and climbed the steel stairs back up to the main deck. The air was cold. He laid on a plastic bench, where the diesel exhaust from the stacks fell and warmed him. He took his pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket, shook one out --

-- and lit it and walked through the house. He went into his bedroom and ran his hand through the sheets on his bed, looking for the cordless phone. His bedroom was on the frontier of the living room, divided from it with a wall of Plywood and an ironing board hung with towels and rags. His bed was a mattress on the floor. He went to Yu Wen's bedroom. It smelled like lotion and shampoo. He found the cordless phone on her bed. He dialed Yu Wen's phone. He listened to it ring. She didn't answer.   

He sat on her bed and thought about the last time he slept there. He thought about the way his hands looked when he placed them against her pale inner thigh, how his fingers looked when he brushed back her pubic hair. His hands were disgusting to him. They were cracked and peeling from holding a wet knife handle, scarred by oil burns and slips of his knife. His knuckles under the brown skin of his fingers were pearls of bone set in twisted tendon. His fingernails were broken and yellow. The last time they had slept in the same bed, he smelled his own smell of sweat and refrigeration and disinfectant as it was smeared across her body, ruining her soft odors of hairspray and talcum and instant coffee.

He took off his clothes and left them on the floor of her bedroom. He got into the shower. He ran his hands down his stomach. He picked a piece of fat out of his hair. The fat had turned translucent in the hot water. He threw it into the drain. He pulled his penis by the head and then pulled down on it, trying to coax an erection out of it. He gave up and turned off the water. He went to his bedroom with a towel wrapped around his waist and felt the muscles in his back tingle and uncoil as he lay down. He pulled the final can of Kokanee out of its ring, cracked it, and lit a cigarette. He took a long pull on his beer and burped a squiggle of smoke.

When he got dressed, Huang Ge was already waiting outside in his Robitussin red Regal. He locked the door behind him and went out and got in. He sank into the dusty velour and reached over to pull out the ashtray. Huang Ge asked him about Yu Wen. The last time Huang Ge came to their house, he had brought her a dried fish and she had smiled and asked him how to cook it. When he left, she fell into bitter silence. She tossed the fish onto the counter. She told him that Huang Ge was laughing at her, insulting her by bringing her a dried fish. He hadn't told Huang Ge about this. He leaned back and stretched out his legs --

 -- on the bench and turned his head, so that the exhaust from the stacks above him fell on his cheek. A man and a woman were standing beside the railing on the deck. The woman was wearing a red dress. She wore the man's jacket over her shoulders. She was younger than the man and taller but her legs were short and thick. He danced with her and pushed her up against the railing. He tapped his pointed leather shoes around her red slippers. The man put his hands under the skirt of her dress and reached up inside of it. The dress made a flapping sound in the wind.

He rolled to his shoulder to watch them and and two coins fell from his pocket and slapped down onto the plastic bench. The man and the woman looked over. The man led the woman away. He heard a steel door slam. He watched the stars through diesel exhaust. He peeled the coins off the steel bench with his fingernails. He put the coins in his pocket and took out the card from the bus company.

He lit a cigarette. He thought about going back to sleep beside the two brothers. He wanted to wake them up and buy them a paper box of noodles and drop cigarettes between their fingers. The brothers had walked across the burnt down fields of Jiangsu, along the coast and through the last fishing villages. He had taken a bus. He had left that morning. The night before, he had packed his bag and then gone for a final walk through the city. He had walked along the canal and among the backpacked and uniformed primary schoolers and the old men carrying birdcages. He went to a familiar alley near the train station. He had to say goodbye to Lao Wu, had to repay kindness and--

-- his patience had failed and the night had begun. He dialed Guo Sun's number and when she answered, he imagined her sitting in her room over the National Cafe. She would meet him there. She would be waiting when he arrived --

-- he knocked on Lao Wu's door. He waited. He looked up and down the wet alley and smelled the dark green smell of sewage. Lao Wu's daughter answered the door. He told her he was leaving and wanted her father to have some of his things. She asked where he was going and he pressed his bundle of knives toward her. He walked to the bus station and sat in the muddy parking lot until the sun rose. When the ticket window opened, he bought a ticket for Yantai. He sat on the bus and watched the fields burning. He watched the concrete villages and the flatlands of Shandong. 

When he got off the bus, he walked past the grimy buses choking into gravel lots and the masked women touting for hotels. He walked past the the taximen leaning against black Jettas. He lit a cigarette and lost himself in the crooked streets of container terminals. There were whorehouses among the grey buildings of the docks. They were single door, single window buildings, each home to a girl with hair dyed yellow or orange or red. There was graffiti on the walls. The local government planned to tear down the old red light district. He went into a bar called The Ocean Heart. He sat in a private room and ordered a bottle of brandy. The brandy was made in Yantai. On the label, it had a picture of maybe a Russian man, with a black beard. There were girls walking among the tables with numbers tagged to their hips. He wanted a girl --

-- and a boy pushed out of hedges along the edge of Crescent Park as Huang Ge pulled into a parking spot on Fairford Street. The Regal creaked as he stepped out. He leaned against a parking meter and lit a cigarette. He watched the young couple disappear in the dusk. The nights were getting cold. Huang Ge walked toward the casino and he followed him. They went through the black glass doors and the greeter, a tall man in a dark suit, nodded to them. They sat in the lounge and ordered glasses of beer.

Huang Ge went to play the machines and he sat alone. Guo Sun stepped around the polished brass bars and entered the lounge as he was ordering a beer. He ordered two. He passed her a cigarette and lit it for her. She touched his arm. She laughed and leaned against him. The smoke hanging against the ceiling was lit red and green. 

He noticed for the first time a tattoo of a heart on her breast. It was a green smudge with a red arrow through it. He thought about what it would be like to have her, have all of her weight pushing on his lap, running his hands over her. He ordered another beer for himself and one for her. He tried to examine her face --

-- in the darkness. The number on her hip was 476. The girl was from Sichuan. She told him she came here because the air was clean. She studied massage in Chengdu. He tried imagining how she saw him, what he looked like to her. She put his hand on her thigh and pushed up her skirt. She looked into his eyes and he looked at her cheek. After a while, he got up to leave. She put her hand on his arm. It's a slow night, though. I'm just going to be here. He asked how much it would be to take her away for the night. She left him alone in the private room. She came back in a pale yellow Adidas tracksuit. They walked away from the docks and the whorehouses. They walked along the alleys of Old Chefoo, where the brick embassies of European powers were now occupied by messy households and doorway seafood restaurants.

They walked and didn't speak. They walked to a hotel near the ferry terminal. He gave her his T-shirt to use as a towel and she went down the hallway to the bathroom and came back with wet hair. She took off her tracksuit. He lifted the blanket off the bed and spread it out again and laid on top of it. She pulled him close to him and leaned in to kiss him. He turned away, stiffly, and then turned back to her. He tried to kiss her but she put her hand against his mouth. In the morning, he left and walked to the ferry. He put her name in his phone with no number. He knew he would never see her again and he knew --

-- the screen door would be unlocked. He opened it slowly and closed it slowly. He opened the door and walked into the living room. The food was covered with plastic wrap. The bowls and the chopsticks were gone. She had eaten. He went to the doorway of her bedroom. He knew she was asleep by her soft snore. He went to the side of her bed. On her bedside table, there was a hairdresser's mannequin, a female bust with hair dyed dark purple. The cheekbones and the nose reminded him of Guo Sun. He put his hand on the mannequin's hair and trailed his fingers along the bottom of its bangs. He reached down and put his hand on Yu Wen's hand. She did not wake up but pulled away from him. He went to his bed and laid down and fell asleep thinking about Guo Sun's smudged heart and in the morning --

-- his face was sticky with ocean dew dried by sweet diesel. He heard seagulls. The shore was there, spread out grey under the yellow sky. He reached back into his pocket and felt the frayed edge of the ferry ticket. He knew that she wouldn't meet him in Dalian. She wouldn't be waiting even after he arrived at the train station square on the creaking bus. She wouldn't meet him at the train station in Shenyang. When he walked Changjiang Lu and rapped down the highway to Baodao Village on the back of a mototaxi, she would not be waiting. Yu Wen. Yu Wen. He traced her name in the condensation on the plastic bench. 

16.1.15

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Panyu, Guangzhou, Guangdong
January, 2014




7.1.15

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Edmonton, Alberta
January, 2015

The days are short enough-- sun rising flat yellow against flat white, rolling along the horizon-- and the night is long enough-- the city lights reflected up against the steamclouds that collect above the upgrader stacks and sweep across the city.

The sidewalks are cut in smooth snow, light grey under streetlights like Indiana limestone. I walk down Whyte, up 109th Street. Now I'm walking the opposite way, toward the High Level Bridge. Across the North Saskatchewan River-- I only know where it is because of the lights on the bridge, which are flashing red to blue to green to red tonight-- the city is hazy towers of yellow light.

I carried Haru on my back down this street yesterday, her broken boot toe full of snow. We stopped at a Vietnamese place and ate sticky dumplings and bun bo Hue and went to the bathroom together, flushed the toilet and kissed. We spent all day on buses. She lost her job and she had no money. We spent all day arguing on buses and she kept asking me if I really love her and I said, Why do we have to do this every day? In five, six, whatever hours, you'll kiss me goodnight and tell me you love me and you'll wake up and forget all about it and call me at seven in the morning to ask me if I love you. I took the LRT to Clareview with her. I stood with her until #185 sidled up to the station. I kissed her and I told her I love her and knew I'd need to convince her again tomorrow.

And tonight, I picked her up from her job waitressing at a Japanese restaurant. We drove across the Walterdale Bridge and up the hill, past the Hotel Macdonald. She told me to park along the edge of the river valley. We got out of the car and looked at the lights down below until we decided they were the pyramids of the Muttart lit in aurora blues and greens. We said we'd drive into the country and look at the northern lights before the winter was over. We drove home along 118th Avenue and the tires of my car creaked around every corner and she shivered in her seat and said, Please be careful. I dropped her off and watched her until she opened the door at the bottom of my mother's condo block.

On the drive home, around the northern loop of Anthony Henday Drive. The unfinished ramps and unopened interchanges and muddy dozer roads through the snow were covered with snow. There was no other traffic. The expressway was empty. It felt like the edge of the world, as if nothing was alive-- as if nothing was reachable beyond the yellow smog and the reflected glare of city lights. The city was abandoned and spring would never come and the ground would stay frozen and nobody would come back and the lights would dim and the fog would roll down over the city. There was nothing out there.

Turning off, at 82nd Avenue, below the first overpass, a deer was lying in the center of the right lane. The deer was dead. It was lying on its side. Its face was looking back up the road. The blood on the snow was frozen to red sand but there was steam rising from the carcass. I slowed and drove around it. The headlights caught the green glow in its eyes.  

25.12.14

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Edmonton, Calgary, Banff, Jasper, Edson, Alberta
September, 2014

She stood in the kitchen, wearing a red rubber skirt from Forever 21. I told her that I didn’t know what a pachinko parlor looked like, but I was imagining that and a poster of a Mitsubishi sportscar on a wall and a girl posed on the hood and lightning in the background and she looked like that girl. I told her I wanted to take a picture of her skirt. I kneeled on the kitchen floor and took a picture of her skirt from the front, from the back. & She had hair that was red when the sun shone through it. Her hair was long and straight. She had long, fake eyelashes. She had just turned twenty four when I met her. Her birthday was on June 15th. & We drove to the parking lot of a school. She put on menthol lip balm and we kissed. & Her mother and father met as part of a dating service. They hated each other. She had a younger sister that lived in Germany. Her brother worked at a factory. She told me about working as a callgirl in Osaka. She told me about her friends in Sapporo. I tried to tell her things about me but she didn’t seem interested. & We drove to Calgary in an angry, defeated haze. & At the top of the Calgary Tower, two girls in short skirts spoke in Russian and struck poses on the glass floor. We looked down at Chinatown. & We spent the night in Banff and a deep high altitude sleep. & The morning was cool. & We paid for a sticker and drove onto the Icefields Parkway. & We walked down to a waterfall that cut suddenly into a canyon and walked from the falls up the fizzy rapids and took pictures of rocks that looked like umeboshi. we hiked to a lake the colour of Gatorade. We walked back along the highway. Tourbuses slowed as they passed us. & There were clouds hanging below the ridgeline, curtaining down through the valley. I turned the key in the ignition and scared myself with the sudden heavying of the wheel as the power steering died. There was thick forest on both sides. & The hot springs closed in October and stayed closed until May because the road couldn’t be kept clear. From a sign at a rest stop, we learned that people used to be carried to the springs on carts pulled behind horses. & There was a puffy wind blowing down from the ridge and through the parking lot. It was cold above the water. There was a black tourbus parked down the cement steps. We watched the tourbus slowly empty, elderly Europeans in crisp plastic jackets and wool scarves and hiking boots, carrying canes and cameras. We watched them walk up the cement steps and into the building. We watched them walk out of the shower rooms and down the ramp into the hot pool. The faces of the men were rough. The faces of the women were smooth. The men wore long swim trunks that they pulled up high over their pale white bellies. The women wore black or dark blue one-piece bathing suits. The men swam around the pool, pulling with their arms, their feet still stepping across the bottom. The women stayed in the shallow half of the pool. Their hair was white and grey and carefully pinned up. A sheep walked through the parking lot and disappeared between two tourbuses. A woman with a polka dot bikini was pulling her young son through the water. She reached down to pull up the top of her bikini and I saw puffy red scars along the bottoms of her breasts. The water smelled like sulphur. There were three concrete swimming pools. Haru and I sat in the warmest pool. The leaves in the forest were turning yellow. Haru taught me the Japanese name for the leaves changing colour. She was wearing a black Vero Moda bikini that she bought the night before in Jasper. & We drove east and saw deer crossing the highway and we came out of the mountain passes and valleys and the land sloped down and turned dark and grassy. We stopped in Edson. We stopped at a Shoppers Drugmart and bought three rolls of Easypix 400. & I drove her to the airport and she flew to Sapporo and we talked on Line and I heard crows and cars in the background. I talked to her standing in the window well of a building site off 127 Street. The plywood floor of the unfinished house was at eye level. I took a picture of it for her. I took a picture of my thumb, which had been burned with eight identical puffy grooves by a piece of rebar heated by the blade of a circular saw. & When I fell asleep, I kicked my legs over to her empty side of the bed. I heard the clink of rebar on rebar.

1.12.14

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Edmonton, Alberta
September, 2014



24.11.14

11.11.14

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Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong
January, 2014

6.11.14

25.10.14

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"Skoal vs. Copenhagen," Prairie Fire, Vol. 34 No. 3.

This was written...-- it would have been two summers ago. I was living in Moose Jaw with Xinran, at my father's house. I was working at a hotel on the highway, mostly overnight shifts, eleven at night until seven in the morning. I would sit in the back room and listen to CBC Radio Overnight and suck on Copenhagen Wintergreen and write. On my days off, I'd write in the study carrels at the Moose Jaw Public Library. I did a lot of writing that summer. This story was written in fifteen minutes, edited a bit, sent to a friend that tore apart the grammatical errors, edited further, and submitted to Grain's short fiction contest. I submitted two stories to the contest and one of them won ("The 33 Transformation Bodies of the Bodhisattva Guanyin")-- it was formally weird and carefully constructed and steamy, mystical and set in suburban Vancouver and I thought it had no chance-- but I was more emotionally connected to this story. I went to Guangzhou in the autumn and when I came back to Canada, there was a letter from an editor at Prairie Fire. I didn't remember submitting it to them. Reading it now, the emotional connection is gone and I think some of the language I used sounds strange and inaccurate but I respect that it's short (two thousand and a few words, I think) and gets something done in three brief pages.

19.10.14

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Various, Alberta
September 27-28, 2014

...across a bridge with wide gaps between the slats of wood, and signs advising that the bridge and the trail are not maintained after some date in October, and below it a waterfall cutting suddenly down fifty, sixty feet into a canyon, and we and walked from the falls up the fizzy rapids and took pictures of rocks that looked like umeboshi and collected green stones in our pocket and they looked like jade. We hiked to a lake the color of Gatorade. We walked back along the highway. We walked into the forest and took pictures of each other holding giant mushrooms.

...she used her hand like a spatula to scrape the soap fluff off her belly and legs and rubbed it over me. We watched TV.

18.4.14

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

16.4.14

15.4.14

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Various

* 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.