Monday, June 30, 2008

The morning after, and ESPN The Magazine

Backdated entry, published 2:53 a.m., July 5, 2008

After waking up at about 8 a.m. and wondering why I was naked in bed, underwear and shorts on the other room's bed, a sock on the ground, another strewn in the bathroom, I pried the dry contacts out of my eyes and returned to bed, only to discover -- with horror! -- a dead hooker under my sheets. I didn't know what to do, so I tried going back to sleep.

Alas, I could not -- the nausea! I considered jamming a thumb up my throat but instead planted myself on the bathroom floor (which was cold and hard and probably dirty) with my upper torso draped over the bowl, which reeked. I dry-heaved some stomach acid into my throat but it would go no farther.

In the afternoon I was taken to Beijing Sports University by Christine, my father's assistant, for an interview with an Olympic marathoner.

I had dinner at Aaron's with Lincoln and Molly, who I felt obligated to give an apology because when you can't remember what you did the night before, chances are you owe lots of people apologies. We shopped in the Oriental Plaza, then Lincoln and Molly cooked spaghetti while I stressed out about the interview I was supposed to transcribe and translate.

That interview turned into this story for ESPN The Magazine's website, the latest update from the "Beijing Bureau." I'll link to all my stories some other time.

A day well spent.

(Except for the dead hooker. I still need to take care of that.)

POSTSCRIPT: If you don't know why I couldn't remember Sunday night (but I've been filled in plenty, thank you Aaron and Kevin, Betsy, et al.): read this and this, and watch this.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A family visitor

The dad arrived today from the States. This one.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.” --Robert Frost

Friday, June 27, 2008

Updating and updating and updating

Ah, frak, Blogger's become unblocked and all of a sudden I've lost my motivation to post. Has my mind matured beyond transience and decided on a steadfast path to seek not happiness but contentment? Have I in these suffocating moments of languor had reason to reflect upon the very confinement choking off my air the worthiness of this all? Have I with nary a whimper fallen hopelessly and irrevocably into the sharp claws of the demon of love and readied myself to be led like a docile lamb to slaughter? Has that which sings the heart's refrain know yet to listen?

Stay tuned for more!

Two notes before the second Euro 2008 semifinal between Spain and Russia kicks off live on CCTV Olympic Channel and I turn my attention its way:

1. We had a captains' meeting for Beijing Ultimate summer league last night, and I was one of the attendees (Ultimate is taking over my life, as you can tell by these last few posts... my apologies, but this always happens). With the third overall pick, co-captain Yin and I...

So on and so forth. By the end of the 16-round, four-team draft, Yin and I had, by far, the best team. I can't wait to update our awesomeness for you throughout the summer.

2. Some of you may recognize the word "frak" -- used above -- from a certain popular Sci-fi channel TV show. I missed my 3:40 p.m. flight from Shanghai to Beijing on Tuesday because I was out at a DVD store called Even Better than Movie World (located across the street for what was formerly called Movie World) looking for a DVD box set of Battlestar Galactica. Luckily, I was transferred onto a 6 o'clock flight for no extra cost, which I also missed because it was at a different airport and our bus was stuck in traffic for two and a half hours (no exaggeration). I ended up taking a 7 o'clock, which sat on the tarmac for 40 extra minutes, inducing me to pound my head against the window and silently unleash a stream of horrible words not to be used around polite company.

I missed pickup at Deshengmen and the revelry afterwards, which was too bad because apparently I did lots of things at a party Saturday night that were worth sharing. Hmm.

Again, stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Back in Beijing air

Speaking of air...

The latest from the "Beijing Bureau" on ESPN The Magazine's website: it's about Beijing's air quality.

I'll go on the record here and say I believe the skies will clear up when the Olympics come, despite all the pessimism in the popular press. I may be in the minority on this, but I know lots of qualified people -- experts, you may say -- would agree.

I'll say more later. This could be a potential article...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Still in Shanghai

I stayed on the 35th floor of an apartment building last night in an area I'm unfamiliar with. Here's the view:

Take a look at the buildings to the left of the street (Wuding) and those to the right:

The tournament:

Saturday games:

vs. Hong Kong: lost half 6-2, then scored the next seven points, beginning with a high-release backhand on the goal line at about stall eight, after a layout catch of a sinking forehand huck. Surrendered the next two points, but hard cap went on with us leading 9-7, so 9-8 was the final.

vs. Korea: gave up the first point, then reeled off four straight with a stifling zone on our way to a 9-7 win. (Or maybe it was 10-8.)

Lunch, then bye.

vs. Ringers of Fire: lost 11-7 or something.

vs. Shanghai B: won 11-3.


vs. Singapore (quarterfinals): won 13-9. Led 12-5 at one point before giving up four in a row.

vs. Philippines: lost 13-9. I was chosen MVP by the Manilla squad and was awarded a flask of rum. It was fantastic, but I had had so much baijiu and gin the previous night (stories to come) that my body just wouldn't accept another swig.

Championship: Shanghai beat Philippines 13-9 in a closely contested game.

More pictures, etc., later. This one below is me on the party bus on the way to the bar, but I couldn't tell you, a) who took it, and b) whether this was before or after a bottle of Erguotou broke near my feet, stinking up the whole bus with the smell of baijiu. And if you haven't smelled baijiu before...

And yes, that is a Monopoly Waterworks placard around my neck.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Going to Shanghai

Flying out tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. for a weekend tourney in Shanghai, where the weather is, to put it nicely, not cooperative. Here's the five-day forecast according to Accuweather:

Friday: 88/78, thunderstorms
Saturday: 90/77, rain
Sunday: 83/69, thunderstorms
Monday: 73/67, rain
Tuesday: 77/65, rain

Apparently it's the wet season.

We'll play Shanghai, most likely, and here's to hoping we beat them again. The following picture was taken during China Nationals, where we beat Shanghai 7-6.

That's me on the follow-through of a forehand toss. I can honestly say I have more mastery over a low-release flick than anything else in life*.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Art (and poetry) in China

Before we get to the art, let me just put out there for everyone that if I ever write a poem this bad, please just shoot me. From Danwei:

A poem written by Wang Zhaoshan (王兆山), vice-chairman of the Shandong Writer's Association, recently caused controversy. The poem was obviously intended as praise for the government, particularly its efforts in the quake relief, but it was so badly-written some found it more disgraceful than flattering.

The poem was originally published in the June 6 issue of Qilu Evening News, a newspaper circulated mainly in Shandong Province. In the poem, Wang impersonated a victim expressing his gratitude to the government from his grave:


Here is fairly literal translation:

Natural disaster is inevitable, so why should I complain about my death? The president calls, the premier asks, the Party cares, the country is concerned, the voices go into the rubble. One-point-three billion people shed tears. I feel happy even as a ghost. Silver eagles and army vehicles came to rescue: soldiers, police officers - the great love! I am satisfied to die. I only wish I could have a TV set so I could watch the Olympic Games and cheer with others.

The article goes on to mention the Chinese Writer's Association, a consortium of, it appears, very bad writers who are government-funded and required to produce government-approved pieces of "literature."

In China, a country with a rich literary history (though utterly infuriating and unreadable, even to Chinese scholars), art means something completely different than the definition Westerners have come to know. It doesn't reflect society, or transcend it, or advance it (every artist's dream). Instead, it sort of just blends into the Party line. And that's a shame.

For an example of real art, check out the pictures I took yesterday at the opening of "Map Games: Dynamics of Change," part of the International Visual Art and Architecture Project, an exhibit at the Beijing Today Art Museum on Baiziwan Road in Chaoyang District:

Hey, you can see my apartment!

What sort of art museum would this be without a guy and girl chatting in front of a picture hanging on a white wall?


From the press release:

In Beijing the dynamics of change are so great that the process of creation, adjustment and production of the city map simply cannot keep up with the “butterfly effect” of the city's exploding construction busyness and the consequent rapidly changing dynamics of the city's geography. The daily, if not hourly changes taking place in the city creating the state of continuous flux mean that the map can only exist, like the city itself, in the same state of constant, explosive and sometimes illogical change.

Consciously or subconsciously we therefore engage in the process of mental mapping, or playing a kind of mapping “game”, that becomes an essential part of experiencing the city. Multi-layered “parallel maps” are created through one's experiences of the city and represent personal reflections on the city's dynamics. Mapping of the city becomes an all-sensual, three-dimensional experience, a synergy of elements including history and memory, time and space, language and communication. The process of mapping is layered with important cultural references yet remaining continuously fluid and inviting constant reinterpretation.

Mapping of the city becomes a map game - and a mind game.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Emptying the notebook

ESPN The Magazine website: Olympic pandas, originally submitted June 5, published on the 10th.

Also: Olympic gold rush.

Two backdated blog entries:

June 4: The Beijing Book Building

The Beijing Book Building is a tribute to bibliophiles everywhere, a seven-floor mansion containing tens of thousands of titles in several languages, each floor well-lit, prim and proper.

June 7: A Night at Houhai

Further into the night as we moved north along the waterside the air itself turned to smoke, swirling about us in rectitude like destitute refugees in an ashen wasteland searching for a likeness to attach to like suckerfish and call home. We flowed. Down a set of stairs and into the womb of a dying creature, a few signs of life and eyes of life glancing not at but past us, reminiscent of nothing.

Upcoming: China Nationals. It's been more than two weeks and I haven't sifted through the more than 1 GB worth of stuff on my camera, not to mention mental notes, etc.

The extended version of a recent ESPN blog post

I had a recent submission to ESPN heavily edited -- ***probably*** for the better -- but since I stressed over this for hours, I feel some need to get it out of my computer and into the open. Therefore, the extended version:


July 13, 2001, the day Beijing won the rights to host the Olympic Games, some 200,000 people converged on Tiananmen Square, celebrating with song and chant deep into the early morning. Already dissent was brewing from other parts of the world, but the revelers couldn’t be bothered with questions of Tibet, censorship and human rights. This was, at last, China’s chance to show off its 5,000-year-old culture and history and enter the global community’s inner circle, and they were determined to do it with flourish.

Seven years later, the sentiment’s still there, but you have to dig a little to find it. The ubiquitous Olympic logos and Fuwa mascots have blended into the cityscape, as indiscrete these days as the sight of construction cranes and traffic jams. You can walk the city streets for a week and not overhear a murmur of the Olympics, so no, contrary to popular conception, the Chinese are not incanting messianically that the Olympics are coming, the Olympics are coming. And TV stations may not lack for Olympics updates, but that doesn’t mean the country’s glued to the screen – just like after Fox airs its hundredth promo of Prison Break during the baseball playoffs, after a while the phrase “Olympic dream” can lose its pathos as well.

Point is, somewhere along the way, the people here have taken the Olympics’ coming as a fact. And yes, they can believe it, even as their surroundings change in manners simultaneously grand, mundane and bizarre, from the still-glistening subway system that’s being expanded as we speak to the ordinance laws on smoking and spitting to restrictions on marriage licenses and guidelines on how to cheer. It may take an outside perspective to make sense of it all.

That’s where we come in.

In the 52 days left until the Opening Ceremonies, we’ll provide an update every Monday on the week that was in Beijing. We can’t promise it’ll be comprehensive, but hopefully it’ll reflect a slice of life in this country: the wacky and unique, the cool, the poignant and heartbreaking.

If that’s not reason enough for a blog, well… all the cool kids are doing it. And we’re cool… right?

[Links and more unnecessary wordiness follow]

Are China's pandas in jeopardy or recovering?

Depends on whether you believe a British newspaper or an American one.

Times Online:

Yan Xun, an official at the State Forestry Administration, said: “Their living environment is completely destroyed. Massive landslides and large-scale damage to forests triggered by last month’s earthquake are threatening the existence of wild pandas.”

Washington Post

Those efforts are working. The 47 giant pandas currently living here are regaining their appetites and returning to active play. The sound of a car or the shaking of an aftershock no longer sends them bolting in fright. Rather, Qing Qing is like many others as she grabs a handful of bamboo and flops onto her back to munch peacefully, belly to the sun.

I guess they don't have to be mutually exclusive, necessarily: pandas at Wolong are doing better, while those in the wild face very serious threats. Still, it's interesting to see how the headline writers -- i.e. editors -- chose to spin the two stories. The truth? Probably somewhere in the middle.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A hat tourney win

I was a captain yesterday at a four-team Beijing hat tournament, won by... my team.

Congratulations to...
  • Lin
  • Wang Mianfei
  • Steven
  • Gabe W
  • Roger
  • D.O.C.
  • Aaron
  • Aaron Rosa
...for being drawn out of a hat by my hand.

The game scores were 9-5 (vs. Boehner's team), 4-5 (vs. Reid's team, which had lost its first game 5-3) and 6-5 (vs. Ken's team). Incredibly, Boehner's team won its second game 8-4, then beat Reid's team 7-5 to finish with a better point differential. By dint of our head-to-head result, however, we were deemed champs.

For the record, the two teams that finished 2-1 had point diffs of +2 and +1. That's parity for you.

Well done, Jeff.

Pictures follow.

It wouldn't be a hat tourney without hats, and it wouldn't be much of a hat if it isn't of the best team in the world, the Kansas City Royals.

Aaron, Lincoln and Reid

Everyone gathered around as the captains announced the teams...

Our cheer before Game No. 3 was in honor of the girl dressed in orange: Char-bee.

If you're Chinese and slightly inclined towards the vulgar, you would get it.

Doc and Julia, the married couple*, hand-in-hand. (We were called Team Married, after Team Tao and Team Doc both got vetoed.)

Our first pregame cheer was done in Chinese and meant something to the effect of, "Prosperity in bed" (literally: wish you quickly have children). Our second -- introduced to gasps from a few of our Chinese players -- was, "Zaoru dongfang" (早入洞房), which means something to the effect of, "Hurry up and consummate" (literally: "Hurry to enter mountain hole").

*Not actually married. Reid, Julia's boyfriend, was close by for our second cheer, which was prefaced by my shout, "Doc and Julia." The team then replied with the consummation part.

The two women and children in the picture to the right might have waited all afternoon for us to be done with our waters. We deposited the plastic bottles at that corner and watched as they encircled it like vultures and started stomping the bottles flat. Let it be noted that nothing gets wasted in China.

Is that a shocker over Sandy's head?

At the restaurant near Dongzhimen:


China Nationals post preview... two weeks late

I have lots and lots of pictures from China Nationals, which happened a couple weekends ago, but no time to sort through them. For now this will have to do:

From Beijing Ultimate's newly launched website. Photo by Stephanie Zhang.

Friday, June 13, 2008

There goes my night

I think a flash flood is passing through (or at least a very windy thunderstorm).

At least the temperature's cooled down.

Blondes are popular

Julia looking gangsta Chinese.

This picture could use some explaining.

After Tuesday's pickup Ultimate we went (for the second straight week) to a small eatery just down the block. As we were readying to leave, a group of Chinese guys approached one of our tables and asked Lincoln (not pictured, sitting to my right) if they could get a picture. Lincoln, who is Chinese, thought they meant if we could take a picture of them. Little did he know, they wanted a group photo with the two blondes at the table.

"Well, that was new," I said at the end of the photo-op.

"That?" Lauren replied. "Nope. It happens all the time."

Watch as the Chinese guy next to Lauren expresses surprise that the blonde can speak English...

At the end of the video Lauren asks, "Are you this place's boss?" The guy says, "No, I'm just here to eat," to which Lauren nearly jumps out of her seat: "Really? Me too!"

The subtlety of that little dig is genius.

POSTSCRIPT: Bonus video and picture, taken from Deshengmen, one of the city's northern gates.

The dancers are all elderly men and women -- mostly women -- and the music is, to say the least, entrancing.

POSTSCRIPT 2: From Wikipedia:

The Deshengmen (simplified Chinese: 德胜门; traditional Chinese: 德勝門; pinyin: Déshèngmén; Manchu: Erdemu i etehe duka; lit. "Gate of Virtuous Triumph") is one of the few surviving city gates in Beijing, China, located at the northern tip of the 2nd Ring Road. In old times, the army would leave Beijing from Xuanwumen and re-enter the city, triumphant, at Deshengmen.

The city's 2nd Ring Road is speckled with "gates," which used to be, literally, gates into the city, back when a great stone wall surrounded the heart of Beijing. The wall was taken apart in the middle of last century, when Mao came to power, and rebuilt underground as part of a labyrinthine bomb shelter to protect against possible Soviet nuclear strikes.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A New York Times op-ed

This is dumb.

This is dumber:

There’s an inherent contradiction between China’s desire to invite the world to the Olympics and its effort to deny those visitors — and its own people — the most basic freedoms. Last week, an I.O.C. official said he is convinced the Games would be a “force for good” in China. The committee and Western governments need to remind Beijing that the world is watching, and so far the picture isn’t good.

The picture isn't good? And how great was the picture for the Atlanta Games, when the world was treated to the most over-commercialized Games ever (not to mention that bomb...)? This probably never crossed the minds of the New York Times' all-so-conscientious and morally snobby editors, but maybe China doesn't care what the West thinks. Maybe China realizes it's the main superpower in its half the globe, and that it should do what's best in its interest, not the West's.

China's leaders, it has been said, are very shrewd, very intelligent and very efficient. I think if they felt press freedom was what's best for the country, they'd allow the press its freedom. And if it decided that China's a country formed out of political turmoil and dissent, and that authoritarianism is, at present, the surest method for ensuring peace, then, well, you'll get authoritarianism.

The NY Times also blatantly misses or misinterprets more than one point. Another excerpt:

On its Web site last week, the Chinese Olympic organizing committee listed a set of restrictions for the 500,000 overseas visitors expected in August. Olympic spectators are being told not to bring in “anything detrimental” to China, including printed materials, photos, records or movies. Religious or political banners or slogans are banned. So are rallies, demonstrations and marches — unless approved by authorities in advance. It also says that visitors with mental illnesses and sexually transmitted diseases will be barred from the country.

We shudder at how those judgments — many of them highly subjective or intrusive — will be made.

There are no judgments waiting to be made. I suspect no one will ever be kicked out of the country for carrying an STD, but that if, say, a person spits on the portrait of Deng Xiaopeng at Tiananmen Square, the country will try to find any way possible of dealing with him, and if he (or she) happens to have an STD, well... isn't there that rule against that?

This is how China works, of course, and I'm surprised the Times, of all papers, didn't understand.

Shudder away.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

It was the first time Duanwu Jie -- celebrated in commemoration of the 3rd century Zhou Dynasty poet Qu Yuan -- was an official public holiday in mainland China, where workers got Monday off.

Of course, if stuff like this happen --

Nine Chinese villagers died and two were missing after they fell into a river in east China while watching a traditional Dragon Boat race from a rain-soaked embankment, state media said on Tuesday.

-- maybe this will also be the last time people get a day off.

People eat zhongzi the weekend of the festival because back in the day, villagers threw zhongzi -- sticky rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves -- into the river where Qu Yuan drowned so that the fish would spare the body. A quaint thing to do, but it's a good thing the zhongzi tradition has lived on: they're delicious.

I had a few of them on Friday at Jiujiu's:


From Tim Johnson of China Rises:

Anxiety is rippling through China. Millions of people know that what happens over the next two days could be a crucial turning point in their lives.

Think I’m kidding? Then you don’t understand the pressure that builds every year at this time before the annual college entrance examinations across China.

It’s a pressure cooker out there.

He's not kidding. Mingyu, who you may remember for his extraordinary musical talent, recently finished his gaokao (college exams), and now the waiting begins.

Mingyu may be able to hit a high C, but he has deficiencies when it comes to book learning. He's taken these college exams once already in hopes of entering a highly respected national music school -- and failed. This time around, he needs to score 285 to qualify for the Beijing Music School, a mark that isn't considered very high. I mean, it's not like he's going for Tsinghua University, or some other school in the top 30. But as to whether he'll make it...

Jiujiu said to me at lunch today, "I asked him how many of those ancient poems he's memorized, and he replied, 'None so far.' So at that point I thought" -- and give Jiujiu credit, he said this with a laugh -- "it's gonna be a close call."

All Mingyu needed was to average about 60 percent, and it looks like he might not get there. Yikes. The results won't be in for a while, but for now I can only feel a little stress with (for?) him. I remember my SAT-prep days, and they weren't very fun.

Wrap-up of the 100-days-till-Olympics celebration

This really should've been posted 40-some days ago, but I was looking at YouTube tonight and came across a couple of interesting videos that bear sharing, even without a time element.

This first one I watched hoping to catch a glimpse of myself in the crowd. Alas, no luck. But listen to the issues this British reporter talks about and pay particular attention to his report on the Tibet protesters. Don't those stories feel like some relic of the past? Thus is the news cycle for you, coming and going in flashes. When's the last Western news report you've seen on Tibet? Or the words "Olympic boycott"? (No, Sharon Stone doesn't count.) They've practically disappeared from our dialogue.

And it's telling how the reporter says that "pollution" has been bumped off the front pages, because in much the same way, the Wenchuan earthquake bumped Tibet off the front. More and more, China's been able to dictate the storylines in this lead-up to the Olympics, this from a government that has plenty of experience dictating what can and can't be said. It should be noted that the Chinese people are more than slightly complicit in self-censorship, with netizens circling the cybersphere like sharks or modernized Red Guard ("online lynch mob," as the Shanghaiist puts it) ready to pounce at the first whiff of blood.

Then again, pollution has slowly but surely been making a comeback, which leads me to wonder: in the two months before the Opening Ceremonies, because two months is a long time, is Tibet going to resurface as an issue? And if not Tibet, then something equally damaging to China's reputation, like reports of anger and protests out of Sichuan?

I'm betting yes. But we'll see.

And a bonus video for you, the Heart of Beijing premiere of "Beijing Welcomes You," the official song of the 100-day countdown (sort of like the official cheer, I guess).

For you guys (and gals, I suppose) out there, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the attractiveness of the first girl who comes on screen? 11, 18, or 55?

POSTSCRIPT: Blogger has been unblocked. Now we introduce our newest office pool: how many days until Blogger gets blocked?

Monday, June 9, 2008

The death of sparrows

From a couple weeks back... I'll spare you pictures.


They say China’s growing.
In the age of aspiration growth is driven by the young
who have reason to grow, and so it is,
young ideas and young faces
capering on billboards and winking from the walls
of a young subway whose skin shines
in its youth. You measure growth
by the shrinking horizon, the skyscrapers
leaping off the charts, the varicolored oxides
commixing with clumps of air you can roll on your tongue
and savor like popsicles or Nestle drumsticks.
You can see it if you squint a future
reshaping the ground we walk, the air we breathe.

But I measure it by the broken bodies
of tiny sparrows on my doorstep,
plucked from their nests because
someone somewhere
had the bright idea that slanted rooftops were more
aesthetic, Western, mei
like the country, beautiful,
and so
scoop goes a nest
hurling down,
scoop goes baby bird
learning to fly,
scoop, down below,
and splat on the venerable cement
bending to caress these headlong divers
but not enough, you dumb old thing,
not softly enough.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

I think someone died in Sanlitun last night...

Around the corner they came with ironclad faces like bloodied lictors set to course to perform a deed already done, not anger in their hearts and not hatred exactly but a throbbing sense that the universe had tilted in its last bygone hour and some inextricable fragment as their pride or something primordial and intrinsic had been knocked out of whack and was now spiraling into a chasm with no choice of alternative. Eyes colorless and unbending in the percolating light. One with a studded truncheon for a right hand, and at his footsteps a shirtless mercenary cursing his rank among the six or eight.

The grimness of this scene in the early morning shocked us into reconsidering our exit. We spun around and watched the antic tide roll past and only later registered that this was the harbinger of death foretold in the waning dark letting fall the final vestiges of shade. This was death as written in the dirt and death as imprinted on our code and smoked into a recycled air that swelled with this stench. Mildew and decay in naked view, now walking away, now disappearing around the corner.

Earlier that night from a balcony we spied a pack of Algiers set upon a man who fell into a fetal position under the protection of confreres who draped themselves over his limp body. A black girl who lingered under a tree immediately below us said in a twisted English, Beat his ass, beat his ass, as if the French they spoke was too dignified to be employed in the encouragement of the walloping of human flesh. They kicked and stomped before a group of security guards in black shirts shooed them away. A middle-aged Chinese man next to me smiled to his comrade and between us a ludicrous comment remained unsaid.

Earlier we saw black-shirted guards chase an Englishman down an alleyway, using clubs, into a bar, the pack of them operating with tenacious speed and terrifying efficiency. The Englishman emerged moments later with dots of blood on his shirt and blood dripping off his face. He sat on a motorcycle while his friends comforted him and apologized and tried dispelling those fantasies of revenge brewing in his bloodied head. And before him, an unconscious expat carried by arms and legs by eight men and deposited in an alley, or on a curb, anywhere but that sanctuary which smelled of booze and vomit and bliss. Out of what common chrysalis might these creatures have materialized to suffer these indignities and inflict them in a cycle of punishment and penance.

The fact of their going was beyond inquiry the moment we saw our first fight, a bronze-skinned man thrusting his hand into another man's face and pushing him hard onto the ground, the back of his head lodging into a bike pedal. Motherfucker, motherfucker. The abused stood and wobbled ever so slightly, then grabbed a bottle and walked past our table to confront his abuser being ushered away by cooler heads. He tapped his Heineken on the stone of a nearby shack, tap tap tap, wordless and lightness and flashes of derangement in his eyes. His hair long and slicked back and his narrow frame gave the impression of one in the wrong place running with the wrong crowd, a gazelle in a bullpen. The other let him wobble past down the road to his ignominious exit, a last gesture not quite of generosity but clemency as we laughed and said, Did you see the way he was tapping his bottle? As if not going would violate some inviolable mishnic that determined this life and perhaps the next.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A night at Houhai

Picture from Kevin Reitz's post about the night. Click on the link to see the after shot.

Frisbee golf is a beautiful game for its Manichean nature, a study in dualistic contrasts. For instance, it's played outdoors, mostly in scenic parks, yet features just enough obstacles (like trees) to make you forgo sightseeing. It's a laid-back, easy game, because it does, after all, combine Frisbee with golf, but the objectives are such (hitting a lightpost) that the game will make you sweat. It's competitive in nature, fiercely so if you're with the right people, yet can -- nay, should -- be played with beer in hand. And so it is that a group of us -- Lincoln, Kevin, myself, Joe and Greg (left to right in the above picture) -- went to Chaoyang Park yesterday to enjoy a Friday evening tossing the ol' disc at stationary targets amid moving hazards.

Let's jump to the part where I won, by one stroke (it was two, actually, but we decided prior to the final hole that the winner of a shotgunning contest would get a stroke removed from his score. Joe won). Trailing by one going in the last hole, all Joe needed was to hit a four-foot-high fence from about 30 yards out -- a fence that was on the ground -- but he missed and had to settle for bogey. It was arguably the greatest choke job since Jean Van de Velde in the 1999 British Open, proving more so when I parred and then lost the beer-shotgun contest.

In addition to winning, I didn't find myself in a tree, like Lincoln.

Afterwards there was dinner at a nearby restaurant, then Houhai, a commercialized, touristy bar district behind Beihai Park. I visited three times a couple years ago, when I was here for just 10 days, but Friday was my first time at Houhai this go-around. It's not as debaucherous as Sanlitun, but it has its share of downsides: many of the bars are sparsely populated (the one pictured below with the neon lights was in a district just outside Houhai's main strip of waterfront bars... cool, but also a little depressing), the only single girls are Russian, the Chinese nationals will watch you and laugh in mockery and you'll get spotted from 50 yards away by people who want to lead you into "disco" bars where you can pay girls 100 RMB to "sit" with you. Uh... apologies for the quotation marks. I mean sit literally.

Speaking of Chinese watchers... the group of us decided we'd play a little game called "Watch the Hot Girls" (note: not actually called that), where we'd all turn and stare at any available ladies passing our way (I got this idea after seeing a blond trip over her high heels and collapse in a heap of drunkenness). The trick is we would do it ironically. Of course, after a couple times, a few Chinese people spotted us playing this game and began, predictably, mocking us. It was humiliating and put an end to our little charade.

Eventually, after circling around, we approached the back entrance to Houhai's waterfront bars. After a brief pause at a candied haw stand we trudged on. Several rooms were empty, for renovation or because one can sell girls for company for only so much money, even to desperate, slimy foreigners who would think nothing of dropping 100 RMB for a beer. Lights and lasers criss-crossed ahead of our steps as we gravitated towards some primordial lodestone that spoke to the pulse in our blood. At a bar called Sex and Da City a disinterested girl danced with a pole on top of a bar as a half dozen pairs of eyes of looked up in bemusement like desert creatures spying the moon. We moved on. A woman in red peered out at us from behind a microphone and pulled us to a standstill. We moved on. In front of the Starbucks at the front entrance of Houhai -- you'll remember I said this place was commercialized -- we turned to our return path, the five of us with Yanjings in hand like a bedraggled entourage missing its star.

We came back to the place that housed the woman in red and from the outside street our eyes scavenged the room for her trace. She was at the bar with her back to us, shoulders bare, talking to a laowai. The goading of my companions left me too psyched out to approach this creature filtered behind my burnished haze into the color of desire. Leave it to Kevin to set his beer in my hand and dash in. He conversed, pointed outside, and she looked. He emerged a moment later and asked us to come in to take a picture. Only I accepted.

Further into the night as we moved north along the waterside the air itself turned to smoke, swirling about us in rectitude like destitute refugees in an ashen wasteland searching for a likeness to attach to like suckerfish and call home. We flowed. Down a set of stairs and into the womb of a dying creature, a few signs of life and eyes of life glancing not at but past us, reminiscent of nothing. A man approached us when we emerged and said to follow, and so we did but on our own terms. Joe came again to the candied haw stand and this time we stopped because the attendant stared, pointed and laughed, scratching the side of his face in imitation of a bearded man such as Joe. Joe called him Songwukong -- an ancient warrior monkey who is the embodiment of everything virtuous in this country -- the ultimate compliment in China if used in the right context. This was not the right context but speaking to a man scratching his cleanshaven face one may rightly question the very meaning of context and whether nothing considerate may be said.

Around a corner kicking up dust and through gnarled mandibles of this lair we went and saw the faces of our to-be companions, who could be bought for 100 kuai. Back to the street from whence we approached and again entering Houhai's back gate for one more try in our search for a thing lost to touch, tongue and memory. How it might be found was not our concern as we glided through the lasers and sneered at European tourists we deemed deserving of misfortune.

"Pretty girls." In Chinese: We have no money.

Middle-aged women waved at us as we walked by. Across Andingmen Street and to a small eatery where the beers still came and I asked them to bring out the hottest chicken wings they could make. They smirked and watched from behind the glass as Joe tried it and, eyes expressionless, nodded. Kevin touched one and licked his finger and said, "Don't do it, you'll hate yourself." I took a bite and a moment later through tears was asking them to bring out a third bottle of water, spitting mouthfuls out in the small space between Lincoln's foot and mine until a small pool formed there, incapable of buffering against the next mouthful that crashed down with a splash to prod the world, already hurling with baleful dishevel, deeper towards the universal abyss which is all our demise.