Dear Shaded Viewers,
A few weeks ago I was in Beijing covering Beijing Design Week which coincided with China’s National Day on October 1st–the 62nd anniversary of Communist China, or the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
My friend Nancy and I only thought it proper to celebrate our host country’s holiday, so we left our hotel on that pollution-free, crystal-clear blue-sky day (thanks, it was widely believed, to the government’s Weather Modifiction Department) and meandered down to Tiananmen Square to join the thousands of Chinese tourists who were in town.
During our Long March down the city’s ancient central axis, we encountered this group of adorable Chinese hipsters who were chanting as they ran-marched up the street….there was more than a hint of sarcastic laughter in their singing, so I guess the Communist Party has lifted the ban on irony.
It was much easier getting into Tiananmen Square than we expected, and besides three other honkies we spotted in the crowd, Nancy and I were the only non-Chinese. It was the sort of gathering you wouldn’t see in the U.S.–no beer or sausage vendors had set up shop in the square; in fact there was absolutely nothing to draw people there except its history. No parade, no music, no souvenir sellers, no speeches, no costumed street performers, nada, nothing. And of course, no political placards. But plenty of on-the-cheap fashion statements and faux status bags. We couldn’t have been further away from Occupy Wall Street if we were on the moon.
(This article from today’s Los Angeles Times, by the way, focuses on Communist Part members in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou in Henan Province gathering to express their solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Needless to say, Beijing officials are nervous about this.)
Also, to my dismay (although you can see I’m trying to hide my disappointment here), there were no portraits of Mao (except the famous one at the entrance of the Forbidden City), Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky. They played it safe by displaying this image of Sun Yat-Sen, who is regarded as the (non-Communist) founding father of modern-day China and is held in high esteem by the governments of both Mainland China and “rogue province” Taiwan. As conspicuous consumption spreads across China like a plague, Marxist-Leninist thought is being scrubbed away.
Leave it to Nancy to be the only person in a crowd of 100,000 wearing a leftist-themed t-shirt.
After a delicious lunch of hand-pulled noodles in Dashilar Alley, Nancy finally consented to taking a rickshaw ride, something I had been wanting to do. A few seconds into the ride, I was regretting it. Our old and devilish driver, whose bicycle was battery-powered, sped and swerved at insane speeds through narrow hutongs, where we nearly collided with pedestrians, cars, stone walls and other rickshaws, not to mention a cart with jutting bamboo rods that were aimed right at me. All I could think of was the horrible fate that befell Alan J. Pakula, the director of “Klute” and the “Sterile Cuckoo” starring Liza Minnelli, who died in a freak accident on the Long Island Expressway when a metal pipe went through his windshield and hit him in the head.
After our driver left the hutongs, the insanity was taken up a notch when we drove head-on into speeding traffic on a busy highway.
And then the kicker. I had shown the driver on my Chinese-character map where we wanted to go–a park in the north part of Beijing, not too far from our hotel. When he dumped us out, we thought we were in the correct park. I looked up and there was this outdoor movie screen showing what appeared to be a propaganda film from the 1960’s about the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. (If you’re unfamiliar with this tumultuous, violent, iconoclastic and almost Dada-like period of Chinese history, I recommend you look it up. It left behind a mentality that has lingered in the Chinese psyche.)
After the antiseptic treatment of Communist China’s political history that we just witnessed in Tiananmen Square, it was very curious indeed to see these films being shown publicly in this off-the-beaten-path park.
Nancy found a large sign in English that explained the history of the park we were in–which was NOWHERE near the park we wanted to be dropped off at. We were way down in the south of Beijing, at a place called Taoranting Park….but to my eye, it looked like “Tarantino Park” so I decided to nickname it “Tarantino’s Cultural Revolution Film Park.” (I can just see Quentin Tarantino doing a lively video introduction to a DVD complilation of Chinese propaganda films.) Because I’m somewhat obsessed with the Cultural Revolution, it was a happy accident that we were dropped off in the completely wrong place.
The park was an Imperial garden during the Qing Dynasty and its name is from a poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi. But the information placard at the park’s entrance, while acknowledging the park’s Qing and Tang Dynasty background, talked about the modern-day version of the park being built in 1952–the height of China’s honeymoon with Chairman Mao and a period when Stalinist and East German structures were rising up around the ancient courtyard houses, which went from being Imperial homes to Communist housing projects under Mao’s rule.
Taoranting Park has a Leftist Revolutionary history which began around 1919 when the park’s Nunnery was used for clandestine political meetings: Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were known to meet there and discuss the early framework for the Chinese Communist Party. A famous activist in the early days of the CPC, Gao Junyu, and his girlfriend Shi Pingmei are buried in the park.
As we strolled around the lovely park, many subtle marvels began to unfold before our eyes. This man and his friends were engaged in the act of water calligraphy.
The tombstone of Communist activists and lovers Shi Pingmei and Gao Junyu.
During my stay in Beijing I dined at many Yunnan restaurants and one night my friend Jeffrey Ying took me to the most interesting one in town: The Yunnan Provincial Government Beijing Office Restaurant which is housed in the hotel where visiting dignitaries from Yunnan Province stay while in town. The hotel has a somewhat gloomy 1950s’ Soviet-era charm that’s offset by this colorfully tacky flower display, complete with a curious bouquet of dusty peacock feathers which looked like they had been plucked from one of Hamish Bowles’ Met Ball ensembles.
The dining room is what I imagine a Trader Vic’s outpost on the Ho Chi Minh Trail would look like. (Yunnan is the south-western province that borders Vietnam, a jungle-y area it seems.) I love Yunnan food and it’s the least Chinese of Chinese cuisines. Instead of cilantro, Yunnan cuisine relies on mint as an important flavor, and it’s probably the only Chinese food that offers cheese, in this case goat cheese (which is deliciously fried and sprinkled with what I think might be cumin and sugar.) Lime and chili peppers are also big ingredients and they do wonderful fish in spicy sauces. A shimp dish is served with leaves that are fried until crunchy and have an intense lemony flavor. I really want to go to Yunnan Province now!
Jeffrey Ying at dinner. I forgot to take photos of the food because I was too engrossed in Jeffrey’s fascinating tales of his Shanghai family and their accounts of the Cultural Revolution. (Also, I was too busy shoveling the food into my mouth to photograph it.)
On my last night in Beijing, a bunch of us met for dinner at Moscow, the restaurant in the grandiose Sino-Soviet Frenemy Hall, a gift from the Soviet Union to China in the 1950s, before the two countries had a falling out at the end of that decade.
The dining room at Moscow
Me posing with the floor show
The food was pretty hit-and-miss and had a sort of “rationing chic” feel to it. This oily borscht, for example, seemed to use tomatoes instead of beets. The Russian dumplings, also pictured here, were thoroughly Chinese in taste. The potato pancakes were not bad but not nearly as good as the ones back home in NYC at Odessa’s. All of this was made palatable by the vodka shots we downed (we ordered a bottle of Stoli.)
Nancy Stout, Jeffrey Ying and moi. The painting behind us depicts the bridge from China to Mother Russia, or so we all assumed in our vodka-and-tomato-borscht stupor. Nancy, who is somewhat of a ninja librarian, somehow figured out once she returned to NYC that the painting, “is by Isaak Levitan (Deep Waters, 1892) of a log dam; friend of Anton Chekov (starting when Levitan went to art school; parents died and he moved in with the Chekov family).”
Aric Chen and Di Li
Aric’s mother flew in from Chicago to attend Beijing Design Week, which her son curated. We had an early birthday celebration for Aric with Moscow’s celebrated “October Revolution Cake” with hair-thin birthday candles made from rationed Soviet-era wax.
An impromptu roller-boogie gathering had spung up in front of the Sino-Soviet Frenemy Hall’s Disney-like tower.
The daylight patio scenes of the film “Boys in the Band” were shot at Tammy Grimes’ apartment; our Beijing version of the play was re-enacted at this apartment building.
One of the stars of Jeffrey’s exotically stocked bar is this bottle of rare wine which was drunk by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai during extra-special Communist Party ceremonies back in the day.