Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Love and Tenderness

A Chinese colleague of mine, T, who is in his early 30s and from Hong Kong told me recently about a visit he'd just made to a Beijing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor for consultation about his arthritis and the doc’s surprising prescription.

“He did some checks and then asked me whether I'm married,” T said. “I said, ‘no,’ and then he asked, ‘How often do you do it with your girlfriend?’

“I said I don't have a girlfriend. Then he asked about masturbation. Later he explained that according to Chinese medicine, kidneys are related to the bones and that ‘doing it’ is like exercising your whole body, which is beneficial to your kidneys.

“And finally he said: ‘Get a girlfriend.’”

“TCM prescribing TLC,” I told T. “I like it!”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rings of Fire

Summer's here and the time is right for busting barbecues in the street in Beijing and other civic-minded localities. I was sitting at a very small table on very precarious chairs near a friend's apartment very early Friday morning sharing some cold Tsingtaos and generally solving the world's problems as we watched the late night/early morning bbq crowd ebb and flow around us.

Many neighborhood corners in Beijing and Shenzhen and other cities sprout instant ‘cue stands after dark when enterprising men and women throw some charcoal and wood on metal trays or inside a circle or rectangle of bricks, fire it up and start cooking chicken, corn, meat-you'd-rather-not-ask-about and sundry other edibles for midnight munchies.

As the smoke and smells of smoke and grilling meat drifts from the makeshift pits, men, women and children start squatting or pulling up cinder blocks and munchkin-size stools to eat, drink, gossip, play cards, argue and laugh often until 2 or 3 am.

Scorched sidewalks and trash greet the rising sun, shortly after which the female street cleaners - clad in baggy jumpsuits and some with oversized umbrella-like hats but almost always with some manditory feminine touch like a colorful scrunchie or sequined bow for their tied-up hair - sweep up the debris with brooms often larger than themselves, leaving only the scorch marks.

As Jeff and I watched from the three makeshift stands doing business near us, a large blue city government-looking van pulled up and disgorged three poker faced guys in blue uniforms and wearing what appeared to be oven mittens.

It was the cheng guan (municipal inspectors) or BBQ SWAT team as I like to call them. Many of these unlicensed food sellers and their crafts and jewelry counterparts often pay off scouts to give them advance warning of a coming bust. I’ve seen an entire small bridge or underpass market sweep up its hundreds of wares into large blankets and scatter within 40-seconds only a few minutes before the cheng guan arrive in, but tonight the spotters were MIA.

Silently and quickly crack bbq busters each sprinted to a stand, reached down and jerked the cheap aluminum metal trays of burning coals from under the grills and spilled the glowing embers on the sidewalk. They charged back to the idling van clutching the trays, tossed them inside and - wheels screeching as the driver ground his gears - left as quickly as they had struck.

Mission accomplished. Chalk up three unlicensed bbq stands that wouldn't be threatening Beijing society anymore - or would they?

Except for a profound "holy f*ck" from me and a "did you bloody see that, mate?" from Jeff no one else said a word before, during or after the raid - except for one cook who appeared to be asking someone where he could find a new tray for his coals. The bbq stand owners simply swept the remaining burning coals into individual piles, found new trays (another griller had a stash in a garbage bag, apparently for just such emergencies), shoveled the coals on them and resumed grilling.

Fifteen minutes later the same van pulled up from the opposite direction and the boys in blue repeated their work. As before, the owners stood by, waited until the coals were dumped and the van left, swept up the burning debris, found new trays and kept on smokin'.

Another 20 minutes passed and the mobile bbq prevention squad struck once more with the same results.

Jeff and I were - as the Brits say - gobsmacked and also amused at the charade. Emboldened by Tsingtao courage, we had loudly booed the blue meanies and flipped them off as they ran to their van clutching the illicit trays in their government-issued oven mitts for the third time in 45 minutes, but no one else even seemed to notice or much care.

"I'd hate to see those guys take down a crack house or meth lab," I remarked. Everyone else around us simply continued cooking, eating and gabbing. Just another small nightly ritual drama in which everyone from the BBQ Strike Force to the vendors and customers knew their roles and performed them flawlessly.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Last Waltz

After a year and a half since I’d last been there, I recently flew to Hong Kong for a three-day weekend with several missions in mind.

I needed break from Beijing where spring still seemed like a work in progress – or a fickle woman; warm, coy, flirtatious one day and an unforgiving ice-blown hag the next.

Farewells were on the agenda, too. Hamish, a young New Zealand pal with whom I shared a lot of beer and music and loose talk while I’d been living in Honkers was relocating to the US – Austin to be exact – with his Chinese-American girl friend.

And there was C to see – someone with whom I'd shared more than five years with until time and distance dictated otherwise. She's since found someone else (a mouth-breathing troll, but hey, everyone can’t be me) and some – forgive the term – closure was in order and she agreed to a friendly meet and greet.

There were also a few ex-coworkers from the Standard to check in with, including CY, a feisty Honkers native fighting hard against lymphoma. Despite pushing deadlines to frustrating extremes, she’d been a tough rare reporter who pushed her sources even harder and it had been a sad shock to hear of her illness. People like her aren’t supposed to get cancer – they’re supposed to chew it up and spit it out. And apparently that’s what she’d been doing.

“You look great,” I told her sincerely. Despite a couple chemo treatments CY hadn't lost her hair and seemed beatific, radiant even, surrounded as she was by five friends in her tiny apartment.

“When this is over you have to market the CY Miracle Cancer Beauty Diet!” I told her. It got the intended laugh and I hugged her and wished her well before hooking up with Hamish at a nightclub, Grappa’s Cellar. It was Hamish’s last Honkers gig – he was overseeing a multi-band lineup as a promotion for the magazine he was leaving and he and his girlfriend had their hands full.

I watched bemused as a Chinese electronica geek played remixes on his Apple laptop and then hit a button to pump out For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield. It was Stephen Stills singing, nothing unusual in the mix, though maybe the bass was jacked up a bit. Still, the crowd – mostly 20something expats and Honkers hipsters went mildly wild.

How weird, I thought. Maybe I should quit journalism and just sit in my living room and have people pay and cheer to watch me play a bunch of 1960s-70s Greatest Hits collections and call it cutting edge.

The next act was a real band – guitars, drums, live vocals, a post-punk group called The Yours, with a front man Jack Leung described on one website as a “visual merchandiser” who is the “outrĂ©-cool frontman of The Yours, and by day he dresses the windows of some of the city’s swankiest stores.” There was nothing outrĂ©-cool about Jack that night. He and the band were clearly trashed.
“You hate us and we hate you!” he yelled at the audience before launching into a jackhammer rhythm that quickly disintegrated into…well, here’s Hamish with the play-by-play.

“They had already had their time on stage earlier in the day, during their scheduled 5:30 pm set. They were playing to a smaller crowd, and I think they wanted a chance to play in front of more people, so they rushed the stage after S.T's set.

“I got up there and asked them to get off. They wouldn't budge, so I went to their friends – who were in the band due to take the stage at that time – and asked them to help me get them off. They still wouldn't budge, so I went back to the stage, by which time The Yours were already launching into a song.

“I thought, ‘Okay, one song. Let's watch them closely and hope nothing goes wrong.’ If Jack showed any signs of attempting to trash the stage again, I was going to get up there and stop him. And then fucker did.

“I thought, 'Right, I gotta get up there.' I grabbed his guitar just as he was attempting to attack an amp. He was so hammered he tripped over a couple of mic stands, taking them down with him. Meanwhile, the incensed sound guys, who owned the equipment Jack was fucking up, rushed the stage.

“While Jack was having a second attempt at one of the amps – and while I was gently encouraging the others to get the fuck off the stage – one of the sound guys got to him and hurled him from the stage. That was, I think, the most dramatic part.

“Meanwhile, one of my friends held back another sound guy who was intent on pummeling the crap out of Jack. If he got to him, the gig would have turned to mayhem. As it happened, we managed to ride the thin line between mayhem and relatively harmless rock 'n' roll run.

“Later, the frontman for the last band for the night, got up and said, "I know now why they're called The Yours. Because they don't fuck up their own equipment; they fuck up yours."

The next day was my D-Day with C. Or C-Day, I guess. She met me in a small Thai restaurant and bar in Wanchai and, damn, if we both didn’t begin to sniffle and tear up a little as we talked.

It had been more than eight months since she’d called me in Beijing from Shenzhen to tell me she was seeing another guy, although the signs some months before had not been auspicious. Terms of endearment had suddenly dropped from her text msgs and e-mails and communication was increasingly one-way - Beijing to Shenzhen, and since then I’d gone through the usual stages of grief: denial, anger, more anger, more denial, depression, rage, psychotic rage, disastrous rebound serial dating, arson and plotting insane revenge involving blow torches, pit bulls and his genitals on my successor.

But five years was a long time together – longer than many marriages – and now it seemed right to close the book and move on gracefully.

We spent some hours talking, walking, dining, watching her shop, reminiscing, going to Hamish’s goodbye barbecue and by midnight we were having farewell drinks next to the neon splashed sidewalk at another Wanchai bar.

“Just one kiss for old times,” I asked.

Then a song started in the bar – I don’t know it, but wish I did now because it would become our swan song.

I took C in my arms and we danced on the sidewalk as others looking for the heart of a Hong Kong Saturday night flowed past.

One last kiss, slow embrace, pan back and fade to black.