Beguiled by Beijing

posted July 2007

It’s taken me a while to collate my thoughts regarding this trip – a slightly deeper foray into the Mainland. My glimpses of China leave me feeling quite conflicted.

The first thing I saw when the plane descended the omnipresent grey smog and hit the tarmac in Beijing, was a lonely row of evergreens – a sharp contrast to the lush rainforest of Hong Kong, where the humidity is currently so high one’s clothes stick like fruit peel. Lying further north, Beijing has more extreme weather including summer sand storms, but the air is a lot dryer there, making the 42-degree June heat less noticeable.

Fortuitously, I was invited to perform at the Beijing IC whilst there. I played 2 sets both evenings to a rather large room with, thankfully, a good piano and sound system. The management had intelligently publicized these appearances, so I had a small listening audience both nights and felt very honoured by the warm hospitality.

The hotel kindly organized my sightseeing schedule for me. The afternoon I arrived I was driven to a nearby hutung area. I felt rather conspicuous as the sleek black Mercedes drove through the narrow dusty lanes to the bridge where my young guide “Jeixi” was waiting to show me around.

Beijing used to be lined with hutongs – long, windy lanes flanked by courtyard houses. Jeixi lead me through one of these charming willow tree-lined areas, pointing out and explaining the significance of the various decorations; the tour even included a visit inside somebody’s home, which was built in the traditional style around a small courtyard. Jeixi gave me an interesting overview of Feng Shui, and its appied relevance to the home. This seems such a civilized and harmonious way to live. But I’ve read that half of Beijing’s 3,000 hutongs had been destroyed by 2003 and it is estimated that only 2 – 3 percent will be left by 2010. Meanwhile, nondescript high-rise apartment blocks (that are reached by eight-lane highways and make car ownership a near necessity) are studding the suburbs. Cars now infiltrate bicycle lanes making the old mode of transport either inappropriate or perilous. Old buildings are increasingly replaced or dwarfed by the modern shrines to commerce that rise skywards. It’s understandable that people would rather live in a gleaming highrise with modern facilities but it’s seems such a shame they’re not upgrading the charming hutongs. Guess it’s just economics. Gone are the donkey carts I read about in old novels and numerous street kiosks have made way for sleek boutiques, cafes and malls, which flaunt Western-ism.

China’s “One Child” policy stared me in the face at the end of my enchanting afternoon tour strolling and rickshaw-riding through the hutongs. Jeixi confided in me that she was from the country and was the third child in her family. Her parents had paid the tax for her and she now felt indebted to them. After studying very hard she resolves to work very hard to pay them back. It touched me deeply to think that this beautiful young girl carried such a poignant burden for her existence.

My second day in Beijing started with a guided tour of the impressive Tiananmen Square area (where incidentally, my guide forbade me to speak of the massacre, saying that there could be spies around), then the Forbidden City, perhaps China’s prize jewel.

As you probably know, The Forbidden City is an endlessly fascinating museum of oriental culture, so named because from commencement of construction in 1406 until fairly recently, it was closed to the general public, making this former Imperial Palace very sacred and mysterious. It is condensed with traditional Chinese architectural concepts and philosophical thoughts. I still enjoy contemplating some of the names: “The Gate of Supreme Harmony”, “The Hall of Luminous Benevolence”, “The Hall of Mental Cultivation”, “The Palace of Abstinence” and so on. My guide seemed to be intimately acquainted with the place and I enjoyed learning about the various rituals to do with the Emperor, his concubines and eunuchs.

By lunch time we were back in the car heading north from Beijing for an hour to visit what I am told, is the most scenic of the accessible parts of the Great Wall. It is steep and the steps uneven, often huge, but I was determined and did climb up to the very top of this particular section that we visited. Looking out from the Great Wall, I felt more dwarfed than ever. One is obliged to consider the mammoth task of building it. The vast, expansive scenery gives one the feeling that everything and nothing has changed. That China and I are both young and old.

Before leaving the area, my guide lead me to the Marble Platform, a wondrous relic built 1342, which displays finely detailed engravings depicting four different religions.

After my gig that night I checked out LAN, Beijing’s newest, restaurant-bar-nightclub wonderland, designed by Philippe Starck. The plain stainless steel elevator of a very ordinary office building transported me to a different world of whimsical opulence. A stylised mish mash of chaise longues, rhino heads, ornate mirrors, buttoned leather couches, chandeliers of plastic junk, classical paintings suspended, face down, from the ceiling. Even the loo was thrilling with its mirrored walls, armchair and serpent shaped faucet. Back in the restaurant/bar area I was pleased to see a baby grand and to caught the jazz quartet’s final set. Fascinated to see, for my first time, a Chinese girl singing jazz standards.

It was late, but still wanting to taste yet another flavour of Beijing’s night life, I caught a taxi over to Hou Hai, a pulsating and picturesque area where countless cafes snake along the willow tree-lined lake. Red lanterns lent a warm festive ambience and live music (with electronic backings) flooded out many of the restaurants that have indoor and outdoor seating. After strolling around for a while I sat down and ordered a Mojito and some “Italy Food”. The shooter list kept me amused featuring fascinating concoctions such as “Small Penis”, “Big Breast” and “Vilate” (I think they meant “Violate”!).

I felt an incredible energy in Beijing, and the enthusiasm and warmth of the young people there made a huge impression on me. Those I met and probed, seemed very patriotic. Nationalistic with capitalistic ideals, China seems to be in the midst of a tumultuous makeover. I sensed a flurry of hope amongst the people – after all, it is not only the American manufacturers I meet passing through Hong Kong who dream of being the ones to crack the China market with their ideas and products. Chinese business people dream of doing that too. I only hope that in the process, they don’t turn their back to their intrinsically rich heritage and culture.