Saturday, 29 November 2008

Yumla, 79 Wyndham St

I'm pretty sure I remember when I realised I had to leave the apartment. It was around the time R, my landlady, put on "Don't You Want Me Baby" and said, "I remember loving this song when I was seven". Hong Kong's a pretty small place. I only know ten people, probably less, but on the two minute walk from my flat in SoHo to the bar I read about in TimeOut, I had run into R and her friends, and found myself in a progression of latenight hangouts - a cool south american themed bar, a street corner, the roof, and finally her couch. I knew though that that wasn't what tonight should be about, and with a jolt of musical apathy I tore myself away from the friendly group of 30-somethings and on to the bar I'd read about, the one that advertised the odd mix of 'breaks and techfunk'. If nothing else, my mission was to find out exactly what 'techfunk' might be.

The bar wasn't where it should have been, and noone seemed to know it. The more difficult it became, the more determined I was to find it, and here it was, down a sidealley and off a staircase. The heart shaking pulse from within told me I'd arrived before I noticed the chalkmarks on the wall outside, declaring 'Yumla rocks' among other slogans.

The music was great, although I couldn't tell you what separates techfunk from other types of techno (or funk). What I can tell you about is how liberating it is to enter a bar/club like this on your own. That's when the pressure's off, bizarrely. Since you don't know anyone, by definition you can't truly embarrass yourself. Moreover there's more of a necessity to be open to everyone around you, so you have a stronger chance of meeting people if you put yourself out there.

Okay, so that's not totally true. I did have one ally going in to Yumla. At about a foot tall and bright blue, an Elmo doll I'd somehow picked up in the previous hour was my new best friend, and he did a lot of the hard work for me. (Edit: What I actually had was a Grover doll. I'm now checking other things I think I remember from my childhood, just to be sure.) He chatted up the barmaid (she was very keen on him, and looked disappointed when I tore him away from her), danced with a hot Chinese girl (he told me afterwards she had a boyfriend, but she blushed and moved away pretty quickly afterwards so I think she was beginning to take a fancy to him) and stole a cigarette off a British girl who knew the DJ but never took her jacket off. Me? I was doing poorly in comparison, making small talk with a Canadian documentary maker (his subject? Water. I'm not waiting for a mainstream release). Then a drunk and (slightly) terrifying northern girl got keen on me, and I was doing my best to avoid the vomit breath coming my way as she pinched my bum and told me she loved me ("but you don't even know my name", "that's just because you haven't told me yet" "erm... yeah").

Luckily, between the foul breath of my new friend and the shiny fur of my old one, I started to get going. She tried to trade up, using me to get in with a tall, chiseled-looking actor-type propping up a barstool. She pointed at me and said, "Have you met my friend?" From his lofty height he gave both her and me a dismissive look and shook his head. "Ah," I said, "But have you met my friend?" It was at this stage I introduced him to Elmo. This he liked, and before long me and L (who turned out to actually be an actor) were getting on like a house on fire, rank northerner forgotten. Through L I met P, a director he'd recently worked with, who told me about a party in a few nights time.

It's funny how quickly things move. I spent the last few days hiding, because I'm beginning to get used to the pace of things when you start to meet new people in a new city. It's manic for a while, testing out how 'worth it' these friendships are going to be. Truth be told, I've spent a few days with a box set of the Office, hiding away from getting going. Still, a night like tonight, which sets you buzzing from your toes to your finger tips, makes you remember why it's all worth it.

Here's to Hong Kong.



Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Statue at the Nanjing Massacre memorial, commemorating the death of 300,000 civilians at the hands of the Japanese

The view from Sun Yatzen's Mausoleum, Nanjing

L-R Me, Charlie, Joyce at Armin, Shanghai

Glenmorangie, origami


Monday, 17 November 2008

Welcome to China

If there's one story I've resisted telling about my travels, because it's just too much of a cliche, it's the "Welcome to China" story. One reason that I've steered clear is that it appeared in a book I hated (in fact it was a chapter heading), Polly Evans' "Fried Eggs with Chopsticks", a 250 page complaint about how awful travelling alone is (admittedly I only made it 80 pages in before I gave up). Another is that the story is pure surface, a nice little tale about a friendly interaction with a Chinese, hinting at some kind of depth without actually containing any. It usually goes that a few weeks in to your trip to China, once you're comfortable enough to seem approachable to Chinese people without understanding enough of the language to have a proper conversation, someone (usually a man, given how shy many Chinese women are) approaches you for a chat. You stumble through the few Chinese sentences you can manage - I come from London, I don't speak Chinese, I don't understand - and then there's an awkward, but friendly, pause, both of you out of lines of communication. You both smile at each other, wishing you could go further, and then he says (big grin for this one) "Welcome to China". It's easy to slip this into stories about traveling, since it seems so meaningful and relevant the first time it happens.

So if it's such a cliche, why am I - a hater of cliches wherever I notice them - discussing it here, on my own blog? Well, two reasons really. In part it's because I've had two such conversations today, enough to make me feel doubly welcome in a country I've been in for nearly five weeks now, but mostly it's because of the circumstances of the second occasion.

I'm in Nanjing still, leaving tomorrow for Hangzhou, and decided tonight to check out the bar district proper (having failed miserably to find a whiskey on the rocks last night). On my third attempt (The first place: sorry, you can't enter. No I can't give you an explanation; the second: please pay us 200 pounds) I found an R&B club with a nice bar, friendly staff and cheap(ish) drinks. Whilst I waited on a Glenmorangie, the man next to me turned and smiled. "Gambei" he said, the Chinese equivalent of "down it", and pointed at the shot of his beer the waitress had poured for me. I smiled, took the glass, maintained eye contact (important here) and took the shot. We chatted briefly, and I received my whiskey. In the meantime the prettiest barmaid had finished work and taken a seat on my left, and as I drank up I watched her engage in origami with fascination. She remained locked in concentration for a full five minutes, and at the end she presented the most perfect origami swan I'd seen.

I was not to be outdone. "Get me some paper" I said, and soon enough I had a sheet in front of me. "Watch this" I told her, and the watching barstaff. I honestly wasn't sure what would happen next. A few folds had me a decent corner. "Are you ready?" I said - I didn't care that they couldn't understand, they would get it soon enough. I placed the paper on my head. "It's a hat". The barstaff laughed, the girl took the paper from me, turning it into real origami, an amazing heart which she presented to me. I laughed and gave her the thumbs up, only to be interrupted again by the guy on my right.

"Gambei" he said again, and I obligingly downed the rest of my whiskey. We smiled uncomprehendingly at each other, and he pointed at my jacket - a tailored burberry style raincoat I picked up at the fabric market for 50gbp. He touched one of the buckles on the shoulders. "Yingguo shwo shenme?" he asked - how do you say this in English? I told him, and he told me that in China only soldiers had these, and how to distinguish verbally between an infantryman's epaulet's and a general's. Truth be told, between the speed of his slightly slurred Chinese and the MC's attempts at English (shake der tass, shake der tass) I wasn't following him too well. Finally he pointed at his chest, thumped it with his fist and smiled. He spoke Chinese, but I didn't understand, and when I looked back with confusion he repeated himself slowly in English. "The Chinese military welcomes you" he said, which put me on edge just enough to order another Glenfiddich, and down it in one.


Sunday, 16 November 2008

Leaving Shanghai

It's funny how quickly your perspective can shift. It's hard to recognise when something's going wrong whilst you're inside it. I really thought I loved Shanghai, but it took ten minutes in Nanjing to flip that belief on its head. Shanghai is a great city, a fun city and, above all else, an alive city, dripping with energy - commercial, competitive energy oozes from every face and building. The flip side of this is an undercurrent of aggression that never really leaves you, flashing out in the overcrowded subway or flashpoints with cab drivers, reflected back at you in the phallic skyline (mine's bigger than yours) and gaudy neon used to promote corner shop. The taxi ride from the train station to my hotel started out as a typical Chinese experience, long queues at a bottle neck, pushy cab driver who picked up another passenger with me already in the car, but quickly faded into a pleasure, travelling down Nanjing's broad streets through quiet Sunday evening traffic (a marked contrast to the Sunday lunch traffic we'd fought through to get to the station in Shanghai). Walking the streets is easy, calm, and frequently punctuated by friendly smiles. Of course there are problems, and it's easy to see the positive when you first get to a city, but right now it's a welcome relief from the naked aggression that bubbles around Shanghai, and which was starting to boil up through me in the run up to my departure.

Another strange thing after Shanghai (considered by the Chinese the seedy underbelly of their country, the world's largest red light district) is the difficulty I had finding a bar. Several people on the street couldn't think of one nearby. Finally a young shop assistant (she looked fifteen at most) told me to try a place round the corner. I found it easily and started to enter, but was called back by as I went down the stairs. Unable to understand the Chinese fired at me, I tried out my own few sentences - I don't understand. I go drink beer - and pointed at the budweiser sign above my head. More men came running, and now I was surrounded, each trying his best shot at English whilst I kept trying to explain myself in Chinese. This impasse went on for a few minutes. Finally one turned to me and said "Men not allowed". I smiled at him, said I understood, and started to walk away. "Bye", one of them called. "Bye", I replied. "Bye", he said again, and when I didn't respond he said it again, and again, until I turned round and stopped, burst out laughing, completely overwhelmed with confusion. For the first time I noticed the bar's sign, next to this group of smiling, waving men, twelve foot of neon with the name and, underneath, a drawing, the outline of a busty female form and a pole. Could this be the first time someone's been rejected from a lapdancing club for being male?


Saturday, 15 November 2008

Go to Pudong, the eastern financial district. Take a taxi to the Regency Hyatt. Let the footman hold the door open as you pay. Button up your suit. Walk past the first reception, smiling suited men and women with golden name badges and polished shoes. Hear the clip of leather soles on marble. Climb fifty four floors in the first lift, eyeing unshaven important western men, suit jackets over one arm. Don't catch sight of yourself in the mirror just yet. Switch lifts, walking past the dark gold ambiance of a second hotel lobby set against the dark night sky, the neon already far below you. Climb another thirty one floors with more businessmen, you can see them already looking forward to gentle sleep in a soft bed. Switch again, it's darker now up here but bright in the gold mirrored lift. Now examine yourself - there are three mirrors for the purpose. Tailored striped shirt, tailored grey jacket. Emerge out into the eighty seventh floor, soft neon the only thing holding back black and grey as you pass leather upholstered armchairs and black tabletops. This bar isn't for you tonight, the one where invisible Risk men are shifted over Friday night cocktails by the masters of the universe. You're going to the bar just beside it, you could watch and hear them from your table - these two bars are in the same room after all - but you won't. Your bar is personal, hidden away, just as dark on the inside - to be sure - but outside bright, infinite. In front of you a wall of glass and beyond lies the tops of sky scrapers so far below, the river, unerring neon and flashing lights to warn off planes, streets lit up by the red, yellow, white of headlamps and taillamps, the whole of Shanghai stretching out before you. Smoke a cigar, let the mist fizz up into your vision so it gives everything that dreamlike foggy air, and drink a cocktail, drink three, till the lightness near your neck and the top of your head makes you forget the glass, the bar, the money talk, until you aren't there at all but in heaven floating out over the night, the boats, the neon, the street vendors and the taxi drivers, since from up here everything is nothing but beauty.

They call this place Cloud Nine for a reason.


Saturday, 8 November 2008

It's sort of hard to keep a blog like this one updated once you slip into some sort of routine. For two weeks now my days have followed a rarely varying structure. Each morning I wake up for the car into school, holding myself back in my room five minutes just to irritate the old Swedish witch we all detest, have a morning group class from 9 till 12.30, have lunch, as often as not in Subway because it's easy and I usually have chinese characters to learn for my afternoon class, spend the afternoon chatting with Wang Ling, my teacher, and filling in the blanks from my morning's class. In the evenings a bar maybe, or dinner with classmates, or Bond, or a trip to the fabric market. Home, character revision, a DVD, bed. If I updated regularly, this would hardly be thrilling stuff.

I've been writing a fair bit in the meantime, largely experimentally and nothing that I would deem interesting enough to go on here. Of course there have also been points of excitement, but they've largely been to do with people and discretion dictates that I gossip behind people's backs; this is just too public for my own wellbeing.

It’s hard to find myself in new or challenging situations. In fact, I’m back in a flow – what my Dad called a ‘datastream’ – moving in the same direction as other people. At Mandarin House everyone’s moving in the same direction – my newfound friends by definition have a limited knowledge of Chinese, and few know much about China. The odd thing is how travellers can’t help but view people through the lens of where they come from. This is something I’m guilty of more than the others, but nonetheless the Yank-Swiss-Swede jokes and cultural misassumptions are a kind of basis for group and one one one communication. For these reasons I’m getting on very well with Wang Ling, who’s a laugh and who can give me an insight into how the Chinese view things. Most notably, she told me that the popular view is that Boris Johnson is a disrespectful drunk who only pitched up at the Olympics to ogle Chinese girls. Which just goes to show how perceptive they are.

A few more things stand out. Actually tonight I just got back from Above and Beyond (dance DJs) playing an incredible set, so good I just stood blissfully for two hours or so, listening to the music with equally enraptured friends. Despite my best attempts to contract food poisoning, testing out the street vendors (as long as what they sell is identifiable as one food or another) and coming across some delights, such as crispy fried vegetable dumplings, I ended up getting ill the old fashioned way, eating a burger from an American themed diner. My gut's still processing the supposedly American meat, a lesson well learned I think.

I managed to avoid going to the best Drum and Bass night of the month last night. Apparently noone outside the UK - yanks, swedes, french or swiss - knows what Drum and Bass is (at the very least I thought the Swedes would go for it) so in the end I cried off making a lone trip.

I'm doing another week on my course, which I'm enjoying but frustrated by, since I'd love to be able to speak the language and know just how long that will take me to accomplish. So after this week I'm putting myself back on holiday, to experience, enjoy and destress as much as possible, since after all that is what this trip is all about. Being back in this data stream has sent me reeling back to the Cambridge job listings website, sending out applications and considering just how much Chinese I can justifiably claim on my CV. Whilst Mandarin is definitely something I want to continue, I'd rather enjoy myself here than go back to the place I was in September, panicking about what happens next with my life to the exclusion of everything else.