It’s difficult to be a pedestrian in Beijing. They plant trees in the middle of the footpaths in China. No, not on the side of footpaths, smack-bang in the middle of them so that you have to clamber over them in peak hour traffic while a bunch of Chinese people unsubtly take photos of you and film you with their iPad and can you just fuck off please, I already can’t use chopsticks, just let me have walking, please, just let me keep it. But Beijing doesn’t care for pedestrians, in the same way it doesn’t care for labels. Things are never really what they say on the tin. Like… ‘Restroom’s aren’t so much restrooms as they are a filthy room with six stinking holes in the ground, and an elderly man who refuses to break eye contact while he shits himself in front of you. And as you watch his stool leave his body, you feel the opposite of rest. You feel the opposite of relief, and you get the distinct feeling that you’ve seen something that you’re never really going to un-see. I’ve called this magazine Chew because Beijing functions a lot like a body. It’s hot, it’s sticky, it stinks, it’s dirty and filthy and- when thought about abstractedly- is uniquely disgusting. But Beijing is beautiful, it’s powerful and it’s hard not to look at it and think about how amazing it is that they’ve managed to pack so much good stuff into it. Like a body, Beijing has an indelible impact on you, and it affects you in a very real and tangible way that neither I, nor any of my fellow writers, have ever experienced before. It’s undeniable that Beijing is positively one of the most ‘alive’ places to exist. It chews you up, it spits you out and/or, it shits you out while you watch. The writing in this magazine is the result of a three-week intensive study tour to Beijing undertaken by 11 students,
crossing the disciplines of Creative Writing, Asian Studies, Communications and English. It represents them being chewed up and spat (shat?) out by the city. Throughout there are works of historical fiction and the shifting political climate of 20th Century China, traditional Chinese fables, the world ends, some become lost for words while others have them rudely taken away (and one person vomits… a lot). Each writer presents one complete piece, with poetry -snapshots of Beijing- scattered throughout. This magazine was written on planes, from rock-hard dorm-room beds, on crowded trains and a classroom where legitmately every single member managed to fall asleep at least once (maybe twice). Beijing is a beautiful place, but it’s a difficult one to summarise. The work of these writers, as strong as it is, barely scratches the surface... it may not even manage to peer through the Beijing fog. This is Volume 1 of Chew. The ‘Writing China in Country’ study tour is running for a second time in 2015 and I can’t wait to see what the next crop of writers produce. I hope it’s as brash, bold, varied and strong as the writing in Volume 1. I hope it’s as confronting and powerful and gross as Beijing itself. Pedestrians be damned.
Yours, Anthony Nocera
Translates to ‘no want’, ‘I don’t want’ or- if said with enough force, ‘for the last time, I don’t want a T-Shirt with a kangaroo on it, lady. Get out’.
Translates to ‘thank you’, ‘many thanks’ or- if said in a crowded club environment after three mega-sized ‘Suicide’ cocktails, ‘my Chinese is limited, stranger. So I’m going to dance away from you and get another drink so I can hopefully forget this encounter’.
Translates to ‘hello’ or ‘hi’. However, if said often enough, in random intervals during conversation, it will be understood to mean, ‘this is as much Chinese as I know. Please forgive me’.
Translates to ‘goodbye’ or ‘bye’. However, if repeated often enough randomly during conversation while at the counter in the little supermarket in your dorm building at BFSU, it will be understood to mean, ‘please, I just want to buy this Snickers bar and go back to my room where the toilet doesn’t flush properly, but the air conditioner works’.
Translates to ‘Australia’ or ‘I’m from Australia’. If said after a particularly long exchange with a shopkeeper it will be understood to mean, ‘I’m from the land of idiots and I’m sorry’.
Wor yaoww chyoo tser-swor:
Translates to ‘toilet’ or ‘I have to use the toilet’, or- in certain situations- ‘I don’t want to have to do this but it would be in poor taste to shit myself in this current diplomatic situation so, yes, yes, I will use a squat toilet. But I honestly don’t know how this is going to go for me’.
Wor urr luh:
Translates to ‘I’m hungry’, or ‘sure I’ve had fifteen dumplings in the last hour but I could probably eat again, this is a vacation’.
Wor ker luh:
Translates to ‘thirsty’ or ‘I’m thirsty’ or- in the context of the final week of our trip- ‘Why did the labels peel off of these bottles of beer so easily? That’s not normal is it? Wait WHAT HAVE WE BEEN DRINKING FOR THE PAST FOUR HOURS, SERIOUSLY WHAT DID WE DRI-’.
Translates to ‘Morning’ or ‘Good morning’ or, when spoken on the morning after the afortementioned night of fake beer, ‘I hate you, I hate this place and I think I may be dying, what did I drink? Seriously, someone please send help’.
Translates to ‘I’m called’ or ‘My name is’. Quite informal in terms of Chinese language, this phrase when read in the context of the people on this trip was usually understood as, ‘Hi, it doesn’t matter what my name is, please take a photo of me with your phone and then sprint away... I’m cool with it’.
There are many ways to experience China, but being a student there is one of the best. You are living the questions that China asks on a daily basis, and you are invited to find your own answers. As you read and write China, you live and breathe it at the same time, eat it and drink it, and your encounters and transactions there at every level, and, with yourself as you become one of China’s people for a time too, are part of your response. ‘China is a world’, wrote Simon Leys, the late great sinologist who studied Chinese civilisation for a lifetime. You’re in that world now, immersed in an unfamiliar element, yet somehow at home—at least in your imagination, wherever it takes you. For the students from the University of Adelaide doing the Writing China In Country course for the first time, the immersion began even before we were out of the airport. The air had a different quality and there seemed to be stars twinkling inside the vast spaces of that dragon-inspired structure. It continued on the shuttle to the campus, through the well-lit boulevards of Beijing by night, under a multiform ring-road flyover and in through a gate past the sentry box. It unfolded in succeeding days as the neighbourhood laneways revealed eateries and bars and costume shops and fashion outlets. It rearranged itself as the orange sun set in cloud over the Western Hills, sometimes visible in the distance. For these weeks the subject was Beijing, China: utopian, dystopic, intimate, mega, touching, outrageous. What was discoursed in class was overturned in the streets. And what am I doing here? Watching and waiting as it emerges in words that create and reveal. I came to China the first time as a student myself, and as I heard or observed or speculated on what was happening, things I barely understood all around me, my curiosity was brought to life and stories came. Writing became a way of being there, or trying to find an order in things, any order. That was thirty or more years ago and I’m still friends with people I met then, though I have changed, they have changed, China has changed and Australia has changed, all immeasurably, and for China and Australia, at least,
got more involved than anyone might have expected. The Chinese wife of an Australian diplomat I met back then saw that I was interested and told me to pull back. But it was too late. I was already on a path to China; I was in China. It would stay that way, with always unpredictable, challenging and rewarding results. The things that have happened since then have become part of my life, through many engagements with Chinese people and their world, which is also my, our, world, and I have been given a great deal. It is a privilege to accompany a group of Australian students to China as they experience this world from their own vantage point. We did the Great Wall, the 798 Art District, a NAIDOC week reception at the Green-T Cultural Centre and the Baihe vegan restaurant together, and they did a lot more things on their own, out and about in Beijing. I am impressed by the way they embrace the opportunity, with energy, adaptability, humour and responsibility. I like the way they look after each other, as their insights bounce around the room in our writing workshops, as they prop themselves up during class. I am fascinated by what they write. I thank these writers now for making available this selection of their writing from China, as a record, an evocation, a gift, a memory, letting us in on what they made of it. A special thanks to editor Anthony Nocera for pulling it all together.
Professor Nicholas Jose is an Author, and Teacher in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.
Spending time in China for any reason tends to defy and derail any expectations or preconceived notions you might have of the place, and particularly of yourself. Spending time in China with specific objectives and plans in mind, where there are clear indications of success and failure looms like the hot Beijing sun – well that’s just asking for trouble. And so it was that I found myself in charge of a group of young writers in a foreign land. My mission was clear – provide a robust academic experience, ensure their general wellbeing, and keep us out of the headlines. Oh, and if they could also be given an untrodden path to transcultural communicative competency and a dollop of personal growth, all the better. The prospect of this responsibility made my confidence recede further than Mao’s hairline, and had me researching each of the program participants as much as I could before departure. I needn’t have bothered nor worried. Each person in the group that I spent time with in Beijing was a singularly remarkable and often fierce mix of individuality, compassion, and intellect. During the 3 weeks I spent with them, I saw breathtaking intelligence, creativity, courage, and empathy - often all at once – and on more than one sun-bleached occasion found myself turning to them for support. It was my aim to find people who were passionate, committed, hard-working and with a sense of fun and adventure that would allow them to make the most out of this experience. To get the most out of it both in the context of themselves as people, but also as writers. The experiences that I witnessed, rarely completely positive nor completely negative, were singular in their strangeness and effect. I marvelled at the way these people would take away experiences, reflect on them through quiet thought and dialogue with their peers, and then create something unexpected and wonderful. Three weeks is barely enough time to find one’s feet in any foreign place, let alone a place like Beijing. Yet these students managed to experience and capture something very few people, I think, could.
Before arriving in China, Nick and I had said to the group “You’ll be free to do as you like much of time in China. Go and find your stories.” The wonderful writings contained in this book are ultimately fragments of that successful larger experience, and I count myself as lucky to have had anything to do with it, let alone assisted to make real. The writers are extraordinary people having extraordinary experiences, and I think this is reflected very clearly in the following pages.
Dane is the Outbound Mobility co-ordinator For The Global learning Centre at the University of Adelaide. 7
by Anthony Nocera … and it was all happening very quickly and we had all travelled so very far locked in that bus like we were and it was hot and sweaty and the air was thick and musty with everyone’s perfume. It was bad for my hangover. I could still taste the vomit in my teeth: I ate enoki mushrooms the day before and I still had threads of them stuck between each tooth and they wouldn’t budge and I had to keep reliving my vomit, like my body wouldn’t let me forget what a dick I was the night before. It was dizzying, like the walls were closing and we got these weird gusts of wind that would smell kind of a lot like shit. China really does smell like shit a lot of the time. I remember one of the girls on the tour called it, ‘an occasional shit smell’. As offensive as it was, I get the feeling that the Chinese government did it on purpose, as if it was a means for them to keep people grounded: Everyone shits. You shit. He shits. She shits. And you can’t have Google, so when you do void your bowels you can’t even be productive and distract yourself from the irrevocable fact that you, you are human. That we are all one people and that we are all China. That we all shit. But everyone acted like it was fine. We were fine, in our nice clothes trapped in this sweat lodge. It was kind of like that saying, ‘All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go’, except we had a very definite somewhere to go and we had to take the fucking sewer to get there. Our somewhere was a benefit, a function for Indigenous Australians. A charity function that we really had no business going to, but it was- what they were calling- a ‘networking opportunity’. It was very exciting. It was meant to be. I tried to be really excited. I pretended to be excited. I slipped my excited mask on. I’m good at pretending, mask wearing. I usually wear a mask when I go book shopping. I like to present this false image of a free-thinking intellectualist who’s far smarter than he looks, instead of presenting the very real image of a scrawny, hairy loner with a taste for Young Adult fiction who got sexually aroused one time because a guy bought him a twenty-pack of chicken McNuggets and said, ‘no, I’m not hungry. You have them.’ When I walk into the bookshop, I walk directly to the classical and modern literature section and start nonchalantly browsing. Picking books up, pretending to glance at them. I never read them. I want to look calm and nonchalant, like I do this all the time. I can’t do that if I’m concentrating. I pick a book almost randomly from that section. I then briskly walk to the Vampire-Fiction section of the store and pick up the book that I really wanted. I hide it under the literature.
I buy both. At the cashier, the lady smiles at me and asks me how my day is going, “Woolf is such a lovely author, isn’t she?” “Oh yes,” I say, “she’s so intricate, but so…” I pause, furrowing my brow as I try to find the right adjective to summarise my true feelings about Woolf’s work, “powerful at the same time. I love her work… I don’t understand why my little sister wants to read about vampires and the like.” I have a brother who is five years older than me, just FYI. “Oh, you are just a treat!” she says, smiling. “Not nearly as much as Virginia!” I add, and we both smile and laugh and then I go home and I read the book about vampires and I tell myself I read the other one, but it’ll sit on my bedside table and then I’ll think about reading it, but I wont. “Everybody out!” My lecturer yelled and as he flung the van door open. Just don’t vomit, I told myself. *** “Oooohh sorry” she said, squinting as the static from the microphone cut through the room, she clutched the podium. “Hi… uumm, Ni Hao! Haha, I’m Susan and I’m one of the coordinators for this event today. Ooohh, can you hear me?” “No.” A few people amongst the crowd said. “Sorry, we’re having some trouble with the microphones. Can everyone crowd in?” Oh God. We all got closer together and the heat became unbearable, and I thought I was going to retch. After an hour of open air, I was back on the bus and the room started spinning. I blamed Susan, with her silk dress and long blonde hair and fake smile. The microphone trouble had gotten to her and now she was punishing me. She wanted it to be perfect and it wasn’t. Susan liked everything to be perfect, you could tell. She looked like she hated to be called Susie. I could hear the venom in her voice, ‘it’s pronounced SuSAN.’ “Sorry,” she said. It’s okay Suzie. I understand. Technology fails. What can you do? Don’t even worry about it, Suz, Just let me out of this hell, and we’ll fix the mic’s together, “we’re trying to fix it so we can finally get this benefit underway! So enjoy the refreshments and mingle and we’ll get this back on track just as soon as we can!” She said and the crowd dispersed, laughing with her. “Thanks, Suz!” I whispered, “Knew you had my back!” I walked over to the buffet and drank the tea they were handing out. It made me feel a little better. The hall that
we were in was big and white. Crisp. High ceilings and lots of windows. The room was full of successful and wealthy artists, which are the worst type of artists because they have a license to be as dickish as they want about everything. Like, everyone always told them that they were going to starve and fail, and now that they’d achieved something and were able to feed themselves and had so much as something resembling disposable income, they thought it was okay to wear white silk pants and sandals all the time and talk about Buddhism, making a concerted effort to pronounce the ‘h’: Buddhism. As a result, they were the type of people who called any room that they were in ever a ‘space’, ‘oh this is a lovely space’, ‘I love what you’ve done with this space, it’s so innovative’, ‘what a fabulous space, I could get some meditating done in here. Oh yes, I’m a Buddhist’… And, yeah, I got it. I got that we were in a pretty interesting room but how many more empty white rooms do I have to stand in before it just looks like an architect just came in his pants and went, ‘fuck it, yeah! Build this!’ I finished my tea. As I stood at the buffet, I watched as people walked around the gallery looking at artwork, staring at it, pretending to look invested. There were paintings everywhere, beautiful Indigenous dot-paintings. As I reached for more tea I saw a woman, dressed in a lace top and an electric pink skirt staring at the art with the most thoughtful look on her face, taking notes in a pocket-sized moleskin notebook and it struck me that maybe I was wrong. I watched her, mesmerised, turn a corner. I followed her, silently. As I turned the corner I saw her standing at the restaurant’s air conditioning unit, examining it with a pensive look on her face and taking notes in her little book. As I looked on, disgusted, she turned around and, upon seeing my scrunched up face asked me, “are you okay, love?” No, I thought. “Uuuuh yeah.” “You look troubled… like you’ve seen something terrible.” Yeah, your dumbass face, “Yeah… yeah, no I uhh… it’s just the piece,” I said, pointing towards the air conditioner, “it’s really affecting… Chilling.” “Mmm. I thought so too. It’s like, really profound. Isn’t it fun to talk about art?” My stomach twisted in on itself as a sudden wave of shitsmell hit me, “Uuuhh... yeah. What’s this piece entitled?” I asked, pursing my lips and flaring my nostrils at the stench that was spewing from her mouth. I felt bile rise up to my chest. “I’m not sure, it doesn’t have a title… If I could give it one, I’d call it something like…. Angst. Yes. Angst. What would you call it?” How about Dumb White Lady? “Heating and Cooling.” I said, trying to keep everything down. “Okay!” Suzie said over the mic, her voice crystal clear and bouncing off the walls and windows of the hall. Everyone crowded together around the podium. The woman in the pink skirt grabbed my arm and dragged me over to the podium with her. We were right in the middle of the crowd. My head began to spin. “Just a second longer and we’ll be up and running!” “So why are you in Beijing?” Pink-skirt asked. “I’m here on a writing tour. I study English and Creative
Writing,” I said. “Oh, you study English? I studied that too! I wrote my thesis on Virginia Woolf. Are you a fan of Woolf?” “Oh yes!” I said, then a wave of shit smell hit me. It hit me so hard that I vomited in my mouth. I wanted to leave but there was a wall of people behind me as impenetrable as that of a Beijing subway. I clenched my mouth shut. “She’s such a powerful writer… but so intricate at the same time.” “MMMMMMM” I said, through my teeth. I could feel the bile crawling up to my nose. My stomach was expanding and contracting, clenching and unclenching, tears pricked at my eyes, as I felt them bulge out of my sockets, like I was about to explode. Pop. Pop, like a balloon. “Okay, we’re on track again! YAY!” Everyone applauded, “Thank you again for your patience everyone. Before we begin, I just want to take a second to acknowledge what a fabulous space this is!” And everyone clapped, and everyone smiled and I swallowed, hard. I felt the heavy cement slap of vomit slamming down into my stomach and I burped a little as the acid burn of it all shot up through me to the beautiful, airy, high ceiling. I clapped and cheered with them. I took a deep breath, and the room levelled out and so did my head for a second. And all I could smell was shit.
I awoke at a quarter to five this morning for no good reason - the room was not too bright, although the sun had already begun his ascent. I was a little stiff from the hard mattress, but no, that wasnâ€™t it either. Ah, I needed to urinate. That was it. Ordinarily I would have gone back to bed for an hour or two more sleep. Instead I consulted my Beijing guide book and discovered some amazing looking places. As I planned day-trip after day-trip in my mindâ€™s eye, I suddenly felt inspired to take a short walk with camera in hand. My decision proved not altogether unfruitful as I happily snapped some pretty things I had seen yesterday and the day before around the uni campus. I also found a few extra bikes to photograph for my collection. In Beijing bikes seem to permeate all parts of life. They are used as family vehicles - some even with a covered rear seat - like a modernised rickshaw. They are used to take parcels and packages and sacks of things places. The street sweepers and garbage men ride bikes with big tool boxes on the back. I also noticed that some bikes that have been motorised (and the motor scooters for that matter) operate silently. OK, perhaps not completely silently, but quietly enough that I can hear the wheels turning, just like on a non-motorised bicycle. The lift in my building is quiet like this too, and so smooth.
By Catherine Gibson 13
The Cat Garden Beijing Foreign Studies University, Haidian Between classrooms and tall blocks of student housing, lush gardens run all through the university. The campus is clean (especially in contrast to nearby streets) and largely devoid of rodents due to the population of semi-stray cats that occupy the gardens. “This is Celia,” he said, stroking the skinny white cat’s fur. Celia lay on her side in a state of utter contentment, drinking in the heat of the day. “I wish I wasn’t allergic,” I said. Our voices were oddly concentrated, the ends of our words caught by a concrete mushroom forming a sort of umbrella above the bench. Secretly, my allergy was a relief. Doctors and guidebooks had said very explicitly not to pat stray animals, and I’d developed a rabid paranoia. Yet I couldn’t imagine that Celia, with her bright brown splashes and dainty feline grace, could possibly be ill. “She’s so relaxed she looks dead!” Her body melted into the warm concrete as she lay on her side. “Oh, she’s exhausted. Cici’s been out all night, working.” His hands worked their way up the cat’s neck, scratching her chin. I could just see the tip of a tiny pink tongue, poking out between her teeth. “She’s very sweet. Where does she work?” I resisted the temptation to stroke her. “Cici actually works at an antique store, dealing mostly in stolen goods, you know. I wouldn’t mess with her.” Strands of white cat hair floated through the air, dangerously close to my nose.
Deception’s Congress Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, 798 Art District Originally an assemblage of East German factories, the district is now a hub of contemporary art galleries. This immense industrial architecture epitomised industrial progress in the 1950s, and today marks the progress of artistic expression in China.
“It’s a conversation.” We both looked around in awe, different images jumping out at each of us. ‘Please Paint Everything’ was written in both Chinese and English, in bold white paint across the floor. Paweł Althamer had started a dialogue; visitors to the UCCA had taken it up. Once-white walls were covered in layers of words, pictures, cartoons, hand prints, foot prints, inside-jokes, hash tags, declarations of both love and damnation, names, faces, phrases and paint. “Top of the wall!” “Even higher.” Strangers, never meeting, fought over who could paint a stroke higher than anyone else. Faces were watching from the walls, looking out across the room. Someone had painted strips of taupe coloured paint across several of the faces, blotting out the eyes. He turned to me. “There are so, so many people in China.” Agreed. “Everyone has a story, you know? Everyone is at the center of their own life; their own universe.” “I know exactly what you mean. This,” I gestured around, “is amazing.” There was so much more to see at the gallery, but it was hard to move from this first room. “Nobody’s painting anymore, but the conversation’s still going. We’re still reacting to it, and taking things from it.” Phrases on the wall leapt at me, as if I had been their intended audience all along.
Clock Exhibition Hall The Forbidden City The palace was designed religiously to be almost perfectly symmetrical, and as such reflect the order of the heavens. Even in the extreme heat of summer, Chinese tourists flock here, to the true heart of the city. “Oh man, I love clockwork.” “Yeah, me too,” he agreed. So many small, arbitrary things we seemed to have in common. I went on to explain my dormant clockwork obsession, the copy of Watch Repair For Beginners sitting by my bed. I’d always been curious about inner-workings; what makes a clock tick.
“So if my watch stopped working you could fix it up for me?” He pointed to his backpack, where I knew he had slipped his own sleek timepiece. Whether for peace-of-mind amongst gangs of Forbidden City tourists, or because of sticky sweat, pooling under his wristband in the sweltering heat, I had been meaning to ask. “Oh, I have no idea how to repair a watch. You need too many tools to get started. I couldn’t afford to try.” If there was one thing the Clock Exhibition Hall didn’t show much of, it was clockwork. In the dim lighting, it was often difficult to find the “clock” at all. Encased behind dusty, sweat-smeared glass, many of the clocks were towers of elaborate woodwork, embellished with coloured glass and ceramic panels, dotted with jewels. They reminded me of the fairies I used to draw when I was six, with ridiculously over-the-top hairstyles; towering symmetrical locks. “It’s like they set a time piece in a block of wood,” I paused, trying to picture the scene. “Then started putting stuff on it and around it, and got really, really carried away.” One of the taller clocks stood on four legs, each with a vine of carved wooden leaves cascading down to the floor. Between them, a near-to-life-sized statue of a peacock sat, looking as if it had no clue that its hiding place was, in fact, a hugely ostentatious clock. One piece, a model detailing the - then known - planets of the solar system, showed fine brass cogs through a crystal base. Mounted on small posts, each planet ran along a track through the centre of the clock; they were designed to orbit. They remained, however, frozen. Other displays featured blank-faced automatons, poised, ready to enact their single programmed movement. Not a single clock in the hall even ticked. “I like this one,” he said, and crouched down to look more closely. I joined him. Star constellations were mapped out across the clock face, silver on an ink-blue sky, and set in the rim of a dull, wooden barrel. Even with my knowledge of constellations being just about limited to The Southern Cross, I found it enchanting. “This is amazing. Amazing. I can just imagine looking into a barrel of water at night and seeing the sky reflected perfectly, like the whole universe contained right in front of you. Like you could hold it.” The words tumbled out in a mess, trying so hard to embody the image in my head. Slight creases wrinkled at the corners of his eyes, as they did when he truly smiled. “That’s beautiful.” I could see him tracing back through my train of thought.
“Or those huge brass vats the courtyards, you know, a palace guard gazing into the water one night. Pre-polluted Beijing, no lights or trees obscuring the sky. Amazing. That probably happened, right here.” “It probably did,” he agreed, smiling. I moved through the hall, staring up at the riveted wooden ceiling, and imagined that I was inside a giant, extravagant clock.
The Ghost Market Yashow Clothes Market, Sanlitun
In the North East of the city, nestled amongst a myriad of foreign embassies, the Sanlitun Village Shopping Mall houses many international stores and restaurants, as well as the Yashow Clothes Market, specialising in counterfeit clothing. “Are they real? Are the people here real?” We shuffled through the grid of knock-off stalls, five floors of potential bargains; probable tourist traps. “Well. Supposedly everything is fake here.” He glared at the store vendors with suspicion. “It’s hard to tell.” An onslaught of rote-learned phrases streamed from every stall, clawing at anyone with the audacity to walk past. “You want new shoes?” “Nice Chinese tea set for you, sir? Lady?” “You wanna buy t-shirt? Very handsome.” I tossed bright refusals back at them all, utterly unconvinced. “I don’t think they’re real,” I whispered. It was too odd, too quiet. “It’s hard to imagine people sitting here all day, however many days a week, trying to sell off whatever they can.” “I know. And then they all go home to someplace. To someone.” We both tried to imagine the sellers’ lives outside of here. “Unless they shut off like robots as soon as the day ends?” The second option seemed far more likely. I could picture the lights going off at the end of the day. Each stall holder winding down with a soft whirring sound, the light fading from their eyes. Avoiding their faces I wandered off, aware of a distinct craving for natural light settling in my heart.
Paddleboats The Summer Palace
The Night Market Haidian Backstreets
Covering almost 3 square kilometers, The Summer Palace is an expanse of ornate buildings and highly landscaped lakes and gardens. Over the centuries it has been used by Chinese royal families as both a primary residence and as an escape from the heat and politics of Beijing. “This is actually happening.” The words coming from my mouth were surreal. Looking out across the water, I could see the assortment of rooftops stacked up on the hill, looking far smaller and more organised than when we had woven our way through. I tried to trace our path through the trees, but found it all looked different and the same. Hiking all day through a Beijing heat wave, herded along with the hordes of babbling tourists, it seemed quite impossible to now be paddling gently in the middle of a lake. “This is most definitely happening,” he confirmed. We set a rough course toward a sloping, white bridge on the other side, both knowing that whether or not we reached it was not important. “Do you want to drift for a bit?” I did. My legs were exhausted, though it was nice to move them about in a nonwalking motion. The air was cool and refreshing. Even the sounds of thousands of people around us were dulled, an occasional fit of laughter catching in the breeze. Finally, here we were. Just two people. “What are you thinking?” He was always curious to know. For once, I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I excused myself. “I’m far too relaxed to think.” That made him smile, at least. “I’m trying to imagine this place empty. Some emperor with the whole place to himself, just hanging out for the summer. A day like this is exactly the kind of heat they would have come here to escape.” “It totally is.” I was smiling too. “And what a place to escape to.” As I lay back I could feel my skin drinking in the sunlight, and wondered what it would be like to come here all the time.
If the Forbidden City is the center of the city, the hutongs are the veins, the arteries, where life really flows. Hutong life is representative of community lifestyle, of sharing streets, bathrooms and neighbourhoods. “Let’s walk back through the hutong.” I wasn’t convinced that it would lead us back to the university, but he insisted. In the night the narrow alley was recast entirely. Rugs and woven mats were spread on the ground, assorted trinkets spread across them. Even in the darkness I could see the outlines of Buddhist beads, more knock-off shoes and the same souvenirs I’d seen at just about every tourist attraction I’d seen. The men and women in charge of the stalls were just sitting around having a chat, only vaguely interested in the people passing by. Old men waddled along with their shirts folded up. They were all slapping their bellies continually. What for, I couldn’t tell. “The last night in Beijing and we’ve found a new way to walk home. I love it.” I could feel my lips stretch and crack as my smile widened. The hutong turned unexpectedly and came to an abrupt end. “Sleep so well.”
Isolation & Intimacy By Lucy Moffat 2000-2011: Rayya was born at the end of the first week of the twentyfirst century; an auspicious date if ever there was one. She could barely talk when the planes hit the twin towers, but the event marked her life irrevocably nonetheless. As Kabul began to rumble her family fled, and Rayya turned three hidden under a pile of cabbages in the back of a truck, speeding through the night towards India. She lived filthily and happily in the New Delhi slum until she was eleven years old, when her father sent for Rayya and her mother from Australia. Until adulthood Rayya never fully understood the hardships her father had endured in those seven years, five of which had been spent behind bars in the desert. She and her mother simply found themselves one day living in a roadhouse, several days’ drive into the Nullarbor desert.
One day a Chinese family passed through the roadhouse. As their daughter practiced rollerblading in the carpark outside, the mother and father became engrossed in conversation with Rayya, now a precocious and impressive teenager. She plagued them with questions about China, and her unadulterated curiousity was impossible to resist. Before parting, they gifted her a copy of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. She daydreamed about the author’s life of collecting and recording strangers’ stories, and recognised her life as a chance to do the same. In this way she could finally engage with the world beyond, through the eyes of each passing individual. She changed the menu, learned to bake inviting cakes, and ordered exotic teas and a proper coffee machine. In a longago free Kabul Rayya’s mother had been an accomplished botanist. Now Rayya put to her mother the challenge of cultivating a garden in one of the harshest environments in the world, and soon they had an exquisite green garden for customers to rest a while, recover from two days’ driving, and tell their story. In her late adolescence and early twenties, many of the stories and conversations were about politics. Australians expressed their increasing concerns and fears for Australia’s position within the modern world. Stories of violations of human rights and the environment were alienating Australia from the rest of the world, whose focus was centring ever more closely upon innovations and
philosophies about sustainable development and human rights. Rayya learned much about globalisation. She was advised a thousand times to learn Chinese. So she did. Having learned first Hindi and then English as a child, she delighted in learning another new language. As the demand for coal dried up and Australia began to rely ever more heavily on tourism, Rayya’s chances to practice Chinese grew until she found that she conducted business almost entirely in her fourth language.
It was in this setting that Rayya learned about the strange delicacy of human intimacy. Rayya learned that there are not enough listening ears in this world. That everybody has something to share. She imagined the big cities of the world, all those people, all with so many stories. And in the safety of her peculiar isolation, she could hear some of them. She heard: “My best friend was diagnosed with cancer only weeks after I booked an overseas holiday,” “I was in the army for many years, and I’ve lived all over the world. Where are you from? Afghanistan? Oh.” “I keep dreaming about rockets. This is not the world I want to raise children in. Everybody is looking over their shoulders; the cities are silent. Nobody speaks to anyone, and people keep losing their jobs. The world has turned their back on Australia.” When Rayya turned twenty-eight she sent her parents to the city to a retirement home. They deserved to be comfortable after the life they had been forced to lead. Now she was completely alone. In times without customers, the days grew lonely. She cursed the oppressive sun for not allowing anything beautiful to grow. She spat on the grey dirt and kicked the useless saltbushes. She wanted to push against that cruel horizon, which just went on and on in all directions, unbroken. But then night would fall, bringing peace. The temperature would plummet and Rayya could hear the sounds of other living beings waking up to enjoy the cool. She would turn off all the lights in the roadhouse and watch the sky stretch beyond imagination. There is no horizon in her world; the stars could reach almost to her bare feet. This was the life she chose.
2033: A rental car pulled into the carpark. “Ni hao.” She was tidying the counter and did not look up until the door slammed shut behind him. Once she glanced up, she could not look away. This man was at least five years her junior, and was beautiful beyond recognition. In Chinese she stumbled through her usual greetings, to which he replied quietly in English to order tea and the set lunch. Escaping into the kitchen, Rayya’s hands were shaking as she arranged the tea set on a tray. Imagining raising her hand to his hair, suddenly she was overcome with all the loneliness of her life. I can never leave this place. She had never before felt so utterly entrapped in her tiny-vast world. She hated this road, this desert, the tourists and the truck drivers who took their fill and journeyed on. They left barely a snippet of themselves, and probably never thought of this place again. She remembered them all, recorded their stories, but what did they recall of her? A tasty meal on a terrible road. She cursed the beautiful man: I might never have wanted for anything else if you had not come. Shaking, she served him in the garden and sat when he began to speak. Rayya remembered all the stories she heard, but it was this one that would return to her, day by day, at the strangest of times, for the rest of her life: “My parents were kids when the massacre happened in Tiananmen 1989. Do you mind if we speak in Mandarin? I feel I will be able to express myself a little more eloquently; I have only learned enough English to travel. When I attended classes everybody told me, don’t worry! Everyone there speaks Chinese anyway! But what a relief to meet you, who can speak so fluently! Anyway, my parents were of the generation at the beginning of Chinese capitalism, and they never, ever stepped beyond the boundaries. They made lots of money and they spent it luxuriously, and convinced themselves that this was freedom. As I grew up I felt strangled by the safety of their lives. My skin felt too tight; Beijing felt like a broom closet. At sixteen I finally confronted them about it. They said, ‘we have seen revolution. We are fed up with revolution. The whole world needs a revolution but we are not waiting because we know that it will be bloody, it will be chaotic, and it will not lead where we wanted it to go. Revolution means nothing here’. When I think of their words, even now I feel my skin crawl with disgust. And I am still afraid that they were right. Every day I fear that it is too late for this world. We don’t have the time to waste theorizing and procrastinating change. ‘Globalisation’ is a nice word to mean a policy of closed doors and open wallets. So here I am, following the correct path and talking about revolution as though I’m going to lead it. And I must be boring you to tears talking about politics in this beautiful
setting. You live in this; global politics must mean nothing to you! I should apologise.” Rayya had felt struck, even inspired by this young man’s passion, but this ending shocked her out of her embarrassment. She was not accustomed to being underestimated. “Do you truly believe that I think politics are irrelevant? I am isolated, but I’m not ignorant. There is a prison camp full of men, women and children who are traumatised and starving only a days’ drive into the desert from here; they came to this country, as I did, for protection. They will die behind barbed wire. So you talk to me about revolution as a concept; what are you actually going to do?” Ming swallowed and bowed his head. “Of course you’re right. I’m just another idealistic rich boy with no actual ideas of his own.” He looked up. “Actually, I do have one. It’s still so new in my head though, I haven’t told anyone about it.” “Hearing things nobody else has heard is kind of a specialty of mine,” Rayya’s voice softened considerably. Rayya did not remember falling asleep, but when she woke she was alone. Not only was he gone, but there was no evidence to suggest that he had ever been there at all. The tea set was clean and stacked neatly on the shelf. The road was empty from one horizon to the other. All that was left of him was a warm sensation through her body— and their idea. She saw Strange Tales on the table, and understood. She knew about fox spirits. He had endowed her, briefly, with luck and genius. And now she had to go forward, alone.
Ming’s designs had disappeared, but Rayya remembered everything he had showed her with perfect clarity. Within weeks the prototype was sent to the city and pitched, and soon Rayya was overwhelmed by a flood of offerings to fund her project. Within a year the factory was built on Rayya’s property, and solar panels covered the Nullarbor. The tiny rechargeable batteries, made from recycled metals and the size of Rayya’s middle finger, could be filled with enough solar energy to power a large home for six months. Rayya could not keep up with the global demand. She appealed to the United Nations to allow her to employ those refugees still kept in cages just outside the boundary of her property. She would provide homes and lifetime employment, under the condition that they were granted working residencies. At the meeting an extremely beautiful young man offered a considerable loan from the Chinese government—the first in decades—to Australia in the event of this agreement. As the detention centres slowly began to empty, a town
grew around her teahouse. Those who did not manufacture the batteries maintained and repaired the solar panels, or worked in the teahouse, or opened stores and hotels for the growing flood of tourists along the roadâ€”those who passed through wanted to see how their homes were powered. An Indigenous dance troupe abandoned their bus to Perth, threw off their fake feather skirts and opened a studio in the town. Art galleries, cinemas and even a small theatre conducted booming business. Rayya was an ingenious CEO and the kind mayor of her desert town. A new government was finally elected, and engineered a mentorship and funding scheme in partnership with Rayya to encourage sustainable innovation and entrepreneurship. And still, she never left the teahouse.
She is not alone any more, but at night Rayya still drives far into the desert to see a sky that reaches farther than the imagination. She would only allow her town to grow so wide. The world needs places with no light, and this could well be the last place in this world where the stars can reach down to almost touch her bare feet. Not that Rayya could possibly know.
If you know anything about beginnings, you would naturally know that with every cycle comes its ending. In this sense, a rule applies to all living things: to people, to plants and to the other inhabitants of the earth, and indeed, to planets. To finish does not mean the journey was irrelevant. For a world to end, maybe it means that world was meaningful all along. Nothing good can last forever. Every star burns out it’s brightest when it reaches it’s fiery peak, preparing to spread devastation. Once in every million years, a son reaches it’s oily demise, growing bigger and stronger, hotter and stronger until it’s too much for the surrounding planets - they are swallowed by the glow, destroyed by something much bigger than them. That is, if they aren’t lost at the hands of their own species, or the species of another world. When we think of the things that threaten us, it makes sense that our survival mechanisms teach us to think of something else - to reach out to another place. If you are like me, you might have turned that into a habit. If you are like me, it might be a good exercise to practice disaster theory, to address things as they come. Memories might be shattered like stained glass after that purposeful rock throw. You can try to put two and two together here, and forge a story based on the information you have given. Try ripping out a few pages of your favourite book. What changes when the critical pieces go missing?
Outside the grey dome of Adelaide Airport, the sky seemed to be set afire. Every purple tinge was met by it’s cousin in orange, ink swatches that had bled into the other when the artist had looked away. On their palette, they were vibrant and strong, ignorant to the musings of the people below. It was the morning. The celestial space was awaiting someone to bask in the glow, to overcome the horror of mid-morning reality, the malaise of 6 hours sleep and little to no comprehension of the world outside, and to stride through those doors. Luckily, Belle had decided to take that place. She moved into the airport, the sounds of her family counter-acting with the noise of people around them. She was exactly where she needed to be at that present moment. She, however, could not have been less present in the moment. Belle nervously fingered the pamphlet she was holding,
the words “BEIJING, CHINA” spread across the header in bold, emblazoned letters. It was a clean, smooth plastic, colourful and creatively designed so as to be set in order - the lining, the organisation, the type-face assembled in typical A5 format, accessible, not hard to read. It was cool to touch. In the face of overwhelming travel anxiety and the heavily suffocating social environment Belle was in, you could say it was a comfort. Belle gripped the China pamphlet like it was a talisman, surveying it occasionally with a lazy attentiveness, not really reading what was on it or what was within the pamphlet. It was more a matter of habit: flipping it open, closing it, staring and touching. These moments of unbeing possess us all, in moments of tragedy, in moments of uncertainty, in moments of anxiety, and always, always in airports. The line at the terminal had sent her into a reverie (Belle was not good at waiting) and she lost herself to the nonbeing, becoming submerged into her unconsciousness, losing herself to a plane of existence that was disentangled from the stimulation around her. She was not worrying that the line she was in was moving, had forgotten that she should be mentally preparing for the conversation about customs, or bag check-ins, or flight number bookings. She simply wasn’t there. “You’re the last flight to Beijing for a while, Miss Skeer,” said the flight attendant. Belle was brought back to the earth. The blurriness clearing, the forms emerging into focus, her senses rushing back up to her. Her legs had carried her forward without realising, and she now stood directly across from a pale skinned woman with dark hair and a perfectly assembled singapore airlines uniform. The woman smiled at her. “It would seem that way.” Belle replied. The flight attendant held her picture perfect grimace. The smile was hiding something - something that said “my job prevents me from saying anything further.” It was vaguely antagonising. Belle thought that she was good at reading people, and she thought maybe that she should be intimidated by this. It was the smile her 5th grade teacher had given her when she told her with a voice dipped in equal parts spite and relish “honey, you’re not smart enough to go onto 6th grade.” Look at her now. International study meetings and hand-written scholarships!
The flight attendant’s demeanour echoed Belle’s own uncertainty - it explained nothing new to noone. It seemed that for a few seconds there an acknowledgement was happening, that a conversation was starting - Bella swore she saw the woman’s mouth opened to say something, but then the exchange was broken, she quickly handed Belle her ticket, and enveloped again by her chemical daze, Belle moved on from the counter. In this state of unconsciousness that Belle was half willing herself into, other voices that were distant from the ones around her began drifting across her memory. The words of her best friend Kelly were ringing in her ears, and as she slipped back into her silence they echoed more clearly through her mind, her soft features slowly dissipating into view. Through the inquiry of empty space that occupied her, the half thinking state, it became dominated by the body of her friend, her preppy-like presentation, that tattered dress she always wore. She was holding her hand like it was the last time they would see each other. This could have been just another day. When she spoke to Belle in the dream state, her words were as clear and as real as they would have been at any other time. “You tried not to be the hero again.” Kelly was saying, and she was smilingly knowingly in this daydream, clearly amused by something Belle had done. Her lips moved in slow motion and her hair seemed to be caught in water, moving with a deliberate motion in the imaginary wind. “You tried to keep quiet, not to save anyone, not to rise above and clear the air. But it happened anyway didn’t you? Someone said something, threw something at you that forced you to become the imperfect thing they all didn’t want to be. You were the martyr above all these imperfectly perfect people and their glass shattered and twisted away like they always do. I loved you for it.” The turn of the corner into the flight lounge bought her visions back into reality and away from the puffy clouds of home, her university and her best friend. Instead, she was a small animal in a cage full of marsupials, big, small and wellrounded. Welcome to the convention. I hope you enjoy your stay. She saw one of their tails moving around behind them. She thought to herself: if these are the creatures I’m going on tour with, then so be it. The group of marsupials, these young leaders, these students, all stood gathered in a group near the gate. It became apparent that she was just day-dreaming again. There ain’t no tail here. But it was close enough. If she had continued with her fantasy, she would have assigned one of them to be a burly koala, one to be a thin shaped brown snake, one a sturdious kangaroo, like some weird gatekeepers of heaven. One of them had long, purple hair, streaming right down to her waist. Yep. This was a ragtag bunch. Dorian was one of the boys standing there. She noted that they had met before in one of her classes. Looking like a younger Ezra Miller with soft features and a build skinnier than any of the girls present, he waved pleasantly at her. The rest of the girls all began to notice Belle one by one, turning to survey her, some of their expressions curious, most of them enthusiastic and excited, and a few that leaned more towards apprehensive. Well, that’s natural she thought. This is the battlefield of girlhood. Forced to be competitive from the beginning, pushed into the servitude of antagonism, Belle never could be that popular girl that all
the other girls liked. She sensed she might have to work a bit more to gain their approval. In her head she rattled off all their names: Natalie, thin and well-presented, Criatia, the girl with the purple hair, Cat and Aria, two asian girls, one with bleach blonde locks, Summer and Ally, the two darker girls, and Elsie, the only trans girl on tour, small, inconspicuous, and apparently very nervous. Bella shared that disposition, but was maybe a bit better at hiding it. Natalie had early on in pre-departure meetings designated herself as leader of sorts of this oddball group. Facing Belle, she nodded in acknowledgement, her face happy and confident - she may as well have been the pilot. Her tall stature towered impressively upon almost all of the group, and she did an overhead count before taking a few steps forward and turning back to face them all. “That’s all if us together now, then.” Natalie said, clapping her hands. “Off we go.”
The darkness of Beijing enveloped them. It threatened to swallow them whole and spit them out as bundles of flesh, to equate them into figments of what they once were. It was a factory out there. So many people, driven by instincts and thoughts of survival, moving rapidly and desperately. It offered no peace nor did it offer mercy. To put it simply, Beijing was a large, fat, cloaked man with a swinging chain, and he didn’t really care who he laid flat or who fell victim to his brute force. Through this hardship, through this all, a group of westerners had decided to make good use of their environment. They had stepped aside the man with the giant body who whirled his chain and smacked his chest heartily with his hands. They were becoming their own bouncing ball of light, flashing off into the city, weaving through shut down buildings and alleyways, swooping after the sun, creating histories for the streets that spoke their name. When someone hits you with a flashlight, you beam yourself in every direction. The girls were all thinking of this dark as they took off down the street. One girl in front of the other, they carried themselves with unseen abandon and jubilation. Laughter emitted from their mouths and quickly echoed off into the distance, swallowed up by the night noise. They fought for supremacy in the smell of sewerage. Out of the back of the uni, into chaos and across the streets they fled. Cat was one of these girls. She screamed with mirth as she snatched a piece of fruit from a nearby salesman, his exclamation of surprise following her down the lane. With every quickened step, her worn nike sneakers thudded against the paved sidewalk and carried her onward. Each of them weaved in and out of people like they were obstacles in a course. Red lights here, blue lights there - cars and buses coveted the space of the streets, and they lost the battle. They were servants of a perpetual dark that betrayed them every minute and every hour. The atmosphere in which they moved was thick. It was hard to nuance or navigate - an oily sludge of happening. For each of them they were squid drowning in their own ink. By moving, they showed some chance of survival. If the bad guys chase after you in your nightmares, you run from them in the daylight. It was a frustration of moments and they had to escape their own entrapment.
Think of mushrooms, the dense black rubbery fungus, this multiplying and exactifying itself through them, their bodies taught flesh prisons, this thickness being their way, this type of air being their battleground. The beijing underground had come up to the surface with wishes for rain and prayers for solution, with that hope being their footpath that they ran over, their excitement a kind of rainbow road. Yet knowing all this they ran to something else, they ran towards something un-nameable, escaping the hopelessness of the dark with a different kind of conscience on their mind. They were running from uncertainty, and toward a solution that might not have even been there. And they continued to run, to run always, to run from that which haunted them, telling themselves: keep going. From the perspective of Cat’s vision, the girls in front of her were all jostling each other out of the way as they took on the street that perfect dawn night. Strings of items littered the footpath. They evaded it with a nimble deftness. Icons of death and symmetry were their playthings, the gods that they had seen on the signs being their inspiration, rubbish and miscellaneous objects being kicked aside in hopes of something more exciting. People on the street looked on in amazement: a group of girls smiling and panting with something that resembled joy. It was something unbelievable in these times! They were examples of that which could not exist in a critically conditioned climate! The fruit sellers were less now than they had always been, but still they remained. As soon as the girls and boys arrived in Beijing they had been a source of happiness for them. China could not offer them much in terms of understandable reading content and spacious dormitories, but it could at least offer delicious fruit picked ripe that morning. The stores were less open as well, their hours reduced, but they too remained. The city refused to die without a fight. It was alive but cautious. The grease that oiled it’s wheels was beginning to clog up, but it did not falter. The silence spelled out a potential danger, that there was a toxicity in the air that was warning everyone away: maybe the girls simply hadn’t inhaled the air yet. It carried on this way as the space before them opened up like the promise of a utopia, with more lights in the distance, those beams of neon casting celestial gazes unto them. Like a stranger watching ballet, you could imagine their bodies being lit each time they past. It’s showtime. Natalie would pass first, her lithe figure dancing through a sparking green. The invisible crowd cheered for them - they loved her, her elegance and grace. Then Criatia would leap through the spotlight, her muscular body dazzling in yellow. That deserved an enchor. Women wreathed in furs and old men in YSL tuxedos watched from behind an invisible screen at these Spice Girls, these stars, taking on the big city. This was escapism at its finest. Girlhood held up by a string. Each time they passed through those streetlights, they entered into another space, an envisioned space of a city the sparkling unknown Beijing. Carry on then, carry on. Down into that alleyway they ran, past the trashcans smellier than anything that could be dead: out into the soy sauce of night, and then noise: something breaking, the clashing of trashcans, Emily’s unmistakeable scream, shattering their fantasy, one body crashing into one
another, a yelp of pain. Now was the time for real pain, glass embedded into skin, cruelly taking them away from their game. Where did this come from? In the midst of a little courtyard they had ran into something sinister. As they were rising, disentangling their limbs from one another and picking themselves up, the other girls could see the cause of the commotion. A body lay swinging from the rafters, dark and stiff, a rope taught strongly around the neck, rotting flesh covering a carapace that could have well been a potato sack. The man had clearly been hanging there for days. To be woken up with a scene that signalled the end could not have been more terrifying. A vision of death had finally reached them. From now on, there could be no more games. They had been sent a warning. No sounds could be heard know: nothing, nothing, except the sobs of Emily, Criatia’s low, frightened shivering, and the sickening, slow, sound of a swaying dead man’s body.
Emily stalked across the floor of 79999. The clean, lino floor was as plastic and hard as it always was, and the corridor a procession of the same looking doors, the same doorknobs, the same colours. Two of the doors were open on the level. Natalie was in her room, and could be seen seated on the bed and hunched over her shoes, dutifully tiring a knot. Emily could see her doing these things almost immediately after arriving onto her floor, so clear was the view from across the hallways. From a few doors down she could hear Ally singing along softly to a piano tune that was coming from some kind of speaker or computer. Emily paused for a moment, wishing to be engulfed in it, her ASMR trigger going off and a sense of tingles erupting from her brain all the way down her body to the tips of her toes. Almost unwillingly, Emily found herself drifting into Natalie’s room, not wanting to bother her, not wanting to disrupt this atmosphere of calm she knew was inevitably going to be destroyed - and it was only when the Natalie’s eyes moved away from the shoe and across to the open door did Emily feel like she had to say something. “I- I got a message from the Australian Universities Console.” There was a distinct suspended moment of nothingness. Emily’s eyes, pools of grey as they were, connected instantaneously with those of Natalie. The frigid silence that occupied these few seconds was harsh and unmoving. It was a time to be selective about the words that were chosen in this space. With anything that could be said came the weight of the world along with it. The girls were stiller than ice - communicating shock, fear and suspense all in one fell swoop. Emily was often unpeturbed by most things, including the first message they had gotten about the risk of a potential natural disaster. But when Emily saw that look in her eyes, a terrified look, she knew it was something serious. “A few planes have crashed in the last week. We’ve received some final messages from our department or faculty. There’s nothing we can do about it and all contact to Australia from China is being cut off as of now. They’re not going to continue doing any flights back to Australia.”
I think Mr Jung tried to take my bag three times. I thought he was trying to shake my hand. I don’t like shaking hands. I clutched my bags. “No I’m ok thanks.” “Do you speak Chinese?” “No. Sorry.” We looked at each other mirror expressions of regret and confusion. All the lights reflected back at us, walking into the wall of stars. The beauty of Beijing airport at 2am was hard to keep a hold of. Behind the stars I couldn’t see across the road. The lack of vista pulled the focus back to Mr Jung and me. Being confronted with that emptiness I feel tiny. I let him put my bags on the bus. I wanted to do it myself. After the 2.30am bus trip around a city I couldn’t see to gauge. I forgot and grabbed my own bags. He tried to take them from me again. Again I didn’t let him. After some special just for strangers laughter Mitch gave him his bag. A minute of weirdness passed where I wondered if he wanted to carry my bags. I wished I could tell him about star lights and being tiny and how two am felt right then and that I wanted to carry my own bag, but it was nice of him to offer. I said “Xiexie.”
*** We don’t know. Standing in our neat row. We’re all too tired to lead and the group lethargy is kept in place by the heat. “Mister, Mister!” “Miss, Miss!” “Samsung Galaxy!” “Iphone five!” The sales people put us into our appropriate boxes. On a different level, in the same mall. Outdated technology comes to die. The old woman wound cables into perfect circles and slid them into neat apple branded boxes. Her hair fell in a grey triangle. The movement is like a moth’s wing opening. It covered her eyes. We turned around. She was gone, like the very recent past. Knocked off and on sale in the third level of a shopping mall in Haidian.
The lecturer read a poem. “Beautiful is the woman who rolls up the pearl-reed blind. She sits in an inner chamber, And her eyebrows, delicate as a moth’s antennae, Are drawn with grief. One sees only the wet lines of tears. For whom does she suffer this misery? We do not know“ The beauty of the moth woman was lost on me. My only thought was of the lecturer saying that there are only two ways to talk about a woman’s beauty, to describe it or to describe the man’s reaction to it. I thought it would be very hard to be that woman. I imagined growing old in a place and time where everyone was that open about their opinions. Maybe that is a good thing, people might leave you alone. I said “Xiexie.” *** A whole isle sold nothing but security cameras. We watched our selves, watch our selves walk by. Pause, picture, flash and it’s done we moved on. Geriatric television screens where the colour contrast made us look either red or white. A man told us to sit down and brought finds from around the market. For us to purchase. “Lets go,” Mitch said. We leave. In the coffee shop down stairs the spell lifted and we could talk. “They wrote our names down as Mr and Mrs Foreigner.” Mitch noticed, we laughed. The shop attendant looks at us. I said “Xiexie.”
Arrival Beijing is a powerful city. From arrival to departure it possess you, ensnaring your senses, overwhelming every thought. One step out of the airport and you can feel it. The heavy air, the humid smog wraps around you and draws you in. The drive from the airport is eerie. The tangible pollution looms overhead and lingers in front of street lamps like Stephen King mist. It’s been a long trip and you’re jet-lagged so the idea that it may in fact be the smoky breath of a dragon seems plausible. He’s probably lurking over there, behind those trees.
Beijing - The Best You’ve Ever Had
Beijing is possessive. When you’re here your full attention is demanded. The heat, the smells, they keep your focus on the present. When you travel you often get lost in though, lost in your mind. The new environment stimulates you internally. Beijing is different. It’s a large sprawling mess. Tall buildings in strange shapes, criss-crossing highways that curve over secret alleyways. Hot. Pulsing. You have never responded so physically to a city, so sensually.
In the rare moment Beijing allows you to consider another place, it is only to find that place inferior. Wandering through the Summer Palace, with its red walls and jewel-toned accents you can’t help but think of the stone castles you loved in Europe as boring. Colours that may be considered garish at home seem to compliment the architecture here. You remember your home as being terribly beige.
One of Several Nights
Gulping cocktails, guzzling them down, dancing as your thongs stick to the floor of the club. With the heat the spilled drinks dry to fast and so instead of a slippery wet floor you get a filmy glue. Smoking is allowed inside, which makes the air feel hotter. When the strobe lights flash you see puffs of smoke above grinding girls.
Later That Night
The noodles from the vendor outside that club you like. You asked for extra chilli and that’s what you got. It’s so spicy you can barely swallow. You wash it down with another mojito. They let you bring drinks outside here and “dry zone” is suddenly a very foreign concept. You’re already struggling to stay standing but it’s not your fault, cocktails are free and water is 35 yuan.
The Morning After
Beijing is a party city. Or, maybe, you’re just a party person. Either way most mornings begin with a feeble walk to the nearest fridge to buy a bottle of cold water. You shouldn’t drink from the tap and you wouldn’t want to anyway because it tastes gross and its warm and right now you need something chilled. When you stumble back into bed you need to hold the bottle between your thighs, a freezing burn against hungover skin, because, as usual, you lost the bottle cap after you opened it. How something bright blue can get lost amongst white sheets is an insolvable mystery. All that’s clear is that you will need
to polish off the bottle before you lie back down. But that’s probably not the worst thing.
That Time You Visited the Great Wall
Sensation after sensation, Beijing overwhelms. As you climb the thousandth stair up to the Wall you can’t imagine your legs and your lungs burning more than they do now. Then you reach the summit and you take your first big breaths of mountain air and realise that you are standing on history and its sloping over the green hills like a stone spine. It’s hard to know what to focus on - the dizziness from the heat or the vivid colours of the trees or the blissful shock of the freezing water you are trying to drink between frantic breaths. Or, maybe, you should think about how you’re standing on the only man-made structure you can see from space.
You have a heightened sense of awareness here, that slight tingling at the back of your neck that comes from knowing someone’s watching. Someone is always watching. If not the old man sitting over there then its one of the thousand security cameras you’ve spotted since arriving. Nothing is private and privacy is not sought, except for those occasional stolen moments. When you see the couple walking ahead, holding hands and then he tugs her into that little nook to exchange frantic kisses away from the prying eyes of the shopkeeper down the road. It’s nearly 2 am but the lights are still on, cold beers ready for anyone who might want one.
Walking down the streets you’re greeted with a range of smells. The delicious scent of spices wafting from noodlevendor’s cart, the stench of garbage left out in the rain that’s drying now in the afternoon sun. Sometimes its unrecognisable - a pleasant burst of sweetness or a sudden gag-inducing grossness.
When Relieving Yourself Is No Relief At All
There’s that burning feeling in your thighs when you have to squat over a dirty, smell hole after a long day of walking and an even longer night of dancing. This one doesn’t even have walls, just two rows with three “toilets” each, facing each other. There is no door and you pulled your pants up just moments before that drunk German misread the gender signs outside.
That Time You Died and Went to Heaven (Where They Serve Peking Duck)
Peking Duck. Oo la la says the girl next to you. Oo la la, indeed. You’re at a fancy restaurant, the kind you can’t afford to go to back home. They roll out the ducks on two trolleys. Waiters in crisp white uniforms and tall hats swirl and twirl their knives until you have perfectly sliced rows of duck. They place them on platters warmed by tea lights and the skin is crispy molten bronze over succulent meat. You know it will be delicious and not just because you’ve been waiting half an hour and had three cocktails, served over a large orb of ice.
When You Just Can’t Win
Reflections on Driving
You fall asleep sweating and wake up shivering. That droning hum you hear is the air conditioner still running at full blast. It’s disorienting; the cold, the noises spilling in from outside - construction, constant traffic. It was too hot for pyjamas last night and now you wish you had your warm flannels on. You turn the aircon off and an hour later you wake up again, drenched in sweat.
Slamming. Swerving. Driving home at night, the buzz from the tequila shots still strong, the cold night air and drops of rain blast in from the open windows. The night is clear, all around you see tall buildings with their huge signs, red characters you cannot read. You slide through the city at speed, the roads a roller coaster maze, twirling overpasses, straight and narrow side streets. The traffic moves in a peculiar organised chaos that only the native drivers seem to understand. They weave in and out of their lanes, honking their horns conversationally.
On the Topic of Constant Thirst.
Never do you appreciate water as much as you do here. It’s ambrosia. And its usually cheap. The evidence of your increased hydration needs is found in the dozens of empty bottles you store beneath your bed.
The sweat. The trickling trails, the bulbous beads. Sweat. Sweat. Fabric clings to damp skin. Your sunglasses keep sliding down your nose. You thighs leave wet marks on every chair you sit in. You’ve never felt less attractive but you’ve also never cared about your appearance less. Because you’re sweating.
No matter how long you stay here you will never get used to the music. It’s always a strange blend of pop songs that were popular a few years ago or Chinese covers of current songs. Or, perhaps, Taylor Swift’s holiday album. In July. Most shopping malls seem to have a playlist of ten songs that play over and over.
Nights on the Grounds
You sit with friends outside under a trellis covered in green vines. You try to ignore the mosquitos as you sit in comfortable silence, the smoke from their cigarettes billowing upwards, a soft grey against the inky blue sky. The contrast is visible because the pollution was low today but you still can’t see any stars.
Sugar and Spice
Strong spices, sweet drinks. Ginger and garlic with Szechwan peppers. Your tongue tingles and numbs and then you wash the sensation away with lychee juice, thick like syrup.
Meandering through ancient structures, pausing for breath and for water. It’s hot again, the sun directly overhead. Your palms have moistened enough to erode the label on your bottled water. You want to power through to the end, to make it through the Forbidden City but the crowds work against you. Bright umbrellas scrape against your cheek and then a Korean woman in six-inch fuchsia heels steps on your toe. Children point at you and whisper to their parents because you’re blonde and you’re walking around with a girl whose hair is blue. The parents give in to their children’s’ demands and ask you in broken English if they can take your photo. Suddenly your hand is being held by a girl with three pigtails, her other hand is next to her chubby cheeks, two fingers forming the usual peace sign pose. The next time it will happen the opposite way, eager parents will hand you their squirming baby. The little bǎo bǎo will start crying before the camera flashes and the hundred or so people walking around you frown disapprovingly at you, the white devil. The child’s parents, however, are unperturbed and take five or six more photos.
Concluding Remarks from the Plane Home
Beijing is a majestic dragon’s lair. Powerful, imposing, aggressive, daring, defiant, and proud. You never want to leave.
This morning I went for a walk at about 7am and I saw someone on the street deep-frying dumplings for sale to early-risers. I looped around the block and came in the front gate of the campus, and I heard a man playing hauntingly beautiful traditional flute music. It echoed around the courtyard, strikingly juxtaposed against the modern sports courts with their green rubber floors and steel fences. People were exercising on the outdoor gym equipment, walking or jogging around the courts and playing basketball. My stomach rumbled, reminding me how early it still was.
By Catherine Gibson 31
In an unused underground cafeteria hidden from view, a large wireless radio broadcasts the news quietly from a table in the corner. Here they are gathered. A few silent young men with matching crinkled brows surround the radio, listening intently. The room is filled with tables lain with maps, surrounded by young men and women of all shapes and sizes, with one common goal. Talking seriously, some study the many newspaper cuttings plastered on the walls, showing Chinese Government officials and Japanese planes. Others pore over maps, heads together, bowed. Amidst scattered chairs a young woman named Lien Fu sits in the very centre of the room, clutching a worn photograph of a young man with kind eyes framed in tortoiseshell spectacles. With her eyes on the photograph, and other hand protectively resting on her stomach, she seems lost in thought, and sighs loudly, unconsciously drawing the attention of the other students, who were unused to hearing her utter a sound since Son Li went away. Noticing the effect, quietly, Lien Fu begins to speak.
‘I fear to bring a child into this world for fear it will be shunned due to my circumstance,’ she pauses, and looks up, the others quiet now. ‘But I thank whatever gods may be out there that she avoids the pressures of our parents, and will truly become a daughter of the revolution, free to be educated and live her life as she chooses. Today we march for her.’
A solemnity filled the room now, as though each student could feel the seriousness of what they were about to do. The young men and women stood straight, strong, proud to bear the weight of the task ahead like heavy medals around their necks if it meant breaking the shackles of their early years.
She involuntarily sighed again and the vacant yet concentrated expression that her fellow students were becoming so familiar with returned to Lien’s soft face. She wished Son Li were by her side today, but she knew he had to fight their battle in his own way, from foreign frontiers. The Shantung resolution, which was not a resolution at all, had to be opposed from more than one front. Lien could almost see his determined, worried face next to her. He was there in spirit. A year ago Lien never would have dreamed she would be sitting here, early on an unassuming spring morning, underneath a university, preparing to march Beijing. It was
ridiculous, but strangely empowering. She had suffered much scrutiny from the older generation since she had begun to show in the past few weeks. On announcing her pregnancy to her parents, her family had publicly damned what they perceived as her promiscuity and disrespect for the Fu name by expelling her from the family home, and did little to quash any rumours as the neighbourhood began to speculate about her illegitimate child. As far as they were concerned, Lien’s business was no longer theirs, and they couldn’t tell you where she was living her wanton life. In the lane where the Fu family lived, Lien had grown up with the Qing, Shao and Min families. Lien had cared for the Min children when their mother had social calls to make, with the same care that the Qing children had kept an eye on Lien when she was a cheeky toddler just finding her feet, chasing her down the lane whenever she bolted at a moment’s notice. Young Lien had taken Mrs Shao’s lists of herbs to purchase from the local medicine man when her knees were too swollen to go herself. The Fus, Qings, Shaos and Mins worked together to clear the snow from the lane when it became dangerous ice during the winter. The families shared Chinese New Year, mourned for each other’s losses and welcomed each other’s distant relatives as if they were their own. Despite all of this, because Lien was to bear a child out of wedlock, she was now an outsider, and as far as everyone was concerned, she was as welcome in the alley as a flea-bitten dog.
The only people from her community that Lien had not fallen out of favour with where her two childhood friends, Xiaozhi Qing and Cao Min. Xiaozhi had been Lien’s closest friend her entire life, and they went to the girl’s school together, catching Cao everyday on the way home as he left the boy’s school down the street. The three of them had grown together, leaving the innocence of childhood and travelling through the awkwardness of puberty as a trio. It was their talks on the way home from school that shaped the way they felt about China and who they would become. Everyday, as they meandered down the laneways, in no hurry to get home, they had one glorious hour to hurriedly compare the views of their teachers, and what they had learnt, before their parents and grandparents could question their tardiness.
They had begun and concluded every day of their youth in the family home by checking in on their grandparents. More than anything it was an opportunity for their elders to assess them, and ensure that they were in line, dressing and acting as proper Fu or Min or Shao children should. Lien remembered visiting her grandmother one morning, wearing white and red slippers she had bought in the market that had made the old woman spit on the ground, snapping ríbên guîzi! Waiguoren! Before clipping her around the ears and snatching them fiercely, throwing them into a deep muddy puddle and hobbling off on a huff. Hurt, because Lien didn’t understand what was wrong with her red and white slippers, she left them in the puddle until a few days later it appeared as though a small brown and green person had fallen into a deep hole and been stuck there, feet up. It was clear their teachers and parents believed the trio and their classmates should take everything they were told as gospel, but Lien, Xiaozhi and Cao always felt like they were hiding something. Surely they were only being so difficult, and set such rigid rules, because there was some great, unknown evil that they were protecting the children from. Dragons, monsters, demons that only they as adults could fend off. They must know something, thought the children. They would not be so unreasonable otherwise.
One day, young Cao had been in class, half-listening to the teacher, and half turning over something he had said earlier in his head. Before he realised what he was doing, Cao had stood up, his stool dropping to the floor noisily, and blatantly asked his teacher, ‘But why should my parents choose who I marry? What if I don’t want to have children at all?’
The teacher and entire class stared at him, open-mouthed. Cao was quickly reprimanded with a heavy blow to the ear, told not to ask stupid questions, and reminded of his duty to his family. That afternoon on the walk home, Cao invented a game. He challenged both the girls to listen to their teachers, and wait for a question they wanted to ask their teacher, but couldn’t for fear of suffering the consequences. The game was then to savour the question, and ask it to the other two on their walk home. Whoever could come up with the wildest, but somehow most acceptable answer as judged by the questioner would be the winner of the round. Cao began the game on that first day by asking the girls the same question he had asked the teacher. Xiaozhi grinned cheekily, and told Cao,
‘It’s because spirit-eating dragons eat young men! They do not like young women. If you want to be safe, you have to choose a woman to ward off the spirit-eating dragons.’ Cao roared with laughter.
‘No dragon will ever take my spirit!’ Cao scoffed. ‘But I’m not surprised you think dragons wouldn’t eat young women, you two would be much too bony, even in a few years time when you’ve grown a bit.’ He turned to Lien. ‘What’s your answer?’ Lien smiled.
‘You have to get married and have children,’ she smiled, ‘Because otherwise, when your parents die, they will have nothing to talk about! Their ghosts will be bored, floating around after your lonely body. They want to haunt children and women and every Min that isn’t even born yet, so you need to keep the line going!’ She skipped along ahead. Cao and Xiaozhi laughed. ‘That makes more sense to me.’ Cao pretended to concentrate. ‘Lien is the winner!’
Every day the game went on. Why must we follow Confucius’ Five main relationships? Are Japanese families evil? Why don’t we learn about the other continents? ‘Because there are dragons in the trees!’ Lien would scream. ‘Fire-breathing ants!’ Xiaozhi would squeal.
‘We are evil and they are afraid of us!’ Cao would announce.
As they grew older, Lien, Xiaozhi and Cao began to look forward to the game all day, dying for the chance to pitch their theories to the other two. The game wasn’t so much for passing the time anymore, but became almost necessary, as slowly the dragons and ghosts they had held accountable for their elders’ rules slipped away into fantasy, leaving only gaping holes and questions. The cracks began to show, and their young friendship became the foundation for something great- Actually, many great things. After all, Cao had been the one to introduce Lien Fu to his schoolmate, Son Li.
Those who don’t believe in love at first sight were clearly not present that day. Simply put, after Cao introduced Lien, now a first year at Peking Girls’ Higher Normal School, and Son, a second-year at Peking University and the head of the New Tide Society, the rest was history. It didn’t matter that Lien’s parents would never approve of this odd, modern young man, fluent in English and wearing English brogues. It didn’t matter that she had to pretend she had university all day in order to spend a little time with him, safe within university grounds. It didn’t matter that he stood for everything her family carefully closed out, and it certainly didn’t matter that he was anti-Confucian. They loved each other. But Son was passionate about their future, too. Among other things he wanted Lien to be able to attend Peking university with him, as she wanted to, so he was fighting for it. For all of it. But Son would not marry her yet. Son didn’t want to make an eternal vow only to have to leave Lien straight away for the Movement, as he soon would; he told her he wanted to marry her when he had achieved something; when he could stay. Lien didn’t completely understand, but she didn’t completely mind, either. He was a smart young man, and if he had his reasons, she trusted him. It felt like an eternity ago that they were together in Son Li’s parents’ kitchen, a place that unofficially existed, like their childhood walks home, as a safe haven, a place for Chinese tea and English biscuits, Chinese dumplings and British ideals. Son Li’s parents Ai Li and Duanli Li had developed a taste for British culture and ideals when Ai Li’s translation skills and relatively sound grasp of the English language led to a short research trip to London in 1895, with the order to investigate just what the overseas Chinese were learning in these British institutions, and to ensure important Chinese literary works and concepts were being taught to the growing overseas Chinese student population in Britain. They might be living in Britain, but they were still Chinese, after all. China will always claim its people.
As they arrived in London, the newly-married, shy but engaging, educated Lis were warmly received by the Academic community, and quickly fell in love with the city. The theatre, the music, the colour and the beautiful countryside were such a stark contrast to the grey of Beijing.
On returning to Beijing from the two-month trip, Ai Li reported to Guangxu’s government officials a desperate situation; A startling lack of Chinese culture and patriotism being taught or circulated among the young British-Chinese. He urged them to quickly send him back on an extended research project, under the premise of establishing a young overseas-Chinese Association, regularly report back to the Qing officials on his
progress in instilling in the students a proper sense of ‘Chineseness’, and finally encouraging the students on finishing their degrees to take their skills back to the motherland. In his spare time he was to base himself at the Westminster Chinese Library and help Duanli work on translating more English texts into Chinese, in the hopes of learning more about modernization to assist the Empire. They were to send these back to China for the Qing officials to analyse. Concerned by Son Li’s report, the couple were sent back to London, slipping out of the country just as the Japanese claimed victory in the Sino-Japanese war.
Honestly, Ai had slightly embellished his story of the Chinese presence in Britain. In actual fact, there was a large established Chinatown, home to a bustling, colourful community, and all of the students had Chinese beliefs drilled into them at home from the day they could walk, regardless of what they were learning at school. The young Lis had just wanted an excuse to return to their beloved London. The couple’s English was rapidly improving thanks to their new friendships, developed based on the current English preoccupation with Chinoiserie, and in turn their own fascination with British culture. In London, the Lis were free to move between their quarters behind the great University of Westminster and the expat settlement. Walking through London’s Chinatown on a crisp February morning, Son really had felt he could be in Beijing, if it weren’t for the occasional glimpse of a grand Victorian building. Shanghai, maybe. The other giveaway was the lack of fear in this community. They were in England, thousands of kilometres from the power of the Dynasty. These Chinese spoke freely, and during a short time the Lis integrated into the community, Duanli developing friendships with the young women selling fresh bok choy and tart daikon radishes, taro root and stringy green beans, and Son casually seating himself on a stool between old expats, sharing cups of huanjiu and swapping stories of home.
It seemed to the Lis that they could have been happy in London forever. But midway through a spiteful Beijing winter, a letter arrived in London for Duanli. Duanli’s sister informed her that their grandmother was unwell, and advised that she must return home as soon as possible. They feared she would not survive the winter, and Duanli’s mother wished for them to say goodbye. The old woman had always had a strong intuition surrounding these things, so Duanli and Son wasted no time in booking two tickets back to China, travelling the sea in the depths of winter. The tricky old woman was right, as always. She had died by the time the young Lis made it to her bedside. They had missed her passing spirit by two days. Son and Duanli Li found that things had changed in Beijing. It was now 1898. The air felt thicker now, oppressive, uncertain, closing in on them as they walked the streets, and only slightly thinning as they retreated to the family home. It was thick everywhere. Son and Duanli distracted themselves by delving right into the family affairs and the funeral arrangements as much as they could, and when they felt they had paid their dues to the entire family, planned their return to their roles in London. But things had changed in Beijing. Guangxu’s government officials who had overseen the young Li’s British project were no longer in office. Their replacements didn’t see the point of the Li’s project. Translated British texts were of no use to them, nor were the foreign Chinese, and their assumption of returning to Britain was swiftly dismissed. They would be of more help to the Republic here, in Beijing. Helpless, the Lis did as they were told, and a year later, Duanhli gave birth to their first and last son. Lien thanked heaven for the Lis. Always welcoming the sweet, quietly determined girl with open arms, they took her in quite
naturally the day the Fus booted Lien out. Under the surface, Lien was furious with her family. She was happy, she was in love, she was pregnant and she was working for a better future. They were just going to have to deal with it at some point. Cohabitation was also becoming more and more common. Regardless, Lien considered herself very lucky to be protected by the Lis; such a modern, intelligent family. She knew women her age who were completely isolated because their choices were independent of their family. The Lis on the other hand adored Lien. The young lovers reminded Ai and Duanhli of themselves in their youth, and in the weeks before Son had to go away, the four of them were a happy family unit, sitting up for hours under the glow of the kitchen lamps, discussing London, and the Republic, and all Son and Lien’s hopes for China’s future. Lien and Son Li had at one point contemplated trying to leave the country, and moving to London with Ai and Duanhli, but they dismissed it as a cowardly retreat. They had come this far with the New Tide Society, and were just about to have a breakthrough uniting students across Beijing. And despite everything, Lien and Son wanted their child to be born a Chinese citizen. Leaving was not an option, for now.
“Wait for the dust to settle,” Lien had told Son. “The opportunity will present itself when it’s right, if it’s right, to send your parents at the least.” Son Lee had smiled at her and agreed. She knew he desperately wanted to see London, to understand. Lien did not mind whether they stayed or whether they moved as a family. Her mind was made up for her the day she laid eyes on him.
The Lis were living proof of the benefits of globalisation, and their guidance had proved invaluable to Son and Cao Min as they tried to successfully lead a topical university union in such turbulent times. A Union combining all the higher-learning institutions into one united front was just days away, and Cao had argued with Son Li, insisting that they wait until it was officially formed before marching, fearing that they would not present as strong enough without a blanket name. Son Li disagreed, protesting that the time for action was now.
It seemed to many of the group hidden in the basement cafeteria that their entire lives had been unknowingly building to this moment. Today the oppression of their childhood officially ended, and they made their presence known. Just to be given an inch, it had become apparent to the students that they would have to go to the extreme. Really, they had known it all along. After all, it was the people in this room that would suffer the consequences of the current government’s choices, not the older generation. Their parents and their parents had lived with wool over their eyes, closed off from an entire world. It was time to make way for the new wave of intellectuals, who did not believe the rest of the earth was a threat, rather than an opportunity.
It was time to restructure the status quo. It was time to build a new China to house the new people that were hatching under the old dragon’s wing. The way Lien saw it, if the Republic and the older generation wanted to attack their young spirit, they would be biting the hand that would one day feed them. After all, how do the old live on, if not with help from the young? Lien smiled at the thought. She knew they could not break their spirit. The old dragons had ruled for too long.
I haven’t written anything. And it’s because Beijing has killed my passion, killed my lust. Killed my desire to write and perform.
The oppressive weather bearing down on me Squashing out every inspiration in a puddle of sweat Boiling my brain inside my head Making me want to kill people But draining the energy for the killing
I haven’t written anything. What you are reading is not writing What I am doing is not performing That picture of a pipe may not be a pipe But the pipe protruding from the ground, Gushing the water that is meant to be feeding my shower hot water Certainly is a pipe.
I haven’t written a thing. Magnifying every irritation into Through lack rage. I have not written. of sleep There is nothing to write Everything is white Heat And black. And sometimes red, Because this is China and exhaustion there is always “sometimes red”. Overwhelm Underwhelm Disgruntled consumers pushing their way through Never giving a fuck that I am here first Maybe not even seeing me, looking right through me I want to shout “I am here!” But I don’t. I wouldn’t do that at home, I won’t do it here.
So I have not written.
Seriously. Not fine.
Three weeks is too much and too little, all at once I’m sick of the small things but The fine line between culture and comfort has been crossed Haven’t seen enough of the big things One too many times and Haven’t had enough time to And I stamp my foot and I go home to sleep. Discover the gems in the hutongs My exhausted bones coveting what little extra cushioning my duvet gives the rockOr make a connection or Become a solid mattress And my hot skin coveting the air conditioner local. Snoozing until I feel chilly and I wake up Therefore I have not written anything. And I am not sorry. And I am not performing and this is not a piece. And I am not at peace With squatting in the stench of ammonia At a national fucking monument.
This is the story of the Yangtze River dolphin; about how it was born, and how it died. In some ways this story is more about Li Wei, a man, than the dolphin itself. But perhaps Li Wei’s story is not what you would call a standalone piece. Parts may seem unbelievable, but in the end it is up to you to believe what you want to believe. There was once a king who lived in a rich, cosmopolitan city on the edge of the Yangtze River. He had one daughter, a beautiful girl he loved as if she were a son, and who in return loved her mother and father deeply. Her name was Princess Baiji. Once the Princess became of a certain age, it became the king’s priority to find a suitable husband for her. The king, however, did not understand his daughter’s nature and chose a man inappropriate for the Princess. She did not want to get married at all, but to stay at home with her mother. Baiji was a shy and timid girl, too young of mind to think about things like desire or love or security. Nonetheless, the king betrothed her to a wealthy, but very old man. The Princess became deeply anguished. In utter desperation, the Princess fled the palace the night before her wedding. She had been confined inside the women’s quarters her entire life and therefore had no concept of the world outside. The only trees or plants she was familiar with were in the manicured gardens in the courtyards of the compound, and the only water she knew was the trickle of a stream that had been manipulated to pass by her bedroom window. She ran through the night. A palace guard saw her and was mesmerized by her pale skin illuminated in the moon light, which matched the night-blooming flowers that grew along the shore. In his hesitation he failed to catch her. She threw herself into the river and tried to swim for the opposite shore. But the Princess could not swim, and had no understanding of the river’s power. It swallowed her up almost at once; a knot of her long black hair was all that was left, caught on a branch. A short while later, fishermen began to see a strange new creature in the murky green water of the Yangtze. Seen only at night, it was something large and long. Slowly it would rise to the surface, a moon-coloured creature, and if the cicadas were not too loud, you could hear it expel a single breath. They said it was the Princess Baiji, and that her tortured mind and fear of life had turned her into the river dolphin and confined her to the Yangtze forever. Over time, the baiji had many, many daughters. For hundreds of years the river was full of these shy, ghostlike creatures. The fishermen didn’t harm them out of
superstition. They would say that if you kill a baiji, then a curse will be put upon your daughter, and fate would bring her a cruel husband. Eventually, China began to change. Fishermen and their small boats were replaced with ships equipped with great nets, and factories replaced the villages that used to line the river. In this new China, many people grew staggeringly rich as the Yangtze changed, polluted with oil, petrol, chemicals from factories—the colour changed and the smell, once fresh, now caught in the back of your throat. Many varieties of fish died, so there was less food for the baiji, and her numbers diminished. Human activity destroyed the creature’s habitat, leaving less room for those that did survive. The baiji has small, almost blind eyes, and relies on the reverberation of noise off her surroundings in order to manoeuvre through the water. The noise from the ships deafened her; she often had fatal collisions with the propellers of these vessels. The worst came when the baiji could no longer trust the men on the river. The creature had no understanding of events outside of her watery world, but something had changed. The traditional reverence of the baiji that had protected her for so long no longer seemed important. People began to hunt the creature, eating her flesh and selling her pelt. Even while some disdained this practice, and feared the curse the baiji would put on their daughters, the hunger in their stomachs, outweighed anything else. For many years the baiji tried to evade her human predators, but eventually there were no more left. But, you know some people say that they have seen her. Despite the efforts of many men, superstition lives, and in every village around the Yangtze there will always be someone to tell you that on some nights, on quiet offshoots of the main river to which she is eternally bound, you might see the baiji as she comes up for air. Mythology aside, there was, in the world of fact, one left. One lonely baiji, who for a long time meandered through reedy streams, avoiding the main waterways, breaking the water every so often to breathe but careful never to be seen, still afraid that if caught she will be made to marry.
So this is where Li Wei comes in. Now Li Wei was no great man. He was uneducated and illiterate, had no land or home, nor any guanxi to speak of, and his only child the bastard son of a prostitute who died at childbirth. At the time when this story took place he would have been about
forty years of age, but poverty had aged his face, making him appear a much older man but somehow not a shade wiser. This is the story of how Li Wei, intending only to feed his young son, encountered the baiji and set the Princess free. On the night it happened, Li Wei had been fishing, but there were so few good fish he had caught nothing to eat. He sat on the edge of the river smoking and staring into the water. It was something he did often, not that Li Wei was any kind of philosophical man; he merely had nothing else to do. He was used to being alone, all his life he had been a loner. People found his demeanour strange, and he lived the shameful lifestyle of a tramp. He sat shirtless; the hot, humid air was suffocating. The sky was stained by the light pollution from the city to the East. The moon sat low in the sky, the river wreathed in fog. Branches cast crooked shadows. A man could have been standing in the dark shapes, waiting to attack, and Li Wei would not have known. Li Wei was picking at a scab on his foot and didn’t notice the lull in the cicada’s roar, as if something had scared them into silence. Li Wei was started by the sudden pschooh noise of the baiji, as she crept to the surface to expel air through that curious hole in the top of her head. He looked up with wild searching eyes. Of course he knew of the baiji, and the story of the Princess, but had never seen one and never paid any mind to its whereabouts. Whether it was gone forever or not, or whether it really was the Princess or not, he had never had cause to consider. But there it was in front of him, the notoriously shy baiji. He lunged at the baiji. He wrapped his legs around its body, grasping at its narrow dorsal fin. The terrified creature writhed and rolled in the shallows, but Li Wei remained determined, feeling for the hunting knife in his pocket. He clasped the cheap plastic handle and flicked the blade out. Now free, Li Wei drove the blade as hard as he could into the animal. Covered in blood and sweat, reeds sticking to his skin, Li Wei pulled the beast onto the bank. He sprawled out on his back, chest heaving. Li Wei laughed out loud. The villagers would scold him, with their backwards beliefs, but he had no daughters to curse and would feed his son for a month with the meat. Perhaps he could sell its skin, maybe even send the boy to school with the money. Li Wei felt exhilaration and pride. It was better than making love to a woman. Li Wei sat up and looked at the baiji, lying still in a dark pool of blood. Its eyes were dull and beady, while its bluishsilver skin took on an eerie whiteness now that it was out of the water. Staring at the corpse perturbed Li Wei. He would skin and clean it as soon as he could. Then something strange began to happen. The baiji was moving, its body squirming as if something inside was trying to get out. No, it wasn’t moving. The baiji was changing. Her nose receded and her face flattened. Stiff, flat flippers lengthened and her tail separated into the long, delicate limbs of a young woman. Li Wei was motionless, his body paralysed in disbelief. The baiji’s face had dark lashes, round cheekbones, and cold red lips just slightly open. After little deliberation Li Wei cleaned his knife and began carving the girl’s body. Princess or no princess, he still needed to feed his son. It was no different than skinning a
pangolin, just with soft skin falling free rather than the hard armoured coat of the animal. With decisive movements he cut the meat from the Princess’ bones, wrapped each portion in clean cloth he took out from his bag. When he was finished Li Wei cleaned his knife again, and returned it to its sheathe. Then he dug a hole in the bank and buried what was left of the Princess Baiji. After washing in the river, Li Wei picked up his now heavy bag and made his way back to camp. He followed the smell of smoke from the fire the boy had started in hope that his father would bring back something to cook.
For whom does she suffer this misery? We do not know.
She walks alone, going nowhere She needs no words A picture paints a thousand The lines, the wrinkles, they tell her story. The days, the months, the years All long, all hard
From the outside you cannot see See the pain, see the struggle All that is seen is the dirt, the desperation But away from prying eyes Therein lies another story
The child who cannot eat, she feeds. The daughter who cannot read, she teaches. The son who cannot walk she leads. She cooks, she cleans, she creates
For them she does it For their sake, not hers They make the pain worth it They heal the wounds we cannot see
China exported china when she bound her feet. She didnâ€™t want to see, she chose not to believe.
Heavy head ornaments and three inch shoes made her steps unsteady and slow. Until someone robbed her of her fancy jewelry. Until someone tripped her up and threw stones at her body. Then she started to see, to learn, to fight with others.
Then she started to rush. Her sweat turned into her children. Some of those children evaporated, others fell like tear drops. She started to move more steadily. She walked with firm steps. I love my mom, I love China. I love how she was, I love how she is.
Melissa Tolosi completed her creative writing degree when she returned from China. She now works full time as a travel agent and moonlights as a pole dancer until her yet-to-be-finished novel makes her a millionaire. When she’s not busy “God bothering” she’s dreaming of her next holiday and wondering which words she’ll use to describe it.
Irene is a person, most of the time she wishes she was lying down. she runs a cafe and writes short fiction. someone once told her “of course you don’t have life ambitions.” Which she thought was very perceptive for a stranger. She is one of the owners of The Co-Op Coffee Shop and always wonders why people write these bios in the third person... we all know it’s Irene writing this.
Studying jazz at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, Mallory is in a perpetual state of being about to play the trombone. She also studies Creative Writing, and whatever else will fit into her timetable. With an inventory of story ideas stored on her iPhone, Mallory dreams that one day she might decipher these 3am musings, and, that they might not even be half bad.
Lucy Moffatt is a writer, filmmaker and bad-taste aficionado. She writes about what it is to be ultimately, imperfectly and gloriously to be human at inspireunleash.com. She recently wrote, directed, produced, edited and starred in a short film, I Don’t Konow. Her next film, The Poem, is in pre-production. She speaks Japanese and is teaching herself Korean, so that when the time comes she may seduce all 11 members of EXO.
Anthony is a freelance writer and a full-time homosexual. He writes memoir and creative non-fiction, with an interest in queerness and how it interacts with identity. He’s a regular contributor to mous. magazine, One and Three blog and has had work featured in Voiceworks. He’s currently the host of The Range on Radio Adelaide, every Tuesday from 4-5:30pm.
Jonno Revanche is an editor, writer and “artist” who enjoys writing about Frank Ocean, golden retrievers, and structural inequality. He edits Vaein Zine (http:// vaeinzine.tumblr.com/) and you can read some of his work/ learn more about him here: http://jonnoxvxrevanche.tumblr.com/
Cate studied psychology in Wales, until she realised she didn’t want to be a psychologist. Six years later she began a Teaching degree with English Literature and German, until she realised she hated teaching. She writes poetry when inspired, usually by breaking up with someone. Or being surrounded by other creative writers, which is by far preferable to a breakup.
Jac “Hurricane” Alanne is a 23 year old Arts + Commerce student, blogger, avid adventurer and trouble magnet. Her blog jacthereal.wordpress.com focuses on her experiences navigating life as a natural (human) disaster. She divides her time between developing story-worthy situations to write about, and trying to decide whether she will one day regret blogging said experiences.
Sarah is a perpetual student who recently finished her arts degree, and is now working on finalising a bachelor of science. Writing is a personal pleasure, and her favourite topics have been cats and cannibalism ever since she was a little girl. In the future she sees herself working in Asia, hoping to combine her interests in Asian society and wildlife conservation.
Demi is a full-time law student with a passion for languages (speaking French, Spanish and Chinese), politics and world travel. She is not a writer, but pretended to be one in Beijing. Despite her lack of experience as a writer, Demi proved an invaluable part of the trip as the entire group probably would’ve starved without her language skills... seriously, they’d still be stuck on the subway if it weren’t for her.
Originally from the Chinese city of Harbin, Angeline moved to Adelaide to study a Bachelor of Commerce (Accounting). Angeline is currently studying a Masters Degree in Translation and Cultural Communication at the University of Adelaide, and used the program as a means for gaining deeper insight into the relations and differences between Modern and Ancient Chinese Literature and that of Australia.
We would like to thank the AsiaBound Scholarship fund, without which we wouldn’t have even been able to go on this trip, all of the staff and students at Beijing Foreign Studies University for being so accommodating and for teaching us so much, as well as the academic and administrative staff at The University of Adelaide for getting us on the plane. We’d also like to thank staff at Sugar Shack for providing us with an open bar that we enjoyed a little bit too much and Helen of ‘Helen’s Hangout’… who we never met in person, but feel intrinsically connected to on a fundamental and deep level.
We would like to acknowledge (but not thank) the rude waiter at the Thai Restaurant who kept correcting our pronunciation instead of taking our order, the weather for being disgusting and the entire plumbing/sewerage system in Beijing for not being able to handle the flushing of toilet paper. We’ve put a man on the moon. It’s time to sort that out. Chew was edited and illustrated by Anthony Nocera and co-designed with Elyse Williams. All photography was provided by Jonno Revanchè.
An anthology on creative writing by students who went on the 'Writing China in Country' study tour, conducted by The University of Adelaide.
Published on Jun 26, 2015
An anthology on creative writing by students who went on the 'Writing China in Country' study tour, conducted by The University of Adelaide.