Beijing Town (Slight Return)

Choosing to visit China during the first part of October has both advantages and disadvantages. It's a national holiday, so lots of people will be out and about, and everything possible is going to be open for business. However, the crowds can be large, so you have to be very patient.

After being away from China for more than a year, I returned to Beijing in October of 2010 for a two week visit. Mostly I planned to visit friends, with only vague plans to check out a few of the sights I missed during the time I lived there. There was also the MIDI Music Festival, which I've already written about on my Sina blog in four parts.
During most of my stay, I was at a little guest house in a Xicheng District hutong.

Strange as it may seem, I'm actually a little unclear what the name of the place was. When I found it on the internet and booked my room, it was called Hutong Courtyard Hotel, which is a ridiculously generic name. The sign over the door says 四和居招待所 (Siheju Zhaodaisuo, or Siheju Guest House), the yellow sign says G.D. Hotel in English and Siheju in Chinese, and the business card I picked up at the desk says Good Stone Hotel on it.

In any case, it's a cute, if a bit dilapidated, courtyard hotel with a half dozen or so rooms surrounding an open area where they dry laundry and grow gourds. All of the rooms are hand painted with flowers on the walls.

The beds are old-fashioned style with minimal padding (not soft at all, but I got used to it). There was a flat screen TV mounted on the wall above the desk. They advertised free wi-fi, but the signal was so weak in my room I could never connect; I had to take my laptop to reception to get online.

I had a room with a private bathroom, though some of the other rooms had to share a separate bath.

Those are butterfly stickers on the walls. You can see that the shower is not enclosed, but open to the bathroom at large, and it all drains in one corner. In theory, at least. As with much Chinese construction, the slope is not really sufficient for quick drainage, so the bathroom floor was often wet. You have to be careful where you hang your towel if you want it to be drier than you are when you finish showering.

The shared bathroom did not have a Western style toilet.

The staff consisted of a lady and her boyfriend (if I understood correctly, she is divorced and has been with this guy for many years, but they never bothered getting married) plus a young woman who came around a few times to clean up. None of them really spoke any English, but they were very friendly and quite willing to deal with my bad Chinese pronunciation, limited vocabulary, and frequent pauses to look up a word on my phone's Chinese dictionary app. It was a little awkward and frustrating at times, but in the long run I feel that it helped my language skills a lot being forced to rely on my Chinese. Several times, they shared breakfast with me and never charged me for the food, I even had a beer out of the cooler one night that they didn't bill me for; they also did some of my laundry for free.

The hotel was also fairly cheap. I won't go into the hassles I had getting them to take my American Express card for payment - that's a story for another day.

The neighborhood around this stretch of Xisi Avenue seems to consist mainly of little hardware stores, so if you're in Beijing and need a light fixture, a ceiling fan, or plumbing supplies, this is where you go.

It's a very ordinary part of Old Beijing with nothing touristy to attract foreigners, though it's not too far from Beihai. Luckily, the new subway Line 4 has a stop very close by, which makes it pretty convenient to get just about anywhere. There were several restaurants within a few minute's walk, and one stop north on Line 4 is one of my favorite parts of town: the street full of music shops. Two stops south is the Xidan shopping area, which is a good place to buy clothes and books.

During my first week there, it was the national holiday, so the other rooms were full. A large family from Nanjing was there, and they brought their little dog.

We chatted one evening in the courtyard. One of them was a college student who knew a bit of English, but the chatty old man didn't, and his accent was difficult for me to understand. I showed them some of the pictures on my camera, and they insisted on posing the dog for me. They claimed that Nanjing dogs are better than Beijing dogs, but I'm not sure in what way. When I told them I was from 西雅图 (Xiyatu, Seattle), they of course mentioned Sleepless in Seattle, which seems to be a movie everyone in China has seen.

In Beijing, October's weather is generally pretty pleasant. It rained a couple of times while I was there, but was nice most days, following the usual pattern of clear skies after a rainfall, gradually diminishing air quality over the course of a week or so, then another rain. By the end of my stay, it was starting to get a little chilly in the evenings, but not so much that I needed to see if the heater in my room worked.


The Dianying Diaries, part 5

Part of a series dealing with Chinese cinema. 电影 (diànyǐng) is the Chinese word for movie, the two characters literally meaning “electric” and “shadow.”

图雅的婚事 (Tuya's Marriage)

2006 Chinese production is set in Inner Mongolia. It was directed by 王全安 (Wang Quan'an) and stars 余男 (Yu Nan). It provides and interesting mix of drama and humor that feels very true-to-life.

Yu Nan is actually from Dalian, not Inner Mongolia, but to me at least she seems completely convincing riding a horse or camel. All of the dialogue in in Mandarin, though there is some Mongolian singing.

She plays a poor woman with a herd of sheep, a camel, a horse, two children, and a disabled husband named Batoer.

They live in a compound of buildings with no running water; they have a little electricity from a windmill on the roof. They have a neighbor named Shenge who provides a lot of comic relief.

We first meet him lying in the road. He got drunk and wrecked his motorcycle, and luckily he's not seriously injured. He was drinking because his wife left him for another man, something which apparently happens quite often.

Along with their other problems, these people are faced with a constant shortage of water. Batoer's injury was sustained while he was trying to dig a well near the house. Without the well, Tuya has to travel to a spring 15km away once or twice a day...

...in addition to tending the sheep, cooking the meals, and acquiring supplies. Shenge helps out sometimes.

When Tuya hurts her back, it becomes apparent that their lives can't continue as they have. Batoer's sister offers to take care of her brother.

So a plan develops: Tuya and Batoer will get divorced, and Tuya will only marry a man who promises to allow Batoer to live with them and be cared for.

I'm not sure whether it's because of Tuya's reputation as a hard worker, or just that there is a shortage of women in the area, but as soon as word of the divorce gets out, suitors start arriving at their house.

After a couple of less than appealing candidates, a man named Baolier shows up in a Mercedes. He went to middle school with Tuya and always liked her. Since leaving the area, he's become a rich man in the oil business.

The whole family gets into the car and Baolier drives to a nursing home in the city. The plan is that Batoer can live there, and Tuya and the kids will move into Baolier's mansion in another city.

It's a long drive to the city where Baolier lives, so they stop at a hotel, and we get to see Tuya dressed in more contemporary clothing.

But, like so much in Tuya's life, things start to go wrong. There is eventually a wedding, but I won't tell you who she decides to marry.

One of the things I really loved about the movie was the music. It was all very Mongolian sounding, with prominent use of the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) and traditional singing (though not throat singing).

The vast open space of the Mongolian plane provides stark settings of great loneliness. Everything is far away, and there are no easy means of communication.

Life is very hard in this place, and the strange decisions they make (like the divorce and finding a new husband) are the only way the people can get by. They're doing the best they can in the circumstances.

I believe many of the actors in this film were not professionals, though Yu Nan is well known and has been in many other movies, including a couple of non-Chinese movies (Diamond Dogs and Speed Racer). She was wonderful in this part, which is obviously far from her own personal experience. And in this role, she certainly didn't look anything like she does on a red carpet:

IMDB entry
It is available from Netflix.