It’s 8 days later and I’ve been on the square where it all happened and mentally tried to reconstruct and place the events of the day. Except this time it was windy, wet and full of tourists desperately pulling on hastily bought translucent pink and yellow ponchos and persisting with selfies. One small boy actually approached me and asked to have his photo taken with me. There are entrepreneurial people with cameras and laminated blow-up posed shots of happy members of the public in front of qiananmen gate, offering their services to take a similar ghastly shot of you. A man offers me a Chairman Mao watch (the hands of the watch are his arms, saluting his people). The set from the show is still there: A topiary Great Wall, enormous yellow 1945 and 2015 cut-outs on either side. A floral bed guarded by a bored miserable looking policeman under an umbrella.
The enormous air brushed portrait of Mao benevolently watches over from the gate that leads to the Forbidden City. The scene couldn’t be any different. Today the government haven’t controlled the weather. My thoughts wander back to June 4th 1989 and the suppressing of the student demonstrations. These are events that the teenager I met on the train to Xian had never heard of, and ones that Eric didn’t know the details of. Apparently the square that can hold half a million people was re-paved in the aftermath of the military actions, whereby the people army started shooting the people, to remove any residue blood stains. I wonder how many people in the square today with me are aware of the history of their country, or indeed were involved in these events. It all seems quite recent to me.
Dutifully I queue to visit the ugly white mausoleum of the great helmsman, the man who is responsible, among other things for destroying temples, imprisoning intellectuals and turning China into a one party state. I have deposited my bag in the bun fight of the left luggage building and the queue snakes in past po-faced green uniformed guards, first into a hall with a vast seated white marble statue of the great man positioned in front of an idealised frieze of a Chinese landscape. He is surrounded by a huge garden of potted ferns. Many of the devotees have bought white flowers, wrapped in cellophane, which they religiously deposit at the altar to this man, having bowed in the style that Buddhists employ at temples. I wonder what happens at the end of the day with these thousands of identical flowers. Binned to make room for the next day’s? The piece-de-resistance is of course the embalmed corpse of this despot. He is draped in a soviet flag and entombed in a glass box. The only part of his body that is visible is a shiny waxy head picked out by a spot light. It looks unreal, and probably is. The moment of solemnity is broken by some stupid woman’s phone ringing. I thought the guards would jump on her, this being totally taboo, but they let it pass.
The Forbidden City is of course no longer forbidden and is teeming with umbrellas and coloured ponchos. The place is of course vast and strikingly grand with courtyard after courtyard of palaces, chambers and gateways. It’s very orderely with uniform brick red walls and yellow and green tiled roofs with curly dragon motifs. You cannot enter any of the chambers and there are crushes to peer through doorways over heads and past iPhones on poles into the state rooms each containing thrones, long fans on poles that would have been waved at the emperor’s behest by some pathetic minion, pithy calligraphic banners proclaiming political thought, and all without any artificial illumination, so they are dim and dusty spaces. It seems to be the visitors duty, no matter how big the crowd, how poor the light and how awful their photographic skills, to make a token recording of each room they come across. I wonder with Eric how many millions of photos will be taken here today, where they will end up and who will see them. I am quite fascinated by photographing this behaviour, and wonder how many other people’s photos I will appear in, whether they will scrutinise my behaviour and invent stories about me as I do with the images I have of them.
This is of course a dead space. The institutions that resided in them, the form of governing they conducted and the draconian power they whealded are history, though not quite ancient history, as the curious anomaly of the Emperor’s telephone switchboard, deemed a necessary concession to modern technology in order to combat the British during the so-called opium wars testifies. Nevertheless these are monuments and relics of a feudalism which in turn was replaced by a new form of absolute power, not at all accidentally symbolised by the austerity and imposing vastness of the opposite-lying tiananamen square, patrolled by uniforms and surveyed by CCTV. It’s an intriguing phenomenon, that this place, once off limits to the public is now swamped with the everyday citizen, and they wallow in the prettiness and majesty of the indulgence and rigidity of an imposed order set out to control and oversee them in a less than benign manner. Yet it would be weird to be here without any tourists. At the end of they day as the glistening courtyards begin to empty the whole place takes on a sad, empty and rather meaningless air. At least as a tourist attraction it has some kind of function.
We are directed out of a west facing gate and are compelled to walk for at least 45 minutes, hemmed in by the wall of the city on one side, and the 50m moat on the other side until we actually have a choice about what direction we can take. After trekking through a shopping district full of oversized western branded stores we are finally able to get a subway to the Lama Temple stop, where I take Eric to the Lucky Lotus vegetarian restaurant, for my 4th visit. It’s not exactly the best restaurant, but has, out of ease to get to, become my default reliable meat-free food provider. They have the rather unconventional habit of making you pay before your food arrives. Over a long dinner of pumpkin soup, fried sprouts, a mushroom dish and a potato and mock pork spicy hotpot I learn a lot about Chinese school from Eric. How class monitors are like spies for the school and report on slack teachers. As head of the discipline section of the school, at age 15, Eric had a role like a prison guard, confiscating food, phones and stopping pupils leaving the premises. I also learn about the Chinese tradition of speech making competitions, which apparently Eric was very good at. What happens there? Students recite prepared and memorised speeches usually on patriotic themes. A good speech should show very positive emotions, and negativity results in a poor grade. One of Eric’s themes was “Why I love China”. This, he tells me, is a very popular topic to choose.
The subway trains all have TV screens and are now playing on an infinite loop the rerun of the 3 September parade, the lines of missiles and mechanical marching plus the endearing image of the premier gazing from his hole in the roof of his black Hong Xi limousine are becoming another piece of wallpaper, along with the advertisements and recorded information about the route the train is taking. Eventually these images will have been subsumed into subconscious of every single Chinese and accepted as normal. On reflection, how disturbing it is to see such blatant and aggressive propaganda wherever you go.
After dinner we head for the lake near the Drum Tower, which is ringed with an assortment of up-market bars, each with some kind of live music, often a dreary singer on a stool accompanied by a loud recorded backing track. Unusually, and perhaps refreshingly there is no recognisible western music, though I’m sure one or two acts were singing in English. So, no Bob Marley, no Beatles covers. Chinese love ballards. Most bars are quite empty and have touts on the street desperately trying to usher you into their premises. We end up In a fancy looking bar with a deafening band that played a disparate mix of styles from an approximation of funk to an emotionless blues. The side acts that appear during the break are 1, a pair of female violinists in slit-legged low-cut tight fitting dresses, standing back-to-back in a cloud of dry ice playing feverishly over the top of some generic loud disco track. Their indifference to their performance is emplified by their behaviour as they finish which is, rather than to acknowledge the crowd, who, by paying through the nose for cocktails made with cheap alcohol, are giving them an income, to pick up their phones and to walk off through the bar texting their boyfriends. The follow-up act is a pair of scantily clad pole dancers, which boils the testosterone of some of the men here, who scramble for space to film these ludicrous women on their phones. The customers in the bar need to be pretty well-off, and this is illustrated by the ridiculous symbols of extravagance available. To the table behind us two trees of fruits are delivered. What do I mean? – well in a dish full of liquid nitrogen (I guess, as it is producing clouds of smoke) stand a tree branch with many twigs shooting off in all directions (a mini tree of about 50 cm height); on the end of each twig prong is a piece of fruit: chunks of star fruit, pear, small bananas. The theatricality of these absurd objects being paraded across the floor of the bar draws all the wanted attention to this group of well off young Chinese. Meanwhile the barman is spinning bottles and tossing cups in a pretend indifferent performance of flairing. A cocktail in a glass the size of a goldfish bowl with an artfully spun candifloss on a stick protruding is sent out to the table the other side of the stage. The menu has prices that I cannot rationalise into sensible pricing; bottles of brandy for hundreds of pounds, beer at 10 times the price of a local bar. Suspended from the ceiling are multiple TVs all screening a woman’s volleyball match. Very tall Chinese women in a tightly contested match against very tall Russians. This bar is so loud that we can only talk when the bands have stopped. This has been an experience and the conclusion I reach is that the place has a rather dubious idea of taste and some Chinese have a peculiar idea of style. Time to go home…