Category Archives: China

Beijing Walking (with Illustrations)

If I had to choose one word to describe Beijing and the few other cities in China that I’ve been to, it would be “Go!” Not as in “go and experience” but more like “GO! MOVE! GET OUT OF THE WAY!” Now, I’m not going to lump all of China into this category because, really, my experience is borne mostly from Beijing. But it’s no word of a lie to say that Beijing is a fast city and one needs to learn how to walk the streets in order to avoid any confusion.

If any of you have been to any part of Asia you’ll be familiar with how people walk around here. In general, it’s pushy. However, some places such as Vietnam, Thailand or even Korea, have a “melding” or “yielding” effect that accommodates the massive amount of people in such a small place. In those countries, there is a seamless merge of people: if you see somebody walking along the same trajectory as you, you make the necessary preparations to accommodate their them, and they return the favour. Maybe it’s Buddhism or some other religious belief, but there is an amount of awareness of others.

In China, however, that same awareness is almost entirely absent. In the West it’s known as encroaching upon someone’s personal space. I come from a relatively “small” city (by Chinese standards) in which it’s a rare experience to walk within three feet of a person so should you encroach upon that “personal space,” you’re inviting trouble.

China, however, has many cities over a few million people and that had bred a system of fast-paced walking that not only relies on speed, but ability to maneuver around people and, should contact occur (a rare occurrence), an ability not to ‘break face’. That is, if let on that you did indeed see the other person but chose to keep moving forward regardless, then you are to blame. It’s not as if the Chinese people themselves aren’t aware of this problem. It happens to both foreigners and Chinese alike. It really does give meaning to the idea of a “fast-paced” city. Below is a simply illustration of a typical walking encounter.

The stages of a walk-encounter in Beijing, China.
The stages of a walk-encounter in Beijing, China.

That’s just the people. What about vehicular traffic?

If you recall how I described New York as a city with an attitude of “Hey! I’m walking here!” then Beijing is a city with an attitude of “Hey! I’m driving here!”

Again, considering other parts of Asia (where there are large communities of Chinese people),  if you’ve been to Vietnam you’re aware of the multitude of motorbikes that will swerve around you as you walk. One of the typical tourist things to do is walk through a crowded street camera in hand and capture the “parting of the sea of bikes.” (That is to say nothing of the added danger of videoing the whole thing.)

In Beijing, however, you take your chances walking in front of a motor bike. This might sound like common sense to most of you in the West, and that’s a good thing. But when there’s a relentless onslaught of cars or motor bikes, you need to make a decision about how long you will wait before you simply get going (generally, it’s about 15 seconds). Move, or don’t, but don’t impede the traffic flow. For that matter, it’s best to travel in packs as taxis and other cars are less willing to run you over if you are in a pack (maybe 5 or 6 people) instead of on your own. Unless, of course, you want to test the truthfulness of your health insurer.

There is one beast that no one touches, however, and that is buses. Trucks, motorbikes, cars and people will yield if you make clear your walking path. Buses, on the other hand, seem to go by a different set of rules. It’s a rare occurrence wherein a bus yields or stops for a pedestrian.

Not to worry. If you make the error of walking in front of a moving vehicle or in some way impeding the flow of traffic, the drivers are kind enough to let you know by way of a signal. Their car horns, though typical car horns, seem to bleat “GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY! GET. THE. FUCK. OWTUVTHEWAY!” And once the passage is clear once again, they seem to have no expression but really, can be read more like “Thank you, and have a nice day.”

So it is, Chinese walking. I’m not the only one privy to this experience. Many a foreigner and Chinese folk have expressed similar sentiments. What’s even more interesting is that my students have said they’re all practicing for their driving test, and so I wonder, given their awareness, how they drive different?

The 2015 Beijing International Film Festival

2015BJIFF Opening Screen

In its infancy: 5th Beijing International Film Festival

The event as a whole was rather low-key, but that may have been because I live in the Haidian area of Beijing and not the Chaoyang area where a lot of the participating cinemas and conference halls were located. But was only part of the problem. The festival did make an effort to extend its reach all over the city by offering both free public screenings and at universities (most of which are clustered in the Haidian district of Beijing). However, I believe the festival would benefit by a central location in which most of the “festivities” would take place.

BJIFF Conference Hall in Wanfujing.
BJIFF Conference Hall in Wanfujing.

Beijing is a huge city. Some 23 million people crammed into one place. In order to serve the city, the festival was spread out. Unlike other film festivals that have one central location in which the majority of the cinemas are located, the BJIFF didn’t really have a central focal point. Some 23 cinemas around the city were showing movies as a part of the festival. That made it quite difficult to cinema hop as you can do in other cities (Montreal was probably the easiest). So that’s one complaint. Another complaint is that the cinemas didn’t start showing films until 630 pm on weekdays which meant that if you had the day off you still couldn’t go until later in the day. I suppose there were some exceptions, such as at the China Film Archive, which started its screenings at 10 am. So, technically, films ran all day, just not in one location.

Chinese cinema at Joycity mall in Xidan shopping district.
Chinese cinema at Joycity mall in Xidan shopping district.
Odd seats on the right, even seats on the left. I don't know why.
Odd seats on the right, even seats on the left. I don’t know why.

As for the selection of films. My impression is that the festival had a lot of classic films and new, “blockbuster” films. That is, the Avengers films, The Godfather trilogy was heralded, among other recently released (in the US) movies. Polish movies were prominent though I seemed to see a lot of French films. And, of course, Chinese films were well represented, while Korea and Japan also had their share of movies shown. Iran, again, surprised me. For a country that is so poorly represented in the media they seem to make some interesting films, albeit more philosophical “talkies” than any sort of action or thriller flicks.

BJIFF panorama program.
BJIFF panorama program.

 

The festival had all the trappings of a major film festival, red carpet events, conferences, paper dailies (published by the festival, not by any major trade paper). Since I didn’t really know where much of the stuff was being held (the televised events were also held in different locations), I never saw anybody that would draw any envy. Further, the festival sold tickets through an affiliate website, gewara.com, which was a pain in the ass because I needed to either link my bank or credit card to their website in order to buy tickets, a feat I will have to explain later. This troubled me only because I wasn’t sure how good the turn outs would be for each screening. In the end, those doubts were unfounded as most movies played to half-full cinemas.

However, since most movies cost around 40-60RMB (~$8-12 CAD or $6.50-$9.70 USD), if I chose a bad film it wasn’t the end of the world. The festival lacked any sort of special offers, such as buying 10 tickets for 30% off or something similar. So that’s one plus to this festival, cheap tickets, which, in my opinion, encourages people to go out and take a chance on something new instead of sticking to the over-hyped films.

One of the great things about going to the cinema, and I’ve found this to be true all over Asia, is the caramel popcorn. For whatever reason this trend hasn’t caught on in the West. I mean, you can buy caramel popcorn but you have to go to a specialty shop for it since the west usually serves butter on its popcorn. Here in Asia, however, it’s caramel.

Caramel movie popcorn.
Caramel movie popcorn.

Overall, it was low-key and slightly lacklustre. I chalk this up to the relative infancy of the film festival. China is opening its doors, albeit slowly, to foreign culture by way of movies. But I think they’re more interested in the business of the movies than the actual content. I have little doubt that the films shown at the 5th BJIFF were vetted to ensure that they met the powers-that-be’s standards.

Without further adieu, here is the list of films I managed to take in during the week-long event. You’ll notice I managed to see quite a few, mostly because it was midterms which meant I didn’t have much prep to do during that time. Favourites are in bold.

Two Days, One Night (France)
Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart (France)
Police Diary (China)
Miss Granny (China)
Unknown / Nobody From Nowhere (France)
Our Family (Japan)
The Salt of the Earth (Brazil, Italy, France)
A Girl at my Door (South Korea)
Malavita (USA)
Manglehorn (USA)
The Choice (Italy)
Impermanent (Iran)
Whiplash (USA)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA)
American Sniper (USA)
The Judge (USA)

Changdian Temple Fair in Beijing, China

Changdian Temple Fair was similar to the Ditan Temple Fair but much more spread out. Changdian Temple is situated in Taoranting Park and much of the area is comprised of two adjoining lakes with a walking path that circles the entire park. The fair was easy to find as signs (and a massive crowd of people) lead the way to the park from the nearby Taoranting subway station. 10RMB entrance again.

Changdian Temple - Gate

Despite the apparent religious name, a temple fair really isn’t a very religious event. Instead, from what I could see, it was a gathering particularly for those from out of town or for Beijingers who rarely get a chance to visit these places on regular days. Beijing is a fast-paced city and it looks as though when workers get a chance to take a break, they do it, which might explain the hustle and bustle of even these “relaxing” days.

Changdian Temple Entrance Ticket

There were fewer food stalls, but they offered similar fare. Skewered meat, octopus, fruit juices, etc. The only problem with the fewer food stalls was that the lines were huge, a wait of fifteen minutes or more, I figured. But I saw the churros again and couldn’t help that they served MORE ice cream WITH CHOCOLATE at this fair, and so I did what I had to do: buy some churros. And they were good. A bit further on from the food stalls were vendors selling spices and other ingredients that, I imagine, cooking-types would enjoy.

Changdian Temple - Churros

I took a walk around the lakes, the same noise makers whirred by. I didn’t see any performances but there were lots of vendors and… people. Even in a place as large as Taoranting Park the place was swarming with people. It was made more amusing by the “bug ears” that were on sale. They’re not ears so much as look like the antennae of a bug. You could tell who had kids as it was usually the father that was stuck wearing the bug ears when the kid didn’t want to wear them any more.

Changdian Temple - Lots of People

Changdian Temple - Bug Ears

There was an art auction and I considered buying one or two, but after watching a few get sold I figured they were simply prints getting sold at cheap prices. I waited around in hope that they would auction the big painting of a village girl with her massive sheep dog on a mountain, but after 15 minutes I gave up.

Changdian Temple - Art Auction

The best thing about Changdian Temple Fair is the scenery. The lakes, trees, birds, and… a snow park. They dammed up one side of the lake and built a snow park complete with slides, a skating rink and snowmobile rides. Beijing didn’t get much snow this winter so it was a welcome change of scenery. You might wonder if seeing snow makes me miss Canada. No. It does not. I did note how warm Beijing is/was (compared with Canada winters) and wondered how the snow stayed frozen. I’m thinking they were using artificial means.

Changdian Temple - Snow Fair

The whole walk took about two hours at a leisurely pace. As I returned to my starting point I realized I hadn’t eaten anything and was eager to try something new. I spotted a vendor selling what looked to be plates of potato chips (crisps in Britain) and figured I’d give it a try. 10RMB bought me a plate of these white chips which, I think, were some sort of deep fried dough with a lot of garlic and salt. They had a weird texture as they were soft but as they hardened they became crunchy, which was a much better texture.

Changdian Temple - Crispy Chips

Overall, it was a nice sunny day in Beijing to visit the fair. In retrospect I suppose it was relaxing trip. Even with the large crowds there wasn’t a sense of “me against the crowd,” simply just how it is: lots of people. Some from out of town, others more local. All moving around the massive lakes, spinning their noise makers and sampling the dishes offered to ring in the new Chinese year.

Ditan Temple Fair in Beijing, China

Ditan Temple Lanterns
Ditan Temple Lanterns

Temple Fairs. One of the things that Beijing is known for is its temple fairs. I kinda dreaded going because the last time I ventured out for China’s National Day people were taking photos of me as if I was part of the scenery. It doesn’t sound offensive but it does get annoying after a while. Anyway, I wanted to see what goes on in Beijing during the Spring Festival, given that it is the capital of China and 2nd largest city in the world. There are a lot of temples and fairs going on but I chose the two that are supposed to be the biggest, the Ditan Temple and Changdian Temple Fairs.

DITAN TEMPLE

Ditan Temple Gate
Ditan Temple Entrance.
Ditan Temple Gate.
Ditan Temple Gate.

Ditan Temple Fair was a bit more compacted as the temple and the surrounding park are small by Beijing standards. There were signs in the subway leading the way to the park. The entrance fee was 10 CNY and I got there just in time to catch the last five minutes of a Lion Dance.

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Ditan Temple Lion Dance.
Ditan Temple Lion Dance.

This Lion Dance was modernized with a soundtrack instead of the traditional drummer, like the one I saw in Malaysia a few years back. I don’t know how they do it but the lions do backwards summersaults without killing themselves. It really looks as if the guy holding the head is going to fall over and whack his head but they somehow coordinate it so that the guy holding the head rolls backward and the second guy holding the tail follows. It really is impressive.

Ditan Temple re-enactment area.
Ditan Temple re-enactment area.

The stage would continue to hold performances throughout the day. Ditan Temple is also known for its reenactment of a Qing Dynasty-style sacred ceremony. But the event took place at 10 am and I didn’t get there in time.

Ditan Temple Crowd.
Crowded Ditan Temple market street.

Other than that, the scene was much like any other fair the world over with local foods being served, handicrafts, trinkets, games and even karaoke. Noise makers seemed to be the popular item not just with kids, but university-aged students too. The other popular item was a stick of hawthorns, some type of fruit that you normally eat but these were plastic toy versions of it.

Plastic hawthorns. These were popular to carry around but I couldn't figure out why.
Plastic hawthorns. These were popular to carry around but I couldn’t figure out why.
Dumplings that look like silver or gold ingots. Tradition is to eat these at midnight on Lunar New Year.
Dumplings that look like silver or gold ingots. Tradition is to eat these at midnight on Lunar New Year.

I stopped and had my first serving of dumplings for the new year, which is actually supposed to be done after midnight on CNY Eve. A bit later on I tried the churros which came with a rather small lump of ice cream. And then some teenager with her parents stopped, and, to my dread, raised her phone to take a photo, giggling as she snapped a shot. I imagined what she was thinking in the style of a documentary, “The great beast of a white man grazes, scanning the crowd for signs of other food.”

CNY 2015 Fireworks at Qianhai Lake

Chinese New Year’s Eve / The Year of the Goat. Since I skipped out on solar New Year’s, I decided to head out for Lunar New Year’s celebrations here in Beijing. I looked up where to go on TimeOut Beijing’s website and it suggested to head to a few clubs which I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy. I’m not against clubbing but I was honestly thinking I’d be back by 1 am at the latest (including the cab ride home). Well, things didn’t turn out that way.

Things started out rather slow. I saw a group of foreigners standing at  the entrance to Shichihai subway station and thought that maybe I’d missed the party. But as I walked around Qianhai Lake I could see a few people setting off fireworks. I needed a drink as it was New Year’s and there was no way I was going to not have a beer in hand.

Foreign fireworkers.
Foreign fireworkers.

I headed over to 4Corners for their New Year’s celebrations but found it was not only packed, but it was extremely hot, the service took forever, and, much to my disappointment, there was no live music. I bought two Tigers, looked around for somewhere to hang my coat but found nothing. I could see that this was a party for groups who had shown up about two hours earlier to grab the seats. I opted to leave.

Crowded 4Corners
Laowai party in Beijing, China.

Taking my two beers with me outside to cool off, I walked toward the sound of fireworks going off in the distance and was pleasantly surprised. The types of fireworks depended on who was setting them off. The one good thing about this night was that there were no offers for lady bars by the entrepreneurial night staff.

Fireworks go boom over Qianhai Lake.
Fireworks go boom over Qianhai Lake.

I wanted music and found a larger bar that was surprisingly sparsely populated. It was mostly filled with Chinese couples but had a few guys up on stage performing a few songs. I didn’t record any of their music but it was enough to keep me there. I sat down and pulled out my celebratory cigars and ordered a beer, and then changed my mind to get a straight shot of vodka. Cigars and beer don’t really go well together but cigars and vodka aren’t a bad combo.

Four boys in a band.
Four boys in a band.

I wasn’t sitting down very long before the it-happens-often-enough request for a picture was put forth. The two boys sitting behind me and one of their girlfriends wanted a picture with me. I don’t know why and I don’t know what they do with these photos, whether they draw pictures over them and post them online or if they show their friends in an effort to exude some sort of cosmopolitan-ness by having a picture with a bearded, fattening white guy. (In regard to being “fat”, in Chinese terms I am, in Western terms I’ve just got a gut.) But anyway, I usually try to get a picture on my camera too so I can remember the evening.

Steve and Chinese people.
Steve and Chinese people.

Well that was interesting enough. After that, they sat down we exchanged a few words before the conversation ended with a “gonbai” (“one shot/cheers”) and then we returned to our respective WeChat conversations. Anyway, shortly thereafter they left and, to my surprise, the band stopped playing. It was only 1145 and there was no music. I did see that the bar staff was bringing in food from a nearby restaurant. I wondered if they were going to feed the whole bar or if it was a private affair. While they were setting this up a rippling thunder was heard: it was someone setting off a “snake” of fireworks in front of the bar for good luck. When I saw people running away from them I decided I’d let the fireworks die down before going out to take a closer look.

Fireworks in front of bar

With the band off the stage and the seemingly private affair going on (it’s traditional to eat dumplings at midnight as the shape of the dumplings looks like silver ingots which is supposed to bring prosperity to the family), I ventured outside to view the fire works. If I was let down by the lack of fireworks, I wasn’t for long. When midnight struck a series of fireworks erupted from a dozen or so places around Qianhai Lake. I guess my Canadian mind thought that there would be one big, “official” display of fireworks. Instead, here in Beijing, the fireworks seemed to be personal affairs, though not private. That is, everybody bought fireworks and set them off.

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Meanwhile, right in front of where I was standing, someone from a nearby restaurant brought out a stack of boxes and said something to a few passersby. It was more fireworks. “Here’s more gunpowder. Set if off.” Needless to say, if you see others running you should probably at least cover your eyes.

RUN!
RUN!

And then…

KA-BOOM!
KA-BOOM!

Overheard there was an even larger display of fireworks going off over the Lake.

Qianhai Fireworks.
Qianhai Fireworks.

I can honestly say that the CNY fireworks were probably some of the best I’d seen. It wasn’t so much that there were a lot of them in one place as is popular with Western fireworks displays but the numerous smaller sets of fireworks going off in every direction. Before you could finish watching one display, another snake went off a few yards away sending debris flying and forcing you to cover both your eyes and ears. Part of the fun of the fireworks, as I could see it, was the danger of setting them off as the wicks are really only an inch or so long. But the age-old love affair with colourful gunpowder remains alive and well here in Beijing.

And I thought that would be the night but on it went pretty much all night. All around Qianhai Lake you could see firework displays in, around and above the hutongs.

I decided to pop into a nearby bar for “one last drink” (a poor choice of words at any time) when I got talking to a guy from the US who was vacationing in Beijing with his girlfriend. We got talking and two more vodkas later, we sit down upstairs and then meet a couple of Belgian (Belgish?) students, one of whom is interning here in Beijing. And that went on for a few more hours. As it turns out, the students didn’t bring enough money and so I grabbed their bill. They were surprised I could use a card here in China but I just told them it was the “Karma Kard.”

And so it went, Chinese New Year’s 2015. I would like to say that I hopped a taxi back but I couldn’t find one. I ended up walking to the subway station and waiting for the thing to open. Instead of getting home at 1 I got home at 6 am. Happy New Year! Gong xi gong xi fai cai!