Before and after brunch

This is a sign that I walk by all the time. I’ve only ever seen fire hydrants pictorialised this way in China:

It only makes the design more intriguing when one discovers the actual hydrants look pretty much the same as the ones anywhere else..

And here’s a manhole which I also pass by almost daily. It ‘has character’: if you look at it from a certain orientation, it’s patterned all over with the Chinese character for ‘person’ (人). Though I’m not certain it was intentional..

The Chinese word for ‘manhole’ is jinggai (井盖), which literally means ‘well-cover’; so no direct references to people climbing in and out of them, which the English ‘manhole’ so baldly points to. Anyway, intentional or not, I like to think of this pretty patch of steel, with ‘人’ all over it, as a translingual visual pun. :o)

I had brunch today with two close family friends, Pingping and Lele. We hung out in a little alley, Wudaoying (五道营) Hutong, which is nestled in a network of smallish streets very near to Beijing’s Llama Temple (雍和宫).

Wudaoying is peppered with tiny cafés, restaurants, bars, and slightly off-kilter shops. It’s very charming and uncrowded; and also the kind of place that many Chinese people would describe as rather xiaozi (小资), or ‘petit-bourgeois’. (It’s perhaps additionally telling that the larger restaurants on this street specialise respectively in Greek, Italian and Spanish cuisine, and that many of the cafés and bars are heavily European-influenced in terms of décor and menu.)

Because of China’s Communist legacy and the continued circulation of its ideologies among the general population (much of it tongue-in-cheek), xiaozi / petit-bourgeois is actually a commonly used phrase and not seen as high-faluting talk at all. Fascinating how the ‘same’ phrases carry such different baggage across languages. I’m trying to imagine, say, American university-age friends saying to each other over salads and fries: “This place is sooo petit-bourgeois!”  Hmm…

Xiaozi is a very vague term.. it generally refers to something/someone that is refined/sophisticated/chic, and thus implies the presence of leisure, time and ‘taste’. Xiaozi can be complimentary or derogatory, earnestly or jokingly applied, depending entirely on the context. It’s grown into quite a complex word, since it carries connotations from both ‘orthodox’ communist rhetoric and values, yet also draws its current lifeblood from contemporary Chinese society with its manifold capitalist/globalisation-driven influences. Wudaoying is definitely an area that could be described as xiaozi — however you want to interpret that! (Hmm, I’d be curious to see if the concept is bandied about in similar ways in say, contemporary russia or albania.)

Unwieldy labels aside: Wudaoying is, on one level, just a cluster of quirky small businesses trying hard to stay afloat, and frequented by numerous well-meaning hobbyists, like this bicycling shop below (that offers neat bikes and very dusty flags).

Check out the tall green one lurking at the back there — in retrospect, I should’ve asked the owner if s/he could demonstrate how to ride that one!

The alley also has some intriguing enterprises on the slightly more adventurous side of the spectrum: there’s a swap shop, which specialises in swapping for things rather than buying them with cash, and a lesbian bar (still very much a rarity in Beijing), among other things.

Turns out we couldn’t resist the pretty blue chairs. There’s Pingping (my gandi 干弟, or god-brother), and you can espy Lele the photographer quite clearly in the reflection. ; )

I think these two bicycles were ‘holding hands’ in order to facilitate some sort of skipping game? : )

This looked like a potentially magical door:

Lots of Qingdaos (and some select friends) socialising outside a bar (where else?). They even have the requisite ‘party permit’ up!

(Kaorou, or barbecued meat)

By now we’d reached Guozijian (国子监), which is on a much wider street parallel with Wudaoying. It’s a very ‘scholarly’ area; Guozijian was once the tiptop imperial academy for Chinese scholars (the name more literally means ‘school for the sons of the state’).

So back then it must have been quite an ‘intense’ area, but nowadays it’s got an impressively chill vibe… and of course, it’s that particular strain of chill-ness that is unique to Beijingers. : )

Chinese chess — a beloved staple of Beijingers who have plenty of time on their hands

Lele enjoying some shade and an ice lolly

It amazes me that beautiful traditional Chinese buildings like these are held together without using a single nail. Instead, these wooden structures were put together using ‘geometric’ construction methods. (I’m sure there is a more professional term for it that I’m not aware of…) So they’re like highly complex wooden legos that, potentially, some careful and patient giants could play with, take apart and put together again. How snazzy is that!

It was really nice to see Pingping and Lele again, especially since we realised that in a few months from now, Lele will be working in Hong Kong, Pingping will be shuttling between England and Sweden, and I’ll be studying in the States. It’s incredible how easy it is to travel these days, and equally incredible how the flip-side of that is how difficult it has become just to get a few friends in the same place. : /