Flying into Beijing from London in the afternoon, we arrive in the New Capital Airport Terminal for the first time. The silver-grey, nineties-style building, spacious and attractive, constitutes a striking contrast to the older buildings constructed in the seventies. But the familiar ‘long dragon’ is still there: too few passport control points in Customs, leaving several hundred Chinese and foreign passengers mingling together with no choice but to stand in line and wait. The queues are the same for all. Strange sensation: I am arriving as a citizen of New Zealand back in my own country. Images of Auckland cross-cut memories of Beijing. Leaving the airport, the sky is bright blue and the distant hills clear and distinct—typical recollection of a winter’s day here. The taxi driver tells us that strong winds have blown the pollution away over the past few days, and now some of the more heavily polluting factories have been ordered to halt production temporarily, to preserve the view for celebrations of the Millennium. ‘Usually, there’s a thick grey smog all day.’
Youyou’s mother lives close to the Eastern Gate of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. She joined the revolution before 1938 and is now in receipt of a (meagre) vice-minister’s pension. We greet each other with a few pleasantries, then settle down to complaining about the cold-shoulder treatment given to veteran cadres, left without jobs or rights. Her toilet, broken when I was last here more than a year ago, has still not been repaired. Each time, it has to be sluiced with a bucket of water after use. One seldom sees a toilet in anyone’s home that does not have a problem. At night I need two duvets. I had forgotten how feeble the heating is in Beijing homes.
Twelve degrees below zero: apparently the coldest day in Beijing for twenty years. We get up early, eager to see the city and stroll around the Hongqiao market and the Weishui street-markets with my younger brother and his wife. Both consist of stalls run by licence-holders (previously they were ‘black markets’) and are extremely large: Hongqiao covers four floors from top to bottom (it has only just had fire alarms installed) and Weishui spreads through several streets in the open air. Both buyers and sellers have jars of hot water to warm their hands in the bitter cold. The stuff on sale is certainly enticing: a metre-and-a-half string of cultured pearls selling for 240 rmb—$30; well-made knock-offs of designer clothes—Armani, Gucci, Versace, Dior, Chanel—going for between 50 and 100 rmb a piece—$6–13. The vendors are nearly all ‘fiver profit, flog it’ types from Zhejiang Province. ‘Western’ tourists are the main buyers. Actually most of them are Russian or East European wholesalers (Beijingers call them ‘big-nosed pedlars’), whose Mandarin is very rough—the stallholders’ English is correspondingly basic. There are a lot of locals asking prices, but very few take their money out and buy anything. ‘Business is so hard’, a stallholder tells us, ‘Everyone’s hanging on tight to their money in case of any trouble in the future.’
Beijing seems cleaner and more spacious. The areas around Wang Fujing and Tiananmen have all been relaid with granite flagstones. Last October’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic spurred many public-works projects to completion—the official figure for expenditure nationwide is 900 billion rmb—$11 billion. But the ancient city was already completely unrecognizable, its new buildings utterly without taste or style.
In the morning we are picked up by Ms L and taken to a Beijing home-cooking restaurant on Guangxi Road. The rooms are decked out in traditional fittings with red wooden furniture; the waitresses chorus to customers, ‘You’ve arrived! Three guests!’ or ‘Farewell! Three guests!’, radiating studied smiles. I think of their fearsome ‘cold-dish’ predecessors of ten years ago—it seems a lifetime away. Ms L, born and bred in Ningxia, once travelled on foot through China’s Far West, before becoming a freelance writer in Beijing. She has just had her book, Melancholy of the Western Regions, published in a New Youth Collection—echoing the title of Chen Duxiu’s famous magazine of the May Fourth period—as one of a set of five works by writers born in the sixties. This series was brought into being by Mr S, an individual literary merchant. ISBN numbers are still officially controlled, but state publishing houses can sell their numbers on to private literary merchants, thereby ‘creating income’.The normal price for a number is around 15,000 rmb—$2,000. But a series can be published under a single ISBN, so merchants much prefer to produce sets. The literary merchant then arranges for reviews to appear in the press. If critics are not friends, they have to be paid 1,000 rmb per review—around $125.
Ms L hopes Youyou will give her next novel to Mr S. She could hardly lose financially. For her collection of stories, The Substitute’s Blues, just published by the state-owned Chinese Workers’ Press, she has not received a penny—just 350 copies of the book in lieu of a fee. Literary merchants, on the other hand, normally use the method of ‘buying up’—making a one-off cash payment to the writer. Whatever its limitations, this is at least better than such blatant exploitation. We find ourselves lamenting once again the complications of the Chinese language environment. Youyou’s foreword to the New Youth Collection was written in NJ Star, still the most popular Chinese word-processing system outside the PRC, even though it is now a little out of date. But Ms L’s Chinese computer can neither read nor convert it to another system.
In the evening, Ms W sends a car to take us to her home in Tong County, 15 kilometres east of Beijing, for a dinner party. She owns a fashion house, Mu Zhen Liao, that has skilfully renewed the idiom of traditional Chinese clothing and, in three years, has become one of the country’s most successful designer labels, with more than thirty specialist shops across the land. Dinner is lavish. The company includes a number of fellow poets and artists who have settled in Tong County, creating an ‘eastern village’ after the artists’ colony in the western suburbs was closed down. My friend Mr N was there, whom I had known during our exile together in Australia—a ‘foreign work-team’, now reunited in ‘our own foreign country’. So many feelings welling up. Very drunk, lodged the night at Ms W’s.