Honoring Fallen Comrades

I would like to begin this email by taking a moment of silence for my fallen comrade, the Besta 無敵-95 Electronic Chinese-English Dictionary. We’ve been through a lot together, these last nine years; we’ve fought many battles, accomplished many things. It has survived many a heavy blow in the past – some near fatal – but always managed to come back, seemingly stronger than ever. Sadly, it did not manage to survive its latest injury, caused by a tragic tumble at the MOFA archives, and it now goes on to that great powerstrip in the sky, where all fallen electronics can live on as machines they’d always dreamed they’d be.

In completely unrelated news, have you seen the features on some of the newest electronic dictionaries? SD card slots! Multiple languages! HSK flashcards! Full color graphics! *ahem*

Okay, so my natural clumsiness finally did in my dictionary. It almost did in my knees, too, as I took a fairly spectacular spill out on my run a few weeks ago and managed to both twist an ankle and scrape a knee. I cut a pretty pathetic figure over the weekend, limping out to the grocery store to find things to make in my rice cooker and with which to ice my ankle. (As for the rice cooker: I’ve learned to use it to make rice (duh), steam fish, steam veggies, make congee, and – most impressively, I think – make scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions. I also make a mean kimchi fried rice in it.) I’m all recovered, however, and bopping around Beijing at my usual pace.

Amazingly, three weeks in I’m still managing to get out and run at 5:00 a.m. I would not have thought it possible, but of all the factors that go into that decision – that I can’t miss runs while training for a half marathon this August, that the pollution is simply too terrible to endure later in the day, or that the Beijing summer heat gets fairly stifling by 8:00 – I’d say the number one issue is really the traffic.

It’s almost a cliché to sit around and complain about Beijing traffic, but it truly is extraordinary. Beijing used to be known as the city of ten million bicycles – those were the images on the nightly news in the 1970s and 1980s after we reestablished relations, and they have tended to stick in the American consciousness. These days, the best way I can describe Beijing traffic is to say that it is what happens when you take ten million bicycles, replace half of them with cars, and then watch the drivers attempt to maneuver under the same set of rules.

There’s an intersection near my apartment where an eight-lane road (four going each way) crosses a six-lane road. (Anywhere else this would be a huge intersection, but I actually go through three of these to walk the mile and a half to the archives. Is the 5 am running starting to make sense?) This intersection is governed by its own rules which have very little to do with traffics laws or international customs. Let’s say you’re in the right turn lane but you want to go left. There are two lanes of traffic to your immediate left trying, ostensibly, to go straight. What do you do? Well, if you were on a bicycle, it wouldn’t matter what “lane” you started out in, you’d just inch into the middle of the intersection to that spot untouched by passing and turning traffic, in front of the line of left-turning cars, and wait for the turn signal. No problem, right? Well, what if you’re driving a mid-size sedan? I watched one day as a car pulled up in the right turn lane with absolutely no intention of turning right and just edged his way forward and left across the intersection until he was angled in front of the left turn lane, but not blocking the cross traffic. Then I watched as three cars behind him did the same thing, either to get in place to turn left or to go straight. The fifth car in the right turn lane was the first one that actually wanted to turn right. By the time the light changed, there was this collection of vehicles all facing odd directions cluttering up the space before the cars that had actually stopped back at the light that had to right themselves before the rest of the traffic could get moving. Suddenly it makes sense why it takes a half an hour to ride six blocks in a cab.

Now add to this the local norms for pedestrians. This is a rare intersection that is big but lacks either an overpass or an underpass. Instead, there are walk signals that offer more than enough time to start on one curb and end on the other while they are continuously green. As an added bonus, they do not give green lights to turning cars at the same time as the pedestrians (as most intersections do in Nanjing), creating a battle of wills between those on foot and behind the wheel for the right of way. So how do most people cross this road? By a Frogger-like one-lane-at-a-time progression. First, you look to see if there are any cars turning right, and when there’s a break between the cars, you cross that lane. Then you keep an eye out for traffic going straight – since half these cars are actually stopped at funky angles trying to turn left, you can weave between them up to the left turn lane. This is where you’ll get stuck if the light is green, because everyone in the left turn lane is always pretty much committed to being there. It’s not unusual to see a mass of people on either side of the left turn lane in the middle of the road creating a narrow tunnel – not unlike a very closely plotted parade route – for cars to drive through on their way through the intersection. As a driver, your greatest mistake is not hovering on the bumper of the car ahead of you while running this gauntlet, because if you let even a few inches of space appear, people will start crossing the street between the cars, green light be damned.

The single thing that gives me away as a foreigner – aside from my very high nose and double eyelids – is the fact that I watch all this drama play out from the relative safety of the curb. At some point this month, someone is going to crowd the lane closely enough to get their toes run over by a passing car, and it is not going to be me.

Now, as chaotic as this all sounds, I’d like to remind you that cars are not the only vehicles on the road. There are still some bicycles (just fewer than before, and since cars regularly drive up the bike lines and, truth be told, up on the sidewalks, it’s not as safe or pleasant to bike as it used to be), plus motorcycles, motorscooters, bicycle rickshaws, three wheeled motorized scooters (usually with a little cabinet in the back where a passenger can ride), workmen pulling wheelbarrows, “Beijing Breakfast” stands on the move, and at one point last week, five people on horseback from a local riding club all maneuvering through the same intersection at the same time.

That’s because it’s a big intersection, of course, but my local two-lane road could provide hours of human drama on its own. I’m sometimes tempted to grab a chair and a beer and just watch it all play out. That’s because the road is just barely three lanes wide, but only two lanes are for cars; there’s a third for bicycles that appears and disappears at regular intervals and is nearly always clogged up by a car trying to drive through it. Then there are no parking regulations, so it’s not unusual to see cars parked on both sides of the street (and some sidewalks), leaving only one free lane for the two lanes of traffic to move through. Plus it runs along the main entrance to a hospital, and because there are few liability or malpractice laws, the patients wander about whenever they’d like a bit of fresh air. There’s usually about a dozen or so people in checked hospital pajamas walking or limping around at any given time, some in wheelchairs, some dragging an IV. Add to this the fact that the street is under construction, and apparently that does not necessitate closing the road. I know what you’re thinking – who closes the whole road for construction? But here they don’t even close the lane they’re working on – you’ve got a guy in the middle of the road with a pickax swinging at the asphalt, then stepping aside every two minutes to let a car drive over the newly-loosed street. It does not seem more efficient, though they must be trying hard to move the project along – knowing how long a workday commute takes in Beijing, they’ve set up tents for the workers to sleep alongside the road and get up at dawn to go straight to work. Think about that the next time you complain about your job.

In my mind, the best way to deal with Beijing traffic is to stay out of it as much as possible, so I’ve spent the last two Saturday afternoons at the movies. Last week I went to see the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film, which did a marvelous job demonstrating what an adventure flick looks like when little things like plot are deemed utterly superfluous to the amusingly choreographed fights. Anxious to see something with more purpose and direction, yesterday I became part of the opening weekend crowd for the blockbuster movie of the summer, “The Beginning of the Great Revival,” which is the story of the creation of the Chinese Communist Party between 1911 and 1921. In other words, it’s a government-sponsored propaganda film released in anticipation of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the CCP on July 1.

So, if it just opened, how do I know it’s a “blockbuster”? Well, the local authorities have rather stacked the deck. For one thing, it’s on at least half the screens available nationwide, and no new releases are allowed to compete with it until mid-to-late July, giving it a decided advantage at the box office (though it does have to compete with movies already open, the most dangerous of which is decidedly “Kung Fu Panda 2”). Second of all, every major government office has blocked off whole theaters to send their entire workforce to see it, which ensures a certain base level of sales. Third, just like “The Founding of a Republic” – the blockbuster propaganda movie about the Communist triumph over the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War that came out two two years ago – they’ve managed to get about 100 big names to play the various parts from Mao Zedong down to second May Fourth Movement protester on the left. Neither film was terribly gripping, but audiences went anyway for the fun of trying to spot the mainland, Hong Kong, and even Taiwan stars appearing in the roles. Seeing big names pop up in unlikely places provides an undercurrent of unintentional humor throughout the film, so the local audience giggles at what should be serious moments. (This time, Chow Yun-fat made a very convincing Yuan Shikai, but Leehom suffered the insult of having all his lines dubbed over by someone who speaks with a Beijing accent. Hah, that’s what you get, buddy: you’re an American, what on earth are you doing in a Chinese communist propaganda film?)

You might wonder what I was doing contributing to the box office receipts of a propaganda film, but as an American taxpayer, I felt like I had a stake in its success. The film was produced in part through a sponsorship agreement with Cadillac Shanghai, which is owned by GM, which in turn was bailed out by the U.S. Government, which is funded in very small part by me.* I sort of thought that between my financial contributions and my China connections I might get a producer credit – or maybe a discounted ticket – but no such luck.

All that said, it was not as sweeping in scope as “The Founding of the Republic,” but I actually enjoyed it more (I also saw that one in the theater, as I happened to be in China for its release on the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic. But I’ve also got it on DVD with English subtitles, so if you want to see it…). Beyond the dull recounting of the heroic exploits of the communists that is a common thread through both films, this latter effort added a love story in the form of Mao’s relationship with his second wife, whom he probably really did love for a time (the first was an arranged marriage he didn’t recognize; the third he married before the second was killed for her revolutionary activities; that one endured the Long March, but was still replaced by the fourth, the infamous Jiang Qing of Cultural Revolution fame). There’s also some totally intentional comedy in the form of the bumbling Kuomintang spies, who do silly things like accidentally drop their concealed gun in an elevator while trying to go incognito and fall off of bicycles while clumsily chasing the Russian revolutionary consultants in rickshaws.

With all this in its favor, I’m sorry to say the ending sort of killed the movie for me – I don’t mean the successful founding of the party, but the ending of the film, where they pan out to a modern day shot of cars passing in front of Tiananmen at the Forbidden City and talk in clear propaganda tones about how – I’m paraphrasing here – “without the Communist Party there would be no New China.”** It kind of took you out of the “it’s not propaganda, it’s a historical epic about love and political passion” tone they’d been going for the rest of the time. I may have unintentionally laughed and drawn some unwanted attention as the only foreigner in the (half-empty) theater.

Still, if you happen to see the movie – it’s playing at several arts theaters in the U.S. – and are so moved that you want to visit the site of the First Party Congress in Shanghai where the men so daringly risked exposure and death to create the formal party apparatus, it has been turned into a lovely and informative museum. To get there, go into the high-end shopping district in the former French Concession and turn right at the Ferrari dealership. You can’t miss it.

For next time: I have a men’s shirts addendum to the previously stated “Asian Men’s Pants Rule,” a few adventures as a Beijing tourist, and a trip to Taiwan looming.

* On the bright side, most of the money for the GM bailout was loaned to us by China in the first place, so really, they’re paying for their own propaganda and just funneling it through the United States. Don’t you feel better?
** …which is coincidentally the name of a hit propaganda song from the 1940s. Last night I was flipping through t.v. channels and found TWO separate programs featuring legions of small children singing this song. Half the stations are taken over with “Patriotic Music Pageants,” “Revolutionary Dramas,” and “Old Red Movies” in anticipation of the July 1 anniversary of the CCP, which goes a long way towards explaining why you can buy cheap pirated editions of pretty much every American television show ever on most street corners.


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