The Day to Day Happenings of a Little Known Corner of the Galaxy

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June 21st 2010
Published: June 22nd 2010
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I’d like to describe to you the little area of Beijing where I live, a functional area of town that has gradually become my home. With a bit of luck it may even give you a little insight into my day to day life in the process.

YiZhuang Business Development Area
I live in an area of the city called YiZhuang. It is a Business Development Area in the far south east of the city, lying between the 5th and 6th ring roads and about 15km from Tiananmen square (a 3 hour walk if you’re wondering).

The area has no natural soul whatsoever, it is heavy on multinationals, factories and tower blocks packed with apartments. No building here is more than a decade old yet it is bought to life by the collection of people who live here, those that are happy to colonise a new part of town and make it their own.

Companies in the area include Nokia, Coca-Cola and JBD (makers of China’s most famous herbal tea) plus an array of locally owned businesses doing their particular thing. It is a honey pot for investment and construction and tower blocks are popping from the ground all over the place. There are two adjacent to my building, at which work never stops; welding and digging happens at 2 in the morning, be it Sunday or any other day.

Though there are many foreign companies in the area there are almost no foreigners cluttering up the place. The permanent ones will live in more cosmopolitan areas of town around the CBD, and the rest stay in the hotels nearby and get taxis to and from their companies, so you rarely see any of them doing the rounds in the local fleshpots and parks (I say fleshpots, there aren’t actually any bars in the area). These are the preserve of locals and the odd foreign intern who can’t afford to live anywhere else.

If you live in it, then at least you don’t have to look at it
My apartment block is one of three siblings, each rising to 20 stories. Each is adorned with a hotchpotch pattern of purple tiles, making them at best distinctive at worst wildly ugly (or “difficult looking” as it would be in Chinese”). The rooms are laid out like basic hotel rooms, and the standard of fixtures and fittings leave a lot to be desired.

My company is then a few kilometres further south. It’s 15-20 minutes by bike or about an hour walk from my accommodation. A couple of times a week I have Chinese lessons pretty much equidistant between the two. I always walk, as it gives me a good opportunity to make silly noises to myself (practising Chinese, I should add). I also enjoy the peculiarities that can occur even from a simple walk.

Walking, a strange thing for a foreigner to be doing
If I walk down a street, taxi drivers for one take a keen interest. “Hmm, foreigner walking, he must need a taxi”. They slow down to a crawl beside me, hoot their horns suggestively, and are then rather bemused when I gesture that I’m perfectly happy plodding along under my own steam.

Non-taxi drivers just think “Hmm, foreigner walking”. Car drivers will hoot and wave frantically out the window as they pass. I wave back.

I am often walking at clocking off time for a lot of the companies, and am joined on the pavements by floods of poorly paid, hard working, mostly young workers. “Hmm, foreigner walking” they think. Groups of girls giggle and flash looks my way. Groups of blokes just stare, the most confident of which will shout out a passing “Hallo!” I don’t mind it at all, it’s harmless curiosity and always carried off with a disarmingly large smile. Besides, I find myself uncontrollably staring too, on the rare occasions I see another foreigner walking the streets of YiZhuang. I always think they look in need of a taxi.

Unfortunately there are 5 senses
The general smell of my part of town is largely one of dust and exhaust emissions, with a drizzle of heavy elements and served on a bed of sewage. The rain tastes the same way. Most days you can stare straight at the sun. There is one exception though, about three blocks from where I live there is some kind of confectionery factory. It is the best smelling road in China. One day it will smell sweetly of strawberry laces, the next day of dark, rich chocolate, the next of cola bottles and lemon sherbets. Walking that street is like entering a Roald Dahl story and just as exciting.

A bicycle made for two. Or three. Plus luggage
If you’re not a fan of walking and can’t afford a car in YiZhuang, then bicycles are of course a popular alternative, especially the electrified variety. Bicycles in China rarely carry less then two people at a time, often three (i.e. a whole family; father on controls, small child holding onto the handlebars, mother sitting on the pannier rack). I always think it’s rather sweet seeing couples riding around together, and no less skilful. The girl almost always rides side-saddle, perched behind her man. He’ll weave in and out of the traffic at speed, while she nonchalantly keeps perfectly balanced often while simultaneously texting or doing her hair. In the best examples they will be wearing his and hers matching t-shirts.

Buddhist Pool
A little down my street (TianHuaBeiLu 天华北路, which translates as China Heaven North Road) is another street, with a few more shops and amenities.

There is a Buddhist pool hall here (equipped with small shrine in the entrance lobby). The Chinese take pool seriously. This place doesn’t even sell beer and there are attendants who rack the balls for you at the end of every game. Most players wear a satin glove on their hand, to help the smooth passage of the cue. You often see people in there just playing on their own, practising. On one memorable occasion there someone doing just this, it was only noteworthy because she didn’t look like your classic pool hall layabout. She wore high heals, skinny jeans and a sloganed T-shirt. She would strut purposely around the table, eyeing-up her preferred shot. Her technique wasn’t great, presumably her attire prevented her from getting low, Stephen Hendry style, so instead she would just lean over slightly and snatch at the pool cue. A hearty clink of balls. An even heartier clunk of ball in pocket. She would very rarely miss.

The next week we happened to go to a different pool hall. Here there was also a girl playing alone. For the rest of the description see above. By all accounts the aforementioned girl wasn’t quite as unique as we had thought.

Street BBQ
After a pool session the best way to conclude the evening is with some DaPaiDang - little BBQ establishments that set themselves up on street corners after the sun has set, and police patrols have gone to bed. They have small rack-BBQs where they grill various parts of a selection of animals and vegetables. There is no shortage of spice or taste and they are unfailingly delicious. You sit around drinking your big bottles of 3 kuai (30p) beer and nibbling your chuanr (串) while folded up on ridiculously little stools. They remind me of the type 3year old boys use to reach the toilet bowl. The tables are similarly diminutive.

Barber shop sextet
Just next to the pool hall is a barber’s shop. It’s relatively small, but is staffed by half a dozen blokes, all with improbably awful haircuts. I have a rule of thumb when choosing barbers that the worse the hair of the proprietor, the better the hair cut. This establishment vindicates my hypothesis. When I went I was the only customer.

Each member of staff has a separate job. The first greets you, takes your bag and puts it in a locker. The second ushers you to the third. The third washes your hair (if you’ve never had your hair washed and scalp gently massaged by a Chinese man with a salmon pink afro, then I can recommend it). The second then ushers you the three foot across the shop to the fourth, who cuts your hair. He cuts it very well, as good, probably better than any haircut I’ve had in the UK. It was the first time he had ever cut naturally blonde hair. You then have an amusing miscommunication when trying to ask for your glasses back (glasses are pronounced “yanjing”, whereas eyes are pronounced “yanjing”. The only difference is that the tone on jing is neutral for eyes, is 4th tone for glasses.) The second ushers you back to the third who washes your hair again. On completion the first gets your bag for you while the fifth sweeps up. The second ushers you to the till where the sixth presents you with a bill. Two hair washes and an excellent haircut all served by an army of staff amounts to 20kuai (£2). The team say a collective goodbye as you leave, cutting a noticeably more handsome and dashing silhouette against the horizon.

The convenience shop
Closer to home there’s the little convenience shop at the bottom of my tower block that sells basics, including tasty ice-lollies for 1 kuai (10p) each. It’s staffed by a small family, the daughter of which deals with the customer while her father operates the till. I guess she’s in her late teens, but it’s hard to guess and she could be anywhere between 15 and 25. The shop is open from 8am to 11pm every day, 7 days a week. In my 6months here I have never been in there while she hasn’t been there. I can only conclude she does 100-hour weeks, and I wouldn’t be surprised. But she always serves me with a smile, and we always have an identical, basic conversation in Chinese that involves a greeting, a price enquiry, me counting out my money, some thanks being exchanged and a cheery farewell. I find this very comforting, and wouldn’t want it any other way. Though perhaps one day I’ll pluck up the courage to ask her how old she really is, and what she likes doing in her spare time.

Parking yourself
If you do want to relax, then the park 100m behind my tower block is probably a good bet. As you walk there you pass a man repairing bikes out of the back of his tricycle. Price to repair a puncture: 1kuai (10p). You could get 80 punctures repaired for the cost of a pizza at the “Mr Pizza” shop nearby (may not be the proprietor’s real name).

On the same corner as the bike repairman is a police box. A common sight round these parts. It is about 2m by 1m and looks like a conservatory, except it has red and blue swirling police lights on top. Inside there is often a policeman, just sitting, keeping order. There are a lot of boring jobs in China, but this has to be right up there with the dullest.

Inside the park itself they pipe Chinese pop music across the paths and lawns out of speakers shaped like squirrels and pandas. People walk their tiny dogs, and stroll along clapping. In winter people sport face masks as they walk, protecting themselves from germs and dust. In summer they sport tinted face visors to protect themselves from the sun. They look perfectly prepared for a touch of spot welding if the need happened to suddenly appear. Older men walk around with t-shirts rolled up just above their nipples.

If you’re feeling very assimilated with the local culture you can take your kite along, though if you want to avoid losing face you’d better have a long string. Unless the kite is particularly ornate the range is by far the most important characteristic. Don’t expect any admiring looks unless it’s fluttering somewhere in the Earth’s near orbit.

Melons, melons everywhere
I’ll leave you with a little something that always makes me laugh, and which I think sums up a lot of things very nicely. A road not far from me is home to around a dozen water melon sellers. They only operate only on this one road, equally spaced at 20m intervals from each other. Each seller has an identical tricycle cart, an identical array of melons and identical prices, and they each sit on identical stools beside their carts, with identical facial expressions that say “I wonder why there isn’t more business around here”. I have no idea how the middle ones ever make a sale. The Chinese maybe natural entrepreneurs but their tendency to group together is far stronger. Nevertheless prosperity wise things are looking up in my part of town.

I'll be honest and say I have been heard to occasionally complain about my part of town. I am a little envious of friends who live in more central, more characterful parts of the city, but actually writing this has made me realise that my part of town is as "authentic" as any other. Beijingers are so accommodating to change, so ready to adapt that they can transform anywhere into a home from home. Even YiZhuang.

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30th June 2010

Andrew enjoyed this,so did I
Andrew Sutton will be settling in Shanghai with HSBC in July. Open to receive you once he is in an apartment in August, Jeremy, if you fancy bank chat and some fairly fluent Mandarin speaking! Bryony and I send best wishes, and hope to hear more of your news from your parents.

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