Wednesday 7th (Contd)
I am in an episode of The Hills directed by David Lynch. In a world of short Chinese people in drab designer clothes and Communist workwear, DeeDee (Euro-vixen and corkscrew-curled fashionista) and Bruce (American-obsessed Scandinavian style-icon) tower above like retro aliens. In their arms is the cutest ball of fluff I have ever seen- Popo the living teddybear. They are a power couple in the style of Brad and Angelina, so I am going to fuse their names and call them BreeDee from now on.
After I fumble my way through hugs and greetings (I am feeling shy as I haven’t seen them for over a year, and I am sleep deprived and spaced out), Popo is scooped up from the floor and we hail a cab. A wide, flat landscape of utilitarian concrete blocks slips past the Toyota windows, and I am feeling very far from home. Amidst the overexcited chit-chat, Bruce tells me that a Western guy was made an example of and executed two weeks ago for having an itsy bit of weed on him. I want to turn the taxi round and go home. But the driver doesn’t speak English and Popo has reached across from DeeDee’s embrace to lay his manicured paw on me, so I’m trapped.
“What’s the gossip from Sheffield?” asks DeeDee excitedly. I can’t think of anything. Sheffield is boring, that’s why I’m here.
BreeDee live in a 13th floor elevatored apartment heated by electric blankets and a looming aircon tower in the corner. Central heating does not exist here, and I get wafts from the toilet of that ginger-spiced ditchwater I overdosed on at Harvey’s hovel. It’s time to crack open the beer and toast my extremest Easternness yet. BreeDee’s friend AJ, a cool club promoter/all round nice guy comes round to stare at their new pet (me).
“What kind of music do you like?” he asks.
All I can think about is the last 3 songs I listened too, 30,00 feet over the Indian subcontinent.
“Tatu” I say
His face falls.
“And J-pop” I add
“Oh” he says, changing the subject.
My credibility is dead. I suppose what I just did was the equivalent of a Chinese guy coming over to Sheffield and saying he liked Irish Eurovision songs. I must remember that irony only works when the thing is taken out of context.
I have been provided with a lush airbed and am knackered, but Popo, who seems to have grown wings in the night, has other ideas. Every time I move or make a pre-snore sigh, he leaps elegantly out of the darkness onto my face before lapping feverishly at my ears with his ice-cold tongue. Eventually I hide myself under the duvet and the attacks cease.
Thursday 8th March
It has been raining solidly for 3 months here, and the panoramic view of Hangzhou from BreeDee’s apartment is obscured by drizzle.
“Do you wanna try e-biking?” says Bruce
“I’m not very good with computer games”
“No, it’s like a moped but electric”
Hmm. My riding history is peppered with dysfunction and injury. I used to have a secondhand racer that I couldn’t get up on kerbs with; otherwise I used to borrow my friend’s sister’s bike which took the skin off my thumbs and bent my knees/masculinity out of shape.
“Go on then, but don’t tell Esther” I say. With my confessional impulses, it’s a more of a Note to Self.
An e-bike is basically a slow scooter that you can charge from the mains. They are all the rage in China where a generous third of the road is taken up with cycle lanes. Time to see if I can remember how to ride…
Battle armour at the ready: ironic hats (AKB48 for me; Russian furry with soviet badge for Bruce), camouflage ponchos, skinny jeans and fuck off boots.
“Oh and the brakes don’t work too great” he adds.
Oh well, what can go wrong in a cycle lane?
But this is China- and everyone is on a bike, moped or ebike. The lane is rammed with merciless speeding locals. I slow to let one past and suddenly Bruce is 100 metres ahead and disappearing in the melee. Shit shit shit!
I am going to have to grow some here. I speed up, overtaking, my bike wobbling with exertion.
Suddenly I’m flying!
Time to concentrate on the task. Everyone has stopped at the junction up ahead. I pump the breaks. Nothing happens. Oh my fucking God! Boots down; H&M plastic soles skidding, the friction nearly setting my feet on fire. Just in time, I slow to a stop.
Bruce points to the left. We are going across the road, through all the kamikaze minubuses and honking drivers. Oh god, I’m going to die. As I gather my wits, Bruce kicks off and glides across unscathed.
I am facing the wrong way and manhandle my bike to face his path. As I twist the accelerator, a minibus hurtles in front of me. The trouble is, and this is not something I learn easily today, as soon as you yank on the handlebar, the bike jumps forward like it’s alive. I find myself edging into the cars and trucks and buses which seems to be daring me to throw myself in front of them. There are tuk-tuks and ebikes and cyclists jostling behind me, honking. Their mini horns sound like melvined nerds compared to the horny bulls of the minibuses.
Bruce has disappeared from view. Unless I want to get lost in a megacity where no-one will understand my cries for help, I have to go NOW. The light has gone green, but that doesn’t mean much because people just go when they feel like it. I edge out, at first hesistant, then realising that the key to this is courage. I yank the handlebar decisively and weave across the road, aiming for the cycle lane opposite, making it and catching up with Bruce, who sits aside his vintage bicycle nonchalantly. His patience is going to be tested today, folks.
Finally we get to Westlake, which sounds like an American mall but is in fact a big wet lake.
There’s big group photo taking place, and I decide to do a Where’s Wally and stand at the back while Bruce captures my photo-bomb.
I’m not very good at this game- clearly- half the front row spotted me straight away. Time to make like a local and zhou (groan)
We get a beer (this is an alkie’s holiday) and walk along the rustic wooden bridge, under the amused gaze of Chinese tourists, who have come for the rainy lake but find the perfect camera fodder in us, the freaky lao wai (Johnny Foreigners). Bruce’s communist badge was a particular hit, making girls giggle and old men grimace.
Mao’s regime is a serious matter, but only for those who remember it. For everyone else his ubiquitous Little Red Book and permagrin face are faintly embarrassing, like our Royal Family. Westlake looks like every picture of China I’ve ever seen; still water reflecting the jaunty angles of pagodas; a heron perusing its own shadow; flowerbeds seeded with ornamental cabbages (function over form at all times); a uniformed team of council workers raising and dripping a piledriver in spooky synchronicity. And a Starbucks slap bang in the middle.
The gap between rich and poor is huge in China. Every 1st world skyscraper is flanked by ramshackle 3rd world shacks. Gucci billboards look down on street sellers and labourers who snotgobble and spit as they go about their business. As in Hong Kong, the biggest industry is construction and the skyline is full of bamboo scaffolding and the ambient sound of knocking down and building up forever and ever until China is without end and penthouse suites have recompression chambers and a space view.
As we pose in front of a giant golden Buddha, hordes of tourists are drawn by the sight and snap away. Bruce stands with the confidence of a photogenic rock star, but I am awkward in the spotlight. We are exotic here; our height and old clothes and sallow complexions are anomalies.
I look even paler after BreeDee force me to watch Paranormal Activity just before bed, and I have to lie with my back to the kitchenette in case I see something move there. When exhaustion finally sends me to sleep, I hear a sound like cutlery being moved and sit bolt upright with the immortal words
“WHAT THE FUCK!?”
Which wakes BreeDee and Popo so they can have a jolly good laugh at me. It turns out that it had been Popo ringing the bell signalling to be let out onto the balcony for a wee. My nerves are shot.
Friday 9th March
Today was spent trying to find a Lolita Café that AJ mentioned. Apparently waitresses dress as Manga characters and debase themselves for your delectation. This is cultural curiosity, you understand, not perversion. This is a Japanese import, a land where men’s souls are broken on the brushed chrome of industry, and their sexual desire is regressed into child-worship.
I am becoming almost cocky behind the e-wheel, my AKB48 cap twisted to the side like a 90s street urchin, tipsy on the curiosity of locals.
We find the right street but the numbers are cut-off halfway along, and Bruce set off on his bike to find where and if the street starts again. I wait with the e-bike, plugged in and charging next to two old ladies pruning their miniature plants. After about ten minutes I have the jellifying realisation that should Bruce fail to return, I would be stranded in a vast metropolis where no-one speaks English, with no memory of where BreeDee live and no passport (back at the flat). The trusty e-bike would be my only friend in the world, and I sit on her soft seat forlornly.
I quickly hid the terror in my eyes when Bruce rounds the corner with the news that the street never carried on, and the Lolitas will have to remain a fantasy.
DeeDee finishes work at her fashion empire early and we go to Central Perk, an exact replica of the café from Friends. Upstairs, there’s Joey and Chandler’s room, complete with lounge chairs, and the girls’ flat with picture frame behind the door. The weird thing is that each room is full of Chinese twentysomethings who go silent when we walk in. I start to wonder if these are actually their private rooms, and we have just trespassed.
Downstairs, the coffees are ridiculously expensive (£5!), and a pixellated screen plays endless episodes of Friends next to classic Chinglish graffiti in coloured chalk. This is kitsch from the other side of the screen.
May as well get our money’s worth- photosesh!
Tonight’s dinner is at a Korean restaurant- I’ve eaten out every night on this holiday, and that’s the way Harvey and BreeDee live because it’s so cheap. Now I find out why- the food’s brought to you raw, and you’re expected to cook it yourself over a big hob in the centre of the table. There’s no point complimenting the chef, because it’s me (and I can’t cook)!
Westerners are still a rarity in Hangzhou, and they all go to one bar: Ellen’s. The walls and ceiling are covered in graffiti from Americans, Brits and continental Europeans. There is one toilet for the lot of us, and the place is rammed with drunken ex pats and TEFOL teachers by the time we get there.
BreeDee’s friends are a motley crew; the French Canadian happy-sad duo of Eddie and Jacques; Dutch-Chinese Harriet, Home Counties girl Claudia and her beautiful eyes, and Chinese-American Fran.
“Chinese people get so angry with me because I look like one of them but can’t speak a word of Mandarin” says Fran.
“My Korean girlfriend is giving me grief,” moans Jacques like a sad puppy, his eyes permanently latching onto drunk voluptuous girls.
“I play blind-guitar” says Jacques, “I get a call saying they need a white guitarist for a gig and I meet up with whoever else they have called up and on the way there we try to figure out if there’s any songs we all know how to play. One time we played at a fashion show next to a swimming pool, and all we knew was Amazing Grace so we stretched it out all night. They loved it.”
“They call me the white goddess” says Claudia, “because I’m 6 feet tall and blonde and they’ve never seen anyone like me. They stop in the street and stare.”
After my travels with Bruce, I can imagine how this must feel.
Our destination tonight is KTV, another Japanese import: private karaoke booths, hundreds of them in a gold and marble palace with all the taste and restraint of Liberace’s bathtub. It has its own supermarket, where you fill your trolley with cheap booze; our party (BreeDee, Eddie, Harriet and Claudia) um and ah about how much of what to get, before deciding on 2 bottles of vodka, cans of Fanta and umpteen beers.
“Whatever you do, don’t forget which room you’re in” warns DeeDee, “I did one time and I wandered around for hours before Bruce came to find me.”
The corridor stretches forever; each room looks the same, each one filled with drunken singing and childlike, uninhibited laughter.
Now, as I have said before, I do not do public singing. I don’t even sing in the shower in case someone hears.
I start to down vodka oranges like there’s no tomorrow.
Before long, the microphone is shoved in my face to the sound of Bowie’s Heroes. I love this song, why ruin it with my voice? The mic is passed to Harriet who looks confused.
“I don’t know the words,” she admits.
From nowhere comes the urge to croon, and I grab the mic and am thrust into the sweaty, undying love of being a hero for ever and ever. Bruce’s perfect key keeps me afloat while I ham it up, fist in air and voice going up and down like an impassioned yoyo. I look round and instead of horror, I see amusement and even pleasure.
Yes! I think, this is GREAT!
Sadly, everything I sing after this point is only an echo of this triumph. My attempt to sing All the Things She Said by Tatu is especially diabolical, since I can no longer remember the words or how the song goes even though I have listened to it 5000 times.
We are joined by Bubu, radical art student and babyfaced sweetheart who currently sports a monk’s haircut and robes. She sings Chinese pop with single-minded passion and I want to adopt her as my daughter/sister/teddybear.
I fall asleep instantly when we get back to the flat, Popo probably having his way with my ears as I lay like a corpse, smiling inanely at the joy of my first public singing in, like, ever.