I'M LIVING IN this dump in Haidian Qu, close to
Wudaokou, on the twenty-first floor of a decaying high-rise.
The grounds are bare; the trees have died; the rubber tiles on
the walkways, in their garish pink and yellow, are cracked and
curling. The lights have been out in the lobby since I moved in;
they never finished the interior walls in the foyers outside the
elevator, and the windows are boarded up, so every time I step
outside the apartment door I’m in a weird twilight world of bare
cement and blue fluorescent light.
The worst thing about the foyer is that I might run into Mrs.
Hua, who lives next door with her fat spoiled-brat kid. She hates
that I’m crashing here, thinks I’m some slutty American who is
corrupting China’s morals. She’s always muttering under her
breath, threatening to report me to the Public Security Bureau
for all kinds of made-up shit. It’s not like I ever did anything
to her, and it’s not like I’m doing anything wrong, but the last
thing I need is the PSB on my ass.
I’ve got enough problems.
Outside, the afternoon sun filters through a yellow haze. My
leg hurts, but I should walk, I tell myself. Get some PT in. The
deal I make with myself is, if it gets too bad, I’ll take a Percocet;
but I only have about a dozen left, so it has to be really bad
before I can take one. Today the pain is just a dull throb, like a
toothache in my thigh.
I pass the gas tanks off Chengfu Road, these four-story-high
giant globes, and I think: one of these days, some guy will get
pissed off at his girlfriend, light a couple sticks of dynamite
underneath them (since they don’t have many guns here, the truly
pissed-off tend to vent with explosives and rat poison), a few city
blocks and a couple thousand people will get incinerated, and
everyone will shrug—oh, well, too bad, but this is China, and shit
happens. Department store roofs collapse; chemicals poison rivers;
miners suffocate in illegal mines. I walk down this one block
nearly every day on my way to work, and there are five sex businesses
practically next door to each other, “teahouses” and “foot
massage parlors,” with girls from the countryside sitting on pink
leatherette couches, waiting for some horny migrant worker to
come in with enough renminbi to fuck his brains out for a while
and forget about the shack he’s living in and the family he’s left
behind and the shitty wages he’s earning. Hey, why not?
I still like it here, overall.
I’m just in this bad mood lately.
So I call Lao Zhang. That’s what I do these days when I’m
feeling sorry for myself.
“Wei?” Lao Zhang has a growly voice, like he’s talking himself
out of a grunt half the time.
“It’s me. Yili.”
That’s my Chinese name, Yili. It means “progressive ideas” or
something. Mainly it sounds kind of like Ellie.
“Yili, ni hao.”
He sounds distracted, which isn’t like him. He’s probably
working; he almost always is. He’s been painting a lot lately. Before
that, he mostly did performance pieces, stuff like stripping
naked and painting himself red on top of the Drum Tower or
steering a reed boat around the Houhai lakes with a life-size
statue of Chairman Mao in the prow.
But usually when I call, he sounds like he’s glad to hear my
voice, no matter what he’s doing. Which is one of the reasons I
call him when I’m having a bad day.
“Okay, I guess,” I answer. “I’m not working. Thought I’d see
what you were up to.”
“Ah. The usual,” he says.
“Want some company?”
Lao Zhang hesitates.
It’s a little weird. I can’t think of a time when I’ve called that
he hasn’t invited me over. Even times when I don’t want to leave
my apartment, when I just want to hear a friendly voice, he’ll
always try and talk me into coming out; and sometimes when I
won’t, he’ll show up at my door a couple hours later with takeout
and cold Yanjing beer. He’s that kind of person. He works
hard, but he likes hanging out too, as long as you don’t mind
him working part of the time. And I don’t. A lot of times I’ll sit
on the sagging couch in his studio while he paints, listening to
my iPhone, drinking beer, surfing on his computer. I like watching
him paint too, the way he moves, relaxed but in control. It
feels comfortable, him painting, me sitting there.
“Sure,” he finally says. “Why don’t you come over?”
“You sure you’re not too busy?”
“No, come over. There’s a performance tonight at the Warehouse.
Should be fun. Call me when you’re close.”
Maybe I shouldn’t go, I think, as I swipe my yikatong card at
the Wudaokou light rail station. Maybe he’s seeing somebody
else. It’s not like we’re a couple. Even if it feels like we are one
Sure, we hang out. Occasionally fuck. But he could do a lot
better than me.
“Lao” means “old,” but Lao Zhang’s not really old. He’s
maybe thirteen, fourteen years older than I am, around forty.
They call him “Lao” Zhang to distinguish him from the other
Zhang, who’s barely out of his teens and is therefore “Xiao”
Zhang, also an artist at Mati Village, the northern suburb of
Beijing where Lao Zhang lives.
Before I came to China, I’d hear “suburb” and think tract
homes and Wal-Marts. Well, they have Wal-Marts in Beijing and
housing tracts—Western-style, split-level, three bedroom, two
bath houses with lawns and everything, surrounded by gates and
walls. Places with names like “Orange County” and “Yosemite
Falls,” plus my personal favorite, “Merlin Champagne Town.”
But Mati Village isn’t like that.
Getting to Mati Village is kind of a pain. It’s out past the 6th
Ring Road, and you can’t get all the way there by subway or light
rail, even with all the lines they built for the ’08 Olympics. From
Haidian, I have to take the light rail and transfer to a bus.
It’s not too crazy a day. The yellow loess dust has been
drowning Beijing like some sort of pneumonia in the city’s
lungs, typical for spring in spite of all those trees the government’s
planted in Inner Mongolia the last dozen years. The dust
storms died down last night, but people still aren’t venturing
out much. So I score a seat on the bench by the car door, let
the train’s rhythms rattle my head. I close my eyes and listen to
the recorded announcement of the stations, plus that warning to
“watch your belongings and prepare well” if you are planning
to exit. All around me, cell phones chime and sing, extra-loud so
the people plugged into iPods can still hear them.
The nongmin don’t have iPods. The migrants from the countryside
are easy to spot: tanned, burned faces; bulging nylon net
bags with faded stripes; patched cast-off clothes; strange, stiff
shoes. But it’s the look on their faces that really gives them away.
They are so lost. I fit in better here than they do.
Sometimes I want to say to these kids, what are you doing
here? You’re going to end up living in a shantytown in a refrigerator
box, and for what? So you can pick through junked
computer parts for gold and copper wire? Do “foot massage” at
some chicken girl joint? Really, you’re better off staying home.
Like I’m one to talk. I didn’t stay home either.
When I’m about fifteen minutes away from Mati, I try to call
Lao Zhang, thinking, maybe I’ll see if we can meet at the jiaozi
place, because I haven’t had anything to eat today but a leftover
slice of bad Mr. Pizza for breakfast.
Instead of a dial tone, I get that stupid China Mobile jingle
and the message that I’m out of minutes.
Oh, well. It’s not that hard to find Lao Zhang in Mati Village.
First I stop at the jiaozi place. It’s Lao Zhang’s favorite restaurant
in Mati. Mine too. The dumplings are excellent, it’s cheap
as hell, and I’ve never gotten sick after eating there.
By now it’s after six p.m., and the restaurant is packed. I don’t
even know what it’s called, this jiaozi place. It’s pretty typical:
a cement block faced with white tile. For some reason, China
went through a couple of decades when just about every small
public building was covered in white tile, like it’s all a giant
The restaurant is a small square room with plastic tables and
chairs. There’s a fly-specked Beijing Olympics poster on one
wall and a little shrine against another—red paper with gold
characters stuck on the wall, a gilded Buddha, some incense
sticks, and a couple pieces of dusty plastic fruit on a little table.
The place reeks of fried dough, boiled meat, and garlic.
Seeing how this is Mati Village, most of the customers are
artists, though you also get a few farmers and some of the local
business-owners, like the couple who run the gas station. But
mostly it’s people like “Sloppy” Song. Sloppy is a tall woman
who looks like she’s constructed out of wires, with thick black
hair that trails down her back in a braid with plaits the size of
king snakes. Who knows why she’s called “Sloppy”? Sometimes
Chinese people pick the weirdest English names for themselves.
I met this one guy who went by “Motor.” It said something
about his essential nature, he told me.
Sloppy’s here tonight, sitting at a table, slurping the juice out of
her dumpling and waving her Zhonghua cigarette at the woman
sitting across from her. I don’t know this woman. She looks a little
rich for this place—sleek hair and makeup, nice clothes. Must
be a collector. Sloppy does assemblage sculpture and collage
pieces, and they sell pretty well, even with the economy sucking
as much as it does.
“Yili, ni hao,” Sloppy calls out, seeing me enter. “You eating
“No, just looking for Lao Zhang.”
“Haven’t seen him. This is Lucy Wu.”
“Ni hao, pleased to meet you,” I say, trying to be polite.
Lucy Wu regards me coolly. She’s one of these Prada babes—
all done up in designer gear, perfectly polished.
“Likewise,” she says. “You speak Chinese?”
I shrug. “A little.”
This is halfway between a lie and the truth. After two years,
I’m not exactly fluent, but I get around. “You speak Mandarin
like some Beijing street kid,” Lao Zhang told me once, maybe
because I’ve got that Beijing accent, where you stick Rs on the
end of everything like a pirate.
“Your Chinese sounds very nice,” she says with that smug,
She has a southern accent; her consonants are soft, slightly
sibilant. Dainty, almost.
“You’re too polite.”
“Lucy speaks good English,” Sloppy informs me. “Not like
“Now you’re too polite,” says Lucy Wu. “My English is very
I kind of doubt that.
“Are you an art collector?” I ask in English.
“Art dealer.” She smiles mischievously. “Collecting is for
wealthier people than I.”
Her English is excellent.
“She has Shanghai gallery,” Sloppy adds.
“Wow, cool,” I say. “Hey, I’d better go. If you see Lao Zhang,
can you tell him I’m looking for him? My phone’s dead.”
Lucy Wu sits up a little straighter, then reclines in a perfect,
posed angle. “Lao Zhang? Is that Zhang Jianli?”
Sloppy nods. “Right.”
Lucy smiles at me, revealing tiny white teeth as perfect as a
doll’s. “Jianli and I are old friends.”
“Really?” I say.
“Yes.” She looks me up and down, and I can feel myself
blushing, because I know how I must look. “It’s been a while
since we’ve seen each other. I was hoping to catch up with him
while I’m here. I’ve heard wonderful things about his recent
work. You know, Jianli hasn’t gotten nearly enough recognition
as an artist.”
“Maybe that’s not so important to Lao Zhang,” Sloppy
Lucy giggles. “Impossible! All Chinese artists want fame.
Otherwise, how can they get rich?”
She reaches into her tiny beaded bag, pulls out a lacquer card
case, and hands me a card in polite fashion, holding it out with both
hands. “When you see him, perhaps you could give him this.”
What a bitch, I think. Then I tell myself that’s not fair. Just
because she’s tiny, pretty, and perfectly put together, it doesn’t
mean she’s a bitch.
It just means I hate her on principle.
I order some takeout and head to Lao Zhang’s place.
Lao Zhang’s probably working, I figure, walking down
Xingfu Lu, one of the two main streets in Mati Village. When
he gets into it, he paints for hours, all day, fueled by countless
espressos—he’s got his own machine. He forgets to eat sometimes,
and I’m kind of proud of myself for thinking of bringing
dinner, for doing something nice for him, like a normal person
would do. It’s been hard for me the last few years, remembering
to do stuff like that.
Maybe I’m finally getting better.
As I’m thinking this, I stumble on a pothole in the rutted
road. Pain shoots up my leg.
I can barely see, it’s so dark.
There aren’t exactly streetlights in Mati Village, only electric
lanterns here and there that swing in any good wind and only
work about half the time, strung up on storefronts and power
poles. Right now they dim and flicker. There’s problems with
electricity sometimes. Not so much in central Beijing or Shanghai,
but in those “little” cities you’ve never heard of, places with
a few million people out in the provinces somewhere. And in
villages like this, on the fringes of the grid.
But the little market on the corner of Lao Zhang’s alley is
decorated with tiny Christmas lights.
I buy a couple cold bottles of Yanjing beer (my favorite) and
Wahaha water (the label features this year’s perky winner of the
Mongolian Cow Yogurt Happy Girl contest) and turn down
Lao Zhang lives in one of the old commune buildings, red
brick, covered in some places with red wash, surrounded by
a red wall. The entrance to Lao Zhang’s compound has two
sculptures on either side, so there’s no mistaking it. One is a
giant fish painted in Day-Glo colors. The other is a big empty
Mao jacket. No Mao, just the jacket.
Inside the compound are four houses in a row. Sculptures and
art supplies litter the narrow courtyards in between. Lao Zhang
shares this place with the sculptor, a novelist who also paints,
and a musician/Web designer who’s mixing something now, a
trance track from the sound of it, all beats and erhu. Not too
loud. That’s good. Some loud noises really get to me.
The front door is locked. Maybe Lao Zhang isn’t home.
Maybe he’s already over at the Warehouse for the show. I use
my key and go inside. I’ll have a few jiaozi, I figure, leave the rest
here, and try the Warehouse.
The house is basically a rectangle. You go in the entrance, turn,
and there’s the main room, with whitewashed walls and added skylights,
remodeled to give Lao Zhang better light for painting.
The lights are off in the studio, but the computer’s on, booted
up to the login screen of this online game Lao Zhang likes to
play, The Sword of Ill Repute. A snatch of music plays, repeats.
“Lao Zhang, ni zai ma?” I call out. Are you there? No answer.
To the right is the bedroom, which is mostly taken up by a
kang, the traditional brick bed you can heat from underneath.
Lao Zhang has a futon on top of his. On the left side of the
house there’s a tiny kitchen, a toilet, and a little utility room
with a spare futon where Lao Zhang’s friends frequently crash.
Which is where the Uighur is.
“Shit!” I almost drop the takeout on the kitchen floor.
Here’s this guy stumbling out of the spare room, blinking
uncertainly, rubbing his eyes, which suddenly go wide with fear.
“Ni hao,” I say uncertainly.
He stands there, one leg twitching, like he could bolt at any
moment. He’s in his forties, not Chinese, not Han Chinese anyway;
his hair is brown, his eyes a light hazel, his face dark and
broad with high cheeks—I’m guessing Uighur.
“Ni hao,” he finally says.
“I’m Yili,” I stutter, “a friend of Lao Zhang’s. Is he . . . ?”
His eyes dart around the room. “Oh, yes, I am also friend of
Lao Zhang’s. Hashim.”
“Happy to meet you,” I reply automatically.
I put the food and beer down on the little table by the sink,
slowly because I get the feeling this guy startles easily. I can’t
decide whether I should make small talk or run.
Since I suck at both of these activities, it’s a real relief to hear
the front door bang and Lao Zhang yell from the living room:
“It’s me. I’m back.”
“We’re in the kitchen,” I call out.
Lao Zhang is frowning when he comes in. He’s a northerner,
part Manchu, big for a Chinese guy, and right now his thick
shoulders are tense like he’s expecting a fight. “I thought you
were going to phone,” he says to me.
“I was—I tried—My phone ran out of minutes, so I just. . . .”
I point at the table. “I brought dinner.”
“Thanks.” He gives me a quick one-armed hug, and then
everything’s normal again.
“You met Hashim?”
I nod and turn to the Uighur. “Maybe you’d like some dinner?
I brought plenty.”
“Anything without pork?” Lao Zhang asks, grabbing chipped
bowls from the metal locker he salvaged from the old commune
“I got mutton, beef, and vegetable.”
“Thank you,” Hashim says, bobbing his head. He’s got a lot
of gray hair. He starts to reach into his pocket for money.
I wave him off. “Please don’t be so polite.”
Lao Zhang dishes out food, and we all sit around the tiny
kitchen table. Lao Zhang shovels jiaozi into his mouth in silence.
The Uighur stares at his bowl. I try to make small talk.
“So, Hashim. Do you live in Beijing?”
“No, not in Beijing,” he mumbles. “Just for a visit.”
“Oh. Is this your first time here?”
“Maybe . . . third time?” He smiles weakly and falls silent.
I don’t know what to say after that.
“We’re going to have to eat fast,” Lao Zhang says. “I want to
get to the Warehouse early. Okay with you?”
“Sure,” I say. I have a few jiaozi and some spicy tofu, and then
it’s time to go.
“Make yourself at home,” Lao Zhang tells Hashim. “Anything
you need, call me. TV’s in there if you want to watch.”
“Oh. Thank you, but. . . .” Hashim gestures helplessly toward
the utility room. “I think I’m still very tired.”
He looks tired. His hazel eyes are bloodshot, and the flesh
around them is sagging and so dark it looks bruised.
“Thank you,” he says to me, bowing his head and backing
toward the utility room. “Very nice to meet you.”
Chinese is a second language to him. Just like it is to me.