In the Village

I went to Beijing and all I got was this gorgeous chocolate…

I wrote recently about the extremes of wealth and poverty that may, at a certain level of unremitting seriousness, be the essence of professional sport. Sport is not the reason I came to Beijing, but here I am, in one of the Chinese capital’s many little shrines to conspicuous wealth.

SanlitunVillage. I assume there must have been a village here once, but now it’s something rather other: sexy Adidas megastore with giant photos of a steely-eyed David Beckham; Godiva Chocolates, where I lost

The shopping heart of Sanlitun, from the street. The “bar street” is to the right, Soho luxury highrises are behind and to the left of us, and spending is dead ahead.

my mind and my dietary determination just twenty minutes ago; Starbucks, naturally; McDonald’s, ubiquitous and inevitable, but almost shamefaced in the basement among the more glittering expressions of European, American and Chinese wealth; a Megabox cinema (five posters of a kneeling, battered and helmet-less Robert W. Ironman are leering at me as I write, but I ain’t goin’); and, off to the side, “Sanlitun Bar Street” which I walked towards after leaving Godiva’s in a chocoholic swoon – two quick solicitations for “lady bar, mister? lady massage?” got me back into the den of conspicuous consumption and away from the pits of addictive loneliness. Ah, escape.

Chinese people rarely if ever sit on the ground, and certainly not outside, unless they are squatting farmers or migrants. Sanlitun is no place for farmers, but I’m sitting outside on a slightly inclined sort of stone patio. I’d thought people were waiting for some sort of performance, but they’re just sitting, smoking, texting, talking, sitting. (Ah. A raggedly dressed, sweetly smiling old amputee dude just walked off with a thirtieth of what I’d spent on chocolate, and was surely happier about the transaction than I was. How lonely is he among the lattes, smart-phones and elegantly slim cigarettes?) It must be the gentle slope, about a metre’s rise in its 10-metre length, a slight people-watching amphitheatre effect. Perhaps they are exhausted by shopping, or maybe they like the 10- by 30-metre billboard that animates the retail charms of this once-upon-a-village, and whose commercial light shines upon this odd little spot of consumer tranquillity. Sanlitun was disappointing, a bit dispiriting – well, aside from the chocolate – but sitting down here and just watching the tourists and the super-comfy, super-youthful locals from the comfort of my own laptop is slightly redemptive. I’m seeing, and bearing a mundane kind of witness. (And now you’re reading. It’s almost like conversation.)

Women smoke here. In Dalian, it is very rare to see a woman smoking, and if she is, she is likely a tough nut of a rural woman who is selling produce on the street to apartment dwellers. Here in fashionable Beijing, smoking is aggressively cool for young, urban women, and while it’s still a minority, it’s a prominent and likely an influential one. So carefree, yet stylishly self-conscious. Here in Sanlitun, they’re everywhere I look: four well-coiffed teens in tight shorts at a Starbucks outdoor table, and the funky girl with the blue felt porkpie and glass-less glasses who just blew smoke my way. Something north of 300 million Chinese men smoke, and in most of streets and, yes, restaurants I visit it is just about exclusively a male bonding ritual (and, in one of the quiet great scandals of this country, a significant source of state-owned enterprising revenue – and no state-borne health care costs to counteract that government income). Here, it is young women in search of fashion-cred, maybe a way to avoid blimping out on chocolate, maybe distinction from their mothers’ generation, conceivably a gloomy quest for women’s equality, who knows? It reminds me that my mother was a proud pioneer of feminized nicotine in the 1940s. I try not to be depressed that it’s playing out this way here, too. The Chinese surely don’t make all the mistakes and fashion-driven “decisions” that we in the West have made, but they’re checking off a lot of boxes.

I got out of my hotel room tonight, and that’s good. Jon, a Beijing resident that I may meet on this weekend getaway, recommended Sanlitun: foreigner friendly (check), lots of shops (check), and a popular movie theatre (check the third). I was hoping for something other than Iron Man 3, but that was more than a touch unrealistic. (I must’ve had dim imaginations of Greenwich Village in New York, or more likely vague longings for Hamilton, Ontario’s Westdale, with its independent bookstores and repertory cinema and unique bistros in the hopeful back kitchen of my impractical mind.) The Beijing metro system seems a shade less miraculous now that I’ve spent a couple of hours standing and flesh-pressing on its trains, but it’s an incredible people-mover. I’ve been all over this massive city today, first dropping off my son at a camp after our over-night train passage from Dalian, then finding my little hotel three metro-lines away for a snooze that got me ready for tonight’s wandering. Sam is among young people learning about sane and sustainable living, paths of service and spirit. They’ll hike and sing and try their adolescent hands at right living, right thought, with more than a dash of global citizenship and stewardship of the earth. That’s a long way from where I am.

Consumer harvest moon. In Sanlitun, you can pretend the whole world is this way.

Me? I just had a pricily mediocre Danish. I’m spending my hongbao, the red envelope of crisp 100-yuan bills that was a holiday bonus from my school. I’m staring out the window of Starbucks at a giant Apple logo shining above Sanlitun. There are sharp haircuts and spike heels and so much careless spending. I wasn’t exactly expecting an actual village, but I thought there’d be some culture to it, some funky interest, and not just a parade of blandly blissful shoppers and look-gooders. And chocolate lovers.

I’m the quiet foreigner there, just packing up his laptop to leave. The night is still young, but not for me.


…yes, the chocolate, and a little Ben & Jerry’s, a brain full of thinking and about a thousand words. No T-shirt, though.

Comment (1)

  1. You took me there, dude. I don’t know if I’m more home-sick or less because of it. Either way, thanks.

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