Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Taking Leave for the Present

From the hutongs to the 175 km boulevard, from the street markets where memory is spread at your feet, to the shopping malls with Western youth in tight jeans, from the Mongolian hotpots to the every present mahogany glazed duck, from district 789 to the theater of old dreams of equity, from the hugh stone life of the Ming tomb promenade to the largest airport in the world, from the city of Forbidden Cities where new of limits are created every day, to the Buddhist Temple where the incense carries messages of hope, it is time I leave this journey here. Above all, it was the people of Beijing, and as I read Chinese dynasty history, it seems to have always been, who promise all. 
The people who pour out of their high rise apartment blocks and create community, joy and beauty. We were leaving the Heavenly Temple, the only example of Ming architecture still in the world, when we heard the sound of musicians tuning up. Middle aged and older women with a few uncles thrown in were arranging themselves in a semicircle around them, with a man who turned out to be the conductor, slowly smoking the last of his cigarette. The musicians looked like musicians all over the world, lean men in worn clothes, cigarettes hanging out the corner of their mouths, joking between rills and deep breaths.

The singers took out their music and seeing us, beckoned for us to join their circle, with one of the older women sharing her sheet of music with us.

How to tell you what happened next. The sun was cold but bright, the sky was blue, a rare moment. We stood taking in the past moments of the preparation. Suddenly the conductor lifted his hand, the women pulled themselves up even straighter, and their voices like wild horses set free ripped open the commonness of the day--startling beautiful powerful voices singing an anthem to life, so strong, so sharp and yet full, so full of the pure pleasure of song and something more, I thought, their victory over drudgery and gray skies, their soaring over bureaucrats and demolitions, not leaving their homeland behind but taking it with them on the pure conviction of what else there must be in life--bread and roses. A part of me is still with those women and men, singing their hearts out and welcoming us into their circle.
And then there is Mr Fong. On the night we were going to the Red Guard Ballet performance, we had to hire a car and driver because of the dearth of taxis due to the big national meeting. Mr Fong resembled one of my mother's lovers, a tough sort but not really, knee length black coat, worn face, gruff voice. He was standing next to his car outside our hotel l or I should say van and there the story begins. He slid the door open, indicating we should hurry because of traffic. La Professoressa climbed in with no trouble and sat like the queen she is, awaiting my arrival. I tried and tried, holding on to any thing within my reach to hoist me up into Mr Fong's chariot to no avail. Mr Fong watch these futile attempts for about 5 minutes and then saying sorry, sorry over and over he bent down, grabbed my neither parts, legs mostly and unceremoniously threw me into the back seat, both of us laughing non stop now--Mr Fong and me. The momentum of his throw carried him on top of me into the cab--what I remember is my face close to his, my gloved hands gently patting his cheeks, saying it is ok, it is ok, laughing, laughing. Di said it looked like we were making love. We laughed all the way to the theater. I will never forget the closeness of Mr Fong's face, the laughter in his eyes, the touch of our bodies in that Beijing night. There he was waiting for us when we came out of the performance and I never felt safer in my life. All the people we met, the workers in the hotels who after a while told me a little of their stories, of their loneliness for their home villages and towns far to the North or to the South, of not being able to leave home because even if they worked 12 or 13 hour days, they could not earn enough, like so many American workers, like so many in Europe, like so many living in the aftermath of unrepentant capitalism whether it be a century old or just being born. The young beautiful woman and men, so attentive, so demure, so lonely. Because I was a granny, I could hug and sit and talk and listen. I will never forget them.

I have friends who are deeply involved in the Free Tibet Movement and so it must be. All of the Chinese governments attempts to stifle dissent and critical thinking whether it be shutting down the internet or putting dissenting artists and writers in jails, all of its denials and fears, will pale before the will of its people. Just as I learned from the time we spent in Belgrade with Lepa and all our new friends there, the generalized portraits of what a country or a region is, the pushed lines of governments about how we should see each other, fall to pieces in the light of the human face, of tiredness or the touch of many hands on a toddler's cheek or the feel of Mr Fong's oh so familiar brave face in my hands, as he tossed me where I needed to go. I will read and learn and look for the marking of a people's dreaming.

Monday, April 2, 2012

798 Art District, Beijing and More

In an deserted factory area, the Beijing authorities have given over the empty spaces to artists and galleries of all kinds, from small rooms of hand made cloths to SOHO looking galleries for the work of modern Chinese artists and for traveling art shows from the West--so there on a gray morning, Di and I wandered, along with many young Beijingers, taking in one of Cindy Sherman's self portraits--from the smoky East Village 1960s apartment scenes to a spot on a wall in District 789. A few kilometers away is the studio of Wei Wei who suffers for the independence of his work, for the questions his art throws up in the face of so much control, in the face of so much fear of unwatched, unsupervised expression. We found moments of this resistant voice here in the streets of Destrict 789--as much in the street sculpture as in the young people themselves, arms around each other, flirting with the images and their own youth. I say all of this and you know, of course, that I am only a granny looking for a second at a very complex cultural moment in this country of vast geographies, histories, plans.
Here over one of the galleries looms the remains of other abandoned factories, their twisted roofscapes like sculptures too, the broken windows, the emptiness of collapsed industrial spaces but on the streets in the Destrict a new life has taken hold--a mix of tourism, young love outings, artists keeping track of each other and the world.

The roof of the long pavilion of the Summer Palace, hundreds of years old and still vibrant.

The marble boat that never moves from its moorings on the lake of the Summer Palace. Deena tells us stories of the layering of society that went on along the walks and outdoor galleries of this now people's place, shows where the concubines would come out and stand evenly paced in their costumes for the night, as the Emperor and his entourage made their way past, waiting for his choice to be made. "Sometime they would sing," Deena said and it seemed we could hear their voices in the cold sun. Often for me on this journey, the curtain between the past and the present wore very thin but perhaps this is because of how aging is traveling in me and I in it, where times are just doors or curtains that a gust of wind can blow open and like the roofs of the unending galleries, revelations lead to revelations. An event is the gust of wind: a perfume or a tilt of the head or the headline of the day's paper.
Inside the Forbidden City, with throngs of visitors from all over China, a place that defies my camera skills, so huge, so continuous, each House with its courtyard large enough for hundreds of horsemen, so this is but a token moment of an uncapturable vista of a national historical vision, made mundane by its availability now.
If you look closely, you will see small figures of women sitting on stools, evenly paced. They are the volunteer watchers, who sit all day with their thermos of tea beside them, enduring the cold winds, red armbands with white lettering announcing their civic zeal. Here we are right across from Tianamen Square and the People's Hall where the largest gathering of Chinese government and regional delegates was taking place. But even at the entrance to our hutong, a similar woman was doing her job of watching. What they are looking for we could only imagine, and what were we really seeing, these rustlers as the English translation of the job reads, we do not know but surveillance and tea and cold were with us all our time in Beijing as well as the warmth and openness of so many Beijingers.

We are standing in the Square looking around, Mao's tomb at one end, soldiers standing erect and constant at the monument at the other end of the Square where many so many took on the tanks of their own government, like so many American students have been doing through the 20th century, not tanks but rifles and batons, dogs and water canons, and as has happened before in our public life in Beijing,  people excited by our presence rush into the picture. Asking if it would be alright with head nods and hand movements, we all express our pleasure at entering each other's frames. Now we travel with an image of this woman and she travels with an image of La Professoressa, beyond the watchers of both governments.