Monday, April 20, 2009


I don't really understand blogs, if I'm honest. Is it supposed to be a work in progress? Should everything be finished? Do you just put things on here? What, basically, is the point? I might as well open my window and read this to the night sky. At least then it would be drowned out by the constant honking of Beijing's taxi drivers.

I'm on a bike. HONK. I'm on a bike and you're behind me. HONKETY HONK. The lights have changed. Honk honko honky HONK. Etc.

Anyway. This is something I wrote a while back, during an 'I'll write some fluffy stuff for real magazines' phase. I've also done 'Winter Skin Care: Do's and Don't's', and 'Bogeling: Is It The New Tango?' I'm thinking Time Out for the first one, Bella for the last two. Wish me luck.

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In Hong Kong, everyone is selling something. The city is one enormous shop. But let’s face it: we’re not here for the new mega-malls. I didn’t come to Honkers to go to Zara and buy sweat shop clothes from H&M. This is all about the markets, the dirty edges of commerce, where everything is fake, where bargains lurk, ready to be snared.

These markets can be a little overwhelming to your average westerner. Here’s a guide to survival on the mean streets.

1. Select market. In this instance, it’s the ladies market in Hong Kong, so called because some of the tat they sell is sort-of for women, if by ‘women’ you mean people who respond to shiny things. This demographic thus extends to Elton John, Liberace and magpies.

2. Walk down the length of the market. Marvel at the sheer range of tat. We’re talking gem-encrusted elephants, Aberkrombie and Fitcn t-shirts, child’s sunglasses with a GCCUI sticker on the side, plastic smoking buddhas, fake transformers that don’t, shrink wrap kits for all your shrink wrap needs. Absolute rubbish.

3. Select item you wish to purchase. March up to luckless stall owner and begin to bargain. CRUCIAL: at this stage have a rough idea of how much you are willing to pay. Try not to do the I’m-doing-currency-conversion-in-my-head-and-it’s-not-going-well look, or she’ll sense weakness.

4. Stall owner will be much too nice to you and flatter you with lies. Commonly heard mistruths include: they make you look thin, handsome, beautiful, buy all of them, you are very pretty. This is fine.

5. He or she will point out that the half-cocked sunglasses or dangerously miss-spelt t-shirt you are clutching is, in face, an authentic piece of designer ware. Do not laugh. You are equals in a life or death financial struggle.

5. Stall owner will produce a leaflet showing either a) Kanye West wearing said sunglasses or b) a photocopied certificate which attests to the UV blocking qualities of the lense. In Cantonese. Stall owner will hit/burn/pull/punch item to prove these claims.

6. COMMENCE HAGGLING. Ask the stall owner how much it costs. They name a price at least $100 too high. You name a price half what you’re willing to pay. They’ll bring there’s down to something more reasonable. You bring yours up to something less insulting. There’s still at least a $50 gap.

7. Impasse. Deadlock. This is where it gets testy. Both trader and customer now have a few options. First up: hastily improvised combo deal. Throw something else into the mix (why not add that giant fluffy Nintendo branded pencil-that-isn’t-a-pencil?) and add $10 on to your offer. See what happens.

8. Second option: actually pay something reasonable. Bear in mind that, as a westerner, you are a king in this country, and you should stop being so bloody tight. You’re already living the consumer high-life at home on the back of poor people in poor countries making crap so that you can use it once and throw it away: maybe you can take your foot off the oppression pedal for one evening? Offer $20 less than what they want.

9. Third. Nuclear option: walk away. You need balls for this one. Make sure the stall holder knows exactly what you’re offering. Put the item down, say thank you, and walk off. He or she will barrack you in as polite a way as possible (‘Hey Lady. LADY. WE ARE FRIENDS. COME BACK HERE. YOU COME BACK HERE.). If this happens, offer $5 more just to show you’re a human after all, and make your purchase. The alternative is that they’ll just shrug and mutter an insult/curse, and you’ll walk off into the night. It’s a risk you’ve got to take.

10. Success! You are now the proud owner of something made by a peasant in a hellish factory that will break by the time you get it home. And what’s better, it didn’t cost you much. Well done everybody!


You put out your hand. Get in the taxi. Tell the driver where you want to go, and he’ll repeat it to you, the same words with slightly different intonation, to show that you’re a stupid foreigner. You put your bag between your legs and stare out of the windscreen. You pull up to the first set of lights. You can tell he’s looking at you. Time for some Chinese.

THE WEATHER IS GETTING COLD you shout. For some reason, you always raise your voice when you try to speak the language. I WILL HAVE TO BUY A SWEATER. Probably not appropriate, but it follows on in the text-book.

You can speak Chinese! The driver exclaims. A LITTLE you scream. Then the driver will ask you whether you’re French, for some reason, and you’ll say, NO I AM ENGLISH, and then you’ll say I VERY LIKE BEIJING, and he’ll repeat it to himself and laugh. And then that will be it till the next red light. He or she is still looking at you. Still with the same eyes that strangers look at you with here. Not staring, just looking, like you’re on the telly or in the zoo or something. Expressionless. Flat face. Looking.

And then something will happen. Something always happens. The drivers phone will go off, and he’ll answer it, put it on loudspeaker, and then bellow into it, six inches from your ear. The conversation seems to revolve around shouting WHAT? at each other until one of them hangs up. Or maybe he’ll start asking you questions. Which is bigger? Russia or China? Do you cook for yourself or eat out? Where do you work? How long does it take to get from Beijing to London? Do you have any pets? Most of these questions you can’t answer unless someone is there to translate for you, but it doesn’t seem to matter. He is smiling. You’re smiling.

The best is when there’s something else in the cab too. When you get to the third or fourth set of lights, and it’s silent again, and you can hear something in the car going zzz-zzzz. Zzz-zzz. And you think: maybe it’s his phone. Yes, it must be some sort of funny phone noise. And it doesn’t stop. So you point to your ear and ask him: what?

And that’s it. His face breaks into an enormous smile. Beaming with pride, he reaches into his jacket, and pulls out a little plastic pot, about three inches long and one across. He hands the pot to you. Inside there is a huge grass-hopper, cricket, call it what you will. It’s fucking massive, and bright green. Its tentacles move all over the inside of the cylinder, fingering the air holes in the top. It’s quiet because it doesn’t know what’s happening. Your eyes meet. It likes you. ZZZ ZZZ. ZZZ ZZZ, it shouts. And then another pipes up, from inside his jacket. He must have a whole family in there, in their own tubes. You laugh. He laughs. IT HAS VERY BIG SPEAK you say to him. He nods. This is fucking brilliant.

You reach your destination. You feel a thousand metres tall. You are living in another country and someone has just shown you his grasshopper. This has been the best taxi ride you have ever had. He pushes the meter back up. ‘Thank you for take Beijing Taxi bye bye’ says the recorded message, in English. BYE BYE, shouts the taxi driver, grinning. Cheers mate, you reply.



I walked into a shop to buy some lemonade. The shop was in the middle of a grubby row opposite the market, with grey walls and tatty, plastic signs. All the shops sold pretty much the same thing, and all were staffed by pretty much the same family members, so that the only difference between each was the configuration of biscuits, noodles, and coke, and children, parents and grandparents.

I pushed the flapping plastic blinds apart, and stepped over the threshold. The first thing I saw was a little boy, smoking. There was absolutely no way he was older than two. And there he was, stood up, in a blue padded jacket with a dirty grey woolen hat on, and a lit cigarette in his mouth. He held a lighter in both hands, with the flame on constantly, and the end of the fag in the flame.

His parents had their backs to him, busy with some other retail tasks. The only other witness was his equally little sister, but she didn’t seem bothered by her brothers first forays into nicotine addiction. All I could think to say was to point at him and say ‘bu, bu, bu’ which means ‘no, no, no’. The woman heard me, and turned around. I was expecting some sort of exclamation, ‘Heavens to mercy’ or something like that, maybe accompanied with a good deal of running around, like a cartoon character whose bottom is on fire, looking for a bowl of water. But she didn’t seem too surprised. Maybe this happens all the time, and she’s sick and tired of it. Maybe they start them young here. She sighed, reached down and pulled the cigarette out of his mouth. He must have had a pretty good grip, because it took a few goes to yank it out of there.

She dropped the cigarette on the floor and stood on it, then scooped up the rest of the pack from the little table that the boy had been sitting at, and put them on a high shelf. Then she turned back to her business. That was it. All the time the child still had the lighter, and it was still on full. She didn’t seem too fussed about this part of the crime.

The only time she seemed actually upset was when the boy stole one of the ice creams she was unpacking into the freezer. He reached up slowly, pulled it out of the packet, and then bolted for the door. The woman started shouting at him, but she was too late. He was off, into the winter street, nicotine rushing through his body, holding his ice cream high, shrieking with happiness. His little sister was left standing in the shop, without an ice cream, but with the same unbothered look on her face. She was holding the lighter. I paid for my lemonade.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Beijing is not a natural city. Nothing grows here but pale, dusty, silver trees, and even they only grow where they’re told to, where they’re put. The rest is all fake: the grass verges, the flowers by the road side, the parks with their fake waterfalls and fake old Chinese rocks. All watered and tidied and tended to by an army of civic gardeners. All on life support.

This place is man-made. A functional city, built to produce, to achieve everything as fast and as cheap as possible. Carved up into grids, dusty, a working city. But on the maps, you can see water, surrounding the city in thin strips. So we got on our bikes to have a look, to find the nature.

The river, when we find it, isn’t much different. It’s perfectly straight too: channelled between concrete banks. Planned, directed, quantified. Going from one place to the other as quickly as possible. It smells sour, like sea-water left behind when the tide goes out. The water is iced over. It sits still. Bricks and shoes and litter sit on the ice, like happy ducks.

On one side of the river is the new, lonely, commercial side of the city. A hundred glass towers, copied from Chicago, Hong Kong, Tokyo. All trying to be different from the next: brass, silver, or gold trim, engineered holes in the centre, funny hats on, soaring spires. All look exactly the same. There’s even one development called Soho (it's just a brand name, there are three others in the city, it doesn't help with the geography) where they’ve reduced Modern City Living to its simplest form: 16 identical geometric towers, made out of neat rows of smaller, identical boxes. Like graph paper with people living inside.

On the other side of the river is the old scruffy, communist China. A hundred old homes, shops, lean-to cafes, toilets. All one storey tall, made of brick, without charm or decoration. As simple as it’s possible for buildings to be. These buildings are half demolished, but their back walls still stand, the grubby insides on display. As ever, people are still living here, in the few buildings that are still intact. Men in blue hats and 20th century overalls walk along this bank. Women appear out of doorways to hang their washing above the river to dry.

Maybe the people in the tower blocks see this rubble, the guts of these old homes. Maybe they feel guilty, or nostalgic for the childhood they left behind, or disgusted, or ashamed. Maybe they close their curtains and concentrate on their super-high definition television.

We keep cycling. Suddenly these half-demolished buildings disappear behind tall, bright hoardings, advertising what’s going to replace them. It’s a Swiss retail village. A fucking Swiss village. Happy pastel-coloured rows of mock alpine cottages. A clock tower, even an Alpine church. All turned into shops. The panels show close-ups, details, perspective shots of the whole development, with the cold glass business towers in the background. They’ve even included a few pics of the real Swiss village that it’s all copied from, for reference. All populated with images of successful, happy Chinese people, in shorts sleeves and sunglasses, dresses and boots, clutching square, paper shopping bags from luxury European brands. Drinking takeaway coffees ‘on the go’.

People walk past the hoardings, real people. A man in a suit jacket eating barbequed meat off a skewer. A girl on a bike with a pink face mask on. An old, slow man in a boiler suit with a walking stick. They walk and cycle along the streets, against the background of this new village, unwitting users of this new lifestyle concept. They don’t look up, or stop, or take any notice of the would-be Swiss Village. They’re busy making a living. Getting by.

Further on down the river, there are old pipes and rickety railway bridges that you have to duck to get under. Dirty old factories with tall chimneys. A family of electricity pylons, suspending a hundred wires above the water, just out of reach. All this will probably still be here when the Swiss village opens. Just out of sight. Just off screen. Sometimes you couldn’t make China up.



Two women fight in a restaurant over who is going to pay. This is a big issue in China. It’s all about face, see. At home you might say ‘I insist’ a couple of times, before having a recap on who paid last, how much money you’ve got, whether you’ve got a job, how the recession is likely to affect your industry, that sort of thing. But you can normally sort it out without violence. Here, it’s a matter of pride.

The women wear black and white striped jackets. It starts with one of them getting up, and walking towards the till at the back of the restaurant. This is a big restaurant, with a large main area and booths running down both sides. Perhaps 60 people are here, so it’s big enough for the staff to pretty much ignore you, and just fling chopsticks at you, or give you the menu three times, even when you’ve already ordered. This information is by-the-by. It’s just so you can imagine the din and the size and the conversations that are happening.

Anyway, she gets up to pay, and the other woman realizes what’s happening in the nick of time. She jumps up too, blocking her friend's path to the till. First woman puts her arm out to say, no, don’t be daft, I said I’d get this. Second woman keeps pushing, trying to get to the till first. First woman grabs her by the lapels of her jacket. Second woman gets her own hold, and starts pushing back. By this point they’re pretty much screaming at each other, and it looks almost inevitable that one of them will go flying over the table like in a Western, before the whole place erupts into a brou-ha-ha, a melee of flying fists and broken glasses. However, Woman Number Two clearly feels like she's made enough of a fuss now. She lets go of the first woman, calmly sits back down at the table, and finishes off her drinks. The first woman pays.

No one in the restaurant pays any attention to this at all. The table behind is a family gathering, where the dad’s evidently got too drunk. He turns his head to look at every member of the table, and his eyes seem to take a while to catch up. When he gets back to the start, he looks like he can't remember why he’s here or who he is. He looks at the drink that he's holding. He peers into the cup to try to remember what it is, and whether it's his. Yep. Definitely his. He keeps drinking.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008



A woman squatting in the road next to her dead dog, her freshly dead dog, with the offending bus parked diagonally across the road, and traffic queuing in both directions, beeping, inching past her. Headlights illuminate her face and the dog. She wails. A group of policemen are trying to work out what to do. One comes over and attempts to move her, to lift her by the underarms like she’s a protestor, but she flies into a hysterical rage and bats him away and goes back to squatting.

Naturally this has a attracted a large crowd. At least 100 people stand on each side of the road, four or five deep at the centre, comparing notes, answering questions, texting each other, or just watching what happens next. What happens next is: an old woman who’s been standing in the crowd comes forward with a plastic sack. Unfortunately this sack is transparent. She places it over the dog and turns it inside out, scooping him, her, it, up in the same motion, like so many dog owners are supposed to do with their dog’s shit every day. There was a lot of blood in the bag with the dog. The old woman carried the dog to the far side of the road, and left it next to the bin, which is split in two for ‘recyclables’ and ‘other waste’.

Once the dog was gone, the hysterical woman, now just gasping out noiseless sobs, walked to my side of the road, through the crowd that parted for her, and sat on a step. The bus restarted, the police went home, and the cars drove through the puddle of blood and fur that was left on the road.

Friday, August 8, 2008


I got the train from Hong Kong to Beijing, which was slow and quiet and fun. On the train, when you look out of the window, you can tell you're in China.

You can tell because so many people are just hanging out, sitting around. Sitting on stools in the shade of trees, talking and smoking. Sitting on newspaper on station platforms and rubbing their shins as they talk. Leaving wooden chairs and plastic stools and even office chairs on wheels, out in the street, in rows, to sit on next time.

You can tell because the buildings in the cities look half finished, and you can’t tell if they’re half built or half demolished. Concrete frames packed roughly with bricks. Buildings stained by humans like plates stained by food. Some of the older buildings are reduced to shells, with the new ones, their replacements, visible through the holes. These new, cheap post-modern buildings all have something ill-proportioned about them: a funny hat on, a bridge halfway up, a hole through the middle, fins waving madly at the top. Like problem body shapes in women’s magazines, gangly or stumpy, a little too fat, a little too lopsided.

In the countryside, two storey buildings run alongside the tracks like relatives waving you off at a station. Simple, grey and squat, with low-tech solar panels on the top. Lined up in rows. Built out of concrete, bricks, tiles, and nothing extra.

You can tell from the landscape, endless, flat, and so many different types of green it’s like getting a train through one long garden centre. Long brown dusty roads with skinny trees growing along both sides for shade. Motorbikes bumping along, man driving, woman on the back, going nowhere. Paddy fields and flooded rivers reflect the mist above them. Occasional chimneys punch into the air.

You can tell you’re in China because the trains are 20th century trains. The carriages sit in sidings and roll past in different colours, red orange orange green blue blue red, all with a single white stripe down the sides. All designed by painters and artists who had no art to do. Simple colours that didn’t have to advertise or compete or look like they could go faster than the rival franchise operator. Trains that formed rainbow colours when they were put together.

You can tell you’re in China because life is simple outside the window, because everyone is living their lives in the open. And it's beautiful.

Photos by Gemma Thorpe