This poster of Samuel Clemens can really tie a room together. You know you want one.
I just got the news, via NY Times notice, that one of my favorite writers of all time, Christopher Hitchens, has passed away at the age of 62 from esophageal cancer. In honor of his passing, I’ll donate half of all proceeds from the sales of my poster portraits of him to the American cancer society for the rest of 2011.
May his spirit, for lack of a better word, live on.
Pacificvs makes his first visit to the Middle Kingdom
Having abandoned it’s red ambitions long ago, China’s foray into a capitalistic authoritarian gray zone is at least monochromatically consistent with the physical China: a fleshy and penetrating gray, the color of a rotting tombstone.
China is penetrating, and oftentimes beautiful. Even a smog choked skyline can transport the viewer to the wispy trees, craggy monoliths, and misted valleys of an early Ming Dynasty watercolor. But it’s not all romance. When the same hue begins to arrive in your morning cough several days in, however, you begin to suspect less pure forces are at work.
Then you see the nuclear power plant in the middle of town. There it is, right next to the coal plant. Several miles away, you see the exact same combo: nuclear and coal. And apartments. Lots of apartments.
This is Xian. Xian is instructive because it’s neither Shanghai nor Beijing, China’s two showcase cities. Xian is like Yuma, Arizona: sprawling and utilitarian. Two years ago, one can tell, it had no skyline. If you only count finished buildings, it still doesn’t have much of one. But when you consider what’s under construction…I counted no fewer than eight clusters of 15-25 tenement buildings, each 40 stories high and probably twenty units across. As the largest consumer of steel in the world, the metal is in short supply in China, so bamboo is used for scaffolding–to a spectacular effect.
With 8 million residents, Xian would be America’s third largest city. In China, it’s a backwater. Inside the city wall, apparently the best preserved in all of China, one finds plenty of unfortunate architectural survivors of the communist era. The buildings are concrete and uninspired and, of course, gray. Covered in tacky neons, the place looks and feels like a prison converted into a casino, which, in post-communist China, in a way I suppose they are. It looks unnatural and poorly conceived, like you’ve been transported into a SimCity built with lots of cheat codes. Overwhelming pollution, consistent filth, bizarre infrastructure, Frogger roadways, and general dreariness–despite the recent economic gains–Xian doesn’t look like the China you’ve read about so much as it feels like the China you expected. It’s important for American students of China to visit such places.
The Hilton Wangfujing is near the Forbidden City. Here the streets are spotless and the shopping is high-end. Drivers observe traffic lights. This is obviously a new development, probably constructed in time for the Olympics, and is precisely the “China” Beijing wants to showcase to the world: modern and refined. To their great credit, the Chinese achieve this sense of modernity without sacrificing their culture’s greatest asset: their food.
Forget the walls and the temples, it’s the food that is the single greatest achievement of the Chinese Civilization. Hot pot, dim sum, peking duck…every single restaurant will dare you to exclude it from your top-five list. But for that extra touch of adventurism, there it is, in the heart of the shopping and modernity: the exotic food market.
Squid, octopus, snake. Grasshoppers, silkworms, crickets. Lamb penis and lamb testicles. And yes, dog, and cat (oddly enough, they both look like hash browns). But it’s not what you’re thinking. The presentation is clean and fresh, with a flair for design. This is obviously regulated for the foreign tastes watching from the surrounding hotels. The vendors are friendly but scheming: be wary of any “deals” and demand that they repeat your order before you hand over cash.
Speaking of culture, on my way to China I began reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s oldest novels. One gets a taste of the type of heavy metal badassery within when they read the title of the very first chapter:
Feast in the Garden of Peaches;
Slaughter of Rebels;
The Brothers Heroes.
Taken in just prior to visiting the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Soldiers, and the Hall of Overwhelming Glory, ancient Chinese literature helps you understand that you are in a place where the rulers take themselves very, very seriously.
In both Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s Indian characters respond to the English disdain for bidets with revulsion (“They only use paper”!). They should visit China: except for the hotels, sitting toilets don’t exist, and neither does toilet paper, let alone bidets. Paper towels are nowhere to be seen, and although every bathroom, it seems, has an air dryer, none of them work. Not kidding: zero.
At any given retail situation in China, whether for tea or chachkis, you will almost certainly find that the store is crazy overstaffed. At the airport, fifteen people greet you off the plane. Six welcome you to the tea shop. Eight servers wait on your table at restaurants. Even at Starbucksthe employees often outnumber the customers. Many times, one finds themselves walking to a store and being forced to repeat familiar lines: “I don’t know what I’d like…I don’t even know what you sell…I’m just looking”. There is a lot of standing, staring, and cutting in line.
All this leads to a shopping experience that, to a Westerner, is plainly ridiculous. Every step you take is matched by at least two “helpers” who flank you at the sides. They mime you as you browse the shelf, pointing at and naming the objects passing your gaze. “Toy”. “Hairbrush”. “Cat”. Instead of shopping, you’re mostly congratulating people on their English. “Very good”. “That’s correct”. “Right again”!
Visitors to Beijing’s Silk Market are given a taste of what to expect by the two giant banners which greet them: “Protect intellectual property rights, be law-abiding vendors”. China has a thriving black market. Chanel handbags that push $2,000 at the Wangfujing mall fetch $60 at the Silk Market. Men’s swiss Bally leather satchels are knocked from $1,000 to $30. Even Rosetta Stone Mandarin is only $15 (a dangerous sale considering one tends to get things slightly cheaper if they can exhibit some control over Mandarin). Wendy tailors makes excellent suits and in good time. Sunny, her assistant and apparent translator, drives a hard bargain, but it’s hard to be upset at a custom fitted three-piece suit and shirt for under $200.
Living in San Francisco’s Mission, a neighborhood with plenty of discount clothes and lots of mannequins, I was surprised to find the little ways in which different standards of beauty manifest around you. Also surprising was how the tourists are overwhelmingly Chinese. From every corner of this vast country, many have never seen white people before, and on many occasions you will be stopped and asked to pose for a photo. But nothing prepared me for the near obsession the Chinese had with James, the 16 month old infant which traveled with us. In a land of few children, James is not only male (much preferred), but also half white/half Asian, or “mix blood” as they put it. Not kidding: mobs of gawkers, at one point numbering in the dozens, would gather around James and stare.
China seems to have uniformed military officers everywhere: guiding traffic, taking tickets at museums, marching through this plaza or that. Even private-security guards and postmen looked like 5-star generals. What’s stranger is that at the places you’d expect some authorities, like at the Forbidden City, you’ll instead find plainclothes guards. It’s very strange watching guys in sweatpants and hoodies on the other side of the rope looking stoic and at the ready. There’s only two possible reasons why the Chinese do this: to take foreigners “off” the defensive, or much more likely, to put the locals “on”. The plainclothes guards are a very visible example that you never know who works for the government.
Spread out before the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square and the body of Chairman Mao, lying in state. It’s true what you’ve read: people don’t know much about the ’89 massacre. Our tour guide, who we’ll call Sharon, inquired about the protest, and informed us that she had never seen the iconic picture of the lone man standing in the face of a line of tanks.
Ignorance about Tiananmen is unsurprising. The Great Firewall is significant enough, and state censorship complete enough, to trip up news junkies and researchers. My iPhone couldn’t access Facebook, and both Google and Safari were significantly disrupted. Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, responds the query “Tiananmen Square Massacre” with an article titled “Tiananmen Square Massacre a Myth”. When I reached for the China Daily the morning following my Beijing arrival, I found a piece titled “China fights climate change with utmost zeal”. Peasants aren’t allowed to freely enter cities, and Chairman Mao looks good for being 118.
The easy conclusion is that China is, well, exceptional. It’s enormously foreign, and one gets the sense that they are breaking cultural taboos often. China’s longevity is among it’s most impressive feats, but you don’t really know what this means until you see it. An at-first surprising observation, is that the Chinese, wherever possible, don’t seem to let their ancient buildings lapse into decay like many have done in the West. Xian’s city wall was rebuilt in the 1980’s. So was the Beijing area of the Great Wall. The Big Goose Pagoda, which tilts in a way so familiar that the locals call it “Leaning Tower of Xian”, is not just being anchored from further slippage by government engineers, but corrected. When you point this out, people remind you that their great grandparents helped rebuild this-wall-or-that following the earthquake or the fire or the invasion or whatever it was a hundred years ago, and their great-grandparents rebuilt it following whatever catastrophe it was a hundred years before that. It makes natural sense that they’d keep it up. Doesn’t this effect the object’s authenticity? “Not at all” say the Chinese. There is a cultural continuity that is understood.
Compare this to Greece, where the architectural family jewels of the West are either mostly destroyed or simply no longer exist. The pagans who built the Parthenon lost their culture and became Christianized following 2,000 years of endless invasion and occupation at the hands of a who’s-who of ancestral Europe’s great powers: Romans, Persians, Ottomans, English, Nazis. In a total way, the ancient Greeks really no longer exist. This is in stark contrast to China, where a region dominated by Han arts and culture, Confucius teaching, and ancestor-worship, is entering it’s 2,233rd year.
In many ways, the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s attempt at dislodging China from it’s past, a prerequisite for building the communist utopia. Many of Beijing’s classically trained artists artisans, and many of the country’s professors and intelligentsia, we’re purged, “re-educated”, and killed. It is for our great benefit that this effort failed.
Finally, something has to be mentioned about the China hysteria that I fear hasn’t even really begun. For all it’s growth, China has much further to grow still, and it’s economy is almost certain to overtake that of the US within a decade or so. These fears, I believe, are exaggerated. China has problems, big ones. Too numerous, in fact, to list in a brief essay about a brief vacation. But driving from the countryside into the cities, one sees the same thing everywhere: a bronze-age civilization surrounding a Dickensian nightmare swallowing modern a metropolis. If you live in the first two, your movements into the third are highly restricted, which is where everyone wants to be because that’s where the money is. People grumble about the one-child policy, and the cities are beginning to develop their own housing bubbles. The environmental problems are worse than you think, and I thought they were terrifying going in.
So with respect to Sinophobia, remember: the Chinese may have invented the compass, paper, printing, and gunpowder, but they also invented bureaucracy.
I found this online. It’s amazing. OG site here: http://generic1.tumblr.com/post/1250019294/the-world-according-to-san-francisco-i-was
When I was 6 years old my parents loaded my sister and I into an RV. We disembarked Los Angeles and headed eastward, clinging to Joshua Tree’s lower half along the Interstate 10. Six hours later, we had arrived at Lake Havasu: retirement home for American humans and English bridges since 1971. Two decades and change later, my memory could use a digital remastering. But I do remember this: there was a boat, I boarded the boat, and at some point, that boat crossed an imaginary line that bifurcates the good lake down the middle, California to one side, Arizona on the other. That moment would become the first and last time that I would leave California until college.
This past year, in particular, I’ve tried to make good on seeing more of my country. In addition to Oregon, Washington state (and a respectable number of countries), I’ve added New York City on New Year’s Eve, New Orleans on Mardi Gras, and Yosemite in the early Fall to the list. I’ll be adding Utah in January. The first week of this past October, I added Washington, DC.
I was there for work and had precious few moments to myself, but precious none the less.
My favorite culture on earth is drinking culture. To this end, I can always rely (and you can too!) on a enlightening new town experience by visiting one of the given city’s FODDs (Fanciest-Oldest-Diviest-and-Douchiest bars).
(A brief digression on FODDs, San Francisco: Fanciest: Bourbon and Branch; Oldest: The Saloon; Diviest: Tough call…I’ll go with The Hockey Haven; Douchiest: Medjool).
Everybody in DC seems to readily know the oldest bar in town. It’s called Old Ebbitt Grill, conveniently located two blocks from my hotel, and across the street from the Obama crib. Forget that the food was bland (and priced accordingly), while looking over a flyer on the bar’s history, I noticed that the suspiciously beautiful place was built in…1983! Turns out Old Ebbitt is the oldest brand in town. Nobody seemed to know where the actual oldest continuous drinking establishment actually was. Defeat.
I took a stab at the FODD douchiest, making my way to Circa on Connecticut Ave NW, as recommended by a coworker who spent time in DC as a Senate aide. Circa delivered on the basics: bronzed sugar daddy’s with and women inflicted with the plastic-surgery’s inevitable cat-face. But after one whole Maker’s–rocks–Manhattan, I didn’t see one cougar attack! I’m sorry, but even at Americano, San Francisco’s runner-up douchiest, the hunting grounds are littered with wounded young men by 7:00pm on a Monday night.
After Circa I stopped at a total gem: Kramerbooks. At this small bookstore I picked up Arguably, the latest compendium of essays by Christopher Hitchens (who, as it happens, lives only blocks away).
Like all great bookstores, Kramerbooks features a pub. Unlike a great bookstore pub, they served only one “local” beer…from Baltimore. Unlike even the greatest bookstore, Kramerbooks serves fantastic food. After first catching my nose, I saw several plates whiz past, seemingly out of nowhere: filet mignon with horseradish sour cream, BBQ ribs with mac ‘n cheese, seared scallops with organic maitakes. The scallops were unreal.
For the fanciest place the bartender recommended the Gibson, a Whiskey bar on 14th street. The Gibson, like Kramerbooks, brought with it total victory: hundreds of whiskies from around the world, and a bartender who delivered my rocks Blood and Sand with flamed orange zest.
A backstory to my evening was that, for each place I went and bartender I spoke with where I could go dancing on a Monday night. Each time I asked, I received different versions of the same opinion: “This is a government town. There’s barely dancing on Saturday nights.”
Interesting. After leaving the Gibson, I walked about four blocks before honing in, like a sperm whale echo-locating her distant calf, on a place somehow unlikely called Marvin. Hearing music from the side walk, I creeped up the stairs to find an old Edwardian-style bar packed, wall-to-wall, with dancing. Government town indeed.
Pressed for time, I didn’t make it to one establishment that could qualify as a dive. Next time. I did, however, make several other observations about our nation’s capitol. The store fronts have stoops, and the sidewalks are clean, narrow, and many are brick. The marble steps of the rotunda staircase have been sharpened like to dagger-like-points just to the left and right of center, under the ceaseless plodding of the congress.
To be an American living in the Capitol City is to have a voice in neither the Congress nor the Presidency. The US Constitution predates the District of Columbia by three years, and sadly, the founding fathers neglected to ask how residents of the future capitol would vote. Thus the best license plate motto in the republic was born, “Washington DC: Taxation without Representation”.
Although I was there for work, I was lucky in that work took me to the White House and the deeper halls of the Capitol. Good times.
Despite nearly a month’s worth of headlines under their belts, the now-global Occupy Wall Street movement had somehow shown an impressive knack at avoiding my path. It wasn’t until last night that I got my first chance at poking around the protester’s camp in front of San Francisco’s Justin Herman Plaza.
As any truly grassroots assembly will demonstrate, stupidity will follow even the best-informed contrarians like a snail trail. For example, I was treated to a fascinating conversation on the working-class literature of Emile Zola and George Orwell from the camp’s “librarian”, while next to him a man taped a picture of Jeb Bush (yes: Jeb) adorned with devil horns to a tree. This commingling of the sharp with the dull is the singular reason why I could never dismiss the Tea Party, as many commentators did at the time, as an “astroturf” movement. Their public face may be that of the paranoid and feeble minded spouse, but the always-clever corporate-America is the brains behind Pa on that farm.
In all honesty, however, I was prepared for worse. The uncleaned anti-semitic fringe-left which mirrors the ugly nativism of the Tea Party-fringe with such freakish perfection was in short supply. Rather than bull-horned blowhards, I was met by a refreshing delegation of passionate listeners.
Here I was, fresh from work, suited from head to toe, strolling through a month-old communal encampment. I had five o’clock shadow. They looked like they landed by raft.
As I examined the camp, I saw a group of four or five young people, probably all between 20-24. I overheard them reading over drafts of something. Having some experience in political communication, I took a seat and offered to help them out.
They we’re working on a press release, which, honestly, sounded like something mad-libbed from a wall in a Berkeley toilet. I told them that this cry-wolf digression on “police brutality”, following what appeared (to me) to be a standard-issue-cop-stuff removal of the camp the previous night, was precisely the type of distraction that always kills progressive movements. Occupy Wall Street won’t be killed by police, it’ll be killed by Attention Deficit PR.
They were very receptive, and eager to hear what wisdom the suited-man came to share. What’s needed is an explicit endorsement from the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor, and a commitment to leave them be while they exercise their First Amendment rights.
It was fun, and they all told me how the past month had been, and their hopes for the movement.
A little rabble rousing is good for the heart and good for the mind…but it’s probably better for the heart.
So far I’ve shipped about 70 Hitchens posters to 6 countries around the world. I’ve received several photos of Happy Customers‘ Hitchens posters hanging proudly in their homes and offices. Some of you decked him out in some classy frames and matting. To you patrons of the arts, thank you so much for buying my prints. Here’s a sample of some of the pictures, to view them all click here. To order a Hitchens poster, click here.