A current of dissolution runs through Beijing’s expatriate professional community. The city doesn’t have the loutish licentiousness of Hong Kong, the world-weary NGO clubbishness of Phnom Penh, or the dangerous-living frisson of Port Harcourt, or some other oil-drenched African hellhole. But, with limited entertainment options and a large population of foreigners paid more money than can reasonably be spent*, there is a certain inevitable drainage toward the underlit low spots where large pools of alcohol have collected.
Perhaps if Beijing was more family friendly and developed this would be less obvious. Or perhaps I simply run with a bad element. I am, after all, employed in an industry with a legendary, institutional fondness for adult beverages. I tend to hang out in a crowd rich in fellow flacks, journalists and Australians. If this isn’t courting danger and inebriation, I don’t know what is.
As befits someone with my godless inclinations, I went for a full-body wallow in the soft, white underbelly of expat Beijing this holiday weekend, resulting in a positively Roman display of indulgence and self-gratification that did superb justice to the pagan roots of Christmas, and no justice at all to the rather more ascetic spiritual aspects. The first stop was a catered dinner on Saturday evening, hosted by a couple who live in a villa in suburban, northeast Beijing.
The “villas” are to Beijing what suburban Connecticut is to New York, if only Connecticut was ringed with an apocalyptic wasteland dotted with the desolate shells of enormous, uncompleted residential developments. They’re places where wealthy people, often with families, attempt to escape the hurly-burly, in-your-face, gob-on-the-sidewalk lifestyle of downtown Beijing. In a city where the vast majority of people live in microscopic apartments, the villas really are absurdities; gated simulacra of American suburbs complete with wide sidewalks and picket fences. Fantasy re-creations of single-family, detached bliss. If you’re a foreign executive for an MNC who has just been rotated into Beijing for two years, and you have a large housing allowance, a car and driver, and no real desire to interact with the city, they’re the place to be. Many are near the airport, which increases the appeal for frequent fliers, and other people often seen getting the fuck out of Beijing.
The slightly contemptuous description above doesn’t describe all villa residents. One very good friend of mine, an old China hand who works at home, lives in a villa house because it provides ample space for his family and his business. He’s done his downtown time and doesn’t have much else to prove. And the couple who entertained us on Saturday night probably don’t fit into my angry, stereotype box either. A mixed English-Hongkie couple, both are fluent Mandarin speakers who don’t seem to have any need to insulate themselves from China. In fact, the house belongs to the woman’s grandmother. The two of them were fine hosts once we got past the man’s enthusiasm for a wicked, electronic party game that punished the slow or anxious with nasty electric shocks. I hate electric shocks, and took care not to lose. Our hosts laid on a catered spread that was, by my math, exactly twice as much food as could possibly be consumed by the eight of us who were there. The liquor and tobacco were scarcely dented. Dessert was an all-night love-affair with pancreatic suicide. I ate. I drank. I wept for the sheer joy of it.
For all my bitter, underprivileged sarcasm, there are certain advantages to villas. This place had a large kitchen, a roaring wood wire in an open fireplace, and a dining-room table that could comfortably seat ten. My dining room table seats four, and only if everybody exhales, we put the cat out and we don’t actually eat anything. Villas also have the advantages that houses everywhere have over apartments: you can play your music loud, and you can set off enormous, dodgy fireworks. We did both.
When I was young lad, I, as all young lads do, went through my pyromaniac phase. Living with my father in a 100 year old, dry-as-tinder redwood Victorian, this was a particularly fraught period in my life. In a series of episodes that an enterprising therapist could mine for book material, I blew up most of my toys and set the rest on fire, along with (at various times) my hands and eyebrows. While I usually laugh it off as just another bit of juvenile, male primate risk-courting (check it out, baby, I cheat fiery death!), looking back from the cusp of forty it now seems remarkable that I didn’t end up in a burn unit, jail or minus a couple of fingers.
In those days, fireworks –the feedstock of my reckless entertainment– were illegal in San Francisco. In the run-up to the Fourth of July (America’s holiday for independence and blowing shit up), you could drive down to Daly City, ten minutes to the south, and buy an assortment of decorously restrained sparklers, cones, Piccolo Petes, ground flowers and snakes. Or you could do what I often did and go down to Chinatown to buy black-market bricks of firecrackers sold out of the backs of cars by young Cantonese guys. If you were particularly daring, you could lay hands on cherry bombs, or even the infamous, hand-pulverizing “M-80″, reported to have the lethal kick of a quarter-stick of dynamite. Looking back on it, this may be the start of my love affair with Asia.
The biggest things you could get that had an aerial component were bottle rockets –enormous fun to shoot at friends and pets– and, of course, the legendary and poetically named Roman Candle, the firework that made “great balls of fire” more than just a Jerry Lee Lewis riff. Neither was capable of delivering significant explosive power onto your target, however. To get any more vigorous airborne, incendiary entertainment you either had to be into actual model rockets, which I briefly was (too much work), or into throwing ground-flowers just before they ignited. I was also, very briefly, into this before being scolded mightily by my father, who could visualize the clause in his insurance policy that said, “we will not pay for your house if your idiot son burns it down with fireworks”.
Of course, I now live in China, where any firework small enough to actually be thrown is for pussies. This was amply demonstrated outside my apartment last Chinese New Year, when I was treated several hours of nonstop detonations that gave already surreal Beijing something of a dangerous, Sarajevo atmosphere. By the sound of it, M-80s were about the light end of the scale, despite a nominal ban on fireworks inside the fourth ring road. Coming from years in Singapore, where it was considered quite the daring scene when the Prime Minister recently lit a single string of firecrackers for the television cameras (the first heard in Singapore in several years, mind you), this was a refreshing change. Glued to the window of my apartment, with the throaty booms washing over me in waves, the infantile pyromaniac, long suppressed by an adulthood replete with neckties and responsibilities, stirred restively within my breast.
That’s why I was propelled to Olympian heights of ecstasy at the sight of the climactic firework unveiled on Saturday night by our hosts. China, as we are often told, is the country that invented fireworks. To see the kinds of damp squibs we used to get in Daly City, the sanitized dregs of the Chinese fireworks industry, you could be forgiven for wondering how anyone could be killed in a “fireworks factory explosion”. Too see what we launched on Saturday night was to see that China was keeping the best for itself, and to understand exactly how a fireworks factory explosion could wipe out not only the people in the factory, but also the unfortunates in the next village up the road. It was a gaudily-wrapped cube the size of a filing cabinet, in which were enclosed sixteen cardboard mortars, each with a two-inch diameter. 600 kuai ($75) at your finer fireworks stalls, I was told. Surround with bricks and keep back fifty meters said the ominous instructions. It scarcely needed to add, “this side toward enemy”. A straw poll was held, and the fireworks were launched from the nearest convenient launch pad, the roof of the servants’ quarters.
Sixteen ear-shattering booms later we had been treated to a private, Christmas-eve fireworks display of monumental proportions, all the servants were awake, and every car alarm in the neighborhood was ringing. Stupendous, incandescent blossoms, twenty meters across. The lower fringes dusted the roof of the house itself. Oh, baby, where were you when I was hunting for the perfect bottle rocket, all those decades ago? The things you and I could have done together. I used to have to go to Candlestick Park (more recently 3Com Park and Monster Park thanks to the great American rejection of all traditions that aren’t evangelical Christian ones) and stand in the parking lot for this kind of display. Here anyone with a few bucks to spare can muster a Fourth of July fireworks exhibition that would be the pride of any stadium in America. I love China.
We got home at 3AM, deaf and stuffed, with just enough time to sleep-off our excess before trooping out to the Hyatt’s Christmas champagne brunch with a different group of friends. This was the point at which my Christmas actually descended from indulgence into obscenity. Hotel brunches are nothing more than dares; challenges to eat enough to make it pay. In a world where people are going hungry –in a country with an income per-capita of $1290; or just about 20 times the cost of one seat at this brunch– it’s the ragged threshold of karmic self-immolation, invariably followed by weeks of self-flagellating penance on the treadmill. Mrs Imagethief, the pro nutritionist, has actually diagrammed her attack for maximum value: cheeses, seafoods, meats and desserts. Stay off the breads, potatoes and noodles. Those are sucker plays; cheap filler to woo you away from the meaty, gold-plated nuggets that make the buffet worthwhile. You have to admire the dedication to gustatory suicide.
The Hyatt brunch is mediocre by international hotel brunch standards (I am a fan of the Ritz Carlton in Singapore – nice selection of food; unparalleled cheese plate; bright, airy space), but that didn’t stop us from working it until we were the last party in the restaurant and the wait-staff were shooting us nervous “please leave” looks. Only two of us coughed up the ruinous 488 kuai for free-flow champagne, and we had a solemn pact to make it pay. Between the pair of us, we managed to bury three bottles of Moet which, on top of the previous night’s festivity, all but ensured some kind of premature organ failure.
Drunk, waddling and incapable of speaking in anything other than belches and groans, we did the only logical thing. We staggered off to frozen Houhai where my friend, Dennis, and I rented one of the two-seat sled chairs that extended Chinese families make into sled caterpillars and pole along the ice at excruciatingly slow speeds. We did not move at excruciatingly slow speeds. We moved at recklessly fast speeds, taking turns mushing one-another along like demented, Yukon dogsled drivers crocked on shots of Jagermeister and driven half-mad by long, sunless, Arctic winters spent in the company of nothing but Alaskan huskies. You can’t steer a sled-chair in any meaningful way, and we must have scared the bejeezus out of any number of apple-cheeked, pigtailed young Chinese girls who will spend weeks thrashing under sweaty sheets dreaming of maniacal, unshaven Laowais careening toward them and screaming, “过一下儿!!! 过一下儿!!!” It’s only by some kind of Jimmy Stewart-style Christmas miracle that we didn’t sail through one of the flimsy barriers that surround the slushier sections of the lake, ride our hell-sled into the frigid darkness and end up drowning under the ice like rats.
Provenance smiles upon idiots. It was the best Christmas ever.
Imagethief wishes all readers a merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, a pious Ramadan and a happy New Year. And, because this is a properly ecumenical site, happy holidays, too.
*Starving, idealistic English teachers are excepted from this generalization.