Beijing. I can’t say that I love it or that I hate it. I will say it is different from any city I have ever been in, and that China is like no place I have ever been.
This drawing is the Gate of Heavenly Peace – the famous one with the Mao portrait, huge, on the front of it. It fronts the entrance gate to the Forbidden City, pretty nifty, politically speaking. During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the portrait of Mao was egged, but luckily there were a few extras hanging around. Mao’s body is lying in state across the HUGELY WIDE boulevard from this gate, but the exhibit (is that what you call it?) is closed now for renovations. I don’t even want to think about what that entails.
Beijing is a huge city, full of people, that seems empty. If you go, you’ll know what I mean. There is pollution to the point that the sky is white every day – that’s on a sunny day. From the amount of coal burned in China, I’ve heard. The constant white and grey color of the city can get a bit depressing. However, the people of Beijing are very publicly emotional. You will see them laughing, crying, arguing, even kissing, every day in the streets of their city. (Although the public kissing may be a relatively new phenomenon for the traditionally conservative city.) What a difference coming from the super-polite and controlled feeling in the streets of Tokyo. And the Beijing people STARE, I mean really stare, at Westerners. It’s very open and relentless. Also relentless are the hawkers – “Hello Lady, postcard?” “Hello Lady, taxi? Where you going, Lady?” “Hello Lady, banana?” (I swear I’m not making that one up.) Part of me is empathetic with the need for people to make a living any way they can, part of me just got exhausted from being approached constantly on the street. Two words of Mandarin were always coming out of my mouth – ‘no’ (bushi) and ‘goodbye’ (zaijian). Actually, in every part of China we went to there were people pushing and shoving and fighting with each other to try to sell some crappy handbag or other trinket to a Western face. I swear that if I were parachuted into the middle of the Gobi desert some nomadic woman would emerge from a yurt and say, “Hello Lady, keychain?” It gets tough to remember the necessity and unequalness of economics that creates this kind of thing when you just start to feel tired. I can only use so many keychains, altruistic notions about equality notwithstanding.
Architecturally speaking, Beijing is full of extremes – large boulevards that are as wide as the Long Island Expressway that have new gleaming official buildings on them mixed with ‘hutongs’ -the small, somewhat crumbly alleyways with courtyards off them where most of the people seem to live. Although there are many cars on the streets now, unlike ten or so years ago, there are still tons of people riding bicycles throughout Beijing. You will see men with bicycles that are LOADED with cargo all over. And it is a mystery to figure out what most of the cargo is – styrofoam blocks, rags, hay – where are they were taking it, for whom?
Anyway, when I was making this Heavenly Gate drawing the crowd around me to see what I was doing got so large that the army guards had to break it up. I’m not even exaggerating in the slightest. Not to mention that it was getting a bit hard for me to see past all the knees and little kids noses. The Chinese have a totally different idea of personal space requirements than Americans do. Whenever I drew in China I had people on top of me, touching me, touching the paper, touching my ink…etc. It was a bit unnerving to say the least; not that there’s anything wrong with it, as they say on Seinfeld.
Speaking of, the army are ever-present in Beijing. They march through in groups of about 14 or so in a style similar to the way the North Korean army marches. It’s strange to see them cut through the chaos of the city like a sword. Again, extremes.