Living loud in China's lively public spaces

  • 11 March 2017
Cafe in China with a woman holding her head in her hands in front of a Bible, and a man on his mobile phone in front of his laptop.
Image caption Little chance of a quiet cuppa in some Beijing cafes

There are some societies where people are expected to avoid being noisy in public and they behave accordingly. Then there's China.

This country that I love is many things, but quiet is not one of them.

There are plenty of bustling cities - rammed with millions of people - where you could be frowned upon for disrupting others with a raised voice: Seoul, London, Tokyo… especially Tokyo.

China does not have those cities.

The word most often used here to describe a great restaurant is not "moody" nor "intimate" nor "tasteful" but "renao". To be 热闹 is to be bustling with noise and excitement.

After all, who'd want to go to one of those fussy, dull joints where you couldn't bring kids or laugh too loud or spill a beer?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Laughter is often part of the noise

Now, given that I've lived in Beijing for 12 years, you would think that outbursts in public would be as nothing to this hardened correspondent, fully enmeshed in the ways of the Middle Kingdom, yet China can always turn on a surprise.

So there I am at a cafe nearby, feeling all urbane with a light caffeine buzz on: newspaper; some other reading material; Chet Baker's mournful trumpet floating around the room at just the right level; I can't help noticing a smart-looking beautiful woman across the other side of the room talking to her friend and…

"Weeiiii"!!! [Hello!]

Somebody starts a phone call at the top of their voice in full-flight pirate-sounding Beijing dialect. Anyone who has heard a Beijing taxi driver on the phone to the family at home will know exactly how this sounds.

"Naaaarrrrrr? Bu shirrrrrr baaaaa." [Where? No it isn't.]

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A cafe in Japan on the other hand, is likely to be an oasis of calm

At this point a Chinese farmer walks in carrying the fake and/or stolen watches he's been selling on the street.

He's carrying his flask of tea, has no intention of buying anything at the cafe and sits on a stool with best view out of the window, next to his mate who also has no intention of buying anything but is very interested in showing the purveyor of watches an awesome new video game on his phone.

Woooshhhh! Bam! Bam! Ba-doing!!! The two of them crack up laughing and they keep playing.

Just as the first conversation is getting heated, a young convert to Christianity sits down next to me and starts praying before diving into her diary-style, each-day-a-new-lesson, introduction to Jesus.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Many countries are densely populated but they respond to the squeeze in different ways

Nearby, phone conversation number two kicks in: "Weeeeeiiiiiii"

Game, argument, praying, talk, game, laughter, talk... "Look at the stars… Look how they shine for you…"

A hippie looking Chinese bloke has booted up his laptop and Coldplay starts belting out of the speakers.

"And everything you do. Yeah they were all yellow."

He has his eyes closed and is gyrating in the seat as he sings along to himself.

I look around the cafe and, amidst this cacophony of chaos, nobody but me has reacted as if this is anything but completely normal. Some people are chatting amongst themselves, others reading or sending messages on mobile phones but they've not even glanced up to pay attention to the activities around them.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Big Apple - and unlikely ally to China when it comes to bustle

The other place in the world I've seen this phenomenon is New York.

I went to a diner there once which had an open plan kitchen. It was packed for the morning rush hour. I was preparing to take in the New York Times over breakfast when one of the cooks started ribbing his workmate and the tension was building. At least I thought so.

Then the cook being hassled turned to the other and said in a pretty menacing tone: "Yeah keep talkin' funny guy!" At this point I was considering the possible uses of a spatula as a weapon.

Then the diner owner called out at the top of his voice from the payment counter by the door: "Heh, Pauly, go downstairs and get me some of those ******* strawberries!!!"

Nobody. Even. Flinched.

Image copyright Shanghai Pacific Institute/AFP
Image caption The whole country feels like it's on the move

There is something incredible about the way in which societies, cities, subcultures find their level in terms of acceptable public volume.

If a megacity has its own disruptive sound maybe you have to speak up to get over it? But with what noise does a Chinese farmer have to compete in the field?

Maybe you have to speak up in order to be heard amongst a huge population? Yet most Chinese people in recent years grew up with no brothers or sisters and had only their parents at home for evening conversations.

Back in the cafe, Mr Coldplay has packed up his laptop, the game boys have gone and only the first woman is still speaking on the phone… but now much more quietly: she's crying.

Her call has been more important than I had given her credit for.

"I've been there," I thought.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Loudly playing Coldplay songs in public does not go down well everywhere

I can remember being in London many years ago on a backpacking trip when I got the news that a good friend, a brilliant young doctor, had died back in Sydney.

I didn't know what to do so I went to a cafe and wrote her a letter to say goodbye.

I was crying my eyes out in a public place and people were looking at me but not disapprovingly. They just didn't know how to take it.

When I told a BBC colleague I was going to write this piece she laughed: "What? An Australian talking about noisy people?"

Maybe we are. I hadn't thought about it.

Is that why I fit in here?