International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
I met her when she was translating for foreign journalists at the beginning of her own career as a writer; she was a young woman with a hearty laugh and an irreverent sense of humour. Fifteen years later she is the respected author of a best-selling memoir, the ironically titled Socialism is Great, is writing a novel on prostitution and also acts as a guide for travellers who want to experience Beijing’s rich intellectual heritage. “If you come here as a tourist, the danger is that you only get the big hotels, the shopping malls and a quick tour of the Forbidden City or the old Summer Palace,” she says.
That evening, at her home, writers and thinkers mingle and gossip. The dinner table is laden with dishes from all across China. There are Sichuan-style fried green beans with minced pork; a spicy gong bao (cubes of chicken fried with peanuts, peppercorns and chillies), a dish once denounced by Maoists as politically incorrect because of its associations with imperial China; and steamed egg with five spices, which is fragrant with the scent of aniseed and cinnamon.
I sit beside the journalist Raymond Zhou, whose combative columns in the China Daily reach millions of readers every day. Mild-mannered and genial in person but with a barbed wit, Zhou regularly scrutinises the pressures of a city undergoing rapid transformation.
“China is gripped by hatred, which is almost like an out-of-control machine-gun firing indiscriminately at any moving target,” he writes. The list of hate figures, according to Zhou, includes Westerners, officials, celebrities, the old, the young, the rich and the poor: “And we hate ourselves, because our relentless drive for a better life seems to go nowhere.”
The Bookworm is the city’s first English-language bookshop. Young Chinese mingle with expats over coffee, wine, prose and poetry. Manager Alex Pearson, whose father was a diplomat in Beijing in the 80s, also founded Beijing’s first international book fair. “There is a confidence in people which didn’t exist before,” she tells me. “It feels as if time is on fast-forward and there is this constant influx of interesting and stimulating people. It’s a fantastic city in which to experiment with ideas, a great place to establish – and occasionally lose – businesses.”
On the book festival’s opening night, Chinese “sensualist” Hong Ying, who was once sued for allegedly libelling a dead short-story author, shared the stage with an Argentine crime writer. Also that night, a Hong Kong novelist summoned up the universal loss of parental death while a Hungarian, Peter Zilahy, related tales of totalitarian madness in his own land.
In Beijing, one is constantly struck by the tension between old and new, between official constraints and the striving for artistic freedom. A filmmaker friend who has lived in the city for decades put it like this: “The artist is constantly stretching his arms out to see how close are the bars of the cage.” The events of the Arab Spring have heightened official fears of a revival of pro-democracy activism, as the recent arrest of the artist and activist Ai Weiwei illustrates. Yet I feel I am witnessing something very special and enduring – a cultural flowering overlooked by a Western world obsessed with economics. I head to District 798 in Dashanzhi, home to the city’s avant-garde artistic movement. Located in a former industrial complex built by the East Germans in the Bauhaus style in the 1950s, it is at first glance an unlovely place: an expanse of old workshops and factory compounds.