Saturday, May 16 marked the 10th Moganshan Triathlon, and probably its last–at least in its current form. “Sometimes you just know when it’s time to move on,” event founder Tori Widdowson told me at the post-race barbecue. The first year there were only a dozen participants. This year there were 40 in the individual Olympic distance category alone. Another 25 filled out the sprint distance along with 12 relay teams. Together, almost 100 people participated, mainly foreigners, and a few Chinese as well. People came from as far away as Beijing to take part. Brands like Osprey, Specialized and HUUB donated prizes. It’s seen admirable growth in a few short years, so why is it ending?
Once upon a time, I started a website. It was called Wisdom of the East. It was loosely inspired by a zine out of L.A. called The Crash Site.
There were no blogs back then. Back then, if we wanted to call our websites something else, we called them zines. So I launched my first zine in early 2000. It bounced between a couple of free hosting platforms, none of which are around anymore, before succumbing to entropy. It was swallowed up in the black hole which had not yet been eradicated by near-infinite server capacity. Nowadays everything online is permanent, including and especially, all the dumb shit that you do. For the older stuff, we have to do a little work to make it come alive again.
I was living in Shanghai at the time and pretty much most of the content on the zine was China-related. Back then there basically were no English language websites in China, except Beijing Scene, the web version of the sorta-famous pre-TBJ, pre-CW print mag, and Chinanow.com.cn. By some miracle of goodness or delusion, Scott Savitt, the lead editor of the mag who was kicked out of China for trying to run over a police officer, still pays the registration and hosting fees every year. Chinanow was not so lucky. There was something else called Renao.com, but that only lasted a little while. They once tried to suck in my site, but I refused on principle.
Over the next couple of months, I am going to resuscitate some writings from the Wisdom period. Why? Because nostalgia matters. That and I can’t think of anything better to write about.
So, to kick things off, I have excerpted below the sum total of the ShockTherapy weekly updates which I used to send out to a small but influential list of people. This would have been your proto-traffic-driving newsletter. But I only saw it as a way to make people read what I was writing. Because I was convinced it was the best stuff in China. It may not have been, but at least it was way better than what I write now. Onward!
This is not a China post, even though this is a China blog. It’s a post about the vicissitudes of life, inspired by the fact that even after 16 years in China I still sometimes stop in the middle of things, look around and wonder: how the hell did I end up here? On the page it seems like a rhetorical question, but there really is an answer. All the little occurrences over time wound me through a maze of possibilities. But some of those occurrences loom larger than others. Going to Memorial Park Middle School, for example, is one of them.
A friend of mine–a graduate student in anthropology at a well-known U.S. university–was compelled to leave China recently. The circumstances were unclear and his departure was sudden. Literally he just packed a few things and was on the next flight back to the United States.
We were not particularly close, but had bonded somehow in that way that people in a foreign country do over certain very narrow shared interests. Before he left, he called me and asked me to help wind down his affairs. And so I met him in a shady spot one summer evening by the Liangma Canal in Beijing.
He handed me a copy of his apartment key along with two manila envelopes, one much thicker than the other. We exchanged pleasantries. He looked well, but was clearly suffering. I didn’t ask him any details, and he didn’t offer any. I figured there would be time for that later when he was back in the U.S. I simply told him how much I appreciated our conversations, wished him good luck, shook his hand and then we parted.
Later, on the secluded rooftop of Vineyard on the River, I examined the contents of the envelopes. One contained bank forms and other financial documents. The other contained pages of his thesis. On the title page was typed:
I turned the page and began to read.
My master’s thesis was about Wang Shuo and his “conversation” with Mainland China’s ’80s intellectual establishment. It was good enough to pass–despite Tian Xiaofei’s basic antagonism to my purpose and some admitted deficiencies. Nonetheless, I got a few things right, really, really right, which to this day no one has sufficiently appreciated. And on the eve of the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen, it’s worth revisiting.
Those who’ve read my previous blog posts (all four of you) know that I often write in praise of Beijing. I have many good memories of the city and life there. But it was an acquired taste. In fact, for the first several years I disliked it intensely. In fact, one of the worst periods of life I’ve ever endured took place in Beijing, a few months after arriving.
I spent a week in Beijing which corresponded almost exactly with the most recent airpocalypse. PM2.5 levels held steady between 400-500 for seven straight days. This has been a regular occurrence for the last three winters. So it’s time to ask: how are we to understand Beijing’s poison fog? What insight can it bring?
On almost every sidewalk in Beijing you’ll find a strip of bricks, different from the others, stretching in a nearly unbroken line all around the city, from Sanlitun to Wudaokou. Probably you’ve never noticed them. They stretch the four sides of a city block, perpendicular lines meeting at the point where the sidewalk slopes down to touch the pavement. They even lead deep into the city’s metro stations. The bricks have specially molded raised ridges atop them and are often even a different color, which is ironic because they are clearly meant to be used by blind people.
I’ve hit up a few parties in Beijing recently. The Yen Fetish Party and Lantern Spooked for Halloween. 87FEI87 at Dada a week ago. Migas for the Detroit series last night. D Lounge the night before that. A few observations:
October in Beijing and my thoughts inevitably turn to The Western Hills, otherwise known as Xiangshan or just “the shan” (“the mountain”). For four years, 2009-2013, Xiangshan was one of the most important places in the world to me. We would mountain bike there every weekend. It is what kept me sane through difficult times. If I am to die in China, I’d like to be buried there. If there is a zombie apocalypse, that is where I will make my stand.