Sauna City

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:

“Sauna City”

I turned the page and began to read.

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Wang Shuo and The Future of the Past

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.

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The Beijing Sickness

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.

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Beijing Air Pollution

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?

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Beijing, Beijing

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.

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The Western Hills

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.

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YY Bar Opens a New Chapter

The “smell of freedom” will no longer be in the air at YY Bar after a visit from the LE a week ago Friday. It’s for real and it doesn’t look like the new policy will be changing anytime soon. That’s unfortunate. The good news is that the bar is still very much open for business and owner Kenny is still there chatting with regulars as he has done almost every night for the last 16 years at 125 Nanchang Lu. Kenny was, as usual, philosophical about things. “When I opened this bar 16 years ago, I knew this day would eventually come,” he told me last night as he sipped holiday-red rooibus tea from a tiny glass cup.

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