Charles Hecht

China Diary #11

Day 9

I decided to take the early morning train back to Beijing. There was no time for breakfast according to Yun Hao, since he was to come at 7:00 a.m., which is when the hotel dining room opens for breakfast. He came 20 minutes late and I could have had something to eat, since the hotel started serving breakfast at 7:00, but I had to wait for him in the hotel lobby. Because it was early Saturday morning he decided not to take the expressway, because the local road is much more direct. The pollution in the area is obvious even in an early morning when the factories are not working. Every square inch of real estate along main road is in use. There was one stretch of new car show rooms that was quite interesting. It must have been almost a mile on either side of the street with every conceivable new car company including those from China, Japan, the United States, Sweden, Germany any other country that manufactured automobiles for export. Each of the new car showrooms were larger than almost anything you normally see in the United States.

We got to the train station approximately 40 minutes early, but Yun Hao did not want to stop for breakfast or for me to pick up a stuffed bun. I had no intention of eating any of the food at the railroad station or on the train. While waiting for the train the woman next to me tried to start up a conversation in Chinese because she could not speak any English. It was difficult, so she said something in German. When I responded in German she decided to continue the conversation in German. I lived in Germany 45 years ago but my basic German came back pretty quickly. She had come to Zibo to visit family and friends and was going back to her job in Beijing. She was somehow involved in the fashion industry. Getting on the train at the Zibo station is always pandemonium because there is another train leaving the station on that platform six minutes before. It was unbelievably cold on the platform because there was a wind tunnel effect as the platform was between large buildings.

I found my seat and tried to go to sleep. That was not initially successful. Next to me was a young medical worker who had come to Tsingdao to visit friends. He missed his hometown in the southern part of China. He found living in Beijing to be very hard because the medical clinic did not pay him very much money. This was because many of the people that came to the clinic did not have any money. It was unclear whether or not he was trained as a doctor, but my impression was that he was not because he was thinking of going back to school to learn something different. He wanted to know more about America. The simple solution was to show him pictures stored on my computer. He asked lots of questions about what kind of houses we lived in, what we did with our spare time etc. In his spare time he liked to play computer games. He found it very relaxing as he could escape into a different world. After almost an hour he had exhausted my knowledge of Chinese words and I excused myself to go to sleep. With the iPod running I was able to go to sleep and woke up five minutes before the train pulled into the station in Beijing.

In the taxi returning to my studio home I contacted Andrew and Rose Chin, my houseguests for the next week to coordinate their arrival and lunch. I was extremely hungry but agreed to wait until they arrived at my studio. I instructed their driver not to take any shortcut and to use the Airport expressway, because he wold get lost if he tried to take a shortcut through Wanjin. The driver decided to ignore my instructions and I spent the next hour on a cell phone guiding him to the studio. The three of us then went to a local Chinese restaurant for lunch. The Chin’s complained that the restaurant was extremely cold. I explained to them that outside of the westernized areas of large cities, the Chinese keep the room temperature at about 52°F. It was even colder in this restaurant as the little pot belly stove was in the other room . But everyone agreed that the food was delicious and the Chins could not get over how reasonable everything costs, compared to where they ate in the center of Beijing. They also through this was one of the best meals they had eaten in Beijing. We had enough left over for at least two breakfasts, which we took home.

Andrew wanted to wander around Hegezhuang. We spent the next hour going in and out of various food markets and prepared food stores because he wanted to cook Chinese gruel, with accompaniments, for breakfast. The diversity of ingredients was surprising, but the vegetables looked old, tired and dirty. I explained that if he wanted fresher vegetables we would have to go to the main food market which was a 10 minute bus ride from my studio. But we were able to load up with the ingredients that Andrew needed. On the way back to the studio we decided to walk through the gallery area immediately in front of 318 Art Park. It was very eerie as it felt like a ghost town. A part of this could be attributed to the very cold weather, but this was Saturday afternoon . This gallery-restaurant compound had recently been constructed with high expectations.

One of the fancy restaurants was obviously out of business. The French restaurant which was supposed to open last summer had never opened although it looked like it was completed, fully furnished and looked ready to serve food. The tea house was locked. The Chinese furniture store had lots of inventory on display in the windows but was locked. Many of the galleries were locked. The few that were open had no one in them other than employees. One of the galleries had some very fine modern sculptures of Chinese military figures holding weapons. The sculptures were slightly out of proportion and you got the feeling that the artist was mocking the military. The two other galleries/museums were beautiful spaces. But on the whole, seeing failed dreams was very depressing. Yet throughout our area large new gallery complexes are now being constructed. Why?

I was feeling very sick, and Andrew had a bad cold. When Laurens Tans indicated that he was exhausted, we agreed to postpone our planned dinner and reschedule it for later in the week. I was in bed shivering by 6:30 p.m. I slept for 13 hours. I needed the sleep.

Day 10

It was a nice sunny cold day in Beijing. The sky was a crisp blue and the Chins and I decided to take a walk around the 318 compound to see who was there. Andrew had prepared his version of congee for breakfast. It was supplemented with scallions, thousand year old eggs and other items he had purchased at the local stores in Hegezhuang. It was very good. New York Arts was open but the exhibit was not very interesting.

Shen Jingdong’s jeep was outside his studio and although the outside glass door was shut the inside door was open. Since it was after 10:00 AM in the morning, I knocked on the door. I apparently woke him up. He would not accept my apology and invited us in for tea.. His girlfriend, Yisi, also in a bathrobe joined us. The stray cat which they often fed had a bad accident during the night and Jingdong at the misfortune of stepping in it. After the cleanup, we sat down for some tea and he gave Andrew and Rose a tour of his studio. I saw many similarities in their styles and humorous approach. I was not surprised Andrew really liked his work.

Since it was Sunday, Andrew, Rose and I then went off to the Pa Jia Yuan antique market. Although there are no antiques there are lots of interesting things and it makes for a very nice Sunday afternoon for visitors to Beijing. In fact, many Beijingers go there on Sunday and at any one time there were more than 200,000 people at this market. If you step aside and just listen it sounds like a very loud and intense swarm of bees. There are lots of interesting and unique things if you look carefully. Andrew found a unique blue porcelain brush pot while we were looking for painting supplies for him. The brushes were of poor quality and there were no acrylic paints. Each of us brought a heavy rosewood holder for Chinese calligraphy brushes. Although represented as antiques by the seller, both the price and my knowledge told me that very little in this outdoor market is truly old, we purchased them anyway. I had never seen anything like that in this market or any other market. Not only were they very good-looking, it would be very useful in my studio.

We then met Madeline O’Dea at a Turkish restaurant for a late lunch-early dinner. It was a fairly new restaurant in an area that had a number of other Middle Eastern restaurants. Madeline knew the owner. Apparently her late husband had operated a French restaurant in that location. She had been the cook. When she could not find a buyer at the right price for the restaurant after he died she decided to change it to a Turkish restaurant because she had been raised in Turkey – what she wanted was to introduce good Turkish food to Beijing. The food, helped by a couple of bottles of good French wine, was excellent. She was trying to liquidate the wine inventory and was going to restock with wines that went better with Turkish food and the French wines were more reasonably priced.

John was back in Australia. Apparently he’d been on leave for four years from a very good job and they told him that if he did not come back soon they would no longer hold his position available for him. Since he and Madeleine worked for the same company in Beijing, which was a start up with an uncertain future in an economy that was shaky as a result of the economic meltdown started by the United States, they were concerned that both of them could be let go at the same time. So they decided that John should go back to Australia for six months and make a lot of money. If both the economy and the new Chinese company were doing well he would come back to Beijing. Madeline told us that the Beijinger, a free to the viewer magazine distributed to the luxury hotels and Western expatriates was doing well notwithstanding the economic downturn.

Since Andrew and I were still both under the weather we returned to my studio. I went to bed at about 7:30 and Andrew and Rose read in the living room. I slept for almost 12 hours.

Day 11

This was the day to organize the rest of the work to be done during this visit. I organized a circular route to accomplish these tasks. First, was a is stop at Jenny Lus to drop off shirts for cleaning, but the laundry was closed, so they showed me another laundry nearby. It also catered to Westerners, but it was only 10% cheaper than the cleaner at Jenny Lus. Second, was a visit with a fabricator to make 160 inserts for the sculptures that I just completed at Aimei. Third, was a stop at the flower market to pick up two different styles of steel hinges to weld on the inserts for the glass sculptures. Fourth, was a stop at B & Q to purchase some more tools and to look for a new teakettle. I could not find the proper teakettle so I went next door to the new Correfors and found the proper tea kettle. Then it was back to the studio to pick up the Chins to have lunch.

Shortly after I arrived back at the studio, Yisi and Shen Jingdong stopped by to invite us to join them and two friends for lunch at Jinbaiwei, my favorite restaurant in the area. It was quite an interesting mix. Andrew only speaks Cantonese. Jingdong and his two friends only speak Mandarin. Rose can speak a little Mandarin. Yisi is fairly fluent in English. No one can understand Andrew’s Cantonese and he was quite frustrated and disappointed by this. We all had a good time and after lunch we will returned to our studios. Jingdong offered to speak to his assistant to see if he could find an assistant to help Andrew.

I spent some time with Mung reviewing the work that she did on the sculptures while I was back in the United States. We separated out those sculptures that needed more work.

I also started to think about what I would do with respect to having my woodcuts printed. I called Xu Bing to follow up on e-mail I sent him from the states. He said there would be no problem and I should call back in two days. It was one of those peaceful days in which reading a good book and meditating would be a good idea. Fortunately, both Andrew and Rose had things to read and Andrew wanted to wander back into town to do some more shopping. Rose tagged along. I stayed behind to relax.

No one was particularly hungry for dinner, but eventually we walked to the local restaurant in Hegezhuang. Rose was very nervous about her planned visit to a mental health facility that she had prearranged in the states because the doctor in charge of the Chinese hospital was not returning her calls. Andrew had decided he did not want to create a new artwork for various reasons, none of which made sense to me. I did learn all about the history of both Andrew’s family and Rose’s family. His family had been in the United States for at least four generations going back to the original California Gold Rush. They had run a series of successful businesses in California and then Texas. They sold the businesses and Andrew came east to become an artist. To support himself he worked for a moving company and then started his own moving company. He sold the business approximately 7 years ago and during his retirement could devote more time to his painting.

Rose’s family had come to America just before she was born. They opened one of the first Chinese restaurants on Long Island where she was raised. She was one of the few Chinese persons in the Westbury schools. She had no desire to take over the restaurant because she wanted to be a psychiatrist. Her sister stayed on to help the family with the restaurant until the parents became too old to run it properly. So they sold out and retired. Neither Andrew nor Rose had ever been to China. They did not want to come on a guided tour even though I had previously told them that that is what Leslie I did back in 2001, even though I’d been to China a number of times before. They were afraid to come alone unless they had a friend to stay with. It turned out that I was a friend. After dinner I was tired as I still had not fully recuperated from what ever bug I caught, so I went to bed and they stayed up.

Day 12

It was another bright and sunny day in Beijing with the temperature still well below freezing. The sky was a beautiful blue with no clouds in it. Andrew wanted to hop on the back of my bike and go for a ride to the fabricator as I wanted to change the design of the insert for the back of the spermoids slightly and to deliver the hinges that had previously purchased. We went about 30 feet and Andrew said stop. [picture] He was concerned that his 220 pounds, when combined with my weight, was too much and he felt unsafe. His rationale was that these bikes were designed for two Chinese persons and their combined weight was probably well under 300 lbs.

So he hopped off and I went to the fabricator. The fabricator’s baby daughter was now almost 8 months old. She was a healthy and happy baby. The fabricator and his family lived in a room next to his office. That is very typical amongst small business persons in China. He loves his new Audi and is building up his business. He showed me his new bronze forge and I walked around to look at the work going on at the various stations. Many of his workers live in the fabricator’s compound, which is also typical for these types of small businesses. In this way the workers don’t have to pay rent and by pooling their money they save on food.

The workers, along with the boss invited me to join them for lunch but I told them that I had previous appointment. Most of their families were located far from Beijing. They send approximately half of their money home to help their families, save more than a quarter of their money and use the rest for food and necessities. Because sending money home and savings were such a high priority, they pretty much keep to the compound all of the time, with one person going out to buy food every day, since they have no refrigerator. As one person put it, you couldn’t spend money at the compound even if you wanted to. It may be a hard life, but you earn far more than you can earn back home.

I then went in to town to have lunch with Michael Liu and to shop for gifts for the grandchildren. Also, my agent in the United States has asked me to buy her two silk robes. We had lunch and reviewed various marketing ideas he had for his practice, the kinds of matters that he was working on and how fortunate he was that his German clients were keeping him very busy. The food was excellent. I had previously discouraged Michael from organizing a seminar on short notice for companies seeking to raise capital outside of China. I explained to him that was far more work than he originally thought and he needed a much longer time period to properly market the seminar. He was very thankful that I had discouraged him as admitted he had not thought it through properly. What I found very interesting is that he understands the need for a professional to spend the time and energy to market his services. He is also very enthusiastic.

At lunch I got a call from Zhu Li who said it was very important that we talk. I had no idea what she was talking about. We met at beautiful tea room near the large Buddhist temple. In many ways the area reminded me of Lhasa in Tibet. The tea house was charming and she was almost an hour late. I previously had agreed to come back to the compound to have dinner with the Chins. She explained to me that she wanted to learn how to play a certain type of antique instrument that was at this teahouse. After 25 minutes of incomprehensible conversation, I finally asked her what was so important. I did not get an answer. Fortunately, I had asked Huang to wait for me and I excused myself.

Andrew was not in the mood to go out for dinner, so we reheated the congee and added some leftovers for a very nice meal. After dinner we tried to plan how Andrew could get organized to do some work. I also made some phone calls to firm up the delivery status of my glass sculptures that I just completed. These should be delivered tomorrow, but my shipper was not getting clear answers from Mr. Sun’s son. I also made arrangements for us to go to Art Channel.

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Copyright 2008
Charles Hecht