Ernie goes to Beijing (Feb 2009)

Beijing National Stadium, more popularly known as the Bird’s Nest.

I first met Hannah in the summer of 2006 – she had been invited to play on my church’s summer softball team by a mutual friend – and we managed to keep in touch when she moved to Dalian, China, the following year. The way she tells it, her move to China had started out as a holiday to visit her parents, until her dad met her at the airport to take her to a job interview. By the time I was on holiday in Hong Kong, she had moved to Beijing, and I was starting to weigh the pros and cons of visiting northern China in the winter. When Hannah informed me that she had a spare, empty apartment, I took her up on the offer.

Wangfujing, a street known for its exotic snacks – scorpions, seahorses, and spiders abound.

It was not a great first impression – the lush greenery of the Taiwanese countryside was still fresh in my mind’s eye, and even Hong Kong’s normally claustrophobic concrete jungle was tempered by the brilliant blues of its winter skies. As the plane descended into a city of greys – grey buildings, grey streets, grey skies, grey snow, grey people in grey clothes – I wondered what kind of world I was about to enter. Hannah had given me instructions on how to take the train to her neighbourhood, and the view at street level wasn’t any better. I met up with her in front of a grubby department store, one of those places that seemed to deal in knock-offs of knock-offs. After dropping off my bags, we headed out to grab a quick meal, before taking a walk around the Central Business District. There had been a fire in the area a week beforehand that had been the talk of the town – another friend in Beijing at the time would tell me about how he had gathered with his friends to watch it in a nearby apartment – so Hannah took me to see the burnt out husk.

Street-side vendors hawk their wares to crowds of tourists and disinterested locals.

The next morning was almost enough to make the grey tableau of the day before fade into distant memory. We were blessed with a rare blue sky day, and we took advantage of it by heading out to the Olympic Park. These buildings, and the events held within them, were a familiar sight, as I had pulled two weeks of all-nighters the previous summer during the Olympics to complete my Master’s thesis. In the afternoon, we dropped by a couple more touristy spots – the Wangfujing snack street and the infamous Tiananmen Square. By this time, the blue skies had retreated and diminished against the relentless onslaught of smog and pollution, and the thick haze that covered the city cast a ghostly shadow upon the square. After a few minutes of quiet reflection, we turned around and walked away.

The wide open spaces of Tiananmen Square.

The day had felt long, and the bitterly cold Beijing winter was beginning to have an ill effect on me, so Hannah suggested taking it easy after dinner and grabbing a drink at a local café.  It was a small space, located on the second floor of an anonymous building, but it was apparent that Hannah felt very much at home there.  We found a table near the back of the main seating area, and, as we were talking, the other patrons of the Upper Room started orienting their seats towards one of the walls. An old projector had been set up, and two men sat facing the crowd with a guitar and a djembe. As they began talking, Hannah explained that every Saturday night, the two men, one of whom was the owner, would lead a live karaoke session – people called out popular songs, the two men would find a transparency with the song lyrics, and they would play the music as the crowd sang along. The songs were sung with such gusto, such energy, such abandon, and such sincerity.  The joy was infectious, and the crowd was eager.  A few months later, when I asked about the café, Hannah would tell me that it had closed down, unfortunately. Hannah would go on to find greener pastures soon afterwards – I’d get a chance to meet up with her the following year at her new home in Singapore – and, just recently, she made the move to Hong Hong herself. That night remains one of my favourite memories of those three months in Asia, though – a brilliant, blinding, flash of life and fullness in an otherwise grey city.

A now-defunct café in some unknown suburb of Beijing.

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