swimming in soup

August 15th, 2009

I didn’t really want to venture out into that thick morass of smog and humidity that settled over Beijing yesterday morning, but I had to.  We’re running low on electricity, you see, and the office where we buy more- called, appropriately enough, the Power Saving Office- is on holiday hours, opening only Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. I checked the meter, and we have enough for perhaps even another 10 days, in theory, but what happens if the power runs out at midday on Monday? Exactly. Better to stock up early.

So I slipped on my jandals and slapped on my hat to keep the piddling amount of sunlight that was managing to dribble through the muck out of my eyes and off I went.

Now there’s nothing particularly exciting about buying electricity, you just show up at the office, hand over the card and your money, sign off- why they have to write down each purchase and have you sign off in an exercise book I don’t know, but whatever. But I had decided that it’s been far too long since I went DVD shopping (yeah, sure, I could just download films, but on this university network where we pay by data transferred that gets to be very expensive very quickly) and we were running low on incense and it’s been ages since I went to the market down by Wusheng Lu (not that there’s anything special about any of the local markets) and I really should get more exercise.

So back over the bridge, up the road, left down the lane that runs along the northern side of our estate, hang a right, and into the back entrance of said market. And along its entire length the lane is lined with people- mostly the elderly and the very young, naturally- playing with grandkids, chatting with each other, buying and selling fruit and vegetables from the vendors who’ve parked a tricycle or spread a blanket in the shade of an apartment block, and I can’t understand how any of them would prefer to be outside in such weather. Simply looking out the window before I left made me want to melt. Going to the bathroom, with all its extra humidity and a fan that just couldn’t cope, was bearable only because of its necessity. In weather like this all I want to do is sit in the protective embrace of an electric fan. It’s weather like this that makes aircon bearable. But here were all these folks sitting outside in the sticky, humid murk. There was the occasional brow mopped or fan waved with what little energy had yet to be sapped, so I wasn’t the only one feeling uncomfortable in this weather, but still, had somebody stopped to compare the rivers of sweat pouring down my body and soaking into my clothes with any random sampling of my neigbours, I would’ve won gold by a long, long shot.

Horrible weather to be out walking, in other words. And it’s continued into today. There’re thunder storms forecast for tomorrow. I hope they materialise early and are followed by a strong, dry norwester.

Anyways, I walked through the stalls and plastic tables set up oustide restaurants and into the market, down the side around the branch of Jingkelong so small it hardly qualifies as a convenience store let alone the supermarket Jingkelong is supposed to be, into the market proper. This is one of those markets that sells Everything. There’s the food section- along one wall is meat, mostly fresh, but some processed, very little of it halal, so that wall is dominated by various bits of pig carcass either hung up or laid out for your inspection. The centre is mostly grains, beans, fruits and veges, with some stalls selling a million different kinds of rice and almost as many varieties of other grains and beans, others piled high with fruits and veges of hundreds of kinds, about half of which I don’t recognise. Along the other wall is a variety of prepared foods- noodles, mantou, bing and other wheat-based staples, various salad-like cold dishes, processed meats. Interspersed amongst it all are stalls selling spices and sauces, with large containers of sheer fragrance and piles of jars of sauces both mass produced and freshly-made along the front, and in back machines busy cooking up the next batch of whichever sauce this particular stall specialises in. There’s also a furniture section selling beds, tables, chairs, wardrobes, bookshelves, just about everything you need to furnish an apartment. Somehow that section very rarely has anybody in there buying anything. I guess this neighbourhood is too firmly established for many people to be in the furniture market. And at the Wusheng Lu end and between the food and furniture sections are two miscellaneous sections selling all kinds of goods and services- clothes, shoes, various small electric goods like lamps and fans, all that random stuff that households use. I wonder what my incense lady would think, sitting surrounded by her buddhas and boddhisattvas with a tape of sutras being chanted in the background if I told her the incense was intended for our bathroom, which, with no window and a rather weak fan, can get a bit smelly?

So I bought my incense and wandered through the market popping out onto Wusheng Lu. Directly opposite was what was once a really good DVD store, with a huge amount of variety and good quality. But that closed down for no obvious reason well over a year ago and has since become a bakery. A bit further up on the same side of the road is a supermarket that went through at least two brands before becoming yet another branch of Jingkelong- Jingkelongs sprout like mushrooms in these parts.

But something was wrong, drastically wrong. I had managed to walk through the entire market without seeing a single DVD. That should not be possible. This required further investigation. So I turned around and walked back through the market, finding the spot where there used to be four DVD sellers. What I saw was empty stalls. Somebody must’ve decided that pirated DVDs should not be sold in this market. I suppose they’re right. But there were people sitting inside two of these empty stalls, and an old man leafing through something. So I wandered over.

Now, the DVD stalls in this market have always been a little odd. They all seem to stock the same films from the same supplier, for one thing, and they seem to just let their stock run down until they get a new shipment. And each shipment seems to be only the latest films, and a pretty random selection of films at that. And I’ve never managed to convince them that maybe some laowai might actually be interested in Chinese films, too. In the past, they were always freaked out when I reached for the box of Chinese films and quickly brought all the foreign films over. But despite their oddities and the limitation to only very new films, they’ve always had a reasonably good, if somewhat random selection. Their foreign film boxes, for example, have always had films from Japan, Korea, a random selection of European countries, and occasionally other parts of the world, as well as Hollywood. What’s oddest, though, is that they’re really cheap at 4 or 5 kuai, and yet the quality has always been superb.

Well, there have been occasional problems with subtitles. For example, I wound up watching Zwartboek in the original Dutch and German with Chinese subtitles, and yesterday afternoon I watched The Baader-Meinhof Complex in German with German subtitles that mysteriously vanished towards the end. All I can say is that Dutch sounds weird and my high school German teacher would be ashamed. Still, in both cases I could certainly understand enough to follow the story with ease.

Anyways, so I wandered on over to see if, perhaps, this old man was leafing through DVDs, and if, perhaps, the DVD sellers had boxes of DVDs stashed away, to be brought out when potential customers approached and hidden away when the authorities were checking up. And that was the situation. I walked up next to the old guy, and it was TV series he was checking out. A box was brought up from under the counter full of films, mostly foreign, but a few Chinese too. Trouble is, there was nothing that looked even remotely interesting. The seller looked and sounded a bit put out when I walked away, and she called out after me “But they’re all new films!” New does not mean worth watching.

Diagonally opposite her stall was another empty DVD stall- empty counters, old cabinets along the back wall, and a guy sitting their looking like I might relieve a little boredom. He signals me, I signal back, and out of one of the old cabinets, a box of movies flies onto the counter. At first glance, it didn’t look too promising. As always, it was exactly the same films as at the other store. But then some more interesting films started showing up. The Baader-Meinhof Complex, for one, which I watched yesterday afternoon, and a few other mostly European films whose titles I can’t remember off the top of my head (and no, I’m too lazy to go look right now).

And so back out into the murky weather and the walk home.

They’ve been sprucing up this neighbourhood. Our buildings got a fresh coat of paint, and the notice they put up to warn us of the coming work said specifically it was for the upcoming 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. I’m guessing that’s the reason for all the work that’s been going on along the lane between here and the market, too- that notice did mention the whole area, but I only paid attention to the bits that directly concerned our building. So all along the lane buildings, walls and fences have gotten a fresh coat of paint, a section of footpath was torn up and rebuilt, and shopfronts have been given new facades. For a long while it was all very messy, as such work tends to be, but they’re close to finishing everything off. Fresh paint won’t hide the age or decrepitude of buildings but the place is looking a lot tidier, and the new facades the shops have been given are actually looking pretty cool.

And having waded through the thick, muggy soup that passes for air outside, I got home to realise I’d forgotten to go any buy tea. Oh well, the tea shop is a lot further away, and it’s not very pleasant outside, and I have enough to get me through until after the forecast thunder storms have (hopefully) cleared the air.

8 Responses to “swimming in soup”

  1. Richard Says:

    “New does not mean worth watching.” Haha, exactly.

    Definitely sounds like those DVD stalls got rolled by the authorities. Are they getting stricter on pirated materials in Beijing these days?

  2. wangbo Says:

    This is the first I’ve seen of any crackdown, but I can’t say I’m surprised. These things happen occasionally, and with the 60th anniversary coming up, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a crackdown.

  3. John Says:

    The DVD sellers in Chengdu might’ve had new films, but it often seemed to be the stuff which went straight to DVD. Of the three shops I’ve found in Wuxi, one had very little foreign fare; another had a slightly better selection; and the third had a wide range of dirty (as in dust-covered) old films, but very little of recent vintage. Almost no telly programmes whatsoever and they were the usual Prison Break, 24, CSI.

    Probably because there aren’t that many foreigners here, I’m guessing there just won’t be the range. But I’m also certain the supply isn’t as good as it used to be. I used to be able to do to the DVD sellers and buy a stack of DVDs. These days, there’s a stack of stuff I don’t want.

    I agree that new doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worth watching. There was one guy in Chengdu who, I knew, watched the films, but to him it was all good (and he probably meant it whether he wanted me to buy the DVD or not), which is insufficient recommendation for me.

  4. wangbo Says:

    John, did you need a proxy or VPN to read this? My blog is behaving like it’s blocked from here.

  5. John Says:

    No, I’m not having any problems accessing your blog.

  6. wangbo Says:

    I don’t know what the problem was, but for a while yesterday morning it looked like it was blocked.

  7. John Says:

    I’ve never had any problems getting onto your blog so far. I hope it was just a temporary hiccup, Nanny saying, “I wonder what this switch does?” [Nothing happens.] “Oh well, I’ll switch it back again.”

  8. wangbo Says:

    Nah, I suspect more some technical hiccup in my connection. Anyway, it’s working again now, so no worries.