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Toward a radical middle

a time for fear
Friday, June 13, 2003  
Missive from Mr. Watkins out in Shanghai, which I reproduce in its entirety for your pleasure...

>Mr Craner
> As you know 'twas my birthday this weekend so I made my
>weary way to Shanghai. Due to transport difficulties I arrived there
>late Saturday afternoon and so was unable to nose around the abode
>of China's favourite saint Sun Yat-sen, as was my original plan. The
>battle against Sars seems to be entering endgame here, for while
>doctors still catalogue buses as they drive through the myriad
>checkpoints around the city not one of my fellow travellers on both
>trips were wearing masks. That said the disease has noticibly
>affected Shanghai's tourist industry, the human sea that normally
>flows down Nanjing Donglu has noticably decreased to a weekday
>Oxford St level. At the more expensive eateries and fast food joints
>around the Bund masked staff continue to serve food to couples and
>families, now less likely to take their meals from a communal pot
>(Of course down the narrow side streets you can still buy snacks
>from a toothless crone with a wok that hasn't been cleaned since the
>end of the cultural revolution). While during my time here I diddn't
>see one person hock up a chunk of phlegm- the no.1 hobby in China
>enjoyed by all the family, due to intensive anti-Sars policing.
> The city was a haze ridden saunasphere that afternoon,
>despite the way the centre sits at the Huangpu it drinks in only a
>warm, fetid breeze. I waited till evening to take my first sojurn,
>drifting up Fuzhou Lu before the place stuttered to a halt, though
>the farmers remain at the corner of every street throughout the
>night, selling their fruit in wooden buckets, always ready to cart
>their wares away before the police turned up. It gets dark here fast
>and early at about seven 'o' clock. By then I had moved up to
>People's Square, once the sight of the Shanghai Race Club, now a
>faux marble public space bathed in luminous green, where shoppers
>rest in front of the Art Museum (sadly closed) and men and children
>fly kites on the updrafts from the surrounding skyscrapers. I
>drifted around for about three hours, watching caravans of families
>dart from Deparments stores, boyfriends attempting to elicit chaste
>embraces with their girls behind constructivist sculptures and
>unlegged beggars drag themselves around for the richest pickings. I
>toured the waterfront, now filled with sightseers having their
>pictures taken in front of the neon vision that is Pudong, on the
>other side of the river. Another great thing about the city is that
>is perfectly allright to walk around at night in your pjamas, I
>passed masses of middle aged sleepwalkers as I went back to the
> My room was expensive but luxurious, a wide creme
>double bedroom with a view of the Russian Embassy and a bathroom you
>could park a car in. The room led out to a victorian style polished
>wooden hall that was a cross between an art gallery and an asylum-
>the floor being haloed by an iron walkway that led to the rooms
>above me. Despite the temptation of CNN and HBO I had a schedule to
>keep to, besides I wanted to use my spacious digs for a DIY ritual
>that I had cobbled together from my reading of Crowley and Osman
>Spare in preparation/celebration of my birthday. That took about
>fourty-five minutes. After a quick stop at the hotel bar I was ready
>to take a step into the next year of my life.
> I headed over to the French Concession, where I found
>a bar I vaguely remembered- a cramped red lit place with an L shaped
>bar and low tables in the backroom. The clientele was mostly young
>Chinese, the fashionable and well off that could afford the
>exhorbitant 25Y a drink fee, though I saw three other foriegners
>there. Nu metal was the bar's din of choice, luckily I came armed
>with "Heavy Mental" on the minidisc, which lasted me three beers.
>While working on my fourth I met a girl whose english name was Lena,
>a pleasant, slight (Chinese women are too thin), cute nosed girl who
>said she wanted to practice her english. This term is commonly used
>by Chinese and forreigner alike regarding pulling, though often it
>is exactly what it says on the tin, one of the many grey areas in
>the big moral smudge that is China. We chatted and played drinking
>games for about an hour, involving a cup and set of eight die, a
>cross between poker and yahtzee. Perhaps she was interested, perhaps
>not, I can never tell these days (could I ever?), but the nuanced
>diplomacy of romance was not my intention that evening so I took my
>leave(though I still have her card) and decided to move to another
> A couple of blocks away I found a large nightclub
>behind a colonial plantation facade(I forget the name), a crowded
>two story venue that had plaques on every pillar warning about
>whores, despite the fact that they surrounded the bar. A black band
>played cover versions at the centre of the ground floor. Space was
>limited so I stayed close to the booze, politely declining the
>owners of the thin arms that occasionally came to rest on my
>shoulders. I spent my time watching the dance floor, as usual
>comprised by young chinese couples, forreigners dancing with their
>girlfriends and gangs of girls leaping around together. The music
>was to loud to properly talk to people, the couple of conversations
>I had were exercises in futility, so when the band began signing
>Robbie Williams tunes I thought it best to go.
> It took a while to find another bar, I'm not quite
>sure where I wandered or for how long. Shanghai's streets are
>rationally planned out and disturbingly similar, cement grey avenues
>lined with petrified trees, the bottom half of their trunks painted
>white due to the often non existant lighting, while yesterdays'
>washing hung over the power lines. Of course by this time I was a
>bit worse for wear, obviously the fault of the white rice liquer,
>and had obviously veered way of course. I decided not to turn back
>but to push ahead along the deserted road. With hindsight this was a
>mistake, ocassional cars drove past but no taxis. Your head starts
>to play tricks on you when your lost,drink and apparently alone in a
>crowded city. This feeling got worse when, when travelling down one
>such litter strewn street I began to here to hear high, slow,
>weezing dirge of doom that grew louder as I tentatively walked
>along. I met a small, cadaverous Chinese bloke in a faded suitjacket
>playing an out of tune accordion as he went. No-one in China has an
>acordion, this can not be true but that idea kept reparting through
>my head as he advanced. I got a lot more nervous when he gave me a
>toothless smile and began talking in what seemed like perfect
>German. It was as if I was in a film co-directed by Sergio Leone
>and David Lynch and I did not like the plot was going. Maybe I was
>antsy but I still think he was trying to freak me out. I stared back
>at the infernal box player and said "Its'my birthday. Don't fuck
>with me", walking on as he laughed while the dirge grew fainter.
>Luckily I found a taxi a few minutes later and took the piss out of
>my growing paranoia on the way to the other side of Shanghai.
> I went to Mao Min Lu, another goodtime street encrusted
>with neon drinking dens along its right side. It gets hazy here so
>you'll have to bear with me. I remember going to Judy's Too, a
>crowded club playing house. I also recall getting pissed off at the
>repeated entreaties of child beggars as I progressed along the
>street, causing me to find the Fagin like figure hidding in a door
>way and start pushing him while yelling "Ren Pigu" (Stupid Arsehole-
>the only swear word I know). This was extremely stupid, shithead
>could have been packing a knife, luckily it remained a rather
>pathetic scene of Three Stooges style psuedo violence witnessed by
>three minors. Later I hooked up with an Australian and two Brits.
>Rob, the rugger bugger Antipodian is the only one whose name I
>remember. It started out well for a couple of rounds, however it
>went downhill when we had a long argument about Australia. I not
>sure how we got there, but he did not like my views on how his
>country; a true cradle of trade union rights and the home of rousing
>speeches about the brotherhood of man, has been consistantly racist
>throughout its history. This wasn't about aboriginal rights (a point
>he readily conceded) but its attitudes towards Asia from William
>Morris Hughes to Woomera. I made some good arguments, even if they
>were perhaps poorly expressed with frequent use of the word
>"cunting". I don't think he was impressed, as the next (half
>serious) argument was about whether or not he could hit me on my
> After that his friends decided they should "go home",
>leaving me after strained farewells to move on to Windows, the
>Kenyan bar I've told you about. The manager, Edward was very helpful
>in sorting out a much need cup of coffee. By then people were
>trickling out of the place, leaving half a roomful on the ground
>floor. By then the DJ was back to playing hip hop so I sidled
>over,told him it was my birthday and inquired about what he had. I
>went through his records: Ja Rule, Dre, Missy,etc-good but not quite
>right. He said he had some other records in his bag so I looked
>through, third record in: Show and A bloody G. I took it out, I
>smiled, he smiled, I went back to the bar, one of those little
>moments of poetry you get in your life every once in a while. I
>spent the rest of my night listening to good tunes playing pool with
>an American, a Chinese beatnik (striped long sleeve T shirt,
>sunglasses and goatee) and two fetching girls. When the women and
>the Yank left Edward kicked us out, while China is not a democracy
>its bars close on the pleasingly egalitarian principle that when the
>bar staff outnumber the clientele in the morning its time to shut up
>shop. I happily slid into a waiting taxi and, at quarter to five
>reached my wonderful hotel room with the pick of two beds to crash
> Not a bad birthday I think, and as you say certainly
>diffrernt to the ones I normally have. I have to sleep so I'll tell
>you about my birthday party next time.
> Hope all is well
> Gav

1:20 PM

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