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Blowing Up Beijing

As a boy I loved firecrackers. I’m not alone in this, but I had a special passion for them.

It was the “bang!” when they went off. But it was equally the packaging.

Colorful dragons with knowing grins promising mischief wrapped in tight red plastic. 

The most prominent brand was always the Black Cat, painted in a Maoist style: the feline’s solid countenance promising youthful thrills at the end of fuse.

And of course, that moniker on all the packages, that place where all this happiness came from: “Made in China.”

To this day when I pass by fireworks stores in West Virginia or Missouri I always drop by: not to buy explosives, those have lost their appeal to me as an adult, but to pick up the promotional posters.

For me, these still hold the promise of a kinetic world, where everyone is a Mad Hatter or a blood drenched wolf, you only have to scratch the surface of your wife, neighbor, politician or celebrity to reveal their inner, carefree explosiveness.

When I visited China last April I must admit this is what I was looking for, if only subconsciously.

This product had so enthralled me in secret moments as a child that I admit I half-expected that when I stepped off the plane in Beijing I would be greeted by dancing Griffins singing high-pitched melodies and twirling sparklers like ninja warriors twirl nunchucks.

I imagined I would join them, and we would spend a day in a crystal garden with singing plants shooting off bottle rockets into the starry sky.

A Biker’s Aesthetic
Of course the real China is quite different from my firecracker reverie. 

But the artwork of the Chinese people, so unique in all the world, was everywhere in Beijing.

This is a biker’s city, with loads to see and do in pedaling distance, over terrain that is largely flat, along wide bike lanes, and cheap rentals are available everywhere.

I stayed in a hotel in the Hutong, those ancient, narrow alleyways that surround Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in the center of town.

Here the people smile and say “Hell-O!”, inflecting the last syllable upward, like the Chinese word for hello, Knee-how.

The Chinese in Beijing are unpretentiously friendly and if you’re looking over a map, many will stop to give you directions with no ulterior motive.

My bike ride first took me through Tiananmen Square and its austere Soviet design, then onto the Forbidden City, where for centuries the emperors ruled the land, so called because it was forbidden for common folk to enter. To get to the Forbidden City you must pass under a huge banner with Mao’s photo on it and the Communist flag, literally replacing the grandeur of the old emperor’s palace, placed quite purposefully at the heart of ancient Chinese governance.

The now-empty Forbidden City is a ghost town; ornate dragons look over tourists where the revered once walked, and ferociously beautiful lions guard the entrance to temples.

Adjacent to the Forbidden City are several parks, where ladies sing and practice Tai-Chi, and where the plants are perfectly manicured. This was the China I was looking for; where the flowers were exploding just right, among songs about good days.

The sights in Beijing are stunning: the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, where Empress Cixi, the original “Dragon Lady” kept her empire in check through the frequent use of poison, dispatched from a hillside of painted pagodas.

The raw sexuality of the Llama Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist temple, is striking, and as I stared up at the 60-foot high defiant Buddha it wasn’t hard to reason why the oppressive Chinese government was once so threatened by the vitality of religion they banished monks and destroyed centuries worth of religious buildings and artifacts.

Some well-publicized persecution of religious groups here still goes on, though religious people and temples are everywhere in Beijing today, left alone by the government, for the most part, although no one who practices religion is allowed to join the Communist party.

No Fireworks Here

Fireworks, it turned out, are illegal to light off in Beijing. Quite sensible I suppose, in this town where wood construction is everywhere.

The revelry, popping sounds and bright sparks would have to wait until I was no longer in China, as Beijing was my only scheduled stop.

Though late in my trip I took a bus out to the Great Wall at Simatai, one of the most dramatic parts of the wall accessible from Beijing.

I spent a day hiking along that monument to paranoia that never did keep out the Mongol hordes or any other invaders for that matter.

Today it makes for some wonderful hillside walking. I recalled my love of firework exotica and also Chinese landscape paintings, where every plant looks so exotic. As I looked out from the precipices of the Great Wall, over a landscape that is beautiful, yet no more exotic than Western Pennsylvania or Colorado, I realize it wasn’t the world that was different, just the people’s interpretation of the world.

The reality of China, a marvelous place, was a very different place from my imagination, as I suppose I knew it would be. But I had to see it nonetheless. As Confucius, one of China’s most famous sons reasoned: “They must often change, who would have happiness or wisdom.”

The Price of Safety

A big factor in my exploration of China was that I was visiting during the early, panicky days of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in Beijing.

I was visiting in late April, 2003, when the number of “officially reported cases” was tripling every day, and journalists were calling it the tip of the iceberg.

To pick up this news, you had to visit an Internet café–the state-run media was running long-winded hero stories about local doctors battling the mysterious illness, with little real information.

When the government shut down the Internet cafes and schools to stop the spread of the disease, rumor took over. 

One passed from home to home to hotel in the Hutong–the picturesque narrow roadways of old Beijing– was that the city was going to be quarantined and no one would be allowed in or out.

Trains leaving town were over booked, with people buying standing room only tickets for 14 hour rides.

People began stockpiling food supplies: the price of a loaf of bread jumped from four Yuan to 11 Yuan.

Face masks, though of dubious defense against SARS, were also in hot demand.

The price on a face mask in the Hutong jumped from three Yuan to 10 Yuan in just 24 hours.

The state-run news agency, Xinhua, ran frequent stories calling price gouging immoral.

As I was writing this story in Connecticut, in the USA, I had to chuckle.

A few weeks ago the country was in a mild panic over a lack of flu shots this winter season; so some enterprising clinics jacked the price of flu shots from the normal $20 to over $100.

Connecticut’s Republican governor Jodi Rell launched an investigation into flu shot price gouging, saying the same as the Chinese, it was immoral.

Perhaps our societies are not so different after all. 

Style in the Face of SARS

It is a long standing belief in China that it is unhealthy to swallow phlegm; it should instead be spit out. It was widely believed the only way to avoid the airborne spittle through which SARS is believed to transmit was a surgical face mask.

It was always shocking to visit Beijing and see a well-coifed lady in a business suit unabashedly spit in the middle of the street to the surprise of no one but you, but now the fear of the disease was causing people to spit more than ever, making the Hutong a frightening place to walk through.

To counter this, the government increased the fine for spitting in the street from 50 Yuan to 200 Yuan (about $24), but it didn’t seem to stop anyone.

People were avoiding coughs at all expense. A friend of mine swallowed a bite of spicy Chinese dumpling down the wrong pipe, but suppressed the cough to avoid the panicky looks.

The receptionists at my hotel were directed to report to health authorities anyone with a nonproductive cough; and to turn themselves in if they found themselves with a fever.

In spite of it all, as time wore on, fun face masks appeared on those determined to add some color to the antiseptic gauze masks.

From the “Hello Kitty” face masks that were all the rage among young women, to the blue striped ones that fashionable couples wore, to the Chicago Bulls mask (I assume no copyright was paid) to little monogrammed dragons. 

As more restaurants, temples and theaters closed every day, the theme face masks that started to appear became a heartening development in the outbreak, conveying the sense that people will adapt and overcome.

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