‘Twas the best of times, the worst of times….
Sorry for this issue being late…you might be able to guess the reason, what with the global situation at the moment courtesy of Wuhan, which, as you should know, I lived in for two and a half years, from 2006 to 2009. From what I saw there, I’m really not too surprised this problem has come from that city…but well hey.
One of the results of this is that my book was going to be launched at the #newcastlewritersfestival2020, but it’s one of the dozens of gigs and festivals that have been cancelled (www.newcastlewritersfestival.org.au/speaker/asheg-brom/). I even had an interview in the Newcastle Herald (www.newcastleherald.com.au/story/6661395/asheg-broms-memoir-of-his-years-living-in-china-paints-a-picture-of-life-in-wuhan-before-coronavirus/), that, despite having errors and misquotes in it, I was pretty proud of. I also had an interview lined up at www.3cr.org.au for March twenty-sixth, but that’s now cancelled, along with everything in the station. This has cost my book big time, in terms of the momentum it was gaining, and this virus is going to cost the arts industry, in general, millions.
But instead of wallowing in the negatives, I’ll try to keep this on track, because I feel that my book is a celebration of what I saw and lived through in China - the good, the bad, and, indeed, the ugly. Remember, my book’s available at www.ashegbrom.com and www.chinabooks.com.au/search.cfm. Thanks!!!!
So, onto my blog’s regular sections…
Not sure where I got this from - it may have been from The Artists Way that I introduced to you last issue. The idea is simple - get a few sheets of A4 paper, and write columns of totally random, single words. Any words at all. Do as many as you can. Do a few sheet’s worth. Then cut them all into single words and put them in a bag or hat or whatever.
Then, each day, pick out a word, and write a two-page story on it. I give this advice because tons of my ideas came from it, especially in my upcoming sci-fi novel (I’ll be putting some of that in the next Sexy Thalamus!). Believe me - it’s highly recommended to get spontaneous creative juices flowing.
Book recommendation - Desmond Morris, “The Naked Ape”.
What can I say, other than this was one of the books that shaped my views of humanity forever? Along with a lifetime of David Attenborough, this book makes it unambiguously clear that humans are, at the end of the day, just another animal, sharing the same world with all the others. I think it’s very healthy to have that perspective, and it helps understand human behaviour when you see people doing strange things, individually or collectively.
Album recommendation - Pink Floyd - “The Wall”.
This album is perhaps a predictable choice - it’s one of the most influential albums of all time. However, different people have it on their best-of lists for different reasons.
Basically, I was raised in the suburbs, with only commercial radio to give me my music fix. All my music came in radio-friendly, contextless microcosms of sound, which was cool for a long time (eg Queen), but then I discovered Pink Floyd via, ironically, “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”. Being blown over by that, I went through Floyd’s back catalogue, and quickly found “The Wall”…
Put simply, “The Wall” introduced me to the idea that music was a form of art, akin to a painting - songs didn’t need to go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-chorus end; they could do anything they wanted to. This album also, most importantly, introduced me to an album having a narrative; an album with a story, in other words, a concept album. This idea has pervaded me all my musical life afterwards, as I’ve found concept albums - or at least albums that work as a conceptual whole instead of just a random bunch of songs - from the likes of Tool, Faith No More, Bjork, Roger Waters, Mr. Bungle, Radiohead, High Tension and Massive Attack.
In short, “The Wall” showed me that rules can be broken, and radio-friendliness is far less important than artistic expression.
Now, the Cutting Room floor, ie some parts that didn't make it into the book!
Considering the current global situation, I think it’s stunningly appropriate to devote all this issue’s Cutting Room Floor to sections from my early days in Wuhan. The following sections give decent snapshots of Wuhan circa 2007. If you think that’s not contemporary enough and things have changed…well, I have lots of proof that would say otherwise. Take the passages below as reasonably accurate pictures of Wuhan. [NOTE - these are passages that, for the most part, got chopped before being edited, so some of it’s a bit rough. There’s also a sentence here and there that got into the book, but most paragraphs are here for the first time].
Firstly, I guess it‘s important to note that Wuhan is not one city, but three – Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. There’s a geographic phenomena called conurbation, when cities right next to each other expand so much that they merge, and go under one name – an Australian example is the Gold Coast. That’s what’s happened here in Wuhan, and, so, officially I live in Wuhan, but as far as I can tell I live in Wuchang _. Across the river is Hankou, the business/port/trade city, so I’ve been led to believe; I’ve only been there twice so far. Across the river to the south is Hanyang. I haven’t been there yet. Wuchang, where I am, is basically full of industries and universities. There’s thirty-five universities here…yep thirty-five of ‘em.
Pic - downtown Wuchang, with the Yellow Crane Tower (huang he lou (黄鹤楼))in the background
Pirated (ie copied) CDs and DVDs should get a big mention here, for a few reasons…firstly, they are everywhere. I knew that pirated stuff is big business in many parts of the world, but actually seeing them, and the sheer scale of the industry, is a bit eye-opening after coming straight from such a copyright-conscious and obeying country as Australia. Apparently the DVD shops here get raided pretty frequently, only to reappear a few doors down a week or two later…I get the impression that the authorities kind of turn a blind eye because it must be good for the local economy. There’s a couple of places like this a block or two towards the river, on the side of some big square (more on that area later).
The pirated DVDs are kind of funny to me, because, personally, they don’t really interest me that much, but, whenever the local people see a westerner, they seem to automatically assume that you want DVDs…I remember one particular woman in Hankou chasing me down the street trying to sell me some. They seem to think that foreigner = bipedal thing that wants DVDs. The English translations on the backs are sometimes pretty damn hilarious, and often offer much more entertainment than the actual films that they’re trying to plug…so they’re worth a look, even if you have no intention of buying any. More on “Engrish”, or more commonly known as “Chinglish”, later…because these things are covered in it.
I’ve got a few CDs now, and the layouts are pretty interestingly strange. The first one I grabbed was Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and it looks all legit when you first look at it…but when you play it you know it’s burned. It’s pretty rare to find decent music here because basically any decent music at all is pirated. All the “official” music sold over here – like the stuff in western-oriented department stores, of which there’s many – is exactly the kind of braindead pop crap that I avoided like the plague in Australia. For instance, the western section of any store involves names like Westlife, Kylie, Christina, Avril, Mariah, Celine, Nelly, Britney etc etc…oh, and they love Kenny G. I mean, this selection makes Elton John seem risqué (come to think of it, I haven’t seen any of his…). In a nutshell, they seem to like western music here, but the lamest of it. The Chinese music I’ve heard in malls and on the radio is the same – just Chinese versions of western shit. Another odd thing that happens often is that when I go into a CD shop and they see me, they instantly put on some music in English (trying somehow to get my attention, I guess) – and it’s always absolute shit, like some r ‘n’ b, or that song from Titanic(that seems to happen a lot in little restaurants – it happened more than once). So, in another nutshell, when they spot a westerner, they seem to instantly assume that you want to watch crap DVDs and listen to crap music. Hmm…
Here’s something pretty interesting about their “censorship” (or lack thereof)…all this official censorship stuff that China is somewhat infamous for doesn’t seem to matter on the street level (no matter what country you’re in, I’m sure)…and here’s an example. I’ve now got three versions of The Wall – got one, and there were gaps between the songs, so I went and got another one (it’s actually hard to find the same version twice, there’s so many pirates). That version was fine, but then I was determined to find an “official”, legitimate Chinese version. And, eventually, I found it – it was in a shop which looked quasi-official (it’s hard to tell here, honestly), it was in a proper double CD case, and it cost four times the amount of the others (forty-five yuan as opposed to about twelve). But what told me without a doubt it was legit is that it’s censored – the song “Young Lust” has been deleted entirely…even with the lyrics being erased from the lyric sheet. So what does this tell you about censorship working on the street level? Obviously, when it’s far harder to find the official censored version, it means that censorship don’t mean shit. I’m told that all sex is chopped from TV and official DVDs here, but why are they bothering to do that at all, when you can buy the full pirated version two doors down? It just displays a pretty dichotomous attitude towards things…something that’s manifested in a couple of other ways as well. More on this later, I’m sure…
One last thing about the DVDs/CDs…a pretty funny aspect is the wildly inaccurate English translations of the songs, with words being created left right and centre, and letters being used that look “about right” (eg “u’s” instead of “v’s” , “l’s” instead of “”t’s” or “f’s” and things like that – actually, I saw a menu recently which said “Fasty Treats”, presumably instead of Tasty Treats. But the funniest misspelling for me, personally, that I’ve come across so far is the Floyd song “Comfortably Numb”, which was written as “Come Fartably Numb”. Yeah, well…
Ok what else…I think the dunnies here should rate a mention (to any non-Australians reading this, “dunny” is Australian slang for the toilet). Here in China, they have what are called crouching dunnies, which are just a holes in the floor - just a concave porcelain depression, with a hole down one end of it, the middle of the tiles…also, in most places, you’re expected to bring your own dunny paper (yes, it’s BYO dunny paper, a lesson you only need to learn once), and they also try to convince you not to flush paper, but put it in a bin sitting near the toilet instead; I'm not too sure how accurately your nose can synthesise such an environment, so let me just tell you that these places can really, really, really pong…especially the massive, all-but-communal (meaning they have no doors) public toilets, which are often just a trench with tiled walls at regular intervals, with garbages full of smeared paper…so…in the middle of summer, well…before coming here, such a pleasing aroma had yet to greet my nostrils. Consequently, now, when I’m walking around the streets, I make beelines for Maccas and KFCs just for the toilets. I went to a public one in Hankou the other day and the experience was, shall I say, nostril-enlightening.
But, in a way, I need to thank the toilets…they gave me another little golden moment I’ll never forget in Guangzhou…the first time I encountered one of them. I went to some public toilet in a park (it cost five jiaoto use it, the Chinese equivalent of fifty cents, which created an instantly strange experience – having some little old woman chasing you into the toilet trying to get money out of you in another language is pretty damn odd if you didn’t see it coming _)…I saw this hole in the floor, and I yelled out to my mate “hey…where’s the toilet?”…”That’s it”…”Ummmmmm…….how do you…uuuummm…use it?” “You shit in it”…”Uuummm…how?”…it was pretty funny. Because of this unexpected cultural difference, coupled with the fact that, like I said, places like this have no toilet paper in them – ever – I was just unspeakably happy that, at that time, I needed a number one and not a number two.
Pic - back street, outside the nanhu Campus of my uni
To other stuff…you don’t drink the water here, you get bottled stuff all the time, which you can get almost anywhere (there’s little street vendors absolutely everywhere – these little kiosks are, usually, anywhere at all that they can stick a fridge, a counter and a person in), for one or two kuai. The food is generally pretty good. They use peanut oil in the cooking, and lots of it, so eating this stuff regularly is not a healthy idea. There’s lots of street food, tons of it (details of this stuff later – there’s a street full of snack food that I’ll tell you about soon)…basically, anywhere that a fire can be made and a wok thrown on it is used. There’s lots of deep-fried stuff.
Something unrelated but interesting…a funny little quirk about the girls over here…they walk around holding hands all the time. In Australia, girls holding hands means that they’re lesbians. Over here, well, it’s everywhere! It’s kind of really strange when you first notice that everyone’s doing it…your first thought, of course, runs along the lines of shit!! I’m a country of lesbians!!, but, of course, you notice pretty quickly that it’s just one of the library of little cultural differences here.
pic - sights like these are not uncommon. "If it works, do it" is a prevalent ethos all over China.
Personally speaking, I’ve noticed that I’m going through a few phases, as apparently every traveller does, in regards to culture shock…my first emails were kind of negative, mainly because of the ethnocentric aspects that I mentioned (although I’m still not game to go to a street toilet, lest my nostrils melt)…but the more I see of these people and this place, and especially the more I actually meet the people, the more I want to see of China in general – I’d like at least to see Beijing before I go, if only to see if all of China resembles a construction site (Wuhan is still being built, and thus there’s construction sites and buildings being torn down everywhere you go – more on these strange places later). Regarding these omnipresent construction sites, well, things are actually getting done…places that were just half-kilometre-long trenches less than a month ago are now roads (like out the back of my university, there was just a trench there for weeks, but now there’s a zillion cars every day pretending to drive on it). Money from somewhere is being poured into this city – it’ll be interesting to see it in maybe five years time. I have a feeling that it might still be peppered with construction sites…but at least they’ll be in different spots .
Another thing that really adds to the sheer vibrancy of this place is the street “markets”, which are just people with stuff laid out on the pavement. They sell mainly off-the-back-of-a-truck kind of stuff, but sometimes you get hand-made stuff like scarves and woolen hats. The main thing that makes them vibrant is that they change all the time, in terms of where they are and what they’re selling…go down the same street at different times of the day or week, and there’ll be different stuff and different people there. For instance, there’s a regular night market down the street on the western side of my university (Shouyi Lu)…but, more in vein of what I’m talking about here now, there’s just people appearing and disappearing along all corners and outside different places all the time. For example, there was some old woman selling what seemed like old household bric-a-brac (including old communist propaganda from the 1960s or some such date) on one corner one day, and, lo and behold, an old guy was sitting there selling a few dozen books the next. These people sometimes also sit next to each other to give each other company; but most of the time, from what I’ve seen, they sit alone. They also set up shop in parks sometimes, especially the book guys. The nature of these people seems to be totally unpredictable…and, because of this, and also because of the sheer number these people, I can’t see there being any regulations for them, like the licences you have to get in Australia to do similar things on the streets. Maybe outside the big western-style complexes and shopping malls, they have to get permission (that would explain the fact that there’s less of them there), but, in any other part of the city, they just seem to pick a likely corner and sit on it. My own experiences with these people, thus far, have been totally vicarious – not being able to read, hear or speak anything of the language, thus far, has turned me into nothing but a spectator in many ways.
I have to mention that my flat is great. This place is luxurious…easily one of the best places I’ve ever lived in. The floors are cream-coloured tiles, which means you need to mop it pretty regularly, but that’s fine. Living in such a nice place, I’ve become quite houseproud, unlike the insane pseudo woman who lived here before me. The bed is pretty Asian in that it’s very stiff, like a plank with sheets, but you get used to it very quickly.
I’ve bought a couple of DVDs here now and man, they’re a mixed bag in terms of languages. There’s always at least three, sometimes six, language subtitles to choose from (Mandarin, Korean, German, French and a couple I can’t recognise), and English is usually just in the pile somewhere, and you have to look for it (most of the time, the default language is Chinese, so you need to grab the remote and flip through the languages until you find something that you recognise). I just picked up a U2 DVD of music clips, and, while you’re watching it, you’re also reading the subtitles of a silent, ongoing commentary in German…and you can’t turn it off. It’s the kind of thing a gonzo journalist would have a field day over…
I’ve been picking up a lot of these burned CDs trying to find certain songs to give the students a listen to. One of the parts of teaching that you’re “expected” to do is go to what they call “English Corner”, where a pack of students hang out outside the teacher’s building every Thursday night, and you can just talk to ‘em or give them some extra-curricular stuff. So what I had in mind was to get them to listen to all this western stuff they wouldn’t have heard before and get them to write about and/or discuss them. This idea should go down well with them, because what one of the other teachers did last year was show them a western movie every week, and it became so popular that it’s now part of the curriculum. It’s all about exposing them to the west and helping them understand it. With my knowledge of music and where certain genres came from, hey this is right up my alley. Picking the songs has been fun. Let’s see what the hell they make out of Tool, Nine Inch Nails and Nick Cave - I haven’t heard anything aggressive or distorted whatsoever in their music.
Something I’m really looking forward to is going up the Yellow Crane Tower, which is apparently one of Wuhan’s big touristy spots. It’s a five-level pagoda kind of thing, and it’s maybe twenty-five minute’s walk away. This morning, actually, I went to check out the classrooms I’ll be teaching in (I still haven’t started – the past few weeks have been like an odd, odd, odd, odd holiday), and, while exploring, went up to the roof of the actual teaching building, from which can see the Yellow Crane Tower – and I have to say, it does look pretty odd, this thousand year old temple in amongst all these twentieth-century high-rises.
By the way, Christmas don’t seem to mean much here, so I’ll be working through Christmas; I’ve actually got classes on boxing day. Same with New Years, because the Chinese have a different new years, which is in February sometime I think. I knew about this beforehand, because when they celebrate it in Melbourne, you tend to hear about it (whether you want to or not, haha). There’s some festival coming up right now actually, that I don’t know the actual date of, called the Moon Festival or something. For this festival they sell “moon cakes” everywhere, pretty analogous to Easter eggs being everywhere in March in the west – I haven’t tried one myself yet. I’ll give one a go. The Chinese put sugar in absolutely everything, so I’m sure it’ll be sweet. If they could put sugar in sugar, I’m sure the Chinese would do it.
A few things about groceries, out of whatever interest. In Australia I became totally addicted to fruit juice in the morning…well, that’s an addiction that’s in hiatus, because there’s no such thing as fresh orange juice here unless you squeeze it yourself…even the stuff advertised as “100% juice” actually means “100% reconstituted”. I’ve been drinking what they call nectar, which is apparently fifty percent juice, which is the highest ratio I’ve found…another little quirk that I’ve found is that the little markets tend to have heaps better fruit and veggies than the big complexes…there’s a tiny place around the corner that has expensive but great nectarines. Kiwifruit are everywhere. Pasta is easy to get but pasta sauce is like hen’s teeth. Olives are basically the same, and olive oil is very expensive – four to six times the price of peanut oil, the goop of choice in these parts. Coffee isn’t very big here, although Nescafé is plugging the hell out of the stuff at the moment. You can buy it at grocery shops, but getting a coffee in anywhere like a café seems to be hard work. It’s also very expensive; I’ve only had one coffee out of home here, the one in Guangzhou that I mentioned before, and it cost me around the same price as the trip to a restaurant the night before. Having said that, I asked for an Irish coffee (it was all the same price), just to see what I got, and it was one of the best coffees ever I’ve had, to be honest. Shot of whiskey in it, and real cream layered on top. There was probably twenty grams of fat in it, but ooooh was it worth it. I also found something absolutely intriguing that’s currently sitting in the fridge – a little semi-expensive bottle of something. All the writing is in Chinese except the line “cider meets condensed milk” – huh?? This I’ve got to try…
[After seeing some Chinese opera]…So that was certainly a cool night. Contributing to the feeling of “getting a full dose of Chinese culture” that night was definitely the bus trips there and back. Buses here act like cars – if there’s half a metre of space to fill, fill it. Now. Being so big, they have more shouldering ability in the traffic, but they get stuck easier. The chaos on the road is – on the chance I haven’t mentioned it yet – insanely insane. The corner of the bus on the road next to you being a mere couple of centimetres from you would scare the crap out of you if your vehicle was going any faster than forty k’s an hour, which most of the time it isn’t. Except when you catch a taxi real late at night – then the cabbie hammersit. When he finally drops you off, you get out your wallet with shaking hands and white knuckles. A couple of times (literally) I haven’t even waited for the change, I’m just outta there, kissing the encrusted dirt. The Driving Instruction Manual in Wuhan must consist of “Move forward. Do not die”, and that’s it. If they’re any more rules, I haven’t seen anything to suggest their presence. I mean, there’s lights, pedestrian lights, footpaths, and lanes painted on the roads, but everyone ignores them…I think they should stop pretending to have rules, and just rebuild Wuhan as a single, multidirectional, billion-lane road.
………………………………Hope you enjoyed that! Like I keep saying, there’s plenty more where that came from.
Until next issue, as Bill and Ted said, “be awesome to each other”.