Monthly Archives: October 2013


Just a few days before the blast

When the quotidian explodes

When I was in Beijing earlier this month I became fascinated by the tourists flowing in and out of Tiananmen Gate, or capturing snapshots of each other with Mao’s portrait in the background, a great ideological Grand Canyon, the vacationer’s proof of purchase.

I wrote about it, but I did not mention how I’d crossed the Jinshui Bridge, above the ancient moat, and entered the Forbidden City myself. On the way, I captured this image of the crowd, a jumble of looks and expressions out of Ezra Pound’s faces in the Paris metro.

Yesterday, very near to where I snapped the shutter, a Jeep jumped the curb and crashed into the gate here, plowing through people, injuring dozens and killing five. Three of the dead were in the vehicle, which was almost certainly aimed into the crowds before it exploded into flame, a suicide attack.

The Chinese aren’t saying much, but foreign news reports, quoting anonymous sources close to the investigation, suggest that the incident may be linked to a separatist movement in Xinjiang, a province in China’s deep west. This Reuters story is particularly good.

The Economist, meanwhile, mentions a string of odd goings on that took place around the Forbidden City in the days prior to the blast. Reads a piece posted to the magazine’s site yesterday:

Just an hour before the crash, reports surfaced that a group of … seven or eight people caused a scene by linking arms and jumping fully clothed into a lake near the Forbidden City, the imperial palace that lies behind Tiananmen. Photos show the group huddled together, standing in the water.

It was also reported that on Friday October 25th a worker at the Forbidden City stabbed to death two of his co-workers, inside the palace’s cafeteria. Official media say the murders were the culmination of a dispute between employees.

The day I went, before I went across the bridge and through the gate, a friend of mine had told me that there is something sexual about visiting the Forbidden City: it is a series of revelations, one layer of intimacy wrapped in another, and at the centre you are in a private realm, an interloper, a voyeur.

Shortly after I’d passed through one of the many interior gates inside the palace, I stumbled across a group of people done up in finery and regalia. They were older, with sunned, wizened faces, and they wore dark turbans or towering headdresses, flowing robes encrusted with jewelry, floral cummerbunds and sneakers. I’ve included a shot of them here (if anyone can tell me how to get WordPress to publish this image as large as the one above, I’d be grateful).


I felt like I’d encountered characters from the One Thousand and One Nights. They did not appear to speak Mandarin, judging from the puzzled expressions on their faces when people approached them to take pictures. I assumed they were members of a minority ethnic group from a far-flung region of China, but they were so arresting a group that I also wondered if they were an official part of the pageant of the Forbidden City, like the green-tinted soldiers who march through the place—paid to wander the courtyards with their flashing teeth and high cheekbones.

But soon they were surrounded by tourists, a mob of vacationers clamoring for snapshots, and the members of the group began to turn their backs on the courtyard and huddle together, their smiles grown wooden.


Classical music in China: “More popular than Jesus?” Well, not really.

Here’s the piece I wrote, for my old pals at Maclean’s magazine, on western myths surrounding the popularity of classical music in China. For the story I followed the National Arts Centre Orchestra around during the Beijing leg of its China tour earlier this month, and I talked to a lot of conservatory profs across the country, from Guangzhou to Chengdu. I shot the above in the concert hall at Tsinghua University, a prestigious school located in Beijing’s north end, just a few minutes before the NACO performance began.

You’ll notice that there are still many empty seats here. Don’t let this fool you: the halls in Beijing do fill up, but many spectators arrive after the music starts, likely a function of the city’s horrendous traffic. Even the NACO was late for this show. And yes, there were many more young people in the audience, here and elsewhere, than you’d see at classical music performances in North America and Europe. At the Tianjin Grand Theatre, on the coast just south of Beijing, I also saw many more people dead-to-the-world asleep in their seats.

The story spends some time on crowd-management strategies at Chinese concert halls, where ushers are equipped with laser devices to publicly shame unruly spectators. Wait for the security guards I describe at the Beijing Zoo, cordoning off an area around a trio of NACO musicians there to serenade the pandas: the bouncers were apparently dispatched to protect the instrumentalists from marauding toddlers.


The tourists of Tiananmen

The tourists of Tiananmen

For people-watching, Beijing is hard to beat: looking on as Tiananmen Gate, with its muted portrait of Mao, is transformed into a sightseeing backdrop, with the tourists sporting outfits as loud as the Communist slogans to their rear. On the streets the sense that something momentous is happening, strangely imperceptible under the surface of things, and the sugary drinks and cold bottled tea hocked from vending trucks on the square. Sweet azuki beans baked into pastries in the narrow hutong alleyways to the south, or great vats of soup still offsteaming around the bend from McDonald’s. When I arrived a giant vase filled with hulking fake flowers and Gulliver-sized peaches still sat in the middle of it all, on my way to the Forbidden City, a hangover from China’s National Day, on Oct. 1. The display sparked criticism in the ramp up to the holiday, for its $100,000 price tag, but it was an arresting sight. An odd thing, and foreboding, seeing flowers, which are meant at some point to wilt, blown up to Godzilla proportions, so heavy and imposing, so vividly coloured, and so immune to the wind.


The surreality of the familiar


Touched down in Bangkok the other day for the first time in 25 years. The smells—that odd mix of coriander and sewage—just as I remember, and just as intoxicating. But in my old neighbourhood the city has erupted upwards, turning to chrome or ribbons of concrete. Walked from Asoke to the Chao Phraya River, through the new glistening shopping district, then the ancient storefronts of golden Buddhas beyond that. As I neared the temple complexes along the river, bypassing the fast-talking tuk-tuk drivers under the spires of Wat Ratchabophit, the old Bangkok of my childhood sprang up and welcomed me, that blur of candy-coloured traffic.