non-fiction

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Shower Business

Last days of a Beijing bathhouse – by Robert Foyle Hunwick

 

Hong Sheng, qigong master, can perform nude splits on a bridge of cracked tiles in a sauna the temperature of Mount Doom like a man half his age. That’s how some guys like to roll in China: the backslapping, the baijiu toasting, the bonobo displays of power. Beijing’s last old-style bathhouse isn’t the kind of place to worry about stray hairs, clean towels or a brace of someone else’s overripe cherries.

Just shy of a century old, the Shuangxingtang bathhouses in the far south Beijing suburb of Fengtai is one of the capital’s toughest buildings. So far it has survived a republic, various warlords, a full-scale occupation and a bitter civil war, followed by everything the Communist Party could throw at it. It’s fitting that property developers are most likely to finish this place off. A shame – there aren’t many hide-aways where one can escape from decorum so cheaply. Napping, grumbling, smoking and masculine displays are all being pushed out to the suburbs.

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Father's Day

Climbing generational walls – by Mia Li

 

One Wednesday in early June my father called me at work and said, “I heard it’s going to be Fathers Day soon.”

Alarmed, I sat up in my chair and tried to make sense of this. My father had always said that the invented foreign festivals were decoys imported from America to sell cakes and carnations to China’s new middle class gullibles. Even still, in recent years it had become customary for Chinese children to buy their parents gifts on Fathers and Mothers Day. Pressure from both Confucius and the consumer industry had become insurmountable, let alone guilt trips from mum and dad. Starting the year I got a job, each year my mother dropped hints about what gift she wanted (at least she didn’t make me hand over a portion of my salary like some other Chinese mothers do). But my proud father would never ask me for anything, so I thought.

“I’d like to get you a gift!” I said, in what I hoped was the right response. “What would you like?”

“I’d like an Astrill account,” he replied, not skipping a beat. “I need to get over the firewall.”

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The Mountain Spirits are Laughing

On the trail in Yunnan – a travel diary by Jeremiah Jenne

 

 

Day one

I am barely surviving Shangri La. I’m standing on an observation platform 15,000 feet above sea level, on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan province. Known to the local Naxi people as Satseto, the mountain rises to over 18,000 feet and has only been summited once. I am in no shape to climb anything today and instead ride the gondola up. Just two days before I was in Beijing, and I am adjusting poorly to exertion at altitude. It takes a very specific act of concentration to not lavishly soil myself with every step.

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Great Expectations

The literary dream of Beijing – by Lu-Hai Liang

 

When you're young and ambitious, keen on literary adventure, the idea of moving to a new country and becoming a writer is hugely romantic. You may not be the next Hemingway or Graham Greene, but the ghosts of those greats – men who drank, chased women and saw their art as their masculine fixation – leave long seductive shadows.

Beijing is not London or Tokyo, Tangier or Rome. It doesn't have the transparent allure of LA or the colourful chaos of Mexico City. And it sure as hell ain't Paris. It doesn't look beautiful in the rain and the architecture lacks all grace and subtlety. Beijing is unrelenting in its grayness, and filled with poor decisions about infrastructure and basic city planning. It’s a city so mired in reality that any charm pours straight into its drains, which are too few and badly designed. Yet journalists and writers have flocked here. Why?

I was born in the southern city of Guilin in 1989. Before I was born, but after I was conceived, my father swam from China to Hong Kong. Well, almost swam there. He didn't quite make it. He was picked up by Hong Kong water police after nine hours in the water, trying to reach the fabled British colony. If you want to read more about this family history, you can find it here. Suffice to say politics was involved in his decision to escape China. I moved to England, and met my father for the first time when I was five. At the age of twenty three, I reversed his journey and moved from Britain back to China.

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Ikea Love Song

Build your own utopia – by Alex Taggart

 

Ikea. A winning combination of minimalist Swedish design and affordable bourgeois domesticity, all folded up into a flatpack box of soft power and served with a side of meatballs. Anywhere in the world where people want something sustainable to sit on, the frictionless Ikea experience can be perfectly replicated – although never imitated – with no risk of compromising the company’s squeaky-clean Scando-socialist ideals. Or so I thought, until my first trip to the Beijing flagship store, one of the largest in the world.

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