The problem with guide books is they are written by and for Capitalists. Pages and pages of shopping, eating, sleeping, consuming, consuming, consuming. The first entry in any guide book is about money. Where to get it, how to change it, what to do if you need more. The rest of the book is devoted to how to spend it. But not everyone in the world is so shallow. A group of us got together and founded the Worker’s Guide to the World series. Travel books written along Marxist lines, for the traveller who cares more about struggle and revolution than souvenirs and exchange rates.
We were in Beijing, researching. Cuba had come out the April before. Vietnam in June. The People’s Republic of China was divided into six areas. Luis and I got Beijing and Manchuria, the North-East of the country. Relieved not to have drawn the Long March, we identified our main areas of initial research. In Beijing we would focus on the Party, the symbols of its glory past and present in the capital city and, of course, the final resting place of Comrade Chairman Mao. In Manchuria we would look into the victorious struggle against the Imperialist Japanese invaders.
Luis got in touch with a guy he knew from university, Jun-wei, who promised to show us around. I’d never met Jun-wei, but I assumed he’d be useful. Luis had explained the situation, what we were after, and Jun-wei said he understood.
“That’s a hotel. That’s a hotel. That’s a …”
There’d been a breakdown in communication somewhere.
“Yes! You can read Chinese?”
We’d got off the subway at Fuxingmen Station with the intention of walking down Xichang’an Jie taking in all the major sights: the Presidential compound, the Great Hall of the People, and, of course, the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace – Tian’anmen Square. Just walking in the winter air I could sense the difference. We weren’t in a Capitalist cess-pool now. This was a place where Marxism was at work, building. It was exciting. Crisp and clear. Pure.
So far Jun-wei had shown us only hotels. I wouldn’t have minded if any of them were particularly relevant: a hotel that hosted some great meeting, say, or one taken over in the revolution and its doors opened to the people. Even a hotel whose bourgeois owners had been taken out and shot on such a day and at such a place for crimes against the people. But no, he seemed to be showing us luxury.
He’d even tried to show us the Xidan Beidajie shopping street, replete with Pizza Huts, KFC and Zara.
“Most people can’t afford to shop here,” he said. “But maybe one day. This is just like London, yes? New York.”
I looked at him, disgusted.
We walked on some more, the freezing wind in our bones slowing our progress. I’m from a cold country, so I could take it, but Luis’ South American blood was freezing.
“Wide streets,” I said to them. “It’s the Paris logic. Narrow streets can be barricaded, blocked. This is wide enough for ten tanks to roll down without having to worry about scratching the paintwork. Clever town planning.”
“Some narrow streets and high buildings might keep us out of the wind,” said Luis.
“We need wide streets for the many traffic Beijing has,” said Jun-wei. “Are you cold? Let’s go inside here.”
We’d reached an enormous glass and steel building, like a UFO.
“This is the Opera concert theatre. It is very new. Many people don’t like it. We call it the Egg. Designed by foreigners so not so popular. Let’s go inside.”
“Is there anything good on,” said Luis, joking.
“Romeo and Juliet.”
“Ah, a traditional Chinese workers’ story.”
“No. It is English I think.”
Heat. It wasn’t unwelcome but we were standing in a theatre lobby, one of the churches of bourgeois decadence. I didn’t want to be there, surrounded by all that corruption, the insidious influence of the West creeping even into the People’s Republic.
Jun-wei wanted us to see the arena. We said no. So did the staff.
“What’s his problem?” I asked Luis.
“He’s nervous, I think. Wants us to love his country.”
“So why is he showing us all this bourgeois bullshit?”
“I guess he’s showing us China isn’t a third world country. That they can do anything the West can do.”
“He’s proud? Proud of Zara and Romeo and Juliet? He hasn’t shown us anything that matters.”
“How far to the Comrade Chairman?” I asked him.
“Not far. You want to go now?”
“I want to go. Now.”
Back out and as we waited at the lights to cross, important black government Audi’s whipped through the red lights on their way somewhere, doing the work of the people. On the corner an old man in blue work clothes stood staring back at the Egg, urine pooling around his feet. Everyone’s a critic. I gave him some money.
We passed the Presidential compound, high walls, cameras and heavy security presence. Maoist slogans large white on red. Everything was red. The colour of China and the colour of Communism. A perfect match. I asked Jun-wei what the signs meant.
“That one means no entry. That is a traffic light. Red is stop. Green is go. That is the speed limit. Seventy is the limit. That means cycle lane.”
“Signs. That one means …”
“Not the street signs. The slogans either side of the gate.”
“Where? Oh, those. They are Communist slogans.”
“I know. What do they mean.”
“That one says ‘Long live the great Communist Party of China’ and that one says ‘Long live the invincible Mao Zedong Thought’.” He moved off towards the traffic lights.
I couldn’t quite get my head around Jun-wei. He seemed to be – and it seems bizarre to be saying it, but it is the most appropriate word – embarrassed by his government. I mean, I know the state isn’t perfect, but the point is it’s trying to reach that perfection. Capitalist states think they are perfect and so have stopped trying. The socialist state is only a stage on the way to a stateless communist paradise. Jun-wei’s country is at the vanguard of this, yet all he wants to show us is hotel after shop after theatre.
Finally we reached Tian’anmen Square. I had to admit to feeling a little awestruck. It truly is a space which honours the grandeur of the Chinese people and the Communist Party of China. Vast. Imposing. Framed by the Forbidden Palace and its grandstand for dignitaries to the north, the Great Hall of the People, home of the National People’s Congress to the west, a museum to the east and south of us, in the centre of the square, is Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, his final resting place.
Luis had his camera out, slowly stepping in a circle, presumably to get a panoramic shot. I looked at Jun-wei. He looked at his watch.
“You must be very proud of this,” I said. The flags, the architecture, the obvious power of his country, the success of the Party.
“It is popular with tourists,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
“I’m hungry,” Luis said. “And cold. The wind here is insane.”
Jun-wei looked at his watch again.
“Are we late for something?”
“I think Mao’s body closes soon.”
“Why didn’t you say something? That’s the most important thing. Where is it?”
We ran to the hall. Sure enough a big sign showed they close at noon. It was 11.53.
“We need our passports,” said Luis, waving his at me.
I unzipped my bag and pulled it out when a strong hand caught my chest and stopped me dead.
“No bags,” said the soldier.
“I have my passport,” I said.
“No bags,” he said again.
“You cannot take a bag inside,” said Jun-wei.
“Are there lockers?”
Time moved closer to twelve.
“No cameras too,” he said to Luis.
“Take this,” said Luis, handing me his camera. “If you can’t go in you can look after it for me.” And they both ran off to see Comrade Chairman Mao, leaving me behind in the square.
Fuming, I stomped around. People were watching me and I realised I was holding Luis’ camera in my hand. I put it in my pocket lest anyone try to grab it. At least if I got mugged, I thought, I can give them his camera and keep my own. Minutes went by. It really was exposed. The wind stormed across the expanse with nothing to break its progress and crashed into my body. I took out Luis’ camera and checked his photos. I was looking at them when they came back.
“These aren’t very good. You haven’t captured the magnificence of the space,” I told him.
“You can’t photograph space. The problem with the square is there’s nothing in it. It’s a vast square surrounded by buildings. You can’t photograph an absence. There’s nothing to focus on. No depth.”
“How was the Comrade Chairman?”
Luis looked around before answering. “A bit creepy really. Like he’s made of wax. And the security is insane. Can’t move, can’t speak, can’t touch.”
Creepy? He had the honour of seeing the Comrade Chairman and all he could say is it was creepy.
“The government want to move him,” Jun-wei said, voice low.
“Move him? Why?”
“We are not North Korea. Cult of personality is not good for progress. It keeps everyone focus on the past. Government want us to think about future.”
“Makes sense,” said Luis. “Why don’t they move him?”
“First person to suggest it is traitor. I think it’s lunchtime.”
“Definitely,” said Luis.
“Okay, I want to show you Beijing noodles. They are very good. I know a good place near here. We go?”
I nod. We go.
Thinking about the guide, we hadn’t accomplished much. Very little to write up, and I hadn’t even seen the Comrade Chairman. Beijing was seen as the best posting. We have to produce something spectacular. I needed to see Mao. We needed decent photographs. It wasn’t going well.
Jun-wei led us through twisting back streets lined with stalls selling a variety of food, including deep fried insects on sticks. There were also some souvenir stalls and at one I bought a pin badge. It had some characters I couldn’t read, a building, the hammer and sickle. “It from Long March” the trader said. “When Mao become leader of Party.” I pinned it to my scarf.
The smells were vivid, and my stomach signalled it was ready for food. We followed Jun-wei into a dead end of five shabby looking restaurants.
“So,” he said. “What do you want to eat?”
“What do you want to eat?”
“You said you were taking us to a restaurant. For noodles.”
Staff from each restaurant surrounded us shouting, presumably about their food and prices. Jun-wei ignored them. I looked at Luis who was trying not to laugh. What was wrong with this guy?
“You want noodles? Okay, maybe this one sell noodles.”
The noodles were good, warm and filling. We came back out with satisfied stomachs and defrosted cores, ready for some more research.
“Now,” said Jun-wei. “I take you to duck restaurant. Beijing duck is very famous.”
“Now? We’ve just eaten.”
“Small duck. It is the best thing in Beijing. Follow me.”
Now Luis wasn’t even trying to hide his laughter. I felt better but I still didn’t feel like laughing. We were wasting time doing Lonely Planet nonsense when we should be working.
“After the duck, can you show us some proper things. Like, I heard there were Cultural Revolution slogans somewhere. We need to see those.”
“Sure, sure,” he said. “But first duck. Duck is most important thing in Beijing.”
We crossed another busy shopping street and went into a chain restaurant. Jun-wei ordered.
“I come here with my family. There are four of us. We love duck. They cut it in front of you, then they take the bones away and make soup. You can take the soup home or eat it here. I asked them to give it to us here. Normally half a duck is too much for my family so I ordered a whole one.”
Luis was laughing again. Jun-wei seemed to have noticed for the first time.
“Yeah. Half a duck is too much for your family of four. There are three of us, so you ordered a whole duck.”
“Of course. I can only eat one or two mouthfuls of duck before I am full. It is very oily.”
“So why did you order a whole duck?”
“Maybe you will like it. Are you hungry?”
“No. You just took us to a noodle restaurant.”
“Yes. Do you like Beijing noodles?”
“They were great. But now we’re not hungry and you’ve ordered a whole duck.”
“And soup,” I added. I didn’t think this was as funny as Luis did, but it was certainly ridiculous. I couldn’t help smiling.
“Yes, the soup. They make soup from the bones. I don’t think you will like it.”
After lunch part two we resumed the tour, this time at a slower pace. Noodles and duck is a bulky load to carry around.
“If we turn here, I will show you Hutong. Hutong is famous Beijing street, like small alley. Some are very beautiful. Old Beijing. Some along here are beautiful.”
He took us into a small courtyard. The building surrounding it was beautiful. Jade green and blood red, curved wood eaves and stone steps. Three black Audis were parked inside. Another two stood ready out on the street. A huge man in a suit came over to us and talked heatedly with Jun-wei. Without understanding a word of Chinese I knew we weren’t welcome. Sure enough, we were escorted back onto the street.
“This hutong is now government property. You are foreign so not allowed inside.”
“Shame,” said Luis. “It’s really beautiful.”
“Yes. Government office so it stays beautiful.”
“What kind of office is it?” I asked.
“It is …” he read the plaque on the wall. “How to say … Department of Culture and … Foreign Friendship.”
“And we can’t go in because we’re foreign?” said Luis, laughing. “Very friendly.”
“Government names mean the opposite in China. Department of Culture and Foreign Friendship doesn’t like foreigners. Department of Education doesn’t like schools and teachers. Department of Industry doesn’t like workers.”
“You know something Jun-wei? You don’t seem very proud of your country.”
He looked at me. Back at the Audis.
“This is not place to talk about such things. You want to see Cultural Revolution slogans? We go there now.”
“No,” I said. “Let’s go there later. I want to talk with you. We came here to write about how the glorious Communist Party of China is forging ahead on the difficult road to a better future, and you’ve shown us nothing but hotels and food, and I want to know why.”
“Why?” he whispered. “Because there is no progress. No one is going anywhere. No one in government. Communists are as corrupt as Capitalists. Get to the top, take the money, drive the Audis, get best seats in theatre no one else can afford to visit, shop in Zara and when they die everything goes to son. But we don’t talk here.”
Before I could answer him Luis stopped me with a hand, a shake of his head.
“Jun-wei,” he said. “I’m quite tired after all that food. Is there anywhere we could get a beer and sit for a while?”
Jun-wei’s smiled broadly. “Now this is a good idea. I know a good bar near here. Follow me.”
We settled into a sofa by the bar and ordered a round of Tsing Tao. The music was loud here, Chinese heavy metal. I’d never have guessed that Jun-wei was a headbanger, but he seemed different here. More relaxed. More comfortable. He and Luis chatted about bands for a while, swapping tips and album names. Once the second round of beers arrived Jun-wei asked us about the guide book. I did.
“This is a strange idea for me,” he said. “Many bad things happened because of this ideology. Many people died. But it is the ideology that made China strong again. Socialism and Communism are maybe different for us than for you in the West.
It should be a tool. A means to an end. But our leaders have made it the end. They are happy with the country now because they are at the top. They have stopped working. We are not happy yet. But we are working hard.
“I am proud of my country. I am proud of Beijing noodles and Beijing duck. I am not proud of Tian’anmen Square. I am proud of my country not because of what it is, but of what it can become. A country is not the same as government. This,” he gestured at the Tsing Tao, at the speakers, at our full stomachs. “This is my country. Not the slogans. Not the square. Not the Audis.”
He took a drink, checked again that we couldn’t be heard.
“You shouldn’t have come now. China isn’t ready yet. Come back in thirty years. We’re still building this country. Come back in thirty years. We’ll be ready for visitors then.”
Iain Maloney is from Aberdeen, Scotland but now lives in Japan. His fiction, poetry and journalism has been published around the world. His novel First Time Solo, a tale of Second World War pilots and jazz, is out now on Freight Books.