One of the reasons that I like to stay in Gulou, around the Drum Tower, is the satisfaction I get every time I take the short cut I know of from the place I often stay to Gulou Dong Dajie, the street you take to get to my favorite bar, which lies on a tiny lane just off of it. I get a weird little thrill, coming back from the bar late at night, by myself, buzzed on a couple of beers, when the traffic has died down and most of the people are off the street, just a few couples and workers here and there, and a random drift of paper blown on the cold breeze. I walk through the plaza, past these, you know, ancient buildings, tourist attractions by day that I have practically to myself by night, and it just gets me every time—how cool is this?
There's a coffee place I like on one end of the square, close to the Drum Tower, and I was heading there my last night in Beijing, just after sunset. The weather had turned bitter-cold again, after a few days of temps in the 40s; the wind had kicked up, and even though I've gotten better at handling cold, that knife-edged wind is something I doubt I'll ever get used to.
I'd just entered the square by the Bell Tower when a middle-aged Chinese woman came up to my side and said, "Hello!"
"Hello," I replied.
"Hello," she said again. She clutched two unwrapped rolls of toilet paper against her body.
I don't remember what I said, something in Chinese, and then she told me that she could also say, "Good-bye!" And "Okay!" And that was all the English she knew.
Meanwhile, an older man had come out of a doorway. I can't remember how we started talking, but he spoke a lot of English. He told me that he was a professor, a teacher, and that he worked restoring historical Chinese buildings, that he'd worked in San Francisco, in Chinatown, doing that work, and that he did that work here now.
"Oh, do you know about the plans for this area?" I asked. Because the various redevelopment proposals are something that very much concerns me.
"I am involved with restoring ancient Chinese buildings," he repeated, not answering me. I'm not actually sure he understood my question.
"This is my favorite place in Beijing," I told him, which is true.
"I want to show you something," he said. He gestured toward the entrance to a building on the square. A "Porcelain Museum," something I'd vaguely noted on occasion but never really paid attention to.
I followed him, wondering what this would turn into.
He nodded at a couple of workers there and we walked past them, into an entry hallway, and then into a large room, almost a hall, filled with examples of porcelain.
"So beautiful," I said, and it really was. I'd had no idea all this was here.
The woman carrying the toilet paper followed us. Was it okay, she asked the older man? He nodded, and gestured that we should continue on. There was another large room, full of porcelain pieces, smaller ones for the most part that later I noticed were for sale. Still beautiful. A workroom, with photos and a sculpted clay head.
Then, an "art gallery."
Cue, "Sense of Mild Dread."
For those unfamiliar, the "art gallery" is one of those, not exactly scams, but opportunistic expressions of Chinese micro-capitalism, as it were. As a foreigner, you'll get approached by a couple of "students" who want to "practice their English," and then show you their classes'/teacher's/uncle's "art gallery." These are exhibits of Chinese paintings that are mostly copies of traditional works, with some peasant folk and countryside realism thrown in. If you're looking for inexpensive paintings of bamboo and birds and goldfish for your walls, these actually can be a pretty good deal, and hey, I've bought a couple of paintings from various "galleries" over the years.
But there is only so much wall space for copies of famous Chinese paintings.
"This is my painting," the professor said, pointing. "This is my daughter's."
"I want my daughter to study more English," he added.
Meanwhile, the woman perches on the stool, clutching her rolls of toilet paper, every once in a while interjecting a "hello!" and then explaining to me that this is all the English she knows.
"My son studies piano at XXXX**." He pointed at a stack of thin papers, each with a stylized character painted in black ink. "Do you recognize that? That one is 'le.' Also, 'yue.'"
"Happiness, and music."
"Yes. I make those." He smiled. "My design. Today I have over 60 visitors from XXXX**. I made this for them. 'Le.'"
The stylized "le" has little loops, like musical notes. He sings: "Do, re, mi, fa..."
He thinks for a moment. "Because it is Christmas. And because I have been drinking no small amount of wine." He laughs and gestures at a tea glass full of dark liquid. "I want to make you a gift."
He takes one of the extra scrolls, asks me for my name, dips his brush into ink, adds my name and "American friend" and "Merry Christmas" to the scroll. Sips his jiu.
"He is very clever," says the woman. "I can only say, 'Hello. Goodbye. Okay.'"
"That's very good," I tell her.
Then, out of nowhere, in English, she says, "Long live Chairman Mao!"
The professor's face freezes. Almost purples. "Do not say that! I don't like that! I don't want to hear it." He shakes his head. "He was a terrible man. Terrible. Like the First Emperor Qin."
I nod. "I heard that a lot when I was in China the first time."
Then he beams, sips his wine. "I like Deng Xiaoping. He was a great man. Did great things for China."
He ssks me for my parents' names, and makes a special scroll for them too. Then, "do you have brothers and sisters?" and he rolls up two more scrolls for them.
"Okay!" says the woman, giving us a thumbs-up.
"She is a little crazy," the professor says, conversationally, in English. "Her family died in the Cultural Revolution."
Finally, he rolls up all of the paintings, wraps them in a newspaper. Mentions again that he wants his daughter to learn more English, and I promise to coach her next time I come to Beijing.
The woman with the toilet paper walks me across the square, past the parked rickshaws. The wind has come up cold. "The professor is really smart," she tells me, "but he drinks too much. My husband drank himself to death. He was only forty-seven."
"I'm sorry," I say.
She brightens,"I will be sixty!" she tells me (sixty being an auspicious age in China).
"Oh, that's very good. You'll be sixty soon?"
"Now I am fifty-three," she says. "I want to show you my house! It's behind the coffee bar."
"Oh, I was going to that coffee bar," I say, as she clutches my arm and hurries me towards it.
"Laoban!" she calls out as we approach the coffee bar. "I'm going to show her my house!" We step over the threshold. "Siheyuanr," she says, the name for the traditional hutong housing. And it's a small wing of a courtyard house. "These are my clothes that I washed." She points to a clothesline, stretched across a window, pants and shirts fluttering in the shelter of the courtyard. "You can look inside. See? See?” I look through the window. A tiny room, painted white, with cartoon characters on the walls.
“I have more rooms than just this one," she tells me.
Then she walks me back to the coffee house, clutching my arm tight, and says "goodbye."
(**Famous foreign music conservatory. Name changed for privacy's sake)