Nov 102016
 



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Fei Mo Di

Fei Mo Di has slaved for two days to make me this amazing movie, ‘S’, as a goodbye gift. This photo is from it. We promise each other that we will meet one day in London for cake at Maison Berteaux on Greek Street.

It is seven months since I arrived here, at this airport perpetually seething with people. I’m squatted on the floor, reaching the end of Bel’s Christmas book. God – I’d find it impossible, having one Chinese and one British parent like Ben Chu does. How the hell do you behave, when you come from two – well, almost like, two species?
    The final page. I’m skimming it while shuffling slowly forwards in the queue for boarding. The man in front – British, suit-and-tie, middle-aged, big-bellied, wheezing – scowls in an obvious way at my book’s title Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong, then turns away, handing his young Chinese wife his emptied MacDonalds paper-cup-with-straw for her to dispose of.
    Despair of humanity comes over me too easily.
    Meanwhile Ben Chu is telling off his readers. ‘Start thinking of the Chinese not as some homogenous and intimidating mass of humanity, but as individuals…’ The peasanty-looking Chinese guy behind me starts pushing – like, we’re all going to get on the plane faster if you do that.
    ‘…There are good and bad people among them, just as anywhere else’, writes Chu.

    ‘Some are corrupt, some upright. Some are brutal, some compassionate. Some are greedy, some frugal. Some are mean, some generous. Some are racist, some are tolerant. Some are narrowly nationalist, some are voraciously cosmopolitan.’

It’s high time, says Ben Chu, that we all moved beyond Somerset Maugham’s inability to empathise.
    I admit, I’m crap at empathy. Too quick to write people off as hopelessly alien when they don’t behave like me. Useless at fathoming another person’s mind.
    Once buckled into my seat by the window, I return to the final page that I’ve only skimmed, because I am keen to learn.

‘There is no unfathomable Chinese mind … There really is no Chinese mystery waiting to be revealed…’

I have to pause from reading to do my usual thing of manically gripping the arm-rests for the few moments of take-off – those seconds when the wheels leave the ground and you get tilted back as the plane soars steeply upwards…
    The wheels tuck in and clunk somewhere. I dare to peer down at the receding city lights, feeling the plane judder as though bumping into the curb, but no – there is no curb; it’s just air. Then back to the book in my lap. The final sentence.

‘To understand the Chinese, we need only listen to our own hearts.’

A flare in the corner of my eye. Below the plane a beautiful orange peony is blooming. No – a tangerine cloud, billowing towards us; no – a red flag unfurling until it entirely covers the sky and now gets spangled with a white-hot firework display.
    Exclamations fill the quiet of the plane – on my side only, the side from which the windows of the sideways-tilted and slowly-arcing jumbo jet have been offering a glittering cityscape until this fireball. Now hubbub; now urgent calling across the rows to other belted-in passengers who cannot see outside, until the fantastically-evolving light-show has a soundtrack – a clamour of excited exchanges, calls to the stewards, wails. Seconds become a half-minute, the multilingual cacophony of agitation building, unintelligible, now harmonizing into a collective keen. The jet distances itself from the city, then from the haze of electric lights defining the outer metropolis. Above the racket, an urgent-sounding announcement in Chinese begins. Distant human settlements are coming into view, speckling the darkness like far-away galaxies, while the receding tremendous ball of flame above central Shanghai has gained dark edges of nothingness; no lights from the city’s heart, all the glitter gone.


 

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Aug 042016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

This started as Aussie Cyril’s; now it’s mine. I worked on the colour and cropped off my head, but the thing that ‘makes’ it is that I rotated it until I got the sense of suspension. I am very pleased with it.

It’s been a weird week. We’re both being weird. Carrying on as though this is an ordinary, normal, uneventful life with no pain.
    I might as well be in a remote lighthouse as here. I feel like all my bonds are cut with my past. Where are all the people I had in my life up until last year? Well – call it nine months ago, when I left England.
    What’s my old neighbour Tiffany up to?
    What about Ilka in Berlin?
    I even wonder occasionally, too, about ruthlessly ambitious Conservative Bastard Jeremy (…he who didn’t want our child). But only in abstract terms. Because he is a man of physical beauty. He’s probably painting the queen by now.
    What induced me to leave it all behind?
    Why suddenly up and leave a life?
    Only Tamara has kept in regular touch. What does that say?

When I walk in after the Delightful Peony, Bel thrusts her iPad at me. ‘Read this. Warped.’
    It’s an email alert from the Shanghai ‘Meet-Up’ website, giving details of a newly-founded group.

Elite Social’ new exclusive Meet-up Group for informal networking at cocktail parties and fine dining events in Shanghai! Guests will make valuable contacts while socialising and networking with many quality professionals at prestige venues. Membership not open like other Meet-up Groups, ‘Elite Social’ is private club, monitors all applications and approve only people are stylish, successful, like-minded professionals, appreciate finer thing in life. Average age mid 20’s – mid 30’s, various nationalities. All member need have photo. No fake profile. Welcome to contact organiser directly re sponsorship, collaboration, business promotion, corporate/personal event inquiry.

    ‘Yeuch. Imagine the combination of Western jerks and oriental princesses.’
    ‘Totally,’Bel growls, returning to her desk. ‘This epitomises the Shanghai we get pulled into as westerners. It’s why I’ve never socialised with the international community. When you’re working in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Africa, it’s totally different. I hate how people relate here. Especially the encounter between foreigners and this privileged social stratum of Chinese.’
    I consider my almost total lack of relations with the Chinese population amidst which I’ve lived for a half-year. Fei Mo Di – but he’s an old Etonian. Hong Kong Ron – but he’s Hong Kong-ese. Lily Hong.
    ‘When is a favour not a favour?’ Bel rants on, grimly wiping today’s layer of smut from her monitor. ‘When is a genuine compliment a fake compliment? When is an act of kindness not an act of kindness? When is a friendship not a friendship? When is a smile fake? Who can be trusted – if anyone?’
    ‘Um. Well, Lily Hong, obviously. Aren’t you being a bit extreme?’
    ‘Tuh.’
    ‘What?’
    ‘Lily just wants a passport.’
    ‘Not fair. She’s your good friend, Bel.’
    Silence.
    I reach, touch Bel’s cheek, but this unnervingly transforms her scowl into a desperate, questioning look. I just blunder on – ‘You do need to leave Shanghai. Not just for two weeks – for good. You’re being poisoned.’

Midnight.
    Bel comes to bed at last. ‘Done it.’
    ‘Hey – fantastic!’ I sit up. ‘That’s fantastic.’
    ‘It’s not that good. ‘ She starts to undress. ‘Just alright.’
    ‘Rubbish. I know it’s brilliant. Look – let’s have a launch party before you fly off on Friday! I can put out word on the WeChat group; Mike Little will rally folk.’
    ‘No!’
    ‘Why not?’
    ‘I absolutely don’t want a party. I don’t want to meet people. I hate people. Everyone out to get something from each other. Nobody being straightforward. Nobody being genuine. Only being nice coz they want connections, favours, advantages.’
    ‘But… why put all this work into this wonderful movie if you don’t want to show it to people?’
    ‘I needed to kill the time. You know; get completely absorbed in a task. Before the funeral.’
    ‘Funeral? I thought you’d intentionally missed the funeral…?’
    Sigh. ‘That was my hope.’
    ‘…thought that’s why you decided not to fly straight there when you first got the news…’
    ‘It was. But there was a delay for the post mortem, then another stupid wait for a cremation date. Bloody bureaucracy,’ she stares out of the window. ‘Funeral’s the day after I arrive.’


 

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