A Journal of the Plague Year 3.0 Day 10

26th December 2020

Why is Boxing Day so called? Do we unbox stuff, hit each other? Or it alludes to the fact we just lie all day watching the box, sprinkled in food and wrappers, and drool. I can’t even remember what I watched.

An entire day appears to have slipped by in the stream. Maybe I did some exercise, entertained the Queen. Maybe I murdered some people in alleyways, trance-like. Might explain all that blood.

It is a little disconcerting. They say add life to your days not days to your life (right up there with Life Laugh Love, Karen), but have I not done anything noteworthy at all? Ah yes, I remember. In the morning I sent an excerpt of The Book to an agent, working for a few hours on the email and intro. This gave me carte blanche to do absolute sweet FA for the rest of the day, imbedded into sofa, mesmerised by a screen. We now have a modern allergy to boredom, even for a few seconds.

I imagine I watched a few shitty episodes of something on Netflix -my list on there I’ve realised is entirely devoted to Films I’ll Maybe Watch But Not Right Now, the kind of bargain basement shit you’d find at the bottom of the DVD pile back in the day, or in the Pound shop. Mediocre movies from 15 years ago, rom-coms that no one ever saw, some flick Someone Now Famous Wished They’d Never Done, a documentary on Something Or Other Interesting That Happened But We Can Dilute Into Numbness By Dragging Out Into A 3 Hour Epic Or Entire Season.

Anything recent that Netflix assures us is fantastic because it funded it, but is really a lacklustre bore-a-thon on human existentialism (the cheapest way to tell a story) packaged into something newfangled or woke/ unwoke. Say a beauty pageant (perhaps for drag queens), or a fat farm, or a gay conversion centre, with a laugh-an-hour at the whole situation, till it gets tired, fast. Why is Americana so formulaic? Anything that does vaguely work (thank you Sundance) is suddenly approached by the Hollywood bigwigs, thrown millions at and the premise beaten to death in a thousand different formats and merch. The Funny Spy. The Angsty Adult. The Revenge of the Angsty Adult. The Cool Mom, The Flabby Dad. The Ethnic Love Story. The Cartoon Creature, Lost. The Funny Guy And His Loveable Neurodiverse Sidekick. The Autistic Kid. The Cursed House. The Innocent Abroad and Their Funny Romance. The Man and Woman Who Start to Warm to Each Other After Contrived Melodrama. Female Struggle But Ultimately Bonding – Girl Friends! It’s all so 2020, or should I say 2017 and counting.

And has anyone seen the description blurbs when you click on a film? So mindlessly cryptic, anodyne and asinine in such a tired formula they’re likely a bot. Or a field of indentured copywriters who might as well be one, clamped under a grate so strict they get electrocuted if they stray. Their mindless recipe for tapwater tries to entice you it’s absinthe -for Schindler’s List they’d put down:

A man on a mission. A people in chains. Their struggle to redeem themselves in a black and white world -but can they outwit these dark forces?

For The Little Mermaid:

A girl seeking a dream. A crab dodging the pot. A man entranced. But can legs save her from destiny?

For Trainspotting:

A youth on the edge. A baby on the ceiling. Scotland will never look the same.

Hit me with something new. The problem with US movies, or series, is that there is so much money to be made. And canyer blame them? Find an ounce of creativity, humour and a refreshing take on something, and sell, sell, sell. You’ll make fortunes overnight, while the iron’s hot. Copy that format till it sticks, you can’t go wrong (because by the time you do -you’ll be rich).

Of course the current dearth of creativity is due to the fact for the last year nothing’s been filmed by any studio due to the infectiousness of a crew, and that everything that was due to be released is reluctant to show until cinemas get back to normal. If anything this year has marked the speeding up of the big screen being replaced by home streaming.

Tried watching some Chinese films, now the world’s biggest market, and what is taking over the Hollywood machine. Our new worldly saviour perhaps. They too have an army of writers, grade A actors, ginormous budgets, special FX and a world of history and tales to draw on. Perhaps this is the new wave? Up n coming, that’s turned around in less than a decade to become a behemoth of creativity. It’s ripe for discovery to say the least.

Well, to put it bluntly… Hell no.

Almost every flick is unwatchable. China appears still at the corny end of the spectrum when catering to vast audiences -watch as heroic boy band members save small, stupid children (separated by perhaps following a balloon/ doll/ puppy amidst all the guns-ablazing chaos) from alien bombs, or evil, foreign militia. Female assassins ward off dozens of arrows with a spinning blade… while flying. Buildings/ mountains/ glaciers collapse milliseconds behind the fleeing troupe. Some background sidekick dies -their last breaths given to profess their love of girlfriend/ family/ motherland/ Earth before detonating the key explosion on the baddies. It is an industry conspicuously playing to its own domestic market, and pretty much unsellable outside, unlike say Bollywood or the Korean New Wave, or Iranian arthouse.

You’d literally walk out in a cinema midway, perhaps vom a bit in the popcorn. I don’t think the Chinese mass market has yet reached the level of jaded in the West, to not still be entranced by the stilling waters of Rambo or fucksuit Ironman. As always the smaller productions, and the ones focused on the human story are far more appealing: crime dramas, coming-of-age epics, gothic horrors and modern angst, that win the usual awards. Avoid however the romance and ‘comedies’, and anything approaching swashbuckling adventure -still at slapstick and catering to people who walk into traffic because they’re munching on something.

Historic dramas can go either way -studies of the person behind the mask (usually a villain reaccommodated, or a new feminist perspective), or a dirge of predictable, big budget battlescenes that plays out similar to the blockbusters, whereby you can replace the aliens with Mongols or colonial White people, or the Japanese. Backdrops became such spectacle, with ever more epic budgets and fantastical storylines that China even introduced a law against inaccurately portraying history.

And it goes to show that when the City of Life and Death premiered in 2007, an award-winning biopic on several lives during the Rape of Nanjing either side of the massacre (of hundreds of thousands of civilians during WWII), the director received death threats for his sensitive portrayal of a Japanese soldier, equally horrorstruck and caught up in the maelstrom.

In short Chinese films sell their own version of the Chinese Dream in every move and nuance, just like they do Stateside. This time it’s all about importance of community above individuality, nationhood over life (or even family), of endless sacrifice for the greater good. It’s nauseating. China, please move on. Nationalism is a notoriously tricky device for The Party -handy when it needs to seal over divisions in the 180 ethnic groups, or when a foreign embassy du jour needs a demo or two over some policy atrocity (like acknowledging the Dalai Lama/ Taiwan). But all butterfingers and screaming when it gets out of hand, and people start setting buses on fire.

One good flick I saw recently was Wild Goose Lake, featuring A-lister Hu Ge (back when he was the best paid actor in the world and commanding $60 million salaries), but in a break from form, cast in an arthouse crime-a-rama that was apparently the runner up to last year’s Palme D’Or in Cannes (that went to Parasite). Hu plays a criminal on the run, who teams up with a prostitute on the lakes of you-guessed-it, Wuhan, and tries to get the ransom on his head as high as possible in order to save his wife from going down with him (it’s complicated and subtle, but you get the gist after a while). The bit where the moped suspect gets his head ripped off, the chase in the zoo as the animals watch creepily, and where Liu Aiai spits out Hu’s jizz over the side of the boat, is frankly, quite memorable, and unexpected to say the least.

Sorry about the spoilers, but it’s not like anyone’s ever gonna watch it, really.

Okay, enough enjoyable bitching. The telly is now a god-given right to our quality of life right now in lockdown. Having exhausted the formulae, we demand our manifesto for better. Newer. More. Culture needs to move on, as given this year, demand definitely has, with an aching gap in the market. Potatoes of the world unite!

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A Journal of the Plague Year Day 54

Monday 11th May 2020

I’ve been checking out some Internet. All fucking day. Still armchair travelling, still in China.

Anyhoo, a welcome getaway from the bickering and racism online, the looks on the street recently, as always. Hot on the trail of yesterday’s rabbit hole into Chinese design I’ve been delving into photography fora from the glorious motherland. And ohmigaaahd there’s so much.

I look at the pics of the Chinese cities, so different from the way the West surmises them, as poor, polluted and cowed, and feel it- pride. Nationalistic, state-posturing pride as an underdog against a more belligerent power. This is perhaps worrying.

First off, the journey: the usual big three most people have seen. Shanghai (the world’s most built-up city), population 30m:

And it’s not just skyscrapers, Shanghai’s old buildings (mostly the shikumen housing and longtang lanes that it spent decades bulldozing but is now restoring) cover an area almost the City of Paris. SH also has a millennium aged Old City, one of three, plus two colonial districts:



Next on the list, to the capital Beijing (pop 22 million), the world’s largest ceremonial centre, and world’s largest pre-industrial city back in the 19th. A terrible place to lump a capital -freezing in winter, boiling in summer, courting sand storms in Spring and smog year round. Another mistake early on: choosing the American freeway-style system to move its inhabitants around -now ridden with 8 giant ringroads and endless traffic, unlike say Shanghai or Guangzhou.

Nowadays it’s cleaned up, planting its Great Green Wall against the Gobi (and Hebei’s factories), banning 5 million cars, growing the world’s biggest, busiest metro system, with Shanghai hot on its tails. Today powered by tourism, the world’s largest bureaucratic sector, and China’s silicon valley. Plus the world’s premier creative industries, notably Beijing’s shock art that has ruled the roost for two decades, and the highest amount of start-ups anywhere. World, world, worlds.


And finally, Hong Kong, the world’s most skyscrapered, and densest city. The ‘mouth of the dragon’, or as Shanghaier’s who are the ‘head’ prefer: the arse end. HK stands out from the Mainland in its older, decaying buildings among the glitzy skyscrapers -here people own the land and prove it harder to revamp and rebuild. Also there’s hardly anything old left despite, due to the lack of space. But what a space.

A note of reality -HK is also China’s most economically divided, unequal city, the world’s freest place to do business where only 20% pay minimal tax in a social experiment that both UK and China would never have dared back home. The populace enjoys some of the world’s highest ‘average’ wages yet 75 percent are working class (for urban China that’s the opposite, 70% being middle class), and 1/5 being desperately poor where a good chunk struggle to even feed themselves. This is in short the world’s most capitalist spot, and contrasting with the socialism next door.

But still a jaw-dropping hive of activity, hustle and bustle, and prone to giving the finger to the regime.

The scope best appreciated from afar, it’s all about the lookout points. It’s double the density of Manhattan and triple the height.


Then there are the megacities, larger than NYC that most peeps haven’t even heard of.

Shenzhen, the world’s most highrise nexus currently adding on the equivalent of the Big Apple’s skyline in the next few years. This is the planet’s hardware capital, now vying with Beijing and California to become the software one too. Over one third of Silicon Valley tech is already sourcing from here.

In the ’80s a fishing village of 30,000 before becoming Communist China’s first Special Economic Zone and a byword for sweatshop labour -now ballooned to 13 million and reinvented as a sparkling arriviste with some of the highest standards of living in the country (with added beach resorts), though still part of a greater whole. Despite being only a few decades old it’s surprisingly quite preservationist, being the only city to protect its illegal buildings, and seeing several ex-industrial and scabby tenement districts becoming state cultural centres. -Regardless of their subversion due to the art, start-ups and creatives they generate.

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The city’s newest landmark is just as riddled with lobbying. Plans for the 60m needle atop the 599m/ 1,965ft Ping’An tower, once slated to be the 2nd tallest in the world (now 4th), were shelved in a big spat with the airport, due to the possibility of planes whacking into it. By adhering to local law it misses out on becoming a 600m ‘megatall’ by 90cm. Tis twice the height of the Eiffel Tower.


Guangzhou -centre of the world’s new largest city as of 2015, with 41 million people -Shenzhen anchors the other end. An ancient city of 2,200 years and colonial metropolis but with very little to show for it. Long a cheap parody of HK with endless areas of urban poverty it’s pretending that part of its history never happened, notably swankier and more eco-conscious these days than her eidolon with a slew of green projects, including the 3rd largest metro system, soon to be the first.

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It’s plush new centre has a vast ceremonial axis of parkland, under which all the public and private transport is buried, and sided with supertalls (buildings over 300m/1000ft), which in turn lines up with a ceremonial tomb-temple complex on one of the city’s hills. At either end sit 2,000ft tall towers and some stadia, one of them floating. I mean, she had a lot to prove but gaaaahd…


Then the second tier cities. Chongqing, a city of 17m on one of the most tortured urban sites – a confluence of two major rivers and three mountain ranges, riddled with bridges (4,500 of them), tunnels, cable cars, zip lines, monorails and caverns. Trains going in and out of clifftop buildings, some of the world’s largest, tallest bridges, that kinda thing. This is China’s most dramatic city: ugly, beautiful, stunning, and often the visitor’s favourite. It is possibly the world’s most visually epic metropolis.

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She debuted on the world stage as the world’s largest city about a decade ago, before they worked out her 35 million inhabitants were in several cities in a catchment the size of Austria. Anyhoo, for the high drama, this is what many people think of when envisaging modern China, grandiose, tawdry, sultry, Bladerunner-y.


Chengdu, China’s hipster centrum and generator of influencers, and the country’s coolest cat of urban tribes, start-ups, 200,000 teahouses, street style, laid back vibes, a UNESCO protected Culinary site and home to an entertainment and leisure complex that’s the world’s largest building.

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Oh and panda’s, it’s big on touting the fuckers everywhere you look, from crawling up the sides of skyscrapers to airplane livery -the place you’ll have to fly into if you wanna see any in their natural habitat.


Nanjing, the historic former capital, riddled with history. It’s surrounded by the world’s largest city walls, imperial tombs, former palaces and endless temples among the skyscrapers. It lost out to nearby Shanghai in the city stakes, and whatever you do, don’t just DON’T mention the war.


Qingdao, the seaside resort and attached German colonial old town. Site of the water events during the 2008 Olympics it operates a colonial building code, as well as several marinas and a whole load of beer related branding to lure the nation’s drunks and street pissers. Breweries (notably Tsingtao, the national favourite), festivals, biergartens, all thanks to the mitteleuropan legacy. Coastal walks and sandy beaches complete the picture, handy in soaking up vomit.

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Hangzhou, the country’s richest, most livable city long touted as the most beautiful but destroyed in the 1800s, having been the worlds largest too (along with 600 cities it was wrecked in history’s nastiest civil war, and second bloodiest conflict, taking out 30m lives and sending China into decline). Still its heart remains a classical landscape of water, hills and pagodas, and China’s biggest tourist attraction; for decades it banned all highrises. It’s high standards run completely with its reputation.


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Suzhou, also traditionally known as China’s most beautiful city, famed for its classical gardens, Venetian canals, sweet food and a white-walled, blue-roofed vernacular. Again one of the country’s richest, and merging into Shanghai with booming growth, though the locals do moan it is a bit boring. Then they built the spantastic, supertall gateway and its megamall entertainment complex for something to look at, soon to be lined with an avenue of skyscrapers; it’s been fast-dubbed the ‘Big Trousers’.

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And even the smaller, third tier cities.

Harbin -a cold northern metropolis famed for the world’s largest ice festival, and once belonging to Russia now one of the capitals of China’s northeastern rustbelt. Having seen a fast decline in heavy industry, it’s transformed into tourism (Chinese seeing Russia, Russians seing China), carmaking, trade and gargantuan museum construction.

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Guiyang, long the capital of China’s poorest province this multicultural, minority-heavy city appears to have leapfrogged the decades of manufacturing and trade straight into hi-tech. It’s now home to most of China’s Fortune 500 and centre of a tech boom that’s won it accolades as the city most likely to watch and invest in. It’s also infamous for its copycat twin towers- from the World Trade Center to an unlikely pair of Empire State buildings, plus some IFC’s from Hong Kong, why not. For all its classy gloss, there’s always that louche, nouveau riche uncle still elbowing in on every grand plan.


Shaoxing, a reputation once preceded this place as an elegant footnote in history for its timeless poetry, writing, tea, wine, bridges, ducks and the arts -just the reality was an obnoxious centre of decay, pollution and manufacturing. Nowadays it’s shirked off that rep to become more in keeping with its tradition, but still overshadowed by Hangzhou who it lost the regional capital to, and Chaozhou with its preserved buildings and Old Town. Instead it’s become a halfway house of livability and historic restoration, and an examplar to healthy competition, even as the underling.


I could go on, with over 100 cities over 1 million (by some counts 160 – by comparison US has 20), and each of them ploughing the taxes into making them livable, eco-friendly and not just highrise or bombastic. Here even the poor areas have an epic urban scale and ‘Bladerunner’ aesthetic (founded on Ridley’s Scott experience of Tokyo/ HK nightlife), though now heavily threatened -the urban cacophony is fast disappearing, before a sanitised revision. The lair of the famous Chinese street life, where your days were traditionally lived out in public:

Chongqing

Shanghai, catch em while you can.

Hong Kong

Beijing

Shenzhen, and it’s last remaining ‘urban village’- illegally built neighbourhoods put up in the 80s and 90s, and now seeking heritage protection. Locally they’re known as ‘handshake homes’ as that’s how close neighbours are between buildings. Entirely pedestrian, threaded through with alleyways and bursting with streetlife.

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Oh and one last thing THIS CITY that has recently been in the news. Home to 11-19 million, a confluence of three seperate cities on different banks of the river, and now locale to several of the world’s largest bridges (plus the biggest lightshow every night). Do click salubriously on the image below:

Wuhan

The metropolis is adversely now featuring highly as the place most Chinese want to visit post-lockdown, intrigued by the constant news and its hardy citizens. However, highly unlikely for foreign visitors, should they ever even return to China, once the world’s fastest growing market for inbound tourists (4th in the world behind the US). It now looks remote that many outsiders will ever see or experience these cities (let alone its multitudinous landscapes) other than through some clickbaiting media lens.

 

Well, after all that, how buoyant. A breath of fresh air from my lockdown barrage of US films, talk shows, TikToks, vids, reality TV and news news news, all becoming redolent of a Western society I’m excluded from no matter how I identify.

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I think a part of me is falling into the nationalism trap. It’s all so comforting when facing a world that’s otherwise against you, redlining you as forever an outsider and rechalking these past few months. You fall into the welcoming arms of a culture that looks like you.

And this is precisely the same trap as anyone else. All those toads, all those hawks, all those okay-boomers, all those Karens, you’ll likely find their equivalent anywhere else, China included. If I filled this thread with the greatest hits of the West (read: White): London, Rome, Paris, NYC, Sydney, Vienna and started celebrating how perfect Westernism all was, even their imperfections, it would surely strike a different tone.

And should it?

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I think nationalism and patriotism share a fine line between them, and that dallies with inculcating prejudice. Perhaps one needs to have a sense of victimhood to feel it, and defend it. Question is, who has the upper hand?

I think universality should override both sides. We can fully appreciate the beauty of one place without that meaning you have to shirk the rest, or put it in competition. It doesn’t have to be the clash of civilisations, they long pointed at the Islamic world, but now increasingly looking further.

I’ll finish on an in-betweener from both spheres of influence. Where east meets west: Istanbul.

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