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Friday, April 6, 2018

My Visit to a Beijing Police Station

I was in Beijing last spring. It was the first time I had returned to the Chinese capital in nearly thirty years. It was part of a two-month train trip, by way of Saigon north through Hanoi and other cities, then on to Siberia, heading across Russia by train. I planned to stay five days in Beijing, the city where I lived in the 1980s. I arrived at the train station from Xian, (the new station, Beijing West in the Fengtai District). My hotel was over near Jianguomen Wai, so I took the subway, and  I missed the stop. But it was a nice day and I walked the rest of the way to my hotel.

I had people to see, dinners to go to with old friends, former students, and their families. I was going to see some of them for the first time in decades. While in Xian, by incredible coincidence, I had re-established contact with the widow of a close friend  There were other friends that I met as well and our reunions were fantastic, and are now lifelong memories.

By my second day there,  I was chomping at the bit to explore my own. A former student brought me over to his office in the business complex that sits where the old “Friendship Store” used to be on Jianguomen Wai, which is actually the eastern end of the main street through Beijing, Chang 'An Dajie. I hung around his office, watching him do business on the phone. I would have loved to have to listen in more, but I only had three more days, and I wanted to head out on my bicycle. We made plans for dinner later so he came outside and paid for a rental bike for me with his smartphone WeChat app and off I went, heading west. I was aiming toward the University district, Haidian Qu, about seven miles away, where I used to live and teach.

At Wangfujing, I took a little detour up the ancient road known since the early Ming dynasty as the market street, the place to go to buy anything available in China, books, clothes, food, furniture, jewelry, toys.  There really are no shops left like in the old days, the real estate is too pricey. They had widened the street and turned it into a pedestrian mall, and it was mostly populated by the same high-end stores you see on Fifth Avenue in New York. There are some indoor malls with shops, but I didn’t linger and headed back to Chang’An. The old food court alley one street down from the Beijing Hotel was still in business, although clearly tamer and not nearly as ‘earthy’ as it used to be. But street food none the less, so I noted it as a place to go when I got hungry later.

Militia forces (People’s Liberation Army, (dark blue uniforms) and People’s Armed Police, (green), as well as local cops (light blue) were everywhere. The closer you get to Tiananmen, the more you see soldiers, usually in groups of 5-10, but always at least two, wearing crisp, ironed uniforms either at rigid attention or marching in step along the street. I didn’t see soldiers in any of the cities in the south or in Xian for that matter, which was teeming with tourists for the May First holiday when I was there. I never saw troops in the streets like this when I was here in the eighties either.

Plain-clothes security was patrolling too, checking IDs of poor Chinese rural families who sat on the sidewalk while being processed into paddy wagons. I rode passed the Beijing Hotel and noted where the young man in the white shirt had stood, facing down the column of tanks. I looked, but there were no tread marks on the street.

On left was the National History Museum.  Now it was a polished marble tomb full of uninspiring kitschy pablum, “realistic” statues of Chinese philosophers and poets that all had the same empty expressions, dumbed down exhibits that would offend or excite no one.

The museum lobby had the feel of a corporate headquarters. It was very forgettable, in fact, as I think about it now, my memory of what it had been in the 1980s is much more vivid than what I had just seen. Today the marble on the staircase cast reflected light, brightening the front hall adding to a sense of spacious emptiness.

The one funny thing, was right near the entrance, next to the bathrooms.

It was a statue of Charles De Gaulle. He has his left hand out, right by where people exit the toilet. With his uniform, it would be easy to mistake him for a very tall men’s room attendant.

The old museum, from the 1980s, of which I have no pictures, had overflowed with exhibits of early 20th century demonstrations and atrocities. It was 100% dedicated to the Revolution and the Party as it saw itself during its days in Yanan, before it took power when it was full of self-righteous zeal. In the old days you would see middle-aged old ladies pushing dirty wet mops around exhibits of weapons and PLA manikins, and paper mache dioramas of battlefields, as well as the real stuff, such as the actual gallows that hanged Li Dazhao, a charismatic leftwing intellectual, in the late 20s, or the pile of real bones from a massacre the name or year of which I forgot. There was replaying in a loop of footage of Japanese soldiers burying Chinese alive in Nanjing. The exhibit’s captions were often handwritten and each exhibit had its own personality, unlike the bland uniformity of what is there now. In the old days the Gongchandang, the Communists, went to great lengths to show solidarity with all of the ethnic groups of China. Now the museum was almost exclusively celebrating the history of the Han people. Anyway, the new Museum is beautiful, architecturally, and I guess it is pleasing to my uneducated eye. Grand, might be an accurate label, but not intimate as it was in the old days. I am not in the least bit sentimental about the early days of Chinese Communism, but there was a certain authenticity that is missing today.

From my bicycle, on Chang’An near Tiananmen, I could see that most of the people on the street were Chinese tourists, identified by badges around their necks from tour groups. Mao’s picture and the Forbidden City were the main draw. I stopped and straddled my bike to take a picture, but was quickly shooed along by a security guard. It is hard to believe a space so big could be watched so closely. When I lived in Beijing I used to come down to Tiananmen and wander around, taking what was then a relaxed and unhyped atmosphere. Now the symbolism of the place overwhelms the place itself.

After passing Mao’s picture, the Great Hall of the People is on the left, a massive, Sino-Stalinist style Government Center, where the National Congress meets every few years and where foreign dignitaries are greeted. To my right is Nan Chang Jie, the street between the Forbidden City and Zhongnanhai, the ‘Kremlin’ or true center of power for China. In the eighties, you could ride your bike through this narrow street, which at the time seemed almost like an alley. I think it was closed permanently to non-official traffic after the Falong Gong held a massive rally where 10,000 people surrounded Zhongnanhai. I rode my bike up to the road but was quickly warned away by a guard. A key scene in my novel Farewell the Dragon takes place in the middle of this now ‘forbidden’ street.

And over on the left, just passed the Great Hall is the new National Theater.

I spent an afternoon there with one of my friends watching a concert. It really is beautiful with an half-egg-shaped exterior.  I think it is the first public building in Beijing that breaks out of the various struggles of the twentieth century, from the fall of the Qing (1911) - to Tiananmen (1989) and looks ahead rather than back.

Inside are massive exhibits.  The Viking-like ship in the lobby is historically ambiguous to me. I have never seen a picture of an ancient Chinese ship like that.  It was not the design of Zheng He's ships of exploration.  Not sure what it suppose to represent.

Inside the hall, the acoustics are amazing.

I continued west on Changan street, and almost all the buildings are new, (since 1987) but uninspiring. The Bank of China, Telecommunications, Aviation, all massive structures line the street. 

I passed Xidan, where Chang’An becomes Fuxingmen, and then I came to the Minzu Hotel, which has not changed, at least on the outside.

I worked for a few months in an office at the Minzu for Gould Medical equipment. Actually, that was where I began to learn about computers and software, which became my profession later. Just passed that I turned north on and begin my ‘dead reckoning’ through the mixed residential/business neighborhoods navigating to Haidian.

When I finally arrived at the Friendship Hotel, I parked the bike and locked it, so the next bike renter could use it.  I would make it back to my hotel via public transportation.

The exterior of the Friendship was unchanged, and the interior was not a big disappointment.

It was garish in the old way Chinese public buildings sometimes are. A highly polished brown marble lobby lead off to a restaurant to the right, (which used to be a bar where the servers were young women in long heavy army coats that might have been surplus from the Korean War). Now the staff had an uninspiring but professional appearance. The young guy in charge listened in awe as I described how used to be in the 1980s. The rooftop bar had been gone a long time, probably since the 90s. He had no memory of it.

I remembered it, but alas have no pictures. It was gritty, stained wood mostly, with a very insolent staff, but with at least a sense of humor. Here it is now.

I went outside and went over to the south end, where the swimming pool used to be, now a TGI Fridays. The pool had been an exclusive place for foreigners and was never too crowded. In the summer it was always a place where you could find some company, mostly Warsaw Pact types, but still, it was a fun place to drink, sit in the sun and take a dip when you got too hot. I realize now what a real bit of luxury it was for us poorly paid English teachers and the shabby non-Western diplomatic corp, many of whom were housed in the Friendship Hotel compound.

I sat down at the TGI Friday’s bar and had a beer and talked to the bartender. I sometimes get loquacious when I drink, and it doesn’t take much. I had an empty stomach and was extremely thirsty from my long hot bike ride. And older American man sat a few stools away, and I told him some tales of the old days. He said he came to stay at the Friendship every year for the last five years to teach a seminar on legal theory and saw himself as a bit of a China-hand. But listening to me rattle on in Chinese with the bartender put him at a disadvantage. I told him I wrote a novel about my experiences and gave him the web address to buy it.

Farewell the Dragon

I walked over to my old school, about a mile away via a lane that wasn't there thirty years ago. On my way, I had some lunch at a Yunnan luncheonette and ate some steamed chicken and spicy noodles and drank another half liter of beer. When I got the old campus, I found it very hard to recognize. The geography of the place was firmly embedded in my head, but all of the administration buildings and dorms were rebuilt and configured differently than they had been. The main administration building was now an eight story red brick building. I went in took the elevator up to the floor that said “English Language Training” and just started wandering around looking in offices, and introducing myself, asking about old colleagues. It came to nothing.

I went over to what is now called “the retirement buildings” in the back of the campus, where I used to live. Most of these buildings were constructed in about 1958-59, designed by Soviet engineers in the days before the great thaw in Sino-Soviet relations.

The old neighborhood had not changed, much. I wandered around and talked to old people sitting on stools in splotches of sunshine, who were more than happy to reminisce with me about the old days. I asked about my old colleagues, and it was what you would expect after thirty years. Most of the people I chatted with had been there since before and after the Cultural Revolution, when most of them had been forced to the countryside. None remembered me, exactly, a lot of foreigners had come and gone through the years. I asked about professors I remembered and they remembered one or two of my old colleagues. Some of my old friends had died during that time, some had moved away to live with families in other parts of the country, others were not remembered.

One of my neighbors there had been David Crook. Crook was an English Communist who fought with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and raised his family on this campus. I saw him occasionally but never socialized with him.  He spent five years in prison during the Cultural Revolution but still stayed on in China after his release, continuing to teach and research until his death some years back.  He is most famous for informing on Eric Blair (George Orwell) in Spain to the Russian faction, from which Orwell barely escaped with his life. (Hundreds of not-quite-leftist-enough volunteers were being shot then).

David Crook and George Orwell

A young woman I talked to wanted me to meet her neighbor, a foreigner, English, who had been living in the building next to my old address, (Beilou) for the last five or six years, but we discovered he was on holiday somewhere. I spent about two hours talking to people who lived next to him. One old lady had lived there through it all but didn’t remember me, nor I her, but who wanted to talk and gave me a concise history of the campus, leaving out anything related to political events of course. The school was probably second in importance to Beida, Beijing University, in terms of historical significance.

The weather was nice that day, and lots of people were outside, doing Qigong, or repairing furniture in the various courtyards. Where bicycles used to be parked were now motorcycles.

Below is the entrance to our old apartment - it hasn’t changed much.

It was much greener than I remembered. Trees had been planted and some had grown very tall. There was thick grass in the courtyards. It had been dusty and bare during my time.

I sucked up as much of the atmosphere as I could, but it was getting on in the day so I took a bus down to Gongzhufen, the Princess’ Tomb. It was an old story from the 18th century when a young peasant girl was noticed by the emperor, (traveling in disguise) who promised to help her. So later, during a famine, she came to Beijing with the token he had given her but is despised by the court because she was a peasant. She died tragically, and her family buried her with the honor the Palace denied her at Gongzhufen which was well outside the city at the time. Even though she was a peasant, the locals continued to refer to her grave as belonging to the "Princess". In the 80s Gongzhufen was a simple traffic circle but now is a major four-leaf clover intersection.   There I caught the subway back to Wangfujing, where I planned to eat street food at the market there.

Which brings me to my main story. It was twilight and I decided to walk over to the food courts on the Dashamao hutong off of Wangfujing. As I walked, two women approached me and began a cheerful conversation in English with me. The women were both middle-aged, over forty, dressed in clothes that were remarkable only by their undistinguished quality. Not too poor, but certainly nothing at all stylish even in an ironic sense. One of them was quite heavy, and the other could have been attractive with the slightest attention to her appearance, which she did not seem to care about. They said they were middle school teachers, looking to practice their English.

This had happened to me countless times. In the old days, I had a queue of excuses that I used to avoid being a street corner English teacher. But there was a something about their demeanor and the smokey languid feeling of the approaching dusk, and my mood in general that relaxed me and I let them tag along, in fact even bought them a snack while I grabbed a lamb shish kabob and some dumplings. We sat at an empty table and we talked about nothing much. They both spoke well, with excellent (American) pronunciation within their limited vocabularies.

They suggested we go over to a teahouse nearby. We walked to the end of the street food alley and turned right and came to a house that seemed like a holdout from the past, perhaps slated to be torn down soon some urban plan. The wooden steps seemed creaky and steep. We went in and were greeted by a very pretty, California-casually dressed young woman with a pony-tail who led us to a table in the back. We were the only customers.

The three of us talked about teaching. I expounded a little about how I taught in the 1980s, and they talked about their classes, (it seemed they taught in schools outside Beijing), and the difficulties with a shortage of books, and other materials. I was interested in the class disparity, which I knew existed - like everywhere, the rich in China make sure their kids get better educations. But they did not want to talk about that. We kept talking about banalities.

The tea finally came. The pretty hostess with the pony-tail brought two small white porcelain teapots and poured. There was some discussion of the different kinds tea she was serving and how it was very exclusive, but my tea palate is very uneducated, I can tell black from green tea and that is about it. She also brought some plain thin crackers.

After about twenty minutes, I felt I had done my duty and wanted to get back to my hotel and I made noises that I was about to leave. The heavier woman, ( they never told them to me their names) said that since I was a rich American, that paying for the tea of poor Chinese was easy for me. It was a strange thing to say, I thought. I figured the bill might come to as much as $10 US dollar in RMB.

But it came to about $80.

A large young man came out of the kitchen to watch the transaction.

“You are cheating me,” I said.

No, no, the pretty young Malibu-styled hostess said, it was special tea, very rare and fragrant.

I paid it with my big bank visa card, thinking I could go home and cancel the transaction back at the hotel. I left quickly, loudly cursing them all, but otherwise not wanting to make a bad situation worse.

I was quite angry, because, I didn't like being a chump. I walked back to my hotel, about a mile, and thought about it. The ruse had been elaborate. The women, being of unremarkable appearance and also being pretty bright as English speakers did put me off my usual radar that I was being scammed. Sex had never reared its ugly head which of course would have set off alarms. It had seemed quite innocent. The amount, $80 was right on the border of being extortion, but not quite.

 I started going through the various permutations that could play out and decided heck with it. Eighty bucks - I could afford it. Lesson learned.  I got ripped off, but it wasn't the worst thing that could happen, for sure.

The next day I went to the Great Wall, and had dinner with some friends.

I still had a couple of days, and I spent it walking - around the Olympic village, and the Bird’s Nest stadium, and up and around Jingshan, the Hill that overlooks the Forbidden City from the back. The Mongols had slave labor build Jingshan out of the muck from the adjoining artificial lake (Beihai), and later the last Ming Emperor hanged himself on the hill from a tree as Li Zicheng's rebels approached.  Six weeks after that, those rebels would be overthrown by the Manchu invaders who would establish the Qing Dynasty.

The following day I went back to Haidian to see Yuanmingyuan, which now was surrounded by a fence and appeared to in the process of being developed for tourism. Back in the 1980s it was just unfenced open fields, overgrown and gone to seed, with some stone ruins around a lake.  It had been left pretty much as the French and British had left it in the 1860s,  burned and destroyed. It had been one of the wonders of the world, the old Summer Palace, or the Gardens of Eternal Brightness, the architectural apex of the middle Qing dynasty.

The next morning I was back downtown, near the “scene of the crime” when the fat one approached me. I saw her coming and wondered - could she be coming to apologize and even offer to get my money back - this actually flashed through my mind.

“Hello, would you like to come and have some tea and some talk?”

She didn’t even recognize me. I was stunned.

“I know you,” I shouted at her, in Chinese. “You cheated me!”

She looked again at my face and the horror of her mistake suddenly dawned her. She turned around and started to waddle away very quickly. “I don’t know you! I don’t know you!”

I suddenly realized I was angry - why? Well for one thing, at the fact that I appeared to be such an easy target that she could approach me again and not have a clue she had stung me two days previously. The fact that there was nothing special about me, probably pissed me off the most, as well as the fact that this was a regular scam, an ongoing industry ripping off Western tourists, not just a one-off.  My kind and gentle appearance marked me as a patsy.

I decided I wanted my money back.

As I said, cops are easy to find on the streets of Beijing. I found one and explained what happened and that I wanted to make an official report. He called someone and told me to wait. Soon a minivan with official government logos pulled up. I got in the back seat. There were two cops in the front.

One of the cops, sitting in the front passenger seat was really funny. Neither of them could speak any English, so I really had to pull out all the stops to get them to understand what had happened. I told the story of meeting the two women, eating at the food court and going up to the 2nd story teahouse.

“So, two old ladies frighten you and made you give them money?”

It was all for laughs. They both had incredible Beijing accents, very thick with an ‘r’ added to the end of many words. The word “Men” as in "door" ( 门) becomes “mur”. Or the traffic circle - gongzhufen - would be gongzhufur.  Beijing provides the standard pronunciation for China, but real Beijing dialect is far from what you hear from the CCTV newsreaders. It is “street” and authentic.

Anyway, we got to the coffee bar. It looked different in the daylight, not nearly as ominous. Although now I did see the sign advertising it as a "spa - massage" place.

My Cop friend climbed up the steps to investigate. They had left a note.

The note says, “Business stopped. The inside is being repaired”

We drove to the nearby police station. The front desk was just inside the front door. No security cage or anything like you might expect, it was all right there, available to mayhem if any suspect was so inclined. Along the outside walls were hard benches. They told me to sit while they went and got their supervisors.

It took about twenty minutes, (I had another dinner engagement with friends at six and it was almost 4 P.M.) Finally, they came out with a young policewoman dressed in a very sharp, snug fitting blue uniform. She had on a man’s cop hat with a brim, and her long dark hair was piled up into it so her hat sat very jauntily on her head. She smiled and spoke excellent English and was to take my statement.

It was a very friendly interview, but serious too. We went over the descriptions of everyone, and timeline that things happened. Why had I gone with them to the teahouse? What was I expecting? Why hadn’t I reported the incident right away but waited two days? Can you remember if they wore jewelry? I answered absolutely truthfully at each point and she carefully wrote out everything in Chinese. It took about a ½ hour. She asked me if they could find the offenders and get my money back would I be satisfied? Yes, I said, but then explained if they couldn’t find them within the next 20 minutes or so I would have to leave because of my dinner engagement. She understood completely. She then said she was very happy that I had reported this scam because these criminals give China a bad name. She had me read and sign the statement.

But then I heard a commotion just outside the door. My two cop friends who I had driven with brought in a very nervous middle-aged man, who I had never seen before, and who was grasping a wad of cash. My charming interrogator told me that it was the man who owned the “Coffee Bar”. He came over and everyone in the station surrounded us and he handed me over the equivalent of $75, apologizing and pleading saying he had no more but would go to the bank and get it if I required. I happily accepted it, because the tea was worth at least $5. I shook his hand again and everyone in the room was beaming. My cop friend with the heavy Beijing accent leaned over to me and said, “Don’t worry. He won’t do it again!”

So I walked out and caught the subway back to my hotel to get ready for my dinner. I told my Chinese friends at dinner what had happened and that I felt bad because I could have afforded to lose the $80 and it was probably a lot of trouble for the owner and his confederates. No, no my friends said. We need to clean the crooks out of Beijing. I had done a good thing.

Of course, it is amazing when you think about what would have happened if a Chinese guy had reported a similar thing in the US. It is doubtful it could have been solved so quickly and with so little angst. But when my cop friend said “Don’t worry, he won’t do it again”, that did give me pause as to what they would do to ensure he would not repeat the crime.

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