The Beijing Narrative: The World According To Mao

If you’ve any preconceptions about Chinese cuisine, Beijing is all too eager to wipe your concepts clean.

In fact, the Chinese word for rice, 饭 (fan), actually refers to wheat or buckwheat here in Beijing, and it too, is rarely eaten because both rice and wheat are expensive staples compared to black glutinous rice paste (eaten only at breakfast), nian-gao (a gooey yam or tapioca thing similar to Nonya kueh actually), shao-bing and rou-bing. I mostly ate the latter while I was here in Beijing – roubing is kind of like murtabak except the skin is thicker and there’s more meat, and is a lot more satisfying and filling despite being half the size of a regular prata. One thing I found rather intriguing was that Beijing is virtually entirely “halal”. In Beijing, Islam is referred to as “Qingzhen”, meaning “light” and “pure”. Naturally, you’ll be hard pressed to find pork in the capital – chicken, beef and mutton are the order of the day. I mean, I really tried, in part because I was looking for a well-known dumpling fast-food restaurant… in the end, I gave up. Qingzhen restaurants permit the consumption of alcohol, but you’ll have to bring your own beverage and cup, and you’ll have to dispose of it yourself.

But then again, the capital boasts few Chinese eateries. I mean, it is very difficult to find any form of Chinese food as it is. It is actually easier to find Singapore cuisine than say, Chinese. I’m not kidding. There’s a wide variety of cuisines from around the world – from Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Thai, Filippino, Vietnamese, Malay, Indian, African, Arabic, European, American… you name it, you’ve got it! Of course, Starbucks, McDonald’s and KFC are ubiquitous.

Having done little research, I was ambitious with my sightseeing. Beijing is pancake flat – streets are wide, sidewalks are wide, distances between subway stations are long, roads are all aligned north-south or east-west, which makes diagonal intra-region travel an inconvenience. In short, this isn’t a walkable city but it is tempting. Behind the incredibly wide boulevards and cold, apathetic historic buildings is an inner city filled with the infamous hutongs, where little streets, courtyards and winding units can be a maze for those who aren’t familiar.

My first stop of the day was Tiananmen Square. Sometimes, I wish Westerners would stop being so hung up on 1989. I believe that there comes a time when governments will turn back on their own citizens, when they are deemed enemies of the state.

To be honest, I was really underwhelmed by the Forbidden City. I thought it was rather hypocritical for Beijing to be opening up the Forbidden City for tourism. Then I had an epiphany that the very fact that “regular” and “unwelcome” folk could easily access and trample the Forbidden City was Communist China’s way of mocking the royalty.

I loved the Temple of Heaven, mostly because the Tiantangongyuan park evoked a very European feel to it.

After all that walking, I was very shagged already, but it was a Saturday, and I wanted to get into the party mood. So, I went to visit Destination, the city’s biggest gay club. Surprisingly, homosexuality is legal in China now. It is permitted, and to some extent, encouraged – just watch their local TV programs. I guess in a country where there are 119 men for 100 women, and the fact that the PLA aren’t allowed to get married means there’s a lot of Chinese men out there. In a cruel, unforgiving and difficult society, I suppose it’s better to be with someone than be lonely. If partying’s what you like, then China’s the place to do it cheap! Most drinks, including cocktails and housepours are served in glasses the size of a regular McDonald’s cup and cost mostly 60 Yuan (SGD 12). A Long Island Ice Tea and a Vodka Coca-Cola costs the same, so scrimping’s your loss! Local beer, which is pretty good (after all, the Germans were kinda responsible for Tsingtao Beer) costs as little as 20 Yuan (SGD 4) while if you dare, bottles such as Absolut Vodka costs 300 Yuan (SGD 60). Cigarettes are also cheap, and cost as much as 5 Yuan (SGD 1) and in general, have less than 5mg of tobacco and nicotine, compared to the 9 to 12mg averages of “Light” cigarettes in Singapore.

Any hope of any hook up or chat up vanished at 11pm when the throngs of Chinese gay guys flooded the club as if it was the only spot to go. Seeing all the merry crowds, with all their hugging, laughing, kissing and all triggered something. I started to hyper-ventilate, felt very uncomfortable and the next thing I knew, WHAM, I was struck by a panic attack. Drowned into the depths of trauma, heartbreak and discomfort from my Long Island Ice Tea, I fumbled my way out of the club, desperately trying to regain my sanity. A short smoke will help me, I thought, yes it will. But in the blistering 7 deg Celsius cold, still carrying my coat on my arms, any comfort was hard to come by.  I began stumbling my way back… (Yes, walk back to the hostel… Come to think of it, it probably wasn’t the best of ideas)

You know, it’s true what they say – God really works in mysterious ways. Out of nowhere, a roadside stall popped up bustling with lots of people. The stall itself was a great distraction – I had my supper when I was back in Shanghai three months ago. They sell everything from skewed meat to skewed seafood and skewed vegetables, which is either cooked over a flame (much like sate) or in a broth (kinda like shabu shabu). It’s 1 Yuan (SGD 0.25) per stick regardless, and I wonder how come something so simply spiced and cooked could taste so nice. I thought it so curious that my worst night in Beijing was saved by literally a figment, of my best night in Shanghai. At that moment, I understood… It felt like He was telling me, “Hush child, don’t cry. I know you’re sad”, and I was just overwhelmed. With that, I gained enough clarity to make my 8 kilometre trek back to the hostel. (It’s actually a diagonal distance of 4km, but as I mentioned, there are only north-south and east-west roads, so I had to walk an L-shape)

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