Sleeping on Scissors?:
Beads, Breasts, Bush, and Language Barriers at Beijing’s Panjiayuan Market
[1: Wherever unavoidable, I will be translating Mandarin using the pinyin system, rather than Wade-Giles. Moreover, as I was in Beijing, and both of my primary sources (Pimsleur and Mark Frobose) use the ‘Pekingese’-accented Beijing dialect, which might be described as the pirate dialect of Mandarin for the frequency with which it contorts words to have an arr! sort of ending, the letter R may appear at the ends of pinyin translations where, elsewhere in the country, or standard Mandarin, it may not.]
Date: Monday, October 10th – Saturday, October 15th, 2016
You’re out at the Summer Palace, a cottage retreat for the Chinese emperor, built along a man-made lake. It’s an overcast day, and your tour guide has only given you an hour to walk down the length of this lake and explore around the palace. Beijing smog is everywhere and it looks like you’re in a post-apocalyptic film. More than one person is wearing a disposable medical mask. It’s here that you see one young woman in a low-cut shirt and a pushup bra, the first cleavage you’ve seen in days. Slight and petite, almost all women dress modestly. Unlike Hong Kong, where the hotel elevator screen played a Victoria’s Secret fashion show on repeat, Mainland China is much more reserved. Being white, you stick out like a sore thumb, and local try and sneak pictures with you. There’s a small island just inside the main gate of the palace itself, with a gazebo on it. Crossing the bridge towards it, a middle-aged Chinese man, just in front of you, turns, and, to someone behind you, he barks, “Yo, nigga!”
[2: Na ge is a Chinese filler word, similar to the English like, um, uh, so, etc. It literally means ‘that one’.]
I was saying at Sunworld Dynasty Hotel, located at the corner of Wangfujing Avenue and Dengshikou Street, in the heart of downtown Beijing. The Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square and Beihai Park are within walking distance. It’s about an hour from the airport, where the cabbie zips in and out of traffic like he’s competing to become the next playable character in Mario Kart. Fake taxis are at the airport, meeting you in the terminal and, in decent English, offering you rides for double the price. It’s best to have an idea ahead of time as to what the ride should cost. Licensed taxis in Beijing are yellow, but sometimes even they will go off the meter and try to pocket a higher cost. Insist on dabiao, while pointing at the meter, before going anywhere.
Just up the way is the Wangfujing Night Market, a back alley place where they sell deep-fried scorpions and millipedes on a stick, and all the cheap touristy stuff you’d expect at a dense Chinatown market. Be prepared to deal with very pushy salesmen – at one silk scroll stand, I actually walked away from the guy when, after I repeatedly told him I wanted to browse his stuff to find the right thing, he wouldn’t leave me alone and kept thrusting different things in my face. Oriental Plaza, a large mall, is a little further down, though I never quite made it there. Along the way there’s all sorts of designer fashion stores, tourism storefronts, and a Foreign Language Bookstore, where, had it been a little cheaper, I might have picked up a DVD set of The Qin Empire, a 2009 series set during the reign of Duke Xiao (381-338 BCE). The APM Mall, a five-storey Western-style mall, with a giant Apple store and a dozen decent restaurants, is across the road. It was here that, after struggling with the language, we were told to go to find a Subway restaurant; the hotel front desk, upon hearing the word subway, brought out a map of the underground train system. They like their thousand islands dressing here in China; the spicy chicken sandwich I got was bathed in it, and, a week before, in Hong Kong, I got a pizza with thousand islands instead of tomato sauce.
[4: Both were pretty good, actually.]
Wangfujing is tourist central, and (despite the legion of cops with their bomb-sniffing dogs), the scammers are out. Mainly it’s the tea house scammers, young women trying to seduce you into a bar or tea house of their choosing, where your bill is going to several times what it should be. But there’s also calligraphy artists, rickshaw scammers and prostitutes. One night, upon leaving Sunworld Dynasty, a middle-aged woman, prowling outside the hotel, approached me and spoke softly in Mandarin. “Wo bu mingbai,” or, ‘I don’t understand’, I said.
In contrast to other scammers (though prostitution isn’t necessarily a ‘scam’), she spoke very little English. Your first cause for concern should be a high degree of fluency with strangers. She struggled, eventually said, “Lady... to your room.”
(I very much got the impression that she wasn’t offering her own services here, but rather those of other women.) “Bu, bu,” I said, and walked away from her.
[5: Basically ‘no, no’, but in fact it’s a negative particle. Standard Mandarin doesn’t have direct translations for yes and no.]
For the better part of two years, I’ve been attempting to learn the speak Mandarin Chinese. It hasn’t been easy; the US Foreign Service Institute, which ranks the world’s languages by degree of difficulty to learn (and therefore teach to diplomatic staff), places Mandarin in Category IV, the hardest to learn, with an estimated 2,200 hours required, alongside Arabic, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean.
[6: Category I, the easiest to learn (five hundred and seventy-five to six hundred hours) includes Dutch, Afrikaans, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish, etc. Category III contains the hardest of all European languages to learn, including Russian, Icelandic and Hungarian (which includes up to thirty-five language cases, compared to English, which, at most, has three – I, me, mine), along with most languages you might expect to be rather difficult – Urdu, Vietnamese, Nepali, Mongolian, Tamil, Tagalog, Burmese, etc. As I write this, I’m now dabbling in Korean, in preparation for another vacation a few years away; why am I yet again choosing a Category IV language destination?]
I am still quite amateurish, as evidenced by a ‘conversation’ I had with a Chinese in the flight from Macao. I think he was trying to ask if it would bother me to have his jacket draped over the back of his seat (he was sitting in front of my brother and I), but he spoke too quickly, and I was left merely to sputter “Wo bu mingbai.” This, too (along with the price), was the reason I hesitated when it came to The Qin Empire, the pre-imperial, Qin kingdom historical drama in the Foreign Language Bookstore; I would in no way be able to follow it, and the point at which I might be able to is still years away.
Out on Wangfujing, I attempted to practice with a couple women that were obviously tea house scammers, allegedly from Harbin. It was my first night there, cops were everywhere. Two women, one in a bright red coat and speaking decent English, and her friend, who seemed to only know a few words. Somehow it came out that I was learning Chinese, and they seized on this. “Ni Zhongwen mingzi jiao shenme?” the one with little English asked, interrupting her friend.
I did some quick mental calculation: mingzi is ‘name’, jiao shenme is ‘what called’ – asking my name? What I’d learned was ni jiao shenme mingzi. Wait, Zhongwen was in there – Chinese name, she’s asking my Chinese name.
[7: I don’t have one, as I told her.]
Towards the end of the week, down at the Wangfujing Night Market, I ran into a similar situation of language improvisation. We were there late, getting a charcoal sketch done. Locals gathered in droves to see Westerners pose and watch the skill of this old Chinese artist. The market was closing up by the time we were on our way out. A group of five of six people, I’d say in their twenties, who’d watched the majority of the sketching session, followed us out. They seemed friendly enough, but they clearly spoke no English. One bigger guy, broad-chested and commanding in his presence, called out as I walked through the back alleyways, now closing up. He spat out some long sentence, then began repeating fragments of it. I picked out one word: zhaopian.
Ah, photograph. He wants a photograph. This is a common thing; foreigners often sneak you into selfies with covert use of a selfie stick, or asked to pose. “Hao,” I say, and his girlfriend, a cute young woman, steps up and takes a couple pictures. I always tried to sneak in my own pictures with these locals, and after her boyfriend had clicked the camera, I handed over my phone and said, “Wo ye xiang zhaopian.”
[9: I also want a photo.]
The hotel concierge had at least one employee that spoke excellent English, yet the front desk, more often than not, did not have a good grasp on it. Some of the women there spoke a little bit, and they were eager to help, but you really had to struggle to get your meaning across. On the phone with them, it would turn out, was even worse, as you couldn’t use gestures to make yourself understood. After about the third day of sleeping on paper-thin pillows, I could take no more and called down to try and get another one.
“Ni hao,” came the voice on the phone.
This is where all those hours with my audio courses paid off, for, without even thinking about it, I found myself effortlessly uttering the words, “Ni hao, ni huishuo Yingwen ma?”
[11: Hello, do you speak English?]
“Deng yi huir,” she said, and then, momentarily, a new voice.
[12: Wait one moment.]
I requested another pillow. “Pee-low?” she asked, this one clearly with a heavy language barrier herself.
So I tried explaining it. “To put your head on, when you sleep. For the bed.”
“Ah, yes, yes,” she exclaimed.
Five minutes later, our housekeeper showed up. I answered the door expecting (and yet half not expecting) to see her with a pillow. When I opened the door, her hands were in pockets, and her face went from relaxed and confident, to one of confusion. Of course, she had no pillow.
This was the same housekeeper we’d had all week, a young, twenty-something woman who was always very friendly, with a beaming smile and would always greet us when we saw her in the hallway. Yet the past few days had made it clear she spoke perhaps five words of English. She said, “See-sors?”
“Scissors?” I asked.
She held up a finger, pulled out her phone. She brought up an app, or a message of some kind, with a single English word, which apparently had been her instruction: Scissors.
I smiled. “Deng yi huir,” I said, and ran back, past the bathroom to the bed. I picked up one of the pillows, appeared back in the doorway and said, struggling, “Geng duo de zhege,” which, while the grammar is probably horrible, roughly translates to ‘Another of this’. Her face lit up; she understood exactly what I meant and went scurrying off.
On the final the final day in Beijing, we visited the Panjiayuan Market, a large, sprawling flea-market sort of place with as many as 3,000 vendors. I was advised to get the hotel concierge to write the name of the market in Chinese characters for the cab. They already had business cards with various attractions on them, and circled it. Through the crowded, free-for-all streets and, quickly, we arrived. It was here that, in the span of three minutes, I saw two different young women in skintight, oil-black leather pants, as though they were wearing the bottom half of a dominatrix’s getup.
Inside the gate are a number of walking streets and long, two-storey buildings of various cramped shops. The upper level, accessible by a balcony, was the art section. Yet, though many of these shops did sell little figurines of elephants, panthers and dragons, the shelves crammed in the dank, closet-sized storefronts, many also sold superfluous material. There was coffee and tea, there were numerous public washrooms with squat toilets and trough urinals, and there was a shop that sold packing material – for example, cylindrical cardboard tubes (¥10, or about CAD$2) to sheath paintings. To the right was an open courtyard, where vendors gathered in rows, laid out a blanket and packed it full of nicknacks and curios. It was still early and many vendors were still setting up, though all were eager to try and market their wares. Here are Buddha statues, tea sets, jade carvings or little brass figurines of lions, qilins, xiezhis, dragons and more. There are signs for a used book market a little farther down, and at the back side of this open courtyard are tremendous concrete statues of the above Chinese creatures, the sort of thing you might put out front a bank or mall.
[13: A unicorn-goat-like creature that instinctively knew the innocent from the guilty, and would butt its horn against the guilty. The animal was used as a symbol by the Censorate, an Internal Affairs-sort of bureau responsible for rooting out corruption amongst government officials.]
We began to amble through the rows. You have to be careful not to point at anything or make eye contact with the vendor, or they’ll instantly get pushy, though they’re not as bad here as at Wangfujing. One common figurine here was an elongated dragon, standing erect on its hind legs, stretched out. It had that slippery, serpentine look, yet I already had two dragon statues from Hong Kong, and didn’t really care for a third. I would have liked to have gotten a qilin, a semi-giraffe-like Chinese mythical figure, revered for discerning between trustworthiness and deceit, yet these seemed to only come in a couple different, mass-produced stances, and none of them looked as flattering – or as fearsome – as the larger statues you can see outside businesses, or at the Forbidden City.
Down the back side of the two-storey businesses, and then you come to a roofed block of booths, each encased in a cage-like sort of chain-link fence. Here are large no smoking signs, numerous Chinese characters, and the words ‘Art Section’ in English.
When I was in Hong Kong, I’d already picked up four paintings – one of horses in gallop, one of the Great Wall, and two reminiscent of paintings I’d picked two years before, in Cuba. I wasn’t really keen on finding wall space for another, yet I had some time to kill, and this was my last day in China, so let’s take a quick walk through. These booths were still opening up, and a good two thirds of them were empty, or locked cases with nothing on display. People were pinning their work to the sides of their booth, clipping paintings to one another. There was another art section on the upper floors of those buildings, which I mentioned earlier, but that was more in the realm of fancy, art-dealer-style paintings. Here is where the cheap, amateur painters gathered. Most of this was calligraphy-based, a white canvas with a handful of Chinese characters painted on it.
This too was a common scam in Beijing. A calligraphy painter or art dealer will approach you in the street, advertise their gallery, come up with some story about struggling artists. Wangfujing seems to be a central hub for this as well. Like the tea house scams, someone will approach you with excellent English – in this case, it’s usually men – trying to befriend you with questions about where you come from, etc. Here they’ll try and wrangle you into coming to their gallery, where everything is highly overpriced, and cheaply reproduced. There was one gentleman operating right out of the hotel, giving him the veneer of being above board, who entered into a long spiel about painting your name or Chinese zodiac symbol, and then pleas of how he’s trying to establish his business. And I saw at least two other art scammers hanging out in the general vicinity of the hotel in the same capacity as the tea house ladies and the madam. At Panjiayuan, however, I have no doubt that this calligraphy is more ‘authentic’ (though, like all art here, it is excessively reproduced, and you can see multiple copies of the same work at different booths), and the prices are probably fairer, because of your negotiation. That being said, while I understand calligraphy has its place in Chinese history, it’s an art form that doesn’t much interest me.
Much of what else I saw on this initial sweep through was not of great quality. There was some Buddhist imagery that looked more Indian than Chinese, and a few animals. I recall seeing a tiger, but its head was misshapen, as were a few other animals. No dragons, no other mythical figures like the qilin, xiezhi or huli jing. One painting I came across, down a row nearly abandoned, featured a topless woman, yet her arm was pressed censoriously into her breasts, and the art quality was lacking.
[14: Literally ‘fox spirit’, this creature is a mythical shapeshifting seductress, simultaneous a cunning fox and a ravishing woman. This could have been an interesting image put to the canvas, though it wasn’t, at the time, one I was looking for. Neither did I see any figurines of such.]
Two years before, in Holguín, Cuba, I had picked up a couple of nude paintings at the local market, down the beach from our resort in Guardalavaca. Three different resorts hugged the beach, and at the far end was a small market that sold bullhorn and wood carvings, hats and shirts and humidors with Che’s face on them, sandals and other beachwear, and numerous oil paintings. My friend Andrew, as we walked through for the first time, spotted one of a buxom woman, kneeling, her back to the ‘camera’, yet turned so the viewer could catch sight of one breast, and grabbed me by the arm to say, “Oh, dude...” I bought it, as well as another, this one of a woman on her back, her biceps pushed forward to accentuate herself. Then, on our last day in Cuba, Andrew made one last trip to the market, and I went with him, where I came across a duplicate of a Boris Vallejo painting, with a nude angel and demon seductively close to kissing. Given that that was then the background art on my phone, I also had to buy that one.
(Little did I know, there was a tax on art in Cuba. I’d tightly rolled the paintings to protect them, wrapping them in newspaper and dirty laundry, and airport security had easily spotted the tube in my luggage during x-ray. They’d pulled me aside, told me to pull them out, then sent me over to a tax desk, where I had to roll out three sensuous nude paintings to a cute, early twenties senorita, where she looked them over, stamped them and charged me a $9 tax.)
Fast forward to Hong Kong, where I went to the Temple Street Night Market, slightly hidden behind a cluster of roadside sex toy shops, filled to the brim with dildos, vibrators and blowup dolls. Here I was looking for (among other things) knockoffs of a Sichuanese artist named Li Zhuangping. He’d aroused some controversy when, a few years ago, he’d painted a series of nudes of his twenty-three-year-old stepdaughter, Li Qin. While I didn’t find anything resembling Li, I did find two others, one of a flat-chested water girl and one of a model, posing, resting on an elbow.
I still had an eye out, therefore, on this walk through the art section of Panjiayuan, for a Li copy. That, and a Li Gonglin knockoff (circa 1085, Song Dynasty), which I doubted I’d find because of the intricacy of it. Alas, nothing much stood out when I passed through.
Further down, the entire end section of the market was people selling beads – bracelets, necklaces and the like. I circled back around. Do I go back to the front and look through the figurines again? As I walk, more art vendors are open, I see. Still not everyone, but there’s a landscape shot that looks nice – better quality, at least. I walk through again. Still a lot of empty booths. I walk down one aisle that’s virtually abandoned. That’s when something catches my eye. There’s no vendor in the booth. I step inside and begin flipping through a stack of paintings. An old man appears beside me. Are these yours? He speaks not a word of English, but is smiling and pointing to an eleven-digit phone number clipped to the side. He eagerly dials it. That’s when I come across, not a Li, but something that grabs my eye.
Everything I’ve mentioned thus far – the three Cuban paintings, the water bearer and the model, Li’s work – has been ‘tasteful’. Breasts and butts, yes, but no vulvae, no penetration; in other words, nothing ‘pornographic’. This one, however, was what you might call san dian qian lou, or full-frontal. Cute Asian, slight of build, medium-sized za’er, prominent bush. The artist, whom this other vendor had just called, appearing presently, similarly didn’t speak any English. She communicated with me by typing into a calculator and through my halting Mandarin. Did I really want this hanging on my wall?
[15: The literal translation is ‘three points all showing’; a euphemism for a naked woman.]
[16: Vulgar Beijing slang, ‘tits’.]
Yes, yes I did.
“Duo xiao qian?” I asked. There was some haggling on the price, which involved a lot of typing back and forth into her cheap calculator. The artist, like the vendor in Hong Kong, stressed the pencil work (all by gesture, that is) put into the subject’s hips, she himmed and hawed, as they all will, and finally agreed to a negotiated price.
[17: How much does it cost?]
She, a woman of perhaps forty, had painted all these herself, she told me as I consulted the Lonely Planet phrasebook in my pocket; I asked, “Ni shi...” – flipping through the pages – “huajia ma?”
[18: Are you the painter?]
“Shi, shi,” she replied eagerly. She was proud of her work, flipped down a little more in the stack to show me a white woman in a similar pose (also san dian quan lou). I’d already seen that one while flipping through; it was also a lovely painting, but I’d decided to go with the Asian.
[19: Literally ‘I am, I am’, though is grammatically a way of just saying yes.]
“Wo xihuan zhege,” I replied, tapping the one she was rolling up.
[20: ‘I like this one’, yet it can also simply mean ‘I like this’, which might explain why she then began pushing other full-frontal paintings on me.]
She brought out her phone. She went through her text messages, showing me a string of pictures she’d sent to someone, various other nude paintings of a similar sort. I didn’t have any more wall space, however, and one bush on my living room wall is enough. She wrote out her eleven-digit phone number on a scrap piece of paper, and scribbled her name in several chicken-scratch Chinese characters.
So, can you survive in Beijing without learning Mandarin? Yes, certainly you can, but I’m glad I put in the effort to learn what I did. Whether it’s the scams, taking pictures with the locals, or knowing the context when locals shout racial epithets, a vacation, to me, means immersing yourself in the place, the history, the culture, the experience. Beaches are well and good, but these engaging, enveloping trips are the sort of thing for me. And so, with that said, Hangug-e jeonjin...
[21: Korean: Onward to Korea.]
“Languages”. US Department of State. http://www.state.gov/m/fsi/sls/orgoverview/languages/, Acc. December 22, 2016.
Abdullah, Kia and Peter Watson. “Foreign Service Institute Language Difficulty Rankings”, Atlas and Boots, http://www.atlasandboots.com/foreign-service-institute-language-difficulty/, Acc. December 22, 2016.
Chao, Eveline. Niubi! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. New York: Plume, 2009
Coleman, Matt and Edmund Backhouse. Dirty Chinese: Everyday Slang from “What’s Up?” to “F*%# Off!”. Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2010.
Frobose, Mark. Power Mandarin Accelerated. Champaign, Illinois: Language Audiobooks Inc., 2012
Humphreys, Andrew and Chen Chao. Top 10 Beijing. London: DK Eyewitness Travel, 2015
Lonely Planet. Mandarin Phrasebook & Dictionary, 8th Edition. Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, 2012.
Pimsleur. Pimsleur’s Mandarin Chinese I. Concord, Massachusetts: Simon and Schuster, 2000
Pimsleur. Pimsleur’s Mandarin Chinese II. Concord, Massachusetts: Simon and Schuster, 2002
Pimsleur. Pimsleur’s Mandarin Chinese III. Concord, Massachusetts: Simon and Schuster, 2003