Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop —is in China for the Beijing Book Fair, where he’ll be giving this speech on independent bookselling in America.
Additionally, he’s writing a daily blog about the trip, which can be found in its entirety here.
January 14, 2008
Paul and Rick leave for home this morning.
“More people mean a greater ferment of ideas, more enthusiasm and more energy.”—Mao Zedong
The pollution index is very high today. The world here is hazy and dim by midday. I can actually taste the exhaust.
I meet Claudia Ross, a Professor of Chinese Language and Linguistics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, in front of the Beijing Books Building. Claudia, my friend Daniel Goldin’s sister, has been in China with her husband on and off since the end of the Cultural Revolution. She is here doing research for the academic year. For those of you who aren’t in the book business, Daniel is the buyer at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee.
Claudia and I have lunch on the top floor of a department store not far from the bookshop. She orders Shuh Yang Rou, which she tells me is a traditional Beijing winter dish. It’s a kind of Chinese style fondue. Our waitress places a pot of boiling spicy broth on a hot pad at our table and brings us heaping plates of mushrooms, spinach, bean curds, broccoli and thin slices of lamb along with a sesame sauce to dip the food in after it is cooked. The food is delicious.
I ask Claudia too many questions about all the things I’ve seen this week that I don’t understand, and she very graciously attempts to clue me in.
Our group has noticed that Beijing is very homogeneous. For the capital of a world class city, there is not much ethnic and racial diversity. Non Han people really stand out here. Claudia laughs and agrees.
On the subject of the relationship between the people and the state here, Claudia says there is a very clear line and everybody understands that if they cross it there will be consequences. On the other hand, average citizens are willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt, probably a carry-over of Confucian values.
When I mention the problems of cigarette smoking and pollution in Beijing, Claudia tells me that they are making strides. You are no longer allowed to smoke on trains and planes here.
“I suppose you’ve noticed all the spitting,” she says. Yes, I have, but then I’ve been hacking myself in my hotel room in the morning and I figure it is a response to the pollution. “No,” she says. “People here believe it is healthy to clear your throat and spit.”
In retrospect, I’m sorry I didn’t connect with Claudia earlier. She is a charming and knowledgeable guide to China.
Allison Hill suggests we all spend our last night in Beijing watching a performance by Chinese acrobats at the Chaoyang Theater. The show is a remarkable spectacle. The costumes, lighting and booming music are over the top, which is completely appropriate. The acrobats hurtle, fling and flip through the air as if they are weightless. The audience is surprisingly raucous. They whistle, clap and shout. The scene reminds me of appearances by James Brown and the Fabulous Flames in Flint back in the 1960s. Many of the people in the audience tonight are elderly Chinese, and this is really pre-television entertainment. The theater is quite cool—it’s probably unheated—and we keep our jackets on.
Allison has also made dinner reservations for us at the Summit Club, which is on the top floor of a high-end hotel. This is one of those circular restaurants that move slowly in a 360 degree circle while diners view the city. Two entertainers are singing soft rock tunes in English (Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell). Unfortunately, the ambiance of the whole experience is compromised by the fact that the city below us is almost unidentifiable in a thick haze of carcinogenic particles.
The Brits tell us they have felt an air of unreality about this trip (so have we), and they cope with this by imagining themselves to be inside a film. This leads to a great deal of cheap talk over dinner about which actors would be appropriate to play us (I suggest Brad Pitt for me) and how the film should end.
Despite our attempts at levity and despite the opulence of our surroundings, we’re all somewhat subdued. It is the end of this remarkable experience. Tomorrow we begin the Long March back home.
We pose for a last group picture on the staircase in the fancy hotel.
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