23 August 2015

Getting Hooked on Art in Beijing

If you have been following my adventures last month in Beijing, you know I'm telling it backwards. And that is not a metaphor.

So, after my second week's classes were done, I was finally ready to do some serious sightseeing. I checked maps for tourist sites I had not already visited in my two prior trips to Beijing, calculated subway routes, and prepared my knapsack with essential survival products (for example, t-paper for public restrooms).

Then it rained. They said it was the heaviest rain in Beijing in years. So I stayed in my neat little hotel room and worked on my new novel most of the day Thursday and Friday. I put in about 6 hours of original composition each day. The housekeepers came and went without incident (See previous post). By Saturday morning, I wanted to do something, anything so I wouldn't waste these days completely. I decided to return to Wangfujing Avenue, which is a tourist street in the heart of Beijing. If it rained, I could at least be able to spend the hours browsing in one of the two large bookstores there. 
Oriental Plaza shopping mall and hotel, Wangfujing Avenue in Beijing

So I took the subway to the Wangfujing station, which leads directly into the lower level of the shopping plaza near the Wangfujing bookstore. There is a food court on that lower level so part of my plan was to grab brunch there before moving on to the bookstores. I also planned to find some postcards and other souvenirs since I was in the tourist area. I walked casually through the food court area, more a collection of self-contained restaurants than “fast food” as we know it back home. As I passed an escalator, a girl coming down it called to me. She was short and cute, smiling and asking what I was looking for, as though she could help me.

Well, I look like a big dumb tourist but I’m actually an old professor here to teach an English class, so I had no reason not to be polite and respond to her attempt to help me. We had some small talk about food. I asked her what she recommended. She said the Wangfujing bookstore had restaurants in the lower level, too. I thought it would be one-stop shopping.
The main consideration for me was being able to use my credit card because I was getting low on cash; I knew most stores on Wangfujing would take credit cards. So I followed her out of the Oriental Plaza mall and over to the Wangfujing bookstore. By then, she was mentioning an art exhibition featuring Chinese calligraphy. I knew what that was and I had actually bought some beautiful scroll paintings on my previous visit years before. However, she presumed that as a tourist I would be interested in seeing scroll paintings. 
As we went around the corner of the Wangfujing bookstore--but not entering it--she pointed to the entrance to the lower level restaurants and continued on, determined to show me the art exhibit. It was between breakfast and lunch and I saw in the Oriental Plaza that the food court places were just getting ready to open, so it made sense to go ahead and see some art while we waited for the restaurants to open. I followed. 
She led me into the side entrance of the next building to the Wangfujing bookstore, a hotel, definitely not the front door. I thought that was rather strange to be going in the "back way" if we were going to some "important" art exhibit. But there was a sign there announcing the exhibit. She pointed to it. There was also a guard in uniform behind a desk which had the hotel’s name on it. Across from the desk was a service elevator. 
Hmm, I thought, what is this? She even said "Don’t worry" but it was more like "Don’t wooooooorrrry" like she knew just how to emphasize the word. That made me worry, of course. The elevator opened and we stepped on. Then two young men got on and stood in front of me--between me and the elevator doors. At that moment I felt uneasy; if the three of them were working together, they would have had me right there. Elevator robbery. 
But nothing happened. The elevator arrived at the right floor and the two guys stepped off and my escort showed me to the art exhibit a little ways down the corridor.
The so-called art exhibit was just a small room with scroll paintings lining the walls and a screen set up in the middle to divide the small room into two galleries with more space to hang the scrolls. The art was good. I'm no expert but I know what I like. Everything from nature scenes in traditional Chinese style--like the ones I already had back home--to more modern style paintings. Some with calligraphy writing (poem?) or pandas or even female models posing au naturale
I was particularly attracted to a large painting of a nature scene, a river and the rocks along the shore, summer trees and a Chinese temple hidden among them. The canvas painting was maybe 8 feet long. It as very beautiful, so my escort and the woman running the “exhibit” got me into a conversation about how much I thought it was worth. I countered by saying it would be impossible for me to take it with me on an airplane. So they showed me a much smaller painting, similar kind of nature scene but autumn, on a canvas but not put in a wooden frame. The older woman unrolled the canvas in front of me. It was about 2 x 3 ft. A lovely painting.
But for me it did not matter what the cost was. If it costs 100 dollars but you do not have 100 dollars it doesn’t matter if you like it or not. At first, I thought they were giving me a price in Yuan (about 7 to the dollar) but then it became clear they meant dollars (What if I was French and had no dollars, only euros?). Of course, I did not get up this morning with the idea of buying a painting of anything, much less be pressured into it before I’d even had my breakfast or lunch. So I balked, said I needed to get something to eat before I could decide on whether to buy it or not. I really did not want to buy it, but I was trying to be polite. Up to then my escort and the woman running the art exhibit had been pushy but remained polite.
The idea was proffered that my escort was actually the painter of the smaller unframed painting and because she was "only a student" they could cut the price. I started to see the ploy, but I was saved simply because I really did not have the cash and I was not too confident using a credit card there in that small “shop”. 
I was trying to extract myself because I really was hungry by that point. The deal was undone for me when the next middle-aged foreign man was led into the art exhibit by a young attractive Chinese girl. He was followed quickly by a young tourist couple led by another Chinese woman. We all had been found wandering the streets desirous of calligraphy and in need of a scroll! 

I was able to slip out with that distraction, but not without my escort following me. I said I needed to get something to eat, so I went out the way I'd come in and my escort followed me. I returned to the restaurants on the lower level under the Wangfujing bookstore that she had pointed out. I looked around to see what I might like, then saw the restroom sign and decided I needed to freshen up. I took my time and did not really concern myself whether or not my escort had seen where I went or would be waiting. When I exited, she was there waiting for me. She asked what I was going to eat, then switched to talking about that painting.
Walking among the different restaurants I found nothing that I wanted to eat, so I said I wanted to return to the Oriental Plaza's food court. I knew what was there, even though there were far too many choices. I started out of the lower level food court, got outside and was on the sidewalk back to the entrance of the Oriental Plaza mall next door when she suddenly shouted profanities at me and cursed me for “wasting her time”! That was shocking, but perhaps not so surprising. I knew she was a salesperson once we got into the art “store” but I was intent on maintaining my politeness as a mature adult.

I really hated that she had to let me know I’d wasted her time by using the most popular American swear words. That sort of thing makes you question humanity. You see, now the next time a college or high school student (or appearing to be) speaks to me, wanting to practice English, I will be suspicious. I might even be rude and put him/her off, refusing a conversation, simply because this one person who had seemed friendly and polite, sincere in speaking English with me, was in the end just part of a sales team. I could forgive the sales pitch, but to end it all with the cursing…well, that was uncalled for! I had been polite and I had politely excused myself. She could have done the same, saying “Thanks for taking a look.” I might have returned later to buy a painting, who knows? But to suddenly let loose her full range of profanity was quite disappointing. If her English was good enough to carry on a decent conversation with me, I would think she could put it to better use than seducing middle-aged foreign men out of the Oriental Plaza food court off Wangfujing Avenue.
No problem for me; I shook it off. Now that I was free from the clutches of the salesgirl, I did return to the Oriental Plaza and as I went down the escalator to the lower level food court, a reflection caught my eye: Pizza Hut. There it was! But just to be sure that’s what I wanted, I walked around looking at the other restaurants. I knew they would take a credit card so in I went. I ordered a salad and a medium-size all-the-meats pizza, both of which were rather good. I had peach tea, also. Total cost was 115 Yuan, about 18 dollars. I took my time, relaxed after I finished eating, watching the other patrons come in and order. Lots of young couples on a date, also families with small children.

Finally I went into the Xinhua bookstore. On the first floor were maps so I got a new bilingual map of the city. My old map, which I had been using, did not have the newer subway stations marked on it. I also saw a fine selection of postcard packets so I got a few of them. Then I went upstairs to the English books. It was crowded on all the floors, given that it was Saturday, but I did not see much I had to have. My interest was in Chinese authors translated into English, so I could read their stories and learn about the Chinese condition (much like the human condition, which is what all fiction is ultimately about). I went to the other floors, as well, and discovered fewer books and more of other things like art supplies, musical instruments, and small appliances.
I got a few small souvenirs on one floor. Outside, the sky was dark, threatening rain, but the streets were busy with pedestrians. Business was good. I walked up the street, the wide pedestrian mall, got a cold bottle of juice from one of the many street kiosks, then went into the Beijing Foreign Book Store. I did not take my time going to every floor, just went straight to the English books. I did find two paperbacks of Chinese authors in English to buy, one a translation and the other written in English. After that, I continued walking north through the crowds of pedestrians, stopping in a shop here or there to examine the souvenirs items they had.
Eventually, I thought I was far enough north that I determined it was closer to walk east to meet a subway station than to return south to the station I'd arrived at. However, except when I was sitting in the Pizza Hut, I had been standing or walking for a few hours already (even on the subway I stood), so my legs were tired. I headed east along the street which should take me to the subway station I was looking for, a connection to the line that would take me directly back without having to change subway lines. But it was not where I thought it was and I worried I had gone too far. (On the way, I passed a storefront and a man came out, calling to me, asking where I was from and if I liked Chinese calligraphy! I said I was in a hurry and could not take any time to go into his shop and look at the scrolls.) 
Right where I happened to pause to check my map, I saw a McDonald’s on the corner so I went inside and got an iced latte and sat down to study the map better. Refreshed once more, I continued on and found the station. Once I got off at the subway stop nearest to my hotel, I climbed the many stairs to the surface and proceeded to walk the few blocks back to my hotel. On the way, I stopped at a convenience store to load up on drinks and at a “bakery” for a sandwich and a pastry for later. 
After I returned to my neat little room, I unloaded my purchases and peeled off my sweaty clothes, took a shower, and lay on the bed for a nap. It was a good day, all in all. Later I got up and did some writing on my book, then went to sleep again. Life in a little hotel in Beijing. 

Next time: The Adventure Begins!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. You sir are a naughty professor--getting led around by a girl in a strange city. Everyone knows girls are nothing but trouble..

    1. Ironically, the following week I returned to the Oriental Plaza on Wangfujing Avenue and another, different "lovely lady" called to me, wanted to interest me in some art!

  2. Would you like to see my etchings, sir?