Jonathan Tel, in “The Beijing of Possibilities,” reminds us that megalopolises such as Beijing are inexhaustible, and therefore offer endless possibilities. In good ways and bad, they never cease to surprise. One is much more likely to see, for example, a gorilla pedaling a bicycle through urban streets than through country lanes.
Such an apparition appears in the first tale of this collection, “Year of the Gorilla,” a story that showcases qualities and concerns that return throughout the book. We have, on one hand, the smile induced by the image of an ape who, having entered an office building, “steps out of the elevator and jogs right up to the reception desk, banging on his chest . . . [and is] directed to the appropriate cubicle, where he sings ‘Happy Birthday to You’. . .”
On the other hand, inside that smile-inducing gorilla suit is a migrant from the south, hot, itchy and delivering gorilla-grams for a pittance. Later, while harassed by the police, the monkey- migrant offers to “remove his head.” The police tell him not to bother, because “nobody wanted to see the face of an ordinary migrant worker.”
Tel, in this tale and others, exposes the grit of Beijing life. What makes his work special, however, is that even when exposing the grit, he never loses the grin. Those convinced that earnestness and gloom are the only appropriate attitudes when serious topics are broached will find this distressing. The rest of us, however, will be happy to know that the bicycling gorilla is not the last jape Tel gets up to.
In “The Book of Auspicious and Inauspicious Dreams,” Tel introduces the sort of young Chinese couple who “go on vacations to Sweden” and “buy their furniture at Ikea,” who by way of profession are “in software” and graphic design, and who are certain they have stepped out of the bad old past and into a bright shiny future.
Tel isn’t satisfied, though, with simply satirizing the couple’s yuppie sensibilities; he paints a more complex portrait by showing us how the urban sophistication of the couple — one generation removed from the country — is a thin patina on the older China from which they have emerged.
They arrange their Swedish Modern furniture according to the principles of feng shui, spit to drive off evil spirits, and, at story’s end, feel they must take precautions against the ghost of a former resident of their tastefully decorated apartment. It’s possible, in Beijing, to be absolutely modern; it’s just as possible, however, that the old folks weren’t wrong about the dangers posed by ghosts from the past.
“The true Beijinger,” Tel writes, in the persona of poet Helan Xiao, “secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” Wandering through Tel’s Beijing of possibilities helps us understand why, in spite of authoritarians and dust, yuppies and pollution, this should be so.
It is, of course, Tel’s artistry — his prose sparkles — that makes this happen. When Tel shows us, for example, through the eyes of a Hainan fisherman’s daughter, a Beijing in which “a busker plays the happiest of sad tunes on his erhu, and the sweet potato seller has sweet-potatoes for everyone . . . [and] glorious cars glide past, a flock of brilliant bicycles, buses filled with contented souls,” we can only agree with the fisherman’s daughter: “How wonderful to be alive in the Beijing of possibilities.”
And how wonderful to be alive and reading a book as lively as Tel’s. It is certainly one of the most delightful armchair trips to China in recent memory.