Monday, 14 May 2018

The Owl of Beijing

They are language students, diplomats, startup founders, company men, dancers, models, dealers, bloody tourists, sinologists, professors, researchers, actors, bar owners, musicians, sex workers, chefs, artists, opportunists, failures, charming men, fraudsters, vagabonds, nomads, and more. And then there is Richard.

Richard comes to Beijing about twice a year to drink average coffee, read the local English newspapers and have a few amazing conversations – and that’s about it. In England he is just another Geordie (a person from the North East of England), but here he is maotouying (猫头鹰), or Owl.

It is 7pm here in Beijing and I head over to a small café close to Renmin University to meet Mr Owl. He is wearing a black fedora, a blue dress shirt with white stripes, a tie with a bamboo and panda pattern, and a big old moustache. He is no neckbeard, rather a 74 year old retired maths teacher from Newcastle. You might wonder what brings him here, at first I thought it must be work. Not quite.

What is immediately clear to anyone who meets him is his health and his smile, and the way he loves to meet new people. You are left curious to know his secrets to happiness and longevity, and what keeps him coming back to Beijing. Many people his age spend their days watching TV, but not this owl.

I first met Richard back around 2012 at my uni, Beijing Foreign Studies University, where I would always see him around lunch time sitting at the red tables, hardly ever alone. “The tables” was the place to be, red hot with energy and conversation. He is an extremely sociable individual, and people seemed to be drawn to him and make the trip to the tables just to chat to him. Of course, most of us were at the tables to study Mandarin or just to get some sun. Back then I had assumed that he was a teacher, and at the time he was in fact teaching some students one to one, and his wife and daughter were still based in Beijing.

Today I am meeting Richard to hear a bit more about his life, and what keeps him coming back. I order us two lattes and Mr Owl starts telling me his story. Carol Richard Walker, Mr Owl’s real name, was born in Gateshead in 1942 – a war baby. Growing up in coal country, he says, “we didn’t have lots of money when I was growing up”. He went on to study at the University of Newcastle, UK, majoring in math, physics and chemistry, going to class on foot – 10 miles a day.


Richard spent all his working life teaching and he is very much a born teacher, as he says “I like to encourage people to learn”. After graduation he started his career as a maths teacher in a grammar school in Gateshead. In those days he was called an assistant master in his department and stayed there for about 5 years, then moving to a catholic school in Wallsend as the head of the maths department. Wallsend was originally built by the Romans, at the end of Hadrian’s wall, to keep out all those unruly Scotsmen. I find myself wondering about his ancestors, perhaps they were Anglo Saxons, people who wandered in search of greener pastures. As it turns out, Richard’s maternal grandmother (Anderson) was Scottish, from the Lowlands. I feel that Richard carries these northern genes, hardy, playful, quick to chirp, with some of those famous vagabond tendencies.

During his late 40s the urge to wander hit him, and it hit him hard. His marriage was failing, and as he says “when the other person no longer loves you, there is no point to force it”. He let his wife have the house, and packed up and boarded a plane to Zambia. This is when his new life as a travelling owl started, and he has never looked back.

Richard has fond memories of his two and a half year stint in Zambia, he calls it his “best job ever”. Teaching mostly maths and physics and a bit of English, he says he learnt so much while in Zambia. At the time he received a tax free salary from Britain, plus a salary from the Zambian government. Independence and valuing international friendships is what he says changed most about his outlook on life. He also  adopted a new diet, a far healthier one than back home in England. Small dried fishes, porridge made from “millie meal” (similar to grits), and mostly fresh produce (not owning his own refrigerator). He dug a ditch in the garden, and had a cement base put in, creating his own duck pond. This added duck meat and eggs to his diet. No crisps, chocolates and not even any beer. A big change from the traditional British diet he was accustomed to back home.

He speaks fondly of all the people he met and the friendships he gained while in Zambia. There were muslim Indian businessmen, Mr Ong from Burma, two Tamil teachers from Kerala, and many others. His closest friends were a catholic family from Ireland, who had just signed up for their second contract in Zambia. They had a fridge where he kept his butter and a few other “luxuries”, and he would often go to their place at night to play cards and chat. Then they made him godfather of their 2 children, and the friendship became deeper.

All good things come to an end, and when his contract ended Richard returned to good old England. After 6 months spent working in London’s Enfield, he got a job teaching maths in Cramlington, in England’s North East. At 50 his school made him a deal, he could retire early with a lump sum, half his salary and them continuing to pay his pension, insurance etc. Richard took the offer and the lump sum and once again bought his own house. It looked like he would spend the rest of his days here, relaxing and perhaps taking up new hobbies.


Not being one prone to sitting still, he soon became restless and felt himself drawn back to the field of education. He went back to college and earned a TEFL certificate, and went off to Sana’a in Yemen on a 1 year contract. In those days every man carried a pistol and a curved knife, and many also had an AK47. It is here where he developed his “filthy habit” of smoking shisha (hookah), one which drives him to search for establishments with shishas here in Beijing. The love of shisha, as well as the habit of chatting in sweet smoke filled establishments, is a legacy of his time in the Middle East. Having had to no pubs to go to, cafes and their lovely shishas was a natural compromise for this Geordie geezer.

After Yemen, Harbin and its freezing winters welcomed Richard for a year. The classes were mostly made up of teenagers, motivated and fantastic to have as he remembers. He tells me how his eyebrows and moustache were covered in ice shortly after going outside. Even back then money was never his motivator, as he was on a British pension and he was merely suffering from an acute case of wanderlust. It was in Harbin that Richard developed a fascination and appreciation of Chinese culture, and where he realized how willing many people are to strike up a conversation with a foreigner.

Again he went to shisha smoking Yemen for another year. Here he made his first gay friend ever, and remembers it as an enriching experience. Embassy parties were the only place where a foreigner could drink and relax a bit back then, and he remembers those times as some of the best in Yemen. Richard tells me “travelling is a bit like taking a hit, it pulls you up, you have vitality again”.

Then he jumped to Poland for 6 months only, somewhere close to Gdansk, before coming to Beijing. Beijing would be the start of a new chapter in his vagabond life. It was while teaching in the Xidan area that he met his future wife. He was 60 and she was 49. They quickly fell in love and got married, and had a daughter. I remember Richard often speaking of his daughter back in 2012. She is his pride and joy, and his reason for living these days. Richard says he would love to buy her a guzheng, his favourite Chinese instrument, and let her learn to play it back in England. Perhaps the sound of this ancient Chinese instrument can temporarily calm his urge to live in a foreign land.


I feel that his need for constant movement, whether it be walking to the local volunteer center in Newcastle or boarding a plane to Beijing, is what keeps him young. Constant movement keeps his joints well oiled, and his mind sharp as an owl’s beak. Conversations with an array of people keeps him filled with curiosity and teaches him new things each day. In Beijing he meets people with a genuine interest in meeting strangers and talking about any topic under the sun. You can meet that sort anywhere in the world, but Beijing is a special place and you need to come here to see for yourself. These meetings are his elixir of longevity. He certainly does not come for the coffee or the journalistic flare of the China Daily. I believe that Richard keeps coming back to Beijing, like a migratory bird, because this city is his fountain of youth.

Age is just a number, and youth is an attitude.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Finding a dojo

I remember the pot-bellied ceramic Buddha blissfully contemplating, the dark wooden sign with golden characters above the entrance, the giant black gecko on the wall licking its glistening eyes, and the well-worn lacquered wooden tables and the vague smell of some aromatic smoke. It was the early 1990s in Cape Town, outside was the inner city and in came the sound of traffic. This joint was a window into a vast new world. Out came the food, and I was handed to wooden sticks. My father attempted to show me how to use them, but struggled to do so himself. I used them like tongs, broken tongs that is. This was probably my first encounter with Asia, with a new culture from far far away, and I was fascinated - drawn to the strange flavors and the exotic aesthetic. This was my first taste of Asia. Left with a desire to explore Asia and to experience its cultures, this feeling has remained with me ever since.

Another childhood encounter with the East was The Karate Kid (1984) on VHS. For so many people of my generation who find themselves drawn to Asia, this film played a pivotal role in stoking the fires that would temper our passion for the East. No matter how cliché references to Mr Miyagi may seem, he was an important figure in film that exposed me to Asian culture. Asia was a mystery, a place far away, a culture with its own unique wisdom and its own unique paths, a place with exotic food and of course the home of martial arts. For me Asia is still this place, even as I look out the window here in Zhongguancun and fail to see the Western Hills through all this humidity and smog. There are days when I sit on a small fold out chair on a dusty pavement having some chuanr (kebabs) surrounded by a few inebriated chaps, when I think back to how this journey started. I know that it was that old Japanese man with the ponytail that guided me here.

Fast forward. I recently watched these films again. It had been a while since I had been to any sort of martial arts classes or done any training. I knew it was missing in my life, and so I used dazhongdianping (popular Chinese app for finding restaurants and places of interest), and quickly saw that the city has loads of dojos. Most teach full contact karate – also called kyokushin. My current sensei told me that in China most people learn karate to fight, instead of some more traditional aspects such as kata. Makes sense. Kyokushin turns your body into steel, and gives you the ability to take a beating as well as hand them out. A hard style for a hard city I guess.

I have huge respect for kyokushin practitioner Judd Reid, an aussie now living in Thailand, who completed the 100 man kumite back in 2011. If ever you want to know of a test that is only for a select few, it is this one. Fighting 100 black belts, one by one, and still standing at the end – then you have what it takes and more. Then you can call yourself a badass. Allowed.


Having always been more drawn to traditional karate, I have decided to learn goju ryu, one of the major Okinawan styles. The style, like the culture of the island it calls home, was shaped by its proximity to China. Higaonna Kanryo, one of Chojun Miyagi’s (founder of goju ryu) teachers, travelled to Fuzhou in 1873 to deepen his knowledge of martial arts and went on to study with various Chinese masters. It is easy to see these southern kung fu roots in goju ryu. Sanchin, the most important kata of goju ryu, was one such import. Sanchin kata is not very Hollywood, yet it is very real. A firm stance, slow purposeful moves, deep breathing and an incredible rigour of body and mind. Stand firm, withstand every blow or shove, keep going. While practicing this kata at home I cannot help but feel this is not just a kata, but an attitude, a spirit, to live your life by.

I looked on amazon.cn, taobao and JD, struggling to get hold of a real karate-gi (uniform). I decided to stop messing around and ordered one from Japan, heavy cotton canvas that will last, and hopefully my determination will too. The suit arrived after two weeks, and as expected it was great quality and a perfect fit. This is my new skin, my robes for this journey into karate, a path I had almost forgotten. Bring it on.

For me putting on the white karate gi is almost a spiritual practice. The suit to me symbolizes an attempt to purify the mind, the heart and to turn my body into steel. At this point my aim is no longer to be the best, to win any competitions or even to perform in front of anyone. My aim is to train my being, on all levels, to challenge myself daily and to grow. I want to develop and never stop moving forward no matter what obstacles I encounter. This is my 100 man kumite, and I may be knocked down but I will always keep standing up again.

A pot-bellied colleague walks past me, my screen is covered in characters no longer exotic, the company’s core values hang on the wall, as I sit here at my desk working on another editing job. My reasons for being in Asia have not changed fundamentally. I remain as curious as back in that restaurant in Cape Town, I still feel as drawn to the culture if not more so. Since the recent government meetings here in Beijing the urban landscape seems filled with the official slogan 不忘初心/bu wang chu xin (never forget why you started), and I plan to do just that.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Lamb for your frozen ears

The grey skies stirred outside, the wind beating against the windows of my office. Then all of a sudden these mean concrete streets were sprinkled with a white powder. Falling fluffs of white ice lingered outside the windows. Luckily I had brought my navy Eisenhower jacket, as I was about to travel south to Zhengzhou for Qingmingjie (清明节), also known as Tomb Sweeping Day. My hands and ears were a bit frosty as I walked to the subway station, headed to Beijing West Railway Station.

As it would turn out, this trip was to be all about jiaozi (饺子), dumplings usually filled with both ground meat and vegetables. Jiaozi are serious business in China, usually eaten on special occasions such as spring festival. Jiaozi are a symbol of family and the holidays, and making them is a way for families to bond during the holidays. They also happen to taste pretty damn good.

There are many versions about the origin of jiaozi. One version tells of how Zhang Zhongjing, a famous TCM practitioner, used jiaozi to treat frostbitten ears. He found that poor nourishment and insufficient warm clothing in winter caused many residents to suffer from frostbitten ears. He used dough to make small thin pancakes, called “skin”, and filled them with his special recipe filling made of lamb, pepper and herbs. He boiled these small packets and gave the jiaozi and broth to his patients prior to Chinese New Year. To this day Chinese people still have the tradition of eating jiaozi on the winter solstice (冬至) to avoid the ears freezing and falling off.

At university here in Beijing my friends started calling me Mr Jiaozi, after I had jiaozi nearly every day – not needing the reason of a special occasion to have my favorite dish. I was also living on a scholarship, so my budget for lunch was about 10rmb. Few things are as amazing in life, as jiaozi with lots of vinegar and chilli. A simple meal, and hardy like a Beijing taxi driver.


Your life is like a plate of jiaozi
In the winter of your life the plate will become empty
Each day might seem dull and plain, like their dull complexion
Savour the moment, dip your jiaozi in a sea of heavenly chilli, vinegar and soya sauce


I was on my way to Zhengzhou to spend time with my Hui family. Hui (回族) are one of China’s many ethnic groups, they are also muslim. For this reason pork, which is the filling of most jiaozi in China, is off the menu. So I was about to try a new type of jiaozi, and a slightly different experience.



We are like jiaozi
We might all look the same
Folded by two heavenly hands
Yet our filling is unique



And then there was dough.

The large piece of dough was rolled into a long log, and then cut into small pieces with a cleaver. These pieces were then pressed flat and covered in flour. The next person put the “skin” on their upturned hand, cupping it slightly before adding a lump of lamb and jiucai (韭菜) filling onto the skin. The skin is then skillfully closed around the filling and sealed, creating a lamb filled packet which looks a bit like an ear if done correctly. The jiaozi are then put on a large mat called a bi (箅), waiting to be cooked.



Apart from the skin and the filling, the other essential matter is the sauce you use to dip your jiaozi in. The sauce we had was a mixture of vinegar, soya sauce, chilli oil and garlic. The quality of these ingredients makes a big difference to the final experience.


Life is like making jiaozi
You hold the “skin” in one hand and add the filling
It might seems hard to create the perfect jiaozi
We create our own perfection in the here and now




The plate of shuijiao (水饺), boiled jiaozi are literally called “water dumplings”, was placed in the center where it belongs and we all sat down for dinner. The jiaozi had a much chewier taste than usual as the skin was much thicker than those I have had before. The skin was almost like the thick noodles of huimian (烩面). The lamb itself was very good quality, like the lamb back in South Africa and Namibia. The dip was just the cherry on top, like a bomb of flavors. Lamb jiaozi are just that! These jiaozi are quite big, and the more you have the hungrier you get. The beer helped wash them down. Sort of like life, the more we have the more we want. We often suffer from tunnelvision, and fail to enjoy the moment. Like beer, life can be bubbly and yet it can also be bitter, but it definitely helps you get through a big plate.

Apart from hulatang (糊辣汤) and huimian, the Longmen Grottoes (龙门石窟), White Horse Temple (白马寺) and some other sights, I will remember lamb jiaozi whenever I think of Zhengzhou.


Life is like a jiaozi restaurant
It can steam, boil or fry you
Although your skin might become crispy or even soft
You will end up stronger


Getting on the train bound for Beijing, I felt warm and luckily my ears were still attached. Strokes of white decorated the great blue canvas above. Fields and residential compounds rushed by, as I sat back thinking of where to wander next.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Nantang (南堂), 4th March 2018

Sometimes I enjoy walking aimlessly, to get a feel for a place, to wander and wonder.

After the hibernation of the spring festival, I decided to go down to Xuanwumen after seeing an image of its famous cathedral, an image I was strangely drawn to. Located in the south-western part of the inner city, Xuanwumen was traditionally a place for the common folk, vegetable sellers and also the site of executions in Old Beijing. Corpses would leave the city through this gate in imperial times, which was unfortunately torn down in the 1960s.

Regardless of how much I love staying home on weekends to watch documentaries or old films, I find myself itching to go out and explore the might-be-torn-down-tomorrow streets of Beijing.

Across from where the historic gate once stood, rises the grey façade of The Church of Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the oldest catholic church in the city. As I stood there looking up at the intricate brickwork, the white cross on top, the stain glass windows, the barren branches swaying with their Christmas decorations still on and the blaring sound of Chinese Christian hymns all around. I was now deep in the world of Chinese Catholicism, down here in Old Beijing.

There in front of me stood a connection to Beijing’s past. The current structure had been completed in 1904, but in that place this church has stood since 1650 and around this site are scattered the bones of its past. The boxers had once raised it to the ground, yet somehow it survived the chaos and terror of the Cultural Revolution.

The skeleton of the church, the brick skin, looks like something right out of an old European town square. The stained glass windows look slightly less than antique, the electronic signs out front remind us where we are, but the feel of the place is old world missionary zeal and faith.

I remembered I was here to go to mass, and so I stepped inside and took a seat. 30 minutes early, and by the time it started the house was packed like a line 1 subway carriage.



“Welcome… brothers and sisters… of God.”

As mass commenced I got a sense of why this church had managed to survive centuries of turmoil. To see this church and community thriving, inspired me and gave me hope. I looked to my left at a wrinkly veteran who was holding her rosary firmly in her delicate hands as she kneeled during mass. Her bible was well worn, like a ticket book on a bus to Xiangshan, kept in her bag as she walked through the maze of alleys that are either crumbling or being torn down.

Holding out to the uncertainty of the world around, clinging to the teachings. Like this rock of religious faith clinging to the shifting sands, Nantang remains a symbol of Xuanwumen and of Beijing.

Similarly, I cling to this city for it is home and it is my inspiration.

If you have time one Sunday morning, swing by Nantang for mass, I guarantee you will not regret it.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Return to Beijing

Sitting in my room late one night at the beginning of 2017, looking out at the bus stop while having a Sainsbury cheese sandwich, I suddenly felt the strong magnetic pull of Beijing. I missed the bang of a good plate of jiaozi covered in vinegar and chilli, the film noir vibes of a late night taxi ride on the third ring road and the chaos of the sidewalks. I was thinking back to what made me go to China in the first place, and what I had loved so much about her capital. So much was calling me to return to the place that I had called home until 3 years ago. Listening to Beijing Beijing wasn’t helping, and so I started planning my move back. London was a cheese sandwich, Beijing a plate of niuroubing.

I landed in Beijing with an army duffle bag and my mom’s old pink suitcase, ready for another chapter in this dusty jungle. I was determined to find the real deal here and document it as much as possible. A few of my friends had stayed here, some got married others trying new industries. Apart from all the yellow and orange bikes and wechat pay, the city was still how I had left it. Now ten months later I am back to a routine and life is rather quiet.

A few weeks ago I was chatting to my eastern European mate who is married to a Beijinger, about the phenomenon of people coming back to China. I started thinking of my own journey to, away from and then back to Beijing. I thought of myself back in London while I was deciding if I should really go back. For all the cons such as air pollution and scarcity of roll on deodorant, the list of pros just kept growing and growing inside my mind.

I had come to Beijing in 2009 to improve my zhongwen and to learn more about this place and culture that fascinates me so much. I was coming back in 2017 to create something here, to look for the real deal Beijing or at least catch glimpses of it, and to keep exploring. There are those times when I cross the street here and cars seem to have a go at me, or when I get stared at from 30 cm away in a crowded lift at my apartment building or when I wait at the visa office to hear another reason I should come back again another day. Yet those are merely moments in a happy life in a dusty jungle. Houhai and the hutongs are always a short subway ride away, erhua is all around me and all I need to do is open my door, and there is a sense here that anything is possible.

To those who ask me why, I say why the f*** not. When you love someone, do you ask yourself why. No. When you love a city, that is enough of a reason to return. This city might have its rough edges, its wrinkles and be slightly too fond of the bottle, but it holds some mystery and some serious appeal to me. An ancient imperial capital, once rebuilt in a socialist fashion, is now (in many ways) super modern and ever increasingly a global city. Beijing has an edge, and I miss it whenever I go away.