Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Maybe the difference between a whorehouse and a brothel is nothing more than a little fog and neon?

We seem to be in a foggy weather pattern these past few days. I don’t mind it that much, but it makes the driving a bit scarier and as I get closer to my next trip home it makes my nerves a bit edgy. You see, when I get close I don’t want trivial things like weather to get in my way; I want to go, and the daily closure of the airport and the skein of cancelled flights weren’t putting my mind at ease.

In spite of the soup we took a trip into town last night for dinner at a friend’s house. The promise of home cooked Sichuan was all it took to inspire me to make the drive in the zero visibility soup. It’s a weird thing to be motoring along on an essentially abandoned elevated highway when the only things you can see are the decorative lights on the concrete barriers. This was the new road into town, the one I’d actually seen built and which I’d hoped to try one of these days despite having no idea where it went. Jiang knew though and he told me it was generally empty because they’d set the speed limit so low. Cars didn’t use it because it took too long to get where they wanted to go in spite of it being a more direct and safer route. The Chinese are funny that way; everything has to be faster regardless of the quality of the experience. It’s why they punch the door closing button in the elevator the instant they get on. It’s an atavistic need that keeps them moving, just like their economy, their government and everything else around here.

The visibility was literally about a half a car length sometimes getting so bad that you couldn’t see the dashed lines between the lanes. The few cars that were alongside us had their emergency flashers on, creating little orange puffs of light in an otherwise uniformly gray universe. It made me think of bioluminescent fish, deep in the ocean signaling just to see if anyone else was around. Once in a while a car would come out of the cloud traveling too fast, assuming his lighting would keep him safe.

It lifted bit in town and by the time we’d polished off our dinner it was nearly clear. At least until we our trip back home where it miraculously rolled in just as we passed under an overhead traffic warning sign. Quite mysterious, it was as though the sign was holding it back and yet there was nothing about the lay of the land to suggest why it was somewhat clear on the leading edge and opaque on the trailing side. From there we had pretty much the same ride as we had on the way in - flashing lights and segments of near blindness – with the added interest of a number of pedestrians crisscrossing the highway near a container depot on the north side of the port. Dressed in black almost to a person, they would suddenly pop out of the mist and disappear almost as quickly as they’d come. The fact that none of them were sprawled dead in the road set me to thinking that the unspoken traffic rules that govern the mechanics of the road here are so bizarre that it often seems as though the dumbest infractions are protected by the strongest unseen forces. Of course this is not true – I’ve seen many wrecks – but tonight these foolish people seemed to have had a force field keeping them safe as they shuffled along in the fog.

Arriving in my neighborhood, I decided the weather was too interesting not do a little exploring so after sending Jiang back into the mist, I grabbed a camera and headed down the street towards the red light district.

Five Color City is about as weird a place as you can imagine on a clear day, and at night it takes on a whole new level of strangeness between the people on the streets, the neon and the lurking amusement park figures that cling to the sides of the building. Whoever thought this place up had a very warped notion of the role that the Mother Goose tales play in the lives of little western children. All the characters are there – mice, cats, dogs, teapots, foxes and frogs – but rendered in a way that makes them downright sinister instead of cute. I’ve heard that the place was built as a family oriented tourist attraction, now it was an endless line of bars, small restaurants and massage parlors. And I’ve been told on more than one occasion to stay out of there at night, but the lure of all that cheap neon in a dense watery air was too much to resist. Down the road I went past the miniature rendering of the Eiffel Tower in front of the Golden Imperial Hotel, crossing against the light and almost getting hit by a taxi on Liaohe Lu.

The streets are always dark, lit only by the signs for the bars. But tonight they instantly evoked any number of film noire movies I could think of that featured a foggy scene down at the docks in San Pedro, Philip Marlowe in a heavy trench, hat tipped forward and collar up against the damp, waiting for some damsel with evil intent to appear out of the dark. Walking along and looking into the bars, some of the taverns were full of expats trying to have fun, others only had a few bar girls waiting for some money to walk in the door. A few of those special Chinese boys with the bouffant hairdos milled around under the occasional security light. I passed a couple of small groups of girls – high heels and hot pants – walking to or from their work. What little eye contact I made with them was of the “what the heck are you doing out here?” nature.

Stopping here and there I grabbed a few photographs and kept walking. The neon and the mist created a wonderful watercolor effect – pools of reds and blues reflecting up from the dirty streets. I won’t it was beautiful, because above it all the place remained what it was. And no amount of polishing can change that. But tonight it was just a bit softer and maybe even a little bit friendlier in spite of the strange statues that would occasionally appear out of the dark as I turned a corner. A mermaid, an Atlas minus his world and giant teapot hovering overhead in the glow of a streetlight.

A few loud arguments between early drunks were happening off in the dark, their location not discernable because of the mist. I passed a couple of makeshift diners, kabobs cooking on the grills for the workers in the local stores. One was set in a bright red tent and was full of people crowded around the heat coming from the stove.

Unlike most evenings, tonight the place was dead. Those that were there were inside. Besides a few working girls and a person in an apron here and there the only other life I encountered was a group of young men wandering around looking for something to do. I decided I didn’t fit that bill and so took a side alley to a different lane. A few more photos and the place began to lose its allure. I tucked my camera in my pocket and headed back home, this time paying a bit more attention while crossing the road lest I come to rely on those unexplained guardian forces.

















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