Postcards from Beijing

by: Susanne Lee Postcards from Beijing


My husband finally makes it to the Great Wall on his 3rd Beijing trip.  We negotiate with the driver from our hotel: 4 hours for $100 US in a Mercedes with seatbelts and air con, absolute necessities for the reckless drivers and the heat. We stop at a roadside produce stand to pick up some bottled water and some of the ubiquitous watermelon.  Hardly any tourists come this way, to this China, the one not a part of the economic miracles. The owner sizes the three of us up and asks me, as he points to my son & husband “Are you their translator?” I pause.  This is a new question. “His mother and his wife.”  Son and husband wave to him, while eating watermelon. “Your father, Chinese?”  Of course, he would want to claim my paternal lineage. “Both.”  The man laughs, shocked.  My ability to shift from Mandarin to English dazzled him.

The Mutianyu section of the wall is much less crowded than Badaling, where most tourist buses go.  There’s hardly anyone there; we go because it was the only day it didn’t reach 100F.  We pause to take in the views and once we reach the end of the restored section, we ignore that sign and explore beyond where bricks, crumbled stones and dirt mark the remains of the wall.

On my first visit, I took the local bus with Chinese tourists to Badaling.  Besides the stunning vista and the bus driver’s insistence that I try basi juzi, candied tangerines, I remember that idiot tourist in hot pants and heels.


Duck tastes great after scaling the Wall.  We ask our driver go to the modern lean duck joint where I go brave & sample duck brain. Another day, I must have traditional fatty style duck at the huge place off the main street, Wangfujing.  While waiting for our table, we watch a video loop of foreign dignitaries from the 70s chowing down on duck wrapped in thin bread.

My husband and I ate in the people’s side in the days of dual currency in the 80s.  There were no frills for the masses, but the food came from the same kitchen.  The locals admired his skill with chopsticks by toasting him.


Beida, or Peking University, is the epitome of higher education, a place full of dreams of success and mobility.  A uniformed guard with a bayonet stands at the entrance.  Notions of freedom of expression, questioning authority, challenging ideas?  Absolutely, not here.

The colleague of a friend meets us.  In her 20s, and a product of China’s one child policy, she is blissfully oblivious to 6/4, the Cultural Revolution, and mouths a string of government platitudes.  We end up talking about fashion and cosmetics on ebay.  Wow, propaganda really worked. Peasants and workers bring their children to the campus where they pose them for a picture, believing something might rub off, working a bit of magic, as if  “one day, Xiao wang, you can come here.” Mothers

I meet Professor Ding Ziling, a professor at RenDa, short for Ren Min Da Xue, Peoples’ University.  Her strength and grace strike me.  She is human rights activist and has sought government accountability for the shooting of its citizens on June 4th 1989.  She is eloquent and a passionate spokeswoman for the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of women whose children died that night.  The government would like her and her group to disappear and through age, they will.  Before I ever met her, I wrote many letters to Congress on her behalf.

For Professor Ding, the personal and the political are forever linked.  Her high school-aged son was shot that night.  Transformed by both her grief and rage at the government, she started the Mothers’ Movement.  She takes me to her son’s room where we talk.  Her statement, “I had him when I was 36,” lingers.


In the waning days of the occupation of Tiananmen Square is thinning out and many students have returned to their campuses.  Wuer Kaixi, the charismatic Uighur student who has chastised then premier Li peng, had been in hiding, comes to see the Goddess of Liberty, a sculpture created by local art students.  He is a thin good looking kid.  I speak to him briefly on the street.  He says, “The people are behind us.”  Hundreds of exhilarated students leave their tents on the Square, and run after him, on Chang An, the grand avenue in front of the Forbidden City.

I would meet him after his escape from China, months later in New York, along with Desmond Tutu at an upper east side fundraiser, where I make the faux pas of calling Tutu by his first name.

Their handlers appear and shuffle us writers out a side door before the human rights activists are led to the tigers: tight-faced impeccably coiffed and painted Park Avenue matrons for a meet and greet.


On my first trip, I am one of the few solo travelers.  One July afternoon, I meet a group of local college students and we toss a Frisbee in Tiananmen Square.

I discuss Shakespeare with a young teacher.  I ask her if she wants a postcard from San Francisco.  Reluctant initially, she then, writes her address in my book and in a sudden change of heart, neatly tears out that handwritten rectangle.  It’s the post-Cultural Revolution paranoia that caused her fear of traceable Western contact.

I stay in a dorm room at a hostel.  The other women guests adopt me since I am alone and dub me, “Xiao Li,” Little Lee.  When I start coughing, the hotel manager immediately sends me off to the infirmary, where the nurse on duty laughs, I tell her I had just come from Guangzhou, “You Southerners can’t take the heat.”  I get packets of lozenges and herbal tea.

The concierge, who is in his 20s and also shares my last name, teaches me advanced Chinese phrases, when he is not sneaking off with his girlfriend.


Casey, my 7 year old son describes the hutong, the wandering maze of old streets linking ancient courtyards, as a “neighborhood from long ago.”  Seeing how the hutong have been demolished for the Olympics makes me nostalgic for the alleyways I wandered through on previous trips, little corners where old men smoked, women hung laundry from sticks, hole in the wall joints served hearty noodles. We are both absorbed by the transience of water calligraphy done by older gentlemen with huge brushes on cement parks.  They appraise each other’s works and then, the words disappear.

Palaces Casey is disappointed at the summer palace. Empress Cixi’s marble boat is now forbidden to visitors, so a snapshot from across the way must do.

On my first trip, I met a lady wearing round wire rimmed glasses, bobbed grey hair, a crochet bag dangling from her wrist and we spent the afternoon together.  She took me to her haunts, nimbly navigating the Summer Palace, where Manchu emperors fled the oppressive Beijing summers and periodically dropped English words into our conversation, “economics” “history,” learned from pre-Communist university days.

After she left, I climbed Cixi’s boat and meet a group of young PLA (that’s People’s Liberation Army) soldiers on leave.  Jolly and talkative, they decided that I could not be Chinese, but from Mian Dian, which the concierge translates for me, Burma. Eat

On Autumn, I finally got to taste Tanghulu, candied crab apples on a stick and my husband and I sample moon cakes filled with lotus and sesame.  On our recent trip, Casey lives on noodles, handed-pulled and served in a spicy meat sauce.  At the night markets, I eat fried quail eggs on stick. After the worst version of tapioca tea in the entire world, Casey and I erase the flavor from our taste buds and share a Coca-cola, something I never drink in the States, but always crave overseas.


The Canadian friends of Beijing composed the ditty, “Good luck, Beizhing,” for China’s earlier unsuccessful Olympic bid.  When did that become the official pronunciation?  Folks, it’s Bay JING!  That has been a pet peeve and would be my chant during the games.

My friend Wong and I are watching the Olympic Opening Ceremony, directed by Zhang Yimou.

My friend from Hong Kong, Sam, says Zhang makes “Chinese movies for gwailo” (Cantonese for Westerners).  Zhang is the master of La Choy Cinema, gooey, sweet stuff that leaves you hungry and unsatisfied.  It all fits together neatly; the casts of thousands, martial choreography, over the top colors from Hero, and Curse of the Golden Flower (besides its display of Gong Li’s breasts) were just Zhang’s dress rehearsal for opening night.

Wong concludes that we were watching, “Triumph of the Will.”

*** Susanne Lee’s nonfiction on diverse subjects as Hong Kong Cinema, surrealism and blood sausage in Spain, and mehndi in Delhi has appeared in The Village Voice, Konch, SLAM and Giant Robot.  Her recent story, Vol de Nuit, appears in Pow Wow: American Short Fiction from Then to Now, edited by Ishmael Reed & Carla Blank (Da Capo Press).