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The Mexican Issue

Raw China - The Red Gas Station

After some fruitless searching I crossed the road and walked past a guard into the building with the unlit “SOAR” sign I hadn’t seen during the first drive-by.

Photo courtesy of Nico y Katiushka ( When I asked Henry where to catch the 988 bus from Dawanglu he gave me a skeptical look and asked “Why do you want to go all the way out there?” For a lifetime Beijinger, the 988 meant going out to the undesirable hinterlands. Henry seemed suspicious that someone who’d been in the country for less than a week would want to venture out there, but I ignored his doubts and rode the 988 for an hour before it came to the Sinopec station, which I assumed was “the red gas station” where you were supposed to catch the 944. Along with the other passengers I walked past a ditch giving off a strong scent of raw sewage to the other side of the road where, eventually, the smaller, van-sized 944 bus pulled up. My instructions were to “ride for about ten minutes until you see a big sign that says ‘SOAR’.” After bumping along for a quarter of an hour the bus came to a stop and the driver turned around and joined the tips of the fingers of one hand to the palm of the other in a “T” gesture. The end of the line. Once ejected I was assaulted on all sides by a rumbling convoy of cement trucks trailing plumes of dust in the evening murkiness. Breathing in the diesel fumes, I headed back the way the bus had come, walking past choked, emaciated trees until I arrived at a conglomeration of half-finished fake-Bauhaus concrete buildings. Surreptitiously checking out the workers’ makeshift living quarters where they were cooking dinner on jury-rigged stoves, I wandered around looking for Elisita Balbontin, a Chilean artist who was supposedly somewhere in the vicinity. We’d never met, but our mutual friend Allison had told me Elisita was in an art show in Beijing and that’s why I was climbing up staircases to nowhere and peeking into half-completed buildings around a pitch-black courtyard way out by the Fifth Ring Road. After some fruitless searching I crossed the road and walked past a guard into the building with the unlit “SOAR” sign I hadn’t seen during the first drive-by. Inside a guy was hammering away on some curved pieces of wood. “Building a ramp?” “Yeah.” “Cool,” and then he went back to work. I climbed to the top of the stairs by the acrid bathrooms and then went down a hallway past closed doors with “Vice-President” and “Chief Officer” plaques on them, soaking in the abandoned office building’s haunted atmosphere. Coming to the end of the hall I encountered Elisita “Punto” Balbontin and Liz Nelson in a room full of canvases leaned against the walls, cans of paint and other art supplies, and an amazing neo-primitive Constructivist work table made of tape, scavenged wood, and cardboard, which I later found out had been made by Brooklyn artist Alfredo Martinez. There was also a dirty little white dog with pink dye-tinged hair running around, a stray from the neighborhood. Three Chinese guys appeared on the scene, pointed at the paintings, and excitedly, incomprehensibly talked at Liz and Elisita. Workers from the nearby village, they were fans that had been coming by every day for the last week. After they left, the ambience took on a strangely nonchalant, familiar aspect, as if the situation weren’t at all that odd. We drank some beers and Liz and I talked about the brown bear overpopulation problem in New Jersey and corrupt politics in her hometown of Jersey City. Something about those exchanges summed up the bizarre, disparate amalgamation of elements, people, and geography that was the result of a trajectory stretching from Allison Busch of Awesome Color to the 988 to the 944 to Punto and Liz in an abandoned helmet factory across the road from a not yet-completed complex of galleries in an as yet-unrealized and hoped-for (and wholly speculative) “art district” on the far outskirts of Beijing. A week later I was on the 988 again during rush hour in an intimate press with my fellow travelers, smelling the garlic, heading for the opening of SEWN. From the bus I saw five guys carrying skateboards walking in the wrong direction. When I saw the SOAR sign I implored the bus driver to stop but he just laughed and dropped me off a mile and half down the road under a highway overpass. Upon entering SOAR I found a large Puerto Rican man with his face and arms covered in soot and grease surrounded by tools and pieces of metal assembling what looked like a very real machine gun mounted on a tripod. Surmising he was Alfredo Martinez, I nodded, and then walked across the street and through the throng into SEWN, which was the first real art exhibition I’d seen in Beijing and the opposite of the usual schlock-fest endemic here. Without going into too much detail, the awfulness and lack of any discernable artistic merit on display at most shows in Beijing is almost awe-inspiring. Though SEWN, a group show of Chilean and Chinese artists curated by two Chileans named Nico and Katiushka might have been less than perfect, it was an intelligently installed, aesthetically cohesive exhibition, which made it a total rarity. Photos courtesy of Nico y Katiushka ( Taking a seat on the deck of Nico Grum’s now-finished orange, yellow, and baby blue painted ramp under a large photograph of two Germans and a gaggle of amused Chinese people gathered around a big white hog, I observed the crowd moving upstairs. There were speeches—there are always speeches—and then it was time to skate. Supposedly the crew who had been there earlier couldn’t deal with the ramp, or weren’t into it. Whatever. In their defense, most Chinese skaters have never had access to a ramp so their desertion was understandable. With them out of the picture it was just this scribbler performing for the audience like a trained seal with an extremely limited repertoire of tricks, and if anybody was watching or not is open for debate. At one point I bailed and shot my board straight at a distinguished older gentleman who had his back turned, followed a second later by the board smashing into one of his ankles. Intuitively I had the notion that he wasn’t your average attendee, and that hunch was borne out when I learned he was the Chilean Ambassador to China, Fernando Reyes Matta. When I panted, “Are you OK?” (which I knew he wasn’t) he emphatically yelped “No!” The opening was a success, it seemed, with its Chinese, Chilean and everything-else mix, and then Alfredo made his late appearance, dirtier than ever, and his incredibly accurate “Type 54/Dshk” machine gun simulation was installed just as that phase of the night came to a close. Later a group of us walked a mile to the red gas station to find a taxi, and as we advanced Punto carved down the road on my board, almost disappearing in the misty distance, then looping back, and the vision of her rolling between the fields in the night was a beautiful sight. Then there was the last day, though I didn’t know that at the time. By now it was early November and the air had turned cold, not quite winter, but not fall either. Took the 988 again and this time eschewed the 944 and just skated all the way from the red gas station. Walked up to the gallery, opened the door, and all the art was gone except the ramp and Xingpeng Chen’s “Self Portrait” comically glowering over the empty room. That was odd, but the workers didn’t seem to care about my arrival so I found one of the ineffectual short brooms with thistles on the end that are ubiquitous here and always make you wonder if they work at all, and after ten minutes of trying to push the sixteenth-inch layer of dust off the ramp to not much avail my suspicious that they are in fact pretty useless were confirmed. I skated a bit, found a beer somebody had left, spotted one of the workers as he gleefully attempted to ride my board and occasionally went to the door and peered out into the courtyard and thought, “Man, it’s dark out there.” No lights at all. Skated, drank some beer, listened to the silence, and that was that. Photo courtesy of Nico y Katiushka ( The funny aspect to all this is, truth be told, I have written for The Times on a few occasions. Nothing major, a few bits here and there. But I’d never told Nico about the Times, he had just made it up to on the spur of the moment and improvised a role for me as a Times writer who was going to bring to light the nefarious deeds of this guy Shaolin Temple who’d screwed him over. All of which was pretty hilarious. Nico’s ad-hoc plan had me snickering with mirth as we zigged and zagged through the narrow dusty lanes of the village trying to find a place to buy some clothes. Now this Shaolin Temple, some background is needed to explain his part in the whole fiasco. First of all, that’s not his real name. It’s just that I could never pronounce his real name which to me sounded close to “Shaolin Temple” so I just called him that, and continue to do so to this day. He was in charge of the Artbase space and his role was that of a “curator,” impresario, and big cheese on the art scene. From what I’d heard he’d been a nightmare to deal with—responsible for money not being paid, sundry unkept promises, attempting at the last minute to force Nico and Katiushka to include work by a truly horrible artist he was sleeping with, along with all manner of other unprofessional, sketchy, and egregious behavior. He’d been giving them trouble for the two months of the show’s preparation and throughout the duration, and now this was the final straw. I’d seen him at the opening since he was one of the big cheeses giving speeches. Later that night I attended a dinner where he’d very much played the role of Mr. Big, sitting at the back of the big round table with his two lackeys on one side and his passably comely “assistant” on the other, lording it over the assembled party. His whole demeanor reminded me of a mafia boss, the Chinese version, with his middle-aged potbelly, incessant cigarette smoking, bad suit jacket, and the sunglasses worn at night. There are quite a few of these art-mafia types floating around Beijing, not in the sense of the Western “Art Mafia” and/or “Velvet Mafia” but in the sense of the real mafia. They give off a whiff of criminal overtones mixed with some kind of shady guanxi, which is usually defined as “influence” and “social capital” (which really means connections in the PRC). Since the art game here is 99 percent about real estate development and speculative money-making schemes they’ve found a home for themselves and their oily machinations in the so-called art world. So maybe not that unlike their counterparts in the West, but less sophisticated about camouflaging the illicit nature of their “business.” At one point I was introduced to Mr. Temple and gamely “ganbei-ed” (toasted) with him a few times along with everyone else at the table, including a really drunk and obnoxious Barcelonan with dreads who repeatedly shouted ‘GANBEIIIIIIIII!!!!” at the top of his lungs in a black metal voice. After hearing Nico’s stories that was about as close as I wanted to get. So it was off to dinner with Shaolin Temple and his minions to intimidate him with my imaginary Times affiliation. But first there was the matter of my disgustingly stinky clothing and possibly newly diseased body underneath. On a dirt track that is the main “road” of the village we stopped in front of a little store and entered like a hurricane, me shivering and still high on adrenalin with a slightly crazed look in my eyes, the both of us talking loudly, chortling, and pulling shirts and pants off the racks to hold them up and see if they looked remotely possible for me to wear. I was still dripping, and though by then I was pretty sure it hadn’t technically been a cesspool, there had surely been elements of human (and other) waste in that water and the smell was pungent. Not pleasant at all. The store was one of these all-in-one emporiums of clothes, tiny stools, food, tools, bikes, and god knows what else, all of the cheapest quality for correspondingly cheap prices. The girl working there was about 15 and as we ran around grabbing articles of clothing and unsuccessfully trying to come up with the words for “shirt” and “shoes” she watched from behind the counter like we were insane. I’m pretty sure she was trembling. There’s a deeply ingrained belief IN some Chinese that Caucasians are dirtier and smellier, as well as evolutionarily closer to monkeys than they are (all that body hair), not to mention “crazy.” So lo and behold, here we were tearing through the shop, one of us smelling literally like shit while we shouted at each other in our incomprehensible gutter language, as if trying to prove them right. By the end, though, the counter girl was laughing too when I decided on some tan pants, a white long sleeved button-up shirt made out of a material closely related to that of the flimsiest plastic bag, and a pair of black kung-fu slippers. All together it came to something like $8. Bounding onto the moped we sped off to the restaurant, one of these huge Chinese places with four or five girls in the traditional ersatz silk dresses greeting people at the door, fish tanks by the entrance, and a large cacophonous dining room filled with round tables populated by shouting groups of ten or twelve people and a thick layer of cigarette smoke hanging over them right below the monstrously gaudy chandeliers illuminating the entire scene. Nico was in a hurry because this whole time Katiushka had been alone with Shaolin & Co., “OK,” I said, “You find them, and I’ll go to the bathroom and change and then I’ll find you.” I made a beeline through the bedlam to the rear, where I rushed into one bathroom, which turned out to be the ladies’ bathroom, then rushed back out to go into the other one where I was promptly intercepted by two attendants. There are always bathroom-minders in these sorts of places, and they are very officious and serious about their job, whatever it may be. I brushed by one guy, sort like a basketball player slipping around an opponent, and went straight to the sink and pumped out copious amounts of liquid soap on my hands to scrub and scrub and lather like I’d never washed my hands before. By then I’d stopped dripping and the effluvia had caked into hard crust all over my hands, arms, and neck. Scrubbing away madly, because I was sure I was going to get a staph infection at the very least, while the two attendants shouted at me mercilessly. I don’t know what their problem was. To be fair I was totally disheveled, stunk, and was carrying a plastic bag and a grime-encrusted skateboard, but there was no way in hell I was even going to try to explain to them what had happened or justify my actions. Not that I could have, being completely deficient in Chinese. Photo courtesy of Nico y Katiushka (

After the fourth or fifth scouring a man exited one of the stalls, so I hastily grabbed my stuff, my hands soaking wet because as usual there were no hand towels available, and ran in and locked the door. Finally some peace. The attendants were still shouting, and then they were joined by a more familiar voice, that of Nico, who was also shouting. “Are you in there?” “Yeah, I’ll be done in a minute.” “OK. They’re at the restaurant next door.” It’s absurd, but there’s another huge restaurant right next door that looked exactly like this one, the two of them side by side on a road through the fields in the middle of the boondocks. “All right, I’ll be there in a few minutes, you go on without me.” Then it was time to get down to the business of changing in the cramped little stall, balancing the bag on the handle of the toilet, while untying and discarding for good my squishy muddy shoes and peeling off my clothes until I was completely naked. Putting on the new clothes was quite a gymnastic feat, hopping around on one foot then the other, trying not to let the contaminated outfit from the cesspool touch the new costume. Finally I got it together, left the pants, socks, and shoes in the corner, and holding my sodden shirt, phone, glasses, keys, and skateboard at arm’s length burst out of the stall, merrily waved goodbye to the two attendants, and walked to the front of the restaurant where I was rushed by three of the hostess girls. “Uhm, bag, bag, what’s the word for bag? Box, dai bao?” I couldn’t think of the word for bag but somehow came up with the words for a take-out food box and threw them around a couple times. I noticed the old man tending the fish tanks eyeing me with suspicion. As luck would have it someone walked by holding a plastic bag so I pointed at it and one of the girls disappeared for a while to return with one of these red shiny plastic bags that tear to pieces if you put anything in then that weighs over a quarter pound. All kinds of pantomime about needing more than one ensued, and after some haggling she produced two more and together we triple-bagged my possessions. It’s bizarre, since trillions of these plastic bags litter the landscape, but sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get one and occasionally, and unaccountably, you have to pay for them. Finally I was set and, looking spiffy in my new clothes with my triple-bag of odorous belongings, went out and walked 25 feet to walk through the ostentatiously columned entryway of the next-door restaurant, past their battalion of hostesses, and made my way to the back where I found Nico and Katiushka in a smoky private room with Shaolin Temple and his gang. At long last the avenging New York Times writer in his sharp new duds made his entrance, and as I sat down there was a general burst of laughter.“Ahhh, you fell! You’re wet and dirty!” ribbed Shaolin Temple’s lieutenants and assistant. They were really over the moon about the whole caper, giggling and slapping their thighs, as Nico told the story with much dramatic emphasis. I laughed too, because it was undoubtedly pretty funny, while I picked at the leftover food given me, which unfortunately was something you had to eat with your hands. I smelled my fingers, which still reeked, and thought about all the horrible illnesses I was going to catch. As time went on decided to just drink as much beer as possible and hope that it would magically sanitize the insides of my body. It was hard to get off the subject of the cesspool, no matter where the conversation went It keep coming back up. I sat there reliving that feeling of dropping and the shock of the cold water, the imminent death and then immediately thereafter the very much alive sensation. I asked Nico and Katiushka if they knew about how in Vietnam the Americans would take suspected Vietcong up in helicopters and throw them out and then drop in altitude so they were cut to pieces by the helicopter’s blades. “Really?” “Yes, really. But sometimes they would get the prisoners, tie them up, blindfold them, and tell them that if they didn’t talk that was going to be their fate. Of course these guys were terrified beyond belief. The helicopter would lift off but then just actually hover a few feet above the ground, and they’d interrogate them and if they didn’t get the answers they wanted they’d say OK this is it and push them out. And these guys are thinking they’re about to die, but they just landed right below on the ground, unharmed. You can imagine, they were scared shitless and probably scarred for life by the experience. That’s what I felt like, for one second.” Right then Shaolin addressed me, it was really the first time since he usually let his cronies and the girlfriend who spoke better English than him do the talking, and said something that went like this: “In Chinese culture there is a story about a man who gets really dirty when he falls into—well not a cesspool but some kind of correspondingly disgusting mishap, I can’t remember the details—and after that he is really lucky and makes a lot of money. So you are very lucky, and you are going to be rich.” I said yes, I guess I am going to be rich. We “ganbei-ed” for the umpteenth time, the girlfriend laughed and laughed, practically doubling over, and neither The New York Times nor the debacle of the show were mentioned at all. Photo courtesy of Nico y Katiushka ( So as it turns out walking out that door wasn’t the end but just the beginning, and yes it was very dark out there, darker than most people who live in cities in the first world can imagine. Being within the city limits of a teeming metropolis without any artificial illumination is a bit unnerving, plus no stars are visible in Beijing’s night sky so it was just pure black when I stepped outside. Since I’d met Nico at the opening he and his wife and artistic partner Katiushka had become two of my best new compatriots in China, and when we had spoken on the phone a few minutes earlier he’d said he’d pick me up to take me to dinner and that everything “was fucked up, totally fucked up, but I’ll pick you up and we’ll go eat for free.” I wasn’t sure what he was talking about and honestly didn’t give it much thought. As I walked out I heard a moped in the distance, surmised it was Nico’s, and gingerly put one foot in front of the other in the inky blackness. As my left foot touched what I thought was a curb I stepped over it just like you would regularly walk from a road to a sidewalk. Then I plummeted into the abyss. Retroactively I discovered it was about five feet of incredibly cold and foul, shit-smelling water. The thing is, during the milliseconds I was falling—plunging—I had no idea where I was going, or what the hell was happening. So I had a momentary sense that this was it. The end. As it happened I didn’t die or even get hurt, but it’s an uncanny feeling, going in less than a second from an essential meeting with death to realizing that it’s just a stumble—nothing too dramatic. Leaves you a bit shaken, that extremely short trip between annihilation and life going on, albeit soaked. When I landed on my feet in the muck at the bottom with the disgusting water up to my shoulders I manically, in one of those feats ascribed to people on angel dust who suddenly have powers of superhuman strength, leaped clear out of the cesspool and onto the land, yelling “FUCK, FUCK, FUUUCCCCKKKKK!!!!!” I just wasn’t expecting that outside stupid fucking Artbase there’d be an invisible six foot wide and six foot deep cesspool right next to the grandiose entrance of the stupidly-named “Artbase.” There I was yelling at the top of my lungs, dripping slime and goo, every article of clothing soaked through to the last thread and thinking about my skateboard. How my bearings are going to be shot—how am I going to get new bearings? The moment I landed back coincided with Nico rolling up on his moped. He jumped off and there was lots of inchoate yelling and shouting and “What the fuck happened man?” in Nico’s Chilean accent. “I don’t know what happened. I was walking and then, I don’t know, I just fell down like six feet into this well thing, and FUCK!” And so on. Then Nico said, “Dude, you smell.” That was an understatement. I reeked. And I was chilled to the bone, because though it was about forty-five degrees Fahrenheit it felt much, much colder. The wind was blowing, my teeth were chattering, and I was a bit disoriented and slightly in shock. Not shock like from a traumatic injury, just shocked, and thankfully Nico took control. “OK man we’ve got to get you some new clothes and we’ve got to go to dinner and you’ve got to help me out, I’ll tell you why.” Why and how I was going to help him in my condition was a mystery to me. I got on the moped, hanging on to the back and trying not to infect Nico with my oozing wetness. By the time we got to the gate of the Artbase complex we were both laughing uproariously as I tried to explain the sequence of events and gibbered about how I didn’t know “it” was there, and how fucking gross the water had been, and how it got in my mouth, and all kinds of other incoherent ramblings. As I gibbered Nico was gibbering too, driving and turning his head to shout in my ear. “OK man, we’ll get you some new clothes in the village, and then we have to go to that big fancy restaurant because they took the show down without telling us and it’s fucked, and I told Shaolin Temple that I was going to sue him and take him to court and that my friend who’s a writer for The New York Times is coming to dinner and he’s going to write about what happened so they better give me some fucking money, man.” I had no idea what he was talking about. As we bounced and rattled along the rutted road—me shivering and trying to hold onto my skateboard and not fall off the back of the moped—it dawned on me that it had been strange that there was no art left at SEWN except for Chen’s photograph and the ramp. “It’s fucked, it’s totally fucked, they got a bunch of farmers to take down everything and damaged some of the art and it’s so fucked, man. So anyway, I told him you were from The Times and if they didn’t compensate us you were going to write an article saying how fucked they are so you have to say you’re from The Times and that you’re going to make them look bad.”