Generation Gaps11 min read

From old-timers to fifty shades of youth – Alec Ash

  An excerpt from Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China

For China’s ‘post-80s’ generation, there are various tribes to identify with. The ‘working grunt tribe’ (shangbanzu) or ‘urged tribe’ (beicuizu) are the nine-to-fivers pressured into conformity. The ‘strawberry tribe’ (caomeizu) are nice to look at but soft inside, flitting from job to job and avoiding responsibility. The ‘moonlight tribe’ (yueguangzu) spend their monthly wages shopping – a punning double meaning of ‘moonlight’ and ‘spend it all’ – while the ‘bite the old tribe’ (kenlaozu) still live off mum and dad. Almost everyone’s in the ‘rush-rush tribe’ (benbenzu) but those who can’t hack it might join the ‘crush-crush tribe’ (nieniezu), named for a brief craze where stressed young workers took out their frustrations by crushing packets of instant noodles in supermarket aisles.

If the post-80s were on a conveyor belt from exams to college to work to marriage, the post-90s wanted to get off the track. Their tribes were as often subcultures that marked them as nonconformists – making up for the lost youth of those who came before them. They were the punks, skaters, cosplayers, graffiti artists. The shamate youth (named for the English word ‘smart’) whose over-the-top hairstyles and outfits were somewhere between goth and Japan’s counter-culture Harajuku. The metalheads and the skinheads, Mia’s own tribe. Their elders were quick to grumble that they were “brain dead” or “too open,” but in the cities young attitudes to everything from work to sex challenged convention. Tattoos were no longer taboo but trendy, with a tattoo parlor on every bar-district street corner.

Mia had two new tattoos herself. One was a buxom girl on her left arm – based on her Virgo star sign – with the words ‘Pretty Vacant’ after the Sex Pistols song. The second was a cobweb on her elbow, an old-school prison tattoo. Both were her own designs. But if Mia was a rebel, she was also ambitious. In her fourth and final year at Tsinghua University she interned part-time at the Chinese edition of the fashion glossy Harper’s Bazaar. (She turned up to the interview in her full skinhead regalia.) After graduating in June 2012 she stayed on as a full-time intern with a small stipend.

Bazaar’s China office is in a sparkling high-rise called Trends Tower at the center of Beijing’s commercial and business district. Next door is the World Trade Commercial Building, and a short taxi ride away is the CCTV Tower – both modernist glass monsters. The plaza next door, known in English as “The Place,” is a shiny trap of Starbucks and burger joints canopied high overhead by LED panels that stretch for a hundred meters. Light shows run at night, and there was a rumor that a rich second-generation kid once rented the entire display to play video games. If a visitor to Beijing doesn’t venture outside a square kilometer from the hotels near here (as sometimes happens) he or she might get the false impression that China is just like the West, or years ahead.

Every weekday morning Mia swivelled into the palatial lobby of Trends Tower, took a touch-screen lift directly to the 18th floor, then switched to another regular lift up to the 21st. Bazaar took up the whole floor in an open-plan mess of Apple Macs and magazine stacks. Sta  bustled about between mannequins, while delivery boys arrived every other minute with parcels to sign for. Movie posters covered the walls and open suitcases overflowed with clothing samples. The tiled floor was kept sparkling white by a cleaner who moved through the middle of it all, sticking out like Liberace’s sore thumb.

Mia’s boss was a Chinese Anna Wintour type with a daunting reputation in the industry. She took a shine to Mia, amused that while everyone else wore high heels and designer brands, Mia still showed up in Doc Martens and a leather jacket. Mia’s duties were an intern’s cliché – that Starbucks was just downstairs – but she worked tirelessly. Later she would watch the movie The Devil Wears Prada and identify with the main character, a fresh young graduate running errands for her ice-queen editor. She had come a long way: from the Grand Bazaar to Harper’s Bazaar.

It was a consumerist temple, but Mia didn’t blindly worship the gods of Gucci and Versace. A film called Tiny Times that came out in 2013 summed up everything Mia disdained about the material girl type. The plot was an excuse for pretty girls to swan about in designer brands talking about money and men. The young director of the film and author of the novels it was based on, Guo Jingming, was metrosexual to the point of androgyny and clearly spinning his creation for the money (two sequels came out within a year). The female lead worked at a fashion magazine called Me.

Mia counted a dozen other female interns at Bazaar. Most were from rich families and each of them seemed to come to work in a new outfit every day. Mia scorned it as xuanfu: “showing off  wealth.” She didn’t have the money to match their expensive labels and instead adjusted high-street clothes to make them look new. But she was the one given more responsibility by her boss, taken along as an assistant for photo shoots that made the glossy central spreads. Mia watched and learned while the other interns watched and got jealous.

Her real friends were the male interns, who were gay to the last man. The LGBT scene was thriving in Beijing, with the gay club Destination packed every weekend, a magazine called Gay Spot and an annual queer film festival. But it wasn’t easy: pressure to conform meant that most gay men hadn’t come out to their parents, and in all but the most liberal workplaces it was safer to stay in the closet. When one of Mia’s gay male friends returned to his home town of Chongqing for Spring Festival, he asked Mia if he could show his parents a picture of her and pretend she was his girlfriend. It kept them off his back for another year.

Mia had started to get the nudge from her own mother, and resolutely ignored it. She was 22 and had just split up with her college boyfriend of the last four years, Setlight. They had grown into different people from the young couple who had fallen in love, until one day they realized there was no deeper compatibility beyond the emotions that had first bonded them together. Mia moved on first, and the relationship matured her. As she had lived with Setlight for her first year out of college, she needed to find a new place to call home.

The hutongs at the heart of Beijing date back to the 13th century when the Mongols invaded China and established the Yuan Dynasty. The alleyways that veined the city were rebuilt and named for the Mongolian word for well, with its throaty ‘h.’ Over the last decades many of these historic areas have been torn down and rebuilt by developers, the character for “demolish” painted on doors like portent of a Biblical plague. But labyrinthine blocks of hutongs remain, preserved by city planners. Those around the Drum Tower, built by the Mongols in 1272 at the exact center of the old city, are among them.

Fuxue Hutong is one block east of the Drum Tower. At one end is a barracks for the People’s Armed Police, where two guards stand facing a faded stencil of Lei Feng, the Mao-era model worker. At the other end are a primary school and a pet shop. In between are a mahjong parlor, a training school for blind masseurs and a brothel (less than 50 yards from the school). A street market cuts the block in half from north to south, where buckets of eggs, drums of spice, tin cylinders of steamed dumplings, hanging hunks of meat, whole cooked ducks and live fish flapping in shallow pans of water are all ready to be weighed and bagged for a clutch of notes and a tinkle of coins. This is where residents overlap to shop for groceries: the mahjong players, the blind masseurs, the off-duty prostitutes and soldiers.

Mia’s shoebox studio was at No. 21 Little Fuxue Hutong, a narrow tributary of the main alleyway. Inside the street entrance, a series of connected courtyards extended deep in an intricate maze of unmarked doors. It was called a “big mixed courtyard,” with over 30 households squeezed into the same address. If a package arrived, the delivery boy would just yell the recipient’s name until someone opened their window or pointed at a door. Some of the flats were renovated (and rented to foreigners at a markup) but most of the apartments were spartan and cheap, and tenants tended to be in either their twenties or their sixties.

For the older residents of the hutongs, life started early. They rose before dawn to buy vegetables in the market, walk their dogs or fly their pigeons (an old Beijinger pastime for those with a rooftop aviary). Mia, meanwhile, only had to be in the office mid-morning and slept in. The old timers didn’t leave the hutong block for days on end, but she commuted by subway to the commercial district. They had lived there for decades, while she was just passing through. They went to bed at 9 or 10 p.m. with a glass of warm water, when she was getting ready to go out. The two generations lived in the same courtyard but occupied different universes.

Mia partied every weekend in those days, and some weeknights too. She went out with the same three female friends – her “booze and meat mates,” a phrase for lads on the lash which they appropriated. The first stop was generally Sanlitun’s “dirty” bar street, a strip of watering holes tucked away near the colored-glass Rubik’s cube of the Uniqlo store. The night might lead on to the clubs to the west of the old Workers’ Stadium, with names like Babyface, Angel, Coco Banana, Elements and Lantern. Or they would drum ’n’ bass until dawn at Dada, a stone’s throw from the Drum Tower.

Mia got plenty of attention from boys in clubs. One night in April a Chinese guy tried to pick her up by explaining how the date in English was pronounced 4-1-9, which sounded like “for one night.” Mia just laughed. She had abandoned her skinhead look for club wear – one themed birthday outing with her booze-and-meat girls was brightly colored leather catsuits. Whatever the outfit, she wore a silver necklace with a knuckle-duster pendant that spelled out the word ‘Bitch’ in English. Her iPhone case had a plastic knuckle-dusters grip too, and she kept the real thing in her handbag.

Also in the clubs were the “money-worshipping girls” dolled up in high heels, low hems and frilly lace. Mia thought they were all fakes, hoping to bag one of the rich second-generation brats who used the Workers’ Stadium strip as their hunting grounds. Once, at Lantern, Mia got in a fight with one of them over some drunken slight which ended with a cigarette being stubbed out on Mia’s thigh. The two disentangled before Mia got her knuckle-dusters out, and she dragged herself back to Little Fuxue Hutong where her cat Naibao (“Milk dumpling”) was waiting for her.

Mia was friendly with her middle-aged landlord, Mr. Li, whose family had owned property in the courtyard for generations (it was taken away during the Cultural Revolution but given back afterwards). Mr. Li was short, plump and bald, with the piratic Beijing accent that adds an ‘r’ to the end of words. In the summer he rolled up his shirt to cool his beer belly while playing Chinese chess on the street corner with his neighbors – all of them showing more midriff than Britney Spears. Whenever he saw Mia in the courtyard he said, “Going out, eh?” or “Coming back, eh?” in greeting. Sometimes he ran into her on his way to the market before dawn, and commented approvingly on how early she rose. It was beyond his ken that she might only just be coming home.

Mia worked as hard as she played, and after over a year as an intern she was offered a fashion stylist job at Bazaar. It was what her false friends in the office would have given a gloved arm and stockinged leg for. She celebrated by going out the following Halloween in a sexy nurse costume. Any foreign holiday in China is an excuse for young Chinese to party, even if it is just to eat “Western” food: pizza for Thanksgiving, spaghetti for Easter. That Christmas Mia went club-hopping instead, decked out in a red felt skirt with white trimming and a sprig of holly.

She got back to the hutong in the first light of Boxing Day, just in time for Mr. Li, groceries in hand, to say, “Going out, eh?” ∎

Excerpted from Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash (Picador, 2016). Header: contestants on the first season of the hit TV show Rap of China.