For Part I of Babes of Beijing – The Fruit Seller, click here.
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HANNES THE PHOTOGRAPHER
He cycled past with a canvas bag on his shoulder. Parked the bicycle. Then headed straight to the table where several second-hand books were laid out for sale that evening. Andy from Blighty was moving to Berlin. And those books – a few English literature, a few Peter Hesslers – once trusty companions in a man’s daily commute or trophy wives displayed on the bookshelf in his sitting room, had then been reduced to unwanted, excess baggage.
I bought two myself and joined Andy and the rest with a bottle of cold Savannah cider. Eyes though were fixed on this guy who had just arrived. I saw him picked up a few books. 10 Chinese Yuan for a DH Lawrence. Basically, a one-pound deal. Then sat himself down at our table on a seat opposite me.
We were at this bar called Cellar Door. Literally a hole in the wall, with no door. One had to climb a short red ladder to order drinks from a window cut out of a brick wall. Regardless of the gimmick, it is really a banging good watering hole. Low-key, easygoing, cheap drinks, stellar service. And the best part of it? The location.
Bobbed up in a dusty, dimly lit hutong, Cellar Door is surrounded by rubble and geriatric Beijingers living in siheyuan, dilapidated courtyard houses. This area is swaddled in centuries of Chinese history, yet faced with the insidious threat of the government’s very short-sighted and rather vitriolic plans to “clean out” Beijing.
Since a few years ago, countless historical houses and alleyways in the city have been flattened, bulldozed and razed to the ground to make way for new developments. Places like this are soon going to be gone. It’s imminent.
And as I conscientiously joined the throng of grass-root preservationists in dissing the government’s decision, part of me couldn’t help but rejoice in the ephemeral existence of this place. It is not going to be here forever. I have discovered an endangered species.
I stumbled upon this bar one lonesome evening. It was 22nd of July. A Saturday. My 25th birthday.
I was told that it is quite safe to walk in dark hutongs in the evening, as most Beijingers do. Convinced that it is a cultural thing, I did.
You see, there are two types of people when it comes to travelling – the kind who gets irrationally frightened in a foreign land, they become boring and unusually cautious about everything; and then there’s the death-or-glory type, who turn unusually crazy and brave because YOLO and who cares nobody knows who I am. Well, safe to say, it is the latter who are more susceptible to accidents, robberies, getting lost and having their dead bodies flown back to their home countries. Or more often than not, stumbling upon a gem like this.
That evening was my second time at Cellar Door and I had previously made a few friends, like Andy, who were regulars. On the table we sat, there were full of empty beer bottles and packs of cigarettes. There were a few Brits, two Chinese, a Russian. And then there was Hannes. And there was me.
My eyes moved as he got up and made way to the bar. He climbed the ladder and the Chinese lady passed him a glass of white wine. I was certainly not expecting that. No one drinks wine in this kind of place.
Books. Wine. Tall. And a handsome chiselled face. I knew instantly that there’s a story coming our way.
Hannes is a Swedish photographer who has lived in Beijing for 9 years. That is, since 2009, the year after China hosted the Olympics.
The golden year in contemporary Chinese history, some say, where the country lashed out £20 billion at 8 o’clock on 08/08/08 for a spectacular opening ceremony witnessed by over 3 billion people around the world.
It was a show. It was a face-saving bollocks of a show. A thunderous broadcast to say that China has finally reared its head and caught up with the superpowers of the world.
Fair to say the date and time of the ceremony is understandable. The number, 8, has a similar pronunciation to “fa” which means wealth and fortune in Chinese and is, thus, considered a lucky number by the nation. But spending £20 billion in a view that it would bring luck and help the country prosper? That’s like shooting yourself in the head to see if your lawyer’s drafted a good will.
Politics aside, it was a stupendous show. Phenomenal and tear-jerkingly beautiful fireworks, well-orchestrated performances with movements of dancers synchronised to a level of military precision. At that point, I would too be tempted to move to Beijing.
I guess that was part of the reason why Hannes did.
The whole time the group was drinking and talking about topics I hadn’t bothered to remember, I was fixated on him. Given how we sat on the tiny round table, I couldn’t talk to him alone. But I waited.
You know that feeling? Where you see a subjectively good-looking stranger and instantly find yourself infatuated even though you haven’t spoken a word? Like, the seat next to him is finally empty, Imma tactfully move over – this sort of feeling.
Gotta do what do-ers do, people. When I saw an empty chair, I moved without hesitation.
We said hello. And the rest of the chat was a stream of consciousness. Photography, travel, art, his music writing, my travel writing, Beijing, people in Beijing, living in Beijing. Everything. Nothing.
Every now and then, our conversation would be interrupted as he whipped out his film camera to capture people who walked, rode and cycled past us. The blinding flash light startled a few of them. A man on a motorbike even shouted at him, but he didn’t care. We laughed and carried on talking.
I told him I have been wanting to experience how it’s like living in a hutong with a local family. He said he had done that for a year. I asked where is the most romantic place he has ever been in Beijing? He said none, because romantic places just pop up whenever in this city. One could wake up one day questioning one’s choice in moving to a smoggy, unruly place like this; the next day one could be walking down a fizz of a street thinking this is the best decision one’s ever made. It’s a love-hate relationship and that’s romantic.
My attraction for him tripled.
At the end of the evening, he said he was going to get a taxi home and wouldn’t mind walking me out of the dark quiet hutong. Cheeky bastard, I thought, what about your bike?
Let’s do that, I said. He gladly obliged.
We added each other on WeChat. The flirt and banter continued. At that point, I was too exhausted to remember what he said. Happy, nonetheless. Slightly giddy with happiness. But none of that mattered because Hannes is such a man of action. He was constantly on a lookout for the next picture-perfect moment. Or rather, not so picture-perfect moment, which ultimately makes his work so perfect.
Sweaty cooks having a cigarette break outside of a lamb skewer restaurant – snapped. Topless git staring suspiciously from a rundown electrical appliances shop – snapped. Gargantuan piles of recyclable waste left haphazardly by the street – snapped. Me walking up to a burly man asking for a photo with his Beijing belly – snapped and snapped.
It’s hard not to remember all of that.
We came to the front of the hotel that I was staying and I turned towards him. It was that awkward moment where things came to an abrupt standstill and you didn’t know what to do next. We gave each other an even more awkward hug and bade goodbye, knowing full well that our paths are unlikely to cross again.
It has now been 3 and half months since the night I met Hannes.
A week ago, I texted him on WeChat out of the blue. I asked if I could write about him, also indirectly soliciting his consent because I don’t like to change names or use fakes names in my articles. He said he would be flattered, asked me quite a number of questions in return, but didn’t sound so sure. I was honest about my infatuation and sent him a link to my blog.
Up till today, he hasn’t responded.
He probably thought I wasn’t serious. After all, what is there to write about a stranger who you’ve only known for a couple of hours? Or maybe he thought that by not responding, I would then lose interest and forget to write about him altogether.
Hannes clearly doesn’t know the things that I am capable of doing.
With love x