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TRCH David Suchet

Notes from the Middle Kingdom: A Beijinger in a Lion's Den

2 January 18 words: James Kramer

Our man in Beijing is back in Notts, and he recently spent a week in the LeftLion office…

I’ve felt like a spy before. Back in 2015, the Beijing government ran a poster campaign, adorning the walls of our nearest subway station, that warned of the risks of Dangerous Love (危险的爱情). Such poster campaigns already carried an infamous notoriety for cultural missteps.

One previously suggested that female drivers should be given extra caution as they “are likely to get distracted easily” and “might forget how to drive somewhere, even if they’ve been there many times before.” This time however, the campaign highlighted the possibility that your foreign boyfriend might actually only want you for your access to state secrets.

Dangerous Love was a Archie-esque comic strip that depicted the courtship and unavoidable ruin of a young girl who fell for the European charms of, oh let's call him David - mostly because I can’t remember what forgettable name the character actually had - what with his neatly tucked-in shirt, Khakis and glasses, and that lusciously flowing, amber hair.

David made dinner, he wooed and courted and was gentlemanly to the note, but it was all a sinister ruse. Over candles and handmade cupcakes, he asked his young love to let him see some documents borrowed from her workplace, which she reluctantly agreed to. Before you know it, our unwitting heroine was placed behind bars and chastised by bobble-headed officers of the law with anime-sized eyes, while David ran back to wherever he supposedly came from; perhaps Utah, given the neatness of his pressed shirt, or possibly Denmark. I don’t know, just somewhere foreign, somewhere “over there.”

I probably didn’t help matters by using a cropped picture of David as my own personal profile pic on Wechat, China’s equivalent of WhatsApp, because I too have dazzlingly golden hair and a rather nifty wardrobe. Not that my significant other ever gave me any state secrets, even though I specifically asked for them in our vows.

This week, however, I feel more like an emissary, a mole deep undercover, as I find myself allowed access to a place that is actually very close to my heart. Dangerous love indeed, I spent a week inside the offices of LeftLion.

First off, there’s the issue of a relaxed start to the day. Back in China, most employees have to scan in for work using a fingerprint machine. That is, of course, unless it refuses to acknowledge your existence as an individual and unique human being.

Given a rather nasty scar on my right hand, one particular office scanner used to routinely deny my existence, repeating only that I was 没有人 or no one, leaving me the option to either feel an onslaught of existential dread, or find myself a poor man’s Polyphemus. Instead, I very subtly ended the conversation with the un-identifying tablet, by subtly pouring a strategically targeted half-pint of boiling water all over its screen. Nobody blinded me, indeed.

At the offices of LeftLion, I found that I could rise before the dawn and still find the time to build a rather crumbly snowman, denounce him for dissident behaviour and bury him at sea (well, the arboretum fountain) so that he couldn’t be mourned.

Upon arrival, I found that everybody at the LL hub seems to be called Ash, or some variant on the same. Not that I’m complaining; I’m used to being surrounded by ash in the workplace, though it’s usually of the coal dust and chemical kind, instead of those displaying Reggie Wattsian hair or with an interest in vegan curry.

Back in Beijing, to keep the office air clean from PM2.5 we’d order in two standalone air purifiers, the emptying of which came every three months, and was like peeling the stuffing out of Cancerfluff: the toxic bear for terrible children. Often these machines would be switched off by other members of staff who believed that the air emitted would make them sick... go figure. Similarly, the air conditioner that also doubled up as our only heater would be locked down for the winter, also assumed to present the same threatening ill-health. This belief, it seems, LeftLion have embraced with frostbitten open arms.

Baked into creation by one of the more creative and artistic members of the LL team, were biscuits fashioned with marshmallow snowmen, melting into icing sugar pools.I cannot believe that given the temperature inside, the biscuit striding snowmen would have melted.

It’s a creative hub of writing; everyone sat typing away, reading the news online or scanning Facebook without a single, solitary firewall blocking their path, or information mysteriously disappearing before them. The lack of government mandated self-censorship was frankly upsetting. Back in Beijing I had discussed with an acquaintance the realities of working for China Daily, one of China’s leading newspapers and one with a widely distributed English version. He’d expressed, once a little intoxicated, how the vast majority of his job consisted of the removal and omission of details that they were not allowed to publish.

Similarly, another male buddy of mine once wrote for VICE China, and would lambast the hours of his day spent translating and editing stories taken from overseas, while never able to legitimately cover half of the bizarre and terrifying true stories that he experienced in the Middle Kingdom. Sure, converting to Mandarin stories about weird-ass foreigners using tattooing as a form of sexual self-expression is fine, as is transcribing about the failed concoction of a miniature “Eurozone” theme park. These were fair game. But saying anything of the strange and subversive subculture of China was an owd no no, despite a welcoming readership in terms of the young, internet savvy generation.

It’s definitely true that social attitudes and publishing guidelines are seriously heading in different ways. While topics become more openly discussed and attitudes expand, under current politburo leadership, the limitations on what can be said in print are narrowing. New rules for the last two years mean that nothing of or alluding to a sexual nature can be translated or appear in print. Now, this is fine for cutting back all scandalous chatter, but the issue arises in that the terms and conditions for such linguistic limitations are so broad, it leaves most writers and translators with little to say.

One brave online commentator posted that the phrase “Come roll up its sleeves and dry” from a translated political speech had been deemed lewd and sexually provocative, resulting in the whole article being pulled. That certainly does give a whole new take on the English proverb “Roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.”

Even stranger, was that no LeftLion employees sleep during the day; a common practice in most offices in China. Walk into your everyday hot-desking nest and you’ll find nearly every employee slumped down over their desks like there’s been a gas leak that’s really mellowed everybody out. An institute of higher learning that I once “worked” at, had to extend evening classes an hour further into the night in order to clear space for “nap time” between 1.30 and 2.00.

Now, this is not me giving it an intentionally infantilising moniker, this was the university’s official term for the scheduled hour. I for one started bringing a pillow to work, and sleeping through my office hours more than I had been doing. However, one does sort of need to sleep through the day, when your working hours are from 8:30am – 8:30pm every day, and that’s not including your boss messaging you on social media while you commute home because they a) are getting it from their significant other and feel like deflecting some seriously misdirected rage, or b) find you sexually alluring and really haven’t been given the socio-emotional tools to show it in any other way.

Then, of course, there’s the obligatory after-office team building exercises. An awkward dinner followed by KTV (see karaoke) with far too little alcohol to blind the experience into the forgettable territory. Maybe these do take place at the LL offices and I just missed the boat. Damn.

Publishing is on the up in Beijing. While many of the old sources for underground news in China have since dried up, or disappeared suspiciously from off the radar, this last year saw the second publication of Beijing’s own literary/poetry magazine Spittoon, which is putting out material that would find itself suitable for any NY or London familiar.

Local expat publishing being what it is, there’s murky waters to tread between sex tourism, masturbatory novellas and guilt ridden, post-colonial diatribes attempting to educate the reader on “all that they don’t know about the culture.”

But back to LeftLion, what is there to summarise after my time there? Well, I think I thoroughly convinced everyone that I’m a miserable sod, and not much of a communicator, so I guess I’ll close by saying this: thank you to all of those who slave tirelessly away for this collection of Nottingham pictures and words, that strung together make a rather strange and interesting paper soup.

For me, I’m off to spend the rest of my night translating Theresa May into Chinese, and I’m going to make her sound unbelievably filthy.

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