Every Friday evening, several hundred Chinese people congregate at a circular meeting area near the east gate of prestigious Renmin University in Beijing. They stand in pairs, gather in large clusters, or just mill around. They are here for a variety of personal and educational reasons, all of which involve speaking and listening in English to each other. Welcome to English Corner.
Hundreds of English Corners can be found across China, and the Renmin University gathering is by far the largest and most influential. The event draws a diverse crowd, with attendees ranging in age from five to over seventy, the majority appearing to be college students or in their twenties. The event is host to patriots, dissidents, scholars, students, and casual observers. In their own words, they have come to practice their “oral English.” The social energy is palpable.
English Corner may be the most liberated institution in Mainland China. There are no leaders, no organizational structure, no agenda, no charge for entry, and rules are few. It is everything that a traditional Chinese classroom is not. A pair of signposts erected by the university display the following messages in Chinese and English:
Zhang Jie Yu 张建宇 is a 43 year old taxi driver from Beijing who has worked as a driver his whole adult life, having been interested in cars since he was a child. Here is his life on the road:
What is your solution to heavy traffic in Beijing?
All drivers need to calm down, stay in their traffic lanes, and obey traffic rules. If all drivers followed the rules, the traffic wouldn’t be so bad.
Who owns the taxi that you drive?
It belongs to a taxi company that I lease the car from. Every month, I must pay the company 6,500 RMB ($1,060). I also have to pay for fuel and maintenance, so the total cost is about 12,000 RMB ($1,960) per month.
Do you mind if I ask how much you earn each month?
My net income is between 3,000 and 5,000 RMB ($490-$815) per month.
Do you receive tips?
Sometimes, foreign passengers will tip me 5 RMB for good service and because I know a little English. The biggest tip I have received is 10 RMB ($1.60).
What happens to phones that are left in your taxi?
One night eight years ago, four phones from four different passengers were left in my taxi in one night. I called each passenger back and returned their phones. Some of them paid the cab fare for me to return their phone, while some did not. Nobody has left their phone in my taxi since.
Lu Kong is a 24 year old Chinese teacher who teaches Chinese in India. While at university, she studied how to teach Chinese as a foreign language and has been working in Mumbai, India’s largest city, for the last six months. She previously taught Chinese in Bali, Indonesia. Passionate about travel and cultural exchange, she represents a new generation of educated Chinese youths who seek to explore and make their mark abroad.
How did you find your job?
I joined an organization that operates Chinese culture/language programs for overseas Chinese communities. They send teachers to provide Mandarin Chinese lessons to local Chinese children. First, I spent a year teaching Chinese to Indonesian Chinese children in Bali, then I moved to India. Now I work for an institute that promotes cross cultural exchange, including language programs.
What made you move to India?
While in university in 2010, I spent a month in northern India, visiting historical sites and trying new things. I found the country to be really interesting. India is a country that is charming to travelers and it’s near to China. Also, it was not a problem for me to get an Indian visa, as a Chinese citizen. I saw all these different people and lifestyles in India, which were completely different than those in China.
Who do you teach in India?
I work with various age groups. They are mostly beginners. Some of the children are as young as five, some are teenagers and some are adults. Some of the adult students work at Indian companies and are interested in learning Chinese in order to do business with China.
Do your students have a specific interest in China beyond economic gain?
Li Jiu Ming is a 58-year-old fortune teller who runs his business from his small home in a traditional Beijing hútòng胡同 near the Yong He Lama Temple, a notable Buddhist monastery. Mr. Li is an expert in Zhou Yi divination 周易, a traditional Chinese method for predicting future events using ancient texts. He agreed to read my fortune and provide an interview regarding his profession.
Prior to reading my fortune, Mr. Li asked me to shake three divination coins in my fist while thinking about what I wished to ask him. The coins were thrown down six times in this fashion, with Mr. Li methodically noting the arrangement of the coins following each throw.
“That’s a good one”, he remarked, upon noticing the coin combination from my final throw. The combination represented the metamorphosis from a fish into a dragon. The dragon will then move into its rightful position, resulting in my every wish coming true. He looked into my past and saw an unsuccessful career. Starting from next year, he claimed, my luck will improve, and I will have a brilliant career in politics or finance. He correctly stated that I haven’t married yet. Had I married early, he said, it would have ended in divorce. He predicted that I will marry in 2013, though my first marriage will end in divorce. This will be followed by a second, more successful, marriage.
Mao Ju is the founder of the Caochangdi Free Library in northeast Beijing, which was established in October 2010. She now has 130 young students and volunteers, ranging between the ages of one to fourteen. Day to day administration of library affairs is handled by her volunteers and the library also functions as an English and arts training center, with numerous foreign volunteers participating in cultural exchange activities. Her volunteers also teach English to other children and even teach Chinese to local foreign artists. The library occupies a small room in the center of Caochangdi Village, a growing arts community on the periphery of the city. Here is her story.
Your library is titled the Caochangdi “Free” Library. Aren’t most libraries free?
In China, not all public libraries are free. Our library is completely free, which most parents can’t understand. The National Library is free, but it is far away. Many communities do not have libraries.
What did you do before opening the library?
I studied Graphic Design in university and then came to Beijing and worked as a translator for an art gallery in the 798 Art District. In 2009, while I was in Europe, I got a chance to work with some German performance artists. These artists copied the Chinese artists who copied European paintings. They wanted to say that copying works of art is a form of performance art in itself. I felt impressed when I worked with them. They inspired me to lead an interesting life. I also volunteered at an NGO (non government organization), where I taught art and Chinese culture to children.
What led you to pursue a lifestyle that focuses on helping others?
Jon Zatkin was an American citizen who lived in Beijing, China, for over twenty-five years. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he was a full-time actor and musician and played foreign characters in over 40 Chinese television series and films. He passed away shortly after giving this interview, in which he described his remarkable story and how his interest in China changed his life. The complete recording of his interview is available here.
What is your Chinese name?
舒友民 (Xu You Min). It means “friend of all people.”
Can you tell me about the origins of your move to China?
Yu Jing is the 26 year old Artistic Director for Egg Gallery in Caochangdi Village, Beijing. In addition to his gallery duties, he produces his own iconoclastic artwork, employing an eclectic variety of media to showcase his flippancy toward artistic and societal establishments.
A sampling of his works and related comments follow, along with an interview.
The rules to Yu Jing’s game of hide and seek
Game of hide and seek
Artist comment: I created an activity modeled after a children’s game which involves chasing and finding other players. For this activity, I created an agreement which stated the terms of the chase – one person would attempt to escape from the other, who would follow in pursuit. If the pursuer still had the other in their sight after one hour, the pursuer would be awarded 100 RMB ($15).
Su Yong 苏 勇 is a 32 year old chef from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China. He has been featured on several television cooking shows, has 2,000 followers on Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) and recently opened a new Sichuan restaurant in Beijing. Sichuan cuisine is notable for its use of mouth numbing spices and is quite popular within China and abroad. Here are his thoughts on cooking, cuisine and Sichuan women.
When you were a child, what did you like to eat most?
Liang ban ji 凉拌鸡. It’s a cold dish, with boiled chicken and peppers in vinegar. I ate this frequently as a child. It was the first dish I ever prepared by myself – when I cooked it for my father, he said it was better than his own.
Guanqiao Fan is a 22 year old film student at Beijing Film Academy. He is currently in the process of editing his fourth short film 南方 (The South), which he wrote, directed and starred in. The film explores a love triangle in a coastal Chinese town set against the rising tide of materialism.
We sat down with him in his dorm room to learn about his interest in film and what he hopes to accomplish. The trailer for his short film can be found at the end of this article, which also includes a number of stills from the film.
Film student Guanqiao Fan in his dorm room
Tell me about your childhood.
I was born in a small fishing village near Zhuhai, in Guangdong province. The village I am from has only one street and is surrounded by two big mountains. I had an idyllic childhood – no worries. There wasn’t much to do, so I played soccer. I was quite happy when a typhoon would pass, because I could climb into the mountains and catch tadpoles in the pools of water left behind by the storm.
What do your parents do?
They own a steel parts factory.
Do you remember the first movie you ever saw?
Yes, it was the Hong Kong film 大話西遊, starring Steven Chow (this film is commonly known as “The Monkey King” in English).
UIBE movie club members Viola and Moon, on the left
During a rainy April morning in Beijing, a quartet of female college students are in costume and on a mission. The students, dressed like characters from the iconic 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, are on a recruitment drive for their school’s movie club. The University of International Business and Economics doesn’t exactly seem like a hotspot for ultraviolence or nihilistic shenanigans, but their choice of costume has clearly paid off, as evidenced by the crowd gathering around their information booth. The term “droog”, referenced in the title of this article, means “friend” and was coined by Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange.
Viola is the spokesperson for the group. 21 years old, her choice of English name came from a character in the 1998 Oscar winning film Shakespeare in Love. She and fellow club member Moon shared their thoughts on their club activities and taste in film:
When did you first develop in interest in movies?
After I graduated from high school. At that point, I was no longer under so much academic pressure, so I started watching a lot of movies. I watched nearly 100 movies during that time, which opened a fresh new world, full of excitement.
Can you name some of the movies you watched during that time?
Casablanca, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dead Poet’s Society.
The first sex toy shop in Beijing opened in 1992, and there are now an estimated 2,000 “adult shops” in the capital. To gain some insight into this industry and the lives of those involved in it, we interviewed the proprietor of a small sex shop located in Sanlitun (三里屯), the entertainment district of Beijing and a popular hangout for foreigners. She declined to be photographed for this article, but was more than happy for us to photo her merchandise. The interview with her is as follows.
How did you get into this line of work?
A friend of mine from my hometown in rural Anhui province introduced me to this business. I was attracted to it by the fact that it doesn’t require hard work and that the start up capital is quite low. I founded the shop over three years ago, after moving to Beijing. I’m the sole employee. My friend is still involved in this industry and supplies me with merchandise.
Has this business been profitable?
I can earn much more running this business than I could in my hometown. I don’t have a high education level, so my alternatives would have been washing dishes or babysitting.
How much money does your sex shop make each month?
I’d rather not say, but it is two to three times what I would have made as a babysitter in my hometown.
Are the small sex shops in Beijing usually managed by migrants from the countryside?
Yes. This job is quite time consuming, so people from Beijing wouldn’t want to do it.
Zha Xi is a Tibetan migrant who moved to Beijing several years ago in search of better economic prospects. A Buddhist, he is part of a group of Tibetan migrants who sell Tibetan artifacts and Chinese propaganda posters in Beijing. The posters, which are copies of posters printed in the 1960s, proclaim various messages intended to glorify Mao Zedong, strengthen the Party’s position in society, and unite the common people.
These days, the posters are a popular item among the foreigners who pass by Zha Xi’s sidewalk sales operation in the heart of Wudaokou, Beijing’s university district. He usually earns about 1,000 RMB a month ($150), significantly more than he would have in his village. We spoke with him to gain some insight into his life and his views regarding his wares.
Where are you from?
A village in Sichuan province, on the border with Tibet. There are about 500 people in my village.
Can you describe your childhood and your life in your village?
My family is very poor. I am the youngest of five children. They are all farmers who grow a special kind of Tibetan wheat. They live in a two- story self-constructed home built of stone.
How much money does your family farm make per year?
The farm doesn’t really make any money, since anything we save is spent at the end of the year, when we buy a new cow. A cow is 2,000 RMB ($300).
How much schooling did you receive? Which languages can you speak?
I attended elementary school for three years, from the age of eight until I was eleven. I can speak Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese. In Mandarin Chinese, I understand the characters for numbers and the characters for male and female. I can read a little of the Tibetan script.
Improve the culture, march toward the modernization and standardization of the People’s Liberation Army
Why did you move to Beijing? How did you hear about this job?
John, the top tout in Beijing’s tourist entertainment district
Someone who publicly solicits customers in a bold way.
“Hello, want beer?” “Hi, this great bar! Come inside!” “Good drink here!”
The calls grow louder and more intrusive as you progress down Beijing’s Sanlitun Bar Street, a cornucopia of gaudy facades, neon lights and larger than life beer advertisements. This stretch of Sanlitun is home to a number of bars that depend on touts to feed their thirst for customers, most of whom are tourists. The touts work the sidewalk like carnival barkers, each having only a few seconds to pull passing customers inside before they pass onto the next bar’s turf.
John is a longtime Beijing bar tout in his 30s that we recently interviewed. Contrary to many others in his line of work, John is not obnoxious. He comes off as amiable and genuine. Also unusual is his command of the English language, which is unheard of among touts in this country. He was happy to shed some light on his profession and discuss why some bars have touts and others don’t.
So, you speak English?
Interesting. I’ve never met someone working outside a bar in China who can actually speak English.
In some bars, if you can speak English, it’s easy to get a job.
When did you begin working at this bar?
About 7 years ago.
How did you find this job? How did you enter the touting profession?
A friend of mine was working at a bar like this and he introduced me to the management.
Did you speak English at that time?
I did, but not very well.
Where did you learn the English that you now use on the job?
I started learning when I was 14. Now I practice with foreigners who are walking down the bar street. I’ll say “Hey, I have some English questions to ask you”. I have some foreign friends and I read English newspapers. I also take classes at New Oriental (the largest private language services provider in China).
Did you receive any training as a tout?
No, we just start work and then practice calling out to customers.
Have you trained any other touts?
No, my bar hasn’t hired any new touts in 7 years.
What about female touts? Why are there no female touts?
Liu Hong Wei and Lang Xin Long are two young, aspiring dancers who have moved to Beijing with dreams of stardom. On weekend evenings, they can be often be spotted dancing at a busy intersection in the heart of the city’s entertainment district. You can see videos of them performing here:
Lang Xin Long practices Michael Jackson-style moves, while Liu Hong Wei prefers Korean-style breakdancing. They are best friends, their relationship forged out of unity of purpose and plight. Their struggles are many and their goal is singular. Their stories are as follows:
Lang Xin Long (age 22):
Can you tell me about your early life? Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a wheat farm in Gansu (a remote province in northwest China). As a child, I helped out on the farm.
What schooling did you receive?
I attended primary school and junior high school. I dropped out when I was fourteen.
What happened after that point?
I ran away from home from home at age fourteen, due to suffering beatings at the hands of my father. I wanted to get as far away from home as possible, so I snuck onto a train bound for Urumqi in Xinjiang (the westernmost province in China). I haven’t been back since.
“Old Zhao” is an elderly bearded beggar who spends his evenings working the streets of Wudaokou (五道口), in Beijing’s university district. After several years of plying his trade, Old Zhao, with the clinking of coins in his porcelain begging bowl, has become one of the most recognizable figures in the neighborhood. His story is a familiar one for tens of millions of working class Chinese people, even if his current choice of work is not.
For someone who has endured a lifetime of hardship and limited opportunities, he appears remarkably content with his current existence. We spoke with Old Zhao recently and found out what draws him to the indigent lifestyle.
How old are you? Where did you grow up?
I’m seventy years old. I was born in the village of Minquan, in Henan province.
Could you tell us about your early life?
I was a single child and grew up on a farm in Minquan. My mother was a cook and I learned how to cook from an early age. I picked crops on my family’s farm and also served as the village cook for the Production Team (Production Team was the basic accounting and farm production unit in the People’s Commune system that lasted from 1958 to 1984).
I got married at age twenty-four and had a son a couple years later. Now I have two grandchildren. We all lived and worked on the family farm, until three years ago, when I left. The farm has wheat, corn, and other crops. We have a self-constructed three-room house. We also have a backyard, with chickens, dogs, and pigs.
What do you think of Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao)?
He was the leader of the Revolution and the current leader of China is following in his example. I have nothing else to say.
Was life on your farm and in your community affected by the Cultural Revolution?
Not at all.
Did you attend school?
I attended one year of elementary school, but then dropped out to work on the farm. I can’t read and write. The only Chinese characters I understand are those for my name.
When did you first come to Beijing? Why did you decide to become a beggar?