There were only a couple of problems with the apartment. The first was, though it had a kitchen, it lacked some of the luxuries one might associate with kitchens. Like utensils. Or a refrigerator. I gather a lot of Chinese families don’t have refrigerators. In Daniel’s apartment leftover food sat out on the dining room table for days to be reheated and eaten by passersby, who never seemed to have digestive problems. Coming from a culture where food is considered spoiled if not refrigerated the moment one stops eating it, the fridge-less kitchen was a new experience for me. Daniel understood my cultural hangups and prior to moving in he said he would order one.
I was looking forward to the morning when I could refrigerate eggs, milk mayo, jelly, etc., but until that day came, I got breakfast each morning down the hill in Old Town.
The walk to town went something like this.
The apartment was in a gated community. Gated communities in China make their suburban counterparts in the States look like hotbeds of bohemian art-house culture. But the good part is that they’re litter-free. See, most neighborhoods in China contain a communal garbage area outside known colloquially as “the street”, or alternatively, “the area that is not your house.”
In the gated community there wasn’t so much as a piece of trash. Once outside the gate, however, I’d find myself on a road I called “Dead Rat Alley”. [I once asked Coleen, the clerk at the guest house who had introduced me to Daniel, why there are so many rats here. To which she replied because Dali is so wonderful, rats come here from all over. Which I interpreted as a subtle discriminatory swipe at us laowai’s. “Did you hear what she just called us?” I asked James, a fellow foreigner. “She called us rats.” Coleen insisted she was referring solely to the small furry rodent, but we knew better.]
In Chengdu in March I began a short-lived photo series entitled “Dead Animals of the Street”. Had I waited, I could have shot the entire series on this one stretch. I could have just as easily called it Dead Cat Alley. Or Dead Pig Alley. You never knew what decomposing corpses might greet you on your amble through Dead Rat Alley. [Full disclosure: okay, I only saw one dead cat and one dead pig, but that’s more dead pigs than I’ve seen in an urban setting ever.]
Dead Rat Alley spit you out onto a larger street called San Yue Road. During the day San Yue was spookily empty. All the shops were boarded up. That’s because the street consisted almost entirely of KTV venues. When I first got to China, I thought KTV was the most wide-reaching television station I’d ever seen. Every town had one. Or twenty. It turns out, the K in KTV stands for Karaoke. The Chinese may not always be fond of the Japanese, but like the rest of the world, they have adopted Japan’s most popular export with open arms and even wider-open mouths. The only problem with this particular KTV street, and what I didn’t learn until after I moved in, was that in actuality most of these karaoke bars were fronts for brothels. So day or night, it was a long, sad walk down the hill.
At the bottom of the hill was the highway known as 214 National Road. There were no lights on the highway. Crossing it to get to the West Gate of the Old Town was like crossing Interstate 5. Every time I did, I felt like that little girl holding her teddy bear on those yellow warning signs north of San Diego. Only there were no warning signs here.
I used to cross Chinese streets timidly. I was amazed by Chen Li, a teacher in Baoshan, who crossed without even looking. “Don’t worry,” she said, “If they hit you, they have to pay you 5,000 rmb.” ($800)
“What if they kill you?” I asked.
“Then they have to pay you a million.”
As tempting a get-rich-quick scheme as it sounded, I continued to look both ways. But it made sense. The only thing stronger than a financial incentive in China is a financial disincentive. And it’s pretty much the only thing preventing the streets from being paved with tourists, children, and cell phone users.
At the West Gate I would do my victory dance, having survived the journey to town before choosing a place to eat my breakfast and beginning the trek back in reverse—Interstate 5, up KTV Brothel Row, through Dead Rat Alley to the sanctuary of my gated community, where I would catch my breath…and head back down for lunch.