“So why did you come to China?”
Most people who move here learn to keep an answer to this perennial question primed for whenever they might need it. I still don’t have one. I can list the proximate causes that brought me here, but they seem too random, too arbitrary to make a satisfying narrative. Surely there must be some more profound reason to explain how I ended up in the city where I’ve been living now for almost a third of my life?
I never use to like Chinese food, nor was I particularly interested in kung-fu. But I do sometimes like to idly wonder whether there might have been other factors, operating somewhere deeper in my subconscious to prime me for a life in Beijing. Those blue willow pattern plates we ate from every day at home, with the pagoda and the doves and the mandarins crossing the little stone bridge – did they leave an imprint on my psyche, leaving something dormant within in me that was just waiting to be activated the day I first visited the Summer Palace?
Or could it have been the influence of Issi Noho, the sudoko-wielding panda with magical powers, whose author I remember once coming to visit us at primary school?
Is it possible Blade Runner might merit a place on that list?
I already knew Blade Runner by the time I actually saw the film. I knew it from its cultural ripples, the references, allusions and traces of influence that were everywhere in movies like The Matrix, games like Deus Ex, music like Boards of Canada.1 And since I’d also absorbed some of the works that influenced the mood of Blade Runner (I’d read my Raymond Chandler), when I eventually watched the film it was with a particularly vivid sense of recognition (so that’s where “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” comes from), with the click of a missing piece that joined so many other pieces together.
It left its mark on me in ways I didn’t suspect at the time. One was a susceptibility to any music with echoey synth sounds.
China2: the 1979 concept album by Vangelis (who had never visited China) includes the track “The Little Fete” (featuring J. C. Cooper’s translation of the 李白 Li Bai poem 月下独酌) – which resulted in his collaboration on Blade Runner with Ridley Scott after the director used it in a Chanel advert.
And another was neon signs.
Specifically, the neon Chinese and Japanese writing glinting off the rain stippled windows that Harrison Ford spends so much of the movie staring despondently through. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles blended the traditional characters of Hong Kong (a city Ridley Scott had visited before filming) with Japanese kanji and kana.3
Scrawled traditional Chinese characters4 in foreground; neon Japanese sign in background. (Beijing-inspired bicycles?)
(And now Blade Runner 2046 – which doesn’t come out in China until next month – adds Korean hangul into the mix.)
Beijing doesn’t have the same kind of neon mosaic effect you get in Hong Kong or Tokyo – those layers upon layers of sizzling light, competing with one another for space. (In fact, Beijing barely has any neon at all – almost all the illuminated signs around here are made up of LEDs). But Beijing does have distance, and for me one of the distinctive features of the city’s visual language is those glimmers of red you see punctuating the haze on the far side of a flyover.
Maybe it has nothing to do with Blade Runner at all. I’ve always loved being surrounded by Chinese writing, and I learned to read the language primarily from the signs surrounding me here.5 Which is why I’ve decided to start this blog, which will comprise a weekly photo of some form of the written word – a sign, a banner, an advert, graffiti – from the streets of Beijing, accompanied by a few words of my own. Some posts will be more topical6, some more personal. Some will overlap with my work as a translator and editor, and some will not. Most will not be as polished as the writing I occasionally publish elsewhere. But they will all strive to be interesting.
Beijing may not be a cyberpunk city.7 But something still thrills in me when I look out the window and see glowing Chinese signs in the distance.
Plus, on a clear day I can even see this building from my back window:
- Oh, and also this.
- Shame about the chop-suey font.
- While the occasional snatches of the city’s spoken language reveal an even more eclectic pidgin
- I’ve peered at these for a while now and I still can’t quite decide whether they actually make any kind of sense.
- The first characters I learned were the names of the subway stations I stared at on the train each morning, some of which I’ve never since encountered in any other context – yes, I’m looking at you, 樨 of Muxidi!
- Though probably with at least a week’s time lag.
- And I certainly don’t imagine myself as one of the protagonists running around Blade Runner‘s whitewashed world.