A DREAM

Tianjin: inspiring the dream?

In my dream I was with my in-laws and we had decided to visit a house that had been mentioned briefly in some guide book. I thought the place was at the edge of our district, but the cab was driving forever, and instead of city we were going through endless industrial suburbs, sprawling factories and monumental apartment construction, just like we see everywhere in Tianjin. But suddenly we were in a whole town that was nothing but classical Chinese buildings. We got out of the cab, but instead of going to the house we decided to have lunch first. Along the facade there were many shops, but the signs were indecipherable no matter how hard I tried to read them. Each door was covered with thick plastic flaps hanging in strips, all discolored, so you had to push your way through to see what was inside. Everything was a surprise: one was a little restaurant, but there were power tools spread all over the floor; another was a big hotel lobby. We tried to ask someone, and she pointed us toward a narrow slot with a sparse little bar inside, and a thin staircase in the back. We climbed the stairs and the whole second floor was a seemingly endless chain of large restaurant rooms with heavy red chairs. We were the only ones there, except for some fish in giant blue aquariums. Eventually someone found us and brought a menu that had a few pictures in front but was only in Chinese. We picked at random and something like brisket arrived. Our place settings were shrinkwrapped in thick plastic and made a sound like a firecracker when we punctured them. While we were eating, different people came to our table but we didn’t understand them. One of them looked a lot like my sister-in-law Pam. Each spoke to us for a minute, laughed, and went away. Then an insect the size of a hummingbird began to hover around us, so we paid and left. Outside we discovered a large canal like the one that flows around the university, with an arch bridge like the ones in town, only bigger. The day had the character of the end of time: A midday sun shone orange and feeble against a whitebrown sky. Buildings faded into haze. A gritty cold wind rustled through the empty trees and scaffolds. (Last Saturday was that kind of day.) There was almost no one there, but I felt like the few people we saw were watching us. The house we were trying to see looked like a doorway in a flat gray wall with a ticket stand. I remember the price, 27 RMB for each. Inside the door was another brick wall and an alley, but in the middle of it was a large jade sculpture with a disturbing shape, like a growth, but it turned out to be a giant bok choi. We found ourselves in brick alleys, flat and gray, but with small stone carvings of leering animals and cherubs. Every portal was different, and through every door something strange: a bedroom, or a garden, or a Buddhist shrine like the Dabei temple we visited last Saturday, or a display of silent movie stills, or a tape loop of Mao announcing the creation of the People’s Republic, or a Chinese merchant chatting with a British sailor — in wax –, or even a theater. But nothing was playing except for the sound of incessant hammering in the wings. No one was there, except for one tour group. The guide was pointing to a brick in the wall, and people were taking pictures with telephoto lenses. We couldn’t find the way out but then we were on the streets of the town, weirdly deserted but with souvenir and junk tables in front of some of the shops, and a loud tape loop advertising a snack cart. We ended up in a gigantic square, still beneath a cold and lonesome sun. And that was the dream, except that it was no dream. Everything in it really happened.

But suddenly we were in a whole town that was nothing but classical Chinese buildings.

 

in the middle of it was a large jade sculpture with a disturbing shape

flat and gray, but with small stone carvings of leering animals and cherubs

through every door something strange

 

a Chinese merchant chatting with a British sailor

the streets of the town, weirdly deserted

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About lloyddan

Professor, Trinity College, Connecticut, but living in Tianjin, China, until July 2011
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One Response to A DREAM

  1. Anita says:

    Oh yeah! What a weird, but wonderful day.
    Incidentally, I hope you meant the jade sculpture which had ‘a disturbing shape’ and not
    me!! (ha ha).

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