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Warlords Get
No Respect

by Stephen Lautens


November 24, 2000

There's a saying that if you go to China for a week, you can write an article. If you stay for a month, you can write a book. But if you stay a year, you won't be able to write anything about it at all.

Well, I've been in Beijing for almost a week, so I better get this down in a hurry.

My business travels have brought me here twice in the last month or so, and its like nowhere I've ever been before. Not even that nude beach in Corfu where well, never mind.

First of all, Beijing is where the 16th century meets the 21st. Some people carry state of the art cell phones permanently clamped to their heads, and others pull theirs out to a table in the street and charge a few cents to neighbours who don't have one in their own homes.

If they knew the joy of telemarketers, they wouldn't be in such a rush to get one of their own.

Next to Tiananmen Square, right next China's main government buildings, I walked by a guy sitting a few feet from the sidewalk. I thought he was waiting for the bus. As I got closer I realized he wasn't waiting for a bus - or wearing any pants. He was answering nature's call - and I don't think it was an emergency, since he was reading the paper and for all I know doing the crossword.

The roads in Beijing are wide and the cars move fast, and its not unusual to see a brand-new Lexus at a stop light next to a horse cart. Cars have replaced a lot of the bicycles, and there only seems to be one rule of the road - who will flinch first. Every lane change and merge basically comes down to a game of chicken, with cars and bicycles competing on equal terms, although I've yet to see any good solid contact.

In addition to the McDonalds you see every five blocks, the symbol of how much things have changed in China is in the middle of the Forbidden City. Where at one time only the Emperors were allowed to roam, today in the center of the Forbidden City is a new place of western worship - a Starbucks.

You can't go to China without seeing the Great Wall. Apparently the billion or so people in China had the same idea on the same day, because they were all there. I didn't really get a good look at one of the seven wonders of the world because it was so thick with people that it looked like a giant human snake.

A stand off to the side of the Wall had costumes for rent. For four dollars you dress like a Chinese Warlord, get your picture taken, and even sit on a very annoyed looking camel. I passed on the camel, but I can't resist a guy in uniform - namely me.

The outfit was obviously not made for even medium-sized Westerners, but I wiggled into it and scowled for the cameras. This was much to the amusement of the crowd of elderly Chinese tourists who had gathered on the Wall, who were laughing, waving and even saluting.

Things sure have changed in China. After all, what's the world coming to when a warlord doesn't get any respect?

© Stephen Lautens 2000

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