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Christmas High

Our man in China, Peter Sampson reflects on the difference between a Beijing and a Brummie Christmas.

An amble down New Street, a visit to Café Soya for a hearty lunch, and a lazy lounge in the Green Room.

There’s still time aplenty to walk leisurely back up through central Birmingham, to take in the sights and smells of Christmas, and even to visit St Philips Cathedral - to gaze at the windows, and to enjoy a moment, or perhaps two, of silence.

And as the evening continues, shish kebab, Guinness and conversation with friends (both clinically insane and as yet un-diagnosed) are enjoyed. Birmingham’s finest, and much maligned, inner city patch has much to commend it, on a good day – and even on a day that is not so good.

But today is a very good day.

For just as it is about to draw to a close, there is a gentle but persistent knock at the door, and, as I peer through the blinds, I see the face of the one that, after everything, I have never forgotten.

A furtive glance to left and right, the opening and closing of the door, and all that is wrong in this world, is put right, if only for a moment in time.

But hang on……I hear the sound of a Mongolian in full voice, crashing through the thin wall that divides us! And all of a sudden, as I awake from my heavy sleep, it strikes me full in the face that, in fact, I am not in the city of one thousand trades this Christmas.

I am, nearly four months on, very much still in Beijing - the city of one million, and more, face-masks.

The last time I wrote a piece for The Stirrer, the subject was the availability of public toilets, in Beijing, and also in Birmingham.

One commentator on the Forum suggested I should spend more time in Beijing’s toilets, so that I should discover the true, unpleasant reality of them.

Frankly, I didn’t fancy that idea much, so I visit them only when I need to do so. But I’m still amazed that Birmingham advertises itself as a global city, and a conference city, and every other kind of city imaginable, but is unable to offer a visitor a place to take a leak for free.

Lost Heaven

It is of course possible to explain everything that China does well simply on the grounds that it has a huge population, a growing economy, and a government that does exactly what it wants, when it wants.

But amidst the controlled chaos of this huge city, sometimes there are examples of simply doing something in a way that makes sense, whatever the political or cultural environment.

Many ATM machines have the equivalent of phone boxes built around them, for example, to ensure privacy. And the streets of Beijing are lined with dual-bins, clearly indicating the kind of waste that should be entered into each bin.

As I pondered this piece, I was enjoying listening to the World Service – which sometimes, when I close my eyes, leads me to believe that I am actually about to wake up at the foot of the Malvern Hills in my car.

I don’t usually listen too carefully to the detail of whatever programme happens to be on, but this time it was Quentin Peel of the Financial Times, discussing the prospects of communism as a system of government.

The verdict seemed to be, that particularly in developing countries, it is very likely that something like communism will once again challenge established orders at some point – or at least, something inspired by Marx.

Now there’s a part of me that very much hopes this is the case. But even a bigger part hopes that, if it happens, the experiments do not end up resembling the kind of one party, rampant capitalism that now represents China.

As someone might, or might not, have said, if China is a communist country, then I am the King of Jupiter (with thanks to my niece, who named me that).       

Christmas is all around now, of course – and even here, in an officially atheist country, it is so – in a way.

Father Christmas is everywhere, as are Christmas trees, as is the shopping mania that surrounds this time of year back home, and as is – well, not much else actually.

High Christmas

I struggled through the shopping mall at Beijing North Railway Station today, listened to the tills as they rang, and looked on as Chinese families tried on party hats and compared decorations. It all felt rather hollow.

And as I entered the underpass, the man who is always there, sat crouched on the floor.

I would not be able to guess his age, and he has the most disfigured face imaginable. But he is always there, singing the most beautiful and haunting of melodies. And five minutes with his voice echoing around the underpass in West Beijing generates more reflection and contains more substance, than the twelve days of a Chinese Christmas put together.       

I surprise myself in saying this, but my neck of the woods in Birmingham is bursting with every kind of faith – for better, or for worse - and the absence of that is striking.

A little like a Sunday dinner without roast potatoes, perhaps? You might love roast potatoes, you might hate them….but if they’re nowhere to be seen, well…something, somehow, just isn’t quite right…..

To the good people of Birmingham, and Stirrer readers everywhere, I raise a warming glass, and wish you a very Merry Christmas!

Pictures kind courtesy of Pete Sampson



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