Intellectual Property

In defence of piracy

Kaiser Kuo posts an article he previously wrote for Time Asia about the benefits of disk piracy in China here. The subheader sums its up eloquently: "Piracy offers Chinese an unprecedented window to the Western world."

While on the subject of Kaiser, here is the fourth installment of the fictional Sanlitun Diaries.

Wild models in Sanlitun
By Kaiser Kuo and Jerry Chan (from the defunct Chinanow.com, 1999)

Whenever the weather's warm, Sanlitun fills up with beautiful women.

Afternoons they browse the clothing stalls across the street. Evenings they lounge about at the tables that line the sidewalk, playing cards or liar's dice, smoking skinny menthol cigarettes and appraising passersby. Would-be actresses, trophy wives and xiao mi's -- mistresses of fat-cats -- mix with other women who are more direct about the commercial nature of their dealings with men.

Bar Street is also home to warring factions of ye mo -- literally "wild models." When they aren't working, which means doing model shows at discos and nightclubs around town, these Ronin models spend their days and nights haunting the bar street, trawling for a deep-pocketed da kuan or a gullible laowai. They size one another up, shooting catty glares at their rivals. Their above-average looks, towering stature and material ambitions put them a few rungs above the sportin' girls down the street, but like gold diggers everywhere their affections come at a cost. The two main ye mo factions hail from Sichuan Province and Dongbei, China's Northeast, and each group guards its Sanlitun territory jealously. The part of the street that stretches roughly from the Boys and Girls Club to Day Off belongs to the Sichuan contingent, while the Dongbei girls claim the northern section as their turf. Every once in a while tempers flare, and catty glares turn to heated words and thence, on occasion, to the clawed swipe; a new spring offensive in the ongoing Sanlitun Model Wars.

Something told me she was different. I kept her in peripheral vision as she slowly flipped through a stack of DVDs.

I typed: who is this with the long hair pinned up loosely cliche fantasy pulls out that pin and shakes out tresses but pinned up it accentuates that long graceful neck that dancer's neck that flawless back that tapers to waist that silk-smooth skin amply exposed by sun dress and who cares if she has no tits just look at her ankles how firm that calf and perfect the angle of approach to ankle and those wisps of hair in her armpit and that milky back of arm just plump enough and those classic north chinese features that narrow nose those full lips ruddy? no not ruddy those brownish eyes any make up no make up or very little and applied with great skill and shit now she's looking at me.

My notebook's low battery warning beeped and I came momentarily out of reverie. Classification? This one wasn't easy to pigeon-hole. Too elegant and well-bred to be any common trollop. Besides, I had seen her trading friendly greetings with a gang of very brainy women I know -- an editor for a women's website, a record company rep, an independent film director, and a novelist who are always seen together. I suppose I could make discreet inquiries. Prada bag, possibly fake, but who can tell? Was she a model? I put her at 5'8", maybe 5'9", low end of model range. She evidently didn't have a day job.

Lately, I had run into her with alarming frequency.

I'd seen her in six restaurants over the last two weeks alone: At Adria, the Italian place across from the Kempinski Hotel, where my gawking gave grave offense to my dinner date. At Berena's Bistro, sitting outside. At Phrik Thai, though she left when her party couldn't be seated. At Kebab Kafe, so close I could smell her perfume even over the pungent Emmenteller cheese. At Jazz-ya, drinking sake. And the Golden Cat Dumpling Restaurant.

She was usually with girlfriends. A big group of them were at the dumpling place. I'd seen her the last two weekends at the Jam House, once at a table of French people, carrying on in what sounded to my untrained ear like decent French, and the other time with some close-cropped Beijing guys who a friend told me were infamous performance artists. And I'd seen her afternoons, too, here on the Bar Street-- at Public Space, or sometimes up the street at Bella. She was usually by herself sipping coffee and staring blankly at the street, or speaking listlessly into a preposterously small mobile phone.

I shut down my machine and watched her thumb through the stacks. Something caught her eye and she pulled it out and turned it over to read the blurb on the back. I read the cover - "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

This one, I thought, is no ye mo. I began my internal incantations to summon up courage: You can do this. You're a stud. Gonna be smooth, cool, nonchalant, assured. Totally invulnerable.

She put the DVD down, and was staring directly at me. I froze. Her eyebrows arched with a slightly bemused expression. "You again. Are you following me for personal or political reasons?" She twinkled at me playfully; the effect was devastating.

"I... Well... heh heh... Weren't you following me?" God, that was lame! "Er, that's a good movie, that one I mean" -- I pointed clumsily -- "but the book's much better." My voice came out small, pinched, my normally solid Mandarin betraying an American accent. I fought the urge to flee. Nice going, chump.

"I know. I've read it many times." Her eyes, steady through the pause that followed, issued challenge, but this wasn't entirely off-putting. I struggled to regain composure.

"You wouldn't mind if I looked through those, would you?"

"Yeah, sure, whatever," she shrugged. I gathered my things and sat down across from her. Feigning interest, I leafed through her discard pile, passing over one crappy title after another, periodically glancing up at her face. She reached again for "Unbearable Lightness."

"I think I'll buy it anyway. I like Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche."

She was actually engaging me in conversation. My mind was racing trying to think of something witty or charming to say next.

"So, we seem to eat in all the same restaurants." I smiled at her, trying to figure out how to seque into a dinner invitation. "My name's S____." I gave her my hand, first wiping my sweating palm on my jeans. She shook it limply.

"You live around here, don't you?"

This caught me a bit off guard. "Um, well, yeah I do. How did you know?" I felt inexplicably guilty; my heart was suddenly racing.

She lit a cigarette while I fumbled in my pocket for a lighter. "Well, considering you're here just about every time I am, I figured you either work or live around here, and you don't look like the type that 'works'. What are you writing?"

"Just an article for a website. I'm a freelance writer."

"Oooohhhh. A writer, are you?" Perfect command over her facial expressions: Now she wore deliberate ambiguity, neither mocking nor completely sincere.

"What about you? Do you work?"

She answered with a sharp, staccato laugh; I didn't press the question.

The sky had taken on a warmer glow and the after-work crowd began to trickle in. The tranquility of the afternoon crescendoed into a dull roar as Public Space filled up. Synthetic Euro-house beats boomed from the stereo. We both watched the scene out the windows. The stylishly attired owner, Henry, worked the room, glad-handing customers. The crowd swelled quickly, and the dull roar had become a cacaphonous din. Reflexive habit of mind-- I again took up taxonomical analysis of the species showcased here at the Sanlitun Human Zoo, wondered what kingdom phylum class order family genus species she was, wondered where I mapped in her scheme. I was about to share my musings with my new friend.

"I have to go," she suddenly announced. She laid a 50 kuai note on the table and called the harried waiter over for the bill.

"Uh... let me get it," I managed to blurt out, hoping to stall her a bit longer.

"Whatever you say," she replied, and shoved the note back into her handbag.

The waiter took my money and maneuvered his way back to the cash register.

"So," she said, grinding her half smoked cigarette into the ashtray and holding up her newly purchased disk, "You got a DVD player at your place?"

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