31 July 2015

A Silk Covered Pen Pot from Beijing



Souvenir Series #8

Hotels are my home from home. Working overseas often over the last ten years or so, I’ve probably spent more time living in hotel rooms than I have at home. Certainly in 2007, perhaps the busiest year of my life for frequent foreign travel, I never spent much longer than two weeks at home at any one point throughout the year. Consequently, I feel oddly at home in hotels. But hotels really are odd. By their nature they are liminal, transient places. They can be a crossroads, a cultural melting pot, a luxurious retreat; or they can be a strangely lonely outpost, an impersonal labyrinth, a Spartan stopover place. They can overflow with life, or they can be an anonymous black hole. People coming and going. Some staying a single night, some in residence for months at a time; sometimes you might never see another soul the whole time you are there. It depends on the hotel, its location, the time of year. Some people even make hotels their permanent home – I often remember seeing the late-great actor, Richard Harris propping up the bar in The Coal Hole, a pub on The Strand in London, which is next door to The Savoy, where he lived.


In the course of my travels I’ve been lucky enough to stay in some lovely hotels; some ordinary, some expensive, and few dire ones too. I’ve stayed in some of them long enough to get to know and be known to the staff by name. Others I’ve checked into for barely a few hours to snatch some sleep and a shower whilst in transit from one place to the next. I find it a curious novelty, to see how the same conventions are essentially reworked by each establishment. Small things often add quirk and character. For some reason a bottle-opener mounted on a bathroom wall always makes me smile. I once stayed in a university hall of residence in Valencia, Spain which became a hotel in the summer – lucky students, because it was lovely. On another occasion I stayed in a religious guesthouse in Florence, Italy – it was out of season and the simple room with its stone tiled floor, a crucifix over the bed, and the absence of any other guests, made my stay feel very much like some kind of monkish retreat. I’ve also stayed in some truly palatial hotels where I’ve been given suites which have been bigger than my own flat in London.

Hotels are curious places though. They are perhaps the perfect embodiment of anonymous intimacy. Deeply personal, and yet identikit. As the musician, Moby, describes in the sleeve notes to his album, ‘Hotel’ (2005): “… hotels fascinate me in that they’re incredibly intimate spaces that are scoured every 24 hours and made to look completely anonymous. People sleep in hotel rooms and cry in hotel rooms and bathe in hotel rooms and have sex in hotel rooms and start relationships in hotel rooms and end relationships in hotel rooms and etc and etc, but yet every time we check into a hotel room we feel as if we are the first guest and we feel very upset if there’s a remnant of a previous guests stay.” The metaphor of the hotel as life is clear. We arrive. We stay a short while. We depart. The earth is wiped clean. What trace of our time and our passage through it remains?



The fact that our hotel room is scoured clean each day is something I find very curious. Depending on what times we come and go, we might never even see the person who cleans our room: ‘the Maid.’ (It’s always a maid, even though we often never see them – it usually is a woman though). A photographer friend of mine did an interesting portrait series of hotel maids in Beijing, titled: 'Standard Room' (Wang Wei, 2008). She wanted to give these anonymous people a face, placing them in the spaces where they worked but were never seen. I think the resulting pictures are somehow hauntingly dignified.

It’s easy to ignore an unseen presence. To disregard the staples of their routine as simply an extension to our own. They are after all ‘in service’ to us. I’ve been shocked at times by what some people seem to expect is all part and parcel of their duties, clearing up after the guest as though they were cleaning the bedroom of a spoilt and thoughtless teenager. Then again, I’ve known other people who can’t bear the thought of the maid coming in to find the room a mess, and so they tidy, make the bed, and partially clean the room themselves. As for me, I’m always very neat and contained in hotel rooms, mainly because I can’t help but marvel at how many anonymous doors lining the long corridors they have to enter and attend to each morning. It seems like a back-breaking prospect to me, hence I try to do my bit to help. I don’t believe a tip at the end of a stay can make amends for thoughtlessly making their job harder than it need be.


It was perhaps because of this simple sense of courtesy that I once struck up an anonymous rapport with a maid whom I never saw in one particular hotel. It was in Beijing, during one of my longer work tours round Asia; when I was living out of my suitcase for well over a month or so. I’d just finished a long job in Taipei and I’d flown on to Beijing, where I was then working for several more weeks. The hotel was just around the corner from the Forbidden City (where I was working at the Palace Museum). It was called the Jade Garden Hotel. A small, lovely little boutique, or as the proprietor later told me he liked to think of it as a ‘pension’ type hotel. Part of the building was actually quite old, with illustrious early connections to the Communist Party - soon after they had come to power in 1949, commemorated on a plaque on the wall outside.

I’d stayed there before, but on this occasion I’d been given a room in the old building. And because it was part of the old building the décor and the furniture in my room all had a lovely simple and understated traditional quality, which gave the room character. It had a large desk, which was perfect for me and all the scribbling which I like to do. Plus it had a comfortable divan which was perfect to lie on while reading a book, listening to the world beetling about outside through the open window – I’m not much of a fan of air-con, even in the hottest, humid climates; and old buildings are often better designed for handling the heat than modern ones. Rather than being sealed in, like an exotic bug suspended in resin (similar to those sold as gaudy souvenir paperweights to tourists off nearby Wangfujing), I like to be able to open the window and sense the world outside. This room had tall windows with shutters which meant the room could be kept reasonably cool but aired in the heat of the day, so it was perfect for me.


I’d brought a lot of books with me which I’d bought in Taipei. I lined these up on the desk. And I’d also bought a couple of souvenirs too, which I also put out on the desk to look at as well. One was a Buddhist text etched onto a small bamboo screen, and the other was a lovely carved boxwood figure of Guandi.

Guandi was a former Chinese General (called Guan Yu during his lifetime in the 3rd Century, or Three Kingdoms Period). He was deified after his death as the God of War, and as such, he has long been venerated as the embodiment of martial values such as loyalty, courage, and fortitude. Because of these qualities he was also adopted by the learned scholars of the Chinese literati class, and so, perhaps rather curiously from a Western point of view, he became one of the Gods of Literature too.

I’d bought the little figure because he was very similar to one of my favourite objects (perhaps even my very favourite) in the British Museum’s Chinese collections. The BM’s sculpture of Guandi used to belong to the Museum’s founder, Sir Hans Sloane, hence it is not just one of the objects from the founding collection of the Museum, it’s also one of the earliest objects of the period collected from China. These few facts, combined with a certain sense of wonderment which I felt at the fact that we’d now brought this piece back to China – almost certainly for the first time since it had left China in the early 18th century – for an exhibition held in the former Imperial Palace of the Forbidden City, made this particular object very special to me (you can usually see it on permanent display in the old King’s Library, now called the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, Room 1).


I can only suppose that the rather literati-like set up of my desk in this old hotel room – with my books, my notebook, my pens, plus the bamboo Buddhist text and my little wooden Guandi sculpture, must have endeared me to the unseen maid who cleaned my room each morning, because one day I returned to find a marvellous pen pot set in the middle of the desk. The pen pot was covered in black silk, embroidered with red flowers, and sticking out of the pen pot were two brand new pencils, ready sharpened. One a regular HB, and the other was in fact two pencils in one, with a blue lead at one end and a red lead at the other - perfect for editing purposes. There was also an eraser next to the pen pot too. What a wonderful thing, I thought, as I took a closer look at them. Clearly they’d been left there for me – but I wasn’t sure what the deal here was meant to be. I pondered for a while and decided I should leave a note to say thank you, but also to check if this gesture was one of kind gift or astute souvenir sale … The next morning I left a small note with one corner tucked under the pen pot which read: “Thank you! This is lovely. Can I buy it? How much?”

When I returned to the room that evening I opened the door and as I entered I could see the bed had been made, but there on the desk I could also see the pen pot and the note standing exactly as I’d left them. I put my things down and went to take a closer look. And there on the note, I saw a few words had been added: “For you. Free.” A big smile beamed across my face. What a lovely gesture! … I added a line to the note for the next morning, which simply read: “Xie xie” (meaning ‘thank you’).

It’s often said how abrupt and rude Chinese people can sometimes be, and certainly I’ve experienced this on occasion, but this is true of people the world over. This little instance, though, is but one of many such kindnesses which I’ve experienced in China over many trips there that happily set a counterbalance to such negative perceptions of China and the Chinese, which sadly seem to be quite widely held by visiting outsiders. It probably stems from a mutual incomprehension borne of unfamiliarity. But a small gesture like this one, I feel, shows that deep inside all people are essentially one, it’s simply a matter of making connections. Little instances like this one can colour our day with genuine happiness. The remarkable thing is I never did manage to meet the maid who looked after my room during that stay. But happily I was able to repay the kindness.

A Chinese friend who lives in Beijing had given me and another Chinese friend of mine a number of big boxes of very fine quality green tea when we’d all met up one evening, not having seen each other in a long time. We each tried to give him some of them back as he was being far too generous, but he adamantly refused and made us accept the gifts. I knew I wouldn’t be able fit them all in my luggage at the end of my trip, so when I left my hotel room on my last morning in Beijing, I left two of the big boxes of tea on the desk for the maid whom I’d never seen. I left them in the same spot where I’d found the pen pot at the start of my stay, and under one of the boxes I tucked a small note, which read: “These are for you. Thank you very much.” With a drawing of the sun in the form of a big smiling face.


Whilst I was checking out, the front desk called housekeeping as they always did, to check the room. A few minutes later the housekeeper called back, and after a short conversation the receptionist covered the receiver with her hand and said to me: “She says you forgot some things on the desk, Sir.”
“No, I didn’t. I left them there for her. They are a gift from me, for the housekeeper,” I smiled.
After a few words back into the phone, the receptionist nodded and looked back at me.
She smiled warmly, “Xie, xie!”









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