a sinclair A-Z: a is for archive (and austin)

When product arrives at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center it goes into quarantine. They are humane in this well-endowed enclave of Austin, Texas … . They threw out a lifeline by purchasing what they call archive, otherwise known as skip-fillers. Manuscripts. Typescripts. Notebooks. Thin blue bundles tied with yellow twine. Correspondence. Forty years of scribble in eighty sacks and boxes: a still life writhing with invisible termites, micro-bugs, blisters on onion-skin paper. This material, stacked solid in a tin box in Whitechapel, was an insect ghetto, an unvisited Eden: until I became my own grand project and sold the memory-vault for the dollars to keep me afloat for another season. … But despite the madness, the Xanadu-acquisitiveness of this storage facility, like a selective catalogue of human culture preserved against the coming nuclear winter, the atmosphere is calm, temperate, clean. 

– Iain Sinclair, American Smoke, 2010

Iain Sinclair opens recent topographically concentrated book Hackney: That Rose Red Empire (2009) with an aphorism from James Ellroy: ‘Geography is destiny’. Sinclair’s 600 page treatise on how his East London base of Hackney has directly and indirectly influenced his corpus for the past 40 years substantiates Ellroy’s formula. Yet Sinclair’s axiomatic position as a ‘central’ figure in contemporary London writing, one doubtless consolidated by the publication of Hackney, is problematic. Despite his undeniable visibility within the field, Sinclair has exhibited ambivalence and even antipathy towards this role. A number of tropes familiar to Sinclair’s work—memory, residue, ruin, spectrality, surveillance—can be traced back to the tension between visible and occulted Londons that plays out in his writing.

This ambivalence might one way to frame the geographical dis/location of the Sinclair archive from London to a repository in Austin, Texas. Sinclair’s archive is housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, an ostensibly perverse textual and geographical convergence that provokes perplexed reactions from Sinclair acolytes. The histories that existed prior to Austin’s settlement in the mid 19th century are oral and folkloric, linked to the land and the natural environment, yet the layers of asphalt and concrete that spread promiscuously across the contemporary landscape act as prophylactics against these psychogeographical forces. There are ruins here, but they too lack psychogeographical charge. They are the debris of mass consumption, dumpsters full of the stinking remains of yesterday’s fast food. Negotiating Austin by foot, even at the centre, is comparable to the perambulatory experience Sinclair recounted in London Orbital (2002). In downtown Austin, the pedestrian is as exotic and alienated as on the perimeter of London and keeps company with the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicts. Walking here is paranoia. It is, at once, to feel vulnerable, and to invite suspicion.
Unexpectedly, the spatial remoteness from London is replicated textually in the contents of the first accession which was shipped across the Atlantic in 2004. (Sinclair refers to it as the ‘paper-berg’ in a letter to Rick Gekoski, the rare book dealer who brokered the transaction.) In the letters and juvenilia from his years at boarding school in Cheltenham, Sinclair is referred to as ‘Maes’, an epithet derived from his hometown of Maesteg in Wales. Extended correspondence from Tom Baker, the screenwriter of the film Witchfinder General, and from writer Tony Lowes is addressed to multiple destinations in Dublin, to Wales, to the island of Gozo in Malta, and to the home of Sinclair’s mother-in-law in Rutland, Uppingham. In addition to the letters, there are numerous filmscripts, plays and poems that are unconnected to London. The city’s absence is not confined to the early period. Sinclair’s writing was firmly entrenched in London for the last half of the 70s, as well all of the 80s and the 90s, but from 2000 he spends successive years of narrative exile in Wales for Landor’s Tower (2001), past the M25 in London Orbital (2002), along the A13 and out to the Sussex coast in White Goods (2002) and Dining on Stones (2004), and in Essex for Edge of the Orison (2005). (Arguably, these texts are always about London in that they are conceived as escape from a London that has become colonized by the media, developers and the heritage industry.) City of Disappearances, a cabinet of textual curiosities collected by Sinclair in 2006 marked a return to the capital, yet it displayed his characteristic disdain for the visibility of the official culture based in London through its focus on what no longer existed. Sinclair has been saying for some time that ‘London is deluding itself if it thinks it can continue to dominate national consciousness: the centre is anywhere and everywhere.’(Lights out for the Territory, 1997)

The mass of non-London material dilutes the geo-textual disruption of the move to Austin. Moreover, as Sinclair has consistently pointed out, he is not a Londoner, yet this distinction is frequently subsumed by the far more potent discourse about Sinclair and London which has been willingly seized upon by the media and by readers. In Hackney Sinclair wearily admits to exploiting his reputation as a London expert by undertaking large amounts of what he calls ‘hack’ work to pay the bills. Selling off his papers comes under this heading. He writes,

I accepted any commission that related to Hackney: barber shops for a style magazine, off-message Olympic soothsaying, radio punditry from the Lower Lea Valley. I knocked out whither-London rhetoric for plausible Irish architects in the pay of American museums. … I peddled notebooks. I flogged boxes of manuscripts, letters from the dead, the druggy ephemera of countercultural exiles. (53)

Documentary evidence in the form of countless invoices, remittances, and letters chasing outstanding payment attests to the financial grind of being a writer. The Texans provided a lifeline. In The Verbals (2003), a series of conversations with Kevin Jackson, Jackson asks Sinclair about whether he has preserved his early writings from film school. Sinclair replies, ‘Well, I can’t remember chucking them out. I’ve got this lock-up in Whitechapel which is just packed…a compacted block, and all that stuff is in there somewhere, whatever survives of it I don’t know. Cans of film, too…’ Jackson continues: ‘Will you be flogging it to Austin, Texas?’ to which Sinclair says, ‘I’d love to. That’s the dream, that one day some one will come, take the whole lot away, and hand over the money.’ (30) In another electronic mail to a contributor to City of Disappearances, Sinclair remarks flippantly: ‘Sorry this is only an email – already filed your real letter toward my Texas archive pension.’ The email makes into the archive as well as the letter. Indeed that aforementioned early film school material also turns up, keeping company with the documents of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound. A 2007 New Yorker article about the Harry Ransom Centre, somewhat ominously titled ‘Final Destination’, investigated the question: ‘Why do the archives of so many great writers end up in Texas?’ Sinclair would not have been ignorant to the cultural capital derived from sending his remainders to Austin.

There is a local connection in Austin too. Writer and friend Michael Moorcock is a resident of neighbouring Bastrop. The Moorcock correspondence cluttering Sinclair’s archive is anarchic. His mystifying packages are eclectic, incorporating ‘Moorcockiana’ (as Sinclair calls it) of a Texan flavour (a brochure for Cooper’s Old-Time Pit Barbecue, a cutting from the local Bastrop rag), comic strips, drafts of reviews he has written, printouts from the internet. In a short piece of prose in Saddling the Rabbit, Sinclair comments on the awesome scale of the archival middens discovered by Moorcock’s fraught bibliographist at the Bodleian. The library, after making the initial speculative investment

 had to put a block on Moorcock ephemera, a landfill of manuscripts and correspondence that threatened to bury Oxford. No more packing cases, please, from Lost Pines, Texas. The libraries admit now, they made a mistake, taking a punt on New Wave sf. They should have limited themselves to Ballard. No carbons, no multiples with different titles. (2002: 30)

 Moorcock helpfully provides a commentary on the London–Texas axis. In an email to Sinclair (30 October 2006) he writes about ‘Someone doing a thesis asking me the difference between London and Texas. Has me stumped.’ Other emails from Bastrop point out the fallow financial ground at acquisitive Texan universities, keen to get their hands on cultural capital.

The dis/location of Sinclair’s remainders to Texas clearly has financial determinants, but structurally speaking, Sinclair’s urge to re-incorporate his textual refuse into the literary-academic complex is not out of character. He prints on both sides, a line struck through the superseded side of the recycled page. Is he eco-minded? Or is it motivated by the parsimonious virtue of the Protestant mercantile class? (Georges Bataille in ‘The Notion of Expenditure’: ‘The hatred of expenditure is the raison d’être of and the justification for the bourgeoisie’.) Sinclair’s long-time collaborator and friend Chris Petit notes a tendency towards the latter. ‘London is, and always has been, a great clearing house. Its business has always been import and export. I’ve always thought of Iain Sinclair as someone who works in that mercantile tradition: but instead of bales of cotton it’s these big boxes of ideas that he’s shifting around.’ Manuscripts confirm that Sinclair is adept at reusing off-cuts: a provisionally titled project The Perimeter Fence eventually becomes the film Asylum in 2000, which is then absorbed into a 2002 book White Goods, which by 2004 morphs into the novel Dining on Stones. It is literature as a textual waste management scheme, an extension of Sinclair’s literary recycling projects, which were described by Patrick Wright in Journey Through Ruins (1991) as ‘experiments to see how far a literary reputation can be made from a heap of valueless old books.’ (38)

In the archive, I find a letter to J. G. Ballard dated 30 October 2003 where Sinclair narrates a scene reminiscent of his own fictions:

Dear Jimmy,

Just a quick note before I vanish for another day into my Whitechapel lock-up (with a spectacular crew of petty villains stacking and unstacking contraband in and out of tin units, black bags into white vans), another day of listing dead papers for a potential … sale to a Texas University.

The ‘contraband’ is notorious amongst the archivists at the Ransom Centre for arriving as a chaos of documents, dust, mould and desiccated insects. In photographs presented to me the cartons are split, spilling over, as incontinent as Sinclair’s writing can sometimes appear. The collection is still very raw, untouched by other academic investigators. None of the usual mediatory research technology is applicable. An inventory exists only in hard copy, a taxonomy of vague categories such as ‘large packet of letters’ or ‘ephemera.’ The inventory is one link in a concatenation of unreliable texts: it does not match what is written on the exterior of the boxes; in turn, the text on the outside of the box does not match the contents. Every box is a lucky dip; it could offer up treasure, or trash.

There is an absent-minded elegance to this methodology, even though the elusive nature of the archive has frustrated my scholarly ambitions. The proposal I have submitted in order to gain access situates Sinclair as a lynch-pin between British and American neo-Modernisms, but targeted research proves impossible. Unlike many scholars who come to the Harry Ransom Center to cast their gimlet eye over the detritus of their object of study, I have no idea what I am going to find. Contrary to our acculturated preconceptions about order, Carolyn Steedman observes that this is the actual condition of the archive.

The Archive is made from selected and consciously chosen documentation from the past and also from the mad fragmentations that no one intended to preserve and that just ended up there. […] It is indexed, and catalogued, and some of it is not indexed and catalogued, and some of it is lost. … In the Archive, you cannot be shocked at its exclusions, its emptinesses, at what is not catalogued, at what was – so the returned call-slip tells you – ‘destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War’ … . (2001, 68)

What I do uncover is frequently prosaic. The everyday creeps in through artefacts like plastic bags: Waitrose, W. H. Smith, Ryman the stationer. Prophetic scrawl is contained in an inauspicious red exercise book with black lettering on its cover:

Silvine Exercise Book.

Name and Subject.

There are lists – or is it poetry? – on secondhand brown envelopes. The ink of the final draft typescript of Edge of the Orison runs in imperfect circles where a glass has been carelessly left. On a grey day I look out through the arrow loops of the fortified Harry Ransom, and across Guadelupe to 21 Rio, a Brutalist building for which the British would be proud, and conclude that the archive is simultaneously mythopoeic and demystifying, hieratical and mundane.

A Sinclair poem from 1988 keeps returning to me: ‘Significant Wreckage’. The title sounds like an apt description of the archive. Its opening line reads ‘Words writing in a heat that slides them from the icing page.’ This could describe the process of re-animating the once-warm word-corpse from the cold mortuary slab of the archival box. The Conrad scholar from White Goods (2002) and Dining on Stones (2004) also haunts me. Sinclair’s academic doubles as vampire, obsessively pursuing her quarry and/or object of study.

First, she had learnt Polish. Then she tracked down the letters and initiated the slow, painstaking, much-revised process of translation. She travelled. Validated herself. Being alone in an unknown city, visiting libraries, enduring and enjoying bureaucratic obfuscation, sitting in bars, going to the cinema, allowed her to try on a new identity. She initiated correspondence with people she never met. She lied. She stole from Conrad. (2002: 58)

The woman leeches her identity from the work of Conrad. It is unethical academic practice: sucking the energy from the corpse, the corpus of the dead writer, a necrophiliac engagement with the residue, the textual refuse of Conrad.

Often the subtext of Sinclair’s repeated focus on regulatory surveillance is the scrutiny afforded the city by writers and other creative practitioners. In a short fiction from 2000 titled ‘The Keeper of the Rothenstein Tomb’, the journalist Norton complains about the appropriation of London’s previously occulted histories, whilst realizing his own complicity in exposing them:

Norton blamed himself. He couldn’t keep schtum, didn’t know when to leave well alone. He had to worry at, tease out, secrets that were better left untold: vanishing caretakers, patterns of malign energy that linked eighteenth-century churches, labyrinths, temples, plague pits. Now they were too loudly on the map, or trashed by attention. All he ever wanted was to write himself out, to fade into the masonry, become one of the revenants someone else would track. (162)

Like Norton, his occasional textual doppelgänger, Sinclair is an obscurantist, preferring to milk sources that exist outside any official or visible economy of knowledge. As Moorcock says in the introduction to the 1998 re-issue of Lud Heat ‘Sinclair drags from London’s amniotic silt the trove of centuries and presents it to us, still dripping, still stinking, still caked and frequently still defiantly kicking.’ (3) This predilection for the chthonic is a resistance to the Londons whose histories have been brought to light by the heritage industry.

Robert Macfarlane discerns Sinclair’s textual dilemma in 1997’s Lights Out for the Territory.

The book’s intent—as far as it is possible to extract anything so forthright …—was to reclaim London’s history from its sanctioned, official custodians (the Government, the heritage industry, the developers) and return it to those Sinclair saw as its true curators: a gaggle of mystics, visionaries, writers, collectors, filmmakers and poets, all the lost and the ‘reforgotten’ keepers of a city’s pasts. (2005)

On the one hand, his work has attributed cultural value to previously neglected precincts and characters in London by the very virtue of writing about them. On the other hand, that value is contingent on neglect by the dominant culture, which, of course, is no longer possible when Sinclair’s writing moves into the mainstream. Illumination and surveillance equal commodification in this equation, and areas that are rich in alternative energies dry up once captured by writers, and then the heritage industry. Norton experiences this disillusionment: ‘If he’d had a camera, he would have left it in the bag. London was a book with no surprises. It knew itself too well. When self-consciousness turns into art, art into fashion, fashion into property, it’s time to pull the plug.’ (2000: 167)

Patrick Wright, who explicitly links the rise of London studies to social and economic forces associated with the political metastasis of the dismantled welfare state, and to the consequent spatial re-organisation of London, was already commenting upon Sinclair’s relationship with these developments in 1991. The self-reflexive critique in stories like ‘The Rothenstein Tomb’ contains Sinclair’s anxiety about his implication in the heritage industry. Norton’s lament when he turns up four years later in the novel Dining on Stones (2004) could be Sinclair’s.

‘Standard riffs,’ I snorted. I’d used them myself, more than once. The problem, at my age, is that every statement sounds like an echo of something written or read. The worst of it, for journalists who stick around too long, is that we self-plagiarise to the point of erasure, quote our own quotes, promote new talent, buried for years in Kensal Green or Nunhead. The madness of seeing London as text. Words. Dates. Addresses. No brick that has not been touched, mentioned in a book.   (100)

In the archive it strikes me the scholar’s prurient urge to sift through a writer’s textual refuse is an ironically under-examined mode of textual surveillance. As I pick through the papers it is difficult to rid myself of the implications of my actions, even more so when I come across a letter referring to a conference at which I presented. In a 2004 letter Sinclair recounts to Kevin Jackson, ‘I ran into Amanda … at the recent City Visions conference in Greenwich. (Marxist/Modernist interpretations of everything that isn’t in my dead books.)’ The project of examining the leftovers of a prodigious archivist becomes a meta-commentary on Sinclair’s own practice and philosophy of reading London, and his reservations about the project. Given Sinclair’s desire for refuge from the avaricious eye of the culture industries, perhaps the dis/location of his papers from a Whitechapel lock-up to the air-conditioned, relative anonymity of Austin is not so perverse after all.

My research at the Sinclair archive was made possible by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.



field notes: beijing markets


Fuelled by the discussion and exchange of ideas in Shanghai about market communities, I planned some field trips to Beijing’s markets. Unlike the ragpickers’ market that Michael Dutton visits in Beijing Time (2008), which is ‘off the city map’ (142) in Bajiacun, the first three markets on the itinerary are central, highly visible, and well-marked on the tourist map. Each is a different type of market – Donghuamen Night Market sells street food; Xuishui ‘Silk Street’ Market stocks clothing and accessories; and Panjiayuan, or ‘Dirt’ Market, trades in antiques and curios. Currently none of these three could be considered an ‘everyday’ market, though according to their recent histories they originally (re)emerged as an organic part of the post-Reform mercantile landscape.

The accompanying narratives used to situate the markets historically, socially and culturally might belong to the type of objectification of the city that Henri Lefebvre (1996) detected in contemporary textual mediations of the urban:

The text is moving away. It takes the form of a document, or an exhibition, or a museum. The city historically constructed is no longer lived and is no longer understood practically. It is only an object of cultural consumption for tourists, for an estheticism (sic), avid for spectacles and the picturesque. (148)

All are presented in promotional material and guidebook entries as exhibiting a distinctive Beijing character, so in this sense they are branded in that they are being used to promote the city, yet the goods on sale are not always distinctively local, nor are the marketplaces themselves particularly parochial. However, all these markets had been redeveloped in the last decade, clearly with the middle-class tourist and consumer in mind, therefore the conception and presentation of the experience of consumption might be considered an articulation of the local in its equivalency with the dominant paradigm of middle-class consumer practices in China today. Moreover, the modes of regulation acting upon the spatial and social organisation of the markets are also clearly susceptible to local and localised forms of governance and governmentalities.

The first stop is Donghuamen Night Market in the L.E.D.-lit streets of central Dongcheng.

From late afternoon, turn off Wangfujing Dajie, the pedestrianised shopping avenue whose shops run from Armani to Zara, and head west down Dong’anmen Dajie where you will find a series of permanent stalls of identical size, with standardised signage listing set prices in Mandarin and English for street food from around China. Staff at every stall wear the same red aprons and visors.

A booth at the eastern end promises to oversee the health and safety of the market. The man inside is dressed in the militaristic uniform that is de rigeur in China for anyone employed to police public comportment and practice. He has his feet up and is reading a newspaper, probably because his domain appears to manage itself. There is very little of the mess and detritus that accumulates on the ground at other food markets. The stalls are immaculately presented, the food neatly displayed. Waste is disposed of discreetly by the vendors and street sweepers efficiently whisk away any litter that falls to the ground.

The street sweepers are not the only ones on guard. The market is set up in the fenced off lane of a busy road. Outside the perimeter, scavengers eye the diners and wait patiently for them to throw away their rubbish. They are representatives of the 20,000 refuse collectors Dutton describes in Beijing Time:

With listless and weathered faces, the Bajiacun ragpickers pedal around town in business suits. With their slightly underweight bodies, their drab and grimy suits, they present a parody of the successful besuited businessman who watch them from their Audis. Indeed, twenty years earlier, the observers could very well have been those observed. From the rear, this traffic looks like a peasant army on bicycles, tricycles, mopeds and on foot.

Avatars of the usually out-of-sight Bajiacun reach into the bins and collect recyclable bottles, cans and packaging. One man is scavenging for something else: dinner. He leans over the fence and pulls out skewers with remnants of meat on them. He samples them. They look like lamb. Would he be as interested in his find if it were the leftovers of some of the other fare on offer such as scorpion and beetle? (The markets inclusion on this television show suggests that these are more for spectacle and exoticism than serious dining.) Others who linger on the other side of the fence are unlicensed merchants undercutting the prices charged by the licensed stalls within the demarcated market space.

One man holds a bouquet of snakes threaded on sticks in his fist. His girlfriend pops some fermented tofu in her mouth with a toothpick. Some of the food on sale, like the tofu, is what you would find elsewhere on the streets of Beijing. Earlier in the day we had seen a woman at a food cart on the side of a frenetic roundabout selling some little fried buns stuffed with spiced minced meat. At Donghuamen they cost 15 yuan; on the street, a third of the price. A tourist in a fedora hat takes a foodblogger-style close-up photo of the skewered chargrilled animal flesh that he had bought at prices significantly higher than what you would pay at your average streetside stall.

At the end closest to Wangfujing Dajie, from where most of the foot traffic is funnelled, a man asking for spare change sits underneath an illuminated sign. The sign details the market’s history, its transformation from a collection of stalls in the 1980s to the tourist destination that it is now:

In 2000, to carry forward the Chinese culinary culture and enhance the friendly exchanges with foreign countries, the peoples government of Dongcheng District rebuilt the night market for dainty snacks with the objective of integrating the traditional delicacies with the modern business facilities, combining the culinary culture and sightseeing.

I am surprised that Donghuamen has such a short history (as do Panjiayuan and Silk Street), because I had imagined that the night market behind me was the theme-park version of a traditional marketplace which had occupied the spot for centuries. Of course, my assumption makes no sense: the small privately-owned businesses that the emergent markets supported were not possible during the Communist era prior to Reform. (I have been unable to ascertain whether the sites where the markets are currently located had hosted markets prior to 1949.)

The text emphasizes the market as a space subject to productive government intervention. In the case of Donghuamen it is to ensure food safety and hygiene, and thus to provide a reassuring environment for consumers who might be cautious or anxious about street food, a perhaps misdirected anxiety given the recent scandals regarding mass-produced food. The largest proportion of visitors strolling the market appeared to be middle-class domestic tourists for whom a sanitised, approximated street market experience might offer a more attractive alternative to visiting an actual street market. We saw this phenomenon at work in Qibao, a canal town on the Shanghai metro line, where crowds of visitors clung tenaciously to the grid of attractively recreated ancient food stalls that constituted the designated tourist precinct.Step only one street outside the zone and the tourists disappear. In this parallel alleyway the hole-in-the-wall type establishments that sell similar food to local residents for a fraction of the price are deserted.

In any case, one is hard-pressed in Beijing to find any street markets in the central tourist district of the city, where most of the marketplaces have been, to deploy official terminology, ‘streamlined’. Regulation is the stated rationale for the current arrangements at all three central markets I visited.

No Street Vendors in Silk Street

The government’s narrative on the demolition of the streets of Silk Alley, a textile and clothing market in Chaoyang, and on the subsequent construction of the single edifice ‘Silk Street’ that replaced it, maintains the necessity of regulating commerce, and, in this specific case, IP violations and the distribution of counterfeit designer goods. Signs, notices on bulletin boards and plaques re-iterate this objective, and certainly, knock-offs are not overtly exhibited.

However, as one walks through the emporium, vendors frequently whisper famous European designer brand names and flash a Louis Vuitton wallet or similar object discreetly folded into a piece of cardboard or paper. On the sole occasion we agree out of curiosity to look, we are led to a locked and alarmed back room where the designer brand handbags and accessories are lined up along the wall. Since the redevelopment, the market has continued to be in the news for IP violations, a concession that does not admit the futility of policing piracy, so much as it is designed to illustrate that piracy is being managed by the government. The 2010 arrest of a former manager of the market for IP violations focuses on a single perpetrator and is thus a smokescreen obscuring a diffuse, widespread and global informal economy.

The spatial re-configuration of the market from a series of alleyways to a consolidated six-storey shopping centre is positioned on the website as a continuation of the brand of Silk Street: an evolution that simultaneously incorporates a ‘Century-Old shop’ and an ‘international shopping mall’. The market’s existenece barely stretches back thirty years, let alone one hundred, so this ambivalent appeal to nostalgia has no basis in the Silk Street’s own history, just as the appeal of the street market has been obliterated in all but name in the new edifice. It is the modern attributes of convenience, amenity and safety that are underlined as advantages of the new market in the promotional material. This is the only tourist market I visited which had off-street parking for visitors and thus facilitated the tour groups who are constantly unloaded from buses and channelled through the centre.

The new market has diversified and visitors can try Beijing specialities such as Peking Duck, as well as purchase calligraphy, antiques, jewellery, carpets and handicrafts. Silk Street therefore intertwines the globally ubiquitous consumption of brand-labelled goods (regardless of their authenticity) with cultural consumption and tourism. The website also positions the act of bargaining, which is central to most transactions at the centre, as a cultural particulate of the city and, even as one of Beijing’s famous scenes. This is one way to present the ever-shifting and, at times, uncomfortable power dynamic between well-rehearsed vendors and their unpracticed customers – who nonetheless wield leverage in the form of the yuan in their wallets. Effectively,  a universal act of capitalist exchange is rearticulated as a local customary act, whilst also claiming to preserve one of the pleasures of the street market mode of consumption.

Another market on the tourist trail is Panjiayuan, a flea market that Lonely Planet’s Beijing Encounter guide (2010) touts as one of the capital’s top attractions. Panjiayuan initially started out in the early 1980s as an articulation of the ghost market. Dutton explains:

Ghost markets enabled aristocrats to maintain their social face, while secretly engaging in that most un-Confucian of activities, commerce. Today in China there is no longer any shame attached to commerce, and the ghost market of Panjiayuan no longer masks an aristocratic secret. (216-7)

Panjiayuan was a co-ordinate in an informal economy where the proletariat illicitly sold off the family heirlooms and household treasures before the trade in art and antiquities was legalised in the mid-90s. As it expanded and gained government recognition and permission, it evolved from an actualised street market located in a Chaoyang hutong to a site-specific marketplace.

The marching music of the ghost army is the screeching of tricycle brakes and the squeaking of unoiled chains and pedals; its uniform is the shadow of the night, its war cry the yelling and screaming of drivers, traders, and laborers as they push, pull and pedal their way forward.’ (Dutton, 216)

The space underwent re-development in the mid-2000s in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, and there is none of the haphazard disorganisation of accumulated junk that confronts the visitor to a genuine flea market. As with the merchandise, the space is neatly ordered. A hierarchical gradation of traders and commercial spaces begins with a cloth on the ground, to undercover stalls, and established shop fronts around the perimeter.

Map of the market


For Dutton, the definitive Panjiayuan narrative is the search for the real, the authentic, the genuine among the endless row of fakes (220). Dutton, borrowing from Walter Benjamin, compares the quest to that of the literal ragpickers at Bajiacun. Ironically, present-day ragpickers might be disappointed not at the absence of treasure amongst the trash, but at the absence of trash amongst the orderly and meticulous stalls. Nevertheless, Dutton detects at Panjiayuan some of the flea market’s promiscuous and indsicriminate meetings of refuse and commodity: ‘From traders in antique porcelain to those who trade in the paraphernalia of the Mao years, the significant and the insignificant, the fake and the real, the artistic and the kitsch mix so effectively’ (221).

Tintin and Mao

The heterogeneity of Panjiayuan’s stock is where I rediscover the market’s heterotopic rupturing of categorization that has so far eluded me. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White (1986):

[a]t once a bounded enclosure and a site of open commerce, it is both the imagined centre of an urban community and its structural interconnection with the network of goods, commodities, markets, sites of commerce and places of production which sustain it. A marketplace is the epitome of local identity and the unsettling of that identity by the trade and traffic of goods from elsewhere. At the market centre of polis we discover a comingling of categories usually kept separate and opposed: centre and periphery, inside and outside, stranger and local, commerce and festivity, high and low. In the marketplace pure and simple categories of thought find themselves perplexed and one-sided. Only hybrid notions are appropriate to such a hybrid place. (27)

I visited two other markets in Beijing: the city’s wholesale fish market and a neighbourhood market in its proximity. Jingshen Seafood Market does not have the same profile as the previous markets because its patrons are mainly local and commercial. It is located in a residential district south of the 3rd Ring Road. Beijing is inland, and unlike coastal cities like Sydney, which capitalise upon their proximity to the ocean and therefore a perceived immediacy with the provenance and consumption of seafood, its fish market is not a tourist destination despite seafood being a characteristic feature of China’s cuisines. When I asked the staff at the hotel to translate the pinyin address into characters to direct our taxi driver, they told me that they had never heard of it. Information in English language about Jingshen’s history is hard to come by, but one piece of information I did glean is that it used to be situated underneath the Hong Qiao Pearl Market, which has been redeveloped as a five-storey retail extravaganza opposite the Temple of Heaven in Chongwen. (Again the redevelopment of Hong Qiao was predicated by the regulatory aim of limiting informal economies and illicit trade.)

The infrastructure appears fairly new, if well-worn, and like Panjiayuan the space within the market is organised with a hierarchy of vendors that goes from those who sell out of the back of vans, to small stalls in the main building and at the top of the heap, larger fitted out concerns at the edge of the car park.It is well set up for distribution with a whole section dedicated to packing and shipping. There is not as much care put into presentation at Jingshen as at the branded markets. There is ad hoc invention at work everywhere, the resourceful fashioning of tank and filtration systems using materials to hand. Refuse and polystyrene packing piles up in the corners and on the floor. The less polished aspect is due to its messy business as a wet market, and to the large scale of its operations. (The dried goods section that took up the first floor is much tidier, though underlit in an attempt to conserve energy; the clerks slumped over their desks or heads thrown back, slack-jawed, are also conserving their energy after the morning rush.)  Above all, it is because Jingshen is not instrumental in branding the city.Down the street from the fish market is the Guancai neighbourhood market, which carries fruit and veg, meat, dry goods and household wares.Here we are observers of the everyday life of Beijingers in a neighbourhood that is unexceptional in every way – down to the McDonalds being built across the road.
If one was looking for the ‘real’ local character of the Beijing market Jingshen and Guancai might reveal that, but the very act of outside scrutiny of place causes the everyday to re-arrange itself around our presences, however minutely. I doubt Guancai is going to be appropriated by tourists seeking sites/sights where they can witness the other’s everyday anytime soon. The aestheticisation of the banal that Pierre Bourdieu (2003) observes at work in the construction of middle-class taste succeeds at markets like La Boqueria in Barcelona or Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. They exist before and beyond tourism, yet they simultaneously possess mitigating attributes which attract outside visitors: they are proximate to other centres of tourism; they have architectural merit; they trade in specialty local products. Guancai, on the other hand, is surrounded by dusty, car-choked main roads, empty lots, and sells mass-manufactured pots and pans and plastic shoes.
There are many other markets like Guancai – in Beijing, in China, in cities throughout the world. In spite of their ubiquity, their ordinariness, is it possible to construe the market elsewhere through anything other than the tourist gaze?

Tourism experiences involve some aspect or element which induces pleasurable experiences which are, by comparison with the everyday, out of the ordinary. […] There is the seeing of ordinary aspects of social life being undertaken by people in unusual contexts. […] Visitors have found it particularly interesting to gaze upon the carrying out of domestic tasks […] and hence to see that the routines of life are not that unfamiliar. […] There is the carrying out of familiar tasks or activities within an unusual visual environment. […S]hopping, eating and drinking all have particular significance if they take place against a distinctive visual backcloth. The visual gaze renders extraordinary activities that otherwise would be mundane.

Urry’s (2002) inventory is nevertheless situated and apprehended within the tourist/tourism complex. What are the consequences for the tourist gaze and for the object of that gaze when one is examining everyday life that is positioned within no other context but the everyday? Perhaps this breakdown in ontological and spatial demarcation is the reappearance of one of those heterotopic moments and relations that Stallybrass and White observe in the marketplace, and which we had to look hard to find, but still glimpsed in the regulated spaces of Beijing’s markets.