Above: Do the Mao Mao Mashed Potato
Watching Godard's La Chinoise at Film Forum this week not only inspired me to christen my library/shopping bag room The Mao Room (my friend Nancy's idea), but it also reminded me of my Maoist fashion moment in China a few years ago. I was in Harbin with my friend Tomoko to cover a Chinese punk rock festival at an old Communist Party meeting hall for WestEast Magazine and while in town I picked up a coat at the local PLA surplus store. Here is the article I penned for ZOO magazine:
Breaking the Ice in Harbin
Glenn Belverio discovers the People’s Coat in Northern China
Harbin could be the perfect destination for a far-flung honeymoon. That is, if your idea of romance is Sino-Soviet communist nostalgia, public bathhouses in lieu of heart-shaped tubs in hotel rooms, and ice – lots and lots of ice. In fact Harbin, located near the Russian border in China’s north-eastern Heilongjiang (“Black Dragon River”) province – or Manchuria, as it is sometimes still known – is often called the Ice Capital of China. And yet there is something strangely romantic about frosty Harbin’s faded, yet preserved Soviet ambience, the foreboding government buildings where giant Chairman Mao statues stand sentry, the well-heeled Chinese women in Russian fur coats promenading up and down cobble-stoned Zhong Yang Street. Lacking the futuristic glitz of Shanghai and the current building boom of Beijing, Harbin seems frozen in China’s mid-20th century past. During its relatively short history, Harbin has been dominated by both Russian and Japanese imperialism, was a nexus point for Sino-Soviet relations during the 50’s, and a stage for some of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the 60’s and 70’s. A book published by Phaidon last year called Red-Color News Soldier by photographer Li Zhensheng documents that frightening, surreal period of Chinese history as it played itself out specifically in Harbin and the rest of Heilongjiang province.
It was snowing heavily the night my plane landed in Harbin’s tiny, remote airport, and the area around the runway was already blanketed with several inches. As my cab driver drove through the storm he answered his cell phone several times, its ‘ring’ sounding exactly like a gong from a Chinese opera. Arriving in town, we drove past the impressive St. Sofia Church, a Russian Orthodox masterpiece, whose snow-covered ‘onion’ tops were lit eerily with green lights. The purpose of my visit was to attend an underground Chinese rock concert which was held at the city’s Communist Cultural Centre. I met my photographer friend from Beijing at our hotel, located near the railway station and an abandoned tower fashioned in the now-retro futurist Soviet style. Annoyed by the noisy all-night renovations going on in the hotel – China seems to have no laws regulating construction hours – we checked out and piled into a cab the next morning in search of the Modern Hotel. The Modern, built in 1906, is infamous for a political history that includes sheltering anti-Imperialist factions during the Japanese occupation in the 30’s and hosting a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in 1948. After getting lost in the snow-covered streets several times, my photographer friend wandered off on foot with the driver in search of our destination, leaving me behind in the temporarily abandoned taxi. It was then that I first laid eyes on The Coat.
It was worn by a Chinese man who seemed to be directing traffic – not an easy feat in China, where traffic laws have as much weight as construction regulations – who was not exactly tall but in the long, double-breasted coat he wore he looked like a regal giant. The coat – cut from a generous amount of heavy, blanket-like fabric – was army green in color with a high-standing, seemingly fake fur collar, and adorned with gold star motif buttons. Suddenly I felt myself possessed by the ghost of Diana Vreeland as my inner voice cried out, “LOOK at that COAT! Look at the marvelous way the fabric drapes, the wide sleeves, the nobility of that collar, those proud, shining buttons! Why, that coat would give anyone who put it on PRESENCE.” When the man noticed me staring wild-eyed at his coat, as if I had just discovered the shroud of Turin, he looked back at me as if to say “What’s got into HIM?!”
Later, my friend – who knows the coats well from seeing them in the streets of Beijing – informed me that they were the official winter coats of the People’s Liberation Army. The PLA, formed by Chairman Mao as the Red Army and renamed in the 40’s, is the world’s largest army and notoriously recognized in the west for its actions during the student uprisings in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But as someone who views China from the perspective of an informed Sinophile, and not through the lens of the biased U.S. media, I resisted reducing the coat to some kind of sinister bane of democracy. As we toured Harbin I noticed more and more men and also women – not just military personnel, but manual laborers, food cart vendors, young rock concert attendees – wearing the coats, and wearing them by choice. “Look, everyone is wearing the coat!” I exclaimed excitedly. “And everyone looks great!” It was just as Mao Zedong said in his Little Red Book: “The army must become one with the people so that they see it as their own army. Such an army will be invincible.” In Harbin’s communist time warp, this appeared to be true, at least as a sartorial gesture. I pronounced the coat The People’s Coat and decided I had to have one.
The next day our Chinese Muslim cab driver, a member of China’s Hui minority, took us to the PLA surplus store where for the humble price of 84 renminbi – the ‘people’s money’ – or about 10 euros, I scored my monstrously heavy, extraordinarily warm, new and unworn Chinese communist army coat. Attesting to the coat’s warmth, a 1997 story from a Japanese newspaper recounts how ten coats allegedly worn by stowaways on a Chinese freighter ship were found by Yokohaman policeman inside a refrigerated container. And now, wearing my new coat in sub-zero Harbin, I felt as one with the local proletariat. And best of all, I would finally be able to retire my Jil Sander coat, circa Fall/Winter 1996. But instead of receiving salutes of approval in the street from my would-be fellow comrades, I became a walking spectacle. “Everyone is laughing at you”, my friend giggled. Indeed, as the only white person in the whole city – not counting the tiny handful of Russian locals – and a tall one to boot, I stuck out like a sore thumb. And not a Red thumb as I had hoped. When the local Chinese weren’t laughing they were staring drop-jawed in shock. Crowds of people stopped to gawk and discuss me in Mandarin in front of my face. But I remained stoic, all the time repeating to myself another famous Mao quotation: “A revolution is not a dinner party.” If I endured, I reasoned, then eventually the people would understand my solidarity with the New China – a ‘communist’ country that is utilizing capitalism to accelerate its rapid and fascinating development.
Despite China’s many problems and social ills, I remain optimistic about the country’s future. As someone who has become embarrassed to be an American – especially in the wake of Bush’s illegal war – I want to see China emerge as a glamorous and economically strong new Super Power. And while I am waiting for this to happen back home in New York, I know that my new coat will keep me warm during a period in America that can only be described as a long, difficult winter.