Around the World in 120 Days
A quick dive out of the crowd allows us time to look around.
Hair is dyed in the most unnatural hues: pink, orange, and blue, often adorned with faux animal ears. A girl in platform, patent leather boots with gold plates screwed into the sides chews on a foot-long skewer of sizzled starfish. A boy sporting a hairy, oversized, glittering black sweater and zebra-striped too-tight pants leans against an aluminum wall.
Street vendors loudly call to the crowd in Chinese from inside funky narrow-walled stores. A man selling stickers uses the up and down tones of the guys selling Cracker Jacks at a baseball game. His body looks to be no older than 40, but the cigarette smoke curling through his deep, tan cheek wrinkles age him another ten years. Every sticker elicits an excited response from his customers, eager to slap them on the back of their MacBooks. There is an Andy Warhol-esque depiction of Barack Obama smiling candidly in a Chairman Mao cap; there is a sticky copy of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" album cover, a good present for someone's dad; there's a Velvet Underground banana, and it is hanging next to an image of superman and batman in an aggressive lip lock.
And there is a rack of designer breathing masks (this is Beijing after all). Kitten whiskers, skulls, panda snouts, pop art versions of Obama, Mao, Marilyn Monroe, Kobe Bryant. Some have English captions in red: Everyone should love animals! Because they're delicious! "Chairman Meow: Dog my cats if I want." "Grow so big I suddenly discover that kindergarten is most suitable for me."
The hutong road keeps stretching, a long strip of chic cocktail lounges and souvenir shops--every other one similar to the ones before. Two Chinese girls in their young twenties sport straw cowboy hats, red and blue bandanas around their necks, and flannel button down shirts. Holding scarily dingy green, wheatgrass health-booster drinks in one hand and cheap cigarettes in the other, they are in search of all things kitsch, vintage, ironic, and quirkily bizarre.
For six kuai, one dollar, we each buy five churros, sticks of fried dough drizzled in hot fudge with a side of vanilla soft-serve. At the end of the night, and with regret, we look back on the still-crowded hutong street, a scene of colorful, original pandemonium that embodies everything young, cool, and Chinese. The hutong is successful because it knows exactly who it's catering to.