A Shakespeare sex-and-violence starter kit

“Civitas Londini” panorama of 1600 by John Norden, Southwark section. The Swan theater is visible on the left, the Beargarden, Rose and Globe theaters on the right (with permission of the National Library of Sweden).

London’s entertainment district in Shakespeare’s time was to be found in the suburb of Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames. It was a bohemian enclave burgeoning with artists, poets, dramatists, craftsmen, migrants from the countryside and abroad, foreign agents and spies, and pretty much everyone kept or spat out of the city limits and its more stringently regulated daily ordinances. The numerous inns and bawdy houses on Bankside in Southwark were more than willing to absorb them, but the suburb’s main attraction was of course the theaters for plays and animal baiting. These were open-roofed amphitheaters for daytime use, nighttime illumination using candles or oil lamps being unfeasible for wooden thatched-roof firetraps packing in several thousand spectators.

Another reason favoring daytime performance was that the suburb turned into a rather scary place at night, when an inordinately high criminal element came out of the woodwork in the face of minimal constabulary and little accountability. If you look closely at the Southwark section of John Norden’s Civitas Londini (dated 1600), regarded as the era’s most topographically reliable map (despite the skewed perspectives of individual buildings), you can just see in the far right-hand lower corner the top of the Globe theater jutting out of trees; the Rose theater is more clearly visible a little to the northwest. That Southwark was shrouded in tree cover is likewise confirmed by a sergeant-in-law at the time, one William Fleetwood, who described the area at night as “so dark and obscured by trees that a man needed ‘cat’s eyes’ to see.” It would have been like finding yourself in an American inner-city ghetto during a power outage with no streetlights, while gangs moved freely under canopies of trees blocking the moon. Southwark swarmed with all manner of cutpurses, cutthroats, cony-catchers, ravishers, and the growing ranks of the unemployed. To put some perspective on the crime rate, your chances of being murdered in London 400 years ago has been estimated to be anywhere from 10 to 50 times greater than your being murdered there or in any modern city today.

On harpsichords and white pianos: The challenge of music in China

B0009I8PWS.08.LZZZZZZZHit your pause button for the day, slow down, clear your head. Splurge on a bottle of good Bordeaux and listen to some music to match, like the opening track of the recording pictured at right, master harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt (1928-2012) playing a pavan in A minor by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd (ca. 1543-1623). I could have come up with countless other examples of music as beautiful as this, but there is no music more beautiful than this. Now, let me reiterate that I am not singling out this particular piece by Byrd as the greatest thing ever composed; only that like any music of the top caliber, of which it is but a mere instance, there is a concentration of talent and energy resulting in a perfectly realized, diamond-like creation that cannot be improved upon in any way.

“How do you know this?” I am typically asked.

Music appreciation is a highly subjective affair, and we all of course have our favorites. You simply have to trust that I speak from long acquaintance with Western classical music, and with that comes a refined and discriminating faculty.

Theatrics of Japanese Noh, Kabuki, and the mixed-bathing Onsen

Elusive and enigmatic, the Japanese konyoku onsen (混浴温泉), or nude mixed-bathing hot springs, is forbidding enough of access as to retain a quasi-mythical status—somewhere between the zebra and the unicorn—not only for foreigners but for Japanese as well. Information about naked onsen is spotty even in the Internet age and often requires word-of-mouth or a personal guide. I presume the literature in Japanese is more extensive, yet it’s still an esoteric topic for most natives. Places that are said to allow mixed-sex bathing turn out not to when you arrive, while rumors swirl of countless onsen which do allow it but don’t advertise the fact; there are even onsen that let guests to set the bathing rules during their stay. You may succeed in getting to one only to discover you are the sole patron, and by then what’s the point? If you’re traveling without Japanese help, you need to master the complicated travel routes and times, as most hot springs are located in rustic or mountainous retreats. If you want or need to stay the night in the onsen’s ryokan (tatami inn—there may not be other accommodation nearby), you need to establish beforehand whether there are any vacancies. All this makes konyoku onsen hunting one of the more challenging of travel experiences, more akin to trekking in the Third World than in one of the world’s most developed countries.

The Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks

Like street-side Parisian cafes, the Starbucks pictured above at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, with its long counter and individual stools, is designed for people watching (courtesy of Yoshikazu Takada)

Apart from obvious differences in the size and layout of individual shops, all Starbucks are basically the same. On the surface this appears to be the case in China and Japan as well: the signature coffee-toned decor, the blond-wood furniture, the usual line of mugs, thermoses and other souvenirs, though Japanese Starbucks offers a wider array of coffee-making devices. Some shops come with national or ethnic flavors. The Beijing Starbucks that opened across from People’s University in 1998 (one of the earliest Starbucks in China) featured Ming Dynasty-style hardwood furniture, until the busy branch was shuttered without explanation ten years later, as often happens in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of Chinese businesses. Local architects are designing some stunning new Starbucks in both China and Japan. These differences are mostly top-down, dictated from the corporate leadership.

All Starbucks baristas are trained of course in the same professional routines. They are cut from the same cookie-cutter mold and delightfully anger-proof against the most obnoxious customers (of which the US probably exhibits the largest share). Like American baristas, Chinese baristas are polite in a down-to-earth way; one is hardly aware of being in a different country. As they are required to speak some English, they are typically college-educated, unlike the usual young migrants from the countryside employed in the service industry. Still, the Starbucks worker I had a fling with back in 2004 told me they only paid her eight Yuan per hour ($1 at the then exchange rate), before she got fired for accidentally damaging the espresso machine. They are paid more now, though only proportionately so. (How do you come on to an attractive Chinese barista? She sashayed right up to my table and brushed her hip against me. I got lucky; it hasn’t happened again.)

The high priests of medicine: U.S. and Chinese hospitals

Chicago, 1999

One day the previous December I was out jogging and my calf muscles cramped up so badly I had to limp home. The next day they were swollen and I continued to limp. The day after that my lower back became inflamed, making it even more difficult to walk. My back would bother me one day, my calves the next, some days both, and everyday I walked laboriously with a limp. I blamed it on a back sprain probably caused by lifting my wife out of bed. She loved to sleep and it was one of the more effective ways to get her up. My nurse practitioner thought it was a muscle spasm, pinching my motor nerves. A muscle relaxant was prescribed and I was told to follow up when it got better. It did get better in the sense that the pain went away, but the limping remained. Finally some six weeks later, she sent me for a spine x-ray and an appointment with a neurologist on the assumption it might be a nerve problem. I was suspecting the same thing.

Black forest cake blues: The customer service problem

I have loads of Chinese restaurant stories. They are definitely worth a book, as the Chinese restaurant is the surest window into Chinese culture you will ever find, with different social classes thrown together in a confined space and forced to deal with one another and get along. My latest only-in-China saga took place at the Library, a spacious establishment in the fashionable Jianwai Soho neighborhood in Beijing’s CBD. A trendy place, all three floors stocked with bookshelves and traditional hardwood tables and chairs and upholstered sofas as well for those who don’t like hard furniture. I have to say for a Chinese-run café the coffee is pretty good, along with the generous servings; even the medium-size mug is too large and heavy for comfort.

From struggle sessions to public dressing-downs: China’s continuity of psychological control

Typical admonitory dressing-down speech or “xunhua” in front of a restaurant in Beijing, 2011

There is an unforgettable scene in the harrowing autobiography of a man living through the worst of modern Chinese history. In an Anti-Rightist Campaign struggle session in 1957, the crowd grows hysterical in its denunciations of Peter Liu and forbids him from smoking. Fearing they are about to become violent and might beat him to death, Liu asks the commander if he may go relieve himself in the WC outside the hall. Permitted to do so, he exits the building, gets on his bicycle, and rides home. The stunned interrogators are none too pleased by his brazen exit, but that’s not why he is soon sent off to over ten years of hard labor in the Chinese gulag, followed by another ten years of confined “employment.” In fact, his fate was already sealed long before when a PLA soldier discovered a firearm in the back of his family’s property that had been discarded in a junk pile by the retreating Japanese army.