Melody’s Olymics: Melody goes scalping

After Michael Phelps won his 8th gold Sunday morning (China time), I watched dozens of photographers fall over each other trying to get the same shot.

MPR’s Melody Ng, who’s in China on vacation, wasn’t in the gaggle, but I like the material she’s been feeding (while battling difficult Internet access issues). It’s an authentic look at the Olympics from street level. Here are her latest dispatches and images. Be forewarned: Michael Phelps isn’t in any of them. (And here’s her earlier work)

8-15-08 Off to find scalped tickets at a (unnamed here to protect the innocent if there are any) sports bar. As I may have mentioned earlier, we weren’t organized enough to get our names into the Olympic ticket lottery. The tickets are a steal at their original prices. For example, the ones we had to the women’s gymnastics finals that my brother and cousin attended yesterday were 150 RMB (or a little more than $20) each.

On Craigslist Beijing, people are reselling them for hundreds of dollars. We’d like to watch a few Olympic events while we’re here, but I’m too cheap to pay more than $40 or $50 per ticket. I had hoped to find scalpers on the street outside the Olympic venues, but when we walked around there last Wednesday, no such luck. So I am excited to hear from an American expat I met at a bakery that some guy who sells tickets at marked up prices online heads over to a certain foreigner-owned sports bar at 10 p.m. every night and unloads all of his unsold tickets for the following day’s events at face value.

It doesn’t occur to me that I might not be able to recognize this guy or that what he is doing might be illegal. I assume (who knows why) that he’d be easy to spot – you know, walking in at 10 p.m. sharp, announcing which tickets he had left, and exchanging said tickets for cash. I imagine there might be a bit of tussling for the good tickets, but I’m ready to take this on. After all, I don’t exactly care which events we go to if the tickets are offered at their inexpensive face value prices.

Around 9:30, after consulting several maps and semi-figuring-out where the bar’s located, I head out of our apartment complex accompanied by my (younger) brother, who would never let me go off on an errand like this alone. The cab driver knows immediately what place I’m talking about, even though I don’t know the bar’s proper Chinese name, and just translate it directly from the English. He gets us there with about 10 minutes to spare, and I say to the kid who’s standing outside ready to open the door to patrons (in Chinese): “I heard that some guy comes here to sell Olympics tickets every night at 10. Do you know where I can find him?” He looks at me and says he’s never heard of such a thing. Huh. Was the expat was wrong, or (uh-oh) is this an under-the-table sort of thing?

Not knowing what else to do, I walk in the door and hit bright lights and a squad of young women in blue crop tops and short skirts – one of the Olympic cheerleading teams – doing some sort of dance routine as dozens of men in the bar root them on. We somehow manage to walk through their performance, because there’s no other way into the bar, and I ask a Chinese bartender the same thing I had asked the door guy. He responds that there’s no such thing here.

Obviously, the Chinese staff isn’t going to be of use. I decide to try foreigners, and I cruise the bar looking for people who look friendly and not Chinese. This is a bit outside my comfort zone. I’m not a bar person. Alcohol makes me ill, literally. And I really don’t want to accost strangers out for a good time with friends to ask them if they know of some ticket scalper. Everyone I talk with though (British, Australian, Kenyan), is pleasant and tries to help, (There is this special connection expats have with others who are living abroad, so that might be helping.) but no one knows of any scalper who frequents the bar.

A Chinese staffer the Kenyans suggest I ask answers: “This is not clear,” which, to me, means, “I can’t say, ‘No,’ but I’m also not confirming anything.” I’m about to give up when the blonde guy I asks unexpectedly answers: “Yeah, I’m waiting for him, too.” The scalper hasn’t shown up yet tonight, and he didn’t show yesterday either. Rumor has it that the police have been monitoring him and the bar. But I get a description (he’s American), so I can try again another night.

Meanwhile, my brother has found the bar’s owner and asked him directly. He confirmed, gave my brother his card, and told him to call him anytime to find out if the guy’s coming that night. Unlike his staff, he doesn’t seem too concerned about the cops. Yet another example of the privilege of having your citizenship outside China.

8-16-08 Drum and Bell Towers. Walking toward Beijing’s Drum and Bell Towers at what used to be the north end of the city, I can tell this is a touristy part of town. We pass a youth hostel, and numerous somewhat western-looking cafes, some advertising that they have wi-fi. I can see why tourists would like this area. The neighborhoods are still made up of the traditional low, one-story homes along narrow alleyways – hutongs of the sort that have been razed by the hundreds of blocks over the past few years in preparation for the Olympics. Gray brick walls and gray tiled roofs, rooms around a central courtyard – the sort of places we think look Chinese. There seem to be public bathrooms (“WC”s after the British “water closet,” as they’re called in China) on nearly every block. Many look newly constructed, and each is clean. One is even marked wheelchair accessible. Pretty impressive considering some of the awful (though very memorable) public toilets I’ve used in China in the past. I don’t want to gross anyone out here, but feel free to ask if you want details.

It’s already after 10 a.m., and although a few tourists wander around the small square between the Drum and Bell Towers snapping photos, the area’s unusually empty. A couple dozen pedicabs sit in the shade waiting. Their operators lounge on their bicycle seats; some call out as we pass by, wanting to know if we’d like to hire them to pedal us around the neighborhood. No one’s at the ticket window, and a small paper sign posted by the doorway of the Bell Tower says in English: “Temporarily closed.” Authorities closed the buildings after Todd Bachman’s fatal stabbing on the Drum Tower a week ago, but we thought (incorrectly) that they’d be reopened by now. A nearby shopkeeper selling trinkets and t-shirts says the attack doesn’t make her any more concerned about her safety (her exact words were something like: “The government says not to worry, so I’m not worried.”), but her business, which relies on tourists, has been poor lately. All the Chinese people I’ve talked with about the stabbing say it was a terrible tragedy, but it wasn’t related to the Olympics. They say no one knows what the stabber was thinking, but he was middle-aged, and had a crummy life – divorced, unsuccessful son. This might be why he snapped. I haven’t asked any non-Chinese tourists whether they feel less safe or not, but I know from my experience living in China that China’s incredibly safe – at least from muggings and assaults. I’ve biked or walked home alone late at night countless times here, and have never felt concerned for my safety. And thus far during this visit to Beijing, I haven’t even had any concerns about pickpockets on crowded subway trains. Around here, you just don’t get the sense that you’re ever in any physical danger. Isolated incident or not though, the Bachman family has my deepest sympathies.

8-16-08 Olympic Green Tennis Center. My good Chinese friend Alan has two extra tickets to the tennis semi-finals today, so my husband and I go. I’m not into tennis, and he’s not either, but it seems silly to pass up free tickets. On our way up to the tennis center, which is at the north end of the Olympic Green, we pass the apartments that house the athletes. Flags from different countries hang outside windows identifying who’s staying in each room. I wonder if people are grouped together by country or continent or race. We drive by quickly, and my recognition of world flags is too poor for me to test my hypotheses. Outside the tennis center, we pass three or four men who are trying to sell tickets to the tennis matches. I hear from another friend of mine later that she’s seen more scalpers (though still not many) each day throughout the past week, so the police may not be being as strict as people had expected. A sunny college student in a bucket hat and the requisite volunteer blue jersey is sitting up in what looks like a lifeguard chair. She greets us through her megaphone in Chinese and English: “Welcome to the Olympic Tennis Center! Have a wonderful time!”

We catch the first set of the women’s singles match between Russians Elena Dementieva and Vera Zvonareva. Many empty seats, and although the crowd claps at the end of every point, and more enthusiastically when it’s well won, most people don’t appear to be huge fans of these two players. By contrast, we hear cheers of “Jia you!” (literally, “add oil” or “add gas,” meaning “Go go go!”) and roars of the crowd from the center court where China’s beloved Li Na is playing Russia’s Dinara Safina. (We can’t watch that game because we don’t have the 200 RMB tickets that allow access to center court. Our 100 RMB tickets allow us access only to all the other courts.) An hour into the tennis matches, we hurry over to Court 2 to watch Serena and Venus Williams play the Ukrainian sisters Bondarenko. I’m assuming it will be packed. It’s not. As I frequently do when watching events on TV, I shake my head at the absurdity that so many people are trying unsuccessfully to get tickets to events, and yet so many seats remain unfilled. The Ukrainians in the crowd, many wearing royal blue and gold, one group carrying a large flag, start a cheer that sounds like: “Ooh-Kah-Ray-Nah. Ooh-Kah-Ray-Nah.” Americans return: “USA!” The Ukrainians smile broadly and shout back. It’s all very good natured, these exhibitions of national pride.

My husband complains that the Ukraine is forced to be called “Ukraine” in English and have that written on their jerseys even though they call themselves “Ooh-Kah-Ray-Nah.” I complain that the Chinese players are always put in center court, and it seems unfair of the Olympic host city to favor their own athletes. No one bothers to try to respond to Joseph’s objection. Alan’s wife reminds me that if Chinese players weren’t given the center court with much more seating, the side courts would get overcrowded, and many want to be spectators would have to be turned away. The Williams sisters almost lose the match during set 2. But they rally to win the set and take set 3 as well.

8-16-08 Some Peking duck restaurant. My cousin really wants to try Peking duck while we’re here. He wants to know how it differs from the LA version. Over dinner with an American expat friend of mine, I find out more about what’s to see in the Olympic Green. She scored tickets to four events and has spent several days exploring the area. She says that the Coca Cola Store gives everyone who comes in a bottle of Coke. I asked her if it’s a special Olympic branded bottle of Coke. Perhaps in a glass bottle – the kind you’d save and pass down unopened to your grandchildren. She looked at me like I was nuts, and said, “No, it’s a bottle for you to drink.” So people are standing in line for over an hour to get a free bottle of Coke to drink? As my brother pointed out, concessions in the Olympic Green are cheap. It’s not like in the U.S. We bought a bottle of Sprite for 5 yuan (about $0.70). Oh well. I suppose we all get to choose how we want to spend our time… Maybe the ones in the Coca Cola Store are cold; the ones at the concession stands are lukewarm.)

8-17-08 Nantang (Southern Cathedral). My friend Jerome wants to attend mass at the oldest Catholic church in Beijing. Matteo Ricci, the Italian Jesuit priest who brought western math and Christianity to China, first built Nantang in 1605. We arrive a half hour before the English service begins to see several TV cameras roaming the church and its gardens. A Chinese friend says this is because people expect foreigners to show up in church (many Chinese would say that all Americans, or even all westerners, are Christians — a belief that I’ve always found interesting), and this week talking about religion with western tourists can be added to the Olympic coverage.

8-18-08 Forbidden City. Because we get up every day between 5:00 and 6:00 every day anyway (21-month old whose circadian rhythm is still a bit off), we leave the apartment early in the hopes of beating the crowds at the Forbidden City. Ha! Known in Chinese as “Gu Gong,” the “Old Palace” is exceedingly popular with Chinese tourists, not just foreign ones.

We join crowds of people jostling for the best spots to pose in front of Tiananmen (the “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” which stands in front of the Forbidden City). Mao’s enormous portrait watches over us, as always. I wonder – as I’m sure many, many others have – what Mao would have thought of all the Olympics signage and hoopla in Tiananmen Square, across the street and right in front of the mausoleum in which his body is preserved (and on display to visitors many mornings each week). The main buildings of the Forbidden City were repainted about a year ago, likely in anticipation of the Olympics. Vibrant reds, greens and blues. Lots of gold. The place is vast. It’d take hours to go through all the buildings, passageways and gardens.

I’ve been here a few times before, but we wanted to take my brother and cousin for whom this is a first trip to China. We mean to take in the entire palace, but the sun and crowds get to us after a couple of hours – especially after all of us (i.e., probably hundreds of us visitors who are within this particular courtyard and section of the outer court of the palace) are barked at by soldiers and random-looking guys not wearing any sort of identifying clothing or credentials to clear our area. They herd us out the doors of the courtyard and close them. I’m told some “VIP” is coming through and we can’t be in there. Great. This is one of the annoying things about China, this differentiation between us regular folks (of which I’m actually not, since I’m a foreigner, and given some deference for my U.S. citizenship) and special people, who are treated infinitely better.

Yeah, this happens in the U.S., too – such as when sections of Twin Cities freeways have been shut down during President Bush’s visits – but not as often or as obviously.

I meet a group of Australians who are confused as to why we’ve been shut out of one of the major courtyards. I explain, and one woman says I need to tell them that she’s the VIP they’re expecting. They’re family members of the women’s softball team, and they claim that they’re the loudest fans here. They also say they’re having a great time in Beijing. I ask if they’re getting special treatment as family of athletes (I had seen special welcome stations at the airport for athletes’ families). They laugh and say, “No,” but there’s a really helpful girl working in their hotel.

Apologies in advance for the following statement that’s probably going to sound stupid, but I’ve met several families of athletes now around town and they’ve all been super friendly, down-to-earth people who are enthusiastic about being here for the Olympics. I don’t know why, but I guess I was expecting them to be snobby. I’m glad I thought wrongly.

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