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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

The Children and the Witch, a short story from China.

Halloween night English school Shangdi Beijing

The Children and the Witch, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

“You wanna Jeans?” shrieked an unseen woman as we sauntered down the aisle. “Hello T-shirt!” barked another. A moment later, an anxious looking man abandoned his shoe stall altogether to expertly step in front of me. “You like shoe, many shoe! Hot brand, cheap shoe, best price” he said, barely even looking at me.

“No thank you” I smiled, moving around him.

“This place is huge!” cooed S, the two of us stopping for a moment to get our bearings. Nearby a doddery old German couple, the dictionary definition of born yesterday, handed over 800RMB for a woollen jumper. The seller, hardly able to keep a straight face, literally snatched the cash out of the man’s hands.

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We were at Beijing’s gargantuan Yashow Clothing Marketan overwhelming extravaganza of seven hundred stalls spread out over six dizzying floors. As a venue, Yashow was certainly rough around the edges. From its grimy, plastic curtains entrance to its in-your-face vendors and their aggressive selling techniques. Pedalling mostly knock-off branded goods, Yashow was a Beijing institution famed for having pretty much everything you need under one roof. They sold underwear, socks, sneakers, shirts, hats, scarves, coats and tailored suits. Moreover, this was the place to come for sportswear, electronics, antique furniture, DVDs, perfume, toys, paintings and high-end tea.

Sanlitun Ya Show Clothing Market Beijing

Yashow Clothing Market, October 2009.

The Children and the Witch, a short story from China.

What had been a very pleasant Beijing autumn was now edging into the more unforgiving temperatures of winter. Consequently, S and I had come to Yashow on a mission to seek out winter coats. Happily, my experiences in India and Qatar had schooled me well in the art of negotiation. Hence I was relishing the chance of going head-to-head with Yashow’s infamous merchants.

“You like-a coat?” asked the girl, virtually tripping over herself to reach me. I’d been checking out a black, knee-length number with a hoodie. But the thing was so damn puffy it looked more like a tent than a piece of clothing. “But is beautiful!!” she protested, before moving into the tedious territory of false flattery.

“You so handsome, in this coat you look so goooood”.

“Do you have this one in blue?” S asked, at another stall. “Yes!!!” cried the seller, darting off. A few minutes later she was back, with a box of coats. Unfortunately, the box had every colour in the world except blue. Including a dreadful pink-purple-orange creation that made me want to stick needles in my eyes. S tried a few of the coats on, while the girl drooled in anticipation. When we ultimately decided to move on without purchasing, the vendor didn’t accept the situation gracefully. “Hey! You try many coats, but buy nothing. I work hard but you waste my time!! Give me something!”

Yashow Clothing Market Beijing

Fun and games at Yashow Clothing Market.

It was sometime later, after S had settled on an elegant Max Mara creation, that I finally found something for myself. It was a grey, slim-fit cashmere coat that I knew I wanted the moment I saw it. By this point I’d sniffed around enough stalls to get a decent feeling for prices and wiggle room. Thus I opted to take control of the negotiations right from the start. 

“I really like this coat, but I only want to pay 230”.

“What?!?? Noooooo! Are you crazy? Look at this material… is a big quality!”

The man was actually stroking the coat seductively as he talked. As if we were in some cable shopping channel nightmare. It was all so ludicrous I wanted to laugh. But I had to maintain my poker face. 

“No, I only want to pay 230”.

“Look-a look-a, I make special price 650”.

“No, 230 final price”.

“Ok 500! Come on… for you cheap-a”.

“230”

“350”

“Ok never mind. We’re going now… goodbye”. 

“Ok 250, just a little more for me… please… my profit soooo small”.

“Ok 250”.

The man actually scowled as I handed the money over, his shoulders hunched like a Scooby Doo villain. The poor guy had put so much effort into trying to rip me off. And he would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for us meddling kids.

The Children and the Witch, a short story from Beijing

“My profit soooo small!”

It wasn’t long before we got the chance to debut our new coats. “On Sunday I want take you to Xiang Shan” announced Trudy one day. “In English, name is Fragrant Hills Park. Very beautiful, but a big walk, bring your strength!” It was just the latest act of kindness from our school principal, who seemed to be pulling out all the stops in a bid to make us feel welcome.

The Children and the Witch a short story from China.

Rockin’ my new coat.

It was a sunny but chilly afternoon when we arrived at Fragrant Hills Park. Immediately, I was struck by the deceptiveness of the word park. In fact, it wasn’t a park at all. Rather, we had arrived at another mountain, which meant hundreds and hundreds of stone steps. By this point we knew the drill. During our cross-country trip back in July, we’d tackled the famous Mount Tai. We’d also climbed Jinan’s Thousand Buddha Park and Qingdao’s Lao Shan. In comparison to our previous climbs, Fragrant Hills proved quite tame and we completed the hike in about sixty minutes. 

“Many old men and women walk up and down every day!” exclaimed Trudy. 

“So healthy for the body and mind”. Right enough we saw a number of pensioners that afternoon, plodding along in both directions. “It must take them all day” whispered S, with sincere concern.

Fragrant Hills Park Beijing

The Children and the Witch, a short story from China.

At the top we were treated to yet another gorgeous panoramic. Just another piece of Chinese heaven for the scrapbook. “Leighton, I am so excited about your play,” puffed Trudy, still getting her breath back from our exertions. “Halloween is a big night for our school, I hope many people can come. I think it could bring us more students!”

Fragrant Hills Park Beijing

Lovely views from the summit of Fragrant Hills Park.

We’d been preparing for the school’s much-hyped Halloween night for weeks. After the initial flurry of new students, the school’s intake had levelled out and Trudy was getting visibly nervous about the remaining holes in our teaching schedules. Calling an emergency meeting, she asked S, Lily, Nini and myself to put our heads together and brainstorm ideas for a kickass Halloween event.

The first thing we agreed on were themed lessons. S and Lily created a bunch of ghoulish Halloween themed vocabulary flashcards. Meanwhile, I put together a YouTube playlist of children’s Halloween songs. Nini printed out colouring sheets and Trudy went on a mad shopping spree. Arriving at school one day, she came armed with a huge box of pumpkins, a bag of apples, buckets of candy and a treasure trove of Halloween costumes and props.

Halloween night English school Shangdi Beijing 2009

Shaping up for Halloween night in Shangdi. October 2009.

The Children and the Witch, a short story from China.

I thought custom-made lessons, group singalongs, fancy dress, apple-bobbing, pumpkin carving and sugar overload would make for a decent Halloween event. However, Trudy insisted on more. She wanted us to push the boat out, to get the whole of Shangdi talking about her little school. 

After more brainstorming, we finally settled on a live theatrical performance featuring all staff members and some handpicked students. Within twenty four hours I’d hammered out the script for The Children and the Witch, written at our apartment over beers and noodles. Sadly the plot was very much a slave to the target vocabulary, something all the kids could follow with ease. My Academy Award, it seemed, would have to wait.

The Children and the Witch a short story from China.

And the Oscar doesn’t go to….

With Trudy’s genius son Happy (political decision), Louis (begged me for the part) and Krista (gender equality) taking the student roles, rehearsal sessions took place on Saturday afternoons. During these periods, S and Lily began work on set design, which included a huge poster for the wall in the play area.

Being the so-called director was tough work. From Krista’s poor sense of positioning and Louis’ dodgy pronunciation to Happy’s short attention span and my own increasing impatience. Nevertheless, we plugged away and at the end of each sixty-minute session I was just about satisfied that the production was moving forward.

The Children and The Witch a short story from Beijing

The Children and the Witch, a short story from China.

When Halloween finally rolled around the school was buzzing, excitable kids swarming around in all directions. “Vampire!!” screamed Tom, beating his fists against the wall. Elsewhere, Happy had carved himself a ghoulish pumpkin, while Krista reacted to my skeleton costume by branding me Ske-Leighton. This tag caused much hilarity among everyone in earshot and eventually became my official nickname at school. 

The Children and the Witch a short story from China.

Ske-Leighton.

“Are you ready?” whispered Trudy, poking her head through the door. “Yes!” I mouthed back, while Happy and the rest of my cast sat huddled around a table like twitching dormice.

“Teacher, I’m nervous!” croaked Tim.

And no wonder, the poor kid had only stepped into the role at the eleventh hour after Louis pulled out because he was “busy”Beyond the classroom door, the school was unspeakably full. There were countless kids packed together in front of the stage like tinned sardines. Behind them, stretching all the way back to the kitchen windows, stood parents, grandmothers, an aunt or two and a large dog. The audience even included a few passing locals, whom Nini had promptly kidnapped and thrown inside.

Halloween night English school Shangdi Beijing 2009

Lily and Nini narrating.

After a brief introduction from the narrators, Krista, Tim and Happy came bounding onto the stage. Starring as a lovable trio of trick-or-treating children, they knock on the door of a Beijing apartment, eager to engage in some Halloween fun. A kind lady (played by S) greets them with a twinkle-eyed “Happy Halloween!” and a handful of assorted sweets. 

“Thank you! Good night!” cry our heroes in unison.

“TRICK OR TREAT?” they bellow, upon arrival at the next house. Subsequently, an imaginary door swings open to reveal another amiable lady (Trudy), who presents the kids with stickers and badges. “Happy Halloween!” she purrs, sending them on their merry way.

The Children and the Witch a short story from China.

The Children and the Witch a short story from China.

But then… (evil music) … the children are faced with an altogether different proposition at house number three. “Trick or treat?” they cry hopefully, only to come face to face with an ugly old witch! Played by yours truly. “Go away!” I cackle, stealing their candy haul and slamming the door in their devastated little faces.

“I don’t like children!!!” 

It was at this point that the kids in the audience erupted! There was booing, jeering and genuine anger. Little Sonia had gotten so incensed she had to be physically restrained from storming the stage! One toddler, frozen in terror, got scooped up and taken away by his mother. Maybe that Oscar wasn’t out of the question after all. 

he Children and The Witch a short story from Beijing

Halloween night in Beijing, October 2009.

The Children and the Witch, a short story from China.

Naturally, the tables were about to be spectacularly turned. Hatching a genius plan, the children return to the house to place a banana skin on the front step. They then rap loudly on the door before hiding out of sight. And so, in what is arguably the most triumphant closing scene since Rocky, the witch opens the door and…. (drum roll)… slips on the banana skin.

“Arrrrggh!” screams the witch, before hitting the ground with a deathly thud. There followed a tense intake of breath across the audience. Was the witch going to get back up?  “Yaaaaay!!!” cry Krista, Tim and Happy, “the witch is dead!” This, it seemed, was the signal for all the watching children to gatecrash the stage. They cheered, they jumped up and down, they ate candy. One particularly manic child even took it upon himself to dance on my inert carcass.

The curtain falls. 

Halloween night English school Shangdi Beijing

Dead.

My silly little play won us a lot of admirers that night. I lost count of the number of hands I shook and the amount of kids who tried to attack me, clearly struggling to separate art from reality. “Ha ha ha, that banana skin!!!” hooted one goofy father, slapping me on the back. Trudy was positively beaming, insisting that all staff stay behind for drinks and pizza. “I have wonderful news!” she told us. “We have a new demo for three girls. Their mothers love the play!”

short-stories-from-china

The Children and the Witch, a short story from China.

The Halloween vibe flowed firmly into the weekend with a journey across town for karaoke at one of Beijing’s biggest KTV centres. It had been weeks since we’d seen Richard, Risa, Marc and Amy, so there was so much to catch up on. Dressed in Halloween clobber, we overloaded our plates at the buffet station and piled into our private karaoke room. A few minutes later a waiter arrived with an icy bucket of Heinekens. It was one of those rare nights where everyone was in the mood. 

Halloween night KTV Beijing 2009

With Richard on our karaoke night.

The Children and the Witch, a short story from China.

Whenever I look back on the photos of that evening I marvel at how young we all were. Our spirits yet to be damaged by life’s inescapable realities. If only it had been possible to bottle some of that atmosphere for the tough times that lay ahead. Winter was approaching… storm clouds were gathering… and we had no idea.

Halloween KTV night Beijing 2009

Very good times at KTV on Halloween night – October, 2009.

‘The Children and The Witch’ is the twelfth chapter of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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6 Comments

  • natty4t

    adorable. x

    January 22, 2017 - 2:24 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    I hate bargaining, but unfortunately, it’s the norm in China. You have to be tough, or you’ll definitely get ripped off. Your Halloween play sounds like it was a blast, and it’s great you got to introduce a Western holiday to Chinese parents and kids there. 🙂

    August 17, 2020 - 1:13 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for following my journey! It’s ridiculous to think these experiences were eleven years ago.

      August 17, 2020 - 7:37 am Reply
      • Rebecca

        Same, it’s been almost a decade since my trip to China. Time flies!

        August 17, 2020 - 9:50 am
  • memo

    More karaoke! What did you sing, “Thriller”? I wish you had filmed the play. It would be fun to see the greatest children’s teacher in action.

    August 17, 2020 - 2:31 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I couldn’t tell you what I sang. Pretty sure that Chinese KTV didn’t have Don’t Let Me Down. Filming the play would have been a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?

      August 17, 2020 - 7:40 am Reply

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