Friday, August 29, 2008

The rockets' red glare...

Feeling pretty good at seeing The Home of the Denver Broncos, Invesco Field/old Mile High Stadium on CNN's Obamapalooza coverage in my Chinese Communist Party subsidized apartment this morning, I got to work a little early and asked my Chinese colleagues if they'd mind if I watched The Speech on the office TV.

"I have to listen to your boring leaders and bureaucrats on TV in the office all the time," I (only half-)joked. "Give me an hour or so of American TV with a charismatic, young politician who doesn't lecture in a shrill incomprehensible monotone ... please?" I also lied and said I wanted to spot my son in the crowd (he couldn't score a ticket) and when I noted that I have a cousin who works for the Obama campaign (true) who I had seen (blatant lie) on CNN already. I haven't seen her, but did see her father in the Pepsi Center on Tuesday briefly in a crowd behind Wolf Blitzer, so maybe it was kind of a half-truth. But family comes first in China and the TV set was activated.

"Is he the president yet?" one asked me. I sighed a little, after having gone through the US Presidential Election Process for Dummies Exercise with another coworker earlier, but skipped the tutorial and said, "No, maybe after the election in November."

They laughed at the 27 or so times or so Obama thanked the 80,000 faithful when he hit the stage, especially when I finally added "enough with the xie-xie" (Chinese for thank you)and urged him to get on with it. Interest on their part, though, flagged noticeably shortly thereafter until the end when the fireworks and confetti flew.

"His daughters?" said one. "We never see our leaders' children."

"So, what did you think," I asked her. She'd shown a modicum of interest in the LoveFest. She was silent and then said something in Chinese to a friend that drew some giggles.

"What? What did you say? So what did you think?" I repeated.

"I said I thought the fireworks were only so-so," she replied. "Not as good as the Olympic ceremonies."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Whole Lotta Love

Just a distinct sense of relief that the Beijing Olympics are finally over last night, coupled with a spasm of joy at seeing Jimmy Page's wizened visage wailing on his Gibson atop a double decker bus as I watched the closing ceremonies on a large flat screen beamed outdoors in a small, sweaty hutong (alley neighborhood) with a gaggle of Chinese and sprinking of foreigners.

"Who is that old man playing a guitar?" asked a 20something Chinese woman standing next to me as we sipped lukewarm Tsingtao beers, batted mosquitos and ate watermelon slices.

"Jimmy Page," I said. "A famous English rock musician. Sort of like your Cui Jian (the first Chinese guy to play homegrown rock here, circa 1986). But older, and more controversial and popular in his time, perhaps."

"Nobody listens to Cui Jan anymore," she said.

"Too bad. I bet he knows this song, though," I replied as Page ripped through an 8-minute lyrically neutered version of Whole Lotta Love to the joy of rockin' foreign fossils like me and the bafflement and indifference of most of the Chinese around me. A camera shot panned a group of high level Chinese bureaucrats - including former president Jiang Zemin in his clownish oversized spectacles - trying their best to look like they comprended Jimmy Page. David Beckham, who was also prancing atop the Magic Bus, yeah, but a former Satan-worshipping, druggie, multi millionaire white bearded guitar player? Who let him into the country?

"Yeah! Zep RULES!" shouted a Canadian. I dropped a watermelon rind high fiving him and started talking to an ABC (American Born Chinese) woman who was hosting the block party.

"I'm glad to see this," I said. "You know London has enough self confidence and style to host Games without worrying about controversy and micro-managing every detail. No worries about blocking the Internet or boasting that they've installed air-to-ground missles next to Buckingham Palace or Wembley." She agreed, but added that the edge of tension that had accompanied the Beijing Games had also made them what they were.

"All part of the mix," she said. "It's what keeps me here. You, too, I bet."

I couldn't disagree.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


I was leaving work when one of the Chinese women in our "Foreign Affairs Department" (i.e. glorified babysitters for foreigner employees) passing me in the hall, stopped, took a breath and said, " Justin! Congratulations!"

"Uh...oh, thank you, I think," I replied, trying to sort through my shattered memory files (What had I done? The last time I was congratulated by anyone from Foreign Affairs it was for putting out a motorcycle fire with three cans of beer about 3 months ago, surely this wasn't about that again). "For what?"

"Obama is your new president!" she said, beaming at me.

"He is? What? No, no," I said. "The election isn't until November."

She was puzzled. I was even more, and thought perhaps she'd mistaken some news about the Democratic National Convention for Obama winning the election. But the convention doesn't begin until Monday. Maybe he'd made a veep pick? Who knows? He and McCain are non-news here, anyway, during the Olympics and most Chinese I've talked with about the election still think Hillary is in race.

As succinctly as I could I gave her a American Presidential Election Process for Dummies 101 explanation, skipping the part about the Electoral College - which I understand about as well as string theory - and repeated that November would be when the next US president is selected. I resisted the urge to say something like "The Party's Standing Central Committee will select him based on the harmonious will of the proletariat.." and thanked her again.

She nodded, clearly only slightly less confused than she'd been when I'd told her he wasn't president yet and left, presumably to go tell her colleagues that the weird Americans clearly have no idea who their new leader is.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A 110-meter trail of tears

Work, such as it is, came wheezing halt Monday morning as the staff and one "foreign expert" (me) gathered in front of a TV to watch the 110 meter hurdles competition in the Bird's Nest at 11.40am. The draw was Athens gold medalist Liu Xiang, on whose buff shoulders rested the weight of 1.3 billion Chinese (of which almost 91,000 were in the stadium) not already satisfied with China's nearly 40 golds.

It was obvious as Liu - whose image is plastered throughout the nation endorsing seemngly everything from tea to appliances -gingerly warmed up and stalled as long as he could before settling into the starting blocks that he was one badly hurting puppy - something I commented on a couple times in a concerned tone. My remarks were met with silence until one staffer said rather curtly: "Nothing is wrong! He will win. He must!"

Face is all in China and I diplomatically gave my coworker some by shutting my barbarian yap until seconds after the starter's gun went off twice signaling a false start (not by Liu) and he tore off his competitor's tag and slowly limped off the track.

"F%%er!" yelled the fellow who'd assured me of Liu's victory. That was extreemely uncharacteristic - unlike their foul mouthed foreign expert, my office mates rarely swear and when they do it's in Chinese. Meanwhile the TV cameras were following Liu's disgraced trail behind the scenes in the Bird's Nest where he sat down, head in hands. The Chinese blogosphere exploded shortly thereafter, many defending him buit others calling a "coward" and worse. "I will slit the throat of him and his coach!" read one translation. "He has disgraced the Motherland."

You'd have thought he'd urinated on the Chinese flag and wiped it on President Hu Jintao's face.. When tempers had cooled and the tearful press conferences concluded, I asked the coworker who'd cursed Liu what the deal was. China has so much talent to be proud of - lithesome diver Guo Jingjing, some hunky badminton guy I'd never heard of, but who'd also been a media darling for 15 minutes the day before, and many others. Why put it all on Liu? In the end it's all only a game - not life and death.

"If Michael Phelps had not won eight gold medals, people in the United States might be disappointed, but they wouldn't threaten to kill him," I explained. "Liu did his best. He was hurting badly. Why further injure his leg only to lose anyway?"

"Some people lost a lot of money," he said. "Some paid 10,000 yuan (nearly $1,500) for a ticket to watch him. Now maybe a ticket is worth 100 yuan." It wasn't just about money, though. He continued.

"Many Chinese think the Olympics this time is a chance to show their abilities and new wealth to the whole world. That's why we put so much money and preparing to the opening and are trying to win many, many medals. So they put on even more pressure than usual.. Ater you have been poor for decades or more than a century, you have to prove everyone you are no longer weak.."

Liu was not weak, I said. He was injured, it happens to many athletes. My coworker nodded.

"China is getting better," he said and went on to tell me about a Chinese Olympic athlete who had "only" won 3rd place in a previous Olympics in the 1980s or early 90s. "When he returned, some people had thrown rubbish and garbage at his home. I do not think that will happen to Liu."

Indeed not. A day after his fall from national grace, a creative marketing whiz at Nike - with whom Liu is signed - engineered a quick turnaround. A full page newspaper ad in China Daily shows a somber, half-shadowed but powerful looking Liu with the slogan: "Love sport even when it breaks your heart."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

All Along the Watch Tower

About 8 hours after it happened I went to Beijing's 13th Century Drum Tower, next to another popular tourist/historical site Bell Tower, with a female British freelance journalist pal who speaks fluent Chinese to try to get some more info on the fatal stabbing of Todd Bachman, the Olympics US volleyball-related tourist killed over the weekend during a visit to a popular Beijing tourist sites.

The Bell and Drum towers are magnificent nearly identical watch towers still in an area of Beijing not demolished in favor of shopping malls or apartment complexes. Either raised a question, however. The knife-welding murderer was described by Chinese press as a depressed, divorced, unemployed sort-of lone gun, er, lone knife man who supposedly jumped from the top of the Bell Tower in a suicide dive after killing Todd Bachman, wounding Bachman's wife and their Chinese tour guide. Looking at the towers, though, begs the question that due to the overhanging Chinese swallow roofs jumping from one roof would take you perhaps 8-10 feet to the next one. Unless the killer was an an off-duty Chinese Olympic swan diver able to leap over the lower roofs or acrobat who rolled over the first roof to the next and down again, it wouldn't be an exactly easy fall to your death. Conspiracy freaks, have fun!

One of my favorite BJ hangouts after dark is the Bell and Drum bar and cafe, a small and intimate spot very near the new death zone with the finest, largest hamburgers in the Middle Kingdom with a rooftop view. Watch your step, though, descending after burgers and beer...a very steep staircase under the influence.

Todd Bachman's death shocked the bjeezuz outta me when I first saw the crawl on CNN Intl TV a few hours after it happened: "American murdered at Beijing Olympics." China is nothing if not safe, expecially for foreign barbarians. I've felt more threatened going a block or two from my old Colfax Avenue work site at the downtown Denver Rocky Mountain News at midnight to a public parking lot then lost in translation and location in Beijing at gawd knows where at the same time or later.

Calling a pal on-duty at the largest Chinese, English-language newspaper for which we work for more info did little good. The paper is on currently on unrelenting full-court press "One World, China's Dream" coverage and had naturally sent no one to do any first-hand reporting, instead reluctantly relying on the brief and incomplete, also State-owned Xinhua press service report that was buried on page 5. (Meanwhile, three days later a story about the murders of 2 Chinese grad students in Newcastle, England was part of our front page news. Subtle Message? It's all safe and glorious in China, but you venture outside and are Chinese you're doomed!)

Here's a small sample of what I heard through translation when I arrived with my Brit friend to poke around at the Drum Tower hours after the death. A Chinese crowd was plentiful and talking amongst itself, but not easily to outsiders. No trace of splatter from the supposed sucide killer. Meanwhile a group of drunk German Olympic tourists were videotaping themselves singing Happy German Ubermench Soccer and Beer Songs in the plaza between the towers.

British journalist Chinese-speaking pal to neighborhood old guy: "Excuse me, uncle, did you see or hear anything about the foreigner killed today?'

Old Chinese neighborhood guy: "Nothing happened, except what you see on TV. Why do you ask? What country are you from?"

Fluent Chinese Speaking Brit pal : "I am from England, I am just curious if you or anyone here saw or heard anything and might tell me more."

Old Chinese neighborhood guy : "You are from England? Why do you care? The dead man was an American."

One World, One Dream, indeed...

Saturday, August 9, 2008

One World, One Dream, Many Beers

Lacking a ticket to the Olympics opening ceremony didn't mean one couldn't get into the spirit and Beijing had plenty of choices last night - from home TVs to packed parks with giant screens.

I chose something in between at the invitation of a Chinese-American conceptual video artist named Elaine W. Ho, who is, oddly enough, originally from the bleached blonde Wonder Bread Dallas suburb of Plano ("I couldn't wait to get out of there," she told me when I expressed shock and awe at her roots.) The outdoor hutong (traditional Beijing alley community) where she held the viewing party was tens of thousands of miles and several cultural light years away from Dallas, of course, though it had a certain universal community spirit where even language barriers melted away as the warm beer, Coke, herbal tea, watermelon and China's Olympic pride flowed.

"Hang out with Granpa Wang and the neighbors in the fresh air, enjoy drinks, snacks and a sporty sized LED projection from a store window front," her invite read. Granpa Wang turned out to be a jovial real guy - not, as I'd originally imagined, an Elaine W. Ho artistic concept; he is perhaps in his early 50s, pot bellied in a sleeveless T-shirt, shorts and the unofficial hutong godfather/community leader/fixer and as it turned out something of a gambler. Granpa Wang was delighted to welcome the four white guy foreigners who joined the 18 or so locals to watch the 3-hour broadcast seated on tiny stools or on magazines and newspapers on the alley way.

The only drawback was the inability to see the fireworks exploding all over the city, our view obscured as it was by the roof tops and rather removed location, though we could hear them and cheer as we watched the broadcast pyrotechnics. screen. Grandpa Wang was particulary impressed at our Canadian pride. At least two of the foreigners were Canadian and several of the Chinese were either Canadian citizens or had gone to school there. When the Canadian team finally strode waving into the Bird's Nest procession, one of our number whipped out a giant Canadian Maple Leaf flag and began waving it to our cheers. "Go Canada! Go Tim Horton's! (a popular Canadian coffee house chain)," I screamed, wondering also what kind of person happens to have a large national flag on him. "Got the American one?" I asked. He laughed. "No, just Chile and Estonia," he replied.

George W Bush was seen on the screen and I began booing. Grandpa Wang asked through a bilingual Chinese woman why I was being disrespectful to my president. "Oh, just because I can," I replied and then asked what he thought of Obama. He wasn't exactly sure about him - or even who he is - though he did say he admired Hillary Clinton and wondered if she might be our next president. Not wanting to explain the whole American primary system in the middle of a Chinese alley Olympics party after three large Tsingtao beers, I simply said she'd withdrawn and left it at that.

We left after the torch was lit by what appeared to be a Chinese quasi-Spider-Man athlete and Granpa Wang pressed my hand and invited me back anytime. I'd lost a bet with him on who would light the torch. I'd put 30 yuan (roughly $3.50) on the idea that one of the Sichuan earthquake orphans would do it and Granpa Wang had said it would be the Spider guy. I forked over the money as unseen fireworks exploded above and he thanked me, grinning and shaking my hand. "He says come back he will make soup and duck and have many beers with you," my temporary translator told me. "He also wants to bet that China will win more gold medals than the USA."

"Tell him 'thank you, xie xie '" I said. "I am happy to lose to Granpa Wang once already. Two times would be too much happiness."

Note: Top left photo by Elaine W Ho from her website at

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Games People Play
The 2008 Beijing Olympics begin tomorrow with the gala opening ceremony scheduled for the auspicious time of 8.08pm on the eighth day of the eighth month. No, I don't have a ticket for - they're very hard and expensive to come by, though I have a $50 ticket for the bronze medal men's volleyball final on virtually the last day of the Games. I came by it through sheer chance and paid face value and am expecting what? Perhaps a nail-biter between Ecuador and East Timor ...

Otherwise, Beijing seems slightly hyper, almost edgy as the big day approaches though not as the New York Times recently reported it in inflamatory tones as being like a "fortress" and drawing absurd comparisons to the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution when describing the elderly retirees in their red and yellow "Security Volunteer" armbands sitting on curbside stools presumably looking for potential troublemaker, dissidents and "splittists". The ones in my neighborhood barely glance up from their playing cards and newspapers as the foreigners walk by.

Incidents getting major play on CNN and BBC such as the two Brits and two Americans who have been booted out of the country after climbing up two light poles near the Bird's Nest stadium and attaching two enormous "Free Tibet" banners yesterday afternoon have received minimal attention here aside from a stern short account about their expulsion in the rag for which I toil. That's more than I expected when two pals from work and I were out last night talking about it (we agreed that the protesters were morons, albeit athletic ones; "freeing" Tibet is a non-issue with 99.9% of Chinese) as the paper generally ignores anything remotely controversial and is instead fond of quoting officials saying with presumably straight faces that the smog enveloping the capital most days is "not pollution" but "natural conditions caused by excessive heat."

Two nights ago another group of coworkers and I went with a rumor that an opening ceremony dress rehearsal at the Bird's Nest stadium would include fireworks. Fueled by foolishness and perhaps a little beer, we took two taxis that found us stuck for nearly 25 minutes in a traffic jam seemingly miles from the Bird's Nest with only the faint blue glow of the other iconic structure, The Water Cube visible through the darkness and (non)pollution. We bailed from the taxis and joined crowds of mostly Chinese also milling about seeing how close they could get. Not far, as it turned out. Police guards and young, polite Olympic Volunteers barred any progress despite me flashing my press ID card. I might as well have shown them my Boulder Public Library Card or Sam's Club card.