Monday, September 15, 2008


"Gee, but it's good to be back home," I mumbled to myself like some half-wit Paul Simon imitator marveling a little at the irony of coming "home" to Shenzhen where I'd spent a considerable portion of three years after first arriving in China. In a combination of impulse and romantic gesture, I'd flown south 1,200 or so miles from Beijing to Shenzhen to be with C during the Mid-Autumn or "Mooncake" Festival over the weekend.

Lovers are supposed to gaze at the full moon on the 15th of September to see a princess, Chang'e, and her jade rabbit who've been exiled there waiting for Chang'e's husband/lover to visit once a year from the sun. There are multiple versions of a somewhat incomprehensible legend and a plethora of mooncakes, China's version of the fruitcake, to mark it.

The myth - which explains why the Chinese see a rabbit on the moon, rather than the man westerners see - involves Chang'e stealing a pill for eternal life from her husband. She is then either exiled or flees to the moon with a rabbit. Questions to Chinese friends about why she ripped off her husband (they are ''happily married'' in the versions I read) and why she took the rabbit with her and what happened to the magic pill were met with shrugs.

"I had a pet rabbit when I was a little girl,'' one told me in a sort of non-sequitor. "But my uncle ate him.'' One version of the story has the rabbit pounding out herbs to remake the eternal life medicine immortalized by mooncakes.

Much like the Halloween and Christmas geegaws that begin slithering into the US supermarkets in early September, stacks of elaborately packaged and sometimes outrageously expensive mooncake gift boxes began filling Chinese grocery aisles in early August.

Mooncakes are a culinary atrocity - as dense as iridium, usually the size and shape of hockey pucks, greasy and fried in pork lard and often stuffed with as many as four duck egg yolks, red bean paste and lotus seeds. They also have the half life of plutonium, approximately 2,400 years. (One I choked down for a Mooncake festival two years ago is still lodged in my upper colon, according to X-rays that continue to baffle researchers at the Mayo Clinic and the US Food and Drug Association.)People give them but rarely eat them which was the quandry C found herself in as we prepared to go to a Sunday Mid Autumn Festival barbecue hosted by a friend of hers.

C had an enormous promo gift box from a gazillion star Shenzhen hotel stacked with glitzy wrapped mooncakes. Neither one of us wanted any of the mooncakes or the tiny ceramic tea pot that came with it and she was anguishing over whether to take it as a "gift" or give it to someone else.

"No one you know eats them," I said. "Why bother giving them? Or if we must at least let's take a bottle of wine."

"You cannot bring mooncakes and a bottle of wine to a Chinese party," she said firmly as if explaining to a cretin why it's impolite to urinate on your grandmother's shoes. Though tempted, I didn't go there. We haven't survived four years together with long separations by niggling over obscure points of Chinese party etiquette.

Suffice to say we were drinking the wine several hours later at the party, a rooftop affair that kind of encapsulated the State of Modern Urban China. The hostess was a divorced single mother living on the ninth floor of an apartment with no elevator. We should have hired sherpas to stagger to her door. She was throwing the party with her ex-husband with whom she's still close, and her job as a marketing manager for an Chinese-Australian alligator meat company apparently pays her enough to afford the flat screen plasma TV covering her living room wall.

Her parents and ex-in laws were playing mah jong in one room as the rest of us ate barbecued meat, vegetables and fish (no gator meat, though) and listened to remixed old school hip-hop - (Who Let the Dogs Out melded with Chinese pop - an unholy though amusing combo) and watched the little kids shoot each other with plastic guns that screamed, "FIRE" when the trigger was pulled.

I was still wondering how the hell someone makes a living selling alligator meat to Chinese (though they'll famously eat "anything", I've never seen it here) when C nudged me.

"See the moon? See Chang'e and the rabbit?" she said. Sure enough, through Shenzhen's polluted skies it glowed until a cloud covered it.

"Oh, no...She's hidden now," I said.

"Her lover is visiting now," she said. "They need some privacy."

I took the hint, we thanked China's 'gator meat empress and left.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Bargain Store

Part of China's obsessive effort to put its best face forward for the Olympics(or what it assumed to be its 'best face') was, in addition to closing down select live music clubs, installing air-to-ground missiles outside the Bird's Nest and Water Cube and "security watch" retiree block captains on every street corner, evicting the homeless etc, was a crackdown on vendors pushing pirate merchandise.

It was remarkably successful. My trusty local counterfeit DVD mom n pop shop was torn down overnight with the owners gone as if they'd never existed. Ditto for elsewhere throughout many parts of Beijing. My son in Denver had been extolling the glories of Dark Knight and Iron Man, neither of which has been released here, though I knew I'd normally have been able to score copies easily so we could bond. So much for family values. Ditto for pirated Olympics merchandise which was seemingly non-existent also, to the dismay of many visitors who'd hoped to save a few bucks on souvenirs.

But last Sunday it was clear to me that Beijing is slowly getting back to normal. I was near the old American Embassy area, outside a French bakery and a Friendship Store when an elderly woman with a stuffed rucksack approached me and began her hustle.

"You want Olympic watch? Hat? Olympic sock?" She began pulling a treasure trove of bogus Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) merchandise out of the sack. An Olympics "Rolex" commemorative pocket watch, "Nike" Olympics socks in four colors, enameled pins, baseball caps in three colors, phony fuwa (Smurfs on mescaline) mascots, DVDs of the opening and closing ceremonies ... everything but Michael Phelps autographed Speedos.

I eyed the merchandise, especially the baseball caps, and asked about more DVDs. She signaled to a guy I assumed was her husband who hustled over with copies of, yes, Dark Knight and Iron Man.

Praise jeebus and all the fake Fuwa! The Pirate Olympics Closeout Sale had begun. Some intense bargaining followed and I left with five hats and my desired DVDs for 60 yuan, or about $8.75, went home and slid Dark Knight, to find it had been seemingly shot underwater by a palsy victim with a North Korean Super 8 camera. Buyer beware. But Iron Man rocked and I've got some friends who'll look spiffy in the caps.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Just the Two of Us

Western musical acts are no longer novel in China since a bouffanted George Michael and Andrew Ridgley of Wham! (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go)baffled 15,000 Beijing youth and their connected cadre parents in 1985, so when I happened to see an ad last week for an Al Jarreau, George Benson "Just The Two of Us" concert, it just kinda came and went with me.

Though I once faked admiration for Benson in a telephone interview with him about 25 years go, I was never a fan and usually slept through or threw a shoe at whatever device was playing Masquerade or Greatest Love of All. Al Jarreau I respected, but not enough to pay to hear him.

Then I was offered four free tickets to their show by my curious Chinese editor who'd received them from the concert hall, the Beijing Exhibition Theater. "They are famous?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah," I assured her sounding like Voice of America. "American jazz and soul legends. In fact, I interviewed George Benson once."

"Oh!" she gushed. "Perhaps again? Today? For our paper? He will remember you, of course!"

"Mmm, no, unfortunately," I said. "It doesn't really work like that and it was a long, long time ago. (Pause) But thanks for the tickets!"

I found an musically opened minded US expat pal, Dave, to accompany me and gave the other two to a young Chinese reporter I'll call Wang who'd once asked me for a primer on American jazz and blues.

The best I could do at the time was hand him a stack of CDs, write down some names and pray the CDs got back to me undamaged. Not like when I did the same for another novice Western rock Chinese fan who'd returned my Zeppelin, Neil Young, Beatles, Stones and Nirvana discs 6 months later looking and sounding as if they'd been used as chew toys for weasels. To add unintended insult to indifference he told me the only songs he'd liked were Heart of Gold, Yesterday and As Tears Go By. "All others are too CRAZY! ... Do you have California Hotel and Every Shing-a-Ling?" (His decomposed unidentified remains were found 8 months later with a Carpenter's Greatest Hits disc jammed up what remained of his left nostril ....)

But I digress. Wang, a somber, wry fellow who rarely shows emotion, thanked me sincerely and I promised to check back with him after the show to see how he'd fared. Dave and I found the hall and joined a crush of mostly young and middle aged Chinese being squeezed through one of about 20 entrances and a security check.

"What's with the metal detectors?" I asked. "It's not like we're going to an East Coast vs West Coast, 2Pac vs Suge Knight kinda deal."

"I dunno," Dave mused. "I hear Benson and Jarreau been dissing (sickingly cute mainland China female pop idol) Han Xue, saying she puts out for Tibet separatists...This could get ugly."

The show was pretty damn good, though I can still die perfectly happy if I never hear Summer Breeze or Greatest Love of All again. Still Jarreau and Benson (when he bothered to play guitar rather than croon) had the hall jumping, such as usually undemonstrative Chinese audience do, unless commanded and then about half a beat off the rhythm.

I spotted Wang as we left to beat the post-encore rush. He was sweating and grinning, clapping happily off rhythm and ectastic. I leaned into his ear and said: "Well? How is it? You like it?"

His grin got larger. "F..F..F-f-fu###ing GREAT!" he yelled.

I smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. My job was done.