Monday, December 21, 2009

Away in a stranger (land)

While the novelty of Christmas in China has pretty much lost its sheen – the sight of Beijing noodle store clerks in red and white elf and Santa hats no longer bemuses me – I gotta say there are some moments.

An outdoor bike repairman who fixes tires and adjusts gears and cables near my apartment in the coldest weather recently strung some scrounged silver and gold tinsel around his portable worn wooden work table. A nice touch and if I had a bike I’d mess it up just a little just so he could fix it.

There was also a 10 or 11-year-old Chinese boy skateboarding slowly in my apartment lobby while sawing away on a wincingly bad version of Jingle Bells on his violin as his father shot video for gawd knows what purpose. If he'd been a dog it would have been excellent for one of David Letterman's old Stupid Pet Tricks. Nonetheless, I watched for about 10 minutes and left happier than when I'd arrived.

Another are my newspaper’s plans for a holiday party, to which only three foreign staffers that I know of have been formally invited (as in told specifically where and what time it will be.)

I am not one of them and I not miffed. I know we are welcome but I've long since learned Chinese protocol when it comes to foreign employees frequently simply does not include niceties such as clear invitations that give us time to plan. It simply never occurs to them just has it never occurred to me that spitting on a public bus is perfectly normal and hygenic behavior. We're just supposed to suck the info up via telepathy or osmosis and then jump at the last minute.

But most of us won’t be jumping anywhere except to our own makeshift expat gatherings or on a flight back home as the party is being held after sundown on Christmas Day at a far distant hotel and – due to skinflint budgetary concerns – will be lacking booze and food, though I’ve heard rumors of “free fruit.”

Mmmm, mmmm. “Hand Santa baby another brown apple, a wrinkled saggy Mandarin orange and a couple of those gratis grapes, won’tcha my little Sino-elf?”

“Who holds a Christmas party on Christmas Day?” asked one American rhetorically. Indeed. But it's not just any Christmas party. Dozens of Chinese employees have been roped into learning traditional Sino song and dance routines (none having to do with the holiday, which isn't officially recognized, of course) – many on their days off with no overtime – in order to bring cheer and reflected glory to their benevolent leaders.

“I did not go to university to dance like someone in the North Korean mass games,” remarked one slightly cynical reporter. “But I need this job.”

She had just emerged from a large conference room as deadline loomed where instead of working on the next day’s stories, she and three other reporters had been frantically rehearsing steps, dips, sways and bows as an instructor hired for the occasion clapped and counted “one, two, three, four … again!” in Chinese.

The irony of a newsroom on deadline being used for choreography purposes for a foreign holiday in an atmosphere where the staff is frequently harangued to “work harder, work longer!” wasn't completely lost on her.

“Dance longer! Dance harder! And make deadline too!” I replied. “Merry Christmas!”

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Riding with the King

"Doing Burger King for lunch, join us?" read the text message from a US pal Jeff last Saturday. A frisson of excitement - almost erotic - ran through me as I read it.

Unlike ubiquitous McDonald's and KFC, BK has yet to really crack the Chinese market. There are only two in Beijing - one in the airport and another in the Xidan area of Beijing, an hellishly packed shopping mall zone the size of Lichtenstein that in my mind is sort of like those 14th century maps that showed unmapped regions containing sea monsters, dragons and cyclops reading: "Here be dragons."

My mental Beijing map that includes Xidan says the same and shows demon eyed Chinese shopping 'bot zombies crushing anyone and anything underfoot for space and bargains at a Levis outlet as multiple PA systems compete at 170 decibels in the aural equivalent of water boarding.

So I have avoided Xidan and others like it since coming to Beijing, unlike Shenzhen where C - for whom these mall plague zones are like oxygen - would often lure me under false pretenses that I'd rather not admit to buying into at this point. But the thought of a real Whopper and BK onion rings seemed irresistible. Hell, I'm told some expats here used to make pilgrimages - a fast food Haj - to Beijing International Airport spending more on taxi fares than the meals to indulge themselves in fatty greasy Flame Broiled Goodness.

Done, sealed, delivered see you there,I told Jeff. I was one my way to the Promised Land after, what? maybe three years since I'd last snarfed a Whopper Jr for the equivalent of about $112 at the Hong Kong Airport. Outside Xidan craning up at the multiple malls, I looked in vain for what Jeff had told me was the "Joy Center" complex while disco versions of Christmas carols cranked like hell's own anthems and I tried to squeeze into as small a space as possible for an overweight guy in three layers of winter clothing in order to avoid the shopper tsunami.

Jeff finally located me on a pedestrian bridge where he said later, "it looked like you wanted to jump." Close, yes. But the King called.

Inside on the third floor Jeff yelped, almost trembling: "No line!" His Chinese girlfriend rolled her eyes and patiently explained to me, "Last time we were here the line was out to here..." pointing toward a vista that went from BK to electronic equipment, luggage, sportswear, weird stuff no one really buys and eventually where dragons be.

Order made, settled in and inhaling the Whopper (or huangbao "Emperor Burger" as it's translated here) and rings suddenly I felt at peace with it all. The grease felt oh so right at the moment. It was almost with regret that I wiped it off my mouth and cadged another onion ring from Jeff.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

A slightly rewritten version of an upcoming Turkey Day column in Global Times.

Thursday marks the seventh Thanksgiving I've spent in Asia, my fourth in China and one for which I’ve never felt more like a thankful 21st century Pilgrim.

Observing this oldest of American holidays overseas has ranged from barebones to bizarre. Barebones was South Korea, 1974 while semi-horrified I watched a wet market poultry butcher dispassionately take a live chicken (turkeys being as scarce as their teeth), behead it with a cleaver, briefly boil it, then pluck it and singe the pin feathers off with a blow torch seemingly before its scrawny legs had stopped flopping.

Until then it had scarcely occurred to me that all chickens didn't originate frozen and wrapped in plastic labeled “Tyson” with a blue United States Department of Agriculture stamp.

Bizarre was Hong Kong Thanksgiving 2005 in a restaurant called California where celebrants were served by Chinese waiters and waitresses dressed as Pilgrims and Indians like large children in a school pageant.

But between the extremes it's been the Chinese people and friends who've guided, taught, scolded, loved, comforted and aided me through the more routine days for whom I am truly grateful.

This generous cornucopia of souls includes an elderly Shenzhen beggar with mangled paralyzed legs and his tale of woe neatly chalked in Chinese characters on the sidewalk outside my apartment for several months. I could not read his story, but his stoicism and situation moved me enough to make small daily donations as my two healthy legs took me to work every morning.

He never said a word until one morning I saw something new on his sidewalk testimony. In simple flawless English were two sentences thanking and wishing – presumably me, as there were virtually no other foreigners living in the area – a long life and happiness.

There was also the neighborhood shop keeper who took time on American Independence Day to scrounge almost 25 minutes though his insanely packed storage place to give me clandestine fireworks left over from Chinese New Year to help me properly celebrate July 4 the USA way.

Unsung Lei Fengs also include a busload of Shenzhen passengers who stopped a thief from slitting my pack back, and in a united civil show of force evicted him sans the pocketknife he’d tried to use. When one of my rescuers offered it to me, it looked surprisingly familiar, perhaps because the thief had slickly picked it from my pocket before trying to use it on my bag.

I owe a debt of thanks also to an 81-year-old Canadian missionary educated Chinese obstetrician and gynecologist who humbled and amazed me during a random encounter on a hot Shenzhen summer night when he spontaneously and flawlessly recited Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s masterpiece was, he told me, one of the memories that had sustained and inspired him while he’d been confined to a corpse cluttered morgue for five years during the Cultural Revolution.

A dignified aging hooker fallen from privilege who shared her glory days one lonely night telling me of the pride she still felt at being 17 and “the second best girl Chinese chess player in Beijing” also taught me more about life, survival, changes and circumstances.

Close at heart are my Chinese “sisters,” coworkers and “foreign babysitters” in Hong Kong and Beijing who helped a hapless American get back into the several apartments from which he’d carelessly locked himself, loaned him the laptop on which this was written and brought him tea, sympathy and soup when he was ill while asking, "do all foreigners live like pigs?” before cleaning the place up.

Others have eased the way in other ways, such as wild Rose, a Hong Kong reporter with a penchant for sipping codeine-laced Madame Pearl’s cough syrup while regaling me with tales of her Beijing childhood as her father smiled to himself while preparing and serving us The Best Duck Soup on the Planet.

Gratitude goes also of course to C, the Dandong girl who, until the distance and time drove us apart (and she cut out my heart and stomped on it! - whoops, that's another column), gave me several years of smiles and sanctuary on the 20th floor of her Shenzhen apartment with an unlikely romantic balcony view. Despite the smog and the sounds of the pile driver pounding out a new subway stop below, it remains one of the most blissful vistas I’ve ever seen. Or maybe it was just the wine we shared that Thanksgiving evening.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Soldier Boy

My cell phone text msg read: "I'm in PLA hospital, receiving drips. Outside soldiers r drilling, singing 'strength is iron, strength is steel.'"

It was from a coworker whose bout with tonsillitis had laid her low for a few days. Being a mostly traditional Chinese woman albeit with some western education and exposure, she'd taken the usual route of having her ailment treated with a mix of "Traditional Chinese Medicine" (hot cupping, unspecified herbal treatments) and an expensive IV drip (100 yuan or $14.60 a shot) that delivered saline solution and supposedly reduced her fever.

The IV drip culture at Chinese hospitals is enormous, so much so that there are drip junkie hypochondriacs who repeatedly haunt the wards where dozens upon dozens of people lie on identical gurneys getting their fix of saline solution medicinal bliss. A perceived cure-all and definite moneymaker for the hospitals, it was 40 yuan a fix when I first arrived and us now hitting 100 at the exclusive People's Liberation Army hospital in Beijing

I've never had one though the few times I've been unlucky enough to have to use a Chinese hospital I've been urged to lie down and get pinned for everything from a small cut (4 stiches) on my forehead to a stomach rash.

But I digress. It was the comfort she took in hearing soldiers drilling outside the ward as she was trying to recover from a 101 or so degree fever that intrigued me.

I was a very reluctant member of the US army ('72-'75, 2nd Army Division, Signal Corps, Camp Casey, ROK) and no stranger to saluting, standing at attention, at ease, drilling and chanting inspiring patriotic basic training ditties such as, "If I die on the Russian front, bury me in a Russian cunt, one-two, three-four ... " and "I don't know but I've been told, Eskimo pussy is mighty cold, count-off, one-two.."

But I and most vets thankfully left that behind long ago. I've also been a civilian patient in a VA hospital, but the closest I came to any quasi military presence there were a couple of friendly American Legion members who distributed silver dollars and crossword puzzle books to patients on Easter.

As I told my coworker, the idea of soldiers drilling outside a hospital ward gives me the creeps. China's different, of course. The PLA is part of the nation's fabric and children are taught how to march in orderly lines beginning in kindergarten. It's cute and also a little scary to see. Many college and high school students have compulsory military training - normal stuff for them. Just part of the deal.

The affection for military culture might also be explained through the entertainment propaganda mainline. While movies and TV shows about Mao's armies defeating the Japanese and Chai Kai-shek's nationalist forces are abudant, the People rarely if ever lose and if they do it's only a temporary setback until final victory is won. Losses are little known here such as China's own debacle in Vietnam in a bloody, brief border war in 1979. The PLA had its arse handed to it by the NVA, though the nation claims "victory" when the war is mentioned at all.

There is no Johnny Got His Gun, MASH, Catch 22, Apocalypse Now,Born on the 4th of July, Full Metal Jacket or even Hogan's Heroes equivalent ... only noble victory and clean quick deaths for the common good.

I spared her my half-baked "China needs its MASH" theory and sent a message wishing her well though still saying I had the heebiejeebies with the idea of soldiers chanting revolutionary slogans outside a hospital ward.

"Cultural difference," she replied."We Chinese like our soldiers. Their marching and chanting boosts morale and enhances bonds with civilians. It instills strength and inspires us to recover soon."

Me? I'd rather watch Apocalypse Now, which I did after that exchange. She's back at work now, though. Score one for the healing power of the PLA.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Watching the Detectives

About 12 days or so ago I first noticed two clean-cut looking young guys hanging out on the second floor of my apartment. I'm in room 2008 and they didn't seem to belong to any room, though I rarely seen my neighbors and initially didn't pay them any mind. My door lock is secure (more on that later) and aside from my passport there probably isn't much anyone would care to steal even if they did break in.

But when I nearly stepped on them as I opened the door to the stairwell where they were sleeping on a shared cardboard flat one morning I began wondering who they were and why they were making themselves at home - even if conditions were cramped.
They were neatly dressed in casual summerwear and kept their staircase condo tidy -- but they never seemed to leave.

Morning, noon and night at least one was there if the other was absent, presumably making a bathroom or food run, though I had no clue where they'd find a nearby toilet and sink except in one of the apartments.

Lacking enough Chinese to ask, "Who the hell are you and why are you living in the stairwell?" I could only wonder, as well as ponder why apartment security staff hadn't booted them.

My mood changed, too, from curiousity to irritation at having my way blocked through the stairs by their dozing forms. One evening I hurled a classic Anglo-Saxon ephithet at them as I clambered past, and was met by blank stares. Then one said tenatively, "Hello?"

I laughed and asked if he spoke English. No, and that was all I would know until a Chinese pal I'll call SJ was visiting three days ago. "Hey, do me a favor and ask these guys what the fark they're doing here," I asked her as we side-stepped them coming up the stairs. "They've been here for about 9 or 10 days, nonstop. They never leave. I'm dying to know."

A lengthy conversation began, punctuated at one point by one of my new neighbors who took out a long document in Chinese with a lot of numbers on it and jabbed his finger at one of the numbers repeatedly as his voice rose.

SJ turned to me after a few minutes of conversation and explained.
"They are enforcers," she said. "To have a debt repaid." The document was "proof."
It turned out the occupant of apt 2006 across from me (whom I've never seen) had bilked someone else out of about 500,000 yuan ($73,000) and they'd been hired at 2,000 yuan ($300) apiece to squat there until they nab him and/or the money.

I kept asking questions. How did they go to the toilet and stay clean? What did the apartment staff think?

They smiled and said they used an apartment employee restroom on the ground floor and that the security and cleaning staff were sympathetic to the point that the pair were receiving occasional food handouts. Yes, it was boring. Still 2,000 yuan was a lot of money and jobs weren't easy to find in their native province, Sichuan -- home of the catastrophic May 2008 earthquake.

We shook hands and after SJ left I went down to a local shop for a few groceries and bought two cold cans of Nanjing beer for the debt collectors.

The investment paid off two days later when I came home found my key didn't work in my door. A latch was jammed, making it impossible for the key to catch and turn.
My new enforcer friends heard my curses and fumbling and emerged from their half-square meter luxury nest to see what the problem was. Thanks to them, an apartment security guard showed up, who in turn called a locksmith who jimmied the door open for 240 yuan ($35).

I paid him off, pulled two more cans of Nanjing out of my fridge and took them to the baking stairwell. "Xie, xie, thank you, thank you!" they said.

No, thank you. It's good to have connections, even under the stairs.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I read the news today, oh boy…

Overseeing my paper’s Weird China (China Mosaic) page is giving me a very skewed look at Chinese life and journalism, I fear.


People routinely fall, jump or are pushed from high apartment windows or balconies only to miraculously survive.

Most street cleaners and trash collectors who find ATM cards with passwords for accounts holding hundreds of thousands or even millions of yuan routinely return the cards and are grateful for a $50 reward or simply a heartfelt thanks.


Many rich single women want a husband who will only be faithful and hardworking, and will pay for one if necessary.

China has a slew of miracle animals and agricultural products. Gold eels. Transparent frogs. Four-legged ducks. Rats the size of small vehicles. Trees that bear 12 kinds of fruit. Cats with “wings.”

Criminals are unbelievably stupid. They typically flee the scene to the nearest police station believing it is a public restroom or bar. Or they argue loudly and publicly over their ill-gotten gains and how to split up the proceeds – usually outside a police station. Or they ask a cop to settle the dispute.


Corpses are commonly mixed up in funeral homes, resulting in outraged mourners who discover that “grandfather” who died peacefully at home at age 103 has morphed into 22-year-old woman who flamed out in a motorcycle accident.

It’s a typical collection of tidbits gathered from Chinese newspapers and websites that due to my inability to read Chinese are chosen by reporters who translate the candidates for me and await my verdict.


A typical session goes like this: (all dialogue guaranteed more or less verbatim)


Me: Okay, what’ve we got today?


Reporter: This is a story about a 3-year-old baby who fell…


Me: Stop! Let me guess. Fell 9 stories out of an apartment window but lived because a policeman who was chasing a stupid criminal stopped to catch it, right? Then he grabbed the stupid criminal because he hid in the police car?


Reporter: No. It was 17 stories. The baby hit a soft tree.


Me: No more falling people stories. I’m putting an embargo on them until further notice. Next?


Reporter: A man has lived on mothballs and baiju (traditional high octane Chinese liquor) for 18 years.


Me: I like it. A lot. Next?


Reporter: The government has established standards for the perfect panda.


Me: Like what?

Reporter pauses, reads carefully: “The perfect panda must have round lips, a mild temper, have a clear division of black and white fur, be outgoing, capable of entertaining people …”


Me: Does he have to be a Party member?


Reporter (puzzled): No. Animals cannot be Party members. Except in Animal Farm. But why?


Me: Never mind. Just a joke. Ok, we’ll use it. With a picture of a perfect panda. Next?


Reporter: A criminal robbed an old woman and then ran into …


Me: No!! Wait. Don’t tell me. A jail cell, right?


Reporter: No. Another old woman’s home who was the mother of the village police official and …


Me: No. Next…


Reporter: A man has been hunting 18 years in the mountains for a large monkey man monster in …


Me (excited) : Bigfoot! A Chinese Bigfoot! YES!


Reporter, puzzled again: The man does not have big feet, he is …


Me: No, no. I mean does the monster, never mind. We’ll use it. Now, you got any UFO stories?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

White Wedding

A China pop quiz.
What features a radio controlled helicopter, the Star Wars theme, a harmonica, a magician, two lounge singers, an emcee from the "China Coal and Mine Troupe" dressed like an Elvis imitator, a dose of Confucian filal piety and about 200 guests?

1. A wedding.
2. Birthday party
3. A company retreat/team building session.
4. Funeral

If you picked No 1, you're a winner! You win a carton of premium Hongtashan (Red Pagoda Hill) cigarettes (gifts to the male attendees). If you picked 2, 3 or 4 you receive our consolation prize - two cartons of Hongtashans!

It was my first Chinese wedding and easily the most bizarre and entertaining nuptial event I've attended, though a New Age one outside of Sheridan, Wyoming where the thoroughly white bride and groom recited vows based upon their "bear totem clan" is a close second. It was also the earliest - held at 11 am on a Friday.

But the bear totem wedding had no radio controlled helicopter flying in to the Star Wars theme to deliver wedding rings to the groom who almost fell down in his rented white tux trying to catch it. Nor did the bear totem groom wait solemnly while the wedding's emcee -- a second string CCTV cross talk comedian and graduate of the China Coal and Mine Troupe named He Jun who was dressed like a sequined Elvis imitator presented him with a mysterious slim long case that contained ... a harmonica.

"What the fark?" I mouthed to the only other foreigner there - a British pal, Danny, who'd been shanghaied into being a best man, based he suspected on a combination of his good nature and "exotic" skin color. He's a black guy. "I think it might've been a token thing," he said wryly.

But I digress. The groom, call him B, put the harmonica to his lips and wobbled through a shaky rendition of a vintage and still popular love song, The Moon Represents My Heart made famous here by the late Teresa Teng, a Taiwanese pop singer.

I'd have preferred some James Cotton or Magic Dick blues harp, but whatcha gonna do? I'm only a guest here and the 22 year old recent college grad standing next to me was sobbing into her already soggy tissue and looking repeatedly at her empty ring finger, yearning,I guess, for her turn at the altar with a toy chopper ring delivery system.

The tender 60-minute outdoor windblown ceremony also included a band of four young, leggy women in knee high suede boots and hot pants "playing" a flute, two violins and a portable keyboard to pre-recorded music, as well as frequent sound effects from a real keyboarist who hit the "boiiingg!" sound button to underscore every corny punchline from the emcee.

Gotta admit thohgh that I got a bit misty eyed when the bride and groom both knelt before their mothers and told them how much they appreciated their love and care. It hit a sincere and very traditional note that even the corny murmuring ocean sound effects didn't diminish.

In the banquet hall the levity continued. A magician entertained with some "Magic 101" stunts (interlocking rings, wand-into-flowers, etc) but closed out with a great finale of transforming a newspaper into a live squirming 8-inch grass carp that he threw into a nearby fish tank. Turning fish wrap into fish. Not a bad trick and I left with free ciggies and a gleaming hunk of carved jade won in a Lucky Wedding Draw.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues

It was one of your basic "why do I ever whine?" moments.
I was outside Beijing Children's Hospital on a Friday goodwill mission with one of my Weird China team reporters, Jenny Song Shengxia. The sun was beginning to set and the grounds of China's largest and finest children's hospital were crowded with needy parents and sick children, some camping out on a patch of barely functioning grass in front of the hospital. Two small shops selling gaudy oversized Mylar balloons and other colorful geegaws supposed to raise the spirts of sick children were doing some business.

We were there to give a 1,000 yuan ($145) donation collected from some Global Times coworkers to a remarkable father in need.

Zhang Yonghong is a 36-year-old dwarf with paralyzed legs. But he's really not the needy one. It's his 1-year-old "glass bone" daughter, Tianyu, who suffers from a disease I'd never heard of before helming the Weird China page - Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI). OI is an incurable – but treatable – genetic disorder also sometimes known as Lobstein syndrome, in which sufferers have weak bones prone to breaking easily.

The dad, daughter and mother, a quietly beautiful shoeshine worker, traveled more than 1,000 kilometers from Xi'an to Beijing in their crude but effective homebuilt three wheeled mobile home that Zhang designed and set up with hand controls so he could steer and brake.

Jenny had written a story on him for the paper and his last ditch effort to find help for his daughter in Beijing, whom her mother was nursing as the father talked with us from the vehicle's small rear cab/bedroom. I sat in his wheelchair outside to get at eye level with the family as Jenny translated. Under the vehicle was the Zhang family's laundry in a plastic tub, a half full package of budget detergeant and a couple of cheap suitcases. Two tiny goldfish swam in a sealed small plastic globe -- something he'd probably bought for little Tianyu.

A crowd gathered as we talked - about 15 people, some just curious, others hoping to attract our attention for help. Zhang, who worked in Xi'an as a decorative paper cutter and - ironically - an amateur suicide and helpline counselor for people with fewer problems than he seemed to have -- said he hoped to stay in Beijing and find new work.

The Chinese mainland doesn't do well when it comes to its handicapped citizens. They're essentially invisible; a source of shame or naive curiousity, unlike Hong Kong where it's not uncommon to see blind people walking the streets and subways, families with a Down syndrome child and wheelchair navigators. The Beijing government pays lip service to the handicapped at appropriate times - such as when the Paralympic Games followed last year's Olympics.

And while celebrity gimps such as the son of late leader Deng Xiaopeng, Deng Pufang who was paralyzed from the waist down after being thrown out (or jumping) from a Peking University dorm room during the Cultural Revolution are wheeled out as shining examples, guys like Zhang are essentially nonpersons unless they make their own way.

I admired the way he'd rigged his little motorhome to drive and asked how he'd done it. He said he'd just "thought of it" and had built three others for some other partially paralyzed people who'd paid for the equipment and his labor. I asked about his driving license. He dodged the question. Handicapped people aren't licensed to drive in China, and he clearly didn't want to discuss how he'd driven so far without legal problems.

Meanwhile Jenny was also patiently listening to two different tales of woe from other parents with sick children. I told her maybe we could find some way to connect Zhang with someone in Beijing interested in making vehicles for guys like him, even if its illegal for them to drive. She translated again and his face lit up. I don't know if that's going even be a starter - but it was an idea he liked and could hang on to for awhile.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Four dead in Ohio (and a few hundred more in Tiananmen)




If you're reading this - all 3.7 of you - you're probably doing so from outside China where blogspot and blogger once again have offended what Danwei.org calls the "Net Nanny" and have been blocked. Cut and paste www.danwei.org and go to "Blogger.com blocked, but not the Washington Post" for a more succinct explanation.

I'm using a proxy server to post - not unusual - and to access other blocked sites, some of which such as YouTube have been in the black for a couple months now. (I can get my subversive Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Daily Show fixes!) The "word on the street" (i.e. rumor, expat logic plus past experience), says Beijing is blocking sites and will block more due to jitters over the 20th anniversary of June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre as well as the country's 60th anniversary founding on October 1. Look for relief after October 1? We'll see.

In the meantime, our paper - State owned as it is - has said internally that it is considering running "something" on June 4. That would be very unusual. Plus or minus, any mention would be almost revolutionary as the date usually passes without note - part of what another journalist has aptly termed China's called "collective amnesia" regarding the bloodshed.

An example. A British coworker has a wallpaper pic on his office PC of Tank Man, the picture of the lone, unknown Chinese citizen holding nothing more than two shopping bags as he stands off a PLA tank. It's arguably the most famous late 20th century photo of China - outside of China. But it draws no notice by Chinese colleagues, 99.9 percent of whom have never seen it and there's no context, nothing specifically "Chinese" about it viewed on its own. And it's not as if it's "banned" here. If I type "Tank Man" into Google images, I get a fair amount of them. But there's a cultural and educational gap that, as much as pro-democracy types both inside and outside of here would like to smooth over in terms of "if they see it they will understand" logic that just doesn't jell. If our image is of Tank Man, the one they remember is what they've seen in the classes that touch briefly on the subject - a picture and brief film footage of a PLA soldier on fire as he struggles from a tank torched by protestors' Molotov cocktails. Different tank men.

Another UK journalist friend here less than a year summed it up. We spoke yesterday after he'd interviewed journalism students at China's most prestigious university, Peking University, about June 4. He was puzzled that they didn't care and didn't seem to want to know anymore than what little they did. No reason why they should, really. They're the post-'89 generation, their education has been regimented and they owe their positions as students at PKU through privilege and some talent at memorizing test answers and lmost of all ook forward to careers through the same outlets despite China's climbing unemployment figures. They're gonna risk it by crying over June 4 to to a foreign journalist? Not likely.

In the meantime, here is a repeat of a column I wrote in Hong Kong about the same syndrome, four years ago. Not much has changed.

Except for what Associated Press called ''tightened security'' around Tiananmen Square, the 16th anniversary of the massacre of course passed unnoticed last Saturday on the mainland. In Shenzhen the sky was spitting intermintent bursts of acid rain – an appropriately gloomy mode if one was seriously contemplating June 4, 1989.

I had managed though, to cobble together a minor memorial of sorts in the form of a thoroughly unscientific poll and guarded discussion at a congee restaurant with four young English speaking Shenzhen professionals. They were all 13-to- 15-years-old when the June 4 Movment bloomed and burned. Just a little older than I was when John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and a tad younger than I on May 4, 1970 when four American students were slain by Ohio National Guard troops at an anti-Vietnam protest at Kent State University.

''Four dead in Ohio,'' sang Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in what was possibly the last true American folk song hearkening back to the original spirit of tunes as breaking news. It was written, recorded and released to radio – and, shades of China, banned by some stations – within three weeks of Kent State.
Comparisons between May 4 and June 4 however are admittedly a stretch at best. Possibly thousands, including soldiers, died on June 4 and unlike Kent State no galvanizing protest song or photo of a 14-year-old runaway girl, arms outstretched and keening over the dead body of student Jeffery Miller was allowed to sear the tragedy into the national consciousness.

But there is the Tiananmen Tank Man photo. One of Time Magazine's Top 100 photographs of the 20th century, but not even bubbling under the Top 200 in the PRC, the last century or this. That's where I began the discussion after some nervous jokes by them about making sure our dining area wasn't bugged and that I wasn't recruiting for the Falun Gong.

''No one is very comfortable talking about this,'' said Sally (a psuedonym, as are all the names), a 27-year-old sales manager for a Sino-US joint venture company. The others, two women and a man, nodded.
I described man vs tank photo and asked if any of them had seen it.
"Maybe," said Louis, 30, a telecom engineer. "I am not clear about it. I have seen so many world-shaking photographs.''

Li, 30, a project manager who has lived in Shenzhen for seven years, was equally vague. "I am not sure."
Sally had seen it but shrugged it off as '' interesting.''
Dani, 29, was the only one who had traveled extensively outside China, including a year in Boston. "I know that picture. It is very powerful. I also watched a VCD in the US called Tiananmen. I know now that the government hasn't told the full truth because they want to cover up their crime.''
Would it surprise any of you that the man and tank picture is one of the most famous photographs of China ? More foreigners know it than they do Deng Xiaopeng.

''I am not surprised even if I don't think I know it,'' said Li. She was pragmatic. "It's like we know more about pictures of the Statue of Liberty than George Bush.''

So does June 4 have any meaning for you?

''Absolutely. It has a profound meaning. It let us know how corrupt the goverment is,'' said Dani.
Others disagreed.
"I think it was the price of trying to explore a new success. But we need to forget the past and be a bright future," said Louis.

Li, like the others, did remember radio and TV accounts at the time but still found it hard to understand what, exactly, the demonstrations were about.

''I didn't understand it then or even now. Why did the students have to bleed and parade and how come so many PLA were killed? What were they trying to fight for? I still don't understand or want to know, really.''

Sally had mixed feelings. ''The students used their blood to educate people, to try and encourage other students to do more democratic demonstrations. But after it was all over the fact that people who were there weren't able to get good jobs scared other people. I used to teach English to an older man when I was in college. He told me he couldn't find a good job in China because he joined that movement. He had to immigrate to Canada.''

It was at about that point that I thought back to a conversation I'd had with Annie, a Chinese ex-coworker of mine in Shenzhen who had been at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, though as an observer, not as a demonstrator.
From her perspective it sounded like the demonstrations were - until the soldiers began slaughtering the students - more of an excuse to party, with calls for democracy almost an afterthought.

"I left just before the trouble," she said. "My friend did not feel well and I went back to our university with her. "
But why did you go to begin with?
"I am curious about many things. I like to watch and listen. It is why I like being a reporter. I went just to watch. There were no classes, everyone was there. It was also very romantic ... is that the right word?" She laughed self-consciously.
I don't know. What do you mean, 'romantic?'
What Annie described was the frisson familiar to anyone who has spent an extended, intense period of time in a hot house environment with others bent on the same mission, whether it's producing a play, working overtime at the office or trying to overthrow a government.

"Many students fell in love there. They got engaged there. Some shouted to get married right there." She laughed again. "Some of us said these romances would not last. None did."

Did you see the Statue of Liberty?, I asked referring to the homemade, crude replica that the students had constructed.

"Of course. It was a little ugly, do you think?"

I laughed and said I liked the spirit, I said. Any American who saw it understood and applauded the spirit.

"Of course. It was very symbolic."

She seemed lost in thought then she said: "The day after the deaths, it was so quiet on our campus. No one talked. We knew something terrible had happened but no details. Silence everywhere. Empty classrooms, empty rooms, empty canteenl. No one could talk about what happened. I rode my bicycle to Beijing University because I wanted to see what it was like there. It was quiet, too. I looked up at some windows and I saw new white flowers. White flowers at windows and balconies. Do you know what that means?"

No, I don't.

"White is our color for death."

I briefly described Annie's experience to the four and they were vaguely interested, though unimpressed. She must have had good connections to have her present job was the consensus. What all but Dani agreed on was that June 4, 1989 was China's business, not the outside world's.

"It is all the people's business,'' she said, looking a little embarrassed at being the odd-person out. ''I will tell my children about it. The full truth.''

''It is only our business, China's business,'' said Louis. "I would not tell my children because I don't know the full truth. It is well known that the full truth of history is often not easy to know. So perhaps it is better to say nothing than to be wrong.''

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It's Showtime!




The April 20 debut of my newest wagemaster, Global Times was, in a word, anti-climatic or even underwhelming - though not without a lighter side or two.

Some members of the foreign staff, including me, got last-minute invites to the paper's official "launching reception" in a Sheraton hotel ballroom where 200 mostly Chinese Commie Party VIPS mingled with a sprinkling of embassy staffers drawn largely from some of the "..stan" countries and other powers such as Albania and the Maldives. Entertainment included a dozen female drummers and a lip-syched Peking Opera performance combined with lithesome, highly choreographed dancing girls whom I mistook for professionals until I was told by a Chinese reporter that they were all also reporters from the Chinese language Global Times.

"What? No way! How much overtime did they put in to learn that routine?" I asked. "They're beautiful, but it's not exactly what they went to university to do, I imagine."

"They were not paid overtime for that," he told me. "They 'volunteered.'"

I tried to imagine the outrage of reporters I'd known in Colorado if they'd been asked to 'volunteer' to be dancing girls for a company gala and winced at the thought.

Unintentional entertainment also came in the form of the taped intro music for the Major Commie Party Hoodoo Guru Editor of People's Daily, our editorial mothership. The strains of what I swear was a remix of '70s TV show themes began that morphed The Love Boat with what sounded like the Starsky & Hutch theme, or maybe a porn flick - lotsa cheesy wah-wah pedal effects - and brought him to the speaker's podium.

The next morning I began getting e-mails that added to the excitment from pals in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Beijing saying they'd seen me on national China TV news in a puff piece about the new GT.

A savvy American coworker found a link on the Sinocized version of YouTube. I'm the myopic fat headed foreigners about 40 seconds into it. To view, cut and paste. The autolink function isn't working now. Enjoy.
http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XODYwMDc5NjA=.html

Photos by Bernice "The Bern Unit" Chen

Monday, April 13, 2009

Working for the Clampdown

Content restrictions and control at my new employer seem to be increasing the closer we get to launch date April 20, though it's really turned more into a game than anything serious.

There is a blanket edict that any stories on North Korea or Darfur will be "positive" - giving rise to some jokes among the foreign staff about travel features like "Pyongyang: Playground in Paradise!" or "Delightful Darfur! It's more than starving flyblown refugees!"

Over on the Weird China desk ("China Mosiac") where we continue to harvest stories of hero animals, witless whacky crooks and romances gone rotten, our assigned censor has been axing pithy items that portray "superstition" or "put China in a bad light," or are "disrespectful to leaders" (a sculpture made of Mao badges) though under the "disrespectful" mandate he was unsuccessful in killing a reference to Barack Obama's "schnozz." The mundane item was about a Chinese woman who'd had a botched nose job and was being teased by others who said it resembled Obama's.

The Yiddish baffled the censor, of course, and overall he was leery of appearing "disrespectful" of a world leader. I assured him that Obama makes jokes about his ears and I doubted he'd be offended if, in a one in a trillion chance, he happened to be reading a dummy copy of Global Times that referred to his schnozz. "The Jewish vote is crucial to his support," I said after explaining what Yiddish was.

The censor has also begun submitting his own stories and I've been able to do some quality control myself. I spiked two that were less than subtle attempts at portraying Taiwan as uniformly yearning to be embraced by Benevolent Beijing. But our attempt at changing the page's name from "China Mosaic" to something a little more lively was recently quashed.

"Weird China" is a non-starter, of course, but another foreigner had suggested, "This just in..." - not bad, I thought, and I lobbied for it. It was taken under advisement and after about 10 days I asked what had happened.

"It was turned down," one of my Weird China reporters confessed. "Not suitable."

"Why?" I asked. "They didn't get it? It's a journalism cliche, but appropriate for the page. It's no prize winner but better than China Mosaic." She was silent and then sighed.

"They discussed it and finally think you are trying to promote yourself," she said quietly.

"What? How?" I couldn't see it at all.

She sighed again, paused, then cleared her throat. "'This just in.' Just-in. Justin."

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Cat Crept In


I saw the notice taped to a window of a coffee bar and sandwich shop in my neighborood, "Cat Needs a New Home" and thought, why not? It gets lonely sometimes in my latest neighborhood and C and I had had some fun a few years ago with a white female stray we'd adopted in Shenzhen and named Gato.

This one is "Figo," an overweight orange short hair previously owned for six years by a Latvian woman, Marina, and her son, who'd named him after Luis Figo, a Portuguese soccer star I'd never heard of til meeting his feline namesake.

"Figo you do not know of?" Marina asked incredulously. I just shrugged and said, "I'm American" and let that suffice. Our general ignorance of and indifference to soccer is well known in expat communities where the game's international appeal otherwise brings nations together for riots, stampedes and white knuckle matches that end 0-0.

Marina's son is in college in Germany now and as a new vicitm of the world econoomic crisis and China's collapsed textile export market Marina has to leave China without Figo, who it became quickly clear is virtually more than a son to her. There's no real cat pet culture in China yet, but she took me to a small international veterinary clinic to finish a round of shots for him - the "Rolls Royce Premium package" as the clinic manager described it while getting all my particulars.

Marina also wanted Figo's ears examined, convinced as she was that they were infected. The vet found nothing but finally worn down with Marina's increasing level of hysteria ("So red!" she said loudly, pointing to Figo's healthy looking pink inner ear and scrutinizing a clean, puss-free Q-tip the vet had used to probe for an infection) the doc gave her a small tube of what looked benign topical cream and told her to swab it on twice a day with a Q-tip. Then came a stranger request.

"You can measure cat blood types?" asked Marina. The vet explained that, yes, cats have blood types but finding out what they are is a long and very pricy procedure. "I vant to know vhat blood type is Figo," Marina grumbled. "For to tell his personality!" Some in Japan, Korea and China believe a blood type is like an astrological sign and I guess Marina was hoping it applied to cats as well. She was not only a hypochondriac for her cat but a seer.

They parted Sunday night when I met her outside my apartment as she walked lowslung and mournfully with her collection of cat gear and Figo zipped up in an oversized cloth satchel. She looked like an Eastern Europoean refugee and was weeping.

"I feel I have betrayed him!" she told me between sniffles. I felt genuinely bad for her and a Chinese friend with me simply looked very puzzled. ("It is only a cat," he told me later. "A very nice cat. But not a child.")

"It will be okay," I told Marina, patting her on her broad back - while thinking, "it's not like you're putting him on a cattle car to Auschwitiz or a restaurant in Guangzhou..."

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Celluloid Heroes




A Chinese English teacher I met recently had been asking if I'd be a "guest lecturer" for one of her morning university classes at the China's Central Academy of Drama.

"You can pick any topic," she said, "and talk for an hour or more." I'd done this before in Shenzhen and can barely talk for 5 minutes, much less an hour, about anything of interest. Previously I'd dodged the time line by rambling for 20 minutes or so and then asking for questions - a technique that never fails to fail here as students are taught specifically not to ask questions, though pleading and offering 20 yuan to the first questioner usually worked.

I floated the idea and she told me what I already knew. "They won't ask questions." But she offered to show me her school, from which many of mainland China's film stars and directors have graduated and added that "Julia Roberts will be coming to speak on Tuesday. Maybe you can attend too?"

Julia Roberts? Yeah? "You know, the big mouth movie star," she said. I knew, I knew and while never really a huge fan, the idea of crashing a talk by her in Beijing seemed intriguing. And, hell, I liked her in Erin Brockovich, Nodding Hill and her Tess Ocean role in Oceans 11 and 12, so yeah, sounded like a plan.

My first surprise was that the vaunted Central Academy of Drama was in a place I hang out frequently after hours and I'd never noticed. So much for my "trained observer" skills. It's in the middle of a popular tourist and Chinese yupster hutong (alleyway community) called Nonlou guxiang, otherwise chock full of small coffee/tea bars, mostly low key booze bars (including Beijing's smallest, a 12 square meter place aptly named "12sm")snack shops, clothing, ceramic and gift stores and some homegrown yoghurt stands.

I'd seen the academy, of course. It's hard to miss squatting comparitively large among the smaller buildings aand residential courtyards, but also gated and locked I'd assumed it was some minor bureaucratic tumor and not paid any interest.

We got there on an early Saturday afternoon, the teacher walked through a side entrance and suddenly we were inside. I'd imagined something grand - babe-olicious heartbreakers like Zhang Ziyi (Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha) and Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell my Concubine, Curse of the Golden Flower, Miami Vice (!)had trod these floors with their golden feet. And what floors they were. Dingy concrete, worn small classrooms, all cast in a feeble 20-watt glow. It looked like a very tired middle school. Photographs of famous alums were along the walls at eye level, none autographed and all looking as if they'd been taken by a bargain photog at a Sam's Club.

I looked in vain for pictures of Zhang Ziyi or Gong Li and then heard the teacher calling from around a corner. She wanted to show me the poster for Julia Roberts' appearance.

"See," she said, pointing. "Julia with the big mouth." She pointed to a Chinese character poster with several French movie titles and a picture of a woman with a large mouth named Juliette. French actress Juliette Binoche. Like Julia Roberts, she's won an Academy Award (English Patient)and they probably could swap dental records, but ... no.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

It's a family affair

Scene: 10.30 am news meeting to determine possible stories for the next day. Although it isn't a true paper yet, we're running the newsroom as if it was - sort of like a haphazard community theater dress rehearsal that never ends.

International news team leader Li reads from a usual list of suspects..."China launches economic zone in Egypt, Yao Ming wax figure in Mdm Tussands in NYC, NATO to send 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, Frtizl incest verdict and (pause, beat) we're planning a full page related to that called 'Incest Around the World.'

Chinese team leaders nod approvingly while I almost spew bottled lemon green Nestea Ice Rush outta my nose. "Uh, wait a minute. Please. An entire PAGE devoted to what? 'Incest Around the World?"

Li: "Yes, we have found four other international cases. Very interesting. Germany, Australia, UK and South Korea." He hands me a two page printout labeled "Incest Around the World" where, sure enough, our intrepid international team has harvested four cases ranging from what one might generously call "accidental" (siblings didn't know they were related); "consensual" (father-adult daughter; siblings); to unspeakably vile (retarded girl raped by three uncles and 87-year-old grandfather.) And all neatly divided by country (map graphics too!), relationship and "background."

One world, one dream, I think darkly. It's a small world after all...

"Mmmm, wait a minute," I say. "This is, er, uh, (falling into Chinglish-speak) how-to-say? tacky. No, worse. It's just simply tastless. Very bad taste."

"Bad taste?" responds a Chinese senior editor. "No. It is not bad taste. It is news. International news!"

I plead the case again and a Chinese former China Daily colleague begins to back me with the verdict finally falling in favor of universal bad taste.

Later, my son emails me after I've described it to him.

"I've always wanted to know about incest in countries other than my own," he replies. "Doesn't everyone?"

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Strange Days

Among my more enjoyable duties at this erratic work in progress newspaper (debut April 20) is a daily conference with two late 20something Chinese women responsible for a page with the working title "Weird China" - though that'll change.

The concept is simple and ripped from what will be the competition which has a popular page called China Scene, a collection of short offbeat stories culled from Chinese language papers and the Internet - many of dubious origin which involve freakish animals, wacky crooks, jilted lovers, medical oddities etc and some that are clearly urban myth.

"A naughty thief surnamed Liu in Guangdong was nabbed by police after his third foot got stuck in the window of a rare pets store where he was attempting to steal a minature unicorn for his bearded girlfriend who had dumped him ... " kinda sums it up. And with my previous work at Weekly World News behind me, I'm a natural.

The Weird China page editors, who I'll call X and Y, are almost painfully earnest about their mission and bring pages of notes and print outs in Chinese with candidate stories.

"What have we got today?" I asked yesterday.

"A cow," said X. "It jumped from the truck taking it to being killed for meat."

"Good for it," I said. "So what happened?"

"Authorities found it and shot it."

"Umm, no. No. Anything else?"

"Hero snake," Y said solemnly. Then she was silent, waiting expectantly for my verdict. X also looked hopeful. (Besides the cow story, I had recently killed several they thought were naturals, including one about a "man who was curious to see the gay person life. Then he meets the gay person who takes him to a hotel. He drink some wine and feel funny. Then he wake up and all his money is gone. He said he does not like the gay person life.")


"Okay. Hero snake," I replied. "That's good. Promising. What kind of snake? Where? Why is it a hero?"

"Hainan province." she replied. "It is very loyal and brave." Though the story reeked of myth - a boa that a man had rescued 11 years ago from a road injury has fought off burglars, rescued the man's son from a swift river current and returned 48 days to the man's home after he set it free because it was too big to feed ... A typical day for Lassie, sure. But a snake?

"I don't believe it," I told Y. She looked crestfallen. "But we'll run with it."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Learn from Lei Feng: Cap Your Rig


Yesterday, March 5 was a minor holiday in China - Lei Feng Day. The "Fengster" as the Danwei.org blog refers to him was an otherwise unremarkable soldier who was turned into a revolutionary icon of Maoist China for his supposed selfless devotion to the people. In his own words, the man who supposedly spent his free time studying the works of Chairman Mao and darning his own and other people's socks wanted to be nothing more than a selfless "revolutionary screw that never rusts."


He died not as a martyr or hero, but ingloriously when a truck accidently backed into a power pole that fell and crushed him at 22. Unknown to the western world, Lei Feng was, until Mao declared the "Learn from Lei Feng Campaign" on March 5, 1963, a nobody, a cheerful everyman and orphan who made the People's Liberation Army and the Communist Party his family, as recorded in books assembled after his death supposedly from his diary, statements and deeds – “After Liberation I Had a Home, My Mother was the Party” and “Bitter Recollections and Sweet Thoughts.”

Even in the bold new China of money and stock market IPOs, he continued to serve - as in a 2006 an online Lei Feng video game (players collected gold tokens for performing good deeds and darning socks in order to "visit" Chairman Mao) and a navel gazing Lei Feng blog in which he "wrote" about his own legend.

“In March of each year, lots of people start to study me. This kind of thing has gone on for years and years. Sometimes, when I'm helping other people, I'll unconsciously think to myself, ‘I'm learning from Lei Feng,’ and feel a sincere joy. Sometimes I'll forget that Lei Feng is really me. Me, learning from an even higher me. Sometimes this problem baffles me.”

So it baffled me a bit when coworkers gave me a "What the hey?" looks when I wished them "Happy Lei Feng day". Most laughed. The Fengster, who fascinates me - I've got a kitschy poster in my bedroom, Barry White would be proud - is a joke to most who grew up on his legend in primary school. In fact, children are supposed to observe Lei Feng Day by helping old people across the streets. A recent Chinese language news item told of a delegate to the current gathering of the annual government rubberstamp legislature who wants the Fengster declared as a "national heritage" by the United Nations and is under the deluded belief that he's so revered that his portrait even hangs in West Point to inspire cadets. As if we didn't have enough of our own hero soldiers, few of whom were slain by power poles.

"Oh, you know so much about Chinese culture," one coworker said politely when I did the Lei Feng day greeting. I assured him that what I know about Chinese culture could be stuffed in one of their tiny tea cups with room for a family of six. "But why are you interested in Lei Feng?"

Part of it is his kitsch value, no question. Typically pictured in his winter issue PLA floppy ear flaps hat, he is presented as a cross between a Boy Scout and Mother Teresa. And there are reoccuring attempts to modernize him - both offcially and otherwise as was done by a Shanghai novelty company in 2006 that was selling "Learn from Lei Feng" condoms. It should be noted that Lei Feng died a virgin. At least that's the official line. And his condoms were pulled from the market following objections originally spurred by an outraged mother who found a tin of them along with an "Official Horndog" certificate in her teenage son's school backpack.

I interviewed the company's spokesman (courtesy of C's translating skills) for a story I wrote at the time for Asia Sentinel and when pressed about the logic of using Lei Feng's virginal visage to sell rubbers, he had a prompt reply. "Lei Feng would have supported safe sexual conduct and responsible family planning, I believe. And our condoms are stronger than his socks. He would not need to repair them."

Image courtesy of Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Pubic" enemy gets fair 'warming'

Yesterday afternoon I received this e-mail.

Subject: To warm you Monday, February 23, 2009 10:48 PM
From: "Wang Xie"
To: XXXXX (me)

Michel,

This to notice you that your name has been flied with China Pubic Secreitry Bureau to watch for blog.

Regards,
Wang


Presumably, it's from the same scrotum-breath troll featured previously. But I gotta hand it to him. The Chinglish is flawless, including "Michel" for Mitchell and "Pubic" for "Public." But as a pal more versed in China, blogging, trolls et al than I noted when I forwarded it to him for amusement and scrutiny replied: "(It's) a troll who's ... typing Chinglish one-handed because his "Pubic Security Bureau" is busy keeping his microdick locked down. Don't take it personally -- his email address suggests he does a lot of trolling of this type."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bombs Away, Dreambabies


It was one of those "only in China" moments. I had been invited by a senior editor for a Feb 8 Sunday afternoon and evening "New Year firecracker viewing" with his wife, 10-year old son and some of his pals who included two he described as a "China Supreme Court justice" and "head of the China Press Association" (I took the titles as loose translations, though who knows?) to Zhuo Zhuo, a small town about an hour outside of metropolitan Beijing.

After a lot of mao tai (Chinese rocket fuel) toasts and food with the deputy mayor and his entourage, we piled into various vehicles in a ramshackle caravan and police escort that lead through most of Zhuo Zhuo's blighted areas - a large aluminum factory that seems (or seemed, it appeared to be shut down, but possibly on hiatus) to be the town's main industry, to a large open field. It was pitch black as we pulled over to the side of the road and our hosts began unloading many crates of high octane fireworks.

I'm not really a pyrotechnic freak and after a month of near-Baghdad/Beirut combat night shellings in Beijing (the worst was to come with the New Year burning of the new CCTV hotel/convention annex) all in the name of "traditional Chinese New Year" fun, I had been getting weary (and growing deaf) amid the revelery. But as I watched and dodged the rockets and low-end mortar shells for awhile on the roadside perhaps it was the mao tai in me, but I got into the spirit and began pulling bricks of small ariel shells out of the boxes, tearing the wrappers off like a kid at Christmas and lighting multiple fuses.

I tossed one brick like a grenade into field, then quickly stumbled back as the shells went whistling horizontally at me and the others. One of our hosts pulled me aside and said something in Chinese. My editor translated: "Don't throw them! Stand them up!" Okay, okay. Sorry, sorry...

The fire fun continued however to the point that me and the man identified as the Supreme Court justice and I were good naturedly squabbling over the remaining brick o' explosives about 10-minutes later. I diplomatically surrendered it, handed him my lighter and mused briefly imagining tussling with the likes of John Roberts, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas or maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg over a remaining fistfull of M-80s in a vacant lot in a depressed Pennsylvania factory town on July 4 ... as his Chinese honor lit the fuse and the rockets screamed.

(Note to faithful readers, all 3.4 of you. It is with sincere regret that I've switched the comments to pre-approval mode. It grates on me as a supposed advocate of free speech and all that, but recent contributions by an anonymous troll or two have forced the change. I continue to accept constructive brickbats and corrections (Jaxxson, you reading this?) but nothing from malformed stalkers.)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Holiday in Cambodia


There are two older Chinese retired journalists working here temporarily as writing and reporting coaches, in addition to my rapidly aging American self. Pleasant, quiet gentlemen fluent in English and, until yesterday, both were otherwise a mystery to me.

The younger of the pair wandered into my office late in the afternoon and began chatting, asking me where I was from in the US and after about 8 minutes of me explaining where Colorado is and that, no, it's not near the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas, he told me he'd had two journalistic highlights in his career. One was a month spent as a guest columnist at a small Washington state newspaper in the late 1980s where some curious residents asked him questions like "Do Chinese men still wear pig tails and women bind their feet?" He laughed. "I am still in contact with some of them now. Some have even visited me here and discovered there are no more pig tails and women have normal feet."

The other high (or low)light was a month spent in the Cambodian jungle in the '80s profiling Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I gaped. It was like meeting someone who'd hung out with Hitler ... or Mao.

"Pol Pot? You MET Pol Pot? A month in the jungle with POL POT?" He nodded and went on to say that his story had been killed by authorities upon his return as "too sensitive" as he'd also reported on the Killing Fields.

He descibed Pol Pot as "normal sounding, even pleasant" and grimaced a little before making mention of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" phrase. I urged him to find his old piece or notes and write it again but he demurred, saying they had all been lost and then apologized saying he had to leave for another reporter training session.

One way ticket to China: $576.00

Taxi fare to work: 23 yuan

Working for the Communist Man: My soul

Meeting an unassuming elderly temporary coworker who spent a month with one of the 20th century's most notorious butchers: Priceless

Pol Pot image from Ksilks.com

Monday, February 2, 2009

Old Brown Shoe

I've recently begun a new adventure as the first foreigner hired for a new State-owned English language paper in Beijing - something of a mixed blessing.

Its Chinese language version is somewhat nationalistic, some would say jingoistic,and the parent company and publication, People's Daily, makes Fox News look like National Public Radio when it comes to, er, flag waving. Nonetheless I've been assured my new Commie Overlords are serious about giving China Daily a run for its formulaic, stale and hidebound State money and realize the way to get some foreign readership and serous journalistic respect is not to always completely bend over and beg for more, sir.

I've also never worked for a start-up paper of any ilk and four days into it I'm certainly not regretting it. We've already had a little test of how much the proverbial editorial envelope might be pushed and so far, so good. Currently I'm helping train about 60 young, mostly green reporter candidates in the mysteries and vagaries of western journalism and one of the training exercises has been having them write stories on deadline based on what they can find in the Chinese language press and online western sites.

Two recent assignments included bong-sucking Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and an overview of Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao's recent visit to the UK, which ended on a somewhat undignified note with a protester at Cambridge heaving a shoe at Wen as he was giving a speech. Shades of Dubya, of course. I asked my Chinese editors if the shoe heaving had been mentioned in the Chinese media and my question was met with a throat clearing and an embarrassed half smile. Which is Chinese for "no, not really."

"George Bush gets two shoes thrown at him and it's all over the place here," I said, not believing that I was suddenly getting my latent red, white and blue pride up. "Fair play at least for these exercises, okay?"

They agreed and the next day brought two surprises. Chinese media had finally reported - albeit cautiously - the shoe throwing and my trainees had brought in mixed results with their reports. A few had led with it as western media had done and others had submitted stories that barely mentioned it at all, burying it at the end with a brief mention.

Later I discussed the whole affair with seven of them, with one young woman in particular who was still puzzled about the differences. Her report had erred on the side of near-omission but she was truly eager to know "which system is better." She said the Chinese government style was needed in order to stem any social unrest. I replied that things seemed to be leaning now towards adapting a more open approach and asked what harm had been done in reporting it. "There was no unrest. If anything Premiere Wen came out of it respectfully."

"Is it necessary to report it though?" she asked.

"It was all over your Internet also," I said. "People were angry. Chinese students at the talk in Cambridge had yelled 'Shame on you' at the protester. China would have looked silly not acknowleding that it happened. It's no secret. No State secret." She still looked slightly uncomfortable but agreed I had a point she hadn't considered.

I brought up the Dubya example again and mentioned an online game some Chinese netizens had created where players could rack up points throwing shoes at Bush. She and the others smiled. I did too remembering how I'd only scored a few points when trying it.

"No Prime Minister Wen online games, I know, and that's alright. But now the shoe is on the other foot," I said. "It's a Western saying."

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Military Madness

I watched the "changing of the walkie-talkies" for the last time at China Daily today. On February 1 I report to my new "danwei" {work unit) where the guards have real guns, not walkies-talkies.

One of the first sights that greeted me when I first reported to work 11 months ago was a quasi-military garbed security guard* (see comment by Jaxxson below) at the gated entrance standing like a Buckingham Palace guard in a visored cap that made him look like a 3rd world generalissimo. (In winter they switch to black furry Russian style headgear) I've worked at one other paper on the Chinese mainland, one in Hong Kong, a brief stint a Voice of America in Hong Kong and six papers in the US - while about half had security guards, none had soliders. About 40 yards from PLA guard No 1 was his counterpart standing at the door. Both had ramrods-up-their-spine postures and stared blankly straight ahead, but I quickly figured out that they weren't as trained as the UK counterparts when I saluted the gate guard and he cracked a smile.

Closer inspection showed too that these are likely 19-20 year olds, probably fresh off some rural farming area and eager to make a break to the big city. They shove each other and giggle while walking in line their camo fatigues carrying basins of dirty laundry to and from their barracks inside the China Daily building.

Another light relief at China Daily was at 10am and 4pm when the guards changed; marching in lock-step to salute and formally hand off, not or rifles or pistols, but walkie-talkies.

At other designated times inside this bastion of liberty and information, pairs march precisely down the halls in white combat helmets and clipboards to ensure lights are on or off and that most exits, including fire exits, are locked.

"Helmets? Why do they need helmets to check doors?" another foreign worker asked me as we watched them solemnly and crisply make their appointed rounds.

"I'm wondering why they need to lock the fire exits in formation," I replied. "We have one open exit on the first floor. One exit to the stairs per floor and all others are locked on all six floors. No sprinklers anywhere. It's a death trap in a fire."

"Communism," he chuckled. "One dies, we all die together."

It's cute and odd and also initially a little chilling to work in a quasi military newspaper environment as an American civilian, but ulimately it becomes normal. None of the Chinese coworkers see it as strange, of course.

Then I paid a visit to my next newspaper here and noted that the compound it's in is a quasi-fortress, the size of a small Nevada, Wyoming or New Mexico town. A seige mentality. Completely surrounded by blocks and blocks of wall and guarded at all four north, south, east, west gates by soldiers with - not walkie talkies - but pistols. My "handler" as I refer to the woman who recruited me and guides me in and out of the compound found my observation rather boring but expressed surprise that China Daily's guards aren't armed.

"What if there is trouble?" she asked.

"From who? What?" I asked. "Angry readers? Not allowed. All China Daily readers are happy!"

I talked with her later about the differences between how China views its military and the US. While it's a given that US citizen support the troops, there's also always a line between the two worlds - civilian and military. In China military singers and dancers are routinely a part of many variety shows and one of the most popular female singers for the middle aged and older generations is a woman named Song Zuying who routinely dresses in a naval officer's uniform bedecked with ribbons as testimony to her former service with the Chinese People's Liberation Army Naval Political Department Sing and Dance Troupe.

Song is also widely rumored to have served her country as mistress to ex-president Jiang Zemin. As my handler and I dished about Song and the former prez I asked, "Where did she win all those ribbons and medals? She never saw any military action."

She giggled and covered her mouth with her hand momentarily. "For action in President Jiang's bed, of course."

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Meet the Beatles

"And who is this?" The question came from Dorothy, a 40something Chinese woman I've become pals with after she helped me with a communication problem at the Beijing airport a few months ago. She was at my apartment scrutinizing my coffee table swamp of CDs, DVDs, books, New Yorkers, empty beer cans, dirty cups and used dental floss. After examining CDs by Nirvana, Metallica, PJ Harvey and an old kickass Boulder bluegrass group, Town and Country Review, Dorothy focused on the Beatles' Revolver.

"Beatles, you know - the band? Rock and roll. English band?" I said. "Very famous." She looked a little puzzled. I pointed to a framed photo on my wall of me interviewing Yoko Ono in Denver circa late '80s. "Her? You know her. Yoko Ono. She was his..." I pointed to the John drawing on Revolver, "Japanese wife."

"Oh!" she said. "I know. So sad. Yes, he is dead, yes?."

"Yeah, unfortunately. But this was the band he was in before." Then she made the connection, (apparently the phonetic translation of Beatles in Chinese means "messy hair", though I'm not gonna swear to that) and asked me to play the disc. John, Paul, George and Ringo aren't exactly well-known here as many of their potential audience would've been trying to make revolution as Red Guards rather than singing it at the time. And the Beatles were decidedly not among the first western pop artists officially sanctioned in China - John Denver and the Carpenters have that honor.

I can't remember the last time I turned someone on to the Beatles, other than my son when he was about 4 and even then he preferred George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone, the Byrds' Chestnut Mare and Mr Tambourine Man and Aretha Franklin's Respect over virtually anything by the Fabs. (Last summer a 22-year old American intern informed me that he'd "recently decided that the Beatles were actually pretty good" - a remark which had me supressing the urge to tear his lungs out through his sphincter.)

Listening to Revolver's 14 tracks - long since taken for granted - with a novice was almost like hearing it the first time in 1966 at my friend Chris's home on Columbine street in Boulder. Ehh, well, maybe not that great but hearing it through her ears and what she was picking up on was very fresh.

Song by song - Taxman through Tomorrow Never Knows - she was praising harmonies, solo vocals, instruments and themes (I'm Only Sleeping, Good Day Sunshine, Got to Get You Into My Life, Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, And Your Bird Can Sing in particular) and asked me if she could borrow it to copy, along with the sleeve. "That's John, that's Ringo, Paul, that's George..."

She left my place clutching Revolver and singing Good Day Sunshine kinda off key but with some decided verve, even though it was dark and about 9-degrees Farenheit. Maybe time we'll take a drive on Abby Road.

Image from boingboing.net

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Change

Change often comes suddenly and without notice, questions or explanation here. In my first few months in Shenzhen I lost my bank. One week it was there, the next no trace, only a sealed over enormous cement slab where it had been. It took me about a week to find that it had relocated about three blocks away. Perhaps a notice had been posted in Chinese. And maybe none at all. The latter is as likely as the former I've long sinced learned.

About five months after coming to Beijing I had some midnight noodles and a tepid beer in a barely lit, grubby 24 hour noodle shop across from my apartment. It was part of a small group of private businesses, among them a small fruit, produce and tobacco shop, a pirate DVD setup, a ramshackle barbecue stand, and a liquor store where a 14- or 15-year-old daughter of the owner used to take some glee from uncorking the occasional bottle of cheap Chinese red plonk for me because I lacked a corkscrew at home and could never seem to find one to buy. I'd make an exaggerated "plop!" sound when the cork sprang free and she'd giggle - a small pleasure for us both. The noodle shop had no real appeal other than 24 hour service but it was cheap and reliable. About 13 hours after finishing my last noodle meal, I emerged from my apartment and looked across the street to find it was all gone; as if a noiseless bomb had decimated the block. No noodle shop, no liquor store, no fruit or barbecue, no 14-year-old wine steward. She'd been replaced with strange migrant workers gutting the buildings.

The day after Thanksgiving I received an email notice from what passes for my employer's Human Resources office telling me that my contract, which expires in February, would not be renewed. The explanation - a steaming heap o' dung about reallocating resources despite my "valuable contributions" to China Daily etc - made no sense from my point of view. I'd been a near-model worker. Versatile, on time, met deadlines, minimal tantrums, eager to help out and had been asked to give writing and reporting seminars on my own time, something I enjoyed.

When I protested politely I was told that the decision was final. A "Committee" composed of no one I'd heard of except one Indian editorial lickspittle stooge called "Master R---" by his Chinese handlers had decided my fate. None of "The Committee" were my editors, supervisors or had any first hand knowledge of my work. The decision was final. Kafka came to mind but the HR woman hadn't heard of him and seemed surprised that I would question The Committee's decision.

In past weeks two Chinese reporters sitting near me have disappeared with no notice. One day there, the next gone. Had The Committee decided their fate? Were my job woes viral? No one was saying. It was as if a Chinese Scotty had beamed them up or they'd been suddenly dispatched to the countryside to feed pigs or be fed to them. I finally ran into one in the elevator and asked her where she had gone and why. She named a department in the building unconnected to her journalism degree and interests and shrugged when I asked her why. I still have no idea where the other has gone.

Though sudden, the changes have not been all bad. The noodle shop was replaced by a 7-Eleven which in a glorious holiday miracle, opened for business on Christmas Day. Say what you will about the evils of sterile corporate globalization, I'll take a spacious, clean, brightly-lit 24-hour fresh sushi, fruit, beer, saki, broiled chicken, dumplings, toilet paper, razor blades place any day over the cramped, 40-watt, tepid beer and cigarette butts-on-the-floor alternative. Though I still miss the teenage oenophile.

And I have a new gig pending helping launch a new English language paper in Beijing. I'm the first barbarian my soon-to-be employers have ever hired. Kind of a Marco Polo of 21st century Chinese journalism ... well, yes, I exaggerate. Let's just say it could be the beginning of a great adventure or blow up suddenly with no explanation. Just ask The Committee.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


The Party's Over
As I was finishing draining today's Chinglish swamp of sentences such as "The evening was characterized by vibrant atmosphere ventilating godlike excitement as guests enjoy the coming of friends" (describing not an orgy but a charity dinner) when my cell phone rang.

I noted it was C in Shenzhen, said a cheery "hello dear!" and was greeted with her deadpan question: "Do you want to quit the Communist Party?"

"Uh, well, I kinda work for them but I'm actually not a member," I replied before quoting Marx (Groucho, not Karl): "And I wouldn't join any club that would have me." She laughed and then repeated it solemnly. "What's that about?" I asked.

She'd just received a long recorded spam spiel on her phone in Chinese that opened with the question and then went on to describe what she described "all the horrible things the Party has done" before instructing the listener. "If you want to quit the Communist Party, punch 4. If you want to quit the Communist Youth League, punch 3. If you want to quit the Young Pioneers, punch 2."

C's a long-lapsed Party member, but is no fool either and hung up. Me, I was real curious and probably would've punched 2 because I was burning to know why 6- to- 10-year-olds (Young Pioneers) would be also targeted. The call was long distance and probably originated with a Fal*n g*ng group in Hong Kong or Taiwan - the *F*L*G* (sorry about the asterisks folks, a weak attempt to throw off Party Internet spybots, even a whispered mention of said cult is a Huge No-No here)and like all Chinese mobile phone users her name is registered with her number so while listening was no harm, showing interest would be inviting trouble and a possible visit from authorities.

"C'mon," I teased. "Weren't you curious? 'Punch 2 to quit Young Pioneers'! Punch 3 to quit Girl Scouts! 'Punch 4 to quit Hitler Youth!' I love it. C'mon!"

"Maybe a little," she laughed, "but not that stupid curious."

(Image from Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages. "Paying Tribute to the Uncles of the People's Liberation Army" 1965)