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

Thursday, January 8, 2009


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)