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 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