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.

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..."