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 calls the "Net Nanny" and have been blocked. Cut and paste and go to " 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.''