Saturday, December 31, 2005

Matrix Sucks

I’ve been pitching an idea for a documentary series on Olympics lately (I know I know – all talk, no action). The idea is to follow eight Beijing individuals in the last two years of Beijing’s preparation for the 2008 Olympics.

I thought this would be totally PG. No discussion of politics. No criticism of the government. No prostitute, or AIDS patient, or displaced migrant worker. Just 8 simple individuals as their lives are being impacted by China’s whirlwind development, and Beijing’s frenzied buildup for the Olympics.

I sent a Chinese synopsis to a Chinese production company. The general manager liked the idea. But he’s very concerned with words in my synopsis like “impact” and “reflection (反思)”. “That sounds too political. Can you change them?” He asked.

I sent the full proposal in English to another production company under the State Council Information Office, an organization under the Ministry of Publicity (originally Ministry of Propaganda). A week later I called the producer back. Her verdict? “It’s too political.” Beat. “Your proposal sounded like those from the West.” She added.

I scratched my head to figure out what’s political about my proposal. Is it the “It will explore the complex social and cultural changes brought by China’s rapid development”, “the series will encourage the viewers to draw their own conclusions on China’s rise as a new economic and political power”, or “the filmmaker intends to present the complex economic and cultural realities in China”?

If the word “reflection” by itself raises alarm, if any discussion of the status quo is considered political, then honestly I don’t know what’s so great about having thousands of billionaires and millions of cars on the road (I know I know, people need to be fed).

I recently had coffee with an artist friend of mine who went to the US, became quite successful and came back to China to PLAY art. Over coffee, he looked at me thoughtfully and said,

“I think life is like the matrix in that movie. We all play only small parts. People can get out of the matrix after having satisfied two conditions – first, they have to have reached somewhere in that matrix, like you and me, then something has to happen to take all of that away, make us question the matrix. Only then can we leave it and be free. Meanwhile we can still come in and out of the matrix, play with it and enjoy our freedom at the same time.”

I looked at him and thought – you are simply trying to rationalize your existence with that over-used metaphor. Me? I’m stuck with my matrix and it sucks.

Lauren Hill rules over Keanu Reeves, any day.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

To Receive Tip Is Glorious

Since Deng famously declared that “to get rich is glorious”, the only money that my Chinese compatriots still refuse to take seems to be service tip, which is bizarre because first, it’s completely legit, and secondly, it does not hurt anybody in any conceivable way.

When I first moved back to China in the summer of 2004, I was constantly intrigued by the military-style training of restaurant staffs. Depending on the restaurant, the training might happen in the morning or afternoon, or both, and would consist of some form of group exercise and a pep talk by the manager on duty. The manager would urge the staffs to do better and admonish those who lagged in performance. Those chided would blush and stare emptily at the wall, or a clock, or the manager’s tie.

I found the scene intriguing since it brought back some not so fond memories of attending schools in China and receiving paramilitary training in university. I had got used to rude American waiters and still feeling culturally pressured to pay them 15% tip. Thus I often wondered out loud why the restaurants would subject poor staffs, who get paid very low wages, to such undignified treatment, often in public view.

My Chinese friends would explain that this being China, the staffs were mostly from the countryside and often lacked proper manners. They had to be scolded straight.

Still, why not encourage customers to tip them? In a market economy, shouldn’t we promote money as the ultimate motivator of good, or just market-acceptable, behavior?

So I insist on tipping whenever I feel like it.

Most restaurants would not run after me if my friends and I left some small change on the table after dinner. But if I explicitly stated that I would like to leave a tip for their good service, almost all the time the waiter would just blush (or giggle) and push back the change.

One day in a local Xinjiang restaurant, I asked the Hui waitress if their boss forbad them from taking tips. She lowered her head to her chest like a school girl in front of her teacher, and mumbled something like “we are happy to service our customers”. But her eyes kept on looking back towards a fashionably dressed woman whom I took to be the owner or manager of the restaurant.

Another day I tried to tip the delivery boy from Jenny Lou, Beijing’s answer to Trader Joe’s. It took 5 minutes (ok I’m exaggerating) of pushing hands, Taichi style, before he finally accepted my 10 kuai.

So it was refreshing, two days ago, to find at an upscale restaurant chain serving over-priced Sichuan food and boasting interior design by a famous European designer that they automatically add 10% service charge to the bill. It was especially refreshing since my banker friend was footing the bill. When the waitress took my friend’s credit card, I asked, for no particular reason, “the wait staff will get this service charge, right?”

No, she said, it would be added to the revenue of the night. The staff got nothing.

As an ex-capitalist-in-training, I’m all for free market economy under a healthy legal system. But in current-day China, I feel there exists this pretense of serving the people, Lei Feng style, in order to make money, Wal-Mart style. It pisses me off, big time, that the bosses are reaping a disproportionate share of the benefits, asking the little guys to smile and be content, and then taking away what ought to belong to the little guys.

It is time that the government come out and state emphatically – to receive tip is glorious, and pass laws to make sure it happens.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christmas underground

My first experience with a Chinese underground Christian church was very above the ground; in fact, 20 floors above.

I went there with a friend yesterday, on Christmas day. We arrived at an apartment complex just outside the 4th ring road at 2pm. The buildings looked no different from any other dotting Beijing’s expanding footprint – new on the outside but quickly decaying on the inside.

My friend gave me a quick jolt once we got in the lobby. He scratched his head, “darn, I forgot which floor it is on. 18 or 20?”. Then he asked the security guard who was dressed in some kind of police-like uniform with a heavy cotton army coat on the outside, “comrade, do you know on which floor the underground church is located?” I thought we were going to be arrested right then and there, but the guard only replied impatiently, “What underground service? I don’t know any here.”

We took the elevator to the 18th floor which was his first guess. He buzzed an apartment. The little window on the top of the iron security door opened. A gruff male voice asked what we wanted. My friend asked again, “comrade, do you know on which floor the underground church is located?” The gruff male voice replied that there was no Christian in the building.

We climbed up the dark stairs to the 20th floor. His second buzz opened the door to the underground church set up in an apartment. The living room, now acting as the chapel, had no decoration except for a small cross on one wall, a poster of Christ’s resurrection on the second, and a huge Chinese character Love on the 3rd. At the deep end of the room stood a tiny podium under the cross, and the rest of the room was packed with chairs.

Worshippers streamed in slowly as the service started until the room was jam packed. The crowd seemed younger on average than that visiting the official churches. Altogether there were about 40-50 people, including a middle-aged woman who cried during hymns, a couple of trendy-looking young girls, a few from Hong Kong, a hip looking young artist type and one older guy who dozed off during the service.

A grave-looking middle-aged overweight man with long wild beard gave the sermon. He appeared to be some kind of writer and was very eloquent. He preached for love and peace and humility. He claimed that Christianity was the best religion after he compared it to all the other religions he knew; the difference – the immaculate conception of Christ. He bashed democracy for its innate lack of a higher good.

“Look at the democracy in Taiwan. It’s like a farce. Democracy brought out the worst in us.” He exclaimed, while sweat stained through his shirt. The central heating was turned unbearably high. “We need a higher good to guide us.” He said.

I had the urge to point out that his sense of superiority was very similar to that of George Bush; that why we would wish for paradise when the very imperfect democracy is a lot more achievable; and that Taiwan is a very good example democracy is working. But I knew better to argue with religious people, especially the preacher.

The service ended with the preacher leading the whole group praying for world peace, for their good behavior under god’s guidance in the new year, and for their good behavior helping in the near year convert non-believers who were like lost lambs without god’s grace.

All in all, it was very similar to the service at the official church. I couldn’t see why the government would ever want to suppress underground church service. The only reason possible is that the Chinese government dislikes anyone or any organization openly proclaim a higher loyalty to an entity above itself, which the underground churches do ardently. If that’s the case, whom is the government kidding? Above ground or underground, the government can only promise 10% GDP growth, while God promises a kingdom of heaven.

Friday, December 23, 2005

What Lies Beneath

By the time I met up with Hoo for lunch today, I was exhausted by the interview in the morning. Hoo had helped me identify candidates for my documentary on “gay marriage” in China. After we met, he suggested having lunch at Party World, an upscale KTV chain, which is close to his office and offers free buffet lunch.

My interview was actually not about gay and marriage in China. This morning I interviewed Gao Zhi Sheng, a famous dissident lawyer in Beijing. When I read the New York Times article on his struggle with the government on December 13th, I was fascinated by his guts and thought his ongoing litigations against the government’s violation of the citizens’ rights a natural and engaging story arc for a documentary. I saved the article and contemplated contacting the reporter for Gao’s contact. But I decided not to in the end. I didn’t want to get me or my family into trouble with the government.

This past weekend, at a Christmas party organized by an expat reporter friend of mine, I bumped into him. I bumped into him right after conversing for an hour with a qigong master who claimed to possess super-natural power and was working on a cure for the bird flu for the entire world. Gao was extremely open to my idea of a documentary. I considered our meeting an omen; my party-host friend considered me flaky - “everyone I introduced you to you want to do a documentary about them”.

So this morning I hauled my filming gear to his office which was mostly empty now after the government took away his permit and shut down his practice. For two hours he told me cases after cases of the government totally disregarding the laws it had written itself, cases after cases of the powerless being stamped on. There were some statements which I even wondered whether were fit for print for the New York Times.

When I got my gear together to leave, he invited me to go to an underground Christian service with him on Christmas day. It suddenly dawned on me – to continue filming him would drag me into a very political situation which could lead into real trouble. But not to continue meant all my previous emoting over the poor and the less fortunate had been just empty mental exercise over Starbucks lattes.

And the battle of the thoughts exhausted me. I had and have no plan to be political. But how can I maintain an apolitical state of mind in the presence of Gao?

After we returned to our KTV room from the first trip to the buffet table, I told Hoo about my interview. “Do you still hold Chinese passport?” He asked. When I gave him the affirmative answer, he immediately asked me to stop. “We all know China is a mess. But how can we small persons change the huge system? Chinese have learned to adapt to the system for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Gao’s fight will lead no where. And what you are doing will probably get you into more trouble than him, since he’s already a celebrity and police can’t touch him that easily.”

Just two days ago, I received a scathing report on China’s development from my friend Dale. Dale developed that report with a think tank in San Francisco. She presented that report in Hong Kong during the WTO meeting. The same day newspapers came out with the report that China’s economy had been under-stated for 17% due to inaccurate reporting. Now China is posed to surpass the UK and become the 4th largest economy in the world.

When I read the news, I thought what unfortunate timing for Dale’s report; now everyone in the West will focus even more on the China economic miracle; more students will come to China for foreign studies; and more businessmen will fly over in planeloads to dig gold.

I had known Dale for a long time. She had always been critical of China’s development with its problems of wealth gap, sweat shop and environmental collapse. Consequently I wondered when I glimpsed through her report – how much of it was just due to different perspectives?

So today in that KTV room, I asked Hoo, a self-made entrepreneur, “is China really as corrupt as Gao accused of?”

Hoo’s answer was “no, but”. The communist party does not have an “evil” intention, but 98% of the government officials he had dealt with were corrupt. They frequented prostitutes, asked for bribes, and took judicial procedures into their own hands.

“China’s economy probably is still under-stated for another 10-20% because of not counting the rampant sex industry.” He joked. He had frequently bribed the officials with thousands of RMB in “massage” gift certificates.

I slumped into a depression in the black leather sofa. The giant TV screen in our room was flashing beautiful pop stars with their fancy hairdos and simple happy tunes. We could hear loud off-key singing, or more accurately, howling, from the neighboring KTV rooms. Even at 1pm, the place was buzzing with entertainment.

Hoo, in the low lighting in the KTV room, looked almost philosophical. “Nobody likes the system. But we have to make money. So we make do.” He commented without the slightest trace of distress.

How I wanted to retreat back to my apolitical well-kept apartment in my well-protected complex then. China, beneath the veneer of glamour, is busting with rotten flesh. And the sad part is that, as long as the people can keep on making money, they wouldn’t care; and that if and once we get over this phase of rotten flesh, the injustices, the voices of despair and indignation, all of them will be forgotten.

We went out to the buffet table for our second round. The speaker system was forcing a never-ending version of the Jingle Bells on us. Waiters moved about under red joker hats. Young patrons checked the food trays in their nice clothes. Everything looked rosy. Everything looked prosperous. Everything looked hopeful.

In that cozy Christmas atmosphere, I wondered if we could be apolitical without having to close our eyes.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Stupid Gay Writer and Disgusting Sunny Morning

I woke up late this morning so I hurried to get myself a cup of coffee, start Yoyo Ma's Baroque music and begin writing. Between coffee sips and writing fits, I glanced at the sunny day outside and through my window, the same view of the shiny new Beijing TV Tower in construction.

At 9:40am my cell phone rang. The call was from a number I didn't recognize.

"Hello?" I answered.

"Hi. In our hotel we have two girls newly arrived from our hometown. Would you be interested in 开包 openning their bags?" A rather mechanic female voice came through the line.

The connection was not very good. I thought it was some kind of tele-marketing but why would I be asked to offer them service? Could this be the pimp from the five-star hotel who had almost tempted me into prostitution? So I asked, "What opening bag?"

"You know. Virgin girls.” She mumbled.

Oh. She’s asking if I would be interested in popping the cherries of two virgin girls from the countryside.

“Where are you calling from and how did you get my number?” I managed to ask one more question despite my disgust.

“We are in a hotel in Zhong Guanchun (the Silicon Valley of China located in northwest Beijing). You left your number with us once.” She said. Then she finished off quickly, “If you are interested, just give me a call.” And she hung up.

I couldn’t go back to writing after the call. I kept on seeing two poor country girls being locked up in a small hotel room somewhere. Or they could be willingly learning how to do makeup from their mama-son. Either way I felt disgusted.

Just two days ago, I interviewed an old gay man who’s married and paid for money-boy service on the side; I told him that I was starting to understand pay for sex, because the young money boys who came from the countryside looked so happy with the old gay man. For me, the moral absolute began to blur when both sides benefit, even if the good being traded is sex.

But this morning I couldn’t get over the image of two virgin girls from the country. How could one justify in any way selling two girls’ virginity?

Right by my laptop in a pile of junk on the desk laid a business card which was pushed underneath our door yesterday. On the front was the face of a beautiful and demure Chinese lady with the text “private care”. On the back listed the different kinds of massage services they offered.

I dialed their number to confirm my instinct of it being a sex service. After a brief greeting with a sweet-voiced lady, I went directly to the point.

“What’s this Spanish Cavalier service you are offering?” I asked.

“It’s a special kind of oil massage.” The lady answered.

“Special in what way?”

“Heehee, you are a very direct customer,” she giggled. “It’s a massage done with a body part that men don’t have.”

“You mean breasts?” But I could not see how massage could be done with breasts.

“Heehee.” She giggled some more. “Just come over and you’ll know. Not breasts for sure. We have many girls here. You can talk to them about services not offered on our menu.”

“But still, what female part do you use for Spanish Cavalier?” I was obsessed with finding the answer.

“Ha ha,” she laughed out loud this time, “you still don’t know or you are just playing with me? You are a very funny man.”

The conversation ended without me able to find out what Spanish Cavalier is.

I was left dazed by the two phone calls this morning. Sex was being pushed about for sale in this great capital of our communist motherland just like every other commodity, with abundant availability and a market penetration that leaves no stratus untouched. I knew I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was grinding my teeth with anger because this market penetration was ruining my writing.

What’s a civically responsible citizen to do?

I called directory service and got the number for the police station in Zhong Guanchun. A male cop answered the call.

I explained the first phone call to him and asked, “Does your station take care of cases like this?”

“Yes, we do. You said they called you this morning?” He sounded like he’s writing.

“Yes. The number they called from is 13240893699. Do you want to write down my number so perhaps you could call me back and let me know how the case is going?” I offered.

“Hmm. Maybe not necessary. See, we need to first open a case, then we need to verify the phone number. They could turn it off so we wouldn’t be able to verify. Then we have to investigate. It could take a while.” Strangely, he didn’t sound that different from the LA cops depicted in American TV shows.

“But you will investigate cases like this, right?”

“Of course. That’s our job.” He replied matter-of-factly.

After the last call, I wondered what the cops would deal with a case like this. Would they laugh it off because if they really wanted to investigate, cases like this are in plain sight everywhere? Could they be colluding with the pimps? Would I be in trouble if they are colluding? And why wouldn’t they keep my number as a witness of some sort?

Sun is slanting in my study through the window. It’s a rare crystal-clear day in Beijing that reminds me of San Francisco. I feel warm in my well-kept apartment in my well-protected complex that, even though still lets massage service business cards slip through, keeps me at a distance from the harsh wintry reality outside. I wonder what a bourgeois intellectual (my likely classification under Mao) like me could do and whether the situation could be help.

And the only thing I know for sure is, my writing today is totally ruined.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Hung Up

Friday, December 16, 2005

Received a text message from my friend Bill that the first gay & lesbian cultural festival has changed venue. It was supposed to start this evening in 798, the hip art warehouse district. Not really surprised because back in the summer, the 2nd Beijing Gay Film Festival had to change venue at the last minute from Peking University to 798. Police and politics can and seem always to intervene at the last minute. Bill, who’s doing his Ph.D. thesis on gay life in China, was very frustrated as the organizers still hadn’t responded to his email volunteering to help.

Bill had called a hotline and found out that new venue is On/Off, once THE weekend gay partying destination but now a distant runner up after the new gay bar Destination. Told him I will be there at 7pm for the opening speech by Li Yinhe, the famous scholar and writer on contemporary gay and AIDS issue in China. The festival has done a good job promoting the event. I’ve received quite a few emails and text messages from my expat friends about this event. Beijing Weekend, an English weekly under the China Daily, had a listing for it. But That’s Beijing, the most popular expat magazines, didn’t. Although officially ok to cover gay-themed stories now, the press is still exploring with tentative steps. Wonder if there’s any coverage of this event in the Chinese press, and how many gay Chinese will show up at such a public event.

Bill just called. He went to On/Off at 5pm for the opening cocktail party. But the police closed down On/Off. He said the entire group of people there, about 50 to 60, were going to have a hotpot dinner. I asked why the police closed it down. He wasn’t sure.

Found the hotpot restaurant but wasn’t sure if it’s the right place. The patrons didn’t look particularly queer to me. Found several reporter-looking people, one carrying a Sony PD150 camcorder. Found Bill finally. He’s chatting with a small and sweet girl in glasses.

Surprised by the look of the crowd. Hadn’t expected the Beijing gay crowd to be this diverse and at ease. Half of them were lesbians, and pretty ones.

Decided to approach the lesbians to seek out married ones for my new documentary. Turned out most of the girls there were not lesbians but dancers that were scheduled to perform that night. The sweet one sitting next to Bill was a straight law student. She proclaimed what the police did to be illegal (the police closed down the festival citing lack of a permit). China’s Constitution gave Chinese citizens the right to assemble publicly, she said.

Ah, the beauty of idealism of the young.

Walking with Bill to a different restaurant to meet friends for dinner. Just passed On/Off. On the door a poster had been put up to announce “Temporarily Closed to Fix Plumbing”.

I laughed at the veil-thin cover up. Why bother?

Bill said that half of people that were kicked out by the police weren’t even gay, but reporters and supporters. I wonder if this event was more a political statement than a cultural event, because Chinese gay/lesbian population didn’t seem to have come out to support it openly.

However, everything in China that’s out of the “norm” seems to be a political statement.

Still having dinner. Bill got a text message from our gay American friend John that Reuters just ran a story about the cop closing down the event. (In the next 15 hours, the Guardian, Times UK and The Advocate would have covered the story as well.) Wow, the speed of globalized information flow.

Dancing with Bill and a couple of friends at Destination. Had planned to interview a gay man in his 50s who’s married and had a 17-yr old daughter but the place was too noisy and the music too good.

After a few drinks my eyes started to blur. The gay man I had planned to interview was chatting with his very cute and very young “friend”. A couple of gay punks with their hair dyed blond danced cheek-to-cheek in front of me. A business-type in a very nice dress jacket was squeezing his way into the dance floor with his two handsome assistants. A group of young and trendy guys occupied a corner, barely moved their hips and looked at the dancing crowd with a slight disdain. Student types were hopping up and down like crazy. Fag-hags were smiling their big smiles. And standing in the corners in 2s and 3s, dressed in the latest street fashion, were the money boys who were straight but making a living with the gay renminbi.

Bill yelled to me over the music, “It’s been an interesting evening.”

“Yeah,” I yelled back, “the day the police stopped harassing people, China will stop being complex and interesting.”

The DJ started playing Madonna’s new song, Hung Up. The crowd got denser on the dance floor. I shook my hips and scanned the crowd and a sense of joy overwhelmed me – the cage has been broken; no matter how much the authority wants to control public discussion, no matter how much cultural pressure there still exists, and no matter how many problems there are with the evolution of gay life in Beijing – commercialism, AIDS, prostitution, etc., the freedom expands and like many other trends in China, can no longer be reversed.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Gay Marriage, China Style (I)

Desperate to start my next documentary after too many false starts, I went to, a popular Beijing gay website, to look for a gay angle.

I found this posting on their bulletin board:

“ [seeking marriage material] Wonderful Beijing lesbian ISO gay for nominal marriage

My girlfriend: Beijinger, 26 yrs old, 172 cm, master’s degree, financially independent, cultured, good temperament, with long hair, kind, easygoing. Seeks nominal marriage mainly to satisfy the parents. If both are direct and truthful we’d save a lot of time. Those who meet the following critera please contact us in order to form a fictitious marriage:

1. Accommodating and responsible, not effeminate (note: hope this is the correct translation for ‘不C’)
2. Height over 177 cm, 28-33 yrs old, bachelor’s degree (higher would be best)
3. Settled in Beijing with considerable financial means (mainly to appease the parents) and own apartment (which hopefully will be the residence of the nominal marriage)
4. Don’t want kids
5. Willing to get a fake marriage certificate

Those who reply please detail your background to save time for both of us. Thanks.

For contact:”

I found several similar postings but this one seemed the most direct. So I replied:

“Hi, I saw your posting on bjboys seeking a marriage candidate. I’m 31 yrs old, and just moved back from the US last year. I have two master’s degrees and suffer from similar dilemma as your girlfriend. I just started considering the possibility of nominal marriage. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to meet and talk in details. My mobile number is 13808888888.”

Ok, I lied about my age in order not to scare the young lesbian away. It felt more awful that I lied about my intention. I kept the email short and prayed for a face-to-face meeting so I could explain myself.

The matchmaker girlfriend emailed back promptly:


Very glad to have received your email. I think that for a nominal marriage to work, both sides need to have good characters and financial independence; more importantly, both need to think through the details of the marriage and reconcile differences. Only when the details are dealt with, can the parties maintain a good relationship and avoid blowing the cover of the nominal marriage. Let me lay out again our views on the fictitious marriage:

1. We are both 100% lesbian. We hope the other side is pure gay. Except for sex, we don’t shut guys out.
2. Generally when nominal marriage is discussed, people share the same view that it’s to deal with external pressure. That’s true. But the purpose to deal with external pressure is to protect our own privacy. We don’t want to exhibit our private lives to others. This determines that a nominal marriage must keep a certain distance from both families. For example, in order to avoid parents from both sides meddling with our nominal family, we can proactively visit the elders on a regular basis. My friend’s parents won’t interfere much with your marriage life. Neither will they live with you two. Hopefully your family is the same.
3. Nominal marriage is a partnership formed via tacit understanding and collaboration from both parties. It affects both sides. In other words, before any action either side should not only consider his/her own interest, but also the impact on the other side. Therefore, once in a nominal marriage, each side should consult the other side and think carefully before acting, if the action could affect the other side in any way.
4. About kid – Nominal marriage cannot provide a healthy nurturing environment for kids. Consequently we are not in favor of nominal families having kids.
5. About marriage certificate. It’s best not to get a certificate at all. First of all this avoids the hassles of listing the pre-marriage assets and having the list notarized. Secondly, even if we have the pre-marriage assets notarized, legally it’s still troublesome to deal with assets acquired during marriage. Thirdly, nowadays we don’t need our work units to provide certificates in order to marry, nobody would bother to ask to see the marriage certificate.
6. About housing. I’m not living with my girlfriend. I’m a graduate student. She works not far from home and lives with her parents right now. After wedding hopefully the groom’s place can be the home of this marriage, mainly to show for the parents. When free you two can go visit parents together, in order to avoid them going to your place. After graduation she and I will buy a place and live together.

My girlfriend is of the kind that has good figure and temperament, and can be both lively and quiet. Our relationship is very stable. Our circle is small, with few queer friends. We like sports and reading. We have a healthy and positive attitude towards life.

Hopefully we can take care of and love each other like brothers and sisters. Please share with us your thoughts. Thanks!


I was both surprised at such detailed views on marriage (do the straight couples going to the altar generally plan this carefully?) and felt guilty at misleading this earnest couple. So I kept my reply curt:

“Hi Sophia, Thanks for your message. I haven’t thought through the marriage issue as carefully as you. I do agree with all of your points. It works as long as we make our parents happy. Your point on kids might be a problem. I’m sorry that I haven’t used Chinese so long that writing Chinese is a chore. Can we meet or talk over the phone in details?”

After exchanging text messages for two days, I finally talked to Sophia over the phone one night after her classes. I apologized as soon as we finished the greetings. I explained that I was writing a piece on gay/lesbian nominal marriages in China and that I answered that ad in order to talk to them (I couldn’t bring myself to mention the scariness of filming). I swore secrecy and beseeched for a chance to meet with them in person. I guess I naively thought that once we meet, somehow I could charm my way into becoming their friends and maybe 6 months later, they could let me film the wedding banquet.

Sophia listened attentively and sympathetically. She would talk to her girlfriend, she said, and would call me back. We bid farewell warmly over the phone.

And that was the last I heard from her, and the end of my could-be fake marriage.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A grain of salt

I hadn’t had the desire to read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans until her Mao: The Unknown Story came out and caused a heated public debate. Wild Swans seemed to me yet another Cultural Revolution tear jerker which we Chinese had swallowed enough of. Recently, however, I became more and more intrigued by her book on Mao and decided to tackle the Wild Swans first.

The read has proved extremely informative and thought-provoking. For those of us who are so enamored by China’s economic miracle, the book is a somber reminder that very recently, the country was gripped by a mass frenzy called Mao worship. Unlike the other books I had read on that period, Chang’s book expertly intertwined personal tragedies with the various political upheavals in the past 100 years. I found myself stopping frequently to recover from the daze over the scale of the tragedies and ponder whether the country is now able to avoid similar ones in the future.

What made the book especially close to me was the setting of a major part of the story in Chengdu, my hometown. Chang’s parents moved to Sichuan after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and lived in Chengdu as high-level government officials. Growing up in Chengdu I knew very little about its past under the new China. My parents had only mentioned briefly the factional fighting involving machine guns in the Cultural Revolution. Everyone seemed eager to concoct a gentle veneer and ever-spicier cuisine to hide the painful past.

Reading Wild Swans thus felt like perusing a hence-unknown family history to me. I now know that the two major factions that used machine guns at each other were called 26 August and the Red Chengdu; that before the “Three-antis”, the “Anti-Rightist”, and the Cultural Revolution movements, we Chinese were in fact gentle talkers, with none of the current easy tendency to bark and quarrel in public; and that before the marble statue of Mao was erected in the People’s Square in the center of Chengdu, there used to be a beautiful ancient arch gate… Strangely, a nostalgia for a Chengdu I had never known starts to build.

At the same time, it’s easy to see a very emotional Chang behind the texts which could very well made her writing heavy handed and one-sided, drawbacks that the critics accused her new book of. For example, she described her middle school as thus:

“My new school, the Number Four Middle School, was the leading key school for the whole province and took students with the highest marks in the all-Sichuan entrance exams. … In the two exam papers, I got 100 percent for math and un unusual 100 percent “plus” for Chinese. … My clearest memory is of my teachers. They were the best in their field; many were grade one, or special grade. …”

Number Four Middle School being the best in Sichuan? That simply could not and cannot be true. Number Seven Middle School, my alma mater, was undisputedly and agreed by all Chengdu residents (except for alums of Number Four) to be the best high school in Chengdu. Even we had the modesty to agree that a couple of other middle schools in the province cultivated students with higher test scores.

Perhaps Chang’s memory was faulty. Perhaps she exaggerated. Perhaps my alma mater surpassed Number Four after the Cultural Revolution. In any case, I know when I read Mao: The Unknown Story, I need to take Chang’s words with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Illusioin of Lonely Planet

We wrapped up shooting at 3am Sunday morning in Old Town Shanghai near the Yu Garden. It was freezing and I was hugging my latte tightly. The water truck was coughing its way through the streets to create the effect of a recent rainfall when I had a revelation –

“See,” I said to a fellow assistant standing next to me while pointing at the lights and the extras that were producing the illusion of a busy happening neighborhood, “we shot in modern skyscraper district like Pudong and in old neighborhoods that are being preserved for tourism purposes only, and then we shop this collage of extreme contrasts all over the world. Audience look at the images and would probably think this represent the intriguing and enigmatic modern China. But how about the majority between these two extremes? We both know that for most Chinese, life is not in glamorous Grand Hyatt or smoking water pipes in old buildings with decaying beauty; rather, life here is in boring apartment buildings with routines of going to work, cooking, trying to make more money, marrying and divorcing, just like everywhere else.”

My insightful observations depressed both of us. We sighed in mutual sympathy – “Hollywood. What do you expect?”

The last two days saw some crew members partying their heads off in hip clubs with African American DJs, some hurriedly getting on a plane back to LA, and others excitedly preparing for trips to Beijing and Xi’an. I cringed every time I heard someone talking about “seeing the real China” as if a few days with Lonely Planet is the holy grail to understanding this country.

Then it’s time for me to sit down and plan my Christmas vacation. I thought of visiting Thailand. I checked mainstream tourist-info websites and those for backpackers. The former told in sweet tongue why Bangkok is a must-see because it epitomizes the modern Thailand. The latter screamed that Bangkok is not real Thailand; for real Thai culture and people one has to go north, go to the countryside.

I sneered at both – how could there be only one real Thailand? I told myself not to succumb to the temptation to arrange my itinerary around images I had seen previously in movies and on the Discovery Channel.

So I did more research. I visited and read traveler testimonials such as “we met a couple of Thai people in a restaurant and we had a very interesting conversation. And oh my god what a nice way to know the real Thailand”.

I sneered at their naivety.

But still I had to come up with an itinerary. What do I hope to do - understand Thailand in 10 days? Where to start? Which guide to follow?

I imagined Thailand as this giant animal that could be an elephant but I could only touch its rough skin briefly to figure it out.

After a few more hours of researching, I gave up. What am I expecting anyway? For all my gripes on foreigners custom-fitting China into their own fantasies, I was in no mood to see the “real” Thailand on my vacation, at least not the part of high HIV infection rate, sex slavery and wide wealth gap. For most of us who sample cultures in fast-food fashion during brief visits to foreign countries, travel seems primarily to validate our pre-conceived expectations. It’s a leisured entertainment activity. Why should it be much different from Hollywood?

There’s a bar in my neighborhood in Beijing called Want Travel? and it has all the Lonely Planet guides. I decided this weekend when I fly back to Beijing, I would sit down with the guides and plan my Christmas vacation accordingly.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Squeeze the Bubble

The Chinese government has taken this year's World Aids Day seriously. Most newspapers had extensive coverage of events marking that day before, on and after Dec 1st.

In today's Oriental Morning Post (a Shanghai newspaper), reportage ranged from a new AIDS-themed restaurant that gives out condoms to diners, junior high students volunteering to educate their peers, Fudan University students hosting a debate on whether SQ (Sex Quotient, a new term invented by these students after IQ) can help prevent AIDS transmission, to condom use being more effective than abstinence in combatting AIDS.

My personal favorite, which is also the most prominent article on the AIDS page - High School Freshmen Hears Detailed Instruction on How to Use Condoms to Prevent AIDS.

The article started by quoting the teacher: "There's a small bubble on the tip of the condom. You have to squeeze out the air before use." More quotes: "Open it, push it... Make sure it covers the root (of we-know-what)". The class was the first of its kind to receive the instruction in Shanghai. But the paper reported that "according to stipulations from the Education Ministry, all high schools in Shanghai will be taught how to prevent AIDS, including how to use condoms properly." I wonder if the stipulation applies to all of China.

One of the experts was quoted expressing regret that parents had to be sent letters assuring them that the classes do not encourage teen sex. He said that the parents' worries are unnecessary, and that "the promotion of condom use is normal in developed countries". I don't know much about how they teach American highschoolers safe sex. But I did read about the religious rights, including George Bush, clamour for abstinence rather than condoms.

Time has indeed changed. When I was a highschool freshman in 1987 (was it that long ago?), we had to read the chapter of Human Reproductive System in silence in class, under the stern supervision of our Human Physiology teacher. Now China is quickly catching up with the world. Maybe soon we will also surprass the world, including in condom consumption.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Not So Fast

The positions on a Hollywood blockbuster production seem to me finely defined, and the pros work with great efficiency and precision. Because of that efficiency, people idle on the set when their services are not called for.

Last night in Lujiazui, the skyscraper central of Shanghai’s Pu Dong district, there’s much idling during the night shooting. I had a long conversation with a 40-something European crewmember to kill time. He, let’s call him Paul, had traveled widely and was very curious about China’s development. He asked me many questions on the political processes and the latest cultural changes in China. I played the role of a China expert, which I detest others doing but secretly enjoy when I had the soapbox to myself.

Our conversation took a sour turn when he started commenting on the ugliness of the suburban development around Shanghai – the drab high-rise apartment buildings, the non-stop construction, and the pollution. He then made another typical statement, “Someday the Chinese will realize what they have done and regret having destroyed the past.”

I asked him to elaborate. He mentioned the beauty of the small town near Jiaxing where we had shot on location. He said people used to all live in towns like that, have close relationships with their neighbors and buy organically-grown vegetables in the local markets. Alas, the good old days.

I ventured that people living in towns like that probably had been dying to move into a drab apartment building so they could have their own toilets and avoid neighbors’ gossips. They probably wanted to visit supermarket so they could have more choices even if the choices are soaked in preservatives. Paul replied that people often don’t know what they want; their desired are being manipulated by big corporations!

It’s the same argument made by many expats in Beijing. Many love a casual walk once a year in the old hutong (narrow alleyway) area. But the only ones I know living in that kind of neighborhood are those who can afford a completely renovated courtyard compound with modern toilet, washer and the whole place to him/herself, with rent going at least $3000/month (that’s just my conservative guess).

I’m all for living with style and character, and I have many many problems with China’s development. But I’m wary of preserving the past for aesthetic purposes only. And I’m cynical of the same old liberal criticism from Western Bobos who could afford the high culture, the leisure and the freedom to choose their lifestyle. They seem to prefer China remain the old exotic China in their fantasy, yet somehow have the poverty and lack of economic freedom masked from their comfortable tourist itinerary.

Yes, given enough money and education, we would all live in New York (or Paris or London), read New Yorker, shop at organic grocers, drive to the summer house in upstate New York (or in Connecticut or on the Jersey shores) for weekend getaways in the summer, and buy expensive North Face jackets to wear when we rush to the neighborhood coffee shops to get our lattes in the fall.

Mind you - the most popular chit chat topic last night was the price that the crew members paid for their knockoff North Face jackets at the popular outdoor Xiangyang market.

Trying to change the conversation topic, I asked where Paul lived. Not surprisingly, he lived in Los Angeles and still keeps a house in Europe. He enjoyed hiking and wilderness. As far as I could tell, the North Face jacket he wore was real.

I’d love to have a life like that. But then I wouldn’t have the chance to be a China expert of any sort.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Sandy and Peter

I felt sorry for Sandy, my boss’s wife, on our ride from Shanghai to the small Zhejiang town for shooting on location. Sandy, who’s riding with me and my boss’s personal assistant Peter, was told that the town we were heading towards had great scenery. Instead, all we found outside the car windows were highways, construction sites that turned the earth upside and down, drab concrete housings that dot the brownish farm land and a dirty haze hovering over them.

When our van passed by Jia Xing, a historic city famed for its soyed duck and scenery, we saw huge conference center and hotel/apartment complexes being built out of nowhere. Sandy finally broke the silence, “They are building some interesting buildings out here.”

I thought I heard reluctance in her voice but I wasn’t sure.

The first day she was in China, we took her and some crew members to the Xiangyang market, an outdoor market in Shanghai known for knockoff goods. She didn’t shop much.

The second day she wanted something more “cultural”. The hotel recommended Pudong, the new development area with many many skyscrapers, Xintiandi, a redeveloped bar area, Nanjing Road, a jam-packed heart-attack inducing shopping street, and the Yu Garden.

We took her to the Yu Garden, a very nice ancient garden, but less enticing because we had been there for scouting everyday and would shoot a chase scene around there later. Other than that, we seemed out of options for genuine “Chinese” culture in Shanghai.

So I was really looking forward to introducing her to the small town. Like all foreign tourists who come to China for the first time, She was looking forward to meeting the “real” China that’s the opposite of what Shanghai offers. In general I object to this type of stereotype-oriented tourism. But she was visibly disappointed.

Once we arrived on the set, however, the scenery did not disappoint. The area where we had set up camera equipments was an old town sitting on tiny river canals. The local government specifically preserved the area for tourism purposes. But instead of being a tacky tourist trap, it shined with genuine charm.

Maybe because the town is not yet famous in China, its way of life doesn’t seem having been perturbed much by tourists. Quaint two-storey houses with upturned eaves stared at each other across narrow cobble-stone streets along the river banks. The roof tiles were dark grey, the windows and doors of aged wood, and the walls shelling off paint that showed their history. Shop owners didn’t hustle for business in the streets, or jack up the prices to a foreign customer. Women sat on wooden bench in front of their shops knitting cotton sandals. Old grandmas stirred soy beans with spices and packed them in small plastic bags for sale. Locals drank tea in restaurants on the river. To cross to the other side of the canal, one had to walk along the bank to find one of the small stone bridges. It’s exactly the kind of beautiful southern town I had imagined.

“It’s really charming, isn’t it?” Sandy exclaimed while standing on a stone bridge. Both Peter and I heaved a sigh of relief.

Compared to Sandy, Peter’s positivism needed no pampering. At first I kept a distance from his overt friendliness, suspecting it being a professional handicap or cover from having been a personal assistant in Hollywood for too long – he smiled big, high-fived with everyone, and was always ready to get coffee for every crew member on the team.

My suspicion turned out only half true. The next day the sky cleared up magnificently for the first day of shoot. I spent most of my time with my boss and Peter on the set. While admiring the agility of the star jumping off the roof tops repeatedly, we chatted a lot.

“I don’t get these Americans.” He shook his head, “Did you heard that woman there? She refused to walk across the bridge because there were too many Chinese on it. What a jerk! And the river. What’s wrong with the river? The Americans are like whining babies. ‘Oh people must have dumped all kinds of chemical waste in it. Let’s stand as far back as possible.’ The water looks fine!”

After half a week in China, he sounded more defensive about the country than I am. I didn’t tell him then that China does pump a lot of chemicals in its rivers. Just a few days ago the city of Harbin had to shut down water supply for its 4 million residents after a chemical plant exploded upstream of the Songhua River nearby.

He slowly showed me more of the grumpy European side of his personality as the day went by. I’d been relatively quiet because I’d been tired from waking up at 5am every morning, which he perhaps took as being attentive and wise in an oriental way. He would greet a crew member with a bear hug and a “Hi bro, how are you doing?” a la Joey in Friends, and then a minute later would continue his complaining with me, “The people in Hollywood, they don’t care about filmmaking. They only care about paychecks, their stupid cars, and golfing.”

“You know, your country is on the verge of becoming something great.” He said to me, patting me on the shoulder as we walked out of the set to get a bottle of red wine for our boss. It’s only 4pm in the afternoon but the residents were already returning home. Our steps on the cobble stones left a moist echo down the narrow darkening street.

“Look at us, man, we in America are so jaded. We are getting things fed to us way too easily. All we cling to now are materialistic stuff. There’s no more real challenge or ideals.” He grunted and I nodded. He stopped to play with a kitten who timidly straddled over a wooden doorway. When we resumed walking he continued, “But look at your country – there are so many great changes happening. Everything is beautiful. Including this town.”

I was more cynical than he was but I nodded. It’s the weather Peter; I wanted to tell him. You are disillusioned by America but I don’t think China could substitute for this illusion. But I kept quiet. It’s cruel to tell the person who just complimented you on that nonsensical remark for its unintended witticism.

We stepped out of the old-town area and into present-day China. The town center consisted of a motorcycle mall and small store fronts selling low-end household goods. The buildings in this relative poor town were still boring square leftovers from the 70s. Bicycle bells competed with car horns. Dusk chased after each vehicle driving by.

See Peter, I wanted to tell him, this is what China is really like – dirty, chaotic and a bit sad.

“Hi hellow, how are you doing?” He greeted a mother holding a baby boy on the street. The mother turned away and giggled with her friends.

“I liked your country, man. Everything here is beautiful.” He sighed.

I was amused – how could he call it beautiful when all the history we had was a tiny area preserved for tourism only? Yet slowly, his optimism infected me. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical of my own country, I thought. Sometimes an outsider’s perspective may be more insightful.

Then I got this sms message on my mobile from a Taiwanese friend with whom I’d been playing phone tags with:

“Pathetic China. Even people at the airport don’t know how to wait in lines!”

I replied – “But you are Chinese as well.”

His answer – “I’m a Taiwanese in China. I’m fed up with the lack of culture here!”

Maybe we mainland Chinese are not jaded yet because we’ve destroyed so much of our own culture and yet not fully immersed in the Western commercialism. It’s this in-between state, looking forward to an unknown future, that provides hope and a sense of wonder, and beauty.

I know I know, it’s the weather – the sun was setting; a thin fog was moving over the town; and the people, still innocent from too much tourism, were greeting and smiling to each other. It’s a nice environment to be positive.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Tough Week Rap

It’s been a tough week.

Last Sunday I went to a farewell party, a regular scene in Beijing for the transient expat crowd. I had an argument with a Singaporean about the riot in the Paris suburb. The Singaporean, living in the fancy expat compound and making good expat salary, was genuinely confused by the fact that the rioters would still riot when their per capita income is so much higher than in the poverty-stricken Africa. I wanted to bang my head against the wall – why is it so difficult for people to understand that human misery is never absolute but relative?

On Monday I spent half a day (ok I’m exaggerating here) questioning my own knee-jerk liberal reaction to that argument. If I had never needed to please an ultra-liberal ex-boyfriend, if I had never listened to so much NPR, would I still reacted that way? How much of my reaction is genuine care for the less fortunate, since I live so comfortably in my expat compound and, although without a steady job, still manage to make in half a day as an interpreter what an average Beijinger would labor a month for? How much do I care for the people of Beijing besides framing them in my camcorder?

On Monday night, I labored late to finish a proposal for a TV documentary series on common Beijingers as their lives are being impacted by the city’s preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Spent a long time on the budget until at 2am, when all I could think of was how to get the production money. I cursed the fate of an independent filmmaker.

On Tuesday and Wednesday I interpreted for an America reporter. The organization he works for is doing an all-out live reporting series on the “new” China. The reporter interviewed the CEO of Dangdang, the largest B2C ecommerce company in China. The office of Dangdang was as shabby as the government building of a poor Hebei county, with the walls cracking and the heating so high that people’s lips also cracking, which led me to suspect that Dangdang, for all the hype of the Internet’s huge potential in China, is struggling financially. Of course the CEO still danced around the same tune of China’s great Internet future. When the reporter requested to interview a few employees, the CEO dialed a few numbers and assigned several to be interviewed, who, not surprisingly, sang great praise for Dangdang.

On Wednesday we visited Dangdang’s warehouse in southwest Beijing, tucked in a neighborhood which carried no trace of the hustle bustle of the metropolis but rather resembled the poor Hebei county in my imagination. The warehouse itself looked like the Fox studios a bit from the outside. There’s no conveying belt or computerized system shuttling goods in the warehouse. Young workers from poor countryside pushed carts around to collect goods from the shelves and relayed them to the shippers. The shippers manually put the goods into plastic bags, sealed the bags and dropped them in a pile which then got relayed to the boxers. The boxers put the bags in shipping boxes which the postal service shipped all over China.

“The employees get paid by the items they ship out. If they make a mistake their pay would be deducted. On average they would make 1200 yuan (US$150) to 1500 yuan a month, which to these kids from the countryside is a huge sum.” The Vice President of operations explained to us matter-of-factly when I asked about how the employees get paid. “They are not officially Dangdang’s employees. But we do pay for medical insurance.”

“Where do they live?” I translated her answer to the reporter and asked another question.

“They all live around here.” The VP paused as the reporter recorded some sound near the assembly line which sped up since we walked near. She then added, “The rent here is cheap. For 100 yuan (US$12) a month you can rent a room in a bungalow, which they share.”

“Ah.” The reporter and I both marveled at the cheap price. The area we live in commands rent of US $600 to $3000. “Is there heating here in the winter?” The reporter asked.

“No.” The VP replied plainly. “It’s not pleasant to work here in the winter.”

We observed the busy fingers over the books, the plastic bags and the shipping boxes silently for a beat, then started off towards the office. The reporter asked his last question, “how come you guys don’t have a barcode computer system to lower the chances for mistakes?”

“Oh we are getting one,” the VP opened the door for us, and then told us quietly before we entered, “Unfortunately some of them will lose their jobs.”

In font of us in the office were girls and boys, seemingly in their 20s, many carrying a rouge in their cheeks perhaps from having worked too long in the fields, working away in a semi-disorganized way around the printers and the computers.

Later the reporter commented in the cab, “Even in a low-labor-cost country like China, Dangdang is still thinking about further lowering the labor cost by using computer technology. Quite ahead of the curve.”

That night I went to On/Off, one of the few gay bars in Beijing. I interviewed a transvestite who does a regular drag show there. She’s married to a Shanghai man whom she called very stingy. Now they hadn’t met for 6 months she’s ready to marry a Dalian man. The Dalian man is older. They’d only met online via video chat but she’s ready to marry him.

Her parents warned her against the Dalian man. Too many assholes out there, of which she had her share.

Actually I’m not sure what to call her/him. He’d like a sex-change operation if he had the money but he doesn’t, which would make him/her a transverstite/transgendered/transsexual?

While waiting for her performance, I approached a young boy because he looked like a money boy. I needed to talk to money boys for my sex and Beijing project. He swore he’s not a money boy. When I asked what type of guys he liked, he replied guys like me. We exchanged phone numbers.

Two days later he called me. “I have your number in my phone. Who are you?” He asked.

I told him my name.

“Did I get your number on the Internet?” He still didn’t remember me.

I told him about the drag show on Wednesday. He finally remembered. “Do you miss me?” He flirted.

I asked the same question back. He said he did.

Yeah right.

On Thursday I called the gay guy I had interviewed before. He is going to marry a lesbian so they can both make their parents happy. I had had a great dinner with him. At the dinner, after two beers, he let loose and told me a lot about his life, his desire to have a kid, his confusion at America’s gay rights movement – why would they want to have gay marriage? That’s so abnormal! Among the three greatest unfilial sins, bearing no children is the gravest.

I called to ask if I could tape an interview with him. He said no no no no, which was my fourth rejection from a Beijing gay man in or about to get in marriage. I was really pissed.

But on second thought, why would they let me tape them to blow their covers when they are so desperately trying to cover it with a marriage?

In late afternoon I went to check out the apartment building where one of my close friends is buying an apartment. He’s too busy to come for a checkup himself. I went through the construction site with the saleswoman. She explained the many benefits of owning a property in that expat compound. “There’s an international school nearby. The school only admits international students, mostly from diplomats and multi-national businessmen.”

My friend Tom, who works at that particular international school, had told me that the school charges US$20k a year, a sum the embassy or corporation would pay as part of the expat package. Tom is getting a nice-enough salary himself that he’s thinking of retiring in Spain.

In the evening I met up with an old friend who’s helping a famous Silicon Valley venture capital firm set up a big venture fund in China. He introduced me to several VC and entrepreneur friends of his during dinner. We talked about Internet business and then content business. My friend made sure that I sit next to a manager from a Japanese venture fund investing in content production in China. “You two should get to know each other more. I think there’s definitely something you two can work together on.” He said to us while ordering yet another spicy oily Sichuan dish.

The table talked a long time about the Shanghai entrepreneur’s venture to replicate in China, then a Beijing entrepreneur’s venture to target Internet security risk, then the Japanese VC fund’s difficulty working with Chinese TV stations. I put on my MBA hat and found the conversation about money so pleasantly straightforward.

On Friday night I went to the first screening of my documentary in Beijing. About 40 people came. They clapped at the end of the screening. They congratulated me and asked what my next project would be.

On Saturday afternoon I got the reply email that my Olympics documentary series proposal was shot down.

On Sat night I went to the second screening of my documentary in Beijing. About 100 people came. They clapped at the end of the screening. I had had a great beginning with my first attempt at filmmaking; many said. They also asked what my next project would be.

I told them about my Olympics project, my gay marriage project, my sex-and-Beijing project. I wanted to do something different, more film-like, more beautiful with the image, more edgy.

They wished me good luck.

But I had deep doubt about how to proceed next. Beijing was all of a sudden too distracting, too chaotic, too… overwhelming. Plus, what’s the point of filmmaking anyway when real life evades and makes fun of my limited creative faculty?

So I escaped to Shanghai, a warmer and more orderly metropolis. For the next three weeks I’ll be working as a bilingual assistant on a Hollywood blockbuster to be released in summer 2006. I’ll be mingling with top talent from Hollywood and ogling one of the most beautiful and bizarre man in show biz. And hopefully I can peacefully escape into the fantasy land of Hollywood, built with dollar bills and our desperate needs to be entertained.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Same old story

Let’s say Mr. And Ms. Lee had been friends of your family for a long time, maybe since when you were born. Maybe you had been their only son’s best friend since high school, the two of you having gone to college, then to the US together. Let’s say that Mr. Lee’s son hated to visit China, because he hated the rotten Chinese family he had. So every time you went back to Beijing, you would visit Mr. and Mrs. Lee out of sympathy. And every time, they would tell you the same old stories like to their own son,to which you would try in vain to find a response…

Mr. Lee was born in the 1940s when the Japanese armies were still galloping over China. His hometown in the deep southwest escaped the bombing, and he grew up in the relatively peaceful countryside with three sisters and two older brothers. His mother passed away when he was little but his step-mother was kind. His family was poor but not starving like many of their neighbors. They had a small parcel of land on which the family worked hard. Most families in Mr. Lee’s village shared the same last name as they all descended from a big family that the Qing government force-migrated from Hubei province in the early 1700s.

After the liberation in 1949, the farming village rode through numerous political movements. The peasants were classified on the scale of poor, mid-level and rich peasants and, the most despised, landlords (in the cities, the classifications were workers, intellectuals, and cadres). The local communist-party officials branded Mr. Lee’s family as mid-level peasants, but in the late-fifties changed it to rich peasants. Mr. Lee’s family, once considered class-neutral, became slightly anti-revolutionary. However, at least they were not labeled landlords. There’s one family in the village that had some extra land and hired other peasants to work on it. They worked hard themselves and paid their hired hands fair. But during land reform the head of the family was executed and the wife and the kids lived on with nothing to their names.

Mr. Lee grew up well protected by the family. The youngest and the only one smart enough to go to high school, the whole family pinned their hope on him. He would be the one bringing honor to the ancestors and the family. He had the least amount of household chores. Sometimes after school he had to feed the chickens or walk the water buffalo. He would read textbooks on the back of the water buffalo as the animal swaggered its way along rice fields.

When Mr. Lee passed the college entrance examination in 1958, it was great joy to the entire village. Finally a college student from the village. Finally the Lee family had a good son that made them proud. Mr. Lee packed the small bag of his and went to Beijing to attend a tech university. His third brother, the one closest to him, gave him a fountain pen, a luxury item he had never had and cost a fortune in those days, especially to a peasant. His whole family told him – we cannot support you financially that much since you’ll be living in the big city; but no matter how hard, remember the family is behind you, supporting you; no matter how hard, finish college and make the family proud.

So Mr. Lee worked hard. He didn’t have to pay tuition, but he had to scramble to pay for his living expenses. His brother-in-law, the husband of his oldest sister, sent him 5 kuai a month, a handsome amount in those days. Books were luxuries. Food was luxury. In 1959 during the great leap forward they were starved as the rest of the country. For a long time they had only a meal a day. The memory of hunger stayed with Mr. Lee. Even nowadays he would save every leftover from every meal.

After graduation he was assigned to work as an engineer at a migrating construction company. He had a few happy years. He made a small salary out of which he would send home some. He loved sports, especially basketball. Then it came the time for him to get married. A country boy like him wanted very much to marry a pretty city girl.

In 1966 the Cultural Revolution started. In 1967 he met the future Mrs. Lee.

Mrs. Lee was also born in a village in the 1940s. But her father went to Beijing and got a job as an accountant. He established himself there. When Mrs. Lee was 12, he moved the entire family to Beijing.

Mrs. Lee’s mother had two more girls after moving to the city. But Mrs. Lee remained her dad’s favorite. He would go to school to pick her up and carry her home on his back, even when she’s already a teenager. Even though financially her family only got by, she grew up a proud city girl.

After high school Mrs. Lee got a job working as a low-level clerk at the construction company. When Mr. Lee courted her, she hesitated – she’s beautiful and had many suitors; he’s handsome and had a rare college degree, but he’s from the countryside. A peasant. A laborer. Probably with a big extended poor family that’s siphoning all his money away.

Many counseled against their relationship. Their family backgrounds were different – her from a worker’s family, him a rich peasant, borderline class enemy. But there’s chemistry between the two, and he was nice to Mrs. Lee’s family. He appeared to be a dependable man, Mrs. Lee thought. So She married him.

Alas, that was the end of the happy stories. Let’s say Mr. Lee would tell you, sighing.

After the marriage, Mr. Lee slowly found out that Mrs. Lee had a strange and explosive temper. It’s in the family, he suspected, witnessing how Mrs. Lee’s mother treated her father. Mrs. Lee, like her mother, was diligent and hard-working at making the tiny nest clean. But she’s also turning into her mother, controlling, exacting and wanting her way or no way.

No no no. Let’s say Mrs. Lee once told you when you were with her alone. That’s not true, she said. Alas, how I wish I could talk to my own son who lived so far away now, she would sigh. Let’s say Mr. And Mrs. Lee treated you as their son because they needed someone to tell their stories to, in their fading days. You suddenly remembered that their son once told you - he ran away from all the stories to keep his sanity.

Mrs. Lee told you that it had been all because of Mr. Lee. He’s the only one that had hurt her in her life. It all happened the day she went to get a abortion. That was before your best friend, their son, was born. Mrs. Lee left your friend’s sister, their one-year –old daughter, to the care of Mr. Lee.

She went to have the abortion, alone.

When she got back home, she found her daughter had pooped and now crying in bed. Mr. Lee had left their daughter to the care of an inexperienced teenager who then went out to play.

Like all young men in those days, Mr. Lee liked to play, especially basketball. That day, he went to play basketball.

Mrs. Lee was furious. She went to the basketball court and screamed at her husband. How could you let me go have an abortion alone and leave the daughter crying in bed with a wet diaper? She screamed hysterically at her husband.

Then he hit her. Let’s say when Mrs. Lee told you that, she was still seething with anger. That’s when I said to myself, she said, that I would make life miserable for him for the rest of his life.

Let’s say you took a look at Mr. Lee, the timid and skinny and quiet Mr. Lee. You could not believe he could have hit anyone. But let’s say he’s quiet. He didn’t protest.

Let’s say on the most recent trip, you visited them again and took a walk with Mr. Lee along the river. It would be summer and the weather would be humid and the willows would sway with much difficulty. Let’s say Mr. Lee walked slowly by you, and he would sigh, again and again.

They were retired now. They spent most of their time inside their apartment, cleaning. Mrs. Lee wanted her apartment sparkling clean. She covered everything with plastic. The furniture needed to be wiped everyday. The floors needed to be mopped everyday. And the clothes needed to be changed and hand-washed everyday. Mr. Lee was directed by Mrs. Lee everyday to do these household chores. And cooking. He only had a little free time at night, to watch a little basketball.

Their son was in America, far away, having his freedom. I hope he finds a nice girl, Mr. Lee said to you by the river.

Mr. Lee fought a lot with Mrs. Lee in the first few years of their marriage. I didn’t expect her temper to be like that; if I had know known, maybe… he hesitated. He said he stopped fighting with her after their son was born. He said he had thought about divorce. But he wanted his family to be together. Moreover, in those days, the party rarely approved divorces; those who succeeded usually had to gone through lengthy re-education process and carry a bad name for the rest of their lives.

So Mr. Lee gave up fighting. He wanted to save face. He didn’t want the neighbors to hear, the neighbors who always stuck their ears to any crevice on the walls (and there were many) to hear, and to gossip the next day.

But Mrs. Lee got only worse. She was a kind and hardworking woman. But she would scream whenever she couldn’t do things her way. She would comment loudly on others when it’s not her place to comment. Her high-pitched voice could be heard in the whole apartment building commanding everyone in the family.

That affected Mr. Lee at their work unit. He saw his peers, those with college degrees, got promoted one by one. He thought it was because of his family background, the slight-anti-revolutionary rich peasant label. He wrote repeatedly to the work unit’s party secretary to express his loyalty to the party. He wanted badly to be admitted into the party. He thought that’s the only way to get promoted.

Let’s say you remember your best friend once telling you about reading those letters which he had discovered by accident. Let’s say you remember him telling you that those letters were pathetic. That generation, that inexplicable red generation.

After the cultural revolution, Mr. Lee finally got accepted into the party. The work unit gave him a few chances to manage projects. He got promoted, but still at a much slower pace than their peers.

One day, he finally garnered enough courage and approached his manager. After much hesitation, the manager told him – it’s your wife; if you could not manage your home well, how could the work unit trust you with demanding work?

He was angry, angry at his wife. But the years of bottling up sealed the outlet of his anger.

The most heart-breaking, let’s say he would tell you, was actually not about the job. It’s about his family in the village. Mrs. Lee had forbidden Mr. Lee to be in contact with his own family.

How come? Let’s say you would be shocked.

One day, Mrs. Lee told you her version of the story – that when she was pregnant with the first child, Mr. Lee’s stepmother came to the city to help. But Mrs. Lee had to take care of her, with her belly huge, and go around buy cigarettes for her, because the traditions of the countryside demanded respect of the daughter-in-law to the mother-in-law.

Let’s say Mr. Lee would tell you the contrary - that when his step-mother arrived in the city, she carried eggs and fruits and gifts from family, in a huge basket on her own back. She tried to help out in her awkward countryside way which Mrs. Lee detested. Then Mrs. Lee got furious when Mr. Lee paid much attention to his step-mother, out of filial tradition, than to her.

From then on, whenever Mr. Lee contacted his family, Mrs. Lee would throw a fit.

From then on, whenever there’s relative visiting Mr. Lee from the village, Mrs. Lee would throw a fit. The relatives slowly stopped coming. Mr. Lee’s third brother would write him, repeatedly, asking why Mr. Lee was forgetting the family in the village.

When Mr. Lee’s father died, Mrs. Lee didn’t let Mr. Lee go back for the funeral. Granted, they were poor and there were too babies to feed. But it was my father! Let’s say you would see tears in Mr. Lee’s eyes. You let him continue.

When Mr. Lee’s step-mother had a stroke, Mr. Lee did get to visit her. The kids were grown and the family was more comfortable, financially. Three months after he returned to the city, she passed away. He didn’t get to attend the funeral because it would be a waste of money. Let’s say tears were now running down his face.

Now Mr. Lee was cut off from his family in the village. His daughter was a banker in Shanghai, his son an engineer in San Francisco. His third-brother sent him a family genealogy book. Neither his daughter or son cared for it. And now he couldn’t find it.

Mrs. Lee could have destroyed it.

Let’s say Mr. Lee told you that he felt so cut off. You couldn’t help asking – why? Why not…?

You hesitated. Your best friend had told you before that in college he had suggested divorce to Mr. Lee. The kids were grown then.

Let’s say Mr. Lee told you, after sighing, that Mrs. Lee had many physical problems. Who would take care of her if he leaves? She fainted easily. What if one day when she’s alone, she could faint and never wake up? But he longed so much to have some time to himself, to do what he wanted instead of cleaning and cooking everyday, and mostly of all, to visit his family before they would go away, forever.

Let’s say you looked at his teary eyes, you wanted to cry. Let’s say you would like to tell him about personal freedom, happiness and the courage to seek them all, the notions that the young generations grew up with. But you look around at all the marriages, all the personal struggles you know. You are old enough now to feel the weight of human stories and tell the complex of rotten situations, old enough to know that the same story is being replayed over and over all over China. What could you say?

Let’s say you desperately try to say or do something, to make their lives better, if only a tiny bit better, what would you do? What could you say?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

No Ask, No Tell

When we moved into our new three-bedroom apartment, our friend Clayton reminded us every chance he got, “oh oh, you’ve got to hire Xiao Luo as your Ayi (maid). He’s so good at cleaning, doing laundry, and everything else in the household. He even pays the phone bills for you. And he needs the money right now cause his wife is pregnant with their second baby.”

Clayton is the kind of friend who’d drag you to his newly-discovered restaurant of the month and keep organizing dinner gatherings there until you agree it’s one of the best in Beijing. He’d talked most of our expat friends into hiring Xiao Luo. So bowing to peer pressure, we hired him as well.

We liked Xiao Luo immediately after we all met. He’s short with a dark complexion, and always ready to put up a smile when addressed to. His politeness was so extreme that it made me uncomfortable. For it seemed to remind me how big a gap exists between us.

Our dry cleaner wasn’t impressed though. “Why do you hire a man maid?” She asked when I made one of my last trips to drop off dry cleaning now we have Xiao Luo. She had just met him earlier that day when Xiao Luo picked up some clothes. “Cleaning is a woman’s job,” she said.

I smiled and didn’t bother to protest her OMG sexist comment. Unlike the hourly maids who are mostly inexperienced country girls, Xiao Luo cleaned the rooms like how my mother would, leaving no trace of dust behind. He agreed to come twice a week and we pay him US$75/month. Twice as much as the hourly maids, it’s well worth it.

The second time he came was a Sunday. He did laundry for us for the first time. As he was folding all the underwear neatly on our bed in the master bedroom, I asked him about his background (he came to Beijing 6 years ago from Anhui province), how he followed his wife into the ayi service (the restaurant business he was first involved in was too competitive), and how they are managing a second baby with the family planning policy (“we are allowed to have two babies in the countryside”).

Then he turned to me, “Mr., how should I separate out the underwear for your two?”

The question stunned me for a beat. I thought Xiao Luo should have a decent gaydar running since he’d worked for over two years for Clayton and his partner. Clayton only has a sofa bed in his guest bedroom which is only pulled out when guests come. Surely Xiao Luo couldn’t have thought that Clayton and his partner slept in the same bed to save on the heating bills during summer.

“Mr., what should I do with the underwear?” Xiao Luo asked for the second time.

“Oh,” I snapped out of my wondering, “just leave them there. We will sort it out ourselves.”

After Xiao Luo left the bedroom, my boyfriend, who had been watching nearby, turned to me, “What happened to you? Are you not the outest person I know?” I had often lectured him on the merits of coming out to his straight friends, and ultimately, to his family.

“I…I just don’t want to confuse him.” I picked up the underwear and stuff it into a dresser drawer as my boyfriend laughed.

The issue kept on coming back. On several subsequent occasions Xiao Luo asked similar questions on whether he should separate dry cleanings, socks and shirts. Every time I gave him the same answer, “Don’t worry. We will sort it out.” And my boyfriend kept on making fun of my closetedness.

I still don’t understand why I feel embarrassed to come out to him, especially after coming out to my family and now anybody who bothers to ask me any trivial question about my relationship status. Is he really that clueless? He never had to make the bed in the guest bedroom!

But for Chinese who often grow up in cramped living space where several would share the same bed, this may not appear that strange. Same-gender bonding can be really close without raising eyebrows. Many in the educated class in Beijing have heard of homosexuality which they regard with curiosity and/or disgust. Nevertheless in the Sanlitun embassy district, one can often spot off-duty security guards, mostly from the countryside, holding hands while strolling in their uniforms.

Xiao Luo looks just like that, innocent and simple. I didn’t want to disturb that innocence.

A couple of weeks later, Xiao Luo helped us organize summer clothes and put them away in storage. My boyfriend pulled out several long Ts, “these I’d like to keep for the winter.” Xiao Luo grabbed them and stood up, “I’ll go put them in the guest bedroom’s wardrobe for you then.”

As soon as Xiao Luo went into the guest bedroom, my boyfriend gave me an evil stare and stamped his foot, “This is my apartment!” Xiao Luo had apparently assumed I was the owner and my boyfriend, who bought the apartment, was the one subletting. I laughed as my boyfriend continued to seethe with anger. “You’ll have to do something,” he said.

A week after that one of my friend was coming to visit for a week. I took this opportunity to instruct Xiao Luo that we needed to empty out the wardrobe in the guest bedroom and put all the clothes of us two in the master bedroom.

“Everything?” He asked.

“Everything.” I affirmed.

For the next hour, I felt he avoided looking at me when he passed by me in the apartment. Or was it me?

Regardless, he never asked again whether he should separate out anything for us from then on. Now we can admire the neatness of our underwear, carefully folded and organized in the drawers in the master bedroom, without feeling the slightest embarrassment to explain anything.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Chinese are not racist (Part II)

I’d been trying to get into Maggie’s for the past one year and a half since I moved to Beijing. It’s not that I desperately needed to hookup with Beijing girls (Heaven forbid!). But Maggie’s reputation as the ultimate pickup joint in Beijing intrigued me. I imagined a place draped in aged velvet and lit by red lanterns, a cross between Moulin rouge and an opium den.

In the summer of 2004 I made the first attempt. A male Chinese friend of mine was visiting from the US. He was tired of meeting country girls at KTVs so I took him to Maggie’s.

We were stopped at the door. The two security guards there informed us that the place was membership only. I asked how we could get a membership. They looked again at my baggy jeans and my friend’s blue dress shirt and khaki pants, then shook their heads – they no longer issued new memberships.

Later my Beijing friends told me that I should have spoke English with them. That place was Lao Wai (foreigner) only.

Last night I made a second attempt. My friend Michael was in town with his Caucasian colleague Steve for some financing deal involving astronomical numbers. At dinner I told them the story of my luck at Maggie’s and asked if I could borrow Steve to get me in there. Steve enthusiastically consented.

Just to be sure my first experience wasn’t atypical, I walked ahead of them and approached the door by myself. Maggie’s had moved to a new location but there were still two security guards. They stopped me with their extended arms.

“Mister, it’s membership only.”

“How can I get a membership?” I acted all innocent.

Their hands retreated to their pockets and brought out a pack of cigarettes. “We are not giving out any more membership.”

“Are you telling me,” I raised my voice a notch, “that my American friend visiting all the way from America CANNOT get into your bar?” I pointed at Michael and Steve who had arrived at the door by now.

They stared at Steve’s big frame and warm American smile for a beat. Then they waved towards the inside. “You can go in this time.”

The inside of Maggie’s was not too far from what I had imagined. Half lit by red table lights, the couch covers did appear velvety. Along the extended bar, more than ten young Chinese girls, all wearing heavy makeup and short skirts, drifted about lethargically.

It was still early, only 9pm. There were two Caucasian guys sitting at the bar. Inside by the dance floor, two mid-aged Asian men were talking to four more girls. The disco ball rotated light spots on the floor sleepishly.

We sat down at the bar so all the girls could easily spot us, and ordered RMB 50 (US$6) drinks which were not too bad. Within five minutes three girls came to talk to us. Mind you, they were not hanging out after work; they worked for the bar. We ordered drinks for them that cost RMB 100 (US$12) a piece.

Steve later told me that the girl talking to me, Sophia, had the best body, which I didn’t notice. I liked her personality though. At the tender age of 20, she had the flightiness of a young kid, bouncing around me constantly.

“Later on this place will be more fun. There will be a lot more people after 11.” Sophia sipped her drink. Two new Caucasian customers walked in. She glanced at them and mentioned casually, “I actually like Chinese guys a lot more than the white devils.” I liked her immediately.

“Is it true that Chinese are not allowed here?” I poked at her. She winced dramatically and whined, “that hurt!.” Then she yelled across Steve at the girl in Steve’s arm, “Cindy, how many Chinese are allowed in with each white guy?”

Cindy stuck out two fingers.

Sophia then turned back at me, “you and that Chinese guy are allowed in since you are with him,” She pointed at Steve.

“How about them?” I gestured towards two Asian men walking in.

“Don’t you see they have the membership cards?” She went back to her drink. I saw one of them putting a card back in his wallet.

I wanted to ask her how a Chinese could get a membership card but immediately felt pointless. What else? – The Asian men there were all business looking with well-coifed hair, slightly protruding bellies and mechanical smile. Money speaks as loud as race.

“What if I needed company back home? Would you go with me?” I finished my drink and decided that’d be my last question.

Sophia giggled, “you are such an impatient monkey!” Yeah right, I said to myself.

“No we don’t go out until we finish working here at 3:30 in the morning.” She looked into my eyes as if daring me to stay until she’d become available.

“But suppose I really needed company now.” I pressed on, fully realizing that it’d be among the worst pickup lines in your average straight bars.

Sophia laughed out loud. She shared my seeming lustfulness with her girlfriends. Everyone laughed.

“The Mongolian women here would go with you.” Then she pointed at the far corner of the bar. “See there?”

In the dark corner sat a woman with sharp and dark eyebrows and a mature face that looked too serious for the easy merriment of the place.

More people came in. Sophia moved closer to me, her soft body constantly pressing against my thigh and my arm. I told her I needed to leave for home where someone was waiting for me. I asked for her number and promised to make her a star in my next documentary film.

We each tipped the girl RMB 200 for keeping us company. They walked us to the door.

On our way out, I passed by the Mongolian woman who continued to sit expressionlessly. I wondered how she felt trying to squeeze a living between the Chinese girls and the Caucasian men everyday.

At the door, the girls all kissed Steve good night. I just couldn’t help asking one more question, “Is the owner of the bar Chinese or Lao Wai (foreigner)?”

“Chinese. And call me the next time if the guards don’t let you in.” Sophia smiled at me with a wink, then flew back in with quick steps.

We walked into the street where the fog, with all the pollution and dirt trapped in it, embraced us. I dug for the positives of my evening experience and found this one –

At least we have passed the stage where foreign colonists forbade Chinese into fancy establishments. Time has indeed moved on.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Chinese are not racist (Part I)

Overheard while walking home in the evening darkness – Two young women and one guy, all white-collar office worker type, strolled behind me, looking like having just finished dinner together.

Girl 1: Now it’s your turn to tell a joke.

Guy: Ok. (Thinking for a beat) Here’s one. A Chinese guy prayed to God, “God, please let me fly.” God heard his prayer and granted his wish. He gave him two wings, and the Chinese guy turned into a yellow angel. Next a white guy prayed to God, “God, please let me fly.” God granted his wish and gave him two wings, and the white guy turned into a white angel. Lastly a black guy prayed to God, “God, please also let me fly.”

Girl 2: And he turned into a black angel?

Guy: Be patient. So God heard his prayer and granted his wish. He gave him two wings, and the black guy turned into a bat.

All: Hahaha.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

One needs patience in China

Eight fifty in the morning, while still brushing teeth, I got a call from a reporter. I had sent my resume to all the foreign correspondents in Beijing to look for freelance interpreter job. Eric was the first one called. He had just been granted an interview with the CEO of Phoenix TV at the last minute.

Phoenix TV is the largest Chinese-language satellite TV provider. Partly owned by Murdoch’s News Corp, its news and entertainment channels are accessible in China’s foreign compounds, fancy hotels and upscale apartment complexes, touching millions while out of reach for the common Chinese. Operating from Hong Kong, it’s not subject to China’s tight media control. However, in order to expand its footprint in China and avoid being blacked out during sensitive reporting like CNN, it exercises self-censorship to appease the Mainland government.

One hour later we arrived at the Diao Yu Tai State Guesthouse where the CEO keeps an office when he visits Beijing to dine and wine the officials. During the taxi ride Eric showed me some background materials on Liu Changle, the CEO. Liu started his career as a soldier, advanced through the ranks and then spent 10 years working for the Chinese Central Radio Station. He quit his state job after the Tian’an Men movement in 1989, moved to Houston to trade oil for a state company, went solo afterwards and made loads of money through connections. He then moved into entertainment and started Phoenix TV. The success of Phoenix is in large part due to his finesse with dealing with both Western investors like Murdock and the Chinese government.

At first glance Mr. Liu, dark-skinned and slightly overweight, looked not much different from your typical arrogant nouveau-riche in China. But up close he made everyone at ease with his warm smile and firm handshake. Even though he spoke English very well, he asked me to interpret the interview.

The interview was conducted in a conference room with us sitting around in individual brown-leather sofa seats, very much like how the governmental officials greet foreign dignitaries on Chinese TV news everyday. Eric asked mostly on the recent government crackdown on foreign media – Yahoo was forced to handover data that led to jail term for a Chinese journalist who posted a government edict online; no more media joint-venture was approved and many approved ones were forced to scale back.

The most glaring was the government shutdown of a joint-venture between Star TV (owned by News Corp) and the obscure Qinghai Satellite TV. Many believed that in the chaotic and seemingly lawless China, one can always go ahead until stopped by authorities. Star TV did just that, forming a round-about partnership with a local TV station when the official policy prohibits that. It still shocked many in the industry though when it was shut down, because Murdoch had worked hard to please the Chinese government. But apparently those in power didn’t cut him any slack.

When Eric probed Liu on this incident, Liu replied that he didn’t think that the government is changing its policy, but rather just adjusting the speed and steps of opening up the media industry. He opined that Star TV and Mr. Murdoch (whom he called his friend and partner) made some “technical errors”, and many coming to China expect the government to open the media industry a lot faster than what’s realistic.

Eric then asked about the recent visit of Li Ao, a famous writer and political maverick in Taiwan, to China. Phoenix TV sponsored the event and broadcasted Li Ao’s many speeches live. During Li’s speeches on China’s college campuses, he attacked everybody, including the government for not allowing freedom and even the students in audiences for their lack of political aspiration. Eric asked if the government had asked Liu to persuade Li Ao to tone down.

No, Liu said. His mobile phone was on the whole time and nobody called. He said he was actually more concerned because no one had called to complain.

Then the questions moved to his personal life, such as the following:

Question: Are you a member of the party?

Answer: I was, when I was in the military, for over 10 years.

Q: But you didn’t renew it when you left?

A: (avoiding answering directly) In the summer of 1989 I left my state employment. Like many others in that era, I “went down into the sea” (note: Xia Hai, a Chinese expression for going into private business back in the 80s and 90s when China just opened up).

Q: Important time, the summer of 1989?

A: I don’t want to say too much. You look at the time, you know what happened. For media people it’s still a very sensitive topic. I don’t want to elaborate on it. At that time a lot of people in the media “went down into the sea”… for complex reasons.

The Washington Post story on Liu told of him coming back to China and talking the officials into releasing two prominent dissidents jailed after the Tian’an Men movement.

Once I savored the hidden message in his answer, I had a new respect for this complex man – this is a man who had quit his state job and party membership in protest after June 4th, who rescued his friends from jail, who is a super wealthy businessman and a devote Buddhist, who now maneuvers between the international standards of free journalism and a media-phobic Chinese government, and who believes that democracy will eventually come to China but not now and probably not exactly after the form of the West.

Lastly, when prompted by Eric, Liu offered this sincere advice to anxious media investors like Rupert Murdoch:

“He (Murdoch) shouldn’t despair. To do business in China right now one needs patience and dexterity. He has always been persevering and passionate about his work. In dealing with China he has to continue this style. This is still after all the biggest developing economy in the world.”

We shook hands when we bid farewell in the hallway. He pulled me to the side and asked with that warm smile of his, “can you ask the reporter not to write up anything I said about June 4th?”

When I relayed this request to Eric, he replied:

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.” A moment later, he added,

“There’s rumor that he helped orchestrate the fallout of Murdoch’s partnership with the Qinghai Satellite TV.”