Friday, July 29, 2005

Divine intervention

(disclaimer: no disrespect to anybody meant in the piece below)

I decided to shelf the documentary project on Christians in Beijing for now when I visited the Guangwashi Church again two weeks ago.

It was a humid Thursday evening. I arrived at 7:40pm to catch the Youth Congregation which the young Minister Zhao had strongly recommended me attending on a prior visit. I had a lengthy discussion with Minister Zhao on some theological issues during that visit. He probably hoped a prescription of testimonials from my young peers would somehow sway a staunch atheist like me.

Ten minutes late for the congregation, I took one of the few empty seats left. The spacious church was jam-packed with worshippers not exclusively young for a youth night. Latecomers had to walk over to the adjacent chapel and watch the proceedings on TV screens.

Indeed a testimonial was going on. Five young girls, in their early 20s and wearing pink skirts, stood facing the congregation in front of the church platform. The girl in the middle, holding a mic, was telling a story of how her prayer got answered one night; the other four swayed their bodies slightly as a piano played soft music nearby:

She worked very late one night. The last bus going to her home in the suburb would have been gone by then. Her friends offered to have her stay with them but she declined. She prayed to God, hard, as she walked to the bus stop because she really wanted to go home that night. When she reached the bus stop, she bumped into a middle-aged woman who’s running towards the bus stop. To her greatest joy, she found the bus waiting at the stop with several passengers onboard. It turned that the middle-aged woman was the driver’s wife. Apparently , the bus driver always waited for his wife to go home each night on the last bus, and that night, the wife was late.

Her story was interrupted several times by hymn singing. The two middle-aged women sitting next to me just wouldn’t stop chattering. The rest of the congregation listened attentively. There were several Caucasian faces there, a few of which were dosing.

After the story, the girl spoke passionately into the mic: “What were the chances that the wife was also late to the bus stop that night? Brothers and sisters, it’s God’s grace that kept the wife late that night so I could catch the bus home. It’s the power of prayers…”

Alas, my resolve to document the Christian faith’s positive impact on the morally deficient Chinese society crumbled at that moment. In my teaching, the story could be simply explained as statistical coincidence. Numbers. Cold hard numbers with no warm old figure behind to make them more humanly approachable.

Of course one could ask why there shouldn’t be a divine power controlling the mechanism of statistics. Even Einstein famously said once "God does not play dice with the universe”. But I can’t accept a god that answers the prayer of a girl late to the last bus on that day, but not on other days, or other prayers on the same day. If only some of your prayers would be answered and you have to stomach the rest, if prayers answered and not answered are all in god’s design, then this theory is way too easy.

Perhaps I was too restless that evening because I was starving, or perhaps because the 1.5-hour service was too long for a non-believer. In any case, when the service was finally over after Minister Zhao’s 30-minute preaching on being nice to your family and a joyful singing with hand waving in the air, I walked outside and waited for my chance to speak with him. I asked Minister Zhao if he could let me use a tiny camcorder to shoot inside the church, as Mr. Wen at the Three-Self Committee had suggested, he said no with a smile. Then he asked me if I’d like to join the other first-timers for a special session for new believers.

I thanked him and left. Now looking back, I begin to realize that I had been fascinated by the topic of faith due to the beauty of its sheer power; but what I found was a faith that made the answers too easy. If every question of mine would be answered by a reference to god, then it would be difficult to engage me intellectually during the project.

So during the past two weeks I have been focusing on a different documentary project on outsourcing. I would like to explore the human side of outsourcing, how it impacts the lives of Chinese and American engineers (with the emphasis on the former since I’m in Beijing) and why as part of globalization, it’s not something for America to fear.

I had met the English teacher for an outsourcing software company at a book reading. He introduced me to the CEO of the company who’s surprisingly open to my project. After showing him a New York Times article on America’s fear of China, he bought my argument that the documentary would help America understand the benefits of outsourcing, and more importantly, show America that outsourcing to China is not just about abstract numbers but also real Chinese people who want to better their lives after some American dreams.

He let me have full access to his company. We even talked about having the company help contact American software engineers who had been laid off due to the outsourcing. I took out my camcorder and microphones on Wednesday night to prepare for the first day of shooting on Thursday.

Then the camcorder went dead and wouldn’t wake up.

Then I took the camcorder to the SONY repair shop in Beijing. It took them a day to tell me that they don’t have the part in China. They have to order it from Japan and it would take at least two weeks, which means I would be idle until I’m due to start working on a film coproduction set in mid-August.

I kicked myself after getting off the phone with the Sony service centers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. Two didn’t have the part. Singapore had it but they informed me that the China service center had to go through a different part ordering process. Oh my god. I hate idling for two weeks.

Then something magical happened. I got a call from the producer assistant from the coproduction. She wanted me to start working on Monday. I will only be able to do limited shooting for the documentary once I start on the set. But at least I don’t have to idle.

See, everything would work out eventually. If one believes in such a design.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Chinese words

On my way to the Beijing Grand Hyatt today, I was busy memorizing Chinese translations of English words. One of my close friends had helped me got an English-Chinese interpreter job at a big seminar on online marketing. I had done a few Chinese-English interpretations before so I accepted the offer with many assurances to him that I could do the job well.

It wasn’t until when I got into the cab that I realized I was so unfit for the job. English has become second nature to me, while Chinese requires conscious mental processing. I was mumbling to myself the Chinese translations of “Relevance”, “Define a market”, “Sales”, “Drive”, “Measure” and “Transactions”, etc. I made a few calls to my friends for help, one of whom felt sorry for me that I had so pitifully lost my native tongue. Then I started laughing.

It’s truly ironic that I’m doing the same memorization drills as I did in high school and college, except it was English vocabulary then and Chinese words now. What a circle.

At the seminar, I was introduced to a very young CEO of a famous American sports-brand’s online subsidiary. When we reviewed his slides together during the break, I asked why he included several graphs on the monthly traffic numbers to his website. He said he suspected that the Chinese Internet companies do not operate based on numbers; he wanted to remind them the importance of numbers.

For a moment, I stared at him speaking in that childish or arrogant (depending on how you look at it) tone of his and remembered the article I had just read in the China Internet Weekly magazine. The magazine interviewed Chen Nian, a co-founder of Joyo, an online retailer that had been acquired by Amazon recently. Chen was rumored to be leaving the company, which he did not deny or confirm. Asked how he felt after the acquisition by Amazon, he answered:

Chen: … Amazon came to China with a strong culture and a strong sense of superiority.

China Internet Weekly (CIW): When you say “strong culture”, are you referring to the corporate culture?

Chen: Let me give you an example. Recently we all have been talking about patriotism. Our generation in the 1980s were once very lost, spiritually. We even thought how great it would be if we were all one big family and no longer had any concept of nation. But after these many years I finally realized – nationalities and personalities are tightly related. When you are faced with a person from a strong culture, he would not rid himself of his discrimination towards your weak culture just because you yourself are outstanding. Absolutely not!

CIW: So was there any discrimination like this during Amazon’s acquisition of Joyo?

Chen: I wouldn’t comment on this statement. I only want to tell you that this is not an issue of corporate issue. It’s a cultural issue. …

The article seemed pretty odd for a tech magazine, with such a lengthy discussion of cultural discrimination. Also a bit heartrending. The portrait of Chen accompanying the article looked as if he was about to cry.

So when I was listening to the young CEO telling me how he would like to come to China and educate the market, I couldn’t help wonder – how much of the Chen’s disillusionment arose from his own superiority-inferiority issues and how much from Amazon’s arrogance?

I told the CEO not to spend too much time on the numbers, knowing the Chinese Internet companies tracked the same numbers as their American counterparts. Then the conversation moved on to his big plans in China, following the now familiar logic – China has a big market, a huge market (!); there’s no category leader for the segment his company is in; they already have manufacturing in China; they’ll win the market once they decide to invest in marketing…

The CEO looks no older than 26. His eyes sparkled when he spoke. He also told me excitedly that he had been telling his friends to convert US dollars into Chinese Renminbi in anticipation of Renminbi’s appreciation. Last night China unpegged the Renminbi’s link to the dollars and the Renminbi appreciated 2%.

“It’s just the starting of the trend. But it surely feels good to get what I’ve been saying validated.” He then winked at me. “Know why I was late for lunch? I went to the bank and changed a lot more dollars into Renminbi.” He had already converted some before the rise of the Renminbi.

“The States are spending on credit from China. Now the Renminbi appreciates, it would make little sense for the Chinese government to continue buying US treasury bonds. And once China stops buying US treasury, the interest rate would go up and then no more consumer spending.”

Basically, he was predicting the collapse of the US economy and a continued rise of Renminbi. “That’s why I started learning Chinese two years ago. The future is here, man.” He continued on in an excitement that’s almost like agitation. “Within five years, I say, the Renminbi will go four to a dollar”, he said, implying a 50% drop in dollars’ value against the Chinese currency. “And when I get back home, I’ll ask to take over all distributions in China.”

My interpretation work turned out not as bad as I had feared. I wrote down a list of Chinese vocabulary and constantly referred to it. I laughed at some of speakers’ jokes but when I translated them, none of the Chinese audiences laughed. So I made a mental note not to attempt to translate jokes any longer.

When I got home, I made myself a cup of tea and read New York Times online. I read Paul Krugman’s op-ed “China Unpegs Itself”. Suddenly I realized that some paragraphs were very similar, almost verbatim, to what the young CEO had said to me this afternoon. I wondered if he had read the op-ed and decided then and there to move his assets to a Chinese bank and move to China to take charge of the parent company’s China business.

Then I made another mental note to myself – it’s time to brush up on my Chinese skills, now the New York Times has also agreed that the US economy depends on China. Maybe even going to a riverside every morning to memorize Chinese vocabulary, like what I used to do with English in high school.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Best Decade

(transcribed from videotape with necessary editing)


My family of eight sit around a table piled with spicy Sichuan dishes. Aunt Lingling (early 50s) hangs up a call on her mobile phone.

Aunt Lingling (to me): Sorry your uncle Zhao can’t come to dinner. He’s waiting to talk to a prospective employer.

Mom (early 60s): Zhao should learn how to hustle out there. He’s been out of work for two years now.

Aunt Rongling (mid 40s, aggressively to Aunt Lingling): Your Zhao is so old school, and stubborn. He needs to adapt. He can’t stay his old mute way. At his old state-owned enterprise, maybe that didn’t hurt much. Now it’s all market economy. Everyone needs to fend for himself. He should go out and meet new friends. Why don’t you teach him that? He needs to set a good example for his daughter.

She stares at cousin Jin (13 yr old, in a pink skirt) who quietly shovels rice into her mouth.

Aunt Lingling: He still thinks as in the 70s and 80s. (chuckles awkwardly) In fact, sometimes I feel like that way too.

Mom (to Aunt Lingling): I don’t know how you young people feel. For me, I like the 60s and 70s.

Me (holding camcorder, swerve to grandpa): Grandpa, which decade do you prefer?

Dad (mid 60s, laughs): Grandpa likes every decade.

Grandpa (early 80s): Me? (Pause) I like this decade but I’m getting old. If only I were younger…

Mom: What’s so good about this decade?

Grandpa: This decade is quite good.

Aunt Lingling (to mom): See, you can’t even compare to dad.

Mom: I still like the 60s and 70s. At that time people live harmoniously, and are honest with each other.

Aunt Rongling (impatiently): You’ve become dumber after the few years living in Shanghai.

Grandpa (pointing at mom): Your brain is getting too old.

Aunt Rongling (her voice up a notch): In the 60s could you live in a three-bedroom apartment like now? Could every family take shower every night?

Mom (waving her hands): I’m not talking about material life. I’m talking about the inter-personal stuff.

Aunt Lingling (gently knocking the ceramic rice bowl with her chopsticks): Aiya, the economic base determines the superstructure.

Grandpa: We live in a commercial society, don’t you understand? A commercial society IS like this.

Aunt Rongling (to mom): You need to change your old way of thinking.

Grandpa (repeating emphatically): Commercial societies ARE like this.

Aunt Lingling: Our economic condition has changed, how can people not change with it?

Mom eats, staring ahead blankly.

Aunt Lingling: Sister, the human relationship you like can’t possibly exist in today’s society. Impossible.

Mom swallows and makes another attempt.

Mom: Material-wise, I like the current decade. But for the way people communicate with each other…

Aunt Lingling: Completely impossible.

Dad has been quiet so far.

Dad (to mother): The society is progressing. Your way of thinking has stagnated at the level of the 60s and 70s.

Mom: I only hope…

Grandpa: In the 60s and 70s the material life couldn’t have been this rich and diverse.

Aunt Lingling: You can’t continue to think that way.

Grandpa: Only in a commercial society can material life prosper. We all need to grasp the laws of economics.

Me (swerves camcorder to dad): Dad, which decade do you prefer?

Dad: Of course I like the present decade. Life in the old days was so boring. Your mom’s way of thinking is outdated.

Mom (cutting in): Like the maids in our days, for twelve kuais a month, they diligently helped the family raise babies. Now you can’t find a decent maid even if you pay thousands a month.

Aunt Lingling: This is an indication that the society has progressed. The economic base has risen.

Grandpa: You still look at the maids with the old perspectives. You should treat them with a new one.

Aunt Lingling (to mom): I’m just a pragmatic person. For those things you can’t change or stop, you have to accept them. Like my husband has been laid off and I’m about to retire with a puny amount of pension. I have to accept that. For you, you want this and that as you would like. It’s impossible. You’d like to have the people as in the old days, but a modern material life. That’s totally impossible.

Dad (chuckles): The economic base determines the superstructure.

Mom: Ok ok, I accept that.

Everyone eats.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Change is good

“Don’t call me Miss. In our Qiang culture, Misses are the lazy ones who just want to stay home and be taken care of. Call me A-Mei (sister) instead.”

We were sitting on low stools around A-Mei and watching her fingers nimbly running over teacups, teapots and an electric stove. It’s the last day of our Jiuzhaigou tour and we were on one of our last obligatory shop visits, tea tasting at a Qiang-minority tea garden, before we could go home to Chengdu. The 27 of us were crammed into a small demo room, the walls worn and bland, reminding me of my elementary-school classrooms from way back in the early 1980 before they got torn down.

“In our Qiang culture, women have to go out and make a living while the men stay home raising pigs and babies.” A-Mei lowered her head after the sentence and carefully poured tea into the tiny ceramic cups lined up neatly in front of her. The guy from Guangzhou, who’s sitting right next to me, looked around the room and commented smugly: “The Qiang culture is still matriarchal. Very primeval.” A knowing “Ah” then followed through the room. The tourists, exclusively of Han ethnicity, murmured among themselves about the unexpected discovery of the exotic.

Ignoring the attention now focused on her, A-Mei pushed the tray of teacups towards us. She’s wearing a bright-pink traditional Qiang dress with a checkered multi-color apron around her waste. Other than the dress, she looked no different from any late-teen Han girl. She spoke Mandarin with a labored choppiness, typical of Sichuanese, which would cause her pigtail to bob up and down.

“This one we are about to taste,” She indicated to us to pick up the teacups, “is called Fragrant Over Thousand Miles. It has blended in many different kinds of pollens. Drinking the tea cures hangover. It also improves the gastro-intestinal and endocrinologic systems. In addition, if you mix used tea leaves with egg white and honey and apply to your face daily, it can prevent wrinkling.” Like everything traditional in China, it had many magic powers.

The tea did smell good. An anxious few picked up their cups. A-Mei raised her voice: “Before you continue, remember the right way to taste this tea is to finish the cup in three sips,” She finished hers in three elegant movements of her mouth, “and do this.” She smacked her lips like a sparrow and let out a satisfied “Tse, tse, tse.” Everyone raised their cups. Some giggled.

“Remember, three sips.” She added. “Those guys who do two or four sips, A-Mei will have to keep in our village and raise pigs for three months.” Laughter and lip smacking surged through the room while A-Mei observed coolly. Guys poked at each other. “Raising pigs for her would be nice” could be heard in the noise, together with something like “I’d like to have a Qiang wife to bring in the dole”. Women hit the backs of their husbands in a pretense to restrain their rowdiness.

The Guangzhou guy called out to me, “Hey, college student (somehow they all think I’m still in college), you are the only single guy here. Why don’t you stay and raise pigs for A-Mei?”

“Ha Ha.” I chuckled dryly, finished my tea and smacked my lips. “Tse, tse, tse.”

“No A-Mei wouldn’t like Han guys.” A-Mei moved to collect the teacups. “You Han guys are too educated. A-Mei didn’t even finish junior high. If A-Mei’s man was more educated, how could A-Mei control him?” She washed the teacups in a bucket of water and left them upside down on the tray to dry.

“You don’t go home and give the money you make to your husband?” The Guangzhou guy’s wife was incredulous.

“No,” A-Mei started heating water for the next tasting, “my grandmother is still the one managing the family finances. All of us have to give her most of our wages.”

The room nodded in sync with an “oh-“ while she poured hot water into the teapot and then quickly drained it, to wash the tea leaves.

“Are there more kids going to school now?” I asked, remembering the elementary school we saw on our way to the tea garden. The school looked pretty new and had a big plaque on the gate displaying the name of the donor company from Shenzhen.

“Of course.” A-Mei expertly washed the tea leaves a second time, poured in fresh water and let the tea brew. “Now with the nine-year compulsory education, everyone gets to finish junior high. But more education is not that good.”

“Why not?” A mother who’s traveling with her teenage daughter was puzzled. The Chinese families were notorious investors in their kids’ education.

“More education makes one restless.” A-Mei was now pouring the new tea into the cups. “Like my sister. She finished college and then didn’t want to come back to live in the village anymore.”

“But life is still getting better right?” The Guangzhou guy quizzed A-Mei in a condescending tone. I disliked the guy because he had picked up five rhododendron flowers right outside of Huang Long Nature Reserve, with their roots up. I wondered what his definition of progress was, how his opinion could represent the prevailing view in China, and whether this sense of progress lacked the necessary self-reflection.

“Yes.” A-Mei replied without any etymological or philosophical equivocation. “Our village used to be so poor that we could only have one meal a day.” A-Mei began turning the cups straight up. “Now we are making more money, every family can afford three meals a day. But most are still not used to it. In my family we have two meals a day.” She started pouring tea. “We have internet cafes in the town now, even though I’ve never been in one myself.”

Wait, progress cannot be this straightforward. I remembered Gao Xinjian and his encounter with a Qiang-village elder in his Nobel-prize-winning Soul Mountain. In the book, the Elder sang ancient Qiang epics to Gao while Gao commented on the beautiful Qiang language losing out to modernity. The Qiang language doesn’t have any written scripts and can only be communicated verbally.

“What do you speak at home?” I asked.

“Sichuanese (note: a dialect of Mandarin Chinese).” A-Mei was once again indicating to us to take our cups.

“No Qiang language?” I was getting somewhere.

A-Mei turned to look at me with her cool eyes. “Not in the town. In the villages high up in the mountain some still know the Qiang language. Like in my family, my grandmother still speaks it to us. We understand it but we don’t know how to speak the language so we answer her in Sichuanese.”

She then turned to the room, “It’s difficult to learn and keep the Qiang language because it doesn’t have any written scripts.” She paused slightly. “Very soon nobody will know the language anymore. Things are changing.”

She said it without the least hint of sadness and proceeded to describe the many cardiovascular benefits, among others, of the new tea in our cups, her pigtail bobbing. For a moment I held on to the image of the Qiang elder chanting epics to Gao Xinjian around a bonfire in a mountain village. But then, I remembered how we Han Chinese abandoned the traditional literary Chinese and how the Europeans abandoned Latin.

Who am I to lament the loss of change?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Economics of A Travel Guide

By the third day of our Jiazhaigou tour, I was furious mad at Mr. He, the skinny tour guide who spoke with an impassive soft tone. During the 10-hour bus ride on the first day, he, with the help from the stocky and loud driver, heavily promoted a performance called Tibetan Royal Banquet and Dance. “President Jiang Zemin proclaimed that this performance rivals the natural wonders of Jiuzhaigou. If you don’t pre-order the tickets now, they will surely sell out tomorrow.”

He peddled tickets to the passengers, three times, in a half-pressuring-half-beseeching way. My parents and I finally agreed to buy one for 160 kuais (US$20).

After the day touring the Jiuzhaigou valley, my dad went to watch the performance. It was mediocre, he reported back later. The venue was half empty, and there were Tibetans selling tickets outside for 80 kuais.

So my annoyance at being cheated boiled to anger when the next day we got the full details of our itinerary for the next two days. Here’s what we paid for:

Day 3
- Got up at 6am
- Toured a Tibetan medicine shop where “doctors” in white coats explain the cure-all benefits of herbal medicine
- Toured a Prefecture-sanctioned souvenir shop where I bought a silver Tibetan bracelet and later found out it’s fake
- Toured a store selling various kinds of “all natural” yak meat
- Lunch and 4 hours touring the Huang Long Nature Preserve
- 5 hours bus ride and arrived at the hotel in a small town at 10:30pm
Day 4
- Got up at 6am
- Toured a facility providing water rafting where fortunately it was pouring rain so we didn’t have to go through a rafting demo
- Toured a Qiang-minority tea garden
- Toured a factory of souvenirs made from yak horns where my mother bought a comb that, when used everyday, was to have special positive therapeutic effects
- Toured a jade factory where the manager offered us a special discount: a RMB 10,000 piece for RMB 600
- Lunch and 4 hours bus ride back to Chengdu

I was furious because it seemed half of the time we were being rushed to different shops where the tour guide and the driver could get a cut of our purchases. On top of that, I was not sure how we got on that tour bus to begin with. I paid for a tour with the China Youth Travel Service, one of the biggest and most reputable agencies in China. Instead, we were picked up by Mr. He from the Ba Shu Travels.

It was on the way back to Chengdu when my anger had yielded to a sense of irony that I had a talk with Mr. He. He explained the economics of the Sichuan tourism industry thus to me:

We each paid RMB 650 (about US$80) for a 4-day package, which was getting cheaper every year due to intense price competition. The price covered 3-nights’ lodging, 3 meals everyday for 4 days, admissions to two national parks and transportation.

Travel agencies actually lost money on each tourist with that pricing. What they decided to do then was to “sell” the travelers to semi-independent tour guides. The tour guides had to pay deposits and pre-pay all the travelers’ expenses during the trip out of their own pockets. Only when they return from the trip would they get reimbursed from the travel agencies, to avoid the tour guides running away with the money. They had to pay RMB 30 extra per head to the agencies to cover the agencies’ loss. Whatever left, from getting cuts of the tourists’ purchases, they can then split with the drivers and keep in their own pockets.

So they had to hustle to get the tourists to buy, because they did not receive any wage. To further complicate the issue, the Aba Prefecture mandates that all tour groups to Jiuzhaigou follow the same itinerary, staying at three different towns and visiting various shops, in a bid to boost local commerce.

The alternative? One can travel independently, pay more than twice the package price and suffer the difficulty of securing reliable transportation.

Many tourists complained about the mandatory shop visits and bouncing among towns. Mr. He told me that during a provincial-level meeting on reforming Sichuan tourism, the Aba Prefecture Governor banged the desk when he spoke – the livelihood of his people depends on the forced shopping activities; tourism accounts for 40% of the total GDP of the Prefecture which had been a poverty region before the discovery of Jiuzhaigou.

Nothing has been changed since.

“Can’t you segment the market and charge a higher price to those who want to spend more time in the park?” I asked, following my MBA instinct.

Mr. He shook his head. “It wouldn’t work in China. If you charge more, who would come?”

I wasn’t sure if he understood the concept of segmentation. Before I got a chance to elaborate, he added, “The Chinese travelers are not like those from overseas. The foreigner travelers want to be with nature. We Chinese…” He struggled to choose the right words.

I gradually got his point – the number of nature-seeking Chinese travelers who’s not counting pennies is too low to justify a segmentation. I remembered the point-shoot-and-go crowds in Jiuzhaigo. It’s all about going sharing photos with the Joneses.

“I know tourism in Hainan and Yunan provinces operate the same way. Otherwise we tour guides can’t make a living.” He sighed, “I think the rest of the country will go the same way soon.”

“This business is tough.” The driver chimed in. Now we had no more shopping to do, they were getting increasingly candid. “Sometimes too many tourists in a group are too cheap to buy anything, then we end up losing money on the trip. Some drivers will get pissed off, and pretend that the bus has some safety problem and drive off without the passengers.” He chuckled. “We are not like you educated people. Making a living is tough.”

“Why don’t you guys complain to the tourism bureau?” I asked.

“What’s the use?” Mr. He stared straight ahead. “In fact on June first, the Chengdu tour guides went on strike.”

The driver cut in excitedly, “In the months of April and May, none of the Guangdong or Fujian tour agencies could get any packages to Jiuzhaigou. You know why? Many of the bus drivers went on strike too.”

Mr. He continued in his calm tone. “What’s the use of that? The government intervened. Nothing has changed since.”

The driver laughed. He lit a cigarette and drove on. We fell silent. It started raining again outside.

“How long have you been doing this?” I wanted to ask, why can’t you leave this shitty business behind?

“In Chengdu, only one year. Before that, I worked five years in Chongqing on the Three Gorges route after graduating from the tourism school. I was actually a migrant worker.” He laughed slightly. “They dammed the Three Gorges and few people visit there anymore. We are just among the millions displaced. I visited Beijing and thought of doing tourism there since 2008 is coming. But my mandarin is not good enough, and the business there is very different. So I’m here, away from my wife and my baby in Chongqing.”

“This business,” he added, “is only for the young. Too demanding. Too little money.”

“What can you do after your body can’t keep up anymore?” I meant to ask, why can’t you choose something else?

“Maybe open up a small shop. A small restaurant. Or an office job in a travel agency.” The bus bounced up and down on the road still in construction. “With our skills, what can we do?”

I looked away from him. Outside the Min River roared angrily as our bus raced along the river. He looked no older than 27. What a difference from the Beijing discussions of getting-rich-quick. What a difference from the San Fran discussions of self-fulfillment.

The bus pulled to a stop behind a long line of trucks and tour buses packed bumper to bumper. There appeared to be an accident ahead. A group of kids had gathered under the leaky roof of a makeshift convenience store at the corner where the road turned.

Mr. He pointed to them. “At least the Prefecture is benefiting economically from all this tourism. Those kids wouldn’t be able to go to school without Jiuzhaigou.” I looked at the kids and their faces and clothes dirty from mud. They were darting between the buses and screaming with pleasure.

The traffic started moving slowly. As we curved around the corner, a kid stopped running, stood up straight and gave us a little-red-guard’s salute.

“It’s a custom here for the kids to salute and thank the tourists.” Mr. He explained as I studied at the kid’s serious expression and his red scarf.

At least some are benefiting.

Men and Nature and My Mother

“If you look to your left, you will see Tibetan yaks grazing.” The tour guide, Mr. He, was again a beat too late pointing out sights of interests to the 27 tourists on the bus. My eyes only caught a glimpse of yak tails as our bus whizzed by cutting across the high-plateau grassland towards the Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area. Mr. He continued to enunciate in Mandarin peppered with a heavy Sichuan accent, “Tibetan yaks are known to be one of the three animals uncontaminated by human pollution. The other two are polar bears and penguins.”

It’s the third time that Mr. He recited the same line. I wondered whether this was highlighted as one of the must-mention facts in the little notebook he constantly referred to. Tour buses, mostly bigger and carrying more passengers than ours, raced pass us left and right. At least a third were dragging black smoke behind their exhaust pipes.

“We are very close to the entrance to the Jiuzhaigou valley now.” Mr. He had to repeat what he had just said in the back of the bus. The mic on the bus was broken. “The Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area is often called Fairyland on Earth.” His face was blank as he spoke. I wondered if all this had become a dreary routine to him. “It’s a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, a World Biosphere Reserve site, a Green Globe 21 site. It’s also a national park. In a recent survey, it was voted by domestic tourists as the top tourism destination.” My father listened attentively. My mother, having feigned indifference, even annoyance, since getting on this tour, was finally showing some interests to Mr. He’s use of superlatives.

It was my first time taking my parents on a tour. Before I went to the States in 1992, my family didn’t have enough disposable income to “waste” on such unproductive luxury as traveling. But people have money now. The domestic tourism industry is growing in leaps and bounds. My parents are getting old. When I announced I would take them to Jiuzhaigou, my mother asked, “What’s there to look at?” And, “You don’t have a job. Why throw money away?” It took a lot of cajoling before she consented to go.

“All the leaders of the Chinese government have visited Jiuzhaigou. They all loved it. Ex-party secretary and President Jiang Zemin have visited here numerous times. He praised the valley as Heaven on Earth.” I yawned. Mr. He had also just told us that twenty years ago, President Jiang Zemin’s son formed a joint-venture with some American investors. The JV developed a supra-five-star hotel complex in a primeval forest near the valley entrance. No wonder President Jiang liked it. (Note: Not sure of its authenticity. But this being press-restricted China, rumors need no substantiation.)

Finally, we were dropped off at the valley entrance among swarms of tourists and the tour guides herding the tourists with their little colored flags held up straight. The mountains were beautifully green, with early-morning clouds still hugging the tops. Mr. He gave us each a ticket. We followed him through the gate and onto a pollution-free park shuttle. At the first sight of a lake, everyone in the shuttle jumped up, “Look, it’s blue!”

Indeed, the most amazing aspect of Jiuzhaigou is the water. A string of small lakes dot the valley between densely forested mountains. The lakes are so deep and clear that one can easily see the old logs lying at the bottom of the turquoise blue water. (It’d be cliché for me to reiterate the beauty of Jiuzhaigou, You can click here to see some of the photos I took.)

When we reached Shuzhen Waterfall, I was thrilled. It’s not high, but it’s very wide. The streams of water rushed down like braids of pearls twirling. I breathed the air deeply. “Isn’t this wonderful?” I asked my mother.

She scanned the waterfall from left to right. “Humph. The American waterfalls are better.” She had visited several national parks in the States when she stayed with my sister in San Diego. Her tepid enthusiasm did not stop her from demanding photos taken in front of the fall. Everybody was taking photos.

What’s even more amazing than the water, in my opinion, was how untouched nature appeared in Jiuzhaigou. I had taken a few trips to the wilderness areas in China. At most places I had visited, strips of forests would have been cleared for crops and plastic bags and bottles dotted the view. But here in Jiuzhaigou, nature seemed to be in its most pristine state. It seemed that my follow Chinese, awed by the beauty of the scenery, were actually picking up after themselves.

Slowly I began to realize that I was only half right. At every scenic stop, a few park employees were picking up garbage with tongs. On in a high-profile place like Jiuzhaigou would the government bother with this kind of detailed caring of nature.

At the Tiger Lake, I asked a kid to pick up the plastic bag he had just thrown on the ground. He looked at me blankly for a few seconds before his dad did it for him.

We followed the tourist crowd, taking shuttle to stops, getting off, taking an easy walk (within a 100-meter perimeter) to the marked scenic spot, patiently waiting for our turn to take a photo (or 2), and getting back on the bus to the next stop. My mother, slowly cheering in this tourist routine, checked the valley map carefully so not to miss any major spot.

On the way to the Long Lake, I noticed a deserted plank trail paralleling the road for the shuttle. I said I wanted to go hiking. My mother gave me a stare, “Why walk when there’s bus to take?” Everybody was carrying a camera and/or a camcorder, most of them digital, and following a Chinese way of approaching traveling – pose, point, shoot and go.

“It’s rather like Disney, isn’t it?” I asked my parents, taking in the crowds putting on Tibetan costumes for photos by the Long Lake. More people were pouring in from the shuttle parking area. On a peak day like this, there were up to ten thousands visitors in the park.

“How could this compare to Disney?” My mother was ever so direct. “Can you two hurry up?” She directed her displeasure at a wife who took too long posing in front of her husband’s camera. When it’s our turn, she flashed a big smile and did a V sign for the shot.

The Chinese way of traveling is also sign-dependent. There had to be a point-of-interest, specifically marked out, to engage the attention of most travelers. At the “Primeval Forrest”, we moved slowly in tight formation on the wooden planks through the forest. Many wandered about, not sure what to look at.

“The tour guide told me the oxygen level here is high.” My mother breathed deliberately. “He said it’s like an oxygen bar. Very therapeutic.”

I tried to look at the trees over the shoulders of people in front of and besides me. The high-pitched chattering and kids’ screaming were making the Sichuan dialect unbearable to listen to. There was no nature, only trees and mountains and water propped up for a Disney joy ride.

Halfway through the circular trail of wooden-planks, a stone stood solemnly, marked with “Primeval Forrest” in fancy Chinese calligraphy. The procession stalled, the crowd agitated. Finally a point of interest. Some stepped off the trail and posed in front of the stone.

Just right next to the stone, there’s a big sign “Do Not Step Off Trail”.

More and more people wandered into the woods. Cameras followed. People sat on trees, hugged trees, circled trees, leaned on trees, or looked up at trees, for photos. The most popular photo spot was still the stone, the calligraphy making photos taken there easily identifiable when shown to friends later.

It would have been a funny New Yorker cartoon.

“Come.” My mother dragged my arm. She and my father hopped off the trail, and got behind the line of people waiting for photos in front of the stone.

“What are you doing? Didn’t you see the sign?” I tried hard not to scream at them.

“We can’t visit the primeval forest without having a photo of it.” My mother shot back at me reproachfully.

What can you do when they are your own parents?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

You are glad you've left when you...

For all the changes that have happened in Chengdu, one thing has stayed the same - the locals' love for an easy life. Most visitors notice the slower pace of life very soon after they arrive. Locals spend hours drinking tea at teahouses and playing mahjong by the streetside. And they love their food.

"Beijing I've been there." My friend Wang Hai said to me at the dinner table in a noisy Sichuanese restaurant. We were waiting for 10 more high school friends to arrive. He continued, "It's just a big village to me. Look at what they eat there. They don't even have decent Sichuan restaurants!"

I didn't want to tell him that there are far more cuisines in Beijing than in Chengdu. In Chengdu, it's spicey Sichuan food or nothing; I hardly noticed here any Hunan or Yunan restaurants that are popular in Beijing, let alone Italian or Indian. I let him talk, enjoying the local dialect that's smoother and more sing-song-like than the Beijing Mandarin.

Our friends arrived slowly. There was Bin who used to hang out with the "hooligans" on the street and once, if I remember correctly, stabbed someone and stayed in the police station overnight; now he's the security chief of a big municipal bureau. Li quit her job with a state-owned enterprise and went into reselling insurance policies; now she owns a car and travels frequently and comfortably. Ming is still satisfied with his police job supervising small vendors, his fat belly serving as the evidence. Yongheng has been with a bank for over 13 years now. His weight has breached over the danger point and he asked me for fitness tips. Song was a mediocre and quiet student in high school; today he's the most successful of the pack.

I asked Song what exactly he did. Yongheng laughed, "wine and dine, relationship building, I know what he does on a daily basis." Yongheng had helped Song on several deals in the past.

Song smiled wryly, "that's how you do business in China." He traded land rights which he had acquired through guanxi (connections); that was low-risk high-return business. Now with the government crackdown, he had changed to real constructions and some merchandise wholesaling. He had just won, yet again through guanxi, a big contract to service the local People's Liberation Army on something.

I couldn't control my naivety, "I have many friends in the hi-tech business in Beijing. Their business practices seem more professional, less this type of under-the-table dealing."

Everyone laughed. Wang Hai tugged at my shirt, "Mouse (my high-school nickname), you've been away for too long. Things have changed. I know the hi-tech businesses in Chengdu. It's all about kickbacks."

Or have they changed? The 1989 student movement started as an anti-corruption rally. I remember that clearly.

Some more friends arrived and the dinner was served. Every dish was soaked in hot chili oil. Beer flew freely. I had to ganbei (drain the glass) with everyone since not ganbei-ing would make the other lose face.

By the time we reached the teahouse by the river, I was half-drunk. We had some tea, and talked about the sweet memories of our high-school years. Those were the best years of my life. I stared at my friends and in my drunken state, saw all still as the young and cheerful friends I used to dream about the future with.

We moved to a KTV at midnight. Ming's girlfriend (Ming was divorced) told me that usually Ming would go "talk business" late at night; but tonight to give me face, he's staying with the crowd.

I asked what "talk business" meant. Everyone laughed again. Wang Hai pointed at Bin, "That's why his wife divorced him. Too much business with pretty girls late at night." Bin ignored him, and picked up the mic and sang a sappy Chinese pop song. He still had a great voice; but he's noticeably balding.

Wang Hai sat down next to me, holding a beer. I had always thought Wang Hai was gay, but he turned out to have been married for 6 years. We avoided talking about our respective relationship status as much as possible.

Everyone picked some Chinese pop song and stood up with the mic. They sang about how they would die for the love of their life, how they would shed tears over the misunderstanding, etc., etc. It's funny to see the overweight macho men emoting in front of the karaoke video on the giant TV screen. After a few more bottles of beer, I got misty-eyed - alas, these were still the friends I knew.

Wang Hai clinked his glass with mine, "Ganbei (drain the glass)." I could barely hold any more beer in my stomach but I did. "Do you know what happened to Jun?" He asked me.

"What happened to him?" I wasn't very close to Jun. I only remember him as a bookish nerd.

"He went insane." Wang Hai replied casually. Hearing the first few beats of the next song, he jumped up. "It's my song." He grabbed the mic from Yongheng.

Yongheng sat down to my right. "I saw it." He shouted to the room. He's quite drunk and shifted agitatedly in the couch.

"We worked in the same bank, you know. Sometimes when I visited his branch, I asked his boss about him. He didn't get anywhere after going there after college. Everyone thought he's too stubborn."

"So they made life very difficult for him." Wang Hai chimed in between his lines of teenage love.

"One day, I went to his branch and noticed the entire first floor had been burned down. The branch manager told me there had been a fire two days before. When I went up to the third floor," he did a ganbei with me before continuing, "I saw Jun hiding behind the door of a storage room. So I went in." He burped loudly.

Bin pushed him, "What was going on with him?" Everyone was getting impatient.

"So I went in." Yongheng picked up some spicy beef jerky and put in his mouth. "Jun giggled. He closed the door behind me, and said to me, in a hushed voice,

'I'll let you in on a secret. It's been two days since the fire and they still haven't caught the guy. Do you know who set the fire?'

I said I don't. He giggled again. He said, 'It's me.'"

Everyone went quiet, except for Wang Hai who continued with some lines like "tears in my eyes burning my heart".

Li finally asked, "Did they find out it was him?"

"Of course." Yongheng answered, quite excitedly. "I didn't tell the police." He added.

"Where is he now?" I asked.

"Who knows? Maybe in some psycho ward. Maybe in a prison." Yongheng's answer coincided with the end of Wang Hai's song. Everyone was quiet until the next song started. It was Bin's turn again.

"I always tell him that he's too inflexible, that he needed to change." Yongheng was visibly saddened now by his own story.

Li shook her head, "in China, if you don't do what your bosses want you to do, if you don't know how to adapt to the way, you get frayed."

For a moment, I could see Jun, wearing a white coat and sitting still on a white bed in a sterile hospital room. And I was very glad that I no longer live in Chengdu.

Monday, July 04, 2005

For whom the past preserves

Whenever I tell people I grew up in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, invariably they would comment, "Ah, that's a good place. Good food. Relaxed people. Truly Tian Fu Zhi Guo (heavenly country)." And if I let them know I haven't been back there for 7 years, those who have visited recently would turn dramatic: "Really? Oh it has changed so much. You wouldn't recognize it when you go back."

Sometimes, the dramatic is not nearly dramatic enough. The fact is, I don't recognize a TRACE of Chengdu since I came back three days ago. Glitzy highrises now dominate the Chengdu skyline. The fancy apartment building my parents moved into 8 years ago, is now the shabbiest in the neighborhood. On my last visit 7 years before, there were still old tile-roofed traditional houses in little alleys. Now they are all gone and the alleys have been widened and paved into avenues. The sight of cranes and constructions rivals those in Beijing and Shanghai. And the big shady phoenix trees have been replaced by dormant neon signs waiting for the night to come to life.

It is as if I was in a dream and some voice insisted, "This is Chengdu!", and I kept on shaking my head in disbelief.

The Chengdu municipal government, proud of its urban development efforts, had invited Long Yingtai, a famous Taiwanese writer to visit the city. Expecting some roaring praise, they got some harsh criticism instead. The ancient city had completely lost its charm in its bid to keep up with Beijing and Shanghai.

In the taxicab, I asked the driver if he knew of any old neighborhood still existing. He mentioned some place the name of which I no longer recognized. The government is preserving it for tourism purposes, he said.

My mom shouted from the back seat, "Why do you want to go there? So backwards." My parents have just moved back to Chengdu after living in Shanghai with my sister for two years. Their apartment got robbed. The robbers got in past a security guard and through the front door. The apartment complex they live in have iron fences now covering the balconies of the first four or five floors. They had missed Chengdu when they were in Shanghai. Now they want to move back to Shanghai.

The driver concurred, "Those old buildings should have been knocked down a long time ago. Who wants to live there? So crowded, and dark."

I don't want to live there either. I remember the days when the whole family of 4, or even 6 or 8, had to squeeze in a one-bedroom apartment, when the neighbors would fight over using the stove in the communal kitchen, when the aunties in the same work unit would gossip about every behavior of yours. I don't want to go back.

But memories would dissipate if bricks and walls that used to harbor them disappear. However, the question often is, for whom we are preserving the past?

"Look, there's some old building." The driver called out to my attention.

To our left, crushed between two constructions sites, limped a traditional house with its inside gutted. The white wall and the gray roof tiles looked anemic. There was a big Chinese character "Chai" (demolition) written on it.

The driver chuckled, "It's still there because they have forgotten to knock it down."

We drove by a road construction. There was a gaping trench along the street. Workers were digging.

"This place will be very pretty once the work is done." My dad commented, satisfied.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The importance of a smiley

I added the blog to my links as China Bashing Center, completely tongue-in-cheek. But this tongue-in-cheek-ness got lost in cyberspace and triggered this.

It just shows the importance of using smileys.

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