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.
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 ticketmaster.com 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.