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.