Thursday, June 30, 2005

Follow the way of the communists

After the Religion Bureau emphatically shot down my petition to do a documentary on Christians in Beijing, I called back the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of the Protestant Churches of China for guidance. “Please,” I pleaded over the phone, “tell me how I could sway their opinion. All I want is to do a positive portrayal of the believers. Sure there must be a way.”

It was only later that I understood that the Three-Self Committee was a religious organization made up of Christians, and the Religion Bureau of bureaucrats extending the reach of the communist propaganda machine. At the time of the call, I smelled kindness through the phone line and I hustled to all my might. The female voice hesitated on the other end of the line. “Why don’t you call Mr. Wen in our Committee? He produced a promotional film on Beijing Christians. Maybe he can help you.”

I called Mr. Wen and arranged to meet with him two days later. The office building of the Three-Self Committee is located in Dong Dan, a bustling shopping area close to Tian’anmen Square. The two-storey building itself, with its traditional up-turned eaves and gray walls darkened by age, stood in stark contrast to the shops around it competing in noise and vulgar store-front designs to attract customers.

Mr. Wen came out of his office and greeted me. He wore a short-sleeve white shirt, long black pants and pointed leather shoes. If he had been carrying a fake-leather man purse, I could have mistaken him for a typical Beijing businessman. Except he smiled a lot, quite warmly.

We exchanged business cards. He studied mine. “So your company is based in the US. Where is your office here in Beijing?”

I had just registered an LLC (Limited Liability Company) in Pennsylvania two weeks before and printed out the business cards several days prior. The local print shop took liberty with the fonts and the sizes, so the cards looked not much different from those of the cab drivers (everyone in China seems to have a mobile phone and decks of name cards). I had also been running errands earlier that day and went to the meeting wearing cargo shorts and an Amnesty International T-shirt. I worried about the first impression I was projecting.

“Oh, my office is in CBD (Central Business District, the prime business area in Beijing).” The Beijing address on the card is of the apartment we are moving into. But nobody had to know it’s not in an office tower. Plus, the name of the company, Tripod Media LLC, transliterated into Chinese as Broad Creation Media Limited Liability Corporation, sounded pretty stately.

We then watched the 20 minutes promotional video. He prefaced it by stating that the video crew led by him probably wouldn’t measure up to the standards of pros like my team. I replied modestly “na li na li (where where)”, and I wondered how he would have acted if he had known I had been the one-man crew for my documentary, and I learned everything I know about filmmaking from this first attempt.

The video, like everything else produced officially on such a weighty subject as religion, was full of superlatives, references to the party and emphasis on progress. The repression of religion during the Cultural Revolution got one line: “The Three-Self Committee and all churches were closed in the Cultural Revolution and suffered a setback.” The video harbored an earnest desire to get the past behind and just move ahead and worship God.

Mr. Wen was no short-sighted bureaucrat. He was in charge of international relations for the Three-Self Committee. The US embassy had just had lunch with him that day to thank him for arranging Condi Rice’s Palm Sunday Service during her trip to Beijing. After watching the video we chatted for a long time, from his joining the church in 1984 to his opinion on why the underground Christians refuse to join the government-sanctioned churches.

Finally, I asked him point-blank – could he foresee any way I could get the government’s approval to shoot in the churches? He pondered for a short while and looked up at me.

“I know your intentions are good. The government needs people like you to provide the outside with an unbiased view of what’s going on.” Throughout our conversation, I continued to play the role of an ardent admirer of the official Christian church in China. Only positives, I kept on stressing, only positives. “The problem is,” he continued, “the government has to be interested enough in your project to let you move forward. It’s still too sensitive.” I could envision the bureaucrats at the Religion Bureau reading People’s Daily, sipping tea from their white ceramic cups and only moving to kill anything on their desk with a fly swatter.

“Have you thought about doing this project in a second-tier city, like Hang Zhou? There’s too much attention on Beijing the capital.” I replied that all my work is on Beijing, and I would like to continue this focus. I was embarrassed to tell him that I couldn’t possibly live in another city; my boyfriend would throw a huge fit, I’m too lazy, among other reasons.

“How about working with a foreign church organization? We helped the Episcopalian Church of America shoot a video all over China. In that case you could talk to the National Religion Bureau directly.” Not likely. Dealing with a US Church and the National Religion Bureau could both be nightmares. Mr. Wen probably thought I had a whole team of secretaries and camera crew who were ready to jump hoops. No, I said, tai ma fan (too troublesome).

The conversation went silent. He sighed. “The only chance I think you have,” he said, “is to write up a proposal. In the proposal you’ll have to convince the government that your documentary will fight back the heresies from overseas, that it will clearly demonstrate that there’s religious freedom in China, and the Three-Self Church is a true believing Christian church.”

So far so good; I grew up in China’s education system writing compositions of false intentions. But then, “You have to promise the government you’ll deliver that. After you’ve finished the film, you’ll have to show the government what you’ve done.” He said solemnly. Otherwise? A slight chill slowly ran up my spine.

“Good.” I said, “When I finish the proposal, can I send you a copy to get your feedback?” What had I been thinking – getting official approval for a controversial (heaven knows why it’s controversial) project? The past 100 years of Chinese history ought to have taught me that things are not done in China that way.

“Just in case,” I asked casually, “that the Religion Bureau still do not approve my proposal. Do you think it could be possible for me to follow the people I interview into church services and shoot with a tiny camcorder?” Chairman Mao famously discussed the merits of guerilla warfare combating the Japanese and the Nationalists. What had I been thinking?

“Oh,” Mr. Wen stared at me for a beat, “in that case at least get the pastors’ permission.”

It looks like there’s still a way.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The difference of an hour

The attraction of Beijing, I often tell my friends in the ever cleaner and orderlier Shanghai, is its chaos. The entire country seems to be dashing towards the utopia of suburbia America, and Beijing, carrying a huge sack of contemporary poses and dynastic leftovers, sprints forward with a determined cacophony. Aesthetically, if one could overlook the handicapped beggars in the streets and the hookers hawking for business on the Bar Street, or even perhaps because of them, the city is a symphony of discordant changes. Aesthetically, it is beautiful.

Then every once in a while, the beauty shatters. Like this morning on my way to meet two friends visiting from the States. I picked up a random newspaper from the subway newsstand. The headline read:
“Desperate Father Committed Suicide to Sell Organs to Save Son with Leukemia”.

People rushed in and out of the subway in the rush hour. I read the newspaper, and got on the train when it arrived. White-collar workers and obese businessmen talked about higher-paying jobs, real estate prices, the wise investment they had made, and such-and-such foreign companies desperately wanting to do business with them. I read the newspaper some more, and got out of the train when it stopped.

I met up with my two friends and we took the bus to Huai Rou, a town one-hour away from Beijing. It’s my friends’ first time in China. I was taking them to the Yellow Flower Great Wall. Compared to the more famous segments of the Great Wall, like Badaling or Mutianyu, Yellow Flower was much less spoiled by visitors. A year ago when I went there for the first time, it was still largely wild. Villagers set up blockade on the path to the Wall and were charging 2 kuai ($0.25) for entrance fee. Standing on any one of the watchtowers, one could feel history pulsating along the Wall that meandered like the arteries of the land. Last fall when I went there for the second time, workers were everywhere putting new bricks up. The government had started restoring the site to absorb the overflowing travelers visiting the Great Wall, especially with the 2008 Olympics coming up. I wanted to see Yellow Flower again before tour buses arrive with crowds of tourists.

The bus was stuck in traffic for a good hour trying to get out of Beijing. Unlike Shanghai, Beijing still does not control the number of license plates it issues. The city streets and major highways are becoming increasingly congested. Trucks cut over buses, taxicabs squeezed in front, private cars honked. My friend Anthony was busy snapping photos through the bus windows. This was, as we joked, his first trip to the “Third World”.

In Huai Rou, we hired a private car to go to Yellow Flower. The young driver informed us that the government had taken over and shut down access to the Wall there during restoration. Instead, he suggested we go to another part of the Great Wall, Jian Kou, near the village where he grew up.

Jaded city folks as we were, we suspected that this might be a scheme commonly used in China to trap innocent tourists. But we had no choice. My American friends had to visit the Great Wall to be real men, as the ancient Chinese saying goes.

Once out of the busy town center, my uncertain nerves were calmed by the green hills, the singing brooks and the abundant orchards. The countryside bore almost no connection to the bustling urban life that is just one-hour drive away, except for the empty roadside restaurants lethargically waiting for the city folks visiting on the weekends. As the car climbed up the hill, we saw the Wall as a vague lining over the top of the rolling hills far away.

We stopped at the village in the valley to get lunch. Everybody seemed to know the driver. At the booth set up illegally by the villagers to collect fees, the driver talked to the guy in charge, a distant cousin of his, and got us in for free. He then led us to different families to ask for lunch. The only restaurant by the roadside was closed, the owner nowhere to be found. One family took us in. The wife, the sister of the driver’s uncle’s brother-in-law, made rice, omelet, green pepper and shredded pork for us, while the husband handed out cigarettes as a token of hospitality. The yard was being renovated. Workers were adding a new room to take in the travelers who had started visiting the still-wild Jian Kou Great Wall.

We sat on the kang, a stone communal bed for the entire family, and admired the Mao posters and the wardrobes and clocks from twenty years ago. It’s hard to fathom that people still do live for real in an environment that would be otherwise considered kitschy hip interior design by urban yuppies. The meal came and we ate. The husband tried to strike a conversation with us. His two long front teeth, yellowed by years of smoking, protruded prominently whenever he smiled, which was very often. The wife dutifully sat farther away.

When we finished, the old couple walked us to the car. They charged us only 10 kuai ($1.25) per person. They waved at us, as we got in the car. “Come again”.

The driver drove us into the hill. He parked the car and led us up a narrow path. Twenty minutes later, we were on the Wall. It’s called Jian Kou because the low point of the Wall straddles the ridge of the hill, in the shape of a bow.

Other than 5 Chinese who hiked up in their leather shoes and carrying a puppy, the Wall was completed deserted. No restoration had been done to it, at least not in the near past. Stones had crumbled. Bricks fell apart. Trees and bushes overgrew. “Last week a girl fell from a loose edge of the wall, and died.” The driver told us.

We hiked up, on all fours, up the Wall to a high point. The view was breathtaking. The Wall stubbornly climbed up and down the hills, always challenging the high ridges. Where we stood, we could see it circling the valley and extending as far as the eyes could see. Pure splendor.

A light fog was coming in. I breathed in deeply. It’s probably just a matter of time before this place is overrun by tourists. But no matter how fast new development encroaches, no matter how easily commercialization seems able to take over, the land appears big enough to harbor unspoiled beauty, in the people and the scenery.

And I realized one of the biggest advantages of living in Beijing is that it’s so easy to get out of its intoxicating chaos. It only takes an hour.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

East meets west, furniture-style

“I’ve heard you were in the media business before you started selling furniture.” I made an attempt to change the subject after a brief awkward silence. Mr. Li had just proclaimed “having Chinese elements in the furniture design is the most avant-garde”. But my boyfriend, whose new apartment we are moving into, had insisted on a light and airy European style; none of the heavy and intricate Ming woodwork presently crowding around me in Mr. Li’s furniture shop.

“Oh yeah. I worked for SARFT (the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) for seven years. Before that, I was a diplomat in Europe for eleven years.”

Kristin, an expat friend of ours, had encouraged us to talk to Mr. Li about custom-made furniture. “He understands how to combine the East and the West in some very exciting designs”, she said. Excited, we invited him to visit our empty new apartment. In his late 40s and sporting a carefully trimmed balding head, he carried a patient smile and a confident ease. But his suggestions were less than exciting. We were both unwilling to make our pad into yet another slightly(or not)-fetishized display of affection for the East. As a stay-home filmmaker constantly pestered by the boyfriend to do more for “our” new apartment, I felt obliged to talk to him again to narrow our differences.

“All of the TV satellites covering China now,” he pointed to the roof, “I negotiated and bought them.” The fan buzzed loudly on the Ming bed next to us. Sweat was rolling down my back. It’s one of those sauna-like Beijing summer days. “Why did you leave that business?” I looked around again at the crowded furniture show room and asked him. The Ming bed looked like those in the hip opium-den-themed bar frequented by the expats.

“I’ve never left.” His eyes lit up. “I made a few TV programs for CCTV (China’s central Television station) while at SARFT. They are still asking me to do programs for them.”

He cited one of the most popular talk shows on TV. After talking about the show for a good 15 minutes, I finally understood that he contributed the idea, not the show. But I was glad that our conversation had evolved into something I could pretend to understand.

“I’m talking to CCTV now about a new show, around this guy I know, Mr. Liu. He’s a famous folk musician, calligrapher and composer. He spends most of his time at home reading, practicing calligraphy and playing music. His knowledge about Zen is next to none!” He exclaimed.

“What is the show about?” I imagined an old guy in long white beard and long white robe playing the ancient musical instrument Qin while slowly sipping tea and every once in a while, sighing wisely.

“It will be Mr. Liu talking about Chinese culture, using everyday situations as examples. He’s very learned and he can articulate his thoughts, which is rare among those deep in Chinese culture.”

I checked my urge to ask him about audience segmentation, targeting and all the other un-artisty questions. “That’s really cool.” I said. “When are you going to start?”

“We are still talking to CCTV. My condition to doing the show is that I have to have the international rights. But they are not willing to let go of them.”

“It’s not like they know how to sell the rights!” I shook my head in camaraderie. We shared some anecdotes on the ineptness of the state-owned behemoth.

“Exactly. Those guys have no clue what the audiences want.” Mr. Li’s all-knowing smile never faded for a second. “My proposal is to do this show in a courtyard teahouse. You know, the TV show and the teahouse business will create some great synergy together.”

“Nice.” I said.

“Of course the customers of the teahouse will mostly be expats.” He winked at me as if letting me in on a secret. “We both know that nowadays few Chinese appreciate Chinese culture. I’ve been doing seminars for the devils (author’s note: short for ‘foreign devils’, a not-so-pretty way of describing foreigners) for years on the difference between the Eastern and the Western cultures. I studied Western philosophies in college. I know what the devils want.”

If the Chinese no longer appreciate the Chinese culture, is the culture still Chinese? I played with the words, meaninglessly, for a while.

“You see, the Western culture is about the outside, about seeking and getting what one wants. So naturally it’s the culture one needs to get rich. But the Chinese culture is about the inside, about calmness, contentment and happiness. That’s why a lot of the devils are turning to the East for inspiration now.”

Funny, the East and the West I know seem to be very much the opposite as he described. But people all over the world seem to enjoy the easy access of clichés. I remember an interview I helped on as an interpreter back in April. A European documentary film crew visited Beijing as part of their globe-trotting shooting itinerary. They interviewed a famous Beijing real-estate tycoon in a fancy hotel complex by the Great Wall. During the interview, the tycoon recounted a Zen story about whether the flying flag is caused by the blowing wind or our restless mind. At the lunch table after the shoot, the director and the cameraman exchanged exclamations:
“man, that was so deep”,
“exactly the sound bites we are looking for”,
“He’s a busy businessman yet he has such deep thought”,
“only in the East”...
Every one of the crew of 11 nodded in deep reflection. For a moment, I thought about leading the crew to a local bookstore to buy some comic books of the popular Zen stories.

“The thing is,” Mr. Li took a sip of tea, “we’ll have to market the show to the Western audience first. In each episode of the show we’ll play some different traditional music. The laowais (another term for foreigners) know how to appreciate the Chinese culture. The Chinese right now want all things Western. Once they see the laowais want Chinese culture, they will come back to their roots. Like Mr. Liu. Before a Belgian museum invited him over to do a show last year, the Chinese Calligraphy Association wouldn’t admit him. Now they beg him to be their board member. ”

We sighed and shook our heads in sync. “At the end of the day, the East provides true happiness. But we have to have this round-about way to reeducate the Chinese.” He added.

Thunder clapped through outside. It had turned dark. I wished for a hail storm, frequent in Beijing this summer, to clean the stuffy air and to accompany the meaty discussion inside.

A pretty young girl in heavy makeup and mini-skirt poked her head in. Mr. Li waved at her and pointed to the door leading to the courtyard inside. Some disco songs in English had started playing. “We are having a barbecue party.” He explained.

“A couple of weeks ago a Tibetan lama visited me here.” He refilled both of our tiny pretty ceramic teacups as the girl click clocked by us in her high heels. “The lama said that at the core of each of us is the soul, the wisdom. The rest of our body is just a dirty vessel.” Laughter escaped through the door as the girl opened it and went in. A breeze meandered through the room, pulling with it a hint of cool moisture.

“If we discover our true selves, we will find the wisdom deep in each of us. Education and learning won’t help us much.” He slowly sank into a peaceful reminiscence. “Look at Bill Gates. He’s not very educated but he’s super successful. The lama pointed out to me that Bill Gates is the type who has found true wisdom, which is why they are so rich. So if we all discover the wisdom within, we’ll all be successful.”

Raindrops began hitting the roof and the windows haphazardly, which distracted me a little. I kept on sipping tea and nodding my head slightly, pretending to be in deep reflection of his words. I’d done my share, I thought. Now my boyfriend could no longer accuse me of not caring about our new apartment or the furniture designs…

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

When in doubt, google

I've been wanting to start a blog for a year now. I moved to Beijing in May 2004 after having lived in the US for almost 12 years. The first few months were exhilarating – the constructions, the smog, the traffic jams, and especially the smiling chatters of people, all conspiring to evoke a tender nostalgia of a past I had emphatically abandoned. I wanted to write then.

But choosing a blogger proved more difficult than making the decision to move back to China. Do I want photo blogging capabilities? Community based? A CHEAP premium version available just in case I need it? I researched repeatedly for the BEST blogger out there and always balked due to commitment phobia.

And I was doing a documentary then, about how expats view Beijing and its dizzying changes. Many times I found myself repeating the doc’s sound bites, praising the development but condemning the pollution, plus the usual complaints about traffic, people going nuts over getting-rich-quick, etc. It’s hard to have one’s voice unique.

Then something happened yesterday.

I have started researching for my second documentary after finishing my first (ok, it’s never really done). My plan is to follow several Chinese Christians in Beijing and to explore why they believed in this non-native faith and how that belief impacts their lives.

I visited several state-sanctioned churches in Beijing. At Gangwashi Church, the Protestant church in Xi Dan where Condi Rice attended the Palm Sunday service early this year during her trip to Beijing, the young minister said to me, “So you are from the States”. Pause. “Have you watched a documentary called The Cross?”

The Cross is a 3-hour documentary on the underground Chinese Christians and the persecutions they suffered. It was shot in secret in China by Chinese Christians from the States.

I hurried explained, “ No, my interest is not about the government’s policy toward religions. All I care about is the believers and their lives in Beijing.” I need the permits to shoot in any church.

He shook his head. “I don’t understand why those in the countryside would go against the official church. Anyway, go talk to the Three-Self Committee. Maybe they will even help you on this project.” I had gone out of my way to point out the bad press that the official Chinese churches had acquired overseas and how my project could help improve that image.

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of the Protestant Churches of China is the state-approved self-governing body of the nondenominational Christian churches in China. I found their number from the directory service and called. A male voice on the line informed me that the committee could not make the decision. I had to call the Religion Bureau.

The Religious Bureau had just moved and did not have a listing with the directory service. So I called the Beijing Municipal Government and got their number. The guy answering the phone asked me to call their Religion Department. I called and was directed to call the Missionary Department.

“Hello (Ni Hao).” A gruff male voice picked up the phone.

“Hi, I’m an independent filmmaker. I’m planning to do a documentary about Christians in Beijing and how their faith POSITIVELY influences their lives and the social cohesiveness. I’m wondering…”

“You can’t do that. It won’t be allowed.” The reply came curt and sharp.

“But I only intend to…”

“Don’t even think about it.” He hanged up the phone.

Just like that, all my research and preparation swiftly went to naught. For a moment, I sat holding the phone, unsure whether I should seethe with anger or laugh at their stupidity – what are they trying to hide? From what?

Then I remembered my trip to the National Library a few months ago. I wanted to get some shots of newspaper reports on the 1999 Chinese protests against the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The National Library was just starting a major expensive facelift to modernize for the 2008 Olympics. The librarian told me that I needed a level-2 engineer’s certificate or a permit from my work unit in order to access any newspaper more than 2 years old.

This defensive phobia, this tendency to hide, is endemic in the system, even after more than a decade of opening up to rampant prostitution and western-style professional PR damage control.

It’s at moments like this that China makes one want to bang her head against the wall.

Instead, I powered on my iBook. This time, rather than wasting 4 more hours comparing different bloggers, I turned to the 1100-pound gorilla - google.

It feels great to be writing!