Monday, October 31, 2005

Chinese are not racist (Part I)

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

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

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

Girl 2: And he turned into a black angel?

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

All: Hahaha.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

One needs patience in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question: Are you a member of the party?

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

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

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

Q: Important time, the summer of 1989?

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I relayed this request to Eric, he replied:

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

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

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Future Ahead

It’s 10 am in the morning and I’m listening to KQED (the San Francisco public TV/radio station) streaming online and doing my part-time job. Directly ahead outside the window of my study, two construction cranes are waltzing away on the site where two business towers will stand one day. Behind them is the soaring Beijing TV Tower in construction, its empty metal frames glistening in the morning sunlight.

NPR is doing a show on obesity and dieting. First they interview the director of Supersize Me. The director summarize his 1.5 hr documentary in 30 seconds – he ate three meals a day at McDonald’s for 30 days; he supersized everytime he was asked; he gained weight and suffered headaches, trouble with breathing, high cholesterol, and many other health problems. “McDonald has the responsibility to inform its customers of the danger of its food”, he exclaims.

Next the program talks to an obese woman who, inspired by Supersize Me, did a similar documentary by eating three meals a day at McD, but lost 10 or 20 pounds in the end. Unlike the Supersize Me director who didn’t exercise, this women worked out.

Neither is your average McD customer. But hey, if it’s any more scientific, it wouldn’t be art.

The program then moves on to an expert of something, who lambastes the diet industry for conspiring in fanning the hysteria on weight loss. He claims that there is no clear-cut scientific evidence supporting the position that obesity by itself causes health problems. Getting on and off dieting does more damage, he says.

Lastly a female writer comes on. She’s fat, she struggled with dieting all her life, now she’s resigned to be fat and be proud of and positive about it. She hates her friends and relatives who constantly pester her with suggestions of the latest fad diet.

Nobody talks about public health, statistics, or any sort of data. It’s very personal, subjective and, to many, engaging.

Right by my laptop on the desk sits the latest Time Out Beijing magazine. It opens to the article I was reading on the modern architecture Beijing is ferociously building. A Western architect laments that Beijing is in danger of becoming, like New York, an ultra-modern wasteland of architectural mediocrity.

Outside of my windows, the cranes continue their languid dance in their conspiracy to transform Beijing into this mediocrity (Come to think of it, New York is really not that bad, is it?). The radio show is now interviewing an American sumo wrestler who’s huge in size.

I have a sudden attack of where-am-I-now confusion, which I guess is common to bourgeoisie intellectuals with no much time on their hands. On the other end of the Internet (does the Internet have ends?) is America, a future that Beijing is sprinting towards. It’s a future in which Beijingers will have more modern buildings, eat more McD hamburgers, become more obese, and have talk shows discussing the personal opinions on dieting.

Based on the number of fat businessmen and government bureaucrats roaming the streets everyday, it seems we are already half way there.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Blame it on Maria Callas

I got up in the morning with a cold. After finishing breakfast, I sat down in front of my computer with my coffee to start my daily routine – an hour’s part-time work for Google to make my meal money, then writing, and stressing over not being able to write.

I listened to Maria Callas and surfed the web a little. There’s news that the famous writer Ba Jin had just passed away. I read a long speech given by him to some Japanese friends about his life. (for the full text in Chinese, click this)

Ba Jin is also from Chengdu, my hometown. Growing up he was considered a hero, a good son who brought honor to all Sichuanese. The irony is that in his work he lashed hard at the repressive society in Sichuan. Here’s what he said about his growing up experience:

“I grew up in a big landlord family, and spent my childhood between 20 or 30 so-called ‘upper-class’ people and 20 or 30 so-called ‘lower-classed’ people. In the wealthy environment I was in touch with the tragic lives of the servants and sedan carriers. Under the pressure of the hypocritical and selfish elders, I heard the moaning of youth.

I felt that there’s something wrong with our society. But I wasn’t sure what the cause was, or how to fix it. I regarded my big family as an autocratic kingdom. I sat in the prison of old social mores, watching many dear to me struggling, suffering, without youth, without happiness, and eventually succumbing to a painful death. They were killed by the feudal ethics, traditional ideas and the capriciousness of a few individuals. I left my family as if running away from an intimidating shadow.

When I was 23, I ran form Shanghai to a completely strange Paris, looking for a way to save the people, save the society, and save myself. To say that I wanted to save the people and the society, that was exaggerating. But to save myself, that was completely true…”

Ba Jin’s oldest brother, the proto-type for the protagonist of his most famous work, Family, committed the day before the book came out. Ba Jin had dedicated the book to him.

Reading his speech was a wild emotional ride for me. It reminded me of my teenage years shaking in tears while reading Family late at night. It painted a heart-rending picture of the absurdity of the Cultural Revolution in which he yielded to the communist control of his creative freedom. Most of all, I was surprised at the honest passion in this speech, given when he was probably in his 70s. Nothing short of a pure soul could voice yearnings so candid after the many tribulations in his life.

He was nominated once for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But Chinese did not see one of their sons winning the prize until Gao Xinjian, residing in Paris and contemplating the dislocated existence of modern society, wrote a book that befittingly explored humanity in a fashion appreciated by the Western critics and the Nobel committee.

I’d heard people dismissing Gao Xinjian, comparing him to other famous Chinese writers like Ba Jin. It is indeed a pity that readers outside of China are not more knowledgeable about Ba Jin’s work. But I don’t think it would have mattered to him a bit. Here’s a paragraph of what Ba Jin said about his work:

“My life is full of conflicts, so is my work. The conflicts between love and hate, thoughts and behavior, reason and emotion, ideals and reality… All of these weave into a net which covers my entire life, my entire work. Every piece of my work is the vocalization of my pursuit of light… When I wrote I never worried over creative method or expression tactics, etc. I spent all my time thinking and thinking about only one thing – how to make people’s lives better, how to be a better person, how to help my readers, and how to contribute to the society?”

Ba Jin remained to his last days a passionate son who suffered and wailed with China, with a humble yet persistent voice that reminded others of hope.

For a moment, Ba Jin’s words on his own life shook me as much as his book Family did to the teenage me.

Blame it on Maria Callas.

Here’s my little tribute to you, Mr. Ba Jin.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The place is gay no more

I’d been away from Beijing for two weeks this time and nothing had changed in my neighborhood, except that the construction site for the Ritz Carlton has more glass windows on it now. That was strange. Usually there should at least be some restaurants popping up here and there.

Or perhaps I’ve been staying inside all day since I got back thus haven’t noticed any change?

I spent the past two days working on a grant proposal for my planned documentary on the transformation of a straight bar into a gay one. I finally finished it this afternoon. So I called Owen, a co-owner of the bar, to schedule an interview.

“Oh, we are in the process of selling it. A very good price. I’m negotiating the contract right now.” He announced enthusiastically.

My heart sank. Last time I talked to Owen, he was just having a fight with the other owners over management control. Things changed fast. “Will the new place still be gay?” I tried to hold on to the last bit of hope.

“Uh…” He hesitated. “Probably not. But I still have this other friend who may start another gay bar soon.”

Damn the ficklenss of Beijing. Can’t the place just stay gay until I finish filming?

Monday, October 10, 2005

Coming home

On this trip to the US I stayed for two weeks, and it took me a week and a half to clear my lungs off the dust deposited by the Beijing air. Pedestrians would turn their heads when my itchy throat involuntarily gave out loud hawks. I often felt like a migrant worker in Beijing under the stare of the nice old American ladies, and had the urge to spit even though I don’t do it in Beijing. Innovative ways had to be devised to dispose the Beijing phlegm in sunshine California.

I spent four days in San Diego attending the San Diego Asian Film Festival where my documentary screened. The turnout to the two screenings was both above and below my expectations. I had been to festivals before and attended screenings where there were barely anybody. But the decent crowd at my screenings didn’t exactly enthuse me either. I thought with the world’s increasing attention on China, my doc on Chinese Americans’ experience in modern-day China would draw big crowd, especially at an Asian American film festival.

Maybe my doc just wasn’t good enough (ok, no maybe here). Maybe I didn’t do a good enough marketing job; it was my first time at a film festival as a filmmaker and I didn’t know I could bring posters and postcards to promote my film. Or maybe for all the media’s hype on China, the average American just doesn’t care that much, as long as they can get cheap stuff at Wal-Mart and outsourcing doesn’t affect their own jobs.

When I boarded the over-booked flight in Newark to Beijing, however, I was surprised to find half of the passengers were Caucasians, a sight I had never seen in the thirteen years flying back and forth between China and the US. At the Beijing Capital Airport, only about a quarter of the passengers passed through the checkpoints marked for “Chinese Citizens”. There were many Asian-looking passengers in the long queues at the checkpoints for “Foreign Citizens”; some were tourists from New York’s Chinatown and Korean Town, and some were Chinese who had naturalized as American citizens.

The world is indeed coming to China. Alas, my poor filmmaking skills are not yet able to capitalize on this trend. I sulked at the realization of my own deficiencies.

I jumped into a cab. As the driver started off, I randomly glanced at the bi-lingual flyer that the official airport taxi dispatcher stuffed into my hand earlier. On the front page of the folded flyer it said in English (note: all typos and grammatical errors are original):

“Dear Passengers:
If phenomenon’s happen on you such as luggage or goods loss, unfriendly service attitude of driver, over-charge, unnormal use on mileage-fare meter and resist for hire, you have right to dial the supervision-Office: 68351150 or the telephone: 87372127”

Inside, there were the “Pay attention” items:

“1 You must check price table attached inside window and drivers Service Supervisor Card:
2 You must pay the highway fee and the bridge building fee if need;
3 You better to come cone down on receipt and remember taxi licence number while you off.”

I laughed out loud reading the flyer – this being the first impression that many first-time foreign visitors would get of Beijing? Either the airport was too cheap to hire a native speaker to check the grammar, or they thought as long as the foreigners could guess the meaning of the English translation, it’d be all right; 差不多就行了。

Still, how could “come cone down on receipt” ever mean “ask driver for a receipt” in the Chinese instruction?

The cab slowed down as it drove into the Beijing traffic. The afternoon air floated in a slight fog, or smog. My throat itched again. I chuckled at the thought that perhaps I’m just like the city, awkwardly exploring a new road with all the excitements and missteps.

Ah, it feels good to be home.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Ying vs. Yang

It’s 2am. I sat on the beige-colored carpet floor in Ying and Yang’s townhouse in Orange County. The midnight air brought in mixed scents of flowers. The water fountain serenaded quietly not too far away. Yet next to me sitting across from each other, Ying and Yang were mentioning the unthinkable – separation, alimony, child support…

They had been together for 11 years, married for 7. Like me, they came to the US right after college for graduate school. Both quit their Ph.D. programs in science. Ying worked in biotech, then got an MBA degree and was now enjoying her own profitable real estate business. Yang pursued a degree and then a career in hitech. The stock options from the first company he worked for got them the house. Now they were buying apartments with stock-option money earned from his current employer. A typical story of American dreams.

Nine months ago Ying told me she was pregnant. I asked if she’s certain she would like to keep it. Yang hadn’t been the most reliable husband. She said from what she learned, husbands usually changed to be more family-focused after having a baby. So seven months later they had a beautiful baby boy.

However, one month before the delivery, Ying found out Yang had been seeing a woman he worked with. Yang promised to cut it off. One month after the delivery, Ying’s friends bumped into Yang with the same woman in Las Vegas.

This is unfair; Ying cried next to me at 2am, her eyes red and puffed up. I do want to leave him, but it’d be unfair to the baby; I can’t stand the thought of him meeting, or even just thinking of the other woman, while I’m taking care of the baby. How could you? She asked Yang. How could you, after so many years, have so little compassion for your wife?

Yang mumbled through his drooping mouth, his eyes looking away – I do love the baby, and I do care about you; let’s not talk about separation; maybe in 6 months I’ll get over this phase; I don’t know what I want; can you wait?

Most of Ying’s friends counseled her to divorce Yang. He’s selfish, and childish; they all say. Sitting by him at 2am, I’d also like to blame the sinner and tell him – go to hell; you deserve to pay a lot of alimony and child support; you deserve to be despised by all the people who know about you.

But could he have helped it?

Yang grew up in a broken family. Emotionally he had always been a bit needy, a bit, idealistic. Once chatting with me alone, he confided in me that unlike most other men, he’s not looking for meaningless sex outside marriage; rather, he’s looking for affection, that human touch, and the possibility for a true love that consumes and transcends.

I gasped when I first heard this. Is this fantasy something he’s willing sacrifice what he had for? He hesitated.

Can we blame the sinners if the sinners can’t help committing the sins? I wondered while Ying leaned on my shoulder and cried. Why some can take responsibilities while others mostly focus on their own needs? Obviously he can’t fall back in love with Ying anytime soon, so is it wise to counsel them to stay together in a loveless marriage for the sake of the baby?

Was he really free when deciding to betray his wife? He probably was never fully satisfied emotionally with his wife to begin with, and is now finally confident enough, after his financial and career advancements, to pursue his passion, or fantasy. There have to be other factors from his growing up in China, his desire for more excitements in life, and his dissatisfaction with the suburban middle-class lifestyle that had nudged him into this path.

If he had been compelled by his past to do what he had done, could I blame him?

The philosophy book I’m reading now has a long chapter on free will. The author argued for the existence of free will, and defined it this way:

“The subject acted freely if she could have done otherwise in the right sense. This means that she would have done otherwise if she had chosen differently and, under the impact of other true and available thoughts or considerations, she would have chosen differently. True and available thoughts and considerations are those that represent her situation accurately, and are ones that she could reasonably be expected to have taken into account.”

I’m not entirely convinced.

Some other philosophers argued that the lack of free will doesn’t necessitate the demise of responsibilities. Human beings are flexible enough, they say, and assigning blame and responsibilities will help guide future actions.

I deliberated on which point I should bring up for Ying and Yang to consider. But Yang’s raised voice distracted me. Ying had just proposed a formal separation. Yang objected strongly; if his emotional forays would lead to child support and alimony and the loss of what he has, he would stay in the marriage. Plus, that’s what most Chinese husbands do anyway, especially those prospering men in China’s big cities with their mistresses and frequent visits to KTVs.

Seriously, Yang had been an honest husband, comparatively. Plus, who can say that his fantasy of finding a true love may not become true one day?

But Ying was still crying. So I jumped in and offered this to Yang:

“Stop worrying so much about alimony and child support. You have been a bastard and you can’t help being one. Thank god Ying is a strong woman who can raise the baby alone. But you can’t want an adventure and at the same time don’t want to lose any of what you have now. You have to make a choice. Life is a journey and in the near future yours will be very tough. I only wish you the best luck to find what you are looking for.”

That seemed the only sensible thing to say at 2am. Free or not free, we all have to continue this illusive path to find happiness.