Sunday, January 29, 2006

Cured Memory

When I was in primary and high schools in the 1980s, preparation for the Chinese New Year would start one month before the holiday. My family, like every other family in the work unit, cured our own pork and made spicy sausages. I still remember watching my mom’s frost-bitten fingers massaging spices and salt onto pork chunks, and my dad, with the help of chopsticks, stuffing ground pork mixed with chili sauces into intestines freshly bought at the market. My sister and I, considered too young to handle meaty tasks, would huddle nearby around a tiny coal stove in the damn cold air, dreaming of the day of the holiday feast when we could have all the meat we’d want.

In the early 1980s, most families in China, including ours, could not afford meat every day. Our work unit, a construction company for coal-based power plants migrating and polluting all over China, had just returned to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China. The work unit had built walls in some single-floor warehouses, dividing the long stretched space into individual units. Each family got an unit which was in turn divided into a front and a back room with a wall half way up. In front of each unit, the work unit helped erect a small kitchen made of bricks. That’s our first kitchen where the home-made pork chunks and sausage links hanged off the roof.

After cured pork and sausages, the family then started making the ingredients for rice balls. Rice balls carry a special meaning for Chinese New Year because their round shape puns on Tuan Yuan, the Chinese word for family getting together. My dad would soak the sticky rice over a Saturday night, and then on Sunday, my sister and I would feed the sticky rice into a tiny hole of a stone roller. My dad never let me to push the roller around. It always took a while, and quite some spilled scoops of sticky rice, before our feeding rhythm got in sync with my dad’s rolling. Out of the roller came the ground sticky rice like diluted milkshake. We collected it in a cloth bag, tied the bag tight, and squeezed out the water by leaving the bag under the heavy top of the stone roller. After a day, my dad would take out the now semi-dry sticky rice, and leave it air dry in small chunks on big round bamboo trays.

While the ground sticky rice was being dried, my sister and I cracked open peanuts and knocked open walnuts, which always seemed to tak an entire afternoon. Raw peanuts and walnuts were roasted in our small iron wok over our tiny coal stove. My dad then chopped them into tiny bits with a meat cleaver, mixed them with roasted sesame ground in a mortar, and added in a lot of freshly rendered lard and sugar. The lard solidified the whole mix into sweet stuffing which we would use for months afterwards for rice balls and steamed buns.

Sichuanese have always been more obsessed with food (Cantonese may beg to differ). The home-made holiday fare thus provided popular sources of neighborhood gossip and family pride. Before the arrival of Coca-cola and Maxwell Instant Coffee, home-made cured meat and rice-ball stuffing were part of the holiday gift-giving which would be repeatedly re-gifted, since every family already had so much of its own.

On New Year’s Eve, our immediate family would get together for a feast. My dad usually cooked (Sichuanese men are proud of being good cooks; me no exception) for a whole day for the family of 7. Then on New Year’s day or the day after, all of us would visit my grand uncle’s family of 4 for another banquet. A couple of days later, we would invite my grand uncle’s family back to my grandpa’s place for yet another dinner. Everyday the adults played mah-jong which we kids were forbidden to touch.

Family visits and dinners would last until the 15th day of the new year when we all went out for the lantern festival. The entire population of Chengdu would appear out checking the lanterns in the People’s Park. It would be so crowded that my parents often spent most of the time nervously checking around to make sure my sister and I didn’t get lost. In those days the lanterns were elaborate and colorful, like the floats in Pasadena’s Rose Parade; maybe people had more time then, or maybe a child’s eyes expanded the vision out of proportion.

Slowly, the celebration started to change. People made more money and every family gradually bought a TV set. My parents moved three times, each time into a bigger apartment. CCTV’s new year’s eve gala show became a new holiday ritual before we figured out how to learn back the old rituals disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. There were more varieties on the new year dinner table – more takeouts from neighborhood restaurants, including shredded pig’s ear and beef tripe soaked in chili oil, roasted ducks and cakes, and fewer stir fries that would require lengthy manual preparation at home. New Year’s Eve dinner had to finish by 8pm so we could all go back to our respective home and watch the gala show.

More people joined the family as well. My two aunts brought their dates to the family feasts. Then my two cousins from my grand uncle’s family did the same. They all got married and had kids. My widowed grandpa remarried. The last time I came home for the holiday in 1992, 14 years ago, the family gathering had swelled to too big a size for the cooks to handle. Preparation had to start days in advance.

During the 12 years in the US, I stopped celebrating Chinese New Year. At most my Chinese friends and I would go to a Chinese restaurant and have General Gao’s Chicken. Everybody was busy studying and later working. The celebration was reduced to an obligatory phone call home. My parents and I would ask each other, “Have you eaten?”, and “How was the food?”.

When I turned 30, I started hosting Thanksgiving dinners for my friends, mostly Chinese immigrants who, consciously or subconsciously, looked for an anchor in a strange land. I enjoyed heating up turkeys, making mashed potato, and cooking up some casserole dish the recipe of which I found on But nothing, nothing compared to the cured meat and home-made sausage links in my memory.

This year I finally made it back to my hometown for Chinese New Year. The family is scattered everywhere. My sister is traveling in the US while my brother-in-law took my niece to his family in Gansu. Aunt Rongling’s family moved to Shanghai. The communication with my grand uncle’s family has dwindled to almost zero because his family has grown to a size of 8. There’s always been squabbling through the years which we as kids were not aware of; and each family fared differently in the country’s economic miracle, which makes it hard to avoid jealousy and gossip.

Gone were the home-made cured meat and sausage links. Everybody got lazy, and pickier about food. No home-made food could compete with the restaurant cooking which is getting oilier and spicier every season. Now only stores still have cured meat and sausage links hanging off their roofs. Few make rice balls anymore; there were ready-to-cook ones sold in plastic bags in the supermarkets.

We had our family get-together dinner two days before the new year so my mom could have undivided attention to the CCTV gala show on New Year’s eve. I volunteered to cook for a dinner at home. My mom just sneered, “you still know how to cook?” I hesitated. The turkey and the mashed potato and broccoli casserole would never fly in Sichuan.

We went to a restaurant and had a set dinner for 500 yuan, the same food I could have in a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing. Sitting at the dinner table with the 8 still left in Chengdu in our immediate family, I missed the days when we were a lot poorer, when my sister and I had to be cajoled into helping make rice ball stuffing in the cold winters with no heating in that tiny apartment of ours, when we seemed to have a lot more relatives to play with and to visit, and whenever I visited a friend, his/her family would force me to taste their own cured meat and rice balls. The country is developing, so is the distance between me and the past I remember.

I handed out red envelopes at the dinner table to my grandpa, my aunt, my parents and my young cousin who’s 13. It’s my duty now to support the family, in whatever trivial means. Alas, how I miss the days when a 5-yuan bill in the red envelope my grandpa gave me would make me jump with joy; it would send me and my sister hurrying to the firecracker store nearby. All the families would get out when the New Year stroke, and lit the fireworks family-by-family, with all cheering.

It’s all changed now. No firework is allowed in the city proper. The wealthy would drive out to the suburbs, after their big family banquets in the fancy restaurants, and light up fancy fireworks which cost a fortune. The holiday rituals, however few we used to have (god knows how little we Mainland Chinese knew about our own holidays, compared to our “compatriots” in Hong Kong and Taiwan), are further eroding away in this shiny materialistic new China.

As I was reminiscing about change, my cousin got antsy in her seat. “Can I go home to watch TV now?” she asked her mother, my aunt.

Her mother was annoyed, “sit and eat some more food. Wait for the adults to finish.”

I paused my emoting and studied my cousin’s restlessness for a beat. Alas, whom am I kidding? I didn’t like the holidays that much when I was a kid – it was mostly a bore to go through all the visits and family meals; there was always too much food that nipped the pre-holiday craving within 5 minutes of the first holiday dinner, too much waiting for the adults to finish their mah-jong, too many deafening firecrackers on both sides of the narrow streets that hurt the eardrums, too many ultra-sweet rice balls for breakfast every day, and too much cured meat which the family couldn’t finish until early summer.

It’s the memory that’s playing the tricks, tricking me into thinking that I used to have Hallmark-Classic holidays in which relatives were nicer, food was better and time was, less transient.

“Don’t stop yet, eat some more.” My mom prodded me with her elbow. My aunt asked when I would bring home a girlfriend. My grandpa asked when I could get a proper job to make some proper money. My dad looked at me earnestly over the spicy dishes, “Listen to all your relatives. You are not young anymore. Better start worrying about retirement.”

I smiled at my family and my memory and dug my chopsticks into the steamed fish. Memory is like family, often dysfunctional, often subjecting us to a bondage that suffocates up close, yet one misses with sweet longing once far away. Better leave it hanging off from the roof top like the cured meat and sausage links, and let it stroke from a distance the nostalgia of make-believes.

Happy New Year.

What's Truth Good For?

[Below is a long comment from a Chinese blogger on my blog entry What’s Memory Good For? on MSN Spaces. I’m not sure being a statistic sample of one, how much of it could represent the opinions of young people born in the 80s. But I greatly appreciates its sincerity and thus translated it below for those who can’t read Chinese.]

This is a warm article. I could even feel your compassion. “What’s memory good for?” probably came from that sympathy. Therefore, it’d be missing the point to discuss with you the meaning of learning from history. However, as part of the younger generation mentioned in your article, I’d very much like to share some of my own experience and thinking. Maybe we could see how we came to be from the history teachings we received.

When the Scar Literature (note: a literature movement that focused on the sufferings in the Cultural Revolution) was becoming popular in the 80s, I was often playing jumping games with my playmates in our yard. I was only six when the June 4th movement (note: in 1989) took place. I received school education in the 90s, and my brain was stuffed to the brim with the official orthodox history. (In our politics classes, some teachers required that for some concepts we should know them by heart until we could recite them backwards.)

That time there was the high political pressure right after the June 4th student movement. Our parents, out of concern and love for us, didn’t mentioned anything related to politics; the Cultural Revolution was an even more closely guarded secret. As a result our understanding of history then was completely dominated by official propaganda. Not until the 90s when we started high school, did some popular media, such as TV shows and magazines, start reveal bits and pieces of the hitherto sealed history of the Cultural Revolution. Even that was limited to stealth disclosure. In fact, any reflection on the Cultural Revolution and the June 4th could only be done furtively, even now.

Consequently, the education environment that we grew up in could be regarded as “very strange”, if not “deforming”. For the official version (I clearly remember that in the history textbooks, the historical significance of the Cultural Revolution is that “it proved the indestructible life force of our party”) is far different from that popular among the people. Even to our childish judgment, we knew the folk version was very likely true.

However, the truth had to display itself in this furtive way outside of the mainstream. The untrue is strong, while the true is weak. What did it make us realize? That this is a country ruled by lies! (Although I haven’t done any strict statistical polling, I’m pretty confident that the majority of those born in the 80s think immediately of “bogus” upon hearing the word “politics”.)

Meanwhile, young people, especially teenagers without much power of judgment, have strong adaptability to the mainstream. We immediately learned how to deal with sham. We knew in our hearts that the concepts from the politics and history classes were pompous, empty and false, yet at the same time we could recite them backwards and forwards. Memorization begot high grades; there’s no need to think, to discern, to discover the truth – What if there were conflicts between the facts and the textbooks? As long as we memorized the textbooks we could pass the College Entrance Exams! When we received brilliant high grades from our politics and history exams, we completely adjusted to the untrue.

However, we discovered that more horrifying than our adapting was our powerlessness. One time, I asked the teacher a question about the Cultural Revolution – could one sentence from the textbook be not entirely true? The teacher said, “for what purpose do you want to get it clear?” After a brief upset, I returned to memorizing the textbook. In font of falsity the truth is powerless. In front of government’s ideological control independent thinking is powerless. This made us realize from very young that to everything in this country, we could only accept, being powerless to change; just as those obviously untrue in the history and politics textbooks, we could only accept everything.

The beginning of your article mentioned that our generation has the characteristic of being materialistic. Indeed we are. We have another characteristic – lacking sense of social responsibility. Please don’t blame us. For we in subconscious know we don’t have the capability to change the defects in this society. Still one more characteristic – too much of an old head on young shoulders. (A person born in the 70s will be angry at the inequalities in our society; yet for a person born in the 80s, the attitude is: it’s so very normal; isn’t everything nowadays just like that?)

Likewise, please don’t blame us. For we adapted to the untrue too early. Once we got used to the opposite of “the true”, it took no effort at all to adjust to the opposites of “the good” and “the beautiful”. This is the aftereffect of the history education during social transformation. No political freedom. No free thinking. We could only pursuer material freedom. What you said about “live freely” is only on the surface. From the perspective of eating well and dressing warmly, a panda bear also lives freely; but that is after all not a human way of living.

Having written this much (there’s still more to write), I think you’ve already known what I’d like to express. What’s memory good for? Haha. What if we changed it to What’s TRUTH good for? I understand the compassion and tenderness in your heart. But I’d like to say, that our generation has been ruthlessly deformed into panda bears. I hope the next generation will be able to openly discuss the facts, and accept the truth.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Sayonara, Chinafool

The editor of Beijing Weekend, the English weekly I'm writing a column for, considered my pseudonym Chinafool unbecoming. So I chose a new pseudonym, Beijing Loafer, for both the column and my MSN Spaces mirror blog which the column links to.

Right before I moved to Beijing, I read W. Somerset Maughm's Razor's Edge. In that book, when asked what he planned to do in Paris, Larry replied, "to loaf". That word stuck, and accompanied me for almost two years now in Beijing.

To avoid any possibility of multiple personality disorder, I hereby change my Blogger identity to Beijing Loafer as well.

To Larry, to loaf was to seek. I hope the same for me and all the loafers out there.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

What's Memory Good For?

(All quotes were transcribed from my video footage.)

Before I went to the seminar on Memory and Literature last Saturday, I had lunch with a friend of a friend who’s writing an article on urban Chinese for a British newspaper. She asked what I thought of the generation gaps. I’m not familiar with the mindset of the younger generations, I said; my observation was that they seem more into materialism, consumer culture and individualism.

I hastened to add that I consider those good traits. Between ideology and consumer culture, I’d chose the latter any day. China appears to have too much baggage on its shoulder – history, nationalism, glory and despair. It’s liberating to see young people able to live freely, unlike the older generations, able to live for themselves without the burden of memories for once, I commented.

After lunch I dragged my camera gear to the Sanwei Bookstore for the seminar. I had planned to stay only for an hour. A few writers from the church I’m following for my documentary were going to be there. I simply wanted to shoot some footage of them in action outside of the church.

As I waited, audience gradually streamed in the spacious meeting room on the 2nd floor of the bookstore. The lantern lights and the Ming (or Qing, pardon my ignorance of Chinese furniture) furniture gave the room an elegant air of the traditionally learned. The organizers invited a dozen guest speakers who sat around two long tables in the center. The rest of room was soon filled with eager readers, a few of whom had to stand up in the aisle.

The host started by thanking everyone for their courage in attending, because there were cars parked outside belonging to plainclothes cops. Several foreign journalists were present. At that point I realized that the bookstore was the same that housed Dai Qing when she gave a detailed report of the failed effort to stop the gigantic Three Gorges Project. My camera seemed to be constantly pulling me to the political hotspots in Beijing.

The ostensible purpose of the seminar was to discuss two memoirs recently published. One author was sick so the talk was mostly on the other one, in which the author, a lady in her fifties, recounted the sufferings of her dad, once a government minister and one of the biggest Rightists condemned by Mao in the late 1950s, through the Anti-Rightist movement and the Cultural Revolution. Most of the speakers praised the publishing house’s courage to publish the memoir in China, even though it had to be censored, thus shorter than the one published in Hong Kong.

The afternoon ended up being an emotionally-charged three-hour shoot for me. The guest speakers, all prominent writers, literary critics, scientists and philosophers, denounced the system’s attempt to stifle people’s expression in literature, to censor the truth in news, and to prevent people from remembering the past.

“What great misfortune of you having to be Chinese?!” The literary critic quoted the exclamation of He Zuoxiu during his speech, “He Zuoxiu lacked any human decency when he said that. But he expressed the truth – what great misfortune!” He choked up. “Being Chinese means you can’t hear the truth, nor can you say the truth. This is an enormous tragedy. So in my opinion, any fictional and non-fictional literary work has to share one common characteristic – it has to tell the truth.”

The critic was once the head of a rebel group in the Cultural Revolution. He had witnessed the deaths of many friends in the factional fighting. Now he’s trying to compile a list of the dead. He frankly admitted that he didn’t get modernism and post-modernism, because Chinese literature could not even enjoy the basic expression of the truth.

Some speakers commented on the philosophical and historical aspects of preserving a nation’s memory. Most, however, expressed outrage at Chinese being unable to talk about our past. An old scientist from the Beijing University told his story of being a Rightist for 20 years and witnessing the deaths around him in the labor camp. He choked up and paused for many times. The host had to cut his speech short to allow others to speak.

A writer with wild hair reminded the audience that memories are forbidden not only to the Rightists and the Counter-revolutionaries from the Cultural Revolution, but also to the peasants. Even worse, because the peasants don’t have the writing skills, they can’t even write down their sufferings, publishable or not.

He banged the table several times in rage. For he’s a peasant’s son.

When the guest speakers finally finished their round, many in the audience raised their hands high up in the air for their chance to speak. A middle-aged woman humbly started her story:

“Today I’m very nervous because I’m very excited from hearing all the stories. Ok, (to the organizer) I know I only have three minutes. My farther is in his 90s now. He was an old Rightist, a historical counter-revolutionary and a current counter-revolutionary. Still today he hasn’t got rid of these three hats.”

“What I want to tell today. I’m already very moved.” She started sobbing. “I want to say something about fatherly love. My father suffered so much. I want to talk about childhood memory. The clearest one I have. At that time, the rebels, the Red Guards. I was very little, just a few years old. My entire family knelt in a single file on the ground, in freezing winter. It was so cold that the ground cracked. We knelt on the ground. We were very poor then, because my father had those three hats. Then my dad said this to the head of the rebel group. He said, my youngest daughter is very young, can she be allowed to stand up instead of kneeling on the freezing ground and catching cold? He hadn’t even finished… Because I was so little, I didn’t see exactly how the Red Guards knocked down my father. When my father raised his head again, I saw my father’s eyes, with deep fatherly love, apologizing to his little daughter that he couldn’t get her to stand up from the freezing ground. Since then, my love for my father… so deep… Have I run out the three minutes I have?” She asked the organizer while tears were streaming down her face.

Nobody had the heart to stop her so she continued. “So I’ve been remembering that. I can never forget that incident. My father’s face full of blood. His eyes were bleeding. His mouth was bleeding. His body was shaking. And he was begging for a favor for me. All because he had those three tall hats. Today I’m so excited. I don’t have much education background. Sometimes I still ask my father, ‘Old man, in 1949 the airplane was waiting for you, why didn’t you go back to Taiwan? Why didn’t you go back to Taiwan?’ My father said, because I’m Chinese, I still love my country, love my land. So because of this single foolish thought of his, he didn’t get on the airplane and suffered a lifetime.”

“So I hope that he could write down his story.” The woman continued as her voice was soaked in tears. “Many of you know how difficult our lives have been. But I don’t have the skills. When I wanted to write down the story, my father was very agitated. He didn’t allow any mentioning of it in the household. He only let out tiny bits of his story here and there. So I want to bring this memoir (note: the subject of the seminar) to him, to show him that the society is not as closed as he thinks, the communist party… Aiya, this I don’t dare to comment on… In fact my father keep on saying he’s grateful for the communist party. But he’s lying. Nobody has the heart to confront him about this lie, or know how to. But he IS lying!”

By this point her anger had overcome her sadness. “We as his sons and daughters, we couldn’t convince him to write down the sufferings of his life, for historical record. So today I’m so moved. I don’t have much education so I can’t speak well. I can only speak this little bit. The three minutes are probably up already. I don’t want to say anymore, because there were even more painful memories, which would sadden me further. So I could only speak for these three minutes. But if the audience want me to, I’d like to tell you another painful story…”

The host had to kindly ask her to sit down because there were many other people in the audience dying to speak.

I left the bookstore after the seminar ended, emotionally drained. I don’t count myself among one of those patriotic Chinese, yet I wanted to weep for my nation and my people. There are so many wounds from the past 50 years that still haven’t healed. And there’s no healing in sight with the system’s gag order in place on our past, on our collective memory.

The literary critic had said the following in his speech - “Rage and compassion alone won’t save us. Sometimes we consider we stand on the side of righteousness if we are enraged by the ugliness. After our rage, however, we remain silent the next time we witness the ugliness. Sometimes we shed tears in front of sufferings. But nothing comes out of the tears. And we continue to live, to live numbly.”

It’s been 97 years since the May 4th Movement in 1919 yet we Chinese are still fighting against the tendency to silently suffer, fighting for a chance to express freely.

I stopped short my reminiscence and ran to the Oriental Plaza to watch King Kong with friends at one of Beijing’s finest multiplexes. Scurrying by the Givenchy and Gucci stores in the fancy shopping mall, I felt as if walking in a completely different world, a world in which young people, dressed in designer fashions and wearing happy smiles, didn’t have the burden of or care for memories.

We sat down in the theater with our US$9 tickets. The audiences were munching on pop corns or Nestle chocolate bars. In this new China where nobody seemed to have painful memories to suffer through, I couldn’t help wondering – Do we have to remember if the memory only pains us? Do we have to trouble the happy youth with the past?

The nation seemed to have moved on, have made huge strides, since those memories. People are happy making their money, buying their apartment and cars; and they brush aside the memories that may slow them down. What’s the point of remembering then? So we can avoid repeating the past mistakes? But it surely looks certain that China will never go back to the communist ideological craze ever again.

Yet while I watched King Kong fighting with the dinosaurs, I couldn’t forget the tears in the afternoon or people’s desperate desire to tell their stories. I understood the futility of our painful memories competing with Hollywood blockbusters for the nation’s attention. I also understood that practically, we may not need to remember to have a happy life. But we have to remember. We have to be able to remember. For otherwise the ones before us have never existed, and we will cease to exist the day our hearts stop beating. Memories are what make us exist, what give us dignity.

Right next to me in the theater, a girl started crying. King Kong and Naomi Watts were watching the sunset together. She cried for the rest of the movie.

I hoped that she would forever remember, that one day in a big theater, she cried over a non-human that acted more human than us humans.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Borrow A Mouthful

[Below is the transcript of part of the dialogue I had with a Beijing cabdriver yesterday, thanks to my tiny MP3 voice recorder which I carry everywhere now with me. Mr. Wang is in his late 40s. He’s been driving cabs in Beijing for 20 years. Ten years ago, he made 3-4000 yuan a month, which was a lot of money. Now he makes only 1800-2000/month (US$200-250), below the average income for Beijingers, thanks to rising gas prices and intensifying competition. His wife, laid off from her job, brings in 900/month. They have a daughter in college. The family income is just enough for them to get by. Mr. Wang suffers from high blood pressure, back pain, and gout. Gout rendered his feet swollen but he can’t afford taking a break, because there’s no sick leave and the monthly due to the cab companies is 5000 yuan.

Before the dialogue below, Mr. Wang had just spent 30 minutes missing the old days under Mao and lambasting the medical reforms, CCTV and the communist party.]


Me (attempting to steer him towards more positive thoughts): Do you think there are still many people who want to work as cab drivers?

Wang: A lot. There are a lot.

Me: Oh, so the jobs still provide some stability, at least bringing in food on the table.

Wang: How should I put this? Many cab drivers complain. Of course they complain because they only make one to two thousand yuan a month. They complain at the company, in front of company officials. I don’t like to complain, so I’m usually quiet. But I was surprised that one time, a company official said this, “if you all think driving cabs is a tough business, tiring and not earning much money, who the hell asks you to remain in this business? The cab companies are not dragging you into this business, are they? In fact, y’all squeezed your ways into this business.”

I heard this and I felt very upset, you know? I stood up and walked over to him. I said, “Manager, how come the words you just said bothered me? The colleagues complained that this business has no money and is very exhausting, and a few other things. Why can’t they complain? There are areas that could be improved, you know. What you said about us squeezing our ways into this biz made me think of a lot of things from the past.” He asked what kind of things from the past. I asked if I could ask him a few questions, if that’s ok. He said sure. I asked if he had ever watched the movie The White-Haired Woman (note: a very famous communist propaganda movie about evil landlords and despairing peasants in the dark ages of Nationalist China)? He answered yeah, I’ve watched it. Then I asked, do you remember the evil landlord Huang Shiren who exploit the peasants? He said, yeah, I remember. I said everyone knew he was exploiting the peasants and sucking everything out of them, but the peasants still went to work for him; why is that? Why is that, I’d like to ask you? I said that to the manager.

Wang (turns to me and asking in the wry Beijing way): Young fellow, do you think what I said was sharp or not?

Me (chuckle and admire his quick wit): Great question, I wouldn’t have thought of that retort myself?”

Wang (turning serious): I told him I have one more question. Have you heard about the mines in Fen Zhou, I asked him. (His voice rises to a piercing level) Before the collapse, the Fen Zhou’s mine was dangerously flooded with water but still people went in to work. These people they knew they were being exploited, oppressed, and extorted, yet they let themselves be extorted. This is a heart-rending situation. You, you guys shamelessly ask us, who on earth ask us to stay in this business? You sit in your comfy office and make over ten or twenty thousand yuan a month. We only make two after toiling for an entire month. You are sucking our blood. Right? (pause) He said nothing. The manager said nothing. (pause) It’s not that we don’t want an alternative. But we don’t have one. Isn’t that right? We can only do this to borrow a mouthful of food from you, selling our flesh to borrow a mouthful. (pause) We are the sacrifice of the market reform. Reform and opening up are good, things are getting better. There has been development, a lot of it. But we still have to borrow a mouthful. How is this different from the days of Huang Shiren?

Me (doing my rational bit): The reform is complex. There are different groups of people; some benefited, other didn’t. Those benefiting would say the reform has been good.

Wang: Yes, there are people who benefited. We don’t object to people making a lot of money. We don’t object to people eating and drinking fancy stuff. We don’t object to any of that. But we can’t accept the “merciful” words from those who benefited, words telling us that we should be grateful for the jobs we have. Of course we’ll never realize our dreams. But can’t we at least dream a little? Who doesn’t have a brain that thinks and desires? Struggle? How dare we struggle? It’s not that the Beijing cab drivers never went on strike. In 98, the airport cabs did just that. No, it’s in 99. August 1st 1999, I remember very clearly. July 1st was the birthday of our party. Very clearly.

Me: What happened in the end?

Wang: They got sentenced for “seriously disrupting social order”! Striking is a right from our constitution. But they got sentenced. Who dared to strike again?

[Mr. Wang declined to speak on camera. He said the day he quit his job at the cab company, he’d let me interview him. Mr. Wang is a typical Beijing cab driver in the sense that he’s talkative and extremely opinionated. Most cab drivers would open up and share with you their lives’ hardship if you ask them. But Mr. Wang’s boiling anger is rare. I sincerely hope that he’s an oddball, a rare angry man among the 17 million Beijing residents, which he claimed he’s not. For otherwise I’d have to start believing the bleak pictures painted by some Western media about China. ]

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Good Shots

I fell asleep while waiting for the cops to come. I had planned to visit a family church in Hebei province over the weekend. On Thursday, however, I heard that on the previous Sunday, several cops harassed the family church in Beijing that I’ve been following. They visited the church after most of the congregation were gone, and copied down the ID card information of the person in charge. Nobody could be sure whether the cops were targeting the church itself or they were simply following a couple of the prominent dissidents who went to the church. Nobody could be sure either whether they would be back the following weekend, because they didn’t leave any clear warning.

I decided to wait and see, in that underground church set in a two bedroom apartment 20 floors above ground.

After the opening prayers and hymn singing, the preacher addressed the congregation of about 20 crammed in the small living room. He asked everyone to help look for a new apartment for the church, as the current landlord refused to renew the lease, perhaps under police pressure. He stressed that the church would continue to welcome everyone, including those attracting undesirable government attention. Then he went on to read and explain the Bible. After listening to it for 10 minutes, I went to the next room and fell asleep on the sofa.

I woke up 20 minutes later, after dreaming myself heroically going to jail for doing the documentary. I grabbed my camera and headed towards the living room. Just as I was wondering how long the preaching would continue, a loud knock hit the door from the outside.

Everyone turned to look at the door. Usually when a believer comes, a buzz from the security intercom downstairs would precede the door knock. The air froze. I turned on my camera.

The door was opened. In came two cops in uniforms and two men in plainclothes. The cop in the front started in a mild manner, “one of your neighbor complained to the local police station that you are causing disturbance here.”

Everyone considered that a lame excuse. A couple of believers volunteered to call the Environmental Agency. “They can come and measure the noise level of our singing and praying. In no way could we be disturbing our neighbors. Plus,” they exclaimed, “all of our neighbors know we are having a church service here. Why would they call the cops instead of directly talking to us?”

The cop didn’t know how to respond. The man in the brown coat stepped forward, “don’t you know that having a church gathering is illegal?” That statement immediately draw heated response from the believers. In the audiences sat a prominent human rights lawyer and a Ph.D. student in law at the famous Peking University. China’s constitution guarantees religion rights, they said.

“I know you guys would be saying that, so I brought this.” The man in brown coat waved a booklet with the national insignia on the cover. “This is the regulations on religious activities in China. What you cited is just one line in the Constitution. This regulation fully explains what’s allowed by that line. Did you guys register with the local police as a religious group?”

The law student’s agitation went up a notch. We are getting petitions for the national congress to review the constitutionality of these laws, he said with his fist held tight. Another chimed in that the congregation were not a religious organization, but rather a casual gathering, thus not subject to the government regulation.

I kept my camera rolling the whole time, about 2 meters away from the center of actions, in a state of surreal daze. Various thoughts bubbled up in my heads like those in the VH1 Pop-up Videos:

-Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m filming the cops suppressing the family church, in real time!
-Oh shit, the cops seem way too reasonable and articulate. And calmer than the believers! I need more viciousness. Please!
-What should I do now shot-wise? I have zoomed in and out, panned left and right. What else can I do to make the final viewing more dramatic???
-Why are they letting me continue filming? Why? This is unreal!!!

I stood there as if watching myself filming a legal debate in front of a Supreme Court that China doesn’t have. I felt almost sorry for the brown-coat man who’s not equipped to argue with the legal scholars. “I’m not here to expel the group. I just want to warn you about the illegality of gathering here,” he proclaimed with an aloofness which could be interpreted as a threat or mere bureaucratic perfunctoriness. No, the group countered – it’s you who’d barged into a private premise illegally with no warrant or permit.

He then asked to see everyone’s ID. The group responded no again – China’s law stipulates that the citizens be required to show their IDs only to those with court warrant.

The brown-coat man’s cool peeled off, layer by layer, with each argument he lost. He checked around for a target. Then he saw me.

“What are you filming?” he yelled, “you are invading my image rights.”

“Hey, I’m doing a private video on this church. You came into this picture yourself.” I answered half-heartedly. As a huge fan of the rule of law and the courtroom dramas in the US Supreme Court, I wondered if indeed I was invading on his image rights.

“Turn it off, damn it.” With that he took hold of my camera, “I want you to erase the part with me in it.”

I hold on to my camera. Is that a reasonable request? But those are my good shots! The group showered him again with more legal enlightenment – as a public employee working for the government, cops don’t have image rights.

I could see the frustration boiling in the brown-coat man. He found his outlet on me, the only legal weakness in this unfortunate expedition of his. He dragged me and my camera into the room next door, where I had been napping 10 minutes earlier. “Give me the damn tape!” He screamed.

I fought to keep my hands on my camera. Is this really happening? What is this? Am I heroically fighting with a vicious cop? Or should I observe the law to give him the tape which he may truly have rights to? Would it be ethical to show footage of him even if I ended up keeping the footage? Why didn’t any of the books on indie filmmaking discuss the ethical issues around dealing with cops? What does the law say? Oh how I wish China could have a real Supreme Court to clarify issues like the proper ethical ways of dealing with a cop. Oh my god, I’m going to lose my good shots! How can I keep it?! How can I?!

Garbage thoughts kept on popping up in my brain, making me dumb and confused. I kept saying no to him, without even knowing no to what.

The brown-coat man finally yanked the camera out of my hands. “Give me the tape!” He fumbled with the camera but couldn’t figure out how to open up the tape deck, thanks to Sony’s ingenious design. He swung the camera around in utter frustration. My expensive shot-gun mic was dangling below the camera, still attached via a cable. He kept on twisting and banging the camera to get out the tape. “Damn it!” He stared at me with a piercing anger, “I warn you. Don’t cross us!”

My out-of-body legal rumination suddenly evaporated. At that brief moment, I stopped seeing the complexity of modern China, and quit playing with the Constitutionality issue of religion rights. I could no longer sympathize with him because he’s merely a puppet in this insecure system of political and cultural ideologues. I looked into his eyes and saw a trace of evil glinting over his rage. Not the evil of the communists, of the oppressors, or of Satan; but a hatred, out of deep frustrations, and a desire to destroy, both of which seem to have deep root in our culture, and in the current political system with no reliable legal recourse, are unhindered by anything except for a consciousness that nevertheless could be easily crossed to reveal the evil in all of us.

“Give me the fucking tape, or there goes your expensive camera.” He held the camera high. I was transfixed by the sight of a man sent on a mission to hinder and possibly destroy, holding my camera with all my good shots in it. He was determined to accomplished something before calling it quits, and there’d be no legal recourse or appeal to whatever ended up happening.

Between losing my good shots and losing my camera plus the good shots, I chose the former.

I gave him the tape. They left. I stood in the room kicking myself – I should’ve been more strategic! I should’ve switched tapes every 5 minutes! I shouldn’t have acted so greedily as I’m investing in the stock market! The rule does apply everywhere – what sounded too good to be true probably is!

When I went back to the living room with my camera and a new tape, the cops were gone. The preacher was leading another prayer. He expressed great joy that none of the congregation ran away for fear of the cops. He told the group that they would continue to gather even though the cops would surely come back to harass them again.

They prayed.

I kept filming.

They prayed for God’s guidance on overcoming the obstacles. They prayed for the many persecuted in the countryside for their beliefs. They prayed for the cops. Many cried.

I kept filming.

Still a devout atheist, I felt my nose itchy to sniffle. I didn’t know whether it was from mere exhaustion or from witnessing the real human drama right in front of my eyes, in real time.

I held back the urge to sniffle and kept filming.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

My friend Lynn, an American reporter based in Beijing, introduced me to two Qi Gong master friends of hers at her Christmas party. “You really believe that?” I asked her quietly in the kitchen after the introduction. “Yeah.” She replied with the usual enthusiasm, “Last time when Mr. Liang used his Qi on me, I felt a strong force pushing me. Her wife over there,” she pointed at a plain-looking middle-aged woman with long plaited hair, “is supposed to be an even more powerful master.”

I was reluctant to buy into her enthusiasm. I had my experience with Qi Gong in 1986 when I was in junior high. Qi Gong is this Chinese breathing exercise developed from Taoist and Buddhist traditions to improve Qi, the vital energy that moves our body and the universe. Depending on the school of Qi Gong you follow, the practice promises better health, magic cure for sickness or the ultimate path – eternal life in some faraway dream land.

The early and mid 80s in China was a time of rapid opening up and eager absorption of Eastern and Western knowledge. Freud’s dream analysis, Zen comic books, UFO sightings, supernatural power in humans, and Qi Gong were among the many trends that captivated the entire country one time or another. Qi Gong masters would tour the country giving talks to packed auditoriums. Thousands and thousands in the audience would be induced into a state of mass hysteria (or euphoria). Many felt the strong Qi from the masters. There would be bawling, screaming, and reputedly instant cure of the incurable. Many became devout followers.

In my parents’ work unit more and more people were practicing Qi Gong in the morning. Some would be standing still in front of trees, some walking, some yelling into the sky, per instructions of the different schools of practice, and all involving some repetitive movements of the limbs as the body undulate with the Qi. My parents were among the few who are too negative to believe in anything. The only time I remember them mentioning Qi Gong was when a colleague of theirs started practicing Qi Gong after having been diagnosed with colon cancer.

The colleague died two months later, after trying all of the popular Qi Gong schools.

As a teenager, I was curious about all the hype and wanted to experience the magic Qi. So when a Qi Gong master came to our neighborhood to set up a seminar, I went.

I remember the seminar was at a local school, in a small classroom warmly lit and full of uncles and aunties from the work unit. The master started explaining Qi Gong by citing the Chinese classic fantasy novels, especially my favorite, Journey to The West. According to him, all the deities in that book were simply Qi Gong masters who had attained eternal life and magic powers through practice. “Do you know why Lao Tse in that book has a greenish light in the cloud he rides? That’s the color of Qi of the highest level.” He exclaimed. All the uncles and aunties nodded in utter deference. The fictional account of a Monkey King’s adventure to India apparently had very materialistic basis and represented the highest form of our Chinese civilization.

To further prove the power of Qi, the whole class meditated in silence, with the two palms closed facing each other in front of the chests. We were instructed to pray for the middle fingers of our right hands to grow longer. After a minute, as people slowly got out of the meditation, sporadic wows and ahs erupted in the room - the middle fingers of the right hands indeed looked longer than the left ones!

After demonstrating this remarkable feat to my classmates for a few times, I forgot about Qi Gong. The celebrity masters slowly went out of fashion – some went overseas, some arrested for fraud or political reasons (depending on whom one listens to). The country got caught up in heated political discussions in 1989. I got caught up in the TOEFL and GRE and went to America. While in the States, I heard Falun Gong, a new school of Qi Gong practice, became hugely popular and the government cracked down on it. One of my university friend, now an established professor at an US university, got black-listed by the government after he presided over a local chapter of Falun Gong in the US.

As a former PhD student in science, I had become skeptical, if not outright critical, of Qi Gong’s claims of magic powers. But after having lived in the political correct US for so long, I felt obliged to suspend my disbelief when discussing the claims of an old tradition worshipped by many. So when I found myself standing right next to Mrs. Liang, the super-powerful Qi Gong master, in Lynn’s kitchen at the Christmas party, I asked about her story.

Thus started Mrs. Liang’s narrative, for a good hour, with me nodding my head every minute and chiming in an “ooh” or “ahh” once in a while:

Mrs. Liang grew up in a poor village in Jilin province in northeastern China. When she was little, a fortune teller told her parents that she was destined to save the masses but they thought the fortune teller crazy. When she was fourteen, a Taoist priest from the Wutai Mountain (Wutai is one of the four Buddhist mountains in China; I guess there could be a Taoist temple among the hundreds of Buddhist monasteries there) identified her as the star pupil divinely revealed to him in a dream. The priest had traveled far and wide to locate her.

But her parents refused to let her go with an old priest. After the priest reluctantly left, the young Mrs. Liang suffered from frequent seizures until her parents came to their senses and took her to the Wutai Mountain. As soon as she reached the mountain, her seizure stopped.

There at the mountain she stayed for 7 (or 10 or 12 or 14, I forgot which number is auspicious according to the Chinese tradition) years. One day her master told her that she needed to leave. She asked why, as she was happy living in the simple Taoist temple, sweeping floors and practicing kung fu. But her master was adamant – she still had mission to fulfill in the world.

She refused and refused. One morning out collecting firewood, she fell. Surprisingly, instead of falling into the ground, she fell through clouds and fogs and forests until she hit the foot of the mountain. She wanted to climb back up to her temple. Every time she tries to go up, however, her legs would go weak. At that point she realized that her master’s power was preventing her from going back. She had to go back to the world.

She cried, while telling me that story in Lynn’s kitchen. “I kow-towed to the mountain and swore I would go back to serve my master after finishing my duties.” She said while wiping tears off.

She found out later that she was destined to cure the world of sufferings and sicknesses before she could go back to her own enlightenment (a very Buddhist mission for a Taoist disciple. Oh well). That was after another divine revelation story which I don’t remember now. In the past few years, she and her husband had been working on helping the confused and the sick “see” their hang-ups, and if evil spirits were involved, expelling the spirits.

Lynn’s domestic helper, a honest and humble man from the countryside, interjected earnestly, “Oh master, I would like to seek your wisdom on something. For many different occasions I saw the places in my dreams before I visited them for the first time. What does that mean?”

The master said – you have the seed of supernatural power; have you been practicing Qi Gong to cultivate it?

More and more people stayed in the kitchen to listen to her story by now. One Chinese guy, a business manager, asked her to test his Qi. She shook his hand, then mine, and she told him, “Your Qi is very strong compared to his.” She pointed at me. Duh, I thought – I had been told many times that my handshake is weak.

“Can you read my future from my handshake?” The Chinese guy inquired. Mrs. Liang had claimed powerful Qi Gong masters could tell the past and the future from a person’s Qi, and the Chinese guy was debating whether to pursue a new career. Mrs. Liang closed her eyes for a beat. When she reopened them she shook her head, “It’s too noisy here. Come to my house some other day and I’ll do a special session for you.”

My jaws were dropped half of the time during her storytelling. I couldn’t make up my mind whether I was watching a true master or a supreme actor. Either way, I asked how she could help improve my parents’ health, especially my dad’s diabetes, which was pretty much the only reason I could still suspend my disbelief.

“Come to my house next week.” She said. “I can give you one of the special cards I’m preparing. I gave a card to a friend’s father after my friend begged me for many times. The next day the diabetes of my friend’s father went away! In fact,” she paused to let several others leave the kitchen before continuing, “I’m working on a cure for the bird flu. Once I put the cure on the card, through Qi, nobody needs to worry about the bird flu if they have a card from me.”

I left the party without being able to form an opinion on the Qi Gong masters, because there were two prominent political dissidents and several journalists at the party, because I respected my friend Lynn’s experience and instinct as a seasoned reporter. A well-educated American was asking Mr. Liang if she could learn Qi Gong from him. Surely in such level-headed companies…

Today during lunch time, I bumped into Lynn’s Chinese Assistant Xiao Liu. We chatted for a while, about stuff.

“Do you remember the Qi Gong masters at the Christmas party?” She asked casually.

“Sure, Mr. and Mrs. Liang, right? They were certainly… something.” I chose my words carefully. “Did you know that they are working on a cure for that bird flu?”

“Oh that, the card. It’s like a phone card with a smart-card chip. They gave me one for the headache I had that night. Didn’t do a thing.” The memory brought a disdainful look to Xiao Liu’s face. “They kept on asking if I was feeling better so I had to tell them, yeah a little bit.”

“Lynn trusted them…” I hesitated at how to proceed with the conversation.

“I told Lynn from the beginning that they were frauds. She refused to believe me.” Xiao Liu ignored my dancing around words. “I have a friend who works for many expats here as a translator. Mr. Liang met her at the party and called her repeatedly afterwards. He wanted to use her contacts to sell their magic cards. At RMB 500-600 (US$63-75) a pop! My friend didn’t want to do it. So a couple of the days ago he called my friend again and said, ‘why don’t we work together to make some money? We are only trying to fool the laowais (foreigners).’ ”

Alas, why did I distrust my instincts in the name of respecting my cultural heritage and upholding political correctness?

“I just don’t get the laowais.” Xiao Liu continued, “Why are they so eager to believe?”

Indeed, why are they? Don’t they realize that most verbal expressions and human interactions could and may hide some less pretty motives in this vast country on a binge of wealth making, especially after “five thousand” years of history, after the Confucian teachings suppressed genuine human feeling to fit strict social norms, and after the numerous political movements in the communist China in which the truth-speaking got squashed?

I pondered for a beat and wondered out aloud. “I think this might indicate a cultural difference (everything is cultural, n’est pas?). In the West, it’s innocent until proven guilty. Here in China, it’s guilty until proven innocent.”

Come to think of it, politically correct or not, it’s really not a bad attitude to have in order to survive in China.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Work Team Is In Town

When George Bush visited Beijing recently, I was in Shanghai translating for an American production company that was bringing a kick-ass music production to China. I had completely forgotten about his visit until I arrived at the famous outdoor Xiangyang market with a group of American colleagues. Knockoffs of the most famous brands were nowhere in sight. Instead, hustlers approached us in hushed voices, “North Face? North Face?”, or “Bags? Watches?”, very underground communist style.

We decided to follow a short guy in a fake white Adidas track suit. His gelled-up hair, spiking in all directions, happily bopped as he walked, since he would get a cut of all our purchases. We walked around the street corner, into a narrow alley between two apartment buildings with laundry hanging over us, up a dark wooden stairway and finally into a tiny room. Knockoff watches, wallets and bags were stuffed on the shelves like deformed Barbie dolls. I asked the “salesperson” why all of the sudden this covertness. President Bush was in China, he said, so a special “work team” was visiting from Beijing and confiscating knockoffs in the open market.

“Oh shit. This looks so fucking real!” One colleague gasped because the Rolexes and the LV bags look no different from the real ones he and his wife carried.

With it began my weeklong responsibilities of taking group after group of colleagues to that same market, sometimes two to three times a day. Pretty soon my translation service was rendered useless, for when haggling, there’s no such thing as a language barrier. A few days after Bush left, the “work team” went back to Beijing and all the knockoffs surfaced out of dark plastic bags. My colleagues bought Rolexes, LV bags, North Face jackets, Mont Blanc pens, Pashmina scarves, and Tiffany jewelries. Most finished their Christmas shopping there.

The most popular item was golf clubs. Every single person I knew bought a set of fake Calloways, even though many didn’t play golf. On their first golf trip day in Shanghai, two clubs broke. Still, many went back for a 2nd or 3rd set as Christmas gifts for friends and relatives because it was cheap (around $200 a set I think). The situation got so bad that the team leader sent out a memo reminding everyone that a set of clubs count towards the 2 pieces of check-in luggage allowed by the airlines.

I had stopped buying knockoff stuff a while ago, because first, they were mostly crap, and secondly, everyone in Beijing and Shanghai was carrying LV bags and wearing Nike shoes. In China, brand means everything but also remarkably little, since a Versace jacket literally means stitching a Versace logo on a simple jacket. Thus, it was weird watching my well-off American colleagues, who could afford the real things, haggling over $1 for a fake Mont Blanc pen.

The last day before they all left, we went back to the market for the last time. The famous brands disappeared again. There was an American delegation in town to discuss intellectual property, so Beijing sent down another “work team”. Back at the hotel, an European guy approached us in the hotel lobby as we all huddled around in our fake North Face jackets. “Are you all here for a North Face convention?” he asked.

I almost wished that the Bush government would just leave the knockoff markets in China alone. First of all, crackdown is futile. Secondly, if Bush is truly concerned with spirituality, what better way to help people see through the illusion of commercialism than flooding the market with knockoffs? With increasing international travel and gift-giving, that gospel would travel wide and fast.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

China, a semantic problem?

I posted the story Hung Up on Dec 21 about the Beijing cops shutting down a Gay & Lesbian Cultural Festival billed as China’s first. Danwei, a well-known blog on media in China, quoted my blog in their story “Chinese government: It's OK to be gay, just don't make a fuss”. The author of that story noted that the state-owned Beijing Review had just published a front-cover article about the opening up of gay life in China.

In conclusion of the two events, the Danwei article opined that “The message from the government is quite clear: be as gay as you want, just don't try to organize a large group of people to get together and talk about it too loudly.”

The author of the Beijing Review article, who’s a Beijing woman in her 20s, contacted me after visiting Danwei’s site. She explained that the gay festival got shut down the day after her article came out. She was very sympathetic to the gay movement and asked what I thought of Danwei’s perspective.

Regardless of how un-Chinese some of my friends accuse me of, I still have the knee-jerk reaction to Western media’s criticism on China – not another conspiracy theory! (truth be told, I lost interest in conspiracy theories after the ending of the X Files.) I did not believe that the government orchestrated the two events, or it has a clear view on gay life in China. My view of the government is a lot more benign – that it consists of old bureaucrats who do not understand homosexuality, who shut down any public assembly of any size just in case some higher-up ask question and put their jobs in jeopardy; especially in Beijing where there are many many levels of higher-ups and anything public is considered a loud statement from “China”. (Will I get arrested for leaking state secret someday for this?)

When I interviewed Kaiser Kuo, a founding member of the influential rock band Tang Dynasty, for my first documentary, he made a comment that regrettably I couldn’t include in my final cut. He said that many people in the West considered China this monolithic structure with any oppressive order directly from the very top; thus the headlines of “China!” or “the Chinese government!” did so and so. In actuality the picture is a lot more complex, with a lot of chaos, inertia and cultural baggage interpreted as bad intentions.

So I wondered, in light of the Danwei article – are many of the opinions on China or the Chinese government simply semantic confusions? What is China anyway when included in a news headline? Similarly, who represents “the government”?

The closest I ever interact with “the government”, is via Beijing Weekend, a weekly under China’s official English-language newspaper China Daily. I’m writing stories for them (hopefully) regularly. For the first story, I simply reedit my blog posting “Drinking With Chinese Characteristics”. In that posting I started the story by first describing a pimp selling me all sorts of girls in Sanlitun and not flinching when I joked that I wanted boys. I self-censored that part out because Beijing Weekend is a state-owned magazine.

The editor asked me to put it back.

IMHO, I think the media too often regard the “the government” as too one-sided. There are people in “the government” pushing the envelope like my editor and the writer for Beijing Reviews. But there are also those who are conditioned to act in the old authoritarian ways.

On New Year’s day, I went to the underground church (or family church to be more political correct) again and met a dissident intellectual there. He had been put in prison for 4 years for publishing politically incorrect (seriously) books. His opinion on China and the government?

“Nobody knows where China is going. There are simply way too many problems. That’s why many officials are so nervous; they move their assets overseas and send their kids to America to get American passports. You never know if one tiny setback could bring down the whole system. And then there’ll be chaos. The liberal faction in the government wants to reform and modernize the party. Me? I think it’s too late. The party has lost its chance to reform as it has lost its touch with the masses.

“But what is the alternative? Falun Gong maybe. Honestly it’s strong enough to challenge the government now. The government crackdown only speeds up its spread, giving it many more martyrs. If you look at China’s history since the Yuan Dynasty, you’ll see many social changes are brought by religious movements. If Li Hongzhi (founder of Falun Gong) makes a call to arms, there’ll be millions who follow. In fact, the Western media have done Falun Gong a big favor by portraying the government crackdown as human rights abuse while it’s actually a political struggle for power. Now Falun Gong has accumulated many PR and financial assets in the West which made it a lot stronger.”

Now I’m straying too far. We were discussing China. What is China again? Perhaps I’m confused because I’m right in it. Perhaps looking from afar, all of the inconsistencies could be summed up into some consistencies, into some supra-governmental intention or motivation that could be argued about and swayed. In the case of Hung Up, the sum of the reactionary cops and the liberal state-employed journalists could just be what Danwei stated “It's OK to be gay, just don't make a fuss”.

I do hope so. For I remember the days when we didn’t have TV or any other electronics in the house except for a radio which my dad tried to fix but never succeeded; for my dad remembered the days of the Cultural Revolution when different factions used machine guns at each other, and my mom remembered the great famine during the Great Leap Forward; for my grandpa remembered the days when the Japanese were massacring in Nanjing and the Nationalist government had to hide in Chongqing.

Despite all my detest of the government’s rallying cry for a “harmonious society”, despite all my loathing of the Chinese culture’s emphasis on conformity and self-imposed insecurity, I dread the memories and I hope “China” could be understood, discussed with and nudged on.

Before then? I’ll shelf my complaints of life in China for a few days and savor the following from the Beijing Review article:

“ ‘People are busier making money now,’ said Tony Li, owner of Shanghai’s Vogue gay bar. ‘They don’t have time to bother other people, and they are getting more and more information from abroad, so there is a higher degree of tolerance toward gays.’”

Even though there’s no independent judicial system, we don’t have any anti-sodomy law to appeal. Even though there are few open gay people, we don’t have any religious conservatives condemning us to be killed.

From the gay perspective, things are not so bad.

Google, please bribe the government

I sent up a mirror blog on MSN at the end of December to make my writing accessible in China (China blocks almost all the other blog providers that I know of). When I tried to copy my interests over from Blogger to MSN Spaces, MSN blocks me from including the word “bondage” as in the title of one my favorite books, Of Human Bondage. I could use the world “sex”, “threesome” or “S&M”, just not “bondage”, “c***” or “f***”.

I knew that’s the price to pay to have MSN available in China. So I proceeded.

Then today I found out it’s a really crappy service. I couldn’t figure out how to display more than 25 blog entries on my Space (45 entries in December). The only workaround is to use the “next entries” link which is solely available in the Archives section. The Help section was uselessly skinny. The Feedback link doesn’t work.

To succumb to regime pressure is one thing. To have a crappy usability design is completely over the line! (This coming from Microsoft shareholder!)

Google, please bribe the government some more so I can have my Blogger’s ease of use. You already censor news on your News site for China. I don’t mind you censoring out my preference for a book related to bondage to make Blogger available in China.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Rent For The New Year

It greatly saddened me that on New Year’s eve, my favorite Broadway musical, Rent, did not pack the house with all the rebels in Beijing, however many there are. The seats were only 60-70% full. The show was supposed to run for 3 nights in Beijing with the possibility to extend for 2 more, depending on ticket sales. But on the first day, the performance was cancelled 4 hours before show time. The official explanation was that the equipments had arrived in Beijing too late for proper testing. This being in China, however, everyone knew that was just a lie, and the show would be doomed to two nights only.

The company that brought the musical to Beijing should have known better. Most of the expats were on vacations. Chinese artists seem too bobo to enjoy La Vie Boheme. And in a nation obsessed with superlatives and billings like “the longest…” or “the most…” (think Cats), few Chinese audiences are keen on shelling out Broadway prices (US$12-125) for any production, let alone one in English about AIDS, homelessness, drug addiction and dirt poor squatters.

Not even Karen Mok, the top billing Hong Kong pop star in the role of Mimi, could generate much excitement. Every time she opened her mouth, I worried that her weak voice would simply give out. Her right leg constantly lifted up towards her butt, in a cutesy pose that’s very Disney-style-girls-about-to-get-kissed, not very appropriate for a drug junkie and go-go dancer, IMHO. Camera still flashed whenever she was on, defying the reminder at the beginning of the show that no camera or flashes would be allowed.

Even worse, the Chinese subtitles, flashing on two narrow displays on both sides of the stage, were completely off beat. Sometimes the subtitles would run to the next song and stay blank for 5 minutes for the acting/singing to catch up. I wondered how much of the story the Chinese audiences picked up. Parents with teenagers and overweight businessmen with their mistresses clapped politely, unfazed by scenes of two women kissing, one woman baring her behind, two men kissing and stashes of coke being exchanged.

All of the which conspired to ruin my regular cleansing ritual of watching Rent. Since I watched its touring production in Boston in 1997, I had watched it in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, all together about 7 or 8 times (I’ve lost count). In the words of the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, who died at the age of 35 the day before the show’s premier Off Broadway, "Rent is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century." The storyline was silly at times. But the music was always able to bring out the tear from me. Lots of it.

So during the first act, it annoyed me greatly that my tear refused to come out to acknowledge the lame production in Beijing. It was not until way into the second act that the Beijing production’s daringness sank in. With the exception of calling the drag queen “the one who dresses funny”, the subtitles stayed true to the script. Chinese characters for “AIDS”, “homosexuals”, “condom”, “sex” and “rebellion” repeated constantly on the displays. It was amazing for the script to have survived through the censors, especially considering the venue was at the state-owned Beijing Exhibition Center.

I suspect that the authorities didn’t bother because the show was in English thus had limited impact. However, there’s already talk of developing a Chinese version of Rent. That, would be a miracle, if Chinese actors can sing about “AIDS”, “homosexuals”, “condom”, “sex” and “rebellion” in Chinese on stage, in a society that’s obsessed with “harmony” and covering up anything out of the ordinary.

The official site for Rent stated that “Over the past few years, Rent has played to cheering fans throughout North America. In fact, it has become a global phenomenon, packing houses in England, Japan, Australia, Germany and countless other countries.” As a die-hard Rent fan, let’s pray that some day the show will return to Beijing to pack the house.

Meanwhile, here’s my favorite song from the show to wish everyone a happy new year and lower rent or mortgage payment!

“There’s only us.
There’s only this.
Forget regret,
or life is yours to miss.
No other road,
No other way,
No day but today!”