Monday, December 31, 2007
Alas, this brand new year of 2008 with all the Olympic glory and the obligatory house cleaning to welcome foreign guests.
Many have asked how I could still remain hopeful. It's a human weakness of mine, I often confessed. Even with statistics one could look at the myriad of the numbers in different ways. Beijing has supposedly the worst pollution among the world's capitals, yet once in a while the wind would come and blow the dust away. Like this early December day when the company I work for organized 100 employees to participate in the AIDS Day Great Wall Hike. It was windy and chilly but the sky was gorgeously blue. And there were many enthusiastic young faces smiling and excited because they were participating in an AIDS Day event.
The pessimist in me saw a turnout not big enough. The optimist caught a bright glimpse of the future in which more in China would be caring, activistic, and creative. (Check the hikers from the condom company!)
Yes, despite the smog and the taking in of honest people hope still persists. History tells us that the right shall eventually prevail. The kids will grow up, and we will grow stronger and wiser ourselves.
Time is our best friend.
Happy new year!
Saturday, December 08, 2007
As a result, Gemdale is popular among expat journalists, corporate slaves making Western salaries and rich Taiwanese entrepreneurs with their cute housewives and kids. Since 2004, the apartments have risen more than 100% in value. (Disclaimer: I don't own anything here.)
A week ago, however, I suddenly noticed something unusual about our typically tranquil and family friendly complex--a few apartments had put up signs on their windows reading "Protest--Club House Becoming Tax Bureau!" I vaguely heard something about the developers renting out half of the club house to the tax bureau, which some owners were protesting. But being a corporate slave myself, I did not have too much energy to join in for support.
Then yesterday, while walking to 7 Eleven to get lunch in the warm Saturday sun, I noticed a pack of definitely-not-local-looking-Chinese gathering in front of a building. A guy had jumped off the building that morning, but the police refused to explain the details. He had been clinically depressed, yet the recent spat with developers regarding the club house might (disclaimer: just might) have triggered it.
Then I noticed that many many more windows were showing the protest posters. I was shown a local newspaper coverage of the dispute--the owners accusing the developers of having falsely advertised the compound as exclusively residential; now the tax bureau would draw in undesirable foot traffic, introduce security problems and (gasp!) decrease real estate prices. Three more Beijing newspapers were supposed to publish similar stories that morning but the editors pulled them all after some command from some Related Authority.
I found the gag order bizarre--this is a normal legal dispute between developers and owners, no land grab, forced relocation, or public unrest involved. The authorities want to stop people from knowing because of the current regimented call for harmony before the Olympics, or because the developers are well connected?
In the crowd, an owner suggested, "Why don't we ask XXX to talk to YYY (a high-up government guy)? YYY should know this is no way to build a harmonious society."
I received a poster from the crowd and put it on our window to show solidarity. A couple of hours later, three women looking in their 30s came to our door. They asked for my name, phone and signature on a petition.
"They can't just do this and decrease our property value!" One woman said in her perfect Taiwanese mandarin accent.
They were indeed all Taiwanese. I thanked them for their hard work--they were going through the apartments in the complex one by one for signatures. They whined in that cute Taiwanese way that you mainlanders are not helping. I said sorry we don't have that tradition. They laughed--you are right, we Taiwanese do have the tradition to protest.
Oh how I love the Taiwanese housewives at my door. They were pretty, smartly dressed, articulate and determined. Such a nice representation of the bourgeois living in the neighborhood.
I have always believed that the budding bourgeois class will play a much bigger role in shaping China's future than in previous revolutionaries. They are damn protective of their properties. Nobody dares to force into their apartments to take down the posters, or put them away in unknown locations. Plus they are loud, and they can't be silenced because their neighbors are Western journalists.
It's this self interest, and their insistence on rule of law, that will contribute to the peaceful evolution of China.
Go Taiwanese housewives! The future of China lies in your tenacious well-manicured hands!
Thursday, December 06, 2007
Last night went to a banquet thrown in honor of John Major, the ex
I had the urge to ask—“Dear Sir John, what do you think of the horrible smog out side?”—but that surely would have spoiled the party. It seemed that what most people really enjoyed, was talking about the obvious while also ignoring the obvious.
I sat next to a private banker who had purchased real estate in seven different Chinese cities. He said trust me man, the real estate price would continue to rise, if not at the astronomical rate in the past.
Back to my reporter friend. She said if you don't want to--or can't--do it, can you recommend someone? I promised to ask the few usual suspects around. They speak good English, and they know where the boundary lies for any topic deemed sensitive. Meanwhile, I could not shake off the sense of a thrilling irony of living in such a vast country while only a few usual suspects can be found.
Oh well. Sir John mentioned repeatedly last night that
So what if there are only a few usual suspects around willing to talk about Freedom of Expression in English, in this great capital of our beloved motherland?
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Sunday, September 16, 2007
In China, however, hukou is a lot more than a permanent residency--at least it used to. Before I left China in 1992, a local hukou was still required for most employment, education for one's children and other benefits. But the system gradually broke down as the economy sped away and more and more labor migrated about. Now one could live and work anywhere; nobody is counting on the government to dish out benefits based on hukou anymore.
As many of the migrant workers, I have been living "illegally" without a hukou in Beijing since 2004. I did not even bother to register with the local Public Security Bureau as a "temporary resident," since the police does not intrude on posh apartment complex to check on the registration unless for far important reasons. It suited me fine until now, until I joined a proper company and have stable income coming in but the stable income could not be invested in the red hot stock or real estate market cause I don't have a residence card, and I can't apply for a business visa to Hong Kong cause I need to apply locally where my hukou resides; and that's in addition to the 15% salary's worth of social security and housing benefits I'm foregoing cause both accounts need to be linked to one's hukou.
So I began to wonder where my hukou went. Back in 1992, three years after the student movement and with the leadership jittery of too many students going overseas to study, the policy was that one had to give up one's hukou before moving overseas. The inane policy lasted only for a couple of years, which explains why few could understand me being still Chinese but without a hukou.
So after a few phone calls, I decided to get my hukou back. Here's what happened last Thursday:
7:20 Fight left for the city where I went to university.
10:15 Found the university hukou office. The officer gave me a paper slip with a university stamp on it certifying that my hukou had been cancelled.
10:30 Arrive at Police Station A where my hukou used to be kept. A female officer checked my record on computer and put another red stamp certifying that my hukou had really been cancelled.
10:45 Arrive at the Municipal Public Security Bureau's Border Entry & Exit Office. Told to visit the local CDC to get my health certified.
11:15 Finally found the CDC office after having been directed away to a different health exam facility. Told to visit the AIDS office on the 4th floor of the dilapidated old building. Found an old guy and a young guy in the dark AIDS office stuffed with newspaper and medical records. The old guy told me the checkup would take 2 days and then turned back to the computer screen filled with stock charts and quotes. I thought OMG this would be a bureaucratic nightmare so I begged--please I came all the way from Beijing; please I have a super important career-making meeting the next day; and look, I brought the certified results of the pre-employment physical prior to starting my current job; it's what you want, right?
The young guy checked the booklet of my physical result full of all sorts of red stamps. He said maybe the checkup could be shorter in my case. The old guy said make sure the physical had checked everything. The young guy said everything except for his HIV status.
11:35 The young guy took me to the 6th floor of the brand new building linked to the old building. A female nurse took my blood. Told to come back at 2:30pm the earliest.
14:30 Woke up from a nap in the lobby of the new building. Went to the AIDS office in the old building. The young guy had gone out for business. The old guy was still checking stock charts. Told to visit the blood lab.
14:45 Saw the female nurse just starting the antibody test on my blood. The entire 6th floor was empty except for that blood lab. Waited.
15:15 Called by the nurse. She gave me a paper slip with a red stamp on it certifying that I am HIV negative.
15:30 Back at the dark AIDS office. The old guy filled in my HIV status on a form with my name and photo on it. Had the urge to ask what if I was positive but decided not to push my luck. He gave me a paper slip with a red stamp on it certifying my health check was ok. Thanked him profusely. He said many Chinese were returning to China and reclaiming their hukous. Their healths had all been ok. Saw their forms piling on the desk and wondered if they would all go to the garbage bin in a month.
15:45 Back at the Entry & Exit Office. Got another stamp on the original paper slip certifying that my hukou had really truly been cancelled and they recommend that Police Station B reactivate it. How about the business visa to Hong Kong? Told to get my hukou reactivated first.
16:05 Arrive at Police Station B that was keeping all new hukous associated with the university. Told to go back to university hukou office to get my hukou file.
16:20 Called the university hukou officer a second time. The office only opened in the morning. Begged profusedly--please I came all the way from Beijing; please I have a super important career-making meeting the next day; please I'm sure that your kindness would be duly rewarded. He finally said ok.
17:00 Arrived at the office with a fancy box of mooncakes and a plain box of Nestle instant coffee.
17:15 The officer arrived. Gave him the multi-stamped paper slip. He found my original hukou record and gave it to me. Thanked him profusely and gave him the mooncakes and instant coffee. He said I couldn't accept them. I said you must accept them.
17:30 Back at Police Station B 30 minutes before closing time. The female officer, a young girl, said I could get your hukou reactivated but you had to come back tomorrow for the residence card--too late to take the photo at Police Station C. Begged profusely. Finally a different girl officer relented. She typed on the computer and printed out a form. I said I would sprint to Station C. The girl rolled her eyes at me--if you don't sprint who would sprint for you?
17:40 Sprinting to the nearby Police Station C with the form.
17:45 Arrived at Station C but the photo room was locked! Panting, freaking out, asking everyone where the heck was the photo guy!
17:50 Photo guy came back. Took photo. He photoshopped my hair and viola, it's done--image automatically transmitted to the residence card database.
17:57 Sprinted back to Station B, 3 minutes before close time. Everyone cheered. The girl officer gave me a red-stamp receipt and told to come back to pick up the residence card in 2.5 months. Given another form with my basic info printed on it. Told the form is my hukou and I can take it with me but I have to take good care of it. What if I lost the form? Everyone giggled--guess you'd be a Black Resident, an illegal resident. Left thanking them all profusely.
18:58 Bought ticket for an overnight train back to Beijing!
Now I have the activated hukou hidden safely in my apartment. Isn't it amazing that so much could have been accomplished with just some profuse begging and some token gift-giving? A decade ago this level of efficiency would have been completely unfathomable, not to mention the smiling customer-centric police officers and the stock-market-obsessed yet not-unreasonable old AIDS officer.
Seriously, China is indeed improving, and I seriously hope not only for those who had studied overseas and have important business meetings in Beijing and are HIV negative.
Thursday, August 09, 2007
During the brainstorm on how to get on the bandwagon, I suggested that we leverage our global network: we could translate into Chinese content from other territories and call it “Laowais on Olympics!”—god knows how we Chinese treasure foreigners’ opinions—and feed original user-generated content, made here in
I thought the idea brilliant and the group considered it interesting—we have to differentiate ourselves somehow from our competitors who are bigger stronger and have started much earlier. So I did more research. Our
OMG, my idea wouldn’t work! No way the censors would approve “(disgruntled) Laowais on Olympics!” posted on our site. Come to think of it, no way either for foreign audience to enjoy “Live (but sanitized) from
Either we remain incredibly conventional and lose to the conventional but bigger competitors, or we could become incredibly innovative within the limits of being positive, prosperous and harmonious.
The question for the latter is—how?
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Daba, the owner of the hostel on the Lige peninsula where I stayed, said it was simply not true. "The so-called ‘walking marriage’ is actually serious for the Mosuos,” he said. “Even though the couple in love don’t own or owe each other anything, that doesn’t mean they switch partners all the time. Relationships tend to be long term, and when the couple no longer love each other, they part ways.”
“In fact,” he continued, “this system is far superior to the ones you have in Han regions. There’s no haggling over child custody or financials in case of a breakup. Everything stays with the maternal family.”
Daba was proud of his tradition, yet he had “legally” married according to Chinese law. He had attended university in
Daba’s Inn seemed the last old structure standing in the
“My people…” Daba sighed and shook his head. “They just want the 50,000 yuan a year from the Han businessman. They don’t know how to protect their culture. And the county government is not providing any guidance. The Han people come over here, build an inn, and then start selling our culture like fast food. How could this be sustainable?”
To be fair, the local government had implemented strict preservation rules: every family and every inn must have a sewage line running to the nearby treatment facility, which kept the lake water crystal clear; every new building had to conform to the local architecture style (unfortunately, like construction elsewhere in China, all the new faux-traditional buildings look exactly the same). Most of all, the locals were happy. They welcomed the tourists and the Han businessmen who had a much better sense in running the inns.
But Daba was most concerned with the culture itself. “There are so many beautiful aspects about our culture,” he said, “but the Han tourists only knew of the walking marriage, and even that was mostly misinformed. They knew nothing about our religion or our language. The central government itself mistakenly grouped us under the Naxis in 1950. We need to learn to show the outsiders the real Mosuo.” Daba was one of the organizers of a local cultural preservation foundation; but no fund was coming in.
Unsurprisingly, few tourists seemed to care. During my three nights staying at the lake, Daba’s one-hundred-year-old building had the lowest occupancy every night. The rooms were dark, the communal shower rudimentary, and there were bed bugs. And Daba was the most morose among all the inn keepers. Tourists wanted bigger rooms, hopefully with private bath.
“Those tourists,” Daba snickered, “they are not true travelers. True travelers, like those foreign backpackers, they love the authenticity of my place.”
Authenticity was what attracted Old Wang to the lake as well. The next day I hiked along the lake towards the
That’s at least the official version of the story from Old Wang, a theme I had heard repeatedly in
It was right before noon. There was only me and Old Wang in the dining area which had huge windows overlooking the marshland. Old Wang told me stories of the local Mosuos, stories he claimed that the Mosuos themselves had forgotten. The rice porridge tasted great after a good morning’s hike. Flies were bombarding us despite the burning incenses. It was a enchanting breezy day by the lake.
Old Wang said he didn’t care about money. He just loved the tranquility. I said I noticed that the Sichuan side of the lake had built nice asphalt roads—unlike the bumpy stone roads on the Yunnan side of the lake—which made me worry a bit that the Sichuan government was intent on bringing hordes of tourists in. He said that’s not the end of it—an airport was being planned and supposedly would go into operation by 2010.
That would be the end of the lake, I lamented. He said no worry, we’d have moved to a different tranquil place by then.
Then immediately, he started bragging about how he turned a profit after only 5 months. He was thinking of building a chicken pen and raise tons of chicken. He would charge tourists to shoot the chicken with real rifles and cook for them immediately afterwards. He could get the chicks for X yuan a piece, and charge XX yuan a piece to shoot them when they grew up. He would end up with XXX yuan profit with XXXX chickens in the pen.
I was silent for a beat, then I asked, “Wouldn’t that ruin the tranquility?”
“Oh,” he said, “by then I would have moved on to another piece. I would let someone else manage the place and collect the money for me.”
That night Daba invited his friends over for a drink. They were three young Han businessmen who were loud and friendly and loved to drink. They were building a fancy inn with bathrooms looking out at the lake in the village. Three young Chinese tourists and I joined them. We told stories, drank barley liquor and sang songs. Daba said he had begun contemplating some renovation work, perhaps repainting the entire building and remodeling the two big rooms to add in private bathrooms. His friends all said it’s about time. I concurred—after three nights, the bed bugs at Daba’s place had really started bugging me.The gentle waves of the lake hit the banks as the night’s merriment went on, and stars slowly came out until they filled the entire sky. I was happy being half drunk and in
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
No, I'm not talking about the Zhang Yijiang extravaganza at the foot of the Jade Dragon Mountain, which, even though I've heard many great things about, I refused to pay to watch as a matter of principle.
What I'm talking about is this fantasy of Lijiang, as this tranquil backpacker heaven. At least, according to my Chinese friends, a place to rest and rejuvenate.
Many amateur photographers scavenged the Old Town for a perfectly misleading photo befitting the image of Lijiang--cobble stones, deserted street, old women in minority clothes. But the truth is, the town is mobbed by tourists, most of the buildings in the town center have been converted into guest houses and restaurants and stores, and the main street at night, full of bars and dancing Mosou women in bright costumes, is overflown with loud disco and young people yelling their hearts out, encouraged by alcohol.
The only thing that could have saved Lijiang for me, during my first day there, was the Prague Cafe. Outside of the cafe sitting on the sidewalk were a group of bohemian looking friends who played guitar and drums and sang all afternoon. It appeared rather alternative and cool in the over-commercialized atmosphere of Lijiang.
Inside of the cafe, I struck up a conversation with two Taiwanese housewives who were traveling together. When the group took a break outside, one of the members came in to talk to the two women. They chitchat for a long time, the same cliches of how great Lijiang is, how the vibe nourishes the soul, etc.
Finally, the pudgy round-faced guy sitting at the next table could not help it anymore. He said, "I just can't help jumping in. But don't you think your lifestyle can't last forever? How do you make money? I would think you should make enough money first--in fact, make a lot of money first--before you spend your days hanging around and singing. You look like a full grownup now. Aren't you worried about the future? Don't you think it's kinda irresponsible living? How much money can you collect in one afternoon anyway?"
The guy was a businessman from Wenzhou, one of the most entrepreneurial area in China. He owned his own factories and he hadn't taken a vacation for years.
The rest of us laughed. The singer explained--it's not about money; it's about the free-wheeling lifestyle; it's about doing things we enjoy doing; it's called real living; free living; etc. etc.
But the businessman insisted--you have to have some economic foundation, right? How do you support yourself, rent, food, and what not?
The singer said we don't need that much to live on; Lijiang is cheap; and we have good friends. All is fine. Don't you worry, my man. We made a choice. This is our life.
The businessman was not convinced, but he gave up his Marxist lecture on superstructure and economic basis. I joked he sounded exactly like my mother.
After a while the band resumed playing. The businessman went outside and from the look of it, tried very hard to fit in, to enjoy the free-wheeling music.
Back in the room, the singer started talking about his plan of building a guest house to the two Taiwanese housewives. Yes there are gazillion guest houses in Lijiang already. But this one will be different. It will be grand, immaculate, decorated in high style by his girlfriend who's studying overseas presently. It would cost a couple of millions of renminbi, the whole thing, but the business will take off, for sure.
The singer had a pony tail, a healthily tan (not the peasant tan) and a handsome face. When he left to join his band, the two women whispered to me, "We come everyday to see him. How handsome he is!"
They asked why I was there in Lijiang. I said I was taking my last trip before going back to corporate, freedom loving and entirely anti-my-mother's-teaching as I was. I said I was going back to build some more economic basis before my next attempt at the superstructure.
Lijiang has the weird capability to bring out the cliches in people.
So I left the next morning, wondering at the same time if I'd fallen into the cliche of searching for that off-beaten track a la the Lonely Planet.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
A week ago everything was ok, over, finito; a week later for various reasons, the chains have to be pulled tighter again. Just like that.
Life in China has definitely been more interesting than back in the US, not the least because it's oo often like an arbitrary joke that I don't know how else to react, except to laugh.
What great misfortune of you having to be Chinese?!
Oh well, I am Chinese. I'm stuck with it, all of it, and there' s no running away from any of it.
To see the sick humor in a rotten situation and continue to be amused, I think, is one of the few survival skills left for the Chinese. For the game is not over, and the show must go on.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Yesterday afternoon I sent email and sms messages to my friends, inviting them for a drink out at night. The excuse? "I'm finally officially free!"
One friend asked, "What do you mean? Did you break up with your boyfriend?"
Another wrote back also in confusion, "Didn't you just take a vacation in Yunnan from your unemployment in Beijing? How much more free do you need to be?"
The word Freedom indeed invites such easy confusion, which was probably why Freidrich Hayek carefully distinguished four common usages of liberty, or freedom, in his monumental The Constitution of Liberty:
1) "personal" freedom--the state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another or others;
2) "political" freedom--the participation of men in the choice of their government, in the process of legislation, and in the control of administration;
3) "inner" freedom--the extent to which a person is guided in his action not by momentary impulse or circumstance;
4) the freedom or power to satisfy our desires.
Indeed on what ground could I be celebrating my freedom?
4) I don't have the freedom to buy all the Apple products I want;
3) I still suffer from crises which, for lack of a more elegant expression, I shall call "existential";
2) Need I say more?
1) Need I say more???
Yet in the meantime, time has progressed. A year ago I was dazed by my sudden freedom from lack of Starbucks lattes, New York Times online and gym access over a long period of time. A year ago I took out the battery of my phone whenever I talked anything "sensitive" (how could I ever have believed that powered-off phones could be used as remote listening devices!). A year ago I listened to Nina Simone singing I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, over and over.
A year later, life is almost normal. The final official closure of my "case" and the full resumption of personal freedom feels actually anti-climatic, not so dissimilar from the day when I received my US "Green Card." I can go anywhere I want now; and, so what?
I was reminded of the unfree, in everything I read, everywhere I look. I was reminded of shackles, of the bondage even after the breaking of the shackles. Most of all, I was reminded of my bourgeois obsession with the future and my powerlessness at changing any of the present.
But I was also reminded what the cute young Kevin Bacon quoted in Footloose:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.Yes, to dance. I'm not one of those who fight to break the shackles. But I can dance. Dance with my shackles. Dance with my bondage after the shackles. Dance to pray. Dance to hope. For in dance, in the ecstasy of dance, I find the unnameable beauty which, for lack of a more elegant expression, I shall call freedom.