Saturday, May 22, 2004

Rings of Fire
Soon-to-be-ex foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I were sitting at a very small table on very precarious chairs near his apartment very early Saturday morning sharing some cold Tsingtaos and generally solving the world's problems as we watched the late night/early morning bbq crowd ebb and flow around us.
Many neighborhood corners in Shenzhen sprout instant bbq stands after dark when enterprising men and women throw some charcoal and wood on metal trays or inside a circle or rectangle of bricks, fire it up and start cooking chicken, corn, meat-you'd-rather-not-ask-about and sundry other edibles for midnight munchies. As the smoke and smells of smoke and grilling meat drifts from the makeshift pits, men, women and children start squatting or pulling up cinder blocks and munchkin-size stools to eat, drink, gossip, play cards, argue and laugh often until 2 or 3 a.m.
Scorched sidewalks and trash greet the rising sun, shortly after which the female street cleaners - clad in baggy orange jumpsuits and with oversized umbrella-like hats but almost always with some feminine touch like a colorful scrunchie or sequined bow for their tied-up hair - sweep up the debris with brooms often larger than themselves, leaving only the burn marks.
As Jeff and I watched the three makeshift stands doing business near us, a large blue government-looking van pulled up and disgorged three poker faced guys in blue uniforms and wearing what appeared to be oven mittens.
It was the Shenzhen BBQ SWAT team.
Silently and quickly they each sprinted to a stand, reached down and jerked the aluminum and cheap metal trays of burning coals from under the grills and spilled the glowing embers on the sidewalk. They charged back to the idling van clutching the trays, tossed them inside and - wheels screeching as the driver ground his gears - left as quickly as they had struck.
Mission accomplished. Chalk up three unlicensed bbq stands that wouldn't be threatening Shenzhen society anymore - or would they?
Except for a profound "holy fuck" from me and a "did you bloody see that, mate?" from Jeff no one else said a word before, during or after the raid - except for one cook who appeared to be asking someone where he could find a new tray for his coals. The bbq stand owners simply swept the still-burning coals into individual piles, found new trays (another griller had a stash in a garbage bag, apparently for just such emergencies), shoveled the coals on them and resumed cooking.
Fifteen minutes later the same van pulled up from the opposite direction and the boys in blue repeated their work. Just as before, the owners stood by, waited until the coals were dumped and the van left, swept up the burning debris, found new trays and kept on smokin'.
Another 20 minutes passed and the mobile bbq prevention squad struck once more with the same results.
Jeff and I were - as the Brits say - gobsmacked and also a little amused at the charade. Emboldened by Tsingtao courage, we had loudly booed the blue meanies and flipped them off as they ran to their van clutching the illicit trays in their government-issued oven mitts for the third time in 45 minutes, but no one else even seemed to notice or much care.
"I'd hate to see those guys take down a crack house or meth lab," I remarked.
Everyone around us, though, simply continued cooking, eating and gabbing. Just another small nightly drama in which everyone from the BBQ Strike Force to the vendors and customers knew their roles and performed them effortlessly.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two Headed Love Child
Shenzhen Zen takes a break from its irregularly scheduled format to give readers an advance look at a column that will presumably be printed next week in the pages of my soon-to-be employer, The Standard.
It's about my past employment at Weekly World News. One thing that I loved about interviewing at The Standard was that my confession that I'd worked for the equivalent of a journalistic syphilis outreach clinic seemed to be a plus. They wanted this account before I'd even been officially hired.
Here 'tis. Enjoy, please.

Admit it. Odds are you've seen my work, been momentarily fascinated with it and probably furtively perused it while simultaneously making sure that no one sees you reading it.
It's at virtually every supermarket checkout stand in the United States, distributed widely in Canada and the United Kingdom, and I've heard rumors there are copies in Hong Kong. It's one creaky, crooked step above pornography and about 49 flights down from the likes of the New York Times . The low budget black and white layout resembles a ransom note and its headlines scream: I KEEP MOM'S ASHES IN THE VACUUM CLEANER, LIVE MERMAID FOUND IN TUNA CANand BIBLE PROPHECIES: SATANIC TERROR THE GOVT. DOESN'T WANT YOU TO SEE!
It's the Weekly World News.
“Who writes this stuff?” you may have asked. Well, I did for about a year and a half following an otherwise respectable career in “straight” journalism. You may have seen my double opus: SADDAM STATUE SHEDS MYSTERY TEARS and SADDAM'S DOUBLES LOOKING FOR NEW JOBS. Or perhaps the mermaid in the tuna can exclusive and several similar fishy follow-ups until the editor at the time declared in a memo to the staff entitled “The Last Mermaid” that “In this week's issue of WWN, you will see a mermaid on page three. This will be the last mermaid you see in the pages of WWN for a while. We will also be banning vampires, zombies, elves, leprechauns, genies,witches, werewolves, and most other FANTASY FIGURES.”

You see, even the Weekly World News has standards, something that would come as a surprise to many of its fans. It even fact checks, albeit not to verify the existence of Elvis on Mars but to prevent libel suits. The newsroom itself looks and operates just like a “real” newsroom with the exception of editors hollering things like “Where is that talking french fry story?” I sometimes poked into chat rooms inhabited by WWN readers in order to see what the masses were thinking and found that remarks like “I'd love to work there! What a sweet gig – do nothing but smoke weed and think up Elvis and alien stories all day” were typical.

Au contraire, dear reader. Put down that bong for a minute and let me tell you it ain't easy cranking out world beaters like JESUS'S SANDALS FOUND, DISCOUNT BODY PARTS BUSINESS BOOMING and (my personal favorite) WISCONSIN BOWLING TEAM WORSHIPPED AS GODS BY SOUTH AMERICAN TRIBE five days a week, 8 hours a day.

And, just like its legitimate journalism counterparts, it was always groping for a way to boost circulation. Hence excited, upper case-littered memos like this with the subject line: THINGS YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT WWN!:
“HEY GUYS & GALS: I just wanted to educate you folks with a few things you NEVER knew about WWN. About 10 years ago, when WWN was at its sales peak, the mag was a combination of HALF-FICTION and HALF TRUE STORIES.
“The TRUE stories were a mix of TRUE CRIME, LIFESTYLE STORIES, and useful HOW TO'S. The TRUE stories were a way for us to BALANCE out the GOOFY stuff. And the GOOFY stuff never got TOO GOOFY.
“The more TRUE stories we put in, the more it made the other stories seem true.
“Somewhere along the line, WWN got away from the true stuff and went
ALL-GOOFY...and chased a away a sizable portion of its readership.
“Now we are working to get those readers back. The way we are doing this is by bringing the TRUE stuff back, and scaling down the goofy stuff.
“We want more BELIEVABLE stuff. Will we still run BIG FOOT & ALIEN stories? “YES, but not as frequently, and they won't be as WACKY. You will be seeing a LOT more TRUE stuff in WWN, starting immediately.
“Readers have to feel they are geting something USEFUL out of WWN. We CANNOT survive on just GOOFY stories any more.
“Sales show that NOBODY wants a newspaper full of nothing but useless, goofy stories. People want a newspaper that ENTERTAINS them, but also EDUCATES them and gives them something they can really USE.
“Our readers are also big believers in PREDICTIONS & HOROSCOPES, so we'll be doing a lot more of that stuff. The idea here is to win back those old ladies at the supermarket who pick us up because they believe we give them something that will make a difference in their lives, not just a JOKEBOOK.”
After several weeks of readjustment and running a lot of Biblical diet miracle weight loss and educational prophecy stories the “no GOOFY” edict was followed by another memo from the same editor:
“You knew this day was coming - it's finally here! WWN is going ALL WACKY, ALL THE TIME!!!
“Put on your FUNNY hats and let's get WILD!!!
“I want you guys to submit a list of story ideas, and they can be the most freaky, far-out, fantastic stories you've ever thought up.
“Elvis on the moon? Mermaids in space? Vampires on Broadway?
“Not wild enough!!! We want to get REALLLLLLLY WILD!!!!!!!!!”

As one might expect, these frequent whip-lash style reversals took their toll on writers and editors alike and many suddenly vanished into some kind of journalistic Devil's Triangle. I stuck it out, though and at one time it seemed as if I was almost the whole paper. Despite Weekly World News’global datelines – obscure European and Asian cities are popular – it's a very small staff based in Boca Raton, Florida.

For a stint of almost eight months I was not only churning out international exclusives, I was also a headshrinker's dream; a multiple personality, tri-polar combo of columnists Ed Anger (think rabid conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly on meth), Dotti Primrose, (advice shrew Dr. Laura on paint thinner) and Serena Sabak (“America's Sexiest Psychic”) and, for a brief period of time while Serena was “in a coma” (she may have been psychic, but she didn’t foresee her tragic car accident), her twin sister Sonya. I also wrote the horoscopes until one astute editor noted that many of them were laced with snatches of oldies lyrics from the likes of the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Moody Blues and Pink Floyd. “Scorpio: Oct. 23-Nov. 21: “If there's a bustle in your hedgerow on Tuesday afternoon consider breaking on through to the other side and breathe, breathe in the air. Look around choose your own ground.”

Dotti's and Serena's advice columns were similar fiction. As directed, I made up the letters and the answers until I was flaming out and asked to see if they really got mail. I was hoping to kick-start some ideas. Bad idea. It was like asking to watch an autopsy or to see how sausage is made. It turned out that Dotti and Serena got lots and lots of mail from lots and lots of people who had no business grasping sharp, pointed objects like pens and pencils. Here's an example, printed verbatim:

“Dear Serena, Please cast a spell for me to win the lottera repeated lottera repeated (sic) so I can do things and to have my husband dead (sic). I also want his mother dead so more money for me. God Bless You. From Sunny California.”

I bowed out of the advice business shortly thereafter but I can still write a mean horoscope. Just go ask Alice. I think she'll know.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Season of the Witch
Back from Hong Kong - yes, dudes and dudettes, I got the gig and will be relocating within three weeks, thankyoujeebus! - and one of the first stories I began editing upon my return was a nifty little number that began: "Authorities have banned foreign movies in mainland theaters in July and October...the ban is part of the 'cleaning the screen' campaign aimed at reducing the cultural impact brought about by foreign movies."
Among the offending films are (pause for drumroll) Spider-Man 2 and Harry Potter 3. No reason was given for SM2, which according to the story, may get a reprieve but HP3 is on the Sino-shit list for reasons that will be wearily familiar to Potter fans in the West.
"Sources said it had been banned on the mainland because it involved ghosts and witchcraft..."
I immediately thought of the plethora of daily shows on Chinese television that involve "ghosts and witchcraft." Plucked from Chinese mythology, the ghosts (almost always women) and the witches (both genders) can be seen on multiple channels from afternoon through evening levitating, throwing lightning bolts, brewing potions, shape-shifting and generally casting their commercial spells on viewers and sponsors alike.
One of my faves is a combination witch/ghost - "The White Snake Woman." She's a snake sorceress who turns into a ghost woman and travels into the future to romantically bewitch a prince (played by a woman - LESBIAN ALERT!) and then back into a snake when her dirty work is done.
I asked a couple Chinese friends about this apparent hypocrisy when it comes to foreign hoodoo vs. Chinese black magic.
One told me simply and seriously that "Chinese ghosts are culturally superior because they are more romantic."
Another took a more pragmatic view. "I think the movie companies did not pay the Chinese film bureau enough money and because the movies were already booked they probably had to have another reason." I pressed her about the culturally superior ghosts notion, though.
"That's probably true, too," she said. "But the most important thing is that Chinese ghosts payed more than foreign ghosts."

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Bewitched, Bothered and Bamboozeled
Damn. One reason I hate the idea of leaving Shenzhen is that I don't think that in Hong Kong you can get paid $100 to have a 3-hour dinner at a 5-star hotel to get squid-faced with good folks like Cheng Zhi Zing, vice-town mayor and vice-secretary of the Communist People's Party of Yixing City, Zhangzhu Town People's Government and five of his equally genial lackies.
You can't pass yourself off as "Michael Rymsha, general manager, bamboo expert, Xingli Bamboo Products Company" and tell Cheng and his legal assistant between liver shredding shots of maotai that Home Depot, Sam's Club and Wendy's are chompin' at the bit to buy up every meter of bamboo flooring and curtain China can deliver if the folks in Yixing City, Zhangzhu Town can just come through.
Such was my role Sunday night, the latest and probably last in my "Rent-a-Foreigner" roles. This one came suddenly, like all the rest, in a phone call from a friend-of-a-friend who needed a hairy barbarian face to put a legitimate gloss on a questionable enterprise. In exchange I'd get 800 yuan ($100) and dinner.
It was sort of like a shyster from New York bringing a non-English speaking Chinese guy to show the Box Butte County Nebraska Chamber of Commerce that he has connections in Beijing interested in buying the county's entire kohlrabi crop for packing, insulation and lingerie materials.
In this case I was to pose as the general manager of a bamboo flooring, curtain and furniture exporter. Name cards were provided at the last minute by my new "best friend" and "enterprise partner," bamboo czar Porter Mei who shoved a stack of them at me as I met him and scrambled into a glossy black town car limo to make the date.
"Your name is Michael Rymsha. I am sorry," said Porter.
No problem. Some of my best friends have been named Michael, I replied while humming "Michael Row the Town Car Ashore" to myself on the way to pick up the delegation from Yixing City, Zhangzhu Town.
"What else to do I need to know?"
"We are the kings of bamboo in China. You are my general manager and you live in Hong Kong."
"Where did you get this name?"
"I tell people I have an American partner, Michael, because I like the name from Michael Jackson," replied Porter. "Rymsha I found on another business card."
I thought of telling him about Porter Wagner and what a coincidence that the king of pop and the king of Nudie suits/ Dolly Parton's old partner should both be riding high to scam gullible commie party rubes from China's sticks. But, dear reader, yes, I thought better of it.
Sometimes obscure explanations only complicate the issue, such as when one of the rubes turned out to be a brighter-than-the-average-panda-bear young female law school graduate with a decent command of English.
"How many times do you travel from Hong Kong to Shenzhen in one month?" she asked brightly as I mulled over the choice of what appeared to be small, glossy pink reptile hearts and shiny squid tentacles as appetizers. "Uh," I stammered. "Six, about six times in one month, right Porter?"
"He is my best friend and business partner. We are the kings of bamboo" he replied confidently.
"What is your average export load and who are your top customers? How has the institution of the SEAC regulations affected your business?"
"Six metric tons, Home Depot, Sam's Club and Wendy's. Very happy with SEAC," I shot back, wondering what the hell SEAC was.
"I do not know this Wendy's," she said.
"It's gonna be big. Very big," I assured her. "Have you tried these oblong squishy things with spines coming out of them? Here, please!"
"Oh, you can use chopsticks with your left hand!" she cooed. "You must be very clever."
Clever enough to divert the conversation when it got uncomfortable, maybe, though not clever enough to dodge the really hard questions when they decided to play "guess the foreigner barbarian's age" after about 18 rounds of maotai toasts to the future of bamboo.
The guesses ranged between 39 and 62.
"Somewhere in between," I said trying not to slur. "You are all very clever."
"So it is 51!" replied the law advisor. "Hee, older than my father!"
Shenzhen Zen will be taking another brief hiatus in Hong Kong on Monday-Tuesday in a second attempt to shamelessly court the employment fairies at The Standard. Stay tuned for developments....

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Dancing in the Dark
I took a sweat-soaked stroll and found myself in a small park last night after bidding goodnight to Peter-the-SZ-fixer with whom I'd had dinner and tried to counsel as he struggled to come up with a scam that would allow him to avoid having to fork over a total of 1,200 yuan a month to the Chinese govt. ($144) to renew his American wife's visa.
China's currently pissed at the U.S. insistence on fingerprinting and photographing its citizens when they come to the States - routine procedures for PRC's national ID cards - and has retaliated by changing the visa laws for Yankee Imperialist Paper Tigers here.
Formerly, a visa cost about $24 and was good for as long as a year, depending on your status. Peter's spouse is now required to go to Hong Kong to renew hers every month for 1,200 yuan a shot. He's trying to beat it by arranging some kind of token employment for her by which an official entity, like a university, school or, uh, ahem, a newspaper group would "hire" her (for no pay), allowing her a longer, cheaper visa status.
Trouble is, as I tried to diplomatically point out based on what I'd been able to suss out about a reclusive woman I'd only met once; whether paid or not, there's not a huge demand for an apparently agoraphobic, possibly anorexic, barely verbally audible foreigner in the Shenzhen job market.
Green tea and sympathy were about all I could offer before we departed the noodleteria.
I needed a little lightening up and found it dancing in the dark, well, nearly in the dark.
There were some eateries near this small Shenzhen community park whose lighting cast a feeble glow on a group of middle-aged men and women -- some in almost formal attire, others dressed for comfort in the muggy haze and heat.
Music drifted from a small sunken concrete amphitheater surrounded by three rows of steps cum benches.
Whining mosquitoes combined with the shrill female vocals coming from a boombox that was parked on one bench while on the makeshift dance floor 10 couples -- four mixed, five female and one male -- gently two-stepped, spun, twirled and approximated a waltz and tango or two to the tunes.
Sweating, I took a seat and batted, slapped and scratched at the bugs and watched, entranced. Strings of unlit lights hung from the trees around them and it was hard to see clearly, even at reasonably close range.
The music paused and one of the two middle-aged female couples approached me shyly, giggling a little.
I nodded hello and one asked me in halting English, stopping to momentarily cover her mouth between nervous titters, if I would perhaps like to join them.
``You dance?'' asked one. ``You dance with her? My friend?'' she said, pointing at her partner, whose embarrassed face was also obscured with her hand.
``Delighted,'' I replied. The music began again -- piercing, wailing female vocals in a duet with a lusty male baritone approximating a Peking Opera-meets-Tibetan yak herders-at-Donna Summer's place arrangement.
I am more accustomed to boogying in Shenzhen nightspots such as True Colors or the V Bar to Shanghai house music or the 217th rendition of Sex Bomb. But I switched mental gears and approximated something semi-formal dredged up from Mrs Pollard's 6th grade dance lessons and took a twirl or three. The music stopped and I bowed and thanked her, then took a breather, largely because the sight of a foreign barbarian cutting the concrete had drawn more curious onlookers than mosquitoes.
One fellow who appeared to be roughly my age approached to ``practice'' his English. After the usual niceties concerning my country of origin, reassurance that I adored China and Chinese food and certifying my employment and marital status, I turned the tables by asking him about the songs.
``They are old, from our younger days,'' he said.
Ah ha. Golden oldies, I thought. Glory days. Yeah, like dancing to Creedence, Aretha, the Stones, Kinks, the Tempts, the Fabs nd getting the Led out at my high school reunions. I could relate.
``So what are they about? Love?''
``This one, yes! Love for Chairman Mao, yes!'' he replied, smiling as I might if I'd been asked to describe the eternal appeal of Good Vibrations or I Heard It Through the Grapevine to a Martian.
``What's it about?'' I asked. ``What's it called?''
`` It is Mao Zhu Xi Lai Dao Zan Nong Zhuang'' he said, thoughtfully pausing so I could scrawl some crude notes with a leaky pen on the back of a soggy bill. ``It means `Chairman Mao Came to Our Farm.' It is about all the farmers thanking him and bringing their animals to Beijing to give to Chairman Mao!''
Not exactly Jumping Jack Flash,I thought, but I pressed for more details.
``The song before this one says, `Chairman Mao is like the sun. He warms the entire earth.' It is called Bei Jing De Jin Shan Shang -- `On the Gold Mountain of Beijing.' The singer is Cai Dan Zhuo Ma. Very popular! A Tibetan woman!''
``Kind of like Diana Ross? Or Gladys Knight?'' I asked.
``Never mind.''
He paused for a moment and sang along for a verse or two, lost in memories that presumably didn't involve Red Guards beating him senseless in a public square while his 9-year-old daughter denounced him.
Another one began.
``What's this about?'' I queried, almost afraid to ask.
``It is Shi Wu De Yue Liang. It means `Moonlight of the Fifteenth.' The singer is Dong Wen Hua. Also very popular. It is about a soldier who fights against feudalism bravely and receives an honor, an award.''
``A medal?''
``Yes! A medal! And he takes it to his wife and tells her it is for both of them. They share it together for China!''
He was positively beaming at this point.
``Lovely,'' I said.
``Yes, very, very romantic. I am in school again when I hear it!''
``Yeah, I know the feeling,'' I said. ``I guess one man's Dong Wen Hua is another's Janis Joplin.'

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Dead Man Walking
Despite several e-mails and one unenlightening phone call by me it's been quiet, too quiet, from Hong Kong. I'm beginning to fear that my euphoria over the tryout and brief time there may be a case of counting my avian flu chickens before they're hatched or a case of premature congratulations. Great, just another premature 'ulation problem to worry about...
Meanwhile, times running out on my meter at the SZ Daily and the strain is beginning to show both ways. It's clear from their averted gazes and brief, muttered hurried responses to my falsely hearty "Morning! What's happening, comrades?" greetings that some of my colleagues regard me as already gone. Others have no clue and it's painful to hear them discuss summer plans that could include me while I'm thinking of a way to ask them if their second cousin's brother-in-law in Butte might have an opening for a 51-year-old delivery boy at his Chinese restaurant this summer.
I was also painfully reminded of my once-ecstatic arrival here with the arrival yesterday of another foreigner. I'll call her U because I can't pronounce her name and she'd also probably prefer not to be named. She's in her late 20s, a business and economics journalist from Germany and is here for two months on an exchange program that sends one of our staff there.
In this case, they got the dutiful spineless party aparatchik whom I suspect ratted out Shenzhen Zen and, based on dinner with her showing her around the Lucky Number neighborhood last night, I'd say the SZ Daily got the better end of the deal.
Soon-to-be-ex-foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I were, of course, the last to know of the exchange until we saw a thin, tall, Aryian-looking blonde looking lost in the newsroom.
"Are they remaking Triumph of the Will?" I asked. "What's with Leni Riefenstahl's granddaughter?"
"Why should they tell us anything? We just work here," he muttered.
It turned out she's being put up in a new, upscale apartment virtually next door to the mighty Shenzhen Press Group tower, and I offered to show her around the area after work so she could get her bearings, buy some lodging essentials and learn where the restaurants with Chinglish language menus and non-biohazard restrooms are. She's not working for the paper, but is under its protection while she researches the Shenzhen and Hong Kong stock markets and works on a report about how the SZ Daily "works."
She told me her version of what she'd been told by the editors ("a free, independent and transparent source of news for Shenzhen's foreign community") and I told her how it really works ("a State-owned thinly disguised propaganda vehicle for the Shenzhen Bureau of Thought Control") over a Tsingtao for me and a Sprite for her at the Lucky Number.
She's no dummy and has spent some time in foreign climes before - including India and Colorado - so she's not coming in here full of shock and awe. Lots of healthy curiousity, though.
If I was passing a torch of sorts, it felt good to give it to someone who knows how to use it. I just hope she doesn't get burned.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Hot Stuff
The Filipina waitress was about to call Hong Kong's version of 911 as I coughed and choked like a stroke victim after foolishly pouring about a tablespoon of "Hell Fire" hot sauce on my chicken fajitas. She'd offered it to me from the Mexican restaurant's "Hall of Flame" hot sauce selection.
"Hell Fire" is made and bottled en la Teirra Zero of Mexican cuisine - Illinois - I noticed after scrutinizing the label through tear-drenched trifocals about 5 minutes and two glasses of water and one of iced milk later. Who'dathunkit?
But whodathunk I'd be so happy to die on the spot after eating a simple Mexican meal that included a passion fruit margarita and all the guack and tortilla chips one could inhale, or later wander into a shop where the Chinese owner pipes up: "What can I do you for?" and after I tell him I'm in town from Shenzhen says "Welcome to civilization."
Meandering through an Asian cross between NYC and SF (many steep hills and diverse nationalities jammed stubble-to-Botoxed/tweezed chins) now-not-so-recently-arrived-fellow-barbarian pal James and I temporaily rose above it all by riding the "world's longest escalator" - 800 meters- which turned out to be fudging the fact in that it's a series of escalators, not one continuous one. Glimpses of narrow alleyways resplendent with Chinese shop signs and drying laundry gave us a feel of "old" Hong Kong and/or as if we were on the set of one of the classic '70s-era chop-socky movies. I kept expecting a guy with a Bruce Lee haircut to jump out of a doorway spouting something like "Beware! Your bones are about to be disconnected!" to which I was prepared to reply "I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way!"
But some signs were basic, too basic for a moron like me. The pitcher of passion fruit margaritas was pushing its' way through my aging, sagging bladder when I saw a biliingual sign with an arrow announcing "toilet". Looking down the "road" staircase I saw nothing but more stairs and shops. Oh, yeah, there was a tile building with a blue colored male figure on a sign above it, but I discounted that for reasons that will be revealed in the following paragraphs
"Gotta piss very badly" said I.
"Use the restroom down there," replied James astutely pointing to the jumble down the stairs from the "toilet" sign. "See the blue man figure?"
Aha! Yes.
Dazed as I was by sudden HK culture shock, I had assumed it was a sign for the Blue Man Group. Nonetheless, after one of the most blissful urinations in recent memory I found a dozing attendent and - thank you Jeebus - real soap and hot water and an electric hand dryer that deliverd the soothing, warm goods instead of using tubuercular rats to exhale their skanky, cold, breaths after a loose switch is flipped to drop some stale pellets.
I could get used to a place like this.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Rocking in the Free World
Well, not rocking exactly - except back and forth on my swivel chair today while doing a tryout gig on the copy desk at The Standard, one of two English language dailies in Hong Kong.
But the "free world" feeling is salient. I got a nice buzz editing a story that mentioned the "Tiananmen Square massacre" - a candid reference to An Event That Dares Not Speak Its Name across the border.
The newsroom itself, too, is another world. As the fellow who is ultimately responsible for deciding my fate here described it: "It's like the cantina scene in Star Wars." Mostly Chinese, but a fair number of foreign barbarians - including a few women - hailing from, among other climes, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Australia, many parts of the UK and some fellow Yanks.
'Twas refreshing too, to overhear one sarcastically refer to "our beloved despotic overlords in Beijing", a remark that would fly about as far as a one-winged bat with Parkinson's in the SZ Daily newsroom.
Jim Morrison said it best: "I guess I like it fine - so far..."

Monday, May 03, 2004

And Your Bird Can Sing
So, I was sitting on a street corner in Guangzhou (85-degree heat/88-percent humidity) the capital city of Guangdong Province and one much larger and older than Shenzhen, with a Chinese newspaper-wrapped rectangular, blue plastic cage stuffed with eight fledging rare birds on my lap.
Just another day in China, thought I.
Chirp, chirp, replied the endangered gray collared myna birds, which at that point were more at risk from dying of C02 poisoning from the passing vehicles than anything me or Peter-the-SZ-fixer would do with them. Actually, they were for his long-suffering, bird-obsessed American wife back in SZ - a woman I've met briefly only once - and while Peter, who held the other wrapped cage in one hand while trying to hail taxis with other, would rather saw off his nuts with a chop stick than give her flowers, was eager get out of the apartment for the day to fulfill her request for endangered species take-out, a task that took two hours by bus and another 30 minutes on a subway until we found the Endangered Species Outdoor Market. Besides birds like eagles, rare parrots smuggled from South America and Africa and the mynas it also included a small ocean of fish, some scorpions, a few dogs and a tarantula or two.
Kind of a World Wildlife Federation nightmare or a Chinese Petsmart, minus the air conditioning and ambience but worth the trip if you like squalor and enjoy watching a woman pick up scorpions by their stingers and place them on her arms to show off the merchandise.
I was sitting on the street corner because my feet hurt and Peter was having trouble finding a taxi. We'd considered coming back to SZ using the same methods as we'd came to Goughzou, but it seemed the subway cops didn't look favorably on transporting live animals - endangered or not - and he didn't want to risk that leg of the journey.
There'd also been a series of those universal signs of no-nos on the subway that, due to the poor graphics, to me seemed to ban popular subway riding activities such as projectile vomiting, crucificifixions and cats humping dogs. Nothing about crucifying gray collared mynas that were projectile vomiting and humping, but we weren't going to risk it.
A taxi was found and the next stop was the bus station where Peter decided to use the barbarian curiousity factor as a diversion to get the two cages of mynas past the dozing guard at an X-ray scanner that appeared to have last seen use during the break-up of the Soviet Union.
"You put my back-pack through and talk to the guard. She won't understand, but it's OK. It's OK. I will go behind and pass you very fast."
I tossed the bag on the conveyor belt and made eye contact with the uncomprehending guard and began my spiel.
"See nothing of note up my sleeve! Or in my back pack. And please ignore that guy slipping behind me with two cages full of rare birds! He's harmless. They're harmless and his wife promises to give them better care than the wretches he bought them from at a ridiculously low price. Did you know you can buy a gray collared myna for less than a bottle of beer?"
She smiled and shrugged.
The belt wheezed and belched out the back-pack.
I vaguely heard "cheep, cheep" as Peter slithered his way toward the buses, cages still in his hands.
I grabbed the pack. "Thanks! Gotta run!"
We made it to the bus where the conductresses seemed to think nothing of a guy hauling two parcels of bird sound effects on board.
The next obstacle was at a checkpoint between SZ and The Rest of the Province where a People's Liberation Army guy who appeared to be all of 14-years-old climbed on the bus to scrutinize IDs and passes needed to get into SZ.
After throwing about six people off - one of whom was a couple with no IDs at all - he studied my passport as if he could read it and then gave Peter's particulars a once over. Meanwhile the birds sang on, something that made me tense but Peter only laughed at after I said something about a "close call" and then watched the couple with no IDs climb back on the bus, apparently after greasing a few palms during their brief interrogation.
"China is very funny. Some rules they ignore all the time. Sometimes only a few times. Not like USA where everything is a law. We have laws, but nothing is real."

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