Monday, July 05, 2004

Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July...
And how do you celebrate American Independence Day in one of the world's most repressive regimes? Well, you start by scoring some illegal fireworks from a friendly small shopkeeper who lives about a block from the Lucky Number. I went back to SZ for the weekend and had been able to cadge a 4th of July party bbq invite from an American businessman I'll call B who was hosting it for some Chinese coworkers and connections. He'd asked me to bring some fireworks and American beer if I could find it.
Though fireworks are technically illegal in the world cradle of decorative explosives and a place where several thousand pyrotechnic factory workers are blown to bits each year, they were plentiful during the Lunar New Year. I'd noticed the corner shop had also been busy dispensing them in January and figured they must have some unsold stock left.
My instincts were correct. With a Chinese friend translating and me making "kapow! boom-boom!" noises while miming lighting bottle rocket fuses my need was transmitted ably to the shopkeeper's wife who told my friend that they had "many stored under blankets and boxes" in their home. The wife called her mother and asked her to bring a variety. It would be a 10 minute wait so I wandered over to a grocery store to find that the only American beer in stock was Pabst Blue Ribbon at a premium price.
Someone in PBR's marketing department is a genius. While it's a decidedly lowbrow brew in the US (memorialized in an early 1970s country song: Redneck, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer), it did enjoy a flurry of cracker chic briefly in NYC a few years ago among 20somethings and is now being pushed in China and Hong Kong as top o' the line lager.
I winced, bought six cans and returned to the shop and waited under an awning as rain fell for the fireworks crone to appear. She finally showed after about 25 minutes with two sacks stuffed with a variety of bottle rockets and larger artillery. Sifting through it, I found a nice big box of "Red Devil Moon Rockets" and another box stuffed with "Screaming Whistler Flower Bombs" and made my way to B's place.
He lives several lifestyles above my barely-above-subsistance level at the Lucky Number, the most notable features being hot and cold running water from even the kitchen tap and a western toilet and enclosed shower stall. His bedroom also isn't a plexiglass cube set between the living room and kitchen. I had found explosives and PBR, but he had scored real guacamole from Hong Kong, herbal cheese, premium wafer crackers, black bean dip and a variety of salsa and some real tortilla chips. I was humbled and happy.
There was also the Rent-a-BBQ guy. When B had mentioned to one of his guests that he was thinking of hosting a BBQ, the guest had insisted that he handle the cooking arrangements Chinese-style. B agreed and instead of trying to find a hibachi, charocal and charcoal fuel, the result was a 12th "guest" - a young man with two horizontal halves of a large cooking oil can, a sack of charcoal, a wire screen, 40some thin wooden skewers and about 8 bottles of oils and spices. He put it all on the balcony where he sat patiently smoking cigarettes and refusing most offers of beverages and guac until it was time for him to fire it up.
But B and I ran into some cross-cultural confusion when it came to constructing kebobs. The Rent-a-BBQ guy was a bit put-off - though polite - when he saw the ones B and I had made - veggie, meat/chicken chunk, veggie, meat/chicken chunk, veggie, etc. on one stick and asserted his role as Shenzhen Shaolin Grill Master by taking over the construction process and doing it Chinese style: veggies and meat/fowl strictly segregated on separate but equal sticks. He cooked those first and only reluctantly grilled the USA style 'bobs after the others ran out.
As the only Americans present, I'm afraid B and I also didn't meet the Chinese and one Syrian guest's expectations of what a typical 4th of July party should be.
"What do you do? What is traditional?"
"Uh, well, we just throw burgers on a grill, drink beer and either shoot off or watch fireworks. Maybe sing some songs."
They kept looking expectant, as if there might be more. Don't we hang a Brit in effigy? Dress up as Indians and throw tea crates into swimming pools? But songs, that's something they could relate to. Chinese love to sing at parties and are inevitably a little crestfallen when the foreign barbarians can do little but Happy Birthday or Anarchy in the UK.
"SONGS! Oh, yes. Sing us some songs! Sing us your national song!"
With B on guitar and me on four beers we attempted The Star Spangled Banner, but the most applause came when we emoted a Hendrix-inspired squealing a la Jimi's flourish for the "bombs bursting in air" line and when I began waving the tails of my Ralph Loren US flag short-sleeve shirt to give some oomph to "our flag was still there."
The fireworks got a better reaction and I garnered more applause for those and my singed arm hairs than for the Star Spangled Banner.
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