Monday, October 25, 2004

Dr. Woo
You really haven't lived until you've spent the very early morning hours the day before your 52nd birthday clutching a bloody bath towel to the back of your head in Shenzhen's "best" medical emergency ward.
What brought me to "Peking University Shenzhen Hospital" and under the brusque care of "Dr. Woo" was a slippery floor, a dark room, momentarily impaired balance and the sudden urge to visit the bathroom at 2:30 am or so. I was back in Shenzhen on business, more or less. I'd borrowed a digital camera from a SZ Chinese friend to record a Saturday in the park at a Hong Kong rock festival, but had neglected to get the cable needed to download the pictures which were needed for a story I planned to write. I went back to SZ after working a 4-midnight shift, hooked up with my pal, crashed on the couch and planned to return to Hong Kong mid-morning Monday.
Instead, I rose to answer nature's call, faded to black and woke up in a veritable pool of blood with my pal yelling "You're bleeding! You're bleeding!" I also still needed to pee and it's no mean trick doing it one handed while trying to staunch the blood dripping down the back of your neck.
About 10 minutes and another towel later, we exited a taxi, hit the dark entrance of the hospital and woke up a slumbering security guard who directed us to a dim light down another empty hall that turned out to be emergency room where we woke up a bleary eyed, greasy haired female hospital clerk.
"This is Shenzhen's best hospital," my friend assured me several times - or perhaps he was trying to reassure himself.
One thing in favor of Chinese emergency rooms at 3am, though the entire staff may be asleep, once they are awakened there is also virtually no waiting and the forms seem to be minimal. My buddy did all the writing and talking while I kept the towel clamped down firmly and began scanning my surroundings. Except for the occasional woman drifting in and out dressed as a nurse, one middle aged guy who appeared to be hysterical over nicking his upper lip while shaving, and a comatose elderly husk of a woman slumped unattended in a wheelchair, it was like an abandoned set for a medical drama TV show last filmed in 1976. I half expected Marcus Welby to appear from a darkened doorway with a hearty smile and young colleague Steven Kiley by his side.
There was also a trail of what appeared to be dried, faded blood leading from one of the waiting room chairs and when I was directed into another room for a "test shot" to see if I would be allergic to the "real shot" of something that was never explained to me, I noticed that the walls also hadn't been cleaned since about 1976.
The test shot was administered and the skin patch scrutinized for several minutes before Dr Woo swept in and began asking questions in Chinese. It turned out he wanted to know if we'd paid and if my injury was the result of an altercation with my friend. We had and it wasn't.
Still clutching my bloody towel, I followed the good doctor to another filthy room that looked like an abandoned operating theater where I went face down on a gurney and next to a trash can that looked to be liberally spattered with the dried remains of something that had burst from an alien tumor. Dr. Woo introduced himself in broken English, had a nurse cut the hair around my wound and then gave me two shots of a local anesthetic.
"Your country?" he asked as I grimaced and kicked the gurney in momentary pain.
"U.S.Aaaaayyyyy, ayyy..." I replied as the second needle pierced my head.
"Ohhhh. Yes! Bush or Kerry good?"
My gawd. Just stitch me up and spare me the political interrogation. "Uh...Hu Jintao!" I replied, invoking the name of the Chinese president.
He grunted and then said, "One-two-three-four-FIVE. FIVE!"
"No pain? I make FIVE sutures now!"
"Okay, pain, sew away, please."
After I was stiched, he put two wads of loose gauze on the wound and then had the nurse put a cotton elastic knit skull cap complete with chin strap on top of the gauze so I resembled Woody Allen's sperm character in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex or a feeble-minded homeless guy sporting a bad yarmuka with ragged tufts of blood-stained hair poking from beneath.
"No wash! No take off! Three days!"
The hell you say. I was given yet another mystery shot, went back and slept restlessly with the contraption on my head and then tore it off in favor of washing what I could of my hair without getting the stiches wet and letting nature take its course.
The bad news is that I have to return to Shenzhen's finest hospital on Friday to get the stitches removed though I am desperately considering a do-it-yourself option.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

I'm taking a side road today and posting a column I wrote for this weekend's Standard. It's not about China, but more about Omaha, comic books, Japan, and financial wizards.

Though it’s the birthplace of two American heroes, Malcolm X and Marlon Brando – both of whom had the good sense to leave and not look back – Omaha, Nebraska is an unlikely home of a comic book hero. It’s a basic buckle in the Bible Belt, the kind of place where, except on Big Red football Saturdays, one celebrates by painting the town beige and distinguished mostly by steak houses and a daily newspaper that once used liquid paper to turn a photograph of a 12-year-old African-American into a 12-year-old Caucasian.
But thanks to a Japanese comic book (manga) artist and writer, Ayano Morio, billionaire investor and “Oracle of Omaha’’ Warren Buffett can now claim more or less equal footing with the likes of Spider-Man, the Hulk and Astro Boy.
It’s all lovingly detailed in Warren Buffett: An Illustrated Biography of the World’s Most Successful Investor which depicts the folksy empire builder literally from birth (“WAAAH!’’ screams baby Buffett) to an imagined death employing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel motif.
In between readers can follow Buffett’s Horatio Alger-like rise from diligent newspaper delivery boy (“Hello, ma’am. I know you’re cancelling the Washington Post. Are you thinking of changing to the Times Herald? I can deliver that too, now!”) to his “adventure’’ with scandal-plagued Salomon Brothers and beyond. There’s even a hint of illicit romance in Chapter 7, “A Platonic Affair’’ that sums up his friendship and business partnership with the late Washington Post owner Katharine Graham.
No, Lois Lane and Superman it ain’t – never mind Batman and Robin and whatever went on behind the velvet curtains of Wayne Mansion between their alter-egos, millionaire Bruce Wayne and his teenage “ward’’ Dick Grayson.
And sprinkled throughout are seven “Buffett’s Rules of Success’’ – common sense homilies such as No. 5: “Never, ever break the law’’ and No. 3: “Don’t invest in businesses you don’t understand.’’
With roots in satirical paintings that can be traced back as far as the twelfth century in, manga is taken very seriously in Japan, unlike the US where character like the emotionally and socially-arrested Comic Book Guy from The Simpson’s typifies the average fan. An estimated US$900 million annual industry, it ranges from the avant garde to the pornographic, or literally “pervert’’ (“hentai’’) manga and caters to all ages and demographics.
Indeed, one of the best-selling mangas of all-time was a 1988 320-page primer on the world economy from the Japanese point of view entitled Japan, Inc. Originally published in 1986 by Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the Japanese equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, Japan, Inc. features rollicking adventures in the appreciation of the yen, the “POW! BAM! BIFF!” impact of the 1970s oil shocks, dramas in deficit financing, dark intrigues in the internationalbusiness and banking, and the sweeping romance of the post-industrial future of Japan and the Pacific Rim.
It sold more than half a million copies in less than a year was the creation of the legendary manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori , who himself became a comic book hero after a fatal heart attack in 1998.
So Warren Buffett as action hero should come as no surprise. He's a natural, a money magician. Here’s another sample from his true life adventures.
Panel one: Buffett assistant: “The Treasury has just suspended our right to participate in their bond auctions. They want to speak to you, Warren! (Gasp)’’
Panel two: Buffett, jumping (Screech!) from chair and springing into action, drops of “flop sweat” flying.. “I’ll speak to him. Is Nicolas Brady still on the line? I’ll need Alan Greenspan’s number, too!”
Alan Greenspan? Hmm. There’s a thought.
Panel one: “Mr. Chairman! We’re getting alarming reports of a huge downturn in the M3 money supply!’’
Panel two: Greenspan (or “Captain Fed’’ as he’s also known), quickly strips off his stodgy grey Brooks Brother suit revealing a lean, mean money management machine wrapped in an electric blue body suit. “Holy Fannie Mae! Activate the Pass-Through Certificate Chamber and set Rate Reductions on ‘stun’!
If it flies, though, I just want a piece of the Captain Fed action figure market. And I see a sequel – Warren and Alan’s Excellent Economic Adventure…

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Sweet Charity
"It seems that you have a good track record for your charity work."
The comment came from a Chinese friend who lives in the Lucky Number, where I'd repaired for a short reunion visit last weekend. The old neighborhood was changing fast. A combination luxury apartment complex-multi-story shopping mall is nearing completion across the street and there were dozens of Chinese yupster couples and families lining up to don paper booties to tour the model units. Another apartment complex was going up catty-corner from that one and I noticed a new 7-Eleven, a small liquor store specializing in western spirits and a faux-western style "Mojo Coffe-Shoppe" next to it. The red light massage parlor had undergone a makeover and management change and - judging from a few couples I saw going in for the foot massage special advertised on a standing placard outside - was now apparently legit.
But some things remained the same, including the elderly, half-paralyzed beggar who had once silently thanked me with an English addendum to his Chinese tale of woe chalked on the sidewalk. I'd dropped three 1 yuan coins in his bowl while my friend and I were walking to a nearby park.
"Why do you say that?" I asked in response to the "good track record" comment.
"Some co-workers who also live here say they've seen you always giving to the beggars."
"I didn't know I was being monitored. I suppose they think I'm foolish?"
"No, they said it was good of you."
I was grateful that I was leaving a favorable impression, but also wondered how many times I'd been seen perhaps weaving a little unsteadily back to the Lucky Number clutching my strumpet o' the moment with whom I'd begun charity work at a nightspot, or if the time I projectile vomited some bad lunch dumplings into some bushes enroute to The Shenzhen Daily had also become part of the oral neighborhood history.
But I am a sucker for beggars, most of them anyway. Hong Kong probably has more folks in need than Shenzhen - indeed tens of thousands of Hong Kong's poor live in what amount to wire cages crammed into run-down tenament rooms originally designed for one or two people. But begging is actively discouraged in the former crown colony, and poverty is more visible in Shenzhen where the beggars come in three basic categories.
There are the disabled and disfigured, the needy buskers who play anything from traditional Chinese string instruments to cheap electric guitars, and the ones I try my best to avoid and to whom I rarely donate -- the two-legged pleading leeches. Instead of inspiring charity through stoic public suffering or putting their musical talent on the line, they zero in on a target and glom on to it while thrusting the begging bowl and keening a repetitive whine that never stops until the sound of a coin hitting the metal bowl shuts them up and sends them off bouncing off to secure themself to another host vessel.
It becomes a contest of will in some cases. One old, bent woman attached herself to my wake in downtown Shenzhen for a full 8 minutes and uncounted blocks before finally admitting defeat. It would have cost me virtually nothing to get rid of her, but my initial pity was smothered when I noticed that she appeared well-fed, her clothing was clean and unwrinkled and she was able to duck and weave more nimbly than I through the stream of speeding cars as I tried vainly to shake her.
I finally lost her by doing the logical thing and ducking into a department store where I knew she'd fear to tread. She peeled off as I hit the doors, and though I was relieved I also had perverse admiration for her tenacity.
"Boogie on, beggar woman," I said to myself.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

I thought of that hoary cinematic Harry Chapin song on Saturday night after the Shenzhen taxi driver driving me and a Chinese companion in a circuitous route to a basic straight line destination decided to delay our arrival and jack up the fare further by stopping at the scene of a three vehicle accident. The other purpose was to gape (as far as many mainland Chinese are concerned, the nation's finest free entertainment is gawking at fender benders and the inevitable frenzied disputes that accompany them) and - as I learned after asking my Chinese pal - to shout his unsolicited "medical" opinion regarding a guy with a bleeding forehead. It seems our hack had once harbored ambitions to be a doctor, but was driving a cab instead. Taxi - for those who've forgotten all 6:44 of it or were simply unaware of it - is about a taxi driver whose dreams of being a pilot are ironically half-realized because he "flies so high" when he gets stoned driving his cab.
When we finally arrived the driver cum physician argued in Chinese with my companion about the fare. It's normally a 30 yuan ride, the meter, due to our delay and his "shortcut" read 43. We settled on 35. I gave him a 100 yuan bill, he tossed back a new 50, a weathered 10 and 5 and drove off.
The 50 turned out to be bogus, which I discovered while trying to buy drinks at our destination. I fumed but nodded politely as the waitress patiently pointed out that the paper was too thick, the swirl patterns on Mao's cheek were blurred and his mole was misplaced - details that had eluded me. I also fumed because I'd been duped twice in two days. Yes, it was the second funny 50 I'd received from a Shenzhen hack in 24 hours. In nearly 10 months of living and working in Shenzhen, I'd only had one counterfeit 100 and now the market was apparently flooded with phony yuan courtesy of cabbies whose license numbers I'd ignored and who would've vehemently denied passing bad bills even if I'd tracked them down.
Meanwhile, back in the former crown colony, Hong Kong takes professional cabbies who mostly speak a modicum of English, obey the meter and don't launder counterfeit money for granted. It is not a selling point, it is a fact of life.
Shenzhen doth protest too much: witness this breathless recent news dispatch from my former employer, the Shenzhen Daily:
''More than 300 volunteers shouted English at a conference hall in the China Hi-Tech Fair Exhibition Center on Saturday in an effort to cater for international visitors at the China Hi-Tech Fair. The volunteers and fair staff are not the only ones in the city honing English speaking skills. Taxi drivers, medical workers and sales people are also improving their English proficiency, expecting to provide international guests with satisfactory service.
"Taxi driver Chen Zhong was seen greeting a foreign passenger in fluent English outside Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center on Saturday. Chen said he could speak more than 200 English sentences and received massive English training before the fair.''

Taxi driver Chen Zhong rang a bell. Indeed, I remembered him from a story and photograph last year when he'd been featured - complete with white gloves, something you rarely see, even on Hong Kong drivers - also "speaking fluent English" with a foreign businessman in town for the high tech fair.
He's apparently the Potemkin village of Shenzhen cabbies, dressed up and trotted out for important expos to showcase the "satisfactory service" of the Shenzhen cab experience. I imagine him in a sort of Shenzhen Cabbie Cave, not unlike Batman’s Bat Cave or Superman’s Fortress of Solitude waiting for the call. Suddenly, a shortwave radio crackles or a beam of light resembling the silhouette of a Volkswagen Santana cab splashes across the dark Shenzhen skyline. Mr. Chen slips on the white gloves, turns the ignition key and he’s off while repeating, “Welcome to Shenzhen! Please sit down in my clean cab!’’ in faultless English.
Not that I haven't been at fault while trying to obtain such service. As my Mandarin skills are about as accomplished as those of a developmentally disabled tree sloth, I've resorted to having Chinese friends write various addresses on slips of paper, napkins, matchbooks and once on my arm for places I regularly frequent. I store them carefully in my wallet or shirt pocket where they can be pulled out and mutely shoved in front of the cabbie who usually scrutinizes it with the kind of expression that suggests he's seriously on the cusp of unlocking an unsolved equation involving particle physics and a recipe for Potage anglais de poisson à Lady Morgan -- an elaborate French soup that takes three days to create and also known as "The Hardest Soup in the World''.
He then repeats what sounds like the address back to me and I nod as if I understand and off we go with me often realizing that what he actually said was: "I have no idea where that address is, so is it okay if I just drive around aimlessly and chuckle while you throw yourself around in the back gesticulating like a mad man, screaming foreign obsenities?''
But sometimes the joke is on me. On the same doomed funny money excursion to Shenzhen, I began at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border crossing called Guangdong by showing an address on a folded slip of paper to five different cabbies, all of whom made it clear before I could even open the car door that they had no clue as to where I wanted to go. All looked at the writing, shook their heads and shrugged apologetically as if to say, "What is written here is nonsense, the childish scrawlings of a mad man or a foreigner."
This was uncharacteristic because I'd previously had no problems with the same piece of paper and began to wonder if I'd run into five illiterate drivers.
Then I looked again at the paper and realized that the fold concealed the second half of the address and I'd been showing them only a portion of it.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Almost Cut My Hair
I'm guessing that Hong Kong politics gets little international coverage aside from some cursory wire stories about the recent election. But there's a novice legislator in his late 40s who dominates the pages and TV screens here who has had me increasingly intrigued, amused and occasionally irritated. His name is Leung Kwok-hung, but because of his nearly waist-length black mane he's always referred to in news stories by his nickname, "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung.
Or more accurately, the boiler plate intro to a Long Hair story - much like old wire service cliches such as "roving bands of Negro youths" or "the victim, whose nude, partially decomposed body" etc. - usually reads: "Clad in his trade-mark Che Guevera T-shirt, "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung..." and then goes on to detail the latest public near-outrage he's committed.
To someone who grew up in the US in the '60s and '70s, he's either a throwback - a Chinese Abbie Hoffman of sorts - or a guy who today wouldn't draw a second look in my hometown, Boulder. As a proud, loud radical activist sporting St. Che on his chest and, as he did most recently before and after he took his oath of office, punching the air with a People Power salute and screaming in Chinese and English, "Reverse the verdict on June 4 (Tiananmen Square massacre)! Power to the people! End one-party rule! Release the political prisoners!" it's a virtual wet, green loogie launched in the bland, scrubbed face of a society which emphasizes and celebrates group harmony above and beyond the individual. There's a Chinese proverb, like the Japanese one about hammering down the protruding nail, that warns that a bird which flies from the flock will be shot down.
Long Hair flies alone and suffice to say he's shaken up the staid, largely Beijing-rubber stamp legislature. His election victory was unexpected and his agenda, his attire and his naked contempt for the Hong Kong powers-that-be have already almost had him evicted from the legislature before he's served a day. Indeed, before he was elected he was arrested several times for the kind of shenanigans that he's engaging in now.
Which is why though I admire his populist ideals and his committment to getting Beijing to give Hong Kong direct, universal sufferage and to acknowledge the Tiananmen Square massacre for what it was, he sometimes frustrates me. He's been handed an opportunity to bend the system from within and is close to blowing it before he begins.
The irony of a guy in a Che Guevera T-shirt pissing off a bunch of neo-communists has been lost, though. As far as I can discern, irony as we know it is largely unknown in China - it seems to be distinctively Western - and I'm not even sure Long Hair realizes the twist. Che, like Mao is becoming, is now nothing more than an international fashion icon for clothing, wallets, ash trays and all manner of overpriced bling-bling.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Sign Language
Sex and the City was shown briefly on some Chinese cable channels a year or so ago before it was suddenly cancelled due to obvious reasons. But the show's forbidden mystique lingers and at the request of a couple of female former coworkers from my former paper, I got a box set of the first season in Hong Kong and brought it over the border feeling a little like a smuggler.
We were watching some episodes over the weekend and I began to realize that the Chinese subtitles didn't exactly always accurately translate what Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda were saying.
A reference to "Eurotrash" had been translated as simply "European", which gave me the opportunity to explain the concept of European slackers in the US living off their accents and exotic origins.
"I would not like to be called 'Sinotrash'" said one, before adding wistfully: "But it might be nice for people to pay for me because I am different."
The translation seminar got somewhat steamy after that. I rushed through an explanation of a "rabbit" vibrator, though found they were more embarrassed than I.
Then came "golden showers."
"What did it say?" I asked.
"It said she enjoys to take many showers," was the reply.
Uh. No. And they were horrified at my explanation. "Americans do that?"
Finally there was a catty quip: "She gives hand jobs for a living."
I asked for the translation.
"It said she works hard with her hands. How do you say? Manual labor?"
Despite their occasional shock, though, they're eager to see season two and seem determined to work their way through the entire six seasons if I can find them.
But after this I'm thinking that something like Little Women might be more in order.

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