Monday, June 27, 2005

Chapel of Love
''Who gets married at 10:45 on a Monday morning?'' I groused to myself at 9 am today while sniffing shirt pits to find my cleanest dirty shirt and carelessly sorting to find matching socks with only one or two holes.
Well, Todd and Noi do, among others in Hong Kong.
Todd's a burly, bourbon-and-rust-voiced Chicago native in his late 20s who runs The Standard's website and Noi is his Thai intended. It was a nice day, actually, for a white wedding; a rare morning of sunshine after almost a straight week or more of morning monsoons.
The nuptials were at the marriage registry building in Hong Kong Park, the park being one of many landmark sites/and tourist spots I still hadn't seen after a year here. It's like living in NYC and missing the Statue of Liberty or not going to the top of the Empire State Building. Or like living in Newark, Ohio and never touring the "World's Largest Basket" - the 7-story corporate headquarters of the Longaberger Basket Company shaped like an titanic woven basket.
Fifteen of us, mostly coworkers who sit within 10 feet of Todd at the office, plus two Thai female friends of Noi's and a couple or three strays were there for a ceremony that was mercifully short and sweet. It's a marriage-go-round in the registry. At least three other couples were swearing to foresake all others for eternity in the modern one-story building that's divided into a series of identical small sterile rooms that resemble mortuary funeral chapels except with a large table in front of the guest chairs and the Wedding March rather than Amazing Grace or Rock of Ages piped in softly and ceaselessly as the vows are read from multi-lingual cue cards held by the couples.
Noi, who speaks a little English (Todd is kinda Thai fluent) had a Thai translator. The ring keeper/bearer was our thrice-married executive editor and the official witness was our managing editor, currently on marriage no. 4. Others among us were also serial divorce offenders and our pre-wedding palaver was largely about our various ceremonies - from pomp and pageantry to near poverty - before reality enused.
But I confess I teared up a little when Todd and Noi kissed. Damn. Why can't it stay like that?
Lunch was a short walk through the park to a posh hotel, The Conrad. As coworkers and I sat at white linen covered tables and bitched about having to go to work afterwards I paused, more or less thoughtfully.
"Wait," I thought. "I'm in Hong Kong. I'm in Hong-fucking-Kong on a sunny day eating lobster, sushi, oysters, prime rib, dim-sum, tasty noodles with some button mushroom thingies, fresh strawberries, high end vanilla ice cream and swilling good wine on someone else's tab in a five star hotel and trying to subtly leer at fashion model caliber women of at least three races fluttering about in thin silk dresses. Just what the hell am I complaining about?"
PS On a completely different subject, if you'd like to see real slices of Shenzhen life as documented in stunnng black and white photographs, I recommend cutting and pasting this url and checking it out. It's a Chinese language site and you have to scroll down to find the photos. It's well worth the effort.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Everyday People
A new hire on our copy desk, a Canadian, was just talking about the time he was jailed in a red dirt, one road Mississippi town as a civil rights worker during the Schwarner, Cheney & Goodman summer of '64. The Canadian counsel had to drive from New Orleans to spring him on a concealed weapon charge. He'd been carrying a pocket knife. As an afterthought, he mentioned he'd also been wearing a Black Watch kilt.
Meanwhile, my deskmate, Ken, is a 71-year-old Singapore native with a ethnic heritage that defies categorization. It includes Dutch, Thai, Chinese, German, Portugese and maybe several others I can't recall. He was a child in Singapore during WWII -- think Empire of the Sun - under the Japanese occupation and recalls walking across a bridge often on which the Japanese military stuck the severed heads of Chinese "criminals" on poles. Young Ken's duties included weekly cleanings of the stolen Studebaker staffcar of a Japanese army captain who was later hanged as a war criminal. ("I'd clean it on Sundays after he took us out in it on ice cream trips. He'd also play piano and teach us Japanese songs. I still can sing two of them...") In 1956 Ken was an Elvis impersonator in New Zealand. He lip-synched from a wire recorder and has a black and white photo of him as Elvis to prove it. He's also been an alpine climber and a international championship bowler and has another photo of former Philippine President Fernando Marcos handing him an bowling award.
Other coworkers with pasts only slightly less colorful hail from Britain, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Bangladesh, India and, of course, Hong Kong and mainland China.
Our photo editor was once the official Chinese news agency (Xinhua) photog at the Clinton White House. His favorite Clinton? Socks the cat. He was written up a couple years ago in the New Yorker's Talk of the Town section for a blog he kept.
You can sometimes hear four or five different languages - Tagalog, Mandarin, Cantonese, English and some Indian dialect - babbling and swearing simultaneously. Religions? We've got Muslems, Hindus, Christians, a Jew, atheists, agnostics, Taoists and Buddhists.
Ex-cons? We've got one or two who have done more serious time than our Canadian kilt wearing civil rights worker.
Our American editor (himself a former Vietnam correspondent for Newsweek) once aptly described this crew of largely castoff reprobates who've washed ashore here as "like the barroom scene in Star Wars.'' While editors in the US wring their hands about striving for "cultural diversity" in their newsrooms (a clown or two at the Rocky Mountain News spring to mind) - and make token hires simply due to skin color or because a last name is "ethnic" - we've got the real deal here.
The funny thing is that most of those US editors wouldn't last one shift here. It's one thing to talk it but the walk is another matter entirely and they haven't even begun to crawl.
They've never been busted in Mississippi wearing a kilt or cleaned a war criminal's car.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

'It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook-up world ...'
It was late Saturday night, almost early Sunday morning and C and I were preparing for bed. We'd returned from a ''soft opening'' of a new nightclub that had featured as entertainment a 65-year-old British expat singing songs like the 1972 Stylistics hit, Stone in Love with You and Moon River. Among my tablemates had been two Serbian guys named - I'm not making these up - Velibor and Zoran and a former neuro- linguistics PhD candidate from Seattle who said his family was evenly split between orthodox Jews and old Communists - red diaper babies and the like.
Earlier C and I had spent the afternoon getting lost trying to find a modern art gallery only to emerge at a subway exit that was smack in the middle of an abandoned construction site with no main artery in sight.
Once we finally found it, the thoroughly modern exhibit had included a series of what I called "angry panda" paintings - one with a tormented, demonic looking panda eviscerating itself with its talon-like paws and several homoerotic oil studies mocking the Soviet Realism style featuring East German or USSR hunks "studying'' Marx and Lenin together... In other words, just another normal day in Shenzhen.
"Tommorow I have to get up early, maybe 7:30,'' C said. "I have to have Catonese tea with a friend and some PLA guys who are coming from Hong Kong to talk to him about stationary supplies issues.''
After nearly two years here, it was one of those comments that now passes as normal for me. Why not? I thought. In the US people get up early on weekends to hit garage sales. And in China they get up at 7:30 Sunday morning to talk about stationary with the People's Liberation Army. Life is like that sometimes. One rich tapestry of garage sales, stationary and the PLA.
But I paused a minute, before gently querying: "What are 'stationary supply issues?' ''
''The Hong Kong PLA needs stationary and my friend wants to sell it to them, but he doesn't have any experience.''
''The PLA is the largest army in the world. Don't they have their own official supplier?"
"It’s just a small item for them. It's just for the PLA in Hong Kong. Not the whole country.''
''So if they need a small amount of cruise missles for the PLA garrison in Hong Kong, do they go to your friend and you, too?''
''No, of course not. My friend is a friend of the PLA buyer. He wants to do business with the PLA in Hong Kong but has no idea of how to purchase stationary in Shenzhen. The only stores he knows are the ones on the street so obviously the stationary he buys there would be too expensive. So he knows the the only thing he can do is buy from manufacturers and he has no idea of which ones to buy from.''
''I still don't understand why the world's largest army doesn't have its own stationary supply source. I mean, I grew up being afraid of a lot of things, including the red horde, the Chinese army. Now I find out that in the 21st century they can't even buy stationary? Anyway, why does your friend need you?''
''I told him I’d worked for Walmart and had purchased stationary supplies for them. So he wants me to show up like a supplier and talk about stationary in professional words''
''So what's his connection with the PLA?''
''He used to be in the PLA in Hong Kong and they are good friends. If someone is going to make money with stationary, why shouldn't an old friend make money instead of a stranger?''
''Okay. So this is about friendship and money?''
''The Shenzhen guy has no experience in stationary but he is my friend, too. We had dinner together and talked about stationary purchasing and I said I might know a stationary supplier that could help him.''
''So you're going to pretend to be a paper supplier?''
''Yes, because I I know some technical words for that business. Like the weight of the paper, what brand of pens. The PLA guy will probably ask me about what kind of printer cartidges, copy machines, staplers, hole punchers, staple removers, correction fluids -- all that stuff.''
''So you're going to do what I've done before here? Pretend that you're in a business you're not so someone else can close a deal?''
''Yes. It's how people do business in China. And they buyer isn’t going to lose any money and we're not going to lose any money, so it's good for both sides.''
She left at about 8am and returned only about an hour later as I was still snoozing. By American standards and especially by Chinese standards it was an unusually short business meeting.
''So what happened? Did your friend get the deal? Will the PLA in Hong Kong have enough stationary?''
''It was a little strange. We hardly talked about stationary. But the tea and dim sum was very good. Something will happen, though. All the business in China comes out of meals.''

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Civilized Man
Due to illness, the doldrums and fitful battles with the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse, this latest blog entry is once again less-fresh blog and more this weekend's Standard column. My thanks and apologies to readers recently clamoring for something new. I know the feeling and hope it will strike again soon.
World reaches me my via my former employer, the Shenzhen Daily (unofficial motto: "If it's news, it's news to us!''), that Friday was the deadline to "nominate candidates for Shehenzhen's top 10 memorable buildings in the city's reform and opening up.''
The city has selected 30 structures as contenders, including ''bridges, statues and advertisements for the public good'' and ''landmark buildings with practicablity and artistic beauty.''
There are a plethora of tall buildings in Shenzhen, of course, with most looking as if they were designed by exiles from Legoland led by the deranged spawn of a Jetsons-Flintstones coupling in a Las Vegas trailer park. But memorable? Lemme see.
There's the city's tallest building, the Shung Hing Square tower that at 384 meters is exactly 3 meters taller than New York's Empire State Building, but notable only for the ridiculously expensive admission charge (70 yuan) that enables suckers to see a smoggy vista all the way to Hong Kong and/or consume overpriced snacks while gazing at a dusty diorama recreation of the Hong Kong handover featuring wax figures of Maggy Thatcher and Deng Xiaopeng
There's also the enormous ground-level Deng billboard near the Shanghai Hotel and the Shenzhen Press Tower which looks like a cross between a mammoth television remote control and a transistor radio from a Saturian race of giants as envisioned by a 1940s science fiction writer.
But in general looking for memorable architectural in Shenzhen is like looking for vowels in Bosnia or an efficient bureaucracy – an ultimately fruitless effort and one I learned from a former Shenzhen Daily coworker whom I queried that is tied in to the city's mayor's relentless quest to have Shenzhen recognized as one of China's ''Top 10 Civilized Cities.''
That was all too familiar. While at the newspaper, in addition to vital duties such as ''polishing'' the English punchlines for Chinese comics my duties also included manditory meetings and consultations with the mayor's tourism, economic and propaganda bureaus to ''polish'' their promotional brochures and the occasional English translations of hizzoner's speeches.
The phrase ''civilized' city'' kept cropping up like a nasty rash throughout these screeds, usually linked with the verb ''striving.''
''If you say you are 'striving to be a civilized city,' I don't think many foreign businessmen or tourists are going to be impressed, much less book this as must-go destination,'' I explained patiently to an earnest, uncomprehending tourism bureau aparatchik . ''To a foreigner it implies that Shenzhen is not yet civilized. That you are trying very hard, but haven't arrived. You are civilized, right? Five thousand years of inventing paper and fireworks and coins and stuff?''
The response was usually a titter of nervous laughter followed by an explanation that the translation must be done as literally as possible so that the person who originally wrote it would be satisfied that their prose survived unscathed.
''You are too modest and I know modesty is a prized virtue here,'' I would press. ''But if you want to truly get some foreign visitors to come here you have to boast a little. Maybe exaggerate. Something like: 'Shenzhen – the City You Can't Live With ... or Without!' Or 'Shenzhen Fever: Catch It!' Or 'Shenzhen: If You Lived Here, You'd be Home by Now!' ''
''But we live here. It is our home. And we don't have fevers. Only Hong Kong does.''
The impulse to seek foreign input and approval regarding Shenzhen's imagined better side, seem to absorb it and then ultimately politely reject it sometimes took me out of the office and on the road.
I still have a Chinese language paper with a headline that translates as ''Foreigner Praises Shenzhen's Civilized Beaches'' over a picture of me in a package tour cap seemingly enraptured by the view being described by the non-English speaking head of Shenzhen's tourism bureau.
My look of awe was actually one of shock upon learning that the looming facility with a Chernobyl-like cooling tower across the bay of this particulary ''civilized beach'' was a nuclear power plant.
I had been asked to accompany him and about 20 Shenzhen media types on a tour of three beaches to select ''the best.'' I had ultimately passed on the nuke-with-a-view site (''Simultaneous hot and cold tides, marvel at our 3-eyed, two headed aquatic life!") and betstowed my blessing on one with no discernible contamination source and a reasonably clean beach front.
It also had no bad public art – a big plus as there seems to be a penchant for 30-foot figures throughout Shenzhen and at tourist sites, such as Da Me Sha beach for example, that look as though they were ripped straight from a 70s-era album cover, say something by Kansas or Styx. The Da Me Sha beach is perhaps the worst with five enormous colored (green, red, blue, yellow, brown) winged figures that probably represent something like Five Virtues, but to my eyes looked more like Five Good Reasons to Avoid Looking Up.
I learned later, however that the Chernobyl Riviera had been selected precisely because of the ''modern, striving to be civilized'' atmosphere affforded by the power plant.
In the meantimeit occurs to me that Shenzhen does possess one building worthy of note in that it symbolizes the whole ''modern civilized boomtown miracle'' decreed by Deng.
Rather nondescript, it sits in the bustling Dong Men shopping area and already has a plaque on a stairway leading to the service area attesting to its significance.
It's the mainland's very first McDonald's. McCivilization at last.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Four Dead in Ohio (and thousand or more in Tiananmen Square)
This weekend's Standard column recaps part of my weekend and also revisits an portion of an earlier blog
Except for what Associated Press called ''tightened security'' around Tiananmen Square, the 16th anniversary of the massacre of course passed unnoticed last Saturday on the mainland. In Shenzhen the sky was spitting intermintent bursts of acid rain – an appropriately gloomy mode if one was seriously contemplating June 4, 1989.
I had managed though, to cobble together a minor memorial of sorts in the form of a thoroughly unscientific poll and guarded discussion at a congee restaurant with four young English speaking Shenzhen professionals. They were all 13-to- 15-years-old when the June 4 Movment bloomed and burned. Just a little older than I was when John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and a tad younger than I on May 4, 1970 when four American students were slain by Ohio National Guard troops at an anti-Vietnam protest at Kent State University.
''Four dead in Ohio,'' sang Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in what was possibly the last true American folk song hearkening back to the original spirit of tunes as breaking news. It was written, recorded and released to radio – and, shades of China, banned by some stations – within three weeks of Kent State.
Comparisons between May 4 and June 4 however are admittedly a stretch at best. Possibly thousands, including soldiers, died on June 4 and unlike Kent State no galvanizing protest song or photo of a 14-year-old runaway girl, arms outstretched and keening over the dead body of student Jeffery Miller was allowed to sear the tragedy into the national consciousness.
But there is the Tiananmen Tank Man photo. One of Time Magazine's Top 100 photographs of the 20th century, but not even bubbling under the Top 200 in the PRC, the last century or this. That's where I began the discussion after some nervous jokes by them about making sure our dining area wasn't bugged and that I wasn't recruiting for the Falun Gong.
''No one is very comfortable talking about this,'' said Sally (a psuedonym, as are all the names), a 27-year-old sales manager for a Sino-US joint venture company. The others, two women and a man, nodded.
I described man vs tank photo and asked if any of them had seen it.
"Maybe," said Louis, 30, a telecom engineer. "I am not clear about it. I have seen so many world-shaking photographs.''
Li, 30, a project manager who has lived in Shenzhen for seven years, was equally vague. "I am not sure."
Sally had seen it but shrugged it off as '' interesting.''
Dani, 29, was the only one who had traveled extensively outside China, including a year in Boston. "I know that picture. It is very powerful. I also watched a VCD in the US called Tiananmen. I know now that the government hasn't told the full truth because they want to cover up their crime.''
Would it surprise any of you that the man and tank picture is one of the most famous photographs of China ? More foreigners know it than they do Deng Xiaopeng.
''I am not surprised even if I don't think I know it,'' said Li. She was pragmatic. "It's like we know more about pictures of the Statue of Liberty than George Bush.''
So does June 4 have any meaning for you?
''Absolutely. It has a profound meaning. It let us know how corrupt the goverment is,'' said Dani.
Others disagreed.
"I think it was the price of trying to explore a new success. But we need to forget the past and be a bright future," said Louis.
Li, like the others, did remember radio and TV accounts at the time but still found it hard to understand what, exactly, the demonstrations were about.
''I didn't understand it then or even now. Why did the students have to bleed and parade and how come so many PLA were killed? What were they trying to fight for? I still don't understand or want to know, really.''
Sally had mixed feelings. ''The students used their blood to educate people, to try and encourage other students to do more democratic demonstrations. But after it was all over the fact that people who were there weren't able to get good jobs scared other people. I used to teach English to an older man when I was in college. He told me he couldn't find a good job in China because he joined that movement. He had to immigrate to Canada.''
It was at about that point that I thought back to a conversation I'd had with Annie, a Chinese ex-coworker of mine in Shenzhen who had been at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, though as an observer, not as a demonstrator.
From her perspective it sounded like the demonstrations were - until the soldiers began slaughtering the students - more of an excuse to party, with calls for democracy almost an afterthought.
"I left just before the trouble," she said. "My friend did not feel well and I went back to our university with her. "
But why did you go to begin with?
"I am curious about many things. I like to watch and listen. It is why I like being a reporter. I went just to watch. There were no classes, everyone was there. It was also very romantic ... is that the right word?" She laughed self-consciously.
I don't know. What do you mean, 'romantic?'
What Annie described was the erotic frisson familiar to anyone who has spent an extended, intense period of time in a hot house environment with others bent on the same mission, whether it's producing a play, working overtime at the office or trying to overthrow a government.
"Many students fell in love there. They got engaged there. Some shouted to get married right there." She laughed again. "Some of us said these romances would not last. None did."
Did you see the Statue of Liberty?, I asked referring to the homemade, crude replica that the students had constructed.
"Of course. It was a little ugly, do you think?"
I liked the spirit, I said. Any American who saw it understood and applauded the spirit.
"Of course. It was very symbolic."
She seemed lost in thought then she said: "The day after the deaths, it was so quiet on our campus. No one talked. We knew something terrible had happened but no details. Silence everywhere. Empty classrooms, empty rooms, empty canteenl. No one could talk about what happened. I rode my bicycle to Beijing University because I wanted to see what it was like there. It was quiet, too.
"I looked up at some windows and I saw new white flowers. White flowers at windows and balconies. Do you know what that means?"
No, I said. I don't.
"White is our color for death."
I briefly described Annie's experience to the four and they were vaguely interested, though unimpressed. She must have had good connections to have her present job was the consensus. What all but Dani agreed on was that June 4, 1989 was China's business, not the outside world's.
"It is all the people's business,'' she said, looking a little embarrassed at being the odd-person out. ''I will tell my children about it. The full truth.''
''It is only our business, China's business,'' said Louis. "I would not tell my children because I don't know the full truth. It is well known that the full truth of history is often not easy to know. So perhaps it is better to say nothing than to be wrong.''

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