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.
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