Saturday, January 28, 2006

Free Falling
Last night was Chinese New Year's Eve. As such, C and I had holiday dinner next door with a friend of hers whose parents, sister and the sister's spunky 6-year-old daughter were in Shenzhen for the holiday. The dinner was fine, lots of salty spicy fish, chicken and pork dishes and some vinegary cucmbers. I toasted with a vodka and tonic while the others raised modest glasses of cheap Chinese red wine mixed with 7-Up. For reasons I've never been able to pinpoint, red wine with Sprite or 7-Up (or scotch mixed with green tea) is considered the height of sophisticated drinking by many middle class Chinese, though I've long since disabused C of that notion and she now admits it tastes lousy.
She only bent her Absolut on the rocks rule last night last night in order "to not be the bird that flies away from the flock." As a foreigner, the flock rule doesn't apply to me though and I take advantage of that, particularly when it comes to matters like mixing with wine and Sprite or Johnny Walker and green tea.
We returned to our place and before we slept she told me she was leaving the balcony light on for the night.
"Why?" I asked.
"It's so our ancestors can find their way to where we live tonight." She cleared her throat and laughed self-consciously. "But I don't know how mine are going to know where I am in Shenzhen...'' (Her hometown, Dandong, is more than 1,000 kilometers north of Shenzhen).
"I don't know how mine are going to find me either," I said. "Most of them probably never thought of coming to China -- except maybe my mother's father. He was Irish. Before she died my mother told me he loved reading stories about Asia, particularly by a British writer named Kipling. Something about a 'Burmese girl,' I think, too. Though I don't know that story or poem. Maybe if he had a thing for a fantasy girl from Burma he'd have enjoyed knowing about us."
We slept as the balcony light glowed through a night punctuated by stacatto New Year fireworks and omnipresent smoke. And I dreamed.
I dreamed that my grandfather Knox who died when I was 2 and my mother Mila who died 12 years ago were told I could be found in China. If they desired, they could leave whatever realm the dead inhabit and join others who were visiting their descendants here for one night.
I've no memory of grandfather, though I'm told he was fond of me and that he died peacefully napping on his couch after lunch as my mother, dad and I were visiting him and my grandmother. "You played on his body until the ambulance came," my mother once told me. "You didn't know he was dead and thought he was pretending to sleep. It was a game you'd played with him before."
Now I am sleeping and my dead grandfather and mother are flying through the air to see me in China. He calls it "Cathay" in my dream because that's what Shenzhen's province, Guangdong, was called by foreign barbarians when he was alive. Cathay.
"C'mon now, Mila. We're flying to Cathay to see Justin" he tells my mother. He's wearing a tweed suit, white shirt, thin tartan tie and perhaps set off with a tweed newsboy cap, attire I either imagine or think I've seen in old photos of him. He hasn't lost his Irish accent in my dream. He came to the US as a young man who'd taught at a deaf school in Belfast and had dabbled in boxing only to visit a brother who had immigrated. But Knox never returned to Ireland until many years later. While in America he'd caught polio shortly after coming and the Illinois woman he eventually married was one of his nurses. She was my grandmother but she's not visiting tonight. It was complicated between her and my mother and probably still is in the hereafter.
"Hullo mum," my grandfather had greeted his mother upon returning for a visit to his ancestral home in County Down. According to family lore, he was limping due to the polio. His mother stood silently on the porch of their their white-washed home called The Spa.
"Ah, Knox. You've got the Yankee twang," she finally said of his greeting. Until this exchange, they not spoken to or seen each other in the 20plus years since he'd left for a short tour of America.
There is no Yankee twang in my dream. He's soaring through the air to Cathay -- a place he's only perhaps read and maybe dreamed of -- arms outstretched like Peter Pan, one hand clasping my mother's who looks as she did in her high school and college photos. In those black and white pictures she isn't tethered to an oxygen tank or embittered and numbed by the booze and pain pills that momentarily pacified her arthritis pain but inflamed her demons.
She's not even Mila. Tonight she's "Johnnie," a high school/college nickname due to her maiden name, Johnston. She sometimes smokes a pipe and is already a talented artist. She wears bobby socks and is a babe. And though it was also very complicated between her and her father, tonight they're feckless and happy together. She's thrilled to be on her father's arm flying and free falling to Cathay to see her son, and her father is quietly proud to take her. And though it's a country of 1.3 billion, with a gazillion more dead Chinese ancestors crowding the airspace tonight, they'll have no problems.
You see, C has left the light on so they'll know where to find me.
The Crossing continued
Bus service is 24 hours and I've taken enough at most slices of 24 hours to find that the 11pm-2am bus passengers lend a zestier flair to the usual load of tourists, low-level business types, and otherwise regular types.
It's the "Party Bus" from 11pm or so on. Many drunks and almost always a gaggle of hookers and part-time party girls who stand out from the usual crowd by tottering on their cheap, spiked heels, wiggling in their short skirts and tight slacks. It's entertaining fare providing the person next to you is passed out and not retching violently into a plastic bag.
Nonetheless, all are alert and join the mad crush to flee the bus when it hits the Hong Kong border -- the first of two borders we have to process through -- only to rush to join another usually long line. If you're a Hong Kong resident or permanent citizen it's a painless, efficient affair unlike what's waiting at the Shenzhen border 4 minutes away.
Once through the Hong Kong station with its posters warning people not to bring live or dead chickens in their suitcases and trumpeting the glories of Hong Kong ("A level playing field for all") and past the occasional sniffer dawgs, it's another line to pick up the bus you've just left.
Back on and people are barely seated until they're up and jamming again like a football front line or rugby scrum at the Shenzhen/Huanggang station.
The best and worst part of this leg is the pointless paperwork, entitled the "Health and Quarantine Declaration Form On Entry." It's a one page slip that was generated in the wake of the SARS outbreak and reactivated as all await the coming avian flu pandemic. It won't stop anything, however as like so much else in the Chinese bureauracy it's entirely symbolic and carries no purpose except to generate more meaningless employment for the people who supposedly process the forms and for the printing company or companies that produce them.
Two -- always two, sometimes three -- people in white lab coats (so you know they are medical professionals) wearing Latex gloves sit in a cramped booth to collect the forms which are simply tossed in their direction by the travelers who know better.
And what's on the form? Your ID particulars -- I often fill in my name randomly with identities such as "Mickey Mouse," "Hunter Thompson," "Daffy Duck," "Ulma Thurman," "Missing Bride," "Jeffrey Dahmer" etc or Chinese verboten names and terms such as "Lin Piao" (betrayed Mao) or the outlawed whacko religious group, "Fan Lung Gong." I'm waved through everytime.
One is also supposed to check from the "following illnesses or symptoms" you currently have. The choices range from "fever," "cough," to "psychosis," "venereal disease," "AIDS/HIV," and "active pulmonary tuberculosis."
I don't get cute with that one. I can only imagine that one would have to be terminally psychotic to admit to a "cough" much less VD, AIDS or TB and expect you'd ever see anything but a quick eviction at best or a slow languishing cold lonely death in some maximum security isolation cell in a Chinese "hospital" at best.
I also swear that I am not carrying any "animal carcasses and specimans," "microbes," "human tissues," "blood and blood products," or "soil" into China.
Once inside it's another form that gets actual scrutiny. It's one that records your passport and visa details and gets inspected by usually stern-looking clerks who often feel the need to correct your printing. More than once I've had some anal twit carefully trace over every letter and number I've clearly written down. This can take another five minutes after perhaps 20 spent in the "Foreigners" line and I'm never sure if the guy is just jacking around with me or really believes that his English penmanship is superior -- which it arguably could be, though the results always look like what they are: someone not initimate with writing English has traced over perfectly legible letters turning them into a child-like smear.
Once cleared to go it's straight past and ignore the wheezing luggage X-ray machine where the inspectors are either playing cards, sleeping, absent or gossiping as more cowed travelers occasionally put their luggage through.
The last line awaits, for taxis. Here there also be beggars. And before I catch a cab, I give only to one regular, a young woman with a severely burned boy about 2 or 3 years old. His eyes are always bright and expressive but below the bridge of what was his nose his face appears to have melted grotesquely. He has two small slits for nostrils and a mouth that is only a small, distorted oval more or less fused to where his neck begins.
His mother knows me by now and makes a point of thanking me. Sometimes I pat his soft burry head and ask, "How's it going little dude?" to which he perks up some but never utters a sound. I wonder if he can speak at all and fantasize about being able to foot a plastic surgery and primarly school education for him. I also curse whatever and whoever turned him into nothing but begging bait.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Crossing
Anatomy of a small journey I make virtually every weekend from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. By now I've made the trek more than 100 times but have found nearly every one presents small small quirk, usually an irritant but occasionally amusing.
It begins when I stuff a black, torn and frayed backpack with enough shirts, socks, underwear, reading material, CDs, etc plus requested only-in/or cheaper-in Hong Kong items for C. This weekend is Chinese New Year so in addition to the usual suspects, I was wobbling under the weight of festive gifts and stuff from the US that I still hadn't brought to SZ. They included a sturdy gold and red tin package of bird nests (light, but about as expensive as cocaine), two enormous tins of imported Danish cookies, two 16 oz bottles of salad dressing and the usual dread that I'd forgotten something.
The trudge from my 26th floor to the subway stop inside my Mother Mall (the apartments are part of the mall complex) is short but not always without minor perils -- the first being that Hong Kongers do not walk in public like other human beings. They casually saunter and weave and shuffle two, three, four abreast chatting to each other and/or on their cell phones oblivious to a panting, hurried 53-year-old fat foreign devil trying to walk efficiently and quickly to his destination. Their children are often left to scamper about under the foreigner's legs like rabid kittens. Small collisions occur. Apologies are made. Occasionally obscenities are exchanged.
My train stop is called Kowloon Bay. It's a short ride with no transfers, perhaps 12-15 minutes to the stop where I disembark called Prince Edward. Usually there are no seats, though once in awhile I luck out and am able to lever myself into a space between a young man reading an English language instruction book called "As Can Good English" and a 50-ish paunchy greasy fellow with an 8-inch white hair curling from a mole on his chin, a right hand pinky finger with a digustingly long dirty nail and a dyed black combover that looks like a bar code. It's all set off stunningly with a flashy gaudy gold necklace and perhaps a cheap green jade bead bracelet.
He's looking sharp, looking for love and I hope he finds it
At Prince Edward I sling the pack back on my shoulders and squeeze into a line of humanity going up an escalator to leave the the station where I invariably have trouble remembering if my exit is C-1 or C-2. If I can see the "Clarks" shoe store sign as I clamber up the stairs I know it is the right exit - C-2. I vow to remember that until the next time when I mistakenly take C-1.
I cross the street, hang a right at the Co-Co American Bar (good cheeseburgers, inedible fries) and make my way down a block of Chinese fast food shops, a 7-Eleven the size of a walk-in closet and several money changing operations where I pick one and exchange a very thin layer of Hong Kong dollars into an unwieldy brick of Chinese yuan because China has no currency larger than 100. In a country where some crafty hooligans bother to counterfeit 1 yuan coins, I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense....
There's a "bus station" on the corner where I stick my "Octopus card" (an all-purpose reloadable debit card issued by the subway company, the MTR) to a scanner and a bored, harried woman shoves a HK$35 one-way ticket to Shenzhen's Huanggang border at me in exchange.
Buses leave every 10-20 minutes, sometimes every 30 depending on the hour. There's always a line of commuters and tourists, though very few foreigners -- most of whom take a more direct and crowded train ride to another crossing called Lohwu. I don't because it's too far from my Shenzhen digs and the Lohwu ride guarantees no seats while the bus ride does.
There are only four prime seats on these buses, that is seats with enough leg room for someone taller than a fetus to stretch a little plus store the backpack on the floor in front rather than hugging it his chest for 30 minutes. Those seats are in the last row before the line of seats at the rear. I crave any of those seats and have been known to reject a bus if one is not available.
Most of my fellow travelers though seem to prefer anything near the front so they can bolt up and crowd rudely and insanely into the aisles shoving their packs and packages ahead of them 3 minutes before the bus parks at its destination.
I'm not sure why they are rushed. There are virtually always long lines when they disembark and once they finally exit at Shenzhen I've noted that they begin sauntering slowly, randomly and five abreast again.
To be continued. A slow tale on occasion enlivened by "The Party Bus..."

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Willie the Pimp
''Um...can I call you back, dear? I'm trying to interview a pimp in his apartment at the moment...''
That's what foreign barbarian former coworker Jeff would've called a "OIC" (Only in China) moment. C was calling me in Shenzhen on Friday afternoon where I'd gone with my faithful photographer/translator Simon to try to get some sort of readable story regarding the city's latest crackdown in order to "improve social order."
In this case, the city fathers had targeted an area called Shazui Village -- also known as "Mistress Village" due to its plethora of karaoke bars, massage parlors, discos and other sex industry-related enterprises and their attendant popularity with male Hong Kong visitors who come over to visit their "second wives." About 170 total had been suddenly padlocked on Wednesday, 60 of which were in Shazui. (Oddly, an adult sex toys shop was still open as were two Internet bars; the Internet cafes had also reportedly been targeted.)
About 2,000 (or 5,000, despending on who was doing the counting) of the suddenly unemployed hookers, owners and employees had taken to the streets Thursday in a sudden and somewhat unlikely show of protest and spent about 6 hours outside the SZ city government headquarters where they chanted slogans such as "We want to eat, we need to live, we need money." Finally 20 busloads of them were peacefully herded into buses and taken to various police stations. Ultimately 1 was detained on criminal charges and 25 others were detained for 15 days just for the helluvit.
Simon and I were at Red Light Ground Zero to get reaction and to see how effective the closures at been. While cops and security guards lounged outside closed bars, in the neighboring lanes and alleys pimps were plentiful and that's how we wound up in Zhau's crib watching his wife chop vegatables and sweep the floor and trying to nag him into no-interview.
It wasn't easy. Though about 10 of his stable initially seemed thrilled to meet Simon and I, their interest vanished quickly when they learned we weren't there as customers.
Desperate, I asked Zhau if we paid one her standard fee (about US$12-15) would she talk with us? Seemed like an easier way to make some money than putting your health, self esteem and general security at risk by having sex with a strange, fat barbarian from Hong Kong. And it would be my problem only to try to figure out how to get reimbursed for this unorthodox "travel expense."
"He says 'no','' Simon told me. "They are all afraid of talking to any newspapers."
"So they'd rather have sex with a stranger than just talk with him?"
"Basically, yes."
Zhau himself was reluctant, though his wife's non-stop harping finally drove us all out of his bare, spartan two bedroom 5th floor walkup to the streets where we finally hid out in a nearly-deserted juice bar and I plyed him with a mango smoothie.
While a SZ city flack told us by phone that all businesses were shutdown due to licensing and code violations, Zhau had another, more conspiratorial take on the situation -- civic graft.
"The business owners will have to bribe the city officials if they want to reopen," he said. As for him, he said he and his girls were facing ruin unless horny Hong Kong tourists could be lured back. ''About 70 percent of my customers were from Hong Kong. I'm worried for myself, my wife and also for the girls and all the bar owners and employees. I'll have to get a temporary construction job if nothing changes.''

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Road Goes on Forever (and the Hakka Party Never Ends)
My buddy Patrick whose sister is visiting from Illinois had an idea for a Sunday outing that sounded simple enough. Go to a neighboring township, Longgang, about 40 kilometers from Shenzhen to check out some ancient dwellings.
In this case it was a large combination fortress/living complex formerly occupied by a group of Chinese called the Hakka. According to resources dug up by my scholarly pal, James "The Laughing Buddha Temple Guy" the Hakka comprise about seven percent of the Chinese population and are a sub-culture of the Han which comprise the majority of the Chinese population. I'd heard about and met a couple Hakka.
Patrick's Chinese galpal (whom I'll call C2) is herself a quarter Hakka and she resembles the two I'd met, particularly with their cute, wide button noses (which will figure into this tale of a trip gone briefly bad later...).
Since the idea of maps and road signs to tourist attractions is still mostly an abstract concept here, our first step was to hire a driver or "black taxi" as the illegal cabs are called and to worry about arrival later.
C did the leg work after establishing that legitimate taxi fare would cost us at least 150 yuan (about US$18.75) one-way with no guarantee of a return trip. She negotiated a 200 yuan roundtrip fare with a gypsy cab driver who, in white and black spats picked us up with his newly washed and waxed black VW Santana at 1pm sharp. It was the last classy, efficient act he performed.
Armed with vague directions courtesy of James who'd been there previously ("We went with a Chinese driver who had to ask around quite a bit to find the place") and a friend of C2's, we found no bumps until we arrived at the outskirts of Longgang and realized that the driver was utterly clueless. Not just clueless as to the location of the Hakka MegaLove Shack -- which we fully expected -- but he seemed to have no desire or knowledge of how to ask for directions or from whom. Apparently his plan had been to get us inside the city limits, profess honest ignorance, shrug his shoulders and hope that we'd also shrug, give up and decide to return promptly home. (As events unfolded and he was forced to actually complete his agreed upon mission, his plan switched to whining loudly and driving increasingly worse upon our return to Shenzhen. But I digress....)
After two lackadaisical attempts on the driver's part to ask three random bystanders and many cell phone calls by C and C2 to Shenzhen pals who might know something, anything, I spotted a bilingual Chinese/English sign on a street corner with a phone number for the Longgang police.
"Police! They might know!" I sputtered.
C sprang into action. "I'll call the number. You talk to them."
"What? They don't speak English."
"It doesn't matter. Say anything, then give me the phone."
"Ni hao? Hello? Ni hao? Hello, hola? Police? Help, help! We're lost! Help! Help us find HakkaLand! We've fallen and we can't get up!" I handed the cell to C who rattled off an efficient sounding missive, conferred briefly with Mr. Whiny Moribund Driver who gave her a street name, and clicked off smiling a little.
"What did you say?"
"I told them that I was a translator with a group of important foreigners. American VIPs who want to see the Hakka house and our driver can't find it. They are sending someone to help us find it."
C2 was dubious. "They'll never come."
I was also but damn me if about 8 minutes later two smiling Longgang cops astride one Honda complete with a flashing red light pulled up, babbled with C and the driver briefly and motioned for us to follow.
We had an official police escort to the Hakka Hotel. No siren but the light kept flashing, even when they stopped for about a minute to, yes, ask directions from another cop. Nonetheless they got us there in style. Like the Alamo (which is smaller and better known, at least in the US) it's smack in the middle of bustling urban area. The combination museum/complex is made of bricks and mud and roughly, very roughly resembles Mexican or American southwest Indian adobe or pueblo dwellings in that it's combination fortress and condos with enough room for maybe 100 families in a rabbit's warren of living quarters.
"I'd be a bad Hakka," C said. "I'd get lost all the time."
Most of the rooms were deserted with a lot of old debris and broken furniture though showplaces included dusty bridal chambers, a bridal sedan in which C and I posed as well as Patrick and I as a bold social statement for same-sex marriage in China, a couple shrines, a grandparents' room or two and some wells.
One section was burned and gutted with what appeared to be bullet holes in the stone walls, evidence of, according to a long, mostly Chinglish description of Japanese soldiers invading in 1943.
A faded color painting of Chairman Mao on one courtyard wall gave Patrick and I some fun as did a combination money/Mao worship shrine nearby. The Mammon and Mao shrine sported facisimilies of currencies from around the world, including a Benjamin. We dutifully paid homage.
But we initially gravitated to about 40 yards of large photos with Chinese/English descriptions of prominent Hakkas parading along a wall inside the entrance. It's a Hakka Hall of Fame which includes mostly Excellent Communists, including one fellow who is a dead ringer for C2 especially in the nose department.
"See, the nose knows!" I said. "Hakka Love cannot be denied!"
Dead Man's Party
Guest blog courtesy of my son, who incidentally, turned 21 on the 13th. Feliz cumpleanos, dudechacho!
My Korean grandfather died nine years ago yesterday. He was a good, kind man who loved his family. He had a crazy life from being forced to fight for the Japanese in WWII (his platoon ultimately killed the Jap C.O. and were later rescued by Americans) to living through the Korean War to coming to America. He was as near perfect as I have every seen anyone. He will be forever missed.
That said every January 11th since then I sit through a Korean ritual that has all but lost its meaning.What happens is there’s a table set up in front of a picture of Grandfather (in this case the picture’s above the big screen TV), and there’s a bunch of food set out on it. There’s seaweed, kimchi, the other kind of kimchi, rice, the green things I think are weeds but Mom and Grandmother eat, and a whole fried fish (whole in every sense of the word, like if you caught a fish and just threw it on a cooking pan).
Mom’s never really told me why, I think it has something to do with the dead coming back and eating…but I’m not really sure…oh and the door has to be open.
Around midnight or 11, it changes year to year, everyone stands in front of the picture/table and bow. That’s normally where the ceremony would end…well my step-dad and I would be forced to eat some of the food, but then the ceremony would end. It was short and I would never do anything to disrespect my Grandfather’s memory. So, it wasn’t something that I looked forward to but it wasn’t like unbearable. That is until last night.
My mother, at times, seems to be a born again Christian; she scolds me for not praying at dinner, but then she doesn’t do it herself. Her religion is not based on any faith. In her mind it’s like a system of favors. “Ask and ye shall receive” is all really Christianity is about. Praying not about getting closer to God, it’s about ask him to do things for you. Like for example, more money.
At around 10:30 last night Mom finally finishes cooking and goes into the living room where the makeshift shrine is. “JULIAN!” my mom screams. I flinch, my mind racing as to what I could have done. Nothing comes to mind.“What?” I ask quietly. “Come, we practice for tonight,” she says.
“What? No, look Mom I’ve done this for the last nine years, I know what to do. Let me read,” I wait to hear her objection but none comes.Instead came a sound that thinking about still causes the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. It was my mom screeching out “Amazing Grace”. It’s not that she was off key (which she was), or that Korean TV was also going at the same time. Its’ that if it wasn’t for the tune I wouldn’t have know it was “Amazing Grace”.
It got so bad I had to go into the basement just so I could focus on the book I was reading. She sang for a good twenty minutes by herself, “Amazing Grace” a good four or five times. When she finally stops it’s time to honor the dead.
So, at first it’s like every other year, Mom opens with a part that only she can understand. While Pat stares off into space and I start thinking about Spider-Man and Kitty Pryde. She finishes up and we do the bowing thing. This year we only had to bow three times, I could have sworn that it was five last year, and ten a few years back. As I finish up Mom thrust a Bible into my hands.
“Choose good one,” she says “Something, you know, good thing to read.”
Like a deer in headlights I stare a the book, I’ve read the Bible, but none of it really sunk in. I certainly wouldn’t know about what passages would be appropriate for something like this. So, I choose the “Lord’s Prayer”, it seemed like the best and it was right there in the front.
Then Mom read a passage. I have no idea what it was about, I think it was from Romans, but I’m not sure. All I know is that she didn’t read about half of it, or at least I couldn’t understand half of it. I figured this was the end so I got up to leave when Mom grabs me and tells me that we have to sing.
I am then forced to listen and sing the worst version of “Amazing Grace” with one woman singing loudly and off key in Korean and two men quietly signing off key in English. By the time we finished I had resolved to always leave before the 11th from now on.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Seeker
A story I filed today. Dunno if it will survive in print in this informal form, but here 'tis for anyone who's interested.
It was a bit like searching for Elvis, though probably more people in Shenzhen know of Elvis (aka 'The Big Cat' as he's known to the Chinese) than The Great Leader, aka North Korean President Kim Jung Il.
After news reports that the sudden arrival of Kim (or one of his close relatives) had forced the eviction of several hundred guests at the Guangzhou White Swan hotel from January 12 through Monday morning, rumors flew that he would be spending Friday in Shenzhen touring the city's two major telecom firms, ZTE and Huawei, and possibly taking a breather at the swank Kylin hotel and villa complex where presumably he could indulge himself in his passion for foreign DVDs.
The assignment was simple. Find Kim. How hard could it be in a city of 11 million, after all? There aren't too many dictators in bushy bouffant hairdos sporting spiffy green jump suits and 12 centimeter platform shoes in an effort to boost their estimated 165cm height to something approximating Great Leader stature.
Official confirmation was nil, of course. According to wire reports, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing said he had "no information to offer" on Kim's whereabouts. Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted an unnamed in source in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, as saying: "The leader, as far as I know, is at present in North Korea" and added that the mystery visitor might be Kim kin.
I called former colleagues at a Shenzhen newspaper where I once worked, hoping for a leak.
"Who? The president of South Korea?" was one response. Another was more knowledegable regarding world leaders but clueless as to any Kim sightings.
Nonetheless with photographer and translator Simon Song in tow, once in Shenzhen I hired a car driven by a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism who knew more about Kim than the Dali Lama and began the search with an excruciatingly slow traffic-clogged crawl from Lohou east to Nanshen and the ZTE complex.
"He says he has no opinion on the Dali Lama," Song said. "But he says he knows Kim is the leader of an isolated, closed, very poor country who has followed Mao's examples made during the 1970s. He thinks if he's here he might want to learn from Deng Xiaoping's example in creating Shenzhen where it is open and people can live well if they work hard."
Wishful surmising, but he had the basics down. After 45 minutes we arrived at ZTE where we parked in an unguarded, partially full lot devoid of the kind of hustle, bustle and tight security one might expect surrounding a visit by a foreign despot who reportedly loves Rambo and 007 flicks.
In the enormous lobby a receptionist politely told us that no one by that name had been there or was expected.
"Have there been any large groups with many large cars and guards?" I asked.
"She says they have people like here that frequently," Song said. Then I spotted a group of 10 dignified looking foreigners and Chinese entering the lobby.
"Excuse me. Are you here with the Kim Jung Il party?" I asked one western gentleman who looked at me as if I was either deranged or simply slightly mentally impaired.
"No," he said after a short pause, addressing me in the same patronizing tone one might use with a child asking if he'd just arrived from Jupiter. "I'm afraid not."
The next stop was the Kylin hotel/villa complex. A 42,000 square meter complex of buildings -- one hotel and five private villas -- set in a near-fairyland of 380,000 square meters of immaculately tended greenery. "[It] is the important reception base of the Shenzhen Party Committee and Shenzhen Government responsible for the reception of the Paty [sic] and State Government leaders as well as serving all circles of society," according to a sign at an entrance where an unarmed, bored security guard waved us through without a second look.
"I'm guessing the Great Leader didn't sleep here. At least he won't be tonight," I said.
The villas appeared vacant and a large welcome banner over the hotel's entrance greeted ""Important government leaders to inspect Shenzhen road blueprints."
Still we needed confirmation and a trio of hotel maids -- identified by name tags as numbers 052, 026 and 109 was flagged down.
"In the US you could slip one of them $20 and maybe get some some inside information," I told Song.
"Here you can just ask them," he replied.
Strangely, 052 and 026 had never heard of the man who the North Korean state news agency has routinely referred to as someone who "advances the world's people toward the bright morrow under his guiding light and as the brilliant commander of the Songun revolution."
Number 109 stuck to the Kylin company line, however. "She said that her responsibility is not to ask about their guests," Song said. Good enough.
Last stop Huawei, a mega-complex the size of a small city-state on the northern edge of Shenzhen where we arrived in time to see employees streaming out after their shift.
No limos. No guards. A receptionist was polite, friendly and ultimately no help -- though she made the cursory effort to check her computerized visitor/VIP list and schedule.
"She said no one by that name has been here today."
It was then that I realized that the Great Leader's guiding light probably never flickered in Shenzhen at all.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Cardboard Boxes
There are still piles of them on our new balconey following this weekend's move. But C did all the heavy lifting, or hired strapping young bucks for ridiculously low wages to do the rest.
"Just stay in Hong Kong until I call you. I know how you are about moving," she said. Sweet words, lemme tell you.
As for the new digs, it's not as bad as I'd feared, though there were some possibly-unique-to-Shenzhen twists in the relocation.
Transportation is one. There are precious few taxis or buses servicing wherever it is we are now but the forces of capitalism and illegal commerce have quickly filled the vacuum. Idling and parked outside one entrance are fleets of small, spiffy privately owned cars chauffered by fellows eager to undercut the legal taxi trade. They're also cleaner, cheaper and -- so far -- have shown that they'll also make change without a squawling heebeejeebie fit, wait outside your destination for a return trip if you're not going to be in there long, and are available by appointment.
No 2 is home entertaiment. It's cable ready -- real cable, as in HBO, Cinemax, ESPN, CNN, BBC as well as Chinese fare. But a twist. There's always one, right? We were in the cable office where initially the best entertainment was live. A young woman and her apparent beau were literally screaming at the hapless cable staff in a very unChinese manner.
"She's angry because they want her to pay an extra 7 yuan for something," C whispered as I watched in awe as the disgruntled female subscriber uttered a loud profanity and heaved a vinyl and metal chair one-handed against a wall where it rattled and fell.
Seven yuan is about 85 cents. Man. I would've paid twice that to watch the whole show unfold, but we caught the tail end which ended with everyone in the office -- save me -- pretending that nothing ever happened. That was after the rabid woman had relented and thrown 7 yuan across the room and then sat down and sighed loudly.
Me? I sighed loudly when our turn came and C told me the cable staff needed to photocopy my passport.
"What for?"
"Because we are subscribing to western news. BBC and CNN," she said. "Chinese citizens cannot have western TV news in their homes in China. Only foreigners. And foreigners who live with Chinese citizens, I guess."
"Tell them that what CNN offers isn't really 'news' as most real journalists understand the concept," I replied. "And that the BBC wastes too much time on 90 minute documentaries on elderly pensioners in Waddage-on-Fullbottom who collect 1950s-era soup can labels and footage of men in silly shorts and jerseys plastered with corporate logos mincing, prancing and kicking balls around for scores like 0-0."
No dice.
"So...what? You have to leave the room whenever I watch BBC?" I asked. Nonetheless, I handed over the passport, which was studied and passed around to at least four different cable employees before disappering briefly to be reproduced multiple times with copies presumably going to whatever Shenzhen security bureau monitors illicit western news cable TV subscribers. "Anybody else want some BBC?" I said loudly, waving the passport around to the uncomprehending onlookers. "Freedom of information! Use my document and learn the truth: 'Real Madrid, Tottenham on course for Cup glory! News at half past!'"

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Hello Dalai
Per a comment request (thanks, Stuart) for some of C's reactions to the People's Republic of Boulder, I'm gonna hit some high and low lights. It's her second visit to the States (we were back in May) and she's actually seen more of the US in about 20 days -- including one legendary locale I've never seen, Yosemite -- than I've seen of China in two-plus years here.
Her awe continues. "I'm not going back," she announced deadpan several times. "Have a good time back in China. I'm getting a job in this hotel, I think. Or maybe applying for political asylum."
She did return, of course. But I suspect Boulder's clean air, overwhelming blue skys (we were blessed with mild weather during our stay) splendiferous scenery, open spaces, lack of skyscrapers and little things I take for granted like a Safeway or King Soopers deli will linger long in her memory.
Unlike China where many tourist sites are more like zombie feed lots paved over with concrete footpaths and littered with debris and offal, she was mightly impressed with leisurely mountain drives, including one to the casinos in Black Hawk and Central City where she broke even on the slots and I won $15. "You're right. It's not the like the movies, not like Las Vegas," she observed, looking at the sparse groups of overweight, wheezing oxygen tank toting retirees and assorted jobless trailer trash who make for most of the "gamers" there on weekdays.
She'd been forewarned by my friend Chris who'd driven us there about the disconnect between Colorado casinos and Vegas. On the plus side she got a kick out of being photographed in front of an enormous US flag hanging on a wall in the 100-plus year-old Gilpin County courthouse and kept remarking that the mountain scenery, occasional mist and very light snow flurries on our drive looked like a "fairyland."
A Safeway grocery also scored high, though supermarkets are plentiful and mostly well stocked in China. But she hadn't seen 17 different kinds of laundry detergeant or 23 brands of peanut butter in one place. As such I had to accompany her aisle by aisle as she slowly inspected the plentiful overflowing offerings. I felt briefly like I was with some refugee from the 1960s era Soviet Union marveling at a store where toilet paper was sold in bulk rather than a square at a time.
Ultimately, we bought a box of La Choy fortune cookies for her to take back to her Chinese coworkers as there are none here.
Marketing idea! Export fortune cookies to China!
I also made a point of taking C to a Boulder Tibetan gift shop. She and I originally met and sparked, as they used to say, at a Chinese New Year event in a Tibetan bar in Shenzhen wherein a mild disagreement about Tibet's status ensued. I said it's a country, she said "it's not a country, it's part of China" and it's become a running joke rather than a diplomatic crisis.
"Look, it's the separatist Dalai Lama!" I said, showing her his beaming mug on one of about eight books about or by him. C had never seen his image before (it's banned in China) and she studied his forbidden face carefully.
"He looks evil," she said solemnly. I still don't know if she was kidding or not. And I still regret not finding a "Free Tibet" sticker for our soon-to-be new digs.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

With a Little Help From My Friends
Back "home" after an often frazzled visit to my homeland with C. Couldn't have done it though without tea, sympathy, meals, lodging, transportation, conversation and some adult beverages courtesy of a host of friends and family.
Chris, the entire Smallwood clan, Kim, Hans, Fritz, Janeen, Matt and Debbie, Sherry, Leland, my dad, Julian, Da7e, Rob, Joe, Ernesto Che, Mary, Chris P., thanks to you all.
And Flatirons Mall, I hope to gawd I never hobble through your tainted environs again.
One thing about cross-cultural experiences that C and I remark a lot on but can rarely find real common ground on is that experiences in China which fascinate me can often bore and irritate the hell out of her and vice versa. From my point of view see: an American mall during Christmas season. From her point of view see: my repeated questions and superficial observations regarding Chinese customs and methods I'll never fully comprehend.
So I guess it's an even exchange.
And we're moving to another apartment this week in Shenzhen, C tells me blithely today over the phone at the last minute. I knew it was due, but had no clue it would be so soon. I'm gonna miss the Lucky Number and its neighborhood. Home no. 3 in Shenzhen (counting two different apts in the Lucky Number) will be slightly more upscale and more secure (as in, no Chinese Block Captain cadres monitoring her birth control methods) in an also more sterile area. Kind of a Shenzhen yuppieville. No handy corner grocery stores, no wet market, no DVD pirate boyz, fewer trees, probably fewer children, less public transport and definitely a lot less soul. But there is a balcony with a great view, such as they are in Shenzhen.

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