Sunday, April 15, 2007

What Did You Do In The War, Mommy?
(*Photo courtesy of Letters From China)

A few days ago thanks to two China blogs, and one called Letters from China, I had the honor of watching one of the most harrowing films I've ever experienced. More so than even say, The Stewardesses 3D or Billy the Kid Versus Dracula.

Though I Am Gone is a bare-bones B&W documentary about one of the first victims of China's Cultural Revolution, the insane 10-year collective splatterfest 41 years ago that cost countless lives, destroyed as many historical and artistic treasures, wasted an entire's generation's education and upbringing and is glibly written off today in all Chinese school textbooks as a brief period when "Mao made a mistake."

I have heard that exact phrase more than once from Chinese too young to have experienced it first-hand when the subject reluctantly comes up. The few others I've talked to who experienced it for real and not as a textbook explanation mostly don't talk about it at all. At least not to a foreigner who speaks no Chinese and asks too many stupid, overt, loud, simplisitic questions too quickly.

Though I Am Gone was entered last month in the Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival until the organzing committee suddenly suspended the film fest for no apparent reason, though according to Letters from China it was due to the movie.

It centers on the savage beating death (boards spiked with nails) of an respected middle school principal Bian Zhongyun by teenage female students at an elite Beijing girls' school just as the revolution was picking up steam. Imagine Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls.

Her dignified widower, Wang Jingyao, who occasionally breaks into tears during the filming, kept her bloody clothes and photographed her corpse along with their two daughters in the immediate aftermath. What isn't answered and probably never will be is, why, exactly, did the students beat Bian to death? Where are they now and do they ever regret what they did? Though the answers are fairly clear. All were from elite families, undoubtedly most still in power and/or influence one way or another. It also includes chilling archival footage and recordings of radio and film broadcasts heralding the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

If you are not on the Chinese mainland and have the patience and Internet connections you can see it here on Youtube in ten parts. (I just discovered it's suddenly blocked in China so I can't link the address. How surprising! If you need to search it, the director's name is Hu Jie and you've already got the title and subject.)

I was watching it on C's desktop recently as she and her mother were otherwise absorbed in the living room in a contemporary Chinese TV soap opera, the title of which is roughly translated as "Love's Fate." Like US soaps it's about love gone bad, romantic missteps, incest, murder, corruption and overdue utility bills .

C's mother was a Red Guard. Also incidentally and perhaps ironically her all-time favorite foreign TV show was a 1980s-1991 LA detective Dirty Harry shlockoff called Hunter. It starred former NFL player Fred Dryer (Rams, Giants, record holder most safeties in single NFL game). C's mom has fond memories of Hunter, and also still has the red and yellow Red Guard arm band which she gave to C who has stored it away as a momento. During her revolutionary heyday, her mother was also sent with hundreds of other hormone-inflamed Chinese teens on a free train trip to Beijing on August 16, 1966 to see Mao proclaim the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in Tianammen Square.

It was there that a giddy looking student from the same school that had just beaten principal Bian Zhongyun to death ceremoniously put a Red Guard armband on Mao's arm. It's captured in the movie and I thought C and her mom might be interested.

(I also know a few people who say they were at Woodstock and will eagerly point to grainy, indistinct bopping blobs in various film and TV segments saying, "See! There I am! The (guy) (girl) in the (pick a color) headband. Hendrix was playing Star Spangled Banner. See! That's me, baked on 'shrooms.")

Not in China, though, of course. Past is past. Didn't happen or if it did it was a "mistake." They begged off -- C briefly viewed about 2 minutes of Though I Am Gone footage before declaring it "too sad. Why are foreigners so interested in it, anyway?" Her mother had no apparent interest either, though after I cranked up the sound commented to C that what she'd heard was "probably exaggerated and invented."

I shrugged it off. But later that night conversation, such as it is between a pseudo mother-in-law and her foreign barbarian faux son-in-law neither of whom can communicate in each other's tongues, turned again to revolution. I recalled through C that her mother had also been a dancer of some sort. She perked up and after a little encouragement began recreating her small role in a revolutionary ballet beloved by Mao's wife/Cultural Revolution Arts & Entertainment Overseer called The Red Detachment of Women.

C was delighted and, though her mother's moves were a trifle studied and suffering from memory lag, she was not without grace as she sang a revolutionary song to accompany the flowing dance. Then C had an idea. She went to the bedroom, dug out the old Red Guard arm band, tied it on and began accompaniing her mother, mimicking the dance moves.

Taken on strictly on mother and daugher level it was charming, endearing even, yes, definitely cute. On another level, perhaps one I live in too often, it creeped me out. I thought of a WWII German parent and child dressing up in old SS or Hitler Youth gear, throwing Heil salutes and goosestepping around the living room for laughs.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Dim Lights, Thick Smoke

Following that heartning Easter tale, I thought it only fair that I disclose what transpired on Easter Eve, not that it's up there with Christmas or New Year when it comes to the Eves.

One of my few ersatz-soul mates in Hong Kong is a foreigner who goes by the nom de blog, Spike, mostly because his Mainstream American Corporate Overlords would not appreciate knowing that their Asia-Pacific rep loves the Hong Kong nightlife enough to frankly detail his countless sexual misadventures and occasional moments of spiritual clarity in a wonderfully neurotic and witty blog called Hongkie Town. (See link at left.)

Or did. He almost killed Hongkie Town last year citing burn-out and what I sensed was some unjustified self-loathing based on comments taking him to task for his obsessions -- sex, food, sex, music, sex, his two dogs, movies, sex, and movies about sex, music, sex, his dogs, food, sex and sex. Spike's since reconsidered and ratcheted Hongkie Town down from NC17 content to more broadly appealing R and PG fare. More songs about movies, his dogs and food and less sex. Still, more than a little content centers around his stomping grounds, Hong Kong's infamous Wanchai bar scene.

He's also somewhat settled down with a more or less steady Thai galpal, though in Spike's world there are no guarantees. Turns out she has been outta town for a few weeks and he was getting restless. We met on Thursday afternoon by chance, and as it turned out he was up for a Saturday night in Shenzhen.

I was flattered. None of my Hong Kong pals have ever made the leap, though a few have talked about it. The Lord of Wanchai wanted to check out Shenzhen's equivalent, a small, even seedier area in a foreign enclave of Shekou district. Or "Show-koh" as I continually mispronounce it. Spike has been here for almost a decade, had a Real Chinese Wife for 8 years ("three wonderful years, five horrible" as he put it) and despite his wasted expat exterior speaks a modicum of respectable Mandarin and lost no time in correcting my pathetic pronounciation upon his arrival.

"It's 'Shuh-kuh' " he said. "How long have you been here? 'Shu-kuh, Shu-kuh.! Nobody says 'Shoowww-kooohh."

"I do. C doesn't correct me. She doesn't insist that I learn proper Chinese. Or any Chinese."

C wasn't around at the moment to contradict me. She was out with her mother but would later prove me a liar.

We repaired to Shuh-kuh and began searching for food. Nearly four years ago there was precious little western fare available at non-hotel prices in Shenzhen. But Shekou was one of the few places it could be found. An Irish pub, a Euro and American-cuisine place called Casablanca run by a blowsy, hard-bitten French or Belgian woman, and a fake burgers and fries place were about it. (Upon my initial arrival in Shenzhen with my son Julian to teach English for three weeks, we'd been ferried to Casablanca by our pitying Chinese hosts after about a week without dairy products, red meat and steamed vegetables. Julian famously proclaimed the baked potato with real sour cream and butter at Casablanca to be "the best potato I have ever eaten! Anywhere! Anytime!")

Shekou/Shu-kuh/Show-koh has grown enormously since and I steered Spike to one of my faves, Gypsy's -- mostly because of its ribs, wasabi mashed potatoes and Thai salads. Spike had the ribs and wasabi taters and was underwhelmed, I could tell. Gracious, yes, but it was clear if this trip to Shekou was going to make a posting in Hongkie Town it wouldn't be about food.

"Okay, we're going to Chicken Row," I said.

It's my tag -- "chicken" is Chinese slang for hooker-- for the small lane of tiny red light bars outside of the main glitz of the New Shekou where a beached cruise ship and lots of mainstream dining and nightlife are now the norm.

It was drizzling, dark and Chicken Row looked, well, mostly lifeless but we stopped in a place where C and I had been last year when she was mistaken for a Chinese movie star named Li Bing-bing. "I want to see if they hung up the pictures they took of her," I told Spike.

No C-as-Li Bing-bing pics, but a warm welcome nonetheless. "You have been here before I think?" asked one girl, as another began to silently and expertly massage my back. Spike already had three wrapped around him and was settling into his element.

"Christ, they have long memories," I shouted to him through the dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music. "No, well, yes, no, maybe I have," I said to her, hoping she wouldn't ask where Li Bing-bing was.

"They never forget a face," Spike said. "Never." He was undergoing a transformation. I swear about 5 years melted from his face and a few more as the admiring throng took our drink orders (two Cokes, 20 yuan apiece or US$2.60 each) and began stroking us for their "special drinks."

"How much?" I knew, but played along. "Only 40 (US$5.20)" one said. "But only a Coke with no alcohol, right?" I replied. "Oh, you have been here before," she said, laughing. I thought of C who said she'd join us later and how much she'd appreciate me laying out the equivalent of five or ten bucks of my rapidly dwindling savings for the Cokes For Chickens Fund.

"It's on me," said Spike generously. I can't recall how many five dollar, six-ounce glasses of "special drinks" enused but I wound up buying a few also. Spike settled in more or less with one fluent English-speaking 20something girl in glasses who I did recall seeing at Li Bing-bing Night. She'd told me at the time she was a "college student" and it's possible she had been. The English was certainly good enough.

Meanwhile, the one attached to me like a remora eel spoke no English, looked about 16 and it was clear that she'd been on the job for about 3 weeks, if that. Sweet young thing, but damn, it's an old, sad story and it's never going to change. I did glean she was from an impoverished province called Anhui and bought her another drink outta foolishness and sympathy, I suppose. Finally C called and I detached myself, motioned to Spike and we were out and chicken-free upon her arrival.

"Have fun?" she asked. "Are my Li Bing-bing pictures there?" No. But can I buy you a special drink? We repaired to a more conventional nightclub where "Singles Night" was in full swing with a Philippino band was playing western and Chinese cover tunes. Spike grew restless, though, I was getting weary and the remaining money was about enough for a cab ride home. He'd gotten the cell phone number of the Chicken in Glasses and had been text messaging her between looking at the less-than-appealing white-collar female singles nursing their watered down fruity cocktails. Actually, it was like singles night anywhere.

The last I saw of Spike we'd left Singles Night and he was on his way back to Chicken Row. But not before correcting me again.

"It's Shu-kuh," he said. Then to C. "Don't you ever encourage him to learn Mandarin?"

"All the time," she said. Spike looked at me mock-accusingly. I inwardly cringed. It just goes to Shu that it doesn't pay to lie.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter -- "Easter Sunday, we were walking. Easter Sunday, we were talking.
Isabel, my little one, take my hand. Time has come."
- Patti Smith.

"We have a holiday tomorrow," C. phoned from Shenzhen to tell me in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

"What holiday? Why?" Maybe the grave sweeping festival -- a "holiday" that seemingly gives license in Hong Kong for banks and government businesses to close in order for people to swamp the hillside tombs to set fire to brush and trees and incidentally picnic and honoor ancestors. But that's a traditional Chinese holiday seemingly only observed in Hong Kong anymore.

No. She had more confident news for me. "Tomorrow is Easter!"

I broke the news to her that Easter is traditionally observed on a Sunday and skipped the part that sometimes it's in March, sometimes April for reasons I can't fathom and don't have the time or patience to Google and then explain.

She informed me that her new Shenzhen-based Russian employers/overlords/illegal smugglers (more on that later) had decided to observe the Hong Kong version of Easter holiday which according to another tradition I don't grasp apparently stretches from Maundy Thursday through post-alleged-Resurrection Monday.

I briefly mentioned and then attempted to skip the part about Maundy Thursday because, again, there were serious lapses in my free-form psuedo-Christian upbringing in Boulder, Colorado. "Maundy, Maundy, just don't get that day"... "They call it Stormy Maundy, but Tuesday's just as bad..." I hummed.

"Monday-Thursday? What?"

"Never mind." I backtracked to crudely explain Ash Wednesday as a day in either March or April (depending on when the Groundhog saw his shadow in February)when some Christians put dirt/ashes on their foreheads for the day and Good Friday as the day Jesus was crucified.

"Dirt on your head all day? They don't clean it off? Why? And why is it 'Good Friday' when he was killed on Friday?"

"Uh, dirt. Yeah. Dunno, really. Sin or something. Hard to clean off unless you've got lamb's blood. Good Friday because he, again I dunno. Rose again on Sunday? So it was good he was killed on Friday. Otherwise the Passover party might've gotten outta control and he would've spent the weekend recovering and crashing at John's or Peter's place instead of taking care of business for the next 2,000-plus years."

"What? And when does the Easter rabbit come?"

Fast-forward to Easter morning in Shenzhen. I was awakened not by church bells or the trills and giggles of tots tearing open Easter baskets but by the 6.30am thump/pound/bash of the multi-story pile driver on the Eternal Construction Site of Our Grasping Real Estate Chinese Lord across the street. It was the fourth straight day of grey, smog choked 50-degree weather so thick that the sun seemed a distant memory. Our kitchen sink was leaking. And C had told me the night before that, incidentally, part of her new duties at Russia R Us included fixing connections and details so shipments of "steel," "asphalt" and "window glass" also included plentiful supplies of counterfeit Nokia and Seimens cell phone parts concealed within.

I was absorbing this all and wondering if I should break into the freezer to unwrap the pitiful remains of a motley moldering yellow Peep that an amiga in Colorado had sent me on my first Easter in China more than three years ago. I'm not big on Peeps, but it seemed like a last link to a holiday I rarely had thought about until deprived of it.

"So what do you do on Easter?" C asked. "What would you be doing now if you were there?"

I lied a little. "Oh, go to a church service. Dress up. Give Easter baskets to children. Hunt for Easter eggs. And a big dinner -- lamb or ham usually with my family."

"We have lamb," she said. Indeed her mother who is staying with us for Eternity it seems at this point was preparing a northern Chinese hotpot brunch of lamb, oysters and vegetables. Had to admit it smelled heavenly.

"And do I have an Easter surprise for you," I leered. "Suck on this!" No. Not what you're thinking. It was a chocolate Easter chick lollypop I'd picked up in Hong Kong on Friday on my way to Shenzhen.

"Couldn't find a rabbit. But bite the head off first anyway," I said. "It's better that way."

Monday, April 02, 2007

As I write this there has been almost 9-hours of unpredictable plumbing havoc augmented with random shrieks and thumps emitting from one floor above our Shenzhen bathroom. It began like something from the Amityville Horror catalogue; maybe something akin to The Three Stooges Meet the Amityville Horror's Chinese Beverly Hillbillies.

Yes, of course, we have neighbors in this barely 3-year-old Chinese Dream Village ("BoHo Italian Villa Super Villa-Villa -- Home of the Fake Italian Einstein Monolith Bust!") , which, I am increasingly discovering was built on broken promises, lies and at the speed of a weasel with attention deficit disorder on meth. I think what holds it together is not the tons of 6-month old surplus solidified congee (Chinese rice porridge) substituted by the builder for financial self gain in lieu of cement, but only the blind faith of sucker tenants and owners like ourselves.

Directly above us on the 21st floor is a family of three. A man, a wife and their pitifully disturbed approximately 4-year-old boychild. Suffice to say if William Faulkner had created a Chinese version of the Snopes clan, this disturbed trio would've been a prime inspiration.

It is, as far as I can tell, not the disturbed boychild's fault that his parents seem to have no visible means of support and the same cultural, social and educational skills as say, a rabid wolverine or of that Canadian pig farmer currently on trial for killing 26 women. It's not the boy's fault they can afford to own space in one of Shenzhen's newest apartment complexes, as shoddily built as it is, yet not afford toys or the time to find playmates or outdoor distractions and exercise beyond encouraging him to ceaselessly shove chairs and small tables around the place for hours at a time beginning at 6am and ending whenever he decides to meltdown and begin wailing without stop, usually between 9pm -midnight.

It is not his fault either that his familys' toilet and shower began leaking and seeping Satan's foul smelling effluents non-stop two days ago through the floorboards down into our bathroom. But to hear the parents scream at him and us and the apartment managers and developers, to hear their point-blank denials and bizarre excuses one might think he'd planned the entire debacle since he was in the womb.

The fact is the parents decided to build on the cheap in a place where cost-cutting was already rampant. "Why would we need water-proofing?" the father shouted at one point as C, me, C's visiting mother, and three apartment management types confronted them through the chained space of their door. "It is too expensive and needless and our boy's birth already cost more than we had at the time. It is his fault and your fate!" (Roughly translated by C)

The plumbers were admitted to the barricaded and locked hellhouse only after the family was threatened with eviction. Desperate politically inspired pleas drawn from China President Hu Jintao's ceaseless mantra for a "harmonious society" (Hu doesn't have neighbors from hell in mind, fershure, only the mounting civil disturbances sprung from the rapidly widening divide between the haves and have-nots) had no effect. Nor did the sight of me melodramitcally standing behind C and slowly thumping the dull edge of a large cleaver into my palm like some badly cast foreign thug extra in a Chinese gangster flick as she stridently shouted back at them.

Now the plumbers are taking their sweet time, the boychild is still wailing and Satan's snot keeps raining down. I guess it's our fate.

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