Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Coming to my census

There have been colourful 'big character' banners all over Beijing for the past few weeks exhorting us to cooperate fully in an upcoming population census. Most of these banners are bilingual, so it would appear that we foreigners are to be included.

However, no dates were mentioned. Since the major worldwide census effort takes place in the '01 year of each decade, I had been assuming that this was not going to bother us until next year. But no - it seems that China is starting early, conducting its census NOW.

This fills me - and most of us foreigners living here, I would imagine - with considerable trepidation. Just how much information will the census-takers be asking for? Will this lead to bothersome checks into our nominal employers (those 'kind' people who help us get our visas) or our tax records? Will it become a pretext for 'spot fines'?

Of course, seeking to avoid or obstruct the census is the height of civic irresponsibility, a reckless and profoundly unharmonious kind of act. "Harmony," many of the banners remind us, "is essential to the harmonious society." Quite so. (The Chinese don't seem to be troubled by the notion that tautology might be a bad thing.)

So, I wouldn't want to be guilty of such antisocial behaviour myself, nor to incite others to such acts of defiance.

Well, yes I would.

In fact, my friend Nigel the barman nicely summed up the attitude of most foreigners (and most Chinese too, I suspect) the other day, when he declared with his usual refreshing forthrightness:
F**k the census!"

(Hmm, could be a band name?)

Since the Chinese authorities have almost certainly not assigned any significant amount of manpower to the census-taking effort, and since the whole process is supposed to be completed within just one month (and we're already half-way through that period, with most of us having not seen hide nor hair of a census-taker), I think it should be relatively easy to avoid the attentions of these prying government busybodies. I gather they are mostly coming around in the mornings - when everyone's at work. Now that I am drinking again, I'm going to be out almost every evening as well. And if they come knocking at my door when I happen to be in, I'll probably just ignore them.

Directionless again

I have remarked before on the almost universal cluelessness one encounters among the Chinese with regard to reading maps or giving directions.

The latest twist on this?

I'm subbing a few business classes for a friend this week at an IT centre up in the north of the city. Not being sure of the address, I was anxious to check with the course liaison as to where exactly I should be going - on which side of the street, Xueqing Lu, should I look out for this building?

"The south side," my contact told me by SMS.

Hmm. Xueqing Lu runs north-south.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bon mot for the week

"It's not the load that breaks you down - it's the way you carry it."

Lou Holtz (1973 - . A very successful college football coach in the States, I gather.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Film List - short animation festival

When I posted a link to an online roundup of '50 Best Animated Films' as my monthly 'Film List' back in June, my blog-pal JES kindly sent me some links to a couple of similar but much more interesting lists (check out this original post, and the comments).

That got me to thinking about some of my favourite animated shorts, and I decided to try to corral a few together for you for a special end of the month treat. [Please make time to check out all of them. They just get better and better towards the bottom of the post.]

I kick off with Jérémy Clapin's moody parable of urban alienation, Skhizein, which won last year's Manhattan Shorts film competition (unfortunately, divided into two parts).

And part two is here:

This one, Knickknack, was one of Terry Gilliam's personal '10 best' animated shorts in this article in The Guardian back in 2001. It was one of the very first digitally animated films from John Lasseter, a demo made in 1989 to promote his newly set up Pixar studio (which, of course, went on to produce the Toy Story series and much more). It's the tale of a lonely snowman in a snowdome who becomes smitten with a buxom bikini-clad babe on a neighbouring shelf ornament (later editions of the film trimmed down the extravagant breast size of the original) and determines to break out of his glass prison to be with her. It's an homage to the over-the-top physical comedy of classic Warner Bros. cartoon heroes like Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote.

And this is Pony, a film school project from the very talented Dony Permedi. I was first tipped off to him when the inescapable JES posted his cult favourite Kiwi a few months back. Pony, his previous effort, is a bit rougher around the edges, but even more delightfully dark. Yes, really dark: I think this is the most disturbing black joke I've ever seen in an animation.

And here's The Flower, a wonderful short film with a message. (I haven't been able to find out who directed this yet. Perhaps he or she is lying low for a reason....)

And finally (saving the very best for last?), here's The Sandman, (this version appears to have better picture quality, but embedding is disabled), Paul Berry's 1991 stop-motion classic, which was nominated for an Oscar the following year (how did it not win?). Paul had cut his teeth making a charming animated series based on The Wind In The Willows for British TV in the '80s. After the success of The Sandman, he was recruited by Tim Burton to work as one of the lead animators on The Nightmare Before Christmas, and would appear to have left a deep impression on the style of that production (and of the later Corpse Bride, although he was not actually involved in the making of that). Sadly, he died of a brain tumour in 2001, at the age of just forty. [He made another wonderful short illustrating the Charlie Daniels Band's classic tale, The Devil Went Down To Georgia; but I haven't been able to find that anywhere online.]

Don't have nightmares. Hahahahahahahahaha.....

[Supplement: It's also worth checking out this Chinese cartoon, rather cryptically titled See Through (the original Chinese title is, alas, even more nonsensical). Unfortunately, it's a bit long (16 minutes); and I couldn't find any embed code for it. However, it does have some brilliant sequences in it. And it is an amazing labour of love: it was made single-handedly by a dedicated young tech-nerd, working on an old computer in his bedroom for three-and-a-half years. The full story behind this - and his current success establishing his own digital animation studio - is on the linked page. (A bit hat-tip to Stuart of FoundInChina for sending me this link.)

My 'personal search engine' JES also helped me to find a link to Paul Berry's The Devil Went Down To Georgia.]

Friday, August 27, 2010

The same the world over

The slogan above has long been a popular - if somewhat bitter, rueful - joke in Britain. No doubt it occurs in most, perhaps all other countries around the world too. The version below is from Norway.

I wonder if someone (Weeble?) can offer us an idiomatic Chinese rendition? I'd love to see the chaps down at Plastered T-shirts add that to their product range.

88 days and nights

Last night was the 88th night that my friend Wu Yuren has spent in custody.

88 is considered a lucky number in Chinese numerology. It would have been nice to hope that this could have been his last night in jail; but, unfortunately, it looks as if the powers-that-be are determined to proceed with the prosecution. Barring a miracle - the miracle of someone high up in the government realising that petty acts of persecution like this accomplish nothing but to make China look like a tin-pot dictatorship, seeing sense, ordering the case to be dropped - it seems that the best we can hope for is a speedy move to trial and a "light" sentence (1 year is usually the minimum for the offence he's likely to be charged with).

We have to keep working for the miracle. I don't want him to be gone for one year, or two, or three, or more. He should be released as soon as possible - not just for his and his family's sake, but for China's. Every day he stays in prison, the credibility of the Chinese legal system, the credibility of the Chinese constitution, the credibility of the Chinese government, the credibility of China as a 'modern power' and a 'responsible stakeholder' in world affairs sinks further into the mire.

Wu Yuren has been in jail quite long enough. It's time someone in the CCP leadership recognised this, and put an end to this madness.

Haiku for the week

Uneasy pleasure:
Days improbably perfect,
Doubts of what's to come.

This is, without doubt, the most blissful last week of August I've ever experienced here in Beijing. But there's a nagging sense of something not right about it. Our summer has been truncated by 4 or 5 weeks this year; spring scarcely happened at all; there's now a mounting fear that something will 'go wrong' with our autumn - that it will grow chilly way too soon, perhaps with a raging bitch of a winter following on its heels.

For now, I'm enjoying the sunshine, getting a tan. But the displacement of our ordinarily very stable weather patterns this year is becoming a bit of a worry.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A memory fragment

[It was Madame X's birthday the other week. This prompted recollections of my painful three-and-a-half-year rebuffed infatuation. Well, one recollection in particular.]

Pingu was in snowy black-and-white. Quaintly appropriate for a cartoon penguin. But her daughter protested. She missed the richly rendered hues of his igloo home, the jolly stripes of his knitted hat and scarf. A colourless Pingu distressed her, blighted her soul's joy with its hint of many other unfathomable not-rightnesses in the world she would grow into.

Calling one afternoon for tea - self-invited; as pushy as I dared to get - I applied myself to the problem of the TV set, the colour TV that showed only black-and-white. The remote control - product of illogical aliens, and profusely labelled in their arcane script - was a daunting puzzle. I tried this, and that, and the other thing. I tried everything I could think of, twice.

And then, through persistence more than cunning, I finally cracked the riddle. The screen glowed with colours again: little Pingu once more had a red bill and orange feet, and waddled happily beneath a blue sky.

The daughter was ecstatic. The mother offered me another cup of tea.

I wonder sometimes, will her daughter - the daughter that I craved for my own - one day remember me only as The Man Who Fixed The Telly?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Who are you calling 'strange'?

Further to that last post (one of my occasional Gosh, this country freaks me out sometimes ones), I feel I should mention this recent article (another recommendation from my indefatigable truffle-hound of the Internet, JES) about a study by social psychology researchers from the University of British Columbia which highlights the fact that most experimental data in their discipline is potentially rather flawed by the fact that it focuses solely on Western Europe and North America (the great majority of such data, indeed, being derived from studies carried out on students in US college towns). Statistically, they say, it's us 'Westerners' who are "unusual" - compared to the majority of the world's population living in less 'developed' societies.

This ought not to be a particularly revelatory observation (I was - surprise, surprise! - rather sceptical as to the value of the study), but this team have garnered themselves some publicity by coming up with an amusing and catchy acronym to denote the narrow parameters of this typical constituency of experimental subjects - WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic).

Do they mean us??

Well, what the hell - I'm WEIRD and I'm PROUD.

I'd much rather be WEIRD than CHINESE (Corrupt, Hierarchical, Illogical, Nepotistic, Esoteric, Superstitious, Evasive).

Good China, bad China...

I just managed to get out of a local branch of the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China in only a little over half an hour.

In the restless, hectic, impatient 'West' we might complain that that's a rather long visit for a single, very straightforward transaction (particularly when there were only four people in the queue ahead of me), but in China..... well, I think it represents quite substantial 'progress'. Most expats I know - and most Chinese, too - absolutely dread having to go to the bank. Getting in and out in anything under an hour is likely to fill you with the euphoric conviction that the gods are smiling on you today.

Even more uplifting for me, though, than the relatively short wait was the counter service I then received. The charming Ms Wang politely ignored my bumbling attempts to speak Chinese and responded to me in English throughout. What's more, she dealt with my principal transaction (I paid my phone bill at the same time, but that's a fairly trivial matter) in under a minute. I was depositing a fairly large sum of cash to an account of my landlord's to cover my next quarter's rent. At the very minimum, this requires checking and filing a paper record of the deposit, putting the money through the cash-counter twice and then bundling it before putting it into the cash drawer, swiping the account passbook, and then printing the transaction into the passbook and on to the tear-off receipt slip from the deposit form. It also involves - if the clerk is taking their job seriously - perusing your passport to make sure that you are who you say you are; and, usually, throwing out a few impertinent and pointless questions about why you are trying to pay money into somebody else's account.

Gosh, it takes me over a minute to write it all out! I don't think I've ever before encountered a bank clerk who could accomplish this in much under 5 minutes. Ms Wang, I think I love you.

Has China finally discovered time & motion studies, I wonder? Or was this just an insignificant statistical blip in the generally prevailing culture of extraordinarily surly and slow-moving customer service in China?

After my errand at the bank, I went shopping. That immediately burst my short-lived bubble of optimism about the upward trajectory of China's 'social development'.

I've complained before about the erratic stocking policy of Chinese supermarkets. Even the most basic items will suddenly disappear off the shelves for weeks at a time, for no conceivable reason. Today, it's onions!

Nope, no onions today - either loose or pre-packed. And it's not even as if there's an empty space on the counter where the onions might go, an indication of temporary shortage soon to be redressed. When nearby staff members were quizzed about the possible whereabouts of onions (Would they perhaps have started shelving them amongst the canned goods, just to keep us customers on our toes?), the reply was a brusque meiyou yangcong - "We ain't got onions." Not even a qualifying "now" or "yet" to give you a ray of hope, just the blunt finality of a "not got".... accompanied by that incredulous or outraged tone and expression which seem to say, "What do you think this is? The fruit & vegetables section of a food shop?!"

Ah, China, I'll never get the hang of it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Beijing I miss

It being a particularly gorgeous day today (autumn seems to have arrived two or three weeks early; only fair recompense for the non-occurrence of spring this year), I decided to walk home from a morning recording gig up in the university district - a matter of some 8 miles; 10 or 12 if, as I did, you take 'the scenic route'.

It's the first time I've done that in a year or two. In fact, it's the first time I've undertaken a major ramble (outside of the familiar hutong districts near where I live) for ever such a long time. And it took me back to my early days in Beijing: simple pleasures, chance discoveries, going with the flow.

I wandered through the gorgeous little strip park along Beitucheng Lu (I think I probably haven't been there since before they gave it a major facelift ahead of the Olympics), discovered a great little open-air market alongside it, got happily lost for an hour or so in the maze of decaying '60s apartment buildings around Rendinghu Park (Is there an exit to a main road through this courtyard? Er, no...), tried - and once again failed - to pick up some of the intricacies of mah jong from a streetside game, and generally chilled out to the ramshackle charm and the unhurried pace of community life you can still find in the city's unreconstructed neighbourhoods.

There isn't very much of this within the 2nd Ringroad any more: far too many ten and twenty storey apartment blocks, far too many garish new office buildings, far too many sprawling shopping malls (which, if the developers took my advice, would all have catchy English names like 'White Elephant' and 'Hubris'); not so much of the deep, deep shade of the narrow back streets and cluttered alleyways, and everyone just hanging out on the sidewalk, passing the time of day.

It's good to venture a little further afield once in a while; good to reconnect with that sense of why I used to like living here.

Bon mot for the week

"No-one anywhere really knows what they are doing even 50% of the time."

'Northern Zephyr' (a blogger who dropped by with a comment on here a few weeks back)

The 'Zephyr' is a motor mechanic somewhere in the USA, who describes himself self-mockingly as "just a knuckle dragging, dead in the head, wrench turner" (I don't think he was in earnest; not about the middle bit anyway). This line is from his opening post, just over three weeks ago. I enjoyed his short piece on the frustrations of dealing with a mysterious, seemingly insoluble mechanical problem and his list of his 5 favourite cars (I can't pretend to have enough knowledge of cars to appreciate his selection, but it's always inspiring to find someone writing with such simple passion about something). Good luck with the blogging, Zeph.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Not quite what I was looking for

I wanted to root out another favourite piece of Philip Larkin for a 'Poetry Sunday' post today, but my Internet researches proved fruitless.

Well, not entirely fruitless. I did find this: Larkin's Joint, a rather charming-looking restaurant on the corner of Loleta Avenue and Colorado Boulevarde in Eagle Rock, California, offering "contemporary soul food".

Yes, food for the soul indeed, but not what I had in mind.

If I had any talent for parody, I would now dash off a very amusing short fantasia on the idea of Philip Larkin running a restaurant (of any kind - but a soul food restaurant?!); or indeed, on the idea of Philip Larkin enjoying a 'joint' of another sort. However, I have absolutely no such talent, so I'll leave this as a challenge for someone else to undertake.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

My Fantasy Girlfriend - everyone in Women In Trouble

I watched Sebastian Gutierrez's saucy comedy-drama Women In Trouble a few weeks ago, and found it tremendously entertaining - if perhaps occasionally somewhat in the 'guilty pleasure' category - and I find I am much looking forward to the subsequent episodes in a projected trilogy. Yes, one feels slightly awkward that the prominent themes of lesbianism, prostitution, and pornography might have been included partly for titillation of the male audience, and the director is playfully pushing the gross-out envelope with some of this material (there's one scene in particular, an extended monologue in which apprentice porn star Holly Rocket explains the origin of a career threatening hang-up she has about a particular sex act, which is going to be rather too much for a lot of people), but, really, it's mostly very innocent; it's done with great zest and charm, and very well acted by the ensemble cast. Despite its melodramatic contrivances, it works pretty well as a straight drama most of the time, and it's also very funny.

And, well, colour me titillated, I suppose. I haven't seen a film which makes such provocative, devastating use of 'eye candy' since Patrice Leconte's Tango (in which a trio of male misogynists go on a road trip through the south of France together to try to get away from women, but keep on having fortuitous - or not so fortuitous - encounters with such stunning sirens as Miou-Miou, Judith Godrèche, and Carole Bouquet). I don't like to think of myself as a complete slut, but I was serially smitten with just about every single actress/character in this film: it's really hard to choose between Carla Gugino as the world's leading porn actress, Adrianne Palicki as her ditzy understudy, Emmanuelle Chriqui as an upscale hooker, Marley Shelton as a starstruck air stewardess (also very eyecatching as the woman in the red dress in the prologue to Sin City), Samantha Shelton as a club singer, Rya Kihlstedt as a feisty lesbian bartender, Cameron Richardson as a guileless Canadian masseuse, or Caitlin Keats as an adulterous wife (alas, her appearance here is very brief; I remembered her fondly from her similarly blink-and-you'll-miss-it role as one of Uma Thurman's doomed bridesmaids at the start of Kill Bill, Vol. 2).

However, I think the pick of this delightful crop were the gorgeous Sarah Clarke (remembered as the treacherous Nina in the early series of 24, and now apparently suffering even greater cult fame as a regular cast member in the Twilight films) as Maxine McPherson, a psychoanalyst with problems enough of her own...

... and the even more gorgeous Connie Britton (if I have 'a type', this is it) as troubled mother Doris (actually, one of the least sympathetic characters in the film, at least initially; but I swooned anyway).


Today marks the 8th Anniversary of my first landing in Beijing.

Under the formula worked out with my friends of similar China-vintage a couple of years ago, China years are the only ones that really matter.... BUT China years age you about five times as much as years spent anywhere else.

For the past few years, this idea has been rather comforting to me, since it has enabled me to persuade myself that I am quite a bit younger than I actually am. Now that I am "turning 40", it is a far less consolatory conceit. I may have to come up with an alternative method of counting.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Recently, on the Barstool...

A continuing fertile spell over on my 'dark side' blog. Odd, perhaps, given the current suspension of its main raison d’être - namely, my stopping drinking for the month.

A few weeks back, for example, while complaining about the selfishness of people who order half a dozen mojitos in a crowded and overworked bar, I floated the (I think, brilliant) idea of the Mojito Trough - for large-scale mixing and communal consumption.

I've also undertaken a brief review of how my New Year's Resolutions for 2010 are going so far (mixed results!), reflected on just why time seems to drag so when you're not drinking, and added to my occasional 'Great Dating Disasters' series an account of what might just be The Worst Date In History.

Just this last weekend, I offered up versions of These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You) - by Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jane Birkin. Then I followed that up with a particularly personal 'Top Five' list of the things that most remind me of my best buddy The Arts Entrepreneur (with whom - in a fairer, kinder world - I would be drinking right now, in the fair city of Edinburgh!).

A couple of days ago, I added another of my occasional 'catalogues' of recommended posts from the beginning of 2009.

However, the cream of the recent crop, I think (in fact, possibly one of my best posts ever on the 'drinking blog' - although admittedly perhaps a bit of an 'in joke' for fellow Beijingers), is the thus far woefully neglected Trajectory - an analysis of the typical life cycle of a non-mainstream Beijing bar.

Please go and check some of these out. (And let me know what you think of them.)

Capturing the feeling rather too well

Despite the running and such, I'm still rather in the doldrums this week. Too much time at the computer makes Froog a fractious fellow. Yes, even more than usual.

Haiku for the week

The rain, welcome joy;
dancing home with face upturned -
a thousand kisses.

That modest downpour on Wednesday night was the first proper rain we've had in 5 or 6 weeks (a period that is usually the wettest of the year in Beijing, contributing about a third of its annual rainfall). Gosh, it was a relief. Beijing is parched this summer. But no-one talks of drought. 'Droughts' only get reported in the local media when they are about to end, or when they are being 'well managed' by local authorities. Virtually the whole country has been in a huge drought crisis for the last three years, but there's only an occasional 'feelgood' story about one particular region. Drought in Beijing? Heavens, no!

Of course, not. We steal as much water as we need from neighbouring regions, thereby exacerbating their droughts. It's good to be the capital.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It's not only China

Vagueness, evasiveness, ineptitude, incompetence - these are the dominant strains in human society all around the world. Alas.

When you live your life in one place for a number of years, it can start to seem as though that place has some kind of monopoly on these irritations, or at least manifests them to a much higher degree than anywhere else, but..... maybe it ain't so. (Well, OK, with China, it certainly is. But, with my steadily diminishing tolerance for putting up with any of this shit, I start to wonder whether I would fare very much better anywhere else.)

I find myself being tapped up by a headhunter back in the UK for a position in the Middle East. Big oil company, lots and lots and lots of fringe benefits. Yes, yes, very nice. How much do they pay?

Oh, well, the scales are very attractive; yes, highly competitive; comparable to what you'd get in a similar position in Europe or the US.

Hmm. This is working in a company compound in a desert hellhole surrounded by potentially hostile Muslims: there are no similar positions in Europe or the US. And since I have not lived or worked in Europe or the US for getting on for 10 years now, I have not the slightest idea what a typical salary for any kind of job there is. Be more specific.

I need an actual number, even if it's in a fairly broad range, with no firm guarantees as to my entry point. If you tell me it's likely to be between 100 and 150 spondoolicks per year, I'll assume you'll be starting me on 100 (no, I'll probably assume, pessimistically, that you'll be trying to start me on 85 or 90; maybe I've just been in China too long), and hope (optimistically!) that I can bump myself up to 150 or better inside two or three years.

But you've got to give me some hard figures. This vapid brochure-speak is just wasting my time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beard race

I've been amusing myself these last few weeks, since I shaved all my hair off, by letting my beard grow, seeing how long it takes me to achieve a roughly even stubbliness on the top and bottom of my head.

At first, it would just be two or three days, but very soon it was taking more like a week, and within a fortnight the challenge had become unfeasible. The hair on my head seems to have grown out more than a quarter of in inch already; the hair on my chin struggles to make it that far, and then sort of grinds to a halt.

Still, it was a fun game while it lasted. This is how I amuse myself during a month of no work.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Fancy running into you again

Of course, when we say that in English, we don't mean it literally. Not usually.

I wonder why we do say it? Is it suggestive of the hurried pace of modern life, implying that our haste to get things done and to get from one place to another makes it seem as if we are running rather than walking?

Or is it, I wonder, a metaphor that has bled through from the world of industrialisation? Does it imply something of steadiness or relentlessness, of orderliness or predictability, as in a mechanised process? Things may run smoothly or not so smoothly for us, and we may be running on time or late. Is this the same way in which unexpected chance encounters (usually welcome ones) are described as running into someone?

Well, I don't know.

But, alas, in China, the phrase becomes all too often literally appropriate.

I've been getting back into a regular jogging habit lately. And it is just about impossible to jog in this country without running into people.

The Chinese pedestrian moves exceptionally slowly. And erratically. And without any obvious logic.

I have complained of this before (for instance, here and here). I can't help feeling that it is a kind of wilful blindness, a perverse refusal to pay any attention to the world around them, or to give any consideration to the convenience or safety of others (or themselves!).

If you are standing, stock still, in the middle of a sidewalk which is crowded with people moving briskly in both directions past you, and you suddenly, for no reason, take a large step backwards and sideways without looking over your shoulder...... well, then you shouldn't be surprised if the big sweaty laowai approaching rapidly from behind you shoulder-charges you out of the way. [It happened to me three times this morning.]

Bon mot for the week (Sun Tzu is crap series)

"He that fights and runs away, lives to fight another day."

Sun Tzu (ostensibly 6th Century BCE, but probably legendary)

"He that fights and runs away, didn't run away quick enough."


[And what do you mean, "Sun Tzu never said that"? It's just the kind of trite truism he would have said; rather more insightful, in fact, than most of the supposed 'wisdom' that's come down to us from him.]

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In search of....?

I just turned up this piece of Shel Silverstein's, and it chimed with the restless sense I've had this last week or so of hankering for a change of scene, needing to break out of a rut, dreaming of trekking out into the great wilderness.... or perhaps just escaping from Beijing for a few days.

Where The Sidewalk Ends

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we'll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

Shel Silverstein (1930-1999)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Truer than he meant

So desperate am I becoming for work that the other day I actually stooped to checking up with an 'institution of higher learning' I'd worked with a while back to see if they had any new courses they might consider hiring me for in the coming semester.

My contact there responded (eventually): "Sorry. Our next course has not been well planned yet."

Well, it's never going to be well planned, is it? I was just asking if they'd decided to try to run something at all.

It gave me a brief smirk, at least. Smirks have been few of late.

Haiku for the... er... day

The grey gloom confines,
Not subtle fear to go out;
Lack of incentive.

I just happened to notice it's a Friday 13th today. Usually I manage not to notice. Not that I'm superstitious by nature, but.... well, I have nothing much else to occupy my overactive brain at the moment.

It also happens to be a really shitty day here in the Jing. So, if I do slink back under the duvet for the rest of the morning, it won't be atavistic dread of misfortunes patrolling the streets outside - just plain and simple laziness/depression.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Favourite posts from the 1st quarter of 2009

Time for another round-up of the best posts from the beginning of last year (I'm still rather behind on this 'Pick of the Archives' stuff!).....

Pick of the Archive:
Favourite Posts, Jan. - March 2009

1) Gay penguins?! - 6th January 2009
A strange-but-true story from the news prompts some musings about gay toleration (and zoo promotion) in China.

2) List(s) of the Month - Actors who might play Froog - 10th January 2009
And some actors who can't play Froog... and some who should never be allowed to play Froog.

3) Is it a game? - 11th January 2009
A Chinese academic I'm editing for drives me to distraction with his inability to employ any consistency at all in the way he refers to the USA.

4) War on.... 'Demonstration classes' - 14th January 2009
I discourse on one of the greatest of my 'pet hates' in the sphere of English teaching in China.

5) My Fantasy Girlfriend - Debbie Harry - 17th January 2009
Ah, Debbie - the ultimate pinup for any man who attained puberty in the late '70s or early '80s. I include the video for Heart of Glass.

6) I grind my teeth again - 19th January 2009
Some aggravation with a downstairs neighbour provokes some observations on Chinese staircases. I have quite a nice one; that is a very, very rare thing.

7) Innuendo alert - 20th January 2009
Recording teaching materials is a smirk-inducing job at the best of times. Here were some particularly odd lines of dialogue that provoked helpless corpsing, to the bafflement of the Chinese studio staff. (And here's another.)

8) All of Chinese 'culture' makes perfect sense, really - 21st January 2009
A link to my BookBook review of 101 Stories For Foreigners To Understand Chinese People leads to some reflections on whether China may be The Gayest Country In The World.

9) A song for China... - 24th January 2009
A nostalgic reverie about the central place in my childhood of Barry Norman's Film review programme on BBC1 introduces the fabulous theme tune from the show, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, played by its composer, the jazz pianist Billy Taylor. (More on Barry - and Nina Simone's barnstorming live performance of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free - here.)

10) Stranger than fiction - 29th January 2009
Two favourite late-19th Century magazine advertisements (for Bovril), displaying an unexpected - anachronistic-seeming - surrealism. Also, a related recollection of The League of Health and Strength - a charitable organisation devoted to discouraging young men from masturbation.

11) Maintaining one's 'essence' - 29th January 2009
Some musings on the sex life of Chairman Mao lead irresistibly to the clip from Dr Strangelove where General Ripper expounds his theory of 'precious bodily fluids'.

12) Writing about Tiananmen - 30th January 2009
Some further thoughts on the events of 1989 as portrayed in Ma Jian's recent novel Beijing Coma. (I posted a more detailed review of this on the BookBook.)

13) Film List - never before seen in China! - 31st January 2009
Some of the classic films I have most enjoyed 'subverting' Chinese university students with.

14) Questions children ask - 5th February 2009
Some more humdingers from my recording studio scripts - and an illustration of why they don't allow me to write my own!

15) Fame at last?? - 10th February 2009
My name displayed on the side of an Edinburgh bus??!! No, it's just the Bus Slogan Generator - give it a try.

16) Nothing to see here - 12th February 2009
My thoughts on the fire at the new CCTV Building, and the 'handling' of the story in the Chinese media.

17) List of the Month - Things we most like about Chinese culture - 14th February 2009
I try to dispel my 'China-basher' image by identifying some things I really like about the country.

18) Another reason not to drink the tapwater - 23rd February 2009
A disturbing discovery in my bathroom....

19) Ride on, baby - 23rd February 2009
A brief cause célèbre on the Chinese Internet (a young girl vilified for having the temerity to climb on to the shoulders of a statue of Chairman Mao) gives me a thematic excuse to commemorate the anniversary of AC/DC frontman Bon Scott's death by posting a video tribute accompanied by their great slow blues tune Ride On.

20) Call me Ponzi - 26th February 2009
The infamous 'Ponzi scheme' starts to seem rather less immoral to me. Running one in China could even be seen as a virtuous, Robin Hood kind of venture.

21) Total Perspective Vortex - 27th February 2009
A mind-blowing CG animation of the Hubble Space Telescope's 'Deep Field' view of the distant universe (and an inevitable reference to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy).

22) Film List - great openings - 28th February 2009
One of my favourite 'film list' posts, with appreciations of the opening sequences of 9 films - and a video clip of that great, tense, wordless first scene in Once Upon A Time In The West. (This year I added a supplementary post on this theme here.)

23) Bring it on! - 3rd March 2009
The ultimate 'celebrity death match' - Mr Bacon vs. M. Tofu. How do people come up with this stuff??

24) In a word..... NO!! - 5th March 2009
My 'War on Chinglish' series opens with a diatribe against the incessant use of the phrase "In a word" - and with some thoughts on why Chinglish matters. (More on just why Chinglish is such a serious problem here.)

25) Possible outcomes - 8th March 2009
My 'Sunday poem' offering, Wilfred Owen's The Chances, leads me into some pessimistic musing on the potential long-term impacts of the global financial crisis.

26) Money to burn - 9th March 2009
My innovative get-rich-quick idea for a new kind of 'gentlemen's club' in China.

27) Chinese compliments, Chinese tact - 11th March 2009
The Chinese will tell you very bluntly that you look old or fat. Do they somehow mean it in a nice way??

28) Miscommunication - 11th March 2009
Some years ago, I was trying to meet a glamorous French lady on Tiananmen Square for a date. It did not go well. But I learned a new word... (Do you know what a migdonal is??)

29) How to be a fenqing - 12th March 2009
The post that made me briefly famous, infamous, on the Chinese Internet (and further afield): an account of the 'angry young men' who fill up comment-threads with bile and scorn if they feel that someone has been dissing China. (Followed the next day by this companion piece on How to be a fenwai, an angry foreign blogger who taunts fenqing.)

30) List of the Month - 10 things China excels at - 14th March 2009
A classic fenwai post, mocking a number of the less impressive aspects of Chinese 'culture' and history.

31) Manifesto - 16th March 2009
I try to discourage the fenqing hordes from flocking to my blog by outlining what the blog's about (a lot of things - but mostly not China, and not politics).

32) Washing day in the hutongs - 16th March 2009
One of my favourite street-scene photographs ushers in a Photo Week.

33) Metaphor of the Month - 26th March 2009
My ultimate response to a young Chinese antagonist who took rather violent exception to my criticizing the Chinese writing system.

34) Not exactly a Daily Llama - 27th March 2009
Not just a routine picture post in my frivolous 'Daily Llama' series, but an introduction to Chinese online obscenity - and in particular to the recent Internet craze of the 'Grass Mud Horse'.

35) Is this a holiday?? - 28th March 2009
The inaugural 'Serf Liberation Day' in Tibet gives me an ideal pretext for some more fenqing goading (although in fact the comment-thread on this one got quite interesting).

I like some Chinese cinema very much; but I find it a struggle to come up with 10 recommendations, and a good many of them are a decade or more old. Chinese cinema in the Noughties has been mostly a bit disappointing...

37) Because of his or her great wings - 29th March 2009
I come across a marvellous poem of Baudelaire's, Albatross, (and a particularly fine English translation of it, by Richard Howard) - and dedicate it to my friend The Poet.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Beijing Taxi

A week or so ago, I went to a screening of Beijing Taxi, a new film by young Beijing documentary-maker Wang Miao.

It's a diverting study of the lives of three taxi drivers in the capital over the two or three years leading up to the 2008 Olympics. In fact, though, it's not much focused on the business of driving taxis at all (I think there's a great documentary still to be made just following what happens in the cars): the film aims for a broader scope by concentrating more on the private lives of its three subjects. Also, interestingly enough, of this central trio, one takes a better-paid job driving tour buses, and another decides to try her hand at running a market stall instead - leaving only one, the oldest, to struggle on with his taxi-driving, despite health problems which threaten to lose him his cab.

I fear most expat Beijing residents will have felt a little disappointed, as I was, that there wasn't more of the city on view here, and that there wasn't more insight into what Beijingers actually think of living here. The only really striking comment in the whole film was the female driver-turned-entrepreneur's complaint that the Olympics were lousy for business in 2008.

This project looks to have been very well-funded, and the technical crew were mostly foreigners. Thus, the production values were much higher than we've come to expect from the majority of Chinese documentaries, which tend to be mostly ultra-low budget 'underground' projects - often shot single-handedly by impassioned 'amateurs' rather than full film crews. The photography here was gorgeous, and the editing very slick indeed.

However, the classic vices of the typical Chinese documentary were all still there - unfortunately.

Chinese documentary-makers seem to hate to editorialize at all. They just like to present an unmediated slice-of-life. This means that a lot of very inconsequential scenes will be included to enhance this conceit of 'realism', and often left to play out in real time - with few if any cuts. I saw a film about the police in a northern border town a few years ago, where a suspect was made to support himself against a wall for ten minutes with his legs slightly bent at the knee (a softening up exercise, prior to interrogation): a Western film-maker would have cut to a clock to show the passage of time, and just shown a few short passages of the prisoner's discomfort to make the point; this Chinese director showed the whole ten minutes (nothing happened - except that the prisoner, predictably, stood up to rest himself every time the officer supervising him left the room). Such longueurs, alas, are inescapable in a Chinese documentary.

It doesn't help that you have no idea how long you're going to have to endure such plodding exposition. I sat through nearly an hour-and-a-half of Beijing Taxi - 90 minutes that felt more like 3 or 4 hours - and it showed no sign of approaching a close. The running time had not been announced by the organisers of the screening. It isn't even listed on the film's IMDB page. Perhaps there's an unwritten pact between Chinese documentary-makers that they should never advertise the length of their films - for fear that potential viewers might be discouraged. I suspect Beijing Taxi, a film that has obviously been made with an overseas audience in mind, probably runs somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours. That would make it a relative lightweight in the field of Chinese documentaries, where most run well over 2 hours, and some 3 hours or 4 hours or even more.

And you have little sense of when the end - and your release from your rock-hard chair - might be approaching, because there is no structure. None whatsoever. Well, that would be 'editorializing', wouldn't it? Although there's a similar problem in most Chinese feature films, too: in this country they seem to have never developed the concept of narrative drive, of stories shaped by the developmental character arc of the protagonist(s). A story is just "a bunch of stuff that happens". And then it stops happening. THE END. I fear most of their classic literature is much the same. Aristotle's insights are sorely missed.

There's never any voiceover narration, either. And little or no captioning. You're just left to make your own sense of the pictures and the recorded dialogue presented to you. Up to a point, this can be quite a refreshing change from the heavily structured documentary style we're familiar with in the West. And I can see that this approach might work well with certain kinds of subject. But I think it would have to be allied with more selectivity and self-discipline in the use of footage, and much shorter running times. I would like to charitably suppose that Chinese documentarians opt for this excessively spare, unobtrusive, 'selfless' style out of some kind of ideology; but I suspect, in fact, they're just lazy, naive, or uneducated. If they watched something like Fourteen Days In May or Bloody Ivory or A State Of Mind, they would see how an only slightly more intrusive 'editorial stance' can render a documentary so much more compelling, and sustain audience interest even at full feature-length - rather than creating films that are, whatever the potential appeal of their subject matter, little more than a penance to sit through.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Blog on Wu Yuren's detention

As I said last week, Karen Patterson, the Canadian wife of jailed Chinese artist Wu Yuren, has launched a small blog to help publicize his case - Wu Yuren Incarcerated.

I've added the link over there at the top of my sidebar, below the day-counter marking how long he's now been in prison (it's 10 weeks today; and, unfortunately, it looks as though it's going to be a lot longer).

Please go and take a look at the blog - particularly if you are a Canadian citizen (writing letters of support to the Canadian Prime Minister and/or your own elected representative may help to ensure that the Canadian government continues to do what it can to try to exercise some positive influence on the Beijing authorities).

Bon mot for the week

"To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country."

George Washington (1732-1799)

Saturday, August 07, 2010

List of the Month - democracy isn't everything

Here in China, you often hear people say, Democracy isn't all it's cracked up to be. Well, sure, it has its faults, yes, but its benefits far outweigh them. But, they say, China isn't ready for democracy, its state of development - and particularly of education - is still far too low. Well, democracy comes in many different forms: you can find a way of introducing elements of democracy appropriate to your country's level of development, if you try. And that right there is one of your major pointers for the future: maybe social development and mass education should be higher priorities than 'growth at any cost'. Some of these people are rather too fond of saying, The idea of democracy is a product of the Western philosophical tradition; it will never be appropriate for China because it isn't consonant with 'Chinese culture'. That one particularly gets my goat. Democracy - like tyranny - is a universal idea. The tyrants here try to hide behind national chauvinism like this to delay the inevitable, to postpone for a few more decades (not more!) the adoption of democracy, and with it, the relinquishment of their own hold on absolute power.

No, democracy isn't always a shining success. There are many countries which are - at least nominally - democracies but which are still in many ways chaotic, corrupt, and repressive. And even the world's leading democracies - the USA, Western Europe, Japan - are certainly not without their problems.

Democracy is not the be-all and end-all. What else do you need to build and maintain a free and prosperous society?

A strong, bold, and independent judiciary
I can live with a certain amount of overlap between the executive and legislative branches of government (America's Founding Fathers were perhaps a bit unrealistic in striving to make them completely distinct functions), but the people who interpret the laws are your main bulwark against tyranny. If you don't have a credible legal system, you're not a modern country, you're a feudal tyranny. Yes, China, that's you.

A strong, bold, and independent media
I think this is possibly the most important element of a thriving democracy. And it is no coincidence that the growth of democratic theorising shadowed the development of printing technology, with the widespread adoption of universal suffrage following closely on the advent of mass media. China has made some very small steps towards developing more investigative journalism, but the main media outlets are all still very closely controlled by the government, and the possible consequences of writing 'the wrong thing' can be severely discouraging.

A strong, bold, and independent academic community
My experiences with Chinese academe have been universally depressing. It is probably the area of public life that is still most hidebound - rendered most wretchedly cowed and subservient - by the attitudes of old-style Communism. The 'intelligentsia' ought to be the source of a country's most constructive criticism - but the great majority of Chinese academics are scarcely capable of producing an original thought (or are not courageous enough to dare to voice one) even within their particular specialism, much less on broader social or political issues.

Effective separation of the powers of government
That, of course, follows on from or encapsulates my opening three points. Montesquieu didn't anticipate the enormous importance of the 'Fourth Estate' - the media - in modern societies. And he probably didn't anticipate the possibility of such thoroughgoing totalitarian regimes as the Chinese Communist Party, whose absolute control not only fuses the executive and legislative functions of government (and what little of a judicial system there is), but permeates every element of society - the media, the universities, the trade unions, everything.

As much separation as possible between commercial and political activity
Another trick our French friend missed was the potential of 'commerce' to be a 'fourth power' in his analysis. When the state becomes the sole employer - or the major employer - in the country, it wields an intolerable degree of power over its citizens to restrict or deny their right to work, to withold their livelihoods, even to determine where they must live. Even in more moderate socialist/communist systems where only the 'commanding heights' of industry are under direct state ownership, the effects - potentially oppressive and unjust effects - on workers and on private businesses can be far-reaching. In China today, the massive state-owned enterprises often have substantial stakes, sometimes even controlling interests (though often masked by layer upon layer of intermediate investment companies), in many nominally private enterprises. And even truly independent companies are still mostly hog-tied by relationships with SOEs as principal customer or principal supplier. Even those companies not in thrall to such a key business relationship still have to operate in a marketplace dominated by these state-run dinosaurs, and still have to play by sets of rules created for the dinosaurs. Moreover, most CCP cadres - at all levels - are personally involved in commerce (it might be technically 'frowned upon', but there's no effective supervision to prevent it); and even when not directly involved, they routinely use their political influence to advance the interests of their business cronies: most of them, I suspect, don't even see it as 'corruption' - it is just a natural, reasonable, and deserved perk of their office.

Universal free education (untainted, as far as possible, by political indoctrination)
The content of school curricula is a contentious issue in every country in the world; but in most of the more developed countries, the debates tend to focus more on breaking down the perpetuation of long-ingrained mistakes and prejudices, or on how best to foster multi-cultural awareness, how much of a place religion should be allowed in schools, or how to achieve a more non-nationalistic perspective in the teaching of history and literature. Only tyrannies put 'patriotic education' (= propaganda) front and centre of their plans for the country's schooling.

A culture which tolerates and even encourages creativity and criticism, and which promotes a plurality of opinion within the body politic
I think - I hope - that things are very much better here now than they were in the Mao era, or even 10 or 15 years ago; but it's still very far from being an open and vigorous intellectual environment. The 'party line' is decided by little cliques of senior cadres behind closed doors. Any deviation from this can have very negative consequences for someone's political career (labour camps or house arrest are not such a common sanction any more, thank heavens; but hitting a 'glass ceiling', or receiving a 'punishment posting' in a remote, undeveloped area can be every bit as effective in ensuring compliance through intimidation). People are still very, very wary here of putting forward novel ideas.

A strong moral culture
Perhaps much of China's traditional moral culture was swept away in the turmoil of the Mao years. And what remains - the tenets of the ancient philosophers crudely labelled 'Confucianism' - has been hijacked by the Communist Party's propaganda machine: acceptance of hierarchy and elaborate deference to authority are lauded; social 'harmony' is promoted as the prime, virtually the only good, and dissent is thus portrayed as wicked and unpatriotic. However, from what I've read of Chinese philosophy and religion, I'm not convinced that there was ever such a strong and coherent framework of individual responsibility as evolved under the Judaeo-Christian ethical tradition in the West. There doesn't seem to be much of a concept of right and wrong here, only a narrow evaluation of the consequences for oneself. Lying, cheating, and corruption are commonplace here, almost universal: they do not seem to be perceived as absolute wrongs, merely as things which are technically 'improper' or officially 'frowned upon'; such behaviour is restrained not by a sense of guilt or propriety, but only by the fear of censure or punishment; pretty much anything is seen as being acceptable in this country (putting toxic additives in children's milk powder??!!), so long as you don't get caught. I've never seen any evidence of a 'work ethic' in China either, no sense that hard work is virtuous, or that doing a job well is innately more personally satisfying and fulfilling than doing it badly (you'd think such ideas would be prominent among the country's Buddhists, particularly in the Chan/Zen tradition, but, if they are, they are not greatly in evidence and they certainly don't seem to have permeated into the wider society).

The key question is whether any of these elements can exist effectively without democracy - without 'one person, one vote' and unfettered multi-party elections. In theory, you might think that at least some - perhaps all - of them could; but in practice, they always seem to go hand-in-glove with a democratic system. It may be a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum as to which comes first. It might work either way: the creation of such institutions and cultures would, before long, lead inevitably to the introduction of full democracy; the operation of democracy requires the support of institutions and cultures like these, and will naturally engender them if they are not already present.

However, more restrictive forms of government cannot tolerate such 'liberal' elements in their midst - factors which facilitate dissent and 'disharmony' - and will always resist their introduction, or restrict their operation, suppress their influence. However much the Chinese government may protest that it wants certain of these elements of a 'good society' above, however much it seeks to delude itself (and its people) that it may in fact already possess some of them, or be on its way to developing them, in fact the Chinese Communist Party will never be able to embrace any of these ideas - because they are fundamentally incompatible with its continued existence.

This is why, I believe, democracy always has to come first: democracy is the necessary substrate in which all these other desirable attributes of a civilised country will naturally grow. Wei Jingsheng (the most outspoken of the ground-breaking bill-posters of the 'Democracy Wall' movement in Beijing at the end of the 1970s, and still one of the leading figures in the pro-democracy movement among China's overseas exiles today, at the age of sixty) was right, I think, to call democratization China's Fifth Modernization - the essential process without which the other Four Modernizations of modern Chinese Communist policy (the development of industry, agriculture, national defence, and science & technology) would be meaningless.

As a practical system of government, democracy is rife with problems - it is the least worst system of running a country rather than an impeccable ideal. But what makes it essential is that it is the only system that enshrines true equality of status for all of a country's citizens. Without the possibility of democratic participation in the process of government through exercise of a right to vote, you have a two-tier society where political influence is restricted to a privileged elite - and such a set-up leads inevitably to arrogance and brutality, corruption and oppression. Experiments with 'limited democracy' - voting rights restricted on the basis of education or income/property; elections confined only to the local rather than provincial or national sphere; multiple tiers of representation to distance the common man from the centre of government - are flawed, doomed because they seek to deny this fundamental principle: all citizens are equal in status, all have a right to accountability from their government, all have a right to some say in whether their government continues in office.

And of course, without this, if you deny people their natural right to voice their discontent and to displace an unsatisfactory government by peaceful means..... then you leave violence as their only option.

I am afraid I am one of those arch-pessimists who foresees massive unrest and societal collapse in China within the next 50 years. I don't want it to happen - but I can't envision any other outcome, unless the Chinese Communist Party discovers the vision and the courage to embrace radical democratic reform (in effect, to decree its own dissolution); and, alas, I don't believe that will ever happen.

[By the by, I think China's lack of democracy, and of any of the '8 elements' I identified above, explains why it has lagged so far behind the Asian Tigers in its economic and social development. It is also, I believe, why it will be surpassed by India within the next couple of decades. India may not be scoring too well in many of those categories, but at least it isn't registering A BIG FAT ZERO in every single one of them like China.]

Postscript: Many readers - especially in China - might have been inclined to dismiss these musings of mine as a 'biased Western viewpoint', but in fact many of the more insightful and courageous political commentators within China are starting to express the same viewpoints. There were, for example, some very similar criticisms in the 2011 'Report on Social Progress' from the Social Development Task Group at Tsinghua University in Beijing (which was, of course, promptly suppressed in the Chinese media).