Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Economist on Liu Xiaobo and Akmal Shaikh

Drugs are a big deal in China, with all forms of it -- cigarettes notwithstanding -- considered equally deplorable. It's not just in China, of course, where trafficking is punishable by death; at the border of several southeast Asian countries, you will see signs that say, without equivocation, that carrying drugs across the border could result in the severest of penalties.

But China's experience with drugs, specifically opium, has been particularly stark, leaving psychic scars that won't soon disappear. And so it may not come as the biggest surprise that Akmal Shaikh, a British national found guilty of smuggling heroin, was executed on December 29 despite protests -- some justified and some laughable -- from the British and human rights groups.

Writes the Economist:

Although it ended in the first known execution of a European in China since the 1950s, Mr Shaikh’s case was otherwise not unusual. According to available (and incomplete) statistics, China executed 1,700 convicts in 2008, or nearly five each day.

And in the case of Liu Xiaobo, the Charter 08 organizer who James Fallows wrote about here, the Economist says:

Neither was the harsh treatment meted out to Mr Liu unusual by Chinese standards. Criticism of the government, though always risky, is sometimes tolerated. Attempts to organise criticism, however, as Mr Liu had by helping draft a petition calling for political freedoms, are routinely met with a firm thumping. Jailed twice before for his political activities Mr Liu knew this as well as anyone. He had said he was ready to face prison again.


Of course, these events, once again, set up the classic China vs. The West battle of ideology, with all the predictable rancor and online accusations of this person or that commentator belonging to the Ministry of Truth. It's sad and trite, making you want to tell everyone to just get over themselves.

In any case, there are two sides to each argument, and the Economist has provided measured reportage on them.

On the other hand, British newspapers like the Telegraph aren't so responsible:

One of the more touching messages I receive in the run-up to the outrageous execution of Akmal Shaikh in China this morning is from a London-based “working girl”, who tells me she is boycotting all Chinese clients for a year in protest.

Please, spare me any sanctimonious injunctions about her chosen way of life. She’s doing what she can. And how many business people have decided today to withdraw their services from the Chinese? I think, in this context at least, she is acting with great dignity and self-respect.

That's from Anglican priest George Pitcher. Hilarious. It wouldn't quite make Huffington Post's Dumbest Quotes of The 2000s, but it's ridiculous nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Alex Hu, the king of fools

This PBS video, about the world's largest shopping mall -- South China Mall -- in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, is the sort of film that makes you drop everything and stare in absolute disbelief. Alex Hu, the developer, is said to have wanted to be "the king of Dongguan." He ended up creating a monument to concrete, desolation, despair. Greed, stupidity, etc.

Richard of Peking Duck calls the video "unforgettable" (earlier this year he also wrote about China's "luxury mall calamity"), and that it is. Maybe this video will get people to visit Dongguan, a city without an airport, and then swing by South China Mall, which is out in the middle of nowhere, next to a smelly canal.

Then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

China Daily said what?

From its end-of-year-lists extravaganza, this is taken from today's top-10 list:



That final line says: The lesson: People have the right of free speech, and it includes cyberspace!

Flagrant irony or subtle subversiveness? You decide.

Twitter around the firewall

That's the title of CC Huang of Chinamatic's December 2 post, which introduces readers to Power.com, which allows people to tweet around the Great Firewall.

Now the question: for the VPN- and proxy-less, how do we blog around the GFW? And YouTube around the GFW? And Facebook...?

Break down the walls.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Two really good posts from James Fallows

I'm still in Kansas and making the most of this holiday season, but I recently came across two James Fallows posts that I can't help passing along. (I've also just started Postcards from Tomorrow Square -- checked out from the local library -- and have decided to buy this book. Among China watchers and all-around journalists, few, in my opinion, are better than Fallows.)

Post 1: Copenhagen follow-up

Reaction to the Guardian story yesterday, alleging that Chinese negotiators "intentionally" embarrassed Barack Obama and sabotaged the Copenhagen talks, turns out to be a Rorschach test for views on a variety of issues. Views of China (inherently untrustworthy); views of the US and the West (inherently biased against rising China); views of Obama (ludicrously out of his depth in dealing with the Chinese); views of man-made climate change and big international conclaves like this (big frauds in both cases).

Post 2: Liu Xiaobao

...The charges apparently arise mainly from his role last year in promoting "Charter 08," a manifesto for civil society in China. There is nothing about his life, work, or efforts that a truly confident government should fear. That the Chinese government cannot tolerate his views speaks volumes.

There is much to admire in modern China, and even more to sympathize with in the aspirations and efforts of its people. But this is a reminder of what is wrong with the way it is run, and is a moment that friends of China and of Chinese people should note, regret, and deplore.

Friday, December 18, 2009

FYI

From a commenter on this Beijinger blog post:

Some 2007 Japanese gov't statistics
(http://www.mhlw.go.jp/toukei/saikin/hw/jinkou/suii07/marr2.html)

japanese men marrying chinese women: 11,926
japanese women marrying chinese men:
1,016

Pornography is the scourge of Chinese children

What it does is, it sets up unrealistic, false expectations for young lovers who -- honestly -- should never, ever expect to orgasm, or on the other hand convinces them that giving facials is the only way to put the cherry on top, so to speak, while distorting concepts of intimacy, courtship and marriage, to say nothing of misshaping the dicks of young men who ejaculate all the time in Internet bars.*

Yeah. Probably awesome the Internet is censored.

From NYT (my emphasis):

China's government censors have taken fresh aim at the Internet, rolling out new measures that limit ordinary citizens’ ability to set up personal Web sites and to view hundreds of other Web sites offering films, video games and other forms of entertainment.

The authorities say that the stricter controls are intended to protect children from pornography, to limit the piracy of films, music, and television shows, and to make it hard to perpetuate Internet scams. But the measures also appear designed to enhance the government’s already strict control of any organized political opposition.

You'll remember "the children" often cited as justification for Green Dam, that other much-maligned Internet "filtering" program.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: I would punch one of those government censors if I ever met them. I swear to God, square in the nose.

And now, the obligatory quote from Helen Lovejoy:



*The answer to your question: Lijiang.

(What, you weren't going to ask where I've seen that?)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The States

First morning in Kansas...

First thoughts of the States: holy crap my senses are overwhelmed. Commercials, lights, Costco, bacon bacon bacon... currently watching Sportscenter on ESPN, Kobe, Chris Henry... watched bit congressmen talk on Olbermann's show about healthcare, switched to South Park reruns... commercials, commercials, commercials...

While shopping at the aforementioned Costco I was also struck by the prices... how low they were. Beijing's inflation really hits home when you're able to buy 12 mini-pizzas for 10 usd here, or about 6 kuai per mini-pizza. Polish hot dog+soft drink also only a buck fifty, or about 10 kuai. You can't get a 10-kuai hot dog in Beijing, that's all I'll say. Perhaps next time I'll gush a bit less about my 10-kuai gaifan.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Halloween fun

On Halloween I mentioned that a couple friends and I were going as the characters from the incredibly awesome and hilarious flash video Get On My Horse. By way of reminder, here's me in character:



Well, videos of that night have surfaced. The first is us -- myself, Kevin, Therese and Alicia (who is the body half of the horse) -- at a restaurant on Guijie, performing in front of friends, and the second is at Nanluoguxiang. We were going to do this in the subway, but rain dampened our spirits, and then ruined the night. Sad.




Full lyrics:
Look at my horse, my horse is amazing
Give it a lick, Mmm it tastes just like raisins
Stroke on it’s mane it turns into a plane
And then it turns back again when you tug on it’s winky
Eww that’s dirty!
Do you think so? Well I better not show you where the lemonade is made
Sweet Lemonade, Mmm Sweet lemonade
Sweet lemonade, yeah sweet lemonade
(Synth Solo)
Get on my horse, I’ll take you round the Universe and all the other places too
I think you’ll find that the Universe pretty much covers everything
Shut up woman, get on my horse

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Carmina Burana at the Egg

This one was fun to write. Excerpt from the Beijinger's blog:

The signature movement, without question, is the opening, O Fortuna. If the name means nothing to you, the tune surely does. Give it a listen and see what image it conjures. Personally, I think about the promo for Wrestlemania XIV’s match pitting the Undertaker, with his black full-length trench coat, black Stetson hat and general bad-assitude, against his brother Kane.

If your point of reference is different, that’s understandable. Since first being performed by the Frankfurt Opera in 1937, this two-and-a-half-minute piece has enjoyed remarkable crossover appeal, appearing in everything from video games and movie previews to advertisements and So You Think You Can Dance; it has been spoofed, synthesized and remixed by hip-hop producers, deejays, comedians, classical musicians, et al. It is quite possibly the most recognizable classical piece of the 20th century.

Yet after all that, the best version is still probably the original, which is capable of exposing the hopeless imitators. In Hate Me Now, rapper Nas, with O Fortuna as his beat line, bewails of the mercurialness of fate: “It’s a thin line between paper and hate, friends and snakes, nine millis and thirty-eights, Hell or the pearly gates.” Not to say I don’t appreciate Nas’ obvious skills as a wordsmith, but rhyming seems like a ditty compared to the rage and choler of the speaker in the original:

Fate – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
shadowed
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Climate change and COP15


Photo by Daphne Richet-Cooper

Not sure I can say I had the "pleasure" of attending a climate-change press conference today -- the thing was a bit too Chinese (you'll know what I'm talking about if you've ever attended a press conference here) -- but the event held by 51Sim was meaningful and timely. I ended up reporting on it for the Beijinger's blog. Excerpt below (and more on this topic in the coming week).

In less than two hours – 1 p.m. Copenhagen time, 8 p.m. local – a special opening ceremony will officially launch the most important environmental conference since the 1997 convention that established the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012. Over the next week and a half, COP15, short for the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, will bring together officials from 193 countries, including at least 65 heads of state, in talks to reach an agreement to cut global greenhouse gas emissions.

Almost everyone agrees that our current carbon dioxide output is unsustainable, but how much we should reduce emissions is a divisive issue. The COP15 discussions will likely be contentious and embroiled with politics. And constructive? That’s to be determined.

All eyes will be on the U.S. and China, the world’s largest carbon emitters, neither of which signed the Kyoto Protocol. It was only on November 25 that President Obama committed to COP15 (he’s recently changed his travel plans to have a bigger presence during the conference), with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao following suit a day later. Both countries have made and will reiterate their carbon-cutting commitments, but the success or failure of COP15 largely rests on the extent to which these two countries follow through.


UPDATE: If you haven't seen The Green Leap Forward yet, please consider this your introduction: here is the beginning of its coverage of COP15.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Picture of the Day: The Egg at night



It looks even more stunning from the inside, though I'm afraid I couldn't take any pictures because security made me check in my camera.

Look for a review of Carmina Burana to be posted here soon. (Update: here.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Happiness requires a garden

From China Daily:

Chengdu is the "happiest" city in China in a survey of the top ten cities in the country, the ifeng.com reported Wednesday.

The capital of Sichuan province topped the list for its fine scenery, cheap goods and easy lifestyle. Tourist city Hangzhou came second, with seaside city Qingdao ranking third. Most top ranking cities are garden cities where people enjoy the good environment and less pressure.

Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the four biggest cities in China, didn’t make the list due to bad air quality, high housing prices, heavy urban traffic, along with high work and living pressure, the report said.


Having been to Chengdu, Hangzhou and Qingdao, I have to say this doesn't surprise me in the least. I could spend hours in Chengdu's teahouses -- many of them named Thousand Fortune Teahouse for some reason, by the way -- while Hangzhou's West Lake lives up to its reputation and Qingdao's roadside beer could take away my worries any day.

I must say, however, I would still take Beijing over all of them. We live in a world-class city with everything at our fingertips. Imperial gardens are a subway ride away, neighborhood shops are everywhere, malls and amusement parks (if you're into that sort of thing) easy to find, and the biking culture still exists, unlike in cities like Shanghai. Of course, the pollution problem needs a bit of work, but after trips I'm always happy to be returning to here, and I think that's a good sign.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Art review: Wang Yin's quiet mischievousness


First appeared in abridged form in City Weekend.

Wang Yin came of age as an artist amid Chinese avant-garde’s flourishing but resisted joining his contemporaries in lavish experimentation, preferring instead to retreat into the most orthodox and politically safe of mediums, oil on canvas, with the stated objective of marking the evolution of modern Chinese oil painting. In “Homer,” for instance, one sees a bust of Homer, a Western candelabra and a mango – a symbol of Sino-Soviet friendship (Soviet influence is manifest in nascent modern Chinese art) – in an attempt to say something along the lines of, This is what mid-20th century Chinese art apprentices did… how dull.

Sound too meta? Wang’s academic adviser, Wang Min’an, calls art’s “basic joy” “the pleasure experienced by art in the game of self-reference,” but the problem with that, of course, is there is often no joy for the viewer who finds himself handcuffed by an artistic puzzle; sometimes the effort just isn’t worth it. Wang’s paintings, however, with their muted colors, their conciseness and dashes of surrealism, look and feel different – they demand a second chance. And what you find has the ability to surprise on both the visceral and cerebral levels: nude models whose legs are freakishly elongated, or dainty riverbanks that are actually maps of East Asia on which is prostrated a “comfort woman” from World War II…

In the 30 pieces on display at 798’s Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Wang’s mischievousness repeatedly shows itself in discreet and remarkable ways. He is capable of – indeed, prefers – subtlety and irony, as in the 36 portraits of Russians executed under during Stalin’s regime at the back of the exhibit. Accumulating on the bottom of these picture frames is peeled-off flakes of paint, representing time’s erasure of memory. If this tribute seems out of place, it would be wise to remember that parts of the Soviet Union’s political history finds parallel in that of the People’s Republic of China. Of course, it would have been impossible to memorialize those Chinese who were martyred in the name of progress.

Wang’s works achieve depth by referencing both the classic and the modern – “Flower” depicts peonies, the Qing Dynasty’s national flower, and the toddler in “Lu Xun Park” is the son of contemporary poet Wang Jiaxin. And in one of his several untitled pieces, a nude woman in a studio casually glances at the bottom right corner of a portrait that is obviously of Mao Zedong.

Even using oil on canvas, the medium of the “Yan’an model” used to apotheosize New China in the 1950s and 60s, Wang is never far removed from his context, which is decidedly un-jingoistic. His generation sees art as liberating, cogitative, subversive and even iconoclastic, which is why in “Spring Grass Grows beside the Pond II,” Wang depicts the artist Xu Beihong, famous for his ink paintings of horses, painting a nude Russian model in a dale so Arcadian you half-expect the Lady of Shalott to float down the stream; at the foreground stands a smiling, fully dressed Chinese woman of an ethnic minority. We’ll let you unravel the meanings of this one. As with all Wang’s works, the answer is contained within – just look deeper.

Another VPN: Freedur

Last month I sang the praises of Witopia, which, for 60 usd a month, allows me to blog to you fair readers on Camino while simultaneously Twittering like a chickadee on Firefox with Sean Kington singing "Shawty fire burnin' on the dance floor" on YouTube and two Manila albums uploading to Facebook on Safari.

Now you can do all that but without Witopia. Freedur! Looks as effective as Witopia, and costs the same. I've yet to find someone who actually uses Freedur, but apparently if you type the code "chinahush" into the registration form, you get a 10 percent discount. Speaking of... China Hush is pretty awesome.

Great Firewall, fall!

In a related story, I would like to quote Kai Pan of the excellent site CN Reviews, who quotes a suggestion from Joshua Kurlantzick of The Boston Globe:

The US could focus on areas where Beijing, though increasingly sure of itself, remains weak – such as providing technology for Chinese bloggers to get around Internet filters, or highlighting the vast problems of rural Chinese society (both Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have extensive Chinese broadcasts which penetrate rural China).

Approve.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Introducing: China Hush






It's not every day that I come across a truly excellent blog, so when I do, it makes me positively giddy.

With that as an intro, I present... China Hush, active since mid-September but somehow only now making it on my blogroll -- and making its debut on the "best of" list, no less. I'm sure I've encountered this site before, but now I've subscribed to its RSS feed and will be making the most of it.

With pictures like the ones above and stories like this and this, I just might get addicted. Not necessarily a bad thing...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sanlitun North and China's bustling luxury goods market


Story in City Weekend.

As I was working on the story, I kept thinking the money quote, which I didn't have room to include, was from Richard of Peking Duck, who wrote about The Place: "As we crash, The Place and many other useless mega-malls like it will serve only as reminders of the excesses of good times that we fooled ourselves into believing would last forever."

The Place, for those who haven't been, is a gaudy, over-the-top (no pun intended, as there's a ginormous LCD screen hanging over the top of a concrete walkway) shopping complex near Ritan Park, which makes me gasp every time I pass it (usually in a cab -- god forbid I find myself on foot near that monstrosity). It must, methinks, one day become a symbol of human depravity and greed in the eyes of our alien overlords.

Sanlitun North, whenever it finally opens, will probably be a success. It's warmer, friendlier, less audacious in design than many of the shopping centers in Beijing and, by extension, the rest of China. It resides in the heart of an incredibly robust entertainment and shopping district in a city with swelling demand (600,000 people moved into Beijing last year), in a country that has 364,000 dollar-millionaires, fourth most in the world, and one that just overtook the U.S. in luxury spending ($8.6 billion last year, behind only Japan). And in case you've forgotten, this is a place where material wealth begets status, leading Caijing to call the Chinese “the people that wear Prada” -- in other words, perfect for luxury retailers.

I suppose that's what's most unsettling: not the prospect of this luxury mall turning into, say, Dongguan Mall in Guangdong Province (the biggest shopping mall in the world and also the emptiest -- read about its massive failure here, here and here), but the prospect of the Chinese people burrowing deeper into a materialistic sinkhole that leaves this society soulless for at least a generation.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Read of the day: Howard French on China-Obama

French's interview on Columbia Journalism Review, via CN Reviews's Kai Pan, who I quote here:

I say this because too often — not always — these efforts are premised upon amplifying the complaints instead of considering feasible solutions to very real challenges. Too often, these efforts seem more about assuaging selfish consciences (and moralities) or sending messages to audiences back home instead of really communicating with the Chinese that actually hold any real power in driving change. It’s more about “look at me, this is what I stand for”. It’s about “we need more outrage and more outside pressure on China”. It’s about “we need to get them to change for us now!”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Winter is here, part deux

On September 6, in a post titled Winter is here, I wrote, "Summer is gone, winter is encroaching. Sadness is upon us. If I were in a better mood I'd quote a poem, but alas, I haven't the energy."

Leave it to someone else to quote that poem for me. From Brendan O'Kane's Nov. 8 post, with winter truly upon us:

Winter is Icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm.
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.

Ezra Pound, noted Sinologist

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Back from Boracay

You'll have to excuse me if I have nothing to say for now about Obama's visit (he's in Beijing is about all I know at the moment), but I just returned from paradise and am still warming up to the real world. Boracay is, in my mind, a magical, mythical -- imaginary? -- place where rainbows shoot out of sunsets and dreams blend into reality. I'm looking over my pictures now and absolutely cannot believe I was just there. I mean, does any of this look real to you?







Here's where I, in trying to describe Boracay, make sounds that somewhat resemble speech, like gagagagagagagagaga. God, what a ridiculous island.

More pictures here and here.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Postcard from Boracay

Wishing you were here.


I'll be back next week.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Race of Champions begins today

Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. today on CCTV5.




What is Race of Champions? This month's issue of the Beijinger tells all (sorta).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Picture of the day: Beijing's first snowfall

It began on Halloween night and was still going strong this morning. A nice thick accumulation resulted, perfect for making snowballs...




...and of course it completely ruined Halloween night, and now I find out it was probably caused by cloud seeding.

I'm anxiously awaiting the day the other shoe falls and we learn silver iodide causes ozone tears and cancer.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

国安是冠军!(Guo'an wins Chinese Super League)

Backdated from 11/18


Maggie Rauch at China Sports Today has you covered, here (recap) and here (preview; within, a recommended read: Shanghai's collapse in 2008).

There's one comment on a story about this game on ESPN, which reads in its entirety:

probably fixed again...

Beijing Boyce has some pictures of the celebration. Here's a video I took while biking across Workers Stadium:

Happy Halloween



I will be going as the horse from GetOnMyHorse.com. If you have a spare minute, you'll want to click on that link.

Costume construction began at 11:30 p.m. last night and continued until 5:30 a.m. I took about a couple hours to wrap things up this afternoon.







Monday, October 26, 2009

Breathing life into China's ancient instruments



If we put a microphone into the bottom half of our vocal cords, in that space before the larynx alters the transit of air into highly evolved sounds recognizable as language, what would we hear?

Literally speaking, not a whole lot besides air; but if this were a riddle, the answer you want may just be an unusual and wonderful wind instrument called the chiba, a stout bamboo flute from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that descended from the ancient xiao.

The 60 or so people who attended Dandeli Art Space’s “Blooming Youth and Ancient Melody” on Saturday were treated to a free performance of the chiba, along with the guqin, a seven-string plucked silk instrument dating back some 3,000 years. Lots has been written before about the latter, and a simple search on either YouTube or YouKu will yield dozens of results. The chiba, however, is a relative unknown.

A young musician who goes by Xing Zhe explained to us that every chiba goes through an exacting selection process. First a specific type of bamboo must be found that can be cut to the appropriate length (usually an eighth of a foot, which translates literally into the name of the instrument). It is then hollowed out and placed in a damp and dark environment for a year, not unlike the fermenting process for fine alcohol. A master will then cut a mouthpiece and play it, sans finger holes, for as long as he deems it takes for the right sound to emerge. Only then will holes be cut, four along the top and one on the bottom, and declared ready for use.

A low-shelf chiba runs for about 4,000 yuan, while high quality ones can go for 10,000 yuan – though who can really put a price on antiques? – which partially explains why there are probably no more than 50 chiba masters in China. The other reason is because the chiba virtually disappeared from this country for 700 years sometime during the Song Dynasty. It continued its evolution as the shakuhachi in Japan, imported there by a Buddhist monk in the 8th century.

Sitting in the same room as a chiba performance is like you’ve ascended 4,000 meters into a holy mountain and plopped yourself next to a meditating arhat. The instrument is capable of eerie, magical noises that are evanescent and transitory yet firmly grounded in our world. The sound is reedy, raspy and muted, about as natural as a spring, like a melodized sigh or exhale. Occasionally you will even hear a squeak or, quite literally, the sound of breath, quite unlike the pachydermal blare of Western-style trumpets and horns – which is to say, not metallic and cold but alive, arising from our lungs.

Because there are only four holes on the chiba, the tiniest finger movement makes a difference; likewise, the simplicity of the design makes it so that the slightest change in breath – in strength, volume or breathing angle – will affect the sound. There is much room for interpretation, and the result can be as artistic as the creator wishes, as hollow as a ditty or infused with melancholy as a pastoral. An old tradition in Japan held that a man and woman would play shakuhachi melodies in a field, at a remove from one another. If the tunes didn’t match, the two could not meet – a harsh penalty, indeed, though somehow appropriate because the instrument is, after all, an extension of the soul.

Upon failure the passionate shepherd, we can only surmise, would fall to writing poetry.

Here is a video of Xing Zhe playing the chiba on Saturday:

Also on Youku.

AND OKAY, JUST A FEW MORE PARAGRAPHS ON THE GUQIN: In any given performance, the seasoned guqin player’s hand will undergo an amazingly complicated series of maneuvers to elicit the desired sounds, a feat that you really get to appreciate when you see it up close. The fingers on the right hand alone have to perform eight designated movements, such as the pluck, flick, vibrato, strum and slide (those may not be the technical terms). Musicians don’t play the guqin so much as coax it, sometimes taking incredible pains to massage a certain effect out of the vibrating strings.

What you get are sounds that are never stagnant: notes always carry with it the sidewinding tail of a mellifluous twang or nictitating echo, with shadows of melodies lingering an extra second after each rest stop.

I should also note that Saturday’s guqin performers, a young couple who were not music majors, asked I not use their names because, in the guy’s words, “we haven’t achieved the level of competence to be considered musicians.” That’s humility for you.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Leftovers from October 1

Via Evan Osnos, a stunning panorama of Beijing during the National Day parade.

Meanwhile, this is how I spent my October 1, and this is my friends and I getting really impressed by helicopters and jets (more so because we were officially being subversive by having our curtains open).

The People's Republic of China main celebration of its founding may have (irony alert!) been closed to the public, but Tiananmen was reopened the following day with parade floats, lots and lots of floats, which, like a light to insects, attracted unholy swarms of people...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Punk music in Beijing, and introducing Autobots, Deploy!

What Bar, located just northwest of Tiananmen and whose name has induced more than a few Abbott and Costello acts, doesn't get lots of press, so like many small bars trying to lure in an extra customer or two, it turns to live music. A couple weeks ago, another one of my friends' bands, Autobots, Deploy!, played at What Bar to a crowd of friends.



What made the night really cool, however, were the punk acts that went on before and after Autobots (most definitely not a punk band). The music was loud, furious and expressive, something you don't often get in China. Video below.



For more about punk in China, see here and here.
xLDes>en GoogleDicC
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Traveling in Dalian

Last month I spent a day walking around Dalian and came away impressed. I ended up writing a short travel article for City Weekend, which, at this point, may or may not see the light of day. I don't think they'll mind me posting it here:

Beijing is to gates and bridges as Dalian is to squares and plazas, or “guangchang,” hundreds of them that together tell the story of the city’s history.

Most visitors to this port of 6 million people will begin at Xinghai Square, or “Sea of Stars,” which is the biggest municipal square in Asia and well worth a visit. But for something less touristy, go to Zhongshan Square at the city center, a giant roundabout with 10 off-shooting avenues surrounded by some of the most impressive concession-era architecture this side of Shanghai. You’ll think you’ve been warped to a different time and place.

Dalian’s strategic location by the sea invited foreign empires at a time when it was chic to invade China, first the Russians in 1898 and then the Japanese in 1905. The Russians, enamored with French architecture, modeled Dalian after Paris, which explains all the traffic circles and why Zhongshan gives off vibes of the Arc de Triomphe. Ogival towers and Gothic buildings of large stones and narrow windows add to the mystique.

The Japanese, also under the influence of European culture, added several more buildings in classical European style to Zhongshan Square, including Yamato Hotel in 1914, now called Hotel Dalian, which is where to stay if you want to be immersed in history (4 Zhongshan Square, (411) 8263-3111). The rotary’s center island is dressed up with trees, park benches and pigeons, and at night it comes alive as locals of all ages gather to socialize and dance. Peering out from the center, you’ll see buildings of different shapes and styles standing sentinel on either side of the streets, leaving the horizon unobstructed – faintly reminiscent of looking down Chicago’s Michigan Ave.

Dalian is atypical of Chinese cities, as it’s fashionable yet understated, modern and clean. If you must get your tourist fix, hike coastal Binhai Road, visit Forest Zoo or either of the two water amusement parks. Otherwise, stroll through Dalian’s charming parks and outdoor markets or relax on the beach and soon you’ll see why the China Expat Association calls Dalian the most livable city in China.


I must point out that the most incredible part of the city, from my vantage point, was an outdoor market tucked behind Russian Square in the northern part of the city. It's not on any maps and may or may not have a name, but it's absolutely incredible, a labyrinth of stalls selling a veritable hodgepodge of goods, from noodles to DVDs, meat kabobs and eggplants to socks and phone cards, small cooked pigeons to sea intestines eviscerated in front of your face. Like so:



Had I visited the market a few hours before I did, I would have had the pleasure of seeing a lamb slaughtered on a three-wheel wagon. Mmmm.

Dalian, a hub of commerce and leisure, receives more than 10 million visitors a year, despite not having any one recognizable draw like Harbin's ice sculptures, Qingdao's beer or Hangzhou's lake. Relatively young (est. 1898), there are no ancient temples, allusive rivers or misty mountains. Yet thanks to former mayor Bo Xilai (who hasn't been doing as well in Chongqing), who made the city a model of cleanliness, Dalian constantly hosts festivals and conferences, like Summer Davos, held by the World Economic Forum in September, and the International Fashion Festival (videos from which will be up on this blog later this week).

The two water amusement parks are both tourist traps (though Forest Zoo is actually really nice) and the beaches are average at best, but Dalian is a city that doesn't need any big attractions. Go see the city for what it is, and see how tempted you'll be to remain.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Redbucks at Paddy O'Shea's

Since its first performance on February 27, when the band was known by a different name (several different names, actually), The Redbucks have slowly made their up in the Beijing music scene, playing at spots like Ginkgo's on Andingmen, Jiangjinjiu near the Drum and Bell, 2 Kolegas near Chaoyang Park, MAO Livehouse just north of Nanluoguxiang and, in the video below, Paddy O'Shea's, an Irish bar on Dongzhimen Outer St., on September 25. (There was also a show at a racetrack in South Beijing, organized by a Hanggai contact that's somehow connected to -- and here it gets a bit fuzzy -- the new U.S. ambassador to China's daughter, who apparently is a Redbucks fan. The band members are hoping they might play in front of President Obama when he finally visits.)

If you haven't heard them yet, take it from me: it's a good time whenever they take the stage.



Here's their official bio:

Hailing from America’s East, West, North and South, the Redbucks are Beijing's most notorious and rowdy group of American Bluegrass musicians. Whether these ruckus-raising ramblers are singing about love and lust or moonshine and misdemeanor, there will always be something to dance, drink or sing to – and often all the above.

Later this year: gig with bango legend Bela Fleck? Stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In utopia

Witopia, actually.

Tonight I installed a virtual proxy network called Witopia, which allows me to circumvent the Great Firewall of China, of which I have only nasty, terrible, downright offensive things to say and therefore will not, for now. For $60 a year, my ISP gets routed through places like -- and I get to choose -- D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, London, Manchester and Hong Kong. In other words, I can access everything from YouTube to Danwei to Slutload.com. I'm not gonna link to that last one -- you can figure out the URL for yourself. No more tying "Korean sofa" into Baidu! (It's now on the second page, btw.)

Witopia works like a charm. My Internet isn't noticeably slower or anything. The installation is complicated enough to keep China's censors chasing (the simplicity of Hotspot probably was its demise) yet easy enough that it doesn't require more than 10 minutes, max. A great deal (and seeing as how quickly the expat community here gobbles up popular proxies and VPNs, there're lots more testimonials if you need them).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Review of Midori's performance at Beijing Concert Hall

Now up on the Beijinger blog:

Approaching her 38th birthday, Midori is no longer the precocious child who performed with the New York Philharmonic at age 11, in front of President Ronald Reagan at 12, made her first recording (of Bach and Vivaldi) at 14 and delivered a 100-minute recital at Carnegie Hall four days before her 19th birthday. There is a difference between watching a child, however professional, navigate the minefield of a terribly difficult composition and a mature musician do the same; more is expected of the latter, and yet less seems at stake. The failures of adults are so much less keenly felt.

But make no mistake: even if Midori has ceded some of her spotlight to younger musicians, she has not lost the ability to keep audiences rapt when the lights are on her. On Friday, she expertly navigated Sibelius's roiling arpeggios, glissandi and multiple octave double stops on her way to a flawless rendition...

Funny story about the eight-word quote, "I'm going to play Kreisler, Recitativo and Scherzo": I brought a digital recorder and taped Midori's playing for the sole purpose of catching her words on the off-chance she said anything, but when the critical moment came, I was so far away -- and the tape recorder was on the ground -- that the sound quality was quite bad. At home, I could barely make out what she said. I literally spent an hour Googling terms like "mezzantino" and "mestizo," "wager" and "chrysler" and "krizer," "mezzetta music term" and "mezzan tival" and "classical music ragner scherzo" ("scherzo" was the easiest to get). You musicians, feel free to make fun of me here. I was ready to give up on two occasions. And then, at the one-hour mark, I typed -- quotation marks included --

"and scherz

At the exact moment I imputed the Z of scherzo, Google's auto-search suggested "kreisler recitativo and scherzo." And sure enough... bingo.

For those keeping track at home, Microsoft Bing: 0; Google: a lot

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The photos of Lu Guang

A few days ago the New York Times presented a slideshow of photos by Lu Guang, this year's recipient of the $30,000 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, and the images sort of defy words. I'll not waste any... go here. (The picture of the girl is taken from the World Press Photo site.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New rising: The Urinal in China Business District

Genitals.

China's media operation deserves all the mockery it gets, and more. From China Hush:

The new building design for People's Daily (人民日报) has been confirmed, the selected winner was designed by Professor Zhou Qi (周琦) of Southeast University, School of Architecture. However, once the plan was made public, netizens immediately started heated discussions. Some people say it looks like an iron, some say it looks like an aircraft carrier or even a urinal pot (an old style vessel for urine, used in bedrooms). Also some people criticized the building design is a shanzhai version of the Burj Al Arab ― Dubai's seven-star hotel in United Arab Emirates.

Related... does anyone know when they're gonna build that Magic Mountain over the burnt hotel next to the CCTV building so that there isn't a monument to stupidity in the middle of CBD? Or can we take a page from Rex's book (G.I. Joe -- awful, awful movie, made infinitely worse by the prospects of a sequel) and inject it with nanobots to give it a new metallic face?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Turandot review

Crappy.

On Beijinger, here.

The artistic direction was also underwhelming – and that's being charitable. Zhang was the man who, for the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, gave us synchronized drumming, oversized cycling and a colony of acrobats crawling on a gigantic sea anemone beneath levitating fire-banners (how else could you describe this?). There was no such inventiveness this time around. There were no pyrotechnics or bursts of creative flair.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Independent films and the like

A slightly scattered post today. We'll begin with the New York Times, which reports on independent filmmakers in China:


OVER the course of six years Zhao Dayong, an independent filmmaker from Guangzhou, China, spent many months living among the residents of Zhiziluo, an impoverished and forgotten village in the rugged mountains near the Myanmar border, and filming their lives.

Using his own money and simple digital filmmaking equipment he made "Ghost Town," a quiet, hypnotizing, three-hour documentary that provides an extraordinary and intimate portrait of Chinese life.


Words at Work, a blog about English (American English), recently linked to my open letter to China Daily's copyeditors complaining about their practice of putting periods and commas outside of quotation marks. In case you're wondering, yes, I sent that note, and no, they have not replied.

Juliana Loh, a former City Weekend editor, has a very cool blog (if I eventually get my act together I'll combine my five blogs into one website like Juliana's, only mine will be called www.anthonytao.com, which, for your information, I have registered but yet to use due to various inhibiting incompetencies). Via her, I came to this.

I may be getting tickets to see Turandot at the Bird's Nest!

One final note: I'll be writing about F1 for the Beijinger this coming week, so posts may be sporadic. More importantly, if you can explain to me, in 100 words or less, the appeal of auto racing, send me a note.

Art review: Tokihiro Sato's Respiration at Dandeli

Wrote an art review for City Weekend...

The quantum physics principle of wave-particle duality allows light to be both a wave and a particle. In the hands of photographer Tokihiro Sato, however, it is unclear whether light is either; it verges on – it is tempting to think – something else altogether, stranger and more wonderful.

In Respiration, on display at Dandeli Art Space until Nov. 13, Sato deftly manipulates light to create prints that are occult without being mystifying, ghostly though safe, dazzling yet understated.

Paradoxes abide. Light gives life in our world, Sato gives life to light in his. They are contrasted against darkness – only three of the pictures in the Dandeli exhibit were taken during daylight – and personified as swimmers, wrigglers, dervishes and winkers. In one photo, filigrees of light cling to a Caterpillar bulldozer like moss on logs. In another, they stand erect on a staircase, possibly inside a condo, hundreds of them with tiny buttonhooks for heads as if kibitzing at a cocktail party. Amid backdrops that are barren and inanimate – a bridge, a building, a concrete culvert – Sato's light is bright and expressive, slivery in an abandoned, Lucite world, alone alive and extant.

But merely saying Sato's light has spirit, or soul, or sentience, doesn't give the creative process due credit. With a large camera strapped to a tripod, the artist works by aiming a pencil torch or flashlight at the lens, set on long exposures of up to three hours. In this way, he practices photography in the most literal sense, "writing with light." The artist, wearing black and constantly in motion, never appears in the final product, so the lights seem to shimmy and float, sometimes in impressive detail – large accretive dots with light erupting off the edges as if from a corona. In some prints, Sato employs a mirror, tracing air and measuring space. It is a long, repetitive and monotonous process, requiring the patience of a former sculptor (which Sato is) to pull off.

Importantly, looking at a Sato photo and all that it depicts – empty elevator shafts, foreboding basements, mist-covered seas and ghosts (sometimes people linger a bit too long in Sato's shots and appear in the final product as diaphanous outlines) – is neither morbid nor sad. It is a credit to the artist's immaculate technical ability that you see a wraith and think you're in lovely company, capable of being uplifted into another dimension where nothing – not even light – is constant.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Line 4 nearly operational

I know I've been critical in the past about Beijing's subway having too many "unnecessary" stations, but Line 4 may have just the opposite problem -- too many all-too-necessary stations, making for crowded trains. Anyway, it's long overdue, as anyone who's tried going to Peking University and Tsinghua, or the zoo market (or the zoo itself) or the park Yuanmingyuan or Nanluoguxiang knows quite well. And now that it's so tantalizingly close to opening, I'm all too willing to overlook the fact that it makes an unnecessary stop at Lingjing Hutong (apologies to the subway company, as I've learned that the renovations in my old neighborhood were probably unrelated to subway construction).

Now go watch this video about Line 4.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hotspot Anchor blocked?

My blogging life has been lived on borrowed time these past three or so months.

For you see, I, like so many other expats in China, use Hotspot Anchor (though I'd like to think I was among the first wave of users), for three reasons: 1) Blogger, along with Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, et al., is blocked in China; Youtube I can live without, but Blogger, not so much; 2) I have a Mac, so none of the other popular (and probably better) proxies work (see this post); 3) Hotspot, though sometimes not the fastest, is damn reliable.

Until recently.

It seems the China censors have finally caught up to Hotspot, though, interestingly, only Mac users are affected (I have a friend whose Hotspot works just fine on his PC). I post this now via email because Blogger, in its infinite goodness, gives you that option.

Resurrection!

Of course, there are a few drawbacks, like the inability to add labels or preview my posts. Also, no word yet on whether you can post photos. Let's just put it this way... if you can see Miss Dalton, the answer is yes.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A suggestion for China Daily's copyediting desk

To Whom It May Concern:

As a longtime reader of China Daily, I have to express my disgruntlement with what appears to be a relatively recent shift in your copyediting policy.

My understanding is that China Daily uses an American English style guide, which is plainly evident to even first-time readers. However, you have recently begun practicing a very annoying -- not to mention blatantly incorrect -- habit of placing periods outside of quotation marks. Here is but one of many examples:

Li was present at the event, held in the Mid-west city of Omaha in early May this year, at the particular invitation of Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and widely acknowledged as the "Oracle of Omaha".

This is, without exception, wrong.

If indeed China Daily uses an American (and not British) style guide, this is the type of mistake that is inexcusable. As you know, in American English, commas and periods go inside quotation marks, without exception. Other punctuation marks, like exclamation marks, questions marks and semicolons, follow a different rule.

The error would not be so egregious if the staff was consistent in its practice. I have, within the same page, encountered different styles as it relates to punctuation inside quotation marks. It seems different copy editors have different notions of accuracy, probably, I'm guessing, depending on their nationality.

It is here that I must stress my preference for the correct way of punctuating quotes: periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, without exception.

Please consult this source (or any American style guide, really) for further explanation: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/research/puncquotes.html

I do not presume to tell your editors how to do their jobs, but on behalf of practioners of proper American English everywhere, I would like to express my sincere hope that you resolve this matter as soon as conveniently possible.

Thank you for your time, and do keep up the good work.

Best regards,

Anthony Tao

Freelance writer and editor,
Beijing

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Introducing: Journey to the End of Coal

Those in China will want to log onto a proxy or VPN to check out this interactive Web documentary, Journey to the End of Coal, produced by honkytonk and 31 septembre. Well worth a visit.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

60th birthday preparations



Pictures from Boston Globe.

First, click on the link above and go check out some oversized pictures of China's preparations for National Day.

Next, check out these links:


Let's hope no buses catch fire on Chang'an Jie.

Participants in the 50th anniversary parade received this:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The end of Time's China Blog

Backdated on 12/7/09

Yesterday marked the final day of the Time China Blog, which, despite constant criticism from a merciless readership, remained near the top of my RSS until the very end. Simon Elegant writes:

All good things must come to an end and, sadly, that applies to the China Blog too, which will shutter at the end of today. I and my colleagues have thoroughly enjoyed doing this (mostly) and equally been interested to get feedback from readers. There was a lot of puerile drivel, too (you know who you are!), of course, but on the whole it was illuminating to get such instant reaction to our posts.
I really don't understand where this rancor's coming from. Oh well.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The irony in Founding of a Republic

To get you believing this is undoubtedly the greatest movie in the history of Chinese cinema, state-backed producers enlisted so many famous actors and actresses that even if the action got boring, you’d be too busy stargazing to notice. (Most of the big-timers were given minor roles, though Zhang Ziyi’s two minutes on screen was apparently enough to justify putting her in the center of a movie poster, in front of Mao Zedong.) Let’s put it this way: this film is too big for the big screen, so if it fails, it didn't fail -- you get my drift?

Predictably, Western media has been quick to label Founding of a Republic "propaganda." Go see it anyway, as you probably won't be going for the plot (I'll ruin the ending for you: the Communists win). You'll find yourself thinking things like, "Why doesn't the English subtitles ever use the word 'Communists,' preferring 'CPC'?" (the answer to that one is simple). Or, "Did they create a gratuitous scene with a Hong Kong journalist just so they could give Jackie Chan a speaking role?"

I'd like to think, deep down, the producers understood they were handed an impossible task, so instead of fighting against this no-win proposition they decided to make the most of it by having some fun. Thus all the A-listers, many of them working for free. Their appearance on screen makes moviegoers understand they are, all told, only watching a movie, that what is being depicted wasn't exactly how it went down. The moviemakers had to have known that the story itself couldn't have sold, because, frankly, we've seen, ad nauseam, Chinese war movies about the triumph of The People.

Some of the parts in Founding of a Republic are brutally ironic, and if audiences don't get it, I'd like to think at least the movie's creators did. (My faith in people will never wane.) One scene in particular stands out: a student activist gets on a bandbox and preaches for governmental transparency and democracy; soon after, he is shot dead in the middle of the night... by the KMT, of course. Hmm. There is also a part where Mao Zedong says, solemnly, "We must not forget history." Hmmmm. A little later, Mao tells a former enemy -- and I paraphrase here -- "We must forget the past in order to focus on building China's new future." Hmmmmmm. And what about the director's painstaking depiction (and painful, really) of CPC's first-generation leaders going out of their way to hear the opinions of all delegates, no matter how mundane, and working late into the night on such things as song lyrics. On Mao's brows there is neither impatience nor frustration. Right, that's a historically accurate interpretation.

My intention is not to nitpick. What I believe -- what I want to believe -- is the filmmakers understood how ironic these scenes really are, and somewhere inside them there was this realization -- vocalized only after a night of Cognac or bowls of baijiu, perhaps -- that someday people will laugh at this movie, that they are able to laugh because by then the country and its citizens and leaders will have matured to the point where they can laugh. Until then, irony is an inside joke, buried under weighty ambitions that are so much less interesting, both artistically and politically.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hanggai






You're not officially part of the hip Beijing scene until you've seen Hanggai, a band rooted in Beijing but inspired by the sounds of Mongolia. I know scant few who've not seen a Hanggai show and fewer still who've never heard of them. Indeed, this quartet makes just about everyone's short list for best band in the city.

Here is their official website, and here's their MySpace and Facebook pages.

Friday night, the foursome played its last show before embarking on a U.S. tour. If you're in the States, take my advice: go see these guys. They will put on a show unlike any other, with sounds both pure and primal, folksy and modern. "Drinking Song" will get you to raise a pint of something the first time you hear it, then get you to climb atop a table the next time (see video, below). And don't get me started on "throat singing" -- chords originate from a pit of somewhere that doesn't seem organic, and the room you occupy will seem to grow less stable amid an eerie, hallowed reverb.

Below are seven videos from their performance in front of a jam-packed crowd at Tiny Salt Coffee Club in the China Business District. Would you believe that the cover was just 40 kuai, or about six bucks?



Drinking Song, the band's biggest hit... they played it at the end of their first and second sets.







The place: