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.


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,

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


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:

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Pioneer Girl" hits China (Deadspin)

Deadspin, for those who've never lived in the States, is a website from the Gawker network of snarky people-watchers that focuses on sports.

This recent post doesn't really, and to think of it, it doesn't really have all that much to do about China, but I link to it anyway as a reminder to myself how funny Deadspin's commenters can be -- certainly funnier than the commenters on this blog. Kevin, you have work to do.

Even though many angry people voiced their displeasure with Blazer Girl's appearances on Deadspin, one newspaper has been wowed by her brazenness and her hatred of all things Los Angeles. Pioneer Girl to the rescue.

Yes, for some reason, a Chinese newspaper did a lengthy feature on our feisty gal in Oregon and through the magic of Google Translator, we can somewhat make out what the hell they're babbling about.

Read more.

Monday, September 7, 2009

McDull Kungfu Ding Dong Ding

Anytime a public figure like Rosie O'Donnell says something along the lines of, "Ching chong chong chong chong" on national TV and gets excoriated for being "racist," I grimace. Racist, really? I highly doubt that as Rosie was making a fool of herself with chingchongchongchongchong, something in her subconscious was working up a bile-filled vat of hate against the Chinese. I suspect those making the "racist" accusation are either the overly sensitive type or, if Chinese, too insecure about their own language or some part of their identity. Everyone would do themselves so much better by calling stunt's like Rosie's what it is -- moronic, sophomoric, stupid -- and moving on with their lives.

There's also this fact, which doesn't help the cause of those crying foul: Chinese really does sound silly to the foreign ear. This is hardly specific to the Chinese, however. I've always imagined the visual equivalent to spoken German is a gang of leather-clad S&M kooks with mohawks descending upon elderly women with chain-saws. Cantonese sounds worse -- don't ask me for a visual equivalent of that. My point is, Chinese is weird, what with its oscillating tones and hard consonants. And, look, it HAS to be said that the Chinese -- assuming they care what Westerners think <wry grin> -- aren't helping their case with movies titled McDull Kungfu Ding Dong Ding.

No, seriously. McDull Kungfu Ding Dong Ding.

It's the fourth in a series of Hong Kong-created movies featuring the piglet McDull (麥兜, pictured to the right), and it's immensely popular with the public, grossing more than 70 million Yuan so far. Here's the official website.

I have nothing more to say.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Winter is here

I can't be sure exactly when the cold settled in -- probably during the night -- but when I emerged from indoors wearing only a t-shirt and shorts I was beset with a stunning cold that left me shivering all the way to the subway.

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.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mbeewan and the Chi’n'i Band

Last night at Ginkgo Bar, Mbeewan (Moussa Boudra) (bar website: "a multi-instrumentalist and composer-songwriter for more than 10 years, is the lead singer of iRieTEAM, a French Nu-Roots Reggae band created 5 years ago, and whose first album will be released in 2009") played his last gig in Beijing, a fun and energetic show that lasted well into the night. A packed crowd danced and sang along, even Americans who may or may not have understood a word of Mbeewan's French.

Regretfully, I have neither photos or videos to share, but here's Mbeewan from an earlier performance (not in China, don't think).

And Ginkgo, which hosted this American bluegrass band last month, is quickly becoming a go-to place for music and dance. It's located at Andingmen and is one of the only bars in the area, so it actually feels "tucked away," even though it's hard for any foreign bar (French, in this case) to truly blend into any local neighborhood.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Open mic at Tun Bar in Sanlitun

I'm not the biggest fan of Tun Bar, nestled deep in an alley off Sanlitun South St. -- the servers are a bit pushy, lingering next to your side to get you to buy buy buy, and the sound quality ranges from bad to unbearable -- but my musician friends seem to like playing there, so occasionally I go. Kevin Reitz and Jeff Orcutt, two guys who have their own labels on this blog, were there this past Tuesday (open mic night) and did a sweet rendition of Squarepusher's Iambic 9 Poetry. Here they are:

And the original:

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Yangge (or yangger, for you Beijingers) at Deshengmen

I've written about this before, but tonight I passed by Deshengmen on my way to pickup Frisbee and was transfixed all over again by the dancers under the Gate of Virtuous Triumph.

In olden days, Deshengmen -- which now looks like a castle from the original Mario Brothers for NES -- was an entrance point for victorious troops returning from battle. Now it overlooks a small square where elder dancers engage in yannge (秧歌), "rice-sprout songs" accompanied by thunderous drums, gong and horns. These are the songs of pastoral Shaanxi, where yangge originated.

When I arrived, the band was just warming up, with two guys affixing stilts to their feet. One man -- I'd put him at 50 years of age -- was particularly colorful in his movements, flicking his wrists this way and that while jerking his hips and bobbing his head. A young girl of about 5 or 6 rooted her legs to the pavement and shook her upper body in a delightful and cute little sway. I can only guess -- poorly -- what sort of dances will be the craze when she reaches adolescence, but I can say that for our time, what she was doing would qualify in most clubs ("discos," as the locals say) as more than passable.

More than anything, as I stood next to onlookers who bore no expression (weirdly), I wondered why most of the other dancers were so stoic. Their steps around the square -- they moved in a rectangular pattern, snaking back and forth like those aliens in the old Atari game Invaders -- were perfunctory and their countenance inscrutable. Meanwhile, I could hardly suppress my desire to jump into the crowd (something I'd never do in actuality, mind you) and exclaim my joy and gratitude for this scene. The music, which you can hear in the below video, was infused with vim and vigor, rhythm and something very much approximating soul.

Soul of the country. Perhaps that's why the people were so somber. It has been said that my parents' generation is China's Lost Generation, folks who suffered unspeakable injustices during the Cultural Revolution and were told, via state dictum, that their experiences never happened, or that they're moot and irrelevant, subordinate to the aspirations, whims and fancies of China's future generations. The future. What is it, exactly, without a past? On whose shoulders are the people of today -- my generation -- and tomorrow -- that little girl dancing without a care in the world -- supposed to stand on? Whose can they stand on?

There was -- the more I stood there and reflected, the more I understood -- sadness on the dancers' faces, or regret. Was this their catharsis, then? Do they come every Tuesday to this spot to cleanse themselves, in their own private ways amid a collective, of their sins? Can those who suffered and those who inflicted suffering find common ground in dance?

I'm probably taking this conceit too far. For all I know, these were people who needed some exercise and found it sad that summer is giving way to autumn and, eventually, to another cold, bleak winter devoid of music and dance. Or perhaps -- you'll allow me this, I hope -- there is an inner music within all of them, guiding their steps towards a future reunion with their wandering, astray but not lost -- not lost! -- souls.

An earlier YouTube video here.