The Sensational Character Finds of 2006 (20060528)

I'm here to talk about something I know very little about: The Great Ten. Just in case you don't know anything about me, I read comic books. I buy comic books. I also read lots of other things, but if there's one thing I grok, it's comics. So, when the publisher of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman announced to the world it would be introducing a team of super-powered Chinese heroes, with powers reflective of their home country, I began to hope that they would also reflect moral and ethical values that could be uniquely Chinese. Of course, this led me to wonder: what the heck are Chinese values, anyway? In Superman, for example, we see the values and behaviors of the quintessential American insider and outsider melded into one person. Smart, confused, handsome, bespectacled, strong, weak - it's pretty easy to figure out which traits go to which aspect of the Superman/Clark Kent mix. In Batman, we see a far more personal dichotomy. The struggle to improve one's self and help others at the same time hints at a psychology far deeper than mere "vengeance." China, though, is a different question. With a history not nearly as clean-cut as the United States', with origins sometimes drastically at odds with current regulations, it's hard to discern what's important to whom. Confucianism would dictate familial fealty and piety to be near the top of the list. From what I've read, many Chinese still consider blood ties to be extremely strong. Wandering around as a backpacker, though, it's a bit hard to see. It's not as if people wear their genealogies around their necks. Monetary concerns are also a big part of Chinese culture. Gifts are most often money, when in the west we would consider a desired object or one with sentimental value to be worth more. The current government has placed a high value on controlling thought and expression - would a Chinese hero display a rebellion against that, or a patriarchical deference to it? Many of the people my Financial and Menu Adviser and I have run into have been helpful, but we've encountered a few rude SOBs as well. Is one the face and the other the reality? Both? Neither? Without living in a place for an extended period of time, it's extremely difficult to gain a sense of what's important and what's not ethically. It's equally as hard to gauge the value placed on things in America we take for granted, like the assimilating immigrant or Horatio Alger-style hard work. While nobody can predict how the lives of the Chinese will change as their country moves towards the center of the world's stage, it seems there's even less mention of how their values will change, as well.

Should We Divorce from Sisterhood? (20060527)

For those not in the know, my hometown of San Francisco is a "sister city" with Shanghai. I learned this exciting bit of trivia back when I was in primary school, maybe second grade. Back then, I had no idea what being a sister city meant. I still don't. But judging from how Shanghai is growing and changing, it can't have much to do with what the place is actually like. There are few similarities between S.F. and Shanghai. The most obvious one, of course, is that they both begin with the letter 'S'. And for those of you who haven't visited either, there's quite a few people of Chinese descent in both places. Heck, we can multi-cultural and expand that generalization to quite a few people of Asian descent. Beyond that, though, I've found it a bit of a struggle to figure out what other commonalities they share. There's an effective public transportation system in both, although griping about Muni is practically a full-contact sport in S.F. Sometimes, so is taking Muni, as well. Then there are the downtown areas, the Bund in Shanghai and S.F.'s Market Street. Both areas are well-populated by an interesting mix of old and new buildings. Much of the classic architecture in both areas is Art Deco, although you can still find a few brick buildings in S.F. from the Gold Rush days. And in both cities the buildings almost go right up to the waterfront, stopped only by narrow yet appealing stretches of green. That's the extent of my "Things in Common" list. I've found far more differences. For example, Shanghainese food is reportedly the greasiest in China. I haven't been to all of China - yet - but it definitely is the greasiest I've had so far. Take the xiaolongbao, steamed dumplings filled with an oily soup that are absolutely fantastic to eat. Scrumptiously delicious, as unique to Shanghai as good bagels are to New York, except that when you bite into them the soup has a tendency to squirt all over your clothes or your neighbor. Fortunately, when my Financial and Menu Adviser squirted herself with the innards of her first xiaolongbao, she missed me completely. The Shanghainese people are purportedly the rudest in the country, which is saying something. Part of the reason I love being in China is that it's great to be surrounded by people who will tell you off when you've done something wrong, and seem to expect you to do the same. San Franciscans, I'm sorry to admit, just don't get so worked up about things. Except parking spaces, because we all know those are worth more than gold. The behavior of people in general here is quite different. Besides all the spitting and blowing of noses into the street, no city I've ever been to has ever mimicked the what-me-worry attitude of my hometown. And foggy, 60 degree nights just soar above the hot and muggy mix of pollution and humidity in the late Shanghai spring. Let's get back to the architectural landscape, though. Shanghai does have a plethora of parks, many replete with brightly-colored, easy-to-use exercise equipment. Done in blues and yellows or reds and yellows, the machines look attractive and were always in use. Why they're not in American urban parks is beyond me. The landscape has clearly gone business-first, which has the potential to come to heads with the fantastic cultural activities available. They are a bit expensive for the average Chinese, but art galleries sit nearly next door to tailored-clothing markets; there's an IMAX for those who like their cinema supersized; Chinese opera; and a wealth of community listings on how to get involved. The towers, though, are changing everything. All over the city there are new clusters of apartment buildings going up 30 stories or more. Sure, they're surrounding little private grassy park areas, and generally the towers have some mediocre, could-be-worse aesthetic designed into them, but this Manhattanization of what had 10 years ago been mostly small neighborhoods doesn't bode well for the skyline, let alone neighborly relations. As the neighborhoods get gobbled up, it's not clear if there's enough housing being built to replace the ones lost. Combine that with the office skyscrapers, which offer no residential quarters, and Shanghai could be on the verge of a housing crunch. Now that I mention it, maybe that's not so different from San Francisco's dearth of affordable housing.

Clotheshorse (20060522)

I care very little about fine clothes. This may shock some of you. I like my clothes to be clean, and comfortable, and if it's not jeans and a T-shirt, I generally won't touch it. Besides, I can just barely tell the difference between plastic wrap and cotton. But there's a scene in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon where one of the characters goes to Shanghai to buy suits for his employees. He flies in with their body measurements, and flies out with some handsomely cut finery, for far less than it would cost probably anywhere in the world. I just lived that. Not the flying out bit, but the clothes bit. It's all a bit weird for me. I'm quite comfortable wearing stuff that I bought in high school until its threadbare. Metrosexual is a dirty word. None of that has changed, but my Financial and Menu Adviser has wanted to get clothes made since we started planning this trip. She's been raiding clothing magazines, cutting out things she liked and pasting them into a book. Originally, this was all going to turn into a new wardrobe in Hoi An, Vietnam, which is known for its seamstresses, but Shanghai is more famous for it. Also, on the Yangzi River cruise we took, we met a Belgian couple who live in Shanghai and gave us their tailor's card. What did we have to lose? And as I discovered one day, peering over her shoulder, she was clipping men's suits as well. "What's that?" I asked. "For you," she replied, and went back to her clippings. I don't mind wearing a suit when I have to, and when she pointed out that it would be cheaper to buy it on the road than in the States, there wasn't much else to say. Arguing was out of the question, no matter how many comic books or novels or DVDs that money could otherwise be spent on. I was getting clothes made. We made it to the Shanghai South Bund Soft-Spinning Material Market late in the day on Monday, and zipped to stall number 196. Amy, the proprietor, spoke excellent English, and gave us a big smile and a big discount when we mentioned our friend from the cruise. The process was painless. The FMA picked out two kinds of dark, pinstriped material for me, as well as some soft cottony stuff for my shirts. Yes - shirts, plural. Both suit and shirts were lightweight, which was my only requirement, since I tend to sweat like a pig at the barest mention of wool. She handed over a Paul Smith design for a single-breasted suit and then they took my measurements. In the end, she chose for me one wool-silk suit and one pure wool suit, and I got five French-cuff fitted shirts, which means I need to find some cufflinks. Mao cufflinks, perhaps. All for much less than it would cost to get one of those suits off the rack. It took the FMA a bit longer, since her designs were more complicated and she wanted to find suitable material. I didn't really understand much of it, but said it looked nice when it did and said it didn't when it didn't. She probably didn't need me there for any of it. She got a Chanel suit made out of 100 percent wool Chanel fabric, a 100 percent cashmere Ralph Lauren-style waist-length coat, two pairs of wool-silk blend pants, a Dior 2007 "Resort Wear Collection" silk dress whatever that means, and a 2006 Spring chiffon Missoni. All that barely cost more than my suits and shirts. If you live on the west coast of America or Canada, it's probably cheaper to buy an off-season plane ticket and stay in a mid-range Shanghai hotel for a week while your clothes are getting made than to buy them off the rack at home. What an amazing place this is.

How Soon is New? (20060519-21)

A friend of mine who´d lived in China for a while told me that the country is changing so fast, you have to measure time in dog years. Nowhere has that been more apparent on this trip than in Shanghai. Walking around Shanghai, both my Financial and Menu Adviser and I had been struck by the newness of it all. How can you not? There are massive 30- and 60-story towers going up all the time. Literally, all the time. A few years ago, Shanghai had something like 90 percent of the world's tower-building construction cranes. Ninety percent! That's a straggering number. The buildings are a mix of old and new, as well, around a 70/30 split I'd say, just from eyeballing it. I could be wrong, though: new ones are going up nearly every day, and I doubt the Shanghai of next year will much resemble the Shanghai of today. Old neighborhoods of two-story houses are now encircled by towers like vultures. Much of the old architecture that remains is in the Bund and French Concession areas, but even there shiny newness is ubiquitous. So many people make this observation it's on the brink of becoming a cliche, but it's so utterly true. It's so much the point of what's going on in China that to ignore it would be like trying to ignore a truck barreling down the road at you. One interesting thing I noticed was that these high-rises, whether apartments or more commercial ventures, generally have big courtyards of trees and pathways abutting them. After spending three years living in the conrete hells of Tokyo, where if you can find a tree on the street you can rest assured that the local government keeps it trimmed tight to avoid "leaf litter," all these plants amidst all that poured concrete were very surprising. Very welcome, too. Even the streets are new, if not shiny. The major roadways look like they were paved so recently that there were barely any tire skid marks on them. The streets are wide, and many, especially in the French Concession area, are leafy with tree branches stretching their greenery over the streets. The suburbs looked suburban, instead of just like urban neighborhood without a skyscraper. The FMA and I met some of the local 20-something expats, teaching English or working internships or studying Chinese. They were all surprised that the FMA and I felt that Shanghai was a more modern city than Tokyo. At least, it looks newer. The skyscrapers have been built more recently, outfitted with the latest Blade Runner-meets-Star Wars-meets-Frank Lloyd Wright aesthetic. Helipads peeks out over sheer glass walls, giant balls have been pierced by and sit atop the same narrow spire, and the Marriot looks like a closed pincher-arm stolen from a robot. The people weren't as randomly friendly as those in the rural towns I've been to, but that's to be expected. It was nice to see, though, that the few times we needed help, the locals were generally forthcoming with advice, even if it was being given at a rate of speech too fast for me to understand. Not all is happy newness in Shanghai. There's a pervading sense, a conscientious tingle in the back of the brain, that questions the construction materials. Given the history of Chinese cosntruction problems, will any of this last as long as it's intended to? Or even through the next natural disaster to strike Shanghai? And does anybody here care about the migrant workers that have come from throughout China to build this orgy of neoteric living? Walking down Nanjing Donglu, the main pedestrian mall and shopping area that stretches west from the Bund, you can buy high-priced designer items or turn down an alley and buy knock-offs of such necessities for modern living for far less. Everybody is carrying some kind of shopping bag, revelling in retail therapy. Worries, though, are for other people.

A Tale of One Bad Week (20060514-22)

Travelling for months at a time can be fun, but when a series of small, random events combine to form a gestalt pain-in-the-ass, it´s hard not to just change the plane tickets and go home. Of course, changing the plane tickets was also one of the many hurdles that needed to be shot through with a nail gun. Jumping was getting me nowhere. The disasters began with my photographic storage tank, a portable hard drive with a built-in media card reader, going on the blink. The drive itself was working fine, all of my photos were still accessible, but it wouldn't copy anything new onto itself, despite having less than 25 percent of its capacity filled. Fortunately, I had my iPod and a camera connector, but this was a serious problem. My Financial and Menu Adviser wouldn't be able to upload any of her photos, and the iPod took more than six times as long as the tank. It would take very friendly internet cafe or traveller with a good laptop to fix this, and hours of work. I was not a happy Jan, as the FMA might say. Then we realized that our plane tickets home were scheduled for June 14th, out of Bangkok. This would seem problematic since we didn't have plans to return there until late July. We had bought our tickets with flexible dates, and had been advised that changing the departure would require nothing more than a phone call. The day after said phone call, my Parental Units, who have been kindly obfuscating my whereabouts and hiding my mail, sent an email saying that they got a call informing them that the change had not been approved. Meanwhile, the FMA and I discovered the disappointing Three Gorges cruise had hit our wallets far harder than the US$300 cost would've seemed. The insurance money from April's hospitalization incident still hadn't come through, and we were looking at amputating even more of the trip. Or, perhaps, sleeping on the street. That's one of the strange things about being in China. It's a bit expensive to transit from one place to the next and sleep on the cheap, compared to Southeast Asia or India. But the food is so cheap, and so delicious, and safe, there's just no point on eating instant noodles; they're more expensive than dumplings. Beer, too, is cheaper than bottled water, in most places. And if you're unlucky, it even tastes like bottled water. So we were faced with a couple of dilemmas. We might have to turn around, tail between our legs, and head back to Bangkok after our next stop in Beijing. And we weren't sure that we'd be able to afford even that, which felt like an incredibly cowardly thing to do. We caught a nice break in Wuhan, which was a hot, gray, ugly city that was made even more difficult to navigate thanks to the useless maps included in our guidebook. But we were only there for two days, and couldn't see a point to splurging on a map. The FMA and I did find, finally, a street that's renowned throughout China for its breakfast food: Hubu Alley. It turned out to be the kind of narrow shopping alley we'd come to expect in every reasonably-sized Chinese city we would hit. Except, instead of being lined with vendors hawking knock-offs or kitchen goods or the amazing things you can do with a factory of workers and injection-molded plastic, they sold food. Not just any food, either, but the kind of mouth-watering edibles that transformed my opinion of Wuhan from being a stinking furnace that had clearly outlived its usefulness to mankind, to being a place that one should stop in for a hearty meal. And then, quickly, get the heck out of. We had a bowl of spicy noodle soup that was hot enough to make my lips swell like they'd been injected with botox. We inhaled something tht looked like baozi, the white dough buns with filling, except they were tiny and lightly fried. We scarfed down a latkesque pancake thing, and an mini-okanomiyaki thing, as well. By far, though, the one of the two best things were these fried mochi balls. Mochi is the Japanese word for sweetened rice paste, which is what these things were. The other were these fried tofu things with sticky rice, eggs and bean curd done up in layers. Phenomenally delicious stuff, and sampling all of it cost less than a two-liter bottle of no-name ghetto soda at Safeway. Somehow, between leaving the Yangzi cruise ship in Yichang and leaving Wuhan, the FMA suffered a couple of minor misfortunes that nonetheless added to the stress level. She had lost one of her two T-shirts that she'd been carrying on this trip and had either been pickpocketted or lost her money wallet, which fortunately contained nothing important and only 70 yuan (about US$9). We escaped to Shanghai on a sleeper bus ticket that was 100 yuan cheaper than buses to Shanghai usually were, and surprisingly, the bus was tolerable as sleeper buses go. The sleepers in China are different from those in India, where there's a row of seats crammed under a row of wide, dirty slabs of foam that have been hilariously labelled "beds". In China, all the seats are beds, angled at 20 or 30 degrees. There's three rows of these recliners down the length of the bus, and the sheets and pillows that have been provided are clean, if ridden with cigarette holes. Smoking and the almost fetishistic obsession with smoking here has to be one of China's biggest drawbacks. You could make the joke that if the Japanese are born with cell-phones in hand, Americans are given a slab of processed meat product; Australians are given Vegemite, of course, and the Italians, a choice between nice shoes and a cup of coffee. Chinese men, then, are given cigarettes. I've met about two men that didn't smoke here. Occasionally, I've seen women smoke, but it's usually the men, and they're all chain smokers. They smoke while eating, while waiting in line, while riding a bicycle, while crouching over the squat toilets that lack doors and of course, while taking sleeper buses for 11 hours. When the bus pulled into Hengfeng Lu station, I imagine anybody outside watching the door open must've seen a theatrical bluish-white cloud escape into the warm morning air. Things got a bit better in Shanghai, where our new Spanish friend Mariola let us crash at her apartment for a few days. I received an email from my travel agent in the US saying that the plane ticket situation had been resolved: we were cleared for an August departure. But then it got much, much worse when I got targetted by a pickpocket. The FMA and I got on a public bus from Mariola's suburb and headed in to town to check out the shopping street Nanjing Donglu, the touristy shopping street, and a bit of the Old Town area. The bus we got on, number 537, was packed like a Tokyo train, so when the bus lurched or came to a screeching halt - as it often did on the wild streets of Shanghai - everybody got jostled up against each other. At some point between boarding the bus and the ten minutes it took to snag a seat, the small pocket at the bottom of my backpack was opened. Now, I try not to be stupid. I carry my money in a money belt under my clothes. Change and small bills go in a small change wallet, and my passport is always on me, and never in a backpack. I never kept anything of value in that pocket, except for some cheap pens, two small notebooks and my glasses case. What do you think was stolen? Here's a hint: it weren't the pens. Why on earth would anybody steal a glasses case is beyond me. Since I was wearing my prescription sunglasses, my untinted frames were taken, a nice-looking pair I'd gotten in Japan before I left last year. Going to the police the next day to file the report was painless, at least for me. Mariola was kind enough to spend her morning with me there, translating as best she could. While we were dealing with the report, which involved me writing down in English things like, "I am an American on vacation visiting my friend," a guy came in. He looked like your average middle-aged man, slightly receding hairline, glasses, somewhat rumpled look to his shirt but pressed pants. Mariola overheard him filing his report, which she said concerned the disappearance from school of his 15-year-old son. A shitty week like mine just isn't so bad when juxtaposed with that kind of trauma.

The Great Firewall of China (20060517)

This website has been officially censored. Thank you, Chairman Mao. The brightest of the glaring problems in China has got to be the utter inability of the people to say what they want. Now, every country has its restrictions on freedom of speech. England has an "official secrets" act. One of Japan's many media taboos involves criticizing the Imperial household. In America, it used to be limited to slight variations on yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, although with King George in power the list of forbidden subjects has been growing obscenely fast. In China, though, there is no privately-owned media that hasn't been subjected to severe government restriction. It just doesn't exist. The Internet, on the other hand, is freely accessible. Net cafes around China are the cheapest I've seen, with most charging either two or three yuan (less than 25 to 50 cents) per hour, and you can just as easily surf over to salon.com as you can to literotica.com. Certain URLs containing some reference to Japan in them, though, appear to be permanently disabled. The Japan Times web site is accessible, but this site is not. My own Big In Japan is not. Hotmail is usually non-functioning behind the great firewall, and even Gmail, run by the same Google folks who seem to be in bed with the Chinese government, occasionally goes on the blink. The idiocy of the logic behind this has been just as frustrating as anything else I've encountered on this trip. It's not as if the Chinese have banned all sites about Japan, or all web-based email. And given the nature of doing business with the government, where bribing is as common as breathing, it's possible to infer that having the government approval that Google does doesn't actually get your users many benefits. The broadband network throughout China clearly works well enough for the thousands of Net cafe patrons and denizens to waste enormous chunks of time playing their MMRPGs (massively multiplayer role-playing game) that need fast connections for the quick response times the games demand. So if it's not bribes, and it's not connectivity, and it's not ideological censorship, what the heck is it?

Dammed Yangzi (20060514-16)

Once you step foot in modern China, it's easy to understand how the Chinese could conceive of a plan to dam up the third-longest river in the world and sacrifice one of their country's best-known natural treasures all in one swell foop. There are construction projects everywhere. In every village, town or city my Financial and Menu Adviser and I have visited, no matter how large or small the locale, we've seen at least one enormous roadwork project going on. Of course, damming the Yangzi River is no mere roadwork project. When we toured the dam at the end of our cruise, we were told that the cost of building the structure and relocating all the people it would affect, including building new cities for them to live in, was US$25 billion. That's right, new cities. All the villagers and small-town denizens affected have been relocated to new cities, gleaming white things that litter the sides of the Yangzi like balled-up tissue paper. They've been given new jobs, too, apparently. Farmers in the past, most of them now work in the smoke-belching factories which have lined the Yangzi for much of the modern era. Coal and other mines and processing plants seemed to be the majority of them, but it'd take more time than I have now to research this. So we've got new cities, new jobs and a new dam with new hydro-electric powerplants providing new energy for a new China. Not just your garden-variety Hoover Dam-style energy, but enough energy to power cities 1000 km away, the equivalent of 14 nuclear power plants. The power generation aspect can't be understated, even if the propaganda here would like to focus on flood control or job creation. As China rushes head first and perhaps a bit headstrong into development, the need for electricity is like oxygen for the economy. The Yangzi has essentially been reborn, too, as a new river: wider and easier to navigate for the massive tankers that ship goods on the east-west access throughout the country. New flood control, as well. The dam is supposed to change the flooding cycle of the Yangzi from every 10 years to every 100. Ostensibly, this will allow the area's farmers to retain a greater control over their crops come springtime, and help the government maintain a steady supply of food to the Chinese people. The benefits sound attractive, because they are. All that needed to be sacrificed was one natural wonder. The Three Gorges area used to be a series of deep gorges, the Qutang, the Wu and the Xiling. In the same Yangzi area between Chongqing and Yichang that was home to the main three also had a tributary river, the Daning, with a triple gorge threat, creatively called the Little Three Gorges. When my cruise boat went down the river, the gorges looked impressive. But it was as if we were attending a funerary wake. Large white placards and marks dotted the landscape with red writing, putting the height of the river at 139 m above where it was originally. There are 36 more to go. The steep walls of the gorges are high enough to tower over the new water level, but their majesty and humbling beauty has clearly been diminished. The cruise itself was largely boring, which is par for course on the cruise thing. I've never been fond of being trapped on a boat for any extended period of time, and since the water is so high already, I felt like we were spending three days looking at a body in a mausoleum. The impact of seeing the gorges has been greatly diminished by travelling through them halfway up the hill. Much as if the Grand Canyon had been turned into a giant resevoir, except green. Normally, I'd do a quick Google and toss up a few relevent links for your perusal, but the Great Firewall of China is making that difficult. If you're elsewhere in the world, I'd suggest looking at some of the mind-boggling facts about the dam. Nobody's quite sure what's going to happen after the dam has been completed later this year, and the water reaches its final height of 175 m in 2009. There are valid concerns over everything from silt levels on the riverbed to lost archaelogical artifacts to the Chinese people who have had their lives irrevocably and largely unwillingly obliterated and altered by their government. Yet the dam's benefits dangles quite largely in a country awash in progress. That's a hard carrot to ignore.

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