29 March 2006

Considerations of Inconsiderate China


Los Angeles

There was a lot of time to think about China on the flight home. We left our hotel in Beijing at about 7am on Monday morning and arrived home at about 3pm the same day. In all, it was nearly 24 hours in transit. One of the books I read on the plane was Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian. It's banned in China, as is so much else that's worth reading.

The thin volume is a group of somewhat linked short stories based on the facts of the author's travels in Tibet in the mid-1980s. The stories portray the Tibetans and their Han Chinese masters as both brutal and brutalized. Ma Jian had gone to Tibet to get in touch with his Buddhist faith. He came away having lost that faith. He'd already had any of his faith in China drummed out of him.

China's a very hard place to keep your faith; in anything. It calls itself a communist country, but that's just a sick joke. The guys in power in Beijing lay claim to whatever dubious legitimacy they have through the lineage of the Communist Party - which has become no more than a state religion. They don't really believe a word of the rhetoric anymore, but if they ever say so publically they'll just be pulling down their own house of cards. In reality China is still ruled by emperors: the Ming Dynasty gave way to the Ching which gave way to the Manchu, then to a Nationalist Dynasty which was supplanted by the Chairman Mao Dynasty then a short period of turmoil before the Deng Dynasty. Now China seems to be firmly ruled by a Dull Technocrat Dynasty that is turning it into the kind of old-fashioned, exploitive capitalist country that much of the rest of the world has evolved beyond.

One day in Beijing we walked through a park that was being restored. The workers, imported from villages in the countryside - a lot cheaper than hiring city dwellers - live in a big tent and eat communal meals. They're in Beijing on a one year contract. So as to ensure they will stick around for the whole year, they're not paid until their term is completed. In the case of the park it's the government that's employing them, so their money might be safe. All too often at the end of the year, if they're working for a private company, the company will declare financial hardship and pay them less than they're entitled to, or nothing more than a bus ride home. There is almost nothing they can do about it.

The old, traditional neighborhoods in Beijing are called hutongs and they're disappearing fast; torn down to make way for nondescript blocks of high-rise apartments. The people who are displaced are compensated, slightly. But not nearly enough to afford the new apartments. They move to the outskirts of the city, or to someplace else altogether, breaking up communities that have been together for generations.

Nearly 800 million Chinese live in "rural" areas. They are the "peasents" who were the backbone of China's revolution. Communism was supposed to be on their behalf. That didn't work out so well. They got as screwed by the Mao Dynasty as they had been by the other dyansties before it.

In the Deng Dynasty they were somewhat freed. They still couldn't own their land - a promise that was broken by the Emperor Mao - but they could grow whatever they wanted on it and let a free market sort it out. From 1983 to 1991 their incomes rose significantly. They've stagnated, or even declined, since. There were nearly a hundred thousand rural protests last year in China. It's hard to get an exact figure on anything in the country, but the government itself admits to around 74,000. None of them had any real impact. Many of them were brutally suppressed.

And many of them are losing the land that they don't own anyhow. The government owns agricultural land. People can buy, sell and speculate on residential, commercial and industrial property and that's a whole lot more lucrative than farming. So local governments all over China have been selling off huge chunks of agricultural land to developers from the cities - and from other countries. They boot the farmers off to make way for housing developments, industrial parks and shopping malls. In some cases the farmers are compensated at the very low "agricultural use value" of the land. In many cases they are just shoved aside and told to go find work elsewhere. (Living in tents in the city and not getting paid for a year, for instance.)

China is no worker's paradise. It is the most unbridled, raucous, venal capitalist society I have ever seen. By comparison, the U.S. is much further down the road to socialist utopia. By every measure, (even those where the U.S. does a piss poor job)- education, healthcare, poverty levels and social welfare, social services, legal protections for minorities and women, infrastructure, privacy from government intrusion into daily life, cultural and arts funding, honest law enforcement, rights of individuals, free and open access to information, even that old Marxist goal of labor and public ownership of the means of production, etc. - the U.S. - and for that matter practically every other "non-socialist" country in Asia - kicks China's ass.

I did meet one person in China who has kept the faith. As a young nuclear physicist, Joan Hinton worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. She witnessed the explosion of the first bomb at Trinity Site, New Mexico. With her own hands she helped to build the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. She freaked out when she heard how many people her handiwork had helped to kill. She became a lifelong communist. She defected to China in 1948 and has lived there ever since. Now, living on a dairy farm outside of Beijing, she still thinks Chairman Mao did almost nothing, if anything, wrong. The 30 to 40 million people who most reputable historians say died during China's Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s are simply a "gross exaggeration." If Chairman Mao hadn't died, and had been able to complete his Cultural Revolution, it would have been his greatest achievement. It is still something that China ought to be proud of. Deng Xiaoping and his cronies were horribly corrupt "capitalist roaders." She's a smart, warm, strong, fascinating woman and a true believer.

And maybe she's got at least part of a point. A whole lot fewer people are being killed these days by the design and mismanagement of China's government than were slaughtered by Emperor Mao. (Although a country that executes as many as twenty thousand people a year and allows many tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands to die in industrial accidents, can scarcely be cited for humanitarianism.) But still, parts of the Chinese economy seem to be reverting to feudalism. Sooner or later the country is going to have to reform real quick, split apart, or face another revolution.

All of this seems more apparent in Beijing than elsewhere. Even without open public discourse, politics is one of the most common topics in private conversations. In the drab, colorless, dust and pollution choked capital city, it's a whole lot harder to see evidence of the very real progress that China is making than it is in glitzy, glamorous, 24-hour-a-day, high-speed crackling Shanghai. And in the South, in Guangdong and Fujian provinces, in Hong Kong and Macau, I was regularly reminded of a favorite old Cantonese saying: "Close to my heart, and far from Beijing."


Part Two: A Short List of the Best of the Eric Stone Book Tour of China 2006

Enough China bashing for one blog. Here's some of the things I liked best on the tour.

Hong Kong & Macau

Colin Cotterill. I knew he was a wonderful writer before I met him and now I know he's a great, fun, interesting guy in person too. Read The Coroner's Lunch and Thirty-Three Teeth. You'll like them. If you don't, it could only be because you have bad taste in books. Here's a picture of Colin, (he's a lot more photogenic than I am), his girlfriend Jessi and my girlfriend Eva:



Here we are chatting with some of our legions of fans following a triumphant - well, amusing at least - panel that we both appeared on at the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival:



Fernando's. One of the world's greatest restaurants. It's on Hac Sa beach on Coloane Island in Macau. It's informal and relaxing and the spicy clams, crab casserole, bbq chicken, grilled fish and even plain green salad are utter perfection. Especially washed down with a pitcher of sangrilla or a bottle or three of Portuguese Vinho Verde. (There's a scene that takes place in it in The Living Room of the Dead.)

The Star Ferry. A much shorter ride than it used to be due to the reclaiming of land in the harbor, but still one of the great scenic bargains on the planet.

Hee Kee Fried Crab Expert. And I don't even like crab all that much. Astounding, overwhelming flavors of garlic, pepper, chili and crab. A funky little place (be warned, it isn't cheap though) that is jam packed at all hours in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.

The Train from HK to Shanghai. It takes about 25 hours, a very comfortable private sleeper compartment for two costs about the same or less than flying, the scenery is interesting and the dining car has tasty - if greasy - food. Here's Eva, snug on the train:



Shanghai

Where to start. I fell in love with Shanghai. It's one of the most exciting cities I've ever been in. Just walking around in almost any part of the city is interesting and fun. Go to the Photos section of the website to see pictures. They ought to be up sometime later today. But, here's some few recommendations:

Xiao long bau - juicy pork dumplings. You'll find them all over town, but the very best ones we had, the very height of dumpling perfection, were at a tiny little storefront on Ningbo Road West, just north of Central Henan Road (not too far from Nanjing Lu - the main shopping street). The place is next door to the Apple Garden Bakery and the name is only in Chinese. Be very careful when you bite into the dumplings. The utterly perfect, thin but strong and pliant wrapper holds in a large amount of scalding hot pork juice. They only steam a couple of baskets at a time so that they can serve them hot, very hot. Go there and eat. It's ridiculously cheap and one of the truly great food experiences you will ever have. Even if you're a vegetarian - give it up for a meal. Here's a picture of the front of the place:



Shanghai MOCA. A great space in a nice park surrounded by strange looking buildings. The show we saw wasn't great, but the contemporary art was quirky and political in ways that I didn't expect to see in China.

Officer Emily, Shanghai PD. Eva had her wallet stolen. After an hour and a half of street cops arguing over who was going to get stuck with the jurisdiction - it happened right on the border between two precincts - and have to cope with non-Chinese speaking tourists, they took us to the station and handed us over to Emily, the low person on the totem pole. She spoke great English and had a very nice, easy way about her that made us comfortable and almost made a pleasant experience of the whole thing. Chairman Mao once said: "Women hold up half the sky." That day, Emily was holding up a whole lot more than her half. Here she and Eva are in the rather run down station house:



Terrace Bars at M on the Bund and New Heights. Mind-boggling views and strong drinks, perfect for dusk as the sun goes down and the lights come up.

Xiao Nan Guo restaurant. Superb Shanghainese food, somewhat off the tourist beaten path, big for weddings on weekends so either book ahead or go on a weekday. We had crab, shrimp, snake (really delicious snake), some sort of loofah like vegetable that was great and some sort of local pancake thing that was also great.

Beijing

We really didn't much like Beijing. It's ugly, flat, dull, spread out and filthy. (Then again, that could describe Los Angeles - although I think it's less of those things - and I love this place, so go figure.) Everyone told us that the people in Beijing were much less aggressive and unpleasant, and more couth than they are in Shanghai. We found the opposite to be true. Still, there were things we really liked about the place.

798 Arts District. A whole bunch of contemporary galleries built into the sprawling complex of what used to be an industrial cable factory. A lot of the art we saw was rather predictable and derivative, but there were some gems in the mix. (Chinese artists still have a long way to go before they work Chairman Mao and communism out of their esthetic systems.) Still, the complex itself is great and it's surprising how free the visual arts are in an otherwise pretty strict totalitarian state.

Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant. A great, family run place down a somewhat confusing set of alleys in an old - although rapidly being torn down - neighborhood just south and east of Tienanmen Square. There are plenty of big, garish, popular tourist palaces for Peking Duck. Eat here instead.

The Bookworm. An island of calm and intellectual sensibility. A combination bookstore, lending library, cafe, bar and event venue run by the extremely personable and smart Alex Pearson. If you're pining away for actual, fresh, raw greens - a regular occurance for Westerners travelling in Asia - they have really good salads. Every city ought to have a place like this.

The Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai. See the photos section. This is a tough 10 km hike, but worth every last panting, groaning, knee quaking step of it.

The Weekend Flea Market. Kitsch, kitsch and more kitsch. Here's where the Cultural Revolution really went to die.

22 March 2006

Hello T-Shirt!

Beijing

There are some things I am enjoying about Beijing. The Bookworm, where I had my event, is one of them. Every city would be lucky to have at least one. It's a cafe / bar / lounge / event venue / lending library / bookshop, run by Alex Pearson, an extremely smart, funny, pleasant person to spend some time with. You can also get a really good salad there - a rarity in Asia.

The event itself was well attended, maybe 45 or so people. At the end they asked a lot of questions, mostly to do with prostitution; about which it seems I am assumed to be some sort of expert, or at least willing to talk honestly about from a male perspective. One shy young Chinese woman in a lot of frilly pink wanted to know why I wrote The Living Room of the Dead, then she wanted to know if I'd been influenced by writers like Kafka. I could only guess that she hadn't read the book, but she was so charming and ernest that I answered her quite seriously. Later, after the event, she came up to me and wanted to know if I liked writing strong moral messages into my books. I told her no, but that I hoped my books would stimulate people to think for themselves about a variety of issues, including moral ones. I asked if she liked reading books with strong moral messages. She said "no." I then teased her a little, asking if she liked books with "immoral messages," to which she giggled, turned tail and ran out of the room. Hmmmm.

The day after the event was spent at the Summer Palace, which was largely closed for rennovation - no doubt for the Olympics year in 2008. They do need to do more than simply renovate though. The feeble efforts at informing visitors about the places they are seeing, are just not enough, especially when for the most part all you can look at is the exterior of buildings. Even if you were let into the interior, most of the historical artifacts are long gone.

After that we walked around in a slightly less bombed out looking hutong. Maybe it was that it was the middle of a weekday, but the old neighborhood was far from lively. Like nearly everything else in Beijing it was drab, colorless, desultory. We did walk alongside a small lake where there are a great many bars and pubs. At night it might be festive. We'll try to go back on the weekend. We ascended to the top of the old Drum Tower - sort of a huge, municipal clock from which the time was announced by drums. From it there were views over all the city. There isn't much point. It only drove home what an ugly and uninspiring place Beijing is.

Yesterday we had a car and driver take us on a three hour drive to Jinshanling, up in the mountains, from where we hiked on the Great Wall for ten kilometers to Simatai. This, if you are physically capable of doing it, is something I can unresevedly recommend. Although it might be nicer in the mid to late spring or the fall when there is some color in the landscape. Some of the wall that you walk on has not been restored and it is remarkable to know that you're walking on something massive that was built anywhere from 450 to, for a short while, nearly 2000 years ago. The hike takes you up some extremely steep portions of the wall and down others, as it snakes along ridges above deep gorges, through 33 watchtowers.

As you leave Jinshanling you first run a gauntlet of vendors. Their shrill greeting of "Hello t-shirt!" is quite familiar to any foreigner who walks around nearly anywhere in China. (In nightmarkets that have a lot of food stalls you will hear the variant: "Hello dumpling!" which I don't think is meant as either a term of affection or a comment on the shape of many foreign tourists.) As you pass through the welcoming committee, a tag team duo will attach themselves to you. Even if you make it clear that you want to walk alone, they will be nearby - either in front or behind - as you walk. Every so often, as you pause to catch your breath, they will come up and in tortured English tell you small facts that you are very likely to have already read in the most abbreviated guidebook, or can read for yourself on the poorly written signs along the way: "Ming Dynasty, 450 year. Mongolia north, China south, brick, 33 guard tower..."

The good ones don't try to sell you anything until you've reached the halfway point -where the torturous path turns, mostly, downhill. Then it's out with the photo book, the scrolled photograph, the postcards and finally, the t-shirt - in just that order of descending profit margin for them. If you say no, you don't want to buy, much less carry any of that crap, even politely, out comes the hard luck story. They're simple, poor farmers. The crops are terrible. All they can do every day is come to the Great Wall and sell to tourists or their families will go hungry and their children won't go to school. They won't leave you alone. They won't take no for an answer. If you speak to them in some language other than English, they don't care, they either speak enough of it too to sell you something, or they are pretty good with sign language. Finally, wanting to be left alone, you have to buy something to make them go away. (If you simply give them the money and tell them to scram, it is extremely insulting, even though that's, in essence, what it's all about.)

A word of advice: buy something from one of them right away. Overpay a little for it and tell them the money is for the both of them. Then tell them to go away and they will. Buy something light though, it's a hard hike. You don't want the book. You don't even want the postcards. The t-shirt or the rolled up photo aren't so bad. You can also use what you've bought to ward off the vendors from the town you're walking to who meet you at the halfway point and threaten to accompany you the rest of the way.

Yet again, it's the Communist worker's paradise in action. Villages have all been told that they have to fend for themselves. They have to provide for their own health care and education and sanitation and pretty much everything else. They are not given very much money from the central government to do any of this. So, instead of getting together to find reasonable ways to raise money, they in turn tell their residents to fend for themselves. So, when you leave Jinshanling you pay a 30 yuan (about US$3.75) fee to start the hike; and you're pestered by Jinshanling vendors. At the halfway point you must pay - or turn back - the 40 yuan (US$5) fee to Simatai; and get pestered by the Simatai vendors. Then you get to a suspension bridge not far from Simatai and you must pay five yuan to cross it.

None of this is a lot of money - although it would be to a typical Chinese tourist. The question is, why can't the two towns get together and charge one higher fee to make the hike, and organize the vendor gauntlets at either end leaving tourists alone in the middle, and find a way to share revenue to the benefit of everyone in the villages? I guess that might reek too much of socialism, or just plain common sense; or maybe it doesn't provide enough opportunity for graft. I also suspect, among other things, that the central government finds ways to discourage cooperation between villages - that might give them a chance at a little power of their own.

Communism was a really dumb idea. The sad thing is that for a great many Chinese people, especially those who don't live in the big, fast developing cities, they haven't come up with a better one yet.

20 March 2006

Administrative Malaise

Beijing

Of course this isn't going to be fair. Opinions don't have to be fair. We arrived in Beijing at 6:58am today having taken the train from Shanghai.

We were sorry to leave Shanghai. We walked a great deal on our last day there, much of it along Suzhou Creek which is very interesting and may, if the urban planners have their way, become very attractive. We ate the very finest xiao long bau, juicy pork dumplings, that we have ever had the privilege of eating. At a mere five yuan (about 62 cents U.S.) for eight perfect dumplings, we couldn't help ourselves and went through three servings and just barely managed to stop ourselves from a fourth.

We must have covered five or six miles and nearly every block had something that stopped us, at least for a little while, to photograph or gawk or admire or ask about.

Then the train was great. Modern, comfortable, fast, quiet for a train - everything that Amtrak in America isn't. We enjoyed ourselves and slept reasonably well.

Entering Beijing, all was bleak. The apartment buildings and slums we passed looked run down and very used up. A lot of areas, pretty much all the old ones we passed, looked like they'd been saturation bombed. The people we could see walking through the dense haze and dust were hunched over and colorless. As we got into the center of the city, the big buildings, even the new ones, looked no better than one might expect of mid-1960s Soviet architecture.

The boulevards are broad with overly long blocks, lined with uninspired and uninspiring buildings and the occasional monument that it's hard to imagine anyone really takes all that seriously anymore. The crowds of people everywhere - in a country where people are not usually known for common courtesy - seem to aspire to even greater depths of spitting on the street, belching in your face, pushing and shoving while cutting in lines.

The Forbidden City was forbidding indeed. Jam packed with tour groups, the scene of a great deal of noisy and dusty restoration work and ill-served by the feeble attempts of the signage - brought to you by American Express - to explain the significance of the place, much less such matters of interest as daily life or anything else that took place when it was something more than a tourist site.

Tiananmen Square is, as advertised, enormous. It used to be bigger until they stuck the Mao-soleum (as it is sometimes called) in the middle of it. It is utterly barren, carpeted in a good plush inch or two of dust and manages to feel - if a place can be said to express such a thing - arrogant. It is also lousy with cops - and, reportedly, plainclothes cops. They're ready to pounce on anyone who might dare raise even a minor stink in public about the oppressive government here.

On the way to the Forbidden City and the Square we walked down Wangfujing Dajie, a huge pedestrian (in both senses of the word) shopping street. Until relatively recently it had been the site of an old, renown hutong - a traditional neighborhood. Now it reminds me of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California - only a lot wider and with fewer and less interesting shops.

For dinner we did manage to find our way to a truly superb, small, family-run roast duck restaurant called Li Qun. It was down a meandering route through narrow alleys running through an actual, remaining hutong. Not for long though. About a third of the small shops and houses looked as if they'd been totaled in an artillery barrage; two-thirds had suffered some sort of damage. It is an area over which Beijing's rapacious developers are greedily licking their chops.

Despite China's near constant nagging reminders about its great and glorious past, there seems to be very little real sentiment in favor of preserving the remnants of it. There are some sites, such as the Forbidden City, that cannot be levelled to make way for a shopping mall. But I would guess that within the next five years there will be expensive boutiques lining the courtyards of the Forbidden City. It is already reported that Starbucks has breached the City gates. Although I must admit that we didn't see it ourselves.

So, so far Beijing has not made a good impression. Not even close. We have been told that there are a lot of good, avant garde art galleries here, and a wide variety of interesting cultural events to be viewed. We'll see. Meanwhile our feet hurt, and in the service of not much gain.

16 March 2006

An Astounding Place - The Planet's a Goner

Shanghai

Another day of wonder and delight in Shanghai. Eva couldn't get through to Bank of America in the U.S. to report her stolen ATM card so we decided to go to their office in Pudong - the new part of the city across the river - to see what we could do. An espresso was required to kick start the day so we went to a gleaming new huge Starbucks. It tasted just like it does in the U.S., which is, I guess, the point. We found our way to the Shanghai Stock Exchange building - a vertical hollow square - and the BofA people there could not have been more friendly and helpful.

Mission accomplished, we went to lunch. We went to the Grand Hyatt - the world's tallest hotel. It occupies floors 54 to 87 of the Jin Mao Tower - a beautiful building that looks like sort of a modern update on the Chrysler Building in New York. First we admired the 30-story indoor atrium. (I've got great photos of a lot of this stuff but unfortunately it seems that they are going to have to wait for my return to the U.S. to make it onto the website.) Then we went to the hotel's Shanghai restaurant on the 86th floor for lunch. The haze outside prevented us from seeing much. The wild vegetables with tofu were fantastic, everything else was sort of typical hotel food - perfectly cooked but kind of dull. A relatively light lunch cost us about as much as we'd spent on all our meals put together up until that point.

After lunch we descended and looked across the street at the beginning stages of construction of what will be the world's tallest building - 150 or 170 or 210 floors or something like that. The pictures look like it will be a slender, graceful, angled tower with a huge hole in the top to let the wind through so that it doesn't sway too much. I'm looking forward to going up into it one of these days - after it's been successully in place for at least a few years first.

Off to the Pearl Orient TV Tower - the monster spire with red bubbles built into it at various stages. It's something else that can only be described in superlatives - although variations on the word "ugly" are certainly among them. In the basement is a Shanghai history museum that is very well done. It has some of the best dioramas and small scale complete shops, buildings and neighborhoods that we've ever seen. A number of the dioramas come complete with moving, talking holograms of people at work, play or simply hanging around the house and arguing with each other. It does a good job of portraying the history and daily life of Shanghai from around the mid-1800s to just before the revolution in 1949. I want to see how they portray their history since 1949, but we're not sure which museum to go to for that.

We had a much better dinner than lunch, for about a quarter the price - Yang's Kitchen, if you should ever be in Shanghai. Then we strolled around a neighborhood that had a small Chinese-Moslem night market and was also a red light district. There were a whole lot of small barber shops, complete with revolving red and white poles, staffed by a number of young women wearing a lot of makeup. They weren't there to cut hair. We stopped in front of a restaurant that was selling baked goods. Among other things they were selling bagels. That's not what they called them, but that's exactly what they were. Really good and fresh ones too.

Another fascinating, fun day in a city that I am increasingly enamored of. We're even toying with the idea of living here for at least a year or two.

So, what's the problem?

The planet is sunk. Literally. Goodbye Seychelles and Mauritius. Hurry up and build that sea wall Manhattan. There's no stopping this kind of development in time. It won't happen. No one can reasonably ask them to stop it, or even cut back. Maybe if the U.S. got serious itself and said: okay, we're going to cut back on our waste and pollution and lifestyle; we're willing to accept a lower standard of living; maybe then we could convince China and India and other developing countries to slow down. Although I doubt even then they'd listen to us. But we are not going to do that and we have no solid ground to stand on to ask anyone else to do that and global warming is the real deal.

Much of what is making Shanghai one of, if not the most exciting places in the world today is causing long term problems for the planet. That's true in every single big city. And it's not going to get better. It's going to get worse. And it's going to get a lot worse - fast. You think last year's hurricanes were bad? Just wait. The tsunami's got nothing on a rising ocean.

The only hope is for some sort of sci-fi technological miracle and there is at best a very slim chance of that. We are not at all likely to invent our way out of this one, or to be able to finance the invention in time on a world wide level if we do.

So, I'm learning to love this place and to fear what it means. Then again, I live in Los Angeles, a place with much the same longterm implications.

Ah well, it's time to shower and hit the streets again. To enjoy this place while I can.

15 March 2006

The City of the Hot Future

Shanghai

There is nearly everything I love about cities here. It's one of the most electric places I've ever been. The contrasts between old and new start at the rivers edge. On one bank there's The Bund - the old, beautiful, traditional European waterfront. And on the other there's Pudong - the most futuristic skyline in the world. Yesterday we had lunch in an old, traditional restaurant where some of the best dumplings we've ever tasted were made by hand in the manner they've been made for hundreds of years. We sat on beautifully carved, old Chinese wooden chairs in a restored old building. And the waiter took our order with some sort of wireless cyber-device.

The streets are practically shaking with activity and commerce. It's like being in the midst of an ongoing development earthquake. The architecture isn't constrained by old-fashioned esthetic notions. Much of it is hideous, but it is playful, interesting to look at, anarchic, different. Some of it is startling, bold and excellent. It's representative of the culture of the city in a way that the typical square glass boxes - no matter how much The Donald tries to put a sheen along with his name on them - of New York aren't.

Yesterday we went to the Art Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum. At the Art Museum we saw a retrospective of work by Chen Zhen, a Shanghai artist who did most of his work in France. Some of the work was bizarre and fun - like a collection of beautifully blown glass sculptures of parts of the human digestive system. Some of it was surprisingly political: a piece called The Library was a collection of glass cubes containing the ashes of burnt books in which you could still make out some of the Chinese text.

The Contemporary Art Museum - set in a quirky glass building in the middle of People's Park - had an exhibit about the impact of cartoon, as in Japanese manga, culture on art. It was mostly by very young artists and a lot of it was rather trite. But as a whole it was an interesting, well-curated, challenging show that was a lot of fun.

I was thinking to myself that in the 11 years I lived in Hong Kong, nothing similar to either of these shows was available. We then headed out to a part of town where there are a group of new galleries in old warehouses. (That sounds familiar and very encouraging to someone from Los Angeles.)

We took the clean and fast and cheap subway to the northern train station and started walking to the gallery area. Halfway across a bridge over a stream, a woman stopped Eva and started jabbering at top speed in Mandarin and pointing at Eva's purse. The woman had seen someone steal Eva's wallet.

A talented someone. Eva's purse had been zipped shut and held close to her side. A passerby called the police who showed up in about five minutes. But then some other police showed up.

Then all the police started arguing with each other. The problem was that we didn't know exactly where we were when the wallet was stolen. We only knew where we were when we discovered the theft. And that was cause for a jurisdictional dispute because no one really wanted to deal with a couple of non-Chinese-speaking tourists and a crime that could probably never be solved. But, once the police had been called, someone had to deal with us.

We had discovered the crime on the bridge and that was one precinct's territory. The wallet had probably been stolen before we got to the bridge and that was another precinct. They argued for over an hour before one precinct gave in and agreed to take us to their station house.

There, the low woman on the totem pole, whose English name was Emily and who had graduated from the academy only two months ago, was put in charge of taking Eva's statement. Emily took us up to a dreary, dirty office with one beat up old computer in a corner. She sat us down across from her at a desk and wrote down everything Eva told her. She then handed Eva the pages of Chinese writing and asked her to write a statement on them that they were correct and accurately reflected what Eva had told her. We had no reason to believe that we were going to end up in a re-education through labor camp no matter what the paper said, so trusting Emily, Eva did what she was asked.

We were given a properly stamped copy in case Eva's credit card companies ever want proof that she reported the theft of her cards to the police. They'll have to read it in Chinese though. Back at the hotel, the Chinese phone system unfortunately reverted to its old ways and it took Eva ten tries to get through to her Visa card customer service number without getting cut off before she could make her report.

We licked our wounds over an excellent Shanghainese dinner and then strolled around what used to be the French Concession, looking at the smart new boutiques in restored houses and bright lights. We ended up with drinks at Face - part of a small, growing chain of bar/restaurants around Asia. The original was my favorite Indian restaurant in Jakarta. The one in Bangkok - a Thai and Indian restaurant on different floors of one of the most beautiful wooden houses I've ever been in - is one of the great places to eat and drink in the world. This one was pretty great too.

After that we came back to the hotel for a drink and to listen to the Peace Hotel Old Jazz Band. They're famous for being in their 80s and 90s and having played here since they were kids. Unfortunately, by the time we got back to the hotel they'd doddered off to sleep and the middle-aged jazz band was playing. They were terrible, but that's what they're supposed to be so it was okay for a little while.

In all, it was an interesting and mostly fun day. A wallet can be stolen anywhere (luckily Eva's passport was safely locked up back at the hotel) and for the most part we have the impression that Shanghai is a whole lot safer than the average U.S. city. Today we plan to head back out to the art gallery district - keeping a tighter rein on our belongings; and then over to the brave new world of Pudong.

As much though as I'm loving this place, and even mulling it over as a place to live for a year or two, it is adding to my misgivings about the future of the planet. I'll get to that in the next post.

13 March 2006

Somewhere Between Hong Kong and Shanghai

9pm, Sunday 12 March 2006

This is the stuff that science fiction was once made of. Eva and I are in a very comfortable sleeper compartment in an express Chinese train speeding from Hong Kong to Shanghai, having eaten pleasantly enough in the dining car, and I’m working on a computer.

The first time I was in China was 1978. I took the train through Hong Kong, past small farms and villages in the New Territories – one of which, Sha Tin, is now a suburban city of almost two million people – to the end of the line at Lo Wu. There we got off the train and humped our luggage across a wooden bridge over the nearly dry Shenzhen Creek, to a small brick border station where we were stamped into the People’s Republic by an unsmiling official who sat under a large poster of Chairman Mao handing something – the reins of power I suppose – to Hua Guofeng.

As we boarded the Chinese train on the other side, we could see farmers toiling in the fields, some of them with oxen, none of them with machines. They were being blasted by squeaky patriotic music and the occasional quotation from the Chairman, from loudspeakers on wooden poles scattered around the countryside. There was a speaker also just above our seats on that train. We could turn it down, but not off. We only took the train as far as Guangzhou (Canton) that time. We later flew to Shanghai.

I’ve been to China many times since, but not again to Shanghai. I feel as though we are heading for what will seem like another planet.

Hong Kong always feels like another planet. But it’s one I’m familiar with.

I was reminded at dinner in the dining car of how primitive the state of mobile phones is in the U.S. A man seated across from us simply picked up his mobile phone, pushed a button to dial a number, and was happily and clearly talking with someone in Europe while our train rumbled through the dark, rural night of China. No doubt it was the same cell phone that he uses in Europe. He simply bought a sim card, slipped it into the slot and was able to call as if he had a local cell phone. In the civilized, high-tech world outside the U.S. and Canada, you simply buy whatever phone you want then you have options to sign up with a specific service or purchase local sim cards wherever you go. Why is it that we can’t do that in the U.S.? Regulation? Quasi-monopolies? What?

The Hong Kong Literary Festival was a lot of fun and had a number of events of interest, even other than my own. It was remarkably well organized, ran efficiently, was very well attended and in every way was very impressive. I’m hoping they’ll invite me back again next year.

The Festival is a great deal more international than similar festivals in the U.S. I listened to and spoke with authors from Ireland, Britain, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, China, Canada, Mexico, South Africa and I think there might have been a Frenchman or an Italian. Among the continents only Antarctica was unrepresented.

I fear that in previous posts I may have given you the impression that I harbor no fondness for Hong Kong. There are many things that I truly love about the place, the international social life being the best among them. I recall numerous dinner parties at which the 12 people around the lazy Susan in a Chinese restaurant represented anywhere from six to a full-dozen native languages and countries. Something like that is very rare, even in Los Angeles where the inhabitants speak over 150 native tongues and come from every country in the world. Most big U.S. cities actually have a much more diverse population than Hong Kong. Most mid-sized U.S. cities do too for that matter. But, the social milieu is just not the same. I miss that – a lot.

Even so, it is rare to get together with a group like that and discuss literature or art or music or film or politics. The talk is more often than not of business or consumer goods or food itself or other such topics that would not make for a particularly interesting salon. I guess you can’t have everything.

Or perhaps the conversation is often not particulary deep due to the rather massive ingestion of alcohol that is common in nearly every expatriate gathering. I was reminded of this while being interviewed by a writer for the South China Morning Post. One of his comments about my book The Living Room of the Dead was that he realized very quickly that the hero was an American, ‘because he didn’t really drink all that much.’

It’s one of those ‘eye of the beholder’ things. Readers and reviewers in the U.S. have almost all commented with horror and disapproval on how much the hero of the book does drink. My sister-in-law told me that one of the things she found unrealistic about the book was that anyone who drank that much would be incapable of functioning in a normal way and would, if deprived of booze for a day or so, be incapacitated by delirium tremors. All I could say by way of defense was that she quite obviously had not ever worked in a largely British or Australian office in Hong Kong. Perhaps I should put her in touch with the Post’s journalist.

I was also interviewed by one of the daily newspapers in Macau. I’ll see if I can get a PDF posted on my website for those of you who might want to practice your Portuguese. If you just can't wait and want to read the original on the newspapers site, here's a link: http://www.pontofinalmacau.com (You'll have to copy and paste it, sorry.)

Now I’d like to write a little about amahs – housemaids. I was wondering one day why there seemed to be a lot more Indonesian and Nepalese amahs in Hong Kong than in the past when nearly all of them were from the Philippines. The reason for it is shameful and indicative of the extremely ugly, elitist side of life in Hong Kong and its government’s utter lack of regard for protecting the underdog.

Not long after the Asian economic collapse of 1997-98, Hong Kong, for the first time in a while, found itself in recession. Amahs have always been underpaid, but Hong Kong had a minimum wage for them – around US$475 per month – that made them the highest paid in the region. (Besides their salary, amahs are usually given room and board, although a 12 hour day, six day week is considered a light schedule. By law they only have to be given two days off a month, and there are no limits on the hours they work.)

A group of wealthy and upper middle class employers of amahs, worried that their property values and stock portfolios were declining, petitioned the Hong Kong government to lower the minimum wage for amahs. It did, to something around US$340 per month. The government promised that it was temporary, only until the economy rebounded.

There was only so much that the Filipinas – coming from a society that had overthrown its longtime dictator Marcos not all that long ago – were willing to accept. Many of them protested. The government of the Philippines protested. A whole lot of amahs didn’t get their visas renewed and were sent home. They were replaced with more “docile” women from even poorer countries – Indonesia and Nepal.

The economy rebounded quite some time ago. It’s percolating at a very nice clip these days. There is, of course, no talk of reinstating the previous minimum wage, much less raising it. And, now that Hong Kong is part of the People’s Republic, a country ideologically (at least on paper) committed to creating a worker’s paradise, there is even less chance of change for the better than ever.

Perhaps if the amahs were Chinese, Han Chinese that is. In the booming cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing there is an increasing demand for amahs. They’re paid even worse and protected even less than in Hong Kong. But then everything is cheaper in China. The Peoples Republic’s exploited domestics are coming from all the traditional places with young desperate women: the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal; but also from Tibet, Xinjiang, Yunnan and the other “ethnic minority regions” of China itself.

And, speaking of the minority regions of China, Eva just got back from five days in Lijiang in Yunnan Province. She highly recommends it. It’s one of the most beautiful and interesting places she’s been. In particular she suggests: the Zen Garden Hotel and Li & Richard Travel Service for local forays to Naxi and Tibetan villages and areas of interest.

08 March 2006

Bookstores and a Scary Chart

This is a somewhat short and rambling post. I forgot to include a chart that my friend Dave drew for me while we were tormenting our livers the other night. It is a chart that was drawn for him by an investment banker friend who does business in China. According to the investment banker - who has worked in China for a dozen or more years, everything a business person does there falls into one of two categories: "Greed," the positive factors that motivate you; and "Fear," the negative factors that motivate. Here's how the chart looks (sorry that I couldn't figure out how to format a chart on the blog):

GREED
Money
Women
Power

FEAR
Family *
Bodily Harm
Authority (government / police)
Blackmail
Capricious regulation

* Family makes you vulnerable.

I was once arrested and held overnight in China for wandering into the wrong place with my camera. And I once had to pay bribes to get a vitally important interview. I never had anything much to do with money, women or power there. I don't think I've got the stomach to do business in China.

Hong Kong is a different matter though. It can be a real pleasure to do business here. At least on the low level that I have. Yesterday I was taken around to a couple of bookstores by Claudia, a very nice, well read and interesting woman who works with Pan Macmillan Asia - the distributor of THE LIVING ROOM OF THE DEAD in this part of the world. It was fun seeing my book for sale in shops that I used to frequent when I lived here, even if it wasn't exactly huge stacks of it. Hardbacks are a hard sell here, the distributors are anxious for a paperback to come out. So am I. I was surprised at the price - less than I would have thought. The book sells for $22.95 in the U.S. and for HK$218 (US$28 approximately) here.

There are a number of new and bigger than ever bookshops in Hong Kong, but real estate is just too expensive to allow for any of the big box stores that we have in the U.S. I imagine a Borders or a Barnes and Noble would cause havoc in the book selling marketplace here. There is a huge Borders in Singapore, but that's a roomier place - sort of.

07 March 2006

Second Impressions of Hong Kong

It’s an exciting place, I’ve got to give it that. In the right mood I enjoy surfing the crowds in Mongkok or Central. In the wrong mood I nearly split my teeth gritting them to endure it. I’ve been in the wrong mood a little more often than the right one since I’ve been here. But I have caught some pretty good human waves on occasion.

There’s a lot of new buildings, built on a lot of newly reclaimed land. You’d think that sooner or later vacancy rates would start rising, but they never seem to. Hong Kong works on the assumption that “if we build it, they will come.” And so far the place has been right about that.

Other than maybe the new Disneyland. I hear it’s not doing so well, at least initially. (Although, yesterday I was nearly trampled by a mob of Mickey Mouse ear-sporting Mainland tourists on a rampage through a super-glitzy new shopping mall.) But then, if what someone is looking for is brand name, pre-packaged faux culture and amusement, it’s awfully hard to compete with Hong Kong itself.

One of the things I didn’t like about living here is that the launch of a new designer wristwatch is (mis)taken for a cultural event. The introduction of a new-style Rolls Royce is the Hong Kong equivalent of one of those blockbuster art museum shows – like the greatest hits of Van Gogh.

Who needs art when the city itself is one giant conceptual work in progress. It’s a strange place. It’s solid. All those buildings and crowds are not figments of anybody’s imagination. But increasingly, Hong Kong is more of an idea than a reality. And to me, it’s beginning to feel dated.

Nothing much is actually manufactured here anymore, it’s too expensive. As a trading hub it’s beginning to decline as Chinese companies can increasingly ship directly to the rest of the world rather than transshipping through Hong Kong. As a financial center? Who cares? Nowadays most financial wheeling and dealing take place on an intangible cyber-plane, it doesn't require a geographic location. Hong Kong always had a bigger reputation than it deserved for finance anyhow. It has certainly never been a center of innovative economics. To the local tycoons, everything really boils down to property deals.

Economically Hong Kong is one huge shopping mall in which nearly everyone sells stuff to everyone else. The guy who runs the Rolex shop sells watches to the guy who runs the Guy Laroche shop next door who sells his clothes to the watch guy. It’s not unlike the Eskimo potlatches I studied in college anthropology class. Everyone brings everything they’ve got to the party and then they trade it to each other. Here they use money to facilitate the exchanges, but it’s pretty much the same thing.

That’s worked great for years. When China and the world required Hong Kong’s services as a port; when the region’s most important stock exchange needed a trading floor; and further back in time when you could still make cheap t-shirts and running shoes in the New Territories; Hong Kong’s economy kept expanding. Tourism pumped more money into the place, especially as China began to open up and Hong Kong was its gateway. But in the world that is rapidly developing, is that sustainable?

My guess is no. In 1992 I wrote a long cover story that nearly got me fired from my job as deputy editor of Asian Business magazine – and was never published. It was an attempt to gaze into the crystal ball and catch a glimpse of China and Hong Kong in the year 2010. In it, I predicted that by then Hong Kong would be just another big city in China, replaced on the world stage by Shanghai. It would certainly not be “Asia’s World City,” as the civic boosters here are currently trying to promote. I still believe that. I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next four years, but I’d bet on it happening by 2020.

For the time being, it’s still a very good place to tie one on. Last night I met an old pal at a new bar in a new shopping mall in Hong Kong’s newest, tallest building – the International Finance Center – which is, of course, built on newly “reclaimed” land that has obstructed the view of the buildings that came before it on then newly reclaimed land that is now quite a ways inland. (What is it with “reclaiming” land anyhow? Newly “created” land is more like it. So far as anyone knows the harbor never was dry.)

The bar is called Red and to get to it you enter through the Pure Fitness Club. At the top of the stairs you can turn left, change into your designer gym clothes and work out. Or you can turn right and pay exorbitant prices for cocktails in a truly beautiful bar with a great outdoor patio space.

I met Dave in the bar. Many overpriced single malt whiskys were downed. I recall having done a lot of that when I lived here. Inebriation seems to be the natural state of many, if not most, expatriates in Asia after work. We had a great time talking and catching up. I heard numerous unrepeatable tales of corruption, crime, greed, sex and violence in the course of Dave’s simply conducting his business in China. It was a good evening. My liver, however, is very pleased that I now live in California.

05 March 2006

First impressions after an absence and a communist takeover

Hong Kong & Macau - 06 March 2006

It’s dirtier, a whole lot dirtier. It’s noisier than I recall and I remember it as the noisiest place I’ve ever been. It’s more crowded than ever and it was always the most crowded place I’d ever been. And, strangely, if you think ideologically rather than realistically, it is more nakedly, aggressively, greedily capitalist than ever. The people of Hong Kong, never shy about turning a buck, have ramped it up to yet more awe-inspiring heights than ever. Perhaps they’ve been egged on by the supposed quote from that great Chinese Communist leader, Deng Xiaoping: “To get rich is glorious.”

I lived here for 11 years and left one week after the “handover” back to China in 1997. I was last here in 2000. Then, the place seemed sort of depressed, not so sure of itself or where it was going. In spite of British colonialism it has always been a chinese city, but it didn’t seem quite so sure how it was going to do as a Chinese city. It seems to be doing fine, sort of.

There are a few, not so little, problems.

Before the handover the Chinese government promised; or was it that they implied; or was it simply an outright convenient lie that Hong Kong would have a democratically elected government before too long, maybe even as soon as seven or so years after 1997. That hasn’t happened, nor, to be honest, should anyone in their right mind really have expected it to. But there are plenty of people here who are not happy about that, who feel betrayed. There are plenty of others who seem to have the attitude of: ‘get over it, you’re making money aren’t you?’

The air quality here, while not so bad as the other eight Chinese cities that are among the world’s ten worst, is truly awful. And I know bad air when I breathe it. I grew up in Los Angeles when it had the world’s worst air. A lot of the bad air is blown on the prevailing southerly winds down the Pearl River from the north. There’s a whole lot of filthy factories up there. But Hong Kong’s contributing plenty of its own feculence to the stew. China, and by extension Hong Kong, actually has some of the world’s most advanced environmental regulations. Its auto emission standards are much stricter than the U.S. But enforcement is another matter. I’ve had a sinus headache since I arrived. I’m on a couple of Drixoral and regular fistfuls of aspirin daily and I’m managing it to within bearable parameters – just. Maybe if I lived here again for awhile I’d adjust. Maybe not.

One of the joys of living here when I did was that the territory has some of the world’s greatest transportation infrastructure. It still does. It’s fast, efficient and relatively cheap. But I’m getting the impression it’s verging on overwhelmed. When I lived in Hong Kong the population was around six million. It’s something around eight million now. And the place isn’t any bigger – well, other than all the newly reclaimed land in the shrinking harbor, but that’s all offices. So, traffic is a lot worse than it was. The subway, buses, trams, minibuses and ferries are much more densely packed than I recall.

As for the ferries, the rides are getting shorter. It’s not that the boats are getting faster. Developers are filling up the harbor and building on it and no one seems able to stop them, or even slow them down. They’re building a new Star Ferry pier at about the mid-point of what used to be the ferry’s crossing. When I first visited Hong Kong in 1978, taking the ferry from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui took about 12 to 15 minutes. Yesterday it took five. I won’t be surprised if within another 50 years or so the harbor disappears under new construction. After all, there’re a lot of ways to the container port. Ships can go around the south side of Hong Kong Island, why waste all that potentially valuable real estate?

Okay, so Hong Kong’s sort of nightmarish, in an exciting kind of way. It’s still fun to walk around in the crowds, especially at night when you’re showered with multi-hued neon and assaulted with a bewildering array of sounds and smells – some of which are pleasing and some of which make you want to flee screaming.

In the past, Macau was my quick fix getaway from the frenzy of Hong Kong. It was a rather sleepy Portuguese enclave on the south China coast. It was filled with charming, quiet neighborhoods that were a quirky mix of European and Asian architecture and culture. It was a place for long, wine-soaked lunches and casual strolls through beautiful gardens or old temples. Some of that still exists.

But Macau now takes pride in calling itself, “The Las Vegas of Asia.” Arriving at the ferry pier, practically the first thing you see is a giant fake mountain of what looks like dung. I think it’s supposed to be a volcano and one of these days it will put on an eruption show no doubt. It sits on reclaimed land just in front of a Disneyland-style recreation of part of the Forbidden City, next to Tibet’s Potala Palace and a faux Chinese fishing village. Looming over all of it is the hideous glass and neon fa├žade of the new Sands Hotel and Casino.

The taxi into the city center passes dozens of dull cookie-cutter office and apartment blocks and several more new, garish casinos and hotels. There is a large construction site next to the Lisboa Hotel. Part of the Lisboa’s charm, so to speak, has been its unconscious striving for the title of the world’s ugliest building. The addition going up next door is so remarkably horrible that it can only be deliberate bad taste. There goes the charm.

Eva and I took a taxi out to Coloanne Island. Or at least, what used to be an island. It is now attached to Taipa Island by landfill on which a Venetian Hotel and Casino are being erected. Somehow the southeast corner of Coloanne has been spared and Fernando’s, at Hac Sa Beach, is as peaceful and delicious as ever. In the midst of the lunacy it remains one of the world’s greatest restaurants.
After lunch we did manage to walk around some of the remaining old neighborhoods and through the Lou Lim Iok gardens. Some of all the development money in the city does seem to have a conscience. So far at least, the old neighborhoods in the middle of the peninsula have been largely spared from the wrecking ball. Some of them have even been nicely restored.

Tired from our walk, we decided to go get massages. Now Macau has long been famous for prostitution and it’s not so easy to find a legitimate massage. But in the past they had a good, workable solution at the Lisboa Hotel. There was the Sauna Fuji and the corridors of the shopping area around the coffee shop for men looking for sex; and there was the Lisboa Health Spa, with both men’s and women’s sections, for people who wanted a good, “real” massage in a place that also offered saunas, jacuzzis, steambaths, etc.

I left Eva off at the women’s section and then ran the gauntlet of hookers down the hall to the elevator to the men’s section. I took a shower and a steambath and then went to the sitting area for a juice and to wait for my massage. The first clue that things had changed was when the waitress asked if I wanted a Thai massage or a Shanghai-style massage. Both of those places have traditions of legit massage, so I didn’t think too much of it. Since we’re going to Shanghai after Hong Kong, I opted for that style of massage.

A young woman in jeans and t-shirt came and led me through a maze of hallways to the massage room. It looked just like it always has: a small room with a massage table, a pile of towels, some oils and a box of tissues. The door had a large, lightly smoked glass window in it. I lay down on the table and the masseuse hopped up and started walking on my back. This struck me as a little odd, since they usually work their way up to that, but I figured she had her own technique. She was good at it too. I didn’t worry even once that she was going to leave me a paraplegic.

She wandered around up there for about ten minutes. Then hopped off and I heard her oiling up her hands. Then she squirted a bunch of oil on my ass and thrust a hand up underneath me from behind. Huh? I thought I was getting a legit massage.

She started a hard sell – she didn’t speak any English so there was a lot of mime and demonstration involved – for sex. She spoke enough English to let me know I could fuck her for one thousand Hong Kong dollars – a hundred and twenty-eight U.S. And, she knew how to say – both demonstratively and verbally: “No condom.”

I was tired, jet-lagged, sore from walking around all day. And aghast. I like sex as much as the next guy, probably more than a lot of the next guys, but I wanted a massage, only a massage. Even if I had wanted sex, no condom seemed like a particularly dumb idea. I argued with her for a while. It was clear that she only makes any money if she has sex with customers and she didn’t want to waste her time giving me a massage. I finally talked her into it, but it wasn’t any good. She desultorily rubbed my back for a few minutes and then cut the session short.

I tipped her, about what I would for a massage. She didn’t deserve it. But I felt a little guilty. We entered into the thing with different expectations and I could better afford the disappointment of mine than she could of hers. I complained to the management on the way out though. I told them I liked the old system better than the new one.

Is this all some sort of offbeat metaphor for the differences between the old Macau’s sleepy colonial system and the rapacious new Las Vegas of the East emerging from the fattened wallets of China’s so-called communists? I don’t know. I just don’t know.