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Netizens Unite: A Q&A with chinaSMACK Blog Founder Fauna

By Alec Ash

Fauna (a web name) is the founder and editor of chinaSMACK, a website that translates popular and trending Chinese digital content and online comment threads into English. It’s been around for over five years, and has hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors. The content is taken from a range of Chinese websites, discussion forums, and social networks, and ranges from serious social stories (Dongguan Anti-Prostitution Campaign) to the downright silly (Girl’s Rabbit Facial Expressions Amuse Chinese Microbloggers). As such, it’s a valuable window into what Chinese Internet users or “netizens” think. Often, what interests them is plain puerile – but that in itself is a useful reminder that most netizens are after distraction more than sedition, and their attitudes can also offer insight into hot button social issues that higher-minded analysis often misses. 

When did you start chinaSMACK? I know you prefer to remain anonymous, but can you say anything more about yourself and why you chose to do this work?

My first post was July 9th, 2008. I had the idea a few months before and a friend helped me choose the name. To begin with, chinaSMACK was a personal project to practice my English. I used the Internet a lot and there were a lot of funny or interesting things on it that I wanted to share with friends, including foreign friends. I used Chinese discussion forums (BBS) for a long time. Now they are not so popular because of Weibo [the microblogging service] and Weixin [the social messaging app], but when I first started chinaSMACK they were very big. You could learn a lot of news and information from other netizens, and the comments were often very funny.

I’m surprised chinaSMACK has become so popular. Along the way, I have met a lot of people and made new friends who share my interests. Many of them have also contributed to chinaSMACK, and I think today chinaSMACK represents the interests of more people than just me.

What have you learned from translating comments from Chinese netizens on news stories? Was there anything about their attitudes that surprised you?

What I usually learn is just new information, but information on the Internet is also unreliable. So I think what is most interesting is just the different reactions from different people, especially if they are unexpected or creative. But after a lot of time, there is nothing very surprising anymore. I am more surprised by the comments and attitudes of chinaSMACK netizens than those on Chinese sites.

What do you think blogs like chinaSMACK can help people understand about China and its society that conventional Western journalism can’t?

I think chinaSMACK can help people see a part of the Chinese Internet as it really is. Normal Western journalism tends to reflect the journalist’s perspective or interpretation of what they see. We want to show more of what Chinese netizens see, including pictures, reports and anything else Chinese netizens are saying – because these all influence what the Chinese netizens think.

For example, if I read a CNN article about something, what I learn will be different from what I learn if I read the comments about that same thing on Reddit. I can understand the same thing in different ways. Should I learn more about America from its news or from its TV shows? Should I learn about America from its journalists or from its netizens? I think that these different ways of learning things will all present a richer and maybe more accurate picture of a country and society. BBS was popular in China because Chinese netizens could learn from each other and not just from CCTV or People’s Daily. It is not always accurate, but it is still part of our life.

Do you think there are preconceived notions or biases about China in the Western media? What are they, and have they changed in the last five years?

Of course, and the same is true in Chinese media also. Media is people and people are this way, so media must be this way. If people are not perfect then media will not be perfect. I do not read or watch Western media very much, so I don’t know if my feelings about notions or biases are accurate. I am afraid that my feelings are too much influenced by Western netizens commenting on chinaSMACK, but I also know that they are not representative of all Western media. If Chinese netizens do not represent Chinese media, how can Western netizens on chinaSMACK represent Western media? Can one CNN or Daily Mail article represent Western media?

The change is that there is more attention about China, both good and bad attention. But if there is more attention, then there will be more information, and people and the media will become more familiar with China. If Western media pays more attention to China, maybe their first reports will have preconceived notions or biases but after more time they will become more accurate and fair. That is my hope. I know Chinese views about the West which are not very accurate, and I think Western views about China are often not very accurate also.

Some of the stories you run are about spoiled youths, the so-called second generation rich (fuerdai) behaving badly, or showing off their wealth. A lot of the netizen comments below are very angry. Is this the general attitude towards them?

Nobody likes arrogant people who show off.

Other netizen comments on stories about Japan or the US are very nationalistic. What’s your impression of the “angry young men” (fenqing) who write them? Are they really die-hard nationalists, or just ordinary young people venting their anger?

Fenqing is also used to describe netizens who criticize the Chinese government. It is just “angry young people”, and there are real people like that. But many are wumao [the “50 cent-ers”, who are allegedly paid to post pro-party comments on news stories]. There are more wumao than foreign netizens think, but less than Chinese netizens think. After reading so many of this type of article and comment, it is easy to know when they are real or fake.

How do you react to the stereotype that young Chinese are materialistic and selfish?

That depends on who has this stereotype and why they think it. Is it a Chinese person? How old are they? Where do they live? Is it a foreigner? What is their background? No matter what, I think it is true that many young Chinese are materialistic and selfish. But there are different kinds of expressions and reasons for this. For example, a materialistic and selfish rich second generation Chinese is different from a middle class Chinese. Their reasons can be very different too. And are young people who are not Chinese less materialistic and selfish?

But do you think that, broadly speaking, young Chinese genuinely care about their society and politics, or only about themselves?

There are idealistic people, there are bored people, and there are indifferent people. I think most people care about their own life most of all, but will say this is bad or this is good when they see the news about a social or political problem. Maybe Western young people are more active in politics because their government provides them with more opportunities to do political things. In China, like any society, I think most young people want their society to become better.

The celebrity blogger Han Han, who is also known for his novels and career as a racecar driver, has said in interviews that just because netizens seem angry about national issues, it doesn’t mean they would actually do anything about it. Do you agree?

Of course, this is common sense. On the Internet especially. It is easy to express an opinion. It is easy to grumble, denounce or judge. But it is difficult to stay angry and really try to change a national issue. What national issue is more important than our personal issues?

Finally, are netizens representative? Do you think that the kind of people who comment on the posts that China Smack translates represent their generation’s opinions?

Chinese netizens and their comments do not represent everything but they do represent something. Most people do not comment, they only read. The comments only represent the commenters (unless they are fake comments). I think the opinions of commenters are often shared by many non-commenters, but there is already a difference between someone who will share their opinion and someone who has an opinion but does not share it. Internet opinion represents and influences public opinion. This is important, but it is not perfect.

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Equatorial Guinea’s Most Important Living Writer Forced Into Hiding

By David Shook

Juan Tomás Avila Laurel is Equatorial Guinea’s most important living writer, but he’s often been persecuted by his own state for his outspokenness regarding their blatant disregard of human rights. This week that disregard has turned dangerous, as Malabo’s infamous security forces have forced Avila Laurel, 48, into hiding for his work as activist. Avila Laurel had planned a sit-in protesting a recent wave of police brutality, and had requested official permission to stage the event, as required by national law. Soon after being denied the requested permission, Avila Laurel was informed that political party El Elefante y La Palmera [Elephant and Palm Tree], which had made the official request, had been declared dissolved by the Guinean government, and that he was one of several activists targeted for arrest without formal charges. The government crackdown centers on the political party El Elefante y la Palmera [Elephant and Palm Tree], known for its peaceful protests of police and government brutality, and is officially focused on the arrest of party founder Salvador Ebang Ela.

Avila Laurel, whose first book in English is forthcoming from And Other Stories in a superb translation by Jethro Soutar, is no stranger to government harassment. After declaring a hunger strike in February 2011, he eventually sought exile in Spain at the recommendation of national and international observers concerned for his safety, where he lived for two years before having his request for asylum denied. Since his return to Equatorial Guinea, Avila Laurel has been active in organizing peaceful protests of the Obiang regime, especially its police brutality.

Under the leadership of Guinean president Teodoro Obiang Nguema, now the longest-serving head of state in Africa, Equatorial Guinea continues to rank among the most corrupt states in the world. Its human rights record is particularly concerning. The Human Rights Watch World Report for 2013 reports:

Corruption, poverty, and repression continue to plague Equatorial Guinea under President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1979. Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while most of the population lives in poverty. Those who question this disparity are branded “enemies.” Despite some areas of relative progress, human rights conditions remain very poor. Arbitrary detention and unfair trials continue to take place, mistreatment of detainees remains commonplace, sometimes rising to the level of torture.

Avila Laurel’s extensive work includes novels, short stories, plays, and poetry, like this newly translated poem from his collection Intimate History of Humanity:

Guinea

Panfleto de
Reyes godos
en boca de pelinegros
de seso torcido.

Ni evangelismo
ni patronatos
de indígenas indigentes
de fe y bravía.

Al color rojo lo llaman sangre
porque desconocen
la púrpura de los prebendados.

Bantúes con lengua negra
y con todos los pecados capitales en la punta
de los pies y labios carnosos.
Eso sí, no murió el gran Cristo entre nosotros.
Y playas, ríos, plantas y otras plantas que atraen
el vicio
de ladrones de ilusiones ajenas.
¿Un nombre?
Muchos citan el refrán del río.

Guinea

Satire of
gothic Kings
in the mouth of black-haired men
with twisted brains.

Not evangelism
nor patronage
of the indigent indigenous
of faith and savageness.

To name the color red blood
because they don’t know
the purple of the prebendary.

Bantus with a black tongue
and with every cardinal sin on the tips
of their feet and fleshy lips.
It’s true, the great Christ didn’t die among us.
And beaches, rivers, plants and more plants that attract
the vice
of thieves with foreign illusions.
A name?
Many cite the refrain of the river.

translated from the Spanish by David Shook

Juan Tomás Avila Laurel’s safety is currently at risk; he faces dire conditions if captured by Guinean security forces. The international visibility of his situation is an important protection. Follow his case and learn more about what you can do at the PEN Center USA and EG Justice websites.

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Remembering Jack London’s Oriental War

By Paul French

“I am disgusted! I’ll never go to a war between Orientals again. The vexations and delay are too great.”

     — Jack London

He’d sailed his broken down sloop Razzle Dazzle as an oyster pirate; he’d crewed the sealing schooner Sophie Sutherland along the coast of Japan; he’d served with Kelly’s Army and tramped the western United States; he’d dropped out of UC Berkeley. He was just 19. He joined the Klondike Gold Rush; he became a socialist; in 1903, at just 27, he published The Call of the Wild and with it gained money and success (10,000 copies flew off the shelves the first week of publication). And then, in early 1904, the San Francisco Examiner asked Jack London if he’d like to go and report on a war between Asia’s rising power, Japan, and Europe’s largest, but crumbling, monarchy, Russia. Though the war was between the armies of Tsar Alexander and the Meiji Emperor, it was to be fought largely on Korean and Chinese soil. London, in the midst of a protracted divorce from a four-year marriage, thought “why not”? He embarked for Yokohama.

London’s time as a war correspondent in Asia has rather slipped from his popular biography. The “big books” (The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, The Iron Heel), his leftist politics, the man’s-man adventurer persona — these are what have come to dominate.  The same goes for the conflagration he covered, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.  It, too, has rather slipped from history. It shouldn’t have. Indeed it should be front-and-center right now as we commemorate the centenary of World War I and, in some parts of Asia, as a recent post to this blog emphasized, attention is also being paid to the 120th anniversary of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War.  We need to make room for the big event that fell halfway between the two.  This month marks the 110th anniversary of still another war — one that not only shook the solidity of Western right and might (the first time an Asiatic power defeated a European one) but offered a first taste to the Generals and politicians of Europe and America of what the more globally famous and infamous modern, mechanized wars to come would look like.

The Russo-Japanese War surely made it impossible for anyone to be seriously shocked by these classic elements of World War I: trench warfare stalemates; the deadly impact of modern artillery; aerial warfare (balloons and kites used to drop bombs); the futility of old guard cavalry against new hi-tech machine guns (Maxim Guns, the so-called “Devil’s Paintbrush” cut down swathes of soldiers); and the ferociousness of sea battles involving modern battle cruisers, torpedo boats and submarines (threatened, but never eventually deployed, by the Japanese Imperial Navy who, incidentally, had just taken delivery of their first subs from their suppliers — Electric Boat of America).

The Russo-Japanese War was also a precursor for World War I in terms of press coverage. Photography, newsreels, “embedded” reporters on both sides, wandering freelancers supplying “the wires” and telegraph services to send reports quickly down to Shanghai, east to New York, and west to London. For the first time, a war on the far side of the world was reported to Americans and Europeans with their morning pancakes or kippers.

Of course, for London it was all at first one big adventure. He was one of a group of American journalists who travelled together from San Francisco to Yokohama on the SS Siberia specifically to cover the war. They called themselves the “Vultures,” descending upon the mayhem, chaos and death of the conflict initially with a frathouse-like glee. The fun didn’t last long. London soon got himself in trouble. He hopped from Japan to Korea, where most of the fighting was occurring, and made his way to Pyongyang. His first reports for the Examiner covered the battles raging across the Korean peninsula and were sent scribbled on rice paper.  London had brought a camera and managed to smuggle out photographs from the Japanese front at Chemulpo, a major staging-post for Japanese ground forces in Korea.

The trouble — London was arrested and subjected to hours of rigorous interrogation by the Japanese, who suspected him of being a Russian spy. However, the drinking sessions on the Siberia en route to Japan turned out to be useful. Some of the other “Vultures” were connected. The urbane Richard Harding Davis called on his friend, Lloyd Griscom, the US minister to Japan, who managed to secure London’s release.

Back at large, London used his sailing skills to hire a boat and catch up with the Japanese First Army, by now advancing into Manchuria. Trouble followed him. London managed to get himself arrested again and was forced to enlist Harding Davis’s support to secure his release once more. He got to see the ferocious Battle of the Yalu (a Japanese victory but at the cost of over a thousand dead out of 40,000 combatants), but then, yet again, he got himself arrested by the Japanese, who finally decided enough was enough. Eventually the Japanese released him after the intervention of no less a personage than Teddy Roosevelt in the White House! But that was that —  and he was sent back to America.

London opted for a slightly less exciting life after returning. He bought a thousand-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County. He was now decidedly more anti-war than he had been before his “Vulturing” adventures in Asia. In his 1911 short story, War, he describes the anonymous battle for an unspecified piece of land and chooses not to dwell on the causes, or the righteousness of any cause, other than simply the waste that conflict brings.

Another of the “Vultures” who eventually returned from the Russo-Japanese War was New York Herald correspondent Charles Edward Russell, a muckraker who inspired Upton Sinclair. Russell summed up the effect on witnessing the Russo-Japanese War, the mechanized war that might have warned everyone just how bad the trenches of France and Belgium would be barely a decade later:

“I question much if any of the correspondents that followed the Russo-Japanese War are enthusiastic supporters of the theory that modern war has been humanised…I was in Japan just after the close of the war, and saw some of the remains of Japanese soldiers brought home for burial, an arm or a foot or a cap (being all that could be found after the shell exploded), and there was nothing about these spectacles that appealed much to one’s senses as remarkably humane.”

Photo by Fernanda Fraiz

Funny Bones: A Q&A with Jesse Appell About Comedy in China

Photo by Fernanda Fraiz

By Alec Ash

Jesse Appell is a young American in Beijing who performs comedy in Chinese – both traditional Chinese forms and more Western fare such as stand-up. He studied Chinese comedy as a Fulbright fellow, and now promotes cross-cultural comedy through a project called Laugh Beijing. His parody music video Laowai (foreigner) Style proved a big hit, and his new video, an “economic rap”, is “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” (development). I talked to him about what sets Chinese comedy apart, and the phenomenon of foreigners performing traditional comedy on Chinese TV.

What first got you interested in Chinese comedy?

I came to Beijing in 2010, and did six months of an intensive study abroad program. I had done improvised comedy back in the US, throughout high school and college, and I found the bilingual improv group here. I thought that how Chinese did improv would reveal different things about Chinese culture, so that was the initial impetus. Then I had the chance to come back here last fall on a Fulbright fellowship, which was specifically for me to study comedy in China. That ended a couple of months ago, and now I’m trying to make it as an intercultural comedian and comedy entrepreneur.

So the idea is that comedy can be a form of intercultural exchange?

Yes, definitely. The Fulbright fellowship was a great way to start looking at ways in which comedy could be used as cultural exchange. And it really can. There are certain types of jokes that are really hard to translate – that rely on shared areas of cultural knowledge. Wherever the joke references knowledge specific to one culture – think American Idol winners, or Hot Pockets – those jokes can fall flat. But if the comedian drills a bit deeper, thinks of “reality TV” and “frozen foods” and plans accordingly, most of the things that make those jokes funny will still work in another culture.

Have you found that Chinese and Western audiences find different things funny?

There are differences in terms of the styles that people are used to. One of the reasons why xiangsheng [crosstalk, a traditional form of comic repartee with history going back to the Qing dynasty] is just funnier to Chinese people than it is to Westerners is because Chinese people know the xiangsheng style. In a similar way, Americans would probably find wacky Saturday Night Live sketches funnier than Chinese would. But that doesn’t means it’s a cultural difference, that you can’t “get” those sketches if you’re from a different cultural background – it’s just a matter of being in the culture enough to know what those things are, and to get used to them.

Tell us more about xiangsheng, and why you chose to learn how to do it.

I studied traditional xiangsheng, an art form which has come down over 150 years, master to student. As a result, it has managed to keep some things the way they were done in the Qing dynasty. However there are a lot of things that were funny in the Qing dynasty, but aren’t now – routines about matching new year’s scrolls, lantern riddles, guessing characters, a lot of stuff based off traditional culture. The main difference between xiangsheng and something like stand-up is that xiangsheng is an art form. There’s a very set idea about what counts as doing xiangsheng correctly. Performing the art form well is in some cases important enough that it’s OK if people don’t laugh at the jokes. They’re funny, but not as funny as modern jokes.

But people are pushing the boundaries in live xiangsheng shows, even if you don’t see it on TV. There are live xiangsheng shows that are straight-up for young people, and they don’t include any traditional routines. You hear people talk about tainted milk, about housing prices. All the hot button issues that show up in Chinese comedy shows show up in xiangsheng as well. You can see these pieces at clubs like the Xiha Baofu Pu [a collective of young xiangsheng performers] or De Yun She [established by the most famous Chinese xiangsheng performer, Guo Degang].

What’s your take on foreigners doing xiangsheng on Chinese TV?

A lot of foreigners have studied xiangsheng, and everyone has a different reason for it. Some people are really into the culture, others enjoy performing. Ding Guangquan, my xiangsheng master, is an amazing personality. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about comedy, and is one of those personalities where you meet him once and never forget him. He’s retired, after about 60 years of doing xiangsheng, and he wants to pass it on, to keep it going throughout the generations. He has discovered that there are foreigners who love xiangsheng, which is going to get the art form known in the rest of the world. The first foreigner to gain national prominence for performing xiangsheng was Mark Rowswell, who uses the stage name Dashan. He made his name at the New Year CCTV Gala in December 1988, after which he became a celebrity in China.

The phrase “performing monkey” is sometimes used in this context.

That comes up a lot. Foreigners do legitimate xiangsheng. But the Chinese media, when it comes to booking performances, already know what they’re looking for when they find a performer. So all of the TV shows that find us are already looking for foreigners doing xiangsheng, and we have to adjust to what they want. Plus if Chinese writers write for you, their sense of what a foreigner says and does is not even close. So it winds up looking like dancing monkeys, because it’s written by Chinese people for Chinese people, but the person saying it doesn’t look Chinese.

Chinese people find the phrase “dancing monkey” very funny when that concept is explained to them. Of course foreigners dance and sing on Chinese TV, they say – so do we! Chinese performers wind up doing stranger and more “embarrassing” things than foreigners, so it seems strange that foreigners would hate on each other for doing the same sorts of thing that are generally done on daytime entertainment television. As a foreigner who constantly needs to defend himself against the “performing monkey” stigma, I think it’s important to remember that just like any other form of cultural communication, wires get crossed in parsing the performances of foreigners on TV. Chinese people don’t see foreigners as “losing face” within Chinese culture for doing gimmicky daytime TV shows. That loss of face exists mostly in the mind of the other expats who are seeing the shows.

Tell us about tuokouxiu or “talkshow”, China’s version of stand-up.

Tuokouxiu is starting to get really big. The question is whether it’s ever going to be any good. Right now, there are a lot of people doing it, and there’s a lot of bad tuokouxiu. Most of that is on the internet, and there’s some on television too. There are several cities that have stand-up clubs – Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. Hong Kong has been doing it for years and is completely different. But it’s starting to get bigger in the mainland. Joe Wong just sold out 800 seats five days in a row in Shanghai.

Whatever the hot button issue is might not make its way on TV, but it will make its way on stage in small clubs and bars. The issue is the platform. In America, the market rules the platform, so if people laugh at it, it will find it’s way onto mainstream media. But what’s on the Chinese mainstream media is never going to look as intense. Then again, subtext and context always informs comedy, and in China half of what makes a joke funny is knowing what you can and can’t get away with on that platform.

Are there some jokes you just can’t get away with making in China?

My big takeaway as a comedian who creates content and performs is that, while there is government censorship and you need to realize what medium you’re going to be performing in, the biggest decision is still: what do Chinese people find funny? Just saying all the words you’re not supposed to say isn’t funny. It’s not that people don’t want to hear jokes about these things, but to call them out directly just isn’t funny to a Chinese audience. People will feel embarrassed and worried. If the jokes on stage get too insensitive, or too dirty, you will see audience members who get nervous and upset. In a small venue, the only censorship comedians face is self-imposed, either by the audience or culturally. But part of what I’ve seen in the Chinese stand-up scene is that they are finding ways to get at the sensitive topics more subtly.

But the material still steps on toes, right?

It definitely does. I think there’s a misconception that China doesn’t have The Daily Show, because the government won’t let it happen. There are already fake news programs on the internet that rib the news. There’s a hugely popular show called Baozou Dashijian [Thug News], where they make jokes about news stories. The hosts wear giant comedy masks – half of that is to be funny, and half of it is probably because they don’t want people to know who they are. They have a huge audience, but it’s cutesy-funny rather than angry-funny, and a lot of the social dialogue is implied and not explicitly stated.

The Chinese approach to sensitive stuff in general is to imply it. You don’t just yell the truth out really loud. Chinese artists who like doing that find more success in the West, because it’s a communication style that we’re used to. We very easily understand the message of Ai Weiwei, but Chinese comedians reach more people in China because they have found a way to do it that is sensitive to the average person on the street, who doesn’t even want to be next to the person who is yelling something uncomfortable. For example, would rib the results of a policy rather than the policy itself. It’s too direct at this point to say that the government has a bad policy and that created pollution. Instead, people make jokes about the pollution, and everyone knows why it’s there.

Is the improvised comedy scene here purely Western, or homegrown too?

There are Chinese scenes, but obviously improvised comedy as an art form comes from the West. It was originally brought here by expats, and then spread to Chinese people. There are bilingual improv groups and several Chinese language only improv troupes in Beijing. So it follows the people who do it. There was a foreigner who did improvised comedy in English in Beijing. Then he moved to Xiamen, and there were no foreigners who wanted to do improv there, but lots of Chinese. So now Xiamen has a Chinese improv troupe.

Of course, part of the interest is that it’s a Western art form. People are eager to Westernize, so to speak – to experience new types of comedy, while doing it in a Chinese way. That’s exactly what’s happening with tuokouxiu. Because xiangsheng has so much history associated with it, that context plays into it when you see a show. But there are people who want to do comedy outside of that context.

Tell us about your new video, “Mo Money Mo Fazhan.”

I came up with the phrase “intercultural comedy” before I even really knew what it meant, so half of my journey has been figuring out what comedy means between the two cultures of China and the West. “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” is an example of that, because it’s meant to be entertaining and funny for foreigners and Chinese alike, but to each in different ways, perhaps. Westerners might get a laugh out of the rap aesthetic – it’s a white guy doing rap in Chinese with a giant 福 (fu – wealth) character over his neck as a Flava Flav reference. That will go over the heads of most Chinese people, but calling Deng Xiaoping my 哥们 (gemen – brother) might get a bigger laugh with them.

Also, Chinese identity is closely tied up with their economic progress – it’s the thing that everyone’s talking about. So the idea of having an economic rap song made way more sense than it should. It’s a totally natural Chinese rap song, when you think about it. My rapper name is Bling Dynasty.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m going to keep making comedy, and I’m hopeful about getting an online platform for an internet comedy show. I’m trying to make better comedy than what exists now, especially where foreigners are concerned, and to really use the comedy to draw out the common humanity that reveals that we all laugh at the same things. I was talking to a Chinese friend the other night, and he said “We’re all human, we’re all idiots.” We all have the same foibles and difficulties – we can talk about them and laugh about them, and not be so solemn all the time.

Alec Ash is a writer and freelance journalist in Beijing.

Infinity

Technology, Entertainment, Design: SyFy’s Helix

DESPITE SOME B-grade acting and melodramatic character back stories which do not inspire me to take their emotional depths seriously (i.e. Alan’s (Billy Campbell) childhood and his dull flirtation with Sarah (Jordan Hayes), whose secret cancer seems another tired cliché), SyFy’s Helix continues to fascinate me with its world building. This week we saw some significant changes in alliances and a deepening of the mystery about just exactly what Ilaria Corporation is up to in its arctic research station. New clues to this mystery include the abduction of children, the cryo-preserved head of a missing scientist, and information that suggests Julia (Kyra Zagorsky) was herself the object of Dr. Hatake’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) research when a child. Although Julia’s back-story sounds tediously like a reboot of Olivia’s (Anna Torv) story on Fringe (2008-2013), more promising are the introduction of Intuit police officer Anana (Luciana Carro) and her missing brother Miksa, whose twin just happens to be played by Meegwun Fairbrother, who also plays Daniel, Hatake’s adopted son/feudal vassal. While sinister corporations who treat people as expendable are a familiar theme from cyberpunk fiction and film, and form the basis of a number of cyberpunk digital games such as Deus Ex and Resident Evil, we’ve lacked a good SF television series working in this mode, although James Cameron’s briefly lived Dark Angel (2000-2002) gave it the college try.

Part of what makes Helix work for me are its ancillary texts on their Access Granted website, which provide additional clues and documents that committed fans can review as they try to unravel the show’s mystery. Such multi-media storytelling is nothing new in science fiction, or indeed in television broadly, as stations compete to generate the committed and engaged fan base that made shows such as Lost (2004-2010) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013) such phenomenal successes. It also seems natural for a show like Helix to have such an involved website, for it is designed to appeal equally to science fiction fans and those accustomed to the puzzle solving of digital games, two communities known for their committed engagement with the worlds of chosen texts. So, Helix is very much a text of our age.

Yet as I visited the Helix website, I was struck by a contradiction between its presence as a marketable commodity (television show), the use of the show’s narrative to market other commodities (a Verizon advertisement branding the company as about “powerful solutions” to contemporary challenges), and the show’s narrative, which casts Ilaria Corporation in a sinister light.

Here are some of the intriguing things you can find in the Access Granted documents. First is a calendar for an Ilaria executive named Philip Duchamp. Among his activities are: a “pharma competitive intelligence conference,” an event that raises questions for those thinking about science and social justice as well as the role of pharmaceutical corporations in what Vandana Shiva has called the continued colonial exploitation of biopiracy; second, Duchamp is scheduled to give a TED talk, a genre that promises to help us imagine and build better futures, but whose emphasis on entertainment often substitutes inspiring visions for viable research, as Benjamin Bratton brilliantly skewered last year in the best TED talk I’ve ever heard. One of the things Bratton calls for is “design as immunization,” using imaginative power to prevent certain dystopic futures from materializing. Science fiction has a long history of performing this kind of cultural critique, and the cyberpunk-inflected future Helix channels is widely regarded as a key expression of this more cynical attitude toward the future produced by technological innovation. In Neuromancer (1982), for example, William Gibson describes the dangerous urban Night City as “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button” (7). Technology displaces people in such futures, and Helix explores this terrain in its new story arcs about missing children, evidence of which is expanded considerably on the Access Granted site that includes a list of some 30 missing children, mainly from the global south, and most with Inuit-sounding names.

In his essay “SF Capital,” Mark Fisher critiques the conflation of narrative, advertising and commodity product in much science fiction, in which the power to imagine the future and to inspire readers to invest in such visions is channeled into the purchase of products that simulate this future and take the place of real social critique and political change. The advertising rhetoric of this sf is much like the futurist rhetoric of TED talks, and the relationship between such visions of the future and corporate market-share is much like the relationship between Star Wars as text and the sale of Hasbro action figures.

These systems collide on the Helix website. To enter the website at all, you first must click through a page noting that Arctic Biosystems is a division of Ilaria Corporation, whose slogan is “stop existing, start living.” One of the ancillary texts you can access on this website is the advertisement above for Ilaria Infinity lenses. The aesthetics of this poster conveys all the promise of the future as entertaining design embodied by TED talks, and Ilaria evokes the usual inflationary rhetoric of living better: “See clearly. See freely. See the world through different eyes.” Yet the larger type on this poster asks, “Do your contact lenses make you feel like you’re dying?” Presumably Ilaria lenses will solve this problem in the usual way of corporate futurism, yet the fine print of the poster suggests instead that this corporatized future is the problem – side effects of seeing the world through Ilaria’s eyes include “feelings of yearning” and, in rare cases, “general disinterest in living.”

Through these supplementary texts then, Helix continues its narrative vision of a critique of corporations that sacrifice people, the same vision we see in Gibson’s sardonic description of Night City, the same vision expressed through more hyperbolic sarcasm in Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), and the same future we presumably will see in its remake by José Padilha opening this week. Padilha’s Robocop, however, is already inevitably bound up in the economics of contemporary Hollywood that make it half narrative film and half vehicle for product placement and advertising for future action films.

What of Helix’s corporate critique? One of SyFy’s sponsors is Verizon, and as soon as one visits the Helix website a video advertisement launches. In the mode of contemporary infotainment, this short video at first seems to be yet another ancillary text (an Ilaria advert for an antidepressant is remarkably similar in tone). Only gradually does it become clear that this “discover innovation” campaign to solve “the world’s biggest challenges” through “even bigger solutions” is a slogan for Verizon, not Ilaria. Clicking through to Verizon’s website, one discovers a Powerful Answers web series with episodes about the various ways Verizon is working to make a better future of sustainability, public safety, improved healthcare, and access to education. The series shows the work of “innovators” who competed to partner with Verizon to bring their ideas to life, a contest that required these “empowering solutions” to emerge from “Verizon’s unique combination of technologies.” This website, merging science fiction with corporate advertising with the production of material futures that direct the flows of venture capital seems the apotheosis of the process of commodifying the future diagnosed by Fisher more than a decade ago.

Helix is thus a fascinating science fiction text, as much for its context as for its content. Inside and outside blur, as Ilaria and Verizon overlap as antagonist and sponsor. The website lets one preview the first five minutes of the next episode, “Survivor Zero,” which show the arrival of Constance Sutton (Jeri Ryan), CEO of Ilaria Corporation at the research base. Within these five minutes she metamorphoses from a smooth and overtly helpful resource in public, to a violent attack on Hatake’s failures in private. Is her public face a version of Verizon, whose polished futurism hides its complicity in Ilaria-like conspiracy?

Or am I just “reading too much” into science fiction?

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WillyVlautin

Where in the World is Willy Vlautin?

By Juliet Suess

Have you heard of Willy Vlautin? If you haven’t yet, and are in the Bay Area this weekend, the Naked Bookseller recommends you stop by Green Apple Books on Saturday.

Mr. Vlautin made a name for himself in the Nineties as frontman of Portland-based Richmond Fontaine. With its clear alt-country bent and lyrics that have sparked critical comparisons to Raymond Carver, it’s no surprise that Vlautin is also a writer.

The FreeLike any literary troubadour worth his salt, Vlautin is visiting San Francisco for what promises to be more than your usual book reading and signing.

“Willy is a great reader and speaker,” Kevin Ryan of Green Apple Books told us, “And as value added, he will be bringing his guitar, and he blends reading and guitar picking in a way that turns a regular old author reading into a transformative event.”

Author of three previous books including Motel Life, his new novel The Free is the number one Indiebound book for February.

“Several of us here have been big fans of Willy’s since his first book, and always look forward to his next one,” Ryan of Green Apple Books said. “He’s gotten outrageously glowing quotes from Ann Patchett and Ursula LeGuin, and it seems that this is poised to be his breakout book.

In addition to his four novels, Vlautin has released has released nine studio albums with Richmond Fontaine.

Green Apple Books was founded in 1967 by Richard Savoy. On his first day of business, he logged $3.42 in receipts. Starting in 1999, three individuals (Kevin Hunsanger, Kevin Ryan, and Pete Mulvihill) started a gradual buyout of the business. It has been voted the best bookstore in the Bay Area perennially by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The San Francisco Weekly, and others.

Their recommended books this month include: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Flappers by Judith Mackrell, and An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

How LARB Helps Independent Bookstores

Through our Naked Bookseller Program, we want to collaborate with independent bookstores to tell their stories, and broaden their reach so that fans of a store can support it no matter where they live. Learn more here.

unsavory-elements-cover-V03-20mm

What Foreigners Do in China

By Xujun Eberlein

In the remote mountains of Yunnan Province, China, a middle-aged European ecologist gave up his high-level international program manager job and made his home with a local woman. Together, they set forth to reestablish the rainforests destroyed by rubber tree plantations, cultivated a garden — a seed bank — that “was home to more species than all of Germany,” reintroduced indigenous plant species to China, and homeschooled two bright young children with knowledge, poise and manners belying their age. In 2010, the extraordinary life of the ecologist, along with the draft of an unconventional paper that could “be of enormous value to mankind,” was cut short by a heart attack.

This story about Josef Margraf, written by journalist Jonathan Watts, is not a news report or profile but rather an essay, moving for both Watts’ own introspection and his sketch of Margraf’s life. I read it in the anthology Unsavory Elements — Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, in which editor Tom Carter has assembled 28 short contributions by a variety of expat writers. I had opened the book with the intention of browsing through it quickly. Though I was curious about how expats live in China, and why there are so many of them now, as a Chinese writer with a certain cynicism, I did not expect to find anything truly surprising. But surprised I was, and my own stereotypical presumptions stand corrected.

In 1971, when I was a middle school student in the city of Chongqing, recruiters dressed in military uniforms from the faraway Yunnan Production and Construction Corps — a more attractive name, I suppose, than “rubber plantations” to teenagers at the time — arrived at my campus and called on students to join them “guarding the frontier and cultivating the borderland.” Many of us, me included, applied with youthful enthusiasm, and almost everyone I knew who applied got their wish. I was spared because I was under-aged and also because some insightful adults, who viewed higher education as more important than planting rubber trees, stood in my way. In all, about 100,000 middle school students were collected from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Kunming and sent to labor in Yunnan’s rubber plantations. The collective name for those young people was “Zhiqing,” or “Educated Youth.” Seven years of hardship and many tragic stories later, in the winter of 1978-79, those Zhiqing launched a spontaneous mass rally that has since been termed the “big return-to-city storm,” which eventually did bring them home. By then I, as one of the lucky few, had entered my second year in university, but my middle school friends who went to Yunnan missed their chance not only for university, but even for a high school education.

I had thought that the wasted youth of my 100,000 contemporaries qualified as the biggest damage caused by the rubber plantations, and that an end had been put to the practice in early 1979. Not until reading Watts’ chapter did I realize with a shock that the rubber plantations have been expanding during China’s recent economic boom and have gone on to become one of “China’s greatest ecological disasters.” The invasive species eats away at the region’s fertility and diversity, changes weather conditions and rainfall, and threatens to wipe out China’s only tropical rainforest. Many friends from my youth, through their goodwill and hard work, had unknowingly contributed to the disaster while also bringing short-term benefits to China’s industries.

In his essay titled “Invasive Species,” Watts also points out that, ironically, it was Europeans who brought rubber trees and monocultural practices to China more than a century ago. As a European himself, Josef Margraf’s effort thus could be viewed as “looking to the future by making up for the past wrongs.” “I think Josef has achieved more than any foreigner I had met,” says Watts, who also wonders loudly, “weren’t we too part of a kind of invasive species?”

Nowadays, there are over one million foreigners living in China, “many of whom are in effect economic refugees,” says Tom Carter in his introduction. The exponential growth of foreign residents compared to the late 1980s, when I first met my American husband in Chengdu, alone illustrates the now tried and true cliché “look how much China has changed!” Chinese readers of my generation, however, might also find in the book more than a few things that are unchanged, sometimes in unexpected corners. Dominic Stevenson, who fits more into the category of adventurer than economic refugee, left a comfortable life in Bangkok for China, but ended up spending two years in a Shanghai prison for being a hash smuggler along the ancient Silk Road. Stevenson’s essay, titled “Thinking Reports,” provides a rare glance at life as a foreign prisoner. A bizarrely familiar scene described in the chapter is probably unfamiliar to today’s young generation of Chinese: Stevenson and his cellmates are required to write “thought reports,” a maddening practice prevalent in the Cultural Revolution years that had “reformed” more than a few otherwise noble men into despicable informants betraying their friends. The suspense of Stevenson’s story is thus how he, a liberal-minded foreigner, will react to such a request. I can only hope the practice of “thought reporting” preserved in a prison is not going to reappear in Chinese society at large, a dreadful outlook no longer unthinkable under Xi Jinping’s rule.

But I might be too pessimistic. Simon Winchester takes my emotional ride with the expat experiences to a high point in his epilogue, where he is stuck in the void of western China’s desert alone with his dead car, toying with the prospect of perishing. “Except.” Following this emphatic pause is a cellphone signal, and his rescue because of it. “The Chinese build their infrastructure well these days, and one of the first things they have created in making their new nationwide transportation system — long before finishing the roads — is a cell phone network.” I might not agree with the author’s conclusion that China has become so successful today “precisely because it [is] not a casually planned society any more,” but that does not stop me from being in a celebratory mood when reading about a man’s life saved by China’s modern telecommunication infrastructure. This despite my own support for a neighborhood protest against the building of another cellular tower in our Boston suburb.

While my contradictory attitude might be explained away by the Chinese adage This is one time, that was another, Graham Earnshaw’s chapter “Playing in the Gray” tells a story eerily reminiscent of an earlier time. In 1872, a British businessman named Ernest Major launched one of the first and most prominent Chinese newspapers, Shen Pao, in Shanghai, which went on to lay the foundation for modern Chinese newspapers and continued publication for 77 years, until the Communists took over Shanghai in May 1949. Half a century later, in 1998, Earnshaw, again a Briton, again in Shanghai, founded “the first independent weekly English-language newspaper to be produced in Shanghai since the communist takeover in 1949.” “Sure, it was illegal. It had no publication license, its content was not reviewed by the Propaganda Bureau ahead of publication, and we had no right to print or distribute. But we did it anyway.” This fascinating experience led Earnshaw to believe China is a place where “nothing is allowed but everything is possible.”

Perhaps that is one of the major attractions of the Middle Kingdom. In an interview with Business Insider, Tom Carter was asked, “Do you think that the influence of foreigners on China is a good thing?” and he answered, “All things considered, I think China is more of an influence on the expats who live here than we are on it…” Circling back to the story about Josef Margraf, the influences work both ways, and every person has a different story to tell. I ended up reading through Unsavory Elements page by page, story by story, on the train to work in the morning and, when I was lucky enough to find a seat, on the way home in the evening as well. It is an uneven book, as might be expected of any anthology. There are a few stories that come across as condescending, sentimental, or dull. But the majority of them are captivating and, as a whole, the book is unexpectedly wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Jericho

Back to the Post-Apocalypse: Jericho on Economic Politics

By Jonathan Alexander

SINCE 9/11, several SF television series, from the one-season Threshold (2005-6) to the more recent Continuum (2012-present) have grappled with the specter of terrorism.  Many, like Threshold and Continuum, play out hyperbolic scenarios of terrorist infiltration and attack, variously alien or from the future, to speculate on governmental and individual responses to terror.  At their worst, such series offer us terror as spectacle, with all the perverse thrills of mass destruction.  At their best moments, they become gripping meditations on the ethics of our various responses to terror.  What price security?  What sacrifices of freedom, individually and collectively, are we willing to tolerate to feel secure?  And, most provocatively, what critiques lie latent or ignored in terror attacks—critiques that, had we paid sufficient attention to them, might not have become manifest so destructively?

Currently available on Netflix, Jericho is one such series that deserves another look.  Running for two seasons (September 20, 2006 through March 25, 2008), Jericho is a frequently powerful drama about a small town in Kansas trying to survive in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on the US that nukes 23 major American cities, including nearby Denver.  What’s perhaps most interesting about Jericho is how much narrative force comes from not knowing who the “enemy” is.  Islamic terrorists?  The Chinese?  Homegrown traitors?  Midway through the first season, the Chinese make a food drop, with notes saying “Do Not Fight”—but this seems a red herring.  And we eventually learn it is.

But who are the terrorists?  Jericho plays a teasing version of hide-and-seek here.   A whole subplot revolves around the character Hawkins, an FBI agent in hiding who relocated with his estranged family to Jericho just days before the bombs detonate.  His background and intentions are shrouded in mystery.  Indeed, for much of Jericho we don’t know what’s happening, with Hawkins particularly or the situation more generally.  More curiously, we are also asked to identify with, or at least sympathize with, the plight of Hawkins, whom we are led at times to believe might actually be one of the terrorists, now trying to protect his family in the aftermath chaos.  The confusion of identification is a striking aspect of many of these terrorist-themed, post-apocalyptic shows.  Whom, ultimately, can we trust?  Such questioning certainly builds narrative interest, but it also gestures toward conspiracy theories and plays to a sense shared by many viewers that we never really have the full picture—on the show or in real life—when it comes to global politics.  The most we learn in Jericho’s first season comes late in the plot development: apparently “cells” set off the bombs in a coordinated attack to “change the world.”  But who controls these cells, and to what purpose?

Jericho started airing in 2006, shortly before the economic collapse and right at the height of the Iraq war, which increasingly seemed run by—and for the economic benefit of—corporations.  The plot of the show interestingly follows suit.  An entire background story slowly emerges about one of the main characters, Jake, a badboy played by Skeet Ulrich, who gets stuck in Jericho after the attacks and eventually turns from punk and prodigal son to hometown hero.  We learn that he had been a mercenary with shady dealings in Afghanistan, including arms running and association with a Blackwater-style company named Ravenwood (in a nice play on words).  This background steadily becomes important, particularly as the town has to deal with Ravenwood, which has gone rogue as a gang of mercenaries (in the absence of government employers) to collect and control increasingly scarce resources.  Jake’s association with Ravenwood is a sore spot, one he seems to spend much airtime regretting and trying to make up for.

Seemingly in contrast to this comment on government and corporate complicity, much of the first season is taken up with a kind of romance of the small town, whose isolation is its primary saving grace as it’s largely out of the way of most mercenary and predatory interests.  The townsfolk use their relative safety to try to keep American traditions alive, such as celebrating holidays and hosting communal picnics.  But those traditions keep running into their own economic issues.  There’s a whole subplot about the local supermarket and the management and distribution of increasingly scarce resources.  Who, or what, should control such management and distribution?  What’s “fair,” particularly at a time of scarcity?  The fight for mayor–between the salt mine company-owning Gray, who wants to take a hardline on crime as well as who’s in and who’s out of the community, versus the recently ousted patriarch Johnston Green, who seems to want more “state” control over the distribution of resources but who also talks a lot about democracy–seem to reference different approaches to economic policy (not to mention immigration) in the mid-2000s.  Gray’s insistence on giving away all the available food seems to map onto Bush’s tax cuts and refunds and the conservative desire to deregulate more broadly: spread the wealth so it can trickle down.  Johnston’s more city-controlled policies of food distribution harken back to Clinton’s sometimes austere fiscal management while maintaining more liberal policies of state support and social welfare.  In the penultimate episode of the first season, the townsfolk make deals with the supermarket folks and the mercenaries to protect the town and its resources, primarily farmlands. At times of resource uncertainty, odd compromises must be made.  It’s hard not to read such a plot as referencing the “compromises” made in the early 2000s: we went to war to protect our interests, but whose interests, ultimately?  And at what cost ethically?

The second season heats up considerably as Jericho becomes part of the new emerging regime, the Allied States of America.  We quickly learn that the ASA has been set up by the orchestrators of the terrorist attack, who blamed (and then nuked) North Korea and Iran for the attacks. They’re re-writing history (literally, through new textbooks) to cast the former US as weak, lacking military force of will.  We also see Ravenwood, now backed by the ASA, assume policing responsibility for Jericho.  In a likely reference to Haliburton, Ravenwood is owned by Jennings and Rall, the company that serves as the bureaucratic arm of the ASA.  Interestingly, it’s worth noting that this season started airing in 2008, toward the beginning of the financial crisis, and, curiously, in that season we steadily see more focus on corporations and government complicity at the expense of democratic process and protection of civil liberties.  One of the farmers, for instance, is maneuvered into signing a really bad mortgage contract that essentially indentures him to Jennings & Rall.  Indeed, we slowly learn that J&R are behind everything, having created a plan in 1993 for the government to prepare for a disastrous attack—a plan that becomes the basis for an attack.  The company IS the government.  The government IS the company.

In some strange twists in the last episodes, we discover that “John Smith,” who’s been giving Hawkins information, has apparently set off the original 23 bombs in protest of corporate abuses.  He wants to detonate the remaining bomb in the ASA capital Cheyenne to destroy the new government, which is completely “corrupt” as a government set up by J&R to further its corporate interests.  He seems, though, like a psychopath, and we are not sure as viewers how to read his extraordinarily brief appearance in the second season.  It almost feels as though the series is backing away from strident anti-corporate critique to blame the whole apocalypse on one lone nut.  The series ends with two major characters, Jake and Hawkins, making their way to the Republic of Texas, which will apparently join forces with the former USA (headquartered in Ohio) against the ASA corporatists.  There is a comic that propels the story into a “third season,” but you’ll have to check that out on your own.  As is on TV, the story seems to end with the possibility that J&R and the ASA will eventually be brought down.

Jericho ultimately seems to play up some good old-fashioned American patriotism in its final episodes, simplifying its earlier narratives of and comments on the politics of economics.  Nonetheless, it’s still striking as a show that steadily blends, in just two seasons, concerns with corporate-investment in the Iraq War with more general fears that the government is fully a corporate state.  It’s hardly perfect in its latent critiques, and what’s not in the show is also odd.  Most notably, racial and religious conflicts are pretty much absent, although it’s clear that Jericho is a pretty white town, with the only visible black family (Hawkins’) one full of deceptions and secrets, and an Indian doctor who turns out to be a drunkard.  A more complex and compelling examination of government complicity with corporate greed might have woven in how frequently such complicity relies on religious rhetoric and racial bigotry.  But not in this small town.  Still, Jericho satisfies for the questions it raises and the buttons it pushes about the interconnectedness of politics and economics.  Absolutely worth another look.

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