All posts by bloglarb

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.  © Tong Lam

Grassroots NGOs

By Tong Lam

For many Chinese people, their exposure to the concept of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and their potential for civic action can be traced back to 1995, when Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women. In early September that year, thousands of international NGO delegates arrived in Beijing to discuss issues of equality, development, and peace, and the event was widely reported in China’s national media. However, NGOs actually have a relatively long history in China. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of foreign NGOs, such as private foundations and public health organizations, were already operating in China. Also, soon after it came to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party began to organize semi-autonomous civic associations as part of its mass mobilization campaign. Although these were not NGOs in the narrow sense of the definition, they were the predecessors of the new “government-organized NGOs” (commonly known as GONGOs) that have emerged in recent years.

The idea of government-organized “grassroots” organizations may sound oxymoronic, but these newly emerged non-profit organizations represent an important mechanism for the government to gain popular support and claim political legitimacy. Not surprisingly, many of the GONGOs established in recent years are civic associations dealing with issues related to the business and professional communities. Meanwhile, an increasing number of international NGOs have also been allowed to operate in China.

Volunteers chatting with residents after their energetic and popular performance. I YOU SHE was originally a volunteer organization focusing on communal rebuilding after a massive earthquake hit Sichuan Province in 2008. Since then, the organization has evolved into a professional NGO with multiple offices in Chengdu. The organization frequently collaborates with the local government and has even received government grants for some of its projects, but also seeks to maintain its autonomous status and pursue its own agenda for community development.

Volunteers chatting with residents after their energetic and popular performance. I YOU SHE was originally a volunteer organization focusing on communal rebuilding after a massive earthquake hit Sichuan Province in 2008. Since then, the organization has evolved into a professional NGO with multiple offices in Chengdu. The organization frequently collaborates with the local government and has even received government grants for some of its projects, but also seeks to maintain its autonomous status and pursue its own agenda for community development. © Tong Lam

In addition to these GONGOs and foreign NGOs, there has also been a surge of real grassroots NGO growth in the past decade. For example, after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008, many of the private and spontaneous rescue and relief efforts soon cohered into professional organizations, and began to offer long-term recovery and mobilization programs, both in the disaster zones and beyond. Generally, these homegrown NGOs are small, local, and poorly funded. Many of them are keen on addressing urban middle-class concerns such as environmental protection, charity, cultural preservation, citizen participation, and community development. In short, their agendas are not incompatible with those of the government, and, by law, they have to be supervised by government agencies. Indeed, by playing a role in vital areas where traditional government-sponsored civic organizations have failed to serve meaningfully, these domestic NGOs help to maintain much-needed social and political stability. In a way, their existence is even consistent with the neoliberal trend of downloading the government’s responsibilities to the private sector.

Still, by cultivating citizens’ awareness of local affairs and establishing international links with foreign NGOs, grassroots Chinese NGOs are sometimes seen as competitors by local officials and even higher levels of the government. As such, Chinese NGOs often have an ambivalent relationship with the state. While it is not uncommon for them to receive funding for specific projects, it is also not unusual for them to run into government-placed obstacles in their work. In the long run, it remains to be seen how the government will interpret the kind of bottom-up social mobilization and citizen participation advocated by these domestic NGOs with mostly middle-class initiatives.

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.  © Tong Lam

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. © Tong Lam

chinaSmackScreenshot2.22.14

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.

36168_JackLondonRussoJapWar_122_200lo

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.

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.

Message From Ukraine

By Yuri Andrukhovych 24.01.2014_Andruchovych_yuri

Dear Friends,

These days I receive from you lots of inquiries requesting to describe the current situation in Kyiv and overall in Ukraine, express my opinion on what is happening, and formulate my vision of at least the nearest future. Since I am simply physically unable to respond separately to each of your publications with an extended analytical essay, I have decided to prepare this brief statement which each of you can use in accordance with your needs. The most important things I must tell you are as follows.

During the less than four years of its rule, Mr. Yanukovych’s regime has brought the country and the society to the utter limit of tensions. Even worse, it has boxed itself into a no-exit situation where it must hold on to power forever—by any means necessary. Otherwise it would have to face criminal justice in its full severity. The scale of what has been stolen and usurped exceeds all imaginination of what human avarice is capable.

The only answer this regime has been proposing in the face of peaceful protests, now in their third month, is violence, violence that escalates and is “hybrid” in its nature: special forces’ attacks at the Maidan are combined with individual harassment and persecution of opposition activists and ordinary participants in protest actions (surveillance, beatings, torching of cars and houses, storming of residences, searches, arrests, rubber-stamp court proceedings). The keyword here is intimidation. And since it is ineffective, and people are protesting on an increasingly massive scale, the powers-that-be make these repressive actions even harsher.

The “legal base” for them was created on January 16, when the Members of Parliament fully dependent on the President, in a crude violation of all rules of procedure and voting, indeed of the Constitution itself, in the course of just a couple of minutes (!) with a simple show of hands (!) voted in a whole series of legal changes which effectively introduce dictatorial rule and a state of emergency in the country without formally declaring them. For instance, by writing and disseminating this, I am subject to several new criminal code articles for “defamation,” “inflaming tensions,” etc.

Briefly put, if these “laws” are recognized, one should conclude: in Ukraine, everything that is not expressly permitted by the powers-that-be is forbidden. And the only thing permitted by those in power is to yield to them.

Not agreeing to these “laws,” on January 19 the Ukrainian society rose up, yet again, to defend its future.

Today in television newsreels coming from Kyiv you can see protesters in various kinds of helmets and masks on their faces, sometimes with wooden sticks in their hands. Do not believe that these are “extremists,” “provocateurs,” or “right-wing radicals.” My friends and I also now go out protesting dressed this way. In this sense my wife, my daughter, our friends, and I are also “extremists.” We have no other option: we have to protect our life and health,as well as the life and health of those near and dear to us. Special forces units shoot at us, their snipers kill our friends. The number of protesters killed just on one block in the city’s government quarter is, according to different reports, either 5 or 7. Additionally, dozens of people in Kyiv are missing.

We cannot halt the protests, for this would mean that we agree to live in a country that has been turned into a lifelong prison. The younger generation of Ukrainians, which grew up and matured in the post-Soviet years, organically rejects all forms of dictatorship. If dictatorship wins, Europe must take into account the prospect of a North Korea at its eastern border and, according to various estimates, between 5 and 10 million refugees. I do not want to frighten you.

We now have a revolution of the young. Those in power wage their war first and foremost against them. When darkness falls on Kyiv, unidentified groups of “people in civilian clothes” roam the city, hunting for the young people, especially those who wear the symbols of the Maidan or the European Union. They kidnap them, take them out into forests, where they are stripped and tortured in fiercely cold weather. For some strange reason the victims of such actions are overwhelmingly young artists—actors, painters, poets. One feels that some strange “death squadrons” have been released in the country with an assignment to wipe out all that is best in it.

One more characteristic detail: in Kyiv hospitals the police force entraps the wounded protesters; they are kidnapped and (I repeat, we are talking about wounded persons) taken out for interrogation at undisclosed locations. It has become dangerous to turn to a hospital even for random passersby who were grazed by a shard of a police plastic grenade. The medics only gesture helplessly and release the patients to the so-called “law enforcement.”

To conclude: in Ukraine full-scale crimes against humanity are now being committed, and it is the present government that is responsible for them. If there are any extremists present in this situation, it is the country’s highest leadership that deserves to be labeled as such.

And now turning to your two questions which are traditionally the most difficult for me to answer: I don’t know what will happen next, just as I don’t know what you could now do for us. However, you can disseminate, to the extent your contacts and possibilities allow, this appeal. Also, empathize with us. Think about us. We shall overcome all the same, no matter how hard they rage. The Ukrainian people, without exaggeration, now defend the European values of a free and just society with their own blood. I very much hope that you will appreciate this.

Yuri Andrukhovych is a Ukrainian prose writer, poet, essayist, and translator.
Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

India in China

By Tong Lam

The relative absence of India in Chinese public discourse is an interesting curiosity. Indeed, while there has been a growing public interest in China among the Indian public in recent years, there is no similar level of reciprocal fascination flowing across the Himalayas in the other direction. Instead, most members of the Chinese public seem more eager to learn about and travel to the United States, Japan, and Europe. Similarly, within the Asian context, Chinese often care more about happenings in other parts of East Asia or Southeast Asia than in South Asia.

In addition to the perceived cultural and historical differences, a major reason for the absence of enthusiasm about India is China’s relentless desire to catch up with nations that are thought of as more advanced — and India is not one of those.  In addition, whereas Pakistan is a longtime ally, India is not widely viewed as either a “friend of China” or a significant threat, something that can also inspire intense interest, in spite of the fact that the two nations fought a brief war in 1962 over a still unresolved border dispute. China is more preoccupied at present with the challenges from neighboring countries that line the Pacific coast.

A visitor photographing the Indian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the largest international exposition ever held.

A visitor photographing the Indian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the largest international exposition ever held.

Meanwhile, the Indian public is keenly aware that China’s economic development has significantly outpaced that of India in the past two decades, and that China’s rise could pose a threat to their country. At the same time, Indian elite commentators and officials alike have been awed by China’s vast investment in infrastructure, and there has been a swirling debate among them about the pros and cons of the so-called “Chinese model” of governance, which prioritizes state-guided economic growth rather than political liberalization and social justice.

Still, in spite of their asymmetrical interests in each other, as well as their historical enmity, the world’s two most populous nations have a long history of economic and cultural contacts. Furthermore, both China and India are highly conscious of their long civilizations, and both are imbued with a strong sense of cultural and national pride. Significantly as well, their senses of history are still very much shaped by their shared experience of colonialism and imperialism, and by something less often noted by Westerners as a common trait: the fact that both were heavily influenced by the Soviet Union in their immediately post-WWII modernizing projects. Likewise, the two Asian giants are both nuclear powers and now have ambitious space programs. The list of commonalities goes on and on. One way or another, these two ethnically and linguistically diverse nations are going through rapid economic development and urbanization, as they are also grappling with serious disparities and widespread corruptions. And their actions today will have important consequences, within Asia and in every corner of the planet.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

LARB-FictionCVR-PRINTREADY-1

The LARB Fiction Issue is Here!

The Los Angeles Review of Books presents a collection of original fiction from some of the most exciting contemporary authors working today. From short stories to excerpts of upcoming novels, the LARB Special Edition: Fiction Issue features pieces from Hawa Allan, Nick Antosca, Steph Cha, g c cunningham, Jim Gavin, Etgar Keret, Grace Krilanovich, Ben Loory, TaraShea Nesbit, Mary Otis, Mark Haskell Smith, Matthew Specktor, and Alejandro Zambra.

This latest issue of the magazine represents our first foray into original fiction — a unique issue with all previously unpublished, original fiction from some of the most talented fiction writers in letters today. While “source fiction” is a departure from the content that you are accustomed to finding in LARB, we hope that you will consider it a little year-end gift — a thank you for your continued support. Keeping our broad audience in mind, we tried to provide a diverse array of stories and voices. The theme of the issue, “Multiple Choice,” should come as no surprise. Constructing a narrative and creating character is all about making choices from an infinite amount of possibilities. It is also what makes this issue so remarkable: the scope of the pieces is wide-ranging, with contributions coming from leading writers in Chile, Israel, and all over the United States.

— Olivia Taylor Smith and C.P. Heiser, Fiction Issue Editors

Get the Fiction Issue in print when you join our sustaining membership program. Look for it in fine bookstores and cafes throughout Los Angeles. And check back for the eBook version, available shortly from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

IMG_4886

Missing the Harmony Express

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

“There is NOTHING,” I typed, “that makes me miss China more than dealing with @Amtrak. Our rail system is ridiculous.” A quick click on “Tweet” and I sat back in my chair in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, content that I had fully conveyed my frustration with American mass transit — at least, to the thousand or so people who follow me on Twitter.

Like all tweets written in a fit of anger, this is one that I probably shouldn’t have sent, or that I should at least have thought about more carefully before posting. No one from Amtrak responded to my whining, so I had done nothing more than scream into a void. But having traveled the length of the Northeast Corridor (Boston to D.C.) in the past two weeks, my patience for rattling old Amtrak trains has been exhausted, and I long for the quiet, even glide of Chinese high-speed rail. I miss trains that run on time, clear announcements at each station arrival, inexpensive tickets, and free hot water for my instant coffee (though Amtrak’s $2 brew is surprisingly good, I’ve found). Amtrak definitely has the advantage in seat size (roomy in every dimension) and ease of ticket purchase (done online in only a few minutes, a move that China hasn’t been able to make), but otherwise — God, do I miss Chinese trains.

And who would have ever thought that I’d say that?

I certainly wouldn’t have predicted it nine years ago, when I stepped onto a sleeper train to travel from Beijing to Xi’an, my first time riding the Chinese rails. I had a vague idea of what to expect, but was still taken aback by the thin beds and poorly maintained bathrooms, to say nothing of the trash that seemed to bloom on the floor of the car as soon as passengers settled in with snacks whose wrappings they discarded freely. I slept poorly and spent much of the 12-hour trip trying to deter curious fellow passengers from starting conversations that my introverted self cowered at (I’ve mostly gotten past that — a freckled redhead in China can’t also be an introvert).

For several years following that initial journey, I regarded train travel in China as something to be endured in the service of getting from one cool destination to the next. But around 2007 or so, I realized something: the trains between Nanjing, where I lived, and Shanghai, where I liked to be, were getting faster. The interiors were getting nicer. People were cleaning up their trash and spending most of their time listening to iPods or texting on their cell phones, not asking me questions about my life in China. (The bathrooms were still kind of gross, but so are Amtrak’s.) Absorbed in the drama of my mid-twenties life, I had barely noticed the arrival of high-speed rail, one of the most important developments in Chinese infrastructure over the past decade.

China has finally accomplished what Mao Zedong set out to do in the Great Leap Forward of 1958 — surpassed the United States in something big and ambitious. High-speed rail lines spiderweb across the country, from Harbin in the north to Guangzhou in the south. New lines are being built to reach Kunming in the southwest and Urumqi in the northwest. In the U.S., on the other hand, plans for a high-speed line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and another one in the Northeast Corridor, have repeatedly gotten tangled up in political maneuverings and concerns about building costs — two things that China’s Railway Ministry hasn’t had to worry about as it has embarked on its massive construction spree. We might eventually get a few lines built here, but it will be a long, slow project, measured in terms of decades, not years. Speaking at a panel titled “Will China Rule the World?” at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, which I attended in D.C. the first weekend in January, Yale professor Peter Perdue joked that “China’s GDP will surpass [that of] the U.S. before America has high-speed rail.”

Of course, China-watchers know that the country’s switch from the “Iron Rooster,” as older trains are known, to the sleek new Hexie Hao, or “Harmony Express,” hasn’t gone completely smoothly by any means. The July 2011 collision between two high-speed trains outside the city of Wenzhou, which killed 40 people, sounded a note of alarm, and many Chinese asked whether the country needed to slow down as it surged ahead. The arrest and conviction of Liu Zhijun, former Minister of Railways, for bribery and abuse of power signaled that the days of unbridled rail growth with no questions asked were over, though the leadership still plans to double the current high-speed network. Amtrak has a long way to go before it catches up.

The high-speed rail lines that radiate out from Shanghai enable me to travel easily and frequently — even Beijing is only five hours away — and I’ll trade a ride on the Harmony Express for a trip on Amtrak pretty much any day of the week. But as much as I wish that the U.S. were a little more like China in its rail infrastructure, I have to admit that China is also losing something in its switch to high-speed trains. Overnight trips on the “Iron Rooster” were once the quintessential getting-to-know-China experience for foreign students and backpackers, and though I always had to steel myself for those trips before they began, they also comprise some of my most vivid early memories of China. Journeys on the Harmony Express, on the other hand, tend to be so quiet and routine that one blurs into the next, as indistinguishable as the landscape rushing past the window at 300 kilometers an hour.

For a glimpse into China’s railway past, check out Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China, Paul Theroux’s account of his travels across the country in the 1980s.