Saturday, June 30, 2007

Back From China


We're back and I intend to write about China, but I thought I'd also make this post a floating index of sorts. I'll update this with links to China related articles, but meantime, if you're a regular reader, you can skip this on your way to the new stuff below.

And if you want to link to China coverage, you can link to this all-inclusive post. How convenient!

So, live posts from China:

We're here!
First Second Impressions
Three Blades of Yangchow

Books about China worth reading (chronological by subject):

1930s Shanghai and Chengdu. The Lady and the Panda
1972 Beijing and elsewhere. Nixon and Mao
1990s Beijing. Foreign Babes in Beijing

Posts about China from home:

Children's Department Store (with video!)
Imperial Meal (with video!)
Outdoor Exercise Equipment (with video!)
Guanyuan Insect Market

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

China Stock

I'm no financial genius (I barely qualify as a financial moron), but I'm pretty happy with a stock that I bought just before we left for China: (CTRP). CTrip is basically Expedia in China -- online airline and hotel bookings.

After seeing the burgeoning new middle class in China, and the amount of travel they did at the May holiday (which will be reflected in the 3rd quarter statement), plus the increasing number of computers, it seems (for now) like a no-brainer, especially through the 2008 Olympics (I figure the Chinese government is not going to rock teh boat one iota until after that, and possibly until after Shanghai hosts the World Expo in 2010).

Anyway, the stock is doing well, and recently they announced that they will be paying dividends soon, too.

Buy at your own risk.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Imperial Meal

In Beijing's Beihai Park, Fangshan Restaurant has been serving the public for more than eighty years. The first chef had worked in the Forbidden City and so the quality of the food is said to be appropriate for the Emperor--or Empress.

From what we heard Dowager Cixi "The Dragon Lady" used to come to Beihai when it was still private property and eat a meal at this auxiliary kitchen when she was bored of the food at the Palace. Our guide Sean told us that the kitchens would prepare literally dozens of dishes for every meal so that they would be ready whenever the Dragon Lady made her desires known.

Our meal was absolutely delicious, wonderful textures and flavors and a real variety of ingredients (including camel). Recommended!

(Oh, and we didn't have the kids with us. Thanks, Ma and Ba!)

China Index

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chinese Children's Department Store

After three weeks traveling through China – riding a superfast train in Shanghai, visiting the terracotta army in Xian, climbing the Great Wall – if you asked my kids what there favorite site was, they might tell you about the subbasement of a department store in Beijing. Not just any department store, mind you, but four floors of clothes, accessories, and toys and that aforementioned subbasement: a supervised play area where kids get to go flat out and expend some energy.

While I don’t expect many other families with 2 ½ and 4 year olds to be as foolish as mine and travel to China, there’s something about this wonderful place that gives some insight into the emerging Chinese middle class and the social changes of the last half century. And maybe, a brief description would encourage someone in the US to build something half as fun for our kids.

First of all, the store: Ertong Shangdian is a department store on Wangfujing, Beijing’s pedestrian shopping street not far from Tianamen Square. Think Minneapolis’ Nicolett Mall or Boston’s Downtown Crossing, a street lined with large department stores punctuated by more transient clothing or gadget emporiums. But then multiply by ten, because this is China. While Toys ‘R’ Us is filing for bankruptcy here, Ertong Shangdian is selling every conceivable children’s item you could want or need.

Pampers? Avent bottles? Up on 3 (although the diapers are pricey (about $.50 each) in the land of split crotch children’s clothes). But this may be useful for those dozens of parents with adopted kids we saw in the hotels.

Clothes? 2008 Olympic merchandise? On 2.

Toys? Well, toys are everywhere, but the ground floor is the main focus though mostly with foreign imports like Barbie and Legos. The latest gadget this year is a remote control helicopter that is remarkably robust – fly it into the ceiling and it just bounces off and regains balance.

Shoes, hats, backpacks? That’s in the basement along with a magician’s stage where tricks are demonstrated and available for purchase.

As you can imagine, children would be happy just to wander the first floor and basement. But there’s more.

The subbasement.

Taking the escalator down one more flight you’ll see in front of you a gated area with seats facing in. Behind the gate is an artificial beach of white sand, a water wheel turning and keeping the air humid, and the prow of a ship. And kids scrambling all over the place. There are also statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the beach, but I can’t say I understood why.

Moving counterclockwise, the next quarter is also gated. Behind this play area is a huge habitrail for children, a two story labyrinth of slides, ladders, zip lines, trampolines, swings, and kiddie pools filled with plastic balls. There may have been more but I didn’t make it to the furthest back.

The next play area was my favorite, although it sounds the worst from a liberal parents point of view: a foam combat zone. A balcony ran like a figure eight around the place and there were guns mounted top and bottom that would use air pressure to shoot foam balls into the main play space. The upper guns were protected by the netting that kept the kids from falling out and the lower ones had sandbags so kids could make trenches. And again, a selection of slides, punching bag forests, crawl through tubes and other obstacles encouraged a lot of shrieks of joy.

Each of these play areas required separate tickets. 20 Yuan a kid (less than $3) and 5 Yuan an adult. Of course, the adults could sit out front and just watch their kids tear around the playspace of their choice. Oh, and if you’re going, wear socks. Shoes are not allowed in the playspaces and neither is barefeet. I was wearing sandals the first time we went and so they offered me cloth bags to put my feet in, footwear and all. That prevented the scuffing they were afraid of but after about ten minutes my feet felt like they were in individual saunas.

My kids had a great time down there – and so did I. There’s nothing like nailing your four year old with a foam ball to take out the frustrations of all those temper tantrums on the road.

Now, dear parent, I know what you’re thinking: sounds like fun, but how the heck do you get the kids out of there without another argument and meltdown? The answer: about a dozen gumball type machines that would dispense plastic doodads – Hello Kitty figures, superballs, dinosaur egg transformers – for between 1 and 4 Yuan, that is, 12 to 55 cents each.

Also in the subbasement were a craft area (ceramic painting), a portrait studio, a nook for book and DVD purchases, and a few computers set up to run educational software that the store also had for sale.

I with we had one of these in the States.

And, here's a video I made (UPDATE: the embed doesn't seem to be working for me but if you click on the "screen" you'll link to the source at YouTube):

China Index

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


So I'm posting for the first time on the Mac. Why? Because I took some odd photos with Photobooth to share.

This one kills me. I don't mind how odd I look but it bothers me when Mari looks weird. I'm vain about her, I guess.

An experiment in eye color:

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Mii Lebowski

This isn't very funny unless you've played Nintendo Wii and love The Big Lebowski. On the other hand, if you have...

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Terry and Francis

An Update: did you hear Terry's anniversary broadcast? She mentioned that she married Fresh Air's former jazz critic! So Francis Davis WAS on Fresh Air before. Cool.

I also saw her book All I Did Was Ask and the introduction told a funny story about how someone told her mother-in-law that Terry is a lesbian. See? I can ruin any funny story I hear.

Repeat: The Public Humanist

[Ed. note: I had the idea of having a "public, named" blog and a "private, anonymous" blog but I'm not sure if there's any point to it anymore. I don't find myself ranting much on either one, and the public one tends to lay fallow. Anyway, here's the latest post from "over there":]

I'm now listed as a contributor to The Public Humanist, a site set up by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities with support from The Valley Advocate.

Pretty impressive list of writers there. I'm the, uh, Asian one, I guess. What's going on that it was so hard to find non-whites with a background and passion for the Humanities? Perhaps I need to write a blogpost about that.

The point of the blog is to engage in public dialogues about how the humanities frame, affect and are affected by our public, American lives. It's early on, and as I wrote, I'm listed as a contributor but have not yet contributed, but it looks to be a good discussion. Join in!

Moving platforms

I put in an order for a MacBook last week (Macrumors says the time is right)! And I'm too cheap to buy MS Office so I'm thinking of trying to use for a while until my incompatibility forces me to cough up the dough.

The reasons for the switch: digital videocamera and more digital media handling, and needed a laptop. I'm still going to use my Dell desktop rather heavily, but I've already starting deleting music files from its choked 60 Gig HD (Sixty gigs! Unfillable , it seemed). Multi-platform, baby! I hope this helps with some of the incompatibility issues I occasionally get with documents from WGBH.

Mac users, I need help: I didn't get Apple care for the machine but I have up to a year from purchase. Pete said he's never had to use it. Although I think Andrew had problems with his Macbook. Comments are needed! Is Applecare worth getting? ($249 for three years -- have you spent more than that for Mac repairs?)

The Lady and the Panda

This is a great book by Vicki Constantine Croke about Ruth Harkness (and not the memoir by Harkness herself).

The Lady and the Panda tells the story of Ruth Harkness, a 1930s socialite and dress designer in New York who finally marries her boyfriend of ten years just before he goes off on an expedition. He dies in Shanghai and she decides to take up his cause: to capture or kill a giant panda.

Back then, no one knew if pandas were fierce killers or what they ate or where they lived (except kind of generally up around Chengdu). And the only pandas that had been captured died soon after from starvation.

Harkness had a) no experience in big game hunting, b) no knowledge of China or Chinese culture or language, c) limited amounts of money, d) some nice dresses in her trunk. She did have the help of Quentin Young, a young Chinese American adventurer out to make a name for himself and get out from the shadow of his older brother Jack. And she also had a women's touch, charming officials, playing dumb when ignoring regulations and most importantly, considering bringing powdered milk along in case she found a baby panda.

It's a classic adventure story that doesn't end with her success -- she goes back to China and rethinks the whole panda hunting business altogether.

Croke tells the story well and with the private cache of letters to Harkness' best friend, she's able to tell a lot of the story through Harkness' own words. There are also some nice photos reprinted -- if you think pandas are cute, you should see baby pandas.

For travelers to China, in particular, the book has great descriptions of Shanghai in the 1930s with the International Quarter in full swing, the racetrack still in existence (not yet People's Park and the Shanghai Museum) and all the hijinks that entailed. And then Harkness returns to Shanghai as the Japanese invade the city. Other than that, most of the book takes place to the west around Chengdu.

Quentin Young's biography is told in another book that he first cooperated with and then pulled out of, called Chasing the Panda. He helps fill in some of the romantic goings on that Harkness alluded to in her books.

China Index

Saturday, June 02, 2007


After spending a day without the kids in the Forbidden City, having lunch at an Imperial Kitchen in Beihai park and then touring the Hutong neighborhood of old courtyard houses, Julie and I went to find 798, a neighborhood we read about in our guidebook. Beijing is the centre of the contemporary Chinese art scene and we took the opportunity to find some local artists.

798 is named for the military electrical engineering factory that used to operate there. The factories are now mostly abandoned (although military police could be seen guarding buildings behind chain link fences).

First we had to find the place. We had been told that the area comes alive mostly in the evening, but since the kids were taken care of it didn’t make sense to go back to the hotel and then out again – we hailed a taxi at around 5pm and luckily he knew where we were going, out to the Fourth Ring Road in the northeast, toward the airport.

Having few expectations, I was still surprised when we got there. It was not a large factory building, but rather a district of factories, with alleys running between them. Signs everywhere pointed to galleries, studios and cafes. We started to wander and immediately were struck by a lifesize sculpture of three men cast in white, carrying a woman by three limbs. Her dress was red and her white underwear was visible. In the gallery next to the sculpture, a mural sized painting of the same scene filled one wall. The receptionist explained to us that these works were based on a famous “Internet photo” of a police crackdown on prostitution about two years ago. This was news to us (and we found it particularly interesting that the news photo was found on the Internet and was considered “famous” in China).

Next place we went into was a sculptor’s gallery and studio. The piece that caught our attention was called “Big Dog.” One impression I got from Chinese art was that it was fairly literally symbolic, and not very abstract or theoretical. This could be considered facile or, if you don’t know much about China like me, it could prove to be very informative. Big Dog was a case in point. A large tableau of characters react to the death of various dogs while other canines continue to frolic animatedly. Among the characters: a blind man mourning the death of his helper dog, foreigners appalled at the scene, a child playing with a dog that had been certified. What was this about? Apparently since the 1980s, there has been a crackdown on large dogs in China and they were beaten to death somewhat indiscriminately. Julie said this area was a like a lesson in contemporary Chinese history.

Around this time, we realized we had been somewhat mislead. Yes, there were bars and restaurants that would be opening later, but the galleries were all closing around 6 or 7. And so we sped walk around the buildings. Turning the corner from that first alley, there were factory buildings that were still dilapidated and looked unsafe. In fact, we found buildings with rubble blocking half their exits, and water running out the door, and after venturing inside the unlit stairways, we would emerge into beautifully renovated, well lit artists’ spaces. Or a renovated building would sit right next to a concrete hulk about to topple over. The mix of the new and the raw was pretty compelling. I’ve already seen on the Internet comments by people about how 798 is already “over,” but there is clearly potential for more space to be overhauled.

One gallery was run by an artist named Ma Hong who sold me a small poster of reworked propaganda with Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders taking the place of the male and female comrades who originally stood there. Hong seemed more of a graphic designer than artist. Another work in her small gallery was a pair of paintings of Mickey Mouse and the Monkey King.

Off we went to find more open spaces when I asked Julie if we should maybe buy a Mickey/Monkey painting. We ran back to ask about prices, but it was a little high, so we left again.

Some of the other galleries we peeked into had Socialist Realist paintings of scenes from the Korean War, primitive style scenes of people wandering urban streets, portraits stretched and warped into single stripes on backgrounds.

Then we went through a long tunnel, an enclosed alleyway that was a bit spooky, especially with the doors leading off of it mostly locked. There were some stenciled images spray painted on walls (some of which I recognized as Hong’s work). We emerged from the tunnel and wandered into an art bookstore/café. Although there were many works on Chinese artists, much of it was Western oriented and almost all of it was foreign published (Phaidon, Rizzoli, etc.) and I didn’t feel like I needed to shop there. So we wandered through the café where the tables had been cleared and someone was having a press conference! There were three Chinese people and a European woman and they were making statements about art in China in front of some reporters and at least one television camera.

Back on the street, a bicycle rode up to us. It was Ma Hong. She had called her friend who had made the Monkey/Mickeys and told her that we had been interested. The friend lowered the price and we agreed to buy. Apparently they each take turns watching the gallery for a month while the other stays home creating more work. We returned to the gallery and were pleased with our purchase.

Eventually we found ourselves in the Gao Brothers Studio. It wasn’t on our gallery map – for good reason it turns out. The Gao Brothers’ signature image was “Miss Mao,” a bust of Chairman Mao with breasts (“The Communist Party is the mother of China”) and a Pinocchio nose (“The Communist Party is the mother of China”). Again, we needed some explanation of this which was helpfully supplied by one of the brothers. By this time it was well after 7 and we weren’t in a gallery but in the artists’ work space. Since we had the ear of one of the brothers, we asked him about being an artist in China and censorship. He said that he felt pretty free to make what he wanted and he and his brother had exhibited in Europe and America. However, he told us, they couldn’t show “Miss Mao” anywhere in China. How about the nude photography that was hanging on the walls? No problem. But nothing political.

By this time we were tired and found Café Cave for a drink and some decent pizza. We talked to Shaun, our guide, about some of the things we had seen (he had never been in the area, but looked forward to coming back with his friends). What do you do with your friends? we asked. Hang out, play games, go out to eat, he said. How about you? Do you like discos? Julie said she liked salsa dancing. By this time, I was getting sleepy and we packed up to head out.

And then we peeked into the next room where the tables were all cleared, the floor was bare and a mirror covered one long wall. What’s going on? Salsa class! With the music blaring, we got new life and took a salsa lesson from a great Venezuelan dancer who had lots of flair and extra moves that he put into the rhythm. He was a great teacher, stressing the basics and then showing us some of those added touches as motivation to learn. And he refused payment from us, and even complimenting me (“You’ve danced before.” – a mild compliment but thrilling for me as a salsa beginner).

When Shaun asked us what we liked best in China, we had to admit that this may have been the best night.

China Index