Monday, December 29, 2008

An Abandoned Village of Blueprinted Excess

It was about two weeks ago that I was riding a bike (which was not mine, but was nevertheless (and continues to be) at my disposal; this being a detail which is of no relevance aside from justifying my use of the indefinite article rather than the possessive pronoun) through Tangshan’s Nanhu Gongyuan (“South Lake Public Park”) when I happened upon what appeared to be the remnants of a suburban housing development. As I mentioned before, I am fairly certain that the majority of Tangshan’s urban residents live in one of the many six-story apartment complexes or one of the newer high rise buildings. Then there are the one-floor bungalows made of brick and smell of burning coal that comprise the slums that are littered about the city. What I didn’t expect to see was a neighborhood of tract housing (or “McMansions” if you will) nestled in between the park and Tangshan’s urban sprawl; one wonders if it could factually be termed as “suburban” given its proximity to the city’s center, but that is really none of my concern (which is a lie, as I am obviously preoccupied with semantics).
In any case, the entire community was about the size of your average Wal-Mart, perhaps half-again, and all of the homes were two stories, though many of them were merely concrete skeletons—concrete framework seeming to be the standard for all architecture out here. The roads were unpaved, overgrown with brush and littered with debris; it looked like the place had been sitting there for years (though it was probably much less). Some homes had a lot of work done on them; one in particular had columns of affected Roman design at the front doors, and upon further (and likely illegal) investigation of the interior was revealed to have concave ceilings with gold-painted moldings and what I can only describe as a large marble wall sculpture depicting nubile celestials from the Renaissance-era (art history majors, feel free provide me with the correct terminology). Now this would all seem like a tragic waste of resources to have all this opulence go unappreciated by an upper-middle class Chinese family, but it was somewhat heartening to see that one of the upstairs rooms had at least been occupied, as evidenced by a pile of matted down straw in the corner.
That being said, the neighborhood was not completely uninhabited, and I’m not just talking about squatters and transients. There were actually two or three homes that were actually (or mostly) completed and you could see that people were living in them; the telltale signs of life being clothing left out to dry and, well a car in the driveway is a pretty good indicator as well. I could see through a window that a TV was turned on in a half-finished house (as in one half of the house was completely built while the other was filled with bricks and rubble). I was not the only non-resident either; there was particularly a lot of activity on the neighborhood’s northern border which was partly separated from the slums by what would have been an artificial pond had it ever been filled with water. The other part was a small open square with a few empty shop fronts that would have likely become a strip mall and perhaps served as a buffer zone between the slums and the suburb. This place had now become an area of recreation for the local elderly residents, which mostly consisted of various stretching exercises performed in mid-conversation with each other. There were slums to the south and west of the neighborhood as well, separated by an open field and a similarly uncompleted apartment complex respectively. It begs the question of what exactly the developers had to clear to set up in this location.
Regardless, it doesn’t take much to figure out why this project failed; in a country where 800 million people are still living in rural poverty, and to which the government’s response is to “urbanize” said demographic—as in relocate to the cities where they can lay down the plow and pick up the scales, so to speak—it simply isn’t very practical to have a single family living in a four or five bedroom house with Roman columns and domed ceilings, overindulgent though it may be.

Some more pictures I took.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Night at the “Easy Street” (Part Two)

So where was I…oh yes, I was sitting alone in the bar, sipping at an imported Budweiser and taking notes. After finishing my beer and getting started on another one (this time a domestic brew), I decided to start asking a few questions. In particular, I was wondering how a place like this stayed in business. As seven o’clock approached most of the peculiarly uniformed workers began to leave, and it clicked that they were probably service staff, and that this place was most likely a restaurant during the day, though there was no indication of it from either the outside or in. This was confirmed by the female worker, who had now taken the place of the previous bartender and was wearing a black track suit over her uniform (her bowtie and rose dress shirt still visible). Now I suppose this is nothing unusual, the combination of a bar and restaurant, but I got the feeling that this place would not be able to survive without pulling in the extra income from serving food during the day. Well, that is, until I decided to inquire about the tab I had thus far accumulated. The Budweiser (12 oz.) was an astounding 20 yuan, and the Qingdao (1 liter?) was a still upsetting 10 yuan. Now, in US dollars, this amounts to something less than five dollars, but when you get used to buying a liter-sized beer in a restaurant for 3 yuan, the mark-up just doesn’t add up. And keep in mind I’m making a Chinese salary, so it’s not like I can just spend money like some kid who’s just got a blank check after Miguel Ferrer runs over his bike. I called up my boss to make sure I wasn’t getting hoodwinked, but apparently it was the Mao-honest truth. Well, I figured I wasn’t going stick around much longer, though one of the other workers was insistent that I have another beer, and despite my protestations of “Tai guile!"(too expensive) he nevertheless opened up another bottle and placed it in front of me.
Meanwhile, the bar-staff fired up a karaoke machine and LCD projector that displayed aquatic scenes to the tune of classical Muzak when not playing contemporary Chinese-pop music videos. They also turned off the one unflattering light bulb and hit the dim colored lights hanging over the bar as well as what I consider extremely tacky flashing LED light tubes that were liable to cause seizures, which stretched under the bar and beneath the projector screen. The transformation was complete.
Not long after, patrons began to filter into the bar in small groups, most of them middle-aged men, some accompanied by girlfriends or mistresses—anyone but wives. They all took seats at the booths or tables and began ordering various Chinese snacks and beers. What transpired in the following hours was a deafening demonstration of one of China’s favorite pastimes—drunken karaoke. Now it was nothing stereotypical like Japanese businessmen with thick-rimmed glasses, getting plastered on rice wine and singing songs from the 80s off-key and out of tune (which shouldn’t really be applied to the Chinese anyway because I know all of you and the rest of America know the differences between Chinese and Japanese). When I say deafening I mean it literally, as the volume was cranked up so unnecessarily loud. But I guess that’s how the Chinese like it. I’ve noticed this with a couple other things—ring tones for instance. Regardless, if you could cut through that and all of the reverb, they weren’t bad singers, as far as I could tell, not knowing any Chinese songs.
Well, I was getting ready to leave, when a gentleman from one group asked me if I was a foreigner. Upon discovering I was, he became very excited, and brought over a Chinese woman who turned out to be an English teacher at a local middle school and who offered me a baton-sized cut of bamboo that had been soaked in sugar water. He invited me to sit at his table and poured me a glass of beer (Budweiser, no less). Conversation was extremely difficult because, as I said, the volume on the karaoke machine was deafening and there was rarely any down time in between songs—that and the language barrier; the English teacher mostly stayed outside smoking cigarettes and was unable to provide any translation. Still, I was able to find out that the man and his friends were government workers. The men would pour me beers and give me more snacks, but didn’t seem all that interested in trying to communicate with me (as if it could have been possible with all the noise). But sitting there amidst the discord, panning back and forth across the bar, I couldn’t help but think that I was really just a sort of novelty for the men at these table. Now, I don’t mean to spit on their hospitality or anything like that, and it really wouldn’t bother me if that was in fact the case (I mean, hey, I was getting free beer and all kinds of goodies). But, it was then and there that I saw a distinct hierarchy within the bar. The table I sat at with the government workers—they were all drinking imported American beer and snacking on sugar-soaked bamboo, and smoking high-class cigarettes and now, they even had a foreigner among them. At one point, one of the gentlemen went out and bought two large grapefruits and gave one to the men at the other long table in the middle of the bar, who were only drinking domestic beer and snacking on sunflower seeds. Now I found nothing haughty or patronizing about their behavior, but rather that this all had some deeper implication about the Chinese psyche; that this kind of stratification would always occur wherever it was possible and that it was something very organic and natural to the Chinese without the airs or insecurities of the West.

At some point, an older Chinese woman (late forties?) who turned out to be the proprietress of the bar came to our table and took me by the arm then guided me outside and over to other bar on the right side of the tea house, which, of course, was also owned by her, and also called “Lu Yi Jiu Ba” or as I’ve translated (and very likely incorrectly) as “Easy Street Bar.” The layout of the bar was slightly different, though the atmosphere was roughly the same, save for the fact that there weren’t as many people in this bar and the karaoke machine wasn’t blasting either (thankfully). Anyway, she sat me down at the bar introduced me to a young Chinese girl about my age (23 if you’re wondering) who was tending the bar, then went off to schmooze with other patrons. At that point I was approached by a young man about my age as well, who spoke a few words of English and was quick to pour me a beer and begin conversing with me. As it turns out, he was a cop, which he translated to me by holding up his wrists in front of him to signify handcuffs. I found that somewhat interesting considering that he was pretty drunk and smoking, and in general lacked the kind of seriousness you’d expect from a cop, though from what I’ve heard about the cops out here I suppose it’s not surprising.
Anyway, at some point I realized I had been away from the other bar for quite awhile, and I felt bad for having been whisked away so abruptly without properly thanking the gentlemen for their hospitality. The young cop accompanied me back to the other bar, taking my hand in his, which apparently is not something stigmatized out here. Luckily the gentlemen were still there, though they were leaving, and I was able to save face and express my appreciation for their kindness and generosity. On the way back to the other bar, the young cop very casually explained to me that the girl at the bar was his wife, but that he didn’t mind me talking to her because he wanted her to learn English with me. And really, there was nothing threatening about him, which just made the whole situation seem kind of weird.
So yeah, sitting back in the bar, the young cop told me to talk to “his wife” at the bar while he grabbed a mic and dedicated the next song to me. Well, as it turned out (I find myself saying this a lot), she was not actually his wife, not even his girlfriend. Apparently, his mother and hers (who, as it turns out, is the proprietress of this/these bar(s)) are friends, and I’ve landed right in the middle of some teen drama. It was amusing to say the least, because after a few more drinks the young cop started calling her his wife openly, and she would yell at him in a way that suggested that she often had to do this. She did, in fact, want me to teach her English (which everyone out here seems to want me to do) and I suppose I made some flirtatious and disingenuous offer to do so. Anyway, there isn’t much more of any relevance to mention. I didn’t see her mother, the proprietress, again until I began walking home and saw her sitting on the passenger side of a black Mercedes (or some other kind of luxury car) next to a shadowy businessman-type figure in the driver seat, oblivious to my awkward wave as I passed by.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Night at the “Easy Street” (Part One)

Evidently, the idea of a bar is something foreign and distinctly “Western” in China (not as in John Wayne or Clint Eastwood or even "Wild Wild West"(c. 1999), but as is in the “Free World”-West). The Chinese are not accustomed to going to somewhere specifically to consume alcohol, even for the sake of socialization—restaurants seem to serve as more appropriate venues. Of course, in the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, I’m sure there are probably hundreds of bars, but here in Tangshan I’ve only seen two and they’re pretty much right next to each other, a tea house is all that separates them (something else I will have to go investigate sometime).

So, it was this past Sunday that I decided to check out one of these bars after work, and I should mention that Sunday is now my Friday (which means I get to cut loose all by myself; the reasons behind why I can’t “cut loose” with the few coworkers I do have out here are too digressive and insignificant to really get into). From the outside, you already know this is a place meant to cater to Westerners, or rather evoke some feeling of “Western-ness”. Basically, there are big pictures of attractive bourgeois white couples sipping wine in either picnic settings or else amongst identical couples someplace brightly lit and indoors, and they are all candidly smiling and appear to generally be having a good time. Well, my first encounter already began on the front steps, upon which a sort of dingy-white Chow Chow mix laid, and which cautiously avoided my attempts to pet it and then began nipping at my calves as I opened the solid red doors of the bar.
It was around 6:30, and I seemed to have caught everyone inside off guard. The interior was roughly the size of what you’d expect any one-room bar to be; there were booths all along the right side, two long tables in the middle and the bar was all along the left wall. The first thing I noticed was the lighting, and how uninviting it was; (please let me know if I’m overusing semicolons) there was one bulb hanging from the ceiling over the booths giving off a harsh, buttery colored light, the kind of light which gives you license to say it makes one’s skin appear sallow. Also, on the wall above the booths are more pictures of good-time-havin’ foreigners, which makes you wonder why in the States you rarely see depictions of drinking inside a bar, unless it’s a Polaroid of some twenty-one year old downing an Irish car bomb or some other such collegiate puerility (of which I don’t pretend to separate myself from having been apart of, I should add). As I was saying, the people inside (all Chinese, roughly in their late-twenties to mid-thirties (but who can really tell, right?), about five or six of them and only one of them a female) were sitting at one booth eating what must have been dinner, and watching a Chinese soap opera on a TV suspended in the corner (which I only heard at first, but later witnessed). They all looked at me sort of confused, and one of the young men stood up at asked what I wanted (which came along with a lot of other stuff I didn’t understand in Chinese). They were obviously all workers here at the bar, and I was intruding in upon their dinner, and though I felt a bit embarrassed I sheepishly requested a beer.
The bar was unlit with no one behind it, and the young man was quick to get behind it and begin bartending. I noticed that he and some of the other workers wore identical outfits, which consisted of black slacks, rose-colored dress shirts, black bow-ties and a silvery vest with embroidered flower patterns. Like in America, the alcohol was all displayed along the wall behind the bar, though all the foreign liquor, sparse in number, was up on the top shelves and lacked the pouring spout (I’m sure there’s a technical term for it, and even more sure that there’s a colloquial frathouse term for it) you would normally see on a bottle. There was no tap and most of the beer wasn’t refrigerated, but considering the amount of people in the bar, it didn’t look like that would be a problem. I could see that they had Budweiser, so I was interested to try imported American beer, as I’d already had many opportunities to try the local drafts at different restaurants. Now I can’t really remember what Budweiser tasted like back in the States, nor did it really ever matter to me what it tasted like, but out here in China it was definitely different, though ultimately disappointing (as drinking Budweiser alone always should be). I felt bad because the one guy stayed behind the bar, and I tried to coax him into going back to finish his dinner, but I suppose that would have been a dereliction of duty, and well, you know how the Chinese are about that (right?). Well, like any asshole who fancies himself a writer (or her-), I pulled out my journal and began jotting down notes about being in the bar, not yet feeling comfortable enough to begin conversing with the workers.
Some other physical details about the bar: hanging from the ceiling were foil garlands that one would expect to find at a New Year’s party and balloons that seemed more suited for Easter or perhaps a baby shower, also there were letters pinned up over the bar that read: “M   E   R   R   Y     C   H         I   S   T   M   A     ”
Now, I hope so far that I’m not coming off as being snide and sarcastic, a sort of ha-ha-look-at-these-silly-people-and-their-laughable-attempts-at-catering-to-Westerners kind of vibe. In a way, I’m both fascinated with and saddened by it. Why would a place like this even exist in a city where you can count the foreigners on your fingers and toes (probably not true, though the Chinese do have a really ingenious way of counting beyond ten on your fingers)? And how? In any case, if this place was ever meant for Westerners, it isn’t serving that purpose now—well, I’m getting a little ahead of myself, actually; there’s still more to tell, but, unfortunately, its getting late and I must retire for the night. Happy Thanksgiving, or what I like to tell people that I like to call “Dracula’s favorite holiday”—you know, “Fangs”-giving! (Or was it a werewolf’s?)

To be continued...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Smug Nod of Recognition for a Day Long in Coming


In four parts:

1. Greetings! (and apologies)
So, I’ve been in China for nearly three weeks now, and as of today, now have internet access in my apartment. I would like to put that forward as my reason for not making my first entry sooner, though in truth, I could have just as easily typed up an entry on my laptop and plugged in at the school that I’m teaching English at. The thing is, you see, is that I’ve found it difficult to do any kind of writing that I expect might be read without having the internet readily available; whether its checking facts, looking up more sophisticated synonyms for more words than I’m proud of (e.g. I just looked up synonyms for “sophisticated” but found none more suitable), or just distracting myself so I don’t have to write. Anyway, I could go on about how I feel I’m part of some internet-dependent contingency and that it creates within me insecurities about the authenticity of my own “voice” but I won’t. I’m sure I’ll have hard enough time pulling your attention away from the presidential election, without going into a self-recursive diatribe (I’ve got a window open on myself). So yeah, without further ado… on to the primary focus of this blog. (I had a “Seinfeld” moment where I had to decide whether or not to use an exclamation point, I opted against it.)

2. About this Blog: A Short Note
Now, perhaps, some of you have judged from my snazzy title (I contemplated using “The Chopstick Diaries” perhaps with the subtitle “Or A Highly Ironic Title for a Blog About China”) but I think it would have gotten old real quick) that this blog will be geared toward the rapid economic growth and social change that China is currently undergoing. It isn’t; though it seems impossible to talk about contemporary China without talking about its economic progress. For my own sake, I’ll try to avoid discussing politics because I certainly wouldn’t want to offend any sensitive parties (I think you know who I’m talking about). What this blog is really about is me seeing myself in China. Having written the next section before this note, I’m aware that it is very heavy on historical facts and statistics (which I provide no citations for), but bear in mind that it is merely meant to serve as background information for what will eventually be a relation of my experiences and observations of China.

3. Prologue: Omens and Indicators
For the past nineteen days I’ve been living in Tangshan, a “small” industrial city located about 150 km east of Beijing. It has a population of approximately 7.2 million, though perhaps only 3 million live in the city proper, which covers an area of roughly 3,900 km² (or nearly 20 Oaklands for you Bay Area folks). It has the dubious distinction of being the site of China’s first and largest cement factory, but is more (in)famously known for having been the epicenter of the catastrophic earthquake that struck China in July of 1976. Both the magnitude (7.8) and the death toll (240,000+) were under-reported due to the fact that the leadership did not want any foreign aid at the time (apparently). Most articles that question the exact figures seem to claim that it was actually 8.2 and 780,000 respectively, though I’ve heard from locals (only one, actually) that the magnitude was closer to 9.0 (which for those of you familiar with the exponential progression of the Richter Scale, will know is no small difference). Regardless, the entire city was leveled in under thirty seconds.
It’s been said that disasters such as this foreshadowed the death of a great emperor or the end of a dynasty, sometimes both. Two months after the “Great Tangshan Earthquake” Mao Zedong, who had been lying on his deathbed for some time already, suffered a final heart attack amidst countless other ailments and “abdicated the throne” (which, of course, was pretty much under the manipulation of the “Gang of Four” (a political clique headed by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing) at that point). This was the quintessential sea change for the People’s Republic of China. Along with Mao, died the revolutionary fervor that had been so necessary in establishing the State in the beginning, and allowed for the undertaking of a new direction that over the next three decades would bring about, arguably, the most voracious economic and social change ever witnessed in modern history.
The period immediately following Mao’s death, was one of transition, with the party leadership trying to reorganize itself and move out from under the shadow of the Cultural Revolution years. It would be the re-emergence of Deng Xiaoping toward the end of the decade that marked the first step toward this new direction. Deng, a long-time party leader who had previously been labeled a “reactionary” by the Jiang Qing clique and imprisoned, was reinstated, following their incarceration, and soon rose to power to become the PRC’s “second emperor”. Known as the architect of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Deng initiated the economic reforms that ended collectivization and opened up the doors for private enterprise and foreign investment, and well, the rest is—as they say—is highly condensed history.
China’s “socialist market economy” has brought about an average of 10% GDP growth every year since 1978—not that I really know much about economics, but this is apparently quite a feat. The terms “mercantile” and “steroidic” have been used to describe it . What I gather from it, is that China’s got something to prove (something I’ll get into later) and they don’t want to waste anytime doing it.

4. The “Reborn Phoenix” (Or A Cheesy “Oriental” Characterization): First Impressions
And now, getting back to Tangshan, which will be my microcosm of Chinese society for the next few months. Its destruction heralded the end of the Mao era, and the majority of its restoration preceded the economic reforms. The city’s architecture is a monument to the period that served as a fulcrum between the Mao and Deng eras. You won’t find many “traditional Chinese style” buildings (if there are any at all). Now there are a couple skyscrapers scattered across the city, but the majority of the buildings are no taller than six stories, which I assume was intended to be a precaution against future earthquakes, though I suppose skyscrapers were not really in style back in the pre-socialist-market-economy-late-seventies. I live on the sixth floor of an apartment building which is divided by three stairwells (no elevators and no hallways) leading up to apartments on either side, making for a total of 36 apartments to a building. Its situated in a “neighborhood” of perhaps a dozen or so identical apartment buildings surrounded by a wrought iron fence with a single entrance where there’s a security booth. All the walls in the building are made of solid concrete (good luck getting thumb tacks into those things—good luck getting thumb tacks at all, for that matter, I haven’t seen any around) and entrance of every apartment has two doors: one wooden one, and one metal one with three different locks and generally looks like it leads to some sort of bunker or bomb shelter (I wonder if breaking-in-entry is a huge concern in China, though I somehow doubt it). I’m pretty sure I’m living in a “Reconstruction-era” building. I assume everyone in the city lives in an apartment, and the majority of the apartment buildings seem to be set up in this manner, though not all with security booths or perimeter fences.
The school I work at is located in the center of downtown where the signs of economic progress are most visible. Here, you’ll find KFC and McDonald’s and Brand-name sportswear shops, the main four being: Nike, Adidas, Puma and Kappa (oddly enough). Most of the advertisements in the downtown area display “foreigners” (i.e. Caucasians, Anglo-Saxons, et al.), though the presence of foreigners is virtually nil. I blend in well enough until I open my mouth, and the locals find out that I speak horrible Chinese; then they I assume I am either Japanese or else from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (aka “Chinese Turkistan”), and always seemed somewhat relieved when they find out that I am neither and am, in fact, a mixed blood from America. Anyway, I know I’m trying to make up for the past three weeks, but this is getting a little too long. I’m sure there will be plenty of time to describe the city and in greater depth later on. Good night and happy voting!