Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween by the numbers

Bed-time the three nights prior to Halloween: 8:30 am (Sunday "night"), 4:30 am (Monday "night"), 4:00 am (Tuesday "night")

Asking price for the cheap felt fez alone on my aborted Aladdin costume: HKD $98 (US $12)

Price of the bling for my Kevin Federline costume: HKD $100 (US $12.50) for 2 big chains

People who got the Kevin Federline joke without having it explained: 8

People outside of the group I came with who got the Kevin Federline joke without having it explained: 1

People from outside the United States and Canada who got the Kevin Federline joke without having it explained: 0

Number of cigarettes I put in my bronchitis-suffering mouth as part of the costume:

Number of cigarettes I actually smoked into my bronchitis-suffering lungs: 0

Prescription medications I'm on:

Actual number of prescription pills I took before leaving for Halloween festivities: 6

Pints of Carlsberg it took to get pretty buzzed as a result:

People in Lan Kwai Fong: 42 gajillion (estimated)

Minutes required to shuffle through the massive line of people in the streets just to get into Lan Kwai Fong: 45 (reported)

Number of lady police officers my friend and I flirted into letting us go through a sealed-off shortcut and bypass the entire line: 3

Minutes it took to flirt our way by: 5

Drunken fights involving my friends that I was forced to help break up:

How many different friends were actually involved in those fights: 1

Number of racial slurs allegedly delivered while standing at urinals that instigated one of those fights: 1

Actual price of the French toast I ate at 4:30 am: HKD $20 (US $2.50)

Value to me of that French toast in that moment: HKD $200 (US $25)

Time I went to bed: 5:30 am

Number of days my body is going to make me regret this: too damn many

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Observations about my illness

"You look very tired, sir." - cocktail waitress at the Venetian casino in Macau, serving me a coffee at 3 am.

"Wow, you look like hell." - Britt, as we walked to dinner the next day.

"You're looking...tired, sir." - my tailor, when I arrived for my third suit fitting at 1 pm the day after that.

"You have bronchitis." - the doctor at the University Health Services Office today.

Ugh. Thanks, Hong Kong pollution.

So it's not tonsillitis, meaning for the first time, I have misdiagnosed my own illness. I'm usually quite good at that.

I've discussed how Hong Kong is more western than the west, with its commercialist obsessions. Apparently, that goes for overmedication too. The school doctor prescribed me: (1) 5 days' worth of antibiotics; (2) a week's worth of real Sudafed; (3) a week's worth of prescription expectorant; and (4) a week's worth of prescription pain-and-fever medication. I could open up a black market in prescription meds.

Although in a decidedly un-American twist, I received all of this medication for free, without so much as presenting an insurance card. Guess that kills the black market.

It's like Vegas, minus the fun

This weekend, as part of my alcohol-and-sleep-deprivation treatment program for my tonsillitis, I decided to take an all-night trip to Macau. I'm not sure where my mental image of Macau came from, but for whatever reason, I arrived in Macau expecting to find a high-class Las Vegas, a place that preserved the style and low-level debauchery and lost some of the too-egregious kitsch and Midwesterners in fanny packs and Hawaiian shirts. While the scene was definitely fanny packed-Midwesterner-free, though, Macau fell short in almost every other way. I can see the marketing now…

Macau: Where It's Amateur Hour 24 Hours a Day!

We started with the Wynn, which was a lot like its identically-named Vegas equivalent, but smaller and gaudier. The carpets looked like the hottest-selling hotel carpet of 1977, elaborately patterned and distractingly colorful. The chandeliers in the main reception area were epic, baroque monstrosities that looked like they were crafted from a combination of plasticine and red wax. The restaurants all seemed good, and the flagship restaurant at the Wynn was an Italian restaurant that was surprisingly reasonably-priced for its class. But inexplicably, the large second-floor space looked out over the hectic street and neon hotel marquee, rather than over the peaceful and tastefully-arranged swimming pool area. Our window-side table overlooked a large fountain in front of the hotel, which would have been lovely if the fountain wasn't shut off for this whole week.

The gambling floor was a disappointment, in part because of cultural preferences and in part because of bad policy and poor execution. Asian gamblers simply prefer different games than their western counterparts. As you might expect, baccarat is everywhere, as is a game called sic bo, a kind of dice-based roulette in which three dice are shaken up in an opaque bobble-like container and players bet on what numbers have come up. Blackjack is easy to find, but there was no poker room, only one craps table in the whole house (a tragedy, if you ask me), and one table of casino war (like the kids' game of 1-on-1 high-card).

Now, I can't complain too much about the decisions on table space to the extent they're based on cultural preferences. But the one craps table and the one casino war table were overflowing full the whole time we were there, while there were seas of baccarat tables with one or zero players each. The misallocation of resources was obvious to even the most casual observer.

I was also struck by how much the Wynn - and later the Venetian - had fudged the rules on blackjack to turn the odds in their favor. I expected that Macau would offer comparatively favorable odds for gamblers…in Vegas, most “whales” (the super big-money gamblers) come from Asia, and whales generally demand favorable rules when deciding when to take their (massive amounts of) money. And maybe they got those rules in the VIP sections. But us plebeians had to deal with no 5-card blackjacks, no surrender with an ace showing, no surrender after the first player has made any decisions no matter what your position, no pre-checks for dealer blackjacks (meaning you could decline insurance, double down or split, and still lose to a blackjack), and only one card per hand when splitting aces.

The dealers themselves seemed flummoxed by the process, stumbling in their deals, getting cards caught in chip trays, and sometimes even struggling to add up the value of the cards. And what they lacked in basic competence, they did not make up for in personality. Perhaps because there's less of a tipping culture here, dealers don't feel as much of an obligation to be fun, enjoyable individuals. Or to learn English. With only one exception of note, the attitude of the dealers ranged from glassy-eyed and bored to sullen and morose.

That lack of personality extends to Macau gamblers generally. Even without the benefit of a classier environment, Macau casinos managed to suck the vibrancy out of gambling. Middle-aged men hunched over the tables, placing their bets in chain-smoking silence. Victories and defeats were met with equal indifference. Their body language suggested that the gaming is a chore rather than recreation.

Any break from this standard was met with caution and skepticism by casino officials. Down HKD $2,000 at the Wynn and with no chips in hand, I decided to change HKD $1,000 into a single chip and bet it all on one hand of blackjack. Even if HKD $1,000 is actually only US $120, it felt like a lot of money in context (a thousand!). We decided to create some drama for ourselves…the other people in my group placed back-up bets on my hand, and we watched rapt as the hand unfolded. When I won, we cheered and clapped loudly, only to attract the nervous attention of several security guards, who stood quietly by our table for the next several minutes.

We eventually left for the Venetian, the largest hotel-casino in the world, and even more than the Wynn, a clone of its Vegas counterpart. The reception area at the Venetian faithfully replicates the Vegas reception, as does the Grand Canal shopping mall. The gaming floor is as big as three football fields, and with high ceilings and a wide-open design, looks every bit as big as it is. Visually, it is far more pleasing than the Wynn. But functionally, it was just as frustrating. Like the Wynn before it, the Venetian gaming floor was plagued by seas of empty or mostly-empty baccarat and sic bo tables. And how many craps tables were included in the largest casino in the world?


And how many poker tables?


When we arrived at the Venetian, we joined a few players at a casino war table. Once we were seated, the table was completely full. Within a few minutes, though, a pit boss arrived and shut down the table without warning. Why shut down a full table where the money is flowing? Just bizarre. When we arrived at a distant batch of war tables, set alongside the blackjack section, our ears were assaulted by the musical stylings of a singer whose skills would have guaranteed him a spot on American Idol…in the season premiere that showcases the most tragic applicants. And that's when the theme of Macau became apparent: amateur hour. Wherever you go in Macau, whatever time it is, whoever you deal with (singers, dealers, pit bosses, bartenders), it's amateur hour.

The rest of our time at the Venetian was equally unimpressive. Drink service was next to nonexistent, and when it did come, the alcohol was unmistakably straight-out-the-well. Cocktail waitresses had about as much English proficiency and joie de vive as the dealers, though one did know enough English to tell me, “You look very tired, sir” when she served me my coffee at 3 am. Thanks, dear.

I eventually tired of gambling under these suboptimal conditions, but there was no Plan B. There are no clubs in Macau, no after hours shopping or dining, really no late-night entertainment options at all. When you're bored of gambling, you sleep. Or in our case, when you're bored of gambling you try to catch the 4 am ferry back to Hong Kong, only to find that it's sold out and the next ferry isn't until 6:30 am, because scalpers have bought up the tickets and are reselling them with mark-up.

Going to Macau is worth it for the fact of going to Macau. And I might even come back during the day to tour the old Portuguese colonial areas elsewhere on the island. But as far as I'm concerned, for every dollar I lose to a crappy Macau casino that I sort of resent, I could instead lose a dollar to a great Vegas casino that I actually like. See y'all in Sin City.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Hall update!

I haven't discussed hall living in quite some time, and I thought an update was in order. In truth, there's been very little to tell. My roommate appears to have quit World of Warcraft, as I haven't seen him playing for over a month now. In this respect, he is apparently a far healthier individual than several people I know in the United States, who have been on and off the WOW recovery wagon for months. Cheers to him.

In part because of his miraculous break from addiction, he and I have now had as many as four actual conversations. We still have basically nothing to say to one another, but we both seem a bit warmer and friendlier about the silence now.

Upon my return to my residence hall from my trip to mainland China, I discovered a notice placed in the building lobby and in each of the elevators. I offer you the text of that notice, penned by the president of the Morrison Hall Students Association (who you may recall), just as I received it…without any context or explanation:

Dear Morrisonians,

I am here to apologize for the inconvenience I caused. After rational thinking and communicating with hall mates, we found that this is simply a misunderstanding. I apologize once again for those who have been affected by my action and my words.

Someone may concern the democracy of Morrison Hall will be affected by my notice. As one of the main students’ body in Morrison Hall, we do definitely defend students’ rights and power; we execute and respect the constitution and by-laws of our hall. I apologize for making any harm to the democratic system that we are all treasuring.

I would also like to say thank you for those who have shown us your strong support and those who show your deepest concerns to the incident. We are inspired and moved by your support. We promise we will continue our work and try our best to make Morrison Hall a better place.

Thank you very much.

A tale of ten cities

One of the weird parts about living in Hong Kong is just figuring out what Hong Kong you live in. At first, I thought it was some failing on my part that I wasn't sufficiently integrating myself with the locals. But at this point, it's become clear to me that there is no universal definition of "local" or of "integration" that could be applied to Hong Kong.

What does it take to consider someone a "local?" Certainly the grizzled-looking laborer unloading sacks of dried seafood in the distinctly Chinese district of Sheung Wan is a local, right? And the well-to-do family living in a suburban part of the New Territories, an hour away from the bustle of Hong Kong Island, sending their child to school here at Hong Kong University, we can call them locals too. These are the people who have been here forever, and will be here forever.

But how long does someone have to stay in Hong Kong to be elevated to "local" status? The exchange student who's here for a semester? The full-time student who's doing his actual degree here for a year, or two years, or three years? The American graduate who's working at an investment bank or a law firm or a newspaper in Hong Kong for a year? Two years? Five years? Someone who gets married here? Runs a business here? Someone who moves back and forth between their country of origin and Hong Kong every few years? Every few months? Someone who's on an indefinite work assignment but has vague aspirations to return to the West someday? No aspirations to return to the West someday? No idea what the hell they plan to do with their lives?

Every one of these people has an incredibly different experience of Hong Kong than the others. What restaurants they go to, what clubs they frequent, what circles they travel in and what they do for fun. And most of them will hardly ever interact meaningfully with a member of a caste other than their own.

Last week, I met an English entrepreneur who has been in Hong Kong for seven years, the first two with an English bank and the last five living with his Korean wife and running a business that provides eco-friendly packaging materials to European grocers and retailers. With a bit of pride in his voice, he told me about recently befriending another Englishman who had lived in Hong Kong for 20 years and who refused to associate with anyone who had spent less than five years in Hong Kong, because he assumed they were going to leave soon anyhow.

There are people I've met who came here expecting to leave and never did. People who came expecting to stay and already want out. Almost everyone seems to regard Hong Kong as a temporary destination, if not for themselves then for others. Relationships are transient. Tastes are fashions are fleeting, and that's what makes them so distinctly Hong Kong. Every popular bar or restaurant is introduced to me as "where [some once-popular, now-defunct bar or restaurant] used to be." Because Hong Kong is a city that is defined not by the people who are here forever, but by the people who are just passing through.

Which brings me back to the grizzled laborer and the New Territory suburbanite. For them, today was just like yesterday, and they can expect more of the same tomorrow. But in a city that is fluid, flighty, and cosmopolitan, what does it even mean to be a "local" when your world seems so separate from what makes your home distinct?

I think all of this is why I've never quite settled into Hong Kong, and don't think I'll ever learn to think of this place as home (at least not in the course of a semester). Because I don't know which one of these Hong Kongs I live in, and if I had to guess, I'd say I don't fit in any of them. I'm a student and a yuppie. I'm here for an extended period of time but I'm constantly bouncing back and forth with my travels. I have some money, but I'm nowhere near rich. I have expensive tastes for some things, and can't imagine spending money on others. I have some social connections, but by degrees of separation. I love shopping and I'm sick to death of it. I've developed ideas about what I like and dislike, but don't stand up for them. There are some things I know I like that I can't seem to find at all.

I have absolutely zero regrets about studying abroad, and really, zero regrets about doing it in Hong Kong. Even with my little contemplative spells, I'm enjoying the hell out of this semester, and when I get back to the States, I'll appreciate home all the more. But I can't help but wonder: how can there be so many Hong Kongs, and none that's really for me?

Like clockwork

It's October, and you know what that means...

I'm sick! This makes 7 consecutive years that I've been sick in October, a month that has also distinguished itself for (1) disastrous stock market returns and (2) my birthday. In most of these years, the October illness has been my only one for the year.

And I'm studying abroad, so you know what that means...

Tonsillitis! This makes 2 consecutive study abroad programs during which I've contracted tonsillitis, though this time it was without the benefit of being a humongous kissing slut (damn). So far my treatment strategy has been, "Tonsillitis is usually caused a bacterial infection. Alcohol kills bacteria. If I drink a lot of alcohol, the alcohol passing by my tonsils will kill the bacteria and cure the disease." Results have been inconclusive.

Lan Kwai Fong, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways...

I feel bad for people who hang out with me very often. I have a tendency to develop certain stories and phrases, and to put them into heavy rotation for stretches of time, delivering them to different individuals and groups in almost identical phrasing. One such oft-deployed phrase-of-the-moment is, "I'll know I've truly reached maturity with living in Hong Kong when somebody says, 'Hey, Ken, we're going to Lan Kwai Fong, wanna come?' and I finally say no."

As I've said so many times, in this space and in real life, I hate Lan Kwai Fong (and unfortunately, LKF and a few clubs that are nearby represent the vast majority of Hong Kong nightlife). But this weekend, as I was explaining this to a friend of a friend while walking through LKF, I was finally asked why. For the most part, I've sidestepped this question by assuming it just isn't my style. But that's not really an answer, and especially after going to Shanghai and loving the nightlife there (more on that in the future...hopefully...), I have actually stopped to think about this a bit.

Part of the problem is that everything is so damnably generic. There are cool places, but they are all cool in exactly the same way. Clubs don't have unique themes or personalities or even fun gimmicks. Every club appears to be modeled after every other club. There are some cool spaces, yes, but they are all "miscellaneous club cool." In addition to feeling immensely stifling and removing the feeling of actual choice in my social dealings, the incredible interchangeability of every social hotspot makes every one of them seem less cool. The places in Hong Kong I've tagged as my favorites are the ones that are most unlike everywhere else. At the same time, it means there's no way to change the kind of person you're interacting with when you're out: there are tourists, and there are long-term ex-pats (mostly North American or British, often of Asian descent, and typically working as bankers, lawyers, and consultants) making the private club rounds. Those are your two options. Go out enough and all the faces start looking familiar.

Second, all of the little things work against Lan Kwai Fong. Inordinately high prices? Check. Alcohol costs more than in Los Angeles and is as egregiously expensive as New York. Massive crowds? Double check. When a city of millions is forced to look for all of its nightlife in one place, crowd density is sure to rise. And wall-to-wall assholes? Super ultra mega check. When Brian came through on his worldwide megatour, we went to a particularly indistinct spot on the main drag called Insomnia. With a vaguely amusing cover band playing in the back room, we walked right by the bar without ordering a drink. Shortly after Brian and I did a funny and, yes, vaguely homoerotic little dance together, we attracted the attention of a decidedly large and surly bouncer, who hovered above us menacingly and threatened to physically remove us if we didn't order drinks right then and there. At the same time, another friend we were with - who had ordered a beer, finished it, and was carrying the empty bottle in his hand - was accused by a waitress of picking up an empty bottle from a table and ordered to buy more or get out. Needless to say, we decided to just bail out rather than give them a penny, and Insomnia has been 100% blackballed from my social calendar. I can't help but think that, if I stayed in Hong Kong long enough, every bar and club in LKF would eventually join it on the blacklist.

Finally, and most egregiously, people who go out in Hong Kong seem to be doing it for all the wrong reasons. To me, going out is always and only in service of one thing: having fun. In Hong Kong, going out often seems to be about everything but having fun. Being seen. Getting in. Hell, just going out. Here, going out isn't a means to an end, it is the end itself. "Look at me. I am here." The quality of a club's DJ, drinks, or space is totally uncorrelated its with popularity. Places are good because they are popular, they are not popular because they are good. I can't understand least to me, there's no inherent good to a nightlife scene, and the fact of being out does not, by itself, generate joy. Places should be good. This same asinine phenomenon exists in Los Angeles and New York, yes, but those cities also have parallel social scenes that are independent of that madness. And I realize that my concerns aren't shared by everyone, but this goes the longest way toward explaining why I'm so very blasé about the Hong Kong scene.

So there you go. I have no idea why I felt the need to justify my opinion, but I have, and I fully accept that all this applies only to me. I don't judge people who like the scene here...I just wish I stopped following them everywhere.

As a side note, though, allow me to sigh audibly - sigh - at the fact that I instinctively organized my "arguments" into 1-2-3 outline form. Sometimes I hate being a lawyer.

Filipino Day

In May 2006, to protest proposed immigration laws, thousands of members of America's Hispanic community participated in "A Day Without Immigrants," walking out of their jobs for one day to demonstrate the economic importance of the immigrant community. They took over the streets, offering a striking, lasting image of the Hispanic community to Americans everywhere. Hong Kong has something similar, but rather than happening once a year, it occurs every Sunday. It's called Filipino Day.

The Filipino community in Hong Kong occupies much the same social niche as the Hispanic community in the United States (particularly in California). Immigrating from the Philippines, they work long hours, largely in cleaning and domestic services. Although they occupy something of an underclass in Hong Kong, the economic disparity between HK and the Philippines means that, at going rates of about HKD $60 per hour (about US $7.50), they can still send enough money home to support several family members. They generally work 6 days a week, and on Sundays, they so visibly take over the Central part of town that Sundays in Hong Kong are known as Filipino Day.

In every overpass, underpass, and major walking area in the business area of town, groups of Filipino laborers lay out picnic blankets and unfolded cardboard boxes, eating picnic lunches and playing cards. It's such a phenomenon that the city takes affirmative steps to accommodate the crowds, setting guard rails along certain pathways to block off lanes for their picnic set-ups and shutting certain streets off from traffic altogether, yielding them to the weekending workers for the day. The workers themselves don't seem to do much of anything...they just congregate, socialize, and talk.

But they're out there by the thousands, and it's a very unusual phenomenon to behold. Filipino Day seems so massive that it must be organized in a top-down way, but as far as I can tell it's a pretty organic thing. It's not that there aren't plenty of poor people of other races, including native Hong Kongites, that only get one day off from work. But the Filipino community seems to have made a collective decision to take their leisure together, and in so doing, to constantly remind every businessman and luxury shopper in Central Hong Kong just how important they are.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Beijing miscellanea in pictures

My honest reaction to my first ever sip of er guo tao. I have no idea how I came to like the stuff by the time I made it my birthday drink.

Our introduction to Beijing was basically a series of disgusting drinks, ranging from the 5 yuan (65 cents) bottle of er guo tao at dinner to a 70 yuan (about US $9.40) cocktail in Houhai, a pretty-but-overpriced district of totally generic bars and clubs arranged around a series of nicely-lit lakes in the north-center of the city. Every drink we ordered at this bar was so bad, we started trying to combine them to see if they'd improve. They didn't...this picture is not staged.

Britt looks lustily at a tree in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park inside the Forbidden City. So low, so smooth, so flat, so inviting. So what if we climbed it a little? Look at how it was dressed! It was asking for it!

Take two at Beijing nightlife was substantially more successful. This picture was taken at Alfa, a club in Sanlitun, another Beijing bar-and-club district with far more personality and far lower prices. If I look happy, it's because it was 80s night. Oh, yes...fingerless gloves come in handy. Also, I was still on a high from earlier in the night, when a bar we were patronizing was very suddenly and very amusingly shut down by the police, allegedly on "fire hazard" grounds. Given that we saw police officers pouring bottles of liquor down the drain, perhaps the "hazard" was created by the flammable alcohol? Hard to say. Also pictured in this photo are Kathleen (in pink), my friend from high school and college, and Nuno and Marta, a Portuguese couple living in Beijing who we met on the boat between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia. That was another awesome thing about the night? Who am I hanging out with in China tonight, you ask? Oh, just a guy I met studying abroad in Hong Kong, an old friend from my hometown, and my new Portuguese friends I met on a boat in Indochina. My life is kind of ridiculous sometimes.

Another imperial garden that makes up part of the (huge) Forbidden City grounds. Massive areas of beautifully-manicured green space is not something I associated with Beijing before arriving there, and it was one of the pleasant surprises of the trip. Britt and I agreed that, if we lived in Beijing, this would be our place to come for relaxing walks and outdoor lunches.

At the Forbidden City, Britt looks on as a little girl crosses a barrier and prances around on an intricately-carved, 500 year-old marble slab embedded into the staircase of one of the palaces. There was, of course, a guard nearby looking on. Apparently, the rule in China is that you can't get away with anything (see our experience in line at Mao's tomb), unless you are a small child, in which case none of the rules apply to you.

I couldn't find a good picture from my camera of a hutong, so I stole one from the interwebs. Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods in Beijing with old buildings and narrow alleys. They're dimly-lit, a bit run-down, immensely charming, and being systematically destroyed as part of Beijing's urban makeover in preparation of the Olympics. Inexplicably, some of the hutongs are being torn down and replaced with essentially identical buildings in the same old style, except they're new. I'm going to get to odd Chinese predilections about renovation and cultural preservation in another post, but in the meantime, I'll just say, what the hell?

The saddest rose garden in history, at the Temple of Heaven in southern Beijing. What roses, you ask? Exactly.

Okay, once you get past the pitiful rose garden, the massive amounts of huge Chinese tour groups, and the incredible redundancy of the architecture, the Temple of Heaven wasn't all bad. That is some damn fine lacquering. Plus it featured some of those amusingly-translated signs.

At the Lama Temple, the largest Tibetan-style temple in Beijing, the big story is supposed to be the huge, 88-foot Buddha carved out of a single trunk of white sandalwood. And yes, he's pretty cool. But to me, the real draw was this pattern, which was made completely out of sand. Mercifully, it is protected by some pretty thick glass. But apparently, in Tibet and Nepal, it is common for Buddhist monks to spend a full year putting together one of these masterpieces, and then invite local children to trample through and destroy it. It's supposed to teach a lesson about the transience of all things and the importance of unattachment, but I just know I'd be the one monk flailing about, being restrained by the other monks, desperately trying to protect the sand from those damn ingrate kids. I would be a terrible Buddhist.

There is no commentary here. I just wanted another picture of the Great Wall (in widescreen format!). Again, cannot be oversold.

A blurry but oddly-inspiring picture of our kites sailing through the night sky over Tiananmen Square. In this photo, it's almost like we're setting the sky ablaze. In some very abstract way, at the time, it felt like we were. That is one of those random travel experiences I will always remember, even though it actually has very little to with travel as such. If anything, that just makes it better.

I wanted to name this post "Who's the Boss?" so that I could make a Tony Danza joke, but I couldn't think of a good one

I've already observed that Chinese imperial tradition seems like the most formalized of any I've encountered. And more than any other, it just seems so invasive...every part of the emperor's day was ritualized, and even personal moments were often ascribed some religious or political significance. But there was also a weird relationship between the emperor's obligations and his authority. One ritual described at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing involved a series of imperial costume changes and sacrifices that was apparently demanded by the gods, but concluded by an imperial decree that the ceremony was done. In effect, the emperor had to follow a prescribed course of action, until he announced that he didn't have to anymore.

If I was a monarch, I would probably be the laziest, worst king ever. I would just think, well, I could participate in this annoying ritual, or I could just be the emperor and declare the I don't have to anymore! Option B would always win, especially in a place like old China, where the deification of the emperor would have lent my laziness extra moral authority. I realize that the ritualization of the emperor's life is also serves as a tangible display of his significance and an instrument of control, particularly in a superstitious society. But I'd have some serious exploratory committees researching how little I could get away with doing while maintaining my authority.

When we were looking at portraits of Ming and Qing emperors at the Forbidden City, the first thing that struck me was how skinny many of them were. "Man," I declared at the time. "If I was an emperor, I'd be so damn fat." Vanity's nice and all, but around the time you're declared god-king, you can probably start accepting second helpings of dessert.

There's a sucker born every minute...and in every demographic...

According to the Associated Press, roughly equal proportions of Americans believe in ghosts and UFOs as like baseball, endorse the Iraq war, and approve of Bush's job performance. This article is striking not only for how high some of the numbers are, but how surprising some of the demographic breakdowns. Turns out every type of American believes in something foolish.

What I'd like to see is the proportions and demographic breakdowns for belief in astrology. I am ceaselessly fascinated by how many thoughtful, educated, intelligent individuals allow themselves to believe that the relative positions of Saturn and Mars affect whether they should accept an invitation for a date. Simply stunning.

Adventures in Chinese Shopping, Vol. 1: Beijing's Silk Alley

Any trip inevitably involves massive amounts of shopping, but China offered an extraordinarily complete and diverse array of shopping experiences. Our first big trip was to Beijing's infamous Silk Alley, a department store of trademark infringement. An indoor market filling about 8 floors of a large building, the complex is actually cleanly organized by product category (outerwear, menswear, shoes, etc.). Rather amusingly, the building is situated in a Little Moscow district (Russia being another Wild West of intellectual property infringement), and quite near the American embassy (the United States being at constant diplomatic war with China over IP protection).

The market itself is incredibly crowded, with a combination of local shoppers and tourists, several whom are actually bused in to do their fake shopping by their organized tour groups. Within each product section, every stand basically sells the same merchandise, and if you need something in a size they don't have in stock, they'll just run to a friend's stand to bring it for you. Because the stands are all so interchangeable, though, they are desperate to attract and maintain your attention. The Chinese failure to grasp the notion of personal space is most egregious in the market environment, where not only will they make physical contact to get your attention, they will latch onto you to try to stop you from walking away. The key is to make sure your eyes are roaming at all times. If you focus on an item for more than 1 second, they will see it, and they will pounce. One stand operator who caught me looking for no more than 1.5 seconds actually latched onto my jacket so solidly, I had to writhe my way out of her grasp.

This is something I genuinely don't understand. I will never purchase something from someone who breaks that physical barrier. A touch on the shoulder or pat on the back, mid-conversation, is one thing. But grabbing hold and not letting go is not the way to make a sale with me, or with most westerns, I would imagine. Most of the money earned by these shopkeepers is from western a pure matter of business, I would expect them to recognize the cultural difference on personal space and adapt to it, not out of respect for our preferences, but simply because it would help them avoid alienating customers. Then again, maybe I'm misreading the situation, and the grabbing does help? Well, I doubt it, anyhow.

The basic rule of Chinese markets is to take their offer and assume that it is 6 times the buy price. From there, there are two schools of thought. Some people who don't like bargaining will simply say their buy price and announce that they refuse to bargain, and if the other person doesn't meet their price, they're walking away. Inevitably, the salesperson lowers the price by a vastly lower factor, the buyer starts leaving, and the shopkeeper calls them back (sometimes, physically leads them back). Some back-and-forth ensues, and the buyer gets the price they called for all along.

I'm not a fan of this strategy. The locals seem to expect a certain back-and-forth, and I've seen them get visibly frustrated when, in a negotiation, I stick to a price and try to force them to lower theirs twice in a row (similarly, I never raise my offer twice in a row without them dropping theirs). So my strategy is to make a first bid at 1/10 their initial offer, and not let myself go over the 1/6 reserve.

Britt and I were there on a specific mission, though. The cool Beijing weather had rendered his packing strategy inadequate, requiring him to seek a jacket, and both of us needed hiking shoes for our trip the next day to the rough patch of Great Wall at Simatai. Shopping when you need something is always disastrous, and Britt doesn't quite share my killer instinct in bargaining situations. He ended up paying 800 yuan (just over $100) for a pretty nice "North Face" jacket we know he could have gotten for as little as 450 yuan. And when we moved on to shoes, the fact that we weren't planning on leaving empty-handed was apparent enough that vendors took hard stances with us and made us work twice as hard to lower the price.

When we got to the shoes section, it proved to b e the most hectic area we'd seen. As we passed a stand that specialized solely in children's and toddlers' shoes, a vendor called to me, "Sir, you buy shoes for kids!" Without breaking stride, I called back, "I don't have any kids!" Determined to take the parting shot, she retorted, "I know you have kids. You look so old!" Britt and I stopped in the middle of the aisle and laughed so hard we actually crouched down. Sensing an opportunity to get our attention and possibly attract our business, every other vendor in the area jumped onto the bandwagon. "Yeah, you so old!" one chimed in. "I bet you have 5 kids!" wagered another.

The experience took on new humor later that night, when we visited a (legitimate) massage parlor. I was doing reflexology while Britt got a Chinese massage in the same room, and Britt's masseuse - who, to be fair, had spent most of their time together staring at the back of his head while he lied face-down on the massage bench - pointed at me and asked him, "So, is he your son?" Either mainland Chinese are completely incapable of assessing the age of white people, or they just have a weird sense of humor.

It took us a while to find suitable shoes, and we ultimately settled on a top-shelf pair of "North Face" boots, whose placement suggested to me that they generally carried lower profit margins for the salespeople. From an asking price of 1280 yuan, we engaged in a half-hour marathon session that ended in us buying two pairs for 200 yuan each (US $26.50), i.e., just under 1/6 of the asking price. It seems like a lot to spend on knock-offs, but these actually had incredibly good treads and comfortable soles (very rare in that market), and they vastly improved our comfort situation for the rest of the walking-intensive trip. By the end, both we and the girl with whom we had been negotiating were so tired and relieved, Britt hugged her goodbye. On some level, they like playing the game, and I think they do respect westerners who can actually play it competently. We, on the other hand, were so over the market atmosphere afterwards that we headed straight for the exit. I can't imagining going through that for 10 or 12 hours a day, every day. I'd have a stroke.

As we left, we asked if she would reveal her cost price, and she claimed it was 180 yuan (she said that another pair I had negotiated elsewhere down to 60 yuan cost her 45). At first, I was inclined to believe her, but in hindsight, there's little chance she was telling the truth. More likely her cost price was like $3, but 180 yuan was the lowest she'd be willing to go. In any event, I felt I did honor to my dad, who is the most ruthless and successful bargainer I've ever had the honor and privilege of watching in action (the man hears an asking price of $20 and will offer $1 without blinking).

Silk Alley is a carnival atmosphere, but it's most interesting for how incredibly open and conspicuous it is, something that does not characterize the fake markets in Shanghai (more on that later). Unlike many marketplaces I've seen selling counterfeit goods, they don't even maintain the fiction that they're selling something real or that their cost prices are super high. It's organized like a proper business enterprise, and the stack of tour buses in front almost lends it an air of legitimacy...almost. The duplicative stock and free exchange between stands suggests an economically unified operation, a sort of marketplace equivalent to the Portuguese Man o' War, a colony of specialized, symbiotic polyps that functions like a single giant jellyfish. It's an essential part of a visit to Beijing, but about as exhausting as anything you can do in the city.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The problem with Hong Kong

Scene: Britt and Ken are standing outside the restaurant where they ate lunch, contemplating what to do with their open afternoon.

Britt: I don't want to go home. I want to wander around a bit.

Ken: Okay. But I don't want to do any shopping, and I don't feel like being in huge crowds.

Both pause to think.

Britt: I think that pretty much is Hong Kong.

Ken: [silence]

Britt: [silence]

Strolling through the Impermissible Town

We dedicated a healthy number of hours to the Forbidden City in Beijing, and rightfully so. At 760,000 square meters, it's about 70% larger than Vatican City. It's arranged on a north-south axis that extends through Tiananmen Square and still represents the geographical crux of all of Beijing, and within its 1,000 buildings are a massive collection of imperial art and artifacts. Want to compare the calligraphic prowess of various Chinese emperors (their skill was uneven, I can tell you)? This is the place.

When you enter the Forbidden City through the massive Tiananmen Gate, you're greeted with a huge courtyard (with ample kitsch shopping) and another massive gate. Surprise! You're in the Forbidden City, but not the Forbidden Palace. That's where the real action is. Now fork over your entrance fee and proceed.

To me, the most remarkable thing about the Forbidden City is that its buildings are all made out of wood, yet in remarkably good condition given their age. How is this achieved? Simple: lacquer. Massive amounts of lacquer, applied liberally and re-applied regularly. Of course, this may also explain why all of these beautifully-preserved buildings have signs in front of them that read, "First constructed in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty, [insert building here] burned down and was rebuilt in 1680 during the Qing Dynasty." Did it occur to them that all of those intricate and beautifully-colored patterns were extremely flammable before, or after, 50% of the buildings on-site burned? The thing is, I've used the year 1680 in my quote, but they actually burned in different years. This just kept happening over and over. Some burned down several times. The Chinese emperors were committed to this architectural style, fire safety be damned!

There is a tremendous amount of imperial pomp and circumstance to the place, and Chinese imperial tradition seems to be the most formalistic I've encountered. Along the whole north-south axis of the Forbidden City run 5 parallel paths. The center one was reserved exclusively for the emperor, and could not be trod upon by ministers, counselors, empresses, or even favored concubines. The imperial path is made out of solid marble, and in many stretches is intricately carved with intertwining dragons and phoenixes (both imperial symbols). While the path was quite attractive, it did lead me to wonder, did the emperor realize that he had reserved the most grossly uncomfortable route for himself alone? What areas of carved marble I could trod upon were unpleasant for my modern shoes...I have to assume 15th century footwear fared no better.

In spite of all the grandeur, I was mostly miserable for the first half of the day. In a country overflowing with irritating, enormous tour groups, the Forbidden City was (unsurprisingly) the most overrun place of all (more shoulder-checking than ever). Even worse, our theretofore lovely Beijing weather gave way to gray skies and rain for the first half of the day, and I am pathetically weather-dependent when it comes to mood. Observe. Me during the first half of the day while the rain fell:

And now, me during the second half of the day, as soon as the sun emerged:

Pay particular attention to that rain picture. What's that you see in the background? Scaffolding. In particular, scaffolding not only covering, but blocking access to the largest and most significant palace in the Forbidden City. If there's something in the world I hate more than pandas, it's scaffolding, and this hatred arises not out of principled indignation, but personal slight. I visited Italy, Greece, and Turkey in 1999, and all 3 countries, with all their rich histories, were totally caught up in the preparations for the year 2000 celebrations. Nearly every major historical sight in all 3 countries was covered, to some extent, by scaffolding. The facade of St. Peter's Cathedral was so obscured that, the day after visiting the Vatican, I saw a postcard depicting the front of St. Peter's, picked it up, and said, "Wow, that's impressive! Where's that and why haven't we visited?"

So my beef with scaffolding goes back a good 8 years at this point, and between that and the gray skies, I was feeling pretty sour (and not unjustifiably so...look how much better things look bathed in sunlight). So much so that, when I learned that there was a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City, I was determined to end my lifetime streak of no Starbucks visits outside the United States and order my usual, the nonfat sugarfree vanilla latte, extra hot (I call it the Long Island Special). But I was denied even that little comfort, as we approached the place where our guidebook claimed Starbucks would be located, only to discover that within the last 2 years, it had been nationalized and converted into a government-run coffee shop. This represents at least the fourth time I can recall that I've agreed to go to a Starbucks outside the United States, actually walked to one, and arrived to find it closed (either for the night or forever). Fate has taken substantial measures to prevent me from Starbucksing abroad, and at some point, I should probably just stop trying. It also represents the first of many times that our Fodor's guidebook revealed itself to be a miserable failure (more on that when I discuss Shanghai later).

So as the long day went on and the weather improved, I progressed from sullen to happy to exhausted to delirious. By the time we arrived at our final sight within the Forbidden City, the ironically massively-overcrowded Garden of Heavenly Peace, my keen observational eye had dedicated itself full-time to identifying double entendres in the amusingly-translated signs and immaturely acting out sexually suggestive interpretations. Just to be clear what's happening in this picture, I am staring at my own crotch with a smirk while standing in front of a sign that describes a "mottled and milky trunk" that is "noted for its longevity" and whose "protruding root looks like a crouching dragon." Mmm. Yes, folks, I will be graduating with an Ivy League law degree in 7 short months.

Happy to make y'all proud.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Testicular apocalypse

When I first introduced Uniqlo, the Japanese Gap, I made special note of their jeans sizing. At the time, I observed that their so-called "skinny jeans" "fall somewhere between tights and a paint brush and bucket of denim-colored body paint."

But when I saw them in red denim, with a tapered cut, I had to experience them myself. The faint of heart should probably avert their eyes.

I thought the green-and-red combo and huge looking feet (thank you, tapered jeans) gave me a decidedly elvish appearance (the lame Santa elves, as opposed to the awesome Lord of the Rings elves). Any attempts at captioning y'all would like to offer would be welcomed.

Maomorabilia sold separately

If the Beijing is the most authoritarian-feeling city in China, and Tiananmen Square is the most authoritarian-feeling place in Beijing, then Mao's tomb is the most authoritarian-feeling part of Tiananmen Square. But more than that, it is also the most fascinating fusion of authoritarianism, capitalism, and religiosity I've seen in China or anywhere in the world.

Mao's tomb resembles the other buildings in Tiananmen Square, in that it is a monolithic, Soviet-style concrete monstrosity. The building is a feng shui nightmare, situated at the south end of the Square and facing north toward Tiananmen Gate and the Forbidden City, all of whose palaces are oriented to the south. This was apparently very controversial at the time the tomb was built. I'm also convinced that its size was dictated by the Chinese authorities asking, "How big is Lenin's tomb? We'll double it!" In the Russians' defense, the Lenin mausoleum is an architectural masterpiece that was as revolutionary for its time as its titular resident, where as the Mao tomb is...very big.

The exterior is decorated with some pretty standard communist iconography, with statutes of generic-looking peasants triumphantly bearing Mao's standard. Apparently, in the communist world, man and woman alike are insanely buff. No wonder those East German women won all those Olympic weightlifting titles during the Cold War.

The tomb is only open from 8:30 am to 11:30 am every day (the rest of the time, Mao is lowered through the floor into a giant freezer, where he spends the rest of the day). As a result, lines are huge. We made our way toward the end, but were immediately turned away. No bags or cameras allowed in Mao's tomb, and I was wearing a backpack.

So off we went to the east side of Tiananmen Square, where for a fee determined by the size of my backpack, we could deposit in storage. In addition, we would have to pay a fee for each camera that was being left behind. I paid at one window and, as I was walking to another window to deposit my bag, Britt put his camera in with mine without having paid. When I handed the man my bag, he inspected my ticket and then opened the bag. Discovering a second camera that wasn't authorized by my receipt, he sent us right back to the payment counter to buy another camera deposit.

20 yuan (US $2.50) later, we were in line for Mao. A channel, wide enough for 3 people, runs around the Mao tomb and is marked with chalk in the pavement. As we walked, a passing guard began barking agitatedly at a trio in front of us. The group was walking such that two stood side-by-side and one behind, and the guard insisted that they walk in a line, so as to fill out the whole designated line. A few minutes later, a man behind us was chastised loudly for walking outside the chalked-off area. Clearly, these people had an uncompromising vision of how the line was supposed to work.

We moved forward at a decent clip, and before too long, we were past the external gate and in a courtyard area, where the line snaked back and forth once more before going in. Along the way, we passed a trailer, where the Mao faithful could purchase flowers from the tomb, ranging from a single carnation to a 24-rose bouquet. A remarkable number of the visitors opted to buy flowers, and there was no trend to who decided to buy...people representing all ages, classes, and regions picked up flowers as they went. When we reached the door of the building itself, we passed a vendor who, for 8 yuan (about US $1), sold a small booklet that, in English and Mandarin, recounted Mao's greatest hits and reproduced various photos of him at historic moments. These, too, sold quite well.

As we entered the first main hall, we were greeted by a larger-than-life marble statue of Mao, set before an intricate and beautiful tapestry of verdant greens, spacious skies, and amber waves of grain (looks like they view their countryside the same way we do). From there, the line forked into left and right paths around the outside of the room, but before visitors committed to a side, they could approach the statute and lay down their flowers on the floor in front of it. Several bowed while they presented their flower, while a few actually bowed three times before laying them down, replicating the traditional procedure employed by worshipers setting down incense at Buddhist temples. The religiosity of the process was very much in line with the room's solemn atmosphere and the visitors' reverential demeanor.

From there, we passed into the room were Mao lay, draped in the Chinese flag. Once entering that room, under no circumstances were we permitted to stop moving. Although we did slow to a shuffle to prolong our view of the "Great Helmsman," even this attracted wary stares from the multiple posted guards. Stopping wouldn't have worked anyhow, as the neverending flow of visitors would have spirited us through whether we liked it or not. Within a matter of seconds, we had passed, and it was over.

As for Mao himself? I have to say, the Chairman isn't looking so hot. He's waxy, orange, and way too smooth-skinned for someone who was over 80 years old and in poor health when he died. From the moment his embalmed remains were unveiled, rumors swirled. In talking to other tourists and locals, I've heard that: he's real, he's a wax doll, sometimes he's real and sometimes he's a wax doll and they switch it out for preservation purposes, he used to be real but was later replaced with a wax doll, and parts of him are real and parts of him are wax. He certainly doesn't look as good as Lenin, who has a bit of the waxy texture himself, but looks far more like an actual person, and is subject to periodic inspection by scientists who confirm that he's real (and not decomposing).

But what does it matter? Real or not, you still have the same bizarre situation as in the old Soviet Union: a communist society that disdains religion, that is formally atheist, deifying a once-living man, taking a great and powerful leader and relegating him to eternal status as a puppet of the state. Maybe saddest of all on an individual level is that Lenin had specifically asked to be buried without fanfare when he died, while Mao had instructed that he should be cremated. Mao's power was being challenged in the last years of his reign, his policies all but abandoned by the reformist government that followed, and still, the cult of Mao lives on.

And nowhere was this more evident than right outside the back door of the Mao tomb, where hordes of street vendors hawked Maomorabilia, with Mao's face plastered on watches, messenger bags, hats, t-shirts, mugs, pens, key-rings, ashtrays, lighters, statues... Good to know that you can have the great red heart of the people on the tchotchke of your choice for just a few yuan.

On Beijing, Part 2

All opinions and personal observations about Beijing aside, there's one thing about the city that is obvious and undeniable from the moment you enter the city: the 2008 Olympics cast an enormous shadow over the whole city.

In front of the National Museum of China, on the east side of Tiananmen Square, is a digital clock counting down to the start of the Games. Since the museum was recently closed for renovation and expansion, essentially the entire of function of one of the most grandiose structures in the whole country is to frame a clock that counts down to the Olympics. It's an apt metaphor for the city itself.

In Tiananmen Square, hedges that are trimmed to resemble local landmarks (the Great Wall of China, the Temple of Heaven, etc.) are now adorned with grass men participating in the various Olympic sports (visible in this photo: wrestling, shooting, cycling, and ping pong). Throughout the city's monuments, volunteers roam about, engaging Western tourists in conversation and pointing them toward interesting sights. These "good samaritans" have actually been bused into Beijing from outlying areas like Xian in order to practice their English for a few weeks, and will be returning next year to serve as local guides during the Games. On television, a game show featuring a panel of Chinese and British judges challenges contestants to demonstrate their mastery of the English language through a series of speeches and word games, in exchange for an opportunity to attend the Olympics.

But just as significant as what's visible in Beijing is what isn't visible. Incredibly, the streets are totally devoid of beggars, homeless, and shady individuals offering "lady-massages." Beijing is a city of tremendous size and uneven wealth distribution, and for the whole place to have little or no visible homelessness or panhandling is both striking and scary, particularly when you consider what measures the Chinese government may have taken to clear the streets as they have. Shanghai, which is more economically prosperous, certainly hasn't managed it. I don't want to know how the police handled that assignment.

For all the build-up to the Olympics, though, there are still some obvious gaps in Beijing's progress. For one, Western tourism remains surprisingly low. Although Western tourists are visible in the more conspicuous tourist areas, they are (1) predominantly older individuals, and (2) vastly outnumbered by Chinese tourists from other parts of the country. I suppose that, in a country of 1.3 billion people, high levels of domestic tourism should come as no surprise (though given their predilection for traveling in massive tour groups and shoulder-checking, it's pretty annoying). Still, unless everyone's holding off on visiting China until the Games are on, I would have expected the Chinese publicity machine to have generated more Western tourism in the interim.

Not that the city is 100% ready for the tourists either. As we discovered our first night in town, accommodation quality is uneven. We were convinced by an information desk at the airport to stay at the so-called "Bei Hai Three-Star Hotel," where the three stars are apparently not really a certification, but just part of the name. Promises of 24-hour hot water proved hollow (maybe they meant "no hot water, 24-hours a day?"), English-speaking staff were nowhere to be found, the peeling paint and stained walls rather detracted from the decor (points for crown moulding, at least), and I'm not going to speculate about the species of the huge bug on the nightstand when we came in. Lights in the room were controlled by a solid end-table with built-in knobs, sort of like a vintage-looking radio or jukebox. The knob controlling the main light had a short in it, so a few quick turns could create a flickering effect straight out of a cheesy horror movie. I was handling it all fine, until I looked over at the television and saw that the brand was Panda. "Ohh, Panda TV," I groaned, and for the rest of the trip, anytime one of us felt sad, exhausted, or filled with dread, a groan of "Ohh, Panda TV" became the standard way to say it all.

In addition, many of the amusing English signs in the city, which range from comically Engrishy to borderline incomprehensible, are actually part of government-administered monuments. You would think the Chinese government could be bothered to hire a competent translator.

As for the Olympics...mascots just get weirder every year. Those little rockstars above are the Friendlies, and they are a phenomenon. If you take the repeated syllable from each of their names in order, you get "Beijing huanying ni," which means "Beijing welcomes you" (clever). The fivesome represents all kinds of things at once. Olympic rings? Check! Captain Planet-style elements? Sure! Local wildlife? Throw that in too! Particular sports? Why not!

Official stores in Tiananmen Square and throughout Beijing promise officially-licensed Beijing 2008 merchandise. Do you think they recognize the irony of their proud claims of official licensing? Even though the Friendlies sort of creep me out, I was tempted to buy some counterfeit merchandise in the shady markets, just for the comedy of doing so. Ultimately, I decided it wasn't really worth the $2. And guess which one of the Friendlies I loathe most? That's right: Jingjing the Panda. Or as I came to hiss through my teeth, Jingjing Motherfucker.

The Friendlies, of course, are plastered over all manner of merchandise, but I think the most interesting is the Friendlies cartoon series that's been airing on TV. Unfortunately, I never got to watch, but (no joke here) I have it on good authority that Jingjing is apparently the worthless idiot of the group. One cartoon features the Friendlies confronted with learning a simple task: leapfrogging over one another, one at a time, until they end up in a lake. All of the Friendlies are on it, except for Jingjing, who (like all pandas) is a failure at life. He's tripping over himself, he's trying to go under the others instead of jumping over, he's injuring himself. The other Friendlies, paragons of patience, finally help him figure it out. Cartoon over. For the closing credits, all of the Friendlies stand within their respective colored Olympic rings and pose. Jingjing, again, can't get it right and stands in a neighboring ring until he's pushed back into place.

Apparently, the makers of the Friendlies cartoon have figured out that pandas are evolutionary failures with no intelligence or instinct for self-preservation and have only been saved from extinction by the inexhaustible (and inexplicable) patience of far superior creatures. But that is a different rant altogether.

On Beijing, Part 1

In addition to seeing the world, meeting new people, experiencing new things, and all such lovely things, I derive certain tangential pleasures from travel. For example, because I am an arrogant ass, I love to compare cities I visit to cities I've already seen. This allows me to feel very well-traveled and worldly, as well as perceptive and insightful (and completely immodest). I'm not saying I am these things, I just like feeling as though I am.

So as soon as I arrived in Beijing, I started developing my "Beijing is..." statements. The first statement came quickly: Beijing is like a Chinese Los Angeles. Huge and spread out, traffic-ridden, totally deficient in public transportation. A tough place for short-term visitors, but diverse, amusingly schizoid, and ultimately rewarding, particularly if you have an insider to shepherd you through. After a few days, I stood by all of these initial observations, but felt they provided an incomplete picture. Beijing is huge and urban and modern, but lacks the stylized cosmopolitan feel of Los Angeles. The people also don't seem to fit, and there's a greyness about the overall ambiance that decidedly un-Angelino. And so, I added a corollary statement.

Beijing is also Moscow with nice people. In architecture, lay-out, and overall feel, it makes sense. The buildings that are over 10 years old are decidedly Soviet, from the monolithic concrete palaces used by the government (with extremely similar communist iconography and sculpture) to the generic apartment blocks where much of the population lives. And also like Moscow, the city represents an interesting contrast between eras. Along with the 20th century Soviet architecture, modern skyscrapers dominate the skyline in the bustling areas that circle around the center, and the heart of each city is an enormous testament to a glorious imperial past. Like Red Square, Tiananmen Square is both the geographic and historical heart of the city, an enormous place of congregation. And just as Red Square serves as the gateway to the Kremlin, Tiananmen is the entry point to the Forbidden City, another imposing palace-slash-fortress complex that is the focal point of imperial authority for its city, if not its country.

Perhaps most significantly of all, Beijing, like Moscow and unlike the other cities we visited in China (Xian and Shanghai), seems somewhat burdened by the lingering weight of authoritarianism. The presence of government was most overt, most oppressive, in Beijing, and nowhere more than in Tiananmen Square itself. An enormous portrait of Mao sits atop Tiananmen Gate, looking serenely out over the masses. Authority figures came in four highly conspicuous flavors: the Chinese Army (green uniforms), Beijing City Police (blue uniforms), Beijing Security Police (gray uniforms), and a fourth category whose affiliation I could not determine, but whose simple black suits, white shirts, and black ties suggested they were the most sinister and dangerous of all. Those were the people who could lock you in a cell and forget about you for a day or 20. Those were the people I tried to steer clear of. Yes, the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident could never happen again, but that's because no large demonstration could ever collect there. Even tourists enter the Square through specified gates, and soldiers are on hand to inspect all bags.

But as I've said, the people are patient and nice, which marks a huge departure from Moscow (one of my least favorite cities in the world), and is actually a check in the Los Angeles column. So there you go.

Beijing: a Chinese Muscovite Los Angeles! Err...

Beijing: a Sino-Angelino Moscow! Umm...


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Funny signs are my bread and butter

One of the truly great joys of traveling through Asia has been coming across amusing sign after amusing sign. It's very important to have signs in English around here. It's apparently not so important to ensure that those signs are competently translated (even with the Chinese government).

From the Star Ferry in Hong Kong. As has been noted by Marie, this must be the longest warning sign ever.

An advertisement for a Hong Kong advertising agency on a street in Soho. The ad isn't especially extraordinary, but Brian and I took advantage of his visit to make it our own, Eiffel Tower style. It helps that we were dressed so similarly that night.

From a roast duck restaurant in Beijing. A different sign explained more clearly that the rickshaw drivers in front of the restaurant were not affiliated with the restaurant, and that patrons should therefore negotiate their fares before setting off.

The Forbidden City in Beijing. Apparently, 4 words in Chinese translates to two sizable sentences in English. Similarly, 2 words in Chinese translate to one full sentence in English. Truly a language rich with meaning.

Temple of Heaven in Beijing. The Chinese name their rituals quite literally.

Temple of Heaven in Beijing again. The Chinese also apparently name their buildings quite literally.

The Great Wall of China. I always felt safe climbing the unrestored portions of the wall, thanks to highly informative warning signs like this.

A tourist-flooded restaurant in Xian that served the worst food I ate in China. At least they made the noodle bar into a show. Excuse me, I mean, a "perform."

Terra-cotta warriors museum in Xian. They made a convincing case on paying them an exorbitant amount of money for the photo-op, but I nevertheless declined.

Face, a bar in Shanghai. They don't cater to no white-faces!

The back seat of a cab in Shanghai. Seriously, this is the hottest Hooters girl in China? What a disaster.

The People's Square metro station in Shanghai. I had no idea what this necktie was going to do for me, but I suddenly wanted one. Unfortunately, the stand was closed.

A prominent street food area in Shanghai. I find it much easier to forgive bad grammar when a place serves the best dumplings I've ever had. They get a free pass.

News round-up

Two articles that caught my eye today.

First, the Dalai Lama becomes a professor at Emory University. In itself, unremarkable. And the Dalai Lama made some gracious remarks, joking to the students that, "as a professor, I think you should listen to me." This gets me to something that has always struck me as bizarre about the Dalai Lama. On the one hand, here you have someone who is supposed to be the personification of generosity and humility, someone who recognizes the transience of all things. On the other hand, he is also someone who wholeheartedly believes that he is the reincarnation of one of the 5 most important people in all of human history, that he is truly enlightened, and that he is basically the bearer of absolute truth. Not that he doesn't seem like a totally nice, likable, and simultaneously humble guy! But it's an odd disconnect.

Second, the deputy mayor of Delhi has been killed in a monkey attack. Getting away from the awesomeness of the phrase "monkey attack," this caught my eye for two reasons. One, the awesome fact that one solution to the monkey that officials have pursued involves "train[ing] bands of larger, more ferocious langur monkeys to go after the smaller groups of Rhesus macaques." Monkey war! And two, this reminds me of this enormous-testicled monkey from outside of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Immediately after this photo was taken, the monkey started biting his own wrist and charging Marie, who was kneeling right next to me with her own camera. I'm not sure how the wrist-biting or enormo-testicles are related to the aggression, but they seem relevant.

Monday, October 22, 2007

China and her babies

On the whole, the relationship between China and Hong Kong is odd. The airports in both Beijing and Shanghai had sections for domestic flights, international flights, and "domestic flights to/from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan." Although the third category was formally labeled domestic flights, they were always attached to the international sections.

The Chinese customs declaration asks you to identify your nationality, and if the answer is China, there is a parenthetical portion where you can check Hong Kong, Macao, or Taiwan. Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan all have their own visa schemes and passport controls, and for all intents and purposes, are separate entities in every way, except on formal Chinese signs and documents.

Media and internet in the SARs (Special Administrative Regions, the formal term for Hong Kong and Macao and countries-within-a-country) are uncensored. Hong Kong news is re-broadcast in parts of southern China, but whenever a story discusses the mainland in any way, the feed blacks out until the story is done. This also happens with CNN, SkyNews, BBC, and the other western international news networks (though sometimes, the Chinese authorities will change their minds and determine that a story is acceptable, so the re-airings will go through without incident).

When Hong Kong and Macao were formally returned to China in 1997 and 1999 respectively, the guiding principle was supposed to be "one country, two systems," but the terms of the agreements guarantee HK and Macao their autonomy for 50 years each. Hong Kong's law is still based on the United Kingdom's rather than China's, and British precedent is the most persuasive (behind actual Hong Kong cases) in the local courts. Taiwan, of course, continues to operate in some nebulous unrecognized zone, where China claims it owns Taiwan, Taiwan claims it owns the rest of China but doesn't do anything about it, and the U.S. maintains diplomatic relations and treaty obligations with both without formally recognizing Taiwain's independence.

In the end, the relationship between all of them is still pretty schizoid, and as far as I can tell, people here don't even think about it, much less have it figured out. The only thing I'm sure of is that when 2047 and 2049 roll around, everyone's going to be confused as hell.

Back in the HKSAR

It's surprisingly weird being back in Hong Kong again. For one, I'm running into linguistic issues...Cantonese and Mandarin sound noticeably different, and even with my extremely limited knowledge of both, I'm still forced to re-adapt a bit. While buying a pork bun in Hong Kong today, I told the woman at the bakery "shye shye," which is "thank you" in Mandarin, rather than "mm goi," which is the Cantonese equivalent. We both had a bit of a laugh.

But the people are just incredibly different between Hong Kong and mainland China, and the differences were apparent within an hour of being in Beijing. We had about a 5k trek (with full backpacks) between where the airport bus dropped us off in Beijing and where we were staying the first night. Of course, we had no idea the walk would be anywhere near that long, but it did give us ample opportunity to observe Beijingers in their natural habitats.

What follows are my observations about the mainland Chinese. I realize they are based on an incredibly limited sample size, both in terms of numbers and time. And obviously, I realize that they are generalizations. But still, this is my sense of things:

The clothing in Beijing in particular is strangely timeless. Watching people walk the streets, you could imagine the year being 1977, 1987, 1997, or 2007. Track suits are incredibly, inexplicably popular, for all age groups. Groups of teenagers wearing matching track suits are not uncommon. The hot thing in toddler fashion, on the other hand, is chaps. As in, assless pants, except in the Chinese case, they're often crotchless too. Basically, the Chinese have realized that you can save a lot of money on diapers for non-potty-trained toddlers if you just cut open the pants and let whatever happens happen.

Staring is acceptable, and if you're white, pretty much to be expected. If you're white and you're doing something they'd find unusual (eating Chinese street food, taking oddly-posed pictures, interacting meaningfully and socially with locals), you should actually be surprised if no one stares. While it's usually just intense curiosity, with the women, it also sometimes takes the form of a lecherous up-and-down check-out. I don't know what you women complain about all the time, I think it's fun being treated like a piece of meat.

Compared to Hong Kong, there's more street food, but fewer bakeries. Eat the yams. They rock, so much so that we were forced to coin the phrase, carpe yam. Seize the yam, kids.

Mainlanders seem generally nicer and more directly friendly than people in Hong Kong. Within an hour of arriving in Beijing, Britt and I were staring at a large street map that was written entirely in Chinese, and a woman randomly approached us and, through surprisingly good English, offered to help direct us toward our destination. They're more open to making eye contact with strangers without looking down embarrassedly. In general, while English is much harder to come by than in Hong Kong, the locals are very patient with trying to bridge the communication gap.

Despite these elements of niceness, though, the mainland Chinese also have ways in which they're exceptionally rude. There's apparently no real concept of personal space in any public setting. In markets, hawkers would not just make physical contact with me, but latch onto my arm or jacket and refuse to let go, forcing me to literally writhe my way to freedom. There's also no concept of a queue. Anything you'd expect to involve a line is really more of a free-for-all for position. These two notions combine rather unpleasantly, as it means that I was getting shoulder-checked by locals, constantly.

Cab drivers come in a range from "competently assertive" to "smoldering with impotent rage." One driver, frustrated with the evening traffic and the slights he perceived from other drivers on the road, went on an expletive-laden tirade in Mandarin that my friend Kathleen (a comrade from high school and college currently studying in Beijing) related to us only in the vaguest of terms (so very polite, Kathleen). Another driver became locked in a mortal struggle with a nearby cab for lane position, and the confrontation became so heated that we were eventually literally run off the road. Our driver accelerated quickly to catch up and restart the battle, but finally thought better of it. I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved.

The pollution in Beijing and Xian is miserable, on the level of Hong Kong or worse (Shanghai was a noticeably better). Particularly in Beijing, the locals seem to be in disastrously poor respiratory health, with many residents sporting disgusting, wet, hacking coughs.

The fact that everybody's lungs are apparently being ravaged by the pollution exacerbates the worst thing about mainland China: the spitting. When I got to Hong Kong, I couldn't figure out why the introductory packets we received were so adamant about not spitting and not squatting in the street. Who spits and squats, I wondered? The answer, it turns out, is mainlanders. Especially in Beijing, you cannot walk down the street for 5 minutes without hearing some conspicuously loud hocking noise, as a resident tries to summon all of the mucus from every part of his or her body (usually his) and expel it all at once. In Beijing, it seems to be like a competition, like whoever can produce the loudest, longest scraping noise before spitting is the manliest. In Xian and Shanghai, people are at least marginally more civil about it...they usually aim the spit for a trash can or bush instead of the middle of the sidewalk, and hocking sounds are comparatively muted.

The Hong Kongians take a certain pride in their British affiliations, and certain aspects of the society - the penchant for horse racing, the prevalence of afternoon tea - continue to reflect lingering British cultural influence. Not unjustifiably, people in Hong Kong consider themselves to be a more civilized breed than their mainland counterparts. I think that's probably true, but the trade-off is a loss of distinctiveness in their cultural personality.

For me, though, context is everything. I never really got used to the hocking and spitting in China, though I eventually came to expect it. But I hadn't been on the ground in Hong Kong for 15 minutes when my ears were assaulted by a particularly rancid-sounding loogie accumulation coming from the visitors line at immigration. I immediately scanned the area for the perpetrator, hoping to stare him down with a gaze that would say, that may fly in the mainland, little man, but 'round these parts we do things a little differently. For better or worse, I never found him, and I passed through immigration and back into Hong Kong: no longer Hong Kong, China in my mind. Just Hong Kong.