Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Better & Better

The fakes, that is. I went out yesterday looking for Shanghai's XiangYang clothing market, a rat's nest of piracy and counterfeiting (and hence, very popular with tourists), only to discover it had recently been torn down. No matter, there were several people on hand only too willing to lead me to the fake watches, bags, shoes, and shirts I desired.

On this visit I was particularly impressed with the quality of the watches and shoes. I actually shelled out $30 for a fake rolex, because I was so impressed that it actually had a self-winding mechanism, and I honestly could not tell it apart from my dad's rolex (same model), and I am eager to put them side by side for a comparison.

Later, it even occured to me that I should go to the Rolex shop in Beijing and ask them how I can tell a real Rolex from these high-quality fakes (buy it in a Rolex shop?). Maybe I can even turn the whole thing into an article of countereits and try in get it published in an expat magazine (wheels turning. . .).

Oddly enough, one of the screws in the watch band came off in my pocket as I was walking back to the hotel. No matter to me, since the band was too large anyway, and I need one or two links removed, but it struck me as very odd. The band is certainly not the costliest or most complex part of faking a Rolex, so why skimp on that part (if it indeed was something more than just that the screw was not put in properly)? Wouldn't you want to invest the extra fifty cents to preserve the illusion of quality for at least a while?

I also picked up a pair of fake Ferragamo loafers for $30, we'll see how they hold up. They seemed to be using at least OK quality leather (to my very untrained eye and touch), and the stitching seemed secure and even. Only time will tell. Oddly, similar looking shoes from no-name Chinese brands cost more in the shops I've seen, but maybe that's because of the cost of actually renting storefront space instead of selling out of a back-alley apartment.

Traffic Troubles

Sometimes the Chinese government seems thoughtful, far-sighted, and prudent. China's foreign reserves, now over one and a half trillion dollars, and beginning to be made into the world's largest investment fund, is an example of this. So is China's foreign policy, where it makes just enough of a stink to make other nations reluctant to bother them, but quietely makes friends with resource rich countries around the globe, particularly nasty dictatorships that the west, and America in particular, dislike (ethically debatable yes, but also smart).

At times, I think this leads people to ascribe wisdom and foresight to the government to a much greater degree than is warranted. Remember, this is a government that is controlled by a byzantine system of authority, and Chinese leaders in the past have made titanic blunders; one thinks of the great leap forward, of mobilizing the masses to kill all the sparrows (which resulted in plauges of insects), or China's last tussle with Vietnam in which they were not defeated, but sorely dissapointed.

One of the biggest blunders I see today is the lack of attention that has been given to developing a sustainable, equitable, and efficient transportation system, and the decision to make the car the basis of intra-city transport in China.

While I am currently blogging from Shanghai, the streets of which bear much greater resemblance to a western city than Beijing, and also seems to have less traffic, I have spent most of my time in the captial, which is an unallayed traffic catastrophe.

In the first place there are those blasted ring roads. The second ring road seems to function all right, but the further out they get, the less sense they make; why go around in a circle when you could build a road that goes straight? The biggest problem with them is of course that they are not connected, except by tediously slow streets with traffic lights. There are no highways going into the center of Beijing (within the third ring).

As a result, the ring roads are the only option for most travel around the center. The second ring is almost constantly busy, and the third has traffic jams for several hours a day. Sure, Los Angeles, DC, and other cities in the US also have this problem, but they do not have car ownership growing at 10-15% per year, which doubles the number of cars on the road every 5-7 years. Yes, my friends, it will get worse.

Beijing currently has only 4 subway lines (one of which is an extension). Although there are five more in the works, this is probably still inadequate for a city this large. Chicago has 8 lines, plus a network of commuter trains to the suburbs, all to serve one fourth the population of Beijing.

Density, or lack of it, is also a problem. Beijing and Shanghai are two of the largest cities on earth, and yet their average population density is less than almost any major city in Europe. Certain districts are crowded, to be sure, but they are filled with miles and miles of low-rise housing. Less density means greater distances, which means greater transportation needs that are going unmet.

Parking is a huge issue as well. While many apartment complexes have underground parking, the lack of parking towers in Beijing is conspicuous. As a result, most parking seems to be done on the street, and on sidewalks, inconveniencing those not using fuel-based transport, and taking up tons of space. Real efficient.

What pisses me off the most, though, is the total lack of respect for the bicycle, which is especially infuriating given it's importance to China in the last 100 years. Bike lanes serve as pedestrian walks, parking lanes, and driving lanes as well for cars, the drivers of which generally have no patience for cyclists (a class thing, in my view). Biking is actually faster than driving if there's any traffic in Beijing. And if they would just construct ACTUAL bike only lanes, or even better, an elevated bike-highway across town, biking could become significantly faster.

The density of people per square foot of road is much higher with bikes (even scooters and motorcycles) than cars. They don't make smog, don't make CO2, and are actually good for you (bonus for China: long hours in the bike saddle can lead to infertility in men). Yet for some reason, a government that has no problem restricting the freedom to have children is unwilling to even encourage citizens to use their bikes. Now, every time I hear someone saying China has to be careful to preserve its own institutions and not adopt everything western I think "oh yeah? What about bikes?"

For those of you who are argumentative like me, yes, I realize that the bicycle is also a western invention. But is has been here a lot longer than the car, is intimately associated with China (the bicycle kingdom), and today the non-mountain, non-racing bike with a basket on the front is almost unkown in the west. So there.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Kids These Days

I recently taught a three day course for graduating Beijing high school students who are applying to universities in Hong Kong. The course was to prepare them for the oral interviews, which will be conducted in english: how to answer questions, how to debate and analyze arguments, and how to present themselves.

Not sure how qualified I was to do this, but I think I did a good job, although you'd think that someone from Hong Kong would be more qualified to speak about cultural issues and ettiquete relating to the SAR.

Anyway, what surprised me was the views several of the students had about Taiwan. One of the sample questions given to me was "if you had 30 billion RMB, how would you use it to help China?". Three out of the forty some students said they would use it to buy weapons to defend the country against America, and to retake Taiwan. I cautioned them that it's not clear how HK people feel about that issue, and they might not like hearing that sort of view, but I was genuinely surprised.

Another question "what is the biggest problem facing China today?" also drew several answers of Taiwan. What was odd was that A) the kids seemed to think the only solution was invasion, and B) no one seemed to think that the fact that millions of people could be killed was a downside to that plan. I didn't ask for any clarification (it's a sensitive subject here), but that was the sense I got.

I would have thought that the younger generation would be dissolutioned with old rhetoric about Taiwan, and given the massive influence of movies and music from Taiwan, there would be some protective sentiments, but no.

I did manage to convince them that Taiwan actually isn't a very pressing problem - no other countries recognize Taiwan, and every year China's strength grows in comparison. If Taiwan wanted to be free, the ideal time has long passed.

Apparently propoganda and indoctrination have not nearly lost all their power. The government may not be able to convince people of anything, but if it feeds nationalistic sentiment, it usually works. Of course, that's also a pretty good description of how things work in America. Food for though. . .


Sometimes the central government seems all powerful in China, and you're tempted to think it's a giant big brother state with eyes everywhere.

That's partially true, of course. The central government does indeed have lots of eyes, but there control is certainly not absolute, particularly when you get down to the local level. Local cadres has a lot of direct control over their cities or counties, but sometimes even they don't call the shots.

David Barbossa, the New York Times' business reporter in China writes about being held for some nine hours by a factory boss after he went to investigate the factory that produced the lead-coated Thomas the Tank Engine toys.

The most interesting part is that his translator called the police, who showed up an hour later and did nothing. Then a local government official arrived an explained that he was powerless to do anything about it, and that they'd better negotiate.

Amazing, a government official says he is "powerless" to make a factory owner stop detaining a foreign journalist.

What's also amazing though, is that the factory owner didn't get anything. It sounds like Barbossa kept the pictures he took, and the factory owner was demanding some sort of confession, which he didn't even get. What was the point of it all?

I sometimes feel like the Chinese like to create a lot of theatrical huff & puff during negotiations and diplomacy that means relatively little, but still confuses the bejeezus out of lao wai.

Don't Answer The Phone

The phone rang around an hour after Ryan and I had gone to bed last night. Roused from a deep, peaceful sleep, I picked up the phone and mumbled in response to the gibberish coming from the other end. At least I surmise that's what happened. I clearly remember that the phone rang, but I don't really remember having a conversation or anything, I just remember wanting the person on the other end to let me go back to sleep.

Half an hour later, a doorbell rings. Can that be our room? Do hotels even have doorberlls. Another ring. Maybe it's next door. Hopefully they'll go away. Another ring. Fuck. I'm going to have to get up.

I stagger to the door, and open the door a crack, the door chain preventing a full opening. A woman is in the hallway, telling me something I am competely not understanding. Is she speaking Shanghainese or something. Then a second woman appears. "massage" she says, and makes a gesture which could be taken in multiple ways.

Ah. So that's what's going on. A couple of Ji (chicken, Chinese slang for prostitutes) "bu yao" I say, "wo xiang shui jiao" (I don't want it, I want to go to bed), I say and shut the door.

I read in the Rough Guide that Chinese prostitutes sometimes call random hotel rooms to offer their services but I had never encountered it. On further reflection though, youth hostels don't seem particularly amenable to that sort of behaviour; our current hotel, on the other hand, is somewhat nice, inhabited by lots of Chinese business travelers, but not one of the ritzy western chains, where prostitutes may not be welcome.

So next time you're in China, and the phone rings at night, don't answer. And whatever you do, don't incoherently mumble something that will be taken as "I want sex massaggee" (that's what most of them say).

In other news, every Uighur restaurant in Shanghai sells hash - I have been offered it over five times today alone, and in the same manner that Chinese people sell DVDs (Hello! Hashish!)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Real Jie Zhan (Streetfighting)

So I'm down in Shanghai visiting Ryan for the week, and last night we decided to sample some local seafood on the street near her hotel. Most of the actual seafood proved to be too expensive for our budget (!), but we had some delicious scallops baked in garlic. We then bought a beer and took a stroll around the neighborhood, and as we are returning, we see the fishmonger of the restaurant we just ate at exclaim "da jia!" (fight!).

This guys defintely has an eye for it, as the fight had not started yet, but there was a crowd developing to wei guan (surrounding look, or for a crowd to look at something), so we joined in - what could be more Chinese? At first I couldn't even tell who the combatants were, but then I see one dude stride purposefully towards the back of the crowd and I think this must be one of our contestants.

Then, all of a sudden, a couple of beer bottles go flying. oddly, they are thrown mosty upwards (though I supposed they could have bounced off somebody's head), and, incredibly, do not break upon landing on the concrete. Then a couple of pairs of guys start going at it, and these Shanghainese do not fool around. Almost immediately a chair comes out and is broken over someone's head, and then the pieces are picked up as clubs.

One dude gets thrown down and hit in the face with a beer bottle, full force, at which point I yell "Hey" and think about trying to break this up - this guy could definitely be killed. Fortunately, his assailant only went for one more and then ran away, so i wouldn't have even gotten there in time (and hopefully not been attacked myself). Anyway, the outcome is this dude in the street lies there holding his head for a while, and his buddy staggers around, shirtless, bleading from his head. He falls down in the street very dramatically a couple times, but I'm pretty sure that was because he was completely shitfaced.

At least three (maybe four) guys ran off, so it seems these two bit off more than they could chew. Cops arrived maybe three minutes later and started taking statements.

Lessons learned: some streetfights in China are almost comical - lots of kicks and flying hands but not much more; others are quick and brutal, and they don't wait to pull out the weapons.

I feel like Peyton Quinn and Animal Macyoung have given me some good guidance here. 1) don't fight - you'll get hurt. 2) if you're going to fight, hit first, hit hard, and don't stop till he's not going to hit back. And don't throw your beer bottle in the opening salvo - keep it to hit the guy. 3) book it. You don't want to be around when his buddies or the police show up.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I Rule!

So I went to our local blind massage clinic yesterday to work out some kinks in my back (masseur is a traditional occupation for the blind in China), and the masseus starts asking me what kind of work I do, and becomes genuinely confused when I tell him I'm studying Chinese at Beijing Normal.

Then he says "wait, are you a foreigner?"

Victory is mine!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thomas the Lead-Paint Engine?

Yes, it's true - Thomas the tank engine can make your child retarded, but not because it's a bad show (I liked it when my little bro's were of that age). No, it's because it contains lead point.

And why does it contain lead paint? Sigh. It's because it was made in China. First the poisoned medicine, then the wheat gluten (or was that first), and now poisoned toys. To those of us that live here, these concerns are not at all new. We hear stories of fake baby formula (true, killed 12 infants), fake cars (don't know), and fake eggs (unconfirmed, but scary as all hell).

What is going on here?

Sadly, I think the news is only going to get worse. This sort of thing is incredibly widespread. Enforcement in China is almost non-existent. Wait till I post tomorrow about the slavery story involving Shanxi brick kilns. It's as bad as it sounds.

And how long has this been going on? I want to dig up some of my brothers' old Thomas toys and have them tested. This is some fucked up shit - has my family been poisoned by dishonest factory owners? I'm pissed.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Like Some Horrible Fairy Tale

Children kidnapped and then forced to be slaves in brick kilns in Shanxi province? According to the New York Times (and apparently the Chinese media as well), yes.

This is so fucked up. I'm not so naive to think that things like this don't happen in the world, but jesus, shanxi province is a couple of hours from Beijing, it's not like it's the middle of nowhere out it the desert.

So much counterfeiting, so much business cheating - why does a country that has such a strict legal system have the very idea of law and order so openly flouted?