Saturday, July 21, 2007

Help !!!

As you may well notice, something went terribly wrong with the template of my blog here. I am trying to work it out, but in the meantime, I beg you to bear with me ... or send me your welcome advice on how I can get that sidebar to be a ... well, sidebar again, instead of a "bottombar".

Friday, July 20, 2007

Tiptoeing "The Line"

I think it's fair to say that, if you have any interest in nowadays China, even be it mildly, this guy should be on your radar screen. He definitely is on mine, but always with this big questionmark: how long still before he drops off the screen, how long before a missile takes him out of the air ? 

Tiptoeing "the line" is feasible when you know where the line is drawn, but in China it can be moved around at random, which makes everyone inside it's borders virtually a sitting duck. Fate can strike at any time, depending on how it's being moved.  That makes "walking the line" an extremely dangerous game and those who practice it may be in for some rough times ahead. Pan Yue seems to be one of those, as can be gathered again from his two article series on "Chinadialogue" (here and here).


What do we mean by the phrase “green China”? We mean a China that is sustainable, democratic, fair, harmonious and socialist. This conclusion has been reached after many years of struggle. Each word is the distillation of the blood, sweat and tears of several generations. We want to build a green China because green is the color of life, of sustainability. For something to be called “green” it has to be sustainable – and currently China has yet to achieve sustainability.

How about that for an opening line ? In the first two sentences you got the summary of what Pan Yue is about: deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), he's at the same time a senior government official but just as well as one of China's most outspoken critics of it's current development model. Remark the precedence the "sustainable" and "fair" take over the CCP buzzword "harmonious" and the "democratic" over the "socialist". He may well be in charge of environmental issues, but his criticism goes way beyond that.

We have always taken “development” to mean economic development alone, and this to mean the simple accumulation of wealth. As a result, the pursuit of wealth has become the sole aim of society. In theory, the value of all resources is determined by the market price, but the latent value of scarce resources such as land, water, the environment, and biodiversity has been ignored. Many social resources have been absorbed by projects designed to help people “get rich quick”. Blind investment, continual rebuilding and a lifestyle based on massive consumption have built up an enormous financial risk. At the same time, the extreme worship of wealth has lead to a decline in consideration for others and a breakdown in social ethics and values.

Clearly this is not your average Joe caring only about that tree in his garden. Pan Yue actually dares to take on the Chinese economic miracle and actively question it. Not today's results, which he doesn't deny, but the aftermath that is to come. The whole model of development gets scrutinized and it doesn't pass the test in his eyes. Along the way, some painful introspection is part of the journey:

The World Bank has said that no other country has seen such a large income disparity emerge in just 15 years. For so long we criticized capitalism for being unsustainable, unfair and unequal, but if our socialism cannot solve problems of social inequality, then how can we claim our system is superior ?

And then finally the candle on the cake:

The longer I am involved in environmental protection, the more I realize the importance of democracy and the legal system. I am convinced that environmental protection cannot be advanced by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) alone. It requires action from the whole of society, and the establishment and implementation of democracy, and a mature legal system. Environmental protection is the ideal field in which to experiment with democracy and law, because it is a fairly apolitical area and one on which it is reasonably easy to reach a consensus.

The fact that he is responsible for environmental issues, may indeed be the reason why he is still around. The environment up till now has been a fairly open topic to discuss without too much interference. With articles like these, I would be surprised if the rules of the game were not soon to change, but no matter how, China -and by extension the entire world, since, let's face it, most of the countries we live in have not yet been shining examples in the environmental field either- will sooner or later have to answer to the questions that Pan is raising today. He's giving a wake-up call to the Chinese society in particular to start changing it's destructive habits and reorganize the value chain. The means he is advocating to do that, may bring him in the line of fire one day, but as long as he is able to tiptoe that invisible line, China AND the world had better listen to what he got to say. Every minute that he and the likes of his are out there should increase our hopes and confidence that China in the end will find the right balance, which will be to the benefit the entire world. If that were to become true, then China can rightfully and proudly call itself a "social"-ist state.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Lesson of Watanabe

Yesterday I came across this story, taken over from the "Southern Weekend", which Roland translated on his ESWN-blog.

Tracking the history of the owners of one of the now infamous brick kilns in Shanxi province, it's a very insightful account of how corruption at the basis works, from it's seemingly harmless origins to it's detrimental results. Go and read it by all means, and don't be frightened by the length, it has some mighty entertaining passages along the way:

Many reporters thought that he had vanished mysteriously over the past 20 or so day. Actually, he was staying alone in a cave in the hill behind the brick kiln and refusing to receive any visitors. On the early morning of June 16, our reporter climbed over the hill and arrived at this s

imple and crude hole to meet this village party secretary who was under a lot of pressure. The 58-year-old man wailed, "At this stage, I am better off killing myself by ramming my head against the wall!"

Could you imagine Saddam in his pit, also "under a

lot of pressure", fending off the US Marines and the international press, saying he refused to receive any visitors ?

What struck me most, however, was this single line near the end of the story:

The various other base-level officials who were interviewed by our reporter all explained: They each have limitations to th

eir job responsibilities and they could not have investigated the illegal brick kilns.

Sad, but all too familiar story, isn't it ? It made me reminisce about one of the movies by that other hero of mine, Akira Kurosawa. Takashi Shimura, next to Toshiro Mifune Kurosawa's fetish actor, plays Kanji Watanabe, the Section Chief at the Public Affairs Office in the Town Hall of some town. He is one of those soulless office clogs that does nothing all day but stamp documents -piles of them with grievances and requests from the towns' people- and by stamping them in practice transferring the responsibility to another department. Until he is diagnosed with cancer of the stomach and he realizes he has only six more months to spend on this earth. He then takes a hard look at his life, and realizes he is a virtual nobody ... and dies halfway the movie. What follows is the reconstruction of Watanabe's last six months through discussions between his former colleagues, family members, city officials ... at his funeral.

It gradually becomes clear that this man, disregarded by his own son, respected by nobody, had decided for himself he had to do at least one thing right in his life, that there had to be at least one thing for which he could be remembered. And so he picked the case of a group of town's women who pleaded (in vain, so far) to have a swamp in their neighborhood transformed in a playground for their children. By way of the conversations and several flashbacks, the audience is then taken along on the crusade of Watanabe through the Kafkaian maze of the Japanese bureaucracy. We see a man who asks, is refused, stalls, is humiliated, but stubbornly goes down all the departments, one by one, until he has collected all the stamps he needs to get the project off the ground. The image of Watanabe, sitting on a swing on "his" playground, while snow is falling down, is as much an image of a man who has finally made peace with himself as it is a tribute to human persistency and what it can achieve.

And so I thought when reading that article: if only those base-level officials had tried a little more and instead of eyeing the limits of their job responsibilities, had rather looked at the possibilities and duties of their jobs, the Shanxi brick kiln scandal (and who knows how many more ?) might not have existed.

By the way, did I mention the title of the movie ? It's "Ikiru" and it means "To Live".


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

China through the eyes of Hedda Morrison

Sometimes, surfing the web, you just get lucky.

The day I stumbled into this website, must have been such a lucky day.

Hedda Hammer (Morrison) was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1908. From an early age she had an interest in photography. In 1929 she enrolled at the Bavarian State Institute for Photography in Munich where she studied for three years. Two years after graduation Hedda, like many German artists and intellectuals, made plans to leave Germany which was coming increasingly under Nazi control. She answered an advertisement in a German photographic journal and secured a job as manager of the Hartung’s Photo Shop in Peking. From 1933 Hedda Morrison managed the German-owned commercial photographic studio in the Legation quarter which had a well-established clientele of customers including diplomats and resident foreigners. After her contract expired in 1938, she continued to work in Peking as a freelance photographer.

During her thirteen years in Peking, Hedda Morrison took thousands of photographs that document architecture and streetscapes, craftspeople at work, street vendors, and religious or folk customs. She was particularly interested in traditional crafts and took many series of photographs that record processes of making. Being a long-term resident of Peking she had an established network of contacts that provided her with unique access to people and places.

When you get to see pictures like this, you can not but be amazed how far China has come in such a short time, while at the same time regret how much of the scenery has disappeared under the relentless sledgehammer of the construction boom. With some of the pictures however, you'll feel amazed how some things never seem to change at all

Having added Howard French's " A Glimpse of the World" to my blogroll just yesterday, it may be a good idea to have these scenes from pre-liberation China contrast with his photographic impressions of contemporary China. (Btw, French just put up a new, photography only, website called "Glimpse"

Be sure to check out the pictures on display on this well designed website of the Powerhouse Museum. The pictures are in Flash, which allows you to view them in stunning detail. And for those of you that crave to see more, just continue on to these pages of the Harvard University Library for almost 5000 pictures of this amazing German woman photographer. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Pebbles ... a world of difference

It's been a long time since I have been posting here. I'm not a compulsory blogger, in fact, I even don't qualify as a real blogger when compared to a lot of others. But neither did I say I was quitting this little hobby of mine. Let's just say I took an extended break and now I'm back. That's all there is to it.

I was inspired for this post by all the China and US bashing by the usual suspects that has been going on in the comment sections over at The Peking Duck. It seems to even have managed in driving good old Richard up the curtains. Still, I started to wonder for myself where I would situate the divide between the so-called democratic system and the so-called communist system (or should I say: "socialism with Chinese characteristics" ?)

What they have in common is that they're both "just" frameworks in which societies operate. There's no such body of laws labeled "democracy", as neither there is one tagged "communism". Societies, as they evolve over time, will tweak their laws and customs to make them fit in one of the frameworks they choose, like the aforementioned two. I explicitly say "choose", as I believe neither system at the outset is something imposed from above. It just comes into existence, partly by virtue of a theoretical basis, partly through the words and acts of some very charismatic persons who identify themselves with a set of values that could loosely be described as "democratic" or "communist". Some have come into existence very early ("democracy" has a trail as far back as Ancient Greece), others relatively late. So far I find the divide to be nearly not existing.

It is however not the frameworks that matter, it is the people. And neither is it the frameworks that rule. The ruling is done by people. People worldwide tend to differ on a set of culturally defined characteristics, but I find them very similar on the basics: the ego is prime and whether that ego is inherently good or bad, is debatable.

Now here is something that struck me: where democratic constitutions like to refer to the idea of "All men are created equal", I think democracies are firmly rooted in the belief that some ego's will always find themselves if not above, then at least apart from the rest. I believe the strength of democracy is that it got rid of the utopian belief in an equalitarian society, thus giving breathing room to those that wanted to stand out to take the reins and lead, to those ego's that want to spread their wings and fly, while at the same time empowering the others to take back the reins should they abuse their mandate. Democracy's strength is that it brings to the forefront the people that have the desire (and hopefully the ability) to rule, while at the same time trying to accommodate in the system a vaccine against the inevitable truth that power corrupts. Democracy is not unfamiliar with the ailing and depressions of normal life, but it carries the cure in it's pockets. Therefore, after a slump, it may thrive again.

So what about communism then ?

Castro was not corrupted when he steered the "Granma" to the shores of Cuba in 1956. Mao was not corrupted when he founded the Communist Party in 1921. They both had lofty ideals about liberating a people that was being oppressed. They both claimed victory and what they then did could have been taken from a handbook on democratic constitutions: they tried to create an "all men equal" society. However, they failed to understand that their enormous ego's were not the only ones out there, that a country or society is not to be molded into a uniform mass but is the total of it's ego's and that's where I think communism went wrong, for once you claim equality, the voice that speaks out differently must by consequence be a dissident voice, which can not be tolerated lest it should harm the perceived unity of the rest of the society.

Communism, as I see it, didn't set out to be corrupt, autocratic, even tyrannic and neither did their leaders. I still believe that all the great "red" revolutions, be it China, be it Cuba or be it Russia, were started with the best interest of the people at heart. Whether the ideas embraced by those revolutionary leaders were the right ones for the specific situations of the countries where they fought, is a different matter. Ideas will just be ideas, until they get the opportunity to prove themselves right or wrong in the field. And it seemed like a safe bet: if you treat everybody equal, the "harmonious society" is just around the corner, right ? The moment it went wrong is when that farmer threw a little pebble in the river, by way of evidence that he had existed. And the day after someone else threw another pebble, and the next day yet another one ..., till the river, swollen with pebbles, left the riverbed and shifted direction. That's when communism became a form of disaster management. Still, from our corporate experience in the West, we know that disaster management actually may work ... as long as it doesn't continue for too long.

So if you ask me where is the divide between democracy and communism, the answer is fairly simple: it's on you and me.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

These boots are made for walking ...

I am not an American, nor do I live in the U.S., so maybe my voice should not be heard in the debate, but I simply had to get this off my chest.

As the world was yet again watching in amazement as a Korean madman gunned down 32 people in Virginia, followed by an avalanche of expressions of grief and sorrow from the entire nation, I was quite honestly asking myself "So what ?".

I know that I am supposed to say that my heart is with the victims, but it is not. I am just refusing to feel any further compassion on the misfortunes of a nation that condones the ownership of guns as if it were children's toys. Remember the Nancy Sinatra song ?

These boots are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do; one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you."

Well, in my opinion, like boots are made for walking, guns are made for killing and that's just what they'll do. If anyone can point out any other use there is to a gun, I'll be glad to learn about it. In the Virginia shooting, there were two guns and people got killed, so where is the surprise ? Did the victims get killed by weapons that were purchased in the underground circuit ? No, they weren't. The first weapon apparently was purchased by Cho in a pawnshop near the campus, after which he went to Wal-Mart to buy a few rounds of ammunition and later on he went to Raonoke to buy the second gun. As an "alien resident", Cho had the "bad luck" of having to show both his driving license AND his green card for these purchases. If he were a native American, Cho could have purchased these weapons even if he'd been twelve years old in Virginia. So what is all the outpouring of grief about, I ask myself ? As long as people cherish their guns as if they were a phallic symbol and as long as there is this crazy twist in the mind linking weapons to freedom, the nation is going to be complicit to murders to come.

And where are all those Christians filling the churches and singing the praise of the Lord ? Did the Lord not command: "Thou shall not kill" ? So why would you allow a Constitution that gives any nitwit, be he Christian, Muslim, headen or George Bush himself, free access to tools that have only this use: to kill ? How come nobody has ever been able to kill the Second Amendment ? In a civilized world, which I consider the U.S. till further notice still to be part of, there is no need for a weapon to make it through the day. What freedom is it that needs to be defended by every citizen by himself ? I don't want that kind of freedom. I am not living in an ideal state myself (no-one is), and "shit happens" also here, but when we have laws dating back to Napoleonic times and they are outdated, we change them. The U.S seems to think it is a worse sacrilege to touch upon a law instituted at the time of the Founding Fathers than it is to kill cold-blooded a couple of dozen of people. Where I live, there is no ban on weapons either, but don't imagine walking in a shop with your driver's license and walking out with enough gun-power for a game of "Columbine Revisited", without anyone even so little as asking you what you gonna use that for.

If the U.S. (and pardon me for not distinguishing in this case between the defenders and contesters of the current gun-laws, for there is only one reality: guns ARE a free commodity) continues to refuse to cope with a clear and present threat on people's lives by giving in to the National Rifle Association lobbyists , I refuse to further mourn any victims of this kind of utterly senseless, state-licensed violence for lack of trying to deal with it. There has not even been a start of trying.

I'll rather mourn the 162 victims that got killed by bomb explosions in Baghdad on the same day the Virginia Tech massacre took place, lest we forget and lest we forsake also a minimum of decency and perspective in the media.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Beauty Beyond Words

Ten people enter on stage, taking their place in the dark. They will not move one inch from that place anymore during the entire length of the performance. Lights turn on, music starts and then there is that one voice from a woman with long red hair, sitting behind a harp, piercing through the silence yet seemingly leaving it intact:

My love said to me
My mother won't mind
And me father won't slight you
For your lack of kind
Then she stepped away from me
And this she did say,
"It will not be long, love
Till our wedding day"

Loreena McKennit sets off on the first words of "She Moved through the Fair" (from the album "Elemental") and I was there to enjoy the graceful touch of the sublime.

Let me shelve China for a little while, at least for the length of this post, if that is okay with you. There have been times in the past year since I run this blog that I wanted to write about something not directly related to China and that I put it off because of that reason. Now I realize that's not what I wanted at the outset. All I wanted was a space to ventilate some thoughts and though I am quite happy with the China focus I gave it, it should not be an obstacle to some musings on different topics also.

So there I was, last Friday, in that music hall for a performance I had been happily anticipating for over a week. In fact, I think I had been anticipating it for quite a few years already, ever since I'd heard for the first time Loreena's "The Book of Secrets"-CD which I'd bought after reading some rave reviews in some magazines. I had no idea who she was, I had no clue what music she produced, I just thought I'd give it a shot. That shot has never stopped resounding ever since.

So when I received an e-mail from my wife while I was at work last week, asking me (tongue-in-cheek, for she knew all too well what the answer would be) whether she could confirm the booking of two tickets for Loreena McKennitt's "Ancient Muse Tour 2007", I immediately replied with "YES!!!" five times in a row.

"A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving."

I guess Sam at "The Useless Tree" would now wholeheartedly agree to this:

I am now more convinced than ever that the authors of the Tao Te Ching are wrong about traveling ("the farther you go, the less you know"). After a week in the Netherlands and France - a wonderful week I should say - I can say that moving about, even in a rather touristy manner, lends a certain randomness to life, an uncertainty about what might lie just around the corner, and a new view on the routines of daily existence. All of these things help to remind us of the contingency of our being and the fluidity and multiplicity of Way. Maybe that is why Chuang Tzu encouraged aimless wandering.

These words attributed to Laozi (mistakenly, after reading Sam's words?) which are the main theme of "Book of Secrets", sum up pretty well the experience of Loreena's music. Using the Celtic culture as a springboard, in her own words, she travels the world extensively in search of where that culture has spread it's influence or what has been the result of the cross-fertilization with other cultures. Her latest, "An Ancient Muse" has led her mainly to places along the Silk Road, but the Celtic heritage has led her in the past just as well to Ireland, France, Spain, Greece etc... The result of all those travels and encounters is what was summarized in a two and a half hour performance the day before yesterday.

How do you capture in words something that has left you breathless, as if you were there with the Saints, saintly sitting on their clouds, already ? It can not be anything but a faint shadow of the real experience. Still, for the sake of remembrance, let me give it a try.

The musicians enter on stage, Loreena among them, before the spotlights are turned on. Against a Moorish inspired background, clearly reminiscing the look and feel of the "Ancient Muse"-CD cover, there is no grande entry of the lead performer. She is one of her troupe and she behaves as such. With a voice like hers, I was wondering how it would sound live, without any technical studio remastering. After this concert, I feel ashamed to have even nurtured the thought that it might be less powerful and pure than on her CD-recordings. Loreena McKennit live, beside harpist, pianist, bandleader, is above all an astonishing vocal performer without equal in her line of music. The way she hits the high notes -the ease, the control and the purity- are almost not of this world, while with her band she takes the audience along on a relentless sublime musical experience.

From "The Gates of Istanbul" ("An Ancient Muse") over the enormously successful "The Mummer's Dance" ("The Book of Secrets"), I get to the first gooseskin moment when Sokratis Sinopoulos joins in on his bouzouki in "Penelope's Song" ("An Ancient Muse"). There will be more of those: I remember my grandfather when "Dante's Prayer" ("Book of Secrets") sets in, for we played that song at his funeral (what more meaningful thing could there be to ask at such an occasion than this "Please remember me" ?); I mumble "yes" between my teeth when Loreena starts on Lord Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" ("The Visit") for I have been listening to that song time and time again ever since I downloaded it from i-Tunes and by the time she ends with Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" (The Visit"), you expect the world to be totally at peace.

Loreena does not say a lot: apart from some obligate words of gratitude for having the audience there tonight, and lending credit where credit's due (talking about how she engaged in a conversation with somebody from the Far-Öer islands, telling her how they have a different version of a song of her, thereby directly placing her songs in a tradition and not as something uniquely created by herself, after which she sets off on the very pleasant "The Bonny Swans" ("The Mask and Mirror")) she lets the music and the musicians do the talking. And what a band it is she has gathered around her on stage. As I said, there's no moving around, except for Loreena moving from her harp to behind her piano, while always keeping close eye-contact with her other band members. Yet, from that still life of ten top musicians, handling such diverse instruments as the Greek lute, lyra, hurdy gurdy, viola, tabla, but also cello, violin (a tremendous Hugh Marsh), electric bass, drums etc ... comes a musical sound that could make Heaven itself weep.

Friday evening was by far the best experience of 2007 yet and the best gift my wife could have given me for being married eleven years on the very same day. For which I thank her with all my heart.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Still Life

China is a strange country. Consider this.

Director Li Yu was told by the Chinese Film Bureau that her latest movie, "Lost In Beijing" (苹果, literally "Apple", after the name of the female lead role) could not be screened at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival unless she would cut about 15 minutes of the original version. Otherwise she might be facing the same five-year ban as was bestowed on Lou Ye for neglecting the directives of the Bureau on his film "Summer Palace". What the Film Bureau didn't want the "foreign friends" to see were some sexually explicit scenes (do those really exist in Chinese cinema ?), some scenes about gambling, scenes with dirty streets and scenes where one could see ... the Chinese flag. China, after all, is living the "Harmonious Society" dream and requires the entire world to believe that dream is true.


Venice. September 9 2006. The Awards for the Film Festival are announced and Chinese director Jia Zhangke steps down the stage firmly holding the Golden Lion in his hand for his fictionalized documentary about life in the Three Gorges Dam region, "Still Life" (三峡好人). Jia didn't have to make any significant cuts, as far as I know, yet he touches on prostitution, gang violence, bribery and ... dirt, piles and piles of dirt an debris, in which the remaining people still try to eke out a living by tearing down the houses and buildings that used to be their homes, before the entire place will be inundated by the lake building up behind the world's largest dam. It is not a harmonious society that we get to see in "Still Life", for sure, either, so why did this get past the Film Bureau ? The ways of that venerable institution are quite enigmatic, to say the least.

Did Jia Zhangke, torchbearer of the so-called "Sixth Generation" of Chinese directors , produce a good movie ? Yes, he sure did, and we all should be happy that it seems possible to make this kind of movies in China. We are far from the visual bravoure of Zhang Yimou's masterpieces, an yet maybe not that far, albeit in a totally different realm.

Jia Zhangke shows the thin storyline of two characters, both looking for their husband / spouse. Sanming has come from Shanxi to look for his wife and daughter which he hasn't seen for sixteen years. Shen Hong has come to tell her husband, whom didn't come home for two years, that she has found somebody else and wants a divorce. Their characters wonder through this wasteland, connecting with other people, survivors just like them, and gradually becoming part of the local scene of the quickly disappearing Fengjie. Shelly Kraicer had this to say about the way Jia Zhangke build up the movie:

Still Life incorporates a complex symbolic system that suggests possible meanings without fixing them definitively. Most prominently displayed are the set of four ambiguous symbols of consumption and enjoyment that the film underlines with titles onscreen: cigarettes, wine, tea, and candy. They stand in as replacements for the standard four household items (fuel, rice, cooking oil, and salt) that represent the daily necessities of life in a set Chinese expression. Jia’s update replaces survival with pleasures, even addictions. Those looking to find support for an ambivalent interior critique of the concomitant pleasures and dangers of turning cinema itself into a series of tantalizingly consumable items could do worse than start here.

I myself believe that the four items have less to do with pleasure and addictions as they have to do with hospitality. Those are items you would traditionally take in China whenever you go and visit chinese friends. Like the inhabitants of Fengjie are more and more becoming guests in their own life, so do Sanming and Shen Hong immerse in this micro-society, as guests, passing by, looked at with suspicion at first but gradually taken in.

Though the movie looks desolate and paints a very somber picture, there's a lot of humanity in the characters and their struggle for survival. Jia wanted to show how life works for them after all the camera crews were gone. From an interview with Jia in "Three Gorges Probe":

Jia: In my view, the time of biggest change in the Three Gorges area was 2000 to 2002, when the mass resettlement was really under way, houses were being demolished and people relocated. At that time the media, from inside and outside China, went to the area and bombarded us with images of the dam being built, houses being torn down and people being moved.

But then the media withdrew, and the Three Gorges, both the people and the place, were forgotten. Nobody cared about them any more. It was at that time that we went to the area. We were interested in how people there were living their lives, how they had been affected by the big dam.

What we saw, behind the scenes of the big project, were the problems and difficulties people faced after relocation. And the changes they experienced -- having their houses demolished and being resettled, with the construction of the dam going on in the background -- look a lot like changes being experienced by people all over China. And so, in a sense, the changes occurring in the Three Gorges area represent the changes taking place in China as a whole.

That the director still manages to extract a lot of beauty where no one would expect to find it anymore (and though the word "beauty" may be stretching the limits of the content of that word a bit) is to be considered no minor feat and it leaves us anyway with a movie that sticks to the mind and hope for more good work to come from a great director.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Throne of Blood

So what can one do, when the joys of a sunny early spring are brutally interrupted by the return of something resembling winter (but not just quite) ? Last weekend, a bunch of us choose to go into hiding, deep into the dark dungeons of Cinema, not to see one, but two movies.

Chinese movies, that is.

Then that must have been a film festival, you say ? Spot on ! Otherwise, can you imagine getting up at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning, crawling from under the warm covers of your bed, to get into your car, drive for three quarters of an hour through the splashing rain ... to watch a movie at 10 A.M. ?

If "worldmusic" is a term that defies definition but nevertheless rings a bell with anybody on what to expect, then I would like to call this a festival of "worldcinema". No Hollywood blockbusters, just small productions, often hard to find in the commercial circuit, the "cinéma d'auteur" like the French would say, the refreshing Third World-kind of cinema ...

So Sunday morning we went to that festival to see ... Zhang Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower" ! Hahaha ... so far for the previous paragraph !

Some of the wicked amongst you could argue that I went to see Gong Li. I will not deny it, but as having seen most of her movies equals saying I have seen more than a fair deal of Yimou's movies also, makes me opt for the latter as the prevailing argument to see this movie. Quite frankly, I'm not very much into all that martial arts / kungfu kind of stuff, so the fact that "The Curse... " was being cited as the third part in Zhang's wuxia 武侠 trilogy (after "Hero" and "The House of Flying Daggers"), was not really much of a incentive. The fact however that Zhang Yimou has released a new movie; the fact that Zhang teams up with Gong Li again for this movie; the fact that the "monstre sacré" of Hong Kong cinema, Chow Yun-Fat, co-stars with Gong Li ... that's what is important and that's what makes one wonder what result it will bring to the screen.

Okay, time-out for a second: did I tell you already about my other Crush, likewise with a capital C ? As powerful as Zhang's opening sequence with Jiang Wen and Gong Li in "Red Sorghum" may have been, I believe some of the scenes shot by Kurosawa in "Seven Samurai", starting with the opening raid of the bandits on the village, are unparalleled in world cinema, and ever since watching that opening sequence for the first time many years ago, I have kept watching the movies of the "Tenno", whenever there was a chance (which is not plenty, I must say). As a fan, it happened that on another filmfestival (also long time ago. Am I now growing old or what ?), I was able to watch one of his other masterpieces, "Kumonosu-jo" or "The Spiderweb Castle", but probably best known as "The Throne of Blood". You could also say it is unmistakably one of the best Shakespeare adaptations - "Macbeth" in this case - to be brought to the screen. I'll revert to this later in this post.

I didn't try to find out a lot on the movie before going to see "The Curse ...", I even avoided watching the trailers. So I admit to have been happily unaware of the almost Shakesperean plot, though the movie claims to be based on the Chinese drama "Lei yü" (雷雨) by Chinese playwright Cao Yu (曹禺).
For a very short summary of the plot, lets' rely on Oscar:

In the tenth-century Tang Dynasty, the Empress has begun an affair with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan, although the young man secretly loves Chan, the daughter of the Imperial Doctor. The unhappy state of the royal marriage has also led the Emperor to order his physician to poison his wife with a fungus that will cause her to lose her mind.

The movie-plot has enough tragedy to bridge the gap from Euripides over Shakespeare to ... euh, the Jerry Springer show. In the end, it's all again about the universal theme of Eros (seduction, love ...) and it's inseverable link to Thanatos (death). But before you come to that conclusion, what a movie you have seen from China's most famous director. Is it entirely satisfactory ? No, it is not, it is far from that, but have you been blown away ? Constantly !

Now the question is: what is Zhang had in mind and what is it the audience wants ? Do we want to be blown away or do we want to be dragged into a heart-ripping story ? If you opt for the latter, this is not exactly going to be your piece of cake. Though Gong and Chow act on the top of their art, the mere luxury and lusciousness of the settings prevent you from diving in. Like the commoners never were allowed to enter the realm of their emperor, the Forbidden City, so is empathy with the characters stopped at the door.

Once you get that over with, be prepared to enjoy a visionary of the image demonstrating his utmost talent. (Though I am aware it's a stretch to say this, it actually may make you long for August 8, 2008 and it's Olympic opening ceremony to come around the corner ... now !). At 45 million USD, "The Curse ..." is the most expensive Chinese movie ever made and it shows. From the palace itself, to the attack of the Darth Vader-meets-Ninja kind of guys, to the overwhelming final attack of the army entirely in golden armor on the palace: there is no rest for the eyes of the beholder of all this beauty.

So why was I mentionning Kurosawa then ? Because having seen his "Macbeth" adaptation and now "The Curse ...", I couldn't but reflect on the very different ways these two directors have handled their related subjects. While Kurosawa was said to be the most "western" of his Japanese contemporary directors, yet for "Kumonosu-jo", an adaptation of a western play, he turned to one of the most japanese art-forms to bring his movie to the screen: the Noh-theatre. Structured with the same rigidity, implementing all the required plot elements of any traditional Noh-play without diverting in any way from his base story, Kurosawa delivered a stylistic masterpiece, that draws it's strength from the inherent spatial limit of a Noh-stage. Whenever there is motion on the stage (e.g. in the almost claustrophobic settings of the rooms in the castle), it is a referral to bigger events taking place outside the scope of the screen. The murder on the king is almost entirely "visualized" by keeping the camera focussed on the facial expressions of Lady Macbeth, who is an a different room.The movie requires from it's audience an appreciation of an almost minimalistic way of filming, where the detail is taken to represent the bigger picture.

Compare this to Zhang Yimou's latest. Under the motto "To boldly go where no Chinese director has ever gone before", he has unladen every visual bravoure he has mastered. Where Kurosawa turned deep inward into Japanese culture to film his "Spiderweb Castle", Zhang Yimou seems to go the opposite direction. Have you seen those heaving breasts on all the women (firmly establishing the invention of the push-up bra in the Tang Dynasty ... not my joke, unfortunately, but had to tell it here !), have you seen those colours (not the imperial red and yellow from the Forbidden City as we know it, but pink and green and blue, besides gold of course, splashing off your screen): no chinese director at this moment except for Zhang could outdo Hollywood at it's own game.

All in all, it was a morning well spent. What I will remember after all visual artistry will have faded in my mind, is that a Chinese director, like a Japanese half a century before him, has again made a powerful statement on the hubris (the arrogance, overbearing pride) of man and how that invariably leads to sorrow, pain, death. This story, centuries old, could with ease be transposed to all those places in our world of today where tyrants in the east, south, north and west remain to be seated on their thrones of blood.

(to be continued ... after all, I saw two movies !)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Wall

Let's talk about China's Great Wall for a change.

What began as defensive structures mostly made of earth, stone and wood, eventually expanded into the longest man-made construction ever erected. Stretching over 4000 miles, it effectively tried to separate China from the rest of the world on it's weakest side: the north. I guess, when Qin Shi Huang woke up one morning in 220 BC with the idea that he had to connect those several shattered pieces of earthen fortification mounds into one big wall to keep possible invaders out of his newly unified country, he had no clue how that would be resounding through the ages. From Hadrian's Wall to the Berlin Wall, governments, emperors, cities have been building walls throughout history as a way of defense ... and they still do.

The latest addition is now likely to be contributed by ... Iran.

Quetta, March 1: Iran has started building a concrete wall along its border with Pakistan, from Taftan to Mand, to stop illegal border crossings.

According to reports received here, the wall will be built from near the border town of Taftan, about 700km west of Quetta.

"The Iranian authorities started work on the wall about a month ago," according to Barkat Ali Khan, a Pakistani border town administration official.

"The concrete wall will be 10 feet high and 3 feet wide," he said, adding that hundreds of workers could be seen building the wall.

He said that the Iranian authorities appeared to be in a hurry to complete the project.

"I think they want to seal the border with Pakistan to stop illegal crossings from both sides and check drug smuggling," Mr Barkat said, adding that the wall would be up to the Mand area in the Turbat district of Balochistan.

Pakistan and Iran already fenced their border at different points a long time ago.

Lest we forget, let us also remind some of the other, most notable, fine examples of new walls competing for a star in "Qin's Hall of Fame":

From the BBC' website:

US President George W Bush has signed into law a plan for 700 miles (1,125km) of new fencing along the US-Mexico border, to curb illegal immigration.

Mr Bush said the US had not been in control of the border for decades.

Illegal immigration is expected to be a major question in next month's US mid-term elections.

Mexican officials have opposed the fence, with outgoing President Vicente Fox calling it "shameful" and likening it to the Berlin Wall.

About 10 million Mexicans are thought to live in the US, some four million of them illegally.

An estimated 1.2 million illegal immigrants were arrested last year trying to cross into the US via the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

It gets very interesting when you look at some of the numbers as are provided here:

But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said a wall running the length of a border would cost too much. A 2,000 mile state-of-the-art border fence has been estimated to cost between four and eight billion dollars. Costs for a wall that would run the entire length of the border might be as low as $851 million for a standard 10-foot prison chain link fence topped by razor wire. For another $362 million, the fence could be electrified. A larger 12-foot tall, two-foot-thick concrete wall painted on both sides would run about $2 billion. Initially it was estimated that the San Diego fence would cost $14 million -- about $1 million a mile. The first 11 miles of the fence eventually cost $42 million -- $3.8 million per mile, and the last 3.5 miles may cost even more since they cover more difficult terrain. An additional $35 million to complete the final 3.5 miles was approved in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security -- $10 million per mile.

That reminds me of one of the latest articles of one of my favorite columnists, Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, on the situation in Iraq where he made the following assertion:

A major global consulting firm has reviewed Iraq's state-owned enterprises and estimated that it would cost $100 million to restart all of them and employ more than 150,000 Iraqis—$100 million. That's as much money as the American military will spend in Iraq in the next 12 hours.

Talking about getting the priorities right !

Now here's another formidable contender (from Wikipedia):

The Israeli West Bank barrier is a physical barrier being constructed by Israel consisting of a network of fences with vehicle-barrier trenches surrounded by an on average 60 meters wide exclusion area (90%) and up to 8 meters high concrete walls (10%).[1] It is located mainly within the West Bank, partly along the 1949 Armistice line, or "Green Line" between the West Bank and Israel. As of April 2006 the length of the barrier as approved by the Israeli government is 703 kilometers (436 miles) long. Approximately 58.4% has been constructed, 8.96% is under construction, and construction has not yet begun on 33% of the barrier.[2]

In November 1989, the world was cheering them on, as the Berlin Wall came down and the people from the east crossed the separation line for the first time as human beings instead of as machine-gun targets. The fall was heralded as the end of the Cold War and the demise of Communism.

After that, it went quiet for a couple of years, but it seems construction fever on walls is now back with a vengeance. These constructions are prone to frustrate and humiliate those on the "wrong side" of them and we all know how a caged in creature may react. As for those on the "right side", they may one day wake up, realizing that the idea that they are better protected by the mere presence of such a wall, is just such an urban legend as the fact that China's Great Wall can be seen from the moon. In the end, China's wall didn't keep out the invaders: the Manchu's, the Mongols before them, ruled over China for centuries, not so much because the brickwork was not resistant to the attacks, but because at a certain moment someone from within opened the gate and took the lid off Pandora's box.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Centre Stage

Okay, let's get it over with right at the beginning of this post: I have this Crush (with capital C) for Gong Li.

You can read that sentence in the past, present or future tense, it won't make a difference.

Ever since she lifted her veil in the sedan chair that took her to her husband's house in "Red Sorghum" (红高粱) (1987), it's been there and that Crush is there to stay.

If you want to know what I am talking about from the pure "male chauvinist pig" point of view, let it suffice for you to take a look at the picture on the left. Does the P-word come to mind? Perfection ? Thank you. I rest my case.

However, I could not be sure that the Crush would be there to stay if I didn't consider her a very accomplished actress as well. I have seen most of her movies, admired her for her performances in her Chinese work, admired her for having the courage to go outside China and try to be the actress Gong Li and not: the chinese actress Gong Li. Though less successful in my opinion and bogged down too much still by a language barrier, she has proven that it was possible to transgress the borders of China and still make it big time. As I alluded to in this post before, she -and of course the directors that cast her- has come to personify the renaissance of chinese cinema in the years after the intellectual and artistic near-dead experience of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. And that's what I'd hoped she would always be remembered for.

(By the way, did I tell you already I have this Crush for Gong Li ?)

So I was very surprised / disappointed to read these remarks from her fellow actor Ge You, who really put down a top performance class act in Zhang Yimou's 1994 "To Live" (活着):

Chinese actor Ge You, who stars in The Banquet, says Chinese film siren Gong Li is too old to be favored by the Chinese film market.

He made the remarks while promoting the film with director Feng Xiaogang's production team in Taiwan along with Zhang Ziyi and Zhou Xun.

Zhang Ziyi was regarded as a young replica of Gong Li when she first appeared in Zhang Yimou's film My Father and Mother. Now both are rising Chinese actresses in Hollywood gifted with acting talents.

Ge You revealed that 40-year-old Gong Li and 42-year-old Maggie Cheung were considered to play the empress in The Banquet. The role eventually went to Zhang Ziyi.

"That's it. Zhang is much younger. We can't do anything about it," said Ge. "Gong may have a bright prospect in Hollywood, but certainly not in China."

Well I'll be damned !

Let me get this straight: China, with it's 5000 years of history, with it's 1.3 billion people and it's limitless ambition, would lack the oxygen to have three star actresses breathing and thriving at the same moment in time ??? The idea is ridiculous and preposterous. If China is serious on film and wants to earn it's place among the great cinematic legacies of countries such as Japan, France, Italy, Great Britain and the United States, it will need all the "star-power" it can get, for I believe the stars create the playing field in which also smaller, independent, less commercial movies can come to exist.

Don't also get me started on Maggie Cheung. I think, if you read this blog, chance is fairly big you will have seen her in Wong Kar Wai's "In the Mood for Love" (2000). To see the star quality I am talking about, I would advise you however to go and see Stanley Kwan's "Centre Stage" (1992), on the life of chinese actress Ruan Lingyu.

Ridiculous as I find the idea to be, I am afraid though that Ge You's words may have at least some foundation in reality. When I look at the Chinese consumption pattern, I do see the "winner takes all"-tendency. Consumption patterns are very much linked to hype and so it could be that with Zhang Ziyi top seeded right now, there is no place left for the others.

For the time being, I hope that he uttered those words under pressure of the marketing machine that needs him to promote "The Banquet", which happens now to be starring Zhang Ziyi and not Gong Li nor Maggie Cheung. I trust they can still be back with a vengeance and that can only be to the benefit of the audience ... and my Crush.


Sunday, February 25, 2007


In monte munera ... the rewards are at the top : such was the device of my old school and I should have remembered it, that day last September when I was cycling with my wife on the slopes of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) just outside Lijiang in Yunnan province. Unfortunately, not the lack of material but a lack of sufficient upfront training made us give up on the way to our destination of that afternoon. I felt bad about it again after I read this today:

“For nearly twelve years prior to the outbreak of World War II, I had been engaged upon the special project of studying and translating the religious texts of the Na-khi [or Naxi] tribe of northwest Yünnan. When it became impossible for me to stay in Likiang for economic reasons, I gathered my material and shipped it from Calcutta on the S.S. Richard Hovey to the United States. This ship was sunk in 1944 by the Japanese and all my work was lost. I then determined to return to China to do the work over again.”

These words are taken from an autobiographical note, signed by Joseph Rock as can be found on the website of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. It feels futile to not be able to push your bike a few more kilometers further uphill, to where Rock had his "cabin" in the long years that he spent in the region of Lijiang, investigating the local flora, culture, language and geography. We were headed for a meeting with history and the remnants of one of it's lesser known "monstres sacrées", and all I can say is ... we just ran out of breath. What a defeat !

My attention was first drawn by the numerous black & white photographs that adorn the walls of the Dongba Palace on Dongdajie (东大街) in Lijiang, just opposite of the better known concert hall where Xuan Ke and his troupe perform nightly chinese traditional Han music. They're hung up in the normal Chinese ramshackle sort-of-way, but they display an obvious quality with respect to their subject. In each subsequent visit to a museum or a temple in Lijiang's surroundings, we would keep running into more of those pictures, very much focusing on the people and their rites as performed by the local shamans known as Dongba's. It struck me that Rock had documented the entire area more than half a century before tourism ever became aware of a place called Lijiang.

Joseph Francis Rock, born in Vienna in 1884 and deceased in Honolulu 1962, in my view is as close to the idea of the "homo universalis", by which we tend to denominate the likes of Da Vinci, as it gets in modern times . Science and technology has become so specified, one is bound to narrow it's focus to a very specific area of research if one wants to be noticed. This Austrian, who migrated to the United States (Hawaii) in 1907, has left us with valuable contributions and a compendium of work encompassing the fields of botanics, ethnology, geography, linguistics and photography.

On a sidenote one could ask: has it got to do with Austria, or is it the presence of the mountains that has brought about such men, since somewhat later than Rock, there was also Heinrich Harrer, caught up in the same part of the world, on the roof of the world finding himself teaching the then still young Dalai Lama during his seven year stay in Tibet. Harrer, though with a less unbespoken background than Rock (he joined the Waffen SS in the late 30's), displayed the same breadth of interest.

It is difficult to overestimate the value of Rock's work, it seems to me. Apart from the photographs which he took and of which a good deal can be found via this site, Rock also set out, in cooperation with the Dongba Shamans on the translation of a large body of works in the Naxi manuscript, now being held by the Library of Congress:

The Naxi language is the only pictographic writing system still in use today. The Dongbas created two scripts for ceremonies--pictographic and syllabic (phonetic). Many of the individual symbols, totaling 276 sound complexes, are compounds and are read as a phrase in which verbs and other parts of speech are supplied from memory. In addition, the Naxi language has four tones; each sound complex has many different meanings based on its tone. The Dongba language is influenced by the Tibetan-Burman language family and the tonal and symbolic aspects of Chinese.

During his more than 20 year stay in the region, Joseph Rock produced two histories of the Naxi's as well as a dictionary of over 1000 pages.

One could wonder what would be our knowledge of Naxi culture and language had there been no Joseph Rock. I have no idea how Lijiang fared under the hysteria of the Cultural Revolution, how it's unique script was perceived by the revolutionary zealots, but I can imagine it would have very likely been branded superstitious or bourgeois and I believe a lot of valuable works must have ended their life on one of those bonfires that stood symbol for the erratic ways of the human mind. The omnipresence of Rock's photo's in today's Lijiang proves to me that what this tuberculosis sufferer has brought about in his lifetime, still resounds with vigour and value for today.

Therefore, it is with big respect that I put the nickname as he liked to use it among friends at the top of this article. "Pohaku" is the Hawaiian word for "rock".


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"The Last Post" for Nanjing

Eight o'clock in the evening on an average Saturday. Two bataljons of soldiers march onto the street of either side of the Menin Gate, blocking in effect any traffic that would like to pass underneath the gate. Though the weather is cold, the sidewalks lining the street that passes under the gate are crowded with people, mostly British students, three rows thick, standing still, legs apart and hands on their back, like soldiers in rest. At eight sharp, there comes an eerie silence over the place, effectively squeezing out the background noise of the city, as four men in long blue coats and with blue hats march onto the street, bugle in their hand, and position themselves in the middle under the arch of the gate.

Seconds later, resounding from the walls that are covered with thousands and thousands of names, the music of the "Last Post" fills up the space under the gate, like it has, each and every day*, for the last 79 years. Not a sound is heard except the music and young girls at my side of the street are seen crying and hugging. When the music stops, five groups of soldiers, students and commoners, in military drill step forward and depose a wreath of red poppies at the monument. At the end of the fifteen minute ceremony, the sound of the four bugles send their last farewell to the deceased again and the crowd disperses, only knowing that there will be others taking their place the next day and the same solemn ceremony will be performed again ... as if into eternity.

I was in that corner of the world last weekend, trapped between the river Yser and the North Sea, that inspired Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on May 3, 1915 to write the following poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It can hardly be captured in words the devastation that area has seen in 3 major battles during World War I, so I'll let this picture do the talking.

Almost half a million men have died there in the mud, trapped like sitting ducks in rainsoaked trenches, at worst separated not more than fifty meters from the enemy. The racial mix in the Ypres Salient (or Wipers, as the British used to call it) was phenomenal: Belgians, Brits, Scotsmen, New Zealanders, Canadians, French, Pakistani, Indians, an occasional Chinese worker, and of course the attacking German troops. It was a kaleidoscope of the world, bitterly entangled in a fierce struggle over dominance. When the war was over and all bodies had been counted, someone uttered the hope that such a disaster would never have to happen again. How cruelly mistaken he has proven to be.

Yet, as from 1928 onwards, under that memorial erected in remembrance of the soldiers of the British Commonwealth that had fallen before 1917 and had no known grave, a group of people took it upon themselves to keep the memory of those that had fallen alive and still do so till this day. At the Menin Gate, though the symbol at certain times may has been abused and misrepresented, there is no place for hatred. Go there yourself when you pass by and have the chance: you will know what I mean.

So when I read Richards' article on Saturday's TPD on the documentary video on the Rape of Nanjing, all I could was wonder when the Chinese will be able to let go of their hatred and mold it into remembrance, for those that should never have died under the circumstances they did, into a beacon for generations to come that history's lessons should be learnt and not forgotten ? When will Nanjing be allowed to have it's own "Last Post" ?

* The ceremony was forbidden by the Germans and thus effectively interruped during the years of World War II, but was taken up again on the evening of Liberation itself and has been continued ever since.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Enjoy your meal

Last weekend, I was relating to my wife and her friend about my only experience ever in a vegetarian restaurant. The year was 1989, the place Beijing and the restaurant was Gong De Lin (功德林). Established in 1922, the place can boast of some history, and rightfully so. I can't imagine myself ever living the vegetarian way of life (which is why I'll probably never reach Nirvana), but if there is a place that could haul me over, it should be this one. I remember we went there with a group of 6 friends or so and we had one of of the most splendid meals ever a student's purse could afford. I particularly remember the big plate with a fish that seemed like ready to slap it's tail and jump off anytime ... only to find that it was "sculpted" from mashed potatoes mixed with all kinds of other stuff (can you tell from my writing I'm not the one who's doing the cooking at home ?).

My student days are long gone, so the purse holds somewhat more than the the 284 FEC (Foreign Exchange Certficate, or the "foreigners money" at that time) living allowance per month I was entitled to on my scholarship and as a result, I now also dare to venture in restaurants that have something more than pizza or kebab on the menu (on a sidenote again: coming to think of it, after a couple of months in Shanghai at the end of the eighties, sneaking out for a couple of days to Hong Kong and indulging in a REAL pizza at Pizzahut and more-than-REAL ice cream at Häagen Dasz was at that moment like tasting a piece of Heaven also). Anyway, the experience of having a fine meal is for me very well expressed in this line of Michel de Montaigne, a French writer from the Renaissance:

"The art of dining well is no slight art,
the pleasure not a slight pleasure".

So I am dumbstruck with this latest craze that (unfortunately, in my mind) has blown over from the Old Continent of Europe to hit it big time in China:

City diners set to embrace the dark

SOME diners in Shanghai will soon be kept in the dark - and happily pay for the privilege.

According to officials of the Beijing-based Whaleinside Culture Corp, which opened Asia's first dark restaurant in Beijing on December 22, the Shanghai outlet will be set up in one of the busiest commercial centers.

"We will soon decide on the location from four or five venues, and finish the interior decoration within 1 1/2 months," said Chen Long, president of the company.

The trendy youth market, and expatriates seeking something different, are the main targets for the venue, which is expected to cost diners 100 yuan (US$12.50) to 150 yuan per head, Chen said.

After a widely announced opening of the first outlet in Beijing, it is now time for Shanghai food connoisseurs to go and enjoy their meals in a pitch-black environment. Waiters are either blind, or people with normal vision ... wearing night vision goggles. Apparently, as mentionned in the same article on Onemanbandwidth, this kind of restaurant was

actually a fantastic project started by the Blind-Liecht (Swiss German for blind-light) foundation. The foundation works to create employment opportunities for blind and visually impaired people.

So may I politely ask, if that is the goal of what this is all about (and I have no doubt that someone, at the outset, had the best interest of the blind at heart), what those goggle-frogs are doing in that Beijing restaurant, with Shanghai set to follow the same recruitment policy:

Similar to Beijing, and other outlets around the world, Shanghai's dark restaurant will recruit some blind servers in addition to 10 ordinary staff.

Strange they don't mention the number of the blind they will recruit, don't you think ?

Apart from that, however, what happened also to "eating with your eyes" ? Which chef, in a right state of mind and concerned about delivering quality, would ever want to go and work in such a restaurant, where the customers will not get to see even the tiniest bit of the culinary composition you have created on their plate ?
What happened to the famous Chinese food culture, which bestows quite some importance on the right mix of color in the dishes ?

Will you allow me also to wonder how conversations will go (supposed you don't go there on your own), when you have tens of people in the same room, all babbling at even higher pitch than usual -which I believe is what happens when you are in the dark- and no faces to focus on ? What happens to conversation when at least 30% of your message is said to be in your expression and your body language ?

It's just beyond me, but I guess those guys at Whaleinside -"A World Without Heart Distance"- (没有距离的世界) (well, euh ...) must have it all figured out.

"We will soon decide on the location from four or five venues, and finish the interior decoration within 1 1/2 months," said Chen Long, president of the company.

If I may offer a little piece of advice: wouldn't spend too much time and money on that interior decoration.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A boxing game on China's future

Via the excellent portal Arts & Letters Daily, I came upon this very entertaining and even more informative "boxing match" between in the one corner, Will Hutton, British writer and a.o. columnist for The Observer, and in the other corner Meghnad Desai, British economist, writer and Labour politician. The two gentlemen are having a fascinating sparring match on the topic "Does the future really belong to China", with no holds barred. I have the impression the two authors don't like each other very much and feel free to vent that feeling in their writings, but that is absolutely no obstacle to read through this entire piece, that basically has revealed to me one thing, how complex the world has become and that nothing is what it seems and nothing always is what it is claimed or claims itself to be.

The two gentlemen take views on the topic that more or less reflect the two most common found stances on the emerging (or rather: emerged) China issue, with Hutton defending the claim that China has reached the limits of it's unchecked growth and is entering the stage where it has to start coping with all the effects and side effects that has produced:

The breaches in the model are all around. How much longer can China's state-owned banks carry on directing billions of dollars of savings into investments that produce tiny or even negative returns and on which interest is irregularly paid? Poor peasants' ability to create the savings needed to fuel growth is reaching its limits. And in any case, for how long can a $2 trillion economy save at more than 40 per cent of GDP? It is reaching the limit of its capacity to increase exports (which in 2007 will surpass $1 trillion) by 25 per cent a year; at this rate of growth they will reach $5 trillion by 2020 or sooner, representing more than half of today's world trade. Is that likely? Are there sufficient ships and ports to move such volumes—and will western markets stay open without real reciprocity on trade? Every year China acquires $200bn of foreign exchange reserves, mainly dollars, as it rigs its currency to keep its exports competitive. It is absurd for a poor country like China to be lending to a rich one like the US; in fact, it is unsustainable, and the financial markets seem to agree.

China would like to lower the current feverish growth rates, but the tools available in the west—raising taxes, cutting spending and lifting interest rates—are not available to China. The party dare not trigger protests by raising taxes; officials in state enterprises and provincial governments ignore orders to lower spending because their careers depend on generating growth and jobs. And raising interest rates could create a credit crunch as loans go sour.

Baron Meghnad Desai is insisting on the fact that the West had better not view it's way of dealing with capitalism as the one and only. China is taking a different road that seems to make sense under the circumstances and that should be given the opportunity to prove itself wright (or wrong if it fails):

China has achieved rapid growth with a policy of under-consumption and over-saving, and exports rather than domestic consumption. But this is not an unusual path, nor one that China is stuck on. Japan and South Korea used the same model and are now part of the OECD club of rich countries. Moving millions of peasants to urban manufacturing centres is neither totalitarian nor sinister. It was proposed as the standard development model by Arthur Lewis, a Nobel laureate, in 1954, and is indeed the classical model. (If it was less dramatic in parts of Europe, this is partly because a third of Europeans moved to North America in the second half of the 19th century.) There are no other ways of shaking off poverty. The services sector alone will not do it, and nor will a green revolution, as India is finding out (...).

(...) Yes, there is a Leninist party in power within a state capitalist system. But capitalism has no unique path, nor does it require a liberal democratic infrastructure to flourish. Japan's economic rise took place without a fully liberal infrastructure, and most European states, including Britain and Germany, were capitalist before they were democratic. What the most recent phase of globalisation has shown is that capitalism requires neither the Weberian Protestant ethic nor liberal democracy; any country with a decent savings rate, mass education and access to western markets can "do" capitalism. It is not a western Christian monopoly. Indeed, some Asians are proving better at it than the Europeans.

Though, in view of the enormous challenges that still lay ahead for China in the very near future, I am slightly inclined to the Hutton point-of view, I feel there is much to say for both sides of the story. If we acknowledge the fact that the world is saying for I-don't-know-how-many-years already that China's growth can not possibly continue like this, while it simply still does, one knows that Mr. Desai has a valid point.

The piece (well, the correspondence between these two scholars) is more than worth to read for the elaboration of these two theses on the topic alone.

There are however also some interesting sidebars to pick up, such as the democracy issue. In Meghnad Desai's words:

The Chinese Communist party is at one level Leninist, but it is unlike the Russian Bolshevik party. The Chinese communists had to struggle to win the support of the peasantry for a decade and a half before they won power in 1949. They developed a philosophy of responding to popular needs within the confines of a single party. This is what they call people's democracy, and it is much more real than it was in eastern Europe. My colleague at LSE, Chun Lin, argues in The Transformation of Chinese Socialism that the Chinese concept of people's democracy is viable. In her view, the tradition has some strength left in it, although the party will have to become even more responsive. Deng Xiaoping encouraged inegalitarian capitalist growth for a period, but there may now be a reaction against it. At the recent People's Congress, Hu Jintao made some noises about the distress in the rural areas; the system can respond.

Whether the system can respond is in my opinion actually left to be seen. No doubt that the Communists would not have been in power were it not for the support of the peasantry, like Castro would not have won Cuba without the support of the peasants, and yes, that overhaul of the old -let's call it in chinese terms- feudal system may best be executed within the confines of a single party, but societies tend to evolve and what was maybe right half a century ago under those particular circumstances isn't necessarily so today. I really wonder whether "the tradition has some strength left in it". 80.000+ (reported) protests of a certain scale in a single year, be it all rather isolated, don't sound like like a strong argument for that these to me.
The popular needs at the time of the revolution I think can also be summarized in few terms: food, work and social care, the basics, quoi. What we see in today's China is that the "iron bowl" is all but abolished and lot's of people have to eek out a living in dire circumstances and that the social welfare system is in ramshackle. There is no denying that there are lot's of positive contributions to name on the other side also, but I'm afraid that the time indeed has come for China as Hutton formulates it:

The effective use of resources also depends upon a network of independent processes of scrutiny and accountability, undertaken by people in multiple centres of power and backed by rights and private property. A democratic election system is but the coping stone of this structure.

I doubt whether the system is ready to respond to that.

He scores another valid point by reproaching the West to proud itself on it's words and highbrow principles while neglecting these as often as to abide by them, but where Desai is way out of line for me is in te following paragraph:

Whatever else I may be, I am not a third world intellectual, having spent two thirds of my life in Britain! Nor am I a postcolonial postmodernist. I have a simple position: no nation, no region, no empire has any monopoly on virtue. East and west have both indulged in ethnic cleansing. China's imperial past is like any other country's, except the Chinese do not suffer from western amnesia.

I can indeed not think of any country that can claim the victory palm for pure virtue throughout it's entire history: not the Western powers, not the African, Latin-American, Middle-Eastern and Asian countries and definitely not China. However, I wonder what that western amnesia is he is talking about. The western colonial powers have often created havoc in their former colonies, maybe even beyond repair, but I believe most have come to recognize those facts and are now helping in the restoration of the victimized countries. The facts are definitely not being withheld from us.
In China the opposite is happening and I'm sorry to say but I believe it is one of the means needed to make the Chinese model work, like Mr. Desai is pleading. In the Chinese system, you can not be overly concerned with the past, because it could become a burden on your current development.

Lots to ponder about.

Update: I just found out by pure coincidence (actually by the Yoono extension from Firefox which I installed after doing this post) that J. from the Granite Studio beat me to this story by ... almost a month. Well, I suppose you can't have read it all and maybe here is some additional food for debate.