Eric Liddell, Running the Last Race

One of my all-time favorite movies is Chariots Of Fire, which told the story of Eric Liddell, a Scot who ran in the 1924 Olympic Games, and who later went on to be a missionary in China (where he had been born). Here’s the official trailer for that 1981 film:

(email readers, go here to see the clip)

Now, 35 years later, a sequel to that movie has been made, and it’s been made in China. Starring Joseph Fiennes, and directed by Stephen Chin, a Chinese Christian filmmaker,  The Last Race tells the story of Liddell’s life after the Olympics.

He returned to Tianjin, the city where he had been born, but when the Japanese invaded he, along with the foreign community of North China was sent to a Japanese prison camp in Shandong Province. While in the camp, he taught science to the children and took on a mentoring role for the young people. He died of a brain tumor in the camp before the end of the war.

Doing a movie about a foreign missionary in China wasn’t without it’s challenges. According to The Beijinger, Chin had this to say about those challenges:

“Christianity is a very sensitive subject in China,” Shin told China Film Insider on the sidelines of the Beijing International Film Festival. “Everyone knows that it is not easy to bring that message here. But now, luckily, the censorship is quite reasonable. We are not pushing other people to accept Christianity or promoting any religious message.”

Director Shin said he first heard of Liddell’s story when he was working in Shanghai in 2008 on business related to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, by which time The Last Race script had been written and revised for almost eight years.

”Luckily, two years ago, it got through censorship and we see ‘Okay, it’s good.’ It’s okay to make this movie [starting] last year,” Shin said. ”We want people to come to China to make movies. It is not so strict as we might think. If you can handle the topic in the right way, it should be okay.”

Here’s the trailer for the film:

(email readers, please go here to see the clip)

I don’t know about you, but I’m anxious to see this movie when it is released in June.

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Do You Know Where Your Underwear is Made?

I’m guessing that the answer “somewhere in China” popped into your head when you saw the title of this post. And of course you’d be correct. But which town in China? Can you answer that question?

Last week I ran across a great video, produced by The Economist, that takes a look at Gurao, a town in China that produces much of the world’s underwear.

Here’s the intro:

Next time you buy underwear that’s ‘Made in China’, chances are it has come from a town like Gurao, in south east China. Gurao has been dubbed the ‘town of underwear’. Its factories produce 350m bras and 430m vests and pairs of pants every year. They have made Gurao a prosperous and polluted place. But China’s one-trick industrial towns are also extremely vulnerable to shifting demand.

(email readers, click here to see the video)

Watching that video brought to my mind the third section of Peter Hessler’s wonderful book Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, in which he introduces us to a man who sets out to make his fortune by producing tiny rings for bra straps!

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip

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Smart Toilet Seats

According to the good folks at Tech in Asia, China’s State Council (somewhat akin to the cabinet in the US government) has called on Chinese tech firms to focus on making better air purifiers, better rice cookers, and better smart toilet seats.


Smart toilet seats? Really?

Why, you may be wondering, is the Chinese government so concerned about Chinese companies producing high quality smart toilet seats? The author the piece suggests that it’s about nationalism:

Why smart toilet seat development is a national priority is a mystery.

I do have a theory, though: Japan. You may remember that earlier this year during China’s yearly legislative session, rice cookers rather unexpectedly became a point of discussion and a black mark on China’s tech industry: why were Japanese firms still producing better rice cookers than Chinese firms? Several high-profile tech CEOs got in on the action, and Xiaomi released its own rice cooker a month or so later.

Apparently, Japan dominates the smart toilet seat market in a similar way. On Taobao, for example, the top-selling smart toilet seats are mostly Japanese, and many are marketed with an emphasis on their Japanese or otherwise foreign origin. I can’t say whether it’s true as I’ve never personally tried any brand of smart toilet seat – I like my toilets dumb, thank you very much – but Chinese consumers apparently believe that Japan simply makes a better toilet seat than China. This has been an issue of contention for nationalists for over a year already, and it seems the State Council may be firing it up again.

Can’t continue to let the Japanese be ahead, now, can we?

Most of the time when traveling in China, I would have been deliriously happy with simply HAVING a toilet seat — any kind of toilet seat! Dirty? Cracked? Whatever — just give me something to sit on, thank you very much.

Oh, and in case you had no idea before this that smart toilet seats are a thing, check out this list of 9 futuristic toilet seats highlighted over at Gadget Review.

Image credit: Tech in Asia

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Why Do They Ask Me That?

A few weeks back I was talking with a businessman from Germany who was trying to navigate the complexities of life in Minnesota.


“Why,” he asked me, “do the checkout clerks in stores ask me how my day is going?”

“And when they ask, how should I respond??”

He was completely flummoxed!

I assured him that the question was not being asked out of a genuine desire to know, or in order to elicit an elaborate and detailed response; rather it was merely a greeting, a way of saying “hell0.”

I also told him that the appropriate response to such a question is some variation of “great!,” and that it would be polite for him to follow with some variation of “and you?”

The poor man just shook his head in disbelief, and I then got to introduce him to the concept of “Minnesota Nice.”

Since then I have been thinking and reading about Minnesota Nice. It often gets a bad rap as being simply a fancy term for passive aggression or conflict avoidance.

This video from TPT Rewire gives a fuller explanation:

To my mind, however, a key feature of Minnesota Nice is just being pleasant. And after living for nearly 3 decades where interactions in stores and other service venues ran the gamut from robotic to indifferent to surly, I kind of like the polite banter at the check-out counter. So what if the clerk doesn’t really care how my day is going. Is it wrong to be pleasant?

I’ll take Minnesota Nice over Surly Socialism any day!

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Friday Photo: Cooking Ham

Four years ago today I was in the city of Ya’an, in Sichuan Province. Ham is popular in that region of the country, and everywhere we went we saw little “ham shops” – storefronts where people were not just selling ham, but actually cooking it. If you’re looking for a new way to cook your Easter ham, give this a try:


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The Cadre Cap

The word for a Chinese government official — a bureaucrat — is  ganbu (干部). For some reason it gets translated into English as “cadre,” (usually pronounce kad-er). You can spot a ganbu a mile away in China; there is a certain stance (hands behind the back or pointing, or listening to an underling explain something); and there is a certain style of clothing, often fairly casual (think collared t-shirts and zip-up jackets).

Back in the 80’s when I first went to China, the “ganbu look” included a cap — what we might call a “Mao Cap.” I preferred to call them “cadre caps.” Military ganbu wore green ones with red stars, but civilian cadre caps were usually blue — cotton in the summer, and wool in the winter. To be sure, almost everyone wore Mao caps back then, but it seems that these wool ones were the favorites of cadres, hence getting my designation “cadre cap.”

cadre cap

Last weekend my sister, brother-in-law, mom, and I decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather in Minnesota and go for a drive. When we got to my sister’s house, Jeff came bounding out of the house wearing a dark blue cadre cap.

When I saw that cap perched on top of his head, I burst out laughing; not because it looked funny, but because I hadn’t seen one in more than twenty years, and probably hadn’t seen this particular hat in more than thirty years!

I immediately remembered that I had bought it as a gift and brought it home to him at the end of my first year of teaching in 1985. There wasn’t much in the way of gifts to purchase back then, so I thought a cadre cap for Jeff would be perfect.

What is so unique about this particular cadre cap is the “sticky-uppy” piece of cloth at the top. If you look at the photo you might be thinking that it is a small loop; something to use when hanging the cap. You would be wrong, because it is just a single piece of material sticking straight up. For what purpose, I suppose, will remain a mystery, although Jeff wondered if it was some sort of secret transmitter that he was now activating by wearing it again!

But the inside of the hat was even more interesting, and once again provided an instant journey back into China of the 1980’s.


It says “San Xia Hat Factory,” followed by a 6-digit phone number!

I thought that san xia (三侠) meant “Three Gorges,” but a friend wrote me and said it could also be translated “Three Musketeers.” Google Translate says it means “romance.” Go figure!

If you ask me, this cadre cap belongs in a museum, not on Jeff’s head!

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I Want an Upgrade

I’m guessing that anyone who has flown, either on occasion or extensively, knows the feeling of longing that comes over them as they board the plane and walk through the first class cabin where people sit smugly sipping champagne as you wrestle your luggage and family past the curtains into steerage. “Someday,” we whisper to ourselves…..


A few years back I was flying from Chiang Mai, Thailand down to Bangkok, on the first leg of a journey back to Beijing following a teacher’s conference. I was already seated near the front of the economy section when I spotted some colleagues coming down the aisle with their 4 kids in tow. The youngest boy was bawling; you know the cry — the one that expresses deep sorrow and anguish.

When his mom saw me, she leaned over and said, “he just saw the first class seats and wants to sit there.”

“Don’t we all?” I replied.

This young guy was giving voice to how all of us felt but were unable to express because, well, adults don’t cry and throw fits when we can’t sit in first class.

Well, most adults don’t. Apparently one woman in Chengdu last week seems to have missed out on that fundamental life lesson. When the flight attendants denied her request to pay money on board to upgrade, she threw a temper tantrum; so much so that the pilot turned the taxiing plane around and headed back to the terminal.

It was met by police and the woman was escorted off. I’m guessing that she’ll be added to China’s infamous list of people banned from flying for bad behavior.