Life in a Nail Neighborhood

Perhaps you have heard of nail houses in China–dwellings whose owners have refused to move in defiance of demolition orders. As Chinese cities continue to expand, they are swallowing up villages and land in the countryside.

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The Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog recently published a photo series documenting a nail neighborhood in Shanghai. In this case it isn’t just one homeowner that has refused to move — it’s an entire neighborhood.

Go here to see all of the fascinating pictures.

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Why Are They Lining Up?

In what has to be one of the most fascinating lenses through which to observe history and societal change, this short film chronicles recent Chinese history by looking at the different things Chinese people have lined up for over the years. It was posted to the BBC website under the title “China’s History as Told Through Its Unbelievable Queues.” Here’s what the photographer has to say about the queues:

“Times have changed. Lives have changed. The reasons people queue have also changed. We are a huge country — 1.3 billion people — the biggest in the world. There will always be queues here; the reasons will be different. Who knows what we will be queueing for next?”

(email readers: go here to see the video)

My most common experience with queues in China was on Sunday mornings, standing in line to get into church. People would begin lining up 30-45 minutes in advance to be sure to get a seat inside the sanctuary as opposed to the overflow room or stools in the courtyard.

And the most amazing queue I saw was on Christmas Eve, 2009, outside Gangwashi  Church in Beijing. The church had Christmas Eve services scheduled every hour from 5pm to 11pm. Those wanting to attend had to line up.

When the sanctuary was full, the would close the gates to the church courtyard and those still in line would have to wait until the next service. I talked to one lady in line and asked her how long she’d been waiting.

“An hour and half,” she said happily, despite the bitter cold.

Behind her the queue wound its way down the block and around the corner.

What was most interesting, though, was the police presence — not to prevent people from getting into church, but to make sure everything was safe and orderly so that people could get in.

I just wish the photographer had included church queues in his film.

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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.

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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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8 Things I Love About the USA

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.

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“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:

cookingham

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