On my last few visits to China, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon — the conversion of 3-wheeled motorcycles commonly used by the elderly and handicapped into what I can only describe as fake cars. Someone is making serious money converting these 3-wheeled motorcycles into vehicles that look like they want to be cars when they grow up.
Because they aren’t registered as cars, it seems that most traffic rules don’t apply to them. They can zip up and down the streets and/or sidewalks!
Here are some of the fake cars I spotted on the streets of Beijing earlier this month.
Next time you’re in China, keep your eyes peeled for the fake cars!
Last week, while making the trek to Tiananmen Square through multiple layers of security, I spotted this display in a souvenir shop:
The return of the exalted-political-leader-on-a-plate souvenir, something we haven’t seen for a very long time.
Two weeks ago, the current leader of China orchestrated a change in the constitution that will allow him to remain in power indefinitely. It seems that Deng Xiaoping’s attempts to move the Party away from indefinite rule by one powerful leader was only able to last for 30+ years.
Here is some more about the rise of Xi Jinping art and propaganda, from CNN:
A propaganda poster featuring Xi Jinping as a young Communist Party cadre adorns a wall in Liangjiahe Village, where the Chinese president spent seven years (1969-1975) during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution.
The portrait sits in the middle of Liangjiahe, where Xi spent his formative years living in cave homes and working as a young Communist Party cadre. It has since been transformed into a theme park of sorts, dedicated to enhancing a myth that paints Xi as a champion of the masses.
You can pay 60 yuan (about $10) for a tour guide to show you where Xi slept, the well he helped dig, and to hear stories about how selfless he was.
The cult-like adoration Xi has fostered is palpable here and shows how Xi’s past is being used to legitimize his future — a future that’s highly likely to see him rule China indefinitely after presidential term limits were removed from the constitution.
It certainly is a new era in China, but one that has a decidedly “old era” feel to it.
The National People’s Congress was meeting in Beijing for the past few weeks, and whenever that happens a new wave of silliness breaks out in the form of random (and mostly meaningless) “security measures,” ranging from bans on purchasing knives, flying kites, or rolling down the backseat windows of taxis.
The silliness seems to have reached a peak last weekend in Wudaokou, the university district of Beijing that is home to numerous expat watering holes. For some reason, a few establishments that cater to the large foreign student community suddenly announced that no more then 10 foreigners were allowed in at a time.
Wudaokou (pronounced woo-DOW-koh) is a small neighborhood in Beijing’s northwest bordered by several universities, including two of the country’s most prestigious, Tsinghua and Peking. They provide a steady stream of young Chinese and foreign customers to the bars and cafes on this block adjacent to a metro station.
At least two venues received the notice ordering the limit on foreign customers — a cafe and bar called Lush, and Pyro, a pizza bar, both owned by the same person. Although the restriction will be lifted after the congress ends next week, some fear the scrutiny will not.
Managers of the two bars, who would not comment for the record, hung the notices outside the entrances. Photos quickly appeared on social media, where they elicited outrage and disappointment.
That same weekend, I was in Beijing and happened to have an appointment to meet a friend at a cafe next door to Pyro Pizza. I must admit that as I opened the door, I was hoping that I would not be the 11th foreigner, and wondering what would happen if I were!
The day after Christmas I was in the Dinkytown area of Minneapolis, near the University of Minnesota to meet some friends for lunch at one of my favorite burger joints, Annie’s Parlour (best fries in town, by the way). As I was driving along 14th Ave looking for a place to park, a driver exited his parallel parking place right into the passenger side of my car, resulting in this:
As you can imagine, I was not happy. The good news is that the damage affected neither the running f the car nor the operation of the doors. Nor did the crash affect my enjoyment of my burger and fries!
Fortunately the driver, who was very apologetic, had insurance and admitted that it was his fault — he simply had not seen me. He promptly called his insurance company and we were off to the races. After his company confirmed with me their client’s version of events they helped me make an appointment with an auto body shop for an assessment.
Since this is the high season for fender-benders in Minnesota, I couldn’t get it in for a couple of weeks. I dropped her off on January 15, and then waited.
Later that week his insurance company called to tell me that their adjustor had inspected the car and declared it “totaled.” FOR A HOLE IN THE DOOR! I was stunned and not a little bit angry since the car is in great shape and the damage doesn’t affect its operation one bit! They said that the cost of repair was too high relative to the value of the car. But in my mind, they were seriously low-balling the value of a 2010 Toyota Rav4 with 127,000 miles on it.
But I didn’t want to sell them my car (which I knew they would turn around and sell for parts and make some good money). I wanted to keep the car. They offered me a cash settlement to keep the car, which means I would take the money and then pay for the repairs myself.
I went back to the auto body place and they said they could find used doors and repair the car for less than what they had quoted the insurance company. In fact, the rep told me, he had already found 2 red doors from a 2010 Rav4, so they wouldn’t even need to do any painting.
With that in mind, I negotiated an amount with the insurance company that would allow me to keep my car. It was less than the offer of them taking possession of the car, but a lot more than I could now get the car repaired for. I know there are some downsides (she’s a “marked” car), but I just couldn’t see junking her for that amount of damage.
My only goal in all of this was to save Big Red! I figure she has a couple more trips to Alaska or Newfoundland in her!
On Tuesday I picked her up from the shop; she looks fabulous!
But I’m still mad at the insurance company for trying to take my car from me!
Much has been written in recent years about China’s so-called ghost cities, urban areas that that are built, often in the middle of nowhere, in hopes of luring people and investment. Sometimes these new urban developments are built as replicas of famous European cities, complete with fake Eiffel Towers, windmills, and stone cathedrals. Since they are usually constructed faster than people can move into them, they do (initially) appear to be ghost cities. But what about 3 or 4 years later? Are they still empty or has “if you build it they will come” taken over?
One of my favorite sites, Roads and Kingdoms, has a wonderful story on a development project near Hangzhou called Sky City that tried to pass itself off as a mini-Europe. The author, who had visited the project years before went back to see how all the “duplitecture” (as he calls it) was faring.
Sky City became the poster child for other themed developments that had allegedly met the same fate: intended to house Chinese families in surroundings inspired by Orange County or Barcelona, these communities were said to have languished as ghost towns. An op-ed in the Global Times asserted, “These ‘fake cities’ are just so ridiculously similar to their Western originals that rather than anyone taking them seriously, they turned into residential amusement parks”—empty backdrops for wedding photos and tourist selfies.
Then again, overseas reporting on Chinese culture has a tendency to turn into a game of telephone. (That 2013 video of Sky City was in fact filmed in 2008 by artist Caspar Stracke.) When a documentary filmmaker who’d read my book Original Copies invited me to join him to revisit these duplitecture developments, some of which I hadn’t seen in years, I leapt at the chance to check in on them firsthand. Had they been abandoned? Remodeled? Razed to the ground? Liaoning’s Holland Village—which installed windmills, canals, and a double of the Hague on an area three times the size of Brooklyn’s Navy Yard—had been demolished 10 years after its construction. Sky City had just celebrated its 10thanniversary. This past May, I set out to see what I’d find.
It’s a fascinating look at how this attempt at recreating European culture has been “sinicized.” Where developers dreamt of bakeries and coffee shops and caviar-eating clientele, there are now noodle shops, tea houses and food stalls.
Sitting just outside the ladies room was this bell:
As you can well imagine, I am immediately drawn to church bells, so I gave it a close inspection. To my surprise and delight the inscription on it says “Buckeye Bell Foundry.” That’s the same foundry that produced the first bell I found in Sichuan that set me on my journey of researching church bells in China, and then eventually writing my book The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China.
On the wall above the bell was a small plaque with information about the bell:
The “Voice” of the Cathedral — Cast by G.W. Coffin Buckeye Bell Foundry, Cincinnati, Ohio–1850.
“Between 1915 and 1986 the Cathedral’s “voice” consisted of one bell, cast in Cincinnati in 1850. It had been given to Bishop Cretin by Louis Robert, and had hung in the second and third cathedrals, before being installed in the south tower of the present Mother Church.” (from Eric Hansen, The Cathedral of Sant Paul: An Architectural Biography)
If you’re ever in the Cathedral, be sure to head to the basement to check out the bell, and other interesting historical artifacts.
Seventeen years ago I watched the inauguration of President George W. Bush on an old TV in a hotel room on a beach in Thailand. The next morning, my mom called to tell me that my father had suffered a sudden heart attack and died. Within 24 hours I was on a plane bound for Minnesota. Below are the words that I spoke in farewell and tribute to my dad at his memorial service on January 25, 2001 in Roseville, MN. Standing before a crowd of 600 people to deliver these remarks was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The first part was written at 30,000 feet above the North Pacific Ocean as I flew back to Minnesota from Thailand.
Posting this on here is my annual tribute to him.
The call you dread and fear and never expect comes. It’s mom. “Joann, your father died this morning. Please come home as soon as you can. I need you.”
Like an arrow out of no-where, somewhere, it hits first the head, then the heart, and slowly the pain sinks into your bones.
One day you’re relaxing on the beach, washing off the stress of a difficult term, and 24 hours later you’re wandering in a daze around international airports—Phuket, Bangkok, Narita—all jammed with people, and yet feeling so incredibly alone.
The words keep shouting in your soul. “Joann, your father has died,” slamming against your bones and your organs and your skin like a bullet ricocheting around a steel cavern. You try to drive them away with polite conversation, with reading, with hymn-singing, hoping against hope that driving the words away will drive the reality away as well.
But then the words and reality force their way back and the pain starts again.
“Joann, your precious father stepped into glory this morning.”
“Joann, your wonderful father went home to be with his Savior.”
With every fiber of my being I believe these words, but don’t want to believe them at the same time. He was a precious father, but now he is lost in wonder, love and grace in the presence of Jesus.
Yet here at 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, I feel just plain lost.
Lost in sadness.
Lost in pain.
I know he’s with his Savior, but I want him here with us.
How will I get through the next ten hours on this plane? How will I bear to see my mom and sister and her family at the end of this long journey?
One hour at a time, one grace at a time.
“He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater; He giveth more strength as the labors increase. To added affliction, He addeth more more mercy; to multiplied sorrows, He multiplies peace.”
Then it hits me.
Despite the pain, I too am lost in love and grace. Sustaining grace.
John Piper describes it like this: “Not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this—the grace that orders our trouble and pain, and then in the darkness is there to sustain.”
Will the sadness and the tears and the pain ever go away?
Probably not. But then again, neither will the grace.
So, my beloved dad is gone. What to say?
The words that scream loudest from my soul are simply, “please come back.” I know he’s in a better placee, but I still want him back here. There are too many words and no words. But following are a few—just a few of the special things I remember about my dad.
He had a sense of humor. He loved to laugh and make others laugh, and he was never in danger of taking himself too seriously.
He was a servant. He would do anything for anybody anytime anyplace, from bringing coffee to my waking mom every morning to fixing church roofs to shoveling neighbor’s driveways.
He was humble. In a stuffy academic world, he was just himself.
He was generous. If there was a financial need, he gave. His giving to us seemed limitless and it gave him great joy.
He was compassionate. His heart was tender and easily broken by the pain and suffering in the world. Last month in Beijing, we visited a clothing market that the government was ready to close down. The peddlers were selling their goods at rock-bottom prices. In a crowd frenzied over the best bargain, he kept asking, “what will happen to these poor people?”
He loved Jesus. Quietly and simply, he ordered his life grounded in that love.
He was a wonderful father and I miss him so very much.
Perhaps the greatest tribute I can give will be when I come to the end of my days and people say of me, simply, “she was just like her father.”
Goodbye Dad. I love you and miss you more than words can express.