The People’s Republic of No

The Chinese Communist Party is coming to town next week for their big Congress, at which the next generation of leaders will be “elected” and announced. Because the word has gone out from on high that nothing unexpected or “un-harmonious” is to happen in Beijing, the local authorities are doing what they do best in these situations: banning ordinary activities.

According to this article in the Los Angeles Times, here are some of the things that we can’t do in Beijing for the next few weeks:

  • watch foreign TV while exercising in a health club
  • do homework online
  • buy lunch from a food cart
  • run in a marathon
  • buy a knife in a supermarket

Here’s a bit more background:

Mao Tse-tung once said revolution is not a dinner party, but the party congress scheduled to begin Nov. 8 — during which a new Chinese leadership will be anointed — isn’t looking like much fun, either.

Since last month, in the name of security, Chinese authorities have turned to various baffling regulations that are snuffing much of the life out of Beijing, and police have increased their presence to keep the capital’s streets free of problems. As a result, many residents are finding the country’s political event of the decade to be nothing more than a colossal inconvenience.

Countless public events — cultural, sporting and business — have been canceled or postponed with no explanation and scant notice.

Last I checked, though, we could still buy large drinks at MacDonalds and KFC, which is more than can be said for New York City.


Chinese Bumper Stickers [2]

My post last week about Chinese bumper stickers was quite the hit. Here’s this week’s installment for you:




Until next week….

Going to Tianjin? Do This!

I zipped down to Tianjin this afternoon on the bullet train to take part in walking tour of the old city, conducted by Doug Red, of Asia Walking Tours.

We started out near the Kiessling, an historic German bakery, then spent the next two hours wandering around the old British and French Concessions. Doug’s knowledge of of the city’s history is vast and his love for it is deep, both of which were on display all afternoon.

He’s a great story-teller as well, so we all came away with a better understanding of the lives of some of Tianjin’s more famous residents: Herbert Hoover, Charles Gordon, Zhang Xue-liang, and Eric Lidell, to name just a few.

If you’re looking for something interesting to do in Tianjin sometime, I highly recommend contacting Doug at Asia Walking Tours.

Here are a few photos from the afternoon:

Herbert Hoover used to work in this building.

The Astor Hotel — the place to see and be seen back in the day.

No British colonial city would be complete without a Victoria Park, now called The Municipal Committee Park (yawn)

China’s first Post Office

The Back Seat of A Buick

This morning I was attending a conference of business leaders in China. One of the speakers was talking about the importance of ‘localizing’  products, and gave the example of Chinese-made Buicks.

“Sitting in the back seat of a Buick in China,” he said “is nothing like sitting in the back seat of a Buick in the US.”

“Because in China the owner of a Buick is most likely to sit in the back seat.”

A brilliant observation indeed!



Holy Trinity Church, Shanghai

This is one of my favorite photos from this weekend in Shanghai.  Holy Trinity Church, opened in 1869, was the cathedral church for the Anglican Diocese of North China. It continued to function as a church until being closed in 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution.

Unlike many other churches in Shanghai and all  over China, this one has yet to re-open. Over the past few years it has undergone major renovations, and was expected to open late last year. I’m not sure what the delay is, but hopefully it will open soon.

The Los Angeles Times did an excellent piece on the history of this church and the renovation project.It is titled “Red Church Rising.”

“Empire of the Sun,” J.G. Ballard’s atmospheric novel about his coming of age in China, opens on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Shanghai Cathedral choir boys are being marched to the crypt to watch newsreels of Royal Air Force fighter planes falling in flames to the English countryside.

The cathedral’s actual name was Holy Trinity, and Ballard, the son of expatriate Britons, attended the cathedral’s prestigious boys school.

Built in a Victorian Gothic style in the 1860s, Holy Trinity served for nearly eight decades as the spiritual home for colonialists who flocked to Shanghai after Britain’s victory in the Opium Wars opened the port to trade. With its stout pews, stained-glass windows and 2,500-pipe organ, the red-brick Anglican church provided a cloistered haven in an exotic, untamed place.

Along with the men-only Shanghai Club and racehorse owners’ Shanghai Race Club, “the cathedral was a central feature of British life in a faraway land,” said Peter Hibbard, a British expat and president of the Royal Asiatic Society China in Shanghai. Here in the Red Church, as many called it, babies were baptized, couples were married and parishioners were laid to rest in a homey refuge complete with manicured lawn, gargoyles and spire.

Now, after decades in the control of local politicians, during which it was revamped as a theater and meeting hall and later left to deteriorate, the cathedral is nearing the end of a painstaking renovation by a Chinese Protestant organization. Later this year, this historic church will reopen to what is expected to be a crush of worshipers once dozens of faux stained-glass plastic windows have been replaced with the real thing.

Under the Red Church’s watch, this tumultuous city has come full circle — from anything-goes capitalism to the birth of communism to war with Japan to the religion-crushing Cultural Revolution to, once again, unfettered commercialism and even a robust revival of Christianity.

As they say, please read the whole thing.



Shanghai Books

It’s always a treat to spend time in Shanghai soaking up the history that emanates from the streets and buildings of this city. As is always the case, I find myself wanting to read every book I can get my hand on about Shanghai.

In case you’re interested in learning more about Shanghai, here are some books you can start with (with their Amazon descriptions):



The Distant Land of My Father: A Novel About Shanghai, by Bo Caldwell

Anna, the narrator of this riveting first novel, lives in a storybook world: exotic pre- World War II Shanghai, with handsome young parents, wealth, and comfort. Her father, the son of missionaries, leads a charmed and secretive life, though his greatest joy is sharing his beloved city with his only daughter. Yet when Anna and her mother flee Japanese-occupied Shanghai to return to California, he stays behind, believing his connections and a little bit of luck will keep him safe. Through Anna’s memories and her father’s journals we learn of his fall from charismatic millionaire to tortured prisoner, in a story of betrayal and reconciliation that spans two continents. The Distant Land of My Father, a breathtaking and richly lyrical debut, unfolds to reveal an enduring family love through tragic circumstances.

Note: this is one of my all time favorite books.

Shanghai Girls: A Novel, by Lisa See

In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai girls.

Life and Death in Shanghai, by Cheng Nian

Cheng’s widely acclaimed book recounts in compelling specifics her persecution and imprisonment at the hands of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976). Inquisitors accused her of being a “spy” and “imperialist,” but during the harrowing years of solitary confinement she never gave in, never confessed a lie. We read this, not so much for historical analysis, but, like the literature of the Gulag in Russia, for an example of a humane spirit telling terrible truths honestly, without bitterness or cynicism.

Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard

Jim is separated from his parents in a world at war. To survive, he must find a strength greater than all the events that surround him. Shanghai, 1941 — a city aflame from the fateful torch of Pearl Harbor. In streets full of chaos and corpses, a young British boy searches in vain for his parents. Imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp, he is witness to the fierce white flash of Nagasaki, as the bomb bellows the end of the war…and the dawn of a blighted world.Ballard’s enduring novel of war and deprivation, internment camps and death marches, and starvation and survival is an honest coming-of-age tale set in a world thrown utterly out of joint.

(This book was also made into a movie of the same name by Steven Spielberg)

What good books about Shanghai (then or now) would you add to this list? Leave your suggestions in a comment below.

Also….to read about our morning at the Mo En Christian Church in Shanghai, please see Amy’s post “I Knew You Were Crying!” she exclaimed. It pretty much says it all.

Three French Bells

A few weeks ago, two fellow intrepid bell hunters and I found ourselves in the bell tower of the Xishiku Catholic Cathedral (originally called Church of the Savior) in Beijing. It was originally established by the Jesuits in 1703, but this structure dates to 1890.

Actually, there are two towers. In one of the towers, we found a French bell that was cast in Toulouse in 1867. Then we climbed through the crawl space between ceiling of the sanctuary and the roof to the other tower and found an even larger bell that was cast in 1900.

Earlier in the day we had been to the Bell Museum in Beijing because we had heard that the bell from this church was actually on display at the museum. We found a bell that was labeled as having been an French Church, took a bunch of pictures, then headed to Xishiku to see if they could identify the bell in these photos as being theirs.

When we arrived at the cathedral, the nice lady at the gate told us we needed to speak to the priest, and took us to his office.

Now, imagine his surprise when 3 wacky women (2 foreign, 1 Chinese) walked into his office and started babbling about bells. We showed him the pictures we’d taken of the bell in the museum and asked if he could confirm if it was from his church. He didn’t know because he had never seen it.

“But there are  still 2 bells up in the tower,” he told us.

Wait! What? There are more bells than the one in the museum?

“Yes,” he said. “They only took one of the bells to the museum, but we still have the other two.”

As you can imagine, that’s all we needed to hear for my Chinese friend to go into her “I will smile and ask him if we can go up into the towers until I wear him down” routine. After a few minutes, he relented and directed a young assistance to take us up into the tower.

In the east tower we found a bell from France that was cast in 1867.  What was most exciting to us was that it was obviously a twin to the bell we had seen in the museum. The young man told us that the museum had taken one of the two bells that had hung in this tower, even pointing us to where it used to hang.  This confirmed to us that the bell we had seen was the one from this tower.

From there we crawled over to the west tower to see the other bell. This one was much larger andhad  the date 1900 on it. Interestingly, it also said “PEKING” so it was most likely made specifically for this church.

We found out that none of the bells had been taken or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The one at the museum had been taken later.

We are in Shanghai this weekend, with a list of 6 churches to visit. Our first stop this afternoon was a smashing success. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until next week to hear all about it!

If you’re new to this blog, and wondering what in the world these bell stories are all about, please see the following related posts:

A Tale of Two Bells

A Catholic Bell in Tianjin

A Russian Bell in Harbin


Living Well Where You Don’t Belong (Full Version)

Last month I wrote a guest post for the blog “Communicating Across Boundaries” on living well where you don’t belong. At the same time, I posted an abbreviated version here.

Here is the full version that went up on the other blog:

I have spent most of my life overseas, that is, not in my “passport country.” I am an American, but I spent the first 14 years of my life in Pakistan, where my father was a professor and pastor, and have spent the past 28 years living and working in China. This means that I have lots of practice in living where I don’t belong.

“Belonging” of course has multiple layers of meanings. One is purely internal, referring to how I feel about my place in whatever space I find myself in. Do or can I FEEL like I belong somewhere, regardless of the circumstances or living conditions?

Another aspect of ‘belonging,’ however, is external – how do the local residents view me? Do or can they view me as belonging, or will they always consider me an outsider who doesn’t really belong here.

What does it look like to live well where I belong, and to live well where I don’t belong? Here are 8 tips that I have found to be helpful over the years:

1.  Cultivate a tolerance of ambiguity. According to, ambiguity is defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” which is just another way of saying you don’t know what the heck is going on. As those of you who live (or have lived) cross-culturally know, this is permanent state of affairs, as you grapple with a language that is different, customs that seem strange, and social systems that are often opaque. Those with a low level of ambiguity tolerance may experience more culture stress than those who can say (honestly) “I don’t have a clue what’s going on around me, and that’s fine.”

2.  Remember that the burden of change is on you, not on the locals. The locals have been doing things their way for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and they aren’t going to change just because you showed up, not matter how noble your reasons for being there.

3.  View everything as a privilege, not an entitlement. The American sense of entitlement is strong, and often not helpful when living cross-culturally. It is true that we have many rights for which we should be thankful, but we need to keep in mind that they are not automatically transportable. In China, for example, I am not entitled to speak freely on any topic anywhere or form some kind of assembly or social organization. But in many ways, those are the easier things to deal with. What is harder is to remember that I am not entitled to the level of convenience and efficiency that I am used to ‘back home.’ If we can leave behind our sense of entitlement, we are then free to view everything (whether they bring joy or annoyance) as a privilege.

4.  Don’t take yourself too seriously. Maintain your sense of humor. Look for the humor in everyday life, remembering that YOU are often the main source.  You will find yourself in many funny and perhaps embarrassing situations. Go ahead and laugh about it. Laughing beats fretting every time. One of my former colleagues in China used to say that he was convinced that the main role of a foreigner in this society was to provide entertainment to the locals. I think he was right.

5.  View cultural mistakes as learning opportunities.  It’s important to remember that if you are living cross-culturally, you WILL make cultural mistakes. Fortunately cultural mistakes are not fatal, unless of course the cultural mistake you make is not crossing the street properly. In most cases, locals are very gracious towards foreign sojourners in their midst who are making obvious attempts at learning the language and culture.

6.  Limit yourself to one “why” question per day.  One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) “WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?” Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one “why” question per day.

7.  Be prepared to adjust /modify your own behaviors. In his book “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” Craig Storti suggests that cultural adjustment is really adjusting to two things: to new behaviors of the locals that annoy, confuse, and unsettle us, and adjusting or weeding out those behaviors that we have that confuse and annoy the locals. Truth be told, that’s the harder adjustment sometimes.

8.  Strive to be an ‘acceptable outsider.’  I live in China, which is an insider/outsider culture. There are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners, and they are as mutually exclusive as Jew and Gentile. There is nothing I can ever do to be considered an insider in Chinese culture.  The best I can become is an acceptable outsider, one who is active in learning the language and culture and taking steps to gain access to the world of the insiders. It also means that I try not to settle for not being offensive; rather I make it my goal to be polite. Sometimes I even succeed! In my case part of ‘belonging’ means coming to terms with my permanent outsider status.

What tips would you add?

If you’re visiting this site for the first time, ‘warmly welcome’ (as we say in China) to subscribe via email or RSS.