Friday Photo: Recycled Bus

I never tire of this photo, snapped in rural Henan Province, probably in 1984 or 1985. Someone had taken an old bus and turned it into a small shop. It was a common sight at the time.

A one-stop shop for cigarettes, sodas, and candy.

Reading Assignment: Sky City

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.

Related Posts:

From Lucky Street to Vivid Town

An Outrageous Mountain Villa

Image credit: Roads and Kingdoms

Another Buckeye Bell

Awhile back I attended a concert of the Eric Whitacre Singers at the Cathedral of St. Paul. During the intermission, I joined a long line waiting to enter the restroom.

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.

Related Posts: 

A Tale of Two Bells

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Church and State

A Tribute to My Father, 2018

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.


Read more posts about my dad:

Pittman Hall

Pinch and a Punch

Happy Birthday, Dad

It was Chicken! It was Chicken! 


Evacuation, Part 2

One More Photo

Karachi Memories

2017 Reading: American Stories

In looking over the books I read in 2017, it’s apparent that I somehow got on a kick of reading books that told stories about the history of the United States.

Maybe it had something to do with the four 1000+ mile road trips across the country that I took. At any rate, if you too are interested in American stories, I think you’ll enjoy these 7 books (hopefully as much as I did):

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World, by Robert D. Kaplan

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World

I think this book would have to be at the top of a list of best books I read last year. It’s the story of the growth and development of the western US, and the crucial role that geography plays. It was particularly meaningful to read (listen, actually) to this book while driving west toward and over the Rockies in April. In fact, I liked this book so much that when I got home I ordered the physical book so I could re-read it and take notes. I admit it; I am a geography nerd!

Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission, by Brett Baier

Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission

Baier tells the story of Eisenhower and his presidency through an analysis of the final speech he gave to the nation before the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John M. Barry

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

This is the stuff of nightmares, with descriptions of bodies piled in the streets of eastern cities. It’s a bit heavy on medical details, but push through all that and the story is riveting.

Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out, by Annette Atkins

Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out

Just trying to learn more about the history of my home state!

Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, by Paul Teroux

Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads

I read (listened to) this after returning from our southern road trip in November. It’s typical Theroux — lots of stories and wordy descriptions. But an interesting look at the uniqueness of southern culture.

How the Post Office Created America: A History, by Winifred Gallagher

How the Post Office Created America: A History

It may be fashionable to malign the post office these days, but it played a significant role in the history of the nation. As they say, “who knew?”

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America, by Andrew Ferguson

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America

Ferguson, in a way that will make you chuckle, writes about the quirky sub-culture of Lincoln buffs. My favorite was his story of attending a national convention of Abe “presenters,” people who make a living (or try to) giving speeches “as” Abe Lincoln, one of whom was short, fat, and bald!

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Road Trip Reading

Three China Stories

One of the things I do as part of my “day job” is to produce a weekly online newsletter with curated news stories from China. I usually include a few dozen stories, but there are always a few that, for some reason, stand out.

Here are three news stories out of China that caught my attention this week:

NPR journalist Rob Schmitz travelled to Sichuan Province to report on a property developer who was so moved by the movie Titanic that he decided to build a life-size replica in his small, land-locked city:

A lot of questions spring to mind on arriving at the construction site for a full-scale Chinese replica of the Titanic: Why is this being built in the remote countryside, 1,000 miles from the sea? Why is this being built? And simply: Why?

The question that comes to my mind is, why not?

The New Yorker has an excellent photo essay about China’s so-called “Belt and Road” initiative to invest in infrastructure development from China to Europe, along a new “Silk Road.” It already includes a rail line that carries goods from China to London.

If bridges, pipelines, and railroads are the arteries of the modern world, then China is positioning itself as the beating heart. […] Like most Chinese official-speak, the phrase “Belt and Road” obscures more than it clarifies: the “belt” will be composed of land routes running from China to Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Middle East; the “road” refers to shipping lanes connecting China to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In the fall, the photographer Davide Monteleone traced stretches of one of the land routes, travelling from Yiwu, in the southeastern province of Zhejiang, to Khorgos, home to one of the world’s largest dry ports, and to Aktau, in Kazakhstan, on the Caspian Sea.

The photos are amazing!

Unfortunately, China is known as a place where anything and everything can be faked, from buildings to boots, from milk to money. Now comes word from the Chinese site Sixth Tone of restaurants in Hebei Province serving up fake donkey burgers:

Restaurants in a Chinese city known as the “hometown of donkey burgers” might not have been dishing up what it advertised, as a recent investigative report found that cheaper meat from mules, horses, and pigs was frequently being used instead. […]  Several people involved in the fake donkey meat trade said that demand for the genuine article has grown rapidly in recent years, leading to price hikes so large that some vendors in Hejian have instead turned to mule and horse meat — often imported frozen from overseas — and even pork.

Yes, you read that right: there is a HIGH demand for donkey meat. It’s a delicacy in north China, particularly in Hebei Province. I wrote about the popularity of donkey burgers in a post way back in 2006:

There’s a new culinary sensation sweeping the masses of Beijing lately—Donkey Burgers.   They are not burgers as you or I may conceive of them–a meat patty on a bun.  Rather, Beijing donkey burgers are BBQ donkey meat inside something that is very much like pocket bread.  There’s a small restaurant near where I work that specializes in them.

Today, while eating there, I noticed a sign on the wall–a poem of sorts– that I’d never seen before, extolling the virtures of donkey burgers.

It said, “xiang changshou, chi lurou; yao jiankang, he lu tang.”

Translated, it means:  “If you want to live a long life, eat donkey meat; if you want to be healthy, drink donkey soup.”

I’ve recently taken to trying to find out how widespread the love of donkey-meat is, so have been doing informal polls among my Chinese friends. The results: those from the north or northeast of the country are aware of the culinary value of donkeys, and those from the south turn up their noses. (But, keep in mind, folks from the south eat all manner of other strange creatures like civit cats!). One friend from the northeast even went so far as to quote a famous saying about donkey meat: Tianshang longrou; Dixia lurou. (In heaven there is dragon meat; on earth there is donkey meat.

Well, as clever as the sign and poem are, I still haven’t been able to bring myself to try a donkey burger!  Sorry folks, my loyalties are with Culvers!!!

Related posts:

Moon Cakes or Donkey Meat?

Donkey Burgers