Remembering the Earthquake

On May 12, 2008 the ground began to shake in Sichuan Province. By the time it stopped, nearly 100,000 people had lost their lives.

Anyone who was in China at the time can say where they were when they heard about it. I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the time, attending a conference. I was in a meeting with a dozen or so others (all from China), when someone came in and told us there were reports of an earthquake in Sichuan. Obviously we had no idea of the magnitude, but we stopped and prayed.

As the days unfolded, the horror of it all became clear. The numbers were staggering:

  • The quake measured 7.9 on the Richter scale.
  • 4/5 of the buildings in the affected area were flattened.
  • In some cases, entire villages and towns were destroyed.
  • 5,300 children died, most of them in collapsed school buildings.
  • 375,000 were injured from falling debris.
  • 200 relief workers died in landslides.
  • 130,000 soldiers and relief workers were deployed.
  • The estimated cost of the quake in economic terms was $86 billion.

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the earthquake, the mainland-based site Sixth Tone has published a collection of pictures in a post titled, 100 Photos That Shook China: Memories of the Wenchuan Earthquake.

They are, quite simply, astounding. I encourage you to take the time to view them.

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A Nation Mourns

Sichuan, Six Months Later

A Year Since the Ground Shook

A Sad Anniversary: The Wenchuan Earthquake

Image credit: Chris, via Flickr

The Fake Cars of Beijing

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!

And So It Begins

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:

It certainly is a new era in China, but one that has a decidedly “old era” feel to it.

 

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Chinese Propaganda Wall with Buddhist Characteristics

 

The 11th Foreigner

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.

Here’s how the The New York Times reported the story:

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!

I wasn’t; they let me in.

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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.

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Image credit: Roads and Kingdoms

Dancing Grandpa

One of the things I love (and miss) about China is the public dancing. While I only participated occasionally — joining grannies in fan dances when I lived in Changchun — seeing neighbors out dancing together in the evening or on weekends always brought a smile to my face. Men, women, young, old — everyone seems to get in the act. And if you don’t dance yourself, no problem; just sit back and watch!

Enter the dancing grandpa — a video clip of an elderly man and a young woman boogying down in a local park. Someone shot a video of their routine and now it has gone “viral.” If this video doesn’t make you smile this Monday morning, nothing will! (email readers, click here to see the video.)

There are so many things I love about this clip: grandpa wearing a Mao jacket; the girl with her baseball cap turned sideways; the Chines pop music; the people watching — all having a wonderful time.

I have long thought that if we, in the US, spent more time dancing with our friends and neighbors, we may be a less violent society.

Sometimes I really really miss China!

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image credit:

There’s More Than One Way to “Go Green”

In February of 2001, the International Olympic Committee made their final inspection visit to Beijing to see if the city would be up to hosting the 2008 Olympics. In preparation for that visit, the city got a major “spruce-up.” Office and apartment buildings that had been a dull gray since their construction decades before were painted bright colors. Well, three sides of the buildings were painted — only the ones that face the highways that the Committee members would travel on. Every surface of the city was scrubbed clean.

My personal favorite was the grass. During a stroll through Tiananmen Square I noticed that the newly installed grass was green. “Green grass in February?” I was puzzled. Upon closer inspection I discovered that the entire “lawn” had been spray-painted green.

I thought of that today when I read this post in the The Beijinger about the city’s current effort to “greenify” in the run-up to the Communist Party Congress that will be held next month. All the power boxes are being covered with fake vines:

As the British say, “BRILLIANT!”

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A Grassy Knoll

Photo: The Beijinger

Chinese Propaganda With Buddhist Characteristics

In the Beijing neighborhood that I stayed in last week, I noticed a wall covered with propaganda paintings (in the US, we might call them “public service announcements”). I’m always fascinated by these paintings and/or posters as they give a glimpse into what the leaders are concerned about and what the leaders think the people should be concerned about.

These propaganda paintings are typically done in the style of “socialist realism” — sturdy, square-jawed hero conquering whatever difficulty lies before them.

But these were different. In terms of color and style, they seemed to be evoking traditional Buddhist art instead of socialist realism. I know that the government has been on a campaign to promote traditional culture and cultural values; this was the first I had seen it reflected artistically in propaganda.

Here are a few examples:

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More on Slogans

Slogans That Changed China

Slogans That Probably Won’t Change China