Homesick for Manchuria

Since I lived in Beijing for the last 15 years of my time in China, it’s not often that I get nostalgic for Changchun, the city in Northeast China that was my home for most of the 90s. Recently I found myself thinking of my time there and the experiences I had. I am, dare I say, homesick for Manchuria.

I blame (well, give credit to, really) Michael Meyer and his book In “Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.”

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China

Here’s the description from Amazon:

For three years, Meyer rented a home in the rice-farming community of Wasteland, hometown to his wife’s family. Their personal saga mirrors the tremendous change most of rural China is undergoing, in the form of a privately held rice company that has built new roads, introduced organic farming, and constructed high-rise apartments into which farmers can move in exchange for their land rights. Once a commune, Wasteland is now a company town, a phenomenon happening across China that Meyer documents for the first time; indeed, not since Pearl Buck wrote The Good Earth has anyone brought rural China to life as Meyer has here.

Amplifying the story of family and Wasteland, Meyer takes us on a journey across Manchuria’s past, a history that explains much about contemporary China–from the fall of the last emperor to Japanese occupation and Communist victory. Through vivid local characters, Meyer illuminates the remnants of the imperial Willow Palisade, Russian and Japanese colonial cities and railways, and the POW camp into which a young American sergeant parachuted to free survivors of the Bataan Death March.

I particularly enjoyed his forays into the history of Manchuria, a place that most in the west have never heard about. Derived from the Chinese word Manzu (满族), which refers to the Man people group, Manchuria as a “nation” was a puppet state established by the Japanese during their occupation of the territory during World War II. Today the region is known simply as Dongbei (东北) – the Northeast.

Meyer (who, I might add, is a fellow Minnesotan) captures so well the sights and sounds of the region that I had begun to fade: wide-open spaces; the uniqueness of the northeast dialect; the blunt communication style, and glimpses of history at every turn.

If you have lived Dongbei, are planning to live in Dongbei, or perhaps simply know someone who does, this book is a must-read!

(Note: this post was originally published at ChinaSource)

Related Posts:

The Great Manchurian Scarf Incident

Manchurian Catholics

Night Train to Manchuria


Handover Day

On this day in 1997, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereingty after being a British colony for 99 years. The negotiations for the handover and begun back in the 1980’s when Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiao-ping were in power in their respective nations. Those negotiations culminated in a lavish handover ceremony in Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.

Jiang Zemin shakes hands with Charles, Prince of Wales at the handover ceremony for Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, at midnight of 30 June 1997.

(Source: SCMP)

To commemorate the occasion, I’m reposting a blog I wrote a couple of years back about the confusing relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland China. It is titled Hong Kong, China. Really? 

Way back in 1997 I was the director of a Chinese language program at a major university in Changchun. As the semester was coming to an end, one of the students (they were all Americans) let me know that he needed to go to Hong Kong at the end of June.

This was back in the days before multiple entry visas, so every time we planned to leave the country, we had to obtain exit and re-entry visas before we left. (As you can imagine, this made emergency departures for medical or personal reasons quite challenging!)

The tricky thing in this student’s case was that he was going to Hong Kong the last week of June, and would be returning to Changchun mid-July. During his time in Hong Kong, the city was due to be “handed over” to China after 99 years of British colonial rule.

The fact that Hong Kong was reverting to Chinese sovereignty was a matter of great pride in China, and we had been bombarded with slogans and propaganda about  Hong Kong’s “return to the Motherland” for months and months.  Let’s just say the Communist Party was milking this one for all it was worth!

As for the student, clearly, he was leaving China in June, but would he be ‘returning’ to China in July. If Hong Kong was to become a part of China on July 1, wouldn’t he then already be in China? And if he was, by virtue of the July 1 handover in China, would he need a visa to return to Changchun?

It was a great question, and one that I had no idea how to answer, so off we went to the foreign student office to see what they would have to say about the matter. Since they were the ones who handled visa paperwork, surely they would know.

I handed the passport to Mr. Y. and explained that Mr. G. was going to Hong Kong, so would need an exit visa. “But when he returns in July,” I said, “Hong Kong will be a part of China….so will he need a re-entry visa?”

My question stumped Mr. Y, so he decided to call the local Public Security Bureau, which was in charge of actually issuing visas. The conversation went something like this:

Mr. Y: I have an American in my office who will go to Hong Kong at the end of June, but return to China mid-July. Will he need a re-entry visa?

Mr. Policeman (he was on the other end of the phone, but Mr. G and I could hear him clearly): Of course. Why wouldn’t he need a visa?

Mr. Y: Because by that time Hong Kong will have returned to the Motherland.

We could “hear” silence on the other end of the line as the absurdity of the situation began to dawn on Mr. Policeman. Then he began laughing hysterically, and soon we were all laughing hysterically!

After a few minutes, we regained our composure and waited for Mr. Policeman’s response.

Mr. Policeman: That’s true, but he will still need a visa to return.

And so it is — Hong Kong is a part of China, but it isn’t. Flying from Beijing to Hong Kong is considered an international flight, and thus requires a passport — even for Chinese. And a foreigner wanting to travel from Hong Kong to China must get a visa. But remember, it’s a part of China.

Are you confused? Never fear; this short video explains it all! (email readers: go here.)

And now you know why “Is Hong Kong a part of China?” is a tricky question.

Related Posts:

Friday Photo: Descending into Hong Kong

East and West and Hong Kong

I (Heart) Hong Kong

Chungking Mansions: A Global Village

When the Media Come Calling

Here’s a pro tip for those of you living in China or planning to travel there. If you are approached by a member of the Chinese media (either national or local) and asked to give an interview or just answer some “quick” questions, JUST.SAY.NO!

I was reminded of that when I saw this cringe-worthy video that was making its way around the inter-webs last week. The Wall Street Journal posted the video under the headline, Xi Dada, So Cute: What Foreigners Think of China’s Leader (According to the People’s Daily).

I think a more accurate headline would have been What the Chinese Media Wants Chinese People to Think Foreigners Think about President Xi.

Now, some of the students featured in the piece are crying foul, claiming that they were duped; that they didn’t know they were going to be featured in a Party propaganda film; that the question about President Xi was just one of many that were asked.

To which I find myself responding, “but of course!”

I tend not to trust journalists in general, but even less so journalists in China. Maybe that’s because I’ve had my fair share of being duped as well (call me a slow learner).

Once when I was living in Changchun (in the 1990’s) the head of the foreign student department told me that a journalist from a local newspaper was in his office and wanted to interview a foreign student. Would I be willing? Knowing that Mr. Y. would probably lose face (who knows what promises had been exchanged between them), and against my better judgement, I agreed.

The reporter told me that he was doing a story about the life of a foreign student in Changchun. He asked me questions about my studies, how I liked the city, and how I was treated by people in town. I answered them politely and accurately, telling him that I was thoroughly enjoying my life in Changchun and that the people were great.

Apparently, that wasn’t good enough, though, because when the article was published in the paper the following week, the reporter told specific stories of my experiences in the city, which were obviously made up! That’s not to say they couldn’t have happened; they just hadn’t. Except for my name, where I was from, and what I was studying, the rest of the article “about me” was a complete work of fiction!

Obviously his assignment had been to tell a story that confirmed what the media wanted the Chinese people to think about what foreigners thought about the city.

Mission accomplished!

And who could forget the other time I made it into the Changchun newspaper for engaging in a decidedly “non-foreigner” type of activity: buying a couch!

So remember, folks; if the media come calling, just say no!


Friday Photo: VIP Section

Nine years ago this weekend I travelled from Beijing to Changchun in order to attend the 60th anniversary of the founding of Northeast Normal University. The organization I worked for has a relationship with that school and had been invited to send a delegate. I was thrilled for the privilege to be the official representative because, ten years previous, I had directed our language program at the university.

Attending the event meant not just sitting through ceremonies, meetings, and banquets, but also getting to see old friends and colleagues as well.

The official ceremonies were held in the giant auditorium on campus, and I was given a special seat in the VIP section next to a former president and party secretary (who were also “old friends”). This was the view from my VIP seat in the auditorium;

changchun vip

Related Posts:

The Corner of Stalin and Freedom

Changchun Railway Station

A Foreign Face

When I was living in Changchun in the 1990’s it was common to field requests to be “token foreigners” at various events or productions. Changchun is home to one of China’s largest film studios so whenever a director was in need of a foreign face for a film, he/she would call up the Foreign Student Office at Northeast Normal University and ask to borrow some foreigners.

Sometimes the officials in that office would ask us; other times they would announce that we were being taken on an outing and haul us off to the studio. Of course we never got paid; were told that it was a good opportunity to practice our Chinese. Mostly we sat around all day, drinking tea and talking amongst ourselves.

One year another student and I, a young man from Ghana, were asked to appear in a local television commercial for some kind of medicine. We spent all day mastering the phrase “[name of medicine], hao yao!” (good medicine). We had to say it in a certain rhythm, in unison, with big smiles on our faces. For some reason, it took hours for us to deliver the lines just as the director wanted us to.

As we were leaving the studio, I belatedly said to my co-star, “I suppose we should have asked what the medicine was. With my luck we have just been featured in an advertisement for birth control!”

A couple of weeks later a Chinese friend called and excitedly told me that she’d seen the ad on TV.

“What kind of medicine was it advertising?” I asked, somewhat nervously.

“Cold medicine,” she replied.

Whew! Another linguistic bullet dodged!

I thought of all that when I saw this short New York Times documentary titled “Rent-a-Foreigner in China.” It’s about a housing development in Chongqing that uses “rented” foreigners to attract customers.

“Once you put a foreigner out there, everything changes.”

That’s right. For some reason a foreign presence gives face, a truth that I think we foreigners may never understand.

Happy Father’s Day

Even though my dad has been gone for 13+ years now, I still miss him and think about him EVERY DAY, especially on Father’s Day! Here he is enjoying some delicious food at the Roast Meat Shop ( a Korean BBQ) in Changchun, 1994.


Push Push, Pull Pull

As anyone who’s lived in China can attest, getting things done can often be difficult — certainly more difficult than WE think it should be. But getting things done can also be difficult for Chinese people; they even have special term: tuotuo lala (拖拖拉拉), which is literally translated as “push push pull pull.”

push push pull pull

I had a tuotuo lala experience in Minnesota last week. My computer suddenly decided that it no longer wanted to communicate with my wireless network at home — no way no how was it going to connect. It took four long phone conversations with perky (yet mildly annoying) customer service reps at Comcast and Apple to solve the problem.

Somehow, at the end of the day, I managed to get through to a technician at Comcast who said “Oh, I know the problem. That’s easy to fix.” He pushed some buttons and said something about “channel 11″ and I was back in business.”

“Why couldn’t someone have put me through to you or someone in your department right from the get-go?” I whined.

“Yeah, that would have been a good idea,” he chuckled!

It reminded me of one of my all-time favorite tuotuo lala experiences in China — getting cable TV hooked up in my apartment in Changchun in 1998. Shortly before Thanksgiving (1997) I decided that I needed to get cable TV. Although I didn’t watch much TV, I was getting tired of not being able to receive China’s main TV station. You know the one I’m talking about — the one that has the nightly weather report and the weather map with flying clouds and smiling suns and sappy music. Cable TV will give me that station and, of course, much more!

Besides, my Chinese level was such that  I could actually understand some things, and there were many shows I could tape to use in my language learning.

So, in the name of language development Catherine (my friend and tutor) and I set off to get me some cable TV!

We arrived at the downtown office of the Changchun Cable TV Company just as it was closing for the afternoon — at 2:45PM!  We begged and pleaded with them to let us be the last ones to register for the day, but they could not be swayed. Come back tomorrow was the answer.

After some serious sucking of teeth and explaining that we had no time to come all the way back downtown tomorrow, they finally relinquished the information that, instead of registering there, we could go to a certain post office near my place and register.

we set out the next day and found the post office right away. Amazingly, it turned out to be a fairly easy process — fill out some forms, pay the money, and wait for the cable guys to show up. We asked when that might be and they assured me it would be sometime in December.

By January 6, there was still no sign of the cable guys. I was scheduled to leave town the following week, so was anxious that this be taken care of before I departed.

When Catherine came over that day, we decided to make it our mission to find out what was going on and when I might expect to see the cable guys.

We tried calling, but to no avail. We suspected that answering phones on Wednesday afternoons had been banned.

Not having any luck with the phone, we decided to go back to the post office where we had paid. When we got there, they of course said their only part in the whole process was collecting the money. We had to go directly to the installation office.

And where, pray tell is that?

At the Old Cadre’s Activity Center!

Off we go again!

Unfortunately, when we got there, we found out that we were at the wrong Old Cadre’s Activity Center. This was the Jilin Province Old Cadres Activity Center; we needed to be at the Changchun City Old Cadres Activity Center.

And where, pray tell, might that be?

They didn’t know.

“Go to the Jilin Province TV Station down the road. They will be able to help you.”

Off we go again!

The folks at the Jilin Province TV station were quite annoyed with us because they said we needed to be at the Changchun City TV Station. Fortunately, this time they could tell us where the place was.

Off we went again!

Sure enough, right there on the grounds of the Changchun City Old Cadre’s Activity Center was the cable TV office. Go figure.

Once in the building, we had to do a bit of hunting to find the right office, but in the end, we were successful. It was one of those typical Chinese government offices–a thick blue haze hanging in the air over 4 totally empty desks around which stood 6 people doing absolutely nothing more than contributing to the blue haze.

The woman sitting at the desk glared at us as if we had a sign over our heads that declared, “We are here to annoy you,” and sort of hissed at us.

For some reason I decided to hang back and not reveal the fact that I was a human foreigner, which is to say a foreigner who speaks Chinese. That piece of information is often best held as a trump card to be played when absolutely needed.

Catherine explained the situation; that I had paid, waited, was leaving soon, and wanted to know when my cable would be hooked up.

More scowling, more hissing; then the evil woman passed the papers to another smoker on the other side of the desk. Lots of chatter, nothing said. Finally the guy told Catherine to tell the foreigner that they’d come tomorrow.

It was time to make my move.

“But I won’t be home tomorrow afternoon.”

I watched as the words floated out and joined the blue smoke hanging in the air.

That got everyone’s attention. Whoah!! This barbarian can talk!!! A few scowls turned to smiles.

“Why not come on Friday afternoon,” I said, “I promise I’ll be home on Friday afternoon.”

“Well, you’ll have to call me tomorrow, then,” he said.

“But we called all afternoon and couldn’t get through. That’s why we’re here! Besides, if you’re going to come Friday afternoon, why in the world do I need to call you tomorrow?” I queried.

“Because I might forget to come!”

“WELL DON’T FORGET TO COME; JUST DO IT,” I replied, quite sternly.

By this time all the smokers in the room were up in arms at the talking barbarian with the (sort of) blonde hair. They are loving every minute of it. Meanwhile, Catherine had faded into the background to watch the carnage!

After some more dickering about whether or not this guy was going to remember to come or not, I finally just blurted out, “I paid 400 kuai 6 weeks ago, and what do I have to show for it?”

And with that, the Barbarian showed her true colors. Not content to handle this in the usual indirect Chinese way (it was getting us nowhere), she went in for the kill and brought up MONEY!!!

Fortunately, that managed to put their faces on the line just enough to make them decide they needed to take care of me today.

So before we could say “how many channels will I have?”, Catherine and I found ourselves in the back of a blue exhaust-spitting three-wheeler careening down the ice-covered streets of Changchun, something that was even a first for Catherine! (Hey, you hang with foreigners long enough and you experience strange things!)

30 minutes later, I had a brand new hole in my house (they drilled through 2 feet of brick), and access to 20 new channels!

In all, we had made 3 trips to 5 different locations on 3 different days to find these guys and get the thing installed!

toutu lala. Push push, pull pull.



The Corner of Stalin and Freedom

In the 1990’s I studied and worked at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, Jilin Province. We always got a chuckle out of the fact that the school was located on the corner of Stalin and Freedom.

There wasn’t much on that corner — our university entrance, the Friendship Store, and some government offices. Today there is a MacDonald’s.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia asked China to change the names of streets and other locations around China that were named after Stalin and Lenin. Stalin Street became People’s Street (Renmin Dajie).

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have the same comedic value.

Stalin Street in 1990

I read with interest, then, this article in The Christian Science Monitor about a Russian Communist Party attempt to change the name of Volgagrad back to Stalingrad. They want the name permanently changed, but the city council has only agreed to change it for 6 days a year, to commemorate the battle of Stalingrad.

Russia’s Communist Party has submitted a petition to President Putin, signed by 50,000 people, asking for the name of Stalingrad to be permanently restored.


Volgograd’s city council, which is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, decreed the name change after receiving “numerous requests” from Stalingrad veterans, almost a thousand of whom still live in the region.


The city was renamed Volgograd in 1961, after then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tore the veil off the vast crimes committed against the Soviet people by Stalin’s secret police, including mass executions and the Gulag, a sprawling system of political prison camps that held millions of people at its peak.


The new name change will take effect for six days each year, all of them associated with key turning points in the war. The council decision says that the Stalin-era title “Hero City of Stalingrad” will be used as a “symbol officially in our speeches, reports, and while conducting public events.”


The battle for Stalingrad began in August 1942 and lasted six months, during which it turned the city’s name into a byword for total ruination. A staggering 2 million people died on both sides before the ragged remnants of the Axis forces surrendered on Feb. 2, 1943.

I’m guessing that no one, save the nutty foreigners who lived in Changchun in the 1990’s, as well as a few local old-timers, will be clamoring for a return of Stalin Street in Changchun.