Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chinese cities you've never heard of, but should know - Part 5

The city featured in this installment isn't a city yet. It is a cluster of cities in southern China that will one day in the not-too-distant future be, at 42 million people, the largest city in the world.

From The Telegraph:

City planners in south China have laid out an ambitious plan to merge together the nine cities that lie around the Pearl River Delta.

The "Turn The Pearl River Delta Into One" scheme will create a 16,000 sq mile urban area that is 26 times larger geographically than Greater London, or twice the size of Wales.

The new mega-city will cover a large part of China's manufacturing heartland, stretching from Guangzhou to Shenzhen and including Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, Huizhou and Zhaoqing. Together, they account for nearly a tenth of the Chinese economy.

Over the next six years, around 150 major infrastructure projects will mesh the transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks of the nine cities together, at a cost of some 2 trillion yuan (£190 billion). An express rail line will also connect the hub with nearby Hong Kong.

"The idea is that when the cities are integrated, the residents can travel around freely and use the health care and other facilities in the different areas," said Ma Xiangming, the chief planner at the Guangdong Rural and Urban Planning Institute and a senior consultant on the project.

Read On
There's no doubt that there will be plenty of people willing to populate this new monstrosity. Tens of millions of people flock to Chinese cities every year. Everybody in China wants to get in on the new opportunities city life provides.

The audacity of this plan is startling. This project in southern China makes previous large infrastructure projects - the Panama Canal, the US interstate highway system, and even the Three Gorges Dam - seem like child's play. The logistics involved with creating such a vast "city" is on a totally different plane from previous man-made ventures.

Image of Shenzhen from Reuters

Reading this story today, I immediately thought of some of the words President Obama said last night in his State of the Union address. From near the end of his speech talking about the need for the US to become a more competitive nation:

We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit — none of this will be easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The costs. The details. The letter of every law.

Of course, some countries don't have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed. If they don't want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn't get written.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

The Entire Transcript
There's no question who these words were targeted towards. China is a challenge Obama has to deal with every day.

Obama spent last week schmoozing President Hu here in the US. He surely hears everyday from disgruntled voters out of work due to "jobs being shipped over to China." Forty-seven percent of Americans believe, incorrectly, that China's economy is the largest in the world.

I was moved by Obama's speech last night. I've seen many mock his "Sputnick-moment" rhetoric. I'm also not sure that the post-partisanship he's pushing for is going to last. But I appreciate the, to borrow a word I've already used in this post, audacity of what he said last night.

No matter what one thinks of Obama and his policies, he proved last night that he understands what has made the US what it is. His exhorting of innovation and ingenuity in the face of strong challenges from abroad was inspiring.

Is China's economy and world influence going to surpass the US in the coming decades? Most likely it will. Considering its population, it's not that surprising that it would. But even if it does, I think there's something to what Obama said in his speech.

China's economy can and will continue to boom. It will build cities and undertake projects that put America to shame. No matter how big it gets, though, China's citizenry is still not going to have basic rights that citizens of the US and other democracies enjoy. No amount of development or wealth creation will ever be able to make up for the basic freedoms denied in China.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011 Interview

An interview I had with David Perry at is on the front page of their website right now. You can read the whole thing here. We discuss photography, putting my book together, travel, and life in China as a foreigner. A lot of the photos from my book are featured as well.

Expressing the Orient is a prize for's Ctrip China Travel Photo Contest. Check out what the contest is all about and sign up if you have a nice collection of pictures from China. You might just win a free copy of my book!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Iron and Silk

Peter Hessler is one of the most popular writers on contemporary China. I've read all three of his books - Rivertown, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving - as well as several of his articles for the New Yorker and other various publications. I'm a huge fan of all of his work.

Last year, a fellow China blogger wrote a piece entitled - How Peter Hessler Ruined My Life. Here is the beginning of that article:
Peter Hessler, the American writer of bestselling Oracle Bones and River Town, has singlehandedly ruined my China life. I’ve never actually seen Peter Hessler in China, but I live everyday in his footsteps.

I’ve always had an adversarial jealously of Hessler, seeing as how he’s achieved the fame and success as a China writer with Princeton connections that I’d take in a moment. I’ve scoured his writings to find faults and thereby a basis for my rivalry, but I still have yet to come up with anything.

Living in China in the shadow of Peter Hessler is a bit like what a real-life Harry Potter would feel toward J.K. Rowling if Potter were an aspiring novelist and he one day discovered someone had beaten him to the punch—and made a tidy sum in the process. I suspect that nearly every Princeton in Asia fellow has a tinge of jealousy-based grudge-tinged-with-respect for Hessler.

To understand how Hessler has stolen my thunder, it’s necessary to understand one of the most essential benefits of choosing to live in China. That is you get to wrap yourself in the plush, velvety illusion that you’re the first one to experience all of the crazy aspects of China life.

Read On
I can relate a lot with what this blogger is talking about in his post. After I finish reading one of Hessler's books, I often think to myself the following kinds of things:
Why don't I keep up with all of the Chinese people who've passed through my life like Hessler did?
Why didn't I completely dedicate myself to learning Chinese at a more fluent level?
Why did I waste time watching pirated American TV show DVDs while in Xi'an when I could've been doing something productive?
I believe that this sort of reaction to Hessler's writing is natural. One of the most amazing aspects of living in China (or any foreign country for that matter) as a foreigner is the novelty of expanding one's boundaries to limits that before seemed impossible. There were countless times when I was in China where I thought to myself, "I can't believe what I'm doing right now." Reading beautifully written accounts from a first-class writer about his own unfathomable adventures can dampen one's buzz a bit.

Peter Hessler found this blog post about him a few days after it was written. He wrote to the author about his thoughts on the article.

Here is a snippet from Hessler's letter that the blogger published:
It’s a funny phenomenon, and one that I remember when I first came to China. There were certain books that everybody read, and the longer you lived there the more you might be inclined to resent them. It’s a natural reaction in a place like China, where you’re constantly learning and discovering. It’s a very personal process, very intense, and a sense of ownership develops. In “River Town” I wrote about how I wasn’t so charitable when I saw a couple of Europeans in Fuling, the first (and only) “uninvited” foreigners that I ever saw in town. I really did not want them there. I realized it was an unfair reaction, very childish; but I also saw that it was quite natural. After a long period of isolation I felt like it was my city.

During the years that I was in Fuling, “Iron and Silk” was the book that all foreign teachers read, and sometimes complained about. When I sent out the unsolicited manuscript of “River Town,” a lot of reactions were clearly shaped by Mark Salzman’s book. Most agents and publishers rejected it, probably because there was already a successful book about teaching in China. Or they wanted to build on it in narrow ways: one agent wanted me to cut my manuscript down into very short vignettes, like Salzman’s book. I’m glad I resisted; over the years it’s become clear that these are very different books and each has its own place. A couple of years ago, I met Mark Salzman at a literary event, and I told him that the foreign teachers now complain about me as well as him. He laughed; he knew what I was talking about. When I was in Fuling, I really benefited from reading his book, as well as Bill Holm’s “Coming Home Crazy.” The fact that they were so different struck me as a good thing. It reminded me that it’s not simply the experience that matters: it’s the writer. And I noticed that these books shared something in common: a sense of humor.


Of course, it’s not strictly the experience that distinguishes a piece of writing. China has been around for a long time, and experiences have overlapped for years and decades and even centuries. Recently I was reading Archibald Little’s “Through the Yangtse Gorges,” in which he describes a Sichuanese banquet, and then he apologizes because it’s hardly a new story: “Chinese dinners have been described over and over again, but I have narrated this one, as I think few have given an idea of their tediousness and the absence of all that we deem comfort.” Little wrote this in 1887! So I wasn’t exactly breaking new ground with the baijiu banquets in “River Town.”

I had to get beyond this, especially since my goal in that book was to write about everyday observations and experiences. Lots of foreigners shared those things, and there was nothing special about my China background. Fuling wasn’t an important place. Many foreigners spoke the language better than I did, and many people had a deeper knowledge of the culture. But I thought of myself as a writer, not a China expert. My training was more along those lines; before going to China I had worked as an ethnographer in southeastern Missouri, and I had thought a lot about the social sciences and theories of observation. In college I took a lot of courses in fiction and nonfiction writing. I had very few ideas about China, but I had strong ideas about voice, structure, set pieces, story structures. People often don’t realize how technical writing is. It’s a lot harder than learning Chinese or learning about China, that’s for sure. By the time I left Fuling, I had spent only two years engaged seriously with China, but thirteen years engaged seriously with writing. If the ratio had been the opposite thirteen years in China, and two years thinking about how to write that book would not have happened. I might have known a lot, but I wouldn’t have known how to express it, and how to structure it. In any case, that book is more about a learning process; it’s about how language, people, and culture came into focus for me. It’s not about “China” in the strictest sense.

Read the entire letter (recommended)
I really like this response. It's not the experiences that set Hessler apart from others, it's the writing. It'd do all travel writers good to reflect on what he has to say here.

After reading Hessler's response, I was interested in reading the "Peter Hessler before Peter Hessler" book that foreigners living in China in the 1990s complained about - Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman. I picked it up a few weeks ago.

Iron and Silk is 210 pages of short vignettes on Mark Salzman's two years in China. Salzman was a young Yale grad who taught at a medical college in Changsha, Hunan Province in the mid-80s. The book mostly focuses on his teaching experiences, daily life, and his study of Chinese "kung fu."

Salzman took a strong interest in China when he was a twelve year-old boy. He began studying how to speak and read Chinese, painting Chinese calligraphy, and practicing martial arts at that time. Thinking back on the jealousy discussed above, I'm very envious of the fact that Salzman already had such a solid foundation of Chinese culture before he ever went over to China.

A great deal of the book is about Salzman's martial arts lessons. Here is a section of the book going over some of the basics of Chinese "kung fu" from page 30:

Salzman has several different teachers of different styles of wu shu. He's pushed really hard by all of them. It's not exactly like Uma Thurman going to learn with her master in Kill Bill vol. 2, but it's not too dissimilar. Studying wu shu with Chinese masters as a suburban American kid is a great story and Salzman nails many of the passages working with his teachers in his book.

The theme of "gong fu" - 功夫 - or a skill that transcends mere surface beauty - mentioned in the passage is weaved throughout Iron and Silk as well. I appreciated this mode of self-examination. By the end of the book, one has gone on a long journey both in terms of getting into Chinese culture and in the development of Salzman's character.

On the whole, though, I didn't particularly like Salzman's choice of writing a series of twenty-five or so short stories instead of stringing together one longer narrative. For this reason, Iron and Silk doesn't stand up to anything that Hessler's done. The full depth of the experiences just don't quite make it onto the pages of Salzman's book.

Saying that, I enjoyed Iron and Silk a great deal. Reading about Salzman's unique stories taking place a generation ago, just as China was embracing reform and opening, is very worthwhile.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Red Bike Over China

(This is a guest post from my brother, David. David lived in Jinan, Shandong Province for one year from 2009 - 2010. He's now getting his master's degree at a European university. I asked him to write about his experiences cruisin' the streets of Jinan on his gasoline powered motorbike. Please check out the nine minute YouTube video he shot of one of his rides, at the end of this article.)

Dingy little motorbikes litter the streets of China – or at least the streets of Jinan, the somewhat rustic yet endearing city on the east side of China where I taught English for a year. Per testosterone and cherished memories of Grand Theft Auto, some of us (male) foreign teachers became infatuated with the idea of owning our own motorbikes. For months we didn’t pursue this ambition, mainly for logistical reasons: we didn’t know where to get them, we’d be skipping country in a matter of months, the winters in Jinan are hellish. Oh, plus it’s illegal for non-licensed folk to drive gas-powered vehicles, and the idea of brazenly defying Chinese law made us a bit queasy.

Eventually, though, as the bleak Jinanese winter gave way to cozy spring weather, a quartet of foreign guys, me among them, made the decision to get motorbikes. Law and safety be damned. Some of our adult students were intrigued (or at least entertained) by the idea of a bunch of foreigners darting around the streets of Jinan, so they gave us directions to a “bike market.” There, we were told, we could find any bike we wanted.

The bike market – along with the other adjacent markets – was one of the most bizarre places I saw in China. There was a decrepit stream encasing one side of the market, a stagnant pool teeming with motor oil, trash and a slew of unidentifiable refuse. Thankfully, we only saw one person doing laundry in it. We traipsed along the *creek* and passed what must be the world’s biggest cache of broken refrigerators, as well as places to buy clothes, TVs, and other items that were either dysfunctional, stolen or counterfeit.

Eventually, we stumbled across the bikes. Row after row of every conceivable genus of bike – big motorcycles, little scooters, three-wheeled flatbeds, everything. If it had an engine and less than four wheels, it was here.

There was a little cluster of bikes in particular that caught our attention. They were comically small and certifiably crappy – features that, for some reason, seemed appropriate. It’s akin to not wanting lobster and filet mignon at a Kansas City Chiefs tailgate: you don’t eat gourmet food at Arrowhead, and you don’t have a slick, aesthetically pleasing motorbike in Jinan. Or so went our logic.

We conveyed to the purveyor of this particular family of bikes that we were interested. He unlocked the chain that bound them together, grabbed a water bottle full of gasoline and fired up one of the machines. It didn’t have a key, but instead a pair of chords dangling out the front that acted as the ignition. It kept getting better.

Despite its minute size – waist-high and far shorter tire-to-tire than I was tall – the bike gave out a furious roar, sending plumes of blue-white exhaust into the air while it struggled to come to life. I hopped on and had the distinct sensation that I looked like Donkey Kong, the oversized Mario Kart character who himself dwarfs the size of his little go-kart.

It was perfect. It cost a hair less than $38.

Thus began my six-month-long love affair with my motorbike, which is featured in this film. This video was recorded by my then-girlfriend, who would often ride on the back of this thing even though, as you will see, it is hardly fit for one regular-sized person.

Riding a motorbike in China is nuts. Start with the sheer volume of people. Jinan, according to Wikipedia, has more than 6 million. There is no number of lanes that can accommodate that swarm of people. Add to that the relative lawlessness of Chinese streets compared to American ones, and the result is a chaos that you can traverse only with an unnatural combination of patience and recklessness. Often times, you just have to trust that the other drivers don’t want to get in a wreck, and will act accordingly. This hope-for-the-best philosophy seems to legitimize many of the common maneuvers in China – not using signals, not looking before changing lanes, not heeding oncoming traffic, driving at night without the headlights on…the list goes on.

Another complicating factor with the motorbike is sidewalk etiquette. In Jinan, the major thoroughfares have bike paths for pedal bikes and motorbikes. This is theoretically a boon for bikers – a way to avoid some of the kamikaze behavior that defines Chinese street traffic. Problem is that these bike paths are invariably littered with people walking like it’s a sidewalk.

What’s more, these bikeless pedestrians seem to have a heartfelt disdain for the concept of “look both ways.” One of my American co-workers, who himself had a motor bike and who himself was constantly dodging oblivious pedestrians, hypothesized that Chinese parents tell their children at a very young age not to look for traffic before walking because, if they did, they would never get anywhere: there is always traffic, and heeding every car or bike that drives by will prevent you from ever moving. By not looking, the theory goes, the Chinese absolve themselves of responsibility and can traverse even the busiest thoroughfares with blissful ignorance.

The accuracy of this hypothesis is debatable, but the anecdotal evidence is there. Chinese people, at least Jinanese people, don’t look where they are walking, even if there are bikes liable to be whizzing around them. The scariest manifestation of this practice is when people get off of buses. They charge out the back exit and hurl themselves into the bike lanes, which are mere inches from where people exit the buses. (Adding to the constant drama: my bike didn’t have functioning brakes or a horn. Don’t tell my mom.)

OK, so that’s the backdrop. Now on to the video, where you’ll see all of these nerve-racking variables in play: wall-to-wall traffic; suspect decision-making at stoplights; pedestrians who are impervious to the American roaring past on his brakeless bike.

For more long-winded blog posts about life in China, check out my blog.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Painting of Garden in Nanjing

The owner of the company I work for purchased my book - Expressing the Orient - for everyone at the company as a Christmas present. It was a nice gesture that I greatly appreciate. I've received really positive feedback from everyone at work on it.

Below is the most positive response I got:

This is a painting inspired by one of my photos painted by my former co-workers, John Burns.

Here is the original photo from my book:

And the two next to each other:

John said he really liked the contrast of the Chinese garden with the ultra-modern skyline in the background. That is exactly what I was thinking when I took the photo back in Nanjing in 2006.

You can see an online gallery of more of John's work here.