Archive | September, 2011

Xiao PengYous

29 Sep

Xiao PengYous (literally ‘little friends’, actually ‘children’), with the one-child policy still in place, are the new ruling class of contemporary China.

Their two parents, four grand-parents, and sometimes childless uncles and aunts all conspire to spoil them, offering them ice cream, cakes, lollies (yes, Chinese children are often a bit fat), or all kinds of fancy outfits. Children fashion – think, fashion to the taste of children – is all the rage in Tianjin and Beijing. Little girls dress up in fairy wings

or Manchu headdresses.

Boys prefer a superman outfit.

But they work hard. I was discussing the French education system once in class, and I asked my students about high-school schedules in China. It took me just an extra second to realise that, when they said ‘8 to 10’, it meant AM to PM. Scary, hey? But wait untill you hear that.

Later in the same class, I asked a student what she did on the week-end: ‘I take my daughter to school’, she said. I clarified – is that a school? On the week-end? What’s the word we saw? ‘Centre de loisir’ (‘leisure centre’), where the kids play together, or do pottery? But no, she said, it’s a place where they learn everything, from biology to finance, all day Saturday and Sunday. She did clarify: ‘It’s early MBA’. Ever-loving, ever-caring. Her daughter is five.

Then, there is cuteness.

The same student, on another occasion, asked me “‘In French, how do you say ‘do you want to be my friend?'” She said her daughter asked her, because she said ‘ mum, when we go live in Quebec, I will have no friends, how can I ask people if they want to be my friend?’ I was embarrased explaining the complexities of approaching someone in France.

This made me realise that Chinese people are actually very good at making PengYous – they say ‘Zuo PengYou’, ‘to make friends’, not ‘to become friends’. As if to say that friendship is something you decide on, and build up – not just something that happens on its own. Maybe this is the particular achievement of only children, who grew up without brothers and sisters to bully them, and have some precious naivety left – or who depend on relationships out of the family for connections with people their age, and therefore, work harder on them.

Another striking thing is how there are few taboos on expressing affection among friends – friends touch, walk with their arms around each other’s shoulders (boys), or hand in hand (girls). Observing the way Chinese bodies relate made me reflect on how bizarrely constrained our body language is, in France and in Australia.

But what I noticed most was that, in China, girls have friends as much as men do, perhaps even more so. Friendship, that virile pursuit, is fully accessible to women here – and highly valued by them. Not a little achievement of the culture.



27 Sep

Ultimate East Asian entertainment experience.

KTV is the Chinese name for what the Japanese call karaoke. KTV p(a)laces are generally huge affairs on multiple flors, offering dozens – even hundreds – of individual rooms, of all sizes, lined up along shiny corridors.

The decoration is somewhere between a glitzy hotel and a casino, with random arbitrary features.

KTVs are private affairs. A groom leads your party to its own cosy room. You will strictly not have to interact with anyone you don’t know – except for staff, who will bring you food, drinks, or come in to fix the system for you.

The system is simple. People choose a song on a touch screen. There are all sorts of options you can search by artist, or title, or language. It is overbearing, and the first five or ten minutes are often spent in confusion, while people ask ‘what should we sing, what should we sing’, while one person hogs the screen, trying to figure out how to search. But eventually, songs are selected, and a rhythm develops.

The ritual goes like this. When a new songs comes up on the screen, everyone asks: ‘whose song is that, whose song is that?’ A suitale singer is identified (not always the one who chose the song) and, standing or sitting, sings it in one of two microphones provided. Other people can sing along, or just accompany the performance on percussions (provided).

KTV may be the most popular form of entertainment among young Chinese people. For some reason, it does not appeal to Western tastes as much. On my first trip to Tianjin in December 2010, I was travelling with 25 other Australians on an HSK scholarship. One evening, we gathered in our hotel lobby, discussing what we would do that night. Two options emerged: bar or KTV. I followed the KTV crowd, and realized after a few minutes that I was the only white person there. Everyone else was Asian There must be some specific KTV pleasure that particularly satisfies an East Asian education. Familiar faces only? Technology taking over? The reassuring presence of a script to follow?

Somehow, the experience is not unlike vocal calligraphy: following a given model as the ultimate form of personal expression. Imitation as a way to the self. I recommend. It’s actually fun. And if you can sing a Mandarin song, you get a chance to seriously impress your Chinese friends. Kudos, kudos!


25 Sep

There is a place in China fully devoted to creation. The 798 art zone in Beijing.

798 (pronounce ‘qi jiu ba‘) is a Melburnian (North) fantasy come true, with:


red public art (a lego Venus de Milo)

playful political posters on animal rights

red public art (caged dinosaurs)

Italian food

pointless cute shops

and expensive cafes (with graffiti view)

798 is an expression of Beijing’s secondary function. Apart from being China’s political and administrative capital, it is also the country’s cultural capital. Only Chinese city (Hong Kong excepted) where services clearly dominate industry, Beijing is the place to be for film-makers, designers and IT start ups.

Here’s a Beijing creative story: a friend went to Paris to study fashion, then moved back to Beijing. She found a job as a stylist in one of these new Chinese brands who try to replace the old ‘made in China’ label with posher ‘created in China’. She works in the team of a French stylist (ex- from Chanel), drawing fabric patterns for clothes. Once in a while, she flies to inner Mongolia, where the fabric factories are), to bring in new patterns and check the quality. Then, she rushes to SanLiTun or 798 for a bitch about backward Inner Mongolia with her fashion buddies, around a foccaccia and smoothie.

Sure sign that 798 is the creative place to be, a friend said about it: ‘it used to be really cool, but it’s too commercial now’. The radicals are gone, or they stay quiet. The creative class has taken over.

Images of a time to come

23 Sep

Tianjin, like many Chinese cities, is in the middle of a massive urban renewal. Cranes in the skyline and construction sites on the streets are lifting up not only more office, retail and residential space, but new landmark buildings, right in the centre of the city.

There is a joke about Tianjin that goes like this. It’s the Second World War, and the Japanese want to bomb down a Chinese city. So they go out on a mission to find a target. First they go to Shanghai, but eventaully decide against bombing it – it’s too beautiful. Then they go to Beijing, but decide against bombing it again – it’s too beautiful. Finally, they go to Tianjin, but they also decide against bombing it – someone else has already bombed it.

Tianjiners like to play modest, and repeat the joke to visitors. But maybe not for long. The central government has announced that Tianjin would be ‘the new Shanghai’, imitating the success of the southern seaport. In line with that slogan, the city is reinventing itself through architecture, as the main metropolis on the Bohai rim, and a place of beauty, class and opulence.

Most of the development is happening in the harbour district of TangGu, but the historic centre is following pace. Riverfront, French concession, Museum district, Magnetic city: construction is happening all around central Tianjin.

I was actually proud to learn that many Melbourne architects are involved – urban planning is one of the biggest areas for cooperation between the two sister cities. While I was in Tianjin, my Melbourne friend Kenyen learnt he had won an international competition to landscape-design the entrance to the new Tianjin marina in Tanggu. Other Melburnians, I heard, were involved in the middle river-front development, which was inspired by South Bank – with its many bridges, and a contrast of neo-classic and modern architecture.

Interestingly, urban planners are putting up signs on the walls of the construction site, to reveal not only what a building under construction will look like, but show the new shape of a whole neighbourhood.

And – appropriately for such a theatrical city – the views also come in a night-time version, showing the new buildings lit up, and the pattern of light and shade on the streets.

So when you walk along the dirty footpath, amid the noises of construction machines, your imagination can wander into a brilliant future of neo-classical architecture and sparkling towers.

I can understand why architects – or the municipality – would want to display the shape of their future project – instruct, impress. But something, the pictures displayed have a less clear purpose, when they imitate what the place will be like, at street level.

This comes in a context where trompe l’oeil is very present. In the ‘Italian style street’, you can see photos of a Milan gallery, decorating the side wall of a little plaza. Are they plans for Tianjin’s future developments? Pure decoration? Or something in between, a vision of exoticism, somehow connected to the local – ‘Italian’ – architecture, conjuring up in the mind of the passer-by a future of quiet opulence, and immediate access, through the power imagination, to eurotic places of wealth and glamour?

Sometimes, the existential status of this trompe l’oeil is even more ambiguous, and you seriously wonder what these images are. Plans for future construction? Sheer decoration on a blank wall? Or a reassuring illusion that, indeed, that part of Tianjin is already part of Europe, sharing in its prosperity, peace, and international glamour.

You like chicken?

21 Sep

This post is strictly not suitable for vegetarians.

You’ve been warned.

When I was in JiXian county with Aaron’s family, his father proposed to have chicken curry one evening. Curry is not a traditional Chinese specialty, but it’s become quite popular – curry paste is available in most supermarkets, and a chain of Taiwanese restaurants has curry beef or chicken as a standard option on their set meals. Now of course, in a Chinese village environment, the main excitement of chicken curry is all about the chicken.

It all starts with a drive along dirt roads, between brick walls or fields of pear trees. Untill you reach a particular house – known only to locals, no sign advertising poultry for sale here – and get off the car.

There’s a family standing in a courtyard: little boy eating something out of plastic wrapping, dog playing, and at the back, a huge netted area, with chickens running around. After a long discussion with the matron of the place, weighing options and selecting potential curry candidates, she gets into the pen, a large net in her right hand – like the ones used for catching butterflies. With a swift movement downwards, she traps the selected chicken inside, interrupting its wild run for life. She lifts it up by the wings, ties both feet together, and weighs it – alive – in rustic metal scales. 70 kuai later, the chicken is in the boot, quietly resting at the bottom of a blue plastic box.

A drive back to the village, and a stop at the village coordinator’s house – selected executor. He walks out to the river bank, holding the chicken in one hand; the other has a pair of scissors, old, rusty, blunt. The chicken is calmly put down on a clay pipe running along the river, and the village coordinator fumbles around its neck with the scissors, cutting off a few feathers first, then getting at the veins. Blood comes out, very slowly; the chicken’s eye closes, opens, goes upwards, closes again. It doesn’t resist, or scream. The village coordinator cuts a few more veins open; more blood comes out, but still slowly, quietly, not a gushing foutain, more like a drip. Then, the chicken goes limp, its eye doesn’t open again. The village coordinator washes it in the river, then brings it back inside the house. Blood and feathers cling to the clay pipe, unwashed.

Gender plays in. The village coordinator’s wife proceeds with feathering the dead animal, using boiling water, while you sit down on low stools and chat with her husband – sharing stories of a trip to Europe, discussing the defining features of a woman’s beauty, comparing Italian and Chinese customs. Fifteen minutes later, the chicken arrives, ready to consume – almost identical to what a Western city dweller will find in a supermarket, bar the plastic wrapping.

Back home, the chicken is cut into small pieces, and throw into a wok with onions, carrots and potatoes; then transferred to a larger pot with a bit of water, the curry paste, and half a can of coconut milk. Slow cooking, lid on. Twenty minutes or so, the chicken is ready to consume.

Having read that, maybe some people will choose the beef. I haven’t seen the killing method. What I saw was this. Sunday market in JiXian town centre, one lane has a few meat stalls: three selling pork, one selling beef. Unlike an Australian or French butcher’s display, this one proposes meat in its original state. On the bench, two legs of beef. You tell the seller which part of the leg you want meat cut off from, and she proceeds for you. The price varies, depending on the section chosen.

Gorish? Meat lovers, be reassured. Chinese city dwellers have their sensitivities too. Beef comes in all forms. And for those not enjoying the vision of beef flesh on the leg, they can try these little dry beef lollies, surprisingly popular.

How cute is the little cow. Notice the little poem? “May the breeze bring you the tenderness and warmth from me”. Crypto-christianism? Chew me, and I’ll be your strength.


19 Sep

Some things you know about, as a fact, a linguistic statement, something you can repeat, or answer a quizz with. But it’s not emotionally there, integrated. You don’t follow the consequences of it. It’s not part of how you build a world in your head. And then, when you finally experience that thing you’ve always known in the abstract, you feel really dumb, and think: ‘How come I never saw that before?’

I had that very feeling, three weeks into my third Chinese trip, when I suddenly realised: ‘hey, there’s a lot of people in China.’

China is a crowded country, and I fully came to grasp it when walking towards Alliance Francaise from Nankai University, along a kind of bridge underpass. I thought – hey cool, a secret place. But as it turned out, about a thousand bikers and pedestrians already knew my secret place; a peddler had heard of it, and set up his business on the pavement there.

Chinese city planners must have a hard time thinking of the crowds, and their movements, especially with a rising number of cars on the road. The huge roads are often congested, and crossing them is like a 3D Wii war game. But sometimes, between two beats in traffic light rhythm, like the sudden quiet in the eye of a storm, you catch a sight of pure empty space, for a few seconds – the hollow form of the crowd, in negative.

One thing I’d like to explore more is how Chinese intellectuals have theorised the tension between the crowd, the anonymous mass, and individuals. At a book shop in 798, I saw a book of LeBon’s work, that French sociologist who wrote about the crowd in the early 20th century. What is the reception in China of Elias Canetti’s Mass and power? How exactly do books about the cultural revolution – Yu Hua’s and others – articulate the submission of individuals to the power of the crowd? How do Chinese individuals, in a world of masses and all powerful family networks, resist the pressure of the collective? How do people, still, stand as one, playing their single role in life’s theatre?

If anyone has anything about this question – please post it here in the comment – or if you find a text in Chinese, submit it to the Marco Polo Project.

Xiao Qu

17 Sep

Chinese cities, with their imposing residential towers and busy streets, can create an impression of alienation – how can one survive there? Is not this environment completely against the human?

But these towers – and smaller residential spaces – are organised in a way particular to China: the Xiao Qu (literally, ‘small district’). A Xiao Qu – my friend Aaron spontaneously translates it ‘community’ – is a group of buildings organised around a common yard or laneway. That space is not locked out from the street – you don’t need a key to get in, or a special nod from the front-door person. But it is not open on all sides either – there are just a few too many walls and fences to make it easy to get in. Generally, the Xiao Qu only has a couple of doorways, that mark a passage into the semi-domestic space shared by the community living there.

Xiao Qus are not purely residential spaces. There can be little gardens, a playground for children, but also, sometimes, windows on the wall selling water, juice and cigarettes, even mini-supermarkets, little hawker-style restaurants, or fruit and vegetable sellers offering their goods at the back of a van, or in an old style cart.

Some Xiao Qus, in Wu Da Dao or the old French concession area, can be very beautiful, ornate even. Nonetheless, they remain semi-private space, which people use it for all sorts of purpose – storage, parking, laundry.

Xiao Qus are the inner space of internal interactions, between neighbours, from window to window or on a stool – with its intimate dramas and secrets. This is the world painted by Wang Anyi in The Song of Everlasting Regrets, that most masterful of domestic novels.

In one of his essays, Jacques Gernet discusses one major difference between European and Chinese cities. European cities are built around an agora, a central square where the people of the city met to discuss political concerns, and take part in the city rituals. Not so in China, where cities are built around a grid of parallel streets, without a central square. Tian An Men, that symbolic centre of communist China, is an open space so monumental it cannot serve as a discussion ground for the people. Attempts to use it as an agora have not proven very successful.

The space for freedom was not the agora, but a smaller residential district, where the community had a relatively high level of independance from all external powers – in terms of self organisation and internal debate. In the capital, the Hu Tongs are these traditional ‘free spaces’ – nothing but a local form Xiao Qu – a network of laneways connecting houses, defining an interstitial space somewhere between public and private. No wonder there is so much passion associated to their destruction.

I have read and heard how replacing traditional hutongs with towers, and moving in – or up – the residents, is an act of violence against communities. My students were telling me you no longer know your neighbours, and that contemporary life has become very anonymous.

I have seen the big, anonymous shopping districts and plazas. But very close to them, I saw what seemed like a lively street and community life.

Maybe the situation is not as bad as they paint it? Or maybe I was lucky to live in a good neighbourhood? I hope it wasn’t just the second.