Everyone’s heard of it. There’s a paragraph about it in any China book. It’s essential in all business and personal dealings. It’s a key to understanding Chinese behaviour. Face.

Face is not just something you have. Face is something you can lose, or give. Win or deny. Face is about social interaction. Face is relational. Face is something money can buy. Face is what success brings you.

Make up can give you more face. So can expensive clothes, expensive cars, holidays abroad, any status item, really. The success of luxury brands in China is directly connected to face.

But face is not all about money. Making money can make you lose face. And face matters more than money. I was talking with Aaron one day about bad service in China – particularly North China. I was proposing what seemed a rational option, saying: service jobs are underpaid, so you can’t get able staff. What if businesses paid more for these jobs, so more competent and dynamic people would do them? That would improve the service, and improve the business. Aaron said ‘even if it paid better than my current job, I would never work in a restaurant. I would completely lose face if I did.’

He added a little story. When he finished high-school – a posh Tianjin high-school – two of his friends got a job in a restaurant. To mock them, he went there the following day, and started ordering lavishly. They served him; then quit the job. They were saving face.

Face is a form of collective property. Chinese parents would rather give their children money than have them work in face-losing jobs. Because if their children lose face, they lose face too. Your face is a common goods, that each of your relatives, friends and neighbours can enjoy, in proportion to their closeness. Any loss of face on your part will affect them, again, depending on how close they are. Then economic rationality plays out. Your relatives would rather give you 100 kuai than let you lose 150 kuai’s worth of face. And if you risk a huge loss of face – your whole network might go bankrupt on it – like a ‘face’ financial crisis. So they find a way; or all take a dive.

But what do you get from having face? To illustrate what face is, Aaron said: for instance, my grand-mother talks to the people in the Xiao Qu everyday. She likes to talk of her grandson making good studies and working for a multinational company. That gives her a lot of face. If I was working in a restaurant, she couldn’t talk about it. If others knew that, she would lose face. So she would just have to be silent, and let them speak.

Face is power. It is, precisely, the power to tell a story. The more face you have, the more you can face others; face them down if necessary. The more face you have, the more people will listen to you. Face has the same function as a mask in Greek and Roman theatre. Face amplifies your voice. It attracts attention to you.

But face is more than just a mask. One common form of mockery – read social control – is to tell people that they are ‘Mian Pi Hou’, literally, that they have ‘thick skin on their face’. That is what you hear when you brag too much, or don’t listen to others’ judgements on your actions. If your face is not affected by the community – then the community will re-assert its power by discarding it as a fake, or as low quality face. The worst scenario being: to not even have face. To pursue your own interest, without any care for what others will think. To build up your own little story, whether others accept it or not. Accepting facelessness.

This is how a shame culture builds itself. That is how social control operates.

(and for those who want further reading on face, there’s a great wikipedia article to read.)


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!


Next to XiaoBaiLou station, the ‘1902’ Western style street has a Spanish food shop, a New Zealand cosmetics shop (organic), and a string of posh bars and cafes.

But behind the polished ‘European’ facade is a traditional-style Chinese hutong, with cheap food stalls, clothes on hangers, and electric cables – perfectly visible from the posh street.

I was a bit surprised at how visible the hutong is – and how much of a contrast it makes with the main street. But it’s quite common in Tianjin.

The street display is like a theatre stage. Just a few details are enough for the  imagination to make up a world of wealth and luxury. Maybe that’s why the city really comes alive at night, when the fairy lights create a theatrical atmosphere, and shade swallows the backstage.

Why make the effort of actually cleaning the city? Why make it really pristine and beautiful, when you can just imagine it this way. Why not set it up so people can believe it’s an elegant, clean, posh European city, for a while. But actually keep the mess which is more convenient to live in – because if everything had to be constantly clean and perfect, it would be way too tiring, and there wouldn’t be time to chat and play cards.

Maybe people here have more imagination, and they don’t need everything perfect to be satisfied? Or maybe the contrast between clean and dirty, polished and rough, is crucial to their enjoyment of city life? These could be more relevant ways to understand Chinese urban aesthetics than simply to say – it’s actually dirty there – but then it’s not really developed either.

Fairy lights

Chinese cities are particularly beautiful at night. Like a film-set, they depend on controlled, artificial lighting for their magic to work.

The dirt on the footpath, the open construction sites, the smoggy air, all of these disappear into the dark. A simple street scene becomes a mysterious epiphany.

A bar singer, a Hong-Kong movie star.

Sometimes, it is the sheer quantity of light – the general shininess of things, that creates wonder.

It’s also the contrast of colour, silver/gold, blue/yellow.

The set is ready; the lights are on. The fairies can come, and play their fairy tunes.


Tianjin has recently re-developed its old Italian concession into the ‘Italian Style street’, an ‘entertainment precinct’ with a range of shops, cafes and restaurants – most of them in Western style.

In the ‘Italian style town’ of Tianjin, coffee comes at about 20 to 30 yuan a cup; food is 60 to 200 per person – and the gastronomic menu at Flo, recently opened French restaurant, goes up to 488 yuan.

A few streets from there, I find traditional hutong-style streets alleys, with the silhouette of high-rise buildings old and new on the horizon.

In one of these hutongs, I find a very nice little market, in the shade, with fruit stands and various ‘snacks’ available. I stop next to a stand where a woman is cutting big white crepe-like things into straps, puts them in a plastic bag, then adds slices of cucumber, tofu, and a spoon of peanut sauce. I ask for a bag of the same – 4 kuai. I walk to the riverside and I have a quiet lunch, in the shade, sitting on a bench, next to a church.

Weirdly, I’m one of the only people here, although the spot is beautiful. I have the old-new Chinese town is in front of me; I can see another church on my right, and, in the river, people are having a bath.

But it is really hot, and humid, and I feel that I need something familiar, so I return to the Italian style town, and I sit inside the ‘Rhine’ Switzerland Cafe

There, I order a macchiato for 28 kuai, and receive a tall glass of something cold and sweet, covered with whipped cream. At another table, an expat is looking at his laptop, writing emais probably. We exchange a few glances, but never start a conversation. Out of his open bag, I can see a pair of ‘Calvin Kleins’. He leaves, soon after, with a slight nod. I stay in the air-con a bit longer, with my book.

Brides and grooms

I’ve been exploring the idea of Tianjin as a gigantic film set – or photographer’s studio. Married couples, or their photographers, are obviously sharing the idea: on week-ends, and even week days, you can always find some in iconic locations, such as the front of the Concert Hall.

Or the Italian concession.

These iconic spots are like Medieval cathedrals, as described by Hegel – there is room for a whole people there. The bride poses, while tourists and children pass by, indifferent. Another example of sharing public space – it is like a busy film set, where different shows are shot simultaneously. There is something slightly comic about it – that immortal moment of bliss, captured on the wedding photograph, that image of supreme beauty and accomplishment – has to be captured quickly, before the little girl comes into frame. Using public space in this fashion is not exclusively Chinese, of course – but the lack of privacy – and complete indifference to it – could be.

These brides and groom come in packs, accompanied by photographic teams (I saw a woman carry a reflector one day, but wasn’t in time to snap her). There can be something coming about these packs – this one, spotted in the Italian concession, reminded me of Zola’s wedding party, wandering aimlessly through the Louvre.

Is there a reason why people would rather have their photos taken in front of European style monument than in, say, the ancient culture street or the drum tower? The style of clothes is western itself, and it seems that ‘Western’ brings an air of  romanticism to life. Or is it just to give themselves the illusion of a trip overseas, that couples immortalise that moment in their life in front of Greek columns?


Like a film set

I heard about fake things in China. I spotted one today. Some of the construction sites in the centre, instead of the usual metal or wire barricades, have nice brick walls with slanted roof. Naively, I thought they were real walls – the future walls of the precinct, or xiaoqu, build in advance of whatever will come inside.

But then, I saw a hole in hole that didn’t seem quite natural.

And I realised, the walls and eaves are made of some cardboard stucco, with styrofoam inside – like a film set.

And, that’s the down side of it, it breaks easily – so you have to cover the hole.

Funnier still, early one morning, I spotted a boy dressing up the set – delineating the rows of brick with tape – a not inelegant activity.

And, well, it does look better than a normal site fence.