Al Jazeera English has a really great channel on Youtube called 101 East that I recommend to anyone who shows an interest in learning about Asia. It features a variety of investigative journalism, from the music ban in Pakistan, to the the problems of widespread teenage pregnancies in the Philippines, to gang rape in India, to children working as maids in Myanmar. All of it is well-written, well-produced, and absolutely worth your time.
But my favorite in this series however is on China, of course I'm also partial. Hosted by Canadian journalist Steve Chao, this series is illuminating of a country that is often misunderstood by the west. Even for me, watching 101 East confirms just how little I know of my own birth place.
So here's a list of the "Top 5," in no particular order, as subjectively curated by yours truly. As with all modern journalism, I do ask my readers to keep in mind the kinds of subjects that are deemed by our media as "newsworthy." Often times, they are the sensational ones. Even with Al Jazeera English, they are at the end of the day a business, with a somewhat subjective lens, probably with viewers who are measured in click throughs, that bring in ad revenue, and so on. This is not to discredit, but to remind us that 101 East is only scratching the surface of a real China - there are after all, 1.3 billion Chinese with 1.3 billion differing views of the country in which they live. For every one negative story, I bet there is a positive story that go untold. And the only way to find the truth is to go to China for yourself, spend time there, get to know people there - and I hope this channel will help inspire that curiosity.
1. Left-Behind Generation - With stagnant wages and the rising costs of living, millions from the rural regions are forced to migrate to the cities to find work. But China also has strict policies towards these migrants which won't allow their sons or daughters to go to schools in the cities. So millions of children are left behind without parents, in remote villages, some by even themselves.
2. The End of China Inc - For the past few decades, China has been building massive projects to transform itself into a modern nation. But was the country ready for it? Today, it has 5.7 trillion in debt and two billion square meters of empty residential space. Where is everyone? And what does its economy mean for the rest of the world?
3. Faking It - More than 90% of the Chinese antiques on today's market are fakes. Acquired by private collections, galleries, auction houses, and even museums, these fakes are so well-made that even experts can't tell the difference. How is it possible that within three months after an object is excavated a fake shows up on an auction house catalog? This story takes you to the village where these high-level potters and craftsman make their imitations, and to the bigger story behind it on how they get their hands on the original. As someone who studied art history, I find this an interesting debate because at what point, does the knock-offs, which are so well-made, become a piece of art itself?
4. Food for Thought - Fakes are not just relegated to expensive art. Even your local wonton noodle soup dealer is making fakes., using toxic ingredients with deadly effect. What does that look like? And most importantly, why? This episode asks why ordinary citizens would want to hurt each other for the sake of profits.
5. Super Moms - "Zuo yue zi" is the Chinese custom that new mothers spend the first month after child birth in bed. Three meals a day prepared for her, her infant bathed and fed for her, her home cleaned for her, even her hair is washed for her. Traditionally a duty of her own mother or mother-in-law, now is a booming industry in China.
A city that lights up at night in neon and fluorescence. During the day, Shanghai isn't much to see--especially on days where there's heavy smog in the air and skyscrapers seem to disappear into the vague haze. But at night, they are outlined in illuminated squares of offices and apartments.
During summer evenings, whole families sit outside to cool off. They bring their lawn chairs onto the sidewalk, some even eat their dinners out in the open. The streets are lined with vendors leaning over bright green tarps selling anything from watermelons to phone trinkets that light up when you receive a call.
The very poor, the very rich, they're all jammed together here. Children begging on the street outside of a western cafe featuring a live jazz band nightly. The police come by every so often to shoo them away. A woman folding dumplings inside of a restaurant window. A chef kneading dough with a cigarette behind one ear. Men smoking on stoops while playing cards. A yellow Ferrari lurches bumper to bumper down Hua Hai Road's French Concession. Occasional rain that makes the concrete pavement reflect the storefronts selling floral dresses. Warm. Humid. A new mosquito bite on the back of your calf. Little bursts of cool air as you walk past sliding glass doors. People shouting about prices.
Then a rush of air conditioning when you step into one of the karaoke bars on Nanjing Road. Muffled music overhead, video games, flashing lights like the inside of a pinball machine. The air smells like cigarettes and fried tofu. A beautiful waitress bows to you at the door and ushers you to your private room. It has black leather couches, a big screen TV, and a glowing tile floor that alternates in pink and purple. Full menu service 24 hours. Buckets of ice, liters of Coca Cola, sweetened chrysanthemum tea, and a bottle of 104-proof baiju. Shanghai is open all night long.
I am reminded of death while hiking across the unrestored wall. A common anecdote from Beijingers is how many people died building this fortress, corpses mixed into the powdery gray bricks beneath our feet. The longest cometary in the world with more than a million dead, I'm told. Even that is a conservative guess. Where we were, the "Wild Wall," far from the tourist buses and vendors selling bottled water, resembled the ruins of ancient Rome more than anything grandiose that Trip Advisor had promised. A rusty sign declared NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC NO ADMITTANCE. Centuries of weather, warfare, and plunder from the nearby villagers had taken a toll on this spine that defined a country. What remained were uneven and overgrown. SAMMY + ALAN FUCKED HERE 2015 was scrawled on one of the lookout towers we passed, marking the bodily exchange as fleeting as the chalk in which it was written. I presumed they were Americans.
Death, like sex, is ordinary. Life is merely life. A million deaths in a country of 1.7 billion currently, whose population goes back to ancient civilizations. How insignificant, I felt, standing there in this heat, making this trek back to the land where I was born. What was I hoping to accomplish? To reconnect to home? How much does this home really care about me? How naive for Sammy and Alan to mark their love? As if any of it mattered.
Back in the US and walking down Green Street in Pasadena, I noticed swollen mounds of concrete beneath my feet and wondered whether the construction workers, probably dressed in their government-assigned reflective vests, knew they too were laying the foundations of an empire. Or were they just one of the millions and billions, trying to get by another day without getting mixed into the ground.
The world overwhelms me. Nothing is more real than my own powerlessness, my body floating in the external vastness beyond flesh and bones. In Beijing, there was a familiarity in the foreign--the Chinese signs outside of restaurants that I couldn't read on Day 1 of this trip came to resemble something with meaning by Day 10. I suddenly remembered the Chinese classes I took in Venice High School, even that song from Big Bird Goes to China. But in Los Angeles, my real home, there's a foreignness in the familiar--my Americanness is always qualified as Chinese on an application or an event survey. That when I create art, the question of narrative and identity comes up. Who am I? Where do my bones belong? In China where I was born? Or in the US where I was raised? And will my tombstone be carved in Chinese? In English? Or in the dialect of my side of Los Angeles: Spanglish?
Home and identity seems as arbitrary as living and dying on a monument to empire, an assemblage of brick that connects and divides. Why bother? Why not live? After 5 hours of hiking in 90-degrees heat at an incline and no vendors selling me bottled water to quench my thirst, I could care less where I was from. All I wanted was to do at that moment was sit down, preferably in air conditioning with a cold beer. Who cares about culture and history and the nonsense that marks my identity. I am a human after all and the only thing certain is death. So to hell with it. Let's all copulate on the Great Wall. And let's mark this grand occasion in fleeting chalk.
Bits & Pieces
A place for experimentation, a place for pieces unpolished and unpublished, a place to work out thoughts and ideas for larger collections. Typos aplenty. Enjoy (or not).