Monthly Archives: March 2013

Mar 27

Yuxi’s Red Pagoda: The Historic Site Turned into a Cigarette Advertisement

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

IMG_4601About 700 years ago, a pagoda was built in Yuxi, a small city 90 kilometers outside of Kunming. In 1959, the cigarette company set up in Yuxi and named itself Red Pagoda Hill (红塔山), in honor of the pagoda. Thus, the pagoda has now become an advertisement, complete with a museum in honor of the brand and its parent company. (Red Pagoda is the leading brand under the China Tobacco group.)

Inside the museum, you can see China Tobacco’s famous brands on display along with photos of famous people smoking. Albert Einstein and Mao Zedong are pictured prominently in the displays.
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Outside, there are statues of tobacco farmers.
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Mar 25

From Anita Mui to Jia Hong: Hong Kong Lounge Singers on Temple Street

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture

IMG_3560This is Temple Street, the most famous night market in Hong Kong. On the main stretch, you can find a lot of tourists eating spicy crab and buying tee shirts. A few decades ago, you could have found a 5-year-old girl standing on a stage singing. That girl would go on to become one of the most popular divas in Asia, famous for her beautiful voice, kind heart, and social and political activism. Anita Mui, “the Madonna of Asia,” as she would become known in the West, made a life for herself the only way she could: singing her heart out wherever she could.

This is the story of a working class district of Kowloon Island in Hong Kong–its residents doing whatever they could to survive. It’s the story of a lost culture–the culture of the Hong Kong lounge singer. Once a feature of many Hong Kong restaurants, singers are now relegated to a small stretch of the legendary Temple Street.

After coming back from Hong Kong where I interviewed the singers of Temple Street, I have a story to tell. It will be released soon as an ebook, but first I offer a brief sample before the book is finalized. If you are interested in receiving an update when the ebook is available, sign up below, and you will be updated by email:

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Mar 24

Prostitution in Shanghai: Interview With a Prostitution Tout

By Mitchell Blatt | Food and Leisure

East Nanjing Road has always been the base of prostitution in the city that became known as “the Whore of the Orient.” The classic Chinese novel The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai written in 1892 describes life in the prostitution houses on Hankou Road and Fuzhou Road, just south of Nanjing Road.

Sidney Rittenberg, who stayed in China and joined the Communist Party after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, recalls in his memoir walking down Nanjing Road just after the War and being bombarded by prostitutes:

There were girls all up and down Nanjing Road. Phalanxes of girls. Columns and regiments of hungry, ragged girls who blocked my way insistently, grabbing at my sleeve. ‘Quickie, Joe?’ ‘Quickie, Joe?’

Today, the industry is still there. Walk down the street, and a bunch of touts are always hawking their ladies with calls for “massage.” East Nanjing Road has some of the most aggressive and shameless touts in the country, selling souvenirs as well as sex.

What’s it like for the touts today to work such a historic street?

I decided to find out, interviewing two touts on the street.

Hefa, male, Shanghainese
“How long have you worked this job?”
“10 years.”

“Why do you choose Nanjing Road? I don’t see this kind of promoter on other streets.”
“Because there are so many people on Nanjing Road.”

“Do you target Chinese people, too, or just foreigners?”
“Yes, I also ask Chinese people. If they have money, then I’ll ask them.”

“Do the police ever give you trouble?”
“No, they don’t care about this business.”

Xiaolou, female, from Hebei
“How long have you worked this job?”
“2 months. I graduated from a very low-ranking university and couldn’t find a good job.”

“Do the police ever give you trouble?”
“No, the police don’t give me trouble. Our boss is a big player. The police just care about money.”

“What day do you do the best business?”
“Sunday. On the weekend, there’s more people.”

Mar 22

What It’s Like to Stay at the Chungking Mansions

By Mitchell Blatt | New Writing , Travel

The Chungking Mansion(s) is famous from Wang Karwai’s film Chungking Express. It is an international mall, selling cheap cell phones, electronics, and Bollywood films. By some estimates it is the source of 20% of all cell phones in sub-Saharan Africa came through the Chungking Mansions. It is down and dirty, one of the only places in Hong Kong you can get a room for $20 USD a night.

What’s it like to stay here? I wrote about it at the Universia blogs:
Chungking Mansions: Legendary and Cheap Lodging in Hong Kong

Mar 21

Sidney Rittenberg and Communists’ Confusion About What “Democracy” Is

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Literature

During the campaigns of the Chinese Communist Party prior to the Cultural Revolution, Sidney Rittenberg recommended innocent people be forced into labor camps, unquestionably supporting the Party. During the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg happily yelled at innocent people and spread propaganda supporting the dictatorship of Mao.

Reading his memoir The Man Who Stayed Behind, it is interesting to see why he supported the violent, conformist, closed-minded movement that was the Cultural Revolution: Because that’s what “democracy” and “freedom” is, according to his understanding of Communism at the time.

In Rittenberg’s view, as described in his memoir, the Cultural Revolution was the masses rebelling against the party. The Red Guards attacked party leaders, shackled them, put them into criticism sessions, and such. Of course, it was all being directed by Mao. Rittenberg supported the dictatorship of one, rather than the dictatorship of the Party:

It was Mao’s guidelines for the Cultural Revolution… This, I thought, was a program for the end of party dictatorship. (315)

Later on page 315, Rittenberg described how, “The party told us what to think,” and what would happen when the party is no longer telling us what to think and chaos ensues? Just follow Mao’s line, which he handily described in his guidelines.

All at once, there was no one to trust, no one to tell us what to do, how to think, whom to like, what to believe. We all had to think for ourselves, to decide was this good, was this right, was this revolutionary. Did it follow Mao’s teachings? (316)

In the space of two sentences, Rittenberg said “We had to think for ourselves,” then that they had to follow Mao’s teachings. Clearly, then, there was someone–just one person–to tell them what to do.

Rittenberg lauded the Cultural Revolution as a means for bringing about a democratic system involving the masses, but on page 317, he describes the story of a girl who was elected leader of her school’s Cultural Revolution Committee and overthrown by Mao’s wife.

But when Jiang Qing [Mao’s wife] declared the rebel radical minority the true revolutionaries, Morning Dove’s Cultural Revolution Committee collapsed.

The Man Who Stayed Behind documents the perplexing logical gymnastics and cognitive dissonance required of the Communists throughout history of China, worst of all during the Cultural Revolution. For page after page, Rittenberg describes how the Cultural Revolution will bring about democracy and civil rights while he is watching innocent people shackled, yelled at, and attacked by mobs. The Cultural Revolution would bring about freedom of expression, all while people who were not capitalists were accused of being capitalist class enemies and not given any right to respond. It would be a non-violent revolution, but the Red Guards would murder and torture people they thought disagreed with Mao. Forget even being theoretically allowed to disagree in such a movement that was about freedom and democracy.

It should serve as a warning, too, to anyone who wants to advance “non-violent” revolution through violent means, and to anyone who draws lines among ideological comrades between the so-called “establishment” and “base.”

Mar 17

Sights and Sounds of Yau Ma Tei Park

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

In February, I wrote about a move in China to try to create a big society. Hong Kong is often viewed as a model because of its relatively small government and large amount of non-government organizations. In Yau Ma Tei Community Centre Rest Garden on March 16, I got a little idea of what Hong Kong’s big society looks like.

The garden is in the heart of the working class Yau Ma Tei district of Kowloon Island, between the Temple Street night market to the north and south, outside of the Tin Hau Temple. There are many Tin Hau temples throughout Hong Kong dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea, Tin Hau (天后, “tian hou” in Mandarin), also known as Mazu (妈祖).

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At the park, two volunteer groups were passing out food to elderly people resting in the park. One secular group was passing out fruit.

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A Christian group with offices in the Henry G Leong Community Centre across the street was passing out bread and literature inviting people to services. This kind of social outreach by a religious organization trying to spread a message is one concern the Chinese government has about allowing non-government organizations too much freedom.

After passing out fruit, the student group sang “The Moon Represents My Heart,” a classic hit made famous by Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng (邓丽君) in the 1970’s that is among the most popular Chinese songs in history.

Elsewhere in the park, Fang Fang and Qing Qing were recording themselves performing a cheerleading routine for the Japanese diva Namie Amuro, who held her 20th anniversary concert in Hong Kong on March 16. The ladies were so excited for Amuro’s concert that they booked tickets on March 15 and flew into Hong Kong from Taiwan.

Angelisa and a friend record a video of themselves cheering on Namie Amuro, the Japanese diva who held her 20th anniversary concert  on March 16.

Fang Fang and Qing Qing record a video of themselves cheering on Namie Amuro, the Japanese diva who held her 20th anniversary concert on March 16.

Mar 01

100 Century Avenue – The Best Views in the World From a Bar

By Mitchell Blatt | Food and Leisure , Travel

The best view in the world from a bar is in Shanghai (and in this post). 100 Century Avenue, the bar and restaurant in the Park Hyatt on the 91st floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center. It has been referred to as the highest bar in the world.

The Shanghai World Financial Center is the third tallest building in the world measured by accessible floors. (Taipei 101 has a very tall tower.) Why don’t the towers of Dubai or Abu Dhabi have a bar and restaurant at the top floors? If they do, 100 Century Avenue is at least the third best view in the world, but maybe it will move to second best after the Shanghai Tower is built and third best if Sky City ever gets built.

Drinks at 100 Century Avenue were of course expensive. 70 RMB ($11.25 USD) for a Guinness, 60 RMB for a Qingdao, and 55 RMB for a glass of juice, but that is actually not terribly expensive for the view in a city where Qingdao costs 50 RMB at almost all the night clubs.

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