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.

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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 19

Releasing My eBook: Escape to Guizhou — Now Available for Free Download

By Mitchell Blatt | eBooks

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Today I release the first of many ebooks I will be publishing over the next few weeks. This one is titled Escape to Guizhou. It chronicles a journey I took in the western province of Guizhou in the summer of 2011.

In Guizhou, I explored remote villages in the mountains and valleys with original wooden architecture, wind and rain bridges, and drum towers. I experienced local Dong and Miao ethnic culture and witnessed one of the last hunting tribes in China that still owns firearms. It was a journey that took me through rice fields, up winding mountain roads, and into some of the most precious villages hanging onto their traditional culture in China.

It’s quite an adventure, and you can download it now for only $0.00. I’m giving away my first ebook to subscribers of my email newsletter. Sign up below:

performance copy

gunmen copy

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.
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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 15

China’s Security Dilemma: What Does China Need to Establish Itself as a Superpower?

By Mitchell Blatt | Foreign Affairs

This article is a guest post by Sumantra Maitra, a freelance journalist and post-grad scholar of international relations at University of Otago, New Zealand, who publishes the blog Daily World Watch.

China’s rise is well documented in foreign policy circles. Just a couple of days back I read how China surpassed the United States as the number one oil importing country, unveiled a new foreign policy team, and increased military budget by 10 percent.

But, is China a superpower yet?

There are still some doubts. Chinese foreign policy, military and power projection capability, and intention, is still confusing. I would here try to give a theoretical framework to Chinese foreign policy of the future.

China is facing, what we call in foreign policy circles, a “security dilemma” or the “spiral model.”

China is a rising hegemon. With its growing clout, it would need to increase its power projection, and defense capabilities. The more it would increase its defense budget and capabilities, the smaller powers and countries around China would feel threatened. The smaller powers would then invite great powers to come and balance China, like Vietnam wants India to sell them missiles, establish a navy base, and drill for oil in South China Sea. Philippines, Thailand and Japan want United States to pivot to Asia. That would in turn make China increase its defence budget and capabilities even more.

China’s foreign policy has caused disputes with neighboring countries; in response, it has caused fiercely nationalist racism in some contingents.

Chinese policy can generally be explained from the Realist paradigm; however, some recent actions are a bit confusing.
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Mar 09

The Tea Party’s Paranoid View of Politics and What A Real Revolutionary Looks Like

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Literature

Shortly after Barack Obama took office, a Department of Homeland Security memo warned about the possibility of violence from right-wing extremists. The Tea Party movement held this memo up as evidence that the government is engaging in an attack on conservatives. It was the first of many grievances and conspiracy theories that have caused the right-wing to cast themselves as victims of imagined government tyranny.

Right-wing activists, bloggers, and media have made up stories that the DHS is stockpiling ammunition to kill innocent Americans, that Obama is firing generals who don’t agree to fire on the American people, and that Obama wants to confiscate everyone’s guns so that they can’t fight back in the coming civil war that some, including a Texas judge, predict is coming.

But Rand Paul brought the government-vs-people narrative to new levels of exposure with his 13 hour rant against drones on the Senate floor. The view that the government will use drones to randomly kill innocent Americans or anti-government protesters has now been expressed by a member of the U.S. Senate, and Paul is being aggressively congratulated by conservative activists and politicians who have previously been on record of supporting enhanced interrogation, wiretapping, and indefinite detainment of terrorist suspects.

Tea Partiers think they are going to be the victims of drone strikes when the civil war begins. To hold such clearly-expressed fears when there is nothing threatening is tantamount to cowardice.

To some degree, the right-wing is trying to create a sense of martyrdom by inflating their own side’s heroism and the other side’s evil. It’s an old tactic. During George Bush’s presidency, Keith Olbermann was busy fear-mongering about Bush’s wiretapping “1984 machine,” and more recently, some Occupy Wall Street protesters have claimed that the New York Police Department sent criminals to Zuccotti Park to commit crimes, just like the Tea Party thinks the DHS is trying to label them as terrorists.

By establishing that the whole world is against you, you can rally the troops more easily. But it also creates a fake sense of heroism that the activists can never live up to, especially if there is a real fight.

The Tea Party is not the minute men of 1776, who were willing to put their lives on the line for independence from a real power. They aren’t the civil rights activists who went to jail for sitting at lunch counters and had dogs and fire hoses unleashed on them. Moreover, a real revolutionary doesn’t talk up the threat they are facing and doesn’t fear it.

Sidney Rittenberg was an American Communist Party activist who was drafted and sent to China during World War II. Afterwards, he stayed in China for more than thirty years and joined the Chinese Communist Party.

This is how he describes the Communist’s reaction to the Nationalist (Guomingdang) bombing of Yanan during the Chinese Civil War in his memoir The Man Who Stayed Behind:

Raising my arms, I immediately shouted, “Down with U.S. imperialism!” Immediately, there was an ear-splitting explosion, this time a direct hit on the mountain slope just above the roof of our cave. A section of the roof fell in, and our colleagues from the next cave came scurrying through the corridors of the shelter.

But rather than treating my act as a brave gesture of defiance, my colleagues seemed disapproving. One editor turned and said, “For us Chinese, the prospect of death holds no terrors. We are not afraid to die.”

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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.