Monthly Archives: July 2015

Jul 24

How I Avoided a Scam (a Robbery) at the Mumbai Airport

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

There are a lot of scams at the Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Some unscrupulous taxi drivers will take you to an unreputable travel agent and pressure you to pay an inflated price for a weekly driver or something. There are many reports to this effect on the internet, and I know they are true. It almost happened to me.

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I should have known better. Everyone knows the rickshaw drivers or black market “taxi” drivers who congregate around the exit to the airport are scammers. They’re looking for easy prey—naive Westerners with no experience in the country, who don’t know what the natural prices are, who don’t know exactly where they’re going, and who have a relatively fat wallet (being that they have the means to travel internationally). But I was tired, it was raining, and I wanted to get to my hostel quickly and didn’t know how, so I threw caution into the wind. I got out relatively unscathed, like a fish biting the hook fighting itself loose before it can be reeled in. I lost 50 Rupees (US$0.78), rather than a few hundred or thousand it might have been if the theft was completed.

The driver didn’t speak good English, but he told me he could get me to where I was going. He mentioned something about a bus, but I ignored that. Maybe he was referring to his rickshaw as a “bus.” He quoted a price of 100R. That sounded cheap, but I knew it must be expensive, so I asked 50R, and he readily accepted. I got in the back of the rickety cab, and he got in the front with a friend, and they started driving. It was kind of charming driving through the slums in an open-backed rickshaw.

But I knew there was something fishy when I saw the fare meter started at 140R. I asked the driver, and he seemed to confirm the price was 50R, as we agreed. Why would he charge me such a discount from the official fare?

I would soon find out. He stopped in the slum next to some one-story high buildings that were falling apart. The driver’s friend got out to talk to some people. I looked out to see what was happening. The driver assured me everything was fine (for him). Soon he got out and motioned for me to get out and come with some guys who would get me on a bus. I had hoped he could get me all the way downtown.

The “travel agent” guys wanted me to go with them into their little rooms, but I didn’t even have my luggage. I knew what would probably happen in there. There were three or four of them—big guys—and just one of me. Once I would have walked in, one of them would get behind me in front of the door. The “travel agent” would have me buy an expensive bus or rail ticket. It would have been a kidnapping disguised as a ticket transaction. The real thing you’re buying is a ticket out the door. I can only assume, because I didn’t go in. I backtracked and went back to the rickshaw and got my luggage.

The guys came out around me and asked, “What’s the problem?” One person said I should try his “agency.” He could get me bus tickets, plane tickets. I didn’t even need plane tickets. I just needed to get downtown. I’m sure he could have gotten me them, though, or at least something resembling plane tickets and either way for a good deal more expensive than plane tickets cost on the market. So they kept asking me what the problem was. I kept denying and trying to tell them to go. On the road were a lot of other rickshaw cabs, which I didn’t really want to try, but it was just my luck that an auto cab was coming down the street—more reliable, I assumed, than a rickshaw. I pulled out my wallet and paid the rickshaw driver 50R then I got in the taxi cab and threw my luggage in the backseat. One of the presumed scammers came over and was yelling at me as I got in. He kept yelling until I closed the door and the cab drove off.

A simpler solution would have been to avoid the rickshaws in the first place, but it wouldn’t have been as fun.

Jul 17

Merchants Praying to Chairman Mao for Riches

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , History , Travel

IMG_4289 copyWhile I was in the courtyard of Mao Zedong’s childhood home, a tourist from Anhui asked if I “worshipped” the man. No, I said, do you? She said yes. At some shops nearby, people even burnt incense at the feet of large Mao statues. In Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan, some people still view him as more than a man.

After seeing his house, I walked into a large corridor of hawkers selling Mao statues (appropriately golden), tee shirts, pins, and other merchandise. Hawkers yelled for people to buy their wares. It was a hot day, so I bought water for the inflated price of 5 yuan, 1.5 times more than it costs outside of a tourist area.

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The prayers of the shop owners when they placed the incense must have been for wealth. At Mao Zedong Square, many companies even left flowers for him, and a woman who recently opened a hotel walked around him three times, bowing her head and hoping for the hotel is a success that earns her family a lot of money.

I thought about the 5 yuan water as I ate dinner at Mao Jia Restaurant, a famous chain originating in Shaoshan in 1987. Mao once said, “Serve the people,” and the quote was printed on all the wait staff’s tee shirts with Mao’s face. The quote can be modified to say, “Serve the People’s Currency,” as the yuan is also called “People’s Currency” (RMB – 人民币) in Chinese.

At Mao Jia Restaurant, I ordered “cut pepper fish head” (剁椒鱼头), a famous Hunan dish. Maybe they overheard me talking on the phone, telling the above story about my day to a friend, because they later brought me complimentary dishes of pork braised in brown sauce (红烧肉), Mao’s favorite dish, and Chinese spinach. They apparently took the real quote seriously.

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If you come to Shaoshan, you will see Mao when you arrive. His portrait adorns the outside of the train station and the inside of the bus station. His legacy has done much to help the tourism economy of Shaoshan. One tour guide estimated there were about 500 people employed as tour guides there.

Shaoshan Train Station

Shaoshan Train Station

The man on one hundred dollar bills (and indeed all denominations of one yuan or more) once said, “It is a very good thing, and a significant one too, to exterminate the bourgeoisie and capitalism in China.”

Chinese people are resourceful with their deities. Even if they don’t believe in Buddhism, many non-believers will still bow their heads and pray at Buddhist temples. Chinese religion, to quote what Matt Damon’s character in the Dogma boardroom scene said about voodoo, “is a fascinating practice. No real doctrine of faith to speak of, more an arrangement of superstitions.” The golden statue reigns.

Jul 04

How True are the “Hong Kong is not China” Images?

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , News and Politics

A Hong Kong designer by the name Local Studio HK created images to make the point that “Hong Kong is not China” that are going viral on social media and China blogs. Some of them take shots at Chinese people’s su zhi, or “character.” Others compare Hong Kong’s relative freedom to China’s authoritarian one party system. Some are just valueless like “Chinese drive it [on the] left,” and Hong Kong on the right.

The argument itself over whether Hong Kong is, or should be, a part of China is one thing, but what about the logic used to back up that argument in the pictures? I will take a look at each, and, as you will see, a lot of the pictures completely miss the mark.

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More or less true. China has a one party system without rule of law. Hong Kong is comparatively more free and democratic. But anyone following the 2017 reform debate and Occupy Central knows it isn’t a true democracy. The chief executive is still elected by the election committee, after the failure of the Beijing-backed reform bill that would have allowed a few (probably pro-Beijing) candidates to run after being screened by a nomination committee. Only half of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong is elected by universal suffrage, and the other half is elected by functional constituencies of businesses and interest groups that skew towards the elite and pro-Beijing side.

This system is controlled by China, a Hong Konger might say, and the undemocratic reform bill was put forward by China’s government. True, also, but Hong Kong didn’t have any democratically-elected legislature before 1997 either.

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This one points out that the anniversary of the clearing of Tiananmen Square, the early morning of June 4, or 6-4, is censored in China. True.

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A shot at the police for their involvement in arresting protesters. Incidents of police brutality and alleged police brutality are widely shared by democracy supporters.

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Chinese use WeChat, and Hong Kongers use different apps. So what? Some of those apps, like Instagram, are blocked in China. In addition, Chinese also use QQ, Didi Dache (taxi booking), and others that aren’t displayed in this image.

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CCTV is the state-run channel in China. ATV is one of the main channels, which is perceived to be biased towards China and is less popular than TVB. Hong Kongers are disappointed with both options, and there were big protests outside the LegCo when HKTV, which was perceived as independent, was denied a broadcast license (my reporting). Two other channels were given licenses.

Of course, there is no requirement to watch CCTV. Although it is the most popular channel, a lot of people watch provincial networks that produce more inspired programming like Hunan TV (“Baba Qu Naer?” and Fan Bingbing’s “The Empress of China”).

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Haha, Chinese food quality really can be suspect. Chinese say that themselves. That’s many go to Hong Kong to buy milk powder. There have been a lot of food safety scandals in China beyond the daily problems of pollution in the water and soil. Melamine milk, gutter oil… Gutter oil isn’t just a problem for street food, animal-grade oil was used by huge Taiwanese conglomerates like the company that produces Master Kong instant noodles. And the scandal involved a lot of food products sold in Hong Kong.

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First, in the China picture, the Chinese person wouldn’t be laying on the subway seats. There would be four people sitting in those subway seats. Next, in the Hong Kong picture, the Hong Konger wouldn’t by standing by four open subway seats. He would be standing by four occupied subway seats.

There are a lot of people in China and Hong Kong, and the subway is often crowded. In fact, Chinese people who see someone laying on all four seats when it’s crowded would probably start yelling at him, and then other riders would film it and upload it to Youku.

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Um… Chinese toilets are dirty? Yes, Chinese restrooms are often dirty, but do Chinese people really stand on the seat? I’ve never seen it, but then again, I don’t watch other people shitting. A lot of Chinese toilets are squating toilets in the floor. This is one of the images that is quite anti-Chinese people and not just anti-China. Some of the nativists among the pan-democrats in Hong Kong host anti-Chinese demonstrations with racist chants that sully their image.

A few of the others include things about politics, like how Hong Kong has free speech. A lot of them are just irrelevant. Chinese people use Chinese Yuan and Hong Kong uses Hong Kong Dollar. Chinese drive on the left and Hong Kongers drive on the right. And…?

Here’s one I already handled on Twitter:

It says Chinese speak Mandarin, and Hong Kongers speak Cantonese, which, in Chinese is also referred to as “Guangdong dialect,” because Chinese in Guangdong speak it. Indeed, everyone in Chinese speaks local dialects/languages as well as Mandarin. Shanghai dialect is almost as confounding to non-natives as Cantonese, and yet Shanghai is a part of China.

I do find everytime I go to Hong Kong that there does seem to be a different kind of culture there. Openness? Creativity? (There were a lot of great films there, and a lot of Chinese language singers hail from there…) International? The fact that it preserved much culture destroyed during the Cultural Revolution? (Making it more Chinese than China?) I don’t know. It’s hard to put “culture” in words or images, which is perhaps one of the problems the artist had here.

Moreover, culture is fluid. And most countries are multi-cultural. Without even addressing Tibet or Xinjiang, you can see many cultural differences between the “laid-back” Sichuan and the “fast paced” life of Shanghai.

Anyway, I have to go to the airport now to catch a flight, so I can’t analyze every image. I’m on my way to Guangdong to see some cultural things there. See more images here at Local Studio HK’s photos.