Monthly Archives: September 2015

Sep 19

Chinese Woman Told to Check Nationality of Bugs After “Imported Milk Powder” Turns Out to be a Box Full of Insects

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Strange China News

A woman from Zhejiang province purchased what was advertised as imported milk powder. It turned out to be a box full of squashed insects. After she complained to the seller, the seller told her, “First confirm the nationality of the insects.”

The quote was highlighted on the “Voice” page of the September 9-22 issue of Southern Window.

Sep 12

“The Last Season”: Review of Stuart Stevens’ New Book

By Mitchell Blatt | Literature

9780385353021The Last Season begins with a scene of a young Stuart Stevens at the 1962 Ole Miss vs. Kentucky game that preceded the riots over the university’s integration. When halftime came, the band marched out onto the field with “the Largest Confederate Flag in the World” as usual, but afterwards Governor Ross Barnett came out onto the field and gave a speech: “I love Mississippi! I love her people! Our customs!” The crowd was riled up and Stevens’ father left with him in disgust.

The prologue sets the stage for a book that evokes the great social changes that took place in the South and the relationship college football had to that society. Football in the South, Stevens told me in an interview that will be published later at The Federalist, plays a role akin to that of rugby in South Africa, which helped build some degree of unity between whites and blacks. The importance of football in the South and at Ole Miss in particular in relation to issues of racial strife is no less evident day.

Stevens described his lack of awareness as a child of the meaning of the Confederate battle flag, which was waved frequently by fans until the university started trying to discourage it in 1997. The flag is still a controversy in Mississippi and other Southern states. It appears in the corner of the Mississippi state flag. Speaking to the prominence of football, it was widely reported news when Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze spoke in favor of changing Mississippi’s state flag.

So, as a function of Stevens having grown up in Mississippi and being an Ole Miss fan, those themes are big issues throughout, but the book is about more than that; it’s about family and life. It’s about Stevens reconnecting with his father after both of them have lived busy, driven professional lives. And it’s about facing the inevitable disappointments one will face in life. Stuart Stevens was a high-ranking advisor with the Mitt Romney campaign for president in 2012 before he back to his birthplace to watch each game of the 2013 Ole Miss football season with his dad. It’s Stevens’ sixth book, after three travel memoirs in China, Africa and Europe; Scorched Earth, a fictional political campaign thriller; and The Big Enchilada, a memoir on the 2000 Bush campaign, on which he worked as a media consultant.

Stevens goes through important games of the season, recounting the games while tying those events to his memories growing up and part of his and his father’s lives. The familiar sights and sounds that everyone loves about sporting events—the hot dogs, the roar of the crowd, the excitement and anticipation before each game, the charged tailgating environment and the impossible struggle to find a parking space (or hates)—are all described in lifelike detail in the 224 pages. So are the life events, like Stevens’ sneaking off to go swimming one summer day and his early adulthood watching crappy Northeastern football in New York City. Through it all, the book ties together the meaning of sports in people’s lives.

Stevens makes much of how football is like a religion in the South—a religion that people not from the South cannot understand. It is not hard to accept that Southerners—and in particular fans of the dominant Southeastern Conference (SEC), which has won 7 of the last 10 national titles—really love their football. Stevens paid a lot of attention to the strange traditions of some of the schools, like Ole Miss fans’ cries of “Hotty Toddy.” But having grown up in Ohio—and Ohio State is the defending champion!—I had to point out that football is pretty intense in the Midwest and Big Ten, too. Indeed, most sports fans should be able to understand the fandom here, and one who isn’t a fan should have a better understanding of it after reading the book.

All in all, The Last Season is a good book to get you ready for the college football season, which has just started. It will also give Northerners an insight on the Southern identity for the next time a debate roars up about something related to the Civil War or other such issue. When the book concludes at the end of the season, with people already thinking about the next season, it is a reminder that the events of history never really end. They just continue again under different circumstances.

Purchase on Amazon: The Last Season, 224 pages, $12.99 Kindle, $13.45 hardcover

Also get ready for my interview with Stevens to be published at The Federalist. We talk about the topics of the book as well as politics and his career—including the Bush and Romney campaigns and Donald Trump. If you want to be updated by email when the interview is live, subscribe in the box below.

Sep 09

Anti-Chinese Views Create Conspiracy Theories in Vietnam

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

Leaches suck. And they are crowding the waterways in the countryside of northern Vietnam, after Chinese traders created an artificial demand for them, according to the Vietnamese rumor mill and tabloid journalism.

This is just one of the strange stories I have heard about China from Vietnamese people at guesthouses and restaurants in Hanoi and Saigon. Chinese merchants reportedly came to Vietnam and asked to buy leaches for exorbitant prices. For what, the local farmers didn’t know. They speculated it might be for medicine, eating or some other reason, but most of all, they harvested leaches in hopes of selling them to Chinese. Few Chinese returned to buy leaches, and the farmers were left with an excess of the worthless bloodsucking creatures and they threw them into the water, where now leaches threaten the locals.

So goes this 2013 report at VietnamNet.vn.

Mr. Ho Huu Dung in Que Phong town, Nghe An, is now in debt when hundreds of dried leeches are in stock because Chinese trader suddenly disappeared.

Dung said: “Initially, traders asked us to collect leeches for them at the price of VND200,000 per kilo. Then they doubled the price. I purchased hundreds of kilos of dried leeches but they have disappeared.”

It is said that this is a game of Chinese traders. Initially they spent money creating “fevers” for “leechese” by increasing the prices for leeches. After purchasing leeches at the old price, they sold leeches to Vietnamese traders at high prices. When the prices reached the peak, it was the time that Chinese traders sold out their leeches and disappeared, leaving the fields of leeches.

These rumors morph into conspiracy theories, to the effect that China is waging economic warfare to cause farmers to waste their resources, or even biological warfare to spread leaches around Vietnam. From the blog Say No to Communism, ”Leech attack in Vietnam because of biological warfare from China”:

She bought leeches collected from other provinces, especially from Tay Ninh. The creatures were bought for VND80,000 to VND150,000 per kilogram Thanh said the agency used to buy several bags of leeches per day from collectors who carried them on motorbikes, mainly at night, to the buyer. Finding a new opportunity to make money, several farmers built leech-breeding ponds in their houses. It is from the house at 42/4D in Chanh 1 Hamlet that leeches escaped from their bags and made their way to a nearby 3.000sq.m field where they grew very quickly. But the buyer disappeared very suddenly, leaving the 3,000sq.m field full of leeches. “No one dare to wade across the field now,” said Thanh.

Hao, the owner of a restaurant in Hanoi, said that these views are driven by rumors and yellow journalism. If a few people in a village start to make money selling something, news will spread like wildfire and others will chase what they think is easy money. It happened with lemongrass and snails, too.

When there are Chinese traders reportedly involved, it is all the more ripe for scandal-mongering, because there are existing anti-Chinese views due to 1,000 years of Chinese occupation, a battle (with South Vietnam) over some of the Parcel Islands in 1974 that China won and the ongoing dispute over those and other islands. Already predisposed to distrust China, Vietnamese also factor in concerns about China dominating Vietnamese trade and Chinese exports of “poisonous” food.

Yet Chinese culture has also penetrated Vietnam to a large degree (though the reason it has is the same as the reason Vietnamese don’t like Chinese incursions). Some Vietnamese businesses have statues of Guanyu, the ancient Chinese general-turned-deity, and Vietnamese temples have Chinese characters inscribed. The Temple of Literature in Hanoi, built in 1070 when Vietnam was under the control of a dynasty started by a Chinese family, was Vietnam’s “first university” and taught about Confucianism and Chinese culture.

Hao, whose ancestors were part Chinese, said that many Vietnamese are part Chinese.

Sep 04

Why Hoi An is not a “Touristy” City Like Lijiang

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

If you ask any tourist in Vietnam about Hoi An, you are bound to hear one of two responses: either it’s a paradise with charming streets, lovely cafes on the water and beautiful beaches (more likely) or it’s an artificial touristy hell hole.

Of course in real life it’s neither extreme—or maybe it’s both. After all, a place can both be touristy and beautifully charming. Indeed, the beauty of such a place is often why so many tourists flock to a place in the first place. And one may want to go to Hoi An precisely for that reason—to see crowded streets, to waste away the night at loud party bars.

If you go to Hoi An expecting huge crowds and endless nights, you are bound to be disappointed. Take it from me, a one-time bar worker in Dali, along the tourism road to Lijiang, Hoi An is no Lijiang, and it’s not even Dali. For good or bad, it is less crowded and less artificial-feeling.

One Wednesday evening I was walking around the “night market” island. Strings of lanterns festooned the streets. A tour group from Korea watched a bingo and singing performance of some sort. A foreigner on the bridge gave me a free drink coupon for “Moe’s Tavern.” There were crowds on the main streets, but the side streets were all empty, mostly filled with residential housing.

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I went to a bar at 8 pm and left at 10:50 pm. In Lijiang, the night is just getting started at 11. Walking back at 11 in Hoi An, most of the streets were empty. Few of the other bars were full. It was so empty that if you waved a 5,000 VND bill in front of a motorcycle driver and he finally agreed to take you back to your hostel 30 minutes away walking—against the protests of his fellow motorcycle taxi touts—he could probably take you to an ATM and rob you with no one seeing. Would he really do that? I don’t know, because I jumped off the back of the motorcycle less than one minute later when it looked like he was going the wrong way.

Hoi An bar street at 11 pm.

Hoi An bar street at 11 pm.

Beyond the actual market area, there are a lot of quiet streets where you can sit in the courtyard of a nice quiet restaurant with few other people. Much of the Lijiang ancient town is loud and chaotic, with few open seats in lots of restaurants.

So is Hoi An better or worse than Lijiang? Depends on what you’re looking for look at these pictures and see for yourself.

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Sep 02

How not to get Scammed on the Yellow Bus from Da Nang to Hoi An

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

The bus has a figure of Guanyin (a Buddhist deity) and incense burning in the front. It must be safe.

The bus has a figure of Guanyin (a Buddhist deity) and incense burning in the front. It must be safe.

If you search the internet looking for how to get from Da Nang to Hoi An, nearby coastal cities in central Vietnam, you will probably find articles stating that the yellow bus from Da Nang to Hoi An is a scam—that it charges foreigners 50,000 VND (US$2.22) or so and Vietnamese 20,000 VND (US$0.89).

Well, I just took the yellow bus today to get to Hoi An, and they only charged me 20,000 VND. In fact, I had already pulled out 20,000 and gave it to the money collector, having read up on the possible scam. The money collector said something to me after, as I was sitting in the seat—possibly to the effect of the price being cheap and possibly wanting me to give more, but I don’t know, because I can’t speak Vietnamese, and her English was poor—but whatever she said it didn’t matter because I ignored her and remained seated.

(Some sources say the ticket price is 18,000 VND, but it is normal for Vietnamese to not give change for something less than 5,000 VND (US$0.22).)

They didn’t give me a ticket, by the way, nor did I see them give anyone else a ticket, so do not feel uneasy about them not giving you a ticket.

Here are some other travelers who have talked about getting scammed by the buses:
Jay and Jon, June 2013
TripAdvisor forum, August 2011

Cafes with flower-covered roofs in Hoi An.

Cafes with flower-covered roofs in Hoi An.

As noted, the scam—if it still occurs—appears to be easily avoidable. Just have the 20,000 VND bill(s) ready and give them the exact amount and ignore any hassling after you sit down. One of the other commenters also notes—and this is probably a good idea—to not give them more than 20,000, as they might not give you change.

This, too, is good advice for when you get off at the Hoi An bus station in Da Nang and must get to the ancient city. There is a big map at the bus station, so you can easily find the way to get there yourself by walking, however it could be 30 minutes or more, depending on where your hotel is located, so you may want to take one of the many motorbikes.

I took a motorbike after agreeing to 15,000 VND for the ride. The driver originally asked 20,000 VND, and I asked 10,000, and then I raised to 15,000 and started walking after he denied that. Later, he drove up beside me and agreed to 15,000, and I got on. When we arrived he started demanding 20,000.

“Long ride… Long ride…” he said. I told him we had already agreed, but unfortunately I didn’t have a 5,000 VND bill, and he said he didn’t either. So I gave him a 10,000 VND bill and then went to split a 10,000 VND bill at the hostel.

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One more thing I must say is that bargaining culture is ingrained in Asia. Don’t think at all that it is impolite to cut the price or to stand behind the price you agreed to. The touts know how to bargain even better than tourists. When the motorbike driver asked for 20,000 after agreeing to 15,000, he was using a trick of bargaining to try to earn more. At the very least, there need not be any value judgment about bargaining, but, if you must make a value judgment out of it—if you must consider whether or not you are being stingy—then consider the other side as well. Someone who asks for an inflated price—often on the basis of your perceived nationality—is being more impolite.

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Sep 01

Working with the Fishermen on Da Nang Beach

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

Midday, the beach in Da Nang is empty. As I was walking around at 2 pm, the only people on the beach were fishermen tending to their nets. There were small fishing boats out just off the shore and ropes running up the beach.

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Version 2In front of me, a group of four people were pulling a rope. I walked up close enough, wondering what they were doing, for one of the workers to look at me and smile and point to the rope. I grabbed on and started pulling. I kept pulling, walking backwards, until I got to the end of the beach and had done a full cycle. My hands were kind of red, but the workers were using their bare hands, too. They did have harnesses to which they strapped the rope, giving them extra pulling power from their waists. It felt good to do some real flesh and bones labor that required muscle—in such a nice place, too.

I still wondered what they were pulling out, but I went back to the front and did another cycle. After about four cycles, they moved the rope further down the beach, nearby another group pulling another rope.
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It wasn’t long before they pulled out some netting woven together and I could see it was a net. But they had to pull that out for a bit before they got to the real green net where the fish ended up when they got caught. Most of the fish were small, as long as a finger, but some were bigger. The fishermen immediately began sorting the fish and separating the trash that had inevitably gotten caught in the net. A crowd had surrounded them on the beach by the time they were done, some of them tourists like myself, but at least one was a local who bought a fresh fish from them on the spot.
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After our work was done, I headed up the beach and eventually found a streetside fish restaurant at just after 4 pm. Seeing all those fresh fish I helped pull in made me hungry for fish, and so I asked the waiter for fish (cá) in Vietnamese. They fried some fish together with lemongrass that eventually cost 90,000 VND (US$4).
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At 5 pm – 6 pm, as I was walking back, the beach became crowded with locals relaxing, swimming and playing soccer. I took my shirt off and ran in to the ocean.
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Da Nang is located in the middle of Vietnam, north of Hoi An and south of Hue. Flights from Hanoi or Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) can cost as little as US$50-70.

Vietnam map, via Wikipedia.

Vietnam map, via Wikipedia.