Monthly Archives: June 2016

Jun 29

Meeting an artist who paints with his hair in Beijing’s 798 Art District

By Mitchell Blatt | Art , China , Culture , Photos

Over Dragon Boat Festival, I visited Beijing and met an artist who paints with his hair. Some long papers were hanging down from an abandoned railway car that was covered with graffiti. On the paper were black swatches, dots, and thin streaming lines. A long-haired man was sitting down near the set up, and I asked him if it was his. “Yes,” he responded. His artist name was Namu (“big tree” in Korean), and he had been in China for 2 years.

Here are some photos of his art exhibition:

Namu and I
Namu and I
Namu, a Korean painter and performance artist, has lived in China for two years. He often works and performs at the Jiuchang Live House.
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The box cars are nearby the south entrance of 798:

798 Art Zone originated out of an abandoned factory area that was opened in the 1950’s. From 1957 until Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented economic reforms resulted in it being shut down, it produced military and civilian products. At its peak, 20,000 or so people worked there. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, avant-garde artists began moving there and using the old facilities. One of the artists who has had a connection with 798 is political artist Ai Wei Wei. By now there are also many shops and restaurants, as it is a popular tourist destination, but serious art exhibitions, most of them free to view, remain.

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For his exhibition of "Host," which runs until August 20, 2016, British artist Antony Gormley put sculptures in a warehouse and on the walls.
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Besides galleries and exhibitions, the graffiti painted around the area is also very beautiful.

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Jun 27

Chinese knock-off coffee shop owner tries to convince me her fake is a Korean brand

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Strange China News

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n the small Guangxi city of Sanjiang, you won’t find any Starbucks, McDonalds, or KFC stores. The nearest Western chain brands are 3 hours, or 140 kilometers (87 mi), away in Guilin. But you will find a fast food chicken place in a red building with a logo of a smiling man wearing a bow tie in black and white. The text on the sign, in a slightly italicized font with sharp serifs, reads “DFC.”

11229296_458770780964974_1293837021491884489_nChina is well known for its fake and counterfeit goods, which run the spectrum from straight-up knockoffs meant to fool consumers to wink-and-nod imitations. In Chinese, these kinds of fake products are called shanzhai, which translates to “mountain village” in English, a reference to bandits who live in the mountains out of reach of the law.

Many of these shanzhai restaurants are located in villages and small towns, where big brands don’t compete and the lenses of tourist cameras are few. Some, like DFC, try to push out beyond the confines of one village and make it big. “Dainty Fried Chicken,” as it is called, has one or two dozen restaurants in Guangxi and neighboring Guangdong province, including some in Guangzhou, one of the largest metropolises in China.

shanzhai-copy

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ome shanzhai shop owners even pretend to be the real thing. In my own city, Nanjing (pop. over 8 million), the provincial capital of Jiangsu and the old capital of multiple dynasties, I noticed an interesting new coffee shop nearby my house last week. The letters said “Najin Coffee” in red, with the “A” in white, and, although the font was off, the inspiration for its design was unmistakable. Maan Coffee, a trendy Korean brand known for its design, puts its name in red letters with a white “A.” Both shops had circular logos with a red fringe. Inside Najin Coffee, the interior design even copies Maan, with the distinct simple wooden tables and fake trees with colorful glass ornaments hanging down.

Fake Maan vs Real Maan

Is Najin Coffee fooling anyone? The boss, a woman named Xu Yueqing clearly hopes it is. When I met her on June 25, she insisted that her coffee shop was part of the Maan Coffee parent company.Continue reading

Jun 26

Watching lion dance acrobatics at Ip Man’s temple

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Photos

Lion on Top
Lion on Top
Zumiao often hosts kung fu performances. Lion dances, a traditional Chinese custom, are performed by kung fu students.
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Zumiao Temple is located in the heart of Foshan, a suburb of Guangzhou that was home to kung fu legends Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s master, and Huang Feihong. Just five minutes north from Zumiao Station (on Zumiao Lu), Zumiao Temple includes small museums about the two warriors and impressive works of huisu sculpture. In the afternoons it often hosts kung fu performances, lion dances, and Cantonese opera.

Jun 24

Backstage at a Cantonese opera performance

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Travel

As a child growing up on the outskirts of Guangzhou, Li Chixiang would listen to Hong Xiannv broadcast revolutionary operas on the radio and act them out. One moment she was the White Haired Girl, a peasant oppressed into concubinage by tyrant landlords, the next she was Wu Qinghua, a brave female soldier in the Red Detachment of Women. With her imagination, Li would conjure beautiful robes, flowered headdresses, and martial props. Her family was too poor to afford those things.

One day her father brought home a large blue vase from a business trip. As the family was admiring it, young Li, then 10 years old, picked up the vase and began using it as a microphone. She immediately transformed into Li Yuhe, the revolutionary railroad worker in The Legend of the Red Lantern, but as she swayed and sang, the vase slipped from her hand and smashed on the ground.

With mother and father enraged, Li ran off towards the bus station and headed for downtown Guangzhou to find Hong Xiannv and Zheng Peiying, another actor she had recently seen perform live. When she got off the bus, none of the adults she asked knew where either of the two actors were, and she headed back to her home in Panyu suburb awaiting her punishment. But when she arrived there, her mom said, “You scared me to death! As long as you are all right, everything is fine.” News in the village had spread that a 10-year-old’s corpse had been found in a creek.

Li Chixiang recounted the story in her book Cantonese Opera Royalty in the Eyes of A Xiang, published in 2012, in traditional Chinese characters, by the Macau Publishing House. The book includes essays on 72 heroes of the Cantonese opera stage, Hong Xiannv and Zheng Peiying among them, and 25 famous songs, as well as some stories about herself.

With a career acting and hosting TV shows spanning over thirty years, which included an appearance on CCTV’s Spring Festival Eve Gala, Li Chixiang was a good guide to me for Cantonese opera culture when I visited Guangzhou last year.

Li Chixiang performing

Li Chixiang performing

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Jun 22

What dog tastes like, and why I tried it

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture

I was walking along the road that ran through Chengyang in Guangxi province once summer day last summer when I saw locals preparing and cooking a dog with a blow torch. I had never eaten dog meat before, so I asked them how it tasted.

“Like dog,” they said.

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They invited me to try it, but something about seeing the body of the dog being cooked with a blow torch by the side of the road didn’t whet my appetite. I ended up joining a group of students at a riotous Dong ethnic food and wine feast instead.

Now, as in every June since 2009, Yulin, 450 km (280 mi) south of Chengyang, is playing host to Lychee and Dog Meat Festival. As in past years, Western activists are bemoaning the cruelty of eating one kind of helpless animal. A petition on Change.org now has over 2.5 million signatures. The petition makes the claims that the dogs consumed are treated inhumanely and that “many” are stolen pets or watchdogs.

The petition doesn’t appear, however, to make the explicit argument that eating dogs is itself wrong, but the commenters add that on their own:

”Dog are the best friend of the man not your meat!” – Herwig Unterfurtner
“Stop eating our best friends!” – Snezhana Hristova
“I think it’s primitive and extremely ugly killing dogs” – Viktoria Valchinova

One wonders what a devout Muslim or Hindu thinks of a foreigner who eats pork and beef.

From a rational standpoint, I had no objection to the men eating dog. Each animal should basically have the same rights as all other animals. If there is nothing wrong with eating cows, pigs, and chickens, then why should eating dogs be different from a moral standpoint? The main reason we have problems eating certain animals and no problems eating others is because we have been socialized to do so. But in a society where a large amount of people have no problem eating an animal whose consumption is taboo in another culture, then that reason would be moot.

I consider myself an adventurous traveler who loves to try new things. I had written an article in college myself arguing that there was nothing morally wrong about people choosing to eat dog. So why didn’t I eat it? I considered that maybe I was unconsciously put off by the taboo, but probably the main reason I chose not to eat it that day is that the dead carcass being prepared by the side of the road just didn’t look appetizing and hygienic.

So about a month later when I was in Zhuzhou, a city of 3 million in Hunan province, which is in south-central China, not far from Guangxi, I asked my friend if there were any restaurants there that served dog. Dog has been traditionally served in the summer months in some of the southern provinces. I had seen it advertised on restaurant signs in the countryside. My friend said there was a restaurant in a downtown entertainment district that was famous for the dish in the summer.

Dog

A bowl of brown soup with celery, orange peppers, onions, and strips of meat came to our table. I curiously took a bite. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the taste. I had to concur with the villagers in Chengyang; dog tastes like dog. The flavor was pretty good, meaty, succulent, and hearty. I finally settled that it tasted kind of like something between pork and lamb.

I haven’t sought out dog meat since then (and it’s not easy to find in big cities), but there was one night when I was staying at a hostel in Saigon, Vietnam, and the boss invited me to eat dinner with her and some of the staff. They had plates of meats and vegetables on a small table for a communal dinner, as is common in Asia. I tried everything, and I could tell what most of the dishes were. There was pork and duck and local vegetables.

There was one plate of tender meat with a bit of a gamey flavor that I couldn’t quite distinguish.

“What is this one?” I asked (in English).

“Duhk,” the boss said.

“Duck?”

“No, dohk.”

“Oh, oh, dog.”

“You think it is strange?” she asked.

“No, I’ve tried it before.”

Balut. Photo taken by Wikipedia user Ischaramoochie, Public Domain.

Balut. Photo taken by Wikipedia user Ischaramoochie, Public Domain.

Some Americans might have been offended to have inadvertently eaten dog. The boss must been able to tell that I was understanding of different ways of life and interested in trying things for her to have invited me over in the first place. I had been asking about culture and traditions all week. I had chomped down a meal of balut, duck eggs with half-developed fetuses, the day before.

People all around the world eat different kinds of food. It’s one of the reasons we travel. If one wants a real reason to be outraged in Vietnam, they can visit the site of the My Lai Massacre, the Vietnam War Remnants Museum, or the Hanoi Hilton.

Jun 19

NBA Finals in China: Why this ex-Clevelander hopes LeBron James loses

By Mitchell Blatt | Uncategorized

Tomorrow morning, sports bars in China will be full of basketball fans sipping bloody maries and watching LeBron James try to win the Cavaliers’ first NBA championship. I was there before, watching LeBron lose to the same team in the championship series the year before at a hostel in Shanghai—watching basketball while the hostel bar played terrible country music.

I have watched LeBron James play basketball since he was drafted by my hometown team. I watched the Cavs night after night in primary school, hoping with every possession they would start a comeback, believing, like a good Clevelander, that they just might. I remember the names of the unfortunate prospects to be picked by the Cavs and had their careers ruined from day one. Andre Miller (8th pick of the 1999 draft), Trajan Langdon (11th pick, 1999), Chris Mihm (7th pick by the Bulls in 2000, traded to Cleveland before the season started), Dajuan Wagner (6th pick, 2002). I remember dreaming of LeBron for four years, to the point where us Clevelanders eventually began cheering every loss, hoping to be put in the place to draft him. I remember celebrating winning the lottery. I remember watching LeBron in his first season, being happy just to break .500 for the first time since 1998, and watching from a hotel room in Chicago when he played in his first NBA Finals, cheering him on in vain, as he got swept.

Tomorrow, I will be rooting against LeBron James.

For the sake of my Cleveland friends who are still blindly following the cult, I hope a Cavs win gives them some solace. Maybe it will wake them up out of their Cleveland sports-induced stupor and let them stop staring at the icons on their TV, hoping a miracle will happen, and do something more worthwhile than watching the Cavs, Browns, and Indians. But on the other hand, it could also give them false hope that Cleveland sports really are worth their prayers and offerings. Years of disappointment have done crazy things to the city that hasn’t won a professional championship since 1964 and to its people.

I got out while I could. In 2008, I went to Indiana University for college, then I went to study abroad in China during the 2010-11 school year. While LeBron was losing the NBA Finals with the Heat for the first time that spring, I was blessedly removed from the agony of seeing the ex-Cavalier compete for what should have rightfully been the Cavs’. By then I had already stopped caring about the Cavs and Cleveland sports in general. James Quotes Interposed

“The Decision” did it. Maybe I should thank LeBron for it. If I hadn’t had to sit through months of his politicking, followed by anguishing weeks and days as the free agency period heated up, all culminating in his self-aggrandizing “Decision,” then maybe I wouldn’t have resented him as much. If he just said, “Fuck it, I’m going to win a title with Bosh and Wade,” the day he decided, there would be no pretend drama, no make-believe debate, no pretense of “loyalty” for naive sports fans to sop up. The reality TV special broke everything wide open, leaving me with no cares left to give.

I had seen Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome leave. I had been angry and annoyed. But there’s nothing like a basketball star leaving. It did to the Cavs what Nabisco, Carrier, and Apple all announcing on the same day that they were moving to Mexico did to Donald Trump’s fantasy version of the United States. Their win total dropped from 61 to 19. They just barely broke 20 wins the next two years. In no other sport is a team really just one player. Cheering for the Cavaliers is cheering for LeBron James.

And LeBron James isn’t very cheer-worthy. Clevelanders only started admitting that fact after he left. All the unsavory things about James that were pushed under the rug only became problems when he wasn’t a Cav. When he came back—after Cavs fans had burnt their jerseys, after the owner had posted a hilariously embarrassing letter written in Comic Sans that promised (all caps original), “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE”—Cleveland welcomed him back in open arms, like the metaphorical victim or Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan.

By that time, I was already in China. I don’t watch sports much here. It’s hard to, and I have more interesting things to do every day. But I will be watching the NBA Finals tomorrow, and I hope LeBron loses.

I urge Clevelanders, too, to give up on the failed sports enterprises, led by fantasy sports millionaires, swindling gas station moguls who cheer for their team’s biggest rival, or the ones who are too distracted by their European soccer teams to care and the ones who are planning to move the whole team, not just the top player, away so they can win a championship elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with leaving the cult before they drink the Kool Aid and jumping on the bandwagon of another team whose management and players have just as much connection to your hometown as your hometown team does. Just ask your lord and savior; the Chosen One wore the Yankees hat to an Indians vs Yankees playoff game.

Go Warriors!

Where to Watch the Finals in Shanghai
Big Bamboo has locations in Jing’an, Hongqiao, and Pudong, all of which will be broadcasting the finals, starting at 8 am (and which broadcast other events, including NFL, MLB, Australian rugby, soccer, UFC, US Open golf). The Jing’an location is most central, at #132 Nanyang Lu.

Where to Watch the Finals in Beijing
Sanlitun bar district would have multiple bars showing the Finals.

Jun 16

What the racist Chinese detergent ad has to say about the need for feminism in China

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture

I wrote an article last week for Acculturated about the meaning behind a Chinese detergent ad that had been called “the most racist ad ever.”

The ad showed a woman shoving a black man into a washing machine and being delighted when he came out as a Chinese guy. In my article, I focused on the racial aspect:

The not-so-subtle message of the ad that black men—and foreigners in general—are not suitable boyfriend material is one that is held by a not-insignificant number of Chinese people.

The furor over this ad came one month after the government released a cartoon on National Security Education Day warning Chinese women working for the state against disclosing state secrets to foreign boyfriends, which also made news in the US, and four years after CCTV host Yang Rui said that the Public Security Bureau should “clean out the foreign trash. . . arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls.”

A friend, Diane, an early-20’s Chinese woman who has studied abroad in Britain, put the focus on the feminist angle against male chauvinism as well:

I bet whoever produced or came up with the idea of that detergent ad is most likely to be a Chinese guy. From their perspective, Chinese guys like themselves should be so hot an attractive, and every woman of their own race should only feel natural to go on dates with them—rather let foreign guys, let alone black guys.

I would not only put an emphasis on the racism issue, but also put words in defense of feminism. Campaigns like #HeForShe are almost unimaginable in China.

Diane also raised the issue of a Chinese woman who was attacked online for marrying a German man:

What upset me most is the idea that we won’t even be able to have a #SheForShe in China, the way we have social news like that of the German dude marrying the Chinese girl and commercials like the detergent ad on every day. I feel woman should have their own say instead of going along with the mainstream male viewers.

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In regards to the news of the Chinese-German marriage, Diane said that there have been nasty comments made about the wife and husband:

People slut shame her, say the German guy is old and ugly, and that she must like ‘big foreign cocks.’”

Some comments also raised hyper-nationalism and xenophobia:

In 1900, the Eight-Nation Alliance [of Japan, Russia, the British Empire, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary] invaded China. They burnt and killed, looted and plundered. There wasn’t a line they would stop at in the pursuit of evil. The rivers ran with blood. Through this bloody history, just over 100 years later [JUST!], this Chinese girl doesn’t know history, wants to marry a foreigner … really make your ancestors feel shame.

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Jun 14

What floor? How language differences caused the Hong Kong water department to waste millions on billing errors

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Strange China News

The wall was painted “2/F 3 floor,” with the Chinese character for floor (楼 lóu) next to the 3. Which floor was I on?

It depends on whether you use the American system or the British system. I was in Hong Kong in the stairwell of my couch surfing host’s home. That explains the difference in the floor numbering scheme and in so much in Hong Kong.

A former British colony and now a part of China, Hong Kong has taken aspects from both Britain and mainland China. The different ways they number floors in the two places is but one relic from colonial Britain. The side of the road cars drive on is the most obvious one. In Hong Kong, they follow the British way, driving on the left. In China, they drive on the right. Language is another; Hong Kongese should know three languages: Cantonese (their local Chinese dialect), Mandarin (that mainland’s preferred dialect, which many Hong Kongese are not proficient at), and English.

If someone tells you their home is on the second floor in English, versus them telling you the same thing in Chinese, apparently it would make a one-floor difference. The practice of using Chinese-style floor numbering for residential buildings, however, is mostly limited to older residences. If you are just climbing the stairs, it won’t be a big problem, but if when the Hong Kong water department made a change in the address of water bills, they ended up wasting $HK9 million in taxpayer money due to billing errors stemming from the confused addresses.

Jun 08

Why Chinese people drink arsenic on Dragon Boat Festival

By Mitchell Blatt | China

If you are a snake, you must be careful today, the 5th day of the 5th month, because today is Dragon Boat Festival. The festival may be most well-known in the West for the dragon boat races that give it its English name, but there are many lesser-known traditions as well.

Calamus plant is hung on the side of one’s door. Pesticide wine is drank. Children are painted adorned with hanging ornaments. Pictures of Zhong Kui, the king of ghosts, are hung. Tying together these traditions is a belief that they can protect one from evil spirits (including snakes).

Calamus on sale in Nanjing.

Calamus on sale in Nanjing.

Often the Chinese calendar-based festival falls around summer solstice, which is June 20-21, although it came earlier this year. The day is long, and the bugs and snakes are at full force. Realgar wine (雄黃酒, xiónghuángjiǔ), a traditional pesticide in Chinese medicine, is supposed to keep away mosquitos. (In fact, the poisonous element, realgar, is a mild arsenic sulfide mineral, which can be dangerous in excessive consumption.) Children who are too young to drink realgar wine would have an ornament containing realgar and other herbs and have the character for “kind” written on their forehead.

The traditions relating to the use of realgar are not as popular anymore as they once were, but realgar wine did inspire one of China’s greatest folktales and operas, Madame White Snake. A snake who took the form of a woman fell in love with a man at West Lake in Hangzhou and married him, but she was tricked into drinking realgar wine during Dragon Boat Festival and is revealed to be a snake. Madame White Snake eventually is imprisoned under the Leifeng Pagoda (and later freed) at West Lake, which makes the pagoda a famous tourist sight today. The man she married still loves her, but he has to go through a lot of toil to get her back.

So the moral of the story is don’t drink realgar wine, or your lover might be revealed to be a snake. Best to avoid the hassle, which sounds fine to me, because realgar wine doesn’t sound too appetizing in the first place.

Also, my zodiac sign is a snake.