Monthly Archives: July 2016

Jul 31

Bibimbap: A basic Korean dish, but the gold standard for assessing taste and authenticity – Day 2

By Mitchell Blatt | Food and Leisure , Korea Trip 2016

The first time I tried dolsot bibimbap (stone pot mixed rice) was at a Japanese/Korean restaurant at Indiana University called Ami. I loved how the vegetables, meat, and egg mixed with rice to create full flavors. I went back to Ami many times that year and often ordered dolsot bibimbap. That summer I went to San Francisco and ate bibimbap at a hard-to-find restaurant on a second-floor in Koreatown. It was amazing. Next fall I went back to Ami. Their bibimbap tasted terrible.

I’ve tried a lot of dolsot bibimbap since then, but nothing compares to the real thing. Last night, for my last meal before flying off to Seoul, I tried stone pot bibimbap at a Korean restaurant in a Korean ethnic neighborhood of Yantai, which is not far from the Korean Peninsula. The place was filled with the sounds of spoken Korean. The kim chi in the banchan (pre-meal snacks) was especially sour and crunchy. The main course was better than most bibimbap dishes in China.

But now I’m in Korea. The first thing I did when I got off the bus from the airport shuttle was to enter a restaurant and order dolsot bibimbap.

It came in a scalding hot bowl with dried seaweed on top and a real cracked raw egg inside. I mixed it up. Now that was real good dolsot bibimbap. The rice on the edges of the bowl was cooked till it was crunchy.

The banchan was also different. Continue reading

Jul 27

Beautiful charming cafes and teahouses in the French Concession

By Mitchell Blatt | China , China Travel Tips , Cool Restaurants/Bars , Travel

In 1931, The China Weekly Review published an article by a local claiming that “such vices as gambling, opium dealing and houses of ill-fame are allowed to exist openly in China … wherever the French flag flies in China, social conditions are worse than under other foreign flags.”

Ah, the legendary French hedonism… The French had their own section of Shanghai, governed on their own terms, from 1849-1943, but the good times continue today, 73 years after they waved the white flag and signed the territory over to the Japanese who had conquered Shanghai. Remaining sections of the former French Concession, such as those around Shaanxi South Road, Huaihai Road, and Fuxing Road in Xuhui District have beautiful bars where you can have the old French-style experience, which includes quiet afternoons, too, I think.

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Maison de Thé Song Fang was my intended stop. Housed inside a Republic of China-era lane house from 1930, it is renowned for its charming old-time teahouse style. Wooden tables on a wooden floor. Woven chairs, lamps. In one room, lights housed inside birdcages hung from bamboo poles, and tables were lined up along a flowery red couch that you could just imagine high-class Shanghai women sitting on and playing mah jong. The tea menu listed Chinese and French teas divided by style, with detailed descriptions, most of which were priced between ¥60 yuan and ¥96 yuan (~US$10-15). It also included a selection of fresh homemade pastries.

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Continue reading

Jul 25

Protests at Shanghai mall over financial fraud part of a growing trend

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Local Politics

On July 16, law enforcement officers were stationed outside the iapm mall on Huaihai Road in Shanghai and an ambulance was parked in front of the door. Exactly one month ago, the chief financial officer of Jinxing Investments (Shanghai Uprosper Asset Management Co) Ji Jianhua appeared at the firm’s offices and admitted that the firm’s boss was nowhere to be found.

Ever since then investors have been protesting. Inside the mall, which is home to luxury brands like Prada and Givenchy, a line of officers stood at attention in front of the escalators. Mall officials in blazers and ties milled around. A crowd of spectators had gathered at the edge of the second, third, and fourth floors, looking down into the atrium.

A group of retired Chinese people came marching out into the first floor, carrying signs, some with images of Xi Jinping, and waving Chinese flags. A protest. In Chinese, wei quan—“protecting [our] rights.”

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”Come out, boss, and return my hard-earned savings!”
”Jinxing committed fraud, the common people suffer; Honest Judge Gongbao, uphold justice.”
[Under a picture of Xi Jinping]: “Weiquan is actually truly maintaining stability.”

Over ¥400 million Chinese yuan (US$60 million) have been stolen from about 2,500 investors who were attracted by street fliers and seminars. When it opened in November 2015, Jinxing/Uprosper Assets promised to be a safe investment option dedicated to “creat[ing] the top service brand in supply chain finance industry in China.” On its website it claimed to have partnerships with Chinese state-owned banks like China Construction Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Its boss, a 37-year-old man named Wang Jian, held glitzy events at 5 star hotels and invited celebrities like 2008 and ’12 Chinese gold medalist boxer Zou Shiming to his offices. On its opening day it held a flamboyant ribbon-cutting ceremony with a dragon dance and flowers gifted by Shanghai district administrative governments.

Flowers gifted by the Baoshan district government for opening day. Photograph shared on WeChat.

Flowers gifted by the Baoshan district government for opening day. Photograph shared on WeChat.

Convinced by the illusion of stability and prestige, Mr. Zhang, a 63-year-old who chose to use a pseudonym for fear of government reprisal, invested ¥200,000 yuan (US$30,000) along with a friend in March. “If we didn’t think the government was supporting them, we wouldn’t have invested,” Zhang said.

Three months later, he couldn’t access his money. On June 15, many investors found their money was gone, and employees weren’t getting paid. Back at the office on June 16, the scene was chaotic. Papers were thrown everywhere. A group of investors surrounded the offices, and 100 of them stayed for three days, not letting financial officer Ji Jianhua leave. Ji said he would let them take him to the police, but Zhang said he feared that even if Ji faced a few years in prison he will come out and still have access to stolen money. Another investor who surrounded the offices for three days, Mrs. Mua was quoted in a Sina Finance article saying, “I feared important evidence would be missing. I have seen salespeople trying to take computers away, so we have stopped them.”

Fled to the United States?
Since then three officials, Ji, legal representative Yan Aimin, and salesperson Li Yintao have been arrested, but Wang Jian is missing and rumored to have fled to the United States along with his mistress. Zhang sourced the claim that Wang flew to the U.S. to Ji via a third-party. On an hour-long recording, one of the representatives of the investors tells other investors about a conversation he said he had with Ji. Wang reportedly has access to ¥150 million yuan of stolen assets (according to Sina and investors). Authorities are trying to trace the path of the money through dozens of bank accounts and recover some of it, but Zhang and Ms Li, another investor using a pseudonym, are not confident that they will ever see much of it again.

Fraudulent Schemes a Growing Problem

In a country with an under-regulated financial sector full of people who have recently acquired wealth, fraudulent schemes are a growing problem, and pilfered investors are increasingly resorting to protest to try to put pressure on a government they say doesn’t care enough. In July 2015, investors of Fanya Metal Exchange were denied access to their cash, which they were told they could withdraw at any time. Later that year investors took to protesting. Over 2,000 were arrested before a planned protest in Beijing on October 26, 2015. In December the founder of Fanya Metal Exchange was arrested on charges of fraud involving ¥40 billion yuan in investments (US$6 billion), but one of the investors, said, in an essay that appeared in Foreign Policy, that she doesn’t think she will get her money back either.

The Fanya scheme and the Uprosper scheme both involved many of the same elements that gave investors a false sense of security. According to the investor who wrote for Foreign Policy, a 29-year-old girl who invested ¥1.1 million yuan (US$175,000) of her parents’ retirement money, she had the impression that Fanya was reputable because it boasted it had the backing of state-owned banks, and it appeared in a CCTV report. (I cannot confirm whether Uprosper actually had a relationship with the banks it claimed to, but the Foreign Policy report stated that Fanya did in fact.)
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As many Chinese are investing large sums of money for the first time, they are not always aware of the best practices involving diversification and risk management. The investor in Fanya wrote that she invested “almost all of my family’s savings.” The two investors into Uprosper who spoke to me told of an old woman who received ¥900,000 yuan in compensation when her son died in a car crash who lost all of it to Uprosper.

Most of the protesters at iapm were older than 60. Those older people are more trusting and less sophisticated, thus easier to scam, Zhang and Li said. Both Zhang and Li have conditions that they need money to treat. Li, who lost ¥150,000 yuan, suffers from an aneurysm. “¥150,000 yuan couldn’t save my life, but it could cut down on the pain,” she said.
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There were some younger victims, too, they said, but, according to Ms Li, “The young people don’t dare come out to protest. They are scared of hurting their future.”

Protecting Their Rights

While walking past Apple and DeBeers, protesters waved their signs at my camera. Some of them covered their faces with their signs. Near the front of the mall, an energetic lady, whom Zhang said was a maid who lost ¥100,000 yuan, shouted slogans into a bullhorn. Others raised their fists and repeated the chants. The spectators crowded around the glass walls above and watched and photographed.

The officers stood in a line and surrounded the protesters. They were not police, but unarmed teqin, a special branch of security that often appears at protests. Inside the enclosement of teqin locked arm to arm, which was getting increasingly crowded, protesters surrounded me and pulled out smart phones and showed me photographs of Wang Jian drinking alcohol, dining, and celebrating holidays and business events. Some of the pictures were shared on his own Weibo social network. Many were exactly what you would expect of an executive, promotional photos even, but they took on a different meaning in light of his theft.

Wang Jian in the center, wearing traditional Chinese dramatic costumes at a party.

Wang Jian in the center, wearing a traditional Chinese dramatic costume at a party.

The group of protesters was becoming increasingly crowded, and I found myself cornered between the wall of a shop and the wall of teqin. Behind me, the protesters were pushing and encouraging me to break the line. I saw their faces, and I threw my arms up. The elderly protesters pushed past me and into the teqin and broke through, marching up the escalator to the second floor.

Another group of protesters stayed back on the first floor, and the officers once again began forming a human enclosure. I ran out before they had completed it. I was surprised the protesters were able to maneuver as they did, facing little resistance when they challenged the teqin’s control of the mall, but they had experience doing it.

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Afterwards, Ms Li said that the teqin at the protest I observed were well-behaved. “Yesterday they weren’t violent. They were good,” Ms Li said. She speculated that they might have been more aggressive towards younger protesters. “Maybe they were a little bit sympathetic. They just want to earn money.” At other protests, there have been allegations of officers hitting protesters.

(Later when I showed pictures to a former Chinese soldier, he remarked that the men wearing “teqin” uniforms looked like “security” or “subway police.” “They are standing around too casually.”)

Mr. Zhang claimed that some of the leaders of the protesters have had to speak with officials and that some had thereafter not participated in future protesters, but there were little specifics offered. There was a general sense of the possibility of consequences, which is one of the reasons both protesters spoke on the condition of anonymity (and also because Ms Li said she didn’t want her family to worry). “Doing weiquan, we don’t know what will happen tomorrow or the day after that,” Li said.

At the end of the day’s activities, they unveiled banners outside the mall that said, “Jinxing thieves, return our hard-earned money, [and we] request the government to protect our rights.”

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Beyond the fact that they want the government to put in more effort to catch Wang and recover the money, the protesters also think the local governments in Shanghai that left flowers for the grand opening have a degree of responsibility. According to photographs shared of the opening ceremony, the district governments of Huangpu, Baoshan, and Xuhui, where the group’s offices are located, and the National Development Bank all left flowers.

The property owners of iapm, Shanghai World Trade Square in Chinese, who have also been caught in the crosshairs of some of the protesters, left a sign outside warning against escalation and continuation of protests, claiming such protests affect business. “World Trade Square has exercised an attitude of restraint and patience up until today from start to finish through many mass incidents, but if these mass incidents continue happening, World Trade Square will take actions to maintain the ordinary operations of World Trade Square and will use the legal channels to pursue compensation for losses. Those suspected of criminally breaking the law by causing disorder in a public place will be reported by World Trade Square to the public security bureau to face investigation and prosecution in accordance with the law.”

A Closer Look at a Protest Sign

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Maintaining Rights Actually is the True Maintaining of Stability

Secretary Xi has said: Maintaining stability depends on maintaining rights. This is to say that you can only implement real stability if you protect the legal rights and interests of the great common people. If you don’t talk about maintaining rights but only talk about maintaining stability then the more you try to maintain it, the more unstable it will be. Definitely protecting the common people’s rights and interests must be put number one. Do that, and only then can problems be solved, only then can real stability be implemented.

If legal cases are not held transparently in public, if stolen goods are not pursued and returned, if the lids are not opened [scandals uncovered], and the problems raised by the common people are not solved, this kind of maintaining stability might actually be the stability of corrupt cronies [corrupt political elements], then maintaining stability might just mean maintaining corruption! Stop dreaming, start protecting our rights now, don’t let a minute be wasted!

Jul 18

In my upcoming travelogue on Korea, I’m going to revisit the place commoners fought martial law with guns

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Promotions , Travel

The citizens were lined up in the park, holding machine guns and M-1 rifles. They had forced the authorities out after the police had brutalized and arrested peaceful protesters, and scared the military off after 700 soldiers who had been called to suppress the protests began firing on and killing citizens.

UPDATE: My trip to Korea is over, and my Kickstarter campaign unfortunately did not succeed. However, I am still going to be writing exclusive articles about my travels in Korea. These exclusive articles will only be available to email subscribers. Click here to visit the subscribe page, or sign up below:

The scene was Gwangju, the year 1980. Ever since the end of the Korean War, there had been sporadic protests for democracy against an ever-changing lineup of authoritarian regimes in South Korea. Elections would be rigged, opposition leaders arrested, the parliament dissolved, or the president would take some “crisis” as an excuse to declare martial law. Eventually the dictator would be disposed of by assassination or coup, and a new dictator would take his spoils. It went on like this through five republics and one period of military rule, but in 1979, the people would stand for it no longer. Demonstrations swept the nation in May 1980. On May 17, Chun Doo-hwan, who had used the assassination of strongman president Park Chung-hee to seize control of the military and domestic security security apparatus (and later the presidency) declared martial law over the whole country on the pretext of maintaining stability. The demonstrations in most cities were put down without bloodshed. But the people of Gwangju city in South Jeolla province, long known for its independent nature and history of rebellions, stood their ground.

For almost a week, the people of Gwangju held control of the city. They formed self-government committees, they printed a newspaper, and they raided police stations and automobile factories for arms and vehicles. On the early morning of May 27, their uprising came to an end. A line of tanks rolled in. The people had gathered on the outskirts of city the day before to try, with little success, to slow the advance of the military. Then civil militias faced down the tanks with weapons they had gathered. Their final stand lasted just one-and-a-half hours before the Korean military had regained control of the city. All told, at least 144 protesters and militants died, as did 22 troops and 4 police officers. Those are the numbers released by the government, but the Bereaved Family Association says at least 165 Gwangju citizens died, and some government critics argue the death toll is as much as 2,000*.
Continue reading

Jul 11

What are those flashing lights in the sky over China?

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Photos , Strange China News

A UFO in the Shanghai sky? An obscure Chinese website reported that some people were shocked when they saw flashing lights way up high at night (Chinese text). When reporters went to People’s Square, they found a man reeling in a kite with flashing LED lights.

China has UFO obsessives, too, and Wo Ai Jie Mi (“I Love Solving Mysteries”) has article after article about LED light kites. It’s the easiest thing to find.

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Look up at the night sky in an X-million people city in China, and you won’t see any stars. They’ve been disappeared behind light pollution. But Chinese people have beautified the night sky with their own kind of light pollution: LED light kites.

Other foreigners have been fooled before when they’ve seen it:

UFO in Shanghai
I saw this a few weeks back when I was blasted in a taxi. Woke up thinking I made it up, then saw this video on YouTube and it’s exactly the same thing I saw. Did anyone else see this shit?

Photo by Mitchell Blatt.

Photo by Mitchell Blatt.

Every night outside my home, close by the bank of the Yangtze River, bright reds, pinks, greens, and blues shine down from the sky. These kitesContinue reading

Jul 08

The amazing story of the American who can use chopsticks and the Korean who can speak Chinese

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture

The manager of the restaurant observed the two of us eating noodles together and said, “It’s amazing you two can communicate with each other!”

Truly amazing, I thought; two foreign expats could communicate by using the language of the country they where they lived along with bits and pieces of each of their native languages. But I could feel the manager was really only amazed by me. The way she addressed the Korean, it was evident she thought he was Chinese.

Li Xu (his Chinese name) has been in China for more than two years, and his Chinese is just about native level. He says that many people take him for a Chinese person. We meet each week for language exchange—he practices English, I am learning Korean.

Search Baidu for articles about the differences between Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, and you will find no shortage of theories. “It’s simple, their clothing is different,” said one of the commenters on a 2015 article on Sohu.

“Chinese people like brightly colored clothing, but Japanese don’t,” said another.

Others claimed the difference is in their manners: “Japanese people look quieter.” “Chinese people are more enthusiastic [or passionate – 热情].”

So most of the supposed secrets were in the manner or style of the people. I asked Li Xu if he could tell who was Chinese in Korea. He said yes, “but not if they have lived there for a long time.”

One table over a man was complimenting me on my chopstick ability. Having heard it often when I simply eat food, I have a line down: “If I couldn’t use chopsticks in China, I would starve to death!”
Continue reading

Jul 03

I bought an American flag tee shirt in China at a fake Jordan Sports store

By Mitchell Blatt | China

The iconic Stars and Stripes. Along with the Union Jack, it is probably the most popular flag as a fashion accessory in the world. The imagery of both flags is popularly worn in China, on tee shirts, shoes, luggage, and articles of daily use.

Beyond being famous, both flags are also aesthetically pleasing, with many stripes and (for America’s) stars, to work with as design elements. American culture is very popular in China, too, and the iconic Apple logo, a representation of American capitalism, is also popular on tee shirts and products. It’s not at all clear, however, that everyone understands the implications of some of the flag tee shirts they wear. IMG_4153

With Independence Day, America’s national day, coming up tomorrow, the Fourth of July, I needed a Chinese American flag tee shirt to wear. Since Chinese markets always seem to have innovative off-brand designs at low prices, I decided to head out to the Hangzhou Huanbei Clothing Wholesale Market (杭州环北批发市场) in Nanjing at the intersection of Baixia Road and Jiankang Road, south of 1912.

After getting out at Changfu Street subway station, and walking past older men snapping a whip at a spinning top (a traditional Chinese game I explain on YouTube), I arrived at a shopping center and huge indoor market where all of the shops were closed. Some people were playing badminton outside. I had left at 6 pm, and the place was closed.

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It turned out to be just my luck, however, because a Qiaodan shop—also known as “Jordan”—on Jiankang Road just south of Huanbei Clothing Market was open. They had a polo shirt in red and blue and a tee shirt with stripes and stars on the shoulders that, at 69 RMB (10 USD) was a perfect American consumer’s made-in-China deal.

At the checkout, I asked the sales lady if it was a Jordan store. “Yes,” she said, “it’s Chinese Jordan. Not American Jordan.”

(In 2015, Jordan lost a lawsuit with Qiaodan over the trademark on the grounds that, “’Jordan’ is only an ordinary surname of American people, not a full name.”)
Related: See what happens when I interview the owner of a fake cafe that copied Maan Coffee.

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I won’t be the only one wearing an American flag shirt tomorrow.

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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.