All Posts byMitchell Blatt

About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.

May 22

Jinshan: The fishing village at the very south edge of Shanghai

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Travel

Shanghai is home to tree farms, streets lined with fishwives, and children searching for crawfish at low tide.

Jinshan, at the very southwestern corner of the administrative area of Shanghai, is a mildly interesting diversion, a fishing town that has been touristified over the past five years. There you can find fish being sold on the street, museums about Jinshan fishing culture, and an “ancient-style” street full of charming shops and cafes. Here I will tell you how to get there and share some of what to see.

The fishing village is called Jinshan Zui Fishing Village (金山嘴渔村 – Jinshan zui yu cun). The Zui character means “lips.” The restaurants along the road should have you licking your lips. Shanghai was once just a fishing village. Now this is one of the few fishing villages in Shanghai; Shanghai city is not known for fishing markets like Busan, Hong Kong, or even Seoul.

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The fish sellers are lined up on the street that runs along the coast. Behind the fish vendors is a wall and a long stone promenade overlooking the water. (Travelers were climbing over the wall and down a wobbly ladder.) The water, when I visited, was very low, and kids were playing in the sand. They were looking for crayfish in the rocks and concrete buffers.

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On the other side of the road, going away from the ocean, is the typical “ancient-style” shopping street with cafes, bars, souvenir shops, and snack vendors. It was scenic, with flowers, canals (although the water didn’t look terribly clean), and cafes with porches. The “ancient-style” street isn’t close to as scenic as the ancient streets of Suzhou—and Suzhou is just 30-40 minutes away by train, too—but Jinshan is cheaper and more of a daytrip within Shanghai.

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Food
The road by the shore is lined with seafood restaurants. They have live fish in tanks for selection. Independent travelers on budget might choose to have seafood fried rice (海鲜炒饭 – haixian chaofan) for ¥20-40 yuan. I asked for it, and the manager said it wasn’t on his menu, but he said he would make some up for ¥35 yuan, and selected some shrimp, clam, and other seafood, and had it fried with eggs and vegetables.

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How to get to Jinshan

Go to Shanghai South Railway Station (上海南站), located at the so-named subway station on Line 1 (red) and Line 3 (yellow). At Shanghai South Station, there is a station called Jinshan Station (金山站). Tickets are sold at a machine, which doesn’t require identification. Click through the buttons—or have a Chinese traveler in line help you, most of them are going to Jinshan, and they will assume you are, too—and select the final station—金山卫 (Jinshan wei).

Trains leave from Shanghai South about 2-3 times an hour, starting at 5 am and ending at 9:20 pm or so. Trains from Jinshan to the city start at 6 am and run until 9:55 pm. The journey for most trains takes 32 minutes. All tickets for the full trip cost ¥10 yuan (US$1.63) one way and have no assigned seats.

You can get from Jinshan Wei Station to Zui Fishing Village by taking a tax for ¥12 yuan or walking or waiting for the bus, which might come once an hour.

This restroom won awards as a "Model Toilet" and one of Shanghai's "Most Beautiful Tourism Toilets" of 2016.

This restroom won awards as a “Model Toilet” and one of Shanghai’s “Most Beautiful Tourism Toilets” of 2016.

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May 17

Kayne West, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the experience of celebrity in China

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Music

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a much discussed article for The Atlantic earlier this May about the impact of celebrity and how, he says, it may have led Kayne West to pursue “white freedom.”

That is, “not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom.” Coates can fully explain his point in his own elegant language, and I encourage you to read his essay. I want to focus on just one aspect, that of celebrity, what it can do to a person, and how living in China affected West’s views towards celebrity.

As Coates wrote,

There’s nothing original in this tale and there’s ample evidence, beyond West, that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity.

West spent one year in Nanjing, China, where I have been based for the past few years, and he said the experience affected him greatly. He was, according to one of his classmates, extremely shy, said one of his classmates at the local school he attended, whom I interviewed in 2012.

“I remember in primary school, he was a very shy and introverted kid. He didn’t like to talk a lot,” Hua [Dong] said in an interview with me. “When I just happened to find out a few years ago that he is now Superstar Kanye West, I was extremely surprised and extremely happy for him.”

Hua Dong is also a musician. He’s the frontman for the post-punk band Re-TROS.

West himself has commented on how much attention he received as a black man in China.

“I think being in China got me ready to be a celeb,” he said.

“At that time, a lot of Chinese had never seen a black person. They would always come up to me and also stare at me, fishbowl me and everything. And that’s kind of the way it is for me right now,” West said in an interview with Cris Campion of Sabotage Times in 2011.

I had discovered his interviews on the topic in the course writing an article in 2013 on how Chinese often like to take photos with foreigners and add friends. Even today, the phenomenon of candid photo-taking of foreigners persists in many smaller cities and central cities. It would have been more so when West was living in China and the attention (including negative attention) can be more pronounced for black people than for whites.

Having seen West news fill up the magazines and social, and having read Coates’ piece, I thought back about West on China. I cannot–certainly not in this medium–add anything to the conversation about West and politics and race, but if you want to read a little bit of background about one of the formidable experiences in West’s childhood, take a look: China’s Obsession With Foreigners And The Experience Of Kanye West.

Feature photo by Tyler Curtis (Flickr). Map from Wikimedia. Creative Commons.

May 03

Chinese people proud to see Americans love their culture

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Viral Chinese News

A fake controversy has erupted in America because a small group of Americans are outraged that an American wore a Chinese-style dress to prom. Chinese people, whose culture is actually being “appropriated” (so-called) here, couldn’t care less. If anything, they are happy to see Americans recognize the beauty and majesty of Chinese culture.

For millennia, Chinese have been proud of their extensive and refined (“博大精深”) culture. The Han Chinese have expanded their empire from Northern China to present-day China, absorbing dozens of ethnic groups (56, according to the official government count) into the Chinese race. Confucianism and Chinese characters spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. The emperor of the “Middle Kingdom” received gifts from tributary states, whose officials were forced to kowtow, recognizing the culture of China, and China was happy to teach them how to be cultured.

In the process, the Han Hanicized ethnic groups they came into contact with and also were changed themselves. The dress in question, the qipao (旗袍), is a product of the Han people being culturally assimilated into the culture of the Machu, who ruled China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The Qing forced the Han to adopt Manchu hairstyle (the male queue/braid) and dress. The old Manchu dresses were originally long and loose but became tighter-fitting, and in some cases, shorter, until they came to be the glamorous style associated with Shanghai socialites and cigarette ads of the 1920’s.

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It is evident, then, that culture cannot exist without constantly changing and being influenced from all directions. If it were not so, we would still be wearing animal skins and plants over our genitals.

See also: Blatt: “Oberlin Students Don’t Know Anything About Ethnic Food”

Would the outraged Americans have preferred that the woman in question had chosen to wear instead the default Western-style dress, thus perpetuating the continued cultural dominance of white European culture in America?

Chinese people, for their part, wouldn’t. When I asked friends they thought about it on WeChat, here are some responses I received:

这就代表喜欢我们的中华文化
This means that she likes our Chinese culture

个人觉得美的东西共享很好啊
I personally think that sharing beautiful things is good

个人觉得穿旗袍去毕业舞会很好,如果没有违反dress code的话
I personally think that wearing a qipao to prom is great, if it doesn’t violate the dress code

There you have it: Americans speaking for Chinese are personally offended that anyone would wear a beautiful Chinese dress to prom. Actual Chinese people think it’s great.

Jan 21

High speed trains begin selling KFC

By Mitchell Blatt | China

On the high speed train from Nanjing South Station to Shanghai Hongqiao yesterday, an attendant went down the aisle pushing a KFC cart. I had always wondered why they hadn’t thought to do a tie up before. A passenger sitting next to me said McDonalds is also sold on some trains. All for inflated prices.

As Chinese trains had gotten faster and cleaner, the quality of the on-board food also got worse the past few years. The old slow trains had kitchens where passable—even tasty—stir-fried dishes were cooked (and still do on those routes where slow trains exist). High speed rail came along and got rid of home cooking, replacing it with reheated plastic trays of precooked food.

American brand fast food is no delicacy, but if you are going to eat a quick garbage meal, McDonalds is a lot tastier than what passes for food in the high speed rail dining car.

Upon arrival in Shanghai, the recorded announcement stated (in Chinese), “Jiaduobao reminds you, don’t forget your belongings…” (Jiaduobao is a brand of herbal tea.) The English language announcement included no such advertisement.

Oct 06

Silkworm pupae, urine fish, and farmer’s wine: A meal to remember in Korea’s culinary capital

By Mitchell Blatt | Drinking , Food and Leisure , Korea , Local Politics

Koreans have a saying, “Eat once in Jeonju, and you’ll be spoiled for life.” The city of 600,000, which is the capital of North Jeolla province, is a UNESCO Creative City for its gastronomical heritage.

On a visit this past July, I was excited to taste Jeonju’s legendary fare. So why, when I went with two Koreans to a famous dining district, was I staring down at a plates full of silkworm pupae, jelly made of smashed acorns, and a fish that has been fermented in its own urine?

We were at the Jeonmun Makgeolli Town, one of seven makgeolli towns prominently featured on tourism maps. Makgeolli is a Korean “farmer’s wine” made from rice and traditionally served in bowls. It has a reputation as being an honest, working man’s drink. It’s a drink that old men drink straight from the plastic bottle outside convenience stores at 3 in the afternoon. In fact, the national security law during the period of military rule was jokingly called the “Makgeolli Security Law” because so many people were arrested for things they said in casual conversation.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

In short, makgeolli seemed to me to be a representative drink for the progressive stronghold of Jeolla, which was the site of both the 1894 Donghak Peasant Rebellion in Jeonju and the 1980 Gwangju Uprising to the south.

The restaurant we chose, Yeongjinjib Makgeolli, was loud like the Jeonju people, and the walls were covered in Korean graffiti. For about 6,000 won (US$5.30) each guest, a table gets six dishes per person of food and a brass kettle of the milky yellow liquor—a good deal, considering the more extravagant hanjeonsik royal feast can set you back 90,000 won.

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After a waitress covered our table with plates, my Korean friends encouraged me to take a bite of a sickly tan gelatin-like substance. It jiggled and limply fell apart in chopsticks. The taste wasn’t good either, but I washed it down quickly with a gulp of sweet makgeolli. Later they told me it was dotori-muk (acorn jelly), which is what you get when you mash the innards of acorns into powder and then boil it into unappetizing squares.

Next on the menu was beondegi (silkworm pupae). The round fat insects had bodies the brownish color of nature, with eight clearly segmented outer body sections. A dirty brown liquid covered the bottom of the plate and glistened off the pupae’s bodies. They looked like bugs from a Hayao Miyazaki film.

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While relatively flavorless, the texture of beondegi is another story. My teeth came down and there was no crunch but rather a gooey, chewy sensation that almost had me retching. One pupae was enough, and then a long sip of heavenly makgeolli.

Finally I saved the smelliest for last. The fish, hongeo (skate), excretes urine through its skin. For some reason, it is considered a delicacy especially in the southern part of Korea. Even drenched in hot sauce, a bite of hongeo still smelled like an outhouse as I brought it to my mouth. Of the three, hongeo had the best texture but the worst taste. I gagged it down and emptied my bowl of makgeolli.

Despite such extreme foods, I was starting to feel good vibes. Although makgeolli is just between 5 and 10 percent alcohol, it is carbonated, and it gets to you quick. I could kind of understand why urine-flavored fish is considered a perfect compliment to makgeolli; it makes you want to drink!

The rest of the foods I honestly enjoyed, but they all had one thing in common: heavy flavors. Whether it was sweet pumpkin, smoky mackerel, or seafood in spicy dipping sauces, each bite called for a drink to clear the palate.

Eating once in Jeonju is something I’ll remember for life.

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Sep 30

Is bike sharing trashing the streets?

By Mitchell Blatt | China

Bike sharing is fueling an entreprenuerial explosion in China, and Chinese consumers love riding short distances without having to buy their own bikes. Big companies like Mobike and ofo have already gone global, expanding into Britain and the United States respectively and other countries.

But walking down the street last week, a friend put a different perspective on it. She said it’s kind of like trash on the street.

Once hearing that description, I started noticing bikes everywhere I walked. Already the streets of China are pretty cluttered with privately-owned motorcycles and bikes parked alongside street vendor’s carts. Now rental bikes, which can be dropped off anywhere, add another element.

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Whole sidewalks are blocked.

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The city of Shanghai is thinking about introducing “e-parking lots” to control where bikes can be parked. Earlier this year, Shanghai confiscated thousands of bikes.

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Sep 12

The subways smell like waffles — 6 unique (but small) things about Korea

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea

Living in a foreign country for months, you notice a lot of differences from your home country big and small. At first, the smallest things are exciting and worthy of comment. (I even wrote an article Korean convenience stores!) Just walking down the street or going to a market is an adventure. Later, you become accustomed, and it takes a lot more to interest you.

In Korea, there are the obvious cultural differences: taking shoes off inside, suana (jjimjirbang) culture, Kpop, weird karaoke videos, and college drinking parties

There are also so many small things I had been wanting to write about, but which couldn’t fill a whole article, so I will combine some:

Christmas Decorations Up Year-Round at Restaurants

Walk down the street in a leisure district anytime of year and pay attention to the windows of bars, arcades, and other joyous places, and you will find snowflake decals, jingle bells, Christmas trees, and maybe even an image of Santa or two. Korean businesses love Christmas imagery, even though a minority of Koreans are Christian.

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This decorative style isn’t limited to Korea, however. Christmas decorations are also prevalent in China, a country whose government is antagonistic towards religion. Playing pool one evening in August in the southernmost resort town of Sanya, I asked my Chinese compatriot, “Why is Santa on the wall?” She said it was probably because the big, jolly, smiling man gave customers a happy feeling.

Apartment Blocks All Look the Same and are Branded

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Photo from Wikipedia, by user Thomiccor. CC 3.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, by user Thomiccor. CC 3.0.

Photo by Samuel Orchard. Via Wikipedia and Flickr. CC 2.0.

Photo by Samuel Orchard. Via Wikipedia and Flickr. CC 2.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, user ahflahxh. CC 2.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, user ahflahxh. CC 2.0.

Food Waste Separated from Trash

My first morning after eating breakfast in a guesthouse, I was taken aback by all the labeled trash bags and the process by which we were supposed to separate food. You can’t (or, rather, aren’t supposed to) throw food waste away in the ordinary trash in Korea. Instead, people should put food in special bags they have to pay for, and food waste is used for composting and biomass.

Many Koreans and residents of Korea find this annoying. A measure of the dissatisfaction is the piles of trash bags and boxes on street corners. Lots of people drop their trash off and then pile trash upon trash. The Korea Times also points to a lack of trash cans as a reason for waste on the street.

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Smell of Waffles in Subway Station

Walking down the halls of a subway station to make a transfer, a sweet smell wafts in the air. Waffles. Waffles and coffee are often sold together in in Korea, and waffle-coffee shops are frequently located within subway stations.

Batting Machines in Every Consumer Leisure Area

A common image at night is seeing drunk Korean men circled around a punching machine comparing the power of their fists. These games have a bag attached to a lever to be punched, or a soccer ball to be kicked, and they’re often located outside of arcades or batting cages.

Punching Machine

Speaking of batting cages, mini-bating cage games are also easy to find. Called “home run rooms” in Korea (홈런방), the machine shoots 10-15 pitches from 20 or so meters out for 2000 won (US$1.80) or so, and a sensor measures how hard the batter hit it and gives points for “singles”, “doubles”, “triples”, and “home runs.”

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When you sing karaoke, you are being watched

One night I sang karaoke with a Korean guy, and we snuck a bottle of soju into the room, which we were periodically drinking from the bottle. About halfway into our hour-long KTV session, the door opened, and a hand came in and swiped our soju before we knew what was happening. The hand of a karaoke hall “waitress.” Did they have a camera in the room filming us drinking? Why did it take them so long to catch us? They didn’t demand we buy anything or pay a fee. Of course karaoke halls want to keep outside drinks out, but that’s the first time anywhere I had been caught drinking after I successfully smuggled drink in.

Medical and Legal Elitism

There are three elite universities in Korea, and if a doctor or lawyer graduated from one, they really want you to know it. Professionals place the emblem of their prestigious alma matters on their windows and doors with pride in order to attract business. The logos that a traveler to Seoul will notice most often are those of Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Together the top three universities are referred to as SKY.

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Americans might call it “elitist,” but just like the Korean Constitutional Court, the U.S. Supreme Court is made up almost entirely of law graduates from its elite universities—the Ivy League. Americans just don’t wear their school logos on their chest. “Ivy Leaguer” is used as a term of derision in political discourse. Considering the state of American politics, the attacks on successful people and the crisis of anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts,” maybe there is something to be said for the Korean way.


Bonus: Korean celebrity fan ads

Enter any subway station, and you will notice young Korean heartthrobs plastered on the wall ads. Often the ads wish a happy birthday or congratulations. Kstars are so loved by their Korean and foreign fans that they will actually pool money together to buy ads. At the bottom of an ad, sometimes you can see the names of Chinese fan clubs who paid for it.

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One Chinese fan even paid close to $10,000 to place an ad in the Choson Ilbo congratulating a member of a group on winning an award. Fan groups say they like putting ads on the subways in high-traffic, high end stations like Gangnam, because they think their idols might actually see them there.

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After the ads go up, often fans will place handwritten notes.

Fan Notes

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Jun 30

Staid tourism promotionals leave out the vibrant culture

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Local Politics

I edited and wrote promotional information about the Blue House countless times before I went. Korea’s home and office of the president–its White House–it was listed on almost all of the tours offered by travel agency clients of one of my past jobs. So I already wasn’t expecting much before I went, knowing how these group tours with travel agencies oversell everything. I left even more disappointed with the advertised product than I had expected but happily pleased with what wasn’t advertised.

Blue tiles in front of a beautiful mountain… Garden path… Outside, a museum about the rich history of Korean presidents…

The Blue House is not far from where I’m living–just 10 subway stops, including one transfer–so I decided I might as well see one of the most famous political sites in the country. I hoped I could at least see the famous blue tiles. But it was not to be.

Not quite the famous view.

Not quite the famous view.

The emblematic house is hidden behind a dull grey complex of stone blocks and columns. The main building of the Reception Center isn’t ugly, but it’s not something worth expending much effort to see. Where is the Blue House, I thought? Only from the second floor of the museum can visitors see the part of the roof edging out behind the triangular roof of the front building.

The museum itself could hardly be called a presidential museum. On the first floor, there was a display of 100 of the Korean Tourism Agency’s most favored tourist sites in the country organized by region and mapped. Useful for long-term travelers looking for inspiration, but not very information about the office of the presidency.

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The top floor had a replica presidential desk for photo-ops and a virtual reality game where visitors could pretend to be secret service agents protecting the president. A camera tracked the movements of participants who had to hit threats like drones and grenades with their hands. The sign said, “Photo Zone of Presidential Security Service.”

Xi Jinping's message in the Blue House guestbook.

Xi Jinping’s message in the Blue House guestbook.

The section containing pages from the Blue House guestbook signed by foreign political and business leaders was interesting. There I learned Barack Obama has good handwriting and is more verbose than most foreign leaders; Larry Page has terrible handwriting; and Xi Jinping supports gender equality: he had his wife Peng Liyuan sign as well.

Larry Page's handwriting

Larry Page’s handwriting

What did capture my interest was the scene outside: Along the road from Gwanghwamun Square to the Blue House, Korean men stood with large signs with fiery slogans. Many of them wore hats, sunglasses, arm sheaves, and workmanlike clothes. They looked blue collar.

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Indeed, most of the protesters had grievances with corporations and sprawling family-owned mega-conglomerates with interests in multiple industries, known in Korean as chaebols. Hyundai and Hankook Tires were under attack on separate signs for closing bases of operations. A few blocks away from the central square, a paper mache model of Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo sat next to photos of a Kia worker who had made complaints about working conditions before committing suicide.

The expansive nature of chaebols means they are often under fire for multiple scandals at the same time. No company exemplifies scandal better than Samsung: It’s president, Lee Jae-yong, is in jail, awaiting trial, for alleged involvement in the bribery scandal that brought down South Korea’s last president, Park Geun-hye. Other protesters raised the years-long scandal over Samsung’s treatment of more than 200 workers who contracted leukaemia, lupus, and other diseases while working in a chip factory that exposed them to dangerous chemicals. While Samsung had agreed to pay out 100 billion won (US$85.8 million in 2015), the group Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry accuses the company of denying information about working conditions to this day.

(Chaebols often being family affairs, “Jay Lee” was in a way following in the footsteps of his father Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted on charges of tax evasion in 2009.)

protesters in front of fountain

I talked with one protester who was holding the anti-Hyundai sign. I could tell he probably spoke English because he was young and was wearing an Arizona University hat. He did. He said he was protesting the planned closing of a Hyundai Heavy Industries plant in his hometown, Gunsan, North Jeolla province. Hyundai Heavy Industries is facing pressure from a slump in the global shipbuilding market, but local politicians and labor activists want the government to intervene, offering subsidies or other incentives. President Moon has met with the governor ahead of the planned June 1 closing.

“Jeolla people like to protest,” I said as a complement. He nodded.

South Jeolla province was the birthplace and constituency of democracy activist Kim Dae-jung, whose imprisonment in 1980 inspired the residents of Gwangju to take over the city and form militias, before being suppressed by the military, an event that influenced Korea’s path to democracy. Kim would become Korea’s third-democratically elected president in 1998 and make strides towards national reconciliation.

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After a few minutes he had to go. Down the street, a group of labor activists slept behind a police line and a banner that called for the repeal of “evil laws.” A kilometer or so down the road, union members marched down one lane of the street and bowed to the pavement in unison every few meters.

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The impression I came away with from my visit to the Blue House wasn’t that which the guidebooks impress on readers. It was far from what the tourism promoters want you to read. No, it was better than expected. I came away with the impression of a Korea vibrant and free.

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May 16

How Korean students party at “one-day pubs” (일일호프)

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Drinking , Korea

May is the month of college parties in Seoul.

At 5 pm on a Friday night, May 12, students dressed in Hogwarts School of Wizardry cloaks were taping ribbons onto the street in Sinchon district, along with signs and arrows. Others dressed as characters from Hiyao Miyazaki films held signs advertising “one day pub” parties. Some intersections had six different ribbons crisscrossing leading to six different parties.

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May is the month of college parties, and Sinchon is the college party district.

On the northeast of the ring subway line around Seoul, Sinchon is located at the nexus of Yonsei University, Ewha Womens’ University, Seogang University, and Hongin University. Along these narrow streets, where neon lights adorn three-story shophouses, masses of young men and women walk to and from bars, karaokes, barbecue restaurants, burger shacks, Japanese izakayas, arcades, and cheap student guestrooms. Groups gather outside convenience stores drinking beer on the street or challenging each other to see how hard they can hit the Dragon Punch power game.

On any given weekend in the spring, there are always a lot of ribbons on the street. It’s perennially marked with green tape stuck to the pavement. But the parties really get going in May.

“Ewha Nursing,” a sign says. “Performance at 8:30.” One group has a raffle game on cardboard. I pick a post-it note and win a free order of chips with purchase of a drink if I attend their party.

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I don’t end up attending their party. Instead I and Pato Rincon, my classmate from Indiana University who is also in Seoul and is just getting started as a writer (read his debut piece for Bombs + Dollars), go to the event at Barfly held by Ewha University’s foreign studies students featuring their dance team. The pretty girl standing outside in baggy hip hop apparel wearing a bandana couldn’t have influenced my decision.

Inside, after paying a ₩5,000 (US$4.47) cover each, we bought beers for ₩4,000 each. The underground bar was dark with colored lights, red and green streaming lights, and bright Finlandia adverts. Most of the tables were reserved for Ewha students. Pato and I took a seat at the bar. Behind the counter, a bartender was pouring Barton vodka (on whose bottle the word “vodka” is written in larger letters than the brand name) through a funnel into empty Finlandia bottles and adding juice.

“This isn’t what I imagined when you said we were going to a college party,” Pato said.

After all, we had had the experience of drinking together at house parties in Bloomington. Not so in Seoul, where the population is dense and houses are smaller. Instead, students and other groups rent out pubs (known as “hof” (호프)) and have the place to themselves for a day or night. The practice is called “ir ir ho-pe” (일일호프), which means “one-day hof.”

Typically it is the freshmen or underclassmen (underclasswomen, more often, it seems) who host parties to connect with each other, earn money, or meet upperclass friends. The large number of parties hosted by women in Sinchon could be explained partially by the fact that Sinchon is so close to a few women’s universities, and the fact that female students are not surprisingly used to promote mixed parties. One person suggested it was a good way for Ehwa students to meet boys at other universities, such as Yonsei. But Yonsei students have hosted their own parties for particular groups, too, including the Yonsei hockey team.

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Students began lining up in front of a marked dance floor. Anticipating an event, we took places along the edge. Before long, Kpop began playing, and girls in hats and jackets, including the girl who was promoting at the door, came out to dance. Showing their power and precise dance moves, they earned big applause. They took off their jackets and top layers and confidently put their bodies on display for the next song.

With so many one-day hof parties going on at the same time, Pato and I didn’t stay too long. After a few separate dance teams, the dance performance was finished, and we went out for some pajeon and eventually to another student party. The next one was in another underground pub, with no cover, but rather a menu with various Korean comfort foods. We ordered spicy rice cakes.

When we were heading back home just after midnight, the same students who had put down ribbons a few hours before were tearing them off the road and rolling them up. Groups of people were milling around outside 7-11 and GS25, and guys were punching arcade games. Another week, and it will be all the same.

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May 11

The end of the last matriarchal tribe?

By Mitchell Blatt | Book Reviews , China , Culture , Literature

Singaporean debut author chronicles the Mosuo of Lugu Lake as they face modernity–and possible extinction

The Kingdom of Women by Choo Waihong, I.B. Tauris

Throughout western China, minority ethnic groups are throwing off their traditional clothing, trading horses for automobiles, and choosing to sing Mandopop songs in karaoke rooms instead of traditional ethnic songs. When economic modernization demands different skill sets from the people and commercialization breeds different desires, traditional culture goes by the wayside.

I saw that first hand in the Bai Autonomous Prefecture of Dali (Yunnan), the Shui Autonomous County of Sandu (Guizhou), and the Qiandongnan area of Southeastern Guizhou. These villagers have access to new and beneficial luxuries. They can find higher paying jobs at home, in neighboring cities, or in factories in Guangzhou. Still, they try to hang onto traditional culture for tourism as well as cultural reasons.

Choo Waihong saw this situation playing out among the Mosuo people in the Lugu Lake area. Choo lived there for six years, adopted Mosuo culture, and became a figure in the Mosuo community. She wrote about it in her book The Kingdom of Women, published this year by IB Tauris.

The book begins with scenes of breathtaking vistas along mountain roads until Choo arrives in the land of the Mosuo and looks upon the Gemu Mountain Goddess, a female mountain deity who is worshipped by locals. The next day after she arrives is Zhuanshanjie (转山节), or Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival. Choo describes a splendid, large scale event with locals dressed to the hilt in colorful, elaborately embroidered, traditional ethnic dress; dancing, eating, prayer with incense, flute music, and Tibetan llamas all situated around a tent village. It was this passionate atmosphere in this beautiful environment that enticed Choo and convinced her to have a home built there.

Once there, she felt at ease amongst a society where women’s status was respected—even venerated. The Mosuo people are a matrilineal society—sometimes referred to as matriarchal, although whether they really are is contested. The Mosuo people are often said to practice “walking marriages,” where a man can walk up to a woman’s room and be invited in and kicked out at her pleasure. I heard that phrase a lot when I lived and traveled in Yunnan, particularly in relation to tourism promotion there.

But in fact, as Choo explains, the practice isn’t really a marriage at all. Women choose axias, long-term relationship partners, who come over at night but live at their mother’s house most of the day. They have a limited, but not nonexistent, relationship with any children they father. A couple may stay together for a long time, maybe even a lifetime, but in most cases they eventually move on and the woman takes another axia, often giving birth to children from multiple axias. Children are raised mostly by the mother, grandmother, and others in the family. The men of the family do the manual labor and the killing of animals for their family (that of their mother and sisters and their sisters’ children), and the grandmother of the household is the ultimate arbiter of major decisions.

Choo says this system results in women having a higher status, more autonomy, and freedom from some of the patriarchal strictures that are particularly evident in rural China. Women are free from social stigma attached to sexuality. Every woman is essentially a single mother (with a family to help raise and provide for their children). Women are not reliant on men for room or resources. Also, Choo says, women’s voices and opinions are respected amongst the Mosuo in a way they weren’t at the high-power corporate law firm where she used to work.

There is no Western concept, no traditional Chinese concept, no English word for the relationships in Mosuo society. “Walking marriage” is adopted partially to describe to an uninitiated audience, but also for tourism purposes. Ethnic tourism has been a growing industry in western China, particularly as train lines get extended and dirt roads turn into two-lane highways. Locals open restaurants and inns. The residents, who otherwise have started to leave their traditional attire in the closet, take it out and wear it to dance in front of tourists. Boys drop out of high school in order to pursue a career as a waiter.

Over the years she lived there, Choo says, she saw the scope and enthusiasm participants brought to the Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival wane. She became so disappointed that one year she decided to fund it herself. With her 5,000 RMB (US$725) donation and the help of a hardworking Mosuo man, they put on a great festival. But how long can it last?

“In the blink of an eye, in the six years I have lived among this community, I have borne witness at first hand to how quickly they have moved from their subsistence-farming way of life to plug right into the new world as cogs in the burgeoning tourism industry of China,” Choo writes.

See also: Ethnic Culture Struggles to Survive in Guangxi, China

In the end she says many locals are forgetting their traditional culture and adopting perspectives of the nationally dominant Han culture. One of her goddaughters married a Han man and started a nuclear family. Some of the young, would-be liberated women now want to protect their “purity” for a marriage.

Economic growth has brought indoor-plumbing, hot showers, and washing machines to homes, but it has also caused status-seeking. Besides food, drink, and smokes, some young men have began indulging in hard drugs like opium and heroin, Choo writes in the final chapter.

I know well how entrancing the scenery of Yunnan can be and the culture of the local ethnic groups. While I spent a much shorter time—just three months—living and working in Dali, I often return in my mind to those stone streets and the special festivals I witnessed. The white-walled homes painted with black ink (a Bai style) are beautiful, but not the fact that students have to come from over 100 kilometers away to attend a decent school. Ultimately a life of backbreaking farm labor is not desirable. It’s not the romantic image portrayed in cultural shows and tourism brochures. But economic growth coming from outside too quickly can have destabilizing effects.

See also: Dali vs. Lijiang: The Paradox of Successful Ethnic Tourism Marketing

Choo ends on an optimistic note. Some traditions may break down, “But I do take comfort from the reflection that the last thing that will survive will be their core belief in the matrilineal principle,” she writes. How the Mosuo cope with modernity is a question that will play out, and similar questions will play out in ethnic enclaves and villages throughout China.

The Kingdom of Women is an entertaining contribution to literature on the topic, a look at far-flung culture and a beautiful land. It can be purchased in hardcover at Amazon for $16.51, as of this writing.

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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.