Category Archives for "Culture"

Dec 24

The real reason Chinese people eat apples on Christmas Eve

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Strange China News

Last night was Christmas Eve in China, so my WeChat account was full of apple emojis and festive messages.

“Don’t you give each other apples on Christmas Eve in America?” multiple friends asked.

That Americans give each other apples on Christmas Eve appears to be a common misperception in China. Although it’s a big tradition in China, many Chinese people don’t even know they invented it.

“Giving apples on Christmas is what kind of a custom?” a questioner asked on Guokr, a Chinese Q-and-A website. Another question asked, “Is eating an apple on Christmas Eve something Chinese people invented? Just because it is homophonic [(in Chinese)]?”

When I first received apples from Chinese people on Christmas Eve in 2014, that’s what I thought, too—that the tradition was because of the homophone sound. “Christmas Eve” translates to ping’an ye (平安夜), which literally means “Peaceful Night” or “Silent Night” (the same as the name of the song in Chinese). Apple is pingguo, and the character is also similar (苹果).
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Nov 10

A night painting with Zhuzhou’s only graffiti crew

By Mitchell Blatt | Art , China , Culture

Desk, Shark, Fat, and Klute were spraying their nicknames onto a wall in a northern suburb of Zhuzhou city, Hunan province when a police car drove by and flashed its lights. Desk and Shark ran down an alleyway, but Fat stayed to finish his tag.

“Where are they??” Desk asked, in the safety of the alleyway.

When Fat and Klute came nonchalantly walking along, Desk asked if they weren’t worried the police would chase.

“No,” Fat said, “the Chinese police are lazy.”

Indeed, the police didn’t pursue, and the GCK crew continued to make their mark for another hour. According to Desk, an American who has taught English in China for two years, the Goofy Chinese Kids are the only graffiti gang in the city of 1 million. On one wall near a university, there was some graffiti written by others, but Desk dismissed it as the work of “art students trying to be edgy.” All of the graffiti on the road by the train station was marked with the names of GCK members.
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Nov 08

Cantonese folk art associations and the preservation of culture

By Mitchell Blatt | Art , China , Photos

On November 6, Cantonese opera actress Li Chixiang shared her expertise and experiences with the Yuanzhou Town Folk Art Association (园洲镇曲艺协会). Singing, dancing, doing magic and recalling stories, she was able to draw laughter and applause from the audience of a few dozen locals intent on preserving China’s traditional art forms.

“China has 5,000 years of history. We should pass it on,” said Zhu Runhong, a member of the folk are association.

Li spoke for an hour, talking about how she once ran away from her home in the suburbs of Guangzhou to try to study Cantonese opera and later was enrolled in the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy. Showing off her wide range of talents, she did a trick to turn blank papers into 100 RMB bills and danced with a multicolored fabric. It was like a “talk show,” she said. Every Friday she hosts a Cantonese opera show on Guangzhou TV, and the TV network sent its reporters to cover it.

“In an average month, we perform about five times like this,” Li said. “But in the rainy season, we might not perform once in a month, and during Spring Festival, we could perform every day, sometimes even twice a day.”

Zhou Aiwen, who has been an actress for 7 years, practices in the car on the way.
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After her act, the members of the Yuanzhou Town Folk Art Association’s Cantonese opera troupe took the stage to perform scenes from the opera Dinv Hua (帝女花). The group holds meetings and practices three times a week and competes with other local arts groups in local and regional competitions. Located in Shangnan city, about 2 hours from Guangzhou by car, Yuanzhou is one of many Guangdong villages to tout its rich Cantonese opera tradition. In 2012, the Shangnan Folk Art Society, featuring some members of the Yuanzhou group, won silver at a provincial Cantonese opera invitational.

The media in Yuanzhou even tries to use new technologies to preserve its traditional arts. One local entreprenuer founded Yuanzhou Online ( in 2006, a forum which includes news and events in BBS format, and launched a Boluo county app this year, upon which he live streamed Li’s talk and the opera performance to up to 1,500 viewers.

See also

Backstage with Li Chixiang at a Cantonese opera performance
An Interview with Li Chixiang

Nov 04

Chinese student uniforms on a foreigner

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture

You know a Chinese student when you see one because of their 80’s-track-warm-up-looking uniforms. Chinese student uniforms, or xiaofu (校服), are a famous emblem of Chinese education, hated by students for being ugly and remembered with laughs later.

For Halloween I like to wear costumes with special Chinese characteristics, so this year, guess what… I was a Chinese student.


A friend Hunan who graduated from Zhuzhou No. 2 High School lent me her xiaofu. Xiaofu, it turns out, is gender-neutral and one size can stretch to fit many people. The attire consisted of a pair of pants and a jacket with lining. The clothes were made out of a quick drying polyester-ish material. Students only have two pairs, she said.

I added a red neckscarf for humor. Red neckscarfs are worn by primary school students, who are made to participate in the Young Pioneers program, a patriotic group run by the Communist Youth League. They aren’t worn by high school students, but I expected Chinese people would get the reference. I have worn red neckscarfs before without school uniform–for example while working at the bar in Dali–and Chinese people found it funny to see a foreigner wearing the red neckscarf.

Chinese people stared at me as I walked to the Halloween party at a bar. Having dinner before the party, a group eating in front of a childhood blackboard wanted to take pictures with me.


At the party, a group of young people pulled me over to their table.

“We’re classmates!” they said.

Apparently they had graduated from Dali No. 2 the year before. One of them handed me a beer.

“Gan yi bei!” one of the girls said. Drink it all!


Oct 24

LINE Friends Cafe: How LINE app turned chat stickers into a branded character universe fans wait in line to see

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Food and Leisure

Transformers and the Lego Movie showed there’s still a market for movies based on toys. Now the success of Line Friends in Asia shows that there is also a market for cafes and merchandise based on emoticons and stickers.

At Catherine Plaza in Nanjing, China on Sunday afternoon, October 23, a line of over 100 people waited for entrance into the newly opened Line Friends Cafe & Store. While they waited they took pictures with the giant statues of a bear, a chic, a rabbit, a frog, and a moon.

The Line Friends are a cast of characters originally developed as stickers for the chat app Line between 2011 and 2013. As the app exploded in popularity, Line eventually expanded the character lineup and featured them in animations (Line Town) and games (Line Rangers). Now they have started opening stores.

On its website, Line claims to have 45 stores in nine countries either open or in the works, but the list appears incomplete because it doesn’t include the Nanjing location. Besides Asia, Columbia and the United States (Times Square, NYC) are also listed as the sites of planned future stores.


The shops that have just opened in Shanghai and Nanjing are extremely popular. Fans, who were about 70-80 percent female and largely younger than 25, waited in line for 30-40 minutes to get in on Sunday afternoon. Inside the place is divided into sections based on the characters, including a cafe, a restaurant serving hot dogs, and a merchandise section that included apparel, backpacks, bags, and branded items for 100-300 RMB (which the women I was with thought was too expensive).

However despite the great interest in the Line Friends characters and the popularity of Line in neighboring Asian countries, few Chinese use the chat app Line Friends were originally developed for. Of the dozen fans I talked to, none said they actively used it and few said they downloaded it but didn’t use it. WeChat and QQ are the leading chat apps in China. Line claims to be the leading social network in Japan and boasts 700 million users worldwide, with popularity in Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Spain as well.


But Line Corporation, which is a subsidiary of the Korean internet giant Naver, has found a way to turn their chat stickers into expansive brands. It created a whole universe around the Line Friends called Line Town, and it developed the stories of the twelve characters in a series of 50 1-3 minute short animations.

It also worked to get the Line Friends in people’s minds through multiple media channels. One fan at the cafe said she heard about the Line Friends through Korean music idol group Exo. Line Corp also capitalizes on the popularity of photo-taking apps in Asia. Some of the Chinese fans did use the app Line Camera, which lets users take photos of themselves with the images of a Line Friend’s face superimposed over their own face.


A corporate promotional website lists six related and overlapping areas of business development: “STORE”, “Café”, “Collaboration”, “Character Goods”, “Licensing”, and “Contents.” Besides the 5,000 Line products that are said to be already in production, Line will also develop “license business with the world’s best partners in various fields” and introduce “authentic products collaborated with world famous brands.” Possibilities for Line entertainment features include “animation, movie, game, education, [and] publication.”

When it went public on NASDAQ in June of this year, Line raised $1.1 billion to become the biggest IPO of a slow year.

Sep 28

What it’s like playing in the band for a rich Shanghai kid’s birthday party on a yacht

By Alan Fowler | China , Culture

When I received the invitation to perform at an unknown 18-year-old’s birthday party in Shanghai, all I could think about was how rich I would become from this endeavor.

I thought, “His parents are hiring foreigners for his party, they must be rich. I know, I will charge 10,000 RMB. No! Better make it 12,000 RMB (US$1,846). After I pay the rest of the band and take care of all the other expenses, I’m still going to walk away with over $600 for one night’s work.” My eyes quickly turned green—or in this case, red. What I didn’t expect is that what followed would leave me feeling poorer than I ever have in my 29 years of existence.

Guest Post by Alan Fowler

The party was on a boat about the size of a large yacht, but it wasn’t fancy. It carried the stench of years of wear and tear, probably through commercial use of similar events and tours around the Bund. The bulky spiral staircase that led up to the dance floor had a faded royal blue tint and, like the rest of the boat, felt tacky and outdated. The peripheral rust that barely hid itself all throughout the ships interior, along with the protruding bank slogan on the side of the upper deck characterized the vessel. It wasn’t at all what someone would see in a beach resort advertisement or flashy hip-hop video.

On top of that, the power failed, delaying the performance and causing the sound crew to rush out and frantically gather a bulky stand-alone generator and an endless supply of cables.



ut when it was all set up and the lights came on, it started to become clear that whoever was behind this had pockets that ran very, very deep. There were girls dressed in sexy captain’s uniforms—though they couldn’t have been much older than the birthday boy—a three man pop-lock dance group, a mediocre magician, a professional mixologist with a fancy repertoire of colorful booze and a mountain of wine glasses, a rent-a-DJ that seemed to use the same “Now That’s What I Call DJ Music” subscription club as every other Zhou with an mp3 player, an obnoxious host-in-a-suit, a lavish buffet, and then us, a motley group of foreigners who had come well dressed, ready to rock the house and eager to load our pockets with Maos (the Chinese equivalent of a Benjamin: i.e. 100 RMB note).

In between songs, we were asked to take a short break while a timid looking birthday boy was all but forced to take stage to say a few words to the crowd. His demeanor wasn’t unlike the typical 18-year-old Chinese boy one might encounter during their mandatory stint at scummy English training centers and rickety middle schools that, in their desperation for white faces, lure any half-literate “foreigner” in with money and a job description that reads, “No experience needed.” His shoulders were hunched, gaze focused slightly toward the ground so as not to accidentally make eye contact with anyone, arms tightly crossed, and carrying a somewhat nonplussed, Dad-please-don’t-embarrass-me look on his face.

When the host asked him to express his excitement to the crowd—a modest group of the boy’s friends that couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 people in total—the boy hesitated, and then in angst, finally was able to muster the courage to grab the mic, just to announce that he really didn’t have anything to say. At that point, he abruptly shoved the mic back over to the host, who I’m sure the boy wished would quickly just get the hell out of his life.



s I stood and watched alongside the stage, nightfall had set in and the towering Shanghai skyscrapers along the riverfront had begun to light up with brightly colored neon imagery—the Shanghai skyline is an architectural work of art. We had been taking advantage of the open bar (the one on the bottom level that had been designated “for the band”), and were starting to have a good time on what we thought was one of the coolest gigs we’d ever done.

My band mates—two Russians, an Armenian and an Englishman—didn’t speak much Chinese, so they weren’t too interested in the shenanigans that were taking place on stage. I however, watched and listened intently, if not just to practice my Chinese, I was also quite curious.

I turned around just in time to see three big bright red characters flashing under the Chinese for “happy birthday” on a skyscraper across the river. Leaning against the railing with martini in hand, I squinted my eyes and tried to recall how to pronounce the first character. It wasn’t a commonly seen Chinese word, and I probably wouldn’t have figured out that it was the boy’s name if people weren’t shouting it behind me. This, to me, was borderline unbelievable, but I was quick to accept it. After all, it seemed to fall right in line with all the other aforementioned festivities.


Then, when the dad took the stage, he gave his boy a warm hug, made a short speech, and presented him with a gift. But before I say what the gift was, just think back to what you received for your 18th birthday: maybe a check for college tuition, maybe the keys to a used Ford Focus, maybe not even that much.

One thing that I still can’t grasp though, is why the young man had virtually no reaction as his father presented him with a fund for 5,000,000 RMB. At the current exchange rate of 1 US dollar for every 6.5 RMB, that’s around $769,230 big ones. That’s greater than 14 years of salary for the average American, or, just over 10 years if you’re an Asian American. Yea, I should have charged more.

Aug 04

How I fell in love with Kpop at the “live show” of SBS MTV – Day 6

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea Trip 2016 , Music

The fans roared. Four girls in short denim pants took the stage. They started dancing to their song “Color,” shaking their hips seductively. ”You’re perfect, I’ve never felt this way before…” But were the cameras even filming?

From my seat at the “live” show of the Kpop music program “The Show” on SBS MTV, I could see the whole glamorous spectacle on display: hosts preparing, fans waving signs, artists performing, and producers waving them off stage.

Music shows are huge in the land of Kpop. Almost every night one of the channels broadcasts its countdown show, from the English-language “Simply K-Pop” on Arirang channel on Mondays to “Inkigayo” on SBS on Sundays, and of course “The Show” on SBS MTV every Tuesday night.

Tickets to the big shows can be a hot commodity. Superfans will go to shows night after night to see their favorite idol bands and then wait outside for an hour to try to catch a glimpse of them leaving. Outside the SBS Prism Tower outside the show, two fans waved a Vromance album at me and said that they were planning on attending every show where the new group performed.


To obtain tickets, one usually has to apply in advance on a Korean website and hope to be selected by lottery. However a number of tour agencies provide tickets that can be purchased for guaranteed seats. My tickets were provided by HaB Korea tour agency, which also offers Kpop dance class tours and M Countdown tickets.

The Show features a countdown of the top new songs—and other notable songs—as voted on by viewers, including Chinese viewers on Tudou video platform. The performance and production is fast, flashy, and energetic. The stage is adorned with lights. Performers are either pretty girls in short skirts and hot pants or handsome boys in stylish dress. They have their dance moves down to every detail such that when you are watching from the stands and keeping your eyes moving between the stage and the television feed, it looks like they are broadcasting live.

But thenContinue 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.


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!”
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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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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.