year of the rat, 2020

The threat of Wuhan coronavirus, notwithstanding, chez Shenzhen it’s been a strangely low-key beginning to the year of the rat or mouse or any other kind of rodentia that floats your boat. Squirrels and hamsters, moles and chinchillas with their long, long whiskers–any and all can appear on a happy new years card, although most are ordinary brown or white mice, and some are wearing breathing masks. Most public spaces have emptied out, events have been cancelled, and we’re at home eating dried persimmons, roasted chestnuts, and dumplings. Someone mentions that the night before they (and who are they?) locked down Wuhan, four million people departed the city. Some must have had advanced knowledge of the shutdown, but others must have been traveling for the New Year. After all, Wuhan is one of the four most important railway transit hubs in China; anyone on the Beijing-Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high speed train went through Wuhan on their way north. We’ll see how (and when) they make their way back.


wishing you prosperity

100 rmb notes and US C notes go together like boy and girl, like modernity and tradition, like Mao Zedong and Benjamin Franklin, like officialdom (guanfang) and society (minjian), like yang and yin. I was thinking about how in Shenzhen du jour tradition is being (re)constituted through economic reform–specifically, I was thinking about how tradition has become the vehicle that naturalizes the demolition of (unnatural) urbanized villages in a city long described as “lacking history,” and this matched New Years set shows up on the entrance to my apartment building. As with many symbols of Chimerica, gender suggests the multiple forms of power that create particular subject positions, especially in the figuring of ideal relationships, where even if the male, head-of-house holds money that is ostensibly worth less than the female, nevertheless, in Chimerica East the primacy of renminbi makes sense (cents) precisely because “tradition” keeps us in place.


changling village: spring festival traditions

Tonight, I was one of roughly 2,000 people who welcomed spring in Changling Village (长岭村) by eating pencai together. Like a wedding banquet, a pencai banquet constitutes society table by table. The hosts were the 40-odd families who belong to the village, and their guests came from the Hong Kong side of the family, affines from neighboring villages, friends, street office officials, and representatives from the developer who aims to transform Changling into high end real estate on the Shenzhen River.  Continue reading

spring rush

Yesterday, the mass movement of Chinese literally known as “Spring Shipping (春运)”, but could also be translated as Spring Rush began and will continue until February 24. This year it is estimated that there will be 3.6 billion one way trips made during these 40 days. This is roughly one round trip per Chinese person. Some people will make more than two one way trips, and some will stay in place, but the figures indicate the scale of movement as people travel to be with family or to have fun.

Today, the city felt emptier and it will continue apace until the end of the first week, or after the 15 the day of the first month.

Party on!

tea time stories

Old Sui makes starkly whimsical woodblock prints the old fashioned modernist way — by hand, alone, and in a studio that is open to friends who drop by for tea and chats. He has collected over 1,000 teapots that when individually shelved and arranged seem oddly menacing. Not a first mind. At first, one sees artistry in the smooth lines and soft glow of each pot. However, as Old Sui opens a drawer to show part of the collection, and then another, and then says that the majority of the collection is elsewhere, the care and time necessary to make and care for a teapot gives way to numbers games and ranking; here are 50+ teapots, here are several dozens, the top  twenty or so have been displayed on a shelf that stretches around the room.

And the rest?

In a room at home.

I know the feeling of insatiable desire. I also enjoy aesthetic displays of objects. But. I am not a collector. Learning that Old Sui has set aside a room for private delectation? The intimacy of this knowledge startles me and my eye settles on a teapot crafted in black clay with flecks of golden sand. Continue reading

that time of year

Several clear signs that Shenzhen is gearing up for the holiday:

(1) Everyone is in overtime mode to finish work by the end of next week, so that they can get off as early as possible. New Year’s eve is Feb 9 and the first is Feb 10, but elementary students are already off and the streets have emptied significantly;

(2) Lunches and dinners with friends have increased as everyone is taking time to sit down and visit, which is somehow at odds with all the overtime that is being put in;

(3) The traffic cops are out confiscating motorbikes. It is only legal to ride motorbikes in small communities or campuses, it is illegal to ride motorbikes on the road or sidewalk. Every year, the traffic cops start hanging out at intersections and confiscating illegal bikes. I’m told the reason is to earn a little extra for the holiday by selling the bikes elsewhere. I’m also told that this has been going on for decades, and that when a friend of mine was in middle school, the cops hung out at intersections and snatched bicycles;

(4) Flowers have appeared at all the plant shops. The annual flower market is one of the highlights of a Guangdong New Year’s, and individuals purchase all sorts of lovely flowers for their balconies and homes;

(5) I’ve received warnings not to help children who say they are lost or need money to go home because the common sense is that they are part of some scam. I’ve been instructed to take the children to the nearest police station because if they are truly lost, they will go and if they are part of a scam, they will run away;

(6) Snakes of varying degrees of cuteness are on sale everywhere.

沓饼节: the second annual pounded biscuit festival

Yesterday, Bao’an District organized the second annual pounded biscuit festival (沓饼节). Pounded biscuits are a traditional local sweet that are especially popular at Chinese New Year’s. It so happens that a Shenzhen brand, 合成号 has been making said biscuits since 1901. The company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, and to kick off its next century, in 2012, it became the sponsor of Shenzhen’s latest festival.

Local historian, Mr. Liao Honglei (廖虹雷) invited me to join the celebration. Mr. Liao curated the event and has been active promoting local Chinese culture. He is particularly attentive to cultural differences between Cantonese, Hakka, and Chaozhou settlements. Shenzhen inhabitants from outside Guangdong, refer to Cantonese as “baihua (白话)”, or local language. In contrast, Mr. Liao makes a point of calling each of these cultural strands by their official names, Guangfu (广府 literally provincial capital of Guangdong), Hakka, and Chaozhou in order to draw attention to Bao’an’s heterogeneous roots.

Also present was special guest, Professor Wu Bing’an (乌丙安), an 86-year old specialist in Chinese folklore. Professor Wu began his discussion by explaining why he opposes calling Chinese New Year “Spring Festival”. On his analysis, festival (节 jie) refers to a date on the calendar. In contrast, year (年 nian) refers to a period of time. Thus, jie mark the passage of time within a given nian. Professor Wu said that in order to leave one year and enter the next, Chinese people need sound and color. After praising the reintroduction of noisy, pounding to make New Year’s biscuits, he mentioned that firecrackers were the traditional “sound” for sending off and greeting the new year. Professor Wu also complained that too many safety restrictions had made Chinese New Year too quiet.

Impressions of the pounded biscuit festival, below.

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listening to firecrackers

I’m in Tianjin, listening to the firecrackers that go from dusk well into the early hours of the morning. Traditionally, people set off firecrackers from New Year’s Eve through the Lantern Festival. Firecrackers also provided an opportunity for Tianjin friends to distinguish themselves from Cantonese people because “northerners love firecrackers more than southerners”. In fact, they said, the further north you go, the more festive the towns as firecrackers don’t stop.

I don’t actually know how much of my friend’s claim about northern enthusiasm for pyrotechnics is true. I do know that early on, Shenzhen attempted to outlaw firecrackers. In fact, I remember buying illegal firecrackers and setting them off at the coast. We drove with a truck full of illegal poppers to houhai land reclamation area, snuck out, and set them off. This year and last, however, I’ve noticed stands selling firecrackers because — according to a friend — the SZ Municipal government finally accepted the fact that it was safer to sell legal firecrackers and regulate production than the alternative.

I’m also told that people set of firecrackers just to “burn money”. Last year, the economy was good and people celebrated by “burning money”. However, this year I’m told that there are fewer people willing to buy firecrackers because of economic difficulties. Nevertheless, everyone I’ve talked with has set off firecrackers or played with sparklers; we bought a box of fireworks and watched them light up the sky for all of five minutes. New Year’s — relatives and friends emphasize — is the People’s holiday. In contrast, on National Day, only the government willingly burns money and, my friend joked, those fireworks are of different quality.

Happy Year of the Pig

saturday, feb 18 is the first day of the year of the pig. as far as i know, everyone is looking forward to a fat year: get rich young piglets. i found these messages more difficult to translate than the solar new messages, because they’re not only more punny, but also more culturally specific; understanding the joke requires knowing lots about what pigs mean in chinese culture. anyway, the joke, of course, is always the pig’s identity. i’m in north carolina, but friends have generously forwarded lunar new year’s greetings. here are three text messages making rounds in shenzhen:

脸大眼小, 是个领导;

the blind person
tells super accurate fortunes.
a crowd brings over the trussed up, de-haired one
to have it’s fortune told.
the blind person
upon rubbing [the pig] says happily:
a fat butt and round belly, you’re a party member;
a round face and small eyes, you’re a leader;
fine skin and soft flesh, you’re keeping fresh.

here, the joke hinges on the line 众人抬褪过毛的 which implies a trussed up, de-haired pig that has been brought to market. however, the 的 makes the pig implicit, because the next character is the pronoun “you”. the final pun is between keep fresh and keep the avant-garde party line.

猪的四大理想: 四周篱笆全撒掉, 天上纷纷掉饲料, 地球屠夫死翘翘, 世界人民信回教。 感谢猪先生对人类做出的贡献! 希望肉价不要在上涨。

a pig’s four ideals: fences on all four sides have been knocked down, feed continuously falls from heaven, all the earth’s butcher’s die with four limbs straight up, all the world becomes muslim. thanks to mr. pig for their contributions to humanity! hoping that meat prices don’t go up.

this one rhymes, is easy to memorize, and contains great images. i didn’t get the muslim line until yang qian explained that muslims don’t eat pork! i knew that but… i had been thinking in religious terms, where the joke is that for most han chinese, muslims are defined by the fact that they eat lamb and don’t eat pork. yang qian kept chortling, “all the world becomes muslim, of course pigs would be happy!”


2007 year of the pig resolutions [or to paraphrase bill murray in caddyshack: BE THE PIG]:
everything you eat, tastes good—-a pig’s appetite.
everywhere you sleep is comfortable—-a pig’s sleep.
when facing tribulations—-dead pigs don’t fear boiling water [1].
on loosing confidence—-insert scallions in the pig’s nostrils: pretend your an elephant [2].
when working and treating other people—-pig bajie carrying his wife on his back: be willing to work hard [3].
on getting rich—-get rich like a fat pig, don’t get sick and raise lots of piglets [4]!

the footnotes:

1. dead pigs don’t fear boiling water is a phrase used to criticize someone’s indifference to a matter that other’s care about.
2. the scallions are the pig’s “trunk”. the phrase 装象 puns 装像, an expression that means to fake it.
3. an allusion to “journey to the west”, pig bajie wanted a wife and so carried any woman on his back to see if they liked him.
4. 猪 pig puns 珠, the word for pearl.

happy chinese new year!

短信文化: text message culture

dinner with beijing friends led, as it inevitably does, to conversation about why beijing and beijing people are the best. this time, text message culture (短信文化) was our point of departure.

according to wan ning and hu lin, all of a sudden people are text messaging their new year’s greetings to each other, rather than calling (as in years past) or sending cards through the mail (as in their childhood). moreover, the telephone companies, especially china mobile, encourage this behavior because every message sent is money earned. to that end, the said companies have allegedly hired couplet writers to come up with messages that will be mass forwarded to everyone on a particular calling list.

wan ning and hu lin also pointed out that beijing pizi write independent/non-corporate messages. (皮子: does anyone have a good translation for this term, which i understand as refering to rebels in the james dean way–young, disgruntled, hyper-individualistic men, who are also passionate, appealling to the rebelious heart beating beneath everyone else’s staid exteriors. yang qian adds that 皮子 are darker and more cynical than 愤青, angry young men, who grow up to be 大愤, big angries, which puns the express, big shits…) anyway, they said that if you’ve lived in beijing, you can always tell the difference between “factory eggs” and the “farm fresh”. i can’t so i’ve posted a few new year’s greetings in no particular order (again with the caveat, loosely translated and always in need of friendly correction):

友情提示未来社会:朋友比领导重要,能力比成绩重要,健康毕业绩重要,水平比文凭重要,情商比智商重要,交友比结婚重要,节日比上班重要。祝生蛋,新年快乐! (friendly reminder, future society: friends are more important than leaders, skill is more important than grades, health is more important than outstanding achievement, talent is more important than a diploma, making friends is more important that marriage, holidays are more important than work days. wishing you a merry christmas and happy new year!)

2007年到了。别忘了给孩子们讲讲很久很久很久以前的事:那时候天还是蓝的,水也是绿的,肉是可以放心吃的,耗子还是怕猫的,法庭是讲理的,结婚是先谈恋爱的,理发店是只管理发的,药是可以治病的,医生是救死扶伤的,拍电影是不要培导演睡觉的,照相是要穿衣服的,欠钱是要还的,孩子的爸爸是明确的,学校是不图挣钱的,白痴是不能当教授的,卖狗肉是不能挂羊头的,结婚了是不能泡MM的。祝你新年快乐!(2007 has arrived. don’t forget to tell the children about how things were long, long, long ago: in those days, the sky was blue, the water was torquoise, you could eat meat without worrying, rats feared cats, the courts listened to reason, marriage came after courtship, hair salons only gave haircuts, medicine cured illness, doctors saved the dying and cared for the injured, you could make a movie without sleeping with the director, you had to keep your clothes on in a photograph, loans had to be repaid, a child’s paternity was clear, schools weren’t profit-oriented, idiots couldn’t become professors, you couldn’t pass off dog meat as mutton, after marriage you couldn’t play around with young women. happy new year!)

wan ning’s commentary: this message had changed since he first saw it. he believes that people are editing and adding to messages before forwarding them to their friends.

忍养安,乐养寿,爱养富,善养德,诚养誉,礼养谊,正养胆,廉养义,古养今,和谐养文明,时光养友情,睡眠养容颜,运动养健康!恭祝新年好!(endurance nourishes tranquility, happiness nourishes longevity, goodness nourishes virtue, sincerity nourishes reputation, courtesy nourishes friendship, uprightness nourishes courage, honesty nourishes righteousness, the past nourishes the present, sincerity nourishes reputation, time nourishes friendship, sleep nourishes beauty, exercise nourishes health! happy new year!)

translation note: 养 is one of those characters rich in cultural meaning. in addition to meaning “nourishes”, it can also mean “breeds” as in endurance breeds tranquility. the important point is that whatever or whoever does the 养ing takes pride of place in that the 养ee (so to speak) depends upon 养er for its existance.

什么是爱情?色呗。什么是温柔?面呗。什么是幽默?贫呗。什么是艺术?脱呗。什么是仗义?傻呗。什么是朋友?你呗。什么人最记得祝你元旦快乐?俺XXX呗。(what is love? sex. what is tenderness? being a wimp. what is art? stripping. what is having principles? stupidity. what is a friend? you. who is most likely to remember to wish you a happy new year? me, XXX.)

hu lin: you can tell this is fresh off the beijing farm. only beijing people use the expression “面” to mean wimp.

translation note: 呗 (bei) implies a cyncial finality–last word on the subject. 俺 (an3) is funny because it’s a northeastern expression for “I”. northeasterners remain a source of constant amusement for the rest of the country, but especially beijing. as soon as they hear 俺, beijingers start laughing because they know the non-northeastern speaker is cracking jokes (耍贫嘴), a form of verbal spoofing (恶搞). one of the funnier practitioners of this art is xue cun (雪村) from jilin. his website includes the wonderful flash version of his breakaway hit “northeasterners are all living leifengs (东北人都是活雷锋)” as well as recent songs. a fun aside and in the spirit of xue cun is cui jian’s flash version of “net virgin”.

快年底了,地下的先烈们纷纷打来电话询问。江姐问:国民党被推翻了么?答:被阿扁推翻了。董存端问:劳动人民还当牛做马么?答:不劳动了,都下岗了。吴琼花问:姐妹们都翻身得解放了吗?答:思想解放了,都当小姐了。杨子荣问:土匪都剿灭了么?答:都改当公安和城管了。杨白劳问:地主都打倒了吗?答:都入党了。雷锋问:那资本家呢?答:都进人大和政协了!刘胡兰问:同志们都藏好了吗?答:都隐身上网了。毛主席问:大家现在都在忙什么呢?答:都在斗地主。毛主席:那我就放心了!(the end of the year will soon be here, and so the martyres from below are calling to ask about the current situation.

sister jiang,”has the kmt been overthrown?”

answer: by a bian (陈水扁, chen shuibian).

dong cunduan, “have the workers ceased to work like oxen and horses?”

answer: they’ve all ceased working.

wu qionghua, “have my sisters been liberated.”

answer: their thinking has been liberated and know they’re all young ladies (小姐 also means escort).

yang zirong, “have the bandits been erradicated?”

answer: they’ve changed status and jointed the security forces and city police.

yang bailao, “have the landlords been over thrown?”

answer: they’ve joined the party.

lei feng, “what about the capitalists?”

answer: they’re now in the people’s congress and people’s political consultative committee.

liu hulan, “are our comrades safely hidden?”

answer: they’ve hidden their identity and gone online.

mao zedong, “what is everybody busy doing?”

answer: struggling with landlords.

mao zedong, “then i can rest easy!”)

i leave it to the reader to make the relevant political and gender analysis.