opiate of the mass-market

Today’s postcard is a bit of jump jump jump–from Hong Kong free traders to the rise of openly Nazi candidates in the 2018 midterm elections via a bodice-ripper or two. 

Here’s the question: Is E.J. Eitel’s Europe in Asia actually a Victorian-era pirate bromance before the fact? That’s the question that keeps bubbling up when I read his characterization of opium pushers free traders like William Jardine and James Matheson. Compare, for example, how smoothly the prologue from a popular historical romance links up with a passage from Eitel: Continue reading

a bully’s honor

As I watch the US president scream and shout and justify his socio-pathologies, as I  engage low-ranking officials who change their minds and force their subordinates to work unnecessary overtime everyday, and as I argue with parents who think that their children are not “strong enough (不够厉害)” to take what they want in life, I’ve been thinking a lot about bullies and institutional forms of bullying that are misrecognized as education or leadership or honor and virtue. Like many in the United States, a significant number of Chinese people accept social Darwinism as an accurate description of “the real world,” rather than recognizing social Darwinism for the self-serving misreading of evolutionary theory that it is.

Then, after a grumble about the normalization of bullying in everyday life, I continue reading E. J. Eitel’s Europe in China: the History of Hongkong from the beginning to the Year 1882, which compounds my frustration with righteous bullies and their inability to empathize with anyone’s pain, including their own. I manage three sentences before the arrogance, misogyny and general smugness of Eitel’s text force me to consider if I really want to read over 600 pages of what must have been considered “edifying” reading material. The text does make clear is the extent to which imperial bureaucracies, colonialism and some misplaced yearning for civilization continue to overdetermine the hierarchies and injustices that characterize contemporary societies. Continue reading

so why are there so many abandoned villages?

The movie is 《封门诡影》 and it starts of with the fear of abandoned villages as if the reason was for villages being emptied out was supernaturally evil. Fengmen (literally closed door) Village was inexplicably abandoned. I’ve never never seen Blair Witch, but this movie seems kind of like, but with ghosts and dodgy fengshui. Our intrepid hero teaches psychology and has issues because unable to understand evil within his cognitive framework. It’s all in your mind. But not really. Cut to evil cackle.

Continue reading

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.


dragon boat festival preparations

This past week I have been in Shuiwei learning to wrap zongzi (粽子) for the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival. What is apparent is not simply the re-invention of tradition, but also the unpaid work that women do to create that solidarity. The zongzi making takes place over 10 days—two prep days and then 8 days of wrapping and boiling. The hours are long: 6:30 a.m. to midnight or later. Of note: Continue reading

ideal subject positions (by the numbers)

The current stock market frenzy has people dreaming about more than free lunches. The following adverts are from Money Daddy (钱爸爸), an online trading / investment platform based in Shenzhen. Of note? In addition to the pyramid scheme promises of rapid wealth, the site address plays with both “rich daddy, poor daddy” ideology and Cantonese numerology, where the number 8 is a homophone for the character for father and can also represents the character for “get rich”.

Translations of Money Daddy advertisements show “ideal” middle class Shenzheners enjoying their high returns. The underlying anxiety point is actually quite simple: if you’re earning an honest living in any of these jobs (including an ordinary bureaucrat), you’re not earning enough for carefree spending. And carefree spending is, of course, the site where the self is being constructed as “macho”, “successful”, “loving”, “sexy”, and “independent”, respectively. Continue reading

my white wall compulsions: paint it black (I)

On Friday, October 3 at Handshake 302, we held the first salon for My White Wall Compulsions (墙迫症), “Paint It Black”.

The artist team for the first wall comprises Liu He (刘赫) and Wu Dan (吴丹), both under 25 and both curious about art and its possible articulations with and through society. Liu He is a second generation Shenzhener, whose parents came to build the SEZ before he was born. Wu Dan came to Shenzhen last year, a first generation migrant just out of college. During their first salon, Liu He talked about his anti-inspiration for “Paint It Black”.

This past summer, Liu He took time off from work to travel to some of the less travelled neidi cities. In one of the cities, he decided to take a job at a karaoke bar in order to see what it would be like to do day work (打工). He got a job as a procurer of Karaoke Bar princesses (and at the bar where he worked, hostesses who worked private rooms were so-called). The job included a three-day training session, in which the trainer was as enthusiastic and self-determined as a multi-level marketer. And in fact it turns out that procuring worked a lot like multi-level marketing–the more young, pretty women the procurers brought in, the more money they made.

Liu He left after a few days without recruiting any young women because “he couldn’t get past the moral issue”. Of the 30+ young men who had joined him for training, 12 decided to stay and work the job. Of that twelve, three were 16 years old. According to Liu He, the trainer insisted that once he stopped worrying about ethics, he could talk to pretty women and get rich. In fact, that seems to have been the point of the training: to overcome the young men’s repugnance to pimping and replace it with self-justifying desire for money and everything it buys.

The story ignited debate about what it means to leave one’s hometown and make one’s way in the world. There were two main positions, both pulsing with anger, sadness, and faintly, despair. The younger participants wanted a more honorable way of making a living, to live in such a way that they wouldn’t have to make the kind of choice that Liu He walked away from. The older participants, especially those who had worked their way out of a rural area, expressed that young people didn’t understand what was necessary in order to secure a better life for one’s children.

These two positions took a different relationship to the young pimps. The young people saw themselves and their choices in the decision to procure princesses. The older people saw the choices they had made so that their children would be protected from making those choices. No one saw themselves as a princess, a blind spot that not only hints at how gendered inequality shapes job opportunities in China, but also how difficult it is to truly see the most oppressed. After all, the young men’s decision to pimp or not to pimp still implied some kind of agency. It would have been more difficult to focus on the conditions that make young, rural women the cheapest and most convenient labor in manufacturing and service throughout the economy, even as women are markedly absent from positions of social influence and power.

Friday, October 10 at 19:00 the conversation continues when Liu He and Wu Dan present their finished wall.

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