crazy rich asians / material girl mix-mash

So I watched Crazy Rich Asians online and came away thinking: billionaire rom-com with Asian-American characteristics. If you like billionaire fantasies and think money grows on Chinese trees, its a fun escape with a light-hearted soundtrack. However, if you know some of the soundtrack references, a bit of cultural dissonance threads uneasily throughout. The one song that I found particularly disconcerting was the use of Sally Yeh’s “200 Degrees,” a canto-pop interpretation of Material Girl, which was played during a shopping scene. These two songs have the same tune but actually locate female agency in different spaces. Madonna embraced pay as you go sexuality–“Only men who save their pennies make my rainy day…,” while Sally Yeh seemed more interested in celebrating female sexuality– “If you want to hold me tightly, love replaces words…” Anyway, today’s takeaway is a question: is the difference between Madonna’s cheerful cynicism about sex and Sally Yeh’s cheerful sincerity about love the difference between a failed and successful rom-com?

Madonna’s version of the song didn’t fit the movie precisely because Rachel Chu isn’t a material girl. As the massive romantic fiction market teaches us, it doesn’t pay to be cynical about love. At any rate, check out Madonna (1986) and Sally Ye’s (1985) live performances of Material Girl and 200 Degrees. FYI, the Sally Yeh version is during an awards ceremony and follows the introduction to the song.


click this

The internet confuses us into thinking that everything we need to know can be found in one place, such as the Shenzhen Life Net (深圳生活王), where all sorts of information and experiences are just a click away. Questions about public welfare? Click 社保. Want to watch whatever is currently being broadcast on Shenzhen’s television 16 television channels? Click 电视. You can also find out about traffic conditions, confirm important dates on the lunar calendar almanac, and figure out how much tax you owe: click, click, and click!

In fact, Shenzhen’s ongoing efforts to modernize by becoming one of the most inter-connected cities on the planet continue to fill virtual space with all sorts of information. The government is online. The library is online. The museum is online. And the historical archives are online. Moreover, Tencent, one of the key Chinese companies inter-connecting us through qq and we chat is a Shenzhen company.

At the same time that Shenzhen builds its virtual world, China’s great firewall continues to make it difficult to click to the New York Times, or Facebook, or Youtube without a tunnel. Ineed, just the other day, China banned its media from quoting foreign news articles without permission. In this sense, Shenzhen’s vast internet culture is itself the form of a pervasive inequality and the ideological expression of this inequality. The point as Global Voices co-founder and author of Consent of the Networked, Rebecca McKinnon has argued:

A substantial body of previous work has been produced over the past two decades on human rights risks in sectors such as extractives or labor services. Much less work has been done on business and human rights in the ICT sector – particularly on free expression and privacy rights. The novelty of the technology requires a translation exercise of existing human rights principles, policy, and law to ICT platforms and services.

In practical terms, however, surfing the internet often seems less about human connection and building more just worlds (as in the human writes discussion) as it does a question of our tendency to mental addictions. On the bus and subway, in meetings and movie theaters, we click, click, click through life. There is a compelling distraction to click culture. At times, I find myself simply clicking to visit sites that I have just left. I click away not because I think I may discover another post, but because the repetive action distracts me from the fact that all I’m doing is procastinating. I have have found myself fascinated by the number of visitors and clicks that Noted receives; confirmation that I have an audience. So pernicious is my click addiction that sometimes I even confuse the number of clicks with the value of my research.

I also am wondering how much of my online dependency is an expression of other forms of alienation in everyday life. My friends, for example, work long hours across town. It is difficult to arrange time together simply to hang out and chat without internet access. Likewise, the extent of urbanization in Shenzhen means that I can’t simply walk outside and enjoy fresh air and mountains. Instead, I have to navigate a six-lane road to jump on a bus, which then trundles off toward a central hub. In other words, I’m not sure how much of my online life is an attempt to heal virtually problems that can only be solved through realworld communities and life changes.

So today, I’m thinking about questions of scale and what manageable communities might look like, on the ground, here in Shenzhen, where popoulation density is over 5,500 per square kilometer and we still haven’t figured out how to plan and manage integrated communities.

situated knowledge, strategic investments, and avian flu [again]

More evidence that China and the United States really are the same country; my husband wants to invest in the US, while my father wants to invest in China because [drum roll, please] both believe that the local economy may be alright for short-term investments, but long-term it would be best to have one’s money elsewhere. My Chinese husband sees stability in the US. My US American father sees potential in China’s emerging market; neither sees their country strong and vibrant and leading the international pack twenty years down the road. That said, when I noted that my husband wasn’t confident about keeping money in China, my father suggested that perhaps I should consider moving my money to India.

On the face of it, my father and my husband have different approaches to life. When playing cards, for example, my father tends to play the odds, while my husband tests his luck. When reading, my father enjoys detective novels, while my husband appreciates literary experimentation. When keeping fit, my father keeps a strict schedule, while my husband takes the occasional stroll after dinner. My father is a stock broker; my husband is a playwright. Here’s the thing, though. Both men are savvy, concerned and engaged citizens.  And this past week, both have looked out their respective windows (in small town North Carolina and boomtown Shenzhen) only to see chaos and insecurity.

In my parents’ hometown, I was warned about certain parts of town — in a suburb near Ft. Bragg, home to the Airborne and Special Operations Forces. So it seems, we’re not only flaying about with misguided visions of keeping peace through military means, but also in need of peace keeping at home.  Visiting friends in Georgia, I was informed that it was easy to order common rape drugs (GHB, rohypnol and ketamine) online, while teen alcohol abuse has become even more prevalent than it was when I could drive to the lake and party with high school friends. Indeed, I had a disturbing that was then moment just yesterday. I watched Julie Brown’s “Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” video. In 1984, when the song came out, I found it a funny parody; thirty years later it seems  both macabre and cruel to profit from the violence in our schools. My mother succinctly summed up the situation with the comment, “I’m happy to be an old hen because today’s chicks have it tough.”

Meanwhile, back in China, avian flu has reappeared in the unsettling wake of pig and bird die-offs. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have made such a fanfare of calling for prompt and effective response that the opposite has happened: many are worried precisely because they don’t trust the government. Indeed, navigating Chinese news reports seems almost like navigating around icebergs. There is a sense that the Center only ever shows “10%”of the danger. Consequently, when high-ranking leaders express concern, savvy netizens see flashing warning lights: Xi Jinping has asked vice premier Liu Yanzhong (刘延东) to take charge of this latest public health campaign戴旭 has weibo-ed that too much coverage will cause panic and help the US propaganda machine, and; my husband has warned me — take precautions when returning to China and, if necessary, delay your trip until we have more reliable information.

And at that moment, I realized just how similar US American and Chinese citizens have become in our belief that the insecurity is escalating. Moreover, trepidation has become common sense. In the States, we’re hunkering down because partying leads to rape and schools have become kill zones. In China, we’re hunkering down because eating causes illness and political privilege excuses murder. Sigh du jour: how safe can Indian investments be if they’re also writing off inequality, violence, and eco-cide as the cost of doing business?

what is the price of a human life?

If my friends are to be believed, doctors occupy the same hated position in China that lawyers occupy in the United States; they are the white-collar workers who represent all that is wrong with the system.

Indeed, the similarities between stereotypes are striking: Chinese doctors are said to be only working for money; if you go to a public doctor, you can expect substandard care, and; the purpose of medicine is to keep you in the system, paying for unnecessary tests and medicines. Good doctors are few; they work against a system that is stacked against them, and the common people suffer for the greed of the majority of bad doctors. Similarly, not a few Americans hold the same ideas, albeit about lawyers. Private attorneys are only in it for the money; if you have a public attorney you can expect to lose your case, and; the purpose of legal advice is to keep you in the system, paying for unnecessary hours and court appearance. Good lawyers are few; they work against a system that is stacked against them, and the common people suffer for the greed of the majority of bad doctors.

Not unsurprisingly, there are all sorts of Chinese doctor shows — both for entertainment and self-help, just as there all sorts of US American lawyer shows and call-in programs. A popular trope in both countries is the renegade who addresses the injustice of the system, dispensing healthcare and legal aid without thought for his or her personal gain. In these shows, lives are at stake and doctors and lawyers save the day in happy endings and loose the day in tragedies. Likewise, an assortment of hacks lurk in these programs and take advantage of unsuspecting or desperate folk, who have nowhere else to turn. Moreover,there is generally an implied moral entitlement: good characters should receive top medical care in China or the very best representation (in the US).

Interestingly, the contempt that common Chinese and ordinary Americans feel for their doctors and lawyers, respectively, is directly related to the fact that (unlike other white-collar workers), doctors and lawyers represent the highest political values in their country. The purpose of government in China, for example, is to provide for the wellbeing of the population. This care includes healthy food, affordable homes, and timely medical care. Indeed, it is remarkable the outrage and press coverage that these three issues consistently generate in the Chinese press, online, and now through weixin (Tencent’s We Chat app).  In the US, we hold our government accountable to protect our rights, both from each other and against corporations. In China, doctors are the last line of defence in securing wellbeing. Likewise, in the US, we turn to lawyers to secure our rights. And yes, those who break the law and get away with it repeatedly show up in the headlines, while taking on the legal system and calls for particular uses there of can turn mere pundits into talk show personalities and ordinary people into national heroes.

Speculation du jour: Chinese doctors and US American lawyers have been cast as villians and heroes in national dramas because neither system is providing the “good life” for its people. In China, wellbeing is the highest value and doctors exist to maintain this wellbeing. In the US, fairness is the highest value and lawyers exist to ensure a level playing field. However, in both countries, those in most need of healthcare or legal aid are most likely not to receive it. Moreover, Chinese doctors often can’t provide adequete healthcare without bankrupting patients, just as UA lawyers can’t provide decent representation without bankrupting clients. In both cases, systemic breakdowns break ordinary lives. Nevertheless, public anger has not (yet) led for widespread calls to change either the Chinese or American systems, but rather nasty jokes about and threats against doctors and lawyers, respectively.


what does china mean to you?

 Currently circulating on we chat, another of those punny jokes that do political analysis so well:

How do you pronounce the English word “China”? The single man says “Where’s my wife?” The lover says, “Where’s my sweetheart?” The beggar says, “Where’re to?” The poor man says, “Where’s the money?” The doctor says, “Where should we cut?” The businessman says, “Where’s the scam?” The official says, “Where’s the power?” The thief says, “Where’s the mark?” The developer says, “Where’s the site?” The government says, “Where do we raze?” And the lower class says, “Where do we migrate to?”


mini-series plot recap (by country and episode length)

Television dramas remind us that love is cross-culturally a means of negotiating gender inequality, but that is expressed through culturally specific forms of unhappiness and resolution there of. My trip to Taiwan reminded me, however, that even within Chinese speaking communities, young lovers face different challenges. Below, a list of mini-series plot recaps by country and episode length based on my own television habits. As a general rule of thumb, two episodes of an Asian mini-series is the equivalent in length of one US American made for television movie. Also, in my plot recap, I first note the happy ending and then in parenthesis a sad story version. And yes, please add insight from your experience watching these pervasive and addictive forms of popular culture.

US American = boy meets girl, boy and girl have sex, a murder brings them closer together (or one of them may be the victim) in one made for television movie;

Japanese = boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, a suicide brings them closer together (or one or both commit suicide) in 12 episodes;

Korean = boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, inherited and usually unsuspected history between their parents brings them closer together (or results in them being separated for years that each stoically endures) in 16 or 20 episodes;

Taiwanese = boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, their mothers begin a battle that brings them closer together (or forces one or both of them to choose between their lover and their mother) in 30 to 40 episodes;

Mainland = boy meets girl, boy and girl are attracted to each other, they soon realize that together they can rule the country more justly (or together they can’t seize power because corruption is just too endemic) in 80 episodes.

cultural revolutionaries? bo xilai, mao zedong and populist politics in china

According to a politically savvy friend, if anyone has a chance to democratize China, it will be a leader like Bo Xilai because 1. he had the support of the people; 2. he had support within the Party; and, 3. he could have held power after the transition from a one party to a multi-party system.

The purpose of government is to distribute and justify the distribution of goods, which range from food and shelter through education opportunities and healthy living environments throughout society. Some societies use money as the primary tool to mediate the allocation of social goods, in China, however, political status — power with explicit connection to either the military or the police — is the primary social means of deciding who gets what and how it is delivered. This means that the closer one is to the Center, the more opportunities one will have to monopolize not only the allocation of social goods, but also what those social goods are and how they are produced. In short, opportunities to control and benefit from state monopolies over the means of production.

My friend explained that Chinese politics is a series of expanding circles. At the center are high officials, in the next circle their family and friends, and then lesser relatives, and then the families of friends of friends of family friends… The point, of course, is double.

First, with respect to those who have occupied the center, there are no compelling reasons to change the current structure of unequal distribution. What’s more, successfully changing the structure would entail creating political alliances that cut across all those circles in such a way as to first be able to dismantle the system and then maintain power in the new system.

Second, the one hundred surnames are so far from the center that direct appeals to the people constitute a political wild card, which can be wielded by anyone with a wide enough power base. This is frequently the case in local and regional level politics where national appointees navigate and negotiate unfamiliar terrains before they are sent to their next position. However, most national appointees do not become popular in their brief bureaucratic tenures and popular local leaders rarely convert their local appeal into national charisma.

Bo Xilai, however, was exceptional: he had widespread national appeal; he had deep support within and across the Party organization, including ties to the military and the police; and, he was savvy enough to navigate political upheavals. Indeed, he seemed particularly adept at outside-the-box responses to unexpected problems and it will be interesting to see if he is executed or ends up back at the center in ten years time.

On my friend’s reading, the insular structure of Chinese political interests  overdetermined the Cultural Revolutionary connection that linked Bo Xilai to Mao Zedong. Like Mao, Bo Xilai made highly symbolic gestures to help the people. In Chongqing, fore example, Bo set up neighborhood help systems for elderly residents whose family was working in other cities. A solitary elder could directly ring a bell that linked her to the neighborhood committee representative who would be responsible for coming to her aid. This gesture resonated across generations who have been separated as children have left home to work in other cities. Moreover, Mao and Bo’s willingness to upset high-ranking leaders when making these gestures further endeared them to the people.

Bo Xilai skated at the edge of central Party politics for many years before transmuting a minor appointment in a Dalian county into a springboard to national politics precisely because like Mao, he not only dazzled the people, but also impressed journalists and intellectuals, who in turn promoted his project. Not only journalists sang Bo’s praises, but recently closed leftist websites like Utopianet (乌有之乡) publicly supported the Chongqing Model in contrast to the Shenzhen Model, which remains a key symbol of the success of Reform and Opening.

Bo Xilai symbolized the possibility of an end to Party politics as usual and his “Sing Red, Attack the Black” campaign resonated across Chinese political classes in ways that nothing Xi Jinping or Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin have done. Today, there are efforts to disparage the Mao-Bo connection, but none have addressed the man’s capital C charisma. In fact, I’ve heard someone say, “I don’t care who he did or didn’t kill, Bo Xilai moved me. I only saw him once, but I felt like a crazy fan, who wanted a body autograph” and this comment goes straight to my point du jour.

Weber has warned us that charismatic leaders do not necessarily overturn unpopular regimes and establish democratic governments. Moreover, the rise and fall of populist leaders in Eastern Europe and Russia have demonstrated that its difficult to uproot the Party machine from national politics. Nevertheless, Bo Xilai’s popularity despite his acknowledged crimes not only hints at just how high levels of dissatisfaction with Chinese politics as usual are, but also alerts us to how much violence is necessary to maintain the status quo.

mapping ignorance

Was conversing friends about political succession since Mao and how to interpret reports coming out of Beijing and Guangzhou with respect to Shenzhen’s political status and symbolic valence within the national imaginary. Their 15 year old daughter was at the table, politely ignoring us, when someone mentioned Hua Guofeng (华国锋). She lifted her eyes and asked, “Who?”

Her father explained Mao’s appointed heir had been at the center of a political struggle with Deng Xiaoping to decide if China would continue Maoist policies or pursue reform. This struggle ended with a coup d’etat and the Sino-Vietnamese War as Deng Xiaoping gained political control by securing support of military leaders and high-ranking Party commissars. We then mused about the relationship between violence and political succession, even if indirectly, because Jiang Zemin (江泽民) only became Deng’s appointed successor in the aftermath of Tian’anmen and Zhao Ziyang‘s (赵紫阳) fall.


All this to say, that dinner I experienced a We Didn’t Start the Fire moment with post Cold War Chinese characteristics — recent history actually is this easily forgotten. Or more to the point, I realized (again!) the extent that what we know of recent history comes only as events disrupt our daily lives.  Continue reading

the generation show

Currently, Shenzhen satellite tv is broadcasting “The Generation Show (年代秀),” a trivia game show based on Shenzhen’s four generations – Maoist, 80s, 90s, new millennium. Their advertising caught my eye because it speaks to how “modern life” and “urbanization” are popularly understood in Shenzhen.

The Mao era is filmed in sepia browns and shows a tractor pulling a cart with several people in it, a person peddling a bicycle, and several others walking on the road. They are being urged to go forward. The 80s clip was filmed in color and shows two youths wearing bluejeans and large sunglasses, dancing to music coming from a boombox. The 90s clip is of an architect directing construction workers to raise a piling; they are going up. Finally, the new millennium era is empty of people, just glass steel, reflecting a beam of light.

So, yes, a ruthlessly literal interpretation of the generations: Shenzhen has gone from moving forward and dancing in the streets, to building skyscrapers for nobody. Sigh.


Yang Qian, our florist and his son.

Much happiness throughout Shenzhen. Children play, families stroll, and friends meet for dinners and laughter. Our florist has been exceptionally busy, bringing in orchids, daffodils, and lucky orange trees. Indeed, his sidewalk stand has grown several times its usual size as people purchase New Year’s flowers.

All this bustle is a sign both of how settled Shenzhen has become and how commercialized Spring Festival. On the one hand, many families are not only staying for the Spring Festival, but also bringing in relatives from neidi. In this sense, Shenzhen has become a “hometown”. On the other hand, businesses are staying open, especially restaurants, themeparks, and supermarkets. The malls hum, the parks sparkle, and department stores offer great deals. In other words, consumption is a key element of the celebration and thus, many migrant aren’t going home for the festival because, well, they’re still working.

Of note: the themes of Shenzhen identity, holiday spirit, and consumption all come together in Zhou Bichang’s (周笔畅) version of “The God of Wealth Arrives (财神到),” which was released in 2008, but is still played throughout the city.  Zhou Bichang (笔笔 to her fans) was the city’s representative and runner-up (to Li Yuchun) in the first Super Girl contest and she both appeals to and represents the city’s generation 80; she’s cute, fashionable, and comfortable moving between Cantonese and Mandarin. Moreover, the values she represents are unabashedly neo-liberal or possibly even protestant (pace Weber):

财神到财神到     好心得好报  God of wealth arrives, god of wealth arrives, good hearts get good rewards.
财神话财神话 揾钱依正路  God of wealth says, god of wealth says, earn money on the proper road.
财神到财神到 好走快两步  God of wealth arrives, god of wealth arrives, walk a little faster.

To be rich may or may not be glorious, but come New Year’s in Shenzhen, it’s definitely a good time.