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.


Digging a Hole in China

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the Digging a Hole in China (事件的地貌) exhibition, curated by Venus Lau. the exhibition features a range of works that were produced from the mid-1990s forward, roughly a decade after the idea of land art had been picked up by Chinese artists and only a few years after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, where he confirmed that China would continue to liberalize its economy. The stated goal of the exhibition, which positions itself between China and the West is,

[T]o expose and analyze the discrepancies between this genre of work and ‘conventional’ land art understood in the Western-centric art historical context, thereby probing the potential of ‘land’–as a cultural and political concept–in artistic practice.

Continue reading

the difficulty of representing shenzhen’s urban “villages”

Talking about Shenzhen’s urban villages is difficult because legally they are not villages, but “communities (社区)” that have been integrated into the urban state apparatus. Moreover, depending on their location, these neighborhoods have different social functions — slums, gateway communities, and affordable housing for both the working poor and recent college graduates.

Mark Leung‘s photo essay,  Welcome to Wuwucun, a Village in the City offers a detailed and sympathetic look at life in Wuwucun, a Shenzhen urban village and is well worth checking out. However, the images beg contextualization, illustrating the difficulty of interpreting images  in the absence of historical knowledge. Is Wuwucun poor? Are these villagers? Is manufacturing a good thing?  On the one hand, a shorter version of the same essay, for example, explained that these images showed how manufacturing in Shenzhen was providing small steps forward to improve the lives of China’s rural millions. On the other hand, these images depict one of the more peripheral villages in Shenzhen, where the level of poverty depicted justifies ongoing campaigns to raze working class neighborhoods in other parts of the city. In other words, these images can be used either to show that industrial manufacturing in Shenzhen has been good for the country or to justify the Municipality’s ongoing program of razing urban villages in the inner districts. Continue reading

blue star blues

Yesterday, Ministry of Tofu translated a Southern Daily article about a Shenzhen elementary school teacher who marked students faces with blue stamps for misbehavior. They also published samples of weibo responses to this practice. No unexpectedly, there was general outrage over using humiliation as a means to correct student behavior. The article also mentioned that students received stamps for good behavior. Netizens were noticeably silent on this topic, no doubt because as long as I have been in Shenzhen, rewarding student behavior with stars and stickers has been standard practice in elementary schools.

In fact, public recognition and shaming are the most important motivators in the Shenzhen education system, where schools give and receive public recognition for “results (成绩)”. What’s more there is no question that we are speaking of test results, especially gaokao test results. At the high school level, municipal and district governments reward schools for the number of students sent on to first tier universities, in turn, the schools reward teachers for their students results, and teachers reward their students. In middle schools, public rewards are based on zhongkao, or high school entrance exam results with a similar system of bonuses for teachers who can produce results (出成绩) and students who get into top scores.

Given the importance of test scores their reputation and livelihood, Shenzhen teachers constantly seek ways to help students to improve their test scores. High school teachers run mandatory study sessions, while middle school teachers use classroom time to teach test taking skills. Moreover, most parents not only accept the primacy of test taking to education, but also arrange for their children to attend cram schools at night and over the weekend. In fact, many high school students often ask to attend cram schools in order to compete with their classmates.

Importantly, the system only works – Chinese schools infamously produce test-taking machines – to the extent that teachers and students accept test scores as their raison d’être. Consequently, elementary school schools and teachers have an awkward place in this system because it is their job to transition students from home life to the test life. At the same time and to a greater degree than their middle and high school colleagues, elementary teachers are expected to care for the total student, including their emotional and physical wellbeing. And there’s the rub: most young children and especially boys cannot sit still for long periods of time.

The restlessness of young bodies places elementary school teachers in a difficult position because in order to take tests, students must sit at desks for at least 40 minutes with an eye to eventually taking 2 to 2.5 hour tests that make up the gaokao. The 2012 Shenzhen gaokao, for example, took place on June 7 and 8. In the morning, candidates sat for 2.5 hours (Chinese on the 7th and humanities/science on the 8th) and in the afternoon they sat for 2 hours (humanities/science on the 7th and English on the 8th). The zhongkao was held on the 9th, with two 1.5 hour test periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Thus, more often than not, restless elementary students receive low test scores, their teachers are accused of ineffective pedagogy, and the schools are criticized for not doing their jobs.

In order to transform the restless body into a test-taking machine, elementary school teachers often use public recognition to encourage students. In fact, stickers and stamps are just two elements of a repertoire that also includes publicizing grades, issuing certificates and holding award ceremonies. During weekly flag raising ceremonies, top students receive public commendation and at the end of the year, the best students receive merit scholarships and their photos are hung in prominent places.

Obviously, this system creates pressure for the majority of students who cannot (by definition) earn the top scores. For these students, the desire to alleviate feelings of envy and shame sometimes become motivations to study. Or as often the case, middling students learn to live with second-rate status and find pleasure in non-academic activities. At the same time, teachers will attempt to use envy and shame to motivate students to overtake top students or to redeem themselves in the public eye.

Nor are teachers alone in celebrating top scores and denigrating poor results. Parental bragging about good students is rampant, while parental complaints about poor results are never simply good manners, but also strategies to motivate children to do better in school. Parents often negatively compare a child to another, even as some of the most brutal set downs entail parental complaints about lives wasted to support a student who has failed academically.

Point du jour: The blue star of shame on third grade faces are symptoms of a much larger problem that cannot be ameliorated by ridiculing the teacher herself or calling for different pedagogy. Rather, the system of Chinese education constitutes a problem so vast and entrenched that it is hard to know where to begin deconstructing it. Do we begin with the gaokao? Or with a more equitable system of job opportunities? Or allow for private schools that are certified even when they do not teach the national curriculum?

I am not posting this response to absolve the teacher from her responsibility in damaging her students’ self esteem. I am, however, posting this response to highlight the desperate hypocrisy of netizen complaints about blue stars. On the one hand, in a system that motivates through public recognition, shame is effective. Thus, issuing blue star demerits should be understood as a natural extension of extent pedagogy. On the other hand, until the system changes, parents and teachers find themselves in the desperate position of trying to force children to become test-taking machines in the gentlest manner possible. All recognize that the goal itself is violent, but hope getting there doesn’t have to hurt.

海湾村: land locked futures

The Transformation of Shenzhen Villages (沧海桑田深圳村庄30年), Episode 9: Haiwan Village tells the story the Nantou Peninsula and the reclamation of land in Houhai (the southern coast facing Hong Kong) and Qianhai (the northern coast facing Guangzhou). This was the platform from which Hong Kong entered China and Baoan villagers once launched themselves to Hong Kong.

During the Mao era, Wanxia Village was divided into two production brigades, one land based for agricultural cultivation and the other water based for oyster farming. Eventually, the Wanxia Oyster Brigade was renamed Haiwan Brigade, creating two administrative villages through the division of one natural village. This division points to the importance of production — rather than history — in defining Maoist administrative units, especially in rural areas, where villages were integrated or split depending upon production needs. Importantly, however, these administrative categories were not naturalized in the same way during the early years of Reform and Opening, when some administrative villages re-instituted traditional boundaries while others did not. Haiwan retained Maoist status and began building village level factories.

Access to the sea shaped village demographics, with a population gap of people, ages 45-65 who escaped to Hong Kong in the last large flights in 1968 and 78, respectively. Nevertheless, traditional land rights enabled Haiwan to prosper. In addition, we learn from an older, Cantonese-speaking villager that Haiwan Village is an Overseas Chinese village, with many descendants scattered throughout the world with village association buildings in the United States and Hong Kong, representing support, ranging from monetary to knowledge to investment connections. The village has also maintained its identity through traditions and ritual that centered on a small Tianhou Temple.

Watching this episode, I suddenly realized something that was clearly obvious to the filmmaker: Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour coincided with the establishment of guannei villages as stock-holding corporations and urban neighborhoods. In other words, the second tour did result in new policies or breakthroughs as they are known. My a-ha moment was in seeing the connection between politics and the radical restructuring of the south china coast.  The episode ending rhetorically juxtaposes images of Wall Street with Houhai, asking if Shekou can become the next Manhattan. The question is illuminating not for its booster-hype pretensions, but rather because it clearly reiterates the primacy of investment and real estate over traditional livelihoods such as oyster farming. In such a world, insofar as the sea becomes a factor in determining property values and not an independent source of value, reclaiming the sea makes good business sense.

the social media production of mutual assured cross-cultural contempt in the US and China

By now, most have heard that Global Times, the Party’s international mouthpiece printed an editorial which called for the Chinese public to permit a moderate amount of corruption; if you haven’t jump over to Fauna’s piece at ChinaSmack for translation of the article and web responses. The self-justifying rhetoric and virulent counter-attacks illuminate the cynicism and anger that increasingly characterize public debate in the PRC micro/ blogosphere. Moreover, the virulence and smugness of English language responses to the post need to be analyzed in terms that explain the ongoing social media production of mutual assured cross-cultural contempt in both the US and China.

In many ways, the cynicism of the exchanges remind me of populist diatribes in the US; I actually can hear Mitt Romney and other anti-gay or anti-black or anti-women or anti-child advocates calling for “moderate levels of discrimination” and exhorting the country to “understand” the necessity of continued legal inequality because there are so many incompatible definitions of discrimination and we need to respect everyone’s traditions. The pseudo-rational justifications for continued discrimination understandably anger those who directly suffer the consequences of said laws and customs.

Just how closely does the tone and rhetorical form of US and Chinese popular debate mirror each other? Below, I have copied the Chinese editorial and substituted the following keywords, underlining the substitutions in text:

  • discrimination for corruption
  • prejudiced for corrupt
  • strong economy for development
  • prejudice for income
  • America for China
  • Western for Asian
  • Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney for Railway Minister and Party Secretary Liu Zhijun (and yes, in both countries we keep pandering to our lowest acceptable prejudices and greed, respectively)

I have made these substitutions to make a simple point; although the effects of economic globalization and political inequality are different in the PRC and the USA, nevertheless the turn to cultural justification and excuse-mongering is similar. Moreover, tone of the debate transcends relative levels of legal freedom of expression. The anger and absurdity of debate in the Chinese micro/ blogosphere is matched by the anger and absurdity of debate in American television and radio programs (Hello, weibo and Fox News).

The implications of this point, however, are far from simple when our respective national debates end up in our interlocutor’s public sphere. For US citizens, for example, it is difficult to understand the prevalence of and popular resignation to Chinese corruption. Likewise, most Chinese see US concerns about gay marriage and reproductive freedom to be a cases of privileged angst. In the worst case scenario, we focus on the other’s words to explain/ justify our inability to reach mutual understanding because, it seems so obvious, that our interlocutor has such fuck-up values. As a result, in both both countries, we end up focused on the cultural content of public debate, rather than on a shared political-economic structure that has created what are in both the PRC and USA, untenable situations.

So, another call for creative rethinking of what forms cross-cultural understanding and dialogue might assume when translation might do more cross-cultural harm than good.

The modified text begins below:

The American Public Should Permit a Moderate Amount of Discrimination

It was announced yesterday that Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney won the Texan nomination. This piece of news once again touched the public’s most sensitive nerve, that dealing with discrimination. From a national perspective, there is indeed continuous news of discriminatory officials being elected, which does give people the feeling that discrimination is “unending/overwhelming”. They aren’t catching/arresting less, it’s that you can never catch them all [never finish catching them all]. Just what is going on?

America obviously has a high incidence of discrimination, and the conditions for completely eliminating discrimination do not exist at present. Some people say, as long as we have “democracy”, the problem of discrimination can be easily solved. However, this kind of view is naive. The West has many “democratic countries”, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, India, etc. where discrimination are all much more severe than America. But America may very likely be the Western country with the most pronounced sense of “resentment towards discrimination”.

This is related to America’s “serve the people!” official political morals having deeply been engrained in the people’s heart throughout society. However, the reality is that the market economy has attacked its practicality/feasibility, resulting in government officials who half-heartedly observe it or have even betrayed it constantly slipping through various cracks in the system. America is a country that has been deeply penetrated by globalization and the high standards of integrity of developed countries is already known by the American public, and with information coming from different periods and different circumstances being forcible stuffed into America’s sphere of public opinion, bitterness and consternation can find no relief.

Discrimination in any country is unable to be permanently controlled/cured, so the key is to control what the degree that the people will permit/allow. However, to do this is particularly difficult for America.

Singapore and China’s Hong Kong institute a policy of high pay to discourage discrimination. Many Chinese political candidates are wealthy, and normally when someone becomes a government official there, they accumulate renown and connections. After office, they can use then various “revolving doors” to change all they have accumulated into financial return. However, these options and possibilities are not available in America.

Giving government officials power to discriminate is something American public opinion cannot accept. Allowing government officials to step down and use their influence and connections to discriminate against groups is something the system does not allow. Allowing the prejudiced to become government officials is something that people find even more unpalatable. The legal prejudice of America’s government officials is very low, and the compensation for officials of some places is often realized through “unwritten rules”.

All of American society now has some “unwritten rules”. In industries that involve the public welfare such as doctors and teachers, “unwritten rules” have also become popular. Many people’s statutory prejudice isn’t high, but they have “gray prejudice”.

What are the boundaries for “unwritten rules”? This isn’t clear. This is also one of the reason for why there are relatively many discrimination cases now, with some even being “cases of a community of discrimination”. Amongst the people, there is the popular saying that “what is commonplace amongst the people cannot be punished by the law”, and the moment government officials believe this saying while believing “others are the same as me”, then he is already in danger [of becoming prejudiced].

Those who engage in discrimination must be strictly investigated, and not to be tolerated, as this would greatly increase the risk and cost of discrimination, creating the requisite deterrent effect. The government must make the reduction of discrimination the biggest objective of their governance.

The people must resolutely increase supervision through public opinion, pushing the government to fight discrimination. However, the people must also reasonably understand the reality and objective fact that America is unable at its present stage to thoroughly suppress the discrimination, and not sink the entire country into despair.

Writing this definitely does not mean we believe fighting discrimination is not important or should be put off. Quite the opposite, we believe fighting discrimination indeed is the number one problem that must be solved for the reform of America’s political system, and it is also the common demand of the entire country.

However, we believe that fighting discrimination is not something that can be completely “fought” nor completely “reformed” because at the same time, it needs “strong economy” to help solve it. It is a problem of the individual prejudiced officials as well as the system, but that’s not all. It is also a problem of the American society’s “overall level of strong economy”.

Fighting discrimination is a difficult/entrenched battle in the strong economy of American society, but its victory at the same time hinges upon the clearing of various obstacles on other battlefields. America can never be a country where other aspects are very backward and only its government officials are egalitarian. Even if it is for a time, it won’t last long. Eliminating discrimination would be a breakthrough/turning point for America, but this country ultimately can only “advance overall” [any specific progress requires overall progress/strong economy].

龙年元旦: Thoughts on why not to hate [Dashan or Chinese students]

I’ve been thinking about the three poisons (ignorance, attachment, and aversion), but especially about aversion because we frequently cite aversion as a reasonable response to the world as we find it. When we look to explain aversion, we shift attention from whether or not aversion itself is a problem to the question: is our aversion justified or not?

Consider, for example, the quora question, “Why do so many Chinese learners seem to hate Dashan (Mark Rowswell)?” Mark Roswell provided a succinct analysis of why westerners feel aversion toward Dashan:

“In short, the reasons seem to be as follows:

1) Overuse – people are sick and tired of hearing the name Dashan;

2) Resentment (Part A) – Dashan’s not the only Westerner who speaks Chinese fluently;

3) Resentment (Part B) – Being a foreign resident in China is not easy and Dashan gets all the breaks;

4) Political/Cultural – People wish Dashan had more of an edge;

5) Stereotyping – The assumption that Dashan is a performing monkey.

Yes, yes, and yes. But. If we’re giving our time and energy to figuring out why we hate Dashan, then we’re not giving or time and energy to (1) finding ways of politely acknowledging a conversational gambit and then adroitly changing the topic to one of common interest; (2) working through our own ego investments in speaking Chinese well: ‘Why,’ we wonder, ‘aren’t the Chinese complimenting moi?’; (3) being happy for someone else’s good fortune; (4) being the critical change we want to see in the world in general and China in particular, and; (5) becoming more proactive in our own lives. Continue reading

Whatever happened to knowledge as, well, knowledge?

Robin Peckam of Saamlung directed my attention to a recent article, The 20-Kilometer University: Knowledge as Infrastructure. The article presents Urbanus’ proposal to turn the 20 km corridor from Luohu to Shenzhen University into an open university campus, with university functions distributed throughout the city. The design aims to create an unconventional civic center in which “learning” is a metaphor for civic engagement or inhabiting the city. Inquiring minds want to know, what’s wrong with that? Continue reading

learning from shenzhen?

Long time friend, Josh Kilroy directed me to a recent blog post by William Pesek, who argues that if Japan wants to fix the country’s economy, it should learn from China, or at least Shenzhen and set up a special economic zone. Pesek claims,

In 1980, Deng Xiaoping started China’s first special-economic zone in a coastal village that was nothing to look at. Today, Shenzhen is a teeming collage of huge skyscrapers, thriving industrial parks, 10 million people, one of the world’s busiest ports, and some of the biggest manufacturing and outsourcing industries anywhere…It’s the center of Chinese experimentation. There, officials can test what works and what doesn’t: which corporate tax rates offer the best balance of attracting foreign investment while filling government coffers in Beijing, which labor standards make the most sense, which corporate-governance standards are most advantageous, which immigration procedures are optimal, which regulations stay or go.

Why does this article distress me? In a nutshell, it distresses me because there is nothing in this statement that did not come directly from the propaganda that the SEZ churns out about itself and, even with that caveat, it teems (if I may) with errors: Continue reading

The Fishing Village that Became a World Symbol: 渔民村

So, I have been catching up on the Shenzhen documentary, 沧海桑田:深圳村庄30年. After setting the historic stage with rural poverty and economic immigration / cold war defection (episode 1) and then national policy (episode 2), the documentary turns to specific villages both to illustrate general trends in SEZ history and to introduce the players. So today, 渔民村 (Yumin Village – episode 3), at the heart of the earliest reforms.

Yumin Village has an important place in both national Chinese and local Shenzhen symbolic geography for three reasons, but most importantly for revealing the prejudices built into the landscape, locally, nationally, and internationally. Continue reading