Page 1

Summer Palace, Beijing. February 2013.







Profiting, Profiteering


You Wen Hua 有文化


How to Turn a Mountain into a Tourist Destination 13 City-building 15 An Anthology of Modern Chinese Terms 18 In Search of Authenticity 20 Testimonial for Zhao Xian Christian Orphanage 22 母语 24

Sunset at Jinshanling Great Wall. 13 April 2013.


a writer’s introduction

Early June

As part of our first assignment of the semester, Jeremiah, our instructor for our twoweek-long introductory seminar, had us come up with a list of ten words to describe China. The fifth word on my list was “narrative”. I had in mind how effective the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s narratives have been at steering the Chinese people in one direction or another, in particular, Mao Zedong’s post-1949 narrative about permanent socialist revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s post-1978 narrative about economic development being a “hard truth”. My understanding of the word Old city wall, Xi’an. April 2013. (Photo: Tony Zhang) “narrative” has since become a lot more complex. Since the end of the era of charismatic leadership with Deng’s passing in 1997, the constructed narratives of subsequent CCP leaderships have packed less punch. Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents”, Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” and Xi Jinping’s new “China Dream” are all more amorphous than the visionary slogans of the Mao and Deng leaderships. Xi’s loosely defined “China Dream” can even be said to have created a space for a plurality of narratives to emerge, for the Chinese people to articulate what their version of the China Dream might be. Whereas those living through Mao’s China knew only a single narrative proliferated through the big character posters of the day, today, an increasing number of Chinese people, equipped with the Internet, liberal newspapers, and publishing houses in Hong Kong and Taiwan, are engaged in creating their own competing narratives. Outside of politically neutral spheres, of course, true plurality is still elusive. The recently renovated National Museum in Beijing houses an exhibition titled the “Road to Rejuvenation” detailing the origin story of the CCP: the collapse of the Qing dynasty at the turn of the century, the fall of China to colonial powers, and the CCP’s heroic fight to liberate China and restore it to its rightful position. The CCP still retains a monopoly over how China’s historical narrative is told, and alternative versions are rarely tolerated. As I write this, millions of Chinese people are silently commemorating the horrors of June 4, 1989. The protestors who lost their lives at Tiananmen Square have been conveniently branded “counterrevolutionaries” in the official retelling of the incident, and, in just one example of state attempts to engineer collective amnesia, Sina Weibo has disabled the candle emoticon for the day so that users of the Twitter-like service will not be able to light virtual candles in mourning. And then there are the narratives that have been birthed from a China in rapid transition to feed a fixated international media market: China the economic miracle, China


the human rights abuser, China Inc., consumerist China, China, shopping for oil in Angola and metals in Latin America, China, the dragon determined to take over the world. China the unforgivingly repressive and authoritarian country — and concurrently, China the emerging democracy (evidence to be found in the civilian protests that have escalated in number in recent years). More than most other people in this world, the Chinese people have had an overwhelming number of simplified narratives about them written on their behalf, be it by their leaders or by anyone equipped with a writing instrument and a willing audience. During my four months in Beijing this semester, I sought to deconstruct these second-hand narratives that had drawn me to this country, to get to know the great diversity of people behind them, and to create spaces within which I could build my own narratives. This is a collection of some of those narratives, semi-formed and infused with the biases that one would expect of any storyteller, but nonetheless representative of my honest struggle to engage with this perplexing country for what it is. I hope that you will enjoy them as much as I have enjoyed this process of consolidating my learning. I am grateful to the dedicated instructors and staff at IES for giving me the opportunities to seek out these narratives, to the Chinese friends that I made – some of the most sincere people I have met in this life, to my IES buddies for accompanying me on this spectacular learning journey, and to everyone who has asked me good questions and listened to my stories along the way.



CHINA-TROTTING where i’ve been

Building No. 7 on the West Campus of Beijing Foreign Studies University was the place I called home for these four months. Beyond the classroom, my travel experiences were equally important for my learning and feature prominently in the stories I tell. I took my first overnight train to the below-freezing city of Harbin, Heilongjiang with fifteen other course mates (23-24 February, #1 on map, photo 1 on facing page), paid a visit to Confucius’ hometown of Qufu, Shandong (15 March, #2), climbed Mount Tai (Taishan, Shandong) after nightfall, only to be disappointed by a smoggy, foggy sunrise (16 March, #3, photo 7), and stayed in a private apartment converted into a box hostel in the dusty “Spring City” (泉城) of Jinan, Shandong (17 March, #4, photo 9). One weekend, I escaped my student life in Beijing to join a Christian group on their visit to an orphanage in Zhaoxian, Hebei (30-31 March, #5). Following a daylong fieldtrip to Tianjin with my economics class (3 April, #6), my roommate and I took a sleeper train to the Longmen Grottoes, Henan (4 April, #7) where we did battle with hundreds of other tourists fighting to take photos of centuries-old Buddhist cave sculptures. Then it was off to cycle around the ancient city walls of Xi’an (5-7 April, #8, photo 2), the lively, historic capital of Shaanxi famed for its terra cotta soldiers, which we didn’t end up seeing because we ran out of funds after our pricey hike up scenic Huashan (6 April, #9, photo 6). Back in Beijing, I saw the Milky Way before we set off to chase the sunrise at 4AM at what was supposedly the highest point of the Great Wall (13-14 April, #10, photo 5) on an IES-organised weekend trip. As winter turned to summer in Beijing, I was adventuring in Yunnan with my environmental studies class, travelling north from the summery capital of Kunming (21-24 April, #11) to Dali (25-26 April, #12), Tiger Leaping Gorge (27-28 April, #13, photo 8) and Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian) (29 April-3 May, #14).


Left to right: 1. Cleaning crew ready to clear the roads of ice early on a Saturday morning, Harbin, Heilongjiang, 23 February; 2. Turning a blind eye to waste, Hui Min Jie / Hui Muslim food street, Xi’an, Shaanxi, 5 April; 3. Yi village en route to Shangri-La from Dali, Yunnan, 29 April; 4. Walking out to the Beijing Foreign Studies University West Gate on a snowy morning, Beijing, 20 March; 5. Village homestay near Jinshanling Great Wall, Beijing, 14 April; 6. Hiking up Green Dragon Ridge, Huashan, Shaanxi, 6 April; 7. Man descending Taishan after hauling a load up in the morning, Taishan, Shandong, 9 March; 8. Jinsha River, headwater stream of the Yangtze River, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan (photo: Bryce Crumlish), 28 April; 9. Sunset over Da Ming Hu, Jinan, Shandong, 10 March



the amazing chinese market

Early June

11PM on a Sunday night at Beijing West Railway Station. Three friends and I, having just returned from a weekend in Xi’an, are waiting in line for a taxi to take us back to campus. “To the east! Is anyone heading to the east?” At this time of night, unlicensed cabbies are out in full force, knowing that there are potential passengers in this line of people impatient to get home for a night’s rest before work the next day. One by one, we turn down the drivers offering to take us to the West Third Ring Road for one hundred kuai.1 It’s a twenty-minute trip that should cost less than thirty kuai in a regular taxi. Eager to demonstrate our savvy as seasoned tourists, we act incensed at each offer and say we’ll only get in a cab for thirty kuai in the best Beijing accent we can muster. In this game of driverversus-passenger, whether you win or lose depends on how much bargaining power you have and how desperate you are to get home. 11:45PM. “Fifty kuai,” a lady driver offers. No thanks, we’ll wait for a regular taxi, we tell her. She gives us an incredulous look. “Chu zu che? Chu zu che? Xian zai ji dian le, chu zu che dou bian hei che le!” “Taxi? Taxi? Look at the time now — even the regular taxis have become black taxis!” We look around and find that she’s right. None of the yellow Beijing taxis have their green “taxi” signs lit, and the other passengers, having given up, are busy negotiating prices. We have lost our leverage. “Fifty kuai,” another driver reasons with us, “we’re all tired and want to go home. Once we leave, you’ll have no choice but to sleep on the street.” We surrender and get in his taxi. At times like that, I do not appreciate the Chinese market for being so adept at extorting money from consumers they know are willing to pay. This seems to be a popular perception of China amongst tourists who have been there. When I told my mother I was thinking of making a trip to the Shaolin temple, her immediate response was that I should be careful of the monks and nuns because many of them were con artists who would try to charge me for things that I shouldn’t be paying for. During an orientation talk on personal safety during our first week in Beijing, we were told to never fall for the teahouse trick. This is a common tourist trap: someone offers to take you to a teahouse to experience “old Beijing”, you agree, go through the entire tea ceremony, and think to yourself how authentic a tourist experience you are having, until the person who brought you there shows you a bill for several hundred dollars and refuses to let you leave unless you pay. But this same profit motive also has its uses. During a weekend getaway in April, my roommate and I took an overnight train to Guanlin, a distance away from our eventual destination, the Longmen Grottoes in Henan province. It was slightly past 4AM when we emerged from the slightly ramshackle Guanlin station, and for a moment I wondered how we were going to get to our hostel. It turned out I didn’t have anything to worry about, for there were vehicles of all types outside the station, their drivers organising passengers into                                                                                                               1

Colloquial word for yuan or renminbi.


groups according to where they wanted to go. A forty-five minute wait later, we hopped onto a three-wheeled vehicle that was already carrying two other passengers. The driver took us to a bus stop on the main road for five kuai, what must have been the cheapest ride of the entire semester. Signs of this entrepreneurial spirit waiting to spring forth were in abundance wherever I went in China. Products of such entrepreneurship range from the innocuous (a tour bus driver picking up a few additional guests along the way for an extra buck) to the quirky (using branded wine bottles to pass ordinary wine off as something it isn’t2) to the sinister (baby rabbits, five to one cage, being sold informally in an underground mall3) to the slightly infuriating (having to pay locals to take photos at certain scenic spots at Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan province). It seems that wherever there is money to be made, it’s being made, which makes me both thankful and terrified. Thankful, because where Beijingers fail to distinguish between their recyclables and non-recyclables, the man on the street desperate for some cash makes up for this failure by picking out the recyclables from the trash. And where an illicit tungsten mine at Tiger Leaping Gorge is irresponsible about managing its waste, an illicit tungsten processing plant downstream jumps at this chance to make some money out of this waste tungsten. Terrified, because so much of this entrepreneurial spirit is springing forth into spaces that are difficult to govern, that bureaucrats are unwilling to govern, or that are simply impossible to govern because they do not appear in official accounts. The damage caused by a man selling baby rabbits in a small cage may be limited to a few unhappy, unhealthy rabbits and a few offended passersby. But when played out on a large scale, the results can be disastrous: pangolin scales and other endangered species products have been freely traded on, China’s version of eBay, and in a high-profile case in 2008, Sanlu, a milk company in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, managed to get away with causing the death of six babies and the hospitalisation of 54,000 more before it became public that their milk powder was laced with melamine. Many visitors to China find it a shopper’s paradise because of the sheer range of buyand-throw-away counterfeit goods available, and many China watchers point to grassroots entrepreneurship as a potent force that much of China’s economic growth of the past thirty years can be attributed to. But, to borrow a cliché, the race for profit in China is a shuang ren jian, a double-edged sword, waiting to be disciplined. Whether or not it is kept in check will depend a lot on the parameters of the market it operates in. That market, at present, is both seemingly indifferent to morality and lacking in the legal and financial means of expressing and enforcing any moral standards.                                                                                                               In Kunming, Yunnan, I noticed a street side sign that said hui shou ming jiu, or “recycling branded wine”, and asked our Chinese teacher what it meant. She explained that government officials who do not consume the branded wine that they receive in bribes can sell the wine to these businesses; alternatively, they can also sell their empty bottles, which are then refilled with ordinary wine. 3 Seen near the Wangfujing train station in Beijing. Other examples of animals being sold informally include baby turtles at the city square and baby chicks on the roadside in Jinan, Shandong. 2



beijing’s migrants

Late February

Written for my final assignment for our introductory seminar, Understanding China. “Are you cold?” Yuan Qiu asks me, smiling, as she waits for her last customer of the day to pay for the bag of bananas in his hand. “It’s really cold tonight, and you’re wearing so little! You should wear more tomorrow.” She laughs. Yuan Qiu and her husband are middle-aged fruit vendors near the East Campus of Beijing Foreign Studies University in Beijing’s Haidian district. Originally from a village in Shandong province, to the south of Beijing, she moved to the capital city nearly eight years ago to “find a better life”. Like the other vendors tending to identical fruit stalls along the street, Yuan Qiu buys her fruit from Xin Fa Di, a wholesale market in Beijing’s southwestern Fengtai district. Yuan Qiu is one of seven million migrant workers in Beijing4, a city of 21 million. Since the market-oriented economic reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era thirty years ago, hundreds of millions of migrants have moved from the countryside to one of China’s growing cities. Prior to 1981, the hukou household registration system introduced in 1958 kept most rural residents tied to their home provinces and severely restricted rural-to-urban migration. The privatisation of many state-owned sectors and the liberalisation of parts of the country to foreign investment in the 1980s saw a rapid rise in the number of factories in China’s industrial centers and the number of job opportunities in its coastal cities. The simultaneous relaxation of social policies governing rural-to-urban migration fed a steady stream of rural jobseekers into these cities. If the Chinese government is the brain behind the country’s manufacturing miracle, migrants like Looking west at the fruit alley where Yuan Qiu’s stall is located.

                                                                                                              Miller, Tom. China's Urban Billion: The Story behind the Biggest Migration in Human History. London: Zed, 2012. Print. 4


Yuan Qiu are its feet, residing on the periphery of society and yet holding much of the weight of economic development, calloused from their seven-day-a-week jobs. They sew shirts for export, serve beer at nightclubs, educate middle-class women about keeping their bodies in good health at massage parlours, and stand guard outside private apartments that they will likely never be able to live in. Not all migrants are employees, though; migrant entrepreneurs are also a discernable force changing the face of China’s cities. Thanks to the low cost of setting up a small business in the city, clothing stores selling cheap spin-offs of leading brands, roadside stalls selling chuan’r (meat kebabs) and fruit stalls like Yuan Qiu’s are now a ubiquitous sight in Beijing and other cities in China. While Yuan Qiu sweeps up the clementine leaves and discarded fruit left behind by the day’s sales, I ask her if she is happier here than she was in Shandong province. She does not reveal much about her life in Shandong, simply saying that her days were ordinary and mundane. But she says that she is rather content with her situation in Beijing. “Wo men guo de ting chong shi de,” she adds with her distinctive laugh. On aggregate, we can fulfill our needs here. Yuan Qiu could count as one of Beijing’s luckier migrants. Her two families both live relatively close by in Beijing: her parents and three older siblings and their families live on the outskirts of Beijing, while her two children, aged six and eight, are taken care of by her mother-in-law. She does not have to endure chun yun to reunite with her children for Chinese New Year, and can keep her fruit stall open until just before New Year’s Eve. Chun yun is the harrowing annual journey that most of China’s migrants have to undertake to celebrate the New Year with their families at home. 2.5 billion journeys5 are made during chun yun, which has earned it the title of the “largest human migration in the world”. The queues at the train stations at this time of year are unbearably long, and tickets often sell out before the end of the day, leaving many hopeful commuters disappointed after yet another day of impatient waiting. Award-winning documentary Last Train Home, directed by Lixin Fan and released in 2009, depicts the challenges faced by a rural family in Guangdong province and the difficult decisions that members of the family have to make. The annual Spring Festival commute home is undoubtedly difficult, but it is hardly their biggest worry. Having been migrant factory workers for nearly twenty years in Guangzhou, the parents have not been able to raise their children by themselves despite working hard to provide them financial support. The bitter irony of the situation is compounded by the rebelliousness of their teenage daughter, who feels estranged from and unloved by her parents. Unlike this family and many other migrants who only see their children once a year during Chinese New Year, Yuan Qiu sees her two children every once in a while when they visit her at the fruit stall. (Because Yuan Qiu is from the Shandong countryside, the onechild policy as it applies to her is not as restrictive as it is for Beijing parents. In rural areas, a couple can have a second child if their first child is female.)                                                                                                               Song, Wei. "Spring Festival Travel Season Starts Today." China Daily, 30 Jan. 2010. Web. <>. 5


That does not mean life as a migrant worker is a breeze for her. The first time I spoke to Yuan Qiu, I did so because I was surprised to find her stall still open at 10:30PM. I asked her what time it closed. Midnight, she told me. When I interviewed her this time, she was taking out the trash and pulling covers over her fruit stands slightly before 10PM, preparing to close a little early, presumably because of the lack of customers two days before New Year’s Eve. Yuan Qiu and her husband live in a small space at the back of the fruit stall and wake up at 7AM each morning, in time to open the stall at 8AM. They work seven days a week. “Actually, I’m very tired, but I have to continue,” she admits. I ask her if she has any hopes or plans for her future. “No plans, I just hope that my children will study well.” Yuan Qiu’s children cannot enroll in any public schools in Beijing because she has a Shandong hukou (residency permit) and not a Beijing hukou. While I did not ask why her children have the opportunity to go to school in Beijing, one might assume that they are enrolled in a school for migrant workers’ children. Although not as well resourced as the schools attended by Beijing-born children, these schools are at least an affordable option for parents on a migrant worker’s income who want their children to be educated in the city. And Yuan Qiu certainly knows how valuable education is for her children. She asks me if I am studying, and when I respond in the affirmative, she nods her approval. Xue xi hao! Studying is good! Explaining her own situation as a fruit vendor, she says, “I’m not educated, so being a fruit seller is all I know how to do.” She uses the Chinese word for “uneducated”, mei wen hua, which means something more than just a lack of formal education. It also suggests a lack of culture and sophistication, something that migrants are looked down upon for by city dwellers. The word tu, literally, “mud”, is used derisively to describe uneducated village people. You wen hua, the opposite of mei wen hua, is a trait that the Chinese government is eager for its people to aspire to. In May 1980, after Deng Xiaoping took the helm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he broadcast his wish for the country’s children: that they would grow up to embrace the “four haves”. These “four haves” were updated in 1983 to include you wen hua; the other three “haves” are ambition, moral integrity, and discipline. Indeed, China has made significant leaps in its educational achievements, and the CCP is quick to trumpet its success: Chinese students attend nine years of compulsory schooling; 80% of the Chinese population was illiterate in 1949 whereas the adult illiteracy rate was 3.58% in 20086. While the objectivity of how the statistics are presented is questionable, it is undeniable that the CCP has expanded primary educational opportunities in both rural and urban areas tremendously since taking power. Yet, the gap between educational opportunities for children born in the city and those for children of migrant workers remains significant. Never mind that not having a                                                                                                               "Historic Achievements: 60 Years of Educational Reform and Development." Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China, 11 Sept. 2009. Web. <>. 6


Beijing hukou is a large obstacle preventing migrant children from obtaining a quality education. Even if parents manage to enroll their children in special schools for migrant children, educational security is by no means guaranteed. In September 2011, the government of Dongba township in Beijing abruptly decided to close 23 unlicensed migrants’ schools, citing safety concerns.7 Some 14,000 students were displaced, with some returning to schools in their parents’ hometowns and others simply left without a school to attend. For now, though, Yuan Qiu’s children seem to be in a stable situation. Unlike the daughter of the migrant couple in Last Train Home, they have a better chance at developing a strong relationship with their parents, and, because they are growing up in the city, they have a better shot at developing the manner and style of city dwellers, to become you wen hua, which will enable them to more effectively integrate into Beijing society. Before saying goodbye to Yuan Qiu, I bought a large bag of clementines from her stall. The price came up to 11.40 yuan. I gave her a twenty-yuan bill and tried in vain to search for forty cents. “Don’t worry about it,” she laughed, handing me nine yuan. “You’re a new friend.”

                                                                                                              "School's Out." The Economist. N.p., 3 Sept. 2011. Web. <>. 7



Huashan, Shaanxi. 6 April.

Observations from my hikes up Huangshan, Anhui (January 2012), Taishan, Shandong (March 2013) and Huashan, Shaanxi (April 2013).


Make it accessible. Your average tourist is Aunty S from J village, P county, G province, wearing an imitation Burberry hat that is identical to those that the rest of her tour group is wearing. This is only her first or second time travelling. Hotels or hostels at the mountaintop and cable cars are a must. Make sure, too, that your stone steps are well maintained enough so that even Girl X wearing heels, whether she didn’t realise that the place Boy Y was bringing her to this weekend was a mountain or whether she honestly thought that heels make for appropriate mountain-climbing footwear, will have no problem scaling those peaks. Food stalls shouldn’t even need mentioning: your average tourist would like to take a break approximately every three hundred steps of the six thousand six hundred and sixty six step climb8 up your mountain, so make sure you have enough Red Bull, fang bian mian (instant noodles) and sausages to keep them going. Finally, if your local government doesn’t already have plans to build a state-of-the-art gaotie (high-speed rail) station nearby, convince them that your mountain is an important enough revenue-generator to warrant one.

Two: Milk your tourists for what they’re worth. Especially the laowais.9 Sell all the cheap souvenirs you can get your hands on — Communist hats, Mao-era posters, laughing Buddhas, plastic swords, Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels. (Don’t forget to throw in a couple                                                                                                               8 9

Supposedly the number of steps one has to scale to reach the peak of Mount Tai Colloquial term for “foreigner”


of souvenirs that are slightly more local in flavour to create some façade of authenticity.) Sell padlocks that Girl X and Boy Y can carve “X <3 Y” on and then attach to the railing that already has three hundred and forty five other locks attached to it. Have printers on standby so that you can take photos of Aunty S pointing at the sunrise and print them for her on the spot. If a white guy wants to sit at your rest area, don’t pass up the chance to charge him ten kuai for the service. You can’t do the same with those Chinese ladies.

Three: Make full use of cheap labour. Remember that the tourist is king and you want his experience to be as comfortable as possible, so just pay people to make it so. Know that no job is too tough for someone in need of employment, be it taking the trash out of the innumerable trashcans and recycling bins10, chiseling the steps to make them safer to walk on, or hauling 200-jin (120-kg) bricks for three hours up the mountain to build your next hotel.


It’s a numbers game. Your potential domestic market is 1.3 billion people strong. Your ticket office has to be large enough to accommodate the throngs that will descend on your mountain come the next national holiday. Your digital display screens need to have very large red marquees running across them so that tourists can see them from the back of a very large crowd. And don’t forget to update that banner at the ex it that says how many tourists you received today and how many you expect tomorrow, so you can brag about how excellently you performed today and continue striving for a better tomorrow.

Enough Red Bull for a night’s worth of mountain climbers. Taishan, 9 April

                                                                                                              The day after qingmingjie, a major national holiday, I saw a news broadcast about how Mount Tai had to redouble its cleaning efforts because of the lack of environmental stewardship of the hordes of tourists it received the previous day. 10


CITY-BUILDING Late May Welcome to Tianjin. Poster of Tianjin skyline, Tianjin gaotie station. 3 April

Early April, my economics professor took our class of six to neighbouring Tianjin city for a tour of the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area, led by Michael Hart, managing director of property services firm Jones Lang LaSalle’s Tianjin office. For the first time since the dawn of civilisation, Homo sapiens has become a predominantly urban creature. Until 2008, the planet’s population was split almost right down the middle: 3.2 billion in the cities, 3.2 billion in the countryside. Since then China has shifted the balance decisively away from the fields and toward the skyscrapers. – Jonathan Watts, When a Billion Chinese Jump If you are one of the corporate executives travelling from Beijing to Tianjin for work on a daily basis, you may perhaps be too engrossed in checking your email or walking too quickly to notice the row of posters in the gaotie (high-speed rail) station trying to call your attention to the latest condo development or the municipality’s newest economic development area. But if you are a wide-eyed tourist and it is your first time in Tianjin, you might think, wow, what a shiny city! And if you happen to have arrived after nightfall, you will be even more impressed by the sight of the city’s modern skyline that is slightly reminiscent of Shanghai’s Pudong financial district. And that’s probably how Tianjin’s urban planners want you to feel about their city. To feed your curiosity, they’ve also built an urban planning museum detailing the progress that the city has made from its early days as a port and, more importantly, the vision that it has for the future. (Having also toured the urban planning museums in Beijing and Shanghai, I’ve conjectured that a Chinese city can’t call itself “modern” until it builds one of these.) Tianjin is known for its European architecture, a legacy of the concessions established there when Tianjin opened to foreign trade in the late 1800s, and it’s eager to 15

play up this part of its heritage. Tianjin’s Italian concession has been preserved as an “Italian Style Town”, luring tourists to its restaurants and bars serving up anything from Bavarian beer to Provençal fare. One of the city’s bridges looks like it has been modelled after Paris’s Pont Alexandre III. With one difference: the bridge’s golden sculptures have Chinese facial features, as our guide Michael points out to us. As we drive past the bridge, I snap a photo of a female statue holding a pipa, a Chinese string instrument. Not far away is a building with a miniature Eiffel Tower on its rooftop. And throughout the city is scattered a collection of good-sized Renaissance sculptures. Tianjin is a dual-core city: in addition to the original city, the Binhai New Area to the east has been under development since the 1980s. Binhai is a cluster of economic development projects, including the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, an experiment in building an environmentally sustainable city; Yujiapu financial district, Tianjin’s spin-off of Manhattan that is currently an army of cranes hard at work building skyscrapers; and the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA), touted as one of China’s leading manufacturing powerhouses that is currently home to more than 5,000 foreign companies. The main TEDA office building houses a small museum that features photographs of Chinese government and business leaders shaking hands and miniature displays of the dazzling array of products manufactured in TEDA, from oil drilling equipment to Boeing airplanes. In a country where even city-building seems to be a competitive business, Tianjin has worked hard to engineer its romantic European image and to attract investors. Yet something seemed missing. Having left our campus in Beijing at 6:30 that morning, my friend Andrew and I were looking forward to finding some xiao chi (street food) when we arrived in Tianjin. There was none – no bao zi (buns stuffed with a variety of meat and vegetables) stalls, no street side hawkers with their carts of kao di gua (charcoal-grilled sweet potatoes). Our food quest had to be put on hold until we found some faux Southeast Asian cuisine in a swanky new mall. Was it just that we were in the wrong part of town? But Tianjin’s roads were also abnormally deserted, the opposite of Bejing’s congested ring roads. Tianjin has often been called a “ghost city” in international media; even before Michael mentioned this to us, I’d already gotten the impression that this was a rather sterile, lifeless city. The largest crowds I saw all day were two tour groups in matching hats near the main city’s Italian Style Town, taking photos with a lone Mickey Mouse mascot that was probably glad for the attention. Now this emptiness is a little bit odd, considering a good proportion of Tianjin’s developments in recent years have been residential. While we stood around a miniature model of the developments along Tianjin’s Hai River in the urban planning museum, Michael explained that many property buyers in Tianjin are buying houses but not homes. Buying is speculative, apartments remain unfurnished after they have been bought, and there is hardly any rental market to speak of for properties in suburbs that do not yet have a transportation network. So although many of these apartments are owned, they remain empty.


And this is happening even as residents who are reluctant to move are being evicted from their homes to make way for new developments. As we drive through Tianjin, Michael tells us stories about residents having their windows broken or their water shut off to force them to leave their homes. Such stories are not uncommon in Beijing either, where thousands of the city’s centuries-old courtyard houses and hutongs (narrow lanes between the houses) have been demolished or redeveloped into gentrified entertainment spots, meeting the same fate as Beijing’s old city walls, which were dismantled shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic. One of the leading advocates for the preservation of the city’s ancient architecture was the late Liang Sicheng, one of China’s most revered modern Chinese architects. His arguments fell on deaf ears, and as though in a nod to the doctrine of development, his old courtyard residence was unceremoniously razed during the 2012 Lunar New Year. Urbanisation is a key priority for the new Xi Jinping administration: it has been and will continue to be viewed as an important driver of economic development, and the Chinese government hopes that 60% of the population will be urban by 2020, up from 53% at present. Old cities are expanding while new ones are emerging, quite literally, from the desert. In addition to the host of other issues that this rapid urbanisation is creating, from how to integrate migrants into urban social welfare systems to the encroachment of cities onto rural land, the example of Tianjin raises another question: will this business of citybuilding, directed by a crew of revenue-hungry bureaucrats and foreign capitalists for an audience of wealthy investors and consumers, result in urban spaces that have a distinctive identity and that are conducive to community-building? I posed this question to Michael at the end of his presentation about the rapidly expanding market for hotels and retail space in the hundreds of cities across the country, asking if he thought I’d be able to feel a sense of community and neighbourliness if I returned to TEDA in ten years. “If you look at the average Chinese person,” he responded matter-of-factly, “that isn’t really what they’re looking for. They’re mostly interested in what the person next to them has.” My impression is that there is some truth to Michael’s statement. But what I have seen and experienced during my travels through other cities – a twenty-plus-piece band surrounded by a large crowd at Kunming’s Cui Hu (Jade Lake), evening dances in Beijing’s parks, a local couple sitting down for an afternoon chat with us by Xi’an’s Big Goose Pagoda – also tell me that China’s urban residents still treasure their parks and public spaces, and that the spirit of a city is defined by more than just skylines and posters. Financial viability is not the only measure of a city’s sustainability, and the growth in the property market in the last fiscal year should not be the only metric by Community spaces. Big Goose which the success of China’s city-building is measured. Pagoda on a Sunday, Xi’an. 7 April.



现实 (xiàn shí) to be practical — e.g. marrying rich and getting a good job

和谐 / 被和谐了 (hé xié / bèi hé xié le) harmony / to “be harmonised” — satirical term that refers to being censored on the Internet / other media outlets because the government wants to maintain societal harmony

剩男剩女 (shèng nán shèng nǔ) “left behind” — unmarried, young men or women, increasingly a problem because of the one-child policy and because of the importance of class / material considerations in finding a marriage partner

五毛派 (wǔ máo pài) “50 cent party” — people who get paid 50 cents by the government for making progovernment comments (now used to refer to anyone who makes pro-government comments on Weibo, etc.)

留守儿童 (líu shǒu ér tóng) “left behind children” — children of parents who migrate to the city for work, estimated at 58 million in 2008. They grow up without proper parental care and are often brought up by their grandparents.

素质 (sù zhì) “quality” — used to refer to Chinese people who are not of a high enough “quality” to be able to embrace democracy

文明 (wén míng) “to be civilised” — perhaps the most commonly seen word on government propaganda / courtesy campaign banners Just some parental advice from the Beijing government.


有中国特色的 (yǒu zhōng guó tè sè dè) “with Chinese characteristics” — a phrase attached to many terms used to describe the way China does things, e.g. Deng Xiaoping’s Socialism with Chinese characteristics, Yasheng Huang’s Capitalism with Chinese characteristics. Speaks to China’s insistence on finding ways to govern China according to China’s unique circumstances (with a twinge of nationalism attached), and also serves as neat government propaganda, as in when the CCP wants to hold on to its socialist / ideological roots while at the same time pursuing capitalistic development (中国特色 社会主义).

四菜一汤 (sì cài yì tāng) “four dishes and a soup” — President Xi Jinping’s campaign to curb excessive spending by public officials on lavish dinners and other indulgences. Bad news for those in the tourism and F&B industries.

光盘行动 (guāng pán xíng dòng) “clean plate movement” — a recent campaign against food waste

上有政策,下有对策 / 天高皇帝远 (shàng yǒu zhèng cè, xià yǒu dùi cè / tiān gāo huáng dì yuǎn) “up has policies and down has countermeasures” / “heaven is high and the emperor far away” — referring to decentralised policy implementation and the inability of the central government to ensure that policies are effectively carried out by local governments

富二代 (fù èr dài) “rich second generation” — referring to the children (often only children) of wealthy parents who live extravagantly and behave irresponsibly in public. Pointed to as a symbol of China’s worsening inequality.





“What exactly is Nature with a capital N?” I asked during a class on our first morning at Tiger Leaping Gorge, a little frustrated that I didn’t understand this term that our instructor, Karlis, had used several times during the trip. Through subsequent conversations and classes, I came to understand Nature with a capital N as the images of the awesome ravines of Tiger Leaping Gorge on China Eastern’s tourist videos, the tears that came to my eyes as we sped down the Mekong River to see Manwan Dam, and the perspective that anything “natural” is good by definition. Nature with a capital N is our romanticisation of the natural. It forms the basis for our emotional connection with Mother Earth. But it is also a narrative we have constructed about nature, one that selects the beautiful and shuns the ugly. “Why do people think nature is beautiful?” exclaimed Karlis one day. “Nature is really scary!” This I discovered for myself when four of us decided one afternoon to bash our way through bamboo forests and vicious, thorny bushes down to the Jinsha river from our hostel at Tiger Leaping Gorge, in search of our version of Nature with a capital N. I came to learn that Nature with a capital N has always to be accompanied by nature with a small n – nature in its raw form, nature analyzed through an objective lens. During one of our “teachable moments” on a bike ride through fields of leek and spring onion out to Erhai Lake from Dali, Karlis posed us a question: Why is organic fertilizer better than synthetic fertilizer? “Because it’s NATURAL!” was someone’s triumphant response. That’s the Nature with a capital N answer. The nature with a small n answer is that the nitrogen and phosphorus in organic fertilizer don’t run off as quickly as do those in synthetic fertilizer, which means that it won’t cause as much of a nutrient pollution problem for nearby water bodies. The constructed narrative about nature has its parallel in the constructed narrative of Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian until it was renamed in 2001). Shangri-La is the conjured image of paradise nestled in the Himalayan foothills that draws millions of well-heeled tourists every year to take photos of Sumtseling Monastery, eat overpriced tsampa (barley flour in butter tea) at Tibetan restaurants, and buy imported trinkets in souvenir stores in the inappropriately-named Gucheng (old town). Until 2004, Gucheng was just another Tibetan village, probably not too different from the neighboring Trinyi village where we spent four nights in The Shangri-La narrative. 29 April.


homestays. On our first day in Trinyi village, we heard from Dakpa Kelden, a well-known local businessman who has his hands in every type of tourism business you can think of. He advocates a model of tourism that gives tourists a holistic, authentic experience of local Tibetan culture, explaining his view that too much tourism today is “proud tourism,” where “you take a picture of yourself at this place, show your friends you were there, then start thinking of where you want to go next”. He says he’s been criticized because one of his businesses only serves 300 tourists a year whereas others average 30,000, but he’s unconcerned about this because tourist volume is not his priority. His founding of Thangka Academy in Gucheng is proof of his dedication to preventing the loss of Tibetan culture – the school teaches students Thangka painting and Tibetan Buddhism for free, and students can go on to paint Thangka in monasteries or establish their own galleries. Our own experience of Tibetan living was as authentic as it gets: one morning, we followed the grandmother in our homestay as she brought her pigs out to graze, burned incense at a stupa, and proceeded to walk around it for an eternity; one afternoon, we had a carb-filled lunch of plain rice, barley bread and youtiao; and after every meal, we squatted on the floor, washed dishes in two basins of hot soapy water and cold well water, and re-learned the meaning of water scarcity and conservation. I still can’t say I’m an expert on Tibetan living though – that would take months more of living in Trinyi village, and the ability to hold a decent conversation in the local tongues. Regardless, I am thankful for the people who worked to put this trip together, and who schooled me in what it means to look beyond the narrative for the rawness beneath.

Contemplating Nature with a capital N. Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan. 28 April.


Thanks to an introduction by my schoolmate and the generosity of members of CCHK, a church in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to join CCHK on their annual Easter visit to Zhao Xian Christian Orphanage near Shijiazhuang, Hebei. This is a testimonial I wrote for Light of Hope Foundation, which has been supporting the orphanage since 2005. “I’m a little bit nervous, actually,” I said to my new friend Crystal during dinner in Shijiazhuang the Friday night before our visit to Zhao Xian. “I’m not very good with children and I never really know what to say to them.” She laughed. “哈哈,你什么都不做, 他们自己会扑上来的。” Don’t worry, even if you don’t do anything, the children will swarm around you.” I had heard about CCHK’s Easter visit to Zhao Xian orphanage from Jason, a friend from school who had visited the orphanage several years ago. With no connection to the group and no prior experience working with children, I had reason to be nervous about the weekend. From my first interactions with the group, however, I could feel their generosity of spirit and eagerness to accommodate me. Crystal was right about the children – we had trouble getting through the entrance to the orphanage on Saturday morning because of the very enthusiastic welcome we received. The moment we got off our bus, we were greeted with cries of “Guan shushu! Qiao ke li shushu!” (Uncle Joseph Kwan and Uncle Chocolate). The hugs that the children greeted the delegation with told of how much they had been anticipating this visit. Over the next couple of days, it became evident that the group’s relationship with the children goes far beyond the annual Easter visit. Guan Shushu seems to know every child’s story and keep track of every child’s development: Wang Zhiguo cannot see clearly because his nerve was damaged during his mother’s pregnancy, Li Yuliang is studying in Qingdao, so-and-so is the first from Zhao Xian to have a child…I noticed, too, that he showed genuine interest in how each child he came into contact with that weekend was doing. Even when he is in Hong Kong, far away from Zhao Xian, it is not uncommon for him to receive calls regarding children who need help in one way or another. In addition to providing emotional support for the children, the group provides material support as well,


and arrives at the orphanage each year bearing gifts and needed supplies. This time, the group brought soybean milk formula with them after learning that one of the infants was lactose intolerant. One of the things that struck me the most about Zhao Xian was how positive an environment it seemed to be for the children. I was delighted by how chatty the children were and how happy they seemed (though this was arguably one of the happier weekends of the year for them). While I am not religious myself, the chorus of children’s voices reciting the Lord’s Prayer with such energy and faith struck a chord deep within me. I was moved by the sight of teenagers allowing ten-year-olds to have their share of candy first, and the same ten-year-olds leading toddlers up the stairs. This is an environment where children learn to care, to be brothers and sisters to their younger siblings. This is a place that the children are glad to call “home”: this Easter weekend saw several children who have already left for work or school in other cities taking leave to visit. And indeed, creating a permanent home is the core philosophy of Zhao Xian and Light of Hope Foundation: children do not simply pass through the doors of Zhao Xian and subsequently leave to find a better life; this is their home that they are welcome back to anytime. I could not help but shed tears at the end of the exhausting weekend. I’m not sure when I will next be in China, but it will be a long time before I forget the faces of the children I got to know during these brief two days. Ten-year-old Liyuan, who took the initiative to fill my water bottle for me and wrote nearly ten beautiful lines of thanks and well wishes in her thank-you card to her teacher, whereas the other children filled their cards with stickers and wrote a simple “thank you” or “I love you”. Little four-year-old Rongrong, who stuck colourful stickers on my earlobes and told me she would give me more if they fell off. En Jia, who was born without outer ears but can now hear thanks to a device that she wears around her forehead, begging me to tell her what time Guan Shushu was going to arrive on Sunday morning. Fifteen-year-old Kate, who did not have that much to say to me, but whose arm linking mine was sufficient to communicate her sincere hospitality. And I will certainly not forget the sight of the children dancing to 脚步 (Footsteps), one of the gospel songs we sang during the weekend. The song lyrics celebrate walking life’s journey in step with the Lord, and reflects exactly the relationship between the children and their mentors at the orphanage and at CCHK. When I asked Kate which day of the year she looks forward to the most, she replied without hesitation, “当然是你们来的时候!” When you visit, of course! I left Zhao Xian that weekend feeling reassured that the cleft-lipped babies left at Zhao Xian’s doorstep would have the chance to go for corrective surgery in Hong Kong, and would subsequently be able to walk each step of their journey together with not one, not two, but many parents, brothers and sisters. I can only hope that the other abandoned children in China will also be fortunate enough to grow up in an equally nurturing and empowering environment, and that the Chinese people will rally to provide the resources necessary to make that happen.


母语 Late May

A personal reflection on my relationship with the Chinese language that I wrote upon returning to Singapore. 中文是我的母语。母语又是什么呢?在新加坡长大时,“母语”在我印象中只 是学校里的其中一个课目。小学的时候,它是一个我总能得到 A*的课目。当时我 还报名了高级华文课,在小六的大考表现优秀,因而感到自豪。上了中二,教育部 换了考试方式。我不再能以死死背词的学习方式来应付考试了,我在期末考试不及 格,只得了总分数两百分之中的八十八分。我无比的沮丧,对学习中文失去了兴趣, 我讨厌中文补习课,教育部的宣传资料一直告诉我“华语酷”但我完全不同意他们的 看法⋯⋯ 这个学期在北京生活的经验再次激发了我对中文的兴趣,任何接触中文的机 会我都会珍惜。我们每周上三次的单班课,上课之前要读一篇新闻,我读完后就会 努力地把生词记下。我积极地跟中国人练习说中文,从他们学来了许多词语和常用 语:粗犷、坑爹、屌丝⋯⋯这个学期,中文对我来说就像一位老朋友,我现在才发 现我这么没礼貌地拒绝了这个友情是应该受到谴责的,想挽回这个友情就得付出努 力。 母语:母亲的语言。这个定义还真恰当;我妈妈的中文有时候说得比我还好。 我们那天在厨房做饭,我问她她知不知道 almond 在中文怎么说。她知道:杏仁。 那 walnut 呢?核桃。Celery? 芹菜。Persimmon? (我估计这个她肯定不知道。)柿 子。气死我了,怎么只接受了没几年的中文教育又没有在北京生活过的妈妈如此厉 害呢? 因为妈妈喜欢看中国电视剧、妈妈每当去超市时都会说中文、妈妈不用应付 考试所以没有讨厌中文的理由。相似的,我对中文的态度之所以有此大的变化,是 因为把中文把握好只是我去中国的其中一个目的,更重要的是我对中国国情感兴趣, 而学习一个语言与了解一个国家是一回事。 我学中文,因为汉字长得美丽。一位同学曾经跟我说他不喜欢 IES 强调写汉 字,因为他觉得在科技先进的二十一世纪,用手写字已经很过时。但光凭打字来学 中文就会忽略各个汉字所隐藏的故事和秘密。我喜欢把每一个字的每一个笔画整整 齐齐地写出来、我喜欢在北京的火车站看到解释“雷”字的来源的海报、我喜欢因为 把一个字写出来而发现它虽看起来很简单但其实还有着两三个组成部分。 我学中文,因为它不是我的第一语言,所以用中文说肉麻的东西一点都不觉 得恶心,说简单的东西一点都不觉得傻,而读起中文来有一种神奇的感觉。中文神 奇,也是因为它能帮我表达用英文表达不出的东西:“体贴”、“郁闷”(类似 Singlish 的“sian”)都是不容易翻译成英语的词。 24

中文是我的母语。“母语”,是我不小心对中国人说我也是中国人,是我说不 出中文的时候被饭馆的服务员骂,同时也是我因为在新加坡长大而发不出标准的 “日”声音,但我不因而感到羞耻。前几个星期,我的环境学老师问我,你是客家人, 难道你的母语不是客家话吗?我说新加坡政府一直以来都告诉我我的母语是普通话。 我小时候甚至不知道普通话是在二十世纪被中华民国政府选为国语,之后才开始大 众化,我以为普通话是每个中国人和新加坡华裔向来都会说的话。我的朋友张丽娜 是山东本地人,我们有一天在山东省会济南市坐着的时候,附近有几个小孩子在玩, 丽娜就说道,“济南的小朋友们都说普通话。”跟丽娜一起在威海(山东的另一个城 市)长大的年轻人从小都跟家人和朋友说威海话,而山东的方言至少有十七个。在 国际化的新加坡长大的我们呢,都快把方言忘掉了。我一句客家话都说不出,就只 能认普通话为母语了。 好了,说了这么多次我喜欢学中文,事实上我的中文水平还是有限。但我不 觉得这很丢脸,因为学中文不是为了跟别人比。学中文是我自己的选择,关键不是 拼命想达到“那边儿”的标准,反而是先寻找“这边儿”,之后就会发现我的“那边儿” 在何处11。学中文是挑战,同时也是快乐,更多的是个过程,一个我一学会享受就 永不会停止的过程。

Beautiful things that cannot be translated into English. (“Less a string of footsteps, another bit of greenness”). Jinan, Shandong. 10 March.

Probably how my Chinese sounds to native speakers. But I’m working on it. Beijing. 20 March.

                                                                                                              11 我用这个说法就要谢谢 IES 的某一个电影小组了!:)  


Narratives - Spring 2013