Foreigners living in China can easily land one-day gigs acting for commercials and other productions. Earlier this year, I put on an ill fitting tuxedo, was made-up, and "welcomed" people to an expensive high rise apartment at their extravagant opening day party. For this, I was paid the average factory worker's monthly wage. Knowing that makes me feel guilty, but not guilty enough to reject the money. Actually it's not much money if I exchange it to dollars. And that is the normal rate for doing that kind of work, as dictated by scarcity of supply and strength of demand.
Last month, I spent a morning along the sea wall in Zhuhai pretending to be a foreign good-Samaritan who helps a stricken fisherman, while all the Chinese bystanders stand around him doing nothing. I walked up and knelt down to place an unknown medical device on his chest. Then he sat up and vigorously thanked me, and I said "you're welcome" in Chinese. A German guy was hired to wear a white lab coat and hold the device while speaking medical jargon into the camera. The device seemed to be just a little plastic disk with a blinking red light and a switch.
people playing bystanders surround a man playing a fisherman in Zhuhai
The whole concept was curious. Why do the "white" guys get to save the day and play doctor in the Chinese commercial? Neither of us are health care professionals, or even real actors. My impression is that the people who produce these commercials assume that using foreigners provides them some amount of credibility and "prestige". I later felt some regret that some people may interpret my appearance as an endorsement, as if my relatively pale skin color represents knowledge and experience. Perhaps the device is real and useful. But, I suspect my appearance was being used to deceive people.
You can see that doing commercials in China makes me a bit guilty. But I've just got news that I'm an actual Hollywood star! No more China commercials for me, I've hit the big time.
There is George Clooney from the 2009 film "Up in the Air" (Chinese names: 在云端，型男飛行日誌 ). Where am I? In the carpet!
In my last job as an architect back in the states, I was responsible for design when that same apartment building was renovated a few years ago. I chose that rich orange color for the carpet and doors, among other things. What do you think of the colors?
Now, if I can just figure out a way to build my new career on this...
A second-class ticket costs 490 yuan. A first-class ticket is 300 yuan more, and for the extra money you are privilege to a wider seat plus free juice and snacks. Whichever you chose, the experience of riding the new high speed rail in southern China is remarkable. As the train speeds through the countryside at 350 kpm, you can watch geography and architecture changing in a matter of minutes. The line crosses 3 provinces, over 6 degrees of latitude, going from temperate central Wuhan to subtropical southern Guangzhou, all in 3 hours. (Not all trains make the journey in 3 hours. Most take 4 hours and stop at the intermediate stations along the way. I took train #G1003 from Wuhan at 3pm sharp, which is an express train)
Leaving Wuhan, the terrain is defined by the small rolling hills covered in short brush. This is Hubei province. The flat bed of the railway is carved out out of the landscape, leaving your eyes to follow the embankments up and down like waves. When you're above the waves, you can see far into the distance. There are few tall trees between the fields, where many different crops are being grown, creating a patchwork of varied shades of green. Buildings are spread across each farm, and most of them are simple two story buildings with sloped tile roofs:
Very suddenly, it seems, the scenery turns a bright, verdant green as you enter the fertile land of Hunan province. It's notable for wide, flat valleys with large mountains off in the distance. Buildings are similar to before, but seem more clustered together in villages. Between the fields, which seem to grow just rice, there are many tall trees. (at the end of this video, the train passes through one of the outdoor intermediate stations, at full speed):
A couple hours in, the buildings are taller, made of concrete, with flat roofs. The ride starts to seem a lot like a subway as the train tunnels through the mountains in the north of Guangdong province. At times, the train emerges from one tunnel, speeds through a valley for a few seconds, and back into another tunnel. In the valley, you may get a blurry glance of an old house not far from the tracks. For perhaps dozens of generations, that house was quietly isolated in it's own little valley in rural China. Now it's neighbor is the fastest rail line in the world. Then you emerge into another valley within view of a small village. It's entirely possible that people from those two places spoke different dialects in the recent past, so isolated by a great mountain. Now you travel between them in 10 seconds:
When I showed these videos to some students, they could immediately tell which province each was taken in. I was pretty impressed.
Anyone taken the Wu-Guang high speed train yet? What were your impressions of the experience?
This is what happens when you get some nice sunny weather after a week of rainy humid weather.
If you try to dry your clothes on a rainy day they take too long to dry, and could end up smelling a bit funky. So on a nice day, out they come. It's worth bringing up that almost nobody in China has a clothes dryer. Dryers are high energy users, and they are an expensive purchase besides. In America, almost everyone has one, or uses one at a laundromat. I've found that life without a dryer is ...completely normal and unremarkable. The American view of the dryer is that it is a need and not a want; the majority of people in modern society don't question this assumption. But actually I've come to think it's an unnecessary want.
The label of the Greatest Generation has been applied to Americans who lived through the Second World War. The idea was popularized in a book of that name by a former American television news presenter. I admit I've never read the book, but the argument has become well known through popular culture. The idea heroicizes the generation that was born during the great depression and learned to live through tough times. They made great sacrifices fighting the so-called good war, then returned home to work hard and build stable lives, in the process building America into a global hyperpower. That generation is old now and they're disappearing fast. As the story goes, their children the baby-boomer generation have mostly squandered the fortune their parents patiently built.
The mass of Chinese migrant workers could be today's greatest generation of China. These are the people leaving the villages, where the skills they've needed to live have been passed on for hundreds of years, and going to places to do work that is totally foreign to them. They are jumping into the future, doing things that none of their ancestors have ever done. They live in lonely factory dormitories, or in the case of construction workers in tinker-toy temporary buildings made of painted blue steel and white polystyrene panels, with no frills or amenities. In Guangzhou, at lunchtime you can see them eating from foam containers and napping anywhere. At night you don't see them, they go to sleep early. You can see them on the bus or subway traveling to a new job, carrying their possessions in a bag attached to a stick that they balance on their shoulder: some clothes, a fan, a bucket, tools. They always look old for their age.
They do hard and dangerous jobs without a lot of concern for their own safety, often wearing just thin clothes and flimsy plastic shoes for protection. Some even wear cheap business suits and black leather shoes to dig holes and build walls, as if trying to maintain dignity. Whether they are aware of it or not, they are surely sacrificing their health. The toxic dust and fumes that waft uncontrolled around Chinese construction sites, coupled with the insanely loud noise and lack of ear protection, will combine to produce too many deaf cancer patients in the future.
Their motivation is clear. They may be proud of what they are working on, but they are not striking out with lofty ideas to build China into the next superpower. The reason they sacrifice so much is just to improve the future of their family and themselves, the same reason I think that the WWII generation did. The US is the world hyperpower today because of the historical accident of WWII, not because our grandparents wanted it. A student told me that China will become the world superpower after the Third World War is fought. It wasn't that he was wishing for a world war to come. Actually, now I'm not sure what the student was trying to say. Maybe was he simply saying that he thinks it's inevitable China will gain superpower status. Or maybe he was expressing his pessimism.
The American greatest generation is a problematic label. The war was not good, no war is. That generation just did what it was told to do, and they built us a flawed world. Some of the most difficult problems of today, like nuclear proliferation and climate change, are direct consequences of what they started. But I think we admire their self-sacrificing spirit because we think it's rarer these days. How China's migrant workers are considered in future will depend on how the amazing growth of China on the world scene continues to develop. Will their story be a comedy or tragedy?
Are Chinese workers the future greatest generation of China? Will they be celebrated as heroic in the future, even as they are looked down on now?
One of my favorite Asian films is the 1994 movie Chungking Express (重庆森林) by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. The film is popular in university film studies classes; just Google it and you can find lots of term papers analyzing endlessly. I think of it as the Asian version of Pulp Fiction because of its similarly non-traditional narrative structure. Amazingly, they were both released in the same year; it seems some small cross-cultural movement was going on.
Using hand held camera work, choppy editing, and real locations, the film creates vivid impressions of life in urban Hong Kong. The two main locations are Chungking Mansion and a food stall with the name Midnight Express. Other locations include the escalators that go up the steep streets from central up to Soho neighborhood. On a recent visit to Hong Kong, I made a point to visit some of the filming locations.
In the first half of the film, a mysterious woman in sunglasses and a blond wig is involved in a drug trafficking scheme. Chungking Mansion is the chaotic place she recruits the traffickers, who are Indian Nationals. Today, Chungking Mansions is still there, on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui district. It's well known among budget travelers as the cheapest place to stay in Hong Kong. And it's still the gathering point for lots of Indian immigrants and their businesses, and now more Africans too. The first 3 floors are a mall. As it was in the film, the ground floor mall is occupied by money changers, cheap Indian restaurants, and lots of little shops selling electronics. The third floor mall has gone upscale and renamed after the movie. Above the mall pedestal are multiple tower blocks, mainly occupied by dozens of different hostels. I stayed in a room there with a bathroom but no windows, that measured 1 meter by 3 meters. Chungking is a hyperactive and dense place, like Hong Kong itself and more so. In a fully developed city, there is still this pocket of the developing world allowed to exist.
So I took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island to visit Midnight Express. The food stall is the only connection between the two narratives of the film. It's where two policemen stop and spend their lonely time after losing their girlfriends. But they never actually meet. I searched all over for the place. Actually, I wasn't even sure if it ever existed, but I assumed so because other shooting locations in the film were real places. I thought I stumbled on the place where it had been on an alley called Graham Street, filled with improvised semi-permanent street kitchens literally leaning against the back facade of modern skyscrapers. But I decided that place wasn't right. So I went to Pacific Coffee, Hong Kong's ubiquitous chain coffee shop with free internet. After Googling it, I found an address listing and even a photo of Midnight Express in Lam Kau Fong, a popular nightclub street.
I feel kind of silly admitting that I felt very disappointed when I finally got to Midnight Express, 16 years too late. Was I expecting to meet Faye Wong and order a Caesar Salad? As the post title suggests, it is indeed a 7-11 convenience store now. So I went inside and bought a Vitasoy drink.
In the west, Chinese food means bright red sauce, rice, and puffy chunks of breaded boneless meat. Meat without a positive identity. In Canton, food has bones. Also, sometimes a head or foot. Westerners are left to fret they are eating a pet at their local chop suey joint, while Cantonese people are not squeamish about knowing exactly which one. Seriously, eating dog meat is fairly common for Cantonese people. However, they will usually draw the line at cats.
Leaving in some identifying parts has its benefits. For one, it assures customers that they're being sold the real product. Counterfeit things are a pervasive problem in China, and it leads to a kind of paranoia. A persistent but probably false urban myth in China that many people believe says there is a factory somewhere in the countryside churning out fake eggs (there is even a purported training video on YouTube about how to make them). One of my English students insists that 75% of restaurants are using counterfeit cooking oil derived from middle-eastern crude. But, the Cantonese are under no illusion where real animal products come from. In contrast, many urbanite westerners are a little vague about it all. A family member who raises chickens and sells the eggs was once asked where his egg factory is.
In China, fish is not "seafood", its just another kind of meat; and its served whole body style, almost without exception. Fish fillets are unheard of, except the Fillet-O-Fish. It's not really very popular anyway; it seems a bit suspiciously anonymous to the Mainland consumer. A Cantonese person will soldier through a whole fish, swallowing everything with relish, while foreigners will try to pick through a fish and spit the bones out. But a host will accept such sensitivity to fish bones in a foreign guest.
On the other hand, it's completely acceptable to spit out mammal bones. Usually this is done by positioning one's mouth over an empty spot on the table, and letting drop. In serving a dish, whether there is significant meat on the bones is not considered important. One popular dish is pork knees in sauce: pig legs sawed close above and below the joint, with the tender skin and fat crisply roasted, but little meat to speak of.
Significantly, the fast food chain KFC has gained a noticeable advantage over McDonald's in mainland China. Perhaps it's because KFC offers more products with genuine bones included. But in Canton, it's not only full chicken legs and wings that get bones-in treatment. Every good meat dish is sliced with a heavy cleaver in a Cartesian fashion, creating a neat grid of chops overlaying the organic bone structure. Predictably, the bones splinter into an array of wondrous chips and marrow.
Appreciation for bones is widespread in Canton, but not universal in China. According to an interview I read with one of Mao's old chefs, the former Chairman required that he be served only de-boned meat. He was quite picky. Someone once said he was the anal leader of an oral fixated people. True enough, leaving bones in does give you something to occupy your tongue. Freudian analysis aside, it also can add taste and nutrition to your food.