Tiger Leaping Gorge Saved For Now

Posted on December 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs. No Comments

A bit of news that should encourage environmentalists throughout China:

China has abandoned controversial plans to build a huge dam which would have submerged one of the country’s most renowned tourist areas and forced the relocation of 100,000 residents in the south-western province of Yunnan.

In a rare and high-profile victory for China’s environmental movement, the project at Tiger Leaping Gorge on the upper reaches of the Yangtze river was scrapped during a meeting in the provincial capital, Kunming.

Of course, this reprieve may only be temporary, but it shows how tourism interests can occasionally supersede industrial and business ones, even in China.…

We’ll See

Posted on December 29th, by matt_schiavenza in World Affairs. No Comments

In August of last year (2006), at the end of my month-long trip to Vietnam, I had dinner at a Hanoi restaurant with a middle-aged American with extensive experience living and working in Asia. During our conversation, I remarked how nice it was to be able to travel safely in Vietnam now only thirty years after the end of the war. I then mused how quickly new possibilities emerge and old ones fade for the traveler. The man agreed, and then offered an anecdote neatly illustrating my point:

“In 1972 I was in Baghdad having Christmas dinner with Iraqi friends- a big, sumptuous traditional Arab feast- when one began lecturing me about the Christmas bombing of Vietnam. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘does your country do this? Don’t they understand the human consequences?’ I patiently replied that I was no supporter of either Nixon or the Vietnam War and told him not all Americans agree with our government’s policies.

“Thirty years later, almost to the date, I was sitting with Vietnamese friends in this very restaurant, when the same topic came up. ‘Why,’ they asked, ‘is your government going to attack Iraq? Don’t they consider what will happen to ordinary Iraqis?’ Again, I patiently explained that I was no supporter of Bush or the Iraq War, and that not all Americans agree with the government’s policies.

“So yes, I understand your point.”

I thought about his story just the other night, when my parents and I saw the new film “Charlie Wilson’s War”. The film, set in the 1980s, details the efforts of a hard drinking Texas congressman to assist the Afghan mujahideen repel the Soviet invaders. Wilson (played by Tom Hanks) manages to cajole his fellow congressmen to increase the covert operations budget so the Afghans would have the weapons they needed to shoot down Soviet helicopters. Of course, as we know, the USSR would retreat and the mujahideen would recapture their land. At the end of the film, when Wilson celebrated the Afghan victory, his accomplice (a hard-drinking CIA agent played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) reminded him that what seems like good news today can become bad news tomorrow. Of course, this is precisely what happened as the mujahideen formed the basis of the Taliban government that the U.S would be forced to topple less than twenty years later.

Think of all the changes. No one could have predicted in 1968 that China would embrace market capitalism and the pursuit of wealth not twenty years later. No one could have predicted then that by 2007 the world city with the highest number of billionaires would be Moscow, Russia. No one could have predicted in 1976 that Cambodia and Vietnam would become major tourist destinations less than thirty years later. No one foresaw Iran turning into a repressive theocracy, or Lebanon descending into civil war and chaos. No one would have imagined that formerly Communist Lithuania would have a freer press than the United States.

So here’s a question for all you global thinker types as we lurch into a new year. What sorts of changes could we see in the next twenty years? Will we be discussing the Iraq war someday from a cafe….in Pyongyang?…

Christmas Conversations

Posted on December 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

This following conversation, I’d guess, is fairly common among China-residing Westerners coming home for the holidays:

“Do you eat street food in China?”
“Oh sure- all the time. A lot of it is really good,”
“But aren’t you worried about getting sick?”
“I do get sick sometimes”
“How often?”
“Oh- maybe once a month I get diarrhea”
“Once a month!”
“Yeah…I’d say that’s about right”
“I couldn’t go there”


“Do you have a Western toilet in your apartment?”
“What about public toilets?”
“Most of those are squatters”
(looks of disgust)
“Do you use them?”
“Yeah, you have to if you have to go when you’re out in public”
“That’s disgusting”
“Actually, I don’t mind them much. I even prefer using them in public. They’re more hygenic”
(everyone looks at me as if I had two heads)…

Happy Holidays!

Posted on December 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

I want to wish all of my readers a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. (Though I won’t stop blogging, mind you).…


Posted on December 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

Some notes:

– On my second afternoon I walked all the way to the train station from my house, passing rows of smart houses with neatly manicured lawns. It was two in the afternoon and silent save for the occasional car driving past. I had the feeling that I was walking not in reality but rather in a still-life painting, where everything in the landscape was neatly preserved.

– I bought a pair of shoes, an annual ritual here in the U.S. where shops actually carry my size. The salesman came over and described each pair I asked about in minute detail, using terms I hadn’t heard before. He then asked me what my favorite dish was in China. I told him I was fond of a mashed potato with spices dish. “Daaaaamn!,” he said.

– Walking around I caught myself staring at obese people waddling around like penguins, their bellies spilling over their belt as they ambled into the parking lot.

– My mother and I bought clothes in a crowded shop. “That was chaotic in there,” she said as we were leaving. “Really?” I said. I hadn’t noticed.

– I remembered what good bread is supposed to taste like. I drank a pint of strong beer and felt immediately tipsy. I overheard a woman at Starbucks order a double decaf non-fat latte to go, and had to resist asking her what the point was.

– In Berkeley I tried and failed to parallel park while my friends laughed hysterically.

– I went to a trendy Vietnamese restaurant last night with three friends, all of whom are successful young professionals. We had conversations about BlackBerry phones, business class lounges at Heathrow Airport, good credit card deals, billing hours at a law
firm, wine, and after hours clubs in San Francisco.

– I’ve been amazed- every day- by how clear the air is. Yesterday apparently was a “Save the Air Day” here in the Bay Area, which I found hard to believe.

– I’ve developed a bizarre aversion to television. I just won’t turn it on. In Beijing my friend and I watched the American ESPN, and I found myself wishing the volume was turned down.

– Finally, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, I couldn’t help but notice how much…..stuff there is here. The supermarkets, shops, and restaurants are all so neat, clean, well-appointed, and stuffed to the brim with merchandise. I will say that I do live in a nice suburban town, but the absolute and total lack of shabbiness has absolutely shocked me.

And wow…people are friendly.…

Reverse Culture Shock Watch- Day Two

Posted on December 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

Culture shock has thus far been light, though perhaps this is due to having spent the majority of my time drowsily enduring jet lag inside my parents’ condo. I did, however, have a moment in the Vancouver airport. I was walking in the terminal when I made eye contact with a sharply dressed middle-aged woman who was standing at a gift-wrapping desk. She asked me chirpily: “Good morning sir! Do you have any gifts I can wrap for ya?”. My first instinct was, “Why the hell are you talking to me? Do you know me? Good god!”. I merely smiled and said no thank you, though, realizing that she was just doing her job as a North American service employee. …

798- Factory Chic in Beijing

Posted on December 20th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture. 1 Comment

Upon the advice of a friend, I visited the large 798 art complex on my first full day in Beijing. Located in the northeast of the city, 798 was formerly an industrial neighborhood full of factories and gray silos that has since been converted into art galleries, cafes, and quirky little bookshops that would not look out of place in Berkeley, California.

Our guide for the day was Ting Ting, a Kunming native who works as an assistant curator at an exhibit called The Long March Project. The exhibit’s name refers to the massive year-long retreat undertaken by Communist leaders during the 1930s, culminating in the coronation of Mao Zedong as the Party’s supreme leader. The exhibition, by contrast, merely aims to introduce performance art to parts of rural China that lack access to the cultural life in China’s cities. Of particular interest to me was a display of paper cutting art, all hand-made by peasants living near Yan’an in central China’s Shaanxi Province. These farmers- all of whom were illiterate- have passed down paper cutting skills through the generations and the result is a remarkable collection of intricate and complex designs depicting scenes of rural life.

Ting Ting then led us to an interesting Italian-funded exhibition of an Indian artist who specializes in large, avant-garde sculpture pieces. On the gallery’s ground floor we walked into a dark tunnel that curved around before dead-ending at a back wall, a somewhat claustrophobic and frightening experience. Other galleries showed photos of a Chinese prostitute posing nude with groups of men and amazing photographs of Beijing street life by a French photographer. The breadth of the art available on display at 798 matched that at any of the world’s leading museums, and I found myself continually amazed at how ingenuously former factory space was converted into hip art spaces.

In one gallery we visited, Maoist slogans were still visible on the wall, serving as a haunting reminder of China’s totalitarian past. Judging by how vibrant 798 appeared it was difficult to remember that less than forty years ago the entire of China was completely devoid of any artistic life whatsoever. It seems quite appropriate that in the “new China” Maoist trappings have become artistic kitsch.

I asked Ting Ting whether 798 had endured any political pressure. She responded that it had, but its rapidly gentrifying residential spaces have made it far too valuable to be torn down. The Chinese government, ever pragmatic, would like to convert 798 into glitzy new apartment complexes but for now, the art complex will apparently survive.

China’s burgeoning arts scene is an overlooked aspect of the country’s growth, as journalists (and government officials) prefer to emphasize more tangible changes such as fancy cars and shopping malls. A visit to 798 though offers travelers and residents alike an opportunity to see a more bohemian side of a country often dismissed as grim and utilitarian.

I see James Fallows noticed something very similar during his recent trip to Shenzhen- go have a look. My favorite has to be his last photograph, that of a smiling George and Laura Bush juxtaposed to more grim images of Mao, Deng, Hu, Ho Chi Minh, and Stalin. …


Posted on December 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

It is just after 6 am in California and pitch black outside and your blogger is wide awake, sipping coffee. Jet lag is wonderful, isn’t it?

Beijing was lovely, hardly the “punishment” I hinted at in my previous post. I was treated quite well by my host Al and enjoyed some fantastic Xinjiang cuisine with him and Chris, and needless to say none of us wanted for food or beverage. In addition, Al and I visited the fascinating 798 art complex about which I will say more shortly. Beijing was cold yet friendly and fun- I think I might be coming around to the place after all.

I also want to issue a hearty endorsement of Air Canada, the flagship carrier of our neighbors to the north. I flew direct from Beijing to Vancouver and was treated to excellent service and decent food throughout. Best yet, I was able to clear U.S. Customs while there sparing me the usual hour-long nightmare at San Francisco International. Those of you living on the West Coast of the U.S ought to consider the Vancouver connection when booking your next trip home from China.

I’ve hardly had an opportunity to re-engage with American life, as I came straight home, ate dinner, then crashed last night. But once I do so I’ll faithfully blog my thoughts and impressions as always.…

Capital Punishment

Posted on December 14th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 6 comments

Just kidding. Beijing isn’t all that bad. Your faithful blogger will be traveling to China’s capital city tomorrow and then on Tuesday heading back to California for the holidays and then some. Never fear, though- I will be returning to Kunming in February after Spring Festival subsides and life in the Middle Kingdom returns to normal.

Blogging shall continue apace, of course.…

Rubberneck Nation?

Posted on December 11th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 1 Comment

I had a minor bike accident yesterday. As accidents go, this was fairly benign: neither myself nor the pedestrian with whom I collided were injured and my bike wasn’t damaged, but it was frightening all the same. I landed hard on my hip but quickly got to my feet, apologizing to the man whom I hit (it was clearly my fault) and quickly standing up and continuing my commute to school. The whole incident lasted less than one minute.

However, time was clearly sufficient for a small crowd to gather around about ten feet from where I was on the ground, looking at me nervously as if they expected me to rise up in a fit of anger. I glanced at them and forced a smile, saying that I was ok, and with that the crowd dispersed and I continued on to class.

After arriving at school in one piece, I told a few of my classmates and friends what had happened. Most snidely commented that the Chinese are blatant rubberneckers, keen to witness accidents and fights but unwilling to intervene and help. This, clearly, is a commonly-held belief among foreigners.

Yet really, could one be blamed for not approaching me? As a foreigner, they might have expected me to react angrily, and given my size they might have been afraid for the pedestrian’s safety. I believe my conciliatory behavior following the incident surprised more than a few of them and caused them to carry on with whatever they were doing in the first place. In addition, they had no reason to expect me to speak and understand Chinese so I can understand their reluctance to talk to me. And certainly, a big laowai being knocked to the concrete can easily explain why a crowd gathered so soon.

On the other hand, I did once read an essay by a Chinese woman who decried her countrymen’s reluctance to help strangers in need. And in his memoir River Town, Peter Hessler does mention how the people of Fuling would excitedly ask if anyone was killed when they heard of a car accident. The laowai belief that the Chinese point, stare, but do not act does have plenty of anecdotal support.

Yet isn’t that true in any country? More than a few people I’ve met believe the entire appeal of auto racing is the possibility that a fatal crash might take out one of the competitors. And as a person stuck in many a traffic jam in the state of California, I can assure you that rubbernecking isn’t limited to China.

Why then, do foreigners notice it so much in China? One possibility is simply the sheer number of people on the roads and sidewalks in every Chinese town. It doesn’t take long to gather a lot of people around a particular scene, simply because there are constantly a lot of people about.…