2008 Retrospective

Posted on December 31st, by matt_schiavenza in Navel Gazing, Reminiscence. No Comments

I remember a scene in the early 1990s film City Slickers in which Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby are horseback riding slowly through the desert. They were having a discussion about the best and worst days of their life, but couldn’t agree on how to measure it. Daniel Stern’s character said that you had to consider the whole day, and its various ups and downs, before deciding. Bruno Kirby’s, though, had another idea: the measure of a day is in how it ended. His best day, he said, was the day his father died because by the end of the day he felt a new purpose and direction in his life, as painful as the death of his father had been.

I always favored Kirby’s approach, which is why I view 2008 as a pivotal, important year for me despite its share of disappointments and negative experiences. For it was this year that I made the decision to stop studying Chinese and to begin working for my present employer. My decision resulted not from careful, months-long deliberation but rather from being presented with a great opportunity and seizing it.

I could not have gotten my job, though, without the practical experience of writing this blog. In addition to being an outlet for my thoughts and opinions, keeping this site has honed my writing skills, introduced me to new friends, and given me opportunities in the writing field that I would not have gotten otherwise.

I’d like to conclude this post by thanking you, my readers, for stopping by my little corner of cyberspace this year. In particular, I’d like to thank my commenters for their intelligent and interesting contributions. While I may not always agree with what you say, I’ve learned a lot from you, and I’m proud that 90% of my comments have been constructive and intelligent.

I’ve put off making cosmetic improvements to the site for long enough, so in 2009 this is on the agenda. Unfortunately, my technological idiocy means I’ll have to have someone lend me a hand, but ultimately the site will be more attractive. The crux of the writing won’t change, though…it’ll still be my mix of personal observation and news analysis of China.

Finally, let me just wish all of you a very happy new year and if you’re of the persuasion, drink a lot of water before you go to bed tonight so you won’t get a raging New Years Day hangover. …

Back Live

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

Apologies for going dark (or, as a friend pointed out, white) for about 24 hours. I made a technical mistake while trying to upgrade to the latest version of WordPress and inadvertently killed the blog, or thought I did. Fortunately my server host and friend was able to fix things up in no time. Amen.

Regular posts to resume …

Hong Kong at Night

Posted on December 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Photography. No Comments

Hong Kong must be one of the weirder major cities in the world. I think it might actually be possible to traverse all of Hong Kong Island, for example, without ever setting foot outside. Every single square inch of the island and Kowloon is devoted to commercialism. There are beautiful parts of the city, and no one can deny the spectacular skyline- possibly the best in the world.…

Smoked Out

Posted on December 26th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture, Current Events. No Comments

So I guess those non-smoking signs on the Beijing-Tianjin high speed trains are more than just decoration:

A man was given three days in detention for breaking a non-smoking rule on a new high-speed rail line, Chinese state media said, an unusually severe punishment in a country where smoking bans are routinely ignored.

He was caught smoking in the toilet just after the train had left Tianjin for Beijing, triggering an alarm and causing the train to stop, the official Xinhua news agency said on its website (www.xinhuanet.com).

The high-tech line connects the capital with neighboring Tianjinin. It opened in time for this year’s Beijing Olympics and features carriages more luxurious than usual in China, including swivel chairs and spacious, plush interiors.

No-smoking signs and rules are generally given short shrift in China and about half of all Chinese men smoke.

“It is strictly forbidden to smoke on the Beijing-Tianjin Express, and they hope everyone respects the rules, travels in a civilized manner and ensures the train’s safety and punctuality,” Xinhua said.

What I find so funny about this is that the Beijing-Tianjin journey takes less than a half-hour. It’s one thing to be caught smoking on a ten-hour journey, but surely the poor guy couldn’t wait a half-hour? …

Scary Bombing in Kunming

Posted on December 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. 2 comments

As some of you know, a small bomb detonated inside Salvadors’ Coffee House in Kunming on Wednesday, fatally injuring one man. No one else was seriously injured, as the bomb exploded at 10:30am when there were few customers inside. The police have come but thus far a clear explanation of what happened has not emerged.

The injured man was taken to the hospital where he took responsibility both for the Salvadors bomb and the bus attacks that rocked the city in July. Evidently, he had 8,500 RMB in cash on his person and a piece of paper with nine red fingerprints scattered across it, suggesting that others may be involved.

Hopefully more details will emerge later; at the moment, the foreign community remains shaken. Salvadors is an institution here; it was one of the first–if not the first– wholly foreign-owned food enterprise in Yunnan, and a successful, popular joint for both foreign and Chinese patrons. At lunchtime and in evenings the place is normally quite crowded, as a group of regulars sit outside on sunny days and drink coffee, tea, and beer.

I frequently go to Salvadors; in fact, for about six months I taught three of the waitresses English in exchange for unlimited food and non-alcoholic drinks. The four owners- three Americans and one Japanese- are friends of mine. Even today, with both my residence and work a fair distance away, I make time to go to Salvadors at least twice a week. I always know there will be a friend there to talk to.

Yet what makes this bombing so unnerving is the high probability that foreigners are being targeted. We’re a soft target here, as most of us do not blend in with a crowd of Chinese people. Foreigners tend to cluster together and frequent the same locations, usually bars, cafes, and restaurants. Salvadors sits at the corner of two roads that constitute the heart of the foreigner neighborhood, near Yunnan University and Green Lake.

An additional hangout just four or five doors down from Salvadors is The Box, an Italian-owned pub/restaurant that specializes in pizza and gelato. Like Salvadors, The Box is popular among foreigners and has a dedicated crowd of regulars, me included. Last week, three Chinese men armed with crowbars entered the bar and smashed a table where several people were sitting. They then threatened to strike the Italian woman on duty at the time. The police were called but didn’t apprehend the men; in fact, they were light-hearted and laughing. When my friend asked one of the policemen for his badge number, he was told to shut up and be careful- he didn’t have his passport on his person and could be arrested.*

The next day the men came back and apologized, explaining that a foreigner had been rude to them and they wanted retaliation. They were extremely drunk at the time and regretted it. The policemen failed to show up, though apparently one did write up the incident and cited the men; they will likely be punished for it.

Has Kunming, or China, become unsafe for foreigners? Is there a movement against us, borne out of resentment at our high salaries, our loutish behavior, or our intermingling with the locals?

I’ve never felt unsafe in China; in fact, I’ve always felt it’s one of the safest countries in the world for a foreigner to live in. Most of the young women I know can walk home at night alone and not feel threatened. Most of the Chinese I’ve met are friendly, open, and eager to meet us.

What is to be done? Most prudent people would suggest that we avoid certain places or large gatherings. But that would be giving in. Terrorism is only effective if people become frightened and alter their life patterns. The odds of being killed in an act of organized violence remains very small.

Salvadors will be closed for awhile; a month, I’ve heard. When it re-opens I’m sure some people will be wary. Not me, though- I’ll be back for my coffee and burritos in no time.

In any event- Chris is covering this story carefully. Keep an eye on GoKunming.

UPDATE: I have just read a long note from Colin, one of the four owners of Salvadors and the one who was present at the cafe when the bombing occurred. Apparently, DNA from Salvadors matched DNA from the July bus bombing, suggesting that the bomber’s confession may be legitimate. In addition, the man had a criminal record and served nine years in prison for assault. Frighteningly, the police believe the 10:30 detonation was an accident and that the bomb had intended to go off during the evening, when there would have been more people. That nobody but the bomber was injured is indeed a miracle. …

China Blog Additions

Posted on December 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Useful Links. No Comments

A few new- or new to me- China blogs for you to feast on, though only one of them is in traditional blog format. Drumroll please…

1. Chinasmack- what Chinese 姑娘 and 伙子 are saying on the internet- a useful summary of the more interesting trends on the Chinese interwang, translated into English.

2. Sexy Beijing- a video podcast series, Sexy Beijing concerns the adventures of one Anna Sophie Loewenberg, a Jewish-American princess who roams the streets of the nation’s capital talking to locals about sex, love, marriage, and life.

3. Opposite End of China- The China you hear about most is the coastal part of factories, mega-cities, and urban blight. Thousands of miles away lies Xinjiang, an “autonomous region” larger than Western Europe. Not a whole lot is known about Xinjiang, few Westerners live there, and fewer still blog. So that’s what makes Opposite End of China unique and interesting. Plus, author Michael Manning recently ran afoul of a Chinese ultra-nationalist dude. Funny stuff! His whole blog is worth bookmarking.…

Iraq These Days

Posted on December 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

I was going to write something funny and snarky about the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at our fair President Bush last weekend, but felt like there was nothing to add. But that- and today’s news that 34 members of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior were arrested for possibly trying to resurrect the Baath Party- makes it seem that the going is getting weird out in Mesopotamia. …

Obama- The Birth of Cool

Posted on December 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments


Barack Obama, aged 18. Still hard to believe this is the president-elect of the US…


Posted on December 11th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Useful Links. No Comments

Two interesting articles on China from the American media:

1. From the Washington Post, the Chinese government has arrested a dissident for signing a petition calling for political reform.

2. From the New York Times, Chinese exports are down, signaling worry.

The two events might seem unrelated; after all, one is a purely political story while the other is economic. Yet in China, the health and viability of the Chinese Communist Party largely depends on the health and viability of the economy. Something to remember.…

Kunming to Taipei Direct Flight

Posted on December 10th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Current Events, History. 3 comments

GoKunming reports today that China Eastern has launched a weekly flight between Kunming and Taipei, capital of Taiwan. As Chris notes in the post, this news would have been absolutely unthinkable only a few years ago. In fact, when I moved to China the big Taiwan Strait news was China’s enactment of an “anti-secessionist” law, which plainly stated that any Taiwanese move toward independence would provoke a military response from the mainland.

So how did relations between the two improve?

The biggest reason is Taiwanese politics. The island, unlike the mainland, is a democracy and has two main parties- the Kuomintang (国民党), and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This year, the Kuomintang won Taiwan’s presidential election after several years of DNC rule. Generally, the Kuomintang is the pro-reunification* party while the DPP is the pro-independence party. Naturally, cross-Strait relations have improved since the March elections.

But wait. Didn’t the Kuomintang once fight a war against the Chinese Communist Party? How could the two have warm relations today?

In fact, the Kuomintang was the party of Chiang Kai-Shek, the former ruler of nationalist China and enemy of the Communist Mao Zedong. When Mao defeated Chiang in the Chinese civil war, the latter fled to Taiwan and established the “Republic of China” there with the stated intention of re-taking the mainland.

Obviously, that never happened.

What did happen in Taiwan, though, was eventual democratic reforms. Chiang governed as dictator until his death in 1976 (same year that Mao died, incidentally), at which point his son took over. Reforms started about a decade later, and the island held its first democratic elections in 1996, with the Kuomintang taking power. Talk of “taking over the mainland” slowly faded.

But that doesn’t answer the question of how the Kuomintang emerged as the pro-reunification party in Taiwan. Before Chiang ever arrived (carrying much of the Chinese treasury and cultural relics with him), there were already a lot of Chinese people living on the island. These people were, by and large, descendants of Chinese people who had immigrated to Taiwan over the previous three centuries. They weren’t altogether happy that the Chinese who had just arrived suddenly took power. In Taiwan’s sixty-year incarnation as the Republic of China, thus, there has existed a rivalry between the Johnny-come-lately and the we-were-here-first factions.

By and large, the Kuomintang represent the former group, and the opposition parties the latter. The Taiwanese whose ancestors had been on the island for centuries tend to favor reunification less than the Taiwanese whose parents and grandparents were born on the mainland.

So with the pro-reunification crowd in power, increased transport and trade links come as little surprise. Should the Democratic Nationalists win the next elections, though, expect some of these gains to be reversed. Which means that those of us who would like to visit Taiwan without much transit hassle should act quickly. Anyone have 11,000 RMB to spare for the return ticket?

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as the Democratic National Party (DNC). Apologies for the error, and thanks to Pfeffer in the comments.

*By “pro-reunification”, I should probably clarify that the Kuomintang do not favor immediate reunification, but rather eventual reunification. At the moment the party is happy to preserve the status-quo.…