Sunday, February 19, 2006

Hail The Mighty Han

After all said & done, three words that most characterize Western society are fun, comfort, and convenience & I wanted to return to this world. If I were to choose three words that characterize Chinese society, they would be diligence, control and conformity. While I had not finished this trip a Sinophobe, I definitely did not want to be part of a world in which un-stinting hard work and adherence to social norms were values prized above all others. As the plane lifted off the Shanghai Pudong tarmac, I was filled with a sense of foreboding about what the 21st century, China's century, had in store, and how I was unlikely to fit into any of it even if I wanted to. In the thoughts of my China comrades, I’ve been "culturally corrupted” after being abroad for so long.

It is tempting to believe in the permanence of Western cultural dominance in the world, that history is an evolutionary process and that the western concepts of liberalism and freedom have defeated all others, and are now set in stone, immutable and victorious. But this is not the case. In historical terms, the last 200 years of Western dominance is merely a historical blip. For most of the history of civilization, it has been China who led the way. The centralized state, gunpowder and printing, among many others, are Chinese inventions. And now the controversial question that has every historian in the West shaking in their booties; China’s pre-Columbus discovery of The Americas!

The return of China to global dominance, or Asian hegemony at the very least, is just a matter of time. Napoleon was ‘right on’ when he pointed towards China & said “let the Chinese dragon sleep…for she will shake the world when she awakes”. In spike of my countrymen’s inward thinking on cultural purity & their refusal to accept me as one of their sons, I still am & will continue to be proud of that heritage where I’ve hailed from.

All hail the Mighty Han.

Shanghai Gah Gah!

Shanghai seemed like living in any other cosmopolitan city like New York or Paris, however with more added accoutrements. I could definitely see myself living here for a while. Entering hotels & restaurants, you floated quietly, surrounded by a host of service – a different person each to open your taxi door, the doors to the hotel, several foyer greetings and the direction to the elevators, the elevator doors and the elevator button even, several more greetings arriving at the lobby etc. In short, if you wanted anonymity and the ability to do anything yourself, Shanghai’s not the place to be.

Unfortunately the nightlife/club scene in Shanghai seemed strictly for the weekends, so as I was in Shanghai only 1 weeknight & disappointedly so, I didn't get to see too many places filled up with people. However, what I did see was very promising and revealed a city as close to being hip as one would think of New York and Paris: a host of modern minimalist restaurants and cafes with the latest cuisine, and all the most fashionable boutiques from Paris, Milan and New York.

One warning about Shanghai: if you’re some sort of Rice King with an Asian fetish, Shanghai could be dangerous for you. Almost everywhere you look, Shanghai has much more than her fair share of beautiful, lanky, long legged, willowy Chinese babes leaning by the Bund…with the wind ever so lightly tossing back her long black silky tresses as she smiles for no other reason than just to annoy you…So all you McDudes stay clear…I’m staking claims here for the brothers!

Impermanent Life

Shanghai, although seemingly similar in the basic underpinnings of Chinese society, was the extreme opposite of Xian. Beijing showed me China’s Modern civilization where as Xian showed me her Ancient one. Beijing felt so permanent, so controlled, and as deterministically drawn out as her rigid avenues (as an extension of a several-thousand year dynastic tradition would warrant). But to know China’s post-modern contemporary civilization, you really need to experience Shanghai. Shanghai seems to be so much more about the impermanence of life, and thus the need to live life for all it is worth before it ends suddenly – almost more close to a sense of living each day as if it were your last.

Shanghai was so much more a post-modern, contemporary, Western-styled city, and so much more capitalistic even as I was driving in from the airport. There were so many more high-rises, fewer bikes and more luxury cars, a sea of neon as well as a host of popular commercial "consumerism", and a skyline of construction cranes and a perma-haze of gritty construction dust and debris (as opposed to the outright exhaust pollution and the ultra-dry air in Beijing & Xian).

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Farewell Xian

There were tombs aplenty left to visit, and temples galore, or perhaps just more replicas. But as I write this journal, I can barely remember what they were. The month is coming to an end & William has more or less finished the two repertoires he came to learn. What he might not remember completely, I have the digital evidence to jar his memory.

My cold was getting worse as The Yangtze Rivers of phlegm were flooding my sinuses into The Great Gorges. The dry and dusty air continues to make my skin itch, and those truly awful Chinese cigarettes and even the fake western ones were making me cough like a Canuck Moose. When I read the health warning 'Smiking dimages your hill' on my replica Marlboros, I knew it was time to quit & move on, believing for no sane reason, that I'd feel better in Shanghai. I felt like a shark, which like all fish, must keep moving to breath.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Risky Monkey Business

Terracotta Warrior awaits me for over 2000 years. We arrived fairly early, but there was already a queue the length of the Great Wall, snaking around the square like a giant python, and controlled with difficulty by guards armed with those omnipresent electronic megaphones at 10-metre intervals, using them like whips to stop the queue from disintegrating into a heaving mob.

As I was about to join the queue, Mister Adidas points out to me that no one is allowed to bring in video cameras. I guess Emperor Qin had a phobia about them in case I was to divulge his secret whereabouts to the peasant rebels or something. On top of the X-ray machine at the head of the queue reads ‘In the spirit of fang bien, your bags must be checked in at the building off the square’. How annoying is that! I wasn’t gonna come all the way out here & leave without a single frame…this monkey’s gonna come up with a scam…think hard monkey…

The warrior site looked like a typical Chinese tourist attraction. The long street leading up to the entrance was filled with souvenir shops and food concessions. You could buy any imaginable junket available from any diaspora Chinatown, as well as Mao kitschs like watches with him happily waving his arm to count off the seconds. Of course, there were 1001 replicas of the stone warriors, from inch-high miniatures to life-size statues.

The entrance fee was 65 RMB, roughly 10 bucks Canadian Tire Money, & this monkey didn’t get busted for sneaking in his video camera. No complicated ‘Mission Impossible’ scams or anything…I simply left my camera bag behind with Mister Adidas who stayed outside the gate while I glided pass security & scoped out the joint, then I went back to the fence about 20 feet away from the main security & waited for the trained monkeys to get distracted by the fresh busload of suckers…ahhh…I meant tour groups checking in. At which point I waved Mister Adidas over & had him toss my camera bag over the fence. Voila!

2000 years ago, the price for that would have been live burial or decapitation for me, if I was lucky, and in the fine Peking Opera tradition, prostitution for William with some powerful warlord. But since The 'Son of Heaven' no longer exists, I was safe from the chopping block & William didn’t have to put out! However I did fear for my life as surging troops of Chinese tour groups in different colour baseball caps waddled around threatening to squash me as they collided.

Each group was led by tour guide leaders waving small rectangular flags, armed with those tiny quacking electronic megaphones, leading their pack around the square, like mother goose leading her flock in a V-formation. Near the centre of the square, things got too crowded for a classic V-formation, and the tour groups took on the air of penguins; huddled into each other for protection against the fierce Mongolian wind, all looking in this Antarctica of Terracotta soldiers for somewhere to lay their eggs before Winter set in and the snow started to fall.

After that onslaught, I struggled my way through the tour groups dodging every hustler who wanted to be my personal tour guide for the price of my “Nan Dan Diva in their bed chambers” & entered the three cavernous Russian-style block buildings that held the warriors. It was quite a letdown to say the least.

Each building overlooked a pit that had lines of the soldiers in it. The soldiers looked identical to the lines of replicas in the storefronts I'd just hustled by... but put in a little more scenic setting of a "genuine" archaeological dig. Not quite the Eighth Wonder of the World, as they were touting it. But the 360-degree, 10 projector films were very impressive, showing Xian in 360-degree view & the history of the site. It gave me some ideas for future site-specific film projects.

First Broadcast Deal

Looks like we're on the Zheng He Trail & he's watching over us from his Star Raft in the sky!

I just got word from my producer Cheuk Kwan, that our diaspora series "Chinese Restaurants" scored it's first broadcast deal from Singapore TV; 2 years 6 runs, PAL English version exclusive in Singapore & non-exclusive Asian satelite with a footprint of 21 countries including Hong Kong, China & Japan.

We're now waiting on an Australian deal...will know soon. Hot diggadee dog! If you haven't yet, Go check out our site:

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Pear Garden Or Replica?

It's Valentine's Day & I didn't even get any fake or replica Valentines today. Plastic flowers are popular items but then product counterfeiting is an epidemic here. So plastic flowers must be someone's idea of fake Valentines.

I've always felt cheated by replicas, but the Chinese don't seem to mind at all. I've noticed this about the Chinese here - they seem to be indifferent towards a replica and the real thing. China is littered with parks where you can see replicas of everything. In the boarder city of Shenzhen, just the other side of my home town, Kowloon, there's a park with replicas of famous structures including the Eiffel Tower, and other famous foreign buildings like the Louvre, Buckingham Palace etc.

Foot massage girl #56 told me the other night, without a trace of irony or sarcasm, that it's more convenient that way, as you can see all the places at once without having to travel around too much, and you only have to pay one entrance fee. As if to prove their point, near the tomb of Emperor Qin, there was even a replica of a pyramid and a sphinx, so you don't have to bother going to Egypt! Is that cool or what! Fang bien strikes again!

Not that I was dieing (no pun intended) to see anything as morbid as Qin’s real tomb. But the nearest you can get to the real tomb is to stand on the hill which it was dug into. From the top of the hill, upon the mausoleum's completion, you could once see all 25 kilometers of the great emperor's magnificent mausoleum complex; an eternal necropolis, walled in and an eternal reminder of his greatness.

I did however wanted to see the site of the original Tang Dynasty Pear Garden, the birthplace of Chinese Opera since I was here to shoot a doc about a Peking Opera journey after all. But no one seemed to know of its exact location or care, including our Peking Opera Aficionado, Master Sun. Just to appease my annoying ‘foreigner’s curiosity’, on route to the Terracotta site along a dusty country road to the northern outskirts of town, Mister Adidas shouted out ‘Camera ! Kwoi ! Camera !’ as he hazardously pointed towards what was just a small dirty factory with some neighboring pig-farming peasants. I wasn’t sure if I was disappointed by the absence of a replica or that this piece of obscure history has totally vanished without a trace. Obscure history has little chance of survival here.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Treasured Legacy

William & I wanted to connect with her in December. But our short & hectic stay in Beijing regrettably did not work out. I’m so glad that I was fortunate enough to have met her last summer in Canada when she was able to travel and celebrate her 90th birthday as well as her legacy to Chinese dance with three generations of dancers from Canada, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

I always get this unexplainable melancholic sadness when I have to say goodbye to my aunties & uncles in China. It always feels like I might not get to see them again…aunties who I’ve only spent short fleeting moments with…but those short fleeting moments become a treasured lifetime.

We have lost a great patron and friend of the World Arts community. Madame Dai Ai Lian, celebrated dance artist and teacher, pioneer and founder of dance art in modern China, passed away peacefully in her sleep at 17:34 on February 9th, 2006 at the age of 90
in Beijing.

If you are in the vicinities of Beijing this Friday the 17th, there will be a farewell ceremony for Madame Dai at 10 am in the No. 1 Farewell Room of Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery.

The rest of us outside of Beijing will remember her in solidarity.

Under Your Qin

I came to Xian mainly to follow & film William’s Peking Opera journey. But like everyone else, I was compelled to make my way out to see those silly Terra Cotta warrior statues. You know, those life-size replicas built by Emperor Qin to protect him in the afterlife, in place of burying real soldiers alive, standard practice at the time. The soldiers were lucky - his many concubines, servants and all but one of his 22 children did receive the honour of being buried with him, whether they wanted to be or not. Emperor Qin was the first emperor to rule a united China, but also a bit of a paranoid megalomaniac tyrant. It seems that paranoid megalomaniacs always do well, historically speaking. The Bush Dynasty in America is a prime example.

After uniting China, Qin set about making sure the whole bloody continent of a country was kept busy glorifying his magnificence, and built the greatest mausoleum the world would ever see. The terra-cotta warriors were only one small part of the 25-kilometer complex that was to ensure his greatness was never forgotten. The workmen involved in building the most sensitive part of the complex, the emperor's tomb, were buried alive in it immediately after it was finished just to ensure no one would know of its secret whereabouts. Talk about a bum rap eh! You spend 25 years - your whole life - slaving away underground on some loony's tomb, and then as soon as you finish, they bury you alive in it. I guess those poor slobs had pretty weak unions. That’s why I gave up my IASTE card…lol.

The irony is that only a year after his death, peasant uprisings destroyed the emperor's vast monument to himself, looting what they could, demolishing what they couldn't and burning the rest. Even the Terra Cotta warriors had their metal weapons stolen and were smashed to pieces. The warriors you see today were apparently put back together again by teams of archaeologists, who are so patient and skilled, they could probably reconstruct Humpty Dumpty plus the wall.

The Chinese can be a very destructive lot when they set their mind to it. They can build on a massive scale, unthinkable by other cultures, but they can also tear it all down again at frightening speed. I know it's a crass generalization, and not my first, but since so little of China's long history is still standing I can't help but make the assertion. Often when it is standing, you’ll find it's just a replica of something that was destroyed earlier, often several times over, and always for no apparent reason. The Cultural Revolution and the vandalism of the Red Guards were just a more recent, and comparatively mild, example of China's periodic lapses into a destructive insanity.

Fortunately, for the emperor, the peasants couldn't find the entrance shaft to his tomb. It was hidden in a mountain, so they never laid their hands on his most valuable loot. There is a replica of the tomb, which modern archaeologists have seen, and it apparently makes Mao’s Mausoleum look like a pauper's grave, but I suppose Mao would be glad to hear that.

Qin’s coffin is in the centre of the enormous circular vault-like tomb, and the coffins of his favourite concubines were buried into walls around him. Those lucky beauties were allowed to swallow poison rather than being buried alive. Bloody favouritism, eh? There are jewels everywhere and more gold than the Aztecs or Egyptians could shake a stick at. There were apparently also rivers of toxic lead and mercury, part of Qin’s deadly booby-traps to protect his loot, which is why tour groups can't see the original, or that's what they told us.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Goat's Head Soup

The largest Mosque in all of China, the Great Mosque, is located here. It is Muslim by faith. But with its ornate, eave rooftops, spacious courtyards and stony arches, the architecture is straight Chinese. I’m fascinated by how the Muslims here have co-existed with the Chinese to the point of being absorbed by our culture & yet kept their religion intact & in peace whereas in places like Indonesia, a similar cultural mix have resulted never ending, unresolved race riots. The Great Mosque was probably one of the most authentic untampered sites I’ve visited on this tour. It is pure Tang Dynasty!

I climbed atop a pile of rubbish, peered down a narrow lane with my camera & caught some handsome Muslim boys in starched white skullcaps stirring bubbling cauldrons with floating goats’ heads. Now I know where Mick Jagger got his idea for his Goat’s Head Soup album. The boys shouted at me in Urdu. It was probably something along the lines of “outta my F-ing face with that camera, dude!”. But I couldn’t make anything out other than their breaths in tiny puffs of steam accented by the harsh back light from an overhead street lantern. An elderly man waves his fist at a pack of beautifully sullen adolescent girls walking along holding hands. The festive mood rolled back nostalgic childhood memories of late night flower markets during Lunar New Year in Sham Shui Po, my old hood back home in Kowloon.

The tall bottles of cheap Chinese beer sold in street stalls became rare since the Muslims bypass on alcohol here. But Xian's redeeming quality for me was the food. We happily ate our way through Culture Street and the Muslim Quarters for cheap, stopping every half a block or so to sample yet another delicious and unknown treat from a street vendor. We tried tons of meat skewers, various deep-fried dumpling things, and endless exotic unknown sweets.

Twilight In Muslim Quarter

Xian's 70,000 plus Muslims live beyond a dark tunnel just north of Master Sun on the other side of the Ancient City Wall. Like the Peking Opera Costume Hutong in Beijing, The Muslim Quarter is another filthy but beautiful place that sits on the verge of extinction. The bright lights perched on the sparse branches punctuate the darkness like tiny pin pricks of neon. In the late twilight hours when few patrons are around, the undiffused, raw lights elongate the shadows of passers-by. People come here to stroll around & soak up the exotic atmosphere at night. The narrow pathways are unfit to host vehicular traffic; yet annoying automobiles still honk and flash their lights into the dense crowd forcing their way through.

The streets are labyrinthine with symbols of Arabian imperialism appearing sporadically. Women are veiled & swirling Arabic script (God is Great) appears everywhere on storefront marquis. The faces of the people here are rounder, paler, and more Caucasian looking with blue & green eyes. They’re the descendents of Persian merchants who came eastward along the Silk Road & settled down here with babes of the Han Empire. The women are spectacular...jumping right off the pages from Arabian Nights. Boutiques sell appropriate clothing for the believers.

We being believers & all had custom tailored traditional suites made for approximately $30 Canadian. A price tag unheard of in Beijing, & most likely laughable in Shanghai. I wasn’t sure if it was operatic training frustration or just regular shopping frenzy, but William played Santa Claus & had 6 Cheongsams made. He probably made the tailor’s year! Merry Christmas…ka-ching $$$$ !

Xmas Twilight Zone

Back in Xian, we get into a somewhat regular routine. Nasty instant coffee & pastry early in the morning before vocal class at 9am to noon. Lunch at our favorite dumpling house. Errands, rest or practices for William till 3pm & we’re back for movement workshop. It’s usually dark by the time we get out & we stroll back leisurely to our hotel along the busy night market. We stumbled upon a really great foot massage place where you get an hour treatment for the price of a Latte at the airport. Since we couldn't find any decent Latte in Xian, that became our favorite pastime for most evenings. It was'nt a bad trade off.

We were strolling along the busy night market after class 1 night. The night being Silent Night…well hardly. It was Christmas Eve & giddiish girls wearing cheesy tiaras with blinking LEDs mob the streets. I had already anticipated that spending Christmas in Xian or China would be very different or even strange. Normally, back in Toronto, the streets are empty & silent (thus Silent Night) as everyone huddles at home to be with family. But here, it felt more like a cross between New Years Eve & Mardi-Gras with everyone out wearing festive costumes, many in bright red Santa Claus toots.

This shouldn’t come as a shock to me as shops have been piped with bad Christmas caroling & displaying banners advertising deals ever since we got here. But I do find Christmas strangely way more a commercialize frenzy here in this supposedly Communist State than I care for compare to the Capitalist West as I gazed at the twenty-some feet high plastic Christmas tree in aw.

Finally, we found every restaurant fully booked & dinner started to look grim as we got turned away by every Santa Maitre D’ in this Christmas Twilight Zone. In the absence of turkey dinner, we found our way back to our regular evening hangout & celebrated Christmas with our favorite foot masseuses #51 & #56. Well I have to admit; it was the most unlikely place I’d ever imagined ending up on Silent Night. But I’m sure Santa Claus wouldn’t have complained.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Good Nite Beijing !

The whole stay in Beijing evolved around the silly CCTV show & none of William’s grandiose plans of hooking up with other teachers evolved. You would never guess that we were in a Communist country because we seem to be constantly evolving everything around someone else’s self absorb plans instead of what we came here to do. Everyone was looking out for number one. What ever happen to Socialism? I guess it was always too idealistic to last.

This was really frustrating for me as I found “Last Dance” being constantly shuffled to a place of very low priority. Although I always placed William’s training first above all, “Last Dance” was next in line of priority for me.

While in Beijing, we did score some free tickets to The Grand Chang An theatre. We caught some amazing Peking Opera acts & I got some really cool footage backstage. Only 40 years ago, we would have ended up with bad haircuts & sent off to clean latrines in the countryside for such bourgeois decadence. That’s what happened to many of William’s teachers! So I guess you’ve come a long way babe!

It’s been a week back in Beijing & we’ve blown 2 thirds of the month away already. We’ve got ten days left to pack what we had originally planned for thirty days. We decided to cancel our plans for Nanjing in order to have enough time for the repertoires William originally came to learn.Now that William has scratch Master Sun’s back by contributing to her on air PR machine, she has to follow thru & make good on promises of opera workshops with her undivided attention. If there were rules in the Guanxi game, that one should be carved in stone.

Cultural Divides

It has been common knowledge as well as a long history of cultural divide between the North & South similar to the cultural divides & prejudices between say Northern Italy near the Swiss Alps & the Sicilian regions. The prejudice being that the Northern & Wu areas (Lower Yangtze & Shanghai regions) claims to represent the ‘refined’, ’traditional’, ’pure’, & ‘authentic’ aspects of Chinese culture while snubbing Cantonese & other Southern cultures as a reflection of the ‘vulgar’, ‘modern’, ‘hybrid’, & ‘debased’ aspects.

It is not surprising that these similar cultural snobberies have found their way into the Peking Opera arena & into the critical discourses on Chinese Opera. Most Peking Opera Aficionados I’ve met so far tends to be purists with inward thinking that have been the popular trend as well as downfalls through out our dynasties. Master Soong for example when watching the Opera Channel will only watch Peking Opera, as everything else such as Cantonese or even Shanghainese Opera are consider second rate.

The Opera Channel programming is an obvious statement. Northern & Wu region theatrical genres are valued as the expressions of the Elite & are always broadcast prime time. As such, Jing Ju have grown to be representative of the ‘official’ traditional culture by even playing down their own local features & hybrid characters. This has come at the expenses of the dieing popularities of other local genres & cultures to the point of there’ll only be 1 national theatre being supported & based out of Beijing in the near future.

While the Mandarin dialect or ‘Guo Yu’, which smugly translates as ‘The National Language’, is perceived as refined, and central to Chinese culture. Cantonese & the local culture behind Cantonese opera are seen as vernacular & peripheral expressions of a low class group. I wonder how much of this reinforces or correlates to the cultural divide & my personal frustration with the status hierarchy of linguistic expression.

Yet they worship Hong Kong pop culture & Cantonese cuisine seems to be the most popular amongst the Elites. I’ve seen more Andy Lau & Karen Mok billboards here than in Hong Kong. More than ½ the films shown on the over night train were Andy Lau’s…there was a guy selling a Beijing Tabloid on the subway train today shouting ‘2 RMB…Andy Lau is dead!’. And the whole cast of entertainers scheduled for the New Years Eve count down in Shanghai are being flown in from Hong Kong. But this Honkie expiate is not considered Chinese!

The influences of the diaspora have inspired more open negotiations between the debt to the past & the desire to adapt to cultural & societal transformations. The spirit of such innovation have apparently led to unique experiments in Peking & Cantonese opera fusions as early as ’63 in New York City.

However, I really am talking through my nether regions of the armchair historian. So I’ll shut up with my academic bitching here & get back on track with the journey.

Miserable Americans

Imitating American culture seems to have become invariably chic, yet most Chinese don't really think the Americans are that smart. They might however brag about the Middle Kingdom’s return to her rightful place as the world’s number one nation, yet given a chance, they would still jump ship & go to America. The truth is, they have problems liking Americans politically but are obsessed with emulating their material values. They appear to be more complex than they really are. But for the most part, their contradicting dilemma tells me they’re more or less disillusioned & resembled many miserable Americans without even trying.

This presents an interesting dichotomy among the expiates. As we watch the English language channel, William & I notice there were a host of people who we could have known from university who might have been in East Asian and Chinese studies. Some interesting and cultured, some not. Some I might even dare to say are here because they couldn't cut it back in the West, and upon somehow ending up on this side of the world, aided by a sense of privilege as only a Western income in a non-Western economic country could offer, stayed.

These Sinophiles are plastered everywhere. On billboards, television, even on sides of buses. In the West, they’d be nobodies. But here, they’re privileged with celebrity status. As for me, a descendent of the dragon, am still considered a foreigner even though I speak Cantonese. The general consensus is ‘you’re not Chinese unless you speak Putonghua’. How irritating is that!

Kuomingtangs Revisited

There seems to be much more of a class based societal structure than I remember from my last visit or maybe the gap has just gotten more obvious or worst than what I was prepared for over the last 8 years.

Impeccable-white gloved service was quite a juxtaposition to the disheveled, dirty, and weather-beaten coolies who were pushing handcarts laden with everything from refuse to other people. If this was Communism, what were things like before Communism arrived? In a more class-based society, what rationale would stop some from acting on their envious thoughts of not having what others, whom they saw every day, did enjoy? And was this not just a rotation of power-elites, albeit after a certain more widely based redistribution of property?

While I perceive China as a tightly controlled society, I was also struck by the seeming fact that even this government could not control everyone. Not every business deal and not every hustler could be tracked by a central government. So over 10-20 years after the Cultural Revolution, these first business dealers, and next the progeny of those in governmental control, are benefiting and accumulating enormous wealth.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Beijing Rat Race

Ultimately Beijing is just way too over spread & inconvenient & China just has way too many people. The overpopulation makes the current populace struggle for whatever breathing room they can get, making them sometimes unpleasant to interact with. The Beijing transit system could quite appropriately be whisked away to one of Dante's circles of hell. It's extremely stuffy with people sweating inside their down fills packed in like sardines for long periods of time when the ring-roads are grid locked with traffic.

A seat might open up in front of me at miraculous moments. But while I argue with Master Sun that she should sit down, some young punk from halfway across has already barreled his way into it while starring at me like I was an alien from Outer Space. What ever happen to our traditional respect for the elders? Today’s China has become such a self absorb, youth driven culture. I guess if they're that desperate, they can have the damn seat.

Last Track To Beijing

After only 7 days of training, we find ourselves returning to Beijing this time by train. The train station was horrific with mob mentality that is the natural state of any crowd in China. This is what I imagine Xian to be like during the infamous Xian Incident when The Kuomingtangs evacuated. The overnight train was tiring. I couldn’t sleep & ended up abusing myself with badly dubbed Andy Lau flicks. I was exhausted & sleep deprived again by the time we arrived back in Beijing at the crack of dawn.

Walled City

The city wall was interesting, in a bleak sort of way. I let my imagination run wild as I imagined Ghengis Khan and his Mongolian hoards sweeping over the hills and attacking the wall, with loyal imperial troops doggedly defending each inch of it tooth and nail, to protect the motherland from the barbarians. In reality, however, it didn't happen like that. The wily Khan simply sent emissaries to different parts of the wall until he found some corrupt official he could bribe to let him over unmolested. "Any wall," he said, "is only as good as the men defending it."

Good point Ghengis! Walls don’t seem to be effective means of defense. The effort required to build, maintain and defend them greatly exceeds the force required to overcome them, and those behind the wall become complacent and inward looking. China herself became inward looking, and as the Qing royal court amused itself behind the walls of the Forbidden City, believing it had frozen time, the West progressed and moved through enlightenment and then an industrial revolution. Centuries of self-enforced isolation had left her unprepared for Western and Japanese aggression, and she is only now regaining her position as the world's number one nation.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Restoration Anathema

The Xian that stands today isn't that old. It appears more like a 50-year-old city rather than the ancient 2000 plus years old capital that it’s supposed to be. The City Wall was repeatedly damaged and rebuilt, or just destroyed by the emperor so he could refashion it in his image. Often it was burnt to the ground by powerful court eunuchs eager to get rich on kickbacks from awarding the reconstruction contracts. Sounds a lot like modern day Guanxi, doesn’t it?

The day we were leaving to go back to Beijing, William got food poisoning & excused himself for a relaxing treatment at the local bathhouse…Yeah…a likely story I’m sure…hehehe…so I was left to explore the old city wall on my own before the over night train departs in the evening.

Scaffolding was everywhere, there was so much renovation work going on that I wondered if they had decided to rebuild it from scratch again. I suppose they were just making it look newer, as the idea of old historic buildings actually looking old is anathema to the Chinese. Even renovating (as near as damn replacing it, as far as I could tell) an old building is unusual in China. Usually they just rip it down and stick a faceless office block in its place.

This is progress. Old=Bad; New=Good. If an alien was to do a whistle-stop tour of Chinese cities, he might be forgiven for thinking that the whole place hadn't existed until the fifties, that it had all sprung into existence out of nothing. In a society that boasts the longest uninterrupted history on the planet, I found this saddening.

Tourist Site Fatigue

As time passes, I figured out William either goes shopping or gets facials when he’s frustrated by his lost of control in the situation. Since he decided to go for a facial this morning, I was left to amuse myself @ The Shaanxi History Museum. I passed on the tourist rip off cassette tape rental for a self-guided tour (recorded by Roger Moore – apparently a big selling point here…they love Bond…unfortunately…the wrong Bond) even though they claimed it was really worthwhile as it explained a lot about the collections that would otherwise have remained a mystery.

I was glad to be exploring alone in a dull sort of way as I watch other foreign tourists being herded like cattle from place to place with their guide repeatedly reminding them to read the English translation at the side of each exhibit, which appeared to have been translated by a machine operated by an ill-educated monkey, while they mega phoned the tour group in an ecstatic frenzy directing fellow flocks of sheep around. But like so many other 'historical' sights in China, it is yet another new, tour-group friendly replica and frankly uninteresting.

The temples, the ornate Chinese roves, the stone lions guarding the entrance and the courtyards were beautiful, I suppose, but I've seen enough already that 'temple fatigue' was beginning to set in. I was itching to move ahead with the film I came to shoot that I wasn’t appreciating them as much as I should have.

You can't enter most of the temples anyways, but you can peer into their dark interiors from a railing at the front entrance. To win this prize, you really have to fight like a Xian war refugee during her many historical battles. Around each front door, a surging mass of Chinese tourists push, elbow and snarl at each other for prime position. They fight first to get to the door, and then they fight to stay there. I was carried on the wave of a tour group or two past some of the doors as I held my camera above the wave and wondered if my health insurance covered being trod underfoot.

Follow Me & Learn

We finally got to meet Master Sun & started the Operatic training after William reluctantly agreed to travel back to Beijing & go on air for CCTV. We checked out the show on air & discovered that it is essentially a prime time but dorky ‘sing along Chinese Opera show’ for the elitist Tai Tais to learn Chinese Opera at home, a kind of Opera Karaoke if you will. The name of the show translates as “Follow Me & Learn”, so you can just imagine. After a cuppla classes, I realized they were preparations for the big TV extravaganza & not the repertoires that William had come to learn. Ai-yor! The spirit of fang bien has struck again!

Hostage Negotiations

We were scheduled to meet Master Sun bright & early on our 1st morning. But she kept postponing it because of this & that. We’re now being told that she has to go to Beijing for a CCTV appearance & insisted William to go back with her. This was the beginning of our many ‘in the spirit of fang bien (convenience)’ situations in China. It appears that the Chinese interpretation of ‘fang bien’ means when it’s convenient for them but not necessarily for you, in a sneaky passive/aggressive way. If we had known this, we could have stayed in Beijing or made our travel plans accordingly.

A trek back to Beijing is not a simple hop, skip & jump along the Gardner to Mississauga. I’m dreading this but there weren’t any choices. It wasn’t like we can stay & party with the Terracotta soldiers till she gets back! I’ve bad feelings about this. I felt like we were being held hostage by some Karaoke Peking Opera cult. If I catch William shaving his head, smellin like incent, & chanting strange tunes in water sleeves at the train station over the next few days…we’re outta here!

Master Sun has a mama’s boy Wang who looks like some walking Adidas billboard. I can’t figure out if he’s a devoted Adidas stockholder or he just loves all things foreign especially American. William doesn’t trust him. I empathize but also feel compelled to count all my teeth to make sure they’re all still there when he leaves the room. Anyways, I coined him Mister Adidas. He appears to be her gatekeeper/manager. You can’t get to her without going through him. So while we waited patiently to meet her, we’re stuck with Mister Adidas as our tour guide, killing our time, shuffling us from one more boring replica tourist site to another.

Anywhere you find tourists, you were also bombarded by over-excited guides blabbering from annoying battery powered megaphones whose worldly care seems only to not let a moment's silence pass without any form of conscious thought. My only consolation was that these running commentaries were in Putonghua, which somehow made it more bearable because I couldn’t fully understand and when the batteries were wearing down on their megaphones, almost ignorable.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Each Drop Is Life

The weather really surprised me. I had been accustomed to the more damp, drizzle and mist that is characteristic of my ancestral home, Toishan in the South. But Xian was dry and dusty. Posters everywhere encouraged people to conserve water, proclaiming 'each drop means life'.

Instead of mist, one finds a slight haze. The sky here is cloudless, but not really blue - it's a kind of icky gray/blue I haven't seen before. Not even my trusty Polarizing filters were doing anything here. So it was really ugly for shooting. That's partly due to pollution, no doubt, but mainly due to the dusty yellow loess soil from northwest China being blown east by howling winds from Mongolia. The soil up there is yellow and powder like, and winter winds lift it from the ground and carry it all the way to Xian and Beijing.

The scale and intensity of soil erosion has apparently increased massively in this century. Recent rapid economic progress has brought things to a crisis point. Drought, over farming and de-forestation, combined with ever increasing demands for water from industry and the cities, are pushing northeast China toward the abyss. There’re speculations that the whole region, from Xian to Beijing, may soon become a desert if it isn’t already.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Vanishing History

Xian was seemingly remote driving in through the dodgy night. But in the following daylight, we realize that it was in reality a metropolis of seven million people. From its central Drum and Bell Tower Square, the city’s four main arteries (East, West, North and South Street), spread out into infinity, dividing her in a logical and coherent way.

The square itself is actually the rooftop of an ultra modern underground shopping mall. But above ground, it appears to be a pleasant enough grassy place, where kite flying aficionados ride the wind, or rather their kites 'ride the wind'. They themselves stay on the ground to flog their kites to unsuspecting tourists willing to throw money away for junkets that can be found in any diaspora Chinatown. The square contained the two typical Ming Dynasty towers; one museum of bells, and another a museum of drums. I couldn’t tell 1 apart from the other, but I’ll never forget the eyesore that is the Golden Arches of Big Mac precariously stuck right smack in between the two.

The rest of the city centre is all spanking new. The locals brag that it’s only about 2 years new. This is surprising when you consider that Xian was China's ancient capital for far longer than any other city, and much longer than the recent upstart, Beijing. Most of the dynasties rose and fell here in Xian, but judging by the downtown area, they left no trace. War, progress and indifference have erased Chinese history. The centre of modern Xian could be any American city with malls, banks, KFCs, McDonalds and traffic jams. There’s so much traffic around the downtown circle (reminiscent of Rome) that the only way for pedestrians to get across was to build these space age Jetson like underground passageways.

Xian's citizens looked prosperous and purposeful…in the downtown core anyways. This has become a world of business and careers, of mobile phones and factories. The rough and ready Tibetans of yesteryear seemed worlds away, much to the delight of both parties, I suspect. But if you look hard enough, you might still find them juxtaposition within a 15 to 20 minutes walk away still holding on to their dear turf from extinction.

Hi-jacked To Kekexili

We landed in Xian after dark only to find out that the airport was another hour & 1/2’s drive in from the boonies. Next thing you know, we were herded onto a military style transport bus crammed full of shady, disheveled characters in ill-fitting cotton padded overcoats. I was a bit disoriented to say the least…thinking I’ve just been abducted on mountain patrol somewhere up in Kekexili. I strained my sleep-deprived red eyes over the sea of bad haircuts & spotted little William dwarf in between two dirty and weather-beaten scar faces at the front end of the bus & was just as relieved with the absence of Tibetan antelopes or any other critters on board.

As the suspension less bus grind its way along the dilapidated roads, I nodded off intermittently but would awaken abruptly thinking I’ve been robbed blind & left by the road side stark naked only to catch glimpses of surreal frontier storefronts like those from old Kurosawa films passing through the fogged up windowpane. In relief, I settle back in for the long uncomfortable ride ahead while clutching on to my money belt & passport.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Master Headress Maker

On our last day in Beijing, we hit the old town where the Opera Costume shops are located. I’m finally getting into a groove here... At last, some visual theme to build upon. A direction to explore the “character” of this place. The space is jiving & things are starting to jam so much better for me…

The Peking Opera costume area is a filthy but beautiful place.
I spent hours shooting in the old tiny workshop while William got his repairs & orders in. I felt very privilege to be given access to this rich, yet endangered old world craftsmanship locked inside a time capsule in this vanishing historical Hutong.

But I was sadden by the imminent reality that it will be the last time I’ll see this place as it faces extinction with the forth coming progress which has already bulldozed away most of the neighboring shops. These historical Hutongs are eyesores as well as goldmine opportunities to Beijing developers. They are doing everything in their power to get rid of them before the Western world comes for the ’08 Olympics. This neighbourhood will soon be stunted over by yet more of Beijing’s gray, faceless tower blocks.

The old Master Headress Maker whose family has own the shop for generations took us out for a delicious Muslim lunch in the neighbourhood. He & his 2 sons were impress by my tolerance level for Bai Jui, their national drink, the Chinese moonshine that permeates everything everywhere you go in China.

We flew to Xian the following day. I started to get more excited about the film, looking forward to meet Master Sun & start shooting the training rituals. Most of all, I was glad to be leaving Beijing.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Peking Opera Blues

William & I arrived in Beijing on a bone chilling winters day. If I were to choose one word to describe the place, it would be 'gray'. Maybe it was just the time of year or maybe that's just the mood I was in. From the weather …to the buildings …to Tiananmen Square…everything was gray, or at least, that's how it all appeared to me. However, a whopping ten million folks including some friends do call Beijing home, so they would no doubt be pretty outraged by my one-word adjective. But I wasn’t gonna wax lyrical about a place that wasn’t doing anything for me.

The municipality of Beijing stretches over an area the size of Belgium. Belgium's a pretty small country, and fairly gray too, come to think of it. But having a city the size of a country is no small feat. It took forever to get from the airport to the centre passing through row after row of tower blocks, each one more faceless than the last. Beijing used to be a lot grimmer when I was here 8 years ago. The central government has been pouring every penny into sprucing it up for the forthcoming ‘08 Olympics. But baby, you've got a long way to go before I would describe you as beautiful, or even pleasant.

There were only 2 reasons to come to Beijing. It was the only direct flight from Toronto on route to Xian & a pit stop for William’s favourite Peking Opera costume shop. Other than that, the blistery cold front blowing in from Mongolia wasn’t doing much in ways of inspiring me to haul out my baby to shoot, especially not outdoors. Call me a Whoost. But it was even too freakin cold to stroll the streets like Kafka’s watch or some other useless thing while looking for late night internet-cafes in the evenings. In day light hours, I risked frostbite (or more appropriately, wind bite) to look for ambient shots... pretending to know how bburr… bbuuurrrr…beautifully the sun would fall while wishing that I could come close to Nestor Almendros’ poetic intuition & find some real rhythm & “music” to this documentary.

I guess I should mention that I’m not just some cynical, armchair, travel writer. I really do have a mission here. I’m really here to shoot ‘THE LAST FALSETTO’. It’s gonna be a really cool doc about the final leg of an artistic journey…of William Lau, Peking Opera Diva Extraordinaire, Canada’s one & only Nan Dan Performer. I’ll be following him around through his trials of anxietie, culture shock, unpredictable existence and uncertain future.