China Annals

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Last June, Nicole Barnes of the China Beat interviewed Lijia Zhang, author of the acclaimed book Socialism is Great!, whose paperback edition has just been released by RandomHouse. Here is a follow-up interview with Ms. Zhang about her recent (and ongoing) book tour, her upcoming book, and women’s issues in Asia:

Nicole Barnes: You recently completed your book tour for Socialism is Great! Where did you speak about your book?

Lijia Zhang: I have not completed my book tour yet. My French publisher has promised to invite me for a promotional tour this autumn when the French version comes out. I’ll also visit Holland where the Dutch translation has just been published. It is being translated into Hebrew, and I am sure that there will be more to follow.

I spoke at various festivals: literature festivals in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, the LA Times Festival of Books, the Melbourne Writers Festival, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, and the Jaipur Literature Festival in India.

I’ve given many talks at universities, book stores, organizations and institutions interested in China and foreign correspondents clubs. I’ve also received invitations to talk to women’s groups and multinational companies as an inspirational speaker.

NB: Were the audiences different in each location (did you see different mixes of men and women, ethnic Chinese and non-Chinese, etc)? Where did you get the best reception?

LZ: The book isn’t distributed in China, unfortunately. My Chinese friends, of course, all claim to like the book. One woman from Shanghai telephoned me to thank me for recording an era which seemed to have been forgotten. One young man wrote to me to question if the “period police” was true. I assured him that was just common practice. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some young nationalistic youths didn’t like the book.

I think the popularity of the book also reflects a rising interest in China. Many in the West also feel uncomfortable about China and China’s rapid rise. I get lots of questions along that line: what’s China’s future? Is China a threat to the world?

The best reaction I received was in India. I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival and toured the country a little. My publisher HarperCollins promoted me as the first Chinese writer to be published in India. The book, and myself indeed, received massive media attention – about 20 reviews and profile stories.

NB: In the China Beat review of Indian author Pallavi Aiyar’s book Smoke and
Mirrors: An Experience of China
, Aiyar mentions that she felt safer and freer as a woman in China than in India. When you were in India, did anything strike you as particularly revealing of gender differences between the two countries?

LZ: I love India. It is such a colorful place with vibrant culture and friendly people. Aiyar is actually a friend of mine. I tend to agree with her there. Foreign women probably feel safer and freer in China. Personally, I did have some propositions in India (I’ve been there three times), but no really unpleasant experience.

Educated Indian women are very assertive, free, and their values and life styles are not that different from those of Western women. It’s a completely different ball game for the poor rural women. I met a 27-year-old young widow in a desert village in Rajistan. She is supposed to live the rest of her life on her own. I am also amazed by the caste system and how democracy has not crushed it and how it has not granted women a more liberal and tolerant social environment.

Overall, I think women in China are better off than are their sisters in India.

NB: After you’ve seen international reactions to your book, is there anything you would have done differently in it, such as sections that you would have deleted or expanded upon?

LZ: So many people asked me what happened. I should have written an epilogue to update the readers on the main happenings of my life. As a matter of fact, I’ve done so for the paperback edition, which has just been released.

NB: Did anything about your reception or people’s reactions to your book surprise you?

LZ: Overall, I am surprised and absolutely delighted by the reaction, which has been better than I ever expected.

A friend half-joked with me, saying it’s a girly book. But I’ve found that people across the board seem to have taken a liking to the book. I often get e-mails from readers who congratulate me for a writing a book they enjoyed; some ask what happened after the book and others demand a sequel. One Australian man threatened, “if you don’t write a sequel, I’ll go to Tiananmen to shout your name until you do so!” In fact, most of these people are men. Last night, a man from America called me in the middle of the night just to say how much he loved the book!

NB: What book are you working on now?

LZ: I am revising my first novel Lotus, about prostitution in modern day China – not based on real life experience but a pure work of fiction.

NB: What led you to that topic?

LZ: My grandma was a low-grade prostitute, like the leading character in the book. I always have this fascination about her life and how she coped. For me, prostitution is just a vehicle to explore social tensions caused by fast changes in society.

By Angilee Shah

In the land of news-meets-the-Internet, China has been fertile soil for very interesting blogs by journalists. There’s Evan Osnos’ Letters from China at the New Yorker, the China Journal at the Wall Street Journal, Pomfret’s China (John Pomfret, that is) from the Washington Post, James Fallows‘ often-China blog on The Atlantic, Peter Foster and Richard Spencer at the Telegraph, The New York Times reporter Howard French’s non-New York Times’ blog, and last but not least, Tim Johnson’s long-standing China Rises for McClatchy Newspapers. Though this list is long, it is not exhaustive.

Perhaps what is most interesting about these blogs is the opportunity to get a greater picture of reporters’ perspectives as foreigners living in a new country. But if the recession — and the seating arrangements at a G-20 summit dinner — tells us anything, it is that the West’s perception of the East is not all that counts. How emerging powerhouse economies see each other is of great importance, and lucky for us is incredibly interesting. An excellent entrée into Asian takes on Asia is a Hindustan Times blog, Middle Order, written by the newspaper’s first China correspondent, Reshma Patil.

Just a few months and 13 posts old, Middle Order brings to the table a fresh take on the “foreigner in China” story. The introduction to Patil’s musings is tempting: “Find out why this vegetarian is still staying on, a few floors above a restaurant that serves bullfrog, and in an apartment where the DVD remote control to the fax machine has Chinese instructions that she cannot read.” Patil’s posts about her life in China are engaging and interesting, as varied as her ten-year career. She was a special correspondent for the Indian Express until 2006, when she joined the Hindustan Times as an Assistant Editor. As she explains it, she was working on stories that “could be anything from politics to floods in Gujarat to spending a night at a morgue after terror attacks in Mumbai.” It was that hectic variety, she explains, that prepared her the most for becoming a one-woman show in Beijing. It also helped that she had been studying Mandarin in weekend classes for six months when the Hindustan Times approached her about a job in China. “But I had never planned to relocate to China. It just happened,” she writes in email. “I was told I had the job one hour after the interview in Delhi, and I said yes immediately. If I hadn’t come to China, I would probably be covering the Indian elections right now.”

Instead, she is filing news reports, writing a Friday column called “Inside the Dragon,” and posting one blog entry every Sunday night from her Beijing apartment. And spending a bit of time typing out answers to questions from a curious China Beatnik.

Angilee Shah: How did you prepare for working in China?

Reshma Patil: My preparation was more about mentally strategising how I would cover China to make it fresh and relevant to Indian audiences. I don’t push in India comparisons in every China story. But here’s an example: In a latest page one interview with Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, we focus extensively on his India expansion plans that got only a mention in his interviews with the other international media organizations. The western media calls him China’s Bill Gates. I called him China’s Narayana Murthy (both started their companies out of their apartments) so Indian audiences instantly make a connection. [N. R. Narayana Murthy was one of the founders of Infosys Technologies.]

I did read some books, especially to brush up on the India-China border dispute. I also read or sifted through a literal carload of China stories in international news magazines to hone in on the stories that were already reported and stories I needed to keep an eye on as they unfolded. (The carload of magazines were brought in by my editor one day from the office library). I made a recce trip for a week last March, and found my apartment that houses the Beijing bureau on my second morning in Beijing.

AS: Do you think the paper has taken a greater interest in China news than before?

RP: Yes, the greater interest is reflected in the fact that I am the paper’s first China correspondent. The newsroom in Delhi and Mumbai is very interested in the stories and they are given high visibility. Some stories have made it as the front page leads. Since China’s urban planning is of interest in India, sometimes the newsroom asks for a comparative China story. An example: The paper carried a series last year on Gurgaon’s urban planning and infrastructure problems and one package included a short piece on how China got Pudong’s infrastructure right, since both places began developing in the nineties.

AS: How did the blog start? Was it something you wanted to do from the beginning?

RP: The blog was launched on Jan. 26 with a set of new blogs from HT writers. The editor of our website in Delhi asked me to write a China blog, and the only request was for lighter material than what goes in the paper. I was keen to write a blog as well. I think the paper’s interest in launching a China blog also kicked off after I filed a daily China column during the Olympics in August, in addition to Olympics news stories. The Olympics marked the beginning of our extensive China coverage in the paper and we received enthusiastic feedback from readers. Readers have also pointed out that they are interested in our reports because they are looking for news about China that is not just academic political and trade analysis.

AS: It seems like the blog focuses on showing how India is portrayed and seen in China, whereas your goal in news is to show China’s relevance to people in India. What role do you see Middle Order playing in your work as a reporter?

RP: Middle Order was not planned as an ‘India-China’ blog and I wouldn’t categorise it that way. It has evolved into a mix of posts about my life as an Indian expat and reporter in China and stand-alone China posts as well. It is barely a dozen posts old and still evolving. It is a space to engage readers’ interest in China with the voices and flavour from the ground that can go unreported in the paper’s news reports due to limited word space. It is also a space for readers to make a personal connection with the reporter and give feedback. As a reporter, I enjoy using the blog as an open space to experiment with new and fun ways to tell a China story or drive home a point through a narrative.

That’s why this blog post is my favourite: “A wild tiger chase behind Beijing’s invisible India bus“. It started as a spontaneous idea to ride Beijing’s first Incredible India bus, with no expectations of the reactions I would get aboard the bus or whether the ride would be worth blogging about. The post ended up as the result of three days of legwork that required as much effort as chasing a news story.

And “At a Slumdog afternoon in China…‘is this real?’” — this post was a spur of the moment idea. I was looking for a more interesting way to record Chinese reactions to Mumbai and Slumdog Millionaire than through a routine news report.

AS: Your latest post is about going back home after one year in Beijing. Is living in China what you expected it to be? Are there things about China that you weren’t expecting?

RP: Life as an expat in China is easier than life in Indian metros in terms of essential infrastructure like power supply and transport. I think Beijing’s traffic moves superbly compared to Indian metros, so I find it amusing when foreigners and locals complain of traffic jams. But simple things that I took for granted in India take much longer in China, partly because I don’t have the support structure of a full-fledged office with a Chinese assistant. I had no idea until I landed that tax and banking paperwork would be only in Chinese, despite opening a foreigner’s account.

AS: Do you think Indian people understand China well enough? What do you think are the biggest strengths and weaknesses in India-China relations, both on political and cultural levels?

RP: I think these two questions are answered in some of my posts. For too long, India-China relations were defined by the border dispute and unresolved political issues. It’s only over the last few years that the focus shifted to optimise trade and cultural ties. It’s evident in the fact that the India Tourism office in Beijing is just one-year-old and faces a huge task in convincing the Chinese to visit next-door India. There is a lot of ongoing effort to improve ties at the diplomatic level and within pockets of Indian-Chinese groups across certain professions, but not at the mass level in either nation.

India’s strength lies in skilled English-speaking manpower while China has leapt ahead in infrastructure and city building. I regularly meet Indian and Chinese professionals who talk about the great potential for collaborations between the two nations using their respective strong points. And the slow, tricky progress in making these collaborations work primarily because of a lack of information and understanding about each other’s work culture, language and bureaucracy.

AS: And — I have to ask — what did you think of Chandni Chowk to China?

RP: I didn’t enjoy Chandni Chowk to China at all. I found it ridiculous and ended up fast forwarding through a DVD a friend brought from India in 30 to 40 minutes.

Lisa See has written seven books set in China–including novels like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, mysteries like Flower Net, and an account of her family’s immigration from China to the U.S., On Gold Mountain. Her most recent book, Shanghai Girls, will be released on May 26, 2009.

Kate Merkel-Hess: Your forthcoming book, Shanghai Girls, will be released in May. What is the book about? What inspired the novel’s subject?

Lisa See: Shanghai Girls is about two sisters who leave Shanghai in 1937 and come to Los Angeles in arranged marriages. Four things inspired me. First, I’ve been collecting Shanghai advertising images from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties for many years. The so-called Beautiful Girls, women who posed for commercial artists, were right in the heart of the excitement in Shanghai. The charming and captivating life illustrated in advertisements is one thing, but I was interested in seeing what real life was like for those women. I also wanted to write about what it was like for Chinese women who came to America in arranged marriages. (We had a lot of arranged marriages in my family. I know how hard life was for the women.) Third, I wanted to write about China City, a short-lived tourist attraction in Los Angeles. And finally, I wanted to write about sisters. The sibling relationship is the longest that we’ll have in our lifetimes. A sister knows you your entire life. She should stand by you, support you, and love you, no matter what, but it’s also your sister who knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most.

For your earlier work Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you did a great deal of historical research. Did you also do historical research for Shanghai Girls? What types of sources informed your writing?

Research is my favorite part of the writing process. I never know what I’m going to find. I live close to UCLA and I love to spend time in the Research Library stacks. But the real excitement comes from going to places—I go to every place I write about—and from talking to people.

I’ll mention two sources that “informed” the writing in Shanghai Girls. The first was going to Angel Island. As you probably already know, the Angel Island Immigration Station—the Ellis Island of the West—has been closed for several years for an extensive renovation project. While it was closed, I was invited to go on a private tour of the island. It was a very strange feeling to walk where my family members had walked, to get a sense of their isolation and fear, but also to see how beautiful the island is.

I also did lots of interviews. In Shanghai Girls, I’ve written about the Confession Program, which ran from 1956 to 1965. The government asked Chinese to “confess” their paper-son status. They were also encouraged to reveal the people they knew in their own families—fathers, sons, brothers, wives—who had come in using false status. But it didn’t stop there. People were also asked to name neighbors, business associates, and anyone else they suspected might be a Communist. There is still a lot of shame and embarrassment about what happened during the program. People don’t like to admit that they were targeted; others don’t want to admit that they confessed. And this can happen in the same family! I got some people to talk to me about what happened to them during those days. The stories were sad and very hard to hear. One man said to me, “There were a lot of suicides, a lot of suicides. It’s hard to remember these things because of the pain.” Another person said, “I don’t know that we’ve ever mentioned any of this to our kids.” He then added, “We aren’t dead yet, so we aren’t safe yet.” Interestingly, a whole other way to look at the Confession Program was as an amnesty program. When you change “confession” to “amnesty,” the connotations are very different, aren’t they?

The heroines of Shanghai Girls trace the same path that some of your own ancestors did when they came to the U.S. from China (though a few decades later). Did you draw on the experiences of your family-which you wrote about in On Gold Mountain (1996)-to imagine the experiences of Pearl and May?

Absolutely! My family traveled back and forth to China quite a bit, so they were passing through Angel Island pretty regularly all the way up until the Immigration Station finally closed. When I was working on On Gold Mountain, I was very fortunate to find at the National Archives over 500 pages of interrogation transcripts, photographs, boarding passes, and health certificates relating directly to my family’s experiences at Angel Island. I used a lot of that material for On Gold Mountain, but there was a lot I didn’t use until Shanghai Girls. Pearl and May’s interrogation scenes on Angel Island come almost verbatim from the file for Mrs. Fong Lai, the wife of one of my great-grandfather’s paper partners.

I’ve already mentioned that we had a lot of arranged marriages in my family. For example, back in 1932, my great-great-uncle took his family back to China in part to get wives for his sons. The oldest wife was about 25; the youngest was something like 14. They’d had servants in China, but they lived like servants in America. In China, especially after Liberation, women’s lives and the culture changed rapidly, but in U.S. Chinatowns people held on to their traditions and beliefs. Chinese women in the U.S. led very difficult, traditional, closed in lives.

Finally, my fictional sisters come to Los Angeles Chinatown. My family has lived and had businesses in Los Angeles Chinatown for about 120 years. I really know the history, the people, the food, the streets, and the secrets. All of that I was able to give to May and Pearl.

Most of your other books have been set in China, but this book returns to the U.S.-where much of On Gold Mountain took place. What about the story or time period of Shanghai Girls brought you back to the U.S.?

I’ve always been interested in the push and pull of immigration. What pushes people out of their home countries? War, prejudice, persecution of one sort or another, famine, the desire to get rich and make a better life. What pulls people to a new place? The hope for freedom or the desire to have a better life for yourself and your family. The fact is that we all have someone in our families who was scared enough, brave enough, or crazy enough to leave their home countries to come here.

The timeframe for Shanghai Girls has several of these elements: Shanghai was at a fascinating moment in 1937. Shanghai was at the height of decadence, the Paris of Asia, and all that. It was a place people wanted to be. It had great pull. It was a place people went to, not left. But everything began to change when the Japanese invaded. There are several reasons why Pearl and May flee China, and this is one of them. Again, this was a very specific moment in Shanghai. (After 1937, Shanghai went through a long period of decline. Even after Deng Xiaoping inaugurated the Open Door Policy in 1979, Shanghai still languished. It wasn’t until 1992, when Deng gave his emphatic support for Shanghai to become a once and future financial and commercial center, that things began to change…and very rapidly.)

Once my sisters get to Los Angeles, they are also in an interesting moment. Old Chinatown had been torn down, and two new Chinatowns—China City and New Chinatown—opened with great fanfare. People may know Chinatown, but hardly anyone remembers China City. China City was a tourist attraction developed by Christine Sterling, who also developed Olvera Street, a Mexican marketplace here in Los Angeles. Mrs. Sterling started both of these projects during the Depression as a way to give poor immigrants a chance to start small businesses. Chinese City was intended to look and feel like an “authentic” Chinese city. It was one square block surrounded by a miniature Great Wall. Inside it was built from the leftover sets from the filming of The Good Earth. The people who worked there were required to wear Chinese costumes. Those who came to visit rode in rickshaws and nibbled on Chinaburgers. China City was also home to the Asiastic Costume Company, where movie studios rented props and costumes, and also hired Chinese extras to work in films. I think it’s safe to say that China City wasn’t terribly authentic, but it did have a lot of charm. And it’s really lived on in the memories of the people who worked there. My great-great-uncle had a shop there. His children—my cousins—have wonderful memories of playing and working in China City.

I also wanted to write about the Confession Program, which I talked about earlier.

In On Gold Mountain, you write that the book grew partly from a desire to preserve your family’s history. But in your subsequent novels, you have returned to China again and again. What keeps you coming back to it as a setting and subject?

I don’t look at it as “returning to China again and again.” Rather, one book has led to the other in a very organic way. Three paragraphs in the penultimate chapter of On Gold Mountain led to Flower Net. Once the characters in the mysteries were established, one idea led to another in those too. There was a line in the penultimate paragraph in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan that let me understand how I could write Peony in Love. I’d been thinking about the true story of the three wives for years, but there was something that the character of Lily said that just clicked in my mind. I can tell you that the book I’m working on now never could have happened without Shanghai Girls. So it’s definitely been a natural progression.

At the same time, other things drive me: personal interest in a subject, curiosity about why we followed or continue follow certain traditions in my family, and a desire to understand and know myself. This last part is really about exploring who I am and what I know. Obviously, being part Chinese has had a huge impact on me. But what does that even mean? Not to you or readers, but to me.

Finally, why not write about China? It’s beautiful. It has a rich and deep culture that very few people—even Chinese!—understand or know fully. The country accounts for a quarter of the world’s population. It’s a global economic superpower. With all the stresses in the world, we need to know more about China, not less. I’m doing what I can to help others learn about China not in an academic essay but through stories. It’s through fiction that we connect to real people and by extension to the shared human condition. I’m interested in finding the universals through the uniqueness that is China.

Last year, the Association for Asian Studies inaugurated a new series of booklets under their “Resources for Teaching About Asia” branch called “Key Issues in Asian Studies.” The first two booklets in the series were published in 2007: Political Rights in Post-Mao China by Merle Goldman and Gender, Sexuality, and Body Politics in Modern Asia by Michael Peletz. (Those interested in applying to write a “Key Issues” booklet should see the AAS’s author guidelines.)

Goldman’s book on political rights in contemporary China canvases the factions that dominated political discussions in the post-Mao era, and is key reading for those who want a quick introduction to the post-1989 Chinese political landscape. (The booklet clocks in at a very manageable 76 pages.) The primary topic of Post-Mao China is actually politics from the late 1980s to the late 1990s; there is very little discussion of politics in the new millennia. Even so, for those perpetually mixing up their new leftists with their neo-Maoists, this is a good start for clarification. And with protests in the news of late, Goldman’s sketch of the definitions of citizenship participation and varying groups’ access to and engagement in the political process provides useful background information.

Goldman, professor emerita of history at Boston University, has been a prolific writer during her career and is the author of Literary Dissent in Communist China, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China, and From Comrade to Citizen, among other books, as well as numerous edited volumes and dozens of book chapters and articles. We chatted with her over email about the topics raised in her booklet:

China Beat: What was your goal in writing Political Rights in Post-Mao China? What kind of audience did you have in mind?

Merle Goldman: The purpose of the book was to reach high school and college students who might be interested in the issue of human rights in China.

China Beat: One of the interesting backdrops to your discussion of the political landscape of the 1990s is the disintegration of the Soviet Union. I’ve heard it said that the 1989 protests provided inspiration for sovereignty movements in Eastern Europe, but hadn’t realized how fear-inducing the Soviet Union’s collapse was for CCP leadership, and how much that fear then shaped the political discussions of the 1990s. When and why did the power of that narrative wane?

Goldman: That is true. In fact, the Chinese students were excited about the trip to China of Gorbachev at the time of the 1989 demonstrations and had wanted to talk with him. That frightened the Chinese leaders, who feared a Gorbachev and his reforms in China. They feared it would lead to the end of the CCP. They were right. The Gorbachev era not only led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but also the rule of the Communist Party in Russia.

China Beat: One of the issues raised in Political Rights in Post-Mao China is the role of the emerging middle class as a political force. Middle class protest—like the “strolls” that took place in Shanghai and Chengdu, among other places—have received a lot of media interest this year. On the other hand, workers’ protests and farmers’ protests, also discussed in the booklet, have received less attention. Do you think the media is right to pay so much attention to middle class protest? In other words, is this where political change will come from in China, or could we be surprised by peasant and worker coalitions’ ability to effect political change from below?

Goldman: The rising middle class has several components in China. The new entrepreneurs are being inducted into the party and have been co-opted, but on the fringes of this rising middle class are public intellectuals, journalists and defense lawyers who have spoken out on human rights issues. They are the topic of the new book that I am now working on.

China Beat: You note that neo-nationalists-who also received quite a bit of attention from Western media this year in the wake of the Tibet protests and the Olympic torch relay-are focused on “a revival of nationalist spirit” (26). The party has found eagerness for a stronger China (and anger at those who thwart it) useful at some times and dangerous at others. How do you see the Party utilizing young people’s nationalist sentiments in the coming years? Do you see the neo-nationalist ideas as pointing the way toward a new kind of (potentially productive) Chinese political thought, or is this simply an old-and dangerous-path?

Goldman: The rising nationalism is filling the ideological vacuum left by the bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism. Through most of its history, China has been governed by an overriding ideology. In the pre-modern era, it was Confucianism and in the last half of the twentieth century it was Marxism-Leninism and the thought of Mao Zedong. Thus nationalism is filling that ideological vacuum. It could hold China’s huge population together, especially in a period of great change, but it could also lead to a dangerous xenophobia, which will not only be harmful to the Chinese people but also to the rest of the world.

China Beat: The notion of “rules consciousness”- people using existing rules to justify challenges to local or even national actions (or, as you say in the book, framing “their critiques and demands in terms of the existing rules and regulations in order to exert pressure on the party to live up to its own laws”)-is a regular theme in Political Rights. What are the most important ways that “rules consciousness” is being employed in the growing number of (mostly small-scale) protests today?

Goldman: Those who are calling for human rights and are demanding more political and religious freedom, call on the party to live up to the stipulations in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, which calls for freedom of speech and religion. China has also signed onto the UN Declarations on Human Rights. Whereas the Declaration on Economic Rights has been passed by China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress, the Declaration on Political and Civic Rights has not been passed. Those who are calling for human rights in China have urged the National People’s Congress to pass the latter declaration.

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This interview was conducted over email between Kelly Hammond and Micki McCoy in parallel with McCoy’s article in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art (forthcoming January/February 2009) on the depiction of ethnic minorities in propaganda posters in the People’s Republic of China made prior to the Opening and Reform. The posters can be seen as historical predecessors for contemporary official depictions of ethnic diversity such as that seen at the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremonies. Yet this imagery is distinct from current commercial visualizations of ethnicity and nationality in the PRC, as described in the interview below regarding Hammond’s participation in a Chinese Pepsi commercial.

McCoy: How were you approached to do this?

Hammond: I was approached by one of the owners of Fubar, the “foreigner bar” in Urumchi. I’d been to Fubar on numerous occasions and knew the Irish manager and part owner. I received a text message from one of the American graduate students who was also studying Uyghur at Xinjiang Normal University (新疆师范大学) alerting me that they were looking for people to participate in the ad and that the salary for two days work would easily cover my rent for a month. Essentially, the casting director from Shanghai (he was originally from Hong Kong, went to the Vancouver Film School, and is now based in Shanghai—he spoke Cantonese and English wonderfully, but very little Mandarin) got in touch with a few foreigners who were well connected to the different expat communities in the city. For instance, the casting director somehow managed to get in touch with a very well known Kazakhstani student who was studying Mandarin at Xinjiang Agricultural University (新疆农业大学) and who was connected to pretty well the entire Kazakhstani student population studying in Urumchi. He also managed to get in touch with one of the Pakistani students, who are part of a pre-med program offered in English at Xinjiang Medical University (新疆医科大学), which is specifically designed for Pakistani nationals hoping to qualify for medical school abroad. From there, the casting director left it up to these local liaisons he had recruited to spread the word within the different expat communities living in Urumchi about the Pepsi shoot.

McCoy: Who participated? What were their roles in the ad?

Hammond: In total, about 800 extras and two famous Chinese pop stars (黄晓明 and 古天乐) participated in the Pepsi shoot. There were around 400 Han Chinese high school students who volunteered (and were obviously way more excited about seeing the pop stars than the other participants. A young Uyghur I was talking with compared the stars to “Americans teenagers having the opportunity to be in an ad with the actors from Harry Potter.” His metaphor might have been slightly off, but I got the point; the stars were famous.) There were also around 220 Uyghurs (who were paid 200 kuai for two complete days of work) that were recruited by a Uyghur casting director who worked the same way as the other liaisons, but to the Uyghur community. He was a young, recent university graduate and he managed to recruit not only younger university students, but also some older, Uyghur men. He also managed to recruit around 30 Tatars and a few Chinese Kazakhs. The rest of the crowd consisted of a motley crew of about 150 expats. We were all paid 1,000 kuai for two days work, taken to the location in air conditioned coaches, and were treated to a party at Fubar where the beer flowed very freely. I would estimate that the entire Nigerian community in Xinjiang was present at the shoot (approximately 25 people), as well as the majority of the Pakistani population (again, around 25 students). There were about 50 Kazakhstanis at the shoot, but all were noticeably “Russian” looking Kazakhs (as opposed to the two Kazakh girls in my class who were ethnically Uyghur, but who were also Kazakh nationals). Noticeably absent were students whom I studied with from the other “stans.” The remainder of the foreigners were made up of Americans, Canadians and Europeans who were in Xinjiang studying, traveling, teaching English teachers or working as missionaries (a.k.a. “cultural tourists”).

McCoy: What was the ad’s narrative?

Hammond: The story unfolded for us as we arrived at the sports stadium before dawn on a warm Saturday morning in May. The ad centered on a football match between a (Han) Chinese national team and an “international conglomerate” foreign team. At the beginning of the ad, the Chinese fans would be interspersed between the international fans, but losing badly to the foreigners. The roars of the international crowd silenced their cheers for the Chinese national team. Then, the two Chinese pop stars flew in (literally, with the help of two really cool stunt men from Beijing) on cue to rally the Chinese crowd with Pepsi. With the arrival of Pepsi and the very attractive Chinese pop stars (with all the usual fanfare of a recent Zhang Yimou film), the Chinese crowd simultaneously had an epiphany and collectively realized that in order to beat the evil foreigners they needed to rally together behind Pepsi. At this point, the Chinese fans pushed their way through the international crowds to form a critical mass, which was able to make their voices heard. With that, the Chinese football team was able to defeat the international conglomerate team. The entire narrative centered on the two Chinese pop stars (rather, their amazing stunt men) performing all kinds of acrobatic stunts at the cost of the dignity of the international team—such as, but not limited to jumping off the top mezzanine into the crowd of Japanese nationals (played, very begrudgingly, by Han Chinese high school students) and rebounding off the head of the Japanese drummer into a sea of Han Chinese students, who were anxiously awaiting Pepsi.

McCoy: Who was the audience for the ad?

Hammond: From my discussion with the casting director, I believe that the ad was to be broadcast on the Internet prior to the Olympics. It was also meant to air on television in China in the time leading up to the Olympics. I saw one incarnation of it at a hotel in Xinjiang in late July.

McCoy: What was the social aspect of the shoot like?

Hammond: The shoot was highly segregated in many ways. I’ll break them down for you for simplicity:

Spatially: The Han Chinese high school students were kept pretty much completely segregated from the Uyghurs and the expat crowd, who mingled freely and chatted with each other. Over the course of two days I heard active and engaged discussions between nationals from China and other countries taking place in English, French, Uyghur, Mandarin, Kazakh, Russian, Tajik (I think), Uzbek, German, Italian, Spanish, Urdu and Arabic.

The production schedule was organized so that the crew did not shoot the scene where the Chinese rose up to come together to defeat the evil foreigners until the afternoon of the last day. So, it wasn’t until then that the Han Chinese students were “mixed in” and interspersed in the “foreign” crowd. I remember being concerned that one Han Chinese girl refused to sit next to one of the Nigerians (the type of racism I’m sure they encounter on a daily basis. In his defense, he handled it much better than I would have). I also remember being very impressed by the attitude of accommodation from some of the older Uyghur men, who I had not heard speak a lick of Mandarin for the past two days. At one point, we were re-shooting a scene for the third time and everyone was extremely hot and tired. A young Han Chinese student obviously did not hear the directions from the director and this middle aged Uyghur man, who had convinced me that he could not speak Mandarin shouted with perfect intonation: “你听得懂吗?起来!” (“Don’t you understand? GET UP!”) Both the high school student and I stared at him in amazement for about two seconds, and then the three of us, exhausted from the sun and two long days, burst out laughing in unison.

I definitely felt that it was a conscious effort of the director to keep the Han Chinese segregated spatially from the rest of the group for as long as possible.

Linguistically: Linguistically, the crowd was divided and segregated on numerous levels. First of all, the entire production crew hailed from Hong Kong and in many cases my spoken Mandarin was better than theirs. On numerous occasions, the director from Hong Kong gave instructions in English, which were translated and disseminated with varying degrees of success into Uyghur, Mandarin and Russian by the expats in the crowd. Within the expat crowd, there were also varying degrees of Mandarin and Uyghur comprehension. My main observation about language was that for the most part the Pakistani students and the American missionaries spoke very little Mandarin or Uyghur (granted the Pakistani students were in China for a limited time with no intention of returning, and some of the younger missionaries had recently arrived and were trying to learn Mandarin). The majority of the Kazakhstani students, who are learning Mandarin in order to do business with the Chinese, were able to communicate effectively in either English or Mandarin. The Nigerians and the rest of the groups communicated mostly English, but most other expat groups could move effortlessly back and forth between English and pretty flawless Mandarin when needed.

One of the things that I noticed was that the Han Chinese students were not able to speak a word of Uyghur (apart from the usual greeting of assalam alaykum—standard in most Muslim cultures). The young Uyghur students could move with fluidity back and forth between Uyghur and Mandarin, and in some cases, in more languages as well.

Issues of Food: Interestingly, all the expats were “treated” to KFC burgers, while anyone who was a national of China had to eat polo (抓饭 in Chinese)for lunch both days. This was interesting for me on numerous levels. Firstly, most “Western” expats would choose to eat polo over KFC any day. In fact, it was the first time (and last) time that I’d eaten KFC during my eight months in Xinjiang. The Kazakhstanis and Paskitani students rarely (if ever) eat “Chinese food” and depend heavily on fast food chains to supplement their diets while in Xinjiang. So, the assumption that the expats (which, remember, included Kazakhs, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Germans, Americans…) who all lived in Xinjiang were so disinclined to eat food that was provided to accommodate the Uyghurs, that KFC burgers had to be provided as an alternative was astonishing, but a common stereotype faced in China. Westerners are constructed by what we eat and in Xinjiang “Western” food is bread and KFC. Secondly, it indicated to me that the production crew were catering to the Muslims by serving polo (always presented as 清真) to the entire Chinese national crowd. It also indicates a level of acceptance and acquiescence by the Han who live in Xinjiang of what might be normally considered Chinese food. There is no doubt that for as much as the Han in Xinjiang complain about Uyghurs, they love Uyghur cuisine (who doesn’t!?!)

After the first day, many of the Uyghurs found out that the expats got KFC burgers and on the second day, we set up a barter system where we traded our KFC burgers for polo with some of them, as I would prefer to eat polo over KFC any day. I’ve always questioned the idea that KFC is considered halal (清真) in Xinjiang, and when I mentioned it to the guy I traded my chicken burger with, his answer was interesting: “Well, the Pakistanis eat the burgers, and they are Muslims too. And, the Westerners wouldn’t purposefully serve us food that was not halal like the Han would.” When I asked him how often he ate KFC, he told me, with his mouth full, that it was his second time.

McCoy: What did you wear?

Hammond: I wore a red tank top and a red fitted baseball cap that were both provided for me by the costume department. They wanted to paint my face with an American flag, but I pleaded with them and told them I would develop an allergic reaction to the face paint. They conceded.

McCoy: What were the other outfits worn?

Hammond: I think the easiest way for me to do this is to talk about the different “national” groups that the advertising executives were trying to represent and then talk about who they envisioned representing them.

But first, I think the one thing that was important about this ad and how it was conceived was that each international group had their “traditional” mechanisms for exciting a crowd (of course, all this was as envisioned by the HK director): Americans had cheerleaders; Africans had drums; the Japanese also had a pseudo-Judo/samurai drummer; Brazilians had Mardi Gras dancers; Mexicans had ponchos, sombreros and mandolins; the South Asians had cricket bats. And, the Chinese had Pepsi. I think this posits the most interesting question that was raised for me at this shoot, which deals with the continued quest for modernity in China. And, more importantly, how Chinese people who drink Pepsi envision modernity. Unlike KFC, which is decisively Western in the eyes of people I have spoken to in China, there isn’t the direct association with Pepsi and the West (ironic, since they are owned by the same company). And, this idea that the Chinese people didn’t need any remnants of their traditional society—like the rest of the world—as they rallied together with the modern to overcome the international team was a theme I picked up on right away. Why did everyone else have some sort of “traditional” act to perform, whereas the Chinese only needed Pepsi? What does all this mean for scholars who work so hard to deflate this false conflation of westernization and modernization? And, where do the ethnic minorities fit into this equation? By purposefully excluding them and incorporating the minorities into the other “international” groups, I think the director sent a clear message—China is for the Han and we are modernizing without you.

The Nigerians (from my understanding, all the people from Africa living in Xinjiang hailed from the nation-state of Nigeria) were meant to represent a pan-African nation. They wore red/black/yellow and green clothing and were provided with bongo-like drums. They were also sent to make-up to get the pan-African flags painted on their cheeks. As an aside, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life (and in my experience in China) took place in the downtime of this shoot with the wonderful people from Nigeria. It was about 35 degrees celsius outside and the Nigerians found a nook in the shade and started playing the drums (that they were provided with) and singing. Within ten minutes, they’d drawn a crowd of about a hundred who couldn’t help do anything but dance. I asked one of the young Uyghurs dancing beside me, who was filming the entire event on his cellphone, if he’s ever seen anything like it before: “Not in my life. It’s incredible,” he said, in near perfect Mandarin. I found out later that he was a professional drummer.

The Americans: The Americans were represented by a mix of Chinese Kazakhs, Tatars, fair skinned Uyghurs, Canadians, Germans, Brits, and of course, Americans. The director also enlisted some of the Kazakhstani girls to wear the scant cheerleader outfits. There were two memorable anecdotes about being an American for two days. On the first day, my German classmate returned from her conversation with the casting director looking completely dejected: “Apparently I’m not German-looking enough to be a German—whatever that means. My parents would be so disappointed in me.” She couldn’t hide her disappointment in being cast as an American. The second anecdote came on the last day of shooting. The director was growing frustrated with some of the older Uyghur men, who selectively chose to understand Mandarin, depending on who was speaking to them (for instance, with my limited Uyghur I was not able to convey instructions in Uyghur, so I spoke to them in Mandarin and they always understood, but when one of the production assistants would bark at them in deeply southern accented Mandarin, they would stare at her blankly and pretend not to understand). The director snapped and asked all the Chinese people (中国人) to stand up so he could address them through an interpreter. I thought the Uyghur man sitting next to me didn’t understand, so I repeated this simple instruction in my basic Uyghur him. He looked at me with a coy smile and said in Mandarin: “我不是中国人,我是美国人.” (“But I’m not a Chinese person, I’m an American”). Subsequently, the director reprimanded both of us for laughing and not following his instructions.

The Pakistani medical students played the South Asians. (Aside: The Pakistani students in Urumchi are renowned for their isolation from other communities and given that most of them are only in China for a year to study and speak no Chinese, it is understandable. There is however, one fabulous benefit of having this lively student community in the city: there is an incredibly delicious Pakistani restaurant across the street from the Xinjiang Medical University.) There was a complete lack of cultural integrity on the part of the Hong Kong creatives with regards to the all-Muslim Pakistani students. The costume director tried, albeit completely unsuccessfully, to get the Pakistani students to wear turbans. Not understanding why they were resisting so vehemently (one student put on a turban and they all took photos on their phones, which they promptly sent to the student’s mother as a joke. Within minutes his phone was ringing and he was explaining himself to his mother, to the amusement of his classmates). She couldn’t come to an understanding with the students and finally, after some heated debate, a young woman in a full hejab noted stiffly: “The bottom line is that they won’t wear them. Accept it, or we all leave.” In the end, the Pakistani students ended up wearing bright green polo shirts and sported cricket bats.

The Russians: Kazakhstani students and a few Tatars played the Russians. They wore red, blue and white outfits and some of them were dressed as members of a marching band (we never really did figure that one out). At one point, the director asked the group to sing something in Russian and they broke out in song on cue to his complete delight. However, he was oblivious to the fact that they were proudly singing the Kazakh national anthem. The rest of us were in stitches.

The Mexicans: The Mexicans were played by Uyghurs. They all wore sombreros, ponchos and were provided with mandolins and trumpets. I heard numerous comments to the effect of: “Wow. Did you see the Mexican Uyghurs?” and “Oh my god, the Uyghurs are sooo Mexican.” Someone retorted that: “…anyone with a mustache, a sombrero and a mandolin looks Mexican.” I still haven’t been able to rectify what all this means, and I’ve thought about it a lot.

The Japanese: Han Chinese grudgingly played the Japanese. They were dressed up like samurais with white headbands painted with the Japanese rising sun. A few of them also wore “Judo” outfits. One of the professional drummers hired for the shoot was dressed as a judo/samurai warrior and had a large drum, which was also painted with the rising sun. At one point, one of the Chinese superstars (rather, his stuntman) acrobatically bounded off his head in his effort to bring Pepsi to the Chinese masses waiting anxiously below.

The Brazilians: The Brazilians were also, for the most part, played by Uyghurs dressed in green and yellow soccer jerseys. The exception to this came from another gross cultural misjudgment committed by an overly blasé and extremely insensitive Hong Kong production assistant. They tried, completely unsuccessfully, to dress five young Uyghur women in Brazilian Mardi Gras costumes, which were essentially sequined bikinis with headdresses. Although none of the young women covered their heads, I can confidently say that it is completely unlikely that any of them had ever been outside their homes in a skirt that did not cover their knees or a shirt that did not cover their shoulders. And here, once again, the production assistant was at a loss to understand why they did not feel comfortable essentially wearing bikinis for two days in front of their friends and elders . Three of the Uyghur girls flat out refused, the other two were found crying in the bathroom and could not be coaxed into public in the outfits. The production assistant was not willing to make concessions and sent the girls to dress as South Asians. She started her search for other Uyghur girls who would wear the costumes. It was only after about two hours of searching that she came to the realization that none of the Uyghur girls would wear the outfits. At that point, she turned her attention “to the most Brazilian looking Kazakhs” and was able to find three girls that suited her needs from within the “more liberal” and “western” Kazakh women.

The Germans: The Germans were played by Americans, Tatars, Kazakhs and a few Uyghurs. I think they may have been going for some sort of pan-Slavic-Germanic sort of costume, but missed the mark: they wore the colors of the Deutschland—red, yellow and black—with Viking horns. I think some of them had tomahawks as well.

McCoy: How was each group handled?

Hammond: There were large discrepancies, which have been mentioned, or at least alluded to.

The largest one, of course, was salary. Some of the Uyghurs discovered that the expats were making about five times as much (as well as being “treated” to KFC, air conditioned coaches to and from the venue, and a party after the shoot) and there was almost a mutiny. I think that some arrangement was met discreetly, but I am not sure about the dynamics of this arrangement or about who was involved.

McCoy: How did you interact with others at the shoot?

Hammond: As I mentioned previously, there was little interaction between the Han Chinese and others. However, I can speak of a completely positive experience of interaction between the other groups at the shoot. In fact, I made numerous friends with Kazakh and Uyghur university students, whom I continue to keep in touch with through Skype. Regrettably, I didn’t have the chance to interact with many of the Han Chinese students. We had a lot of down time at the shoot while they prepared for stunts or focused their attention on groups that didn’t include all of us, so we all spent time chatting and joking around. Overall, the atmosphere was quite jovial and fun.

McCoy: What were the production staff like? How did they interact with the actors?

Hammond: The production staff was quite limited in their interaction with the extras. It was not until the second day that the director finally realized that if he spoke English, the expats in the crowd could more easily convey his meaning to their respective groups in Mandarin, Uyghur or Russian. Even the Han Chinese students had problems understanding his directions in Mandarin, so it was understandable that some of the older Uyghur men and people couldn’t (or possibly, wouldn’t) understand. Many of the Hong Kong staff went out of their way not to speak Mandarin and to use English, which effectively limited the contact that they had with the extras to speaking to those in the expat community.

McCoy: How do you feel the concept of identity figured in this experience?

Hammond: Tough question. I think that the whole shoot really brought into question a few notions of identity for me. The first was the concept of a national consciousness and how that is created. By this I mean that in the political rhetoric of the PRC, the people from Hong Kong, the Uyghurs from Xinjiang and the Han Chinese all belong to one nation-state, but there were obviously heavily nuanced interactions taking place rooted firmly in the simple inability of these people to communicate in the same language. Interestingly, the Tatars and Kazakhs present at the shoot all spoke great Mandarin, which is something that I had noticed before amongst the smaller, more marginalized ethnic groups, like the Mongols, who also live in Xinjiang.

The shoot also brought the concept of national identity to the foreground by questioning some of our basic assumptions about what it means to be part of a nation. If, as people noted, the Uyghurs made convincing Mexicans when they were adorned with the accoutrements of some stereotypical construction of Mexico, what does this mean for the way that we build so many of our assumptions about ethnicity ethnic minorities and the nation?

McCoy: How would you relate this ad to propaganda in the People’s Republic of China?

Hammond: Interestingly, I wouldn’t. I feel that the PRC is actively trying to put forth an idea of inclusiveness (all you need to do is take a look at the propaganda in Kashghar—爱党爱祖国 爱社会主义 爱喀什—love the party, love the country, love socialism, love Kashghar!) and that everyone who lives within the borders of the nation-state is an integral part in China’s process to become a great nation. I see the ad more as a representative of what people in the East (Shanghai, Hong Kong) imagine China to be like. Sure, minorities are the exotic other, but until you go to a place where ethnic minorities make up a sizeable portion of the population, I think it is fair to say that most people in China don’t envision places like Urumchi to be as diverse as they are. When visitors first arrive in Urumchi, there is usually a short period of shock and disbelief about the amount of diversity among the people in the city. I am not arguing that other large cities in China are homogenous, but in places on the periphery, like Urumchi, there is a certain degree of diversity that sometimes makes you ask yourself: “Wait a minute, am I in China?”

I also think that this shoot served to highlight to me that even though people from Hong Kong and people from Urumchi are technically from the same nation-state, there are more striking similarities linguistically and culturally with those who live just across the border in Kazakhstan, or even Pakistan. I think that this was the first time some of the younger Uyghurs were coming to this realization, and this is potentially politically dangerous for the rhetoric of inclusiveness expounded by the PRC.

Readers can find some related materials online (unfortunately, the commercial is not available online in its entirety):
A video that includes clips from the commercial
Photographs from the commercial shooting
Another commercial shot (at roughly the same time) in Xinjiang with Huang Xiaoming and Gu Tianle

Kelly Hammond recently moved to Washington D.C. to start her Ph.D. in Chinese history at Georgetown University after spending eight months traveling and studying Mandarin and Uyghur at Xinjiang Normal University in Urumchi. Her research interests include Chinese hajjis in the late Qing and Republican Era and colonial espionage efforts that involved collaboration with Muslims.

Micki McCoy is an M.A. student at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include cross-cultural interaction through art and artifacts of the Silk Routes. Last summer she conducted research at the Dunhuang grottoes in Gansu, and the Kizil and Bezeklik grottoes in Xinjiang.

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