March 2009

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By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I began reading Pallavi Aiyar’s Smoke and Mirrors on my flight to Philadelphia last week to get me into a China-India frame of mind before I attended the “Asia and the Environment” conference held at Saint Joseph’s University on March 20-21. Although Friday’s sessions (which I unfortunately missed) were devoted to India, and Saturday’s topic was China, the goal of the conference organizers was to encourage some comparative discussion of the environmental problems—and possible solutions—shared by the two countries. Readers interested in specific presentations should watch the above SJU website, where podcasts of the talks will be available in the future; for now, I’ll share a few of the most frequently recurring themes from Saturday’s events.

As Ken Pomeranz pointed out in “China’s Water Woes” (Feb. 12, 2009, China Beat), China and India are inextricably bound by their shared water resources. Since China controls the headwaters of many of Asia’s major rivers, this gives Beijing a tremendous amount of control over the fates of various populations living beyond Chinese borders. Pollution, of course, doesn’t stop at national boundaries, and dams built in China have major effects on downstream communities. Given the increasing scarcity of unpolluted water in Asia, the potential for international conflict over river resources seems to be heightening with each new dam project or toxic spill.

To put a more positive spin on this situation, however, several conference-goers emphasized that dependence on shared resources also provides China, India, and other Asian countries new opportunities for negotiation and cooperation. How much optimism is warranted? Perhaps not as much as I have, but the transboundary nature of environmental issues does seem to offer an ideal platform for countries to develop good working relationships with each other. State officials simply cannot afford to ignore the necessity of collaborating with leaders in other countries; it is in their best interests to unite together as they attack environmental problems.

As one panelist at the concluding round table discussion noted, “We can talk about Asia as a whole through the environment,” and it would seem natural for China and India to take the lead in promoting environmental protection throughout the continent. Although a fair number of ominous-sounding facts and figures were mentioned by different speakers as they related the terrifying extent of Asia’s environmental troubles, the final message that I took away from my day at the conference was the importance of looking beyond the problems and thinking more about what’s being done right, and seeing the creative solutions taking hold in response to various crises.

State leaders, NGOs, and private corporations throughout Asia are already stepping in to address environmental issues, and will hopefully make enough progress to prevent any sort of catastrophic event in the future. The next major step that needs to be taken is for those organizations to recognize how essential international cooperation is for environmental protection measures to work. China alone is not “Choking on Growth”; the country shares its problems—and, with luck, successes—with every one of its neighbors.

From Kate Edgerton-Tarpley (3/27/09, 4:03 p.m.):

Attending Panel 44, “Visualizing Order: Images and the Construction of Legal Culture in Ming and Qing China” inspired me to continue Paul Katz’s discussion of religion — as well as law and ritual — for a moment. Both Katz’s paper on representations of underworld justice in late imperial China and Yanhong Wu’s paper on legal order in Ming case stories and illustrations provided fascinating examples of ghosts, spirits, birds, and leaves entering courtrooms to either exonerate an innocent person or condemn a guilty one. Katz argued that Underworld justice was seen as less corrupt than the law system for the living, so women and others who had trouble getting justice often turned to it. The discussant, Edward Farmer, then made the point that there was a need for this alternative justice system because imposing and upholding hierarchy, rather than bringing about justice, was the main concern of the official legal system. I thought, however, that some of the examples offered in the papers, both Yanhong’s and Thomas Buoye’s, did show a real concern with justice in the official courts. Perhaps the degree of concern for justice in official courts could be a topic for future discussion.

Panel 44, as well as comments made by Keith Knapp during his presentation on “Magistrates and Miracles” in panel 118 on “The Mandate of Heaven at the Local Level in Imperial China,” both highlighted the need to acknowledge how real, important, and powerful the religious aspects of Confucianism (not to mention Daoism and Buddhism) were for official as well as everyday life in imperial China. These panels demonstrated a fascinating degree of interplay or, as Katz termed it – a continuum between official duties and religious duties, between official courts and underworld courts, between human plaintiffs and ghost/spirit plaintiffs, between the human and the supernatural.

In the Great Leap Famine panel tomorrow morning (#139), I plan to touch upon the impact — in terms of official responses to famine — that the loss of the Mandate of Heaven idea and religious constructions of famine and drought had in 1959-61.

The Association for Asian Studies annual meeting is taking place this weekend in Chicago. We’ll be posting occasional updates from China Beatniks who are attending the meeting and will be checking in about the sessions and meetings they’ve participated in. Below, our first two postings from the meeting.

From Jeff Wasserstrom (3/26/09, 11:53 a.m.):

As Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, I needed to be on site a couple of days before the Association for Asian Studies panels and other main events begin, and I have been struck since arriving by how many things I’ve seen inside or near the Sheraton hotel (the conference base) that link up to Chinese events and locales, blogging, or things people whose China blogs I follow have addressed.  I’ve rolled thoughts and images relating to these into a pre-conference post.
Blog-Based Books Enter the Mainstream (of American publishing)
On the blogging front, this morning’s edition of USA Today, provided free to all hotel guests, had a piece called “Books Editors Look to Bloggers for Possibilities,” which caught my attention in part because this conference is the first at which China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance will be on sale. Like most American reports on the topic of blog-based books, it didn’t mention the fact that such publications became more routine in China before doing so in the U.S. It also didn’t give any examples (are there any out there?) of books that, like ours, is based on a group blog with many contributors, as opposed to, for example, solo ones by Colby Buzzell. The piece ends by wondering: “Can the Twitter novel be far behind?”
The Games after the Games after the Beijing Games
Here’s a photo taken a block from the hotel, of a flag promoting Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Games. Surely, the backers of this bid are relieved for many reasons, including budgetary ones that, if they succeed, they will be following London’s show as opposed to Beijing’s.

Did They Know the Asian Studies Crowd Was Coming When This Statue Went Up?
Here are two photos of a massive piece of public art, playing upon a famous American painting. Its presence a few blocks from the hotel has nothing to do with the AAS meetings, but it is hard to imagine a more fitting statue to see when walking near a Midwestern conference with panels dealing with many of the cities and countries flagged on the suitcase.

Some Ties Grow Tighter, Others Loosen
If the statue suggests an increase in travel between Chicago and Asia (also signaled by the number of flights to Asian cities that leave from O’Hare airport), there’s one kind of longstanding connection between here and there that a recent blog post by Evan Osnos reminds us have recently been severed. Namely, the Chicago Tribune (whose headquarters is right near the stature) closed its Beijing bureau (part of a general scaling back of reporters based abroad)–Osnos (who now works for The New Yorker) was the Windy City newspaper’s final China correspondent. 
The Tribune’s tradition of fine reporting from Asia will be represented at this conference, however, as Michael Lev, who used to be based there and now is Chicago-based, though still working for the paper, has graciously agreed to pinch-hit for a panelists who had to pull out at the last minute on a special roundtable devoted to “Asia and the Global Economic Downturn” that takes place on Saturday at 5 p.m. (with Nayan Chanda, Ted Fishman, and Ezra Vogel, the other participants). I’ll be on a different panel at the same time, but maybe someone else will blog about that session, which covers a topic that could hardly be more timely. I hope so, as I’m eager to learn what transpires there.
From Paul Katz (3/26/09, 9:12 p.m.):

Just spent the first night of our Annual Meeting bopping between Sessions 16 & 17, both of which concerned the religious revival in China today. The papers by Sebastien Billioud (on Confucianism), as well as Gareth Fischer and Wu Keping (on lay Buddhism) were particularly striking in terms of demonstrating the intensity of popular participation in these movements, as well as its links to the formation of different types of individual and group identities. Their works suggests that religion in China today is actively addressing the concerns of its people, which in some ways seems related to ideas of modernity. At the same time, however, this also exhibits profound continuity, as religious movements have been dealing with the concerns of their worshippers throughout the ages.

Tomorrow will be a typically hectic AAS schedule, beginning bright and early at 8:30 with my paper on images of the judicial underworld, which will be presented in Session 44 (“Visualizing Order: Images and the Construction of Legal Culture in Ming and Qing China”). I also plan to attend two other Chinese religion panels: one on lay Buddhism in modern China (#93), the other on the Mandate of Heaven at the local level (#118).

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.

By Yu Zhou

On March 18, 2009, the Chinese Commerce Ministry rejected Coca-Cola’s proposal to take over Huiyuan, the top juice maker in China. This deal was a closely watched one as an early test of China’s newly instated anti-monopoly law. The veto was greeted with dismay in the major western media and widely interpreted as a new signal of Chinese protectionism. The article in the Times and the editorial by Financial Times suggested that the Chinese government made decisions based on nationalistic considerations, rather than any sound economic or legal rationale. The rejection is thought to have far-reaching ramifications for foreign investment in China and Chinese acquisitions abroad.

I do not know how far-reaching the ownership of a bottle of juice can be. But secretly, I am glad about the collapse of this deal. Let me explain.

I have been living in America since 1989. But in 2000, I spent one year on sabbatical in Beijing with my six- and one-year-old children. One of my biggest challenges was to find a drink to suit their made-in-America tastes. This was especially a problem for the six-year-old since he had keen tastes and was uncompromising. Soda was out, as he had never touched it. It took me a frustrating month to find the right milk brand for him after what seemed an endless trail.

Fortunately, juice was not a problem as he accepted Huiyuan apple juice on the first try. It was a big relief since apple juice is not a traditional Chinese drink, and I was not sure I could find it. Most supermarkets did have a few foreign brands of apple juice on the shelf, but they were pricey, based on their dollar value in America or New Zealand. While my income was from America, I could not bring myself to spend 30 yuan for a bottle of juice. As far as I could tell, one yuan in China could buy about $1 worth of goods in America at that time. Would I ever consider spending $30 for a bottle of apple juice in America? Huiyuan apple juice had a clear and refreshing taste with a lower sugar content than comparable brands in America, at only a fraction of the cost. I was grateful that this new Beijing company was providing my kids with the comfort and sweetness of America, and it was also a connection to the local apples of my childhood in Beijing. I have visited China several times since 2000. Huiyuan was always the reliable and inexpensive local juice to sate my kids’ sugar thirst.

I have to say that I was not particularly excited to hear that Coca-Cola wanted to acquire Huiyuan—by now a national company with almost half the juice market share in China. We never drink Coke or Pepsi in my home and I have cut down my kids’ juice consumption because of the high sugar content, so the fizzy drink giant has never enjoyed much of a buzz in my household. I cannot imagine that Huiyuan would taste better if Coca-Cola were the owner (though I can see that a merger might bring better profits). I am afraid that it might become more loaded with sugar, or core syrup for that matter, or become more expensive.

I suspect that Chinese consumers agreed with me when they heard about the proposed merger. This is why, in an unscientific on-line poll, over 80 percent voted “no” to Coke’s acquisition. Most media outlets characterized the Chinese attitude as nationalistic. But no one bothered to ask what motivated that “nationalism.” After all, the Chinese can hardly be said to be against globalization. You cannot live in Beijing without using brand names from around the world. So why the insistence on keeping Huiyuan domestic?

It would be helpful to know a bit more about Chinese consumers. Most Chinese consumers, with the exception of those younger than 20, remember a time when there was very little choice in consumer brands. Everyone used the same things: “Arctic” (北冰洋) soda, “Forever” (永久) and “Flying Pigeon”(飞鸽 ) bicycles, “White Cat”(白猫) detergent, “Zhonghua”(中华)toothpaste, “Beauty and Clean” (美加净) face cream, “Nanfu” (南孚) batteries, and so on. Some of these products were made by state-owned companies and they looked the same decade after decade. Others were made by emerging private companies. Huiyuan is the latter kind. None of these products were fancy, but they were reliable and inexpensive.

In the 1990s, many of these companies were short of capital to compete with growing foreign brands. Some simply disappeared. Others were restructured with the injection of foreign capital. It was thought that only foreign capital with better management and higher quality could modernize these old companies. Everyone supported such a move and some local governments were so eager that they forced their enterprises to accept foreign investment.

At the time, no one thought much about the value of these well-known brands, even though they might have had the largest loyal consumer base in the world. Restructuring, however, brought almost none of these Chinese brands back. They either completely disappeared or became marginalized, only showing up in country stores. Nowadays, Chinese consumers drink bottled water from Kang Shifu (康师傅, Taiwan), use P&G (宝洁) and J& J for household cleaning, drink Coke and ride “Giant” bicycles. The well-off use Japanese, European or American beauty products for skin care.

Meanwhile, the simple, dependable and affordable merchandise of once common Chinese brands, sentimentally tied to the childhood of several generations of Chinese consumers, vanished. Around the early 2000s the Chinese government realized that it would be good for Chinese companies to have brand-name recognition, but by then most long-established brands were nowhere to be found or had lost their toehold in the mainstream market. With only a small number of local brands around, the few successful ones, such as Huiyuan, became especially precious. This explains the 80 percent “no” vote.

Now, lawyers and consultants are indignant about the failed Coke-Huiyuan marriage. I am sure that each side will come up with legal explanations for the wisdom (or lack thereof) of this decision and its far-reaching ramifications. It is also true that for the average consumer changes in ownership may not bring much of a difference—whether Huiyuan is owned by the Chinese or by foreigners. But, as for me, I am glad that Huiyuan remains a Chinese company.

It is not because I worry that China could not develop into a superpower without its own juice company, though. I have a hunch that by continuing as a Chinese company, Huiyuan would have to remain devoted to its Chinese consumers, and would develop unique products suited to their tastes and purchasing power. Being a subsidiary of Coke, however, might reduce Huiyuan’s commitment to local particularities. I could be wrong. But I happen to think that the world needs such a great variety of drinks at different price ranges that it might not fit the bottom lines of the two soda giants to provide for them all.

Yu Zhou is professor of geography at Vassar College and author of The Inside Story of China’s High-Tech Industry: Making Silicon Valley in Beijing.


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