August 2009

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I received a note on the H-Asia listserv last week from the Asian Studies WWW Monitor (which provides regular summaries of online teaching resources on Asia). The note flagged a fabulous archive of photographs of daily life taken by Wellesley Political Science Professor William A. Joseph in 1972. Below, a few images from this intriguing resource.

Children playing.

Children playing.

Tangshan #10 Middle School, April 1, 1972.

Tangshan #10 Middle School, April 1, 1972.

Volleyball game, patients and staff. Marcy 24, 1972

Volleyball game, patients and staff. March 24, 1972

By Anna Greenspan

Since in Shanghai Expo preparation is now ubiquitous, and because I share China’s love of numbered lists, here are my top 8 suggestions for how Shanghai could implement its promise–now posted everywhere–of a ‘better city, better life.’

I’ve deliberately not included things that are a) already underway (e.g. more subway stops), b) up to the whim of a single entrepreneur (e.g. a decent bagel shop) and c) too obviously political (e.g. a more open media).

As those of us who love the city know, there is much that Shanghai–with its safe, pedestrian friendly, tree lined streets and spectacular skyline–gets right. Yet in certain areas, especially traffic, parks and migrants, there are easy improvements that would greatly benefit the grand unveiling in 2010.

Here then in no particular order is the list. My hope is that the meme spreads . . .

1. Strict enforcement of traffic rules. In particular, pedestrians should have the right of way on a green light and cars should be forbidden from driving on the sidewalk. Enforcement should not be that hard. Under the principle ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkeys,’ a very public wave of overly harsh fines should do the trick. In general the rule of ‘survival of the fastest,’ in which cars take priority over cyclists, which take priority over pedestrians, must be reversed.

2. More pools and water parks. In my hometown in Canada, where it is freezing most of the year, every neighborhood has a public pool and a park with sprinklers and splash pads. My two kids and I can go swimming for Cdn $7.25 (46 RMB). In Shanghai, where summers are sweltering, it is common for pools to charge 100 RMB per person and the cheapest I’ve found nearby is 100 RMB for the three of us.

3. A celebration of street vendors. The harassment–occasionally to the point of criminality–of the ‘illegal’ street peddlers is the most disturbing aspect of Shanghai’s development (and the greatest impediment to the hope of establishing of a harmonious society). Small traders (most of whom are migrants) are the most entrepreneurial and creative sector of society and bring color, convenience and most of all great food to Shanghai’s streets.

4. Allowing people to stand, play, sit, and sleep on the grass.

5. Insist that all taxis have functional seatbelts. Why the bilingual announcement asking you to buckle your seatbelt when there is almost never anything to be buckled?

6. Preservation and revival of the city’s markets (this relates directly to point 3). The past decade has seen the demolition of some of Shanghai’s great markets (e.g. the flower market on Shanxi Lu, the bird, insect and fish market on Wanping Lu etc, etc). This trend seems to show no signs of abating as all central markets are pushed further into the suburbs. There are even repeated rumors that neighborhood wet markets are under threat. This at a time when Western cities–tired of the sterile morbidity of the mall–are desperately trying to bring back farmer’s markets into the urban core.

7. Bike lanes on major thoroughfares. It is extremely difficult, when cycling downtown, to avoid streets like Huaihai Lu and Hengshan Lu. Forbidding bikes on these streets only pushes them on to the sidewalks (see point 1).

8. A convenient ferry service (like the one in Hong Kong) that provides frequent, cheap and easy crossing between Lujiazui and the Bund. (This might already be in the works but just in case . . .)

Anna Greenspan studies, teaches, and writes about Shanghai. Her website, Waking Giants, can be found here.

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A variety of readings that piqued our interest this week:

1. In a New York Times story, Howard French takes a look at the ongoing preparations in Shanghai as next year’s World Expo grows closer. In addition to Expo-related construction in the city center, French notes, attention is also being paid to outlying neighborhoods, which are being spruced up in anticipation that some Expo-goers will want to explore Shanghai’s innumerable side streets and alleyways:

Shiny new aluminum facades are being hastily stapled onto grubby family storefronts, and fresh coats of paint and mortar are being applied, often for the first time in decades. This Potemkin salubrity is regarded with frank skepticism by many locals as a gigantic, government-run “face operation.” Its aim, they say, is to impress foreign visitors, even those who wander off the beaten path, with Chinese living standards.

Shanghai authorities are seeking to achieve more than just cosmetic changes, however; like Beijing did prior to the Olympics, Shanghai is also exhorting its citizens to become more “civilized” before the Expo begins.

2. It’s the height of shui mi tao, or water honey peach–“The Best Peach on Earth”— season in China, but American consumers can’t enjoy any of these delicious treats, as Stan Sesser writes at the Wall Street Journal. U.S. markets prize long shelf life and durability in the produce they sell, and the honey peach is a delicate fruit that quickly turns rotten, so it cannot survive the long journey to American tables. The honey peach isn’t especially attractive, either, which is a further strike against it in the U.S., where fruit is bred to have a vibrant exterior color that pleases the shopper’s eye. Because of all these factors,

Growing honey peaches on U.S. farms isn’t practical, either. “It can be done, but it would be very time-consuming,” says [Al Courchesne, a farm owner in California], speaking of Agriculture Department regulations that require quarantine of imported fruit trees. To prevent the arrival of agricultural viruses, the USDA requires a period of isolation that could last several years, he says. When that period was over, growers would have trees bearing an ugly-looking fruit so delicate it would require special handling and rapid-fire distribution.

It appears, then, that honey peaches will remain a special treat to be enjoyed on visits to China–which is almost a novelty these days, now that so many foods are shipped around the world at the click of a mouse.

3. In more food news, organic farms are popping up in China, though their number is still small, as Joshua Frank reports in the Los Angeles Times. While organically grown food is comparatively expensive, recent tainted-food scandals have made many consumers wary and willing to pay more for peace of mind. Even large chain stores such as Carrefour have picked up on the trend: organic produce is accompanied by informational posters that chart its journey from farm to store, and staffers stand by to answer any customer questions. In Beijing, Lejen Chen and her husband have started the Community-Supported Agriculture program:

Fifteen families receive baskets of fresh seasonal vegetables, and have access to the Green Cow farm, about 20 miles from the center of Beijing, as a leisure spot.

The privilege of a year’s involvement with the program costs roughly $45 a week, and families are also expected to help out with chores such as weeding and harvesting at least three times a year. The farm’s crops go to program participants, and are also used to supply Chen’s New York-style diner nearby.

Issues of trust, however, persist:

Conforming to organic standards when you have no control over neighbors’ practices, or what rains down on you, is difficult. But on paper, China’s organic farming standards are strict enough, Chen says.

The problem, she says, is making sure that farmers stick to those standards, and ensuring that there are enough authorities to adequately monitor producers who claim their food is organic–a tall order in a country where toxic, heavy-metal-filled sewage sludge is the cheapest, most easily accessible fertilizer around.

4. Over at the Fool’s Mountain blog, a recent post spotlights Louis Yu, a PhD student in theoretical computer science who also produces a weekly podcast featuring world indie music (podcast archives available at woozy.cn; Chinese only). Yu shares his thoughts on the state of indie music in China right now, which he views as a constantly evolving scene:

Most bands are just copying random Western indie bands, they don’t know WHY they’re making indie music, or rather, what indie music is. It should be craft on songs, melody, and lyrics the foremost, not styles you pick and choose from swatches because they happen to be “hip” at the moment . . .

That being said, like most things in China, Chinese indie has the ability to surprise the hell out of everybody. For one, it’s growing and progressing in such an alarming speed. I mean, the quality of the music got so much better just within the last 4-5 months, I personally can see the progress from when I first really paid attention to the Chinese indie scene a year ago, till now.

5. We previously linked to Gina Anne Russo’s post on femininity and advertising in China, in which she notes that most ads, especially provocative ones, seem to feature Western women. A story in The Guardian, however, hails the arrival of Asian supermodels on the international fashion scene (hat tip to Stylites in Beijing):

The monopoly of white models on the catwalks and in the glossies over the past decade has been immovable, but many fashionistas now believe the future is Asian. As Condé Nast prepares to launch GQ China, its fourth Chinese title, and Vogue India increases its print run to 50,000 copies a month, British model scouts say a new demand for Asian talent is being created that will transform the face of fashion . . .

It was the summer launch of Supermodelme.tv that gave Asian models a boost. The show, which appeared online in June, follows 10 aspiring models from Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and India as they compete for a prize of $10,000 and the chance of fame. Karen Seah, of Singapore-based media group Refinery Media, came up with the idea after witnessing “a growing market for Japanese and Chinese models”.

Even so, modelling has yet to attract the same kudos in the south and east Asian communities as in the west. White says that many Asian girls view modelling as a “hobby” to pursue much later in life than their European counterparts. Ashanti Omkar, former editor of Asian lifestyle magazine Henna, says change will not happen overnight. “An increase in the number of Asian models is to be expected, but it will take time. Many young Asian girls don’t think of modelling as a career.”



Bouncing over ruined roads washed out by Typhoon Morakot (some roadbeds have been transformed into river beds), a group of scholars (including myself) drove to the township of Chia-hsien 甲仙 (Kaohsiung County) on August 18 to attend a press conference marking the formation of the Reconstruction Committee for Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine Culture (小林平埔文化重建委員會). Arriving in Chia-hsien, one is soon struck by the roar of helicopters and generators, as well as the smell of flood debris and betel nut juice, which serve to cover up other odors. Power has been restored, but there is still no running water, which puts a huge strain on the limited number of Port-a-pots available to disaster victims now sheltering in local temples. Relief supplies are relatively plentiful, but distribution remains haphazard, and appeals for needed items are issued on a regular basis.

The press conference was held to initiate planning for the rebuilding of Siaolin Village 小林村 (Xiaolin; Sio-na in Southern Min), once a center of Taiwan’s Plains Aborigine (平埔族) culture. Today, all that remains is a massive tomb of mud containing the corpses of hundreds of victims buried under a five-storey landslide that engulfed the village when two nearby mountainsides collapsed (Recent reports allege that the landslide may have been caused by a faulty water diversion project (越域引水工程), which involved dynamiting mountainsides to build a massive tunnel from two major rivers to a nearby reservoir). Searchers have started to find some remains, including those of a mother and child hugging each other during their final moments on earth. They are also digging up body parts, some surrounded by pools of blood. Local tallies list a total of 491 individuals missing and presumed dead, but they have yet to be granted to the dignity of being recognized by the state. According to government statistics posted on the Center for Disaster Prevention and Relief (災害防救中心) website on the day of the press conference, 136 people have been listed as dead and 337 missing, with 71 of the dead and all of the missing coming from Kaohsiung County. As for the Siaolin villagers, their status is currently “under investigation” (查證中).

The difficulties surrounding the aftermath of the Siaolin tragedy reflect larger problems with the overall disaster response and relief effort, not to mention reports of high-ranking officials going out for banquets, wedding parties, and hairstyling appointments during and immediately after the typhoon. The result has been a tidal wave of disappointment, disbelief, and disgust that has transcended the usual party lines. One on-going Yahoo forum contains 3,818 essays commenting on President Ma’s performance (up from over 1,000 just two weeks ago), while a recent ICRT poll had 14,998 people (96%) responding in the affirmative to the question of whether Ma should step down, with a mere 513 (3%) saying there was no need for him to do so.

All this is of little import to the Siaolin survivors, however, who are simply trying to cope with the magnitude of their loss. The press conference we took part in, which started just after noon, was packed. It began with a deeply moving film prepared by Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏, who has been studying Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine culture for over a decade. For 4 minutes, we watched scenes of Siaolin’s vibrant village life before the disaster struck, followed by images of devastation and mourning, but concluding with survivors expressing their wish to rebuild. Dozens of villagers showed up while film was running, so it was shown a second time. Chien then explained the Reconstruction Committee’s goals, namely to build a safe and secure community that would be healthy and eco-friendly, while also preserving the essence of Plains Aborigine culture (安定、安全,具有平埔文化特色的健康生態社區). This was followed by remarks by village leaders (林建忠 and 蔡松瑜), scholars, and other outside experts. Villagers also had a chance to express their feelings of grief, frustration, and anger. In their closing statements, the village leaders called for an end to all tears in favor of a new sense of self-reliance, so that Siaolin’s future would be assured (there are now plans to establish a private foundation to help achieve that goal). Finally, the leaders left the podium and joined the villagers in loud chants of “Go Siaolin!” (小林加油). The Reconstruction Committee starts its work this Friday, while a second set of mourning rituals for the victims (二七) will be held on Saturday.

If history is any guide, the prospects for recovery are not as dim as they might seem. Residents of this part of southern Taiwan have suffered worse calamities in the past, especially during the Ta-pa-ni Incident, which caused thousands of deaths. Those who have toughed it out are fiercely independent and resilient. They have rebuilt before, and they certainly have the ability to do so again. However, many other communities have also been devastated. It will take much more time and a lot more hard work before the job can be fully and well done.

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