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Society newlight on 03 Mar 2009

The lost treasures

So the Chinese collector Cai Mingchao refused to pay the 28 million euro he bid for the two bronze heads at the Christie’s. Intentionally or not, this is an effective publicity stunt, forcing the story of disputed auctioning back to the news agenda. A point has been made again that no matter how legitimately Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé acquired and owned the sculptures, the fact remains that they are war plunders, looted from China’s imperial palace.

Incidently, the 8th Earl of Elgin, James Bruce, who ordered the destruction of Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, where the bronze heads were looted from, is the son of the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, who removed the marbles from Acropolis and shipped them to Britain. The Greek government, like Chinese government, is asking for the return of the national treasures.

A lot of cultural artifacts of China have been looted, stolen, smuggled out of China over the years. Most of Chinese won’t demand a blanket return of all the treasures. However, the arrogance of Pierre Bergé, who bizarrely linked the return of the sculptures with Tibet issue, and the insensitivity of the Christie’s, escalated the dispute. The two bronze heads, which may not worth the inflated 14 million euro price tag, are seen by many Chinese as a reminder of national humiliation. To put too much symbolism on to them may not be totally rational, but buying them back by the state, as suggested by the Times, doesn’t sound right. Some would justifiably feel being robbed twice.

Society newlight on 26 Jan 2009

Chinese New Year

So, here we are. If you like a pun, then Happy Niu Year! If you prefer irony, then good luck in the Year of Bull.

It looks even the noise from all the unauthorized firecrackers in China couldn’t make us not hearing the gloomy news. Guardian’s Tania Branigan did a video reporting piece from Beijing’s main railway station before the Chinese new year to interview the migrant workers, part of the great annual people movement. They were worried about whether they can get their job back when they come back to the city after the festival. At least this year they didn’t have to get stuck in the station for days like last year. A Chinese blogger, after went to the same station, suggested that this year the Chinese new year rush is actually much smoother than previous years. The suspicion is that many migrant workers had already left for home, being laid off at the end of last year.

The worry is always that when the migrant workers come back to the city after Chinese new year, and couldn’t find a job, what will happen? An often quoted figure is 8%, the GDP growth China must achieve to provide enough jobs for the labour market. The forecast for 2009 by various organizations seems all below that, thus the prediction of widely spread social unrest in China this year due to the mass unemployment. However in my opinion more social unrest there may be, but they are unlikely going to distablise the Chinese society in large scale. Chinese government do realize the seriousness of the economic downturn and high unemployment, and have been quick to disperse measures to stimulate economy and provide new jobs. There may be nothing imaginative in Chinese government’s approaches, but they do have the crucial ammunition – plenty of cash in hand.

Meanwhile the government also hope that establishing a civil society with more citizen participation may help to resolve some of the social issues. The year 2009 is called Civil Society Year Zero by the official media. That will be a constant struggle, and bound to be going forwards and backwards in unpredictable fashion. The detention of 08 Charter’s initiator Liu Xiaobo, harassment of its signatories, censoring influential websites including the recent closing down of bullog.cn are all seen as part of the government’s attempt to silence their critics. However the founder of bullog.cn, Luo Yonghao, is surprisingly optimistic about the website’s possible re-opening in the future. In no time a list of where to find the bullog.cn blogs from alternative places started to circulate around internet. And now a “ghetto version” (shanzai) of bullog.cn, operated by one of the famouse citizen journalist, Zola, is online. Willingly or not, the Chinese government are giving their critics space, and sometimes even use the online opinions to counter corrupted local officials. The critics themselves, while stressing they are not dissidents, have also learned to operate in this environment.

It’s safe to bet the Year of Ox won’t be a bull year. The road ahead is bumpy to say the least, but Chinese people have gone through time tougher than this.

Media newlight on 08 Nov 2008

Coloured mood

British media, like the rest of the world, are fascinated by the US presidential election. This is largely because of the effect a new US administration could have on the world, and the chrisma of Barack Obama, however from what I can see, British people seem to have an emotional closeness towards the election. The cultural and historical ties can’t be underestimated. Sometimes it became sentimental. This is best reflected on last Thursday’s G2 cover. Obama had just won the election. Red colour fills the whole front cover, with a white, small word at the centre, “Wow!” Inside are stories of how people around the States reacted to the victory of Barack Obama. This design is obviously referring to a 2004 G2 cover. After the re-election of George W. Bush, G2 painted it cover in full black, with a small word “Oh, God.” at the centre. Different time, different color, different mood.

Media newlight on 16 Aug 2008

Open your eyes

When I first saw the Spanish basket ball team’s slit-eyed photo, I was baffled. I couldn’t work out what the gesture was about. Slit-eyed people? Do they mean us?

This may somewhat explain the muted response from China. People are largely puzzled by the gesture. When reporting the story, the editor of the Beijing News even felt necessary to add some explanation of what the gesture means, “a common gesture can be suspected as racist, which is not often seen in Asia.”

It may also have something to do with the timing. Chinese media only caught the story after it was raised during the daily news conference during the Olympics. Search “Spanish basket ball team” in Chinese and you get dozens of results all saying “Spanish basket ball team apologized for the guilian (making a face) photo”. One blogger commented that if only the story was broken 24 hours earlier, before the two countries’ basket ball team met, then the Chinese team might be more motivated to resist Spain’s comeback.

The slit-eyed gesture may take some explanation for Chinese to understand, but that does not say we don’t make fun of other people’s look. Cantonese use ‘gwailo‘ (ghost man) to call foreign people because their deep eye sock and funny coloured hairs. You can say it’s disrespectful but over the time it has become neutral, even affectionate. I guess Spanish could use the similar line to defend that photo. Indeed a Chinese blogger living in Barcelona felt moved to defend the locals. “A friendly gesture between close friends to be interpreted as racist. No wonder Spanish people are angry.”

Something deemed to be friendly may not be felt the same way when seeing the light. I guess like gwailo, the slit-eyed gesture was originated at a time of ignorance, when mocking people’s racial characteristics was more acceptable. Whether those participated in this public display thought the time hadn’t changed or the viewers would think the same I have on idea. The advertiser who insisted to take this photo may think it was harmless fun to mock Chinese in such a way when they only thought the Spanish-speaking population as the targeted audiences. But in a globalised world, this is insensitive to say the least.

I frowned on the photo when I thought I finally worked it out, some of my fellow countrymen would shrug it off, but I can understand others may be furious and hurt. Spanish media seem to think all the fuss about this is storm in a tea cup, a misunderstanding of Spanish culture, or even a witch hunt. However, whether stereotyping is playful or hurtful can only be decided by those are being targeted. In this instance, the Spainish may well do their image some good by opening their eyes.

Media newlight on 13 Aug 2008

Price of perfection

The Olympics has truly become showbiz when the headline is an adoring young girl lip-synced a song by another young girl at the opening ceremony. In the director’s mind, the girl with the best voice has to have the cutest complexion as well. The more baffling part is the director of music of the opening ceremony, Chen Qigang, only revealed this fact as one of the “behind the scene” stories when being interviewed on the radio, as if giving away some “making of” extra like those coming with a film’s DVD releases.

Let’s not forget the opening ceremony was directed by Zhang Yimou, a film director renowned for his pursuit of visual perfection, which is not only about striking prime colours and stuning special effects, but also, perhaps more importantly, the perfect face expression and image composition. Zhang Yimou obviously took the latest challenge of directing the opening ceremony performance as if he was shooting a film watched by 4 billions people simultaneously. Image perfect is the holly grail while conventions and rules were something could be bent and ignored.

And lip-syncing is not so unusual in Chinese cinema. In early Chinese cinema, there were those actresses, like “Gold throat” Zhou Xuan who could act as well as sing, but Chinese audiences largely accepted, even expected, the song they heard was not sung by the leading actor and actress, but someone with better voice. During 1950s and 60s when sing-song movies and musicals were hugely popular in Hong Kong’s mandarin film scene, there was a mixture of popular actresses who did and who did not sing. The fact that an actress could not sing wouldn’t dent fan’s affection, only advanced the career of the singer behind the screen. This tradition continued to 1980s Chinese cinema. When Joan Chen, still a budding young actress, played a soprano and sang “I Love You China” in the film Loyalty (1979) (《海外赤子》), of course everyone understood that was a song by a famous soprano Luo Tianchan.

This may somewhat explain the relaxed attitude Chen Qigang displayed. He certainly didn’t expect such a clever act would be ridiculed, mostly by Chinese internet users. What he seemed not to realize, was that audiences enjoy spectacle and perfection in sports, yes, but a performance replying on unfairly borrowed ability isn’t the message the Olympic Games want to sent out.

Society newlight on 22 May 2008

A few drops of water

I’ve never been a person afraid of numbers. But I am now. From last Monday, 8000, 12000, 19000, 22000, and now 40000. My heart sank every time I heard the number had increased yet again. I tried to resist imagining what the number means as individual persons and families. I couldn’t. Watching TV news became an emotional ride every time. More than once, I burst into tears in public when I read the newspaper report.

Since last Wednesday, I’ve been helping to build the Sichuan Earthquake Update website. This is to update the public with latest information about the earthquake, its aftermath, and the rescue, relief and recovering process. It is not a news website; rather, it is focus on personal stories, direct experiences, and volunteers’ action and requests. A small team of volunteers are keeping contact with the front line, collecting news and stories, and translating messages from Chinese to English. The website is a joint efforts by charity Mother Bridge of Love (MBL), LinkChinese UK, and Chinese Young Professionals in Edinburgh. We also asked the public to donate money to MBL, who will use the fund to help children affected by the quake.

The website went alive on last Wednesday, quickly attracted about 400 daily visitors from the UK, but also from China, US, Singapore, Hong Kong and other places. In one week time, MBL’s online donation page has collected over 15,000 pounds. Reading the comments left by the donors is heart-warming. The sympathy and support shown by the public and fellow Chinese are tremendous.

I was reading this tale the other day, which has its origin in Buddhism literature. A mountain is on fire. A bird dives into a lake, then flies over the fire. The bird fluffs its feather to spread a few drops of water towards the fire. The God sees this and says to the bird, “Do you really think you can put out the fire with a few drops of water on your feather?” “No,” answers the bird, “but I once lived here. I must do something.”

Yes, we must do something.

Media newlight on 09 Apr 2008

Flame it up

Joanna Lumley complained on Channel 4 News that her peaceful protest on the day of Olympic torch relay in London was almost ignored by the media. On the other side, many Chinese students voiced the frustration of that their show of support, a pro-Olympic torch demonstration if you like, despite turning up in large numbers, was barely mentioned by BBC News 24, who broadcasted most part of the torch reply. It is understandable that stunts, especially violent stunts, always attract more media attention, however I do wonder whether those they tried to grab the torch, or throw themselves to the torch bearers, or ambush the torch with a fire extinguisher, were risking losing their case. Not only they overshadowed their colleagues who insisted on peaceful demonstration, some action, like the one happened in Paris during which several men charged from all directions, wave after wave, towards a disabled torch bearer sitting on a wheel chair in order to grab her torch (well before the flame lit up), did not do any good PR for the movement’s ‘non-violent’ image.

One thing clear is that if the protesters wanted to ‘embarrass China into submission’, they are most likely to find their efforts totally counter-productive. Not only this forces China into a stand off confrontation, but also galvanises Chinese people into showing more support of the Beijing Olympics. Chinese students in Edinburgh are organising a show of support demonstration at city centre this Saturday, followed by a separate protest against the misreporting outside BBC headquarter in London on 19 April. Some may believe Chinese students are either blinded by Communist Party’s nationalistic propaganda or totally insulated from the outside world. However what it really shows is that, just like their counterparts in Britain, Chinese students are usually not into politics, but will rise up to express their views when the issue they really care about comes by.

It is interesting to compare the live broadcast of torch relay in London and San Francisco. The NBC presenters were upbeat and giggling, often indicating the torch relay is a fun thing (even the torch run, torch drive and the cat-and-mouse “where is the torch” thing is fun), positive for San Francisco’s image, including the display of rivalry between anti-China and pro-Olympics demonstrators. BBC News 24′s broadcast, fronted by Chris Eakin, however, gave the overall impression that the torch relay in London, and in San Francisco, were distasteful embarrassment or miserable disasters. I’m not suggesting any conspiracies. Perhaps Americans are not so ashamed of highly-visible, security-minded operation, or just the weather is better there. A serious point, though, is that if violent disruption of Olympic torch relay becomes a fair game to any protest groups, or even turns into a competition of who can, literally, grab the biggest prize, if attempts of grabbing the torch, extinguishing the torch, or worse physical violating the torch bearers can be justified if you happen to like the course, as some British columnists suggest, then the biggest victim will be the Olympic movement.

Those who use violence to disrupt the torch relay may enjoy the maximum media attention they are seeking for, but the consequences are going to be suffered by all of us who rather enjoy Olympic Games and all the festival atmosphere it brings, whatever one’s views on Tibet are.

Media newlight on 04 Apr 2008

Channel 4 News: Misinformation only hinders good judgement

During last night’s Channel 4 News, Francesca Martinez declared on air that she had withdrawn from Olympic torch relay in London. Martinez of course should do what satisfies her conscience. Her judgement, however, was not helped by the imbalanced reporting and sometimes misinformation from some news organisations. During the introduction of the very same interview in which Martinez made her declaration, Channel 4 News used the footage of Tibetan protesters held and dragged by police, supposedly to demonstrate the brutality of Chinese authority. Except the protest happened in the neigbouring country Napal, not in Tibet. Why Channel 4 News still used the same video footage while their China correspondent Lindsey Hilsum had already reported several days ago the backlash among Chinese people towards western media’s misreporting including the misuse of this very video footage I do not know. I certainly expect more balanced reporting and accuracy from a respected news programme like Channel 4 News.

Media newlight on 26 Mar 2008

Tibet and beyond

Among many commentaries about what happened in Tibet and what would happen at Beijing Olympics, some groups advocate either boycotting Beijing Olympics altogether or at least the opening ceremony, or encouraging athletics openly demonstrate during the Games, wearing a Free Tibet t-shirt while competing for example. To see what kind of reaction their proposed action may get, one can do worse than checking the response from the eighty thousand or so Chinese students in the UK. Although most of them won’t hesitate to criticise Chinese government’s handling of events, such as a blind ban of the foreign media, many believe the western media are equally biased and untrustworthy. On the overseas Chinese discussion boards, there have been heated debate, mainly among overseas Chinese students themselves, about whether Tibetan are treated well enough, and how strained the relationship between Tibetan and Han-Chinese is, however most of the participants see Tibet as an integral part of China, many also accuse western media as being one-sided or even fabricating in reporting the violence in Tibet. A seven minute video posted onto YouTube (has been viewed near two million times) reflects the feeling shared by many Chinese students.

A new website, anti-cnn.com, has been set up to expose the western media outlets like CNN, German N-TV, as well as BBC and The Times of “manipulation of evidence” and “biased reporting”. It looks many quite a few western news organisations, in the immediate aftermath of Lhasa riot, used the pictures of Indian and Nepalese police taking away demonstrators in their reports as the evidence of “Chinese army used brutal force to crack down protest”. One screenshot of BBC News website shows a picture of Chinese soldiers wearing medic arm band standing behind an ambulance with the caption of “a heavy military presence in Lhasa”. A YouTube video then shows a slideshow compilation of the materials.

In the UK, an open letter to the Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been circulated among Chinese students in which the author points out the biased reporting by western media and asks Gordon Brown “not to meet Dalai Lama” when he comes to the UK in May. After the disruption of Olympic flame-lighting ceremony and torch relay in Greece, there are also calls on the message boards to “support the Olympic torch” when it tours through the UK.

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Books newlight on 29 Feb 2008

Is there a Chinese Jane Austen?

Mariella Frostrup asked in her Open Book programme on BBC Radio 4 whether there is a Chinese Jane Austen, whose work a listener’s fourteen years old daughter could enjoy. There are several authors instantly pop into the mind. Eileen Chang (张爱玲), whose short story Lust, Caution on which Ang Lee’s film is based, is the obvious candidate. But I think her work is often too cold. Her sharp words could coolly pick up the shortcoming of the protagonists piece by piece. Her view of the relationship is perhaps too cynical for a fourteen years old. Qiong Yao (琼瑶), the Taiwanese female author published several dozens of romantic novels in the seventies, many of them have since been adapted into films and TV series. Many will regard her work too superficial and melodramatic though. One contemporary author is Hong Kong’s Yi Shu (亦舒). Her stories rarely happen outside the world of rich and beautiful, but the wittiness is very enjoyable. Zhang Xiaoxian (张小娴), another female writer from Hong Kong, is many people’s favourite romantic novelist.

The problem is novel had not been a highly regarded form of art until the turn of twenty century. In the first half of the last century, when the country suffered never ending civil wars and foreign invasion, writers were often urged to come up with patriotic novels instead of romantic ones. Added into this is the less freedom women enjoyed than their counterparts in the west in this period. So it’s no surprise that there was no Jane Austen kind of figure in early Chinese literature.

But if you don’t mind the gender, Lin Yutang’s (林语堂) Moment in Peking (京华烟云), about a big family in early twenty century Peking (Beijing) is a good read, and it was written in English by the author.

For English readers, some of Eileen Chang’s novels have been translated into English, like Lust, Caution (色戒), Love in the Fallen City (倾城之恋), The Rouge of North (怨女), Written on Water (流言). She also wrote in English such as the novel The Rice Sprout Song. I haven’t seen any English translation of Qiong Yao, Yi Shu, and Zhang Xiaoxian’s novels.

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