chongqing update

Looky! A less-than-two-week break between posts! Miracles, not ceasing!
A few things scrounged from my notes that I didn’t sneak into the last post:
– Re: Old Navy. A lesson to those writing foreign-correspondent blogs: You write 1800 words on life in Hawaii and China, and the one thing anyone leaves a comment on is an American discount retail chain. But I forgot one anecdote. This British guy walked up to a staff person and asked where the shorts were. “We’re not selling shorts any more,” she said. The British guy looked perplexed, with a side of angry. The staff person explained that sales patterns and promotions are all determined by Old Navy corporate, back in San Francisco, and HQ had decided that it was time to sell corduroys and fall/winter gear. So no shorts.
But this is Hawaii!” the Brit perceptively cried. “It’s always shorts weather here!” No matter — Old Navy was done selling shorts for the year. Were I a business reporter, I’d have a column out of that one exchange.
– My digital camera was stolen out of my luggage in Argentina a couple months ago — damn those Argentines! — which meant I had to buy a new one. (Not that I used it much. I went to Nigeria a few months ago and didn’t take a single picture. Then I went to Argentina, Uruguay and Chile and didn’t take a single picture. Many people have expressed their anger over these facts.)
Anyway, I bought a Canon PowerShot SD400, and geezumpete, it’s awesome. It’s tiny tiny tiny — which means I always have it in my pocket, which means I actually take photos. Lesson learned: A camera has to be small enough to accidentally snort if I’m actually going to use it.
Back to Chongqing. I apologize for badmouthing it before I arrived — it’s actually quite a charming little city. (By “little,” of course, I mean “the size of metro Los Angeles and Chicago combined.”) It actually reminds me quite a bit of Chengdu, the aforementioned Chicago in my western imperialist U.S.-city-comparison game. Lots of hills, beautiful greenery everywhere, and a nice mix of urban and rural feel — without the fake Epcot feel you get in parts of Shanghai.
And, unlike Shanghai, it’s still ludicrously cheap. The Hilton I’m staying in, which is in the running for the nicest place I’ve ever stayed, is $80 a night — and it probably the most expensive place in town by a mile. Ten of us went out to dinner last night and the final bill for all of us was 37 yuan — meaning a dozen-dish meal of dumplings and veggies and tofu and everything ended up costing 45 cents a person. We had lunch at one of the nicest places in town, a sort of formal Chinese banquet place with gold(-colored) silverware and wooden chairs you could imagine in an emperor’s sitting room. The final bill: about $3 a head.
A few highlights in the couple days I’ve been here so far:
– A bus conversation in which, when our government minder was asked what were the specialties of Chungqing cuisine, he said “snakes.” Which led to peals of discontent from some of the more stomach-sensitive members of our little troupe. After further discussion, it was discovered he’d said “snacks,” which seemed significantly more appetizing.
(We’re actually a pretty iron-stomach lot, it appears. Only two acute digestive incidents among the bunch of us so far, both relatively minor. My only complaint about the food so far is the preponderance of bones in everything — fish, beef, pork, cabbage, etc. But then again, I’m kind of a bone wuss when eating in the U.S., too. I’ll take the child-designed “chicken strips” over even the most user-friendly chicken wings, every time.)
– Spent yesterday morning touring around Chongqing Technology and Business University, a lovely campus where, like everywhere else we’re looking, every building seems to have been built in the last two weeks. We had a group discussion with a bunch of students, and afterwards, the two tall blond men in our group — me and the Australian Michael — were surrounded by girls who wanted to have their picture taken with us. Then came this exchange with three smiling girls:
Girl #1: So did you know that the girls in Chongqing are the most beautiful in all of China?
Me: Actually, I have heard that. [I had, from a couple folks in Shanghai.]
Girl #2: Ah. Well, do you have a foreign lover here yet?
Me: [Awkward silence]
– Food highlight so far is Chongqing hotpot, a local favorite similar to fondue. Start with a boiling cauldron of oil at your table, evenly split between moderately spicy and mouth-roof-melting hot. Then you take any number of things (little pork meatballs, quail eggs, something that looked suspiciously Spam-like, shoe leather — er, I mean, strips of tofu) and throw them in. They cook, and you fish them out of the oil with your chopsticks, dump them into a bowl of non-boiling oil to cool them down and increase the lipid count, and eat.
Of course, grabbing a quail egg out of boiling oil with chopsticks is a great producer of humorous moments — and only a mediocre producer of actual quail eggs in your belly. (They’re slippery little suckers.) Hotpot is a risky endeavor on several levels — boiling-oil splatters being the most obvious, but let’s not forget about the damage to one’s ego done by losing a five-minute chopstick battle with an oily mushroom. But tasty nonetheless.
Particularly if the meal is topped with a street vendor’s Magnum bar. Magnum is, of course, the best brand of ice-cream bar you can buy in China — sorta Dove Bar-esque. Hadn’t had one in four years, but mmmmmmm the memories. Nothing like one at the end of a hot day of hiking or mushroom wrestling.
– Spent an afternoon visiting the old Guomindang prisons where Communists were kept — and eventually massacred — during the Chinese civil war. The official name of the place is the U.S. Chiang Kaishek Criminal Acts Exhibition Hall, so I was expecting a healthy dose of anti-American propaganda. (U.S. relations with China in the 1940s were complex — we favored Chiang and his Guomindang [KMT], but during WWII we wanted China to be as strong as possible so they could fight the Japanese, who had invaded Manchuria some years earlier. So we favored cooperation between the KMT and the Communists against the Japanese. But around 1944, Chiang got tired of that, and the American decided to pick sides again — with the KMT — when the war was over.)
But I was disappointed — no stars-and-stripes burning, no demon-eyed Uncle Sams staring down from propaganda posters. Just standard-issue Communist hero-making and Chiang-bashing. The next day we went to the Stillwell Museum, the Chongqing home of U.S. General Joseph Stillwell, who coordinated anti-Japanese efforts with the Chinese during the war. Stillwell’s viewed as a hero in China — sort of the last good American leader for a while — and the place was filled with warm fuzzies about the pan-Pacific relationship.
By the way, my fellow Fellow Pete is also blogging his trip.

hawaii, shanghai

I have clearly been a painfully failed blogger these last few days. Er, weeks. I’m currently on a plane from Shanghai to Chongqing, and I guess that’s as good a time as any to write about my recent goings-on. (I haven’t flown on China Eastern since 2001, and I’d forgotten how awesome their stop-motion big-eye anime safety video was.)
First, Hawaii. After my last post, I had a few days of fun left on Oahu. Circumnavigated the island along the Kamehameha Highway, the lovely two-lane strip of asphalt that rings the North Shore. A tropical depression was sitting on Hawaii while I was there, so it was rainy just about every day. But I’ve always been pro-rain and anti-sun, so that worked out fine. Stopped at the Dole pineapple plantation — where the tour unsurprisingly didn’t mention the Dole family’s role in the overthrow of the island’s ruling family and its forced annexation to the United States. (The Hawaiian independence people are among my favorite windmill-tilters.) Drove around BYU-Hawaii, the big Mormon temple, and the Mormon-owned Polynesian Cultural Center, lovely places all. (I’ve never seen a good takeout story on one of the more interesting religion stories out there: the small-scale war between the Mormons and the Seventh-Day Adventists over the conversion of Pacific islanders. These guys really battle over Samoans and Tongans and Hawaiians and Tuvaluans and the rest.)
I am a lifelong proponent of the sno-cone. (As we Cajuns would call it. I know it’s “snowball” or something else in other parts of the country.) But I do believe the Hawaiian shaved ice whoops up on it something fierce. A more densely-packed ice absorbs the syrup better, I reason, and the Hawaiian cone I got up in Haleiwa came with ice cream and some sort of Japanese sugar bean at the bottom. Mmmmmm. Had to go hike a few miles to Waimea Falls to work off the sugar high.
Also, went to Old Navy in Honolulu. (Needed some pants.) Geez, why has no one ever told me about Old Navy? I mean, I don’t suppose its existence was a state secret, but I don’t think I’d ever set foot in an Old Navy before. Like, the prices are really low! And the clothes are kinda un-ugly! Someone should have told me this, is all I’m saying.
In my last few free hours, stopped off at the Bishop Museum, the Hawaiian history museum. It could use a little renovation (who couldn’t?) but it’s got some good exhibits on the surprisingly multiculti heritage of the island’s immigration patterns. (Who knew Puerto Ricans played a big role in the islands’ early growth? Apparently, in that brief window of time when America was thinking of having a British-style global empire — after 1898, when Hawaii was annexed and the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico were won in the Spanish-American War — officials moved a bunch of Puerto Ricans to Hawaii to work in the pineapple and sugar fields. The British were famous for that sort of thing — moving West Indies people to work in Hong Kong, having Indian Sikhs guard the British concession in Shanghai — but I had no idea the Americans did it too.)
On Sunday night, the Jefferson Fellowship — my actual reason for my journey here — began. To my relief, my fellow Fellows are uniformly a good bunch. There are three Americans (from CNN, the Plain Dealer, and the Seattle Times) and folks from China, Japan, Thailand, India, Australia, and Nepal. The next few days were a sea of meetings and seminars and conferences and lectures and the like, all lovely. Our only real break was an evening trolling the abomination of Waikiki Beach — the place where traditional Hawaiian culture goes to die, killed by tourist dollars and an endless sea of knickknacks — and a trip to Pearl Harbor. (There may even be photos — I know, oft-promised and rarely delivered, but we’ll see this time.)
By Friday it was time to head off to Shanghai. Let me tell you — flying to Asia is a lot more pleasant if you get a week in Hawaii to chop the trip in two. Two eight-hour flights are infinitely preferable to one 14-hour one. Jet lag is much more reasonable — even if you suffer through a delay in Osaka, an hour waiting in line for immigration, another hour’s bus ride from the ultra-modern Shanghai airport, and an absurdly protracted check-in process.
(Side note: The sample immigration form in the Shanghai airport — the one that shows us stupid Americans how to fill it out — is a 13-year-old Canadian boy who is also the head of his household and is in China on business. Curious, those Canadians.)
Shanghai is a frighteningly new place. As one of my colleagues put it on the drive in from the airport: This place makes Manhattan look like Tulsa. Skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, almost all built in the last 10 years, most in the last five. There are 2,800 buildings in Shanghai over 14 stories tall, and there are plans for 2,000 more on the drawing board. Dallas has, what, maybe 30, 40? By the time we got to the hotel, I was ready to surrender to our new overlords.
The newness of the skyline has its pluses and minuses. On one hand, a lot of them are really beautiful modern — sleek and structural, a hint of Gehry there, a smidge of Calatrava there. On the other, the buildings are all strangely contextless. Without an established skyline to integrate into — a la the World Financial Center in downtown New York or any number of Chicago buildings — every architect apparently wanted to be the most spectacular of them all. For instance, there apparently was a memo at one point that new buildings must, after a fairly standard-issue trunk, be topped by a wildly expressive something — preferably something that looks straight out of The Jetsons. (Like the spaceship/Daily Planet homage at the top of the Radisson.)
But geez, there are a lot of tall buildings. Pudong — the new area on the city’s east side, rice fields just a decade ago — now feels like some sort of overly orderly planned community of the future — half fascist, half Disney. Spacious boulevards, tightly-pulled metal facades, swooping curves — it’s amazing how much money has been poured into this town.
Much of the last few days has been spent in more meetings with important people and/or the lackeys of important people. Visited a private kindergarten, where the classic tiger-lady owner disarmed us all with a charm offensive, sending a dozen four-year-olds in cute little outfits to give us each cardboard-flower necklaces and be our bestest! friends! ever! forever! (They also put on some sort of play for us — the plot escaped me, but it involved a dozen children dressed as sheep and alternately butting heads and butting butts.) Toured a factory to see what a $150/month salary could buy you in China. Met with various diplomats and journalists and other things I can’t tell you about because they’re Official State Secrets.
Met with some business-school students at a local university — it was interesting how completely uninterested they were in political reform and democracy. When I asked a group of them how long they thought it would be before China’s president was popularly elected, they all said not in their lifetimes — and they were fine with that. I’ve already started cataloguing a list of the excuses Chinese give for why they don’t want a democracy/human rights/a free press/[insert Western hobbyhorse here]. Most prominent are the Billion People Excuse (“We have so many people! You could not have an election with so many people!”), the Stability Excuse (“We cannot report on things like dissent and protests! Our country surely would collapse!”), and my favorite, the Five Thousand Years Excuse (“We have been our own civilization for five thousand years! You cannot understand us!”)
Anyone who doubts how much of communication is nonverbal has never interviewed anyone through a translator. It’s amazing how much I find myself nodding and smiling and giving other cues when an interview subject is talking — despite the fact I have precisely zero idea what words are coming out of his mouth. He could be yelping like a dog and I’d still be playing the good conversationalist and nodding and smiling.
The food’s been good. One of our chaperones, Abby, is a Xinjiang hand, so she took some of us to get some Uyghur food one night. (That’s the Muslim food of China’s western minority peoples. More Turkish than anything else — some excellent shish-kabobs and good breads.) Our one Shanghai-native fellow, He Luoxian, took us to a world-famous dumpling place in the Old City called Nan Xiang– the very same restaurant I found a few hours later was in that day’s New York Times travel section. (I’ve had problems with Johnny Apple’s political stories over the years, but I like his food pieces. If only because I want that job when I’m in semi-retirement, too.)
The restaurant’s specialty was what the menu called “crab ovary dumplings.” Johnny, either being more generous or more accurate, calls them “crab roe” instead. I didn’t get one, so I can’t confirm if we’re talking sex organs or just eggs.
One other highlight: Heading out into the hutong to find the remains of the city’s synagogue, where around 20,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis gathered during the war. The buildings — which looked like Brooklyn rowhouses — didn’t fit in with the rest of the neighborhood, which made me wonder how much of Shanghai once had that sort of brick European feel. (Shanghai has always been the most European of Chinese cities — well, if you don’t count Hong Kong — thanks to various European economic incursions over the years.) In any event, it was nice to get away from the glitz of Pudong and be reminded that, oh, 90 percent of China is still poor.
(Shamefully, every time I saw “Pudong” on a sign, I read it as “Pudding.” Which made some signs quite funny, actually.)
Anyway, now it’s off to Chongqing. From all accounts, it’s an unlovely city. Pollution, a gritty industrial feel, and an overall charmlessness. Everyone has compared it unfavorably to Chengdu, which I really liked when I visited in 1999. (If Shanghai is China’s New York and Beijing is it’s Washington, I think of Chengdu as its Chicago. Maybe Chongqing is Akron, if Akron has a booming economy and roughly 10 times as many people.) Hopefully I’ll update again before I skip town to Tokyo and, eventually, home.
(FYI, Skype has been working fine for me. If you want to give me a ring, I’m crabwalkjb. You can also Skype me by calling 214-556-2616. I’ve also got a Chinese cell you can call if you need to: 011 86 13764342534.)