Thursday, June 25, 2009

Being Bilingual

By Chip Tsao | published Jun 25, 2009

China-bashers love to lash out at the nation over issues such as human rights and party corruption. How wrong would they be if they insisted on mocking the Middle Kingdom from an ideological macro-perspective, but miss out on all the details?

I crossed the border from Macau to Zhuhai last weekend. I was elated upon seeing a few of the signs they had on display at immigration and customs. Only by being observant will you find a sight that could bring you to the brink of tears, fully convinced that our Motherland has truly made some progress—no matter how slowly and imperceptibly—toward modern civilization, or in official terms, toward the dream of a more “harmonious society.” Yes, there are the usual signs and reminders in both Chinese and English, like “Goods to Declare,” “Foreigners Queue Behind This Line,” and more grammatically accommodating warnings such as “No Photograph” (despite all the progress supposedly gained from the Beijing Olympics). Some are interesting in other ways. Considering there are no plural nouns in the Chinese language, and “Ladies and Gentlemen” may still sound a bit odd because we Chinese commonly addressed each other as “comrades” just a short time ago, the large signs on toilet doors saying “MAN” and “WOMAN” look a bit threatening. But then I noticed the sign I found so pleasing, a flashing digital banner above an immigration lane that simply reads, in Chinese, “Please Do Not Shout.”

Unlike the other signs and notices that are bilingual, this particular sign is only in Chinese. The Zhuhai authorities have apparently been very smart in recognizing that English translations of such reminders are simply unnecessary, for anyone well-educated enough to speak in English would automatically have some training in social manners. This could serve as a good model for the Hong Kong SAR government. In Hong Kong, we see bilingual signs that sound insulting to English-speakers, such as “Do Not Forget to Flush the Toilet After Use” or “Please Do Not Spit” at shopping malls, or the famous Australian voiceover at the cinemas that says, “Pirate recording is illegal. Criminals convicted of such a crime will be prosecuted.”

By the time you are able to understand such phrases and sentences in English, wouldn’t you already have sufficient hygiene training and moral common sense? The Zhuhai immigration and customs authorities obviously assume so, and find it more economical to simply drop the English translations. This slogan is aimed exclusively at the Chinese. Please do not shout. They realize the fundamentals of a problem that add together to create a global perception of what “yellow peril” really means. I cried out “Hallelujah!” as I crossed the border.

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hummer and Sickle

By Chip Tsao | published Jun 18, 2009

The Chinese eat everything on earth with four legs, except for tables and chairs. Now it’s everything with four wheels too. American automaker General Motor’s three-ton monster, the Hummer, has just fallen victim to Chinese appetites thanks to a financial world ruled by jungle laws. GM is in discussions to sell its Hummer brand to little-known Chinese car factory Sichuan Tengzhong in a desperate smash-and-grab bid for cash to fulfil their pledge to keep US jobs.

This arrangement suits the egos of the cash-rich, gluttonous Chinese, who have been feasting their eyes on everything of value in the world, from the delicious LV bags of Paris to the glittering iron ore of Brazil. Originally modeled on military vehicles, the Hummer has recently been scorned by the US for being oversized, fuel-guzzling and—believe it or not—ostentatious. As the Americans wake up to a new age of austerity, sales of the Rambo-style heavy machinery have fallen 40 percent in May compared to the previous year.

It is assumed that a vehicle of such dramatic tastes will appeal to China’s penchant for conspicuous consumption. That’s one thing. But also the Hummer looks like a huge buffalo. Even if it burns fuel at a rate of 15 miles per gallon on a good day, it is reminiscent to the Chinese driver of peasant-farming days plowing through paddy fields. It’s also a uniquely feel-good product that provides double the pleasure. The more we drive the Hummer, the more we will treasure our strategic friends such as Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Only with their nukes and courageous anti-American rhetoric can we assure a continuous oil supply that will keep us seated proudly atop our mini-tanks like a sunglasses-emblazoned Arnold Schwarzenegger roaming for wild tigers running through the mountains of Manchuria.

But with this sale we approach a problem. We adore large and dazzling things, but the downside is that they have to have a foreign name. Ferragamo, Chanel and Prada will always sound more prestigious than Luk Fook Jewelry. We shop for products with names like Giordano or Lorenzo, brands with fake Italian-sounding names that help delude us into believing that perhaps Sophia Loren once slept with Donald Tsang like Marilyn Monroe with JFK. But if the Hummer’s new Chinese masters keep the original name, few would recognize it as the gaudy trophy claimed from American Imperialism that it is. Yet to call it the Tengzhong Hummer, for example, makes it sound like a movie starring David Carradine as a Shaolin kung-fu monk. Sure it still seems exotic, but it’s not something you would want to pay $100 to see in a digital cinema these days.

If the New York Times were to be bought by Lai Chang-xing, the Chinese billionaire living in exile in Vancouver, it would then carry little more credibility than if the South China Morning Post were to be purchased by a nephew of Idi Amin. This is a prejudice long hammered into consumer consciousness that will continue to persist, even despite a marriage of convenience between Hummer and sickle.

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Matter of Feces, Not Face

By Chip Tsao | published Jun 11, 2009

As China rises to become a global economic power, there is a pressing market demand for a new generation of sinologists. But a mere knowledge of Mandarin and some classical Confucius teachings is the old school approach—it’s basic, but not meticulously sophisticated enough to comprehend the very profundity of the Middle Kingdom psyche. But recently I’ve discovered a new sinologist whose erudition opens a new frontier in the field. This new scholar’s treasure of insights comes, most curiously, from a Chinese toilet.

Rose George’s book, “The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste,” includes a chapter devoted to the study of the social economy of China’s biogas. She introduces—most professionally—“fen,” the Mandarin word for excrement, and points out that the Chinese are probably the most at home with their excrement because of its value in fertilizing fields. George’s intelligent observation puts me into some sentimental stitches, as I remember the old days visiting my grandmother in Hangzhou, when they still collected “night soil” every night. As a pro-colonial brat spoiled by the marvels of the flush toilet, that evil gadget invented by Victorian-era Britain, I stubbornly refused to inhale the genuine odor of the motherland by refusing to use the bathroom for more than a week at a time. Sometimes this was impossible to withstand and a wooden bucket would be brought into my grandmother’s bedroom for the final relief and redemption of an un-filial son.

George’s book provides a new dimension of understanding of one of the oldest civilizations in the world. When so many traditional sinologists resort to clichés such as, “they are a people who care deeply about face,” George dares to look China in the feces and rake out stories so far unheard of in the west. In the Communist era, for example, excrement took on political significance. Chairman Mao launched the “Seas of Shit, Mountains of Fertilizer Campaign” in his home province of Hunan, ordering his countrymen to collect as much human night soil as possible, all in contribution to “The Great Leap Forward”—an ambitious nationwide economic program with the goal of raising the country’s GDP to surpass Britain’s within 15 years. In 1959, the excrement collector Shi Chuanxiang became a national hero for out-collecting his allotted quota.

George has clearly done her homework, and it’s an excellent move to introduce the long-forgotten Shi. What she didn’t mention though, is that poor Shi met his tragic downfall in the political purges. As a star speaker at the Party’s National Conference of Heroes, Shi had the honor of being received by then-Chairman of the State, Liu Shaoqi. They shared a proud handshake and the picture was applauded as a model triumph of communism—who could imagine the Queen shaking hands with a manure-carrier in Buckingham Palace? That proud moment lasted only a few years, as Liu was soon branded a traitor and “China’s Khrushchev” by Mao. Shi was accused of being a close associate of Liu and vilified as the “Shit Monster.” He was beaten to death by the Red Guards.

It takes a lifetime to become a real sinologist. A professional China hand has to dig deep from time to time into some dark and undesirable memories—often an unamusing job. And you must be absolutely sure to spell the great Chinese names right, such as Deng Xiaoping, paying careful attention not to blasphemously misspell the surname as “Dung.”

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Missed Train

By Chip Tsao | published Jun 04, 2009

Call it a brutal massacre. Or call it a military crackdown. Or to be more officially correct, call it the “June 4 Incident.” Does it matter? The shocking events of that night 20 years ago are becoming, sadly, an irrelevance not only in China, but in the rest of the world.

Chinese students these days would rather hate the Dalai Lama than remember and sympathize with the martyrs who died in the name of democracy 20 years ago. Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi have either dropped or repackaged the sensitive term “human rights” when dealing with their Chinese hosts on their pilgrimages to the Middle Kingdom. Britain and Europe turn to China for financial bailouts or more trade agreements to bolster their post-financial crisis economies. The Chinese people had a golden historic opportunity to change their own fate 20 years ago. They might have inspired the people of Eastern Europe or the late Soviet Union, but that was a dream realized by others. The Chinese people missed the train—and the world has since moved forward.

This is the grim reality one has to face while crying over the spilled blood. With Machiavellian hindsight, one could say that had the students in Tiananmen Square been purely driven by political calculation rather than romanticism, they would have gotten the message from their primary sympathizer within the communist leadership, Zhao Ziyang, and the peaceful demonstrations would have ended before it got worse. This would have helped Zhao survive and buy time. Had passion given way to rationality, the student leaders would have perhaps realized that the carnival-like show they had started was, like Cinderella’s ball, subject to a time limit—and democracy was never like a graduation party or a fairy tale.

History is always a big “what if?” question. According to historian A.J. P. Taylor, if the chauffeur of Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand made a right turn on their way to the new town hall in Sarajevo, he would have escaped his fatal assassination, thus preventing World War I. The recent publication of Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs adds a nostalgic footnote to such tragic cynicism. We have to wake up to the sad fact that it is up to them—the Chinese people, yes, THEM—to decide what kind of fate they will embrace. If they generally agree with the notion that being well-fed is more important than being free, as Donald Tsang put it, then so be it. A post-1997 Hong Kong is now in a different game. You missed the last train at midnight, and there’s no use to stand on the empty platform crying over your expired ticket. All you need to do is buy another ticket, be calm, and wait for dawn.

Labels: ,