Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guilin: Day 3

The ancient campus at Jingjiang Prince's City. 
I feel I should clarify a couple of things at this point that I should have mentioned earlier. When I said that after the bamboo presentation we had to walk through aisle after aisle of winding display of crappy gifts, and that we had to do this after leaving each tourist attraction, it should be duly noted. Not that you didn't believe me the first time, I just wanted re-emphasize. After each attraction, as we were spit out at the end of the designated pathway, we had to walk through winding aisles of souvenirs on sale, anything from seeds, spices, herbs, hot sauce, to jewelry, t-shirts, and more. The winding was clearly to maximize the amount of display area that could be used in each room, and sometimes it seemed everlasting. This is of no real importance to the attractions, but of course, it is essential to the experience. I guess that meaning, for-profit capitalism has found its way into China's natural tourism industry, ending in mixed results.

One other thing that happened, and sucked, also came to fruition the previous night (Day 2). The contract for the trip had mentioned some things were not included in the flat-rate price for the trip, such as the traditional boat ride on the off-shoot of the Li river, entrance to Banyan Tree Park, and I was informed I'd have to pay more to have my own room (which I was more than happy to pay to assure some peace and quiet). But it turns out there was more: I guess each one of these little tourist traps we visited in Yangshuo, the caves, the caveman village, etc., cost an additional fee. Our guide, Mr. Gong, assured me he had explained all this in the beginning of the trip, saying something to the effect of 'You don't have to go into each of these places. If you don't want to, you can hang out in the car and chat with me' in Chinese. So all these little places were adding up, about 100 yuan each. I actually did kind of figure this was the case, but I told myself, well, I'm here, I'll quite possibly never be here again... I have to go in, don't I? So I did, and in the end, I had racked up an additional cost of about 750 yuan to my trip, everything totaled. That's like and extra USD 125, which of course didn't make me feel that great spending, considering I hadn't really enjoyed myself that much, but the deal was done. After some awkward conversations with Mr. Gong, I told him I'd pay him as soon as we found an ATM that worked, which eventually I did after visiting several machines that were out of money first.

But hell, it wasn't too much money in the long run, and I was determined to not let it ruin the last day of my trip. I was excited to be back in Guilin, and tired of being a grouch. I'd seen some pretty great stuff, in retrospect, and today would be much better than yesterday.

Day 3

Frog-like statues (below left) and the water wheels at Liu San Jie Park.
The day started out with the usual wake-up, bad Chinese breakfast, and hopping on the bus to go God knows where. Our first stop had something to do with Liu San Jie, a famous movie in China about a woman from Guilin who sings. I wish I could tell you more than that, but that's about all I know. The movie is from the 1960s, and in Yangshuo there's even an 'impression', a cultural show based on the original film directed by Zhang Yimou which our tour group frequented the first night in Yangshuo, but I actually surpassed (I love Zhang Yimou, but I had already seen his 'Impression Lijiang' and just needed some time away from the tourist zone. Plus it too cost some significant extra money.)

We got to the Liu San Jie park and filed in, and were swept up in the usual touristy, fake attractions. Some statues here, a water wheel there (that was kind of cool), and we also got to bang on some Buddhist inspired drums. Soon, calls were being made for us to come quickly into an auditorium for a rehearsed cultural show. I vaguely remember it, and although the Chinese around me seemed to like it, I could not get into it.

I was relieved to be out to there, because after the typical lunch of poorly made Chinese food, we were dropped off for the rest of the afternoon in Jingjiang Prince's City in the center of Guilin. We were to get a guided tour, then fend for ourselves for the rest of the afternoon until the bus came back to pick us up at the designated rendez-vous point.

And I was just ecstatic to be there; it seemed like the romantic, historic Guilin I was all along hoping to see. It was picturesque and had lots of historical relevance, there were other foreigners there having a gander, and most of all, it was peaceful and serene, all while still being the home of a functioning Chinese university, Guangxi Normal University. It would be the zenith of my visit to Guilin, literally.

The obelisk statue in Prince's City. 
Me and the Canadians took a guided tour in Chinese, but I was not the only foreigner in the group. The others didn't seem that friendly, but it felt good to be back in a place that was at least internationally somewhat attractive (there were no foreigners in sight at most of the previous tourist traps in Yangshuo). We passed through a great gate, and into the courtyard-style campus with several temple structures inside. Meanwhile, current students of the university could be seen lounging on the quad, playing on volleyball and basketball courts nearby. I even found a group of guys sketching different buildings on campus. This functioning normality of the place put me at ease.

Prince's City or Prince's Palace has a history of over 600 years, dating back to the start of the Ming Dynasty. It was the home of the great-nephew, Zhu Shouqian, of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuan Zhang, and housed several royal Chinese families in its history. Prince's City also served as a school and examination hall for the finest minds in China, a sacred shrine for Buddhism in its grotto, and the birth place of poetry that extolled Guilin scenery. I believe I saw all these famous things along the way, and here's what I can recall:

Through the main gate, into the courtyard campus, and inside a central hall, we were led by one of those tour guides with the little portable mic. I didn't understand everything, of course, but the history here was great, as I already mentioned. Out the back of the central hall (which wasn't too grand, otherwise I would have elaborated) we found ourselves at the base of great karst tower. Behind the karst tower, on what was truly a moat (they're not just in Europe), were some ancient statues and a great obelisk-like structure. After snapping some photos there, we were led beneath the karst tower into the grotto cave, made into a Buddhist shrine over 600 years ago. Carved into the walls, there seemed to be a demigod or sage for each birth year to pray to. One was supposed to find their birth year and honor it, leading to good fortune, and leftover incense and flowers indicated that this was still a deeply religious place for many people even today.

Behind me the door to enter the grotto cave beneath the Prince's City karst. 
Leaving the cave beneath the karst, we went into the school part of the compound, and were a given a written test in Chinese to see who was the best student among us. (I couldn't read it, but I believe it asked test takers to fill in gaps in ancient poems and well known sayings.) I took a copy, went into one of the small, individual, test-taking cells, and scribbled on my paper with the small paintbrush and black paint provided. Some Chinese got a kick out of this, and wouldn't you know it? I didn't win the competition. But two people in our group actually did, and were honored for it. They won some prize or something. Great for them.

Honoring the winners of the 'test' at Prince's City. 
With that small gift giving presentation, our group tour ended, and we dispersed. Of course, I had my eye on climbing to the top of the karst, which me and the mom and daughter combo from Canada undertook with me. It wasn't a very tough climb at all, though some steps were steep, and the path was narrow. At the top was a sweeping view of Guilin, town and country where the Canadians assisted my in taking some photos while holding up a flier that said in Chinese I had reached the top of the karst. Perhaps I was assigning more meaning to the moment, but the beauty of the place finally hit me at the top. Beneath the layers of new founded tourism and industry, beneath the dust from construction, development, and expansion, this was truly an amazing place, with truly amazing scenery. The best in the world, so the Chinese poets had written 600 years ago. Perhaps they were, and are, right. 

At the top of the Prince's City karst. 
After the climb I treated myself to another Dove chocolate ice cream bar, and hit the streets to do some shopping and, my favorite, street food sampling. We still had a couple of hours to kill, and a central pedestrian artery was right down the way. 

I separated from the Canadians and did my own thing, getting some fried chicken and dough balls from a stand that appeared to be quite popular with the locals, judging by its line, and awkwardly fended off some Chinese guy who encouraged me to look at his art gallery (you may know from reading about my adventures in Beijing that this is a common scam on foreigners in China). The guy claimed he would be a visiting art professor at NYC soon. I mean, I know he's just trying to make a living, but sheesh, what American is really gonna believe that.

With some new small souvenirs in hand, I met up with the others for our bus trip out of there. Mr. Gong had changed clothes and looked refreshed. I envied him for this. He took us to another crappy Chinese meal, and then I was to head to the airport by myself in a taxi he prepaid. One of the Canadian Chinese girls asked me during the meal if I enjoyed myself on this trip. I thought about this for a while, and then said, "Yes, but I don't think I'll take a guided tour like this again". Ain't it the truth.

Mr. Gong and I said our fairvwells right after dinner, even though my flight wasn't till much later in the night. I couldn't really decide how I felt about the guy. I think he was a fine, honest guy, I just was never the right fit for a guided tour like this one.

On the way to the airport, we picked up another passenger, who was in an awful hurry, getting me to the airport even quicker when I didn't need to be there. But luckily they had an internet cafe that I was able to kill some time at, basking in the nourishing white glow of the information super highway. I listened to Radiohead, drank a bottle of water, and read Was it really so great to be back to civilization, to some degree? I guessed so, though I was unsure.

It being quite late (around 12:00 am by the time we finally boarded), I passed out on the plane ride home, even though we flew through an intense monsoon, and the lady friend was there to greet me in the airport when I landed in Shenzhen. She was a beautiful sight.

Well, I said to myself, I have done Guilin, for better or for worse. Glad to have seen it, and glad to be back.

Monday, July 2, 2012

At the Old State House in Boston, Mass

I must be the best, worst travel host on the net:

Guilin: Day 2

Day 2

In the morning I awoke, again, unrested and definitely not chomping at the bit to get out and hit more Chinese tourist attractions in Yangshuo. But I mumbled through breakfast and jumped in the mini-bus to push onward in this strange journey into China's growing world of natural tourist attractions. Where to next? I had no idea.

Our first stop was actually quite enjoyable and had me in a good mood. It is called Banyan Tree Park on the Jinbao River. With some grazing water buffalo, scenic rock formations along the river, and an enormous banyan tree that is over 1500 years old, I started to feel I was viewing some worthwhile attractions. The tree was planted in the Jin Dynasty and is the subject of some romantic legends told by the Chinese. So I gazed at it for a while with the sun on my shoulders and, if only for a moment, got a sense of wonder about all the events that have transpired around this tree in it's long life, from the Jin dynasty, to the 21st century. Now it was the object of countless tourists and their digital cameras.

I was brought down to earth by the sight of a man nearby the tree with two dressed monkeys for picture taking with tourists. I won't get all worked up about animal rights, as the monkeys seemed fine, though the man did yell at them and bat at them with small stick to make them climb up tourists' shoulders. Nonetheless, I couldn't resist, and paid the 5 yuan fee to have a photo op with the monkeys.

What followed after Banyan Tree Park is a bit of a blur, but I do recall the minibus made several stops at different tourist destinations outside of Yangshuo. They included two different caves, a cultural village with some more caves and an ethnic minority cultural show, and a very strange tourist village that was about 20% museum documenting the prehistorical peoples that lived in this area thousands of years ago, and 80% village recreation of how they may have lived, featuring lots of people dressed in cheap, fake leopard skin outfits chanting. I wanted dearly to take photos of this highly unusual scene, but alas, my camera had run out of batteries. While there, I couldn't help shake the feeling the place wasn't true to prehistory. I don't know what gave me that idea.

So here's a quick recap of my thoughts on it all: the caves could have been cool, especially the second, which truly did have some awesome and magnificent views of giant stalactites and sweeping, underground caverns. Of course it needed some light to be seen, but it's builders and organizers had chosen to cover it completely with rainbow colors, laser lights, and strobe lights. This did not feel so natural to me, and would have John Muir rolling in his grave. Of course I couldn't understand our tour guide, and even with fluent Mandarin I doubt I could have ciphered through the static of her loud megaphone-like contraption. I just put on my iPod, and tried to enjoy myself.

Next, the cultural village was just so-so at best. Its caves were minor in comparison to the other two, though it did have a cool draw-string bridge between two karst structures. And the cultural show was fine, small, but with pretty dresses, dancing, and drums. I'll give them the credit, as it was well rehearsed. Pictures afterward with the dancers were 10 yuan a pop, of which a little village girl got me for three. I felt a bit swindled, but she could use it more than me (though I have the funny feeling she just spend it on a Coke or something).

Finally, the pre-history cultural village was bizarre, beyond anything I've seen before. It's initial museum was actually pretty good, with lots of old artifacts dating back tens of thousands of years to the stone age, like needles made of bone, elementary hammers, and arrowheads. But with our guide, we mostly breezed through all that, and into the 'recreation' of the ancient village. As I mentioned, the villagers were wearing tacky leopard skin clothes that could have been out of an 80s glam-rock music video. Even the dumbest tourist would have to realize they weren't even trying to be the slightest bit accurate to what villagers at that time would have actually worn. Nevertheless, we proceeded onward, through the village where we observed actors recreating behavior of the ancient villagers, like making artifacts. We were also invited into a weird dancing circle, and were subsequently hip-thrust by the villagers (I was their most popular target). They also gave out souvenir skull necklaces, but then we had to quickly cough up 10 yuan for them, or return them. And as we were leaving, there was more dancing and even some fire-breathing, and actually a chained-up bear to take photos with. Gosh I felt weirded out. As the final act of dancing and fire-breathing went on, I just sat in the back and read the New York Times on my iPhone. I had done this while waiting for the earlier cultural show to start. I didn't mean to be an asshole, but this is where my attention had ended up. 

But the long, long day had finally ended in Yangshuo. The bus was to go take us back to Guilin, where we would finally have time to ourselves, and away from this tourist world. I wouldn't have been so dismayed with it all if I had just had someone with me to share in the lunacy, someone to laugh at it all with. But alas, I was alone. I don't think another westerner could be dragged on to such a tour.

In Guilin, we had dinner as a group, but first we had to sit through a presentation on the many wonders of bamboo (again, I read the news on my phone), and a mandatory walk through an extensive gift shop full of bamboo products (I should mention we had to make this walk at all destinations that day).

After a quick shower, me and the Canadians went into town for a bowl of noodles at a famous noodle shop, and a walk around the lake that held the famous Guilin pagodas. After some good noodles, a beer or two, and with an ice cream bar in hand, I was finally liking my trip to Guilin. Funny, that these were all it took, but unsurprisingly the food was favorite part.

When the breezing around the lake was done, we taxied home and went to bed, with still another day of activities awaiting us. I prayed for no more cheap, touristy crap, and my prayers were answered. Half of them, anyway.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Guilin: Immersed in Cheap Chinese Tourist Attractions, and Not Loving It (Day 1)

A few months ago I took a much anticipated trip to Guilin, in Guanxi Province, China. Guilin has been hailed as a 'backpacker's dream city', with its famous karst rock formations creating the picture-perfect surroundings, and the village-like (or perhaps it was once village-like) feel of Yangshuo, just down the river from Guilin, and an essential stop for every visitor to Guilin. It was a place one could do on a budget, also something that appeals to me, and not too far from Shenzhen, my home base at the time.

A Chinese friend, well, more than a friend, but we'll leave it at that, recommended I take a Chinese tour that they could find for me on the cheap. Everything would be in Chinese, including the guide, other tourists, etc., but it would be nice and cheap, almost all expenses paid in an initial fee, and I could be immersed in the language and have a great chance to practice my Chinese. So I said, fuck it, let's dive in and do it.

As you can see, I was excited, but I did know going in that it would be a challenging trip, being immersed and being on my own. But I'm used to traveling on my own, and I like a travel challenge, immersion, all that, and this was to be it. Anyway, it was only three days.

And here's how it went: the trip did not start out good. Nor did it continue that good. And nor in the end did I feel like it was really worth the money, but shucks me brains. Traveling is about taking a risk, and sometimes it pays off, and sometimes not.

The First Night Fly Out

To first get to Guilin with this tour group, I was to arrive at the Shenzhen airport on my own, and meet my tour guide who would take us all on the plane and to the airport in Guilin. It was a late flight, we'd touch down, be picked up, and hit the hay, getting up early the next morning for a cruise down the famous Li River (or at least I thought so, remember, all the instructions on the trip were in Chinese, and I'm only competent, not fluent).

I got to the airport on time like a good little boy, and yet the time ticked by, and I was still not seeing my tour leader or tour group. I was supposed to look for a little yellow flag and a group of people, but I saw none of these things. So I called them, and after faking my way through a couple of phone conversations in Chinese, and with the help of my Chinese friend also calling them, did I finally gather that I was the only one traveling by plane. All the others (and their were only about 12 total) had opted for taking the train, the cheaper option. It would have been awfully nice if they had simply told me that. But no. Finally, some Chinese kid showed up and helped me check in for my flight, then sent me off, saying there would be someone in the Guilin Airport with a sign with my name on it to pick me up, all of which took a grand total of about 4 minutes. I thanked him, but for Christsake, I'm fully capable of checking in to my own flight had they just given me the boarding info.

Anyway, a weird start, but I was still optimistic, and boarded my late night flight to Guilin (which, by the way, was a delayed for a while, as Chinese flights almost always are).

I arrive in Guilin and the driver was there as they said he'd be, and took me the hotel in a pretty big mini-bus that I had all to myself. I was to get up for breakfast in the morning at 8:00am, and find the same bus. And the hotel lodgings weren't bad at all, but they didn't seem very central, way outside what appeared to be the center of Guilin with the Moon Towers on the lake (we'll get to that later). And it was great to have a room to myself, but they assured me before the trip, if I was to stay alone, I would have to pay extra for it which I was willing to do for some peace and quiet at the end of each long day of traveling.

Day 1

In the morning I awoke, dreary-eyed and unrested, as I wasn't used to getting up so early. One quick travel tip if it hasn't already occurred to you: don't try to go sightseeing when exhausted, it just sucks. When traveling, one needs to get all the rest they can. Go at your own pace. That's why I had the sudden feeling that this tour group was not going to work out.

I showered and went downstairs to stuff down a Chinese breakfast of fried noodles, juice, hard boiled eggs, and some plain white buns. Chinese breakfast does not resemble western at all (just one thing to note if you love a big, country breakfast like I do). I then found our bus, and was introduced to Mr. Gong. I had heard about him over the phone, that he was to be the Guilin based leader. He introduced himself, spoke a very standard Mandarin which I could understand about 70% of, and seemed to be a pretty honest guy, so that was a relief (you gotta watch out for people scamming you, in all places, but definitely China).

As we drove out to the dock of the Li River, I met the others in our motley crowd of tourists, a young couple, only in their early 20s, some old people, and a group of Chinese Canadians (a mom and two daughters, one of whom had a Chinese national fiancee she had met on the internet). Anyway, they weren't a rockin' spring break party, but they were other young people who at least spoke English for me to mingle with at times. But naturally, I usually tried to speak to them in Mandarin to show off.

We got to the dock at the Li River, and if you don't know it, the Li River is truly a major, international tourist attraction. Heaps of people were getting on boats down the river. But it seemed there were boats for internationals, and boats for Chinese. I got on the boat for Chinese and was proud to. Stupid European/Canadian/American tourists. I bet I paid significantly less for my boat ride than you did.

The boat took off, and soon we were steeped in the towering rock steeples of the famous Guilin countryside and the Li River. The water was clean, the air was damp and smelled of earth, rice farmers and their water buffalo watched us go by, and the karst seemed never ending. Sometimes it's hard to reify why we travel, and what we're looking for when we do. But on this cruise, I did feel a sense of elation to be there, if only for a short while, and the sense that I was looking at something that had been appreciated for millenia, and was truly a world wonder.

But, as the cruise wore on, I got a bit bored with the endless rocks, and I occupied my time chatting up an enormous German on board (the only other westerner) there with his Chinese wife and half-blood kid.

When we got to Yangshuo, I was excited to get off the boat. But as soon as we did, it started pouring rain. We had to wait in the underside of some brick viaduct for the rain to stop, making us ample prey for the old women who sell knick knacks to tourists right off the boat. After some coaxing, I finally caved and bought a poncho and set of postcards. Total amount paid for the two? About $1.50.

In the interest of rain, we took small, golf-cart like cars to our hotel, on the far side of Yangshuo. Yangshuo had a similar feel to that a lot of small Chinese towns have: lots building and bustling, but still with a long way to go. But the karst formations jutting out from the earth here and there gave it more Chinese romance, and I could get used to that. It's no wonder a lot of westerners like to come here. It just seems to look at feel like China, at least the 'China' in the minds of western folk.

That afternoon we continued the planned tour, and went out to ride on small, old-fashioned bamboo boats, just as Chinese cormorant fisherman had done for ages past. But this turned out to be no more than just a cheap, Chinese tourist trap, where for about 17 bucks American, some guy took us out on a small boat for an hour, while people around us sprayed each other with squirt guns. I was paired with an older woman, traveling alone. I would have enjoyed this more with friends, spraying each other with squirt guns in our swimming suits and swimming in the water. But it was no means a romantic taste of old China. Just a glimpse at the cultural oddity of domestic tourism in China today.

In the evening, me and the young couple went to Xi Jie, or West Street, the cultural hub of Yangshuo. There were bars, clubs, western food, and plenty of westerners to be found. It was a cool little market street, with loud music, and endless shops to buy souvenirs. But I had seen plenty of these cobble stoned, Chinese marketplaces in my time in China before, from Lijiang to Xi'an, Beijing, and even Shenzhen's Dongmen. This one in particular did not blow me away. So we just had a beer at a quiet, second-floor cafe, and went home and went to bed, knowing the next day had plenty more touring to be done.

I passed out quickly that evening and felt a longing to be with someone I knew and could make sense of this odd trip with. But I still had 48 hours to go in Guilin, on a trip what was so far a mediocre trip that was about to get exhaustingly even tackier.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A long, long overdue ode to Shenzhen.

For the past 16 months, I lived in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, PR China. It was many things, though never boring, and never slow. I have since returned home to the United States, now with the chance to reflect on my experience.

I find that most Americans are far more interested in Japan, visiting Japan, or learning about Japan than they are in China. It's no surprise, really. Japan is a developed country, a massive economy, and churns out plenty of good culture, from movies, to comic books, to video games, to porn. Sounds a lot like the US, doesn't it, and I think that is at the core of what westerners are looking for in Japan.

Since 1945, Japan has been under the wing of the US, which has no doubt deeply affected its society, from economy to consumer culture. People want an abroad experience that, while I'm not saying Japan is exactly like the US or the West, offers all the amenities and comforts and consumerism that is prevalent in the West. Like what a lot of vacationers are seeking: something different and removed, yet still very much the same as home. China in comparison is a developing country with virtually totalitarian regime. Why in the world would I want to leave the US to go there?

Why do I start this way, on Japan and not Shenzhen? Because in a sense, I hoped that Shenzhen would fuse these two travel desires into one for me: having the amenities of a consumer culture, and yet being off the beaten path and out of the American sphere of influence. Perhaps no corner of this earth is 'out of the American sphere of influence', at least not in the communication age we live in. Well, maybe North Korea, or a place like Syria, but that's another discussion for another day. In Shenzhen, I found a modern city, brand new, shining, and grand; a symbol of the progress of new China. And yet it was still unknown to most in the West, still developing its character, and still controlled by the Beijing government, who as you probably know, doesn't champion things like freedom of speech, and other freedoms American rhetoric holds so dear.

And that's why I went. Because it was different. And because I hoped it would be very much the same. And also because that's where I could live in a major city and teach adults, and not have to expand heaps of energy corralling little children as I tried to teach them English. Japan's economy and market for English teachers is not what it was, and it's difficult to stay-afloat working in a major city there. South Korea has more opportunity and a better exchange rate, but I've already been there. It's a small country and there's not a lot to see, and it too, is definitely a nation within the American sphere of influence if there ever was one.

So I came to Shenzhen. Hoping to experience something different, yet also living well. And, to an extent, I was able to do just that, as I lived at a western standard, while also venturing into the deeper realms of the Shenzhen under-belly to see what native life was like. But in the end, I was mostly just in an office, working a job with hours greater than a full-time work week in the US. I did my best to make the most of my time abroad, mostly by traveling to place in the general pacific vicinity as Shenzhen, and such travels were great. But I decided if I was going to just work in an office all the time, I may as well make more money (I don't mean to complain so much about the money in China, but the yuan is not that strong and that's the way the Chinese like it) and closer to my family. I wasn't getting out much, I was tired on weekends, and I was not improving my Chinese.

So I left, and I'm back. And with the wisdom I've gathered on my fateful trips into the East, I hope to at least be able to tell you some good stories, and some damn good places to eat should be in Shenzhen (or Hong Kong, for that matter). Because I truly believe that life is about the experience, it's about the journey, and most importantly, it's about the food. Try everything you can and see if you enjoy it. (Or am I still talking about food?)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's a Funny Thing, Culture (This is from April)

China recently celebrated its annual festival of Qingming, a solemn day of reverence to passed ancestors. It's known in English as 'tomb-sweeping day', and it's close proximity to the western holiday of Easter, at least in the Gregorian calendar, does not go unnoticed to me.

Both festivals are end-of-winter, and though they have a solemn build-up, are ultimately thankful and celebratory. Like a lot of the world's holidays, perhaps they reflect the changing of the seasons and the pattern of each passing year, the eternal dance of time. But I won't pontificate on the similarities of the all the world's cultures and try to form a thesis that they're all alike at their core (though maybe they are, and maybe I will another time). I just want to mention a few things that are interesting to me about Qingming.

Being a foreigner in China, a country quite literally around the world from where I'm from, I've noticed a few things about the way Chinese culture and commerce interact. This is particularly interesting as China's economic might grows and people here have more money to spend. Sometimes I'm just utterly fascinated by the way Chinese shell out heaping sums of money for what might seem to a westerner as bizarre and worthless. I've seen Chinese pay tons of money for tiny amounts of rare herbs to make tea. When I was in Yunnan, a popular Chinese mainland tourist destination, there were thousands of vendors to buy herbs, jade, and other small items for a lot of money, a lot of money to me anyway, or what would be a lot of money for any middle-class person from any part of the globe. Chinese will also shell it out to have a feng shui expert come to their home and reorganize it based on the feng shui principles. Solicit feng shui to an American (OK, presumably a non-Chinese-American), and even the most open-minded person will probably laugh.

But of course, the shoe fits both ways. Chinese can be very skeptical, hell, I think plenty of Americans can be skeptical, of devoting a large amount of one's time and money to a church. Most Christian groups only ask the layman for 10% of their time, money, and energy (though some groups ask for much more, such as Mormons and some Catholics). But many people just don't see the value in church, such as many in mainland China, where I have been confronted with intense skepticism regarding how churches in America ask for money from their congregations, and ergo attempt to exploit people. I get the feeling that's Party influence talking, going back to Mr. Mao, yet it still pervades Chinese society.

One major institution in the US that can be viewed as completely frivolous is sports. America has a tremendous sporting culture, and those not raised in it may be confused with the pleasure/pain it brings us on a daily basis, not to mention the tremendous amount of money it consumes. It is a business for many, but the 'product' that is consumed is just entertainment, entertainment that is valued at least in our particular culture. If for some reason our culture shifted toward valuing other things than physical performance and athletic grandeur, than the money would be drained out of major sports. It could happen. Maybe it should happen.

The Chinese dig the NBA, especially young boys. Why basketball has caught on in China so avidly I do not know. I think perhaps because it's a simple game that does not require a lot of money or specific locale or equipment to play, like soccer. But think about the cultural implications. Give a Chinese person a ticket to the Superbowl, and they will be utterly confused, despite its supposed worth and monetary value. Or sign a Chinese worker up for a complimentary membership at a ritzy golf club. Some people pay 80,000 dollars a year for memberships to golf clubs in America. The Chinese worker would just not see the value in it. (Though I should note that golf clubs are actually becoming more popular in China, but still for the vast majority, golf is still a cultural luxury that few can afford or enjoy there.)

But I digress. Let's get back to Qingming for the finale. One staple of Qingming, particularly in southern China, is the burning of symbolic gifts to offer the dead. People buy paper watches, cars, gold, diamonds, houses, even women figurines to give the dead some concubine-like company in the next world, and burn them as offerings. These are purely symbolic items, right? They are merely made of paper. One can't be expected to burn a fancy watch on someone's tomb so that they can tell time in the afterlife. But hey, people have got to honor their ancestors somehow, if only for giving them life and raising them, so if paper is the best that can be done, so be it. Few in history have the power to arm themselves for the afterlife with thousands of terracotta warriors guarding over their tomb. But it has happened.

In the west, we no longer have a sacrificial culture, at least not in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We'll put flowers on graves, and that's pretty similar, but not quite the same. Perhaps in the East they revere their ancestors greater than we do. It's more or less accepted that Asian culture is more family and communally oriented, as opposed to the individualism of the West. But I have no qualms with someone burning a paper Rolex on my grave in the hope that I'll use in in the afterlife. In fact, that would be pretty cool.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Late Autumn" by Kim Tae-yong Review (unpublished)

The beginning of Late Autumn, directed by Kim Tae-yong, is sleek, stylish and attention-grabbing. Clear wide-angle photography and quietude of pace make the loneliness and isolation of main protagonist Anna (Tang Wei) almost palpable as she travels alone through the Pacific Northwest of the United States. But somewhere along the way, about the middle for me, Late Autumn loses itself completely. Its creeping pace becomes tedious, and the director Kim seems so focused on continuity of style that he forgets real storytelling and plot. Its trilingual dialog (English, Chinese, and Korean) is ambitious, but artificial; the English dialog having the quality of being written by someone whose first language is not English. And most frustrating of all, the film seems to have no idea when, or how, to end itself.

This is actually the second remake of Late Autumn, the original made in 1966 and first remake in 1982, all three Korean productions. It is a tragedy by nature, about two very different outsiders, who meet and work out the semblance of some companionship. The central figure is Anna, a young Chinese American living in San Francisco, who has killed her abusive husband in a fit of passion, and is now serving an extended prison sentence for her deed. Upon her mother’s death seven years later, she is granted a 72 hour hiatus from jail to attend the funeral in Seattle. Heading north alone by bus, she meets a cocky young Korean, Hoon (Hyun Bin), who wiggles and inches his way into the company of the cold and repellant Anna. It turns out that Hoon is a gigolo who makes his living pleasing older, affluent Korean women, and has his own issues haunting him connected to his dubious profession. Hoon appoints himself to be Anna’s companion for her long weekend on the outside, as she must face her emotionally distant family and the man from her past that she truly loved and whom may be responsible for the turmoil between her and her late husband.

Some central concerns of mine focus on the relationship between Anna and Hoon, the core of the film. Anna seems incapable of snapping out of her gloomy daze, despite the relentless efforts of Hoon to break through. Perhaps a ladies man like Hoon would see cracking her despondent disposition a challenge, but I doubt a real gigolo like Hoon would give a woman like Anna the time of day after their first encounter (in which he needs to borrow money from her for his bus ticket), unless she were willing to be a paying costumer. There is utterly no chemistry between the two, and their romance to me is inconceivable, despite what might be seen as Anna’s desperation for male attention after being in prison for seven years. (Early in the film, the two attempt an awkward love scene at Anna’s request, also unbelievable that her character would stoop to such a thing.)

Furthermore, while Anna is clearly a tragic figure, I would feel more sympathy for her if she felt anything other than self-pity for herself, rejecting those around her and preferring to wallow in despair. Only in one scene towards the end, during the funeral reception dinner at her late mother’s Chinese restaurant, does Anna break out of her stoic veneer and express some powerful emotion, finally commanding more sympathy from her on looking family, as well as the audience. Otherwise, she remains static in despair and never really makes the transformation Hoon or audiences will be waiting for.

If the film does have a transformation point or climax, it is when Anna and Hoon finally engage in an epic, three minute long kiss. The kiss comes at a foggy highway rest-stop on their way back to California, after Hoon is suddenly accosted by a tough American Mafioso who is married to one of Hoon’s clients, and comes to exact retribution (although the bad guy looks more like he’s headed to dinner at a fancy country club than threatening). Hoon realizes this is his last chance with Anna, and expresses himself accordingly. Again, I would be happy to applaud such expression of passion if I felt it viscerally between the two characters, but I never could. And though it is filmed with sensitivity and beauty, it hardly feels triumphant or like the culmination of a passion that has been brewing between the two.

They say give credit where credit is due, and in Late Autumn, Kim Tae-yong has done some solid, artful photography, and has a unique pace of telling his story that I want to like. The film’s scenes of Seattle even serve as a lovely homage to the city. But his artistry is too much, at times becoming like misplaced avant garde, and it cannot maintain viewer attention or convey his message clearly. In the end, you may feel something for the tragic companions who find one another in a lonely world, but you’ll probably be too exhausted by the aimlessness of the lingering plot to care, and just be glad it’s over.

"A Simple Life" by Ann Hui Review

If you’ve had an at least somewhat respectable upbringing, you’ve probably been told before to respect your elders, consider how the elderly are marginalized in society, and not to forget that old people were once young like you. And though this theme pops up from time to time in any mainstream culture, it has special relevance in Asia, where filial piety is of utmost social importance.

It is this universal theme that largely carries A Simple Life, directed by Ann Hui, a gentle and unpretentious Hong Kong drama based on the true story of Hong Kong film producer Roger Lee. But of course, more than just a theme, it is a story, and like its title says, a simple story about a simple life, told through the relationship between central characters Roger, played by Andy Lau, and his ailing family maid, Sister Peach, played by the subtly excellent Deanie Ip. And though the story’s message is fairly obvious and quite traditional in nature, don’t be afraid it will lecture you; you’ll probably be enjoying the film’s genuine wit and warmth too much to notice.

The film’s main perspective is Peach, loyal maid of two generations to Roger and his middle-class family, all of whom are now residing in the United States except for Roger. Though in his fifties, Roger is still unmarried, with only Peach to look after his domestic caretaking in his Hong Kong apartment while he lives a busy life as film producer. After Peach suffers a stroke and requires rehabilitation and care, Roger finds himself in the uncharted territory of how to care for himself, as well as how to care about the mother figure, though maid, who raised him since infancy. In her illness, Peach must spend time in a retirement care center, a very shameful place to send one’s elderly parents in traditional Chinese custom, and also very contradictory to Peach’s headstrong sense of self-reliance. Roger in his propriety wonders if he is doing the right thing by letting her stay there. After all, she’s a servant, but kind of like family, too, right?

It is worth noting that in its examination of servitude and its complicated combination of subordination and intimacy, A Simple Life is comparable to the recently Oscar-nominated The Help, also highly talked about these days (though obviously A Simple Life is without the race issue). But unlike the brightly colored and overly-dramatized Help, A Simple Life is real and without affectation, not preaching or ramming its message through, but instead providing a glance into the rhythms and challenges of an unglamorous life. Its camera angles are blunt and candid, dialog at times very scarce, and music is used very sparingly, only serving to occasionally accentuate the emotionality of short moments. It’s not unlike the true life of a maid or the resident of a retirement home, but nonetheless engaging. This is no doubt a testament to Hui’s strength as a filmmaker, relying on realism to tell a real story, and omitting the grandiose melodrama all too common in typical Hollywood scripting.

In the time Peach spends at the care center, we get an honest glimpse at the decadence of life there, but also a fun host of supporting characters, who live through their own ups and downs, sometimes to comedic, and sometimes to tragic effect. But Hui does not ask us to feel sorry for them or for Peach; she unapologetically presents them as they are, letting your own sense of pathos do the work if it wants to.

In the end, the story’s core remains the relationship between Roger and Peach, as soon the pretense of the maid-employer relationship fades, and Roger desires more and more to care for Peach with sonly commitment. Peach in turn shows the motherliness and strength she always has, even as her health continues to decline.

Lau delivers a solid performance in a role that is not easy, despite its simplicity, playing an honest character, but also reserved and at times unsure. But in fact the real star is Ip, playing a character fairly older than herself. Without delivering any long monologues or hardly raising her voice, she commands viewer attention with each expression, posture, and sentiment: fragile, perhaps, but brave, and never self-pitying.

A Simple Life is far from big-budget, popcorn-chomping entertainment, and may bore the less conscientious members of the crowd. But even they will probably find something to like in this universally appreciable and sincere film. Be sure to bring your parents along or even maid, if you have one. After seeing the film, you might have the urge to show them just a touch more respect.