Rectified.name: In Defense of the Fuzz

For many years I lived in Singapore, which is right on the equator and has roughly two seasons: slightly more rainy, and slightly less rainy. Otherwise, it was pretty much hot and humid throughout, which always used to freak me out a bit at Christmas. To an American, encountering Santa Claus in 30C heat is unexpected, like finding a live rattlesnake in your refrigerator. It’s always struck me as somewhat unnatural that Australians see Christmas as a summer phenomenon. What else do they do backwards? Maybe on Christmas morning, they randomly steal things and slap people.

One of the things I enjoyed about moving to Beijing, besides being further away from the antipodes, was clearly demarcated seasons. Winter was a genuine novelty. Summer was like Singapore, except with air that could delaminate plywood. Spring and autumn were glorious interludes, as long as you didn’t mind having the Gobi Desert airmailed to you from time to time. Seasons are the demarcations on the great clock of the year, the way you internalize the passage of time. So are television shows, the National People’s Conference and the ebb and flow of denim hot-pants on the teenage girls of Beijing, of course, but seasons are a more poetic way of doing it.

Since moving to Beijing I’ve found myself thinking in terms of how many winters and summers I’ve seen here. How many sandstorm seasons, and piling up of the throngs at Xiangshan. And how many times I’ve experienced the fuzz.

Read the rest on Rectified.name.

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Sinica: Muckraking with Chinese characteristics

Another Sinica podcast this week, this time focusing mostly on a favorite topic of mine: Media corruption in China. We were lucky to have Caixin editor Li Xin as a guest. Caixin is one of the handful of Chinese publications that distinguishes itself by its ethics, but her perspective as an experienced Chinese journalist was great to have. Here’s the blurb:

In one of the juicier quotes making the rounds on social networks this week a private equity investor in Shanghai savaged the Chinese media for its unblinking corruption, quipping to the New York Times that “if one of my companies came up with a cure for cancer, I still couldn’t get any journalists to come to the press conference without promising them a huge envelope filled with cash.”

Exactly how bad is this problem and were does it cross the line? This week Sinica dives into the question of how Chinese journalism works in practice with a show that splits cleanly along industry lines. Joining host Jeremy Goldkorn this week and representing the journalism and public relations industries in turn are Sinica friendsLi Xin, managing editor of Caixin magazine, and Will Moss, China PR expert and blogger of Imagethief fame.

Download or stream from the Sinica page, or search Sinica on iTunes to subscribe.

Pony up.

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Rectified.Name: Facebook + Instagram + China = Take a Deep Breath

So, Facebook bought Instagram for a billion bucks. Awesome for those guys. I, alas, did not get rich in either of the Internet startups I participated in. But you can’t put a price on experience, right?

Deep sigh.

Anyway, Instagram is freely accessible here in China, at least for the moment, and apparently has a small but growing user base. It’s been limited to a certain slice of the China market by being an iOS-only app until last week. It may get picked up more now that it’s on Android as well, especially given Android’s whomping share of the smartphone market in China.

Because Instagram is accessible from China there has been some speculation that it might provide a back-door into the market for Facebook. Well, color me embarrassed, because when I looked at how Facebook might get into China a couple of weeks ago, one scenario I didn’t explore was Facebook buying another, unblocked western social network.

Instagram certainly functions as a posting back-door to both Facebook and Twitter. Instagram posts route to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks through Instagram’s unblocked servers (actually, Amazon’s cloud servers for the moment). There are similar middleman workarounds for posting on blocked social networks, such as Ping.fm, but none come close to providing full access to Twitter or Facebook. And, from what I can see, neither does Instagram. That’s important.

Read the rest at Rectified.name.

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Sinica: Weibo comment shutdown and end of the expat package

After a longish break I was back on Sinica to discuss this week’s three-day comment moratorium on the Chinese microblogging services and the evergreen “death of the expat” topic. David Wolf was the other guest, with Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo hosting as usual. The blurb:

Curious where your “fat expat package” has gone? This week on Sinica, Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn welcome Will Moss of Imagethief and David Wolf of Wolf Group Asia for a dissection of the expat job market: what sort of jobs are available in China these days and what it takes to get on what we lovingly call the FEP. We put everything on the table this week, including some numbers that will either impress or horrify you. And for good measure, we also look at Sina Weibo’s slap-on-the-wrist for its involvement spreading coup rumors two weeks ago, a retaliatory strike that turned China’s biggest social network into a marginally better version of Twitter for a horrifying three days.

It’s all on the Popup Chinese site, as usual, in streaming and downloadable forms, or on iTunes (search Sinica). You can find the David Barboza article that I recommended at the end of the podcast here.

Although we kind of conflated them in the discussion, the decline in expat packages is actually a separate issue from the employment prospects for foreigners in China. After all, none of us in the studio is on an expat package or, with the exception of me for just over a year in 1996, ever been on one. Young people interested in working in China would do well to start with this old but still relevant Imagethief post.

NB: Astoundingly, this was the second anniversary show of Sinica. It just doesn’t seem like that long. Hats off to Kaiser for keeping it going, and to Dave Lancashire for allowing the production to invade his studio on a weekly basis. Set the wayback machine for April 2, 2010 to hear how it started.

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Rectified.name: Facebook’s China Playbook

As you have undoubtedly heard by now, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend* were spotted in Shanghai on Wednesday. This has lead to a completely predictable round of speculation as to whether this signals some new development in Facebook + China. This sort of navel gazing takes off whenever Zuck comes to China, or looks in the direction of China, or gets lunch at P.F. Chang’s, or whatever. And why not? Facebook is the biggest social network in the world. China has the biggest population of Internet users in the world. Facebook is going public soon. Zuck is learning Chinese, etc. So a Zuck sighting in China is, to invoke the memory of Arsenio Hall, one of the things that make you go, hmm…

Despite all of that, leave to our friends at the excellent Tech in Asia blog to have the most sensible take, “Zuckerberg is in China…Who cares?” Indeed.

Obviously, we don’t know a thing about Facebook’s designs on China. But to make sense of the speculation it’s helpful to consider the actual scenarios by which Facebook or Twitter or indeed any foreign social network might enter China, and to look at how different stakeholder groups will react to the possible scenarios. This is different than analyzing business strategy or financial implications, but ultimately it’s all connected.

Read the rest and see the handy chart at Rectified.name.

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Rectified.name: I apologize if anyone felt killed

Apologies are an under-appreciated art. Most apologies crafted in the name of public relations sound intrinsically weaselly, often because the people making them are preoccupied with saving their prior reputation rather than getting past the mistake and rebuilding trust. I was reminded of this when I read Mike Daisey’s statement following L’affaire Daisey, which I reckon I don’t need to further explain to this audience. (If you’ve just emerged from decades frozen in an ice cave, click here. Also, get a haircut. Styles have changed.)

Here is what Mr. Daisey wrote:

 I apologized in this week’s episode to anyone who felt betrayed.

Did you see it? If not, I’ll explain in a moment.

Continued at Rectified.name.

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Imagethief gets Rectified

Over the years I’ve been invited to contribute to many group blogs. I’ve penned the odd piece or two, but in most cases I’ve declined the invitations. Even when I was blogging a lot –Remember those days? Think, George W. Bush early second term– I wasn’t very good at contributing to other people’s blogs. I did one post for Shanghaiist back in the day (promptly blowing their styleguide) and in a few cases I agreed to contribute but never did (sorry, Huffington Post, but let’s be honest: no one missed me). The only time I regularly contributed as a member of a team was my stint as China contributor on CNET Asia’s regional tech blog, back in 2005-7. They paid, though so little that it was almost more insulting than working for free (free is noble, cheap is just rude). But it was fun.

There were a few reasons why I was never really into group blogs. I was blogging for myself first, and when push came to shove I didn’t like being someone else’s unpaid content monkey. (I was totally happy to be a paid content monkey.) As for contributing to amateur group blogs, I didn’t want to have to worry either about treading on other peoples’ sensibilities or about how co-authors’ posts might reflect on me. I was quite capable of getting myself in trouble all on my own, without needing help from others.

Well, so much for all that. I’m now one of the co-authors of Rectified.name, a new China blog that also features Jeremiah Jenne of Jottings from the Granite Studio, Dave Lyons (once of Mutant Palm fame, now known on the tubes as Davesgonechina), Brendan O’Kane of Bokane.org, and YJ.

So, you ask, what’s different?

Glad you asked. For one thing, scientists conducting rigorous experiments with the Large Hadron Collider, the most sensitive scientific instrument in the world, have determined to a high degree of statistical confidence that I don’t blog much anymore. Therefore, rather than having my dwindling reader base lurking mournfully around the increasingly desolate Imagethief for my quarterly I-hate-ICBC rant, I thought I might make sense to be part of a more regularly updated and diverse blog. Also, I cannot think of a better group of contributors than the Rectified.name lineup. I know them all personally, all are longtime China residents and readers and speakers of Chinese (especially YJ, who is, ahem, actually Chinese). And, importantly, all are talented writers with styles that fit together well. You didn’t hear it from me, but there is a suspiciously high wiseass quotient across the board.

My first post for Rectified.name is already up. I’ll be cross-posting opening paragraphs on Imagethief, butI expect most of my upcoming work will be on Rectified.name with this blog reserved for things that are personal, weird or trivial enough that that they’re better off not going on a group blog. If you subscribe to Imagethief’s feed, please subscribe to Rectified.name.

This is an experiment for all of us. We’re not sure that it’s going to work, but we’re excited about it. These are pretty lean days for China blogging, with much of the fun and banter now on Facebook and Twitter. Those are great platforms, but for those of us who like to write, blogging still has its charms. Someone has to save China blogging, dammit. And we think we’re the people to do it.

Stay tuned.

PS: If you don’t get “Rectified.name,” read up on your Confucian history.

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What I learned from Dashan

I don’t have much time for social Q&A site Quora, I confess. It seems to combine the narcissism of blogging (I should know!) with the politics of Wikipedia editing in all sorts of odd ways. I signed up early, lurked for a while, and then more or less forgot about it despite its popularity among several of my friends. But this morning I read a very good post on Quora by longtime Canadian China resident Mark Rowswell, aka TV performer “Dashan.” The question he was answering was: Why do so many Chinese learners seem to hate Dashan?

And a good question it is.

I myself have heard the outrageous lie, “Your Chinese is as good as Dashan’s!” often enough over the years to have had to suppress a gag reflex on many occasions. But I find both the comparison and Dashan-hate in general to be much less prevalent than they were six or seven years ago. I am not sure if this because there is actually less of them, or simply because I now move in circles that have graduated to other concerns. When one is a parent, one spends less time pondering Dashan and more time pondering how to keep one’s children from developing silicosis from the air. Or, at least, I do. Just writing about Dashan feels a bit like turning the clock back a few years.

But for a long time, Dashan was a guaranteed conversation starter. As you can see in the Quora entry, my old friend Kaiser Kuo actually wrote a That’s Beijing column in 2006 in praise of Dashan (he called me, among others, in researching it). It’s not worth recapping all of the pro- and con-Dashan arguments here. Rowswell gets into most of them in his Quora answer. But I would touch on one factor that I think is important. Rowswell writes about what he calls “stereotyping”:

This even borders on racism in more extreme cases. The logic seems to go like this: white guy – speaks Chinese – Chinese people laugh – he must be making an ass of himself. Of course, the only way a white guy could possibly entertain a Chinese audience would be to be a complete buffoon.

It’s the “race traitor” syndrome, and it’s always been a huge part of expat perceptions of Dashan. We all like to think we’re enlightened, but there are things that push deeply buried emotional buttons, including the notion that a compatriot (or, for Americans, near compatriot) might be demeaning us racially in front of –pardon my language– the natives. This is, of course, a completely colonial, racist and unworthy attitude, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And it says something about how, deep down, many of us view our relationship with our Chinese hosts.

When the media is involved I think there is also a political reaction, where we see participants as selling out to or somehow collaborating with the regime in a way that crosses some imaginary line of decorum that the rest of us have respected. Both of these reactions also had a great deal to do with a bout of hate directed at CCTV 9 news anchor Edwin Maher a few years back, following an LA Times profile.

Rowswell’s entire Quora response is thoughtful and worth a read. There was, however, one other part that stood out to me, and is particularly relevant to anyone who communicates in China on behalf of a foreign entity (such as PR people, just to name a random example):

…I work within Chinese cultural norms – the limits of what is culturally acceptable to a Chinese audience. That doesn’t necessarily mean you pander. You can challenge the norms and push limits here and there, and I believe I have done and continue to do that, but in large part you work within a cultural acceptable limit. Chinese don’t go for shock humour, nor do they tend to accept what is commonly accepted in the West – that it’s OK to be offensive as long as you are offensive on an equal opportunity basis. That’s just not part of the Chinese comedy or media scenes.

Also, in many instances what would be acceptable for a Chinese performer to say is not considered acceptable for a foreign performer, especially when it comes to social or political satire. Even in a comedic exchange between individuals, you have to be aware that the audience may not perceive this as Character A making fun of Character B, but instead as Foreign Character making fun of Chinese Character, which goes over like a ton of bricks.

So I work within cultural norms. This spills over into the political realm, because, to be honest, Chinese cultural acceptance of foreign political criticism is almost nil. In short, I don’t have to worry about what government censors might say because Chinese audiences would never let me get that far anyway.

So, I could make a short public statement like that of Christian Bale recently or Björk a few years ago. It’s very easy to do and ensures you get very good coverage in the Western media. You go home and everyone thinks you are a person of moral conviction who stood up to the great Chinese monster. But the fact is that these kinds of statements elicit almost no sympathy whatsoever from ordinary Chinese citizens. They simply are not culturally acceptable to the broad Chinese audience. And it’s very difficult to see what impact they have other than to further convince ordinary Chinese people that China is misunderstood and that the Western world is antagonistic towards China and resentful of China’s development. What use is that?

Indeed. Whatever you think of Dashan, there are broader lessons in there for those who care to look.

Update:

In retrospect, and after hearing from some friends who feel differently, it occurs to me that I should have called this post, “Excuse me while I refuse to hate on Dashan.”

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Holiday special: An advanced socialist dessert culture

In my years here, I have participated in passionate and heated debates on virtually all aspects of Chinese politics and society. What is the true nature of the government? Can the Chinese educational system produce creativity? Is the country rising or falling? All of these topics are capable of rending friendships, dividing rooms and spoiling a perfectly good dinner party. And yet none produces the same level of incandescent conflict as the question of whether or not China can do desserts.

China has an evident sweet-tooth. A walk down the candy aisle of any Chinese supermarket is trip to a tinsel-wrapped wonderland of waxy treats of infinite variety. True, I’m occasionally sucker-punched by spicy dried beef, which is often wrapped like candy, but a lot of it actually is candy, at least loosely defined. And what Chinese restaurant meal is complete without the fruit plate? If you’re lucky, the fruit plate might even be spouting dry-ice fog. Dinner and a show – what could be sweeter? One of the very first gifts I was given after starting work in China was a box of tangyuan. (I learned an important lesson: tangyuan are meant to be cooked. Hence the “tang“.) And the price people in this town will pay for Häagen-Dazs is second only to the price they will pay for ridiculous luxury watches, a phenomenon I’ve been able to study since our overheated local Häagen-Dazs shop is just around the corner from our local ridiculous-luxury-watch boutique.

It’s not just urban. The meanest, most wretched outhouse of a rural provision shop will somehow manage an ice-cream cooler, even if the refrigeration is powered by a mule on a treadmill or local orphans trudging around a giant “wheel-of-pain” like the one that turned a skinny waif into Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Conan the Barbarian.” I once had fresh made ice cream in a one-donkey town in Xinjiang in the foothills of the Pamir Mountains. It was awesome. Possibly because I was on the verge of heatstroke at the time.

Which raises a question: Does one need to be under some kind of physical duress to appreciate desserts in China? Admittedly, I have a roaring sweet tooth, apparently inherited from my father. I might my strap my own son into the wheel of pain if Häagen-Dazs Rum Raisin ice cream came out of the far end, especially given that it costs $13 a pint here. But ultimately, I’m open minded when it comes to Chinese desserts. I don’t just mean desserts obtained in China, but also desserts drawn from Chinese cuisine. Deep fried pumpkin bisuits. Red bean buns. Glutinous rice confections. Hot walnut soup. I’m pretty much OK with all of them. I still get bricks of blown honey when I walk through Qianmen, despite their proven ability to epoxy my jaws together for hours.

And yet the derision I’ve come in for from western friends is shocking. I could tell foreigners that my hobby is driving two-inch galvanized roofing nails through the skulls of live ferrets and they’d get less worked than they do when I tell them I like Chinese desserts. This leads me to ask: Is it them, or is it me? Are they right? Is that I’ve finally gone native and this is how its expressed itself? Instead of fleeing into the mountains of Yunnan to start a sustainable flax farm I’ve simply decided that its OK to eat black sesame paste? Or are they narrow minded conventionalists whose eyes are fogged with a lethal mix of Oreo dust and crème brûlée?

I won’t stand for that kind of cultural dessert imperialism myself. A century of hardship inculcates flexibility in confectionery.  Just as almost anything can be food in China (especially southern China), so can nearly anything be dessert. If all you have is mutton and molasses, by god you’re having molasses sweetened mutton floss for dessert.

But these ethnic treats take you only so far. Perhaps the most fertile ground lies in fusion desserts, where Chinese (or Asian) sensibilities collide with western ingredients or traditions. It’s unfair, but some places were blessed more by dessert providence than others. The French, at least after the enlightenment, had butter and flour and invented European pâtisserie. The Indonesians had palm sugar and coconut milk and invented cendol (and you haven’t lived until you’ve had a really good cendol). And China had…well, China had pluck. And legumes. But it’s been willing to recombine, which goes a long way. After all, what better illustrates the potential of modern China than the shaping of foreign ideas to suit Chinese circumstances? Hence the entirely respectable red-bean ice-cream stick. (Although the less said about the phallic corn-dildo ice cream stick the better.)

This trait reaches its zenith is in its ability to take components that under other circumstances I’d be utterly contemptuous of and fashion them into miracles. I experienced this during a recent dinner with my colleagues at a restaurant called Green Tea, a sort of upper-middlebrow Hangzhou place with pretensions. Dinner was fine. But when they got to dessert they earned a place in my heart forever.

When I moved to Singapore in 1995 I discovered the phenomenon that I came to think of as “Japanese-style” bakeries. If you live anywhere in Asia, you’ll recognize this genre of store as offering a range of vaguely sweet, soft white breads, sausage rolls and alarming-looking combinations of cheese and sugar. I’m expansive about desserts, but I’m a bread snob so I’ve always been completely disdainful of the entire genre. Seriously: My standards are high. I wept when the Fauchon in Shin Kong Place went out of business. They were priced and stocked for Marie Antoinette’s snottier cousin, but their breads were the best in Beijing as long as they were in business – and were the only thing I ever bought, which was symptomatic of their problem, I guess. Respectable French pâtisserie Comptoirs de France opened in Beijing four years ago and it took them until last month to come up with a loaf of bread I like (the sourdough).

I’m also reasonably discerning about Ice Cream. Longtime readers will know that Mrs. Imagethief is a nutritionist. Among the many things I’ve learned from her is this: if you must indulge, do it right and don’t fart around with the small-time stuff. If you’re going to have ice cream and suffer the attendant guilt, you might as well have good ice cream. Bi-Rite salted caramel*, for example, or Strauss Mint Chip. Who wants to pound out the extra kilometers just because you caved on a pint of Baxy? No one, that’s who. So, like Nancy Reagan, I just say no to the soft bread and flavorless ice cream.

Or, I did. Until that dinner at Green Tea.

My colleagues ordered the house specialty dessert, 面包诱惑, which means something like “bread temptation,” though I think “bread seduction” would be better. This is a cube of warm, freshly-baked, soft white bread, sliced into twenty-seven smaller cubes (three cubed – think about the geometry) with a scoop of generic vanilla ice cream melting on top. The heat from the bread melts the ice cream, which runs down into the cracks between the bread cubes and soaks into the crumb and, well, it’s just alchemy, dammit, because the result is gustatory lead transformed into dessert gold. I swear when the waitress carried the first one in the world turned to slow motion while “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” played in my head. You’ll know that as the music that Stanley Kubrick used at the beginning of “2001: A Space Odyssey” to introduce us to a twenty-minute segment of a featureless monolith teaching apes to beat each other to death, which says something important, though I’m not sure what.

It is the call of the Sirens rendered into cheap bread and ice cream because, speaking of monoliths and ape-like behavior, we ate three of these things. By which I mostly mean that I ate three of them. I am told that other restaurants have cribbed the idea, but that so far they all lack some…je ne sais quois. Worryingly, I’ve also learned that there is a branch of Green Tea around the corner from my house.

So, is it a Chinese dessert? Well, not really, I suppose. But it’s Chinese ingenuity applied to Western components with bang-up results. And if that isn’t domestic innovation, well then, what the hell is? The government should be proud.

Happy New Year to all readers from Imagethief.

面包诱惑

Domestic innovation.

*Not to be missed, next time you’re in San Francisco.

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The almighty soft-power princess bomb

Chinese soft-power is doomed.

I came to this conclusion a couple of weeks ago. The message was delivered in the form of a guy in a mouse suit on ice skates, and I received it loud and clear when Mrs. Imagethief and I took our son to see the Disney on Ice show at the Workers Gymnasium.

Having a child recalibrates your pop culture consumption habits. Before Zach was born I was all about Led Zeppelin and Michael Bay movies. Even better: Led Zeppelin in Michael Bay movies. Mrs. Imagethief, despite what she may say to you, was pretty much the same, which is why we got married. I have few pop culture pretensions. I have some jazz and such, which I wheel out for brunches because no one other than me wants to listen to “When the Levee Breaks” over mimosas and pancakes. But mostly I was about the loudness and explosions.

I still have my adolescent pleasures, but they’ve been crowded into the margins of my life by The Wiggles, Bob the Builder and Lightning McQueen. Mostly I’m OK with that. The Wiggles haven’t penetrated my workout mix yet, but I don’t have to leave the room when they’re on.

But going to a Disney on Ice show seemed like sailing across some kind of event horizon and beginning an unrecoverable, light-speed plummet into the black hole of pop culture, at the singularity of which one might find such atomized debris as Cop Rock, Kevin Federline and the XFL.

I have no objection to Disney per se. Back in my (nerd alert) laserdisc days I had a respectable assortment of neo-classic animated Disney films. Hakuna matata, dude. And I still go for Pixar stuff, although I suffer from the overexposure to Cars that afflicts every parent of a small boy. As they say, there are no toxins, only toxic doses, and I exceeded a toxic dose of Mater the tow truck quite some time ago. I’m just waiting for my gums to start bleeding.

No, what I resisted on some visceral level, as I might resist a box of candy-frosted frog eyeballs, was the idea of Disney on Ice. With the exception of hockey, which, like Michael Bay movies, is redeemed by violence and thuggery, it’s hard to think of any performance that is improved by putting it on ice. Conceivably NASCAR and political debates (especially if the candidates get hockey gear), but after that, what? Hamlet? Radiohead? Even Olympic figure skating is really just the speck of sanitized-for-mass-consumption flotsam at the top of the vast, reality-show swamp that is everything else having to do with professional figure skating. It’s the back room stuff they should be broadcasting. Remember Tonya Harding?

Despite the evidence supplied by my Michael Bay habit, I am sure some readers have concluded that I am some kind of rarefied cultural élite hopelessly distanced from the entertainments of normal people. After all, I spell “élite” with an “é.” But that’s cool. It’s my over-educated, west-coast leftnik pedigree, and I’ve come to terms with it and the conflicts that it has engendered. If I want to scoff at Disney on Ice over the chardonnay and New Yorker that I use to kill the time between pyrotechnic robot movies, I damned well will.

Nevertheless, I went to Disney on Ice because when you have kids what you and your chardonnay want goes straight into the bin and what your kids want pretty much becomes the yardstick by which all recreation is evaluated. Hence my chronic Matertoxosis. So off we went.

Actually, it was pretty good fun.

No, really. As a parent you gain a certain appreciation for anything that can hold a three-year-old’s attention for ninety minutes. But despite the many layers of corporatism wrapped around it, it’s hard not enjoy a multi-villain extravaganza featuring Cruella DeVille, Jafar, Maleficent and about four other fiends in colorful hats.  I also added Disney on Ice to my expanding list of oddball things that now make me get all teary.

But what really struck me was how successful the show was. They’d sold out the Worker’s Gymnasium and the seats were packed to the brim with Chinese kids, apparently all of whom had successfully argued their parents into springing for the light-up wands and inedible cosmo-sausage they were hawking at the mezzanine. Scalpers were doing a good trade on the way in. Whatever else is going on in Beijing, people will pony up for Disney on Ice.

The only content that referenced China was two minutes of Mulan, who ranks in the Disney pantheon about where Jar Jar Binks ranks in the Star Wars pantheon, if not below. The show was, however translated into Chinese. It’s a bit surreal watching Caucasian skaters in eye-popping stage makeup nonsense-lip-synching to Chinese Disney character voiceovers.

As an American it’s even weirder listening to Mickey Mouse himself in Chinese, not least because they nailed the voice. It was spooky. But also, much more than the Chinese audience, I think we Americans have internalized Mickey Mouse as an American symbol. I confess a bit of surprise that Mickey hasn’t replaced the eagle on the great seal of the United States of America. I have clear memories of a T-shirt from 1979 that said, “Hey, Iran!” and featured a cheery Mickey flipping the bird. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an authorized product, but you never know. Could have been clever licensing. Give that mouse a shield, an olive branch and thirteen arrows and stand the hell back.

But the fact was that Chinese families in droves were handing over 180RMB a head before snacks, beverages and sparkly wands to be exposed to possibly the basest layer of American pop culture. Meanwhile, China is exporting Confucius institutes, ponderous Zhang Yimou films, and a billboard in Times Square that nobody seems to understand. It’s an asymmetrical battle, and probably only going to get more so now that SARFT may be taking steps (zh) to ensure that entertainment television is rendered as unprofitable as possible for broadcasters in China. Am I missing anything?

When Americans are paying $30 a pop to watch Xi Yangyang on ice, then I’ll know China is really getting somewhere. Until then, hakuna matata, dude.

Fairy godmother, can you make Chinese TV better?

Update:

China’s soft power issues were also the subject of last week’s Sinica podcast.

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