The Devil’s Air Conditioner and Other Tales of Woe

Sometimes life in Beijing is like one of those Japanese game shows where they see how much torture people are willing to endure for surprisingly mediocre prizes. Picture the following and you’ve more or less got it:

“Mr. Ishihara, for a new desktop dumpling fridge you’ve been strapped naked to a hospital gurney in the burning sun for twelve hours. You’re pinking up nicely. Do you wish to continue?”


“Then it’s time to raise the bar! Here comes a team of lingerie models to glue Gabonese fire ants to your testicles!”

“I can take it! Must…have…tiny…fridge!”

“Great! While they prepare the ants, let’s watch this secretly recorded video of you confessing erectile dysfunction at last week’s office drinking party!”

That’s us on the gurney. We’re all in it for the rush and the dubious prize while an oddball assortment of it-could-only-happen-here, Rube Goldberg discomforts repeatedly jabs its three-fingered cartoon glove into our sensitive bits. As long as you can take it, you live in Beijing. When, like Popeye the Sailor Man, you can’t stands no more, you pack up and head for more congenial shores. With a dumpling fridge, if you’re lucky.

This weekend’s finger to my sensitive bits involved the air conditioner in my apartment.

Let me tell you a bit about my apartment. Nominally in a “luxury” development, it’s horrendously expensive and situated in one of Beijing’s most fabulous areas. The amenities are good. There’s even a French bakery in the courtyard. But construction-wise it’s less luxury and more like what would happen if you got a pack of wild monkeys just drunk enough on Snow Beer to almost read a blueprint and fenced them into ten hectares of land with a pile of grade-B residential fittings and free-flow concrete. The caulking wanders off in random directions, the hot and cold indicators on the faucets are reversed, the “hardwood” flooring buckles in weird places, the towel racks droop, and when the wind blows, a majestic assortment of Jurassic aromas billows from the drains. There’s more, but you get the idea.

Still, I was hardened by a year in Shanghai, so in most ways I consider it pretty good as Chinese apartments go. The worst that can be said of the landlord is that she’s totally disinterested, which is way better than totally venal, which is always a possibility here. The landlord situation reminds me a bit of the shopworn parable about Confucius, the widow and the tiger:

One day the Master came upon a woman weeping at a grave. He said, “You weep as one afflicted by great sorrow.”

The woman replied, “It is true. My husband’s father was killed here by a tiger, and my husband also. Now the tiger has killed my son.”

“Why do you not leave this place?” asked the Master?

The woman replied, “The government here is not cruel.”

Replace “government” with “landlord” and it’s still more or less valid.

But the air conditioning problem is serious. Our apartment is hot and stuffy year round. Even in Beijing’s Siberian winter we pick up so much waste-heat from the neighboring apartments and poorly insulated piping that we often end up running a fan in our bedroom at night. As for summer, well, if you haven’t experienced August in Beijing you can simulate it by tying yourself to a burning coal stove and then having your friends hurl you into an open sewer. If you actually try this, put it on YouTube so everyone can benefit from your sacrifice. That’s how knowledge is born.

Anyway, we rely on our air conditioner. This sucks for us, because it is an enormous, fiddly contraption that looks like what might happen if Lockheed Corp. and Hubei People’s Steam Propulsion Systems Factory No. 182 jointly bid on air conditioners for TEPCO. This model, which is standard in our apartment complex due, one can only assume, to graft, is approximately the size of a 1968 Volkswagen Camper, and takes up the entire balcony outside my son’s room. Unlike a Volkswagen Camper, it uses water as a coolant, making it complex and prone to breakdown. But it does have the Camper’s woeful lack of power and tendency to choke in the face of modest demands.

In a masterstroke of engineering, our air conditioner also manages to combine the worst attributes of central and split air conditioning. Like central air conditioning, it has to be switched from “heat” mode to “cooling” by the property office, which puts us at the mercy of the government rather than the climate. The switchover involves one big button and just enough fiddling with valves to be complicated, but the good news is that regardless of official dates the property office usually folds in the face of a little hectoring.

Like a split aircon, however, the compressor draws on our household electricity (our breaker box emits an alarming buzz every time it turns on), and coolant pipes run through the ceiling to the vents in all the rooms. In our previous apartment, in the same complex, the pipe over the kitchen dripped condensation. During summer it reliably shorted out the gas leak detector in the kitchen ceiling about once a month, usually at three in the morning (we ran the aircon at night), triggering an electronic shriek that could curdle the fluid in your eyeballs. I would deal with this problem by blearily jamming a screwdriver into the alarm until it shut up, and then having the property office replace it. If we’d ever had an actual gas leak, the sparks created by my screwdriver surgery would have blown us all into the courtyard like Ed Norton’s furniture and condiments in “Fight Club.”

The compressor unit on the balcony is wired to a set of high-tech thermostats, all of which insist that every room in the house is always 25C regardless of actual temperature. When the sun expands into a red giant and incinerates the Earth a billion years from now, these thermostats will insist it is 25C right until the moment they evaporate. Whether you set the thermostats to 30C or 5C (which is where ours are all set), you get the same anemic trickle of semi-cool air from the vents.

But we take what we can get. Spring in Beijing is a season of hot days and cool nights. And dust and fuzz and pollution. The apartment warms up during the day and stays warm pretty much all night, forcing us to run the air conditioning even though the outside temperature has dropped. Any cooling is better than no cooling.

At 2AM on Saturday night I woke up bathed in sweat. The outside temperature was a crisp 12C, but our room had crept up to a broiling, humid 28.5C. The aircon vent was cheerily pumping out a stream of toasty, warm air.

Well, you say, turn it off and open the windows, genius. And in many places in the world this would be sound advice. But on Saturday night the air pollution AQI reading was 212. In China an AQI of 212 counts as “moderate,” but in the rest of the world it’s more like, Holy Jesus, Martha, it’s the apocalypse! Get the kids into the fallout shelter while I shoot the dog! You don’t really want to sleep in it. What’s the point of having $3,000 worth of Swedish air filters (yes, really) in the apartment if you’re just going to throw open the windows and let the scuzz in?

We let the scuzz in, at least for a while. But that led to another problem. Our previous apartment faced the courtyard from the 7th floor. Other than the occasional raving drunkard or 160db Phil Spector wall-of-sound throat-clearing hawk, it was reasonably quiet. On the rare clear-air nights we occasionally slept with the windows open just for the hell of it (although always with the risk of waking up to find the loess plateau in our bed).

Our current apartment faces the road between our complex and the neighboring ultra-mall. This road is small, but punches way above its weight in terms of congestion, perma-honking and random cacophony. To add insult to injury, when they built the mega-mall they somehow neglected to design in a loading dock. The result is that all deliveries to the mall are made at the entrance to the parking lot, which is just below our 16th floor apartment. This happens at the only time when they can partially block the road, which is the middle of the night. For a mall that sells a huge amount of really expensive stuff, these deliveries are not gentle. They often sound like someone backing a flatbed truck with busted shocks and a full load of plate glass and live hogs over a row of two-by-fours.

As long as our hermetically-sealing, double-paned windows are buttoned up, the noise doesn’t bother us. And, anemic as it is, if the air conditioning is working, we can keep the windows closed. But if the air conditioning fails, our choices rapidly dwindle to dying of heat exhaustion in our own bed, opening the windows and admitting the din and miasma of Satan’s workshop, or suicide.

At two in the morning, suicide doesn’t look all that bad, but we resisted. After my wife went out and poked futilely at the buttons on the compressor for a while, we went for heat exhaustion, turning off the compressor but keeping the windows shut. On Sunday morning the property office showed up, declared that we had somehow switched the air conditioning unit to “heat,” switched it back, and left. On Sunday evening the aircon ran refreshing and cool, as much as it ever does. Maybe it was our fault, I thought. Maybe we did something wrong.

And then Sunday night at 2AM we woke up bathed in sweat again. With a flashlight I went out to the balcony where the Beast lives and examined the controls. Outside it was pleasantly cool. The air conditioner had switched itself to “heat.” I switched it back to “cool.” The mechanics might be complex, but the controls are simple. There are only three buttons: On/Off, Heat and Cool, and an LED that displays “HE” or “CO” and the coolant temperature. It ran in “cool” mode for a minute or so. I watched the coolant temperature drop. And then it switched itself back to “heat.” I repeated this five times. Every time the air conditioner switched itself back to “heat.”

On top of all its other problems—the fiddly complexity, the anemic output, the buzzing breaker box—this cursed thing apparently thinks it’s smarter than us. When it’s warm outside, in the early evening or right at dusk, it chugs along merrily in cooling mode. The moment the temperature outside drops too much, it figures we must be freezing in our booties, and spontaneously switches itself into heat mode. Damn the thermostats (25C), full speed ahead!

Or, worse, it’s actually trying to kill us, like the possessed laundry press in the old Stephen King story, “The Mangler.” It wants to roast us to death in our sleep and let the cats feast on our remains, just for the sheer sport of it. I don’t know what happened to the previous tenant in our apartment. I do know that he left a fair amount of his stuff behind when he “moved out.” Coincidence?

I just made the last rent payment on our current contract. In about two months, we have to decide whether to move or to stay in the same place and accept the inevitable rent increase. On the one hand, the apartment is expensive and noisy and the air conditioning unit is apparently possessed by Satan and determined to destroy us all.

On the other hand, there are croissants downstairs and the government is not cruel.

It’s a tough call.

Note: This post originally published on the defunct group blog

But it's refreshingly cool!

But it’s refreshingly cool!

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Good News! The Press is Out to Get You

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about PR in China to a journalism class at Beijing Foreign Studies University. In any student talk the Q&A is always the most fun, and this group was no exception. Among the many good questions asked was whether it was easier to do PR in China because, as I had discussed in my talk, the Chinese media is generally cozier with businesses than their Western counterparts.

Easier to get stories? Yes. Easier to achieve meaningful results with the public? No.

I was reminded of this question by the recent expulsion of hard-charging Al Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan, and subsequent closure of the AJE bureau in China after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to accredit another AJE journalist. I didn’t know Melissa well, though I had met her, but I respected her reporting and willingness to insert herself into uncomfortable situations, and I was disappointed to see her go. Reporting on China will be impoverished a bit.

That, of course, was the point. The Chinese government has never been comfortable with an adversarial media, and Melissa’s reporting was, like that of much of the foreign press corps, pretty adversarial from their point of view. This discomfort is deeper than cursory annoyance at embarrassing foreign gadflies (although I presume that is part of it). It arises from one of the fundamental philosophies of Leninist political parties: the media are considered Party organs and, as with other Party organs, expected to serve the interests of the Party first and foremost. Media that don’t fit into that model are suspect by definition. You can see this philosophy expressed in the mechanisms of control that the Chinese government maintains over all domestic media, and in the government’s struggles to come to terms with the rise of social media that resist conformity with established power structures.

The Party’s model is rather different from the fundamental philosophy of Western media: that it should be the fourth estate, entrusted with challenging the business and government establishment in the interest of the people. You are welcome to argue about how effective Western media have been in this role in recent years, and there are plenty of exceptions, but as a founding principle the idea of the fourth estate is alive and well and inextricably bound up with our Western ideas of what the media should be (and with the value judgments we render on media that doesn’t conform to that principle). A functional, adversarial media is a necessary component of Western-style liberal democracy, unless you have total faith in politicians and institutions.

I am not going to comment further on the specifics of the Al Jazeera situation (some links to good articles below), but in light of the Chinese government’s recent struggle with rumors and trust issues, it’s worth reflecting on why an adversarial media is sometimes useful, even to the establishment. This is what I discussed with the students at Beiwai.

As a news junkie who still pays for several subscriptions, I’m most definitely a fan of adversarial media model (you could also call it an “independent media” model, but independence is only valuable in that enables an adversarial position). There is nothing like a fantastic piece of investigative reporting that rips the lid off of some secret or scandal or that illuminates the dark corners of business or politics. As long as it’s not my dark corner, that is.*

As a PR practitioner with a company reputation to defend, I’ve experienced firsthand the adversarial media model’s short-term ability to create sleepless nights and great puddles of cubicle sweat. But nevertheless, I still appreciate its value in the long-term. That’s because people are more likely to trust media that challenges me than one they know to be compliant with me, and I need media that the public trusts to get my message out, whether that message is a corporate one, a product review or whatever. If I have to do more work to get coverage in that kind of media, and tolerate some negative coverage as well, so be it.

In China, on average, relationships between businesses and the media tend to be closer and less adversarial than in the west. There is also a range of ethical problems, including poor separation of advertising and editorial, the “transportation claim” subsidy-in-disguise, and more. Together, these make it easier for companies to earn –or buy– good coverage in local media than it would be in many other markets. But they also mean that the public is relatively more skeptical of much of the coverage and turns to alternative voices for much of its information and insight, many of them on microblogs . The result is a devalued media that makes even our best earned coverage less useful and influential, and that makes it harder for me to manage misinformation and rumors about my company.

Sound familiar?

These are generalizations. There are excellent journalists and excellent media in China, and crappy ones in the west. But the overall gap in trust is real. The real sign of progress here will not be in the government showing more tolerance for confrontational Western media, but in its tolerating the emergence of a fully independent, professionalized and adversarial Chinese media. That change, when it happens, will be driven by Chinese journalists. In some ways, it’s already happening.

For those of us in the establishment, there is value in learning to deal with an adversarial media, and in being good at telling our stories and getting our messages across in media that are willing to challenge us, and that therefore lend credibility to the claims that survive their scrutiny. But if you’ve never had to deal with that kind of media, you haven’t developed the skills necessary to do so, and you rely on a tradition of control and management to get your message across, then you are in the realm of propaganda and will face the consequences in terms of diminished trust.

And if your situation is so precarious that there is no way to tell a positive story when engaging with adversarial media? Well, then, your problems are much bigger and deeper than PR skills. Or one uppity journalist.

* Just kidding. Naturally, I have no actual dark corners.

See also:

On the Al Jazeera situation:

On the difficulty of reporting in China:

Note: This post originally published on the defunct group blog

Good news? A magazine stand at SFO's international terminal on Monday.

Good news? A magazine stand at SFO’s international terminal on Monday.

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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.

If you have ever been in Beijing in spring, you will know the fuzz. This is the floating shroud of gauzy puffs that blankets the city every April, thanks to Beijing’s large population of poplar and willow trees. It’s not a problem exclusive to Beijing. The offending species of poplars are widespread (you might know them as cottonwoods in the US), and where there are poplars there are poplar catkins and, thus, poplar fuzz.

And poplars are Beijing’s municipal tree, planted in rows along every median strip, bike lane and windbreak in the city, in great shivering ranks. A 1992 paper on the forestry of urban Beijing identifies two species of poplars as accounting for about 25 percent of the surveyed stock of trees, far outstripping the Chinese juniper trees in second place. It’s hard to imagine that their share has dwindled since then. Apparently, Beijing Forestry University even has an institute devoted to the study of Chinese white poplars, which confirms either the importance of the species, or all your worst fears about the treacherous vortex where the navel gazing currents of academia and municipal bureaucracy swirl together.

Willows aren’t as common as poplars, but based on my own observation what they lack in numbers they make up for in sheer fuzzogenic enthusiasm. In fact, it took me a long time to catch up to the fact that the willows were contributing. Years ago, when I asked a local what he called the trees that made the fuzz, he said “yangshu.” This confused me because I thought he meant willow, and I was pretty sure he was wrong. Fortunately I bit my tongue, or I’d have made an ass of myself on at least two counts. The problem comes from the similar names of the trees in Chinese. The white poplars are baiyang (白杨) or yangshu (杨树), the willows are yangliu ( 杨柳). The trees are not of the same genera, so perhaps in the antiquity of the Chinese language there is some lost etymological connection between 杨 and fuzz.

A further search of the literature reveals that ours are not the first generations to dwell upon the fuzz. A poem from the Six Dynasties period, in the first millennium AD, invokes the inherent eroticism of the poplar catkin thus:

We break off a branch of poplar catkins.
A hundred birds sing in the tree.
Lying beneath it in the garden,
We talk to each other,
Tongues in each other’s mouths.

Fuzz in their mouths, too, and any other orifices exposed during this little episode, but somehow that doesn’t make it into the poem.

Erotic charms aside notwithstanding, it is easy to hate on the fuzz. Apparently, it can entrap airborne pollen from other species, and become something of a little, allergenic bomb. I don’t have allergies, but I have to admit that, while I find the fuzz pleasant enough while it’s wafting in the air, it tends to collect into stodgy, grey piles the moment it hits ground. In this way it is rather like Beijing’s snow, which can blanket the city in a dreamy, white veil for a vanishingly brief moment before collapsing into verminous, sooty piles that skulk in the shade for weeks while collecting suspicious, yellow pockmarks.

A couple of years ago I took my son to play on the rides at Tuanjiehu Park, which are shaded by a particularly vigorous stand of white poplars. He and I both a good time watching the aunties use cigarette lighters to set great drifts of fuzz alight. It combusts like rocket fuel, so perhaps this wasn’t the best thing to be doing around dozens of toddlers, but it was entertaining. I have heard (though never confirmed) that the fuzz has been implicated in automobile fires after collecting in radiators. It has definitely contributed to yard and household fires, and the Internet has plenty ofearnest warnings urging homeowners to diligently police the fuzz.

To address Beijing’s share of these fuzzborne woes, the city government in 2007hatched a scheme to convert the offending, female poplars into docile, fuzz-free male poplars. Apparently, this has been a semi-regular endeavor. They should have consulted with me first as I have my own experience with quixotic nature-control plans. When I was in college I spent two years as part of my university’s ultra-secret ground squirrel control program. We used air rifles, traps and poison in an attempt to control a ground squirrel population that had exploded because, in a triumph of natural selection, ground squirrels have a much higher tolerance for drunk college students and acid rock than all of their natural predators. This program was an utter failure and in the end we signed articles of surrender and turned over our weapons. The ground squirrels are still there, 25 years later. We who dared take them on are all long gone. Poplar trees don’t move as fast as ground squirrels, but on the evidence of Beijing’s obvious failure to control the fuzz, they are equally crafty.

Personally, I like the fuzz. True, it catches on my head-stubble, gets all over the house and lurks under the couch, where it collects into dust-bunnies the size of Saint Bernards. But while airborne it’s cheery, and transient and a damn sight more congenial than the other harbinger of spring, the sand storms. It has also become one of the ways I mark time in Beijing. Another April of fuzz, another year gone by. A few more crows-feet around the eyes. Another sweaty, corrosive summer to grit my teeth for.

A few years ago I was driving to the airport for an early morning flight. Just outside the Fourth Ring Road, deep stands of white poplar line both sides of the airport expressway. It was the height of fuzz season, and a breeze was carrying dense flurries of the stuff across the road. The morning sun from the east backlit the fuzz, endowing it with a luminous, warm corona. For a moment I forgot all the anticipated miseries of economy-class domestic travel and just watched the fuzz. The moment it hit the ground it was dirt, but while it was in the air, it was magic. And anything that can bring a touch of magic to that benighted road is worth at least a little appreciation, isn’t it?

A little bit of magic.

A little bit of magic.

See also:

Note: Originally published on the defunct group blog

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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, but none come close to providing full access to Twitter or Facebook. And, from what I can see, neither does Instagram. That’s important.

The question that wins you the brand new car is: Will Instagram now be blocked in China? The reason why you don’t have the car yet is that the answer is complicated. China doesn’t block all foreign social networks. It does block the established, heavy-hitting, horizontal sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. But many vertical social networks and newer sites are unblocked. I can get on LinkedIn, Quora, Path,Flickr and Pinterest just fine, without a VPN (your mileage may vary). I can even get on MySpace.

I cannot read the minds of the bureaucrats who decide what gets blocked and what doesn’t, and if I could I’d probably be in a position to be less wistful about the fates of the startups I joined. But there do seem to be a few key factors in determining who stays safely outside the firewall. These include size, perceived influence, how closely the network has been associated with political movements, power to function as tool of mass organization, and whether or not the network has been explicitly associated with content or activities that the Chinese government considers sensitive. On all three counts, I’d rate Facebook and Twitter considerably higher than the rest of the pack. As for Google Plus, I trust this audience doesn’t needmuch explanation.

So, what happens with Instagram now that it is part of planet Facebook?

It depends. Assuming people don’t suddenly start posting pictures that annoy the Chinese government, maybe nothing. At the moment, Instagram seems pretty harmless, and its one-way posting features to other social networks don’t look like a big red flag. Posts to Chinese social networks like Sina Weibo essentially outsource the content monitoring and censorship. Of course, Twitter once looked pretty harmless. In 2007 I even wrote a short article mocking its triviality, possibly betraying the lack of vision responsible for my current un-billionaire status. Twitter has been blocked for a while now. So much for harmless. The fact that Instagram is essentially mobile only has also probably helped keep it under the radar.

But if Instagram is integrated more tightly into Facebook’s core service and stops looking and feeling like an independent platform, then the risks go up fast. Everything hinges on where Facebook sees the value in Instagram, and whether or not it pulls Instagram into the mothership. The more integrated Instagram is, the more powerful it is as “back door into China” for Facebook, but the more likely it is to be blocked. And if Instagram is suddenly used to post a lot of pictures of a sensitive event in China, it might not even matter if Facebook doesn’t change a thing.

Meanwhile, local photo-sharing clones have been blossoming for a while. Early enthusiasm for foreign social networks in China does not reliably translate into long-term success, while mainstream success in China often does translate into closer scrutiny. Instagram may indeed be a back door into China for Facebook, but if it wants to stay open, it might have to stay a rather small door indeed.

Other links:

Note: Originally published on the defunct group blog

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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 completelypredictable 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.

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are four major scenarios that we can envision: extending the mothership service to China; developing a separate “splinter” service for China under the original brand (this could be disconnected from the main service, or just enforce dramatically different policies); buying an existing Chinese social network; and doing nothing. Obviously, they’re not all immediately practical. Facebook is blocked in China, which makes extending the mothership difficult. There are also intermediate possibilities that blend aspects of these scenarios, but that’s a deep rabbit hole to go down. Along with these scenarios there are five major stakeholder groups, not including Facebook themselves: the Chinese government; Chinese Internet users (potential customers); Western activists and governments; investors; and the Western public (aka Facebook’s current users).

The easiest way to look at all these moving parts is to simply throw the whole thing in a table that considers for each scenario the risks and how each of the stakeholder groups is likely to react (click the table for a larger, EZ-reading version):

china playbook

Admittedly this format throws a lot of nuance overboard, but nevertheless there’s a clear three-way conflict that emerges. The approaches that are more acceptable to the Chinese authorities are both riskier with regards to Western activists and regulators and, importantly, less relevant to Chinese users. The approaches that are most relevant to Chinese users and have the highest potential return to the business are unacceptable to the Chinese government. Ultimately the Chinese government calls the shots.

The basic math is that to even have a chance of operating here Facebook would have to apply the mandated censorship policies either just to users of its core service in China or to a spinoff service that is kept separate from the core service. It would also have to be prepared to surrender Chinese user information to the authorities if requested. That will raise eyebrows as Facebook knows a ton about its users by design.

The risks of these approaches are clear to anyone who has studied the history of Yahoo in China and followed the congressional grilling of US Internet firms operating in China back in 2006. That was the stone age of social networking (Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace, Facebook turned 2, Twitter was hatched), and the political atmosphere around such things has not become any less sensitive since then. If anything, the messianic aura that clings to social networks and of which Chinese authorities have always been so distrustful has been exacerbated by last year’s political events in the Middle East. And let’s not forget recent events here in China and the leadership transition later this year.

There are ways to create distance between the core Facebook brand and service and the Chinese government’s likely requirements, but those ways don’t eliminate political risk at home, and they all make the service less appealing to Chinese users. These same users are already being wooed away from traditional social networks by microblogs and have a colorful history of rejecting foreign online services as irrelevant even when they’ve been allowed to operate here without restriction. Remember MySpace China? Me neither, and a friend of mine helped launch it. Owning a local social network would provide a layer of insulation from the risk of Western backlash, but at the expense of sacrificing much of the point of entering China.

None of this predicts whether Facebook will enter China, or how they might attempt such a thing. They’re probably playing a very long game. Whatever path they choose, it won’t be easy, either in China or at home. Bear that in mind next time Zuck is spotted in China and the tongues start wagging.

*Note to editors: Can we get over the fact that Zuck’s girlfriend is Chinese American? Everyone is compelled to point this out, but net impact on the Facebook-in-China story is zero-point-zero.

Note: This post was originally published on the defunct group blog

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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’sstatement 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, clickhere. 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.

Before I do, I should be clear: I’m not interested in a broader critique of Mr. Daisey’s work. That’s been done in so many other places that I’m too lazy to even go gather the links. Plus, I know it’s a rough gig in the performance artists. In 1974 Chris Burden crucified himself to a Volkswagen Beetle and had it driven around. So you can’t really have the same expectations of these people that you would of, say, your standard airline executive (much as you might want to crucify airline executives to moving vehicles).

But still, there it is, “…anyone who felt betrayed.” In four words, the two great sins of public apologies.

The first is the passive language. Now, I have no problems at all with passive voice in writing (or with starting sentences with conjunctions, or parentheticals, or many other things they told you were bad in your high school comp class). But that passive language is such a trope of public apologies that we pretty much take it for granted these days. It’s so common that Wikipedia has an entry on it. Vanity Fair, also citing Wikipedia, has a small collection of examples. ”We apologize if anyone was offended,” was even trotted out recently by Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream in response to the (silly) Linsanity flavor scandal.

The second (and I must thank my partner in crime, Brendan O’Kane for this) is the use of the word “felt.” The passive voice subtly shunts responsibility onto the victim. The use of “felt” suggests that problem itself doesn’t even exist, and is merely some kind of unfortunate vapor or misunderstanding. You felt betrayed, but I didn’t actually betray you.

Lawyers may like apologies that don’t include a categorical admission of responsibility, but from a public communication point of view they come off as pro-forma, passive-aggressive dissembling that shifts at least some of the blame onto the injured parties. You can see how this works by replacing the standard corporate, public-conduct or ethno-gender-religious sensitivity malfeasance that people are usually apologizing for with something more heinous. I like to use a steamroller homicide, for no other reason than I appreciate the image of a maniac rampaging through town with a steamroller. Plus, as far as I know, no one has ever actually been murdered with a steamroller, so we should be safely in the land of the hypothetical (although the Internet will probably prove me wrong*).

So imagine you’re a contrite steamroller maniac attempting to rebuild your reputation. What do you say?

“I apologize for running over those people with a steamroller.”

Hell no. That’s way too direct and honest. It could be mistaken for assumption of responsibility, which might let the healing begin. We can’t have that.

Try this on instead:

“I apologize if anyone was run over by a steamroller.”

Do you see how this small change embeds whole new levels of denial and distance into that short statement? Seriously, how dumb were those people to get run over by a steamroller? The freaking thing only moves two miles an hour! I mean, head on a swivel, grandpa, this is the big city!!! But, you, know, sorry and all.

Or, even better,

“I apologize if anyone felt killed by a steamroller.”

Because they might not actually be dead. They might just feel that way. By mistake.

What the heck, let’s go for broke and dispense with the apology altogether. Some light regret is enough for the masses:

“I regret that due to this unfortunate situation anyone felt killed by a steamroller.”

Better yet, let’s disembody the regret, so we’re not sure who’s actually doing the regretting. Could be your auntie doing the regretting. You don’t have anything to regret. You’re not a culpable steamroller maniac leaving a twelve-foot-wide trail of blood and flattened personal accessories behind you. You’re just misunderstood:

“It is regrettable if, due to this unfortunate situation, anyone felt deprived of life by a steamroller.”

Now that…that is PR gold. A non apology for the ages. I almost weep reading it back.


*The Internet has proved me wrong. Apparently our friends the North Koreans haveused steamrollers as weapons. Hat tip: @samuel_wade.

Note: This post was originally published on the defunct group blog

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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.


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 thatI 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.

Domestic innovation.

Domestic innovation.

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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?

Fairy godmother, can you make Chinese TV better?

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Remembering Talk Talk China and the “Cycle of Funk”

A lot has changed in the China blogosphere since I first put (virtual) pen to paper for Imagethief in June, 2004. I can’t think of many blogs that are still around from those days in anything like their original form. The Peking Duck and John Pasden’s Sinosplice come to mind. Even the venerable Danwei has undergone a transformation. In general, the renewal is good. Jeremy Goldkorn (of Danwei), Kaiser Kuo and I talked about this on Sinica in July 2010, when we celebrated the death –and rebirth– of the China blog.

But I thought it was worth revisiting China blog history today because it is, to the best of my knowledge, the fifth anniversary of the shuttering of Talk Talk China. This was the brain-droppings of three anonymous, long-time China expats who went by the nommes-du-snark of Dan, Dawanr and DD (no, I don’t know who they were). For about a year and a half, in 2005 and 2006 it was consistently the funniest, angriest China blog out there, and a wicked channel for the collected frustrations and gripes of the China expat community. This being the days before Twitter vacuumed up “the conversation”, it also had thermonuclear comment threads, as you’d expect.

I remember Talk Talk China not just because of the anniversary of its closing, but because of one post in particular, called “The Cycle of Funk.” It may be to this day the truest thing I have ever read regarding the experience of being a foreigner in China. While many of the rough edges of expat life here have been whittled away by the transformation of Beijing into fairly cosmopolitan city, enough remain so that I find myself thinking of this post pretty regularly.

But also, there has been a general shift in mood among much of the expat community in the past two years, as many foreigners I thought were here for the duration have started talking openly about life beyond China. This is purely anecdotal, and I have no data to back it up, but it’s enough of a trend that several other people I know have picked up on it. Rich Brubaker of the long running “All Roads Lead to China” business blog wrote a post touching on this just yesterday. It would seem that the “cycle of funk” is not just a personal thing, but perhaps a social one.

Talk Talk China is off the air, but thanks to the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine” much of the oeuvre, including the Cycle of Funk is still online. However, it is a pain to nut out. As a public service, and totally without permission, I am going to take the liberty of reposting the Cycle of Funk here. If Dan, Dawanr or DD want to send me a cease-and-desist, they know where to find me:

The Cycle of Funk
May 24th, 2006 by Dan

Y’know, not every day is a bad China day. Sure, at TTC this is the case but for most people, a bad China day occurs only every now and then. However, for my entire time in China, I have noticed a particular trend among all laowai that I call “The cycle of funk”. No matter how much you love China, the little things that bother you will start to gather in a little ball of rage deep within you and sooner or later that ball of hate and spite needs to be released (often obnoxiously). That’s fine. It’s understandable. When it gets to that point no one can tell you whether or not your rage is justified. What is important to note is that this clearly comes and goes in a cycle. I imagine for most people the frequency and intensity of maximum funk decreases with time however the length of maximum funk and the intensity of said funk will likely vary widely for each person.

It is important to note that, in most cases, maximum funk is initiated not by some massive occurrence but usually by some small innocuous thing. Basically, you’re already at the edge and it is the very next thing that sets you off.


Remember, when you’re having a supremely awful bad China day and you are trying to tear the roof off the sucker, try to find where you are in your funk cycle. If you have obtained maximum funk you can relax knowing that it ain’t getting any worse and it will only get better…at least until the next funk hits.

After running less than two years Talk Talk China wound up pretty suddenly for reasons I don’t recall. Sinocidal tried to carry the snark-bucket for a while, but never played at the same level and it has long since gone by the wayside. These days I seem to carry the burden of being the “funny” China blogger (although George Ding of The Hypermodern and now The Beijinger’s back page is giving me a run for my money). Anyway, I’ve thoroughly shirked this burden, as any glance at post count for the past year or two demonstrates. But when they were at their best, the guys behind Talk Talk China were funnier and definitely more succinct than I was. And let’s face it, we need all the humor we can get.

So I commemorate five years since the end of Talk Talk China. For what it’s worth, I’m not in danger of leaving China any time soon. It’s been pretty good to me and my family. Nor am I particularly grouchy about it at this moment. But as anyone who has read Imagethief for any length of time knows, I’d be lying if I told you I was immune to the cycle of funk. And so would you.

Razor wit.

Razor wit.

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