Showing posts with label beijing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label beijing. Show all posts

Monday, September 22, 2014

Confucius and the Department Store

 photo DSC05353.jpg

It just so happens that I wrote this while listening to this.

Two weeks ago, a confluence of things happened.

First, I planned and executed a Mid-Autumn Festival barbecue near my apartment, which doubled as my birthday party because I knew I wouldn't have the energy, what with Delta Module 3 going on, to hold two parties in one month.

We hadn't noticed the sign that had been posted in our building, as there are a lot of notices and things that are usually irrelevant. So on the day of the party, we were upset to find out that maybe we should have read that notice after all: no barbecuing would be allowed in the main courtyard areas around where we live (which are perfect for barbecuing). The reason was not clear but usually it has to do with "smell and noise".

Two years ago, you could barbecue anywhere in this area. We barbecued in the small courtyard just outside our apartment. Then the next year, that was prohibited and you could only barbecue in the large courtyard further out. This year, they prohibited that too and we were only allowed to barbecue in a small, dark little area down by the wet market, and policemen constantly rode by on bikes making sure we adhered to that rule (this was the first year there was a police presence).

I can't help but feel that it's a slow, systematic attempt to ban barbecuing on Moon Festival in all urban areas, but to do it slowly enough that people don't complain much.

Then, I had a discussion on Facebook with Alexander Synaptic about this fascinating blog post of his about old "entertainment centers" in towns and cities in Taiwan. It's a coincidence, but a telling one, that he entitled it "Dreams of Empire". There's one in Sanchong that functions mostly as a string of pool halls rife with gangsters, and a closed-down one in Zhanghua.

I noted that while until recently, street-level commercial activity and entertainment was mostly-happily tolerated by local residents, and a proliferation of night markets and other "re nao" (fun) spots were allowed to thrive, which has given Taipei, at least, a sort of vibrant street life and sidewalk scene that Beijing and other cities in China are lacking - and which is a part of what makes Taipei a great place to live - that there seems to have been a culture shift.

This happened around the time that Brendan and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary. We had wanted to go to Opa! Greek Taverna, which has hands-down the best Mediterranean food in Taipei (Sababa is good for falafel, but I make better hummus). Turns out their old street-level restaurant near Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall was closed, and they'll be re-opening in ATT 4 Fun at the end of the month.

Those old entertainment halls are now closed, but they're being replaced by glass monstrosities like ATT 4 Fun. Night markets (like Shi-da or Shilin) are being shut down (except for a few boring "fashion" and cell phone cover stores) or the food stalls relocated to indoor areas, which drastically reduces their appeal. Streetscapes are ruined as giant granite obelisks of luxury housing go up, leaving no room for shops or comfortable passage for pedestrians. Trees are torn down as a huge event arena is built - nothing wrong with Taipei Dome but those trees were a part of the street scape and we loved them. Restaurants are relocating to department stores. Street-level storefront rent is skyrocketing and only chain businesses can afford them, so interesting local spots are being crowded out. As ornery residents start complaining - which they didn't seem to do before - everything that was fun in some neighborhoods is either being shut down, or moving and often they end up in ATT 4 Fun or the equivalent.

Rather than go to Chun Shui Tang (which I know has been implicated in the recent gutter oil scandal) in one of their well-decorated branches which create street-level visual interest, I basically have to go to Chun Shui Tang inside Shinkong Mitsukoshi. One of my favorite Indian restaurants, Calcutta Indian Food, moved from a street-level shop on an interesting stretch of Kunming Street to a basement-level restaurant in a somewhat grody building called "U2". All the good places are slowly moving indoors, but the indoor spaces are expanding: walk underground from City Hall MRT through the basement of Hankyu Department Store to Eslite Xinyi, and it's a veritable food festival of eating options. All indoors. In the basement, even. Outdoors, you'd have to walk for awhile to find something decent to eat.

I don't care for this at all - and as a Taipei resident, I do believe that counts for something.

If I wanted to live in a city with dead streets, where you walked between huge edifices, some new and marbled, some old and marbled in a different way, and cars whizzed by on the road, and I had to walk inside some concrete magnate's wet dream just to eat dinner at a restaurant I like, which is no longer within walking distance because they couldn't afford the rent, I would live in Beijing.

I don't live in Beijing, because Beijing sucks. I do not fancy walking a mile along a sidewalk flanked by a wall and a six-lane highway, with one overhead crosswalk every mile, and big empty spaces dotted with steel monoliths that spear the pollution floating overhead, where people hustle in and out of sliding doors into slightly less polluted air conditioned buildings to eat, drink and shop. Beijing is one of the worst models possible for urban planning.

And I don't want Taipei to become just like it.

I feel like all of this is related. There seems to have been a spike in old-school, stick-up-the-butt Confucian values, more influence from China (which has a distinctly different culture from Taiwan, and to Taiwanese or those used to Taiwanese culture can seem a bit stick-up-the-butt although I realize it's not always), and increasingly authoritarian leaders telling the public to basically go screw themselves. To the point where I wonder, as Letters from Taiwan implies, if the recent deaths - I believe that's a plural deaths too - of various high-profile Sunflower activists were, ahem, accidents. It would not surprise me at all if the government, taking its cues from China as it tries to force the Taiwanese to accept the idea of eventual Chinese rule, decided to off them. People complain about noise and smell on the streets, and the city slowly morphs into Beijing's stepsister (I'd say ugly stepsister, but it's hard to get uglier than Beijing).

I feel it's related to the increase in gang activity - White Wolf not only allowed to return to Taiwan but to rub shoulders with Ma Ying-jiu's sisters. A gang fight resulting in the death of an off-duty policeman which raises many questions about what exactly he was involved in (it's fairly well-known that the police let the gangs run the clubs in exchange for kickbacks). The subsequent inevitable closing down of Taipei nightlife (so it can reopen later, under the protection of newly-strong gangs who give the police better kickbacks). I won't even get into what happens if you cross a gangster in a KTV.

Some other gangsters, deeply entwined in real estate development, convince local politicians to ignore laws about having to provide "green space" for every building they erect in exchange for letting those politicians buy units in the buildings before they go on sale. The politicians can later sell those units at substantial markups. This is all perfectly legal. And we allow it, because they are Our Leaders.

We like to think that the heyday of gang violence in Taiwan was the '80s and '90s, but it wasn't. It's as bad now as it was then, only now we have "democratic" leaders acting like dictators telling us they'll do something about it, when clearly they won't. They'll shut down a few nightclubs, but nobody really important will face punishment.

Increasingly authoritarian "leaders" leaning both on the Confucian ideas regarding the masses doing what they say, inextricably intertwined with gang activity, huge corporations and development companies tearing down the city (and quite possibly encouraging "citizen complaints" about noise and smell from restaurants, night markets and even barbecuing, which is a Mid-Autumn festival activity associated mostly with Taiwan) in order to rebuild it in China's image.

I do not think this is deliberate. Nobody is sitting behind a desk going "mwahahahaha, let's make Taipei look more like a Chinese city, so the Taiwanese will accept annexation by China! Bwahahaha! My evil plan!" I know to imply that these events are deliberately connected is only a few steps shy of donning a tinfoil hat. My point is that the mood in Taipei has changed, and not for the better. And that these issues are all effects of that - the slow migration of street life to department stores, the budding New Confucianism in which we are all told to follow the rules, the increase in gang activity, the increasingly authoritarian government that is quietly trying to push Taiwan towards China and a future the majority of people do not want but many feel powerless to stop.

There has been a culture shift, and it's starting to really be felt.

So, to me, they are related even if not intentionally so. The same overly conservative, regulation-loving Neo-Confucian "follow the rules, do as we say" ideas that brought us the tragedy that is the KMT and President Ma have also brought us the steady department store-ification of Taipei. It's a whole culture shift, even if it is not deliberate.

I still think Taipei has gotten a lot right in terms of urban planning, and I hope that this is a temporary phase.

Sadly, I fear it's not.

Everybody shut up, everybody shop here, don't protest or your motorcycle will suddenly go off the highway outside Pinglin. You just don't understand because you don't know 'correct values' and you need it explained to you like you're four years old. Listen to your leaders! Confucius said so! Buy these items produced by our good friends at Uni-President who swear they didn't know about the gutter oil, in a building they built, so they can profit more. They need profit. They need to make sure the politicians and police get their cut, you know, so they need it. Stop shopping near your home in stores that line your sidewalks. We have air-conditioning, and your favorite shop is here! We're not in bed with both gangs and politicians, and real estate developers hell bent on driving out every bit of soul this city has! You don't like those street-level shops anyway, you would rather it be like this. Come on, lay down, calm down, it'll hurt less that way. You know you want it. Listen to us. We are your leaders. Confucius says that the emperor is above the people. We are above you. And we are Chinese. Therefore, so are you. You must identify as Chinese. This poll said that you do.

There's no reason to muddy the waters like this. We are all Chinese. We don't like noise on the street. We do like strong leaders and air conditioning. We want our residential areas quiet and our entertainment to be safely contained, in a building built by someone rich and powerful, in another part of the city. We like it to be clear. Don't you hate these blurred lines?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Review - Foreign Babes in Beijing

Foreign Babes in Beijing has been around for awhile, but I've only just gotten around to reading it. As an American living in Asia, I'm always interested in the narratives of other expat women, particularly those in Asia and super particularly those in the Chinese-speaking world. If there was a book written by a female expat in Taiwan (is there? If so, please enlighten me. I do intend to pick up Among the Headhunters of Formosa next, but that's not really the kind of expat narrative I'm talking about) I'd happily review that, too.

Foreign Babes tells the story of Rachel DeWoskin's five years in Beijing in the mid-90s. It focuses on her time filming the campy Chinese serial of the same name - 洋妞在北京- and her role as Jiexi, the foreign temptress who seduces and eventually marries the already-married Li Tianming. While she's doing this, she's also working at a PR firm despite a dearth of experience, meeting new people and settling in.

It's tightly-written with attention to clear prose and contains realistic dialogue - the kind where you hear the speakers' voices in your head rather than being thunked back to the page by a clunky, unrealistic or overly whimsical turn of phrase. She's neither positive nor negative, just pragmatic and grounded. She does touch on issues surrounding being a female expat, but that's not the main thrust of the book. Considering the difficulties facing foreign women in China (and the difficulties facing Chinese women in China, but that's a different tome), I'd like to see someone explore such issues in more depth.

I did find the first few chapters to be a bit jumpy and hard to follow despite long scrolls of clarity and insight - first she's at the PR firm, then she makes a friend, then she's at the Beiying studio, then she's not going to take the part, then she takes the part, and here's this other friend, and now some more talk about the PR office, back to the studio...huh? - although this could be partly my fault, as I covered the first half in 1/2 hour chunks on the Taiwan High Speed Rail to Hsinchu and back. I never did get a clear idea of when she and her Chinese-American boyfriend got together and when they broke up. I never was clear on whether she really was a vegetarian or whether that was a made-up issue to avoid eating fatty meat lunch boxes every day.

It settles, though, into an entertaining and incisive account of what life is (was?) like for foreigners in Beijing at that time. I moved to Guizhou not long after DeWoskin left Beijing, and I can say that my experience was 100% 180-degrees flip-me-on-my-head, what-the-hell-is-this different, but I lived in the countryside. No weird nightclubs, expat bar strips, dangerously sexy Chinese boyfriends, expats (there were three of us kind-of-normals and one perpetually drunk pervert from Los Angeles, that's it), illegal apartments (school took care of that), office towers or Chinese celebrities. We had beer by the river, one kitschy bar, ugly skinny smoking local guys who wore white athletic socks with ill-fitting black dress pants whom you'd never ever date, a pachinko parlor shaped like the Sphinx (I'm not joking) and nights drinking hawberry liquor with locally made lemon lime soda that will probably be the cause of our stomach cancer someday. We had rampant sexism, roaches and pneumonia. We had some great adventures, too.

In short, I lived in China, but I have never lived in DeWoskin's China. That doesn't mean she's wrong, it just means that Beijing is nothing like Guizhou!

Something I want to note that I really loved about this book: it managed to strike a non-political tone while discussing some deeply sensitive political issues, and while it didn't get overly opinionated about the China-Taiwan issue, she pulled no punches over describing her Taiwanese colleague as a fellow "foreigner", albeit a foreigner who doesn't look the part. She never once implies that Taiwan is anything other than a country, although she doesn't say so outright. She uses no pandering language - you won't reading piddling words such as "territory" here. I appreciate that. Rachel, if you ever read this review, as a foreigner who deeply loves Taiwan and supports Taiwanese sovereignty, I want to personally thank you for that. So many authors get all wimpy-knuckled over this issue, and you didn't. You gave your former coworker Gary and Taiwan the respect they deserve. Good job.

There are other parts that I liked - describing what it was like to be called to film at 1am, not going and calling one's parents instead. Descriptions of other foreigners and her interactions with them, and what it feels like to be a part of the expat community (not a feeling I've ever had, mind you, but interesting to read about). Weird nightclubs. Being told that reporters are afraid it will be hard to communicate with you, so they write your views themselves, attach your byline and that you should consider this a compliment.

It also struck me while reading that my life in Taipei is so different - so very, very different - from DeWoskin's life in China that it was a worthy read just to explore and consider the contrasts. It reminded me that in so many ways life here is Easy Street, and why I chose Taipei over Beijing. Beijing has this ring of exoticism and fantasy in the minds of people back home - but I can honestly say that Taipei, despite not being as internationally noted as Beijing, is a better city. I've been to Beijing. I've seen the six lane boulevards with no crosswalks and walls on each side, hacked through the pollution and dealt with the locals who either don't care about you or want to sell you something (and after they sell it to you, they don't care about you unless they think they can sell you more). DeWoskin's portrayal of Beijing is more sympathetic, and yet it still reminded me: yes, sorry, Taipei is better. 

I do strongly recommend this book for any woman moving abroad, especially to Asia and super-especially to China. It's also worthwhile for those moving to Taiwan, mostly for the expat insights which are true in almost any foreign country as well as the counterpoint to what life in Taiwan is like.