Archive for the 'Asia' Category Page 2 of 2

How China Works: Life in 24/7 Factories

Where do all the hot new electronic gadgets really come from? Who builds them? What is it like to work in China’s new engine: the 24/7 factory? Last week, we wished aloud for more in-depth stories about the people in the trenches driving China’s new revolution. Since then, some fabulous links have turned up. Here are a few…

Shenzhen Seen – richly colorful photos show us the face, pain, and beauty of life in and around Shenzhen’s factory towns

Life of a Gold Farmer – video from the front lines of low wage work in the world’s top online games

21st Century Carrier Pigeon – following a day’s work for “Mr. Wang” as he plays a fascinating role in global supply chain

Blogging Factory – the skill, the food, the environment, the scale — Andy Huang’s blog gets up close and personal with video, photos, and discussion straight from the assembly line

China Blue – important, touching, haunting documentary gets behind the propaganda and into “camera free zones” to show us how things run when the inspectors go home (show website)

Best reaction: “Wow – that is intense. I am sitting here looking at everything digital in my room, and realizing the most of it probably came from factories like these.” Couldn’t say it better.

image by bob croslin; with thanks to mefi

China’s Booming, But Where Are The People?

The one thing I’ll always remember about China is beauty — in the clothing, the architecture, but most of all the people. There seemed to be a story in every face I saw, but the cultural gap (not to mention language) was too wide to traverse. So I’ve used films to see what life is like for a local. Still, that leaves a lot of mysteries unexplained. I want more.

These days, many seem fascinated with what makes China tick, and The Atlantic has been one of the best at feeding that curiosity. (Most recently with their China Issue.) It’s engaging stuff, but it deals largely with big operators (Liam “Mr. China” Casey, Zhang Yue), big factories, and big business. And we’re left wondering about the “regular people” who make those booming operations what they are — the kinds of people I saw on in the backstreets of Beijing and Shanghai, and in countryside villages. Here, we often find them discussed only in aggregate. Like so:

At 8 a.m. in Shenzhen, the young women on the night shift got up from the assembly line, took off the hats and hairnets they had been wearing, and shook out their dark hair. They passed through the metal detector at the door to their workroom (they pass through it going in and coming out) and walked downstairs to the racks where they had left their bikes. They wore red company jackets, as part of their working uniform—and, as an informal uniform, virtually every one wore tight, low-rise blue jeans with embroidery or sequins on the seams. Most of them rode their bikes back to the dormitory; others walked, or walked their bikes, chatting with each other. That evening they would be back at work. Meanwhile, flocks of red-topped, blue-bottomed young women on the day shift filled the road, riding their bikes in.   (full article)

And that’s invariably where the story ends. I wish more writers would pick one of the faces in the crowd and go home with them. See how they live. Meet their families, their roommates. See what they eat, how they think. And then find another worker in a different factory and do the same thing. Or a waitress, or a rickshaw driver, or a welder, or a young artist.

I don’t mean to be overly critical. There’s a huge amount of ground to cover in China and the high-level stories are as good a place to start as any. But I do hope that, before authors like James Fallows leave China, we get just as close with the blood and guts workers (who travel hundreds of miles to work 12 hour days, 7 days a week) as we have with the ultra wealthy captains of industry who employ them. It might be a little grim at times but, to my mind, that’s the only way we can truly begin to see China’s heart, and its soul.

image by cao fei

Cliff Top Daredevils Take Flight in China

I’ve seen high wire acts but never quite like this.

We saw a lot of amazing things in China, from obviously awesome places like the Temple of Heaven, Pudong, and the canals of Suzhou to the understated beauty of Hutong backstreets. But the most unexpected sight came when we took an afternoon trip down a small tributary of the storied Yangtze River.

As we rounded a bend, our guide started yelling from the front of the boat and pointing straight up. I craned my neck, followed his gaze, and my jaw went slack. A tightrope stretched from cliff top to cliff top some hundreds of feet in the air. A unicycle stood right smack in the middle of it, fighting crosswinds — one person pedaling and another dangling underneath, draped in color.

What are we seeing? Is riding the tightrope a religious rite? A method of transit from high-ground to high-ground? A stunt for tourists? (Here’s a shot of their launching station.) Nobody seemed to have the answer. A central scene in the Yangtze-filmed Still Life features tightrope walking between buildings as the backdrop. Perhaps it’s a local tradition, then. No matter the reason, it’s a sight I won’t soon forget.

Three Gorges: Love and China’s New Ruins

China’s Three Gorges Dam will displace over 1.2 million people and put a massive swath of land underwater. But it won’t happen all at once. And in the in-between, there’s a strange kind of limbo for those who live there — between places not quite lost but soon-to-be and an uncertain future bearing down as sure as the water rises.

It’s this dramatic backdrop that Jia Zhang Ke chooses for his understated, gorgeously shot film Still Life (Sanxia Haoren). We watch the loosely intertwined stories of Sanming and Tao as they search for the past (a daughter, a husband) before the water washes away all trace. The metaphor works and it’s used to heartbreaking effect in a scene where Sanming arrives at the last known address for his family only to find it long submerged. You feel the quiet rumble of history in every frame — waterline marks written on buildings as if to say: next week, everything you remember will be underwater. But there are light moments, too. An elderly innkeeper entertainingly chastises a government worker for “rudely” marking his hotel “OK for Demolition” and a certain character’s fixation on Chow Yun Fat never gets old.

When I sailed through the Three Gorges last year, I saw lovely old villages being torn down brick by brick and shining modern cities built just across the river, the new cities perched in places that seem unreasonably high, but will soon be at river’s edge. The stunning scale of the project was driven home over and over. But what I missed was the human story: what this kind of change does to the people that live there, their families, and their dreams. Still Life is that story. It captures people at a singular moment in history in a place that, once lost, can never be regained. We see the lives of poor demolition workers and the camaraderie they develop in the ruins, we see the lives of the rich construction contractors and the impressive engineering feats of the New China, we see luminous celluloid jam packed with gorgeously lit conversation and culture. I felt like I was back in China, this time as an insider, a local.

But as close as you feel to the place and the characters, you slowly realize you aren’t just watching a beautifully composed film set against a dramatic backdrop but a historical document of a time that will not come again. After all, most of the locations shot in the film are now underwater. And the film quietly wonders if things aren’t better left that way.

Still Life is showing at the Tribeca Film Festival this Friday and Saturday. It won tops in Venice. Find more at Memento Films and grab the presskit.

We last wrote about China’s tomorrow in Future Found.

Chinese Graffiti Stories

I found graffiti in mainland China, but it wasn’t easy. Over the years, I’ve heard many explanations for the lack of street art there, from the stereotypical (orderly Chinese society) to the sinister (fear of reprisals). We had little luck in major urban centers like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing (besides tiny bits like this). So, imagine my surprise finding these big ‘ol tags under a bridge in the quaint canal town of Suzhou.

Alongside a homeless camp are two pieces. On the left is a fairly traditional western tag. At right is an angular, less traditional Chinese tag. East meets west on the same wall. (close up here)

Since the artists are unknown to me, I often wonder what the story behind this meeting is. Did two writers from opposite sides of the world meet up in Suzhou and decide to make their mark together? Or, is it a call and response, an argument, with one piece angry at the other? What story does it tell us about China and Chinese graffiti? What does it tell us about how the Chinese view the western world?

No matter the story, I love this kind of cross-pollination. Artists from one part of the world influencing another, and the other echoing it back inside out and sideways. Culture is a beautiful thing but intercultural communication — that’s something else.

For more on mainland graffiti writers, see China Daily, graffiti crew Made in Guangzhou, and Chinese graffiti forerunner Zhang Dali.

Do You Know Air Canada?

Since it’s opening week for the NBA, I figured it might be time to revisit a recent trip to China from a slightly different perspective. You see, as far as I could tell, the Chinese are super NBA crazy (even during the off-season, even during the world cup) but the league is a bit different seen through their eyes.

Take, for instance, the Vince Carter shirt above. The guy’s got a massive fro (Vince is bald) and it doesn’t look particularly like Vince in any other regard, either. “Do You Know Air Canada?” Whoever designed this shirt sure didn’t. (Did I mention that Vince plays for New Jersey now?) But that doesn’t take away from the sheer exuberance for the sport it captures. Heck, I nearly bought it.

There are lots of similar examples and, surprisingly, most feature Vince — his jerseys were running at about 60% of all basketball jerseys I saw. (Where’s the love for Yao?)

Still, there’s the odd non-Vince player every once in a while. Take, for instance, this Wandanu ad I saw in Shanghai. Sporting an Orlando Magic jersey, it could be an endorsement at first sight…but that all falls apart on closer inspection. First off, that isn’t any NBA player I know. Second, isn’t his head a bit too big for his body? Third, doesn’t that logo look suspiciously like the Adidas logo? Fourth, the URL goes to a spam page. Fifth, boy do I wish I had a translation for the Chinese! The shoes still sell off the shelves, though. And that kind of blind enthusiasm is one more reason I love China.

Of course, many Chinese are really quite NBA savvy. It was great fun, though, to be in a place where they love the league so much but sometimes, well, don’t quite understand it.

Future Found

Shanghai is a wonderful place to visit as a fan of the futuristic. From the well known Pudong skyline to the wicked fast Maglev train to constant KTV and the seedy neon lit backstreets featuring whispered promises of “younger beautiful woman, bar, watch, bag, dvd…”, Shanghai has a little something for everyone.

The place that really hit it out of the park future-wise, though, was the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, which features details on a number of forward-thinking projects, including a truly stunning floor-sized model of Shanghai 2020. It’s not hard to buy a lot of it considering what present day Shanghai already represents.

But it can’t all be spotless. The voiceover that comes with the future perfect displays (above) truly echoes the sanitized, disembodied voice accompanying the Blade Runner blimp in dystopian Los Angeles 2014:

A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. New climate, recreational facilities…absolutely free.

Just replace Off-World with Shanghai and you’ve pretty much got it. It’s this sort of thing sends those tiny chills, snapping you out of the full-on adoration of the city and revealing the “museum” as the propaganda palace it really is — presenting the super green, zero unintended consequence, 100% thought out, everybody happy all the time tomorrowland that will be Shanghai in 20 years. Surely, it’s a nice thought but we’re also left to wonder what is conveniently absent.

Of course, the lack of free press means it may be impossible to ever know for sure how much is real and how much memorex. But it certainly whets the appetite for more trips to Shanghai, and much more conversation with the Shanghainese about real life and the real impacts of a rapidly arriving future.

14 Hours By Air

In attempt to boost my Gitmo credentials, I’m off to China for a few weeks — including Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Chongqing, and a few days sailing the Yangtze. My head thinks I’m going to have a great time; let’s hope my stomach can be similarly convinced. See you in late July!

image grabbed from cnto

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