Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Things seen in China...

Sometimes I think I should have learned photography. I like taking pictures, having that frame to put around the world. It's a lot easier, at times, to share experiences of other places through photos than it is to write about them.

I have a semi-respectable camera but I really enjoy taking pictures with my smartphone. I like being able to edit and post on the fly, also that the phone is less obtrusive than a DSLR. The main reason I want to upgrade my phone at this point is for a better camera (I mean, does anyone actually use their smartphone to talk?)

Anyway, here are a few images taken on my trip to China last month. The purpose of the trip was visiting craft breweries there, but I did manage to do a few other things, apart from trying Chinese IPAs. In all instances, click to embiggen...

This is a blurry night shot done with that outdated smartphone, but I was so taken by the scene. Rather than having tables or blankets, a lot of vendors in this hip Kunming district were selling their wares out of the backs of cars and vans. All the better to outrun the chengguan if need be, the much hated "urban management" police force in charge of cracking down on illegal street vendors and other petty crimes. They have a reputation for brutality and excess, and even if you aren't crazy about illegal street vendors (who can be a real nuisance), hardly anyone roots for the chengguan.

Yeah, I know, I know. I have a thing about weird signs.

I was primarily seeking out "craft" beer from microbreweries. While this hardly fit the "craft" category, it was a pretty decent German lager. And, yellow.

The "vampire" trend in Beijing started a few years ago, and to my surprise is still hanging on. This is a bar on a very trendy hutong (alley) that's been around for a while.

A couple of Kunming fashion statements (and yes, the sign below really does translate to "smelly socks" -- someone has a sense of humor!)

Sure, they look innocent enough during the day...

Run away! RUN AWAY!!!!!

 You can find peaceful places in China if you look…

So. Much. Good. Food. The snaps below are all from Dali, in Yunnan.

I would so ride this.

Shanghai may be one of the most modern cities in the world, but in the older sections, this is how they do the scaffolding. In a lot of the newer ones, too…

Things seen in Beijing...

I always find these tranquil snapshots in the middle of Beijing.

But these old neighborhoods are almost gone now…

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Long Time No See!

Cara Lopez Lee and I met through an online author network and bonded over our love of China, Mexico, and writing. This month she’s celebrating the 2014 edition of They Only Eat Their Husbands: Love, Travel, and the Power of Running Away, (Conundrum Press, Oct 7 2014). 

It’s about Cara’s nine years in Alaska, where she landed in a love triangle with two alcoholics, and the year she ran away to trek around the world alone. During that journey, she made her first visit to China and discovered that a Chinese phrasebook is pretty much useless unless you speak Chinese. In honor of her book’s re-release, I’ve invited her to The Paper Tiger to share her dogged attempts to become multilingual. Enjoy! 

Long Time, No See!

After a year of Mandarin lessons and a year-and-a-half of Cantonese lessons, I can say “Where’s the bathroom?” in both languages, but don’t know what to do if the person answering does anything besides point. In Cantonese, right is “yao” and left is “dzaw”—don’t ask me the tones because Cantonese officially has either six or nine tones, but I hear 16. Problem is, if someone answers, “Down the hall to the left,” I’d hear, “Blah-blah-blah left.” Actually I’d hear “Mut-mut-mut left,” because “mut” means “blah” in Cantonese. After a few left turns, I’d end up where I started, where there’s only one thing I could say to the person who gave me directions: “Ho noi mo gin!” (Long time, no see!)

The above is called “losing face”: either mo min or diu gaa. I prefer mo min, because diu pronounced with the wrong tone means, “fuck,” though I doubt diu gaa translates “fuck-face.” I don’t mind losing face, but I’d rather not get punched in it.

I first visited China in 1999, during my solo trek around the world. On that trip, I learned such Mandarin phrases as “Ni hou!” (Hello!)“Duo shao qian?” (How much is it?), and “Xie xie” (Thank you). As a beginner traveler, I fell into the trap of believing that, when in doubt, I could mime whatever I needed. Untrue, as I discovered when looking for my bus from Lijiang to Dali. Unable to read signs, I ran from bus to bus holding up my ticket and pleading “Dali?…Dali?...Dali?” The drivers stared blankly. Panicked, I felt a weird temptation to try Spanish, the only other language I knew. Good thing an old man read my ticket and led me by the hand to my bus, or I might never have made it home to write my memoir.

Seven years later, I started researching a novel inspired by my Chinese-Mexican ancestry. I wanted to find the village of my great-grandfather, Ma Bing Sum, who was born in China. Until the 1970s, Toisan county was where most Chinese-Americans traced their roots. To prepare, I wanted to learn Cantonese. Toisanese is the local dialect, but I live in Denver, where I thought finding a Cantonese instructor would be easier. No such luck. Everyone insisted Mandarin would be more useful, so I surrendered and found a Mandarin tutor.

Mandarin is hard.

A year later, I only knew a handful of phrases, like, “I’m an American.” Shit, they could tell that by looking at me. So I hired a translator to help me find my ancestral village. Fiona Zhu, or Zhu Zhu, proved invaluable. My favorite great-uncle had told me my great-grandfather’s village was Gong Hao, but Zhu Zhu discovered that Gong Hao was a district containing eleven villages. So we embarked on a hunt.

On my previous trip to China, I often thought people were angry, because Mandarin tones sometimes sound harsh. Cantonese and Toisanese sound more musical. A comedian once said Cantonese speakers sound like they’re falling off a cliff: “mut-mut-mut-aaaaaaah!” Still, Cantonese can sound angry too if you don’t understand. At one point in Gong Hao, shouting people surrounded us.

“Are they angry?” I asked.

Zhu Zhu chuckled. “No. So nice, everybody wants to help find your family!”

Ultimately, someone directed us to a 99-year-old man in the village of Git Non, who we nicknamed Old Mr. Ma. He spoke Toisanese. My translator did not. The interview went something like this:

“My great-grandfather was born in Gong Hao 120 years ago,” I said, “so I’d like to learn what life was like here long ago.” My translator relayed this to his granddaughter in Cantonese, who relayed this to her grandfather in Toisanese, whose answer made the same trip in reverse.

Five minutes later, Zhu Zhu said, “He wants to know your grandpa’s name.”

“Ma Bing Sum, but he left before you were born, so you wouldn’t have known him.”

Chinese people are big on family history, so Mr. Ma refused to give up so easily. I told him Ma Bing Sum was born in Gong Hao around 1888 and moved to America in the early 1900s. Then I showed him a letter my uncle once wrote my great-grandfather. Mr. Ma grew excited, “Ho Ho Ho!” My great-grandfather was from this very village! Mr. Ma had met him during a couple of his visits home. He verified that Ma Bing Sum had lived in El Paso with a Mexican wife. He opened the village’s red book of ancestors to a page naming Ma Bing Sum and his eldest three sons. Across the path from Old Mr. Ma’s house stood the humble home where my great-grandfather was born. Down the street stood the huge house he built with money he made in America.

“Your grandpa was the richest man in town,” Zhu Zhu said. This village was full of my distant cousins. “They say you are family.”

I had tears in my eyes, but I did not lose face.

Two days later we did a full interview. One thing Mr. Ma shared was that long ago in Git Non, teens approaching marriageable age moved out of their parents’ homes and into two communal homes: one for boys, one for girls. Those homes now appear in my novel.

Two years later I returned for Qing Ming, a Chinese version of “Day of the Dead” when people clean and decorate family graves and feed their ancestors. The Ma family served a roast pig, which now makes an undignified appearance in my novel. The next day we celebrated Mr. Ma’s 101st birthday. Everyone chuckled with delight when I said Cantonese phrases Zhu Zhu taught me, like M’Goi (thank you) and ho ho mei, (delicious).

That does it, I thought. I’m learning Cantonese and I’m coming back. Mr. Ma won’t understand me, but his family will. I can also return to Guangzhou and Hong Kong where my uncle grew up, and speak the language he spoke. What’s more, I want my novel to feel realistic, and language is culture. I renewed my search for a Cantonese tutor: “I don’t care if Mandarin is more sensible!” I found Jing Jing, a twenty-something tutor from Guangzhou.

Sometimes Jing Jing’s lessons reveal a generation gap. She worked hard to teach me “Hang gai, Tai hei, Sik fan,” meaning, “Go shopping, see a show, eat”—the Chinese version of “Go to the mall.” She assures me this is “very popular,” though I doubt my great-grandfather said it in the 1910s. Then again, she also taught me the common greeting,“Sik dzaw fan mei ah?” which never goes out of style. It means, “Have you eaten yet?” or literally, “Have you eaten rice?” a reminder that rice is central to Chinese culture. Jing Jing explained that, upon meeting someone, it’s polite to say, “Please give me your advice.” I’m eager to make this request of my Chinese cousins.

There’s something about a foreigner speaking our language that warms the soul. It says this relationship means so much that I wish to build a bridge between us.

The last time I saw Old Mr. Ma he was waving from his doorway on his 101st birthday, saying, “Bye-bye!” a popular farewell in modern China. I had given him sweets, a card, and a red balloon. He was most tickled by that balloon, not because he’s feeble-minded—we had discussed profound concepts, including how he values the family closeness of village life, which is why he never sought his fortune in America—no, he loved the balloon simply because he’s a joyful person.

I hope I get to tell him, “Ho Noi Mo Gin!”—“Long Time No See.” If he’s no longer around, I’ll ask where his grave is so I can leave an offering. Hopefully by then I’ll know how to ask for directions.

About the Author:
Cara Lopez Lee’s stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, and she’s a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She has traveled throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the U.S. She married her husband at an active volcano in Costa Rica. They live in Denver. You can buy Cara’s memoir, They Only Eat Their Husbands, at Conundrum Press, IndieBound, or Amazon. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Getting from here to there...

I am sometimes not sure why I'm so addicted to traveling in China, because truthfully, it isn't always easy. Maybe because what it always is, is interesting.

A couple of days ago, I traveled with a friend by Da Ba Che -- Big Bus -- from Kunming to Dali. It takes about five hours or so, two hours less than the train. Note to self: What it saves in time, it makes up for in added discomfort and occasional terror.

You get on this thing and are immediately bombarded with a safety video instructing you to wear your seatbelt, not to smoke on the bus, and for reasons which are unclear to me, don't drop luggage on your baby. This repeats every 15 minutes or so. All well and good except half the seats don't have seat belts, or arm rests in some cases. The highways are very narrow, crowded with big trucks, close enough that you could reach out the window and touch one in the next lane.

At one point, we made a sharp turn, and my friend Richard went flying out of his seat, landing in the aisle. Both of us were so shocked by this that we didn't quite know how to react. This was topped a few minutes later when another bus nearly merged into us, our driver had to swerve and then he fell out of his seat. I guess he wasn't paying any attention to the safety video.

When the safety video wasn't playing, we watched strange Chinese comedies about a magical cellphone and another where a schoolteacher pretends to be a playboy's girlfriend for a visit to his parents, who run a martial arts school, for reasons that are unclear to me. Also, music videos. Like, "My Heart Will Go On," which is pretty much unavoidable in China, years after the film. As Celine Dion sang the chorus, a young couple behind us started singing along. Until it was interrupted by the safety video again. Wear your seatbelt. Don't smoke. And don't drop luggage on your baby.

We had one traffic jam, where lanes were closed due to construction. The barriers are bright colored plastic that look like the components of a child's fort, nothing that would actually stop a car. Meanwhile, we're barreling up a series of mountains, into greener and greener country dotted with Bai villages -- traditional whitewashed houses with gray roofs. Round mandala-like paintings under the eaves, like Amish barn signs. On the long walls, murals, some elaborate scenes of traditional subjects, dancers and musicians gathered around a bonfire, dotted with a series of small blazes, white geese taking flight around them. Others have paintings of dinosaurs. One village's murals are entirely different varieties of mushrooms. This part of Yunnan province is famous for its mushrooms, I'm told.

After this ride, I resolved to avoid the Da Ba in the future and take the train instead, even if it's two hours longer. But I expect I'll be going this way again, and soon, I hope. Because when you get there, it looks like this…

Sunday, August 10, 2014

These are the voyages...

(originally posted on Murder Is Everywhere)

I've traveled to places that many people would consider exotic. All over China, including Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. I just went to Russia for the first time this year. But I'm finding that my home town of San Diego is as exotic as anyplace I've ever visited.

Submitted as evidence: Comic-Con International.

Comic-Con started as a small gathering of comic book creators and fans, science fiction and fantasy writers and readers, and, well, Trekkies. Hey, I can say "Trekkie." I was an early adopter. 

"This is our Superbowl," Captain Kirk Shoe Shine explained earnestly to a customer

My sister and I attended one of the early Cons, back when it was held at the El Cortez Hotel, in a seedy part of downtown San Diego (actually, nearly all of downtown San Diego was seedy then, as I recall. How times have changed). I was somewhere in my early teens, my sister three years younger. "I'll pick you up in three hours," my dad told us, on his way to a three-martini lunch.

My sister and I ran around like wild things for those three hours. What I remember the most vividly are two things: We were in the company of strangers who liked the same weird stuff that we did. And it was the first time I saw the original "Star Trek" bloopers.

Now, as Geek culture has become mainstream culture, Comic-Con is an international phenomena, attended by 130,000 people a year, the place where Hollywood reveals teasers for the upcoming next big things. It's grown way too large for the San Diego Convention Center, so it's taken over parts of downtown San Diego as well, including Petco Park for a zombie run:

 -- and entire sections of the Gaslamp and the Embarcadero:

The whole experience is pretty overwhelming. The crowds are huge, lines are long, events are impossible to get into. People argue that Comic-Con has grown too big, that it's no longer as relevant, that smaller, more intimate conventions are taking its place. And I think there's some truth to all of those assertions.

But still. 130K people with a love of comics and science fiction and fantasy and popular arts descend on my city, once a year. A lot of them cosplay--create really elaborate and beautiful costumes to express themselves. It's sort of like Geek Mardi Gras.

And there's just something pretty awesome about that.

Submitted as evidence, the following photos…

There are more and more of these "Christian" protestors every year. But they are greatly outnumbered

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tony Gwynn, and a writer's work

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you've probably noticed that I posted a lot of articles and photos about Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest hitters in baseball, after his untimely passing.

Tony formed a great friendship with Ted Williams, who considered Gwynn the best hitter since, well, Ted Williams

Tony Gwynn was Mr. Padre, the face of a franchise that often -- well, mostly -- has underperformed. On a team with a history of mediocrity, he was excellence personified. He was also Mr. San Diego. For a city that hasn't always had a strong identity, other than, "We're not LA!" he was the perfect hero. Hard-working, loyal -- he stayed in San Diego for his entire career, though he could have made much more money elsewhere, and he could have been a lot more famous, too, if he'd taken the big bucks and gone to a big market like New York or Boston or Los Angeles.

He loved San Diego, and San Diego loved him back.

And get this. He was a genuinely good guy, too. Great family man. Wonderful to fans. Had a laugh, a gleeful cackle, and a smile that lit up the room. If anyone had a negative word to say about Tony Gwynn, I haven't read it yet. Instead, after his death, tributes poured in from all around the country. I'll just link to one, "I was Tony Gwynn's bat boy." It will give you an idea of the rest.

Tony's statue at Petco Park

It was a crazy thing, being in San Diego when Tony Gwynn died. He was too young, too nice, too good a person. I don't know how many sports figures there are these days whose passing would be felt by as many and as deeply, who was so linked to a particular city, a place that doesn't have many heroes. As a lifelong Padres fan (which is another term for "masochist"), I was, like many San Diegans, mourning a man I didn't know, and you know, I generally don't get all that involved in the lives of celebrities that I don't know. 

Of course, I had to go to the memorial. Decked out in my Tony Gwynn retro jersey, wearing my new Tony Gwynn 394 Pale Ale T-shirt (yes, he collaborated on a signature beer with Alesmith Brewing Company. And it's delicious).

It was really a lovely event. There were a lot of emotional moments, but one of them came when former Padres shortstop Damian Jackson talked about how he didn't have a father growing up, how Tony would have been a great father to have. 

Yeah, that kind of guy.

The memorial at Petco Park

One of the things most remarked upon was Tony Gwynn's incredible work ethic. He was a pioneer in using video tapes to study hitting, a practice that is now universally used in baseball. He showed up earlier, practiced longer, than just about anyone. He analyzed hitting constantly, down to the smallest minutia. He rarely struck out. He was all about putting the bat on the ball, hitting that 5.5 hole.

He wasn't a great fielder at first, so he worked his ass off to become one and won five Golden Gloves. 

He worked very, very hard, and this is something that was greatly celebrated here. It fits in with that hazy San Diego civic culture: Work hard, don't be flashy, get the job done. 

Somewhere around the 100th iteration of Tony Gwynn's work ethic, I realized that there was an element of wishful thinking involved. Basically, if you work hard, you too will achieve and be rewarded. While that's not UN-true, it's not the entire picture, either. He had incredible natural gifts. He had a loving and supportive family. 

Plenty of people could work just as hard as Tony Gwynn and not achieve what he achieved. 

Why am I going on about a beloved baseball player on a blog dedicated to fictional mayhem set in foreign countries?

One of the things I kept thinking about was how Tony Gwynn's career resonated with me as a novelist. 

Baseball can be a real grind. It's a long season, and baseball players play a lot of games. It requires stamina, discipline and the sheer, dogged stubbornness to show up and play whether you feel like it or not. 

Writing novels feels a bit like that at times. 

Novels are…long. Writing one takes sustained effort over a long period of time. You research. You struggle through the first draft, and then you rewrite. And revise. And rewrite and revise some more. You deal with editor's notes. You revise and rewrite. You do your line edit. Your copy edit. Your page proofs. You try to craft the thing as best as you can, down to each single sentence. 

And like most things, you get better with practice. You work hard, and it's reflected in the work. 

But so is your individual talent. Your voice. That spark and gift that you can't explain and you can't always will into being. 

Respect your own gifts by working hard and treating people well. And by being loyal to the thing that drives you to create in the first place. 

You don't cheapen your Muse by selling out and becoming a damn Yankee, or a stinkin' Dodger.

Lisa…every other Wednesday…

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A visit to "Chinawood"

Whenever I come to China, I try to go somewhere I’ve never been. On this trip, I decided to visit Hengdian World Studios. I worked on a film studio lot in Los Angeles for many years; how could I resist a visit to the largest filming facility in China, which, as I understood it, is also a tourist attraction a la Universal Studios.

This trip happened kind of quickly and I didn’t have much time to research it or even really think much about where I was going and what I would do. I’d read an article about Hengdian that purported to explain how to get there and what to do, and for whatever reason, I just took it on faith that the information was correct.

So, I took a high-speed train from Shanghai to a place called Yiwu that I knew nothing about. From Yiwu I was supposed to look for Bus K850 and for 1.5 yuan take that to someplace called Jiangdong, where supposedly there were shuttles to Hengdian for 10 kuai. I didn’t know what time the buses ran or stopped running. I was mildly anxious about this, but not enough to do anything about it. I just got off the train in Yiwu and wandered over to the right, where the bus station was.

(this was on the way back, but you get the idea)

The bus: a typical Chinese public bus. I asked the attendant if it went to Jiangdong and if from Jiangdong I could get to Hengdian. She nodded and said “yes,” rather curtly, so I got on the bus. I was naturally the only laowai on the thing.

Which was standing room only. The bus jerked and moved and stopped and went, all of us who were unfortunate enough to be standing hanging on to the plastic strap handles and swaying with every turn and halt. I do not necessarily recommend traveling this way.

Yiwu, as it turns out, is a pretty big city. We passed a row of luxury car dealerships as we headed into town. Lexus and Infiniti. I’d never even heard of Yiwu, but at least a few people there must be making enough money to buy them.

The drive took a long time. We seemed to go out of the city, and then into another one, but when I asked the woman next to me where we were, it was still Yiwu.

Finally we came to Jiangdong, which was the end of the line with a lot of other city buses, still in Yiwu. A smaller white bus was parked there. I figured it was probably the shuttle to Hengdian, and as I stood there, considering, a guy asked me if I was going to Hengdian and said that this was indeed the right bus.

I sat by an open window, thinking, it would be nice to sit for this leg of the journey.

Unfortunately, just as I got comfortable, someone came on the bus and made an announcement in dialect that I couldn’t understand, but the upshot of which was, everybody had to get off this bus and get onto another one.

That bus, naturally, was already full. I grabbed the absolute last seat on it, climbing over someone’s suitcase to claim it, next to a young woman who was sitting sideways in the seat because her luggage was piled around her. More people boarded, filling the aisle. It was a 12 yuan ride, as it turned out. I asked the ticket collector how long it was to Hengdian. “Yige xiaoshi,” she told me. An hour. And “Nide Hanyu ting bucuo.” Your Chinese is not bad. This is a compliment. “Not really,” I told her. “I have a long way to go.” I would demonstrate how far later in the evening.

“Are you going to Hengdian?” my seatmate asked me. I said that I was. “I heard it’s fun,” she said.

What is not fun: sitting with your seatmates’ kneecap pushed into your thigh, a water bottle in the front seat pocket poking into your knee, your backpack and bag perched on your lap, being jammed into your kidneys by the collapsing seat of the person in front of you.

According to the article I read, “Hengdian is so small that you can easily find hotels of all kinds and many restaurants.” Also, supposedly, there are Hengdian Studios electric cars and rickshaws to take you where you need to go. Well, not so much. It’s more like a medium-sized town, and when the bus stopped in its center and we all got out, I realized that I had no idea where my hotel was and no idea how to get there. I didn’t see any of these magical electric cars and/or rickshaws.

What I did see was a “modi,” one of those motorized trike vehicles with a tin covering, where you can ride on a wood bench inside. They are of course extremely underpowered and pretty dangerous. Oh well. The driver looked at the address of my hotel and told me it was “very far” and would therefore cost me 30K to get there. I wasn’t sure that I believed her. “Very far” in small Hengdian? But after a halfhearted attempt to find other options, I gave up. Odds were I probably wasn’t going to die in a crash taking one of these things just this once.

Not only are you riding inside of a giant tin can, you are riding on one that is being hammered on, where every bump in the road is a major jolt, and who knew, she was telling the truth when she told me it was “very far,” or “very far” in terms of Hengdian. We bounced along, down rough roads that appeared to be taking us out of town. This can’t be right, I thought. This is supposed to be a four-start hotel with “excellent” ratings on CTrip, and we are heading out into the countryside. Then, down a road lined with…furniture factories. Yeah. Long, warehouse-like buildings advertising mahogany and rosewood furniture.

Then, suddenly: my hotel. An apparition in marble and gilt in the middle of a row of furniture factories.

The name of it was the Hengdian Honton Boutique Hotel. “Honton” is not a word in my Chinese dictionary, but looking at the actual characters, the name has something to do with “rosewood.”  As close as I can figure out this hotel caters to businessmen coming to make deals on furniture. It does not cater much to foreign tourists, and I quickly reached the limits of my Chinese understanding when trying to communicate with the desk clerk, who spoke very quickly and with a heavy local accent. But eventually I made my way to my very nice room, and then, to dinner.

The restaurant was a series of private banquet rooms, and I sat alone in one at the end of the dinner service and drank a Cheerday Beer. I really needed a Cheerday Beer by that point.

After the adventure of getting to Hengdian, the actual studio visit was almost an anticlimax. Not that it wasn’t interesting. I visited the Qing/Ming Dynasty filming base, the one with the giant full-sized replica of the Forbidden City that Zhang Yimou used in his films HERO and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. 

After that I wandered around the streets of old Hong Kong.

Filming was mostly done without sound, so tourists clustered around the production sets in close proximity to the filming. 

Other tourist activities included dressing up in costumes for photos and performances in your own movie skits, a blue screen demonstration, horse and archery shows, comedy performances.

When it was time for me to head back to Yiwu, the Hengdian tourist taxis again eluded me, and I ended up in yet another modi back to the part of town where the shuttle buses waited. Hopped on that. 
“Oh, you’re back!” It was the same ticket taker as yesterday. “Did you have fun?”
“Yes. A lot of fun.” And I really did. Because sometimes half the fun really is just managing to get there.