Sunday, April 26, 2015

Under the dome...

A couple of months ago, a documentary about China's pollution went viral, receiving over 150 million hits in the first few days of its online release. Made by Chai Jing, a former investigative reporter with CCTV, "Under the Dome" is reminiscent of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." It explains the problem in ways that people can easily understand. And it is a call to arms. Some have called it China's "Silent Spring." 

Here's Part 1, with full English subtitles.

I've blogged (and written a book about) China's environmental problems, which are so severe that they've had a huge negative impact on peoples' health and could undermine China's economic miracle altogether. The Chinese central government—or at least certain factions of it—are well aware of extent of this crisis, and on paper, Chinese environmental regulations are fairly strict. But China's environmental protection agency, SEPA, lacks the funding and the regulatory teeth to actually enforce those regulations, and competing interests that benefit from unrestrained growth and dirty industry want to keep it that way, in spite of the very real costs of China's filthy air, contaminated water and polluted soil.

These dynamics partially explain why "Under the Dome" was a huge viral hit, with some 200 million Chinese viewing it. Until the video was abruptly pulled from Chinese websites by government censors.

China's central government in recent years has been fairly tolerant of discussion and even protests, as long as those protests remain localized. And there are many in the government who would like to see stronger enforcement of environmental regulations. But the "red line" in China is any kind of discussion or activity which could form the basis of a mass movement that might potentially oppose the CCP, and environmental concerns in China have the potential to unite large numbers of people. In fact, they already have. From poor farmers protesting polluting factories that destroy their crops to wealthy urban dwellers who would like to be able to breathe safely on the streets of their own cities, these issues cut across class, income and location.

Sadly, the margins for acceptable public discourse under new President Xi Jinping have narrowed considerably. Environmental activists, feminists, and journalists have been detained and in some cases sentenced to long prison terms for activities that might have been tolerated a few years ago. In the case of "Under the Dome," a New York Times article speculates that the documentary may have been actively supported by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and then suppressed by agencies such as the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Finance. From my amateur Sinologist's perspective, I find this a pretty credible theory. As the NYT piece points out, power in China is far from monolithic, and factional competition and fragmented authority drive events far more than many people realize.

But what is also true is that these competing interests are all "under the dome." Everyone whether they are rich or poor breathes the same air.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Ladies and gentlemen…comrades and friends...

A little over 10 years after I left China for the first time, the Los Angeles Opera staged John Adams' opera, "Nixon in China."

You might be thinking, "An opera starring Richard Nixon? That's…an interesting choice." Many critics shook their heads as well, not at all sure what to make of an opera whose characters were not only based on real people but the majority of whom were still alive at the time of these first productions (the opera originated in Houston in 1987 and was performed in LA in 1990).

My then-boss asked me if I'd like her ticket -- modern opera wasn't really her thing. I wasn't sure that it was my thing either, but I was fascinated by the idea of an opera based on Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China.

(click to embiggen -- it's a hoot!)

I'd gone to China in 1979 at the age of 20, not because I'd had any particular interest in China. The opportunity had come up, so I took it. I really hadn't had any idea how this decision would impact my life, that it would be in essence an abrupt left turn that took me away from any clearly marked path and into unknown territory. Ten years later, I was still wrestling with the experience. China had been so different from any previous point of reference, and now I was orienting my life around something I really didn't understand.

(if you look carefully, you'll find me)

So I'd tried to make up for that lack of context by reading Chinese history. In particular, I was fascinated by the enigmatic Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic, who held the position until his death in January 1976.

Zhou, unlike Mao, was still greatly admired by most of the Chinese people I met back then -- intellectuals for the most part. They and many Chinese saw Zhou as the "People's Premier," the rational  leader who moderated the worst of Mao's excesses, who truly cared about China and the Chinese people. 

The reality, of course, is far more ambiguous, complicated by the fact that Zhou, unlike Mao and many other Chinese leaders, did not leave extensive written records of his thoughts and philosophy. You have to search for the evidence with Zhou, mine other accounts, dig out salient quotes. You have to read between the lines.

Anyway, off I went to the Los Angeles premiere of "Nixon in China." This was a slightly revamped staging of the original Houston Grand Opera production, with the original cast. 

From the moment the curtains opened on a choir standing in a stylized Beijing winter landscape, I was hooked. 

Adams as a composer has his roots in minimalism, but "Nixon in China" goes far beyond the sort of repetition you might associate with that style. It is melodically lush and rhythmically complicated (how the conductor and the musicians count some of these passages is beyond me!). It has actual songs you can sing (well, I do anyway, but I'm told I'm a little strange). But what really impressed me beyond the music, which I love, is the insightful libretto by Alice Goodman. The words and music come together to convey an amazing amount of historical and character insight. If you want to see what I mean, take a look and a listen at the scene below. 

Contrast the smooth elegance of Zhou Enlai's vocal lines with the herky-jerky repetition of Nixon and his fixation on "news."

If you want to keep watching, Nixon's aria continues and descends into a truly paranoid passage about "rats chewing the sheets." So Nixon! And then it's on to Mao's entrance, accompanied by his three secretaries, "translating" his disjointed thoughts into a demented chorus.

But I think what impressed me the most was the opera's insightful portrayal of Zhou Enlai. Nixon is the star, Mao the force of nature, Madame Mao gets the show-stopping aria that closes Act 2, and Pat Nixon is the most sympathetic character. Zhou is much harder to characterize. He has two arias that bookend the opera, one at the end of Act 1, the other that closes the opera. What they do is show a character who has the most insight and awareness of of the cast, who grasps both the potential and the reality of the situation, of that moment in history and how they had arrived at it. He has the hope and the vision that they can truly create a better world, one where the different paths of nations are mutually respected. 

(I love this piece and this performance by baritone Sanford Sylvan. My biggest disappointment with other productions has been that I haven't seen another "Zhou" come close to what he does here)

But for all that, Zhou is ultimately a tragic character, because this awareness is combined with an inability--or an unwillingness--to prevent the worst of Mao's excesses. During the Cultural Revolution scene that closes Act 2, he is but a passive spectator--disapproving, perhaps, but helpless to prevent the chaos. At the end of the opera, he is left to wonder: "How much of what we did was good?"

Speaking of Madame Mao, her aria is a total blast, the dramatic highpoint of the opera: 

The video above is from the Metropolitan Opera's production in 2011. Yep, "Nixon in China" made it to the Met -- and in fact, after that uncertain premiere back in the late 80s and early 90s, it is now probably the most widely performed contemporary opera of our time. My hometown San Diego Opera just finished four performances to stellar reviews, and yes, I went. Twice.

p.s. I would be remiss if I didn't add one of Pat Nixon's arias. They are truly beautiful. Sorry about the ad preceding it!

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On the border...

(as always, click to embiggen)

I was born and raised in San Diego, California, about a half hour from the Mexican border. When I was growing up, it was entirely possible to ignore the border, if you were a typical White kid like I was. Tijuana, the sprawling, messy city on the other side, was a place that a lot of the time, White San Diego seemed to pretend wasn't there, engaging in an act of civic denial.

Or, Tijuana was there, but it was "The Other," the place where you went to engage in transgressive behavior, to get drunk, gamble, go to donkey shows, do things you wouldn't do at home.

Or, Tijuana was a problem. The poverty. The sewage spills. The migrants who crossed illegally. And later, the drug wars. Something you guarded against, built walls to keep out.

Of course, there was always another side. Latino families with roots on both sides of the borders, who crossed back and forth all the time. People who lived in one city and worked in the other. It was easy to cross, before 9/11. You'd go for a couple of hours. Eat some street tacos. Buy tequila. Do a little shopping. Go to the bullfights if you were into that kind of thing. Maybe drive down to Puerto Nuevo for lobster, and beans, rice and tortillas.

I remember one time when I was in college, and I was driving a friend home around 11 at night, and somehow missed his exit.

"Let's go to Mexico," he mumbled, half-asleep.

"Okay," I said, and we did (I had the presence of mind to stop and buy Mexican car insurance before we crossed).

9/11 changed that. Even more, the drug wars put an end to that casual crossing. The violence devastated the tourist economy in Baja California. People were afraid to visit. And many residents were afraid to go out at night.

But in recent years, Tijuana has made a comeback. The cartel violence has died down. The city is a hotbed of electronics assembly and manufacturing.  TJ has become known for its culinary and cultural scene. There's increasing talk of the "San Diego/Baja Mega-region."

And since I'd recently moved back to my old home town San Diego, I decided it was past time for me to revisit Tijuana. Some friends and I signed up for a market tour with an atypical tour company, Turista Libre*, founded and run by an American journalist who lives in TJ. We would visit several markets via an old school bus. It seemed like a great way to get reacquainted with Tijuana, which to be honest, I'd never known all that well to begin with.

We took the trolley to the border, something I'd done in the past, but so long ago that I barely remembered the process.

Nowadays, at least, though there are physical barriers aplenty between the US and Mexico, the "border" is not always clearcut.

Crossing on foot is easy. You might even say, "pedestrian." You head up a path that feels almost like an afterthought. Sadly, there's nothing on the US side that suggests anything neighborly. What it feels like is that you're entering a prison.

Don't worry, your ad here can be seen by over 8 million people a year! 

But it's easy enough to get in. 

And here we are!

Looking back toward the US

We walked a bit, to a parking lot where our battered school bus waited, loaded up on pan dulce and Nescafe and headed up into the hills, to our first destination: La Villa Swap meet. Heading up there, you see a lot of housing that borders on shanties, little homes and businesses in crumbling disrepair, graffiti, everywhere. What you might have pictured Tijuana to be. 

The swap meet itself? 

I don't have any photos that capture the scale of this thing, and the truth is, when you see it, you can't really tell just how big it is, how far it goes, how many little side streets it spills into. It just never ends. You'll find:

Clothes. Oh so many clothes. Clothes, shoes and bags. DVDs. Stereos. Drum kits. 

Food of all sorts. And snacks. Tacos. Gorditas. Churros. Huaraches. 

(this stuff)

And all kinds of furniture.
(I have no explanation for the bowling balls)

Used tools, engine parts,  whatever all this is...

Tires. Car parts.

 (this place lets you use their bathroom for a quarter)

And musicians. And friendly people in general.

Our next stop was to the oldest market in Tijuana. Given that Tijuana is a new city, it's not very old: the Hidalgo Market opened at this location in 1984. This is a place where you'll find all kinds of food products, piñatas, kitchenware and pottery. Also, a rather upscale coffee stand, where the barista told me all about the beans and encouraged me to smell them.

Our last stop was on Avenida Revolución. Back in the day, Revolución was the epicenter of Tourist Tijuana, where you'd have your photo taken with the donkey painted like a zebra, get plastered at bars that served underaged college students and buy all manner of tacky souvenirs: gigantic sombreros and cheap maracas and cartoon mescal worms.

Many if not most of those places are out of business now, leaving Revolución quiet, almost deserted, at least on a Sunday afternoon.

But in the place of those tacky tourist shops, new and interesting things are appearing: Small, local businesses selling edgy T-shirts, hand-made accessories, and art. I happened upon a little food court tucked on the other side of a tunnel-like passage of shuttered stalls, where they had hummus, portabello burgers, and craft beer, among other things, with distressed wood tables and the kind of vibe you'd expect to find in in any middle-class hipster neighborhood.

Yes, I tried the beer. And it was good.

After all that, it was time to return to the border…where there were still approximately 900 pedestrians in line waiting to cross -- a wait that could take as long as three hours. 

We circumvented the worst of this by paying $6 a person to get onto an old airport shuttle bus, that for some reason was allowed to go to the head of the pedestrian line, where after about 55 minutes or so, we were able to debark and finally, head into US Customs.

Which is nothing like US Customs at any airport I've experienced. It's small and dimly lit and grimy, sort of like the worst small-town Greyhound station you've ever seen, and although I'm sure most of the CBP staffing it are fine folks, we encountered one guy who screamed at people in the wrong line and another who was just kind of an asshole. The rest were perfunctory and and not particularly friendly. The best I can say is that once we were actually in the Customs area, it didn't take very long to get through. But the fact that it routinely takes pedestrians hours to cross is a national embarrassment. Frequent border-crossers apply for the Sentri Global Entry or Ready-Pass programs, and I plan to do that ASAP.

Because I plan to return to Tijuana and Baja soon, and I hope to visit often. I like living on the border.


*If you're interested in visiting Tijuana, I recommend Turista Libre to get acquainted with the city. I'm signing up for the craft beer tour, for sure! 

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…