Saturday, October 29, 2005

"Saving Face"

No, I'm not referring to the Bush Administration's fall-back strategy for coping with the indictment of Scooter Libby and all the suddenly pointing fingers at the lies and deceptions underlying the hollow rationale for the invasion of Iraq. Lots of other blogs out there doing a brilliant job of that (and might I recommend Booman Tribune and firedoglake as places to go for your latest installments of "Scooter Goes to Jail"? Part Two: "Turdblossom's Fitzmas Present").

I'm referring to last year's indy film by first-time director Alice Wu. Now, I work in the film industry and am well-aware of the dynamics that control what films get made and why - one of the reasons that I'd rather read and write novels, to be honest. But occasionally, exceptions come along, and in the case of this one, I can only shake my head in admiration and wonderment.

"Saving Face" is, first, a film about Chinese Americans. With no white people. Well, that's a big no-no. Second, it's a film about Chinese American lesbians, which, even given the popularity of girl on girl sex in certain lad-ish circles is still a bit of a commercial stretch. Third, half the film is in Mandarin! Lovely, proper Mandarin, in the case of Joan Chen, always a boon to us aspiring Chinese students. But you gotta figure that market is also somewhat limited. And did I mention the part where this was the director's first script and first film? That Wu's previous job was as a software geek at Microsoft? That she quit her job and gave herself five years to get her film made? And along the way, encountered attitudes like these?
''They had me meet with a lot of people in Hollywood, mostly Asian-American studio executives, which I hadn't honestly known existed,'' Ms. Wu said. She also hadn't anticipated just how often she would be asked to consider changes that struck at the very heart of the script everyone seemed to like so much: Couldn't Ms. Wu make her characters white, so maybe the young doctor could be played by, say, Reese Witherspoon, and Ellen Burstyn could be cast as her mother? How about making the love affair heterosexual? Did she have to direct as well as write it? It was advice Ms. Wu declined to take.

(from an unlinkable May 29, 2005 NYT article)
The only part of this I have any sympathy for is the caution about giving a complete novice director the helm. God knows there have been far too many inexperienced directors who've cost studios tons of money because they don't have a clue what they're doing. That applies to some pretty well-known directors as well (*cough* let's just say he's not "money" *cough*).

Anyway, "Saving Face" is a charming dramatic comedy that's been compared to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "Bend It Like Beckham." I haven't seen the latter film but can say that it's a much better movie than the first, even with what I feel is one dramatic misstep (which since I don't want to drop a spoiler, I'll decline to go into here). The film is about a young doctor in NYC who does not know how tell her very traditional family that she's gay (and in love with a ballerina, no less). Add to that her widowed mother's mysterious pregnancy (she declines to identify the father). Kicked out of her Flushing-based parents' house, Mom moves in with daughter, redecorates the apartment in proper Chinese fashion and holes up watching bad Chinese soap operas (are there any other kind?). Will mother and daughter remain enslaved to tradition and misery? Or will they risk opening themselves up to real love?

Now available on DVD. I urge you all to rent and watch, if for no other reason than to support a tenacious filmmaker who stayed true to her vision and somehow got it done, and in fine style. But I think you'll enjoy the film too.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

In Memory

As of today, 2002 US Troops have died in Iraq during "Operation Iraqi Freedom". I don't know how many Iraqi civilians.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Opium Wars

As I watched the awful, inexorable "progress" of our nation being led into an unjust war by manipulation and lies, as I saw the dreadful, predictable consequences - 2,000 dead American soldiers, tens of thousands wounded, 30,000 plus dead Iraqi civilians, a country disintegrating into civil war - I half-remembered a quote from a British politician during the Opium Wars. I finally decided to look it up.

The Opium Wars, if you are not familiar, happened in the mid-19th century. They came about as a result of Britain's need for Chinese tea, and their unwillingness to pay for said tea with silver.

China was then the only source for tea, and the tax paid on tea by British consumers was a major revenue source for the British Empire. The problem was, China was not terribly interested in trading tea for Western goods. It was the view of the ruling Qing Dynasty that China produced what it needed for its own consumption, even if distribution was not entirely equitable.

By the time of the Opium Wars, economic polarization in Chinese society had, in fact, reached a crisis state. At the beginning of the dynasty, the Qings had governed competently, and as a result of fairly consistent good times, China's population boomed, doubling in the eighteenth century and reaching 400 million by the mid-nineteenth. Now there were far too many landless peasants, not enough cultivatable land in any case, little industry to absorb this excess labor. Various things happened to the armies of the displaced. They became tenants, subsistence farmers who worked for food and little else, they starved to death; they joined provincial armies or bandit gangs, professions with at times little difference between them. Many emigrated, the Chinese Diaspora that spread throughout southeast Asia and across the Pacific to the Americas. They formed secret societies, mutual protection groups frequently invested with the ostensible goal of restoring the fallen Ming Dynasty, the ruling Qings' predecessor. At times they participated in full-scale rebellions, peasant uprisings that presaged dynastic decline.

But what did this have to do with selling tea to the British? The Chinese government preferred silver, the currency of the Empire, to goods in trade. Moreover, they could not see any particular advantage to increased intercourse with foreigners. They didn't understand who or what they were dealing with.

From the British perspective, the Tea Trade must continue, but England could not simply bleed silver to obtain Chinese tea. It was unfair for protectionist China to refuse to accept foreign goods and create this massive trade imbalance, the real White Man's Burden that was getting in the way of Great Britain's global destiny.

Finally a product was found for which there was Chinese demand: Bengali opium. The Empire objected; drug addiction tended to undermine Confucian family values, since the user, generally the patriarch, expended resources on the drug that the family could frequently ill-afford. After many diplomatic skirmishes, the British government proceeded to wage war upon China in the name of free trade. "Justice, in my opinion," said William Gladstone, then a member of the Tory opposition, " is with them; and whilst they, the Pagans, the semi-civilized barbarians, have it on their side, we, the enlightened and civilized Christians, are pursuing objects at variance both with justice and with religion...a war more unjust in its origin, a war calculated in its progress to cover this country with a permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of."

I've thought of this quote a lot in the past three years.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

"Beijing Doll"

In the midst of my novelizin', I'm taking a little time to read Beijing Doll, a notorious roman a clef written by a young Beijinger, Chun Sue, when she was 17 (she's 21 now). As a novel, it's pretty incoherent, consisting of fragmentary stories and derailed trains of thought taken from Chun's journal. The notoriety comes from "Doll" having been banned in China for its sexual content, and, I suspect, for the grim portrait it paints of a nihilistic, rock and punk generation unmoored from both traditional and Revolutionary ideals, and so far, not caring too much about building a strong, modern China either - these are not the pressured, success-obsessed young people or nationalistic robots more frequently encountered in Western media.

Though I can't recommend Beijing Doll as a novel, I'm enjoying the book for its different perspective on China's Generation Y, and as a former rocker/club crawler in Southern California, for the glimpse it provides into Beijing's underground rock scene.

Okay, now back to work!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Bad Blogger, No Donut!

So apparently I got quoted in the Manchester Guardian last Saturday in its web round-up feature for my off-the-cuff philosophizing on the Lu Banglie case and press freedom and rule of law and the lack thereof in contemporary China, etc. Which is really flattering, and also guilt-inducing, because I've hardly blogged a thing since then. That's the problem with starting a blog. I feel a certain obligation to keep it going, and when I don't, I feel lame.

It's not like there aren't plenty of great China stories out there that I'd like to talk about, not to mention the coming implosion of the Bush Regime (and anybody who says schadenfreude is inappropriate or misguided under these circumstances is either a Republican front or just plain stupid. I'm popping the popcorn, personally). But I've had a helluva time just getting up in the morning, lately. I mean, even if the entire Administration ends up in handcuffs, is that going to be enough to halt this country's headlong dive over the cliff, into the dustbin of history where other dead Empires reside? I'm really not sure.

More to the point, am I ever gonna get this latest effin' novel finished? After years of being able to crank out pages of whatever it was I needed to write by whenever I had to have it done, I find myself in the unfamiliar position of feeling like my keyboard's been submerged in molasses.

My saving grace - and also best procrastination device - has been this swell online novelists' group which I accidentally started a while back. I'm in the happy position of being able to read stuff and receive feedback from a couple of really talented writers. The procrastination comes in because I'm finding it much easier to read other peoples' stuff and comment on it than to commit time to my own work.

Maybe it's just a phase. I think I got spoiled because for years I was able to just crank it out without too much angst, maybe because I'd gotten to a certain place creatively and emotionally, and I stayed there for a while.

Now I feel like I've poked my head up into an unfamiliar landscape. Everything is harder to navigate. Where am I, anyway? How did I get here? You'd think I'd be pretty familiar with this sensation by now, as it's defined many major milestones in my life. Whoah, China? How'd THAT happen?

I started this blog because I was at a creative standstill and needed a place to write little pieces without a lot of self-censorship or huge time commitments. Now I'm trying to dig back into the larger projects that I've always used to define myself.

And then I get an effin' quote in the UK Guardian of my little thoughts about Big Issues, and I think, does this mean I have to post more? And be profound while I'm at it?

God, I hope not.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Lu Banglie Update

Good news:
Lu Banglie, the Chinese democracy activist who was savagely beaten at the weekend, has been found injured but alive.

Mr Lu has told the Guardian that he was battered unconscious and later driven hundreds of miles to his home town where he is now recuperating. Civil rights lawyers said they were considering a legal case against his attackers, thought to be a group of thugs hired by the local authorities to put down an anti-corruption campaign against the chief of Taishi village.
According to the Guardian, here is Mr. Lu's own account of his attack:
"Five to six of them pulled my hair and punched me in the head. They kicked my legs and body for a couple of minutes. Then I passed out. Some people splashed water on me which brought me round, then I passed out again." When he came to, he was being driven back to Hubei.

The propaganda office said Mr Lu had been picked off the road near Taishi at 9pm - an hour after the assault - taken to a nearby hospital for a check-up and then at 1.30am driven out of the area.

The Pan Yu propaganda office said there had been "no violence" and that Mr Lu had "pretended to be dead".

Mr Lu said such claims were laughable. "When I came around, I was too nauseous to eat. My body aches all over and my head hurts." But he said only his arm was visibly wounded.

His supporters, who include lawyer Gao Jisheng, say they are considering legal action. The Guardian has asked the Guangdong authorities to investigate the attack but a spokeswoman said a response would be made in the next few days. Mr Lu said he was aware of the dangers and had no regrets about going to Taishi. "I believe you cannot write off truth. The authorities control the village tightly. They try to prevent news from leaking out, which hurts not only the democratisation of Taishi village but the entire country."

Sunday, October 09, 2005

WOLFGANG 1988-2005

Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

I had known Wolfgang since he was a kitten, but he didn’t come to live with me until he was around 7. He belonged to my friend Lisa, who was going off to grad school in Hawaii. The quarantine laws there, and the uncertainty of her living situation, made it impossible for Wolfgang to go with her.

She begged me to take him. I really didn’t want another cat. I was living in a cramped Venice apartment, and I had two cats already. “He doesn’t need a lot of room,” Lisa argued. “Besides, all he does is eat and sleep.”

What could I do? I took him in.

Wolfgang was one of the most aggressively friendly cats you will ever meet. He had a bad habit of wanting to sleep on your chest and suck on your ear. This might not have been so bad if he hadn’t been such a fat cat. His nickname was “the Football.” Plus he had tiny little paws. Having him on your lap was sort of like having a really heavy woman in spike heels standing on your thighs.

His affectionate nature sometimes got on my nerves. He had to be on my lap, had to head-butt my laptop screen, had to have my attention when I wasn't always in the mood to give it (especially with those tiny paws indenting my thighs). “Boundaries, Wolfgang,” I would mutter, giving him a little shove. “Just give me a little space, here.”

My rejection never phased him. He loved every person who walked in the room and all other creatures besides. Once he ran out the door of my apartment, into the courtyard, just as one of my neighbors was bringing his Rottweiler down the stairs from the lobby. Wolfgang immediately ran up to the Rottweiler and started head-butting it. On the head. The poor dog was mightily confused. She kept sniffing at Wolfgang, trying to get a good whiff of his butt. You could see what was going on in her little doggie mind: “Smells like cat. Acts like dog. But smells like cat. What to do?!”

The only thing Wolfgang didn’t like was vacuum cleaners. Those were instruments of Satan. They terrified him.

About five years ago, against my better judgment, I took in another cat, a skinny foundling my sister named “Spike,” as an homage to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and also as sort of a joke, as this cat looked about as deadly as a jackrabbit. Shortly after I adopted him, Spike got very sick. The vet never could figure out what it was, some sort of “fever of unknown origin,” possibly feline infectious peritonitis. It seemed likely that Spike would die. I took care of him at home, gave him fluids, force-fed him pills and baby food. Surprisingly, he did get better. As he started to recover, Wolfgang would groom him. It was one of the sweetest things I ever saw. Spike rebounded with a vengeance and proceeded to grow into his name (he weighs about 25 lbs these days). He loved Wolfgang. They frequently groomed each other and curled up on the bed together.

Even Murphy, the queen cat, grew to tolerate Wolfgang as they both got older. Unlike Wolfgang, Murphy has perfected the art of the boneless sprawl and somehow can always find a way to fit onto my lap comfortably. Wolfgang’s traditional position was next to me on the couch, head and front paws on my thigh. Sometimes he and Murphy would use each other as pillows. Murphy, who does not particularly care for other felines, didn’t seem to mind.

As Wolfgang aged, he became frail, no longer the plush football I could roughhouse with. His decline was slow and almost unnoticeable. The 4th cat of my quartet, Mags, was taking up most of my attention with her chronic illness (which was a lot more dramatic, involving as it does lots of barfing and diarrhea). I realized though that Wolfgang didn’t look right. I took him into the vet. His kidneys were starting to fail, and his teeth were in bad shape. I’d need to hydrate him regularly with subcutaneous fluids. That wasn’t a problem for me; I’d done it plenty of times with other sick cats.

The fluids worked. His kidney function went back to normal. I’d have to continue hydrating him, but that wasn’t a big deal. He perked up considerably and put back on some weight.

Then one morning, I heard a thumping noise. It was Wolfgang. He couldn’t put any weight on his hind legs. It didn’t seem to bother him all that much. I however was freaked. I called a house-call vet I’d spoken to before, wondering if he was about to die. Probably not, the vet assured me. That kind of thing isn’t normally connected to kidney failure. I took him into my vet. The disks in his back had collapsed. There was some congestion in his lungs as well. At over 17 years old, his body was simply wearing out.

Predinsone might help him regain some mobility, the vet advised. I tried it. Surprisingly, after a few days, it did. Wolfgang could walk, wobbily, it’s true, seeming to tiptoe on his little paws.

We went on like this for nearly two months, I think. The last couple of weeks, Wolfgang grew weaker. He ate less and less. He still wanted to sit with me on the couch, and by scrambling onto the ottoman, he could get most of the way there without my help.

In the middle of the week, he stopped eating completely. I couldn’t tempt him with anything. I also couldn’t force-feed him. He could clamp his jaw shut with amazing strength, and it was hard enough to get his meds down him. And I thought, what would be the point? He was over 17 years old, and he was getting ready to go.

In spite of this, I felt horribly guilty at times. I should have taken better care of him. I should have gotten his teeth cleaned. I should have loved him more.

By Thursday I was seriously debating what to do. He didn’t seem to be in any pain, but he was increasingly weak and out of it. He would stare off at nothing. He seemed confused, and at times he looked sad. I thought maybe he could die on his own. But how could I be sure that he wasn’t in pain? What if he was sad? I called the house call vet I’d spoken with before, a woman whose compassion and caring over the phone had helped me with this debate earlier. But she was still in New Orleans, volunteering to help animals in the wake of Katrina. I got the name of another vet but didn’t call her. I just couldn’t bring myself to talk to a stranger. I went home.

Wolfgang spent the evening with me on the couch. When it was time for me to sleep, I made a bed for him so he could sleep with me, and if he was incontinent, it wouldn’t make too much of a mess. Some time in the night, he crawled off of that and came to snuggle against my back.

The next morning I decided that it was time to call the vet. There must be something about female house-call vets, because this woman was also compassionate and kind. Her earliest appointment was 4 PM the next day, Saturday. She gave me the number for an animal mortuary service as well, run by a man named Richard, who would come afterwards. Richard explained their services to me. My pet would be individually cremated. His ashes would be returned in a lovely wooden box, and I’d receive a clay impression of his right paw-print and a certificate with the pet’s name and any message I would like. There was something absurd about the whole thing, I thought, but I still cried my eyes out and only barely got through the conversation.

I left work early so I could spend time with Wolfgang. When I got home, he’d somehow gotten himself from the bed I’d made him in the living room the short distance to the front door entry. He often liked to sit by the door, in front of the security screen, maybe because the breeze is nice there. His head rested on a pillow I’d left by the door.

When I came in, he looked up, more alert, happier, it seemed to me, than he’d been yesterday. I talked to him and petted him and scratched behind his ears, and he responded under my hand, nuzzling my palm, nose still cold and a little damp.

I spent the evening with him on the couch. At times he seemed to drift away, barely aware, no longer in control of his limbs. But then, for the longest time, as I scratched and petted him, he responded and nuzzled, arched his back a little, straightened his tail. And started to purr.

He hadn’t been quite able to purr for several weeks, even when he was still pretty mobile and active. It seemed to take too much effort, perhaps because of the lung congestion he had. I wondered now if this was some kind of end of life reflex. I’d heard that before, that cats sometimes purr when they are hurt or dying.

Of course there’s no way to know. But he purred as he exhaled, his breathing even and easy as I scratched his head, and he rested his head in my palm, nuzzling me now and again. We stayed that way for an hour. The pupils in his eyes were huge. What did he see, I wondered? As I scratched and massaged behind his ears, his eyes would close, the way cats do when they are content and basking in your attention.

You project all kinds of things onto your pets, I know. Interpret emotions and feelings that aren’t equivalent to ours. But his face was so relaxed. He seemed so peaceful. He seemed to smile. Cats do smile, you know. Don’t let anyone tell you that they don’t.

“Thank you,” I told him. “Thank you. Thank you for showing me this.”

I made up his bed for him so he could sleep on my bed and not be alone, and I went to sleep.

Sometime around 6 AM I woke up. I knew right away that he was gone. I rested my hand on him. He was still warm.

We do these things for ourselves, I know. Cats aren’t people. I don’t think of my cats as my children. They are cats. Weird little fuzzy companions who join us in our lives for a while and then pass on. Today, after Richard from the Pet Mortuary has come and gone, nothing seems so clear as it did to me last night. Maybe I waited too long. Maybe he was in pain. Maybe there was nothing in his eyes but the emptiness of a life-force that was dwindling away. I don’t know.

I do know one thing. If I didn’t love Wolfgang enough, it didn’t matter to Wolfgang. Wolfgang had more than enough love for me, for anyone who walked in the door of my house, for everyone and everything.

Except vacuum cleaners.

Rule of the Mob

Horrific, shocking story in today's UK Guardian:
One of China's leading democracy activists has been beaten, possibly to death, in front of a Guardian journalist. Lu Banglie was last seen lying unconscious on the side of the road on Saturday night after an assault by a mob which had joined forces with police to stop a car containing him, the Guardian's Shanghai correspondent, Benjamin Joffe-Walt, and two other people.

They were on their way to Taishi, a village in the southern province of Guangdong which has become the latest flashpoint in a growing wave of rural unrest that is proving the greatest threat to the rule of the Communist party since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

Mr Lu, one of a new breed of peasant leaders elected without the support of the party, had been in the area on the outskirts of Guangzhou city since August, encouraging residents to vote out officials accused of corruption...

...In Saturday's attack, Joffe-Walt said the car was stopped on a road outside Taishi by a group of about five police, five soldiers and as many as 50 people in plain clothes. The uniformed men soon left and then the mob set upon Mr Lu, dragging him out of the car and kicking him unconscious. They continued the assault for several minutes after he lost consciousness. "I was convinced he was dead and thought they were going to do the same to us," said Joffe-Walt. But he, his assistant and their driver escaped with being roughed up.
Human rights activists in China were shocked by the story, saying that this level of violence is unprecendented. The most telling statement comes from Ho Wenzhou, of the Empowerment and Rights Institute:
"This is an attack not just on Lu but on all people who work for grassroots democracy and human rights in China. It reveals the mafia-isation of local governments."
To me, "mafia-isation" perfectly describes what has gone on as ideology and totalitarianism have loosened their grip on today's China. We should all be grateful that for many Chinese people, the quality of life has improved and the range of personal freedom greatly expanded. I also believe that the central government has made some positive steps in in their struggle to establish a more coherent set of rules and regulations by which businesses and government agencies should function, particularly in areas such as environmental regulation. But they seem to lack the ability to enforce these good intentions on a local level. And this recent media crackdown does Beijing no favors. A more independent media at least could provide some feedback on what is really going on, in those places where the Emperor is far away.

What seems to be emerging in today's China is not the Rule Of Law, it's the Rule of the Mob.

Thanks to Zhuanjia for the tip.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Gobi Desert Dreams

The LA Times has a strange, poignant story from one of my favorite China reporters, Ching-Ching Ni, about how societal change occurs in fits and starts and sometimes, staggering leaps:
YELLOW SHEEP RIVER, China — This village on the edge of the Gobi desert entered the 21st century much as it had the previous one, with yellow sand blanketing the mountains and poor farmers sharing their mud huts with cows, donkeys and pigs.

No homes had running water. No shops sold clothes, just bundles of fabric to be sewn into shirts and pants. Donkey carts plied the dusty main street, rarely troubled by the rumble of a motor.

No one in this forgotten section of northwestern China seemed to realize that the nation's east coast was booming or that dot-coms were changing the world. But then, out of the blue, came an idea — and a multimillionaire — that promised to bring prosperity here.

High-tech entrepreneur Sayling Wen heard about the village and decided that by harnessing the power of computers, he could beam its 30,000 inhabitants into the Information Age economy.

Never mind that the Taiwanese tycoon had never laid eyes on the place. He would turn Yellow Sheep River into China's first "Internet village."
Inspired by a former classmate, Kenny Lin, who told him about Yellow Sheep Village, and perhaps by his own poverty-stricken childhood, Wen decided he would build a five star hotel and a conference center in this Gobi Desert outpost.
But the real giddiness set in when Wen made his first visit in April 2002 to break ground for the hotel. As many as 10,000 farmers came to meet the miracle maker. Some walked more than 10 miles, others rode horses. The nimble climbed trees for a better view. The sound of drums and gongs filled the early spring air.

Wearing a dark suit and tie, the round-faced and solidly built Wen showed visiting Chinese officials a model of the hotel. He cut ribbons and helped shovel dirt. He posed for the cameras.

"I'm investing in Yellow Sheep River and building a five-star hotel and Internet village because I want to turn Yellow Sheep River into a knowledge-based economy fit for the 21st century," Wen told the crowd. "My hope is that you no longer have to leave home to find work. As long as you come here to the Internet village, you can create wealth, you can change your life and you can preserve your traditional culture."
. As usual, Ni tells this story with an eloquence that defies summarizing. Go read the whole thing. If you can't get to the article behind the Great Firewall, email me, and I'll send it to you.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Torture? What Torture?

From Reuters:
The White House on Friday threatened to veto a $440.2 billion defense spending bill in the Senate because it wasn't enough money for the Pentagon and also warned lawmakers not to add any amendments to regulate the treatment of detainees or set up a commission to probe abuse.

Last summer, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Warner of Virginia and others sought legislation banning cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners.
After all, why should the White House care what a former POW who experienced torture first-hand thinks? Private Lynndie England's been convicted; that takes care of the problem, right?

What does this Administration have to fear, anyway?