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Shanghai Pathways Blog

Understand ​China​ ​From the Local ​Perspect​ive

Month

December 2011

The Flowers of War

Zhang Yamou’s fact-based drama The Flowers Of War is China’s entry into Oscar’s foreign-language race and the nation’s most expensive movie ever at a budget of almost $100 million.

It was not the ideal Happy New Year’s movie, but I have wanted to check it out for a week, so why not do it in the last day of 2011?  In the end, I used lots and lots of tissues…

Based on Yan Geling’s novel “13 Flowers of Nanjing”  In 1937, Nanking stands at the forefront of a war between China and Japan. As the invading Japanese Imperial Army overruns China’s capital city, desperate civilians seek refuge behind the nominally protective walls of a western cathedral. Here, John Miller (Christian Bale), an American trapped amidst the chaos of battle and the ensuing occupation takes shelter, joined by a group of innocent schoolgirls and thirteen courtesans, equally determined to escape the horrors taking place outside the church walls. Struggling to survive the violence and persecution wrought by the Japanese army, it is an act of heroism which eventually leads the seemingly disparate group to fight back, risking their lives for the sake of everyone.

The Kitchen God

I have never heard about The Kitchen God, until I read the famous book of Amy Tan – The Kitchen God’s Wife.

During the most chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, there was no celebration for the New Year at all. Red banners, which for 1,000 years had featured couplets about springtime and prosperity, now had to have revolutionary slogans lauding Chairman Mao. Temple fairs vanished. Lion and dragon dances were scorned, bunched in with the detested Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Teachers told students to reject traditional gifts of money in red packets from their parents, because money had to be earned through the sweat of the brow.

Perhaps the most significant blow to Chinese New Year was the government’s decision to forbid the annual burning of the Kitchen God, whose paper effigy hung above the stove. From this post, he could see whether a family was naughty or nice, and once a year, he passed along that information to the Jade Emperor, the top god in Daoism. A week before the first day of the lunar New Year, the family would feed him homemade candy and sticky cake to sweeten his words (or glue his mouth shut) during his annual report in heaven, and set out grass and water to nourish his horse for the journey. The family would then torch him and kowtow as he went up in flames, touching the forehead to the floor three times. Without burning the Kitchen God and replacing him with fresh paper, it was as if the year hadn’t passed.

For more than 50 years, the Kitchen God’s effigy has been censored material. While low-ranking gods like the Lords of the Door, who guard courtyard gates and inner doorways, were more tolerated, the Kitchen God was not. In the more traditional countryside, peasants evaded censors by printing the Kitchen God at home on crude wooden blocks. 
 
Though there are many stories on how Zao Jun became the Kitchen God, the most popular dates back to around the 2nd Century BC. Zao Jun was originally a mortal man living on earth whose name was Zhang Lang. He eventually became married to a virtuous woman, but ended up falling in love with a younger woman. He left his wife to be with this younger woman and, as punishment for this adulterous act, the heavens afflicted him with ill-fortune. He became blind, and his young lover abandoned him, leaving him to resort to begging to support himself. One day, while begging for alms, he happened across the house of his former wife. Being blind, he did not recognize her. Despite his shoddy treatment of her, she took pity on him, and invited him in. She cooked him a fabulous meal and tended to him lovingly; he then related his story to her. As he shared his story, Zhang Lang became overwhelmed with self-pity and the pain of his error and began to weep. Upon hearing him apologize, Zhang’s former wife told him to open his eyes and his vision was restored. Recognizing the wife he had abandoned, Zhang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth, not realizing that it was lit. His former wife attempted to save him, but all she managed to salvage was one of his legs.

The devoted woman then created a shrine to her former husband above the fireplace, which began Zao Jun’s association with the stove in Chinese homes. To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as “Zhang Lang’s Leg”.

In Tan’s story there is an elaborate description of the coming of  “The Kitchen God”. The character Winnie goes into detail about how he came to be and attempts to address cultural struggles as she removes the picture of the Kitchen God from her daughter Pearl’s stove, as she does not believe this is the kind of luck Pearl needs. She then promises to fill the altar with the image of another god. In addition to this cultural struggle there is also a feminist undertone at the core, suggesting that this ritual is sexist, outdated, and inappropriate in today’s world. The story can be viewed as a struggle between traditionalism and biculturalism.

 

Factory Girls

In 2011, I have met quite a lot of interesting people with different backgrounds and age. China is at an interesting period and so does its people.

More than 6 years ago, one of my early corporate job was working at a Canadan firm as purchasing manager, it was stressful to deal with Chinese factories but at the same time actually fun to be a apart with all of the unbelievable production stories. One of the experience I got is: If a Chinese factory tells you that they don’t have problem in production, you will experience small problem. If they tell you that they have small problem, expecting the big ones 😉 

Sometimes it makes me wondering why factory workers can be so incapable?! They don’t seem to understand what they are doing, don’t really know how to use the right software and always come back with dumb questions.

A few days ago, I come acrossed with this book. It is an eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China. China has 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta. As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a never-before-seen picture of migrant life—a world where nearly everyone is under thirty; where you can lose your boyfriend and your friends with the loss of a mobile phone; where a few computer or English lessons can catapult you into a completely different social class. Chang takes us inside a sneaker factory so large that it has its own hospital, movie theater, and fire department; to posh karaoke bars that are fronts for prostitution; to makeshift English classes where students shave their heads in monklike devotion and sit day after day in front of machines watching English words flash by; and back to a farming village for the Chinese New Year, revealing the poverty and idleness of rural life that drive young girls to leave home in the first place. Throughout this riveting portrait, Chang also interweaves the story of her own family’s migrations, within China and to the West, providing historical and personal frames of reference for her investigation.

A book of global significance that provides new insight into China, Factory Girls demonstrates how the mass movement from rural villages to cities is remaking individual lives and transforming Chinese society, much as immigration to America’s shores remade our own country a century ago.  

In the end, the massage from the book was way too powerful and true about these Chinese woman’s life and belief – Life is hard for everyone and you can only rely on yourself.

Is there a difference between me and the factory girls?

Tibetan Lama – Living Buddha’s Blessing

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This was one of the unusual experience during a recent custom tour which I arranged for an American visitor, Ben is very interested in Buddhism Culture and it was so interesting that we were able to meet a Tibetan Lama in Shanghai – who just happened to revisit this city after 5 year, isn’t that amazing?

To have a better understanding about Tibeten Buddhism, you have to know the following:

Lama is a title for a Tibetan teacher of the Dharma. The name is similar to the Sanskrit term guru. Historically, the term was used for venerated spiritual master or heads of monasteries. Perhaps due to misunderstandings by early western scholars attempting to understand Tibetan Buddhism, the term Lama has historically been erroneously applied to Tibetan monks generally. In Tibetan Buddhism, the lama is often the tantric spiritual guide, the guru to the aspiring Buddhist yogi or yogini. As such, the lama will then appear as one of the Three Roots (a variant of the Three Jewels), alongside the yidam and protector (who may be a dakini, dharmapala or other Buddhist deity figure).

A basic Buddhist belief is that our bodies are made up of the 5 elements (water, fire, earth, air, and space – the Chinese label this one metal). And they also think that the whole universe is impermanent. The Buddhists believe that there are ‘subtle elements’ as well as the denser elements that we can see and feel. If a spiritual practitioner is compassionate and wise enough, they believe that they can dissolve their body into a “rainbow body” made up of the very subtlest level of the elements. After someone’s death the Buddhists practice something called Shi-Tro for the next 49 days(7 days a cycle).

Also a core Buddhist belief is that of the Bodhisattva or the wise one who can choose whether to come back to Samsara (earth where all life is suffering) or go on to Nirvana (where there is no longer suffering). The Boddhisattva intentionally chooses to return to Samsara “for the benefit of all sentient beings.” 

The reincarnation system for the Living Buddhas is the main point distinguishing tibetan Buddhism from other forms of Buddhism. ACCORDING TO TIBETAN BUDDHIST teaching, while reincarnation is inevitable for everyone, there are certain beings who have so trained their minds through intensive study and meditation that they can influence the conditions of their next birth. These tulkus, as they are known, are bound by their vow to return to lead others to enlightenment. The Dalai Lama, whose lineage can be traced through 14 successive rebirths, is the best known. But within Tibetan Buddhism at large there are many such tulkus. Sera monastery alone accommodates some 25 of them.

Lama Osel is the best known of these, and his story was the inspiration for Bernardo Bertolucci’s film about a Western reincarnate, Little Buddha – Lama Norbu comes to Seattle in search of the reincarnation of his dead teacher, Lama Dorje. His search leads him to young Jesse Conrad, Raju, a waif from Kathmandu, and an upper class Indian girl. Together, they journey to Bhutan where the three children must undergo a test to prove which is the true reincarnation. Interspersed with this, is the story of Siddharta, later known as the Buddha. It traces his spiritual journey from ignorance to true enlightenment.

The process of finding the “soul boy” usually happens 49 days after the death of a Lama, there are high monks who know where to search and they usually bring the dead Lama’s old things during the process. There are unbelievable stories like a boy select the Lama’s toy from 100 other toys and shouting “this is mine!”

Vegetarian Restaurants in Shanghai

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China was a major center of Buddhism and the founding state of Taoism, two nature-oriented philosophies that promote vegetarianism and low-impact living.  Most Chinese vegetarians are Buddhists, following the Buddhist teachings about minimizing suffering. In addition, many Yoga enthusiasts in China are vegetarians or vegans.  Nowadays, in order to keep healthy and fit, more and more Chinese people who are not vegetarians or vegans, tend to eat vegetarian food from time to time. Therefore, vegetarian food is common and readily available in China, though vegetarianism is only practiced by a relatively small fraction of the population. Some Chinese people also choose to stop eating meat when they learn that animals suffer for its production.

Last week, I went on a 3 days tour in Veg style,  although I love meat, I totally enjoied the experience and found some amazing restaurants, following is a list of the good ones:

Lucky Zen & Veg Restaurant – home style, very good taste.

Dashu Wujie Vegetarian – high end,  beautiful concept and great food.

Kush Vegetarian café – organic, fresh and the best veg burger in town

The Grey Gardens in Shanghai

 

I just had the strangest Xmas eve and it has been all over my head. Everything started with my hopless curiosity towards Shanghai’s hidden buildings and its fascinating history.

At the off the beaten part of the oldest Shanghai corner, there is one small street called the heavenly light lane – walk inside the lane and looking for a wooden house with two beautiful Chinese red lanterns. Across from it, you will find a big black gate with a huge stone outside with the sign of Shanghai’s Gov. Protect building. 

Few people know about the story of this lane’s name, the heavenly light lane is the first place where Shanghai put the 1st public street electronic light, locals regarded the light as it has been sent from the heaven and guides people to their home.  So no one will be lost or suffering from the dark night.  Inside the big black gate, there is a big traditional family house with 3 gardens, it is over 250 year old and around 2000 square meters in size.

It feels like such a desserted place in the most crowed part of the city, standing by the gate, you don’t even sense any alive human beings inside.  Once you get in, the beautiful building is falling apart in front of your eyes. There is only a 89 years old woman and her 58 years old daughter live inside, it is hunted, overwhelming and you can tell how pretty this place was – and it is still unquestionably pretty.

The old lady speaks English and shared stories of her family, her daughter loves talking and always wanted to jump into the conversation even that she don’t understand much English. As mother and daughter, their difference is striking, one thing in common is that each of them has a crazy son and they are both trapped in this place or held back by their sorrows. 

“Don’t you feel this is sad? Don’t you have any compassion? ” – this question shots into my heart. I wonder if I ever should visit this place.

What can I say when I know that it is not up to me to change anything, the local gov. is offering the mother and daughter 5 million RMB to buy the place so the renovation could be done, but the daughter wanted more money. Their relatives have all been moved out and running successful business, they are the only 2 who are left behind to look after the old house. The older son of this 89 years old woman is a successful university professor in Canada, but her heart is always with her crazy younger son in Shanghai’s hospital so she don’t want to move to Canada. The divorced daughter said that she wanted to travel, but she also have to take care of her son who is in the hospital as well.

Is this sad? Yes and No, the house has become decrepit, but it is home to them. Life is not easy for everyone but there were happy moments, photos of this 89 years old woman who was an educated and beautiful Shanghai girl dressed in elegant Qipao. Paintings of her clever husband who was the most famous expert of ancient architecture in China, the daughter’s lively water-color flower paintings hanging on the walls of their house…

Life goes on, people have to move on.

Just like everything in Shanghai, things happened so fast and who has the time to be sad? Now, both of them are retired, the mother enjoy to chat with her old neighbors and the daughter like to dance in the park and charges an entrance fee towards the visitors, they argue with each other and they rely on each other. 

Anyway, I will go back again, I need to understand more and see what I could do.

After the trip, Xmas eve, I watched Grey Gardens – a movie based on the life stories of the eccentric aunt and first cousin of Jackie Onassis (both named Edith Bouvier Beale aka “Big and Little Edie”) raised as Park Avenue débutantes but who withdrew from New York society, taking shelter at their Long Island summer home, “Grey Gardens.” As their wealth and contact with the outside world dwindled, so did their grasp on reality. The two women become reclusive and known around town as the highly eccentric proprietors of Grey Gardens, which has become decrepit and full of stray animals taken in by the Beale women. They were reintroduced to the world when international tabloids learned of a health department raid on their home, and Jackie swooped in to save her relatives.

By the mid of the night, a “lost in touch” childhood friend contacted me for a merry Xmas, how strange is that we used to hang out together all the time during our teens. Now we have completely different life styles and the changes has been dramatic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Train Home

 

Got to know this movie from a German friend, it is depressing but fascinating at the same time. We all know about the problem, but what can we do to solve it? Can we still afford to have dreams? Do we really know what we want in life?

Every spring, China’s cities are plunged into chaos, as all at once, a tidal wave of humanity attempts to return home by train. It is the Chinese New Year. The wave is made up of millions of migrant factory workers. The homes they seek are the rural villages and families they left behind to seek work in the booming coastal cities. It is an epic spectacle that tells us much about China, a country discarding traditional ways as it hurtles towards modernity and global economic dominance.

Last Train Home draws us into the fractured lives of a single migrant family caught up in this desperate annual migration. Sixteen years ago, the Zhangs abandoned their young children to find work in the city, consoled by the hope that their wages would lift their children into a better life. But in a bitter irony, the Zhangs’ hopes for the future are undone by their very absence. Qin, the child they left behind, has grown into adolescence crippled by a sense of abandonment. In an act of teenage rebellion, she drops out of school. She too will become a migrant worker. The decision is a heartbreaking blow for the parents. In classic cinema verité style, Last Train Home follows the Zhangs’ attempts to change their daughter’s course and repair their ruptured family. Intimate and candid, the film paints a human portrait of the dramatic changes sweeping China.

KFC’s Success in China

If there were just a few things that China has wholly embraced from the West, it would be our love for Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC as it is more commonly known. Bloomberg reports that “Colonel Harland Sanders’s image is a far more common sight in many Chinese cities than that of Mao.” It was the first Western fast food chain to arrive in China. In 1987, this fast-food operator opened its first outlet near Tianamen Square in Beijing. Even McDonald’s is no match for KFC in China as Colonel Rules Fast Food. By 2008, KFC had twice as many outlets in China as McDonald’s, a reversal of the ratio in other parts of the world. 

Today, KFC customers can purchase a bowl of congee, a rice porridge that can feature pork, pickles, mushrooms and preserved egg, as well as buy a bucket of its famous fried chicken. In 2010, Yum(KFC’s parent company) expected to make 36 percent of an estimated $2 billion operating profit from 3,700 restaurants in China — eclipsing for the first time its total earnings from the 19,000 Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s and A&W restaurants it owns in America. Yum announced on Jan. 18 that it will sell its Long John Silver’s and A&W chains in part to focus on China.

However, nothing breeds imitators like success. I found this noodle store in Fengjing watertown, it is very  funny and I can’t help but wondering who is the designer behind the idea .

City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!)

Yet another movie which I had to watch to fully understand the Nanjing massacre. It’s gruesome suffering all the way so my friend did not finish it, I guess it is not the best kind of movie to watch during the weekend or in the evening if you want to have a good sleep.

Harrowing and unflinching, a savage nightmare so consuming and claustrophobic you will want to leave but fear to go, “City of Life and Death” is a cinematic experience unlike any you’ve had before. It’s a film strong enough to change your life, if you can bear to watch it at all.

The third film by formidable Chinese director Lu Chuan, “City of Life and Death” takes as its subject the infamous atrocity known as the rape of Nanking. That was the 1937-38 Japanese takeover of China’s then capital city that led to the deaths of an estimated 300,000 civilians as well as sexual assaults said to number in the tens of thousands.

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