Nationals Win the Opener.

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[Photo Update: I've been informed that not everybody recognizes the subjects of these two photos. So, just to clarify: the top one shows Chinese President Hu Jintao and Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang at today's ceremony marking the start of the Olympic torch relay through China; the lower one shows President Bush throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at last night's home opener for the Washington Nationals baseball team - which they won.]

As a lifelong American sports fan, I’m accustomed to seeing politicians appear at sporting events. And, like most American sports fans, I really wish they wouldn’t – I’m there for the @#$% game, not the propaganda and self-serving PR value fed to me by some politiican most likely running for re-election. But in China – especially in the run-up to the Olympics – the game is the propaganda. To an extent, the difference reflects the fact that international competition is a low-priority for most US sports fans who value -rightly so, in my opinion – professional competition between the best and highest-paid athletes in the world (question: where does Premier league compare in salary structure?). Does anybody really think that, say, the Olympic basketball final will feature higher quality play than the average NBA game in April? I don’t. Anyway, the nationalism that animates many of China’s sports fans has no real analog in the US.

To be sure, flag-waving, “USA” chanting American sports fans are a fixture at the Olympics and other international events. But those tend to be transitory fits between viewing the higher quality US professional leagues. As a result, no US politician has ever managed to co-opt a sporting event for political purposes as completely as the Chinese leadership have co-opted this one (and that goes for Ronald Reagan and the 1984 LA Olympics). I’m going to have much more to say on the topic of politics and sport in the coming months, but for now I’ll let this be my response to those who insist on telling me “that this should be about the athletes and not necessarily about politics.”

Like A Refugee Museum

On Sunday afternoon I was in Hongkou, retracing some old reporting for a new story, and I decided to take a two block detour over to the old Ohel Moishe Synagogue. In 2006, I became quite familiar with the building, and its neighborhood, while researching two stories related to World War II-era Jews who were granted refugee status in Shanghai (my favorite  of these stories can be found here). It’s been more than a year since my last visit, and I’ve since heard that the synagogue has undergone some restoration work. Which, in fact, it has (see photo after the jump), and to its great benefit.

Anyway, the renovations are fairly old news (they were largely complete by Fall 2007). What is news – and what is also worth seeing – is the new refugee museum behind the synagogue. According to the charming old docent (below, in protective museum booties), the Museum isn’t scheduled to open for “another month or so.” But, it’s so great that “somebody” decided to open the doors on Sunday for a sort of makeshift sneak preview requiring the aforementioned booties.

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Unfortunately, but understandably, the docent asked that I not take any photos inside of the museum. So you’ll just have to bear with me as I testify: this is one great museum. It’s a modest space, to be sure, but entirely modern and – best of all – it features great multimedia, including several extended videotaped interviews of Jewish refugees who lived in Hongkou during the 1940s. In 2005 I had the privilege and fun of spending several days walking Hongkou with a returned German-Jewish refugee, listening to his recollections, and his rusty Shanghai dialect; the museum’s priceless taped interviews are the next best thing to having that kind of experience. Continue reading