Honkgkou Falls

Last month I posted at length on the accelerating demolition of historic architecture in Shanghai’s Hongkou District (following on several good posts from Paul French at China Rhyming). This area, best know as the “Jewish ghetto” during World War II, has a far richer history, and architectural heritage, than that interlude might suggest. Thus, it’s been heartbreaking to watch – over the last few months – as the heart of old Hongkou has fallen to the sledgehammers (again, this post explains why I think Hongkou is worth preserving – in part).

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Anyway, I spent Sunday afternoon roaming the demolished tenements with a friend. We took photos, and we chatted with hold-outs – of which there are quiet a few. Some don’t want to leave for a shiny new highrise in the suburbs; and some just want a better financial settlement. As I’ve written before – I don’t sentimentalize buildings in which I wouldn’t want to live. And, believe me, I wouldn’t want to live in a leaky, cold in the winter, sweltering in the summer, tenement. But I do believe that some of those tenements could be preserved for a fraction of the money being spent on the highrises slated to replace them (ironically, recycling crews are recovering the floors, doors, windows – basically everything but the bricks and mortar); and, actually, I do sentimentalize the century-old communities that are being broken up and relocated from those old lanes. Below, an image of one of the holdouts [UPDATED 12/1: you can find much better images (taken earlier this fall), and some details on his life, reported by the wonderful Sun Anne Tay, at her flickr site]. His mother-in-law, he told us, was asleep in the home behind him.

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There’s not much that anybody can do about Hongkou at this point – nothing more than going over there and appreciating what’s left of it (take pictures, above all else) before everything is gone. If you can find the surviving pockets – and they exist! – take the time to wander them: it’s not just the buildings that’ll be gone, soon – so will the lane lifestyles that evolved in and around them.

Are translators really so expensive? Thoughts on English using.

A couple of years ago a Chinese friend who works for a large Chinese state-owned company called to ask if I could look at several pages of English that she’d translated for her superiors. I asked her to send it over, gave it a quick once-over, and sent it back. Basic marketing materials, nothing too complicated. Several weeks later I was in Beijing, and met up with my friend. Over lunch she handed me a copy of the annual report for her employer – again, a major state-owned company – and instructed me to turn to the introduction where, to my horror, I found the English-language passages that she’d asked me to check. “You had me check text for the annual report?” I asked.

“My boss asked me if I had any English-speaking friends who could help me.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t nearly so rare a situation as one might guess, and I’ve long wondered – why? That is, why do Chinese organizations with international aspirations (or, at a minimum, affectations) consistently skimp on English translations? Are they cheap? Or, perhaps – as a friend recently suggested – they believe that Chinese is hard, and English is easy (and thus easily outsourced to the secretaries and their English-speaking friends)? Perhaps they believe that only Chinese are capable of translating Chinese thoughts? Look at this way: is there any chance that a major publicly-held US company like, say, Dupont, would trust the Chinese passages in its annual report (no idea if they have any) to a secretary and her Chinese friends?

Anyway, my reason for this digression is an astonishing little volume that I found in a Shanghai bookshop over the weekend. Prepared and published by the people bringing us Expo 2010, China’s latest and greatest effort to prove to the world that it’s achieved – well, I don’t know what. But whatever the Expo is supposed to prove, the title of this officially issued handbook (ISBN# 978-7-80186-899-2) strikes me as contrary evidence:

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Best as I can tell, the book was written to prepare an army of Expo volunteers to handle the expected rush of English-speaking visitors. Continue reading

Happy Thanksgiving (on hiatus ’til November 30)

In observance of the Thanksgiving Day holiday, Shanghai Scrap will be on hiatus until November 30. Except that, on Thursday, we’ll make a point of posting an image of what our Shanghainese Thanksgiving dinner looked like (though it won’t be Shanghainese food).

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And since it’s Thanksgiving … sincere thanks to the ever-growing number of people who stop by, subscribe, and comment on my blog. I really appreciate the interest, and I’ll continue to do my best to earn it.

[In addition to giving thanks on Thanksgiving, we also watch American football. And among my favorite Shanghai Scrap posts is this one, from October, in which I interview one of NFL China's play-by-play men. If you're in China, hankering for a Lions or Cowboys game, this might tide you over a bit.]

“Want some chocolate, handsome?”

On October 28 the Shanghai Daily ran what now stands as my favorite headline in the history of journalism:

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The headline isn’t the best part, though. That honor is reserved for the story itself, which goes something like this: last year, the five individuals in the above photo began working as prostitutes in Shanghai. One day, one prostitute noticed that another was taking prescription sedatives for a sleeping disorder. A plot soon emerged: “let’s make some chocolate, lace it with those sedatives, and feed it to clients with the intention of robbing them after they collapse.” A winning concept, for sure (!), that succeeded on at least two occasions, and would have succeeded on a third had someone not been caught using a victim’s credit card at a cosmetics shop. Continue reading

What ‘New Era?’ Counter-factual Bush Fatigue, and other notes on the Press, Obama, and China.

If you’ve bothered to read, watch, or listen to the post-post-Obama-in-China commentary over the last forty-right hours, you’d be excused for thinking that the Presidential visit had just closed a tumultuous chapter in the history of Sino-US relations. And, in fact, that’s precisely how many observers – a good portion of them glad to have anything and anyone associated with the Bush Administration – swept out of the way, feel. There’s only one problem with this view of the new era in Sino-US relations: under the Bush Administration, especially its second half, the Sino-US relationship improved markedly. In fact, even some of the harshest critics of Bush’s foreign policy adventures will concede – when pressed – that Bush (who visited China four times – more than any other President – and held 19 face-to-face meetings with Hu Jintao) ran, on balance, a sympathetic China policy with Clark Randt, his ambassador. At a minimum, the Chinese media understood and understand it; take, for example, this 2007 China Daily interview with Randt on the occasion of the Strategic Economic Dialogue, and – in its last paragraphs – the list of exchanges and partnerships. Or, for that matter, this January 2009 interview with Randt, in which he uses language not unlike that being wielded by the Obama administration, now. Continue reading

Buckle Down and Link!

After several weeks of travel, and one Presidential visit, it’s time for me to buckle down and write; the deadlines loom. But before I go underwater, some items that I found interesting.

  • Like many bloggers, I was taken by Yang Hengjun’s response to President Obama’s town hall, “Why I blog,” as translated by ESWN. It contains, I think, the best explanation and defense of free speech rights that I’ve read in a long time (and that goes for you – US first amendment scholars). Highly recommended.
  • Forbes has a concise primer on why – despite all of the “China owns the US” talk that has fluttered around the run-up in US government debt – China doesn’t really own the US.  The US does: American citizens are still the largest holders of US debt, by far.
  • Jeremiah Jenne of the Granite Studio reminds us that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that the nifty “Nine Nations of China” map over at the Atlantic has a wonky 1977 predecessor: “The Nine Macroregions of China.” Jenne writes: “Originality aside, the basic idea behind both maps is an important one to bear in mind when looking at China.  We tend to fixate on political boundaries, even when those boundaries and borders are drawn more for administrative convenience or for other, even more arbitrary, reasons.” [UDATED: Patrick Chovanec, author of the aforementioned "Nine Nations of China" map responds to Jeremiah Jenne, here, and he comments on his own blog about the intellectual antecedents of the map, here. For the record: I believe Chovanec had an obligation to cite his antecedents, if only via a link (that wouldn't add length to the piece). I'll leave it at that, and suggest that readers take a look at comment #1, by Jeremy Goldkorn, to Chovanec's post. My thoughts precisely.]
  • Shanghaiist reminds us that the US pavilion for Expo 2010 still hasn’t raised its budget, and that forced Hillary Clinton to include a fundraising pitch in her comments at the rainy, muddy site on Monday (right about the time that President Obama was telling a group of students that he’d have to check his schedule when they asked whether he’d be attending). To an extent, this shouldn’t be surprising: The US pavilion suffers from a design so uninspiring (think: outlet mall) that it might be the only one that the Shanghai authorities haven’t plastered to a subway wall, multiple ethics and conflict-of-interest questions, and a fundraising team that’s deeply unpopular in Shanghai’s expat business circles. Here’s a question: at what point will (or has it already?) the State Department lift restrictions on pavilion fundraising from companies on its “black list? (for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and other matters)?” More on this soon.
  • And finally, Jon Huntsman, the new US ambassador to China, has earned a permanent  place in my heart for speaking truth to pow – I mean, the self-proclaimed China experts (you know who you are):  “… those who consider themselves to be China experts are kind of morons. So you take what you can, you learn what you can, and you begin to pull all the pieces together, and still it kind of remains sometimes a somewhat confused environment.” That’s right.

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Above, an image snapped of an impromptu lunch hour card game played by workers at a Qingyuan factory a couple of weeks ago. No reason – except that I like it. Click to enlarge … and I’ll be back in a few days.

Media Note

A quick post to let US readers know that I’m scheduled to appear on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning with Keri Miller on Tuesday at 10:45 AM, CST (that’s 12:45 AM, Wednesday, in China, for you night owls). We’ll discuss Obama and China, and my recent piece for the Atlantic exploring the reasons for his popularity here. If you’re in the Twin Cities it’s at 91.1; if you’re elsewhere, you can stream it here.