China’s Titanic Nude Scene

In truth, there are only a couple of things I know for sure about China. One, if you’re in a big city, you’re never more than two blocks from a great meal; two, the stop lights are voluntary; and three, Titanic is huge.

Thus, it came as no surprise to anyone here that – over the weekend – the 3d version of the film earned US$67 million over the weekend, the best opening ever for a film in China, and a sum that exceeds the total Chinese theatrical gross for the original release of the film. It’s that big. However, despite the 3d enhancement, Chinese viewers couldn’t help but notice that the film was reduced in one significant respect: Kate Winslet’s nude scene was censored out of the film. The reaction, online and off, was notable and – in some respects – hysterical.

And that, dear readers, is the subject of my column this week over at Bloomberg View.  You’ll find it here.

Sexed-up Nanjing Massacre doesn’t turn on Chinese film fans.

How do you eroticize a massacre?

That’s the topic of my column at Bloomberg View this week. In it, I take a look at some of the Chinese reactions to Zhang Yimou’s new epic set against the 1937 Nanjing Massacre – and the sexed-up marketing designed to sell it. Consider, as just one example, one of the film posters below, featuring Batman Christian Bale in the role of fake priest, and the headless woman as a kind-hearted Nanjing prostitute. And that’s the just the mild stuff. More on Zhang Yimou’s tastelessness at Bloomberg View.

In Beijing, you just can’t chat about things “Top Secret.”

This morning we receive the surprising news (as related in the New York Times) that the producers of “Top Secret,” a play about the Pentagon Papers and press freedom, could go ahead with a performance in Beijing last night, but that they could not, unfortunately, hold a discussion of the play afterwards, for fear of “unforeseen consequences spreading beyond the theater.”

This is a pity.

Last Friday night I was one of the discussants of the play after its penultimate Shanghai performance (the others were the play’s co-author Geoffrey Cowan, David Barboza of the New York Times, and a Chinese colleague). From the stage, I looked out upon a 75% Chinese audience that was intensely interested in both the play, and the issues that it touched. The discussion was thoughtful – indeed, far more thoughtful than the oft-wild discussions on the same issues which occur on Sina Weibo and other Chinese microblogs – and engaging. I know, time permitting, we could’ve gone much longer.

Later, after the play, one of the individuals connected with the production mentioned that he had been surprised that the play could get a permit to perform in Beijing. Several Chinese familiar with the local media landscape corrected him. “Actually, Beijing is much easier. They have more performing arts and are more open-minded. The real worry was Shanghai, which is much more conservative. MUCH MORE conservative.”

Alas, it seems that some low-level Beijing official has decided, on his own volition, to disprove that otherwise self-evident (if you spend any time in these places) point. So hat’s off to whomever in Shanghai didn’t mind that we discussed “Top Secret” after the show. And shame on the Beijing yahoo who didn’t feel that the audience at Peking University could handle the same. You, dear sir, are playing into a dangerous game of stereotypes, ie the Shanghai-ren always suspected they were more sophisticated than those northern bumpkins.

In any case, if you’re in Beijing tonight, or tomorrow night, you really ought to go see the play. It’s a ripping good story, and a rollicking good time, and if you like a little American history mixed into your evening, well, there you go. Performance and ticket information, here. For tickets, call YANG Huiyuan at 15011301416. See it.

Rock Soldier: a Chinese Rock and Roll Story.

On July 6, 1957, John Lennon was introduced to Paul McCartney in between shows by Lennon’s band. McCartney, it is said, could tune a guitar and sing Twenty Flight Rock, and that was that – musical history was changed. It’s a nice story, but not nearly as rock and roll as the night in 1964 when a 17-year-old Keith Moon showed up at a show by the Who, claimed he could play better than that night’s drummer (Mitch Mitchell), and proceeded to destroy that drummer’s kit – and get the job. And that doesn’t hold a candle to the night in 1971 when Clarence Clemmons met Bruce Springsteen and the E-street Band in a New Jersey bar. In Clarence’s words: “[W]hen I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway.”

I like these stories, just as I like the recent wave of rock and roll biographies hitting bookstores. But as much as I like reading about how Keith met Mick, say, I don’t think any rock and roll anecdote has given me so much pleasure as the rather scatological tale of how young punk (and my friend) Liu Jian met his rock and roll partner Shi Di back in the 1990s – and later went on to form their band, Cocoon. That story was recounted in Liu’s 2004 semi-autobiographical work of fiction, Rock Soldier, which describes a youthful career as a Chinese rocker, and how – bit by bit – that led to a voluntary stint in the People’s Liberation Army. It’s a marvelous yarn, and interesting – if you like music biographies – for how much it shares with the rock and roll stories (and spirit) that are now topping US bestseller lists. Only, it doesn’t.

Rock Soldier was published in Chinese, and hasn’t been available in English until – quite recently – Joshua Dyer translated it. Alas, the translation has yet to be published, so – with permission – I’m going to post an excerpt. One note: early on, Liu mentions ‘cracked kids,’ a reference to young men (mostly) in the 1990s who purchased and listened to cassettes of foreign pop music that had been cracked in vises after being seized by the authorities. Liu was a self-professed “cracked kid” whose love of American rock and roll was informed by such cassettes. So, without further introduction, the meeting of Liu Jian and Shi Di, and the origins of Cocoon. Enjoy … Continue reading

Ring Them Bells: Dylan Wasn’t Censored.

Apologies for the absence from the blog over the last five weeks – I’ve been tied up with some personal and professional matters. Of the latter, I’ll have more to say in a few days.

Anyway, earlier today Bob Dylan took the rather unprecedented step – for him – of commenting on his recent concerts in China. My last post to this blog was related to those shows, and so a brief follow-up.

For those lucky enough to have forgotten the controversy surrounding Dylan’s China appearances, the trouble came down to two issues: 1) by appearing in “Communist China,” he somehow tarnished the protest singer credibility he earned during the 1960s; and 2) allegations that he submitted his setlists to “government censors” in advance of his performance. The first point is a matter of opinion, of course, but the second is a matter of reported fact – if, in fact, you can report it. Back around the time of the China shows, most reporters were repeating that the setlist was censored as if it were a fact, but – best as I can tell – only the Washington Post’s Keith Richburg seemed to suggest that he had actually heard a government official say that the setlist had been censored. His story was widely syndicated (occasionally under some variation of “The Times They Are A-Censored”), and here’s the lede:

BEIJING — Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.

The problem with conventional wisdom and accepted facts – especially for reporters – is that they allow reporters to avoid actual reporting. Now, as it happens, the Ministry of Culture did in fact claim that Dylan subjected himself to censorship. Or, as Will Clem, a very good reporter, posted to the comment section of my blog:

The Ministry of Culture’s approval notice for Dylan’s mainland tour stated that the performance needed to stick strictly to the approved content and reminded the performers of their responsibility to monitor/supervise to make sure that happened. I don’t know if there was any other source for claims that the set list had been vetted by Chinese authorities. Continue reading

Another Side of Dylan, China, and the nature of “Protest.”

A little Shanghai Scrap pop quiz for the weekend.

The following two verses were sung in Beijing on April 6, 2011:

Jesus said, “Be ready
For you know not the hour in which I come”
Jesus said, “Be ready
For you know not the hour in which I come”
He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me”
Just so you know where He’s coming from

There’s a kingdom called Heaven
A place where there is no pain of birth
There’s a kingdom called Heaven
A place where there is no pain of birth
Well the Lord created it, mister
About the same time He made the earth

Q. Where, in Beijing, were these verses sung?

A. an underground church in downtown; B. a Mormon house church in an expatriate compound in the suburbs; C. a Bob Dylan concert at Worker’s Stadium.

The correct answer, as the title of this post surely suggests, is the last one. That is to say, those verses are the last two of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” the song with which Dylan opened his concerts in Beijing, and Shanghai. They are preceded by verses that include an apocalyptic vision of hell, and this rather key passage: “So much oppression/Can’t keep track of it no more.” Bluntly: this is an undeniably Christian protest against earthly materialism and oppression, from 1979′s Slow Train Coming album (the last first of Dylan’s oft-dismissed Christian period).

And yet, if you were to take even a passing glance at the criticism and opprobrium that Dylan has received for not playing “protest” songs in Beijing and Shanghai, much less speaking out in favor of artistic freedom (something that he’s never done in the past), you might – like the ever-lame Maureen Dowd of the New York Times – conclude that:

… the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding.

Curiously, those few Chinese who attended, much less cared about, Dylan’s concert, have not – best as I can tell – joined the chorus of mostly affluent foreigners claiming that a failure to sing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in Beijing is tantamount to performing for Qadaffi’s family. Continue reading

141 Shanghai Christmas Trees – 2010 Edition.

[Blogging break in effect until January 3. Reach me via email, here, or follow my occasional holiday season tweets, here. Scrappy new year.]

It’s that time of year again – the time for Shanghai Scrap’s annual (2nd) 141 Shanghai Christmas Trees post (last year’s post, here). There’s not much to explain here: basically, we’re talking 141 photos of Shanghai Christmas trees (in a handful of cases, multiple trees per photo), snapped over the last couple of weeks, and uploaded to Shanghai Scrap. It’s a lot of fun, actually. Time consuming, but fun.

Anyway – how do 2010′s trees compare to 2009′s? In general, I think Shanghai really lifted its game this year. As proof, I give you this year’s ‘Cover Tree,’ discovered in front of a chain dessert restaurant in a Xujiahui shopping mall. Please note: unlike most shopping mall trees, this one wasn’t canned or forced upon an ambivalent staff – rather, according to the staff (they and the store shall remain anonymous), they were struck by inspiration and fashioned it themselves. I absolutely love it. Click image for exquisite detail:

140 more Shanghai Christmas trees after the page jump … Continue reading