Beijing this, Beijing that … Just who is this [Mister] Beijing, anyway?

I may be in the minority here, but in my experience there’s enough subtlety and disagreement in even the simplest of government policy decisions, in any country, to remove any incentive for blaming said policy decisions on a specific city. For example, whether or not you agree or disagree with Barack Obama’s fiscal stimulus program, you’re not very likely to say – much less, write – something like this:

“Washington views a multi-billion dollar fiscal stimulus as an essential part of any American economic recovery program.”

Why? Because Washington is a big place, where big disagreements take place and – as it happens – there are more than a few people in Washington who don’t agree with that statement. And that brings me to a question that’s troubled me for some time: namely, why do perfectly sane journalists who would never ascribe a policy – controversial or not –  to “Washington” (or “London,” “Rome,” “Tokyo” or “Seoul”) throw caution to the wind and insist upon referring to the Chinese government as “Beijing” – as if it were a monolithic entity [“Beijing is concerned about the declining value of the dollar;” “Beijing is concerned that the US won’t have a pavilion at Expo 2010.” etc etc etc], and not a government town riven by disagreements and factions? I’ve long been annoyed by this lazy practice (while occasionally resorting to it myself), but never quite so much as when I read Francesco Sisci’s absurd “China’s Catholic Moment” in the current issue of First Things (full disclosure: a publication that has been critical of me). Take, for example, this sentence:

Beijing views the Catholic Church as an unambiguously Western embodiment of Christianity, untainted by syncretic confusion and therefore indispensable to the Westernization of China.

Got that? Beijing views the Catholic Church as indispensable to the Westernization of China. All of it. Continue reading

Angry property owners agree: Shanghai Film Group President “tarnishes” the Party

Back in January, I twice blogged about the tragic destruction of Shanghai’s 135-year-old carmelite convent (here and here). Located on the grounds of the old Shanghai Film Studios lot in the midst of the bustling and expensive Xujiahui neighborhood, there was really no hope for this historic property. Outside of a few blogs, nobody in Shanghai – least of all, the convent’s high-rise neighbors – made much of an issue about losing another piece of Shanghai’s rapidly disappearing architectural past. And nobody from the Shanghai Film Group (China’s oldest and largest production company), owner and (re)developer of the property, ever found himself in the position of having to justify the demolition or the redevelopment plans.

But then, right around Chinese New Year, folks living in the neighboring residential high-rise complex, noticed that Shanghai Film Group’s publicly posted plans for the redevelopment would damage their property values: the quaint lane between the respective developments is slated to become a two-way thoroughfare, and the old Film Studio lot is being prepped for high-rise office space that will block out its neighbor’s sunlight. So, in late February, angry residents of this neighboring high-rise hung multistory banners from the side of their buildings with messages like: “Shanghai Film Group Environmental Assessment Fake. Lying to the Government Hurts the People,” and “Central Government Asks People to Harmonize. Why Do You Want To Be Against the Central Government?” No surprise, nothing much happened: the banners came down and the redevelopment continued apace.

But the neighbors are tenacious, and so, last night, under darkness, new protest banners were unfurled. Click individual images for enlargements (translations below) of the photos that I took at 7:30 AM, today. While reading, keep in mind two things: first, Ren Zhonglun is a deputy to the National People’s Congress, the powerful President of the Shanghai Film Group (official photo, here), and the producer and executive producer of several films, most notably Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution; and second, these banners hang from high-rise buildings on one of Shanghai’s busiest thoroughfares in the heart of one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods. They’ll be seen by tens if not hundreds of thousands of people during their presumably brief lifespans.

Left to right: A: “Public lands to construct corporate high-rises, Shanghai Film Studio you are rapacious!”; B: “Deputy to the National People’s Congress Ren Zhonglun dupes the government and the people, tarnishing the image of the Party”; C: “(If) not busy cutting streamers, it is important that Ren Zhonglun come out and resolve the issue.” Continue reading

A couple of thoughts on Bp. John Tong, Diplomat

Earlier this week the new Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, John Tong, commented that – unlike his outspoken predecessor – he would not be joining the Ti@nm@n Square vigils in Hong Kong this year. In response a few commentators are now suggesting that Tong – unlike his predecessor – will be a less political bishop. Perhaps so, but I think it more accurate to suggest that Tong will be a more diplomatic bishop than Zen, especially in dealing with the CCP and China’s religious authories. In fact, this has long been his reputation among those who follow Chinese Catholic affairs. A nice example of his subtle and discrete character and diplomacy can be found in my August 2007 profile of Shanghai’s bp Jin Luxian. The story opens in 1985, when Jin was under extreme pressure to accept an illicit ordination to be an auxiliary bishop of Shanghai from the Chinese religious authorities:

Few inside or outside of Shanghai believed that it was possible for Jin to remain a faithful Catholic-at least, a Roman Catholic-if he accepted the ordination. Yet Jin believed that to reject the appointment would not only place the seminary at risk but also open the Shanghai hierarchy to a priest more inclined toward the CPA and the Communist Party. Reluctantly, he accepted, and he says that on the day of the ordination, he was in need of “consolation.”

It arrived from an unlikely source: With Pope John Paul’s knowledge and tacit approval, Laurence Murphy, a past president of Seton Hall University and an informal intermediary and adviser to the Vatican on the Chinese Church, and Father John Tong, now the auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, attended the ceremony. Continue reading

Orphaned Art

This evening I had dinner with an old friend, and afterwards we decided to take a walk into the old Ruijin Guest House grounds. As I detail in an earlier post, the Ruijin Guest House is a state-owned hotel and restaurant complex covering nearly 100 bucolic acres in the heart of Shanghai. At least, that was the state of things until late last year, and the decision to redevelop the complex’s rolling green lawns into a “modern” high-rise hotel complex. In any case, we decided to overlook the construction and get a look at what remains of the old grounds and buildings. Near the gate on Maoming Road, we came across this exquiste window, hand-painted and fired in the 1920s. I’ve seen it many times before, in daylight, but it was only tonight, with the light shining behind it, that I really appreciated its beauty and craftsmanship:


On the opposite side of the same building that houses this modest little window is a much larger, multi-panel art deco stained glass window depicting a leopard in a tropical forest. Some – including the Shanghai government – claim that the leopard window is the oldest stained glass window in Shanghai. Oldest surviving might be more accurate, due to the fact that most of Shanghai’s stained glass, pre-1965, was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In any case, this bamboo window (a worthy precursor to more recent bamboo windows in Xujiahui), have a common lineage: the Toushanwan Orphanage (or, in Shanghainese, T’ou-Sè-Wè – meaning, I’m told, “Mud Hills at River Bend”). Continue reading

Jin’s Legacy

Not sure how I missed this, but last week UCAN ran a brief interview with Shanghai’s Bishop Jin Luxian that touches on how he views his legacy. It’s of interest for a number of compelling reasons, not least of which is the author: Fr. Ron Saucci, an American Maryknoll priest who befriended Jin in the early 1980s. A few years ago, while preparing my 2007 profile of Jin for the Atlantic, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Saucci in Hong Kong. He’s an incredibly compelling figure in his own right, and one of the most knowledgeable foreigners on the topic of the Chinese Church and its evolution over the last thirty years. He’s known many of its most important figures, and has first-hand knowledge of many of its formative events.

The article references two of those events: the establishment of the Sheshan Seminary in Shanghai, responsible for a significant percentage of the Vatican-approved bishops (including Jin’s auxiliary and hoped-for successor) who’ve emerged over the last decade (covered in my profile), and the establishment of a Catholic publishing house in Qibao (at some point, I intend to write something about the latter). It also offers a glimpse of Jin’s candid view on Chinese Catholicism’s challenges:

We passed an hour chatting, during which I asked him what was the biggest threat to the Church. Without hesitation he responded: “Materialism! We have lost some good priests who succumbed to capitalism surrounding us everywhere. Vocations are harder and harder to find since intelligent young people can get high paying jobs.” Continue reading

Even Better Than the Real Thing: A Shanghai Scrap Correction!

Earlier this week, Shanghai Scrap told you all about the torturous path that Shanghai’s 19th century Carmelite convent has taken, from after-thought on the Shanghai Film Studio lot, to (apparently) a renovated museum at the redeveloped Shanghai Film Centre . The full account can be found here.

Foolish, foolish me.

This afternoon I happened to have lunch with somebody who has knowledge of this project, and this person chuckled when I mentioned how wonderful it was that somebody in Shanghai’s bureaucracy cares enough about the city’s history to save one of its oldest (1874!) buildings. Why the chuckle? “No, no, Adam, they are knocking it down and rebuilding it on the old foundation. It will be a new version of the old convent. It’s much cheaper this way. Restoring it would take too much time and money.” That is to say, the museum/convent shown on the blueprints for the Film Centre is a new building, built to resemble an 1874 building. It is not a renovation or preservation. Below, a photo taken at 5:00 PM, today, of the current state of this “preservation effort.” Note how the roof is disappearing (and yes, that’s scrap from the ongoing demolition/”restoration”).


Sadly, this shouldn’t surprise anyone – especially, me – who’s spent any time watching  Shanghainese preservation efforts. Indeed, some of the city’s most celebrated “historic” sites, including the Jing’an Temple and Xintiandi, are poor facsimiles of historic properties demolished to make way for commercial development. That is to say, the original structures have been torn down and replaced with new ones (in the case of the Jing’an Temple, a new temple atop a shopping mall complete with a pirate dvd shop) that the developers, and the city, then market as historical. Continue reading

Preservation, Shanghai Style, Pt. 2

[UPDATE 1/08: Additional, corrected information on this redevelopment can be found here.]

[Cross-file under: Poor Powers of Observation, Bloggers and Journalists]

Below, a December 27 image of a wrecking ball demolishing the north end of the convent building once occupied by the Shanghai members of the Sisters of Carmel. Built in 1874, it was (and, as of yesterday, part of it still stands so, is) one of the oldest buildings of any type (Western or Chinese) in Shanghai.

When I arrived at the scene, not long after the wrecking ball left (for lunch?), with most of the building still to be demolished, I found a young man with a camera who looked at me, identified the building as “the sisters of Carmel” and added: “The government! What can we do?” Indeed. So, having recently fashioned myself as a blogging journalist, I decided to get to the bottom of this matter. Questions to be answered: What cretin would knock down one of Shanghai’s oldest buildings? And for what purpose? Could this be yet another example of Shanghai bulldozing its history to make way for man-bag carrying real estate developers?

To answer, we’ll need some background on the history of the Carmel sisters, and their convent, in Shanghai. Continue reading