China Pavilion Architect Celebrates in his Underpants

He Jingtang, architect of the China pavilion at Expo 2010 (Shanghai World’s Fair), on how he celebrated the crowds that turned out to view his building on October 1:

“I especially chose underwear with the China Pavilion logo today to express my happiness.”

As quoted (quote of the Expo, if you ask me) in Shanghai Daily, 2 October 2010.

[UPDATED TWO HOURS LATER: I posted this item quickly, a few minutes before I had to board a flight. Now, after a couple of hours to contemplate Mr. He’s statement, something occurs to me: where can one buy underpants branded with the China pavilion logo? I’ve been at the Expo literally dozens of times, visited a very large percentage of the gift shops (including the one devoted to selling Expo flip-flops), and I’ve yet to see any sign of China pavilion underpants. Quite frankly, instinct tells me that whoever is in charge of licensing China pavilion goods would view branded underpants as lagging in the national dignity that the China pavilion is supposed to convey. So:

  1. Mr. He is not being truthful about his underpants, or;
  2. Mr He has access to a supply of China pavilion underpants (knock-offs???) otherwise unavailable to the public, or;
  3. There’s an Expo store selling China pavilion underpants and I want to know where it is.

Anyone who can help with the last point will be credited in this space, and gifted something of value.

Time out from Expo 2010 for some Cuttlefish Cheese Bread

We’re going to briefly interrupt Shanghai Scrap’s non-stop Expo 2010 coverage to announce that – based upon what we just had for breakfast – Starbucks is doomed. For those who don’t follow the venerable coffee company, it’s been faltering for several years now, largely due to over-expansion into questionable markets in the US (though that appears to have been reversed in the last quarter). The only bright spot has been China, where the company operates 376 stores and – according to CEO Howard Schultz – it has plans to open thousands more. It won’t be easy, though, as he readily acknowledged last week: “[I]t’s a complicated market that requires significant discipline and thoughtfulness.” Exhibit #1 in the lack of discipline and thoughtfulness category: Cuttlefish Cheese Bread, now available at the Starbucks up my street. Click the photos to enlarge.

In case the photo doesn’t make it clear: the bread is blue.

Now it is very much the case that several American fast food restaurant chains have done well in China by localizing their menus (KFC being the undisputed champion in that category). But this isn’t localization; this is just someone saying, “We like bread and cheese; Chinese people like cuttlefish. So … cuttlefish cheese bread! We’ll make a fortune!” Given, that would be the case if there was anything remotely appetizing about cuttlefish cheese bread. Or, as my friend Jarret Wrisley (regular contributor to the Atlantic’s Food Channel, and soon-to-be Bangkok restaurateur) tweeted earlier: “Squid Ink? Cheese? Coffee? Yuck.” Short the stock.

[And briefly: Starbucks, don’t think I didn’t notice the profiteering going on in your Expo outlets. Prices are, on average, 10% – 15% higher than in the city. But worse – and this really gets me – the Expo outlets have eliminated all sizes but Grande, forcing customers to up-size or leave. I actually found myself in an argument over this with an Expo barrista (first and last time that term is used on Shanghai Scrap) who insisted that I was being cheap, and that the prices are the same. Uh-huh.]

Photo: The Improvised Welding Mask

[Note 11/13: A couple of folks have left comments expressing doubts about whether, in fact, the mask in question was used for welding. It was.]

I’ve just returned to Shanghai after 12 days of roaming up and down Guangdong. I’ll have a bit more to say about some of what I saw down there in the coming days. For now, though, I leave you with what stands as one of my favorite photos out of several hundred that I took down there. It was taken this morning, just at the point where I was putting down my camera after deciding that – twelve days into the trip – there was nothing new for me to note. At just that moment, my traveling companion for much of this trip – a gentleman known to some as Big Dog – elbowed me and said: “Look at that guy’s welding mask.”

“What welding mask?” I asked.

“That one.”

“What are – Oh.” [Click to Enlarge]

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Thoughts on Guangdong, the state of China’s economy, and an essay on Obama in China, all upcoming – after a night’s rest.

Dept of Having-Seen-It-All-Now: Chinese Safety Reduction Devices

The other afternoon I was riding in the back seat of a late model SUV owned by a successful businessman based in Guangdong. He’s a busy guy, with a high risk tolerance, so it really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that he doesn’t have much patience for seat belts, much less, the insistent alarms that his SUV sounds when he chooses to drive without fastening the one on the driver’s side. But I’ll admit, I was something more than surprised when he showed me the device that he utilizes to put a stop to those (in his view) irritatingly insistent alarms.

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That’s right: he inserts a belt tongue (I looked it up; tongue is the term of art) that’s not connected to a belt, thereby disabling the alarm. Now, take a closer look at the above photo. Lacking a slot for an actual belt, that tongue has one purpose, and one purpose only: disabling seat belt alarms. According to my new friend, such tongues are readily available in most local auto parts stores (we were in Qingyuan). That is to say: there are enough haters of both seat belts and seat belt alarms (in Qingyuan, at least), to justify an entire product line. I asked to see this product line in its natural environment, and after lunch we stopped by a nearby parts store. Continue reading

One Seriously Cold Shower: My Visit to the Guangzhou Sex Festival

Yesterday morning I opened the drapes in my Guangzhou hotel room and what a surprise: I’m located directly across the street from the convention center hosting the 7th Annual Guangzhou Sex Festival. Believe it or not, this was inadvertent – I’m (still) in town for another event located in an adjacent hotel. Then again, I’m also a big believer in providence and so I did the natural thing: had some breakfast, grabbed a camera, and walked across the street.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. My brief reading suggested that it was a salacious trade show of sorts; the morning headlines – featuring a family planning official’s suggestion that the state distribute sex toys to migrant laborers – intimated a debacle. Reality, however, was a bit more bland. More shoddy than salacious, the event is a run-down trade fair attended by retirees (male), unemployed young men between the ages of 26 and 35, and a handful of migrant (male) laborers capable of affording the RMB 30 (US$4.30)  entry fee. Women were outnumbered by 50 – 1, I’d say. Here, for example, is a pretty good representation of the demographics in the form of a small sample of the large crowd that surrounded a video of a (swimming-suit-clad) couple demonstrating certain, ah, techniques.

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Now you may ask, “Why spend your golden years watching swim-suit clad soft porn at run-down trade shows?” Well, take it from somebody who now knows: there’s absolutely nothing erotic – much less, titillating – about booth after booth full of condoms, vibrators, dried bull genitalia (directions not included), and “essence of kangaroo.” As a result, the only booths that attracted crowds at the Guangzhou Sex Festival were those showing video or photos of skin – including, I’m truly sorry to note – the exhibition of photos showing the rather unpleasant effects of certain STDs. But, I suppose, you take what you can get, and regardless of whether or not the images in question suggested health, somebody (often, many somebodies) was snapping furtive photos of them for latter viewing. See, for example, the photo after the jump. In it, I’ve circled all of the men taking images of the above referenced swimsuit technique video. Continue reading

The Cat Thief

Last night I was walking south on Fenyang Road when, at the intersection with Fuxing Road, I saw a small crowd of five or six people standing around a tricycle outfitted with cages packed tight with terrified cats and a few small dogs.  In front of it, a waif-like man dashed around, mostly crouched over, stirring two stainless steel pots. As I drew closer, I noticed he was chatting with a large, unwashed woman who was busy rattling a pair of metal chopsticks against a cage full of kittens, terrifying the animals [yes, from Dickens/Hell]. This would be an unusual scene anywhere in Shanghai (in my years here, I’ve never seen anything like it), but particularly so at that intersection – the affluent heart of the French Concession. I usually carry a camera with me, but last night I only had the benefit of my camera phone. So, when I thought the waif was looking elsewhere, I snapped this rough image:

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At the sound of the closing shutter, the waif (on the left side of the photo) dropped his pot and leaped at me – or, more precisely, my phone. I pulled it back and he came to a stop a hand’s distance from my face. He was taller than I thought, towering over me with eyes set so deep into his weather-beaten skull that they appeared to be in a perpetual squint. His voice was even more uncomfortable: a deep, hollow thing that reminded me of what a double-bass sounds like when a bow whispers lightly across the strings. But the metaphors came later. At that moment, my only thought was to watch for a knife or another set of metal chopsticks. I was, to put it lightly, in a bad spot.

Fortunately, there were other bystanders, and simultaneously they all began to call out: “Laowai, laowai!” [“Foreigner! Foreigner!”] It wasn’t directed at me, however, but rather at the demonic man in my face, as if to remind him that the foreigner simply doesn’t understand our ways (some truth to that), that one doesn’t take photos of this kind of thing. So he backed off, and I got out of there with a few snickers at my back, but no worse for the wear.

Mad Mission: a Shanghai Street Scene

The other afternoon I was in a very busy part of Shanghai, on my way into the subway entrance which I use several times per week. It’s been getting harder, though. Over the last two weeks the stairway has become a crowded marketplace of sorts, and it’s followed a predictable Shanghai-style progression: somebody gets away with selling a couple of video game cartridges, and the next thing you know there’s two guys with rabbit cages, a sharp-tongued lady with a box of puppies, and an abandoned carton of bagged goldfish that inevitably gets kicked down the stairs.

Anyway, that stairway has become so crowded and narrow that it’s impossible to tell, at first glance, who’s just trying to catch a train, who’s selling caged crickets, and who’s prophesying the end times (I’ll get to that). So, the other afternoon I’m about to descend the stairs when I notice a scrawny, gender uncertain presence in an old army shirt. She – and I think she was a she – had darker skin, long features, ragged hair, and hollow, round eyes – in other words, not a Shanghainese. She also had a broad, wild smile that she flashed at passersby, and a canvas satchel stuffed with crisp, stapled photocopies that she was handing out to anyone who caught that smile. She pushed one of the packets into my hand, and just as I grabbed it, pulled it back – the text was Chinese – and handed me an English version. Continue reading