The Moon Shines Just as Bright

It’s Mid-Autumn Festival time aka Mooncake Festival here in the Chinese-speaking parts of Asia. When I lived in China, I mostly associated it with eating extremely heavy pastries (mooncakes ) and crowded restaurants. But of course there’s much more to it, as I was reminded in a conversation with a Malaysian Chinese acquaintance who grew up in Penang, a heavily Chinese part of Malaysia, in the 1960s. On the occasion of the festival, which occurs during the full moon, folks in her town would gather, eat a large meal and – in a tradition she recalls as ‘old fashioned’ – pray to the Moon Faerie.

Then this happened.

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Or, as she put it to me: “Who wants to pray to an American flag?”

Now, this wasn’t a statement of anti-Americanism (believe me). Or, as some of my more logically-minded friends might assume, an instance of reason triumphing over faith. It’s just that where once there was a Moon Faerie, now there was a flag. Or, as my acquaintance’s mother was said to have put it: “Why would I want to pray to an American flag?” The reaction, I’m told, was not sadness but anger. To my ears, at least, it sounded as if an uninvited dinner guest had crashed tradition.

I don’t want to take this too far. I’m told the old traditions in rural Penang were dying out anyway by the time Neil Armstrong put his flag in the lunar soil. Far from being a myth buster, that man on the moon was more of an irritant to a culture that was still trying to maintain itself against ever-approaching modernity. Of course, in the end, everyone adapted, the festival is still celebrated, and more likely than not, a few folks still point their eyes heavenward, to the Moon Faerie.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival from Malaysia.

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What Does San Diego Have Against Recycling, Free Enterprise, and the American Way?

For more than a decade, Gary Ries of Mission Hills, California, has spent his spare time earning money by picking recyclable cans and bottles from trash cans owned by the city of San Diego. Under most definitions, this is laudable entrepreneurship and everyone wins: Ries makes a few extra bucks, San Diego trucks a few less pounds of trash to the landfill, and, well, recycling!


However, according to a report by ABC 10 in San Diego, the city of San Diego doesn’t quite see it that way: “The city of San Diego says that once an item enters a trash can on city property, it becomes property of the city.”

So, rather than laud Ries – or, better yet, just leave him the @#$% alone – the city of San Diego has decided to make him miserable. Last weekend, they twice issued $150 citations against him. And if he doesn’t stop recycling the city’s landfill-bound cans and bottles? The police officer who harassed him the first time around will “arrest him, take him to jail and have his bail set at $5,000.”


But it gets worse. San Diego isn’t merely concerned that Ries is stealing their garbage. They’re worried about liability if “someone gets hurt digging through the trash,” as well as identity theft (ie, the city is protecting people who might leave bank statements in San Diego’s beach-side garbage cans). Or, in the words of Jose Ysea, spokesman for the city of San Diego Environmental Services Department: “it’s more to protect the residents and the community at large.” Continue reading

So long, Shanghai, I’ve entered the Relocation Department.

As of today, I have relocated to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It’s a new home (for me, at least), and a new adventure. But I’d be lying to say that I won’t miss Shanghai, my home of 12 years. In fact, let me just come out and write it: I’ll miss Shanghai, my home of 12 years. It’s been a privilege to live here, and I’ve tried to enjoy everything that this fantastic city has to offer. That noted, you can’t truly be in Shanghai unless you know how much of Shanghai you’re missing. With utmost humility, I must admit that I missed a whole lot … and thus, I’ll need to visit.

Why the relocation? The reasons are many. As a writer, I’m ready to see and write about the world from a different geographic perch. Malaysia has much to recommend it, including – and critically – deep personal ties.

For readers of my work, I can still be found at Bloomberg View, and I’ll continue writing about Asia on a regular basis. At the same time, I’ll be branching out into some different topics that interest me, including science, space, and sports (readers of my View columns have already seen hints of the shift). For my longtime scrap/junk/waste readers, no fears: I’ll continue on the beat. In fact, I’ve booked some features with Scrap and Recycling International for later this year.

As for Shanghai Scrap – I’m just not sure. But this, I know: it won’t suddenly become Kuala Lumpur Scrap.

Finally, I’m in the early stages of a new book project. Not ready to say much about it yet except that it’ll be very, very trashy.

Oh, unsolicited advice for expats new and old: skip the Bali and Thai vacations, and spend some time on holiday in China, especially out west.

So that’s that. Thanks again, Shanghai. It’s been a pleasure, and I hope to see you soon.

Junkyard Planet, in translation. Vice. Reviews.

It’s been more than two months since my last update, but that’s not to suggest that nothing is happening on Junkyard Planet. Where to start?

Over the last couple of years, some of the best and most interesting journalism related to the global scrap industry has come out of Vice, and thus I was really pleased to sit down with them in November for an interview regarding Junkyard Planet. That interview turned into an opportunity to work with them on a segment on scrap metal theft, and the globalization of the metal trade for HBO. So, in January, on very short notice, I flew out to North Carolina and met up with a Vice crew for a shoot with my friend Johnson Zeng, scrap trader extraordinaire (readers of Junkyard Planet will know him well). It’s hosted by David Choe – and I’m in it, too, in the second half. HBO subscribers can see the segment on demand, here. A teaser for the full episode (which first aired on March 28) is here:

Next up – and belatedly – the traditional Chinese language translation of Junkyard Planet was released in Taiwan by China Times Publishing on February 24. Continue reading

It really is a Junkyard Planet, Everywhere Edition.

It’s been nearly a month since my last update from the Junkyard Planet world tour (of sorts). Since then, we’ve been in the UK, Malaysia, Singapore … and now we’re back in Shanghai. To my ever-persistent surprise, Junkyard Planet continues to have legs – and get press. My hope, from the moment I wrote a proposal for the book, is that it would have mass market appeal. But it’s one thing to hope, and another altogether to learn that the book is available at WalMart. That’s a big step, and one that I certainly didn’t see coming.

At the same time, I continue to be gratified by the large number of independent booksellers, worldwide, who’ve chosen to offer Junkyard Planet to their customers. They’ve been key to its success, and I’ve enjoyed the appearances I’ve made – and will continue to make – at indie bookstores worldwide. Below, a photo of me and Kenny Leck, the owner of the amazing Books Actually in Singapore. What a fantastic place – not just a bookstore, but also a junk/antique shop filled with stuff that Kenny has personally scrounged up on his rounds in Singapore. Later this year, I’m going to head out grubbing with Kenny, and do an event at his shop as well. Can’t wait. In the meantime, if you get to Singapore, RUN – don’t walk – to Books Actually. It’s awesome.


We’ve had terrific press in Singapore, including a feature profile in the Straits Times, the island’s biggest paper, that can be found here (the original is paywalled), and another piece in the Business Times. And there was some television: I appeared on Channel NewsAsia’s AM Live! show (sort of Good Morning America, for Singapore). Across the causeway in Malaysia, I was profiled by Kenny Mah for the Malay Mail and was the lucky beneficiary of a full-page books feature in The Star, Malaysia’s biggest English-language newspaper, by Natalie Heng. Continue reading

The UK is Part of Junkyard Planet

I’ve spent the last ten days in the UK meeting media, and making appearances related to Junkyard Planet. It’s been an absolute thrill, and the reception has been excellent. On Saturday, for example, I was the lucky recipient of two marvelous reviews in the London papers. Writing for the Guardian, Isabel Hilton calls Junkyard Planet a “gripping odyssey around the world’s rubbish mountains and the men and (occasionally) women who mine them and turn them into money.” Meanwhile, over at the Times (subscriber only) Leo Lewis says that, in Junkyard Planet, “the stinking machinery that pulverises, grinds, strips and shreds becomes almost musical.”

Along the way, I gave three talks in the UK: first at the House of Commons, then at Cambridge, and finally – last night – in front of 750 at the Royal Geographical Society. It was a trip – and career – high point, and I’m told that I’ll have streaming video that I can pass along soon. Below, a photo of the crowd a few minutes before I went on stage. I’ll be honest: I was scared to death. But it all turned out so well – so thank you London, and all of the folks who made this trip possible. Viva Junkyard Planet.


And one from the Q&A after the talk.


What Really Happens to Your Christmas Tree Lights After You Recycle Them?

As readers of Junkyard Planet know, that’s a question that I’ve been asking since 2011, and my first visit to Shijiao, a small-town in south China that I call the ‘Christmas Tree Light Recycling Capitol of the World.’ The story of Shijiao is about more than just the recycling of Christmas tree lights. In many ways, it tells the story of how and why so much that America recycles goes over seas.


Today, the day after Christmas, I have a new essay over at Time on the topic of what happens to all of that stuff leftover after Christmas: “Your Christmas Tree Lights Are Headed to China – and Then Back To You.” It’s my first essay for Time, and I’m really pleased with it.

It builds upon what I wrote in Junkyard Planet – and that builds upon a piece that I did for the Atlantic in December 2011, “The Chinese Town That Turns Your Old Christmas Tree Lights Into Slippers.” That story was accompanied by a video I shot of the factory (photographed above), that you can still find here.

On Friday morning, I spoke to Alex Cohen of Take Two on KPCC in Pasadena, California about Christmas light recycling. You can hear that interview here (and an interview about Junkyard Planet that I did with Take Two earlier this month, here).

Finally, and much to my surprise, Walter Nicklin, publisher of the weekly Rappahannock News in Washington, Virginia, published a wonderful Christmas Eve editorial – “O Little Town of … Shijiao?” – that touches on Christmas tree light recycling and some of the themes I explore in Junkyard Planet. I hope you’ll click over and have a look.