Sunday, August 13, 2006

In the unforbidden city

I am happy to report I found the perfect place to write a blog. I am under a bamboo grove in a garden of the Forbidden City. In the distance I can see couples walking around, by and large the people here are families. Something you don't see in America, most of the families are about three or four generations walking around together. One of the best sights I have seen here was a man in his eighties with a little three year old granddaughter (great-granddaugter?) following behind. They talked a little and smiled a lot.
Sometimes its hard to see this part of China through the rules, the spitting, and the insanity. Yet sometimes its hard to see that part of China through the beauty, the history, and the pride.
The pride spills out on the streets here, and no more so in Beijing. To be fair, this park, its beauty, would make me feel a similar nationalist bend if I were Chinese. Yet, part of that pride comes from this place's history. That history was of emperors building palaces on the backs of peasants. However, the average Chinese would not look at it that way, they don't envision themselves as the peasants, they envision themselves as the emperor (despite the odds against of course).
Perhaps that was a part of Mao's success, "the people's" gets attached to everything. Chinese history was never something for the people. Before, the people were the ones oppressed and used by "China." It was never about the economy, never really about communism, the attraction to Mao came from "the people" getting a piece of the beautiful China, a piece of the China that was never "the people's."
Of course the people still lack a lot more than they have got. The middle of China has a long path up, in part because there are so many of the people. The forbidden city is now open, yet what about the halls of the government?
Allison and I did something that I thought of without much consequence in Taipei, however in retrospect, what we did was a bit phenomenal seen in the context of this place: we stormed the capital.
When I am traveling in a place that I like (Japan, Taiwan, PARTS of China), I am happy to the point of silly. I am care free and willing to do things I otherwise would not. So I decided we should try and meet Ma Ying-jiu, the likely next president of Taiwan, the current chairman of the KMT, and the current mayor of Taipei.
So we just walked in, and went to his office. He was not that, but it seemed clear to me that the staff was friendly enough, that had he been there, they would have let us in. Instead, they let me tour the area around his office, and see the paintings they kept. Furthermore, they told me a time and a place to go if I wanted to meet him, because he did public meetings regularly.
That sort of story in China is not just impossible, its fantasy. If I added a dragon I might be "toning it down a bit." The bureaucracy, the army, the secretaries, I can't even envision all of the obstacles to just trying to pop over and meeting the mayor of Beijing. The biggest obstacle? Psychological. I don't want to end up in a Chinese prison interrogated like the F alu ngoo ng (edited for the same reason I am not going to the capital and asking "Hey, is Hu Jintao around? Is he, you know, busy?").
Yesterday I had one simple goal, read a book. It had been so long I had read English, and I had a guy in Shanghai recommend a book and a bookstore. The book store was as great as he said, and the book was pretty good as well. The book was "Mr. China" by Tim C... [will add later, I forgot his last name] about a business man who invests $410 million (US) into China in the 1990s. It took me some ten or more hours to finish, because I am just about the slowest reader ever, but I did finish it.
The main problem with the book was that at times it was too slow and repetitive. However, this may have even been purposeful as it was clear the author's experience was just that, slow and repetitive. He deals with the same insane situations over and over. At the start something truly crazy happens from the government or the bureaucracy and I, having seen China be insane, was still shocked. However, by the end of the book I was desensitized to it. I would read crazy things and think "well, that is not much crazier than anything else he dealt with." However, this was probably far more realistic.
He used weather a lot, which was something I found interesting. He implies early that he is heavily affected by weather, which is something I very much empathize with. As such, the weather descriptions were good, and put me in about the mood I imagine he was in. That said, the weather descriptions were almost always the same size, and general style. They created a rhythm to the book that rather than paced it, made it a bit formulaic at parts (however, they never took on the scale and boringness of Grapes of Wrath).
The best parts of the book were when something physical and violent would occur, these emphasized by contrast how equally chaotic but completely bureaucratic the problems his company faced were. After a typically absurd business break-down involving incredible cheating, all kind of run-arounding, and a preponderance of nuisances, there would occasionally be some cathartic violent moment done by someone unexpected.
I found these moments to emphasize what is so annoying about getting bureaucratically railroaded here. Because of face, because of culture, because of a thousand things, Chinese people will play a game of complex running-around, all verbal. In human evolution, this could have been solved with a testosterone fueled murder of some sort, but in the modern day Chinese circumstances you are resigned to being screwed regularly and without recourse. The vioolent moments in the book is the sight of someone giving up, forgetting face, and just going back to his roots, not his Chinese roots, his human roots.
One thing the book emphasizes as a main motif is that China has a lot of good people, and a lot of terrible people. For every shady and greedy malcontent, there can be found a genial carrying person. That is the same everywhere, but it is so pronounced here, its very easy to meet both extremes.
One important feature of the book is that his story is really rather recent. They start investing in the early 90s, and things wrap up in the late 90s. By the end of that period, they are still dealing with the same crazy things. That was only five years ago, but things, at least on the surface, look so different now.
Now I see foreign brands and foreign investment everywhere, more noticeably on the coasts of course, but things are changing fast. A small example, when I came here two years ago, even in Shanghai, I could not find a cold drink. The only Pepsi or whatever, outside of a bare minimum, was kept warm. Now its the exact opposite. A warm Pepsi is an odd find, but buying drinks, as a foreigner or as a local (I watched locals for a while to confirm this), is by default cold. In the rare instances where i saw a shopkeeper give a local a warm drink, the recipient said something like "Do you have cold ones?"
I am actually interested in what Mr. China does in the story, but on a small scale. He was looking for medium or big factories that he could invest into and consolidate. However, I am more interested in many small businesses. None of which would expose me to his kind of risk and all I hope can be built from the ground up.
The main difference in my business philosophy is that he was looking for a factory, I look for people. By the end of the book, I think he starts doing the same as I would. A factory is only as good as the people that compose it. Many of his investments I would never have bought into, but he was constrained by a need to by large.
My wish for businesses is to do businesses with good people. If someone is smart, ambitious, and friendly, I want to do business with them. I don't believe that only cut-throats survive commerce alive (outside of places like the oil industry), so I want to support the people who matter, who deserve investment. I hope through this I can get a share of many different small businesses, from internet cafes to restaurants (I guess I tend to favor service industries, I am not a fan of making more "stuff" in this world). If its true nice guys finish last, I would rather finish last.
Mr. China has a brief language section that describe some of the fascinating, and frustrating parts of Chinese. In it, he as a few funny stories about language. I thought I would add mine before i finish typing this.
The other day I was in Shanghai. I passed by a nice art museum. They sold really pretty Chinese/modern paintings. I really am into modern China artwork. There are a lot of artists who have to find themselves in modern China, traditional art in China has such a long history but western art is so dominant. As such, many artists are finding a tentative balance, still steeped in history but inspired by modern western ideas.
The shop-clerk initially talked to me in English, but I switched the conversation to Chinese because I wanted to talk to the artist himself more (rather than my normal rather petty reason, pride). I told them I just wanted to look around. She started explaining the store a bit.
Their most popular art works were sets of little paintings that were divided up in little pieces. There were five lines of these little square pieces, with three to five pieces on each line. The pieces were spaced out in air as little parts of one whole set. She said that some people just buy one piece, some people by a line, and some people buy a whole set.
Here is where she shocked me, she said one of them is (19 kuai). Mind you I was listening casually, as I understood, at least I thought I understand, everything she was saying. However that last sentence shocked me. "These are only 19 kuai!?" (a kuai being a dollar).
No way! I went back and forth with her, in both languages, confirming that the paintings were "19 kuai." So, with the artist and the saleswoman, we combed the store selected four pieces that I especially liked
Afterwards we were sitting down and drinking tea. When I told them my favorite character was 華 (my surname meaning, in part, Chinese culture), and that I would love to see how he would write it. They even made me a fan with the character on it.
So we are sitting there, and he writes on a piece of paper "$1,200" on a piece of paper and says that this is what he would typically charge for such a work. He wanted me to write what I thought it was wroth...
Umm...although ashamed it wen this long, I am proud I quickly realized the mistake. Kuai is used for two things, money, and pieces. They were telling me that the "typical painting was 19 pieces" not that the "average painting was 19 dollars." The story was terrible embarrassing. I don't think it was a tone issue (I know that kuai has two possible tones, but I am not sure if they are affected talking about money rather than pieces).
The main fault on my part was that she was saying that one "tao" (a set) was 19 "kuai." I should have known immediately she could not have possible meant that entire set was 19 dollars, but lets be fair, this was my first discussion of fine art. A nice feature of Mr. China is that it has a similarly silly story, but it is a native Chinese who is confused.'
They were really kind and forgiving in the end. It was a pretty honest mistake and they could see that. They believed me when I said I was a poor student. In the end, there are a lot of nice people in China. They gave me the fan.

PTI: I have moved to the city itself. I have been here for six or seven hours, just walking around. I am hypnotized by the place. Now I am in a cafe that is next to where the emperors used to write poetry and do art. I figured that is a good place to order a mlik tea and think about a place I find confusing.
I find this place confusing because I am not sure if this is a good place. I find it beautiful, I find it fascinating, but I also find it terrible. One empress that used to live here wore socks that took seven days of full time work to make. She wore one pair per day, and then threw them away. As such, she had 3,000 sock makers. This seems like archaic and possible, but that was less than a hundred and fifty years okay.
Yet here we are, in droves. Its not as crowded as I heard it would be, but it is plenty crowded. Are we worshiping these people? What they made? Or we simply witnessing them?
Why are soap operas always about rich people? (at least all I have seen). Does their richness distance from us psychologically so that we can watch them do absurdly terrible things. Does their pain become less real? Is it envy? People want this life where the biggest worry is the drama created in a soap opera rather than real life problems.

PTI: the milk tea here is terrible, but not a bad price. The empress would not have been pleased however.

My favorite things are the ones that show great skill. There was an ivory ball carving (nothing like the one in Taiwan), which is a specific example of an incredibly intricate work that I really appreciate. The calligraphy they have also shows incredible skill, and I like them a great deal.
One of my favorite sites (except for a super cool bred set of gold fish tanks) was the palace of the last emperor, who was just a great symbol of China falling apart at the time. He was way more into Western culture than Eastern. I saw his calligraphy as a child, half of it in English and half of it Chinese. His English was incredible, it was so beautiful, things I could not do in my wildest dreams. However his Chinese is on par with my own. He had lots of terrible calligraphy and mistakes not unlike my own.

PTI: I discovered I had only like 30 more minutes so I had to jet.

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