Archive for Writing

Famous in Hangzhou

Two weekends ago I was invited back down to Hangzhou to schmooze the press at a launch ceremony for the book I wrote about the city. It was pretty fun to sit up on the dais and half-understand all the things the (probable) party members and higher-ups in the Tourism Commission and city government were saying about me and the book. I gave a short speech and read from the book (the section on my visit to the three temples at Tianzhu) in front of a crowd of forty some-odd reporters, and even a crew from Hangzhou Television. Apparently, in addition to being on the nightly news, I’ve also been featured on at least one website, in an article which seems to be a write-up of the press conference and descriptions of the book. If anyone wants to translate, drop me a summary in the comments!

Posted by on August 5th, 2006

Thick into paper

One last excerpt from my book–I posted briefly about this experience, but not at all about the details…and it was pretty cool.

Along with gunpowder, clocks, and noodles, the Chinese are said to have invented paper. As is the case with many similar generalizations, a great deal of truth actually stands behind that notion: while the Mediterranean world was still drawing on papyrus and etching with styluses on wax tablets and the Incas were conveying messages with knotted ropes, the Chinese had a fifteen-hundred-year head start writing on the cheap and versatile medium of paper—and even printing on it.

Less than an hour southwest of Hangzhou, fifteen minutes shy of the city of Fuyang, an organization still produces paper the same way it has been made for millennia in the region just south of the Yangtze River, and prints hand-bound books of ancient texts on it in the traditional manner. I’ve always been fascinated by the artifacts of writing and printing, and so I jumped at the chance to visit this ancient papermaking village, as the place is known, and see what’s behind this historically and artistically important art form.

A guide led me around the village, which is laid out in the style of the Ming Dynasty (although it has certainly been reconstructed to some degree), and she walked me through the process of making paper from pulp to poetry. The first steps take place outside the village itself, in the bamboo forests up on the hills that line the banks of the nearby Fuchun River. There, sturdy men fell clumps of bamboo and hack it into serviceable pieces, after which it is transported to the village to be transformed. This is one of the few ways in which the modern process diverges from the ancient one: today trucks carry the bamboo from the forests to the village, but in years past it was carried on the backs of animals, or of men, and sometimes it was floated down the river.

Once it arrives at the village, machines of antique construction reduce the bamboo to a woody pulp. This pulp is then transferred into giant vats, which are filled to the top with cold water. The entire production line is located in buildings sheltered by roofs but open in the front to the elements, which makes this a chilling process even in early fall, let alone in winter. Men with chapped but cold-hardened hands wield giant frames over the vats, on which is suspended a fine metal netting. They lower these wooden frames into the freezing vats slowly, rest them beneath the surface of the pulpy water for a moment, and carefully lift them back up and behind them, all in one smooth motion. The guide insisted I try this for myself, and, though I feigned disinterest, I was secretly glad to have the chance to imitate these actions—it had seemed too easy to be interesting when I watched the men at work, but dipping wire into water and coming up with paper was much more difficult than it appeared.

Once the pulp rests perfectly on the netting stretched across the frame, the artisan places it on a pile until dozens of layers have accumulated. It takes twenty or more layers to make one of these outsized sheets of paper. The sheets then make their way to the next station, where women work actively to dry them evenly. The worker takes a sheet and sticks it onto a slate-black wall, which is heated from the inside by a roaring furnace. She brushes down the length of the sheet until the color starts to change from muddy gray to a brighter white. When the paper is dry, she stacks it by the door for easy access. From there it is taken to be cut down to the proper size and moved over to the next set of small buildings, where the printers keep their shop.

There, using ancient wooden blocks of characters borrowed from museums and archives, women work to print traditional texts by China’s renowned historians and beloved poets. Each block of writing is enough to print a page, and the wooden blocks, black from use over the centuries, must be coated perfectly by brush with thick ink in order to create a good print. Again, I was encouraged to have a go myself at what seemed like a mindless task, using a block engraved with a drawing of a phoenix, and again I proved myself foolish. The lines that resulted on my paper were splotchy in some regions and barely visible in others, the head was a giant blur of ink, and black specks dotted the white background. I carefully placed my embarrassment in my bag and moved on to the shop. It was months before I threw away the travesty—for a while it served as a nice reminder that things aren’t always as easy as they look, especially when the thing in question is the hard work of someone else.

The other souvenir I acquired, however, is something to cherish. In the wood-beamed shop at the end of the production line, I browsed through the shelves of books bound in blue or yellow cloth until I found the perfect gift for my friend, a casual scholar of classical Chinese poetry: an edition of the collected works of the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, constructed from scratch entirely on site and bound accordion-style, in the traditional fashion. Looking at the gorgeous volumes of lyrical observations, military histories, and philosophical ruminations, it was hard to believe that these had all started out as the cold mixture of pulp and water into which I’d dipped my hands just a while before. It seemed impossible that every page was made of dozens of thin sheets interlaced and compressed, that each character of every poem was printed with the care required not to smudge the fine calligraphy, that these books had begun as bamboo groves up on the hills behind the village, and, by extension, as ideas in the heads of long-dead writers.

Posted by on March 1st, 2006

Wahaha…t a Brand!

The Wahaha brand is one of the most famous in China. Its bottled water can be found in every grocery store and pushcart, and it’s because of that ubiquity—and the catchy name—that foreign travelers have long regarded Wahaha as their water of choice on hot days spent sightseeing or for seemingly endless train rides. The Wahaha brand, and the story behind it, goes far beyond water, however, as I learned in a visit to its headquarters in an industrial park on the outskirts of Hangzhou early one Saturday morning.

I pulled up to the front entrance, ducked through the autumn drizzle, and was met by Frances Song, the English Assistant to the General Manager. She had come to work on the weekend solely to lead me on a tour of the showrooms and bottling plant, but despite the inconvenience she seemed eager to show me around. We began in the coolest room of all—basically it was a private convenience store stocked solely with Wahaha products—refrigerated cases wrapped around half the room, displays on the history of the company decorated the other walls, and in the center was a macro-sized monument to Wahaha’s best known product other than water: Future Cola (or, in Chinese, Feichang Kele, which translates literally to Extreme Cola).

Future Cola was the result of an attempt by Wahaha in the 1998 to compete with the world-dominating brands we know and love (or hate) as Coke and Pepsi. Over the past almost-decade, the Chinese upstart has performed admirably, although it still places third to these two American brands throughout most of China. In rural areas, unsurprisingly, it is much more popular than in the cities, where the cachet of a foreign label can carry products quite far.

Even more intriguing than the story of Future Cola, however, is the story of the Wahaha company itself—and of its founder, Zong Qinghong. In 1987, Zong, along with two retired schoolteachers, began selling milk products and popsicles at a school store, having received a government loan to fund its start-up operations. The group soon decided to produce and sell nutritional drinks as a way of benefiting the students’ health. The company’s success and its lofty health-minded motives resulted in its first big expansion four years later: with Hangzhou government support, they acquired the bulky, state-owned Hangzhou Canned Food Product Company and changed its name to the Hangzhou Wahaha Group. Wahaha itself is an onomatopoetic representation of a baby’s laughter, as mimicked in a children’s folk song.

By 1996, Wahaha had attained such heights that the French multinational Group Danone agreed to form subsidiaries with Wahaha without requiring the use of its own brand; this partnership is still in effect, and Danone controls 30% of the entire company. In 2003, Wahaha’s income totaled ¥10.23 billion (USD1.24 billion), accounting for 15.6% of China’s total beverage production. Today, Wahaha products are on sale in France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States.

Still, all these new facts I learned at the factory didn’t intrigue me as much as the chance to visit the bottling plant itself. From a windowed hallway that runs the length of the hangar-sized floor, I watched bottles of red tea whizzing by on conveyor belts and in various ingenious contraptions. There really is nothing like a factory tour to get a girl thinking about China’s economic prowess and future potential for world domination. If reverse-globalization means Wahaha instead of Poland Springs for sale back in New York, I’m all for it. Still, I think I’ll keep my Diet Coke.

Posted by on February 14th, 2006

A pilgrimage to Tianzhu

The Tianzhu temples caught my eye despite being out of the way—not only were they hidden at the end of a list of Hangzhou’s attractions, their names buttressed by little description or practical information, but their actual position is a bit off the beaten track as well. Never one to listen to a list or let geographic inconvenience deter me, however, I was certain that my time in Hangzhou wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt out past Lingyin Temple to Tianzhu Road, where it seems as if gods have set three temples like jewels into the mountainside. It was only an inkling I had, based on years of experience that have taught me to value my own instincts over the recommendations of any tourist board or guide book. Still, I’ve also learned that sometimes travelers avoid places for a reason, so when intuition sends me off into the tourist wilderness, where locals roam free, impervious to attack from the point-and-shooting hordes, I try not to let my expectations run away with me.

As I hiked up the road toward the topmost temple one perfect autumn morning, I reveled in the fullness of the forest on either side, a verdant surprise that already justified the cab fare from the city center. So absent from my home in Beijing, a dry, gray, and dusty city that seems to sprawl almost to the grasslands of Mongolia, the lushness of this scenery overwhelmed me. To find a place still embraced by nature is sadly rare in urban China, yet unspoiled green tracts surround Hangzhou, a fitting frame for the artful expanse of water at its heart. A few cars whizzed close to me on the paved mountain road, but I paid them no mind, wrapped up as I was in my meditation on unchecked development and the cultural and political challenges of conservation.

When I reached Faxi Si, the Buddhist abbey at the top, however, after a walk of three-quarters of an hour or so, my train of thought turned more personally meditative. Should I buy a bundle of incense from one of the women selling candles at the temple gate to attempt the proper ritual once inside? Or would it be better to fumble around in my relative ignorance, taking photographs and sticking out like the foreign devil they likely assumed I was, but also not pretending to knowledge or beliefs I didn’t really possess?

I ruled that since my intentions were in the right place—I wanted to try to fit in with the few faithful adherents I saw milling around and gain a sense of how they experienced the place, rather than imposing the interpretations of my own mindset on it—I should do what pilgrims do and buy some scent to burn as communication with the heavens. The few extra kuai my purchase would add to the vendor’s pocket couldn’t hurt either, a certainty reinforced by the speed with which she stopped counting the beads on her mala, the Buddhist rosary she draped around her wrist to help her focus on the mouthed but silent recitations of her mantras, to tell me how much my attempt at partial participation was going to cost me.

It was, then, clutching eight powdery, fuchsia sticks in my hand, which itself would remain stained pink for much of the day, that I passed through the threshold of the temple. In the main courtyard, uphill from the gate, I took in the gold and crimson buildings devoted to the lord of compassion, the Buddha whom the Chinese call Guanyin, a female deity known in Tibet and India as Avalokitesvara.

The name of this trio of temples itself evokes that spiritual place of origin: Tianzhu, which literally translates as Master of Heaven, is the ancient Chinese name for India, from which Buddhism trekked over the Himalayas more than 2,000 years ago. The religion spread over the whole of China, eventually nestling its way into Hangzhou and putting down roots so strong that, despite the passing of millennia and the cultural crusades of the past century, the people of this city still climb Tianzhu Road to reach these temples, even if most of those who pass by the old women selling joss sticks are themselves grandmothers, or at least mothers, or daughters.

I felt like a daughter of Hangzhou myself as I clumsily imitated the motions of the older women in the center of the courtyard. I stuck my incense into a large bronze vessel filled with fire, until the sticks smoldered and then smoked at their rounded tips. The pilgrims bowed at the waist toward the temple at the top of the steps, shook the spicy smoke up into the air with both hands in front of them, and turned to their right, repeating the motions until their prayers were ascending to all four corners of the sky. With my thin magenta wands, I followed them as fluidly as possible, repeated their movements and tried to ingratiate my mind with their thoughts. I was not just performing empty gesticulations there on the stage before an audience of these believers and their deities, but I couldn’t fill my mind with the same resonances I knew these gestures held for them.

Like my unwitting (though seemingly not unwilling) tutors, I pushed my still-smoking joss sticks down into a bed of ash behind the censer and entered the convent’s main hall, where the Buddhas of the past and future flanked their present-minded avatar. Standing before these magnificent symbols, given form as gorgeous statues, I reflected on my history, the past that had brought me before this pacific triad; I considered my present, allowed my breath to slow until my mind could not detect it, and worked to still my mind so it wouldn’t even try; and I contemplated moving on into the future, following my thoughts of the life ahead of me into the experience of living it.

When I stumbled back out into the crisp air of early fall, which pixelates the sunlight to sharpen and saturate life as if it were a photo, I knew I couldn’t hope to understand the experience of those visitors to which the temple and its inhabitants are more accustomed. Still, I’d had revelations of my own, and I meditated on them as I made my way along the side of the road to the next bead in Tianzhu’s mala. Buddhist monks say that the mind is as random and thoughts as spontaneous as a monkey jumping through the branches of a tree. As I meandered down the mountain, however, my mind was focused and my thoughts purposeful, the monkey sitting still upon a single branch, peeling a banana.

Posted by on February 13th, 2006

Excerpts from my book

Now that I’ve finished my Hangzhou book I figured I’d might as well share the best parts of it here–it’s not like anyone’s ever going to see it.*

*That’s hopefully not true, but I imagine none of you will ever actually read it, nor should you. Most of it will be pretty boring.

Here I’m going to post only a few of the first-person texts I wrote, since those are the most interesting (and best written)…

Posted by on February 13th, 2006

Making (the daily) paper

The other day I hired a driver to head out to a city about an hour south of Hangzhou called Fuyang. L. had arranged for me to be met by a representative from that city of 620,000 people’s tourism office, Mr. Chang, who tailed me for the rest of the day, paid for lunch, and failed to say more than three or four words the entire time. After lunch, however, which was surprisingly delicious (the best dishes were xihongshi xiaren guoba, crispy rice cakes in a sort of tomato sauce, congyouguiyua large white fish with fresh scallions and no gloopy sauce, shanyao jue, purple Chinese mountain yams wrapped in crispy rolls of something lightly fried, and jiwei xia, steamed shrimp netted from the Fuchun River, gorgeous with bright red and white stripes–I apologize that words have to suffice alone here: I was a bit embarrassed to photograph the lazy susan in front of a number of city officials whom I didn’t know and whom didn’t speak English) he had a reporter from the daily paper, the Fuyang Ribao, intercept us at a park overlooking the river in order to write a story on me. She took photos of me enjoying the scenery, gazing pensively, and taking my own photos of schoolchildren and local women practicing for an upcoming group exercise contest. She asked me a bunch of inane questions about things like my impressions of the city (I had been there for about five minutes), how I thought it compared to other small cities in China, and others of that ilk. I tried to be both obsequious and humorous, quipping (via an interpreter) that if Fuyang were in the States it wouldn’t be such a small city at all. Hysterical, I know. What’s actually hysterical is the fact that my presence as a foreigner in this city of more than half a million people is so unusual as to be newsworthy. It’s not like they thought I was writing a book about Fuyang–I told them it would have a page or two in the book on Hangzhou (which is probably a stretch too). It really just is the boondocks, I guess, even though since it, like Hangzhou, is in Zhejiang Province, China’s wealthiest, it’s a pretty nice second- or third-tier city.

Before lunch, I had the chance to visit an “ancient papermaking village,” which in reality was actually more like a factory in old buildings using manual labor and old-fashioned techniques. I saw the men pulling bamboo frames through a freezing cold suspension of wood pulp and water, crafting perfect sheets of paper with each draw. I saw women printing classic tomes with wooden blocks on loan from a local museum. I got to try both of these things, and they were surprisingly harder than they looked–I guess these skills are actually hard to master. When I asked the man in this photo how long he had worked in the job, I found out that he had studied and apprenticed for three years first, followed by over twenty years of experience at this factory. The site was worth a short visit, especially for someone like me who’s more than mildly interested in/obsessed with paper, notebooks, and the other paraphernalia associated with writing.

Posted by on November 25th, 2005

My first publication on the Mainland

My review of Yiyun Li’s collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, was published in the most recent edition of City Weekend, my favorite of the expat-focused magazines here in Beijing. I’ve also proofed the past two issues, which is always fun, since I like the crazy detail-obsessed exercise of checking an entire magazine for errors, and since the people who work there are so much fun. The managing editor, C., is a really cool guy, as well, which is always a bonus. In any case, here’s my review, and a short excerpt from it:

Li’s characters are at the same time figures of the so-called New China and fascinating individuals, people any of us would be intrigued to talk with waiting on line at the bank. In these stories, Beijing opera singers turned male prostitutes mingle with students heading abroad on scholarship, while deposed kings of rocket science tour the American Midwest and laid-off factory workers marry decomposing widowers to ensure a nice standard of living.

Doesn’t it sound great? It was actually a pretty fair read, though what I wrote in the lead is completely true–I did forget for almost the entire length of the first story that I had actually already read it in The New Yorker a couple of years ago.

Posted by on November 10th, 2005


So, as it turns out, I was offered both jobs–the editing position at the radio station and the co-authorship of the Hangzhou travel guide. Of course, I chose the latter, met with M., my fellow author, and Q., our Beijing-based corporate liaison with the goverment clients, and will, if all goes according to plan, sign a contract tomorrow. I still have visa issues to clarify, which might prevent me from taking them up on their offer to fly me to Hangzhou for the weekend to meet with the tourism bureau chiefs, but that’s not such a huge deal, and if my visa is entirely taken care of, that would be incredible. The idea as of now is that I would head down to Hangzhou by the end of next week, stay there for a month, all expenses paid, and fly back to Beijing a few days before I head home for my three-week jaunt in New York (with a side trip to Columbus, and perhaps West Philly, lol).

The deadline for my half of the manuscript would be January 19th, after which I could travel somewhere awesome with P., who’ll be in China for work (and pleasure) and then hopefully take on another book project for this same contractor. They’re currently in talks with the provincial governments of Yunnan and Sichuan. OMFG, either of those would be so incredible!!!!! Like actually really interesting places instead of just Hangzhou, which is intriguing more for the experience than for the place itself. Okay, I promise some posts with pictures and stuff in a bit, I’m just uploading them now and wanted to post this update. I know it’s been a lot of text and no color as of late. I swear that will change as I travel within China, exploring Hangzhou, taking photos for pay (and for posting on here), and boozing with officials, cronies, and their honored guests at lavish banquets.

Posted by on November 3rd, 2005

Jobs on the horizon

I’m writing now from the newsroom of China Radio International, where I’m busy polishing news stories for their English service to see whether they think I’m apt for the job and whether I’m at all interested in it. I had an interview here earlier this afternoon with X., the middle-aged woman executive in charge of English-language broadcasting for this government-owned station, after an awesome Aussie, J., whom I met at ’80s Night at Alfa two weeks ago, passed on my resume to her boss. J., obviously, works here already, but as an on-air personality. Pretty cool, huh? Anyway, I’m trying to see if I can work out the details of my already-planned three-week vacation home with them or if that will be an obstacle to this coming through.

In any case, I’m not too worried, since this isn’t my top choice at the moment. That honor goes to the job for which I had an interview yesterday outside at Mexican Wave, a mediocre taco joint on Dongdaqiao Lu across from the Silk Market. That was with M., who’s a writer hired by the Hangzhou city government to author a new travel guide to their city, reputed to be a beautiful city of a few million two hours from Shanghai, known for its gorgeous West Lake and for centuries of history. I would love to get this job, but M., even though she seemed to want to hire me, was worried that the crotchety Chinese suits down in Hangzhou might think I was too young to be up to the task. She’s only 25 herself, so it might be a bit too much for them to have two of us youngsters running the show. Still, I’m having the book I edited sent here via DHL from Amazon in hope of persuading the elderly officials that I’m worthy of this resplendent task.

If I luck out and convince them I’m a professional, I’ll be flown down there for free, put up in nice housing, guided around the city every day by a liaison from the city government, and feted almost nightly at banquets in my honor where I will be forced to consume large amounts of the noxious Chinese booze called baijiu, or “white liquor.” Then I’d be charged with drafting half of this book, a share estimated at about 25,000 words, over the course of the following five weeks or so. I can’t think of a better job to have here–I’d get to see a new place for free, experience a completely different side of Chinese life, get paid to write and photograph, and get drunk with lots of old Chinese men who don’t speak English. What could be better?

Posted by on October 27th, 2005

Making acquaintance

I moved from New York to Beijing five weeks ago, scared to meet the obligations of a year-long contract to teach English at a bilingual preschool and kindergarten. I haven’t been in one place, doing one thing, for such a long time in years. College doesn’t count, since I was always going somewhere or doing something I wasn’t theoretically supposed to be doing–I haven’t been much of a “student” since middle school, despite the modicum of academic success I’ve still managed to achieve. The prescribed life of a high school student or undergrad never really engaged me like that of an adventurer, whether that adventure is inside myself or across the globe, assisted, accompanied, or alone.

So now I’m here, for no reason other than that I wanted to let adventures happen to me and this is the one that found me first. Since arriving, I’ve shadowed more experienced teachers in classes of toddlers and teenagers, designed a summer camp for sixteen preteen boys (and one seven year-old girl) in which we shot and edited two short films, sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” more times than I’d like to recall, and learned that Brits sing their ABCs differently (they break up LMNOP, repeat XYZ, and end with “Now you see, I can say my ABCs”). I’ve also interviewed for three other jobs, and have a meeting over coffee coming up in two days to discuss another opportunity. It’s not that what I’m doing doesn’t pay well or isn’t interesting enough–it’s tolerable on both counts–but teaching is not at all what I want to do with my life, in any formal sense at least, and these other jobs all offer the opportunity to write, something much more in line with my visions of the future (and hopefully the present).

I also decided to pass on the apartment an acquaintance had offered me before my arrival. J.H. had been teaching at the same school for the past year, and living in this run-down two-bedroom apartment with a Chinese roommate for the past five months. The roommate, C., was great, despite the inevitable cultural conflicts I faced when I lived there for my first two weeks in Beijing. C. was a great cook, her egg and scallion jiaozi (my favorite kind of dumplings) were divine, and most of what she made appealed to foreign tastes, or at least to my palate, more than the chicken feet she made to suck on herself.

The bathroom, however, had no shower, just a spigot above the toilet; the kitchen was a dirty, box-like room that made me want to eat out every meal; the hallways of the building were fall of garbage and eerily shadowy. The clincher, though, was the elevator. It seemed mechanically sound–it even had the requisite elevator inspection certificate, which wasn’t past the expiration date, unlike every one I’ve ever seen in Boston, where I went to school–and it even came complete with two thirtysomething women who took turns sitting inside it on a stool and reaching up to press 19 for me whenever I came home and 1 whenever I wanted to leave. These women, captives inside their own “iron rice bowls” (the sinecure-like term the Chinese use for jobs guaranteed by the government for life regardless of their continued necessity), went off-duty each night at midnight, even on weekends, and there would be no one there to press 19–just me, left to hike drunkenly up the unlit stairwells all on my own.

So I went looking for a new place, one I could decorate on my own with plants and saucepans from Ikea, at one-fifth the price the items with the same ridiculous Swedish names would cost in the U.S. Three weeks ago I found it, an unclutteredly spare but mod aerie on the 22nd floor of a brand-new building, where the elevator runs at least as late as I can stay out partying. So far, I haven’t tested it past 3:30am, but I’m certain it zooms up and down with its ads for Audi A6s and Blackberry-like devices long after I’ve passed out in my king-size bed. What follows are some photos I took to give you a sense of what my retreat from the noise, chaos, and dirt of Beijing is like.

Posted by on August 17th, 2005