Monday, November 29, 2010

Hang out with me. I mean, come look at news photos


Writing Wrongs– Du Bin – Post Magazine

The Hong Kong Human Rights Press Awards, which is in its 15th year, is holding a photo exhibit at the Foreign Correspondents Club. We'll have a little opening on Wednesday evening from 6-7:30 p.m. and I'll be there, if you want to stop in and say hi. As with all the Club's photo shows, there will be canapes, but drinks will be on members' accounts. (Sorry -- I'm not sure what the deal is for non-members. But if you know me and want to come by, give me a ring or an email tomorrow).

Hong Kong's warped sense of time

I was grumpy on Sunday.
I just missed the train from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and had to wait.
I went to two pre-work events, but didn't snag an interview at either. (People were busy).
Then I wandered from one end of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center to the other looking to buy a sandwich, salad and fruit to go.
The HKCEC cafe didn't take EPS or credit cards, so I paid with the last of my change and looked for a bank machine.
The first ATMs, from Wing Lung Bank, were out of money. The third, from HSBC, was broken. After waiting in four queues, I finally got cash to cab it to the office.
Then, there was a freak accident on the highway heading to Quarry Bay, causing a rare North Point traffic jam.
***
This is an inefficient day by Hong Kong standards -- and it goes to show how spoiled we all are.
I left home after 11 a.m., crossed the harbor, attended two events, bought lunch, got money, commuted across town, got stuck in traffic -- and was still comfortably in the office by 1:30 p.m.
Could you do that in London? No way, even if you were ever so lucky enough to get on the Tube. (Another Underground strike is underway, I read from the wires.)
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a 1.5-hour commute is not exceptional.
If I lived in Paris -- well, I wouldn't have much expectation of getting much done on a Sunday afternoon at all!
***
Living in Hong Kong totally warps our sense of time and efficiency.
On Sunday morning, I was pacing up and down the MTR platform cursing the flashing sign that said I had an entire 6 minutes to wait. Stupid Tung Chung line, I thought. If this was the Island line, it would only be a 2-minute wait!
Then I remembered when I lived in Montreal. On nights that I was out late (which was alot, in my wild days of youth) we often sat on the station floor, in our damp winter clothes, clumps of snow melting off of us, waiting for Metro trains that rumbled by every 15 or 20 minutes.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Chinese journalists and "laisee"

From what I hear, it's common for Mainland journalists to take "laisee" or "hongbao" -- that would be cash stuffed in envelopes -- in exchange for coverage.
This may be for self-censored coverage -- for example, not to tell the worst side of a mine disaster or political scandal. But usually it's less nefarious. "Laisee" are often handed out by companies looking for guaranteed PR conference attendance or positive reviews. (There's a nice FT article about this here.)
***
I knew this was happening, but I had no idea how ingrained it was. Yesterday, I had a conversation that shed light on the issue.
I was speaking to a veteran PR person in Hong Kong who is now working in China. According to him, for things like arts festivals, hotel openings or major cultural events, many domestic journalists get a couple hundred RMB for print coverage, and over 1,000 RMB for TV coverage.
If it's a large group event, it's slipped into the folders with the press packs. If it's a small group, it may be as obvious as the PR manager reaching into her purse to hand out money. He said that once that transaction was done, there was a "99% chance" of good coverage, regardless of the quality of the product.
(Aside: Maybe this is why Mainland PR is such poor quality. Why do they have to set up interviews, answer tough questions, send jpeg photos and fact-check articles with a maah-faan foreigner like me, when they can just hand out cash to the locals?)
***
If you've taken a bribe in exchange for blindly positive coverage, you are no real journalist. You're a lackey of the PR person.
And no disrespect is meant here to PR people -- they are at least honest about the fact that they work for their corporate clients.
A journalist is supposed to be a neutral critic who can pick or choose what he /she thinks is worth covering. You can't be paid to favor a particular product, and then put up a facade of neutrality.
I'm also surprised at the amount. A couple 100 RMB. What's that? In a big city like Shanghai that's a fancy dinner out? A modestly priced dress? I know journos don't earn tons, but I doubt they are using laisee money to put rice on the table.
***
Of course, there's a grey area in what journalists can take. Here are some basic rules.
a) It's never straight cash.
b) It should be related to the coverage. If I'm writing about an opera house and the PR person gives me a pass to see an opera, that's fine. Same with book review copies, art brochures, museum entry, etc.
c) It cannot be extravagant. One opera ticket is fine for one review. Season tickets for my whole family is not. I think the NYT limit is US $50.
d) If something expensive is given -- for example, an airline or hotel pays for a "press trip" -- this should be noted in the text. "Flights were courtesy of ABC Airlines... " I could take press trips at HK Magazine and The SCMP. Now that I work for the NYT, press trips are a clear no-no.
e) There should be no quid pro quo. In the West (and Hong Kong), PR people understand that I can proclaim their show the best damned opera on Earth and put it on page 1, or I can think it's a piece of crap and relegate it to a brief on page 23. Taking their ticket doesn't oblige me either way.
***
Caveat: This is from anecdotal evidence -- things I have heard from various people and seen myself. I don't have empirical evidence on laisee-giving. I don't know if there are studies with hard-fast facts and figures on this. I'm no expert on Chinese bribery. So if there are any journos / PR people from the Mainland reading this, please pipe up and tell me if I'm wrong.
Also, I'm talking mostly about leisure and luxury coverage. I don't know what the situation is in hard news or business.
We've all seen increasingly good coverage of issues like natural disasters, protests and politics in the Chinese news media. I know there are many excellent Mainland journalists, so I'm not saying that all Chinese reporters are somehow corrupt.
***
When you approach a Mainland PR person about an event -- particularly anything with a state-run component -- you are asked to fill out a form with all sorts of details. Name, publication, email, and mobile number are fine -- Hong Kong PR ask that, too.
But I refuse to put down my passport number, send in a photo ID, or state my "work unit" (whatever that is) and other information.
If you're managing a Obama-Hu Jintao press conference, I understand the need for a security check. But for a museum show? I just skip the form. It creeps me out to "register" with the authorities to write an art review. I'd rather pay the measly 10 RMB and just go to the museum myself.
The forms also ask for detailed information on when the article will run, where it will run, how large it will run, etc. This sounds like booking a paid ad and I don't fill this out, either.
When I report, I'm unsure of the result, because I base my coverage on what I actually see. Some shows / interviews are advertised as hot stuff, but they fall through -- so I scrap my plans. Other times, I stumble across something small and unexpected, but it turns out great, so I write more.
But if you've taken the cash in your hot little hands and filled out their little form, you're stuck. You can have an awful meal, an awful hotel room, or see some butt-ugly art, but you're going to feel obliged to tell your reading public that it was wonderful.
***
I'm sure you can find instances of bribe-taking outside China. There are tabloids that "buy" celebrity photos for zillions of dollars. And there may be some other examples.
But I've never heard of bribery done on a mass, systematic scale like this before.
I've been reporting in Canada and Hong Kong since I was 19, and I've only been offered a bribe once. It was a bottle of booze and a carton of cigarettes by a Shenzhen hotel owner. I turned it down.
***
I'd like to say that these rules should be applied in a case-by-case basis, with common sense.
Every year, two old Hong Kong hotels send Mid-Autumn festival mooncakes to our office. The staff share them and we all get, like, 1/4 of a mooncake. Bribe? No. That's different than a stack of crisp bills and a guarantee that I will write that your mooncake brand is the best thing ever.
Sometimes, I will go to a press luncheon at a reasonably fancy restaurant or hotel, usually as part of a large group of, say, 30 journalists. This year I went to one. Just one, which was linked to a particularly interesting book launch. The company was gracious in not pushing me for coverage, and I didn't give them any in the end. Bribe? No.
That's clear to me. But is that distinction obvious to young journalists starting work on the Mainland? Much of the coverage I do -- leisure and luxury stuff - is new to China. Many of the journalists are very young, and they grow up with "laisee" as a normal part of their work. What does that bode for the future of Chinese journalism?
***
Once I did a talk at an English-language journalism program in China. The kids could have asked me about anything -- foreign media, news, arts, my opinions, my work experience, what it was like working in Hong Kong or overseas....
But the questions had to do with materialistic practicalities. What was my salary? What were my benefits? I finally stopped them when they got to the details of my dental coverage.
These kids may have been well-educated, but there wasn't a spark of spirit. There was no desire to say something different or express an opinion.
They seemed dull and middle-aged before their time, obsessed with the comforts of New China -- including company-funded newly capped teeth!
They were smart, polite and hard-working. But I came away from this lecture thinking, "Boy, it wouldn't take much to buy these kids off."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Stupid instructions

Working in news, I read items every day that chip away at my faith in humanity. There are the big things, like war, famine and human rights violations. Then there are the little things -- proof that the average human being out there is not so smart, like YouTube comments.

Among these are the instructions that come with mass-produced products and goods, particularly those from the States. They often go like this:
1. Open box.
2. Pour cereal.
3. Add milk, if desired.
4. Enjoy!

In Hong Kong, there are new signs at the Prince's Building, where they have fancy new lift buttons ("elevators," for any Americans reading) that tell you the number of the next available lift. In case that's too complex, they have instructions that go something like this:
1. Press button for lift.
2. Walk towards lift.

Because Hong Kongers need to be told that they have to move their feet towards the lift in order to enter it, so they can then obsessive push the "close door" button.

My directions on what to do the night before a medical procedure take the cake. There were alot of instructions, like don't drink water after a certain time, remove makeup and jewelry, and "do not confuse medical fasting with religious fasting."

Really? Well, sometimes I get confused. I think I'm going to the doctor, but maybe I'd converted to some strange religion without knowing it instead....

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Real Boy Eye Candy: K-Pop's Rain (and Stephen Colbert)

Someday, I swear to you Joyceyland readers, I will stop losing my mind and regain my ability to actually string two intelligent sentences together into a blog that is not just filled with funny Youtube videos.
(When I'm down, it seems like my online humor just gets sillier and sillier.)
I will soon return to my normal programming of sane, thought-out, personal posts.
But I just had to get this last one in, since BOTM / BKK Dreamer's comment below was too good to pass up: "Stephen Colbert looks like he'd enjoy a good gay spanking."
BKK -- Are you saying that the subject of my infatuation may be gay?
The video below includes what must be the most graphic eating of a banana seen on any news broadcast. It also asks, hilariously, if Prince Charles is gay, with this great line "The royal family is basically just a tourist trap these days."
Watch as Colbert loses it just before the bit about the British "spanking machine." He seems to be rather enjoying himself.




And, in this one, Colbert dons a muscle tee (not so successfully) and challenges Rain, the impossibly cute K-pop star, to a dancing showdown.




BKK, my friend. I didn't mean to be a tease earlier. Finally, a photo for you. Rain!

Bi.jpg

Photo from http://star.koreandrama.org.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Life is sad, happy and funny. (And sometimes has to do with hockey)

In my last post, I asked whether I should laugh or cry, given the week I had. And I decided that laughter was the way to go. The person I had lost was always laughing herself, and she would have wanted it that way.

Here's something that makes me laugh: Funny old hockey TV commercials. Oh, I know. Hockey is not universally loved by Joyceyland readers, but humour is universal, as are the facts of life, birth, work, illness and death.

I've set up something like a Monty Python "Meaning of Life" journey. I hope it brings you a few minutes of entertainment.


Birth.

This one's dedicated to my brother, my old friend at Hartford Whalers games, who has just welcomed his daughter into this world.




Working for a Living.
This guy's French accent is right on. And the roughness of New York cabbies? Not far off.



Courtship and Romance.



Sex.
This one's my favorite. Check out that French maid's outfit.



Sickness and Healing. Toughing it Out.



Coping With Life's Disappointments.
BKK Dreamer, this one's for you.



Finishing Your Life, Knowing That You Lived It Just As You Wanted.

Friday, November 12, 2010

To laugh or to cry

"And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'Tis that I may not weep." -- Lord Byron, "Don Juan."

In the past three days, I have had one beloved relative pass away and another come newly into this world. It's like every possible personal event that could happen -- good, bad or ugly -- has taken place in the last 72 hours.

I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. I'm so happy to be an aunt and so pleased for my brother, with whom I've always been very close. But I am also sad over a loss. (I'm not a big crier, and haven't been able to cry yet. Maybe it will come later). To add to it all, I've had a small health issue of my own and was briefly in hospital. Then, oddly, there was a birthday. How much more can happen this week?

The Chinese (or at least the Hong Kong Cantonese) have ways of coping with times like this. A family with good news -- a new child, for example -- would not go to a funeral immediately after a birth. Maybe it's just too much of a clash of emotion.

I will not go into too much detail, since this blog is not anonymous. I chose to expose my life here, but my family do not, and I don't want to invade their privacy. I could say something about the "circle of life," but I don't know how to so without sounding cheesy. Suffice it to say that I hope that God blesses both the one who has departed and the little one who has arrived.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Art in Shanghai, raw and raucous

The New York Times

Qiu Zhijie’s “Room of Inventions” at the Shanghai Biennale, two days before the opening.
Photo by me, for the IHT.


I should take leave all the time, since it seems to make all my stories come out! (Just kidding).
Here's another that ran this week when I wasn't looking. As always, the print version has more of my photos than the online one does. But here's the text.
(The original print version had a better headline, too, so I used that one).
***

SHANGHAI — If all the world’s a stage, then China is preparing for its lead role.

“Rehearsal,” the theme of the eighth Shanghai Biennale, a major art show, is apt for a nation finding its place in the global cultural spotlight. The show is even divided into “acts,” as if it is a play.

The event, at the Shanghai Art Museum until January, also seems to acknowledge that China — which has nowhere near the arts infrastructure of New York, Paris, London or Tokyo — is still rehearsing its lines.

The biennale is so raw and odd that it looks unfinished. Those attending the press preview late last month were warned that it was only “80 percent done.” It was hard to tell if the curators were making an ironic statement or they just weren’t quite ready, as workers fiddled with installations and toyed with videos.

As in the past, the biennale is heavy on conceptual art. Clearly, that messy pile of papers on the floor was part of an installation named “An Artist to Rent” by What, How & for Whom, a Croatian group. But what about that ladder? Was it a poignant symbol of Chinese ambitions to climb the corporate ladder? Or did some worker just leave it there? An unprecedented amount of performance art blurs the line further.

“The on-site creation of works — for example, painters painting in the museum — is much more prominent compared to past biennales,” said Fan Di’an, director of the National Art Museum of China and one of the show’s three curators.

Some Chinese artists, including Lu Shanchuan and Maleonn (the absurdist who seems to be at every show these days), have recreated studios with splattered paint and random objects.

“It brings down the closed theater that is the arts community and brings art back to its public roots,” said Gao Shiming, another one of the show’s curators and a professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. “We’re not just collecting pre-existing or commissioned works. We’re bringing artists together to work in the same site at the same time.”

Qiu Zhijie, who became one of China’s better known artists in the 1990s for his iconic self-portraits stamped with the character for “no,” has filled a room with inventions and toys. Viewers forgot the usual museum rules about “no touching” as they played with whimsical instruments that made wheels turn and wings flap. Volunteers handed out painted masks as souvenirs.

If the goal is to challenge the idea of what is or is not art — or who is or is not an artist — then it succeeds.

The biennale has been held at the government-run Shanghai Art Museum since it began in 1996. In earlier years, it felt like a quirky, alternative event. Then at some point, probably around the third edition in 2000, the powers that be realized that contemporary art was a hot commodity that could bring in big bucks and international prestige.

Since then, the biennale has become more of an official event, but the government hype has never felt as strong as it does this year, mostly because the city has been in the final throes of Expo fever.

The Shanghai World Expo, which drew an astounding 70 million people, was a massive state effort, much like the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It seemed as if no other event in Shanghai in 2010 — no matter how unrelated, whether a fashion show or a parade — could be held without an Expo tie-in.

The biennale’s press conference this year included rhetoric about “building the Shanghai brand” and numerous shout-outs to the Expo, which was just winding down as the art show opened. Curators also cited a sub-theme of “urbanism” which was — what a surprise — also the Expo’s theme.

It was noted that the biennale’s curators were all “pure-bred Chinese citizens” for the first time, a phrase that sounds less jarringly racial in the original Mandarin, and the idea of national identity ran throughout the event. Never mind that the biennale is bankrolled by the private Swiss bank Sarasin).

Happily, the “us vs. them” mentality does not carry over into the actual show, which has a good balance of works from all over the world.

The influence of Chinese culture can certainly be seen. About a third of the 50-odd artists are from China, and they are the most prominent.

Many address universal issues like consumerism, waste and the environment. Outside the building is Wang Mai’s “Oil Monster,” a life-size carousel with grotesque figures that look like plastic toys that have escaped from a Chinese factory and are running amok, wielding weapons and riding mounts shaped like spewing oil pipes.

Liu Wei’s wooden structure, “Merely a Mistake II,” is made of the rubble from demolished buildings, in a country where state-ordered “relocations” have caused protests and strife.

It is telling that Mr. Liu’s work is showing just as Chinese authorities have threatened to tear down the million-dollar Shanghai studio of Ai Weiwei, who has been placed under house arrest. Mr. Ai, an internationally known artist, was once in the government’s good books (he took part in the design of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Olympics), but who has recently become a critical voice in social and political issues. [Note from Joyce: The "house arrest" bit must have been written in by an editor. While he was briefly detained at home in Beijing, he seems to be free now to run around naked or whatever it is that Ai Weiwei does]

While the biennale was put together before the Ai Weiwei incident, it illustrates that many of the works speak to current tensions in the country.

Another installation includes a video of Zhang Huan’s grand reworking of the Handel opera “Semele,” which was revived in Brussels in 2009. Its Chinese premiere, in Beijing, was set for the week after the opening of the Shanghai Biennale. But, as many feared, what showed on the domestic stage was a watered-down version of what international audiences saw, with some of the political and sexual elements censored.

Nobody expected strong political statements at this state-run biennale, but the works do skate the edge of what is allowed. In a country where the news media are tightly controlled, it is interesting to see “Dark Room” by the Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa Manso, which includes racks of newspapers with their pages covered in black paint.

“The Route” by Chen Chieh-jen of Taiwan features lovely close-ups of the faces of elderly longshoremen in a video work about labor strikes. Elegant, simple and down-to-earth, it is one of the most beautiful pieces in the show. It’s not new — it was originally commissioned for the 2006 Liverpool Biennial — but it was good to see it here.

And of course there are Mu Boyan’s sculptures of obese, naked, bald Asian men. (There must be a rule that no show or fair is allowed now without one.) In the works shown here, they are falling into splashes of milky-white liquid.

But Mr. Mu also offers something different: a horrifically emaciated dog and what looked like a dead cat on a radiator.

At the public opening, a young boy stood in front of the two animals and started to cry. His father reminded him that it wasn’t real life.

China's luxury market

Photo from www.waldorfastoriashanghai.com


This was part of a special glossy magazine published for the IHT's luxury conference in London. I don't think it appeared in the normal newspaper. I've been on sick leave, so I have no idea.
(That's one of the funny thing about being a newspaper writer -- you send articles into this big, black hole, and God knows when or where they come out!)


November 8, 2010
The New York Times

By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU
What does “luxury” really mean in a region awash in designer labels? International brands are falling over themselves trying to cater to China, which is widely expected to surpass Japan as the world’s top market for luxury goods. Meanwhile, Hong Kongers are already the top per-capita consumers of many high-end products.

But, in this city at least, the head-to-toe Louis Vuitton look is already passé, as Hong Kongers seek out styles that reflect their unique East-meets-West heritage. There is growing pride in home-grown brands, as well as an understanding that luxury does not necessarily equal emblazoning a French designer’s initials across one’s chest. (Although many people still do that, too).

Shanghai Tang, based in Hong Kong, is probably the best-known Chinese fashion name and commands loyalty here. There may be countless European designer boutiques in shopping districts like Central, but none allows a customer to swan in and be fitted for a traditional, custom-made cheongsam with hand-embroidered details like Shanghai Tang does. Its flagship on Pedder Street has bolts of fabrics, like handwoven silks unavailable anywhere else.

There is something very luxurious about rarity — and historic structures are certainly becoming more rare in China. (As the joke goes, the country’s national bird is the construction crane.)

In Hong Kong, a former British marine police headquarters was made into a retail and dining area this year. The 19th-century white stucco building, called 1881 Heritage, is now home to top watch and jewelry brands like Cartier, Piaget, Rolex and Tiffany. But Shanghai Tang has the pride of place, in a brick building that was one of the Hong Kong’s first fire stations.

Ask any Hong Konger what the most luxurious hotel in town is, and the answer will likely be the historic flagships of The Peninsula or the Mandarin Oriental, even though major international chains have built innumerable newer outlets.

The Peninsula, opened in the 1920s, has an intangible quality that cannot be replicated by its modern counterparts. Plus, no other place in town has a fleet of 14 Rolls-Royce Phantoms, or a rooftop helipad.

Even more than Hong Kong, Shanghai has been capitalizing on its past.

Some of the biggest hotel openings this year are in historic buildings. When The Peace Hotel closed in 2007 for renovation, it was in its last stages of decline, its elegant 1920s building on The Bund marred by outdated furnishings and patchy service. In late July, it reopened as the Fairmont Peace Hotel, where room rates start at 2,400 renminbi, or about $355, a night.

Chinese consumers “want to understand the provenance, history and heritage and lifestyle they are buying into before they part with their hard-earned money,” said Kamal Naamani, the hotel’s general manager.

Meanwhile, The Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund opened the Waldorf Astoria Club in October with 20 suites in the former 1910 Shanghai Club Heritage building. The remainder of the hotel, which is a 249-room new tower, will come later this year.

Every major luxury brand can be found at the soaring Plaza 66 mall in Shanghai. Yet the city’s most luxurious area is still among The Bund’s historic waterfront buildings.

The focus is still on the big European names, particularly in mainland China, where the market is new and where many consumers are relatively inexperienced with purchasing luxury goods; they flock to the safety of a recognized logo. In more mature markets, though, emphasis is placed on improving one’s lifestyle.

“Luxury is, for me, supreme comfort,” said David Tang, the founder of Shanghai Tang, who also runs The China Club in Hong Kong and China Tang in London. Many of his own luxuries — drinking tea from a Ming cup, listening to classical music on Bose speakers — are enjoyed privately.

However, he noted that, particularly in mainland China, a major impetus for buyers is the ability to let “others know that they possess something luxurious.”

“Western brands will continue to enjoy a great deal of business, as the Chinese feel the necessity of showing, with their purchases, their neighbors how much they have come up in the world,” he added.

One question remains: Where are the Chinese brands? Despite the buzz about the rising Chinese consumer, mainland China has produced no luxury brands that come close to having the name recognition of their foreign counterparts. There are common business problems like copyright infringement, or a lack of sophistication in marketing or handling the demands of high-end consumers, according to both local and international reports.

For now, Western brands seem to be taking advantage of Chinese-chic more than Chinese brands themselves, pouring enormous resources into opening stores and tailoring products to Chinese consumers.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

No party, no crabs, no leaving the house for Ai Weiwei


Maybe the authorities are keeping Ai Weiwei under house arrest because they're worried he's going to jump around naked in public again. All I can say is that he's no
Stephen Colbert.
***

In the latest Chinese censorship news (I swear, it's like Beijing wants to make these headlines), the authorities said they would destroy the new, US $1 million Shanghai studio of Ai Weiwei, one of China's best-known artists.
Once, Ai was in Beijing's good books -- he even helped design the Bird's Nest Stadium for the Olympics. Then he started speaking out about shoddy school construction during the Sichuan earthquake. He was allegedly beaten by the police before he was scheduled to testify at the trial of a fellow activist and writer.
Now, suddenly, his studio has been tagged a "zoning violation." You can read coverage from The Guardian, The New York Times, the BBC, The Straits Times in Singapore and even a dryly humorous online post from The New Yorker. (Random aside #1: Evan Osnos is becoming one of my favorite writers out of China)
Photo from danwei.org.
Evan Osnos -- Cuter or not as cute as Colbert? This is my new standard for judging men.

***
But you don't have to take it from the Evil Western Media. Here are excepts from an article by the Global Times, which is published by the usually flag-waving People's Daily.
Order to destroy art studio a trap: Ai [08:29 November 04 2010 -- The Global Times]

By Shen Weihuang in Shanghai and Zhang Han in Beijing

Authorities in Shanghai said Wednesday that an order to demolish a studio owned by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has nothing to do with the artist's work or his activism. The studio was constructed illegally, the local government said....

... There are three studios, including Ai's, in the artists village in Jiading district, which the local government wants to transform into an art zone like 798 in Beijing. Only Ai's and Ding Yi's studios are slated to be demolished....

... The 2,000-square -meter studio cost about 7 million ($1 million) when completed, Ai told the Global Times Wednesday....

... Despite the government's explanation, Ai, who is also known for supporting people critical of the government, and his assistant, said the demolition order is indeed connected to his work....

..."We have reason to believe that such a move was a planned trap for me," Ai said.

Ai said the head of Jiading district, Sun Jiwei, invited him to build the studio two years ago in the district. Ai signed a 30-year lease with the village committee in Dayu village in 2008, for 60,000 yuan ($8,988) a year.

(Random aside #2 -- there's nothing on this case yet that I can see on Xinhua or China Daily.)

***

That whole area of Shanghai is zoned to be an artists' community. So knocking down an artist's studio -- a large, expensive, privately funded and probably beautifully designed studio -- makes no sense.

It was a government official who signed the lease in the first place. The studio -- which is not exactly small or unknown -- has been under construction for some time. It's not like a zoning officer woke up one morning and suddenly realized that a 20,000-square-foot studio was in the wrong place.

More likely, someone suddenly realized that he didn't like Ai's criticisms, and so decided to punish him by tearing down one of his creations. (The authorities said they would compensate costs, but I think we all know that this is not just about money).
***
The saga goes on. Ai Weiwei said he would throw a party to "celebrate" the razing of his studio with free Shanghai crabs for all.
The Communist Party -- clearly not a group that enjoys artistic irony -- worry that the party will "embarrass" Shanghai, and so have police officers put Ai under house arrest at his home in Beijing.
Ai's friends hold their little demolition "party" anyway and it draws several hundred guests, according to Danwei.
What's China going to do now? Lock up every single artist? Ban parties? Or Shanghai crabs? Build artists communities with no artists studios?
Of course, what Beijing has done, inadvertently, is given one its biggest critics -- and something of a media hog to begin with -- the kind of instant, free, international publicity that even a top PR expert couldn't get.
I don't worry about Ai Weiwei the way I worry about, say, Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate who is still in jail. Ai will be fine. As soon as he stops taunting the authorities with parties, they will let him out, and he'll probably jet off to his next fabulous show in London or New York.
But tearing down an artist's studio for a whim is still a sign of how controlled -- and vindictive -- the government is towards critics.
It also shows how clueless the authorities are to the way international relations work. They do all this in the name of making China seem better to the world, but they only make themselves look worse.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Top female athlete -- of the equine variety

I'm rooting for Zenyatta, a rare female champion race horse.

As much as I love horses, I don't really love horse-racing. I don't gamble. (I'd rather ride). And some of the allegations of drug use and abusive practices have turned me off to the industry.

Too many race horses are killed after they cease to be useful on the track (which is usually only a couple of years in an animal that can easily live to up to 30). A small number are retrained and given new homes at barns and riding schools, like the non-profit one I frequent near the China border. These horses have a reasonably good life -- they get good food, good care and endless attention from kids (and me!) who enjoy feeding them treats. There isn't much open countryside in Hong Kong, but the school has set aside a field where the horses are "turned out". And they are exercised regularly. But these are the exception.

Remember a few years ago when Macau racehorses were being dragged into a yard and shot in bloody, needlessly painful deaths? What about the 600 healthy, young thoroughbreds -- 400 racers and 200 mares -- that were reportedly killed when a Hong Kong investor tried to open a track on the Mainland and then backed out when something went wrong with the regulations? (You figured he'd have sorted that in advance). The details seem murky but -- whether because of a businessman's whim or a government whim -- these gentle creatures needlessly died. The Guardian story on that 2005 tragedy is here. Here's another from The Independent. And it's not just an Asian issue. Here's another Guardian story on the problem in Britain. On the other side of the pond, here's a New York Times story on the situation in the U.S.

The sorts of people who own racehorses tend to be very rich. So it's not like dealing with, say, stray cats and dogs at the SPCA. Shouldn't the tycoons sitting in their VIP boxes at the track be able to afford to "retire" their horses humanely after the animal has won them thousands, or even millions?

Despite my reservations about racing in general, I am rooting for one horse at the Breeder's Cup this weekend. And that is Zenyatta. She's interesting, first of all, because she is a she. While there have been some successful mares in racing, I don't think there's one who's done as well against the boys. (Racing fanatics who know better can tell me if I'm wrong). She's 19-0 so far. If she wins this one, it'll be a record. (Side note: If only my poor Habs could be 19-0, too!)

Win or lose, it is also expected to be her last race. It is presumed that her owners -- Jerry Moss, co-founder of A&M Records, and his wife, Ann -- will retire her. They aren't going to run her into the ground.

It seems like they were always good owners. They didn't race her till late in her 3-year-old season. (Many horses are raced younger, when their bones have not properly formed. They may be lighter and faster, but they break easier that way.)

"I had a happy horse," Mr. Moss said, "and that was enough." The full New York Times story on this couple and their horse is here. I don't know the Mosses, or their horse, but it seems like she is treated like both a competitor and a pet, which is the way it should be.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Midterm vote (And eye candy for nobody but me)

Photo by Getty. From the ET Online site.

The mid-term U.S. elections are Tuesday.
This is when Americans choose their senators, congressmen (and -women), some state governors and other representatives.
They're called mid-term because they alternate with presidential elections. So Obama was voted in in 2008; mid-term elections are in 2010; and another presidential contest will come in 2012.
This is done so there is a constant balance of power -- or, some might say, constant struggle of power -- between the two major parties. (And who-ever else wants to throw their hat in, God help them.)
I think the Republicans are set to do well this time. (Obama is a Democrat).
It's the season for lots of people spending lots of money to run around actually pleasing the public (as opposed to just government cronies) to keep their jobs. Not a bad idea, eh? Asking politicians to have to justify why, exactly, they get paid all those tax dollars. (You think Donald Tsang is ready for that?)

It also means American Political Comedy Season.
Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart just held a "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," a real event with thousands in front of the White House, marching and protesting. Only it was led by two satirists.
Dedicated Joyceyland readers may know that I harbor a crush on Stephen Colbert. In the top photo, he's the guy on the left. I know. That is not the most flattering outfit -- but it is satire. His fictional persona is that of a staunch, flag-waving conservative.
I looked for a better photo, but Colbert seems to be making a dumb face in every shot. He also looks like the whitest man on earth.

C'mon. Does anyone else out there in the blogosphere think he's cute?
I asked Marc if he was jealous of my crush and he was like "who?"
"Stephen Colbert," I said. "That middle-aged, bespectacled American political commentator whose left eyebrow seems to be in a constant state of being raised."
"Oh," Marc said, peering at a photo of him. "I'm not worried."
***
Here's Colbert testifying before Congress (for real) and being reasonably serious (except for the jokes about him picking beans) about the issue of migrant labor.



***
The New York Times had a pretty funny story on the rally.

Protests also came in costume. One man wearing a diaper and a sombrero carried a large wooden anchor — a depiction of an “anchor baby,” the name conservative talk show hosts have given to children born in the United States to illegal immigrant parents. “I’m feeling a little exposed,” he said after the rally ended.

The article also pointed out that love for Obama does not necessarily mean popularity for Democrats in general. The article quotes this guy:

“I’m proud of Obama, but the Democrats in Congress, they’re just running for cover,” said Ron Harris, a lawyer from California, who came to celebrate his 64th birthday. “They couldn’t sell bread to a starving mother if God was standing next to them.”

That's one thing I like about American and British politics -- the cleverness of words, particularly when used for insults.
The Western world may see its economy and society falling apart, its businesses moving to Asia, and its children growing ever-more obese and illiterate -- but, at the very least, it is still very good at making fun of politicians.
***
Ah, writing that made me feel better.
I've had a bad two days due to some health / family issues I am not at liberty to describe here. Suffice it to say that it involves an elderly and beloved relative.
Maybe it seems callous to blog about humor when there are difficulties at home, but I find it makes me feel better, the way most writing does.