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Snail House: A Tale of Modern China

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

W020090318258260613327I have been away for a while because all my holiday time has been absorbed by two fascinating stories of Shanghai, one of them a TV serial, the other a novel.

The serial is WoJu, the Snail’s House, stupidly translated to English as Narrow Dwellingness, or whatever. It has been red hot in China since its first broadcast in November. Alice Liu of Danwei and the Youku buzz blog covered it recently.

As those blogs noted, this has been the most explosive success we remember in Chinese TV serials. In less than a month it sparked heated debate on the internet, attracted millions online and off, and with that came the hideous hand of the censors. One reason for its rapid success is the central theme about the problems to buy a house, which just hit the spot among the young Chinese audiences.

But Woju is much more than a tale of real estate and corruption. It is a gripping drama, with rich subplots evolving around a central love triangle, populated with very real characters. A sharp critique of the modern Chinese society, and by far the best product I have ever seen on the mainland TV. Originally it was a novel published  in 2007 by Liuliu, a Chinese writer that we should be watching more closely in the future.

Here are my impressions of the serial now that I have finished the first 15 chapters.  I will focus on the two main points of interest: the informative contents for anyone looking to understand China, and the quality of the product independently of other considerations. In the end are also some funny things I observed related to censorship and others.

Content

This serial is the paradise of the 中国通, the aspiring China experts.  Anyone trying to understand China should watch it. If the characters are not exactly real (no fiction can ever be) their worries, their problems and their motivations are a hi-fi amplified reflection of those moving the young citizens of China today. It is a concentrate of Chinese reality.

All the elements we have been speaking for the last years are there, not a single one is missing: guanxi building, cadres’ 二奶 (lovers), shanghai men bullied by their wifes, working parents who can’t see their babies, illegal high-interest loans, collusion between developers and local officials, the conflict between shanghaiers and outsiders, the overnight rich of Wenzhou, the ethics of the new China, the 拆迁 or "destroy and move", the "nail people" who resist, the shanzhai mobile phones… you name it.

And all is so precise that you can even see how much the characters are earning in their jobs, what interest the loan sharks ask, or how much it costs a party cadre to get his first little 二奶 (lover).

There are surely better books that depict the Chinese society in the past, but the subject is changing so fast they are all outdated. I do not think there is any other work of fiction today that reflects more precisely the Shanghai society circa 2010.

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"Hello, I’m Secretary Song of the Municipal Party Committee  (and I just shagged your girlfriend)"

If you are learning Chinese, the series is a double must for its great idiomatic mandarin. If you are not, then stand by for the DVDs with English subtitles, hoping the pirates get a human translator with his TOEFL levels this time. There is definitely a market for this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they come up with a movie next year, provided the government doesn’t stop it.

Quality

But more important than all the above is the quality of the product. It is good fiction and good entertainment.

The story is driven by an intense love triangle centered on the young Haizao, played by beautiful actress Li Nian. All the elements listed above, including the winners and the losers of the Real Estate craze, gravitate around this love/hate story that puts in contact two different worlds: the laobaixing and the cadres, the two classes of urban China.

But perhaps the best aspect of the serial, a breathe of fresh air on Chinese TV, is its absolute lack of moral lessons for the public. There are no heroes or villains here. The covetous developer, the unbearably vain wife, the fainthearted Shanghai husband, the enigmatic, outrageous Shanghai girl played by Li Nian. Every single one of them is just human, with weaknesses and ambitions like all of us. Every one of them can be up to the best and to the worst.

Even the corrupt official is all too human. A weak man in a midlife crisis with too much power in his hands and a system that doesn’t check his acts. Corruption, like love, happens as a natural course of events, the result of a sick society and not of an evil personal plan. And Jiangzhou, the Chinese Gotham that stands for Shanghai, is the mighty whirlwind of action where all the characters are hopelessly adrift.

Censorship

Not surprisingly, the serial has been censored by the government. However, it has been censored in ways that strike me as prudish, if not plainly idiotic.

Since I am in Europe now, I have been able to watch the serial on YouTube and compare with the censored one available on the Chinese site YouKu.  There was no censorship on the image above, where a Shanghai Party Official brazenly chats with the boyfriend of the girl he has just raped making free use of his political muscle.

Instead, the images below were censored:

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See the original scene, and below the censored version as shown in China.

This is the first proper sex scene of the serial. In the original version you see the moaning face of Haizao in one quarter of the screen, while the other images correspond to the respective wife and boyfriend, who are shown at home worrying for their loved ones, while they are being made cuckolds of Olympic category.

Is the moaning face of Haizao more obscene than the happy Mr. Song shown above? Draw your own consequences. Also interesting is to note that the producers have participated in the censoring process, and the hot scenes are not merely cut out, but edited and substituted by other originals, as in the larger image of the wife above.

Other Details and Questions

I will come back with more details when I am done with the serial, but for the moment I have 2 questions for the public, and especially for the many Chinese I know who have already watched the whole 35 chapters:

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1- Why does the serial show so prominently the "Coogle" shanzhaied phone of Haizao, is it just to make it more realistic or is it a revenge because Google refused to sponsor?

2- There is one part of the plot I just can’t understand: how can Haizao be a virgin when she first sleeps with Song, if she has been living with her boyfriend for years? Is this a gap in the plot or am I missing some serious (and worrying) element of the Chinese culture?

More on Han Han and post 80s isolationism

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Read this rant against Han Han on the China Daily. I have to say I didn’t like the tone, it reads like it’s written by an envious loser. But it is the intelligent kind of loser, and he hits the nail on the head several times.

He is absolutely right in the main thesis of the article, as copied below from the lede. And he is also right to say that Han Han messed it up in the interview with Time, and his reaction to that in the Youth Weekend was an embarrassing tantrum that didn’t fix the situation at all.

image

Frankly speaking, I was not surprised by the article, Han Han has made many enemies in China over the years, and he should expect them to come at him with the axe the minute he has a faux pas. But he continues to be as arrogant as usual. He knows that inside China, with his post 80s public, he is still invulnerable. Which is probably why Mr. Zhou writes this in English in a paper for foreigners, where he is safe from the Han Han fans.

But back to the point that interests us: the image of Chinese writers in the West. We have already criticized the part of Western opinion in this affair, but I think there is a lot to be said about Han Han as well. He acts like he couldn’t care less how the Media sees him. If he was a teenage punk I wouldn’t be surprised, but he is already pushing thirty and judging by his writing, he is not “without a cause”. On the contrary, he has a clear notion of justice and he uses his pen to hit where it hurts in the powers that be.

So WHY doesn’t he give a damn? Any foreign writer, no matter how successful at home, knows that an interview on Time is pure gold to project an image outside the country. It is many $$$ that Han Han could make outside China, many race cars he could pay for, way more than in the Chinese market where he is selling books at 20RMB, and even then losing business to pirates. No, I can’t believe he doesn’t give a damn. He does, and at this moment he is still regretting the day he met Time.

And that’s where I wanted to get. It’s hard to believe that Han Han isn’t smart enough to give the Time journalists the meat they are hungry for. He could have prepared a couple of slogans, some Polar bears and Justice in the World, without necessarily going into details. But he is suffering from the same problem as most Chinese at all levels, from Hu JinTao to the last of the provincial spokesmen: they do not understand how to use Western media. They consistently lose at this game, they don’t even want to learn it, and then they turn into a matter of national pride what was just a matter of technique.

It has to be a consequence of living so long with Xinhua and the People’s Daily, the Chinese were not bad at it before.

Or do you have another explanation?

UPDATE:  See comments below for the reaction on Hecaitou blog (h/t FOARP)

UPDATE2: I just find that the whole thing was translated yesterday by ESWN. There is also some more material, including an interview in 1510, check it out.

The War of the Internets

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

So there you are. July 1st passed without any major incident and the famous Anonymous Netizens didn’t show up. I am as blocked as ever and the Nutty Nannies of China are still running loose on the web, unimpressed by the headless suit .

I cannot say it is a surprise, frankly the chances of anything significant happening were one in a wan*. As I said in a previous post, these anonymous Netizens are not Chinese, but Western, from the mostly American chan boards, in particular chan888 (no link here, I have enough trouble as it is with the GFW to get me the hackers as well). These guys surely had some Chinese to advise them, but the initialive looks entirely Western, and the style was very similar to their -quite succesful- attacks on Scientology.

There are at least 2 reasons why their attack on the Chinese censors was destined to be a failure: In the first place, China is not a website that you can hack, it is country, and pretty massive at that. You could manage to confuse the GFW for a while with some coordinated attacks, but that would not change the - mostly offline - internal censorship of Chinese websites, which is what really matters here.

Secondly, the kind of attacks that the Anonymous do are not applicable in China, because they are based on giving negative publicity to the victim. But this country is already such an accomplished expert in creating PR trouble for itself, and in the most prominent media in the World, that one occasional attack by hackers, no matter how succesful, would hardly make any difference.

The China Internet Isle

But there is one fundamental reason why these Western initiated internet attacks have no hope of succeding here. The internet is a very powerful tool of social mobilisation, but only through the voluntary participation of the netizens in one community. The power lies not on the web itself, nor on its pirates, but on the millions of users that get connected for a common cause.

Let me remind you here of that misunderstanding that got my blog blocked in the first place: A famous New York newspaper took me for a Chinese hero fighting for Liberty, and then the censors of China agreed with it. Following that glorious moment of Chinayouren, I got some fellow fighters offering all sorts of contributions to the cause, such as banners to hang on websites. You can see some in the comments here .

It became clear to me then the little awareness in the West of the significance of the Chinese internet. The Chinese internet is not only the single largest national community of netizens, it is also a largely isolated island, with very few connections with the outside World compared to its size.

Partly for language reasons, partly because of the GFW, but I guess mostly because of cultural differences, the Chinese live on a parallel dimension of the web. They don’t use the facebooks, or Youtubes, or Yahoo news, or IRC chats. They have their own means to communicate on the internet, and this largely excludes interaction with people outside China.

And that is where the problem comes. It is the same situation for a company seeking to advertise itself on the Chinese internet as for a social movement who tries to push its way here: you need to be inside the island to have any impact. You need to understand the Chinese and they need to be part of your idea, and only when the wans of Chinese feel that this movement belongs to them, only then the internet can become the most terrible of weapons.

So yes, I do think the internet has still its last word to say in China. But I am pretty sure that when this happens, it will be a Chinese initiative.

*I coined this the other day. Wan is 10,000 in Chinese. And yes, I find it hilarious.

Chinese Pirates and Shanghai Stories

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Last night I went to the evening organized by Earnshaw to launch their two latest books: “I sailed with Chinese Pirates” and “Shanghai Story Walks”. I have been a fan of Earnshaw Books since they published the first of their series of reprints, Carl Crow’s “Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom“, my favourite China read of ’08. Since then they have continued to publish new originals and reprints faster than I could read them, so I jumped on this opportunity to try to catch up.

The event was announced - and recommended - on the Shanghaiist calendar, so I thought I’d get there a bit earlier to catch a seat before the masses arrived. Actually, apart from the collection of smiling ladies with cups of tea that populate all these literary events, the attendance was pretty moderate. It came as a shock to me, but I suppose not everyone is interested in fascinating expat stories that happened 100 years ago.

Too bad for them. The evening went really smooth, with a bit of blues by the big man Earnshaw, great atmosphere and free drinks just for showing up. But what I enjoyed most were the two presentation speeches. If you have been to literary festivals you know how boring these things can get: people who can write are not necessarily good speakers, more often than not they are timid individuals who find themselves forced to deliver hour-long speeches, and they take ample revenge by boring the public to the marrow.

This time it was different. The presentations were brief, well prepared and yet spontaneous, and with their repertoire of pirates and big-eared gangsters they managed to catch our ear. Suffice to say that I ended up buying both, in spite of my firm resolution to not bring any more new books to my home on the verge of collapse. But let’s have a look at the babies:

The author of this book, Yvette Ho Madany, is originally from Shanghai, and she draws from her family connections and from her own research to guide us in a series of story-walks around the city. She told us the tragic life of Mrs. Dong and the spicy beginnings of the JinJiang hotel. A must-read and must-walk.

Expat intelligentsia hero Paul French spoke for the original author Mr.Lilius, who was unable to attend, presumably due to his demise in 1977. Mr. French gave us a well-rounded speech with some good pirate jokes and enough teasers to make me run to the stalls and get the product. Then, like usual, he scolded us for being XX century citizens and paying attention to the GDP instead of to Pirate Queens, and if you ask me he was damn right on that one, arr!

The reading List

Now, I know what you are thinking and you are right: I am brazenly posting a Book Review post when I haven’t read a page of the books in question. I sold my soul for a free glass of Chinese red wine and some good vibes, I admit it. But frankly speaking, the efforts of Earnshaw to bring us of those old gems, first on his website and then on fine quality paper editions, deserve already all my praise. And let’s not forget that I owe them the discovery of the inimitable Carl Crow.

As for these 2 new books, I will read them and I will walk them, and I promise I will get back to this post and update it with my frightful reviews.

On a side note: These last 3 months I have dedicated an absurd proportion of my free time to reading in Chinese. I have just finished my third novel, and I am very proud of that, but in the meantime normal reading has been on hold, and the List has got completely out of control. I am afraid I will not catch up with myself before the Summer holidays. More about my experiments on Chinese reading in coming chapters.