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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?

Crisis seen from the Sinosphere (II)

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

From the post left unfinished last week. Some of the main arguments read (or heard) in China Crisis discussions:

The Time

Economies don’t grow indefinitely.  Low cycles follow high cycles and after 30 years it is about time. China cannot break the laws of economics, so the recession must necessarily come in the next X years. The country hasn’t prepared itself politically and psicologically to face this period. In the end, we are sure to have trouble.

Of course, this argument is of little value without the X, and many proponents of a time limit have failed in the past. This is the field of technical analysts and other mystical thinkers. Mythology also plays a role:  In Chinese history, cataclysms mark the end of a cycle. An earthquake preceded this crisis, and a solar eclipse is coming in July, the dynasty has lost its virtue. These arguments tend to work better with a bit of hindsight.

The Markets

The World’s economies are interdependent today. China’s economy is largely dependent on exports and FDI. The weight of these external factors in China’s growth has been much discussed, but regardless of the exact numbers, few doubt that it is a significant motor of the economy. External motors failing, China turns to internal ones: investment and consumption. Today, strong public investment, mostly in infrastructure and energy, is making up for the loss. Click to continue »

Chinese FDI in Barcelona. This is the end.

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

I have a bunch of friends back in Spain who are always quick to send me the juiciest China news coming up over there, and to supervise that I’m fulfilling my duties as a bridge blogger.

This time I have received a couple of links from Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo where there is evidence of at least two different Chinese industries that continue their cheerful expansion to the West in spite of the World Crisis: These are the industries of Shady Barber Shops and Mahjong Gambling Dens. Fourteen of them have been closed down in a recent police raid in Barcelona.

These are the two articles, one very recent, one from last year:

In recent months local residents of the districts of Eixample, Sants-Montjuïc, Gràcia, Horta-Guinardó and Sant Martí, had brought to the police their suspicions that many hairdressers opened recently by Chinese citizens were something more than to cut and dye hair.

Yes, how perspicacious. I never knew of these things  during the three years I lived in Barcelona. For linguistic reasons I had quite a few friends in the Chinese migrant community over there and I frequented the Chinese areas of the city. As far as I know these FDIs must be very recent.

Anyway, so much for the Chinese hairdressers’ expansion. Although gambling and prostitution are not among the Rights that this blogs stands for,  I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for those Chinese that see their  business seized by the police. Something must have gone wrong with their otherwise perfectly profitable business model. Perhaps they didn’t remember to “glocalize instead of globalize”. Perhaps the local police superintendent is not keen on Asian chicks, or maybe they chose the wrong hand to oil. Who knows.

The New Iceland?

Since we are at it, and on a completely different subject, check out below this scary chart of Spanish unemployment that newspaper El Correo published this week. Two little thoughts:

First, I am seriously afraid that Spain is going to turn into the next Iceland. The growth of these last years was so based on the real estate bubble that troubles could be smelled all the way from China. Am I going to turn into a poor immigrant in Shanghai working my ass off to send money back to homecountry? It would be an interesting role reversal, after all the Chinese I met doing exactly that in Barcelona. Oh well, it was  inevitable at some point, I guess, I just never imagined it could come so soon.

Second, as an engineer I note again how numbers and charts are powerful tools of manipulation. The chart below  goes so high on the Y axis that it almost needs logarithmic scales to fit in the paper. A mere problem of the units chosen, of course… or of the number of copies the newspaper wishes to sell.

Inversely, it would be very easy to make this graph look flatter with a more harmonious  objective in mind… CCTV, take note, you might consider hiring a specialist like me to re-engineer your charts and numbers for harmonious results. But then, what do they care, they simply would not publish the negative charts.

(yes, it is CCTVbashing week this week)

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