Shanghai girl browsing by tag


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.


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.


"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.


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.


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:


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:


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?

Typical Shanghai Car (Expat humour)

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009


A middle aged man in a dark suit left this car. He didn’t look in the least embarrassed. Was he a pedophile? A cadre under the influence, bringing it home to sweetie? Or just the resigned father of a normal Shanghai girl?

I didn’t stop to ask. But I appreciated the customized kitty steering wheel, rear-view mirror and head-rest. And the heap of slain and skinned pink cats stuffed inside the back window for further upholstery use.

The Fat of the Land

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

I know I shouldn’t be linking the same source all the time, but since I got my new coded connection I have rediscovered the Time China Blog and I just can’t get my eyes off it. Check out this picture of the rich corn fields in Ningxia in their last post by Lin Yang. After the recent avalanche of crisis articles, this must be the most heartening piece of info I have seen in weeks.

In her message, Lin Yang explains how, during their holiday trip to the native land, they were surprised to see the prosperity of the Ningxia farmlands, where 30 years earlier they had known trickier times. Obviously this is not a scientific study, and I don’t know if the situation applies to all farms or all parts of the province. But I am happy to see that, for once, the Good Earth is bringing prosperity to her children. Consider this paragraph:

It is hard work though. It usually takes a couple of years to break new land, and Wang spent the last two decades acquiring the 50 acres he has now. The family grows mostly corn, but also vegetables and melons (a local specialty). Last year the harvest was 200,000kg. In fact, over the years Ningxia has gained the reputation as Hong Kong’s vegetable basket, and migrant workers have been returning to the west to pick up their old trade.

This is a tribute to the patience and hard work of the men and women of the land. Madoff and all the band of crooks in Wall Street, the conceited Shanghai sharks and vain princesses who look down on immigrant workers, they can read this when they sit, in a few months time,  wondering how they lost their jobs. And perhaps some of them should be sent to labour the Ningxia fields and learn what honest work feels like. That would be a way to make something useful of the old reeducation camps.

Popcorn Doomsday Scenario

In parallel to this, I have conducted some research as to the probability of a meterorite falling on the farm of the picture at the moment when the 200,000kg harvest is out for collection. I am reassured to see it is rather unlikely, for it would mean the end of civilization as we know it, and the beggining of a new sweet glaciation era  in which the planet would be covered by a floating cloud of hot, delicious pop-corn.

OK, yeah, I admit my hypothesis today are a bit wonkish, like the economists like to say. But what do you want, this is another panda-eyed Saturday morning, and the electric coolie I called in to fix the air-con is hovering around me all the time. It is freezing. Not easy to concentrate in these conditions.

What’s up with all the Chinese FACEBOOKS?

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Last night I was out for a little dance with one of my Shanghai friends. My performance must have been pretty good, because as we were leaving she invited me to join Kaixinwang, and added that she would buy me straight away if I bought her.

Now, I didn’t know what to make of all this. But I was quite curious, as I had read about all these Chinese Facebooks recently on Danwei. So, as soon as I got home I thought I might as well open an account and let myself be bought. A bit of a hassle to deal with all those Chinese characters on a Sunday night, but anyway, it’s not like you can say no to a Shanghai girl.

So I went and googled Kaixinwang and opened an account and tried to find my friend there, only to find out that I was in the WRONG kaixinwang. And I had to start the whole process again. Further googling confirmed that there are 3 different kaixinwangs, apparently unrelated except that they bear the same name: kaixinwang, kaixinwang and kaixinwang. In the same time, I also found out that there are at least 2 other Facebooks: Xiaonei and Zhanzuo

So, what is up with all these Chinese Facebooks?

There seems to be a fierce struggle for power among them. Like the links above show, they are all almost exact copies of the original Facebook, but over time they have been introducing some Chinese characteristics to appeal the local users. Still not the Chinese “Wall of Characters” format, but definitely doing their best to cover up the blank spaces that Chinese users seem to hate so much. See above my (wrong) kaixinwang account.

I remember when I was in Business School, one of my classmates did a Business Plan with the title: “How to beat Ikea in 3 years”. It was a good laugh for the teacher, and my friend got extra points for “audacity”. But it is amazing to think that now for any random Chinese entrepreneur it is possible to do “Beat Facebook in 3 years”, and they don’t even need a BPlan. Is this the land of opportunity or not?

In case you think I am exaggerating, see what I got from Alexa global, with 2 of the kaixinwangs taking a huge leap in less than 6 months:

OK, probably Facebook will stay at the top because of its worldwide support. But in the Chinese market it doesn’t stand a chance. The Kaixinwangs have started and will continue to adapt the concept to Chinese preferences, and Facebook, unlike other global companies, has not moved in this direction. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg might have had a chance if he thought of selling  “sweet and sour Facebook” before.

To be fair, it is true that the Chinese censors are doing a good job at slowing down Facebook here, while not affording any protection of Intellectual Property. And the same rumours that spread in the West about the Book - giving data to the CIA, etc- are very present among the young and nationalistic Chinese internet users, and surely not discouraged by the local competition.

Now, let’s see the key points for future developments:

  1. The lack of IP protection in China means that all these startups can just copy the essential from Facebook, and concentrate instead on adding some extra games and gadgets that appeal the Chinese. In fact, for this very reason it doesn’t make sense for Kaixinwangs to innovate. Wasting resources in coming up with a new platform is a loser move, when any newcomer can just copy.
  2. This seems to be an unregulated network market, which usually evolves into a Winner-Take-All situation. So it is to be expected that pretty soon one of the Kaixinwangs will take the whole pie.
  3. Only at that point, with the local market secured, the winning Kaixinwang will find a reason to start developing some really new stuff.
  4. This is a phenomenon that applies to many industries in China. They are in a race to capture markets while the economy grows, and can’t afford to stop and rethink right now. This is what I mean when I say the fast pace of Chinese economy for the last 30 years has left many holes behind.

From the selfish point of view of an expat in Shanghai: I can’t wait for all this kaixinwang competition to get  settled and every Chinese to get an account in the Champion of the KaixinWangs. (开心网王)

For many Westerners here Facebook has become part of our social reflexes. When we meet someone new - which happens everyday in Shanghai- it is the easiest way to keep track. With the Chinese, the simple social question: “what is your Facebook?”  results in a complicated discussion, often involving the CIA, James Bond and Her whole Majesty’s Secret Service. In the end, you always end up stuck with another fancy visit card that quickly gets lost in the overflowing 名片drawer.

UPDATE: I found another 2 kaixinwangs just now: kaixinwang and kaixinwang. There must be dozens of them out there if I can find these 5 so easily on the first page of google results. What a mess! It reminds me of the times when WangDonalds flourished right next to the real place. Perhaps the Chinese Net Nanny should spend her time trying to sort this out instead of wasting it with us.

Chinese English Names

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Hong Kong - It feels good to travel just for fun once in a while. I flew to HongKong this weekend to say goodbye to a good friend who is leaving Asia, with the firm intention to relax, enjoy the city, and not indulge in any sort of  China watching activity.

My only serious mission was to obtain for a Shanghai girlfriend of mine some hi-tech cosmetics of a European brand, which are cheaper down there. Clearly, at 1500RMB+ the package, it was a real bargain.

In spite of my initial plans, I couldn’t help making some observations of this amazing city. The first one is that it is a very vertical place, so much so that all my pictures have an awkward shape which is hard to fit into this column.

It was difficult not to notice also the amount of mandarin spoken in Hong Kong today. Many times on the street I saw chinese speaking mandarin to each other, probably newcomers from mainland China. I don’t know if this is good or bad for Hong Kong, but I found that today it is easer to move around speaking Mandarin than English.

But the most interesting detail I observed, and the one that has ruined my good intentions not to write an entry about Hong Kong, is the creativity of locals when it comes to choosing their English names. Two girls we met over there were named Redana and Monstar. Seriously, we had it written down for us, so there is no possible mistake. A quick search on Google confirms that these first names don’t exist in any known culture. Pure innovation.

However, when it comes to choosing their own names, there is a sector of the mainland Chinese population that is by far in advance of the rest. It is schoolchildren, and in particular boys below 10 year old. Children that age are often given the freedom to chose their own English names, and they make full use of this freedom to let their imagination fly.

While all their female classmates are from an early age naming themselves Sugar and Lovely, the boys are clearly one step ahead.

It is through my friend Annie, who worked as an English teacher in Shanghai, that I came to hear of the wonderful world of Georgie Pan, the old teacher, and his two young students: Polar Bear and A Chinese Boy. Hopefuly, they still have some time to enjoy their childhood names before the ultra-competitive world of chinese education changes them into the likes of Johhny Power.

Panic in the Morning

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Morning Daddy!

You know that feeling in the morning sometimes. You wake up with the lark, full of optimism to face a new day, and, before you even had the chance to smell the first espresso, trouble is knocking at your door.

It was just like that this morning when my cell phone beeped.

It was a message from my daughter.

Asking for money!

I knew it was bound to happen some day, all this Shanghai nightlife is so confusing, one really can’t be expected to pay attention to details. And there you go: one more mouth to feed, one more creature in the world. That’s about as much as I can take at 7:23 in the morning.  I run down to the computer, rubbing my eyes, straight to my online bank website to get done with it before she starts calling for more.

Hey, hold on a sec. My daughter can’t speak chinese.She couldn’t be old enough to use a cell phone anyway.

Actually, what the hell, I don’t have a daughter!

It’s the lively Chinese phone scammer community, back in action. I can only think that they are so persistent because it pays once in a while. I mean, come to think of it, with all those spoilt girls running around getting into trouble and calling their busy daddies for money, and daddies losing track of their little Shanghai princesses.

It would be quite funny actually, if it didn’t happen so often. Scams and Spam make up for about 70% of the text messages I get in my phone every day! I hear it is about the same for most users in Shanghai.

Anyway, here is my translation: “Daddy: I lost my phone and my wallet, please wire urgently 1500RMB to this account number of my friend Wang, I will tell you the precise details one of these days.”  No “thank you”, no ” I love you”, no “kisses to mum”. Brilliant. These clever scammers know exactly how to impersonate a Shanghai princess!

PS. The phone number of the sender is displayed on the screen, in case someone feels like taking action against the scammers, and deliver us from this pest. I hear there are some very good law blogs around if you need legal advice.