Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Here since June 4, 1989

I had an interview last week at a hole-in-the-wall hair salon. The subject was a middle-aged guy with a giant mole on his cheek and a yellow t-shirt with the silhouette of a lawn gnome and the words "take it outside." Born in a seaside village in Guangdong Province, he had a southern accent so thick my Chinese co-worker had to constantly ask him to repeat himself. I could barely follow him.

We started with the customary Shanghai interview questions. In this transient city, the first or second is most always "how long have you been here?"

"I've been here since before the June 4 riots." He said. This was shocking not only because I rarely hear Chinese people speak of it, but also because we'd only been chatting about a minute. Some introduction.

"But we can't put this in the magazine, can we?" my co-worker asked, wondering if we should redirect the conversation. In truth, we can't go anywhere near June 4, 1989. Once I wrote that an interviewee who'd had "problems with authority" was fired in 1989, our censors told me I couldn't write the year or the part about authority. Still, I was interested in what this guy had to say so I told her to continue asking him about it.

I was happy to have this particular co-worker along. She's young and sharp. At one point the Tiananmen Incident came up in the office and her comment was, "well nobody really knows what happened," to which another (Western) co-worker responded, "actually, I think it's well documented in publications outside of China." She responded with, "but those journalists could be lying to promote Western interests."

This wasn't a reactionary, nationalistic conclusion on her part, it was a natural one: Chinese media is the mouthpiece of the state, it's their job to promote the government's interests. Sure, she was off base, but not as off base as a knee-jerk Western reaction might conclude: in recent years evidence surfaced that no lives were lost in Tiananmen Square (to be sure, plenty were killed in Beijing streets after the square was cleared), but it appears the US government and Western journalists let the depiction stand. This is one of the world's most iconic protest photos - why sully the emotional pull of "Tiananmen Tank Man" with the caveat no one died at Tiananmen?

So we continued our chat with the hair salon guy. He'd only been in Shanghai a week when protests broke out here. He'd come for work with a few other young guys. He was living near some of the students protesting. He said some in his group were scared. As I've heard it told by another man who was in Shanghai at the time, local government was much savvier and less heavy-handed than in Beijing. There was only maybe one day where the protests prevented goods from getting into the city.Still, people panicked and the cost of food and supplies shot up. The hairdresser told me some people wanted to go home, but he chose to stay. He said he liked Shanghai and thought that life and opportunity here were worth fighting for. He didn't mention democracy, he seemed to be more taken with the emotional appeal of the movement and the students' passion.

True story.

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