Friday, April 27, 2012

Dining by Madame Chiang's old haunt

Last night James and I had dinner at a Mexican place that shares a patio with this place.

Now it's an upscale eatery, but it used to be home to the mighty Soong family, big-time power brokers during China's brief and tumultuous Nationalist era. Soong Ching-Ling married Sun Yat-sen and later Soong May-Ling married Chiang Kai-shek. I'm presently reading this biography of Madame Chiang.

I started reading it about a year ago and put it down because the part about her formative years is slow. I'm glad I wasn't born into a richy-rich Chinese family around the end of the 19th century. After returning to Shanghai from studying in America, prior to her marriage, May-Ling spent a lot of time writing to American friends about how bored she was because her family wouldn't allow her to take a proper job. Without anything to occupy her time, whenever she got sick she thought she was REALLY sick and was very dramatic about it.

I've just got to the part where she marries Chiang. I never knew much about their marriage. In Taiwan sometimes you'll see postcards on sale venerating their great love story. I've also heard people remark that Madame Chiang was the most power-hungry of the Soong sissies.

Turns out, the wedding was a very calculated move on the part of the Soongs and Chiang. He also had to cast off his village wife, Jennie, before he could marry May-Ling. He sent Jennie to America, promising that it was only a political move of short duration and that he'd come get her in 5 years or so. But then he was quoted in the New York Times explaining that Jennie was just a concubine he'd set free. 

Hannah Pakula made a Freedom of Information Act request and dug up documents indicating the US government did its best to make sure Jennie didn't publish her memoir because it would reflect poorly on Chiang's government (our allies). Threatened with lawsuits, Jennie destroyed all but one of the copie. She died in 1971. The book finally made it out in the 1990s, Chiang Kai-sheks' Secret Past: The Memoir of his Second Wife.

I learned all this in a lengthy footnote in Pakula's book (after all, the book is about May-Ling, but it must be disappointing to drop that kind of lengthily-researched bombshell in a footer). I'm adding Jennie's book to my to-read list. There are actually 84 books on my to-read list. I just got a Goodreads account. Oh man, it's a great way to track and fuel a reading addiction.

Anyways, as we walked past Sasha's last night, I got really excited, "That's where the Soong family used to live! I'm reading about May-Ling now and this makes it all the more REAL!"

James: "The who?"

Me: "The Soong sisters! You know, the ones that married Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek."

James: So, Madame Chiang used to live in Sasha's...

It's common knowledge that Sasha's is the old Soong house, it's even printed in the front of their menus, but somehow it escaped me until recently that Sasha's was known for more than anything than overpriced cocktails and a great patio. Last night we had Mexican food in a second-floor dining room. I  got to eat fajitas and watch the Soong house, wondering if May-Ling ever sat by one of the windows I could see, writing about how bored she was, waiting for her life to start - unaware that she would shortly become one of the most important women in modern Chinese history.

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.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why I follow my brothers on Facebook

Okay, actually there are lots of reasons, but the main one is that teenage Facebook melodrama is fascinating and infuriating. It's like reading tabloids. And there's ample opportunity for tut-tutting, kids these days just put so much out there! (Imagine me clutching my pearls).

Ricky, my littlest brother, just took first in all his track meet events and jumped an incredible 20 feet and 1.5 inches (He's 13!!). In a thread where his friends were discussing how he did it, this exchange (or teaching moment, perhaps) much amused me:

Kid: well u r black

Ricky: Cambodian*

Kid: Isn't it the same thing

Ricky: Sir, Cambodia is in Asia

Yeah Ricky, drop that knowledge.

Friday, April 13, 2012


May 29. One-way tickets to Nanning in Guangxi Province, from where we will hop a bus to Hanoi.

Vietnam here we come!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cab Driver Inquisition

I had an interview at the end of the day in the French Concession and got stuck in traffic heading back to Jing'an, allowing plenty of time for my old lady taxi driver to give me the third degree on just about everything. Before we'd even passed the elevated highway she'd gleaned enough to express shock and consternation that my sixty-something-year-old mother could still be raising two teenage boys and she also let me know that if I'm dating a guy he should really already own a house. I got a special kick out of this part:

Driver: What does your boyfriend do?

Me: He's a ... [I botch "designer"]

Driver: What?

Me: He paints advertisements.

Driver: Ah, I understand. How's his salary?

Me: Yeah, okay.

Drive: How much does he make in a month?

Me: Ah! I won't say.

Driver: Does he give you money?

Me: No, I make my own money!

Driver: But if he lives with you he should really give you money.

Me: Hmm, I like how you think.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

It's official

My work visa will expire at the end of May and I am not renewing my contract. I've had a wonderful two years at the magazine, but I'm ready to look for a new way to challenge myself as a writer. My only immediate plans are to jack around in Vietnam and Laos this summer and then ... well, I've got a wedding to attend in Chicago in October.

The sum total of my life plans. That's all I got. Stay tuned!

Coppin' a feel: Titanic 3-D

So Titanic 3-D is coming to town. Yay - pause for golf clap - personally I'm more excited for BATTLESHIP. Don't fault me for it, Hunger Games definitely ain't coming. Something about post-apocalyptic authoritarian dictatorships just doesn't go over here. Ah, well.

Fifteen years ago, Titanic made a big impression in China back when there were even fewer foreign movies screening (horrors! I can't imagine). At the time, Jack and Rose's steamy car scene ran in its entirety, nudie painting and all. I mean, after all, it was pg-13 and everything, right?

We wont be so lucky the first time around. The nude scene has been cut, says Ministry of Tofu. And some people are pretty steamed about it. This satirical phony official government explanation for striking the scene made me laugh out loud [translation also from MoT]:

"The State Administration of Radio, Film and Broadcast finally gave an explanation of its decision to remove the nude scene it OK'd 15 years ago: 'In light of the specialness of 3D movies, we are concerned that viewers may extend their hands for a touch during the scene and hit heads of viewers sitting in their front, which may result in disputes. In consideration for building a society with spiritual civilization, we decide to remove the scene.'"

Sunday, April 8, 2012


I yell at drivers a lot. If I were in the States, most people would allow that the offenses for which I raise my voice warrant it. But I'm not in the States and while the rules of the road are supposed to be basically the same - i.e. don't threaten to run over pedestrians - they aren't enforced. I can't decide if my semi-regular outrage should be classified as "teaching moments" or just loud, bitchy behavior. 

Either way, I'm probably not going to quit. I get a little satisfaction getting my blood up. The other day a group of us were walking in a crosswalk (we had the green man) and an old lady was walking in the opposite direction when a black Audi aggressively rolled into the zebra stripes honking, not far from this old lady's path.

Me in English: What's wrong with you? Why would you do that? 

The man in the Audi stares  as I cross his car. I yell at him until we get to the curb. He continues to stare. I switch to Chinese:

"You did it because you don't have any manners!"

He immediately looks away. All the mouthing off I do has been like a mini cultural case study: Invariably, the drivers I yell at look confused, or laugh or pretend not to notice. Chinese culture dictates that it's never cool to lose your cool, and so when some crazy white lady yells at you, you just let it go. There was this one time James and I had been waiting for a cab a long time. Several minutes after us, a couple men show up on the sidewalk. Finally, a cab rolls up and James and I turn toward it. The guys turn toward it as well and start walking quickly, so we shamelessly break into a run and beat them to the doors, after which I turn and cackle ... followed by expletive. They shuffle off, no reaction whatsoever. 

Not once has someone dished it back to me. I'll admit this emboldens me. I wouldn't be so easily wound up if I were in the States and knew someone might pull a gun on me. I have to enjoy it while it lasts.