About Rory Keane
Rory Keane is an American-born teacher and writer who has logged nearly two years in China, and is working on another year-long stint in the Middle Kingdom. He writes about travel, sociopolitical issues, health, entertainment, and culture, among other topics.
Latest Posts by Rory Keane
Chicago’s Adler Planetarium is open late one Thursday of every month, allowing a 21 and over crowd to gaze upon the heavens while they socialize, sip cocktails and listen to live music.
Two weeks ago, the lakeside observatory and space museum treated stargazers to a show of lovely stars and some lederhosen. An authentic German band lulled attendees with a Bavarian waltz while they learned about satellites, planets and stars.
The atmosphere was playful, reminding some of a playground–unspoiled by the grating sounds of children’s carefree laughter.
Instead, folks who made it out to the Planetarium traded snippets of gossip, furrowed their brows over the Bears’ chances this season (while Soldier Field lay just beyond the front drive of Adler) and got a crash course in the science of brewing beer.
The craft brew lesson came courtesy of Half Acre Beer Co., which also treated lucky guests to a free beer tasting. For those who were not engaged by the telescopic views of the night sky, or even talk of a supernova visible in the nearby Pinwheel Galaxy, the twinkling lights of Chicago’s skyline provided spectators with all the visual splendor they could hope for.
Now over a year removed from my last arrival in China. Not a remarkable feat to some, but a landmark for me personally.
An alarming development, though: my scathing hatred for Mandarin-dubbed Korean soap operas on Chinese television has been flagging lately. Instead, I find myself coming dangerously close to caring about the principal characters. Every evening during my dinner break I come home to find my mother-in-law or my wife watching with rapt attention the saccharine melodrama of these uppity rich Korean soap stars. At first I was highly dubious. How could I help it? On the surface, these characters have everything: family, material wealth, picture-perfect smiles…
And then I realize that I’m risking hypertension. Why should I be so enraged with the conceit that these well-to-do Korean families (including one matriarch who looks and dresses like a certain North Korean leader) have troubles and worries that I couldn’t ever comprehend? So I put aside my condescension and embraced it for what it’s worth. It’s television after all.
And since it’s an export from a country that daily faces down the prospect of all-out destruction raining down from the tenuous border, maybe I can let this slide. The underlying creed for the show’s enduring popularity in Korea and here in China seems to be, “Sweat the small stuff, because the big bombshells are too macabre” to depict lightheartedly on the small screen.
Lately there’s been a dramatic turn where the pretty newlywed and new mom goes crazy with postpartum depression and sure enough…I’m hooked. Will she ever recover? Now I guess I have to stomach my incredulity and watch the saga unfold.
An aggregate of happenings from the summer of 2011 in China. This dress has been sighted in every corner of China this summer, on every manner of lady.
The serviceable navy blue and white-striped dress first cropped up in late June, pushing its way to ubiquity around late July. You can’t go 24 hours in any Chinese city without seeing it. More photos, for your consideration:
This comically bad imitation of M&Ms candies was spotted in the supermarket:
Prized fighting crickets were being hocked by a street vendor. I missed the opportunity to scoop up a pair and pit them against one another in mortal kombat, or any other kind of kombat for that matter.
Other street vendors were not so lucky. The chengguan continued their campaign of harassment, unabated by the high summer heat.
Finally, we made a trip to Guangzhou. The sights included the Pearl River, Shamian Island, and the U.S. Consulate.
Nearly 800,000 people ride on China’s high-speed rail network each day. The high-speed rail lines, dubbed the China Rail High Speed (CRH), now extend over 9,600 km. It’s already the largest network of high-speed rail lines in the world, and by 2012 it is projected to have more high-speed rail lines in operation than the rest of the world combined.
Despite the unrivaled reach of this extensive network—often referred to as the world’s largest public works project—many passengers will be eyeing the railway with a touch of reluctance in the weeks and months ahead. The July 24th crash in Zhejiang has caused a ripple effect among the Chinese. Its consequences have given pause to nearly everyone from the casual rider to the government’s bullish forecast on the train and its future.
The train has encountered hiccups in the recent past, with the head of China’s railway ministry being dismissed earlier this year on charges of corruption. But the underlying fear behind the alleged corruption of railway officials might have been the looming threat of shoddy construction. Now it has become apparent just what the toll might be for turning a blind eye towards safety in the name of unhindered progress.
The high-speed rail experiment, which lies at the heart of China’s push for infrastructure and public works, was once the marquis project for Beijing’s government. Billions of dollars have been invested, and many developed countries were watching China’s breakneck development of high-speed rail with awe.
While the government was obviously keen on the prospects for high-speed rail and what it might deliver to the Chinese people, the attitudes of people in other arenas can provide a glimpse into the future.
The food industry in China has been gripped by continuous scandals for nearly a decade now, and as a result many well-to-do Chinese are branching out from the establishment. Many middle-class urban residents have opted to join small farming cooperatives rather than rely on what they find in the supermarket. This return to the soil has citizens “juggling iPhones with spades,” as the BBC report so succinctly put it. The juxtaposition of status and self-reliance in the farming co-op trend could forecast the middle-class reaction to concerns over rail safety.
If Beijing was counting on the CRH to provide unfettered mobility to the masses, then they have justifiably embarked on a lightning fast public relations campaign to control the fallout from the Zhejiang crash. Because like the many citizens with means who have been tilling the soil themselves just to ensure safe food for the dinner table, many Chinese with similar means might turn to car ownership as the only safe alternative to rail transit. The roads in China have a significantly worse reputation than the train, even in the wake of the July 24th crash. On the very same weekend there was a long-distance bus fire on the highway that resulted in an equal amount of deaths. Still, as notorious as the roads are in China, many middle-class families hold fast to the dream of owning a car. Despite high gas prices, many Chinese still list buying a car as the next inevitable household expense. Ultimately, concerns for the environment won’t even deter most with the wish to drive in the comfort of their own cars.
What drives the allure of China’s growing auto sales may not be solely based on convenience and expedience in city life. Now many Chinese can view having their own cars as a viable, if not necessary, escape option from the train. Like the food industry, the CRH has seemingly fallen prey to the relentless pursuit of the bottom line and profitably at all costs. And the Chinese response, as we’ve seen with frustrations over food safety, might lead them to shun the government’s touted trains altogether in favor of going it alone.
Monday was a local inspection day here in China’s Wuxi. The level of play-acting was heightened to an (especially) unsustainable peak on that day. The massive and dramatic orchestrations of the local government were aimed at creating a semblance of order, cleanliness and balance in a troubled mega-city of modern China.
The plan of attack for the great show was threefold:
Step 1, give the illusion of cleanliness,
Step 2, make a pretense at order, and
Step 3, have a cop occupy every street corner.
Although, it should be said that the overreaching goal of the whole production was preventing people from riding tandem on electric motor scooters. At least that was the impression that I got. This bothers me slightly because it’s one of the things I enjoy doing most here in China.
The wicked hypocrisy and short-lived aim of the play wasn’t lost on the locals either. They knew as well as I that the farce couldn’t keep up until tomorrow, let alone through that evening. By suppertime, things would pretty much revert to the normal state of loosely organized chaos.
I wouldn’t have been so rueful of such a plan, curious exercise in braggadocio that it was, except for the mysterious rationale behind it. This day was an attempt on the government’s part to prove…what exactly? That they’re capable of getting everyone to march to the same drum for a handful of hours? Possibly this, or maybe some other obscure desire that’s tied into the notion of face and how precious it is to the local shot-callers that face be preserved for any officials’ visit. Needless to say, I could never grasp the latter concept.
And like I said, such a display wouldn’t normally rankle me. I consider myself to be law-abiding. In fact, next to the general public some of my behavior might come across as staid and conservative. What really astounds me is the incredible lack of functionality behind the ‘inspection day’ routine. The clock resets to zero once the policeman steps off the corner, and bedlam* is free to reign yet again by nightfall. So really there is no practical application for this extreme coordination by the city. The officials only get to see a sterile glimpse of what the city is like on any given day; and the citizens are inconvenienced for the sake of play-acting.
*Not the dangerous kind of bedlam. It’s not like Escape from New York on the streets after dark.
Lately there’s been a clamoring for my wife and I to get on board with China’s most popular instant messenger and chat service, known as QQ. Most of the demand is fueled by our imminent relocation to the United States.
I’ve been resisting. Not just due to the fact that I find most IM chats inane or flippant, but also because it would open the floodgates for unmitigated hounding. I know that as soon as I install QQ on my computer the incessant updates, pinging, and friend requests would quickly lead me to regret this decision. And while I’m hesitant to deride the overall value of IM services (I use Skype to chat almost as often as I use it to make calls), I have reservations about this particular software.
The world is more interconnected than ever, and there is certainly a premium on privacy. And I don’t mean privacy in terms of physical space, but instead privacy in terms of a canopy that can shield me from phone calls, text messages and emails. As much as I rely on these modern means of communication, I also lament being reachable at every minute of my day. Sometimes I just need respite. But then again, don’t we all?
When it comes the looming possibility of logging on to China’s powerhouse of online chatting, my feelings are largely negative. I feel as if I would invite a plethora of tertiary and tenuous connections into my daily routine that might quickly overwhelm an already strained attention span. This is the crux of the problem. I don’t really loathe the software that is as annoying as it is ubiquitous (in this case, QQ), but I value my brain’s capacity for focus, memory and attentiveness. On the whole, those are pretty nice things to have. At one point it actually came down to slashing major bulkheads from my online vista. I’ve stopped visiting facebook in the last year, and while it may have made my virtual world smaller, it has greatly streamlined my time and focus when I’m online.
It must come down an analysis of numbers. If I’m genuinely concerned about the amount of new contacts I might rack up with the addition of a service like QQ, and the subsequent devotion of time it might consume, I have to do some networking calculus.
The common Western perception of Chinese food usually encompasses a few select dishes, dictated by exposure to run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurants, the type found in every corner of the United States and other countries. These unspectacularly common items usually include dumplings, noodles, egg rolls or other fried snacks, and of course untold varieties of fried rice. The crucial thing to recognize is that this smattering of relatively bland fare is tailored to the perceived tastes of Western consumers. The true scope and scale of Chinese cuisine is far greater.
Each region of China’s land mass has its own trademark culinary flair. And if you’ve taken the time to consult an atlas, you’ll see that quite a lot of geography is available for tasting. From tip to tail, the country has an abundance of flavors for the adventurous palate to sample.
On a recent foray to a restaurant with Xinjiang-style fare, I rediscovered a bold tableau that hails from the remote western reaches of China.
The atmosphere in the restaurant was diluted through and through with smoke, and unlike some eateries this smoke wasn’t pouring from cigarette butts. This was a rich haze that emanated from savory flanks of mutton roasting in the kitchen, and even a few basking over charcoals at the tables.
The main course was a whole roasted lamb, and its presentation alone was enough to convey that this was no ordinary supper. The lamb had arrived earlier that day from Shanghai. By the time it was borne unto our crowded table, it was skinned, gutted, roasted, and done up with a fancy bow at the head.
The crowd of eager diners wasn’t given the opportunity to indulge atavistic fantasies about tearing into the lamb firsthand, but they were instead treated to a show of sorts. After two waiters brought the lamb-laden cart up to the table, awed onlookers craned their necks to get a healthy look at the whole carcass before it was carved. Then the two waiters parted, allowing a stout man to approach the cart and put on some sanitary gloves. This man, apparently the sole restaurant employee allowed to wield the knife, began to slice and dice up the lamb with aplomb. The onlookers affectionately dubbed this knife-wielding wizard “Wolfzone” after the quirky monogram on his aqua-green shirt. He made short work of the carcass, loading two oversized platters with heaps of meat. Then it was up to the crowd at the table to do their part and tuck in.
Make no mistake—this wasn’t a refined dining atmosphere where one had to be mindful about which was the correct fork to use. No one made a fuss about the lack of bread plates. This was a primal encounter. From the moment the lamb had us salivating with its much-ballyhooed entrance to the time it was whisked off the platter and into our gullets, this experience was about eating. It was a reconnection of sorts. And I find it especially refreshing that in many incarnations of Chinese cuisine this is the preferred attitude to have: leave your manners (most of them anyhow) at the door, because you’re here to eat.
Most Chinese restaurants assist you in forgetting pretentious attitudes about feasting. The décor can be a little splashy at some establishments, but the state of things is far less attractive on closer inspection. The carpets are often strewn with cigarette burns, and the floors usually need a good once-over with a mop; but it’s entirely OK because you’re there to eat. One important thing to consider, though: if you must visit the bathroom, do so after you’ve finished your meal. If you’re in a restaurant in China, you’re never too far away from the physical evidence that, as a matter of fact, we are all human. We arematter. And usually, there are things to remind us of this physiological truism in most any restroom in China.
After paying the bill and leaving, the diners sauntered out to the street to head their separate ways. While waiting to hail a taxi, an acquaintance and I were recounting dining experiences that could rival the feast we had just ingested. The list was short, to be certain, but the conversation spawned an interesting term. When trying to use the word ‘gastronomic’ to describe some sensation or experience, I instead coined a portmanteau of the intended word and ‘economics,’ thus saying ‘gastro-economics.’ It resulted from a mere slip of the tongue (and a healthy dose of tryptophan from the heavy meal) but we both agreed it was fitting to the circumstances. A spread equal to the one we’d just devoured in the Xinjiang restaurant would cost a pretty penny in the United States. But this is China, so luckily our pocketbooks weren’t too much the worse for wear and we were able to continue the night’s excesses in other fashions.
For that once-in-a-lifetime memory, follow suit with all the other young couples in China and strike a pose!
Couples in China these days love or loathe certain stages of the marital process. There’s the exhaustive planning and preparation that go into any wedding; the wedding day itself can be quite trying if done in accordance with traditional marital rites of passage in China, such as contesting the groom’s access to the bride. There are fireworks, wardrobe changes, a long and winding procession from one family’s home to the next, with meals and drinks along the way as well. Even if the ceremony adopts more eclectic or western themes, no bride will settle for haphazard execution. Everything must be perfect.
A near universal prelude to the wedding ceremony is the wedding photo shoot. Couples go all out to create a unique and professional quality photo album to commemorate their civil union. They don’t merely don the formal attire and snap a few basic portraits, they venture out—sometimes going great distances—in search of that special moment, hoping to immortalize it on film. The ubiquity of the wedding photo business shouldn’t be underestimated. Every city has a thriving population of studios that specialize in wedding photo albums.
And given how popular the whole process has become among newlyweds, it should come as no surprise that it’s a vibrant and lucrative market.
Scenic parks double as sprawling studios for would-be couples that indulge photogenic fantasies
We waded into the tea fields and postured this way and that at the whim of our overly enthusiastic photographer. We put on airs while we posed at the corner of a nondescript building. We vogue’d at the marvelously decrepit and picturesque iron gate. Then the rain came and we huddled in the rickety van to do a quick wardrobe change. The handmaids fussed over Julia’s hair. Then they spirited us away to the next location.
Picture it: the idyllic shore of a placid lake nestled between the gentle hills. A young couple takes a moment to gaze meaningfully over the water. Snap the shutter at the right time, and you’ve got a lifetime’s worth of precious memories condensed into one frame. One problem though, it’s early March, the temperature is barely above freezing, and the rain is coming down. Nevertheless, like true artists we must suffer for our moment and strike poses; all this with just a thin layer of casual eveningwear as cover from the elements. After wrapping up phase 2 of the outdoor shoot in rapid fashion, we clambered into the van and headed back to the studio.
Along the way, our photographer shared some insight into his profession. He’s out nearly every day of the year doing these wedding photos. I wonder if the whole concept seems drawn out to him. He says that whether it’s the rain or the temperature, the couple or what-have-you, there’s always a challenge to overcome in this profession.
“Yeah,” I add, “the couple you’re photographing could be downright hideous.”
Hold that pose, just a bit longer…a little bit longer…
I learned by and by what each stage of the marathon photo shoot would entail. By the 7th hour, I learned to shelve my curiosity and bite my tongue when I felt a question coming on. During one of her outfit changes and makeup sessions, Julia casually mentioned that her parents would be joining us for the formal pictures. A family portrait of sorts was on the agenda as well. So I threw on a heavy jacket over the shiny ensemble that I was sporting and went outside to get some air while I waited for mom and dad.
While I ushered them into the spacious photo factory, they volleyed the usual barrage of questions that I’ve come to find so typical of my Chinese in-laws. “Are you cold?” or “Have you eaten?” and “Would you like to eat?” and other such doting inquiries that make you feel pestered and loved at the same time. I gave them a brief tour of the studio. After seeing Julia and a handful of other ladies getting made-up in the front room, we walked back to the indoor street with all the various theme rooms. No joke, this was actually a narrow cobblestone street with different rooms cropping up on either side, all done with makeshift storefronts and plywood marquees and the like. It looked like the back lot of a movie studio. There was the elegant room with the chandelier and the fake grand piano (actually an electric keyboard housed in a piano-shaped shell), the nostalgic room with the vintage television set and radio, the playful room with plush chairs and stuffed animals, the ballroom, the dining room, the grand hall and the room with the spiral staircase that leads nowhere. A couple has their pick of the litter when it comes to these settings and their costumes. While mom, dad and myself were waiting on Julia to finish in make-up, we saw couples pass by in traditional Chinese costumes, prince and princess garb, and a number of other imaginative and playful getups.
I looked at Julia’s parents, and registered the bewilderment on their faces. “Did they have operations like this when you two got hitched?” I asked. They stared back at me with blank expressions, glanced at each other for a moment, and then smiled broadly. “No,” they both said with a chuckle.
Later, fatigue started to set in. We were both dog-tired and our facial muscles were starting to ache. It came down to the last outfit; for Julia it was a stunning white wedding dress with tapered shoulder straps and a lengthy train; for me a black tux with tails.
I felt like maybe I wasn’t up to the last leg of the photo odyssey. But then, from behind the floodlights I watched my bride. I looked at her, and granted I’ve looked at her plenty of times, but this time in that dress and with her and makeup done in a style that usually only movie starlets can indulge in, I was taken aback. I was literally stunned by this beauty. I know there are a lot of beautiful women in the world, but at that moment there was NOONE more beautiful than my wife. My heart swelled, and I dug down to find the energy to finish these photos with a flourish.