Monday, August 11, 2008


_8 vs 4_

The Beijing Olympic Games kicked off on August 8, 2008. 8 is an auspicious number in Chinese because it rhymes with the character 发 (fa), which is short for 发财 (facai), or get rich. Similarly, 4 is an inauspicious number because it sounds like 死 (si), or to die. Tomb Sweeping Day, the holiday to honor past ancestors through activities like visiting grave sites, often falls on April 4.

_Zhang Yimou redux_

The Olympic opening ceremony was approximately 3 hours long and incorporated every conventional form of traditional Chinese art and cultural export, from martial arts, ink brush painting and a gaudy parade of token ethnic minorities to ribbon dancing, silk and fireworks. A few modern touches were added, such as the impressive appearance of a 7 foot 5 inch tall Yao Ming at the helm of the Chinese athlete's contingent, an outerspace segment and sentimental piano duet performed by Lang Lang (wearing way too much man makeup) and child. There were also outright displays of sheer manpower: hundreds of martial artists (or PLA members?) running around tirelessly and stopping to form semi-circle/full circle/etc. formations in perfect sync; hundreds of men dressed in stylized robes wearing 2-feet high feather headpieces demonstrating ink brush painting and an estimated 1.7 million volunteers (not all present obviously). A wise friend observed the Olympics seldom has the financial and administrative backing of an entire country.

_public space vs private space_

I did not get tickets to the actual ceremony. In fact, I heard that mega Asian star Andy Lau (think Chinese Tom Cruise but less controversial and more beloved) was even turned away due to the fact that he purchased normal seats and the thought of him wandering the aisles among plebes was too great a national security threat. Then again, two good friends, both new college grads working hospitality for a major US corporation, got to sit in row 14 with their charges. International affairs, celebrity and le big macs collide.

Instead, I watched the game via a projector set up in the home/shop front of an artist friend who, in the interest of exploring concepts of public vs private space, lives in a rented shop instead of a normal residence located in a hutong (traditional Beijing housing) in the heart of Beijing. At the height, there were about 45 people watching from the street, mostly local neighbors who came out with wooden stools, cold beer and lots of commentary.

_Lao Liu_

Greek comedies often incorporate a character known as the fool. The fool is the crazy, the hobo, the random. The fool acts and looks funny, maybe even smells bad -- but his peripheral social status also means that he says and does things no one else will, including expound on politically sensitive matters like criticizing the powers that be. Foil to the prophet, the sage, the respected politician, the fool is both comic relief and food for thought.

I first noticed Lao Liu, a neighbor of my friend who organized the public screening of the opening ceremony, when he walked out in his boxers and nothing else -- causing the leader of the neighbors (judging by the fact that he provided much of the beer and got a front and center seat AND looked the part -- he was heavy-set) yelled: "Put a shirt on! This is the wenming* Olympics." This was followed by much laughter from the crowd at the hapless Lao Liu, who returned a minute later wearing a shirt.

Later on in the night, I started speaking with the talkative Lao Liu, a small muscular man with a quick smile and friendly disposition. The conversation quickly turned serious when I asked him what he thought about this whole Olympics thing. Looking me in the eye, he said: "Honestly, it doesn't do much for us common folk. In fact, you just watch. The price of produce, oil, living standards -- they're all gonna go up. How do you suppose the government is going to pay for all this? We common folk don't get much out of it, but we're going to be the ones who pay." It wasn't the first time a local expressed this sentiment to me, and it probably won't be the last. I nodded solemnly. We chugged the remainder of our beer and continued watching.

Moments later, when the Chinese contingent stepped out onto the field, the reception from our dwindling though still majority local gathering was lukewarm. Lao Liu jumped up and down yelling "Go China! Go China" (literally, in English) and waved a Chinese flag. A few foreigners, myself included, hooted and hollered, yelling 中国加油 ("zhongguo jia you") which literally means "China add oil." (Add oil, or fuel up, is a generic term for cheering and encouragement that was also adopted by mainstream Chinese media as a slogan in a time of national disaster and tragedy following the Wenchuan Earthquake a few months back.) Lao Liu looked incredulously at the rest of the people who sat visibly unmoved for the most part, with the exception of some feeble cheering. "Why don't you cheer? Oh, you people! Go China! Go China!" Lao Liu continued. I left shortly after that to watch fireworks nearby.

_liberal arts lala x new world order_

I'm not really a fan of the Olympics. In fact, like any good global citizen with Western liberal sympathies rooted in a post-colonial, post-modern studies background necessarily critical of all things nationalistic and more generally chauvinistic or even competitive, I question the purpose of all large-scale, government sanctioned and nationalism-infused events. That said, I have lived and worked in Beijing for the past two years. In fact, my single largest impetus for coming in the first place was to witness the changes the city and its populace and Chinese contemporary society as a whole would go through in part due to the Olympic games. And now, it's finally arrived, along with Budweiser sponsored parties in the Agricultural Exhibition Center, Nike funded "street" art projects, the impending opening of China's first American Apparel, more highrises, less hutongs, tampons and deodorant (both difficult to find just a few years back), Hooters, and all that jazz you read about in NYT, BBC, so on and so forth articles about a "changing China." Being American, I suppose it's difficult to break out of the Occidental-Oriental and more specifically, US-China binary all these and other observations stem from. But this is what I notice. It is what I question. It is why I am here.

*Wenming: Culture wash or simply sweeping things under the rug?

Wenming (文明) means "civilized." In the months and even years leading up to the Beijing Olympic games, the Chinese government propaganda machine has made a major effort to promote the concept of a "Civilized Olympics" to the general populace. This entailed handbooks, tv and radio PSAs, neighborhood bulletins, billboards, text messages, etc. promoting behavior-oriented reforms like "no spitting on the floor," "refrain from wearing pajamas or going sans top in public (for the men)," "smile at strangers," "be courteous," "no cutting in line," "no jaywalking," etc. For these are all things that seemed likely to be criticized and ridiculed by (Western) visitors during the Olympics, but that also happen to be an integral, widespread aspect of local life.

Just the other day, I was biking home at around midnight when I noticed three young girls about to cross a main street. One of the girls started crossing even though the light was still red. One of the two remaining girls called out after her saying: "Hey, don't cross. This is the wenming Olympics after all!" Jaywalking in the middle of the night with few cars on the road may not seem unreasonable to most people. But in Beijing, where bicycles, tricycles, mopeds, dollies, the occasional horse-drawn cart, large transport trucks, four-doors, people and dogs all move at a pace and abide by codes that seem to make sense exclusively to those who dare engage, the significance of not jaywalking should not be dismissed. The girl who referenced the wenming Olympics may have done so out of a mixture of jest and fear of authority, but her words resonated with me nonetheless. It's too early to tell if the Olympics will affect a mainstream change in local's lives aside from higher prices to offset government costs. But still, I wonder.

No comments: