Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas Night at ShiGe Zhuang

My wife had promised the Zigen workers a short presentation and a discussion on public and personal health at Zigen’s Community Center. I had accompanied my wife a couple of times to Zigen’s old community center at Sandy River. But since my last visit, Zigen had left Sandy River, along with many migrant workers, and re-located to ShiGe Zhuang village.

With the usual end-of-the-year frantic-ness and busy-ness, it was hard for my wife to find a free evening. Which was why we ended up going to ShiGe Zhuang on Christmas Night. ShiGe Zhuang (史各庄, or the Family Shi’s Village in Hebei province usage), like Sandy River, is a village north of Beijing city. ShiGe Zhuang is actually two exits before Sandy River on the Badaling Highway (and about 14 km from the Fourth Ring Road), but it took us much longer to get there since there are no express buses that go to ShiGe Zhuang. (I assume there will be express bus lines once people move to the new real estate developments there. In any case, the soon-to-be-finished subway/light rail Changping 昌平 line will connect the Number 13 subway line with Changping and points north.)

We arrived at dusk, after our bus sat in heavy traffic all the way until the stop before ShiGe Zhuang. From the bus stop, we saw that the land to the east of the highway was entirely made up of rubble of concrete, brick, wood and glass, remnants of the demolished houses. In the smog, we could see a few buildings, seemingly rising from the rubble, dotting the desolate horizon.

We crossed the pedestrian bridge to the west side of the highway and walked right into a cold but lively ShiGe Zhuang. We met Xiao Zhuo, a Taiwanese volunteer who is spending 6 months at Zigen. Xiao Zhuo took us past the ShiGe Zhuang Elementary School. All along the sidewalk there were carts already set up or being set up, selling stuff of all sorts, from slippers to frying pan, from socks to toys, from buns to pancakes, …  Xiao Zhuo eventually led us down one of the side streets, which, though asphalt-paved, reminded me of the dirt roads I remembered from Taiwan in the late ‘70s, but with more dirt, and with grungier shops.


It was heartwarming to see the old Zigen billboard. This community center is a lot smaller than the old one at Sandy River. The familiar blackboards still outlined Zigen’s aims and list the schedule of workshops. The single large room now doubles as both the activity room and the library.

The lights were out when we got there. According to Xiao Zhuo, the landlord was called, but he couldn’t fix the lights. One of the Zigen workers had to string up a light bulb in the middle of the room. We then set up the LCD projector for showing my wife’s powerpoint presentation.

The audience started showing up a little after 5:45 PM, coming in alone or in small groups of two or three. When they came in, they greeted the Zigen workers heartily before finding foldable stools and their spots in the activity room. The Zigen workers started the small make-shift coal-burning furnace in the corner to keep everyone warm. I probably wore more than anyone else there, but felt the coldest and they let me sit next to the furnace.  

My wife started out the presentation with a slide reminding the migrant workers of a popular Chinese saying, “地位是暂时的、荣誉是过去的、金钱是身外的、只有健康是自己的.(My poor translation: “position / social status is temporary, honor / glory is in the past, money is external / a mere worldly possession, only health is yours”)

Then she outlined her presentation, 健康方面关心的问题?(Health Issues You Should Be Concerned About): 

  • 职业病(噪音、粉尘)professional hazards (noise and dust)
  • 外伤急救 emergency treatments for trauma
  • 感冒、发烧、肺炎 colds, fever and pneumonia
  • 用药安全(抗生素)medicinal safety (use of antibiotics)
  • 吸烟与健康 smoking and health
  • 营养与健康 nutrition and health

My wife mentioned that to stop bleeding, one should elevate the wound above the heart and put pressure on the major artery between the wound and the heart. The picture of the bottle of erguotou二锅头 (er-guo-tou) on her slide served to inform the audience that 65 degree (i.e., 65 percent alcohol) erguotou (along with iodine and juice from garlic) can serve to disinfect. (It is more likely for these migrant workers to have erguotou on hand than rubbing alcohol or iodine). She reminded the audience that they may need to get tetanus shots if they had been wounded by rusted objects and that if they were to come down with a fever they should go to the hospital immediately.

The slide on Medicinal Safety (Use of Antibiotics) showed a box of amoxicillin from Sijiangzhuang Pharmaceutial Company. My wife noted that this particular brand of amoxicillin was not only cheap but trustworthy, and added that whenever using any antibiotics, one should read the instructions carefully before using (how many times a day, how many pills each time, double the dosage for the initial use) and that one should take the course (at least 5 days, and not stop once the symptoms subside). She further mentioned that she preferred Sijiangzhuang’s amoxicillin as it was in powder form and came in capsules so one can add a drop or two of water to the powder and use the paste as a disinfectant.

The first slide on smoking showed a healthy lung next to a smoker’s lung

And then she started the discussion on smoking. First a show of hands demonstrated that just about everyone in the room smoked and that it was a substantial portion of their daily budget. No one knew the healthcare costs associated with smoking-related health issues. Some had family arguments because of persistent smoking. And no one knew the hazards of second hand smoking.

The last slide was on nutrition and health. Given that all the migrant workers have their meals covered by their construction companies, my wife feared that they would be eating meals that is not nutritionally balanced. Especially in this last year with severe inflation, she thought that the workers meals would be low in protein and so she suggested that they cook eggs for themselves, drink yogurt, boil peanuts, fry soybeans, buy some prepared foods with meat (but avoid the vacuum-sealed ones) and drink soymilk. (In fact, the last few months, according to the workers, their lunchboxes were basically rice and Chinese cabbage. Not even tofu…)

After the last slide, my wife led the room in a lively discussion. She made special note of one of the workers (a certain Mr. Wu, see photo below) who already knew most of the health information she tried to convey. She told everyone that they should consult Mr. Wu if they had questions. She also tried to answer the questions as best as she could and made notes of those she couldn’t, promising to answer these questions on a return trip.

 Mr. Wu is the one on the right.

At around 7:30, the laptop was swapped for a DVD player. The Zigen workers had been showing the TV serial “Battle for Peking” 战北平 on Saturday nights. On this Christmas Night, the migrant workers started to watch episode 22. A couple of them were impatiently waiting for my wife’s presentation to be over and voiced their opinion loudly when the DVD player was taken out. But these few were immediately hushed by the others. My wife was very touched by the support, as we left and found our way back to ShiGe Zhuang bus stop to wait for one of the buses that would take us back into Beijing city.

Miscellany and Afterthoughts: During my wife’s presentation, I noticed that some of the migrant workers got up and left the room. But they came back in too quickly for a trip to the communal restroom (more than 3 minutes away). So they step outside for a quick smoke. In this regard, these migrant workers respected the “No Smoking” sign more than some of my wife colleagues at the CAS or even some of my colleagues at PKU. When asked, some noted the sign and told us that they did not think it was appropriate for them to smoke inside where there were Zigen workers who were running these community events.

Only one couple came. They sat next to the furnace and next to me. (See photo to the left.) The rest of the migrant workers came up to Beijing without their wife or family.

Most of these migrant workers were from the province of Henan, which was where one of the Zigen workers was from. Henan, 河南, means south of the river; whereas Beijing is in the middle of Hebei, 河北, i.e., north of the river. The river is Yellow River.

It turned out that just about all the migrant workers were owed their paychecks for the last 1-3 months. The construction companies were only covering their meals during this period. Some of the workers tried to get the Changping county government to intervene to no avail. Now they are just hoping to get paid in time for Chinese New Year.

The antibiotics commonly in use are amoxicillin, erythromycin, and tetracycline.

Erguotou (er guo tou) 二锅头 is a typical Beijing spirit, made from a mixture of grains (wheat, corn, sorghum, …), so-called because it is the “head” () of the “second pot / distillation” (二锅).

My wife and I are not in any way affiliated with Red Star (红星) which makes the Erguotou in the image above or with Shijiazhuang Pharmaceuticals. It was my wife’s intention to list items that were cheap, safe and easily accessible to the migrant workers.

And finally, a Happy New Year to Everyone!

Written by a newyorkerinbeijing AT gmail dot com on New Year’s Eve 2011.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Night is Movie Night at the CAS

Over the last few weeks, my wife has managed to reserve the large seminar room on the first floor of her building on Friday evenings at 7 PM to show Mao Era Chinese movies. It has been a hit amongst not only her students but students from other labs. Even a couple of the doormen started to show up regularly.


The first two movies in this series were 我们村里的年轻人 (Village Youngsters”), and 冰山上的来客 (Visitors on Icy Mountain”).

I finally made it to the fourth movie, Youth in Battle 战火中的青春

Made in 1959 by Changchun Movie Studios for the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, the main female character Gao Shan was hailed as the contemporary Mulan.

In the opening battle sequence, her father was fell by the Nationalist. Gao Shan managed to escape and showed up at another platoon dressed as a male soldier and was introduced as the newly commissioned deputy platoon leader. No one knew she was a 17 year old girl.

For a while, the soldiers made fun of her height and even the platoon leader told her that he thought that Gao Shan would be better suited as a 文艺兵 (soldier whose main purpose was to entertain the actual combat soldiers). It was only through a few trials and tribulations that Gao Shan finally gained the platoon's respect and trust.

In the main battle, the platoon leader disregarded Gao's advice, took a unnecessary risk and was surrounded by Nationalists. He managed to stay alive until Gao with the rest of the platoon came back for him. But Gao was hurt in this battle and eventually had to go to the hospital where the doctor found out that she was a 17 year old girl.  The platoon leader came to visit and was greeted with this news. He wouldn't believe her until she showed a picture of herself with her deceased father (see picture to the left).

The most famous scene is the closing one, when the entire platoon came through the village where Gao Shan was now stationed. The platoon was on the way to another battle front. The various soldiers marched through trailed only by the platoon leader. Before the platoon leader left, he gave Gao a sword for her to remember their time together in the platoon. Then he ran off. Given that this was filmed in 1959, there was as much love in this exchange as it was allowed by the CCP at that time.

Here’s a link to the closing sequence of Youth in Battle (the actual sequence starts at 1:29 in the clip, after the opening credits of the movie)

After the movie, as I walked back upstairs, I was affectionately taunted by my wife and her students with the main movie theme which was this song sang at the camp fire scene in the following clip:

The song had its origins in the War Against Japan. But in the movie, set in 1947, instead of the Japanese, the main enemies were the Nationalist and the Americans.

My wife quietly asked me if I was offended. I laughed and said “No!”

Miscellany and Afterthoughts: In 2004, a tribute to Chinese movies produced by Cui YongYuan,  The Story of Movie 电影传奇 started its 5 year run on CCTV (2005 being the nominal centennial of Chinese movie industry). Cui, whose love for motion pictures came through in each episode, guided the audience through over 100 classic Chinese movies. In each episode, there were interviews and reminiscences of the director, actors and various others related to the headlined movie, interspersed with actual clip and new re-enactments of major scenes (acted out by Cui himself and various others).

My wife showed the corresponding episode of “The Story of Movie” after each screening to give the students some context.

A couple of weeks ago, there’s a rumor that a new “Story of Movie” produced by Cui is now in the planning stages.

In any case, the next movie on Movie Night will be “Five Golden Flowers” 五朵金花 and if you cannot make it to CAS on Friday night, here’s the youku link to the movie.

And, finally, a Happy Holidays to Everyone!

Corrigendum (12/26/10). In the Dec. 24th posting, I incorrectly wrote squad when I should have written platoon. Thanks to JM for the correction.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Time Is It Over There?

Harold Lee Tao
July 15, 1936 - November 30, 2000

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Meet the Hintons: a Modern Revolutionary Family

I had first heard of William Hinton when I was in college, in a class on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. A few years later I would impress my (first, and presumably last) Chinese girlfriend by pulling William Hinton’s “Fanshen” off my bookshelf when she mentioned Carma Hinton, her fellow Beijing 101 High School alumnus. 

William Hinton was one of the first Westerners to participate in land reforms in Modern China. The book “Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village” is probably the most widely read first-hand account of land reforms in a Chinese village. (“Fanshen” 翻身, literally flipping one’s body over, means emancipation or liberation.) The village, Long Bow village (张庄村 or Zhang village), is in Shanxi province. “Long Bow” is a deconstruction of the Chinese family name (Zhang) into its pictorial parts (bow) and (long). In China, William Hinton is known as 韩丁(Han Ding); the family name, , pronounced “han,” presumably was chosen for its H sound. , pronounced “ding,” corresponding to the “ton” in Hinton, is not only simple to write, but also means male person.

Carma Hinton, William Hinton’s daughter, was born in Beijing in 1949 (and therefore, coetaneous with The People's Republic). She stayed in China until 1971 and is most famous for her documentary (co-produced with her husband Richard Gordon) “Gate of Heavenly Peace” of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Carma’s Chinese name is 韩倞; means strong, but is probably more a reference to (and “play on words” of) her Beijing birth: Beijing’s jing with a radical for person , but everyone (including the teachers at Beijing 101) remembers her as 卡玛, pronounced "ka ma," a transliteration of Carma.

But it’s Joan Hinton, the sister of William Hinton, who’s on my mind recently. Joan Hinton passed away in Beijing on June 8th (her NYT obit). She was a Chicago trained nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. After her disenchantment with the Bomb, she came to China in 1948 to participate in Mao’s China. She met and married Erwin Engst, an American (Cornell trained) dairy farmer, and started dairy farms in Xi'an and Beijing.

Erwin (“Sid”) Engst was given 阳早as his Chinese name, , pronounced “yang,” meaning “sun,” and 早, pronounced “zao,” meaning “early” or “morning.” Sid Engst was named Yang Zao to commemorate 羊枣 (also pronounced Yang Zao) a progressive journalist who died in a Chinese Nationalist (i.e.., Kuomingtang) prison. Joan Hinton’s Chinese name was 寒春 (Han Chun). , pronounced “han,” means “cold,” and , pronounced “chun,” means (the season) “spring.” After spending over 50 years in China mechanizing and modernizing Chinese dairy farms, Morning Sun died in Beijing in 2003. And Cold Spring spent the last days of her life on a farm in Changping (昌平), a rural area now administratively a part of Beijing City. 

On Saturday June 20th, a memorial was held for Cold Spring in 东风宾馆 (named aptly the “East Wind Hotel”) in the southwest corner of Beijing. We got there in the middle of Fred Engst’s speech. Fred is the oldest son of Joan Hinton and Sid Engst. Fred Engst, or 阳和平 in Chinese (和平 meaning “peace”), was given his Chinese name by Song Qingling (宋庆龄, Sun Yat-sen's widow) because Fred was born after Joan Hinton gave a speech at the Asia Pacific Regional World Peace Conference in 1952. After leaving China in the mid '70s, Fred has been back in Beijing since 2006 and is now a professor of Economics at the University of International Business and Economics (对外经济贸易大学).

After Fred talked about his mother, various others went up one-by-one and gave memorials of Cold Spring.  Among them were old farmers who worked along side of Morning Sun and Cold Spring. There was one older woman who never met Cold Spring, but had an extensive correspondence with her. And finally, some of the younger generation (including my wife and young men and women who are undergraduate students) went up to pay tribute.

I had taken many photos of the proceedings, but won't post but one here. After my wife went up to say her bit, one person came to ask for her e-mail and phone number and I grew a little suspicious of people taking photos. So here I will only post a photo of Fred Engst. The banner above Fred said “Memorial of Comrade Cold Spring, International Communist Fighter.

Miscellany and Afterthoughts. My copy of Fanshen is the 1966 (paperback) Vintage edition. Its cover illustration, by Robert Korn, is posted above. After surviving a Chicago apartment fire, a move to Cambridge UK, and then to NY, it now sits in our bookshelf in Beijing. I had purchased it in one of the used bookstores in Harvard Square for $1.95 (probably among the best $1.95 I've ever spent) in 1989. The bottom third of my copy shows severe water soak marks, due to the fire that ruined my last apartment in Chicago.

Before William and Joan Hinton: Their mother, Carmelita Hinton, founded the Putney School, a progressive school in Vermont; Their great aunt, Ethel Lilian Voynich (daughter of the mathematican George Boole of Boolean logic fame), wrote The Gadfly, about the struggles of a revolutionary in Italy, a novel very popular in China and in the former Soviet Union.

Most recently, my wife and I saw Fred Engst at a lecture on August 21st given by his daughter Gina Engst at 乌有之乡(Utopia, a leftist bookstore just south of PKU). Gina, a graduate of the Putney School, is now based in Spain, where, by some estimates, the latest housing bubble left some 8 million housing units (new and old) unoccupied. Gina is part of a group helping older people squat. The group also helped turn one of the mansions in Barcelona into a community center for Latin American immigrant workers.

Fred has not seen this blog yet.

And, finally, this blog wouldn't be complete without a photo of the three Hintons:
The young lady to William Hinton's right is Carma.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Hulun Buir Fantasy

In many ways, the highlight of our trip last August to Hulunbuir was not the grasslands or the marshes

or the birch trees

or the cows going home at sunset

or the well-maintained Soviet tractor we found in an out-of-the-way village

or the view of Russia from our B-and-B

Rather it was the time we spent with the kids of the Quinquefoil Children's Choir (“五彩呼伦贝尔”儿童合唱团), first on the set of the movie "37" and then in an Hailar city elementary school (school building financed by 华夏基金会, the Huaxia Foundation).

The movie "37" itself was nothing special, with a storyline reminiscent of singer/star group vehicles, like a Beatles movie or (dare I type it) "Spice World". A Hong Kong businessman came across the first Quinquefoil CD and was willing to finance a movie vehicle for the group. In the movie, the Chinese child actress du jour, Lin Miaoke, had an opportunity to befriend members of an inner Mongolian children's choir, and with the help of various others, managed to keep the choir from going out of business. "37" is the number of children in the choir.

What was most precious was the afternoon we spent with the children at the Hailar city elementary school that served as their base last summer. We listened to the children practice and learn new songs from their music teacher. We helped some of the kids packed up their book bags at the end of the afternoon before they went to the playground to play before dinner and before their summer school lessons in the evening.

So, almost exactly a year later, we jumped at the opportunity of tickets (courtesy of teacher Zhao) to the Quinquefoil concert in Beijing. The children had an appearance at the Expo in Shanghai last week before they came to Beijing for a series of 4 performances at the Century Theatre (世纪剧院).

The official concert webpage is hosted by sina.

The CCTV news segment.

Videos of the children's choir on youku.

And, finally, the page for the choir. But you'll need to scale the Great Fire Wall the other way to be able to download from the google sponsored music download page.

FYI, 五彩,the Chinese name of the choir, means, literally, Five Colors, which stands for the five minority groups from which many of the children came from. The English name of the choir Quinquefoil has been changed to Quintessenso for their latest tour, "My Home on Steppe," with the China Philharmonic. Hailar is the administrative center/city of Hulunbuir, which is a region of Inner Mongolia. The title of this blog, Hulun Buir Fantasy, is the title of the choir's second CD and tour.

Finally, another highlight was the friends (XJ and KS) we made during the trip, but that's a story for another blog...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What I Should Have Said on BTV

I was a bit dazed when I picked up the call to my mobile on Tuesday evening. It was barely 24 hours since I got back from Banff and so I was falling asleep even though it was just after 8 PM. The voice on the other end claimed to be a BTV reporter and a friend of Chen XL’s. The reporter, Xiao Zhao, wanted to know what I thought of Hawking’s prediction of the earth facing certain destruction within 200 years. I had not heard of this, but a quick search on baidu (say,  霍金 200 ”, came up with all sorts of dire predictions. I had to look on to see for myself what Hawking actually “said”. (Even bigthink went with the sensational headline, “Abandon Earth --- Or Face Extinction”!)

Anyway, as soon as I hung up, after first agreeing to being interviewed, I regretted it immediately! The reporter Xiao Zhao was most interested in Hawking’s comment on “the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantages in the past” ( An issue I wanted to avoid in China where people think that selfish human instincts justifies almost everything.

Xiao Zhao and his crew (2 others) came at 3 PM the next day. I had to borrow a lab coat for my interview. The crew spent over 45 minutes in my office, and another 15 minutes in the wetlab.

I had not really planned on watching myself on BTV, but I was at JM’s place the following day when 8 PM rolled around and couldn’t resist and asked JM to tune to the BTV Youth Channel (BTV 青少), whose daily 8 PM slots is “Beijing Youth” (北京青年).

They distilled over 30 minutes of footage to less than 2 minutes. I shared the five-minute-long segment on Hawking’s predictions with 2 other professors, who mainly said meaningless fluff. My portion came in 2 pieces, bookending the entire segment. In the first part, I “answered” the question about “selfish instincts and genes.” I told Xiao Zhao how correlations are established between genes and behavior, say, via knockouts. While I was explaining, a small inset showed a video of my dean’s work in fruitfly aggression. (The video can be downloaded from, if you have a subscription to the journal Nature.) In the second segment, I pointed out that just about every single Chinese headline grossly misrepresented of what Hawking actually “said.” With a red pen, I highlighted two sentences. First, the opening sentence “I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space.” And second (to debunk “Earth’s destruction in 200 years”), “If we can avoid disaster for the next two centuries, our species should be safe, as we spread into space.”

I wished that I had actually explained the “selfish and aggressive gene” a little better. After all, complex behaviors cannot be fully explained by a gene or even a set of genes. All we are able to establish now are but correlations. We are just beginning to understanding human behavior in all its complexity.

FYI, you can find “Beijing Youth” episodes at , but I don’t know when they will post the Aug 12, 2010 episode. The shot of my nameplate and me opening my office door for Xiao Zhao were done after the actual interview. As were the exterior shots of the New College of Life Science Building.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Next Stop: Sandy River

We boarded the outbound Express 345 bus at MuDan Yuan East. MuDan Yuan (牡丹园) which means Peony Garden, was the bus’s last stop in Beijing City proper. The electronic voice announced, “Next Stop Sandy River. This bus does not stop at MaDian Bridge.” At this point, the three girls who came on board just after us asked to get off, since, despite what the ticketing agent had alr­eady told everyone upon boarding, they did not realize that Sandy River was the next stop. At first the ticket agent refused, but the bus driver relented and opened the front door at the last traffic light before we turned left on to service road leading to Badaling Highway.

Sandy River (Sha He, 沙河; sha or = sand; he or = river) is a small village less than 20 kms north of Beijing city limits and is just off the modern day Badaling Highway. Badaling Highway, now renamed the Beijing-Tibet Highway, is the expressway that leads to Badaling portion of the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. Our bus took us past North Beach (Bei Sha Tan北沙滩), West Second Flag (Xi Er Qi, 西二旗), Hui Long Guan (回龙观), … before turning off the highway. I think we passed Sha He river immediately after the highway exit. The ride from MuDan Yuan to the first stop in Sandy River took less than 25 minutes. (At around 2 PM on a bright April Sunday, there was not much outbound traffic.)

GongHua Cheng (巩华城, or literally, “Strengthen China” City) was the old name of Sandy River. It was used as a temporary midway palace for Ming dynasty emperors enroute to their hunting expeditions in the grasslands to the north. Now all that was left from those days were parts of the old city walls. On our way from the bus stop, we saw a few markets (selling veggies, fruits and sundries) and stores (selling mostly cell phones and other small electronic gadgets). There were people in front of cartfuls of used books and magazines. There were carts with pots & pans. There were stores blasting loud music and selling electronics. This part of Sandy River reminded me of (scenes from Chinese novels and movies of) the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s---the early years that of the Reform and Opening.
My wife had made an appointment to meet with some of the Zigen Fund ( workers & volunteers at around 3 PM. Three of her students and I decided to tag along to see Sandy River.

Zigen Fund’s outreach program in Sandy River was based in a small building located next to the old city walls. Here’s a photo of the south city wall and gate.

Along the arcade through the south gate, there is a blackboard listing Zigen’s regularly scheduled programs. For adults, there are movies from 7:30-10:00 PM every Wednesday and Saturday evening; chess and card games on Thursdays from 7-9 PM; karaoke from 7-9 on Fridays and Sundays; and English class from 2-4 on Saturday afternoons. For the children, there are Fudao (辅导,辅助 & 指导, i.e., guidance) classes in Chinese, Math, and English from 8:00-11:30 every Saturday morning; Techang (特长, i.e., specialized) classes in arts and crafts from 8:30-11:30 on Sunday mornings; and Chengzhang Wenyi (成长文艺, arts related to growth and development?) classes also from 8:30-11:30 AM every Sunday.

The Zigen Fund building, aka the West Gateway Community Activity center, is a small building housing a handful of rooms. (Here 西门洞 "West Gateway" or "West Doorway" refers, presumably to the building's location within the old city walls.) The middle of the three entrances leads to the two big activity rooms: one for showing movies and hosting karaoke and another, slightly smaller, room in the back for children’s activities, mainly arts and crafts. One of the other entrances leads to the small library and also to where some of the workers slept.

When we walked in to the main activity room, one of the Zigen workers was writing up the next set of activities on a chalk board in the corner. There was about 10-15 kids drawing and playing in the activity room. Teacher Yu, who was in charge of the Zigen operations at Sandy River, ushered us next door to the small library. Also visiting were two undergraduate students from Beijing Normal University.

Teacher Yu explained a little what Zigen workers were doing in Sandy River. The city of Sandy River is made up of mostly migrant workers---former peasants from mainly Hebei province (the province that surrounds Beijing city)---and those who provide services to these workers. Zigen runs a small school for the kids of these migrant worker, some of whom decide to keep their kids with them instead of back home with the rest of their family.

Over the last decade, Sandy River has seen many migrant workers and migrant worker families come and go. Most of the workers are construction workers who on building Beijing (Xi Er Qi, Xi San Qi and Hui Long Guan are some of the closest communities that come to my mind). A while ago, there were 2 schools for the children of these workers. But since Sandy River is slated for “urban renewal” (rumor has it that real estate developers have their eyes set on Sandy River because of the proximity to the city and the ease of access via the expressway), the 2 schools faced cutbacks before they were completely closed down.

In addition to the school, Zigen also runs movie and karaoke nights for the adults. The weekend evenings are packed with activities. The local police bureau was not so happy at all, but then quickly realized that Zigen is keeping the migrant workers out of trouble (keeping them from drinking and gambling).

At around 4, Teacher Yu took one of the Beijing normal students and my wife to meet one of the migrant worker families. Part of the Zigen's program at Sandy River is based on one-on-one guidance and Teacher Yu wanted to introduce to family to possible volunteers. She thought it would not be a good idea if the entire crew tagged along.

So my wife's students and I started to head back to the bus station. Along the way, we got into a heated debate about what should be done to the education system for migrant workers. One of the students argued passionately for keeping the kids in their local home town and not allowing them to following their father or parents to Beijing. The others wanted to keep the schools going at all costs. In any case, for Sandy River, the migrant workers and their families will be staying only as long as there is work on the construction of country-side villas, gated communities and high rises. And then they will move to the next Sandy River.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A “Red Classic” May Day --- Scenes from a Red-Themed Restaurant

We were working in JM’s office most of the afternoon, even though it was Saturday. One of the proposals we were involved with had gotten past the first round of refereeing and the second round, an oral defense, was scheduled for May 12th. We needed to contribute a few slides for JM and YY’s portion of the project. Besides, somebody needed to work on “Labor Day.”

In any case, JM tried to rope YY into buying us dinner for our labors. And I hadn’t seen JM’s daughter Avon in a few months, so we decided to get a small group together. JM asked Avon to name a restaurant, the better to fleece YY with. Avon politely gave up the choice to my wife. Which is why we ended up with a 7 PM reservation at 红色经典 (literally, “Red Classic”), a theme restaurant northwest of the Summer Palace, on Fragrance Hill Road (Xiangshan Lu, one of the few roads to Fragrance Hill).

We finished the slides at around 4:30 PM. My wife showed up at PKU shortly after that. JM called his wife & Avon to pick us up and we were off, thinking that we can find some place along the way for a short stroll before dinner. Since it was Saturday, we decided to avoid the traffic just outside of the PKU East Gate, i.e., ZhongGuanCun Da Jie (中关村大街) . Earlier YY told us that on his commute to PKU, even the subway was packed --- on a sunny Saturday afternoon, many families headed to YuanMing Yuan and Summer Palace during the day. So we left PKU via the West Gate and avoided heading north immediately. My wife navigated a route that hugged the east and southern portions of the Summer Palace (see map from ditu dot google dot cn).

The actual route we took was a bit more circuitous than the path in red I drew over the map. We passed 3 entrances to the Summer Palace. We saw the entrance to a market (flower and other) and some orchards. There was a small pond with people fishing on one shore while the opposite shore is still being dug by bulldozers. We saw a nice, secluded park where we could see the sun setting behind Yuquan Shan (玉泉山, “Jade Spring Hill”), before we drove along the southeastern portion of the walled government / military complex of Yuquan Shan.

We had heard about “Red Classic” a while ago. Supposedly it catered to the Red Guard generation. But there’s nothing like seeing it for ourselves.

We arrived just after 7 and before the evening’s show. Before the 7:20 PM show, on the main stage, there was an auction of imitation paintings and calligraphic scrolls. The stuff was not very interesting, but the auctioning was loud. (I didn’t see anyone buy a single item.) We managed to place our dinner order before the show began. The cuisine was predominantly from Dongbei (东北, i.e., literally “northeast”). My wife ordered the catfish, JM ordered braised pork (not really Dongbei cuisine, but Chairman Mao’s favorite) , some salad and eggs fried with toon (香椿).

The show began in earnest at 7:20.  The waiters and waitresses handed out red flags and (paper) sickles to the audience, while our dinner courses showed up. (The catfish dish came out in a huge, round, cast iron skillet, which must have been more than 40 cm in diameter!) Most of the waiters and waitresses also participated either on stage or in the aisles between the dining tables. And if I had mistakenly thought the auction was loud, the performance was louder.

The list of songs performed included 丰收歌 (“Harvest Song”), 我为祖国献石油 (“I Offer the Motherland Petroleum”), 大寨红花遍地开 (“Dazhai Red Flower Everywhere”), 延河畔的女石匠 (“Woman Stonemason Along the Yan River”), 夫妻学习老三篇 (“Husband and Wife Learn from Three Old Texts”), 万岁毛主席 (“Long Live Chairman Mao”), 八大员 (“Eight ‘Yuan’”), 敬祝毛主席万寿无疆 (“Respectfully Wishing Chairman Mao a Boundless Life”), 北京的金山上 (“Atop Beijing’s Jinshan”), 对口词 (“Matching Poem”), 山丹丹开花红艳艳 (“Shan Dandan’s Red Blossoms”), 地道战 (“Underground Warfare”), 歌唱祖国 (“Ode to the Motherland”).

(The list does not include the first couple of songs. It was a few minutes into the show before I finally realized that the show included karaoke-like titles and lyrics projected to the right of the stage. The poor English translations in the parentheses above are mine, with some help from translate dot google dot com.)

In “Harvest Song” (丰收 has a stronger meaning of a bumper crop), the dancers on stage performed a harvest dance; in “I Offer the Motherland Petroleum,” the performers showed up dressed as petroleum workers); “Eight ‘Yuan’” credits workers in 8 different service sectors (“售货员、服务员、理发员、驾驶员、邮递员、保育员、炊事员、售票员”, i.e., salesperson, waiter/waitress, hairdresser, driver, postmen, nursery school worker, cook, and [bus or train] conductor/ticketing person).

In the middle of the show, at around 8, there was a short break for the diners celebrating birthdays. And after singing “Happy Birthday” (in both Chinese and English), the crew also sang 敬祝毛主席万寿无疆, wishing Chairman Mao a “boundless” long life. During most of the songs, the audience, especially those who knew the dances that went with the song, was asked to participate. And participate we did. Some of the older diners danced, and by the way some of those cocked their wrists, one can tell that they remembered the songs from the old days. (Poor Avon, who’s only 14, had to endure, in tears, all the singing and dancing, before she gave up and put on her iPod Nano.)

The highlight was the penultimate song, “Underground Warfare” (地道战), which started with a Chinese traitor (汉奸) showing 2 Japanese soldiers the way around, and drawing some serious booing from the diners. Then the Chinese soldiers showed up and finally cornered the 3. (I think this is where JM actually yelled out, “Kill them!!!”).

Unfortunately, the photos I took in the low lighting conditions turned out poorly. But here’s a few more to give you a glimpse of “Red Classic.” 
After the performance, a family photo opportunity for diners on the main stage

Another mural
After the show ended, we stayed around to finish dinner and chatted. YY managed to wiggle out of paying for dinner; JM winded up paying. Avon recovered from the culture shock and brightened noticeably when YY offered to buy her a new iPod (which was immediately upgraded to an iPad with the consent of YY and to the unanimous approval of the entire dinner party). JM, YY, and my wife took turns telling various tales of the revolution, the war and especially the Xi’An Incident. At a little after 10 PM, we were the only original diners left (a few more people showed up after the performance) and we headed back to PKU. All in all, it was a “Red Classic” May Day.