Thursday, October 27, 2011

From Censorship to Creativity

It's not uncommon to hear people in China, both non-Chinese and Chinese, claim that to China's detriment creativity is stifled there -- whether due to traditional Chinese education methods, censorship, or other reasons.  It's an important issue as China hopes to play a bigger role in the world both culturally and economically.  Whatever the case may be, the Chinese government should feel assured that at least in one way its policies are helping to foster creativity.  The engrossing article "Where an Internet Joke Is Not Just a Joke" by Brook Larmer in the New York Times Magazine explains:
No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them — the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China. “Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”

To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and satire. This is not a new concept, but it has erupted so powerfully that it now defines the ethos of the Internet in China. Coded language has become part of mainstream culture, with the most contagious memes tapping into widely shared feelings about issues that cannot be openly discussed, from corruption and economic inequality to censorship itself. “Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing against the boundaries of the state,” says Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose Web site, China Digital Times, maintains an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”
The article goes on to discuss the efforts of Wen Yunchao and Pi San who have each found their own methods of expressing their ideas creatively in a heavily censored environment.  They each have also had concerns about the impact it could have on their own safety.  The Chinese government may bemoan the treatment it receives by the foreign press, but it's hard to see how they could be any more hard hitting than what has been expressed by Wen and Pi.

There is much more I could say, but for now I just highly recommend reading the full article.  If you're not yet convinced, then maybe the cartoon below (may not be suitable for children due to violence) by Pi San will compel you.  As noted in the web magazine Danwei:
Kuang Kuang’s adventures are pure fantasy, but to many Chinese people born in the 1970s and 1980s, Kuang Kuang’s school experiences are all too familiar. The animations are also the closest thing China has to South Park.

In the episode you can watch below, Kuang Kuang is madder then hell, and he’s not going to take it any more, so he blows up his school, something many overworked Chinese school children have probably fantasized about.
Here's the video:

Monday, October 24, 2011

Trains, Vitamin Water, Linguists, and Subway Behavior

As a counterpoint to my recent "refresher post" providing links to some older posts here, I'll now share some assorted links to pieces on other sites.  I had been saving them up to for deeper commentary or to use when an appropriate situation arose, but to avoid sitting on them forever...

Here they are:

1.  Xiao Qiang on China Digital Times posted a series of photos of people on trains in China.  So many of them remind me of scenes I've seen myself in China -- particularly on slower trains.  I've had many very pleasant experiences chatting with people while I've been on trains in various regions of China.  To foreigners visiting China I always recommend at least one train ride -- and I don't mean the high speed rail -- to see sides of China's culture that they may otherwise miss.

2.  Stan Abrams on China Hearsay has an interesting post on how Coca-Cola is dealing with a Chinese competitor to its Glacéau Vitamin Water that looks remarkably similar.  The first time I saw a Victory Vitamin Water (I think in Changchun last year) I was confused as to whether it was an imitator, an attempt to localize Glacéau with a different name, or that Glacéau had changed its name globally.  The piece is worth a read as it presents how some US companies can be rather pragmatic in their approach to the Chinese market.

3.  Louisa Lim on NPR shares the story of Zhou Youguang:
Zhou Youguang should be a Chinese hero after making what some call the world's most important linguistic innovation: He invented Pinyin, a system of romanizing Chinese characters using the Western alphabet.

But instead, this 105-year-old has become a thorn in the government's side. Zhou has published an amazing 10 books since he turned 100, some of which have been banned in China. These, along with outspoken views on the Communist Party and the need for democracy in China, have made him a "sensitive person" — a euphemism for a political dissident.
Read the full piece for a very fascinating interview -- one I doubt that made the main pages of most papers in the China.

4.  Finally, Freakonomics had a piece in July (see why I was worried I might sit on it forever?) making the case that even with calculating the risk of a fine it is profitable to hop the subway turnstile in New York City.  The piece brought to my mind images of people slipping into metro stations without paying in Shanghai.  I wouldn't say it's common, but I'm also not surprised when I see it.

Why do I raise this?  Well, it reminded me that a behavior I had noted in Shanghai could also be found in New York City.  On several occasions I've seen Americans complain in online forums about various subway behaviors in Shanghai only to have someone reply, "Have you been to NYC?" and then provide some striking examples.  I don't want to get into a discussion of which city boasts the most lively metro scene, but instead I will simply point out that it is easy to comment on one place while either forgetting or being unaware of what it can be like elsewhere, including your own hometown.  This opens up a whole set of issues that I hope, really hope, to explore later.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Refresher Post

Even though I've been blogging for less than a year, I've already noticed that one relative weakness of the blog format is that older but still relevant posts get buried quickly and newer readers who may be interested in them may never become aware of their existence.  To try to deal with this issue, I have several areas on the side of the blog web site that highlight or index posts.  However, they each have their own weaknesses, none of which I can easily address.  I also see that Blogger is now offering some new blog formats that look like attempts to deal with the burying issue.  While some of them seem to be a step on the right direction I'm not yet sold on them for a variety of reasons ranging from usability concerns to them not yet fully implementing some standard features.  Regardless, any changes to the web site won't likely impact those who read posts through readers and such.

So, I'm going to try something new with this post and reference some "old" posts that I think may be of interest to newer readers.  For those who have been reading this blog from the beginning, consider it a trip down memory lane and fear not, new material is on the way.  In addition to simply providing links, I'll include brief summaries and sometimes some additional thoughts.  In no particular order, here are 5 posts:
  • China Scenes: Villages Around Kaili, Guizhou – One of my favorite photo posts and it shows a side of China that is very different from what is seen in Beijing or Shanghai.  It's also where as I was leaving a village one of several traditionally dressed villagers came up to me unannounced and insisted I drink something out of a ram's horn.  I think they were there to welcome some visitors but decided I shouldn't miss out on the fun.  The most surprising part was that the horn contained a very strong alcohol and she poured the entire contents down my throat.  Sadly, I have no photo of that event so maybe I'll just have to go back someday.
  • Facebook in China: A Chance to Connect and Understand – The post uses Facebook as an example, but really it's about how Facebook or similar services with international reach such as Google+, Twitter, or even (though that may not be as obvious from the piece), could meet a key need for some in China (whether or not they'll be allowed to so is another matter).  It's one of my longest posts (and also one of my most visited), but there's actually much more I could say on the topics it raises.  I will likely be writing more on some of them in the near future.
  • The Different Colors of China – An experience I had with a friend from Hong Kong in Guangxi provides an example of how China's diversity makes it challenging to understand, even for Chinese.
That's all for now.  If this seems to work, I'll do it periodically in the future.  Feedback is definitely most welcome.

Friday, October 21, 2011

New Paths to Discovery: Unexpected Destinations and Kids

I think now is a good time for a change of pace with a light post about discovery and kids. 

As I mentioned when sharing my experience following a dog in Yuli, Taiwan, I enjoy opening myself up to new ways to explore the world.  It's not necessarily about building a fully representative view of any place but about discovering things I might not have discovered otherwise.

An example of this occurred almost exactly 4 years ago during a visit to Kunming, Yunnan while on vacation.  One day I took a bus to a temple far from the central downtown area and upon finishing my visit I took the same bus route back.  I think.  For reasons mysterious to me, the bus did not go all the way back to the center of the city and finished its trip in... well, I only had a very general idea where I was.

For a brief moment, I wondered how I should continue to the city center.  Then, I realized an opportunity had presented itself and began walking about.

It was a side of Kunming I hadn't seen before.

Mostly dirt street

Various items for sale amongst partially demolished buildings

I was pretty sure the area didn't see many foreigners and the kids were very eager to interact with me and have their photos taken:

This kid's father sold shirts.  When I asked to take his photo the first thing he did was take off his shirt.

After soaking it all in I decided to explore further.  While walking down a main street I came upon a side street that looked decidedly dull.  I figured that was an excellent opportunity to mix things up and headed down that street.

Soon, I came upon two young girls engaging in an activity that might be fun for kids around the globe -- smashing rocks:

Two girls engaged in the universal game of rock smashing.

Like the kids I met earlier, they were very surprised to see a foreigner.  They were particularly curious to know why I would be walking around that area.  I decided to keep it simple and said that I was looking for Chinese culture.  After talking with each for a short time they told me about a place they thought I should go see.  Possibly due to my Chinese skills I wasn't sure what sort of place it may be.  They weren't able to fully describe how to get there, so they excitedly decided that they would take me there themselves.

So they got on their bike:

The smaller girl broke out into laughter almost every time I took a photo.

And we left behind a little boy:

Not coming along for the trip

The place we went to was easily a kilometer or two away.  As we were heading there, the girls would occassionally ask me if I was carrying any money.  I wasn't clear why they were asking me this question.  I had never had kids in China ask me for money under similar conditions so I didn't think that was the explanation.  But I wasn't sure what their real motive could be and decided to just let events unfold.

On the way to the mystery place

Finally, after the unexpectedly long journey we arrived at our destination.  They had taken me to a very large outdoor market.

And after another question it became clear why they had asked me if I was carrying money.  As any smart kid knows, the market isn't as enjoyable if you don't have money to buy anything.

So, an unexpected bus route and meeting two cheerful young guides led to one of the best days of my visit to Kunming.  I saw a side of the city I would have unlikely seen otherwise.  I later examined several English and Chinese maps of the city and saw no mention of the market introduced to me by the little girls.  Often, what I learn from such experiences proves useful, even if it just provides me more context for an important piece of information.  The girl's choice of bringing me to a market in itself provided a clue of what they thought when I said the words "Chinese culture".

What I learn is certainly a large part of why I keep myself open to such experiences.

But for me nothing is better than getting to meet the various people I come across.

Girls bidding me farewell after a wonderful outing

The Many Layers of an Accident in Foshan

Wang Yue (Xiao Yue Yue), the little girl from Foshan who was severely injured in a hit and run and then ignored by many passersby, has passed away.

A few more words on this incident...

In referencing my first post on the subject Will Moss aptly wrote on Twitter "Many layers".  In following some of the many pieces written during the past few days I've seen the number of layers grow whether they are directly mentioned or subtly hinted at -- the lady who finally came to Xiao Yue Yue's aid being brought to tears because people were claiming she did it for the money or fame, the curious piece about "China's morality" by the Chinese publication Global Times, the claims that the behavior seen in Foshan could be tied to the cultural revolution, and many more. 

I've also seen some categorically recommend to not watch the video of the event.  I think it would take a long post to fully explain my view, so for now I'll simply say that I don't believe in sharing such videos simply for sensationalism and I do believe there was a potential benefit in sharing this specific video with a warning of its content.  And I maintain that view despite the fact that the day after I watched the video several images from it would disturbingly flash through my mind whenever I saw a little girl.

I think there are many issues to follow up on but for now, for me at least, I think it's best to spend some more time considering them.  Again, there are so many layers.  I may touch on them later, even if I don't specifically tie them to the topic of people's willingness to help accident victims.

For the moment, I'll express my hope that the conditions that allowed such an event to occur, whatever their scope, can be improved in time.  I also hope people do what they can to help make that happen.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More on People Not Helping Accident Victims in China

In my previous post "People Not Helping Accident Victims in China" I shared the disturbing case of the little girl in Foshan who after being run over by a van was ignored by many passersby.  It's a darker topic, but I hope that discussion of it can serve a role in helping spur changes that may reduce such incidents in the future.  For more on the accident in Foshan and its significance in China see this post by Evan Osnos on The New Yorker.

In contrast to the previous post, I'll share some reactions of readers who I believe are all Americans.  I will refrain for now from commenting on them or attempting to answer any questions (one of which in particular I have little knowledge about) but I think they're worth sharing as they are informative or revealing of people's thoughts.  You're welcome to respond.

One reader wrote about a potentially relevant study and some of her personal thoughts:
This classic social psych study seems relevant if you haven't heard of it:

These were *seminary students* and many had just been primed to think about the good samaritan, and yet only 10% offered aid to the man in need when they were told they were late for their next appointment. The conclusions are about "haste", but I think a broader theme is simply that fear of inconvenience or trouble makes people less willing to help. If the Chinese government has created a situation where helping is so costly, then blaming the government might be more effective than blaming the passerby if it leads to productive legal reform. (Though really, I am perfectly willing to hate on everyone involved in that case and I hope they get shamed into oblivion.)

... That could be my child. I like to think that where I live this could never happen, because people here believe the police and emergency responders are here to help us, and because there are good samaritan laws. I also like to think people around here are brought up to care somewhat about others. Even if this third reason isn't true, I'll take the first two. :\
"The Reluctant Expat" wrote:
 As an American I am appalled at any person observing an accident and not stepping in to help. The incident you noted more than likely happened in a gang area where everyone shuts up and do not give police, yet the person who said that even making a 911 (emergency call) makes you 'involved' has to be highly uneducated. That is an untrue, stupid remark.

The article in Yahoo concerning the little girl made a statement about Chinese being afraid of being sued for helping another, "because his intervention broke government rules on dealing with accident victims." Is that true. Another person cannot help with accident victims and what does that entail? I am curious.
To which "Myra" replied:
Oh, response to The Reluctant Expat: No it's not the rule, however in the case of the little Foshan girl, according the the 'Rules" she should have been left there until the police arrived. BUT, no one in China follows rules about many things, and this was an atrocious lack of human decency and kindness. People should have helped.
"AC" provided this comment:
always scary to hear, not matter the society.
Maybe it is that good deeds are less newsworthy...or a dark way to put it is that as long as terrible cases such as this is deemed newsworthy it is a "positive sign" for the society as a whole that such acts are still considered deviant?
On that note, a reader brought my attention to a recent accident in the US state of Utah that was deemed newsworthy for the help offered to a motorcyclist who was entrapped under a burning car.  In light of the other recent news, I found it particularly inspiring.  I believe it shows how people anywhere possess an incredible potential to help others.

Here is what I believe to be the complete raw video footage (no sound) of the event.  I think it's worth watching as you can see how more and more people arrive to assist in a very dangerous situation.

There's also a video of a segment from The Early Show on CBS providing more commentary and including interviews with some of the people involved.  I can't embed it but you can find it here:

As I noted in the previous post, significant societal changes may be required to impact the degree to which some people are willing to help accident victims.  Whatever the case may be, I hope scenes such as the one in Utah can be inspirational to all -- whether in China, the US, or elsewhere.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

People Not Helping Accident Victims in China

A couple of weeks ago I was walking near the Shida Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan when I saw an ambulance approaching.  A few moments later I saw this scene:

Lady with her leg stuck in a hole in the sidewalk

Apparently, a brick in the sidewalk collapsed as a lady stepped on it and her leg fell into the newly created hole.  Her leg was wedged in so tightly that she couldn't get it out.  Several people tried to help her, including by pouring cooking oil around her leg to act as a lubricant.  However, it wasn't until emergency workers were able to pry another brick away that they were able to pull her free:

Hole in sidewalk and lady's hurt leg

Based on what I saw, both the people who were nearby and the rescue workers who later arrived reacted in a very helpful manner.  It was particularly notable to me as I was reminded of a recent post by Adam Minter on Bloomberg's "World View" about the unwillingness of some people in mainland China to help elderly who are involved in more serious accidents.  He explained why people might behave that way:
In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of elderly men and women who have collapsed or suffered accidents in public spaces who then sue the good Samaritans who have tried to help them. These cases have created a genuine and widespread fear that helping a person in need will lead to personal financial loss.
The post is worth reading in full and raises some points I've heard a number of people, both Chinese and foreign, mention in China.  It may also help shed some light on a shocking story not involving an elderly person but a little girl who was hit by a car in Foshan, Guangdong province.  Kenneth Tan on the Shanghaiist uses some understandably strong words to describe the incident:
This is the top story on Sina Weibo today, and it's FUCKED UP to the nth degree. On Thursday afternoon in Foshan, Guangdong province, a two-year-old toddler was run over by a van outside a hardware market. The first passerby, who is very likely to have witnessed what happened, walked around the girl, without even looking down to see what happened to her. Behind him was another man, who apparently also witnessed the accident, but decided to make a u-turn so he wouldn't have to come up close to the girl lying on the road. One cyclist took a brief look at the girl, but decided to cycle away as if nothing happened, and a fourth passerby also walked around the toddler.
Sadly, that's not all.  Read the story here for more details.  However, a video on Youku that is now making the rounds in China may be more than enough.  Warning: the video is "graphic" and could be very upsetting to some.  It includes video of the little girl being run over more than once, numerous people passing by without helping, the reactions of the parents upon seeing the video, etc.  It's in Chinese but if you skip to the 1 minute mark what you see doesn't require translation.

(note: if you're using a VPN and having trouble viewing the video try turning off the VPN and reloading)

I must say the video left me stunned [Update: The girl has passed away; Update 2:  Earlier reports were incorrect and the girl's condition has stabilized; Update 3: After one week in intensive care the girl has passed away.]  It is positive, though, that the story is being reported and passed around in China on sites such as Sina Weibo.

When I asked someone from Shanghai about it she wrote, "I really dont know what to say... an abnormal society leads to this. When I learned about it I felt guilty to be a Chinese in this abnormal society."

I asked someone from Hong Kong whether she thought this could happen there.  She carefully said, "Not now."  She then explained that she regularly sees news of people not helping accident victims in mainland China and that she worried things in Hong Kong might change as more mainland Chinese visit or move to there.

What seems particularly telling is that neither of the two people were surprised that something like this could occur in mainland China.

While I certainly would be surprised if it happened in the US, the US is not completely innocent in this regards.  One related case occurred in Hartford, Connecticut when an elderly hit & run victim was not aided by many people passing by.  An article on ABC News reported one of the possible reasons:
Park Street, where Torres was hit, is part of a notorious high-crime area, with many residents unwilling to help police or be labeled a "snitch" by others.
People in the neighborhood struggled to explain why no one helped a seriously injured elderly man.

"This area here is hot, a lot of bad stuff," one man who declined to give his name told ABC News. "I gotta go now."

When asked why people wouldn't call for help, he said, "If you want to, but you're involved then."
Like in mainland China, the fear of putting oneself into a negative situation may have been a key reason for why a number of people didn't help an accident victim.  Not only does this put some people's behavior in a new light, but it suggests that the behavior could be better influenced if the sources for the fear were to be addressed.  Unfortunately, in both Hartford and Foshan the sources may be part of societal issues that are not easily changed.  Regardless, after watching the video of the little girl in Foshan maybe more people in China and elsewhere will be willing to try.

To end on a more uplifting note I'll mention that just a few days ago a stranger saved a woman from an attempted suicide in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.  In light of the stories about people not helping accident victims in China, it is hard not to notice the identity of the rescuer.  It is emphasized in the content and title of an article by Xu Wenwen on the Shanghai Daily: "Praise for foreigner's lake rescue bravery".

Why was the American rescuer willing to help?  Was she worried about getting herself embroiled in a bad situation?  I can't say in part because she took what may have been a very smart action in China.  As noted in the Shanghai Daily:
Afterwards, she didn't leave her name or contact information, Hangzhou police said.

Update: Follow-up on this post here: "More on People Not Helping Accident Victims in China"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Conversation with a Journalism Student and Shantou, Guangdong Province

Recently while riding a train in southern Taiwan, I had the opportunity to speak to student who is studying journalism at Shantou University in Shantou, Guangdong province in mainland China.  She was in Taiwan as part of a student exchange program -- a sign of the openness that is growing between Taiwan and mainland China.  She had several positive things to say about Taiwan, so I asked her whether she'd prefer to later work in Taiwan or Mainland China (if she had the choice).  She said Mainland China even though in her own words it was more "challenging" due to the level of censorship applied by the Chinese government.  Despite that, she felt that China would offer her greater opportunity since there was "more to discover".

Her story reminded me of many others I've heard from some of the youth I've spoken to in China -- frustrated by censorship but pragmatically accepting it as a part of life.  In a later post (yes, I have a lot of "later posts" lined up and am working on them), I'll write about another student I met who is studying law and journalism at a university not too far from Shantou.  Her story helps to draw attention to the broad array of views that are held by people in China.  However, it can be challenging to express those views when some of your articles are blocked from being published in the school newspaper because they're not "appropriate".

I visited Shantou (map) this past winter and also had the chance to visit Shantou University.  Shantou is less than an hour drive from another city I highlighted in a post over half a year ago -- Chaozhou, Guangdong.  Although Shantou is roughly in the middle of two other cities covered in recent posts, Hong Kong & Taipei, and shares aspects of their cultures, it is readily apparent that its economic development lags significantly behind them.

In my usual spirit I'll share a selection of photos to provide a glimpse of some scenes around the city.  The photos around the university in particular provide a hint of some of the issues I was exploring there.

students picking up delivered packages sitting outside, several with logos of the boxes
Students picking up their recently delivered packages at Shantou University.  Notice a familiar logo?

PC's were the norm in the Shantou University library.

This Shantou University classroom was filled with Macs, though.

The people with umbrellas are actually part of an artistic piece at Shantou Unversity.

A typical street scene

One of the main streets of Shantou

A pedestrian shopping street

What was this man watching on the TV in a small restaurant?

American wrestling

However, I sampled their famous snacks & sweets.

A kiddie play area in a shopping center

A slide offers a quick and fun way to descend this hill in the Queshi Scenic Area.

A market in Shantou's central "Old Town"

Another scene in the "Old Town"

Harry Potter working his magic

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tram Advertising in Hong Kong

Tram in Hong Kong with California Pizza Kitchen advertising
Tram in Hong Kong with California Pizza Kitchen advertising

In an upcoming post, I'll share some thoughts on the impact advertisements can have on designing effective user experiences for online services or even software.  One point I'll make is that it is important to understand people's typical "advertisement environment" not only on their various electronic devices but in their broader world as well.  It's one of the reasons why I sometimes post about topics that touch on marketing in everyday situations in China, whether it's Coca-Cola police tents in Kunming or BlackBerry promotions with Obama in Chengdu.

Hong Kong is certainly a place where advertising can be found in a variety of locations.  One form that has caught my eye is easily seen on the double-decker trams that operate on Hong Kong Island.  I was intrigued by the various advertisement designs since trams offer a unique space for the advertising and are mobile.  Some may argue that an advertisement on a tram or bus that passes by people isn't fundamentally different from an advertisement on a billboard that is itself passed by.  While Albert Einstein may agree, the fact that potential viewers are often engaged differently in the two situations may mean that advertisement designers should not approach them identically.

On that note, I'll share a selection of photos of some of the trams I saw during a span of a few days in Hong Kong's Eastern District.  They provide a small window into how some have attempted to capture the attention of and influence people in Hong Kong.

Tram in Hong Kong with Guess advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Tat Ming Wallpaper advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Chinese traditional medicine advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Staccato advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Hong Kong University advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Harmont and Blaine advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Stella Artois advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Spain travel advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Park Rise apartments advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Escada advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Escada advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Escada advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with China Life advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Episode advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Public Bank advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Air Asia advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Costa advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Esprit advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with UniQ Grand condos advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Movado advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Movado advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with The Gloucester condos advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Sun Hung Kai financial advertising

Tram in Hong Kong with Marc Jacobs advertising

UPDATE: More trams in the more recent post "Inspiration on Tracks: More Tram Ads in Hong Kong"