Sunday, January 11, 2015

Very Unhealthy Whatever the Floor

What "Very Unhealthy" air looked like today from the 35th floor of a building in Shanghai's Xujiahui district:

View of buildings and air pollution from the 35th story of a building in Xujiahui, Shanghai.

"Hazardous" levels were reached a few hours later.

A few people wore face masks. Most did not. Some had a smoke.

One Gas Station Under God, Indivisible

After I wrote about a church with a movie theater underneath it in Zhangzhou, China, a reader in the Washington, D.C., area brought my attention to a building with a similar unconventional mix in the U.S. Instead of a movie theater, though, the "Our Lady of Exxon" church has a gas station underneath it.

"Our Lady of Exxon" -- Arlington Temple Methodist Church, Arlington VA
Photo by mj*laflaca on flickr (original and copyright information)

As The New York Times reported over 20 years ago:
It's a place of worship. It's a gas station. It's Arlington Temple United Methodist Church. Newcomers to Rosslyn, Va., a suburb of Washington, often gawk at the odd structure. But locals breezily refer to it as "Our Lady of Exxon."

The Rev. Jack Sawyer, the church's pastor, doesn't mind at all. "People can call us whatever they want," he says. "We're happy to have them here. We're happy with Exxon too."
A more recent independent report on "this architectural magnificence" indicates the gas station changed from Exxon to Chevron. Whatever the case, according to UMTV, the mix of religion and capitalism was no accident:
This ministry has existed in the middle of the marketplace for more than 30 years. Founder Dr. James Robertson wanted an urban church, but land was expensive. And Dr. Robertson rightly predicted that its value would continue rising.

The Rev. Jean McDonald-Walker: “He said that if we have a gas station underneath the church, the church will never be at a loss for funds. They’ll always have some income, even if there aren’t many members.”
Despite its uniqueness, like the church in Zhangzhou, the church in Rosslyn could be seen as symbolic of broader issues in its country. The environmentally-concerned Christian group who once ran an advertising campaign asking "What would Jesus drive?" to "gas-guzzling Americans" might have some suggestions.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Church Higher than Movies in "Godless Communist" China

Last month a friend's acquaintance referred to Chinese people as "Godless Communists" in a privately shared comment about Yiwu, "the town in China that makes the world's Christmas decorations". I replied:
It's hard to call China's system these days "communist", whatever the name of the controlling political party. On that note, "The total number of Christians in China is approaching the number of Communist Party members". Yiwu also happens to be in a province with an especially large number of churches, even after a number were recently demolished.
The comment also brought to mind a large church I had recently seen in Zhangzhou, Fujian province.

church in Zhangzhou, Fujian province

It is not Zhangzhou's only church and just one of many I have seen across China, including a church in nearby Quanzhou. However, one aspect of this church was rather unusual. A commercial movie theater operated underneath it.

movie theater underneath a church in Zhangzhou, Fujian province

Although some may consider this a great mix of religion and capitalism, the story behind churches and movies theaters in China is complex. While numerous active churches (usually without movie theaters underneath them) openly exist, the Chinese government tightly regulates religion, as suggested by the demolished churches near Yiwu. And while China's many movie theaters (usually without churches above them) care about profits and "a market-based Chinese film industry has started to emerge from the shadows of the older, centralized and state-funded model", the Chinese "government controls which films are made and has a hand in every aspect of the film business, from production to exhibition".

In this sense, the unconventional church & movie theater building in Zhangzhou is symbolic of both how "Godless Communists" isn't often a useful phrase for talking about today's China and how it is challenging to come up with a similarly concise way to accurately describe China other than, of course, as "Chinese".

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Yellow Christmas in Hong Kong

When I spent some time in Hong Kong near the end of December, I saw many signs of the Christmas holiday throughout the city.

large Christmas themed band display
East Point City shopping mall in Hang Hau

young women wearing Santa outfits handing out promotional material
Promotion in Tsim Sha Tsui

large angel playing a large French Horn next to a Christmas tree
Cityplaza shopping mall in Taikoo Shing

Like the signs of Christmas I had seen in Fujian province, most were indicative of how the holiday has been embraced by many Chinese in a non-religious fashion.

A few other signs of the holiday in Hong Kong included an unusual theme though. Instead of the usual red and white Christmas colors, they often incorporated yellow, a color commonly used by those seeking fuller democratic rights in Hong Kong and who associate themselves with the Umbrella Movement or Umbrella Revolution. Although some uses of yellow may not have implied a political message, such as in the first photo above, some clearly did.

For example, on a shopping street in Mong Kok I was given a postcard expressing holiday cheer and the desire for "true universal suffrage".

Christmas postcard with message 'We Want True Universal Suffrage #Umbrella Revolution"

Elsewhere, #UmbrellaRevolution stickers with the message "We are everywhere" were handed out.

#UmbrellaRevolution stickers saying 'Merry Christmas' and 'We Are Everywhere'

And on Christmas Eve, some supporters of the Umbrella Movement were able to take advantage of Hong Kong closing several streets in Tsim Sha Tsui for the holiday, and they brought out the yellow.

young women wearing yellowish Santa hats and carrying Umbrella Movement materials

group dressed in Christmas spirit carrying various Umbrella Movement items

two young men wearing Santa outfits standing under a yellow umbrella

So while Hong Kong's streets are no longer shut down by protests and the commercial side of the holidays predominated, Christmas still offered an opportunity for people to openly express that they have not given up the quest for universal suffrage—a special type of Hong Kong holiday spirit.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Larvae With Cilantro

I am dealing with some internet connection issues. So instead of a train meal, here is another dish I enjoyed recently.

termite larvae (炸木头虫) with cilantro
The cilantro is a nice touch.

I can now say that deep-fried termite larvae have their culinary merits. Surprisingly, my American friend's 6 year old son agrees. I would say large spiders have more flavor though.

More, but far less buggy, posts soon.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Night Train Meal

On a recent overnight train from Hong Kong to Shanghai, this was my dinner:

dinner meal purchased on overnight train in China

Bought for 25 RMB (about US $4) from a train crew member pushing around a cart filled with dinner trays like this one—the only option available—the meal was pricey compared to similar options available at some convenience store chains. I can't say it was one of my finer culinary experiences in China, but it did help me pass some time.

During the past few weeks I have been in Shanghai, Zhangzhou, Hong Kong, and back in Shanghai. Due to travel, holidays, visitors, a cold, etc. I haven't posted much lately. I have much I want to catch up on, particularly related to my time in Zhangzhou & Hong Kong, so upcoming posts, like the meal above, will include a mix items.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Day After Tragedy in Shanghai: Crowds and Flowers at the Bund

The dense crowds during the New Year holiday today at the Bund, a riverfront area in Shanghai especially popular with tourists, didn't surprise me . . .

crowd at the Bund in Shanghai on New Year's day

crowd at the Bund in Shanghai on New Year's day

and neither did the number of people taking photos or enjoying the views.

people taking photographs at the Bund in Shanghai on New Year's day

But the crowd surrounding an area where the statue of Chen Yi, a previous Mayor of Shanghai, stands struck me as quite unusual.

crowd in front of the Chen Yi statue at the Bund in Shanghai

Just several days ago, my friend, who was visiting Shanghai with his wife and their two young children, asked about the statue. As typical, not many others nearby appeared to pay attention to it. Yet today, the statue was a clear center of attention—confounding some visitors who made comments in Chinese such as "What's going on here?" and "Chen Yi?".

For me and many others, no explanation was necessary:
Just before midnight, a huge crowd that had gathered for an outdoor New Year’s Eve celebration in this city’s historic riverfront district began to grow unruly. There was pushing and shoving. And then, in an instant, a stampede began that would trample at least 36 people to death and injure dozens more.

“We were just trying to walk up the steps to see the light show, and then people at the top began pushing their way down,” said a 20-year-old man who gave his name only as Xu, while waiting for a friend at the Shanghai No. 1 People’s Hospital. “Then I heard someone scream, and people began to panic. We got crushed.”

The stampede started after 11:35 p.m. on Wednesday near Chen Yi Square. Most of the victims were young revelers who had come to ring in 2015 on the Bund, Shanghai’s iconic waterside promenade.
I first heard about the stampede very early this morning after privately sharing my own New Year's activities with friends online. I considered that if my visiting friends had stayed just one more day in Shanghai or if I had not been invited to a home-cooked Filipino feast, there was a fair chance I would have been at the Bund just hours earlier. For the first time, part of me was glad my friends and their children had left Shanghai.

Although I certainly wasn't expecting such terrible news, I can't say something like this happening in China seemed surprising. Later, I will provide some context for why. For now, I will think of the people who met a horrible fate last night. And I will also think about how other people took turns openly placing flowers, standing in silence, and praying today in front of a statue in China.

young woman bring a flower to a memorial for people killed and injured by the New Year's Eve stampede in Shanghai

young woman praying in front of a memorial for people killed and injured by the New Year's Eve stampede in Shanghai

man praying while holding flowers in front of a memorial for people killed and injured by the New Year's Eve stampede in Shanghai

man bringing flowers to a memorial for people killed and injured by the New Year's Eve stampede in Shanghai

woman bringing flowers to a memorial for people killed and injured by the New Year's Eve stampede in Shanghai

womand and man praying in front of a memorial for people killed and injured by the New Year's Eve stampede in Shanghai

flowers left to remember the people killed and injured by the New Year's Eve stampede in Shanghai

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Two More Signs of Christmas in Fujian

Posts from two years ago about Christmas in China's Fujian province include "The Christmas Holiday in Putian, China", "Students Selling Christmas Apples in Quanzhou, China", and "A Quanzhou Church and Police on Christmas Eve".

To follow up on the theme, here are two signs of the Christmas spirit I happened to see this year in Zhangzhou, Fujian.

Heineken Christmas Tree in front of Walmart in Zhangzhou, China
Heineken Christmas Tree in front of Walmart

Christmas promotion at Belle in Zhangzhou, China
Christmas promotion at Belle

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sixteen Zhangzhou Street Scenes

If you identified the location of the photos I shared last week as Zhangzhou (漳州), the southernmost prefecture-level city in Fujian province (map), treat yourself to a bowl of Zhangzhou-style duck noodle soup or whatever other Zhangzhou treat you desire. If you didn't, I still recommend trying the soup.

The coastal city borders the far better known (at least in China) city of Xiamen. By high-speed rail it is about 8 hours south of Shanghai and 3.5 hours northeast of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong. When I passed through Zhangzhou over a year ago on a long-distance bus, this portion of the high-speed rail line was sadly not yet open.

Similar to what I did earlier this year with Yangjiang's Jiangcheng District in Guangdong province, I will share a set of street scenes from a central urban area in Zhangzhou's Xiangcheng District (芗城区) north of the Jiulong River. Like the Yangjiang post, the photos were all taken within an approximately 10 km2 (4 sq mi) area, and I walked to all of the locations. Although they certainly are not representative of Zhangzhou as a whole, which covers an area of 12,888 km2 (4,976 sq mi), they offer a brief "everyday" look at a central area in Zhangzhou and provide a bit of context for upcoming posts. And if they raise a few questions, all the better.

Xinhua East Road (新华东路) in Zhangzhou
Xinhua East Road (新华东路)

Xinhua East Road and Xinhua North Road (新华东路新华北路) in Zhangzhou
Xinhua East Road and Xinhua North Road (新华东路新华北路)

Daxi Lane (打锡巷) in Zhangzhou
Daxi Lane (打锡巷)

Alley off Xinpu Road (新浦路) in Zhangzhou
Alley off Xinpu Road (新浦路)

Xiamen Road (厦门路) in Zhangzhou
Xiamen Road (厦门路)

Jiulong Avenue (九龙大道) in Zhangzhou
Jiulong Avenue (九龙大道)

Jiangbin Road (江滨路) in Zhangzhou
Jiangbin Road (江滨路)

Intersection of Xinhua West Road and Zhongfa Road (新华西路钟法路) in Zhangzhou
Xinhua West Road and Zhongfa Road (新华西路钟法路)

Yan'an North Road (延安北路) in Zhangzhou
Yan'an North Road (延安北路)

Datong Road (大同路) in Zhangzhou
Datong Road (大同路)

Datong Road (大同路) in Zhangzhou
Datong Road (大同路)

Tengfei Road (腾飞) in Zhangzhou
Tengfei Road (腾飞路)

Alley in Jinhu Village (金湖村) in Zhangzhou
Alley in Jinhu Village (金湖村)

Shengli West Road (胜利路) in Zhangzhou
Shengli West Road (胜利西路)

Zhongfa Road (钟法路) in Zhangzhou
Zhongfa Road (钟法路)

Renshi Road (人师路) in Zhangzhou
Renshi Road (人师路)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Another Scene From Elsewhere in China

I don't expected it to help in guessing the city (answer coming soon), but here is another scene from a park I recently visited in China.

woman riding a bicycle on a narrow paved path through bamboo and trees

Friday, December 19, 2014

Best Buy Hasn't Completely Turned Off Its Lights in China

Best Buy sign lit up at night at the old Best Buy store in Shanghai, China

Best Buy opened its first store in China at the end of 2006 not long after it had acquired a majority interest in the Chinese electronics chain Jiangsu Five Star. The store was hard for me to miss as I was living just a block or two (depends on how you count them) away in Shanghai's Xujiahui district.

I visited the store during one of its earliest days and had the opportunity to speak to a manager who had come from the U.S. He said their plan was to use the Xujiahui store as a testing ground and not open others in China until they had it right — even if it meant waiting one to two years. He also explained that the absence of movies for sale, a noticeable difference from their U.S. stores, was due to difficulties in obtaining a license to properly sell DVDs. Given the many nearby small stores selling pirated DVDs without much problem, this seemed a bit ironic. The most striking part of the conversation to me, though, was when he expressed surprise over the numerous visitors that day and portrayed it as a sign of success. I knew, especially in China, crowds didn't necessarily lead to what really mattered for a retail business — sales. If the manager had pondered the area with many cash registers but few customers buying anything, he may have been less enthusiastic.

Not long after my first visit, I decided to buy a mobile phone at the store. I personally found the shopping experience far more positive than what I had found elsewhere. At the time, it was the only store I had seen in Shanghai where I could easily try working models of a variety of phones. After making my decision, I was told they didn't have the color I desired in stock and weren't sure when they would. Sadly, I left the store to try to find the phone elsewhere. Happily, I quickly found it at a nearby store at a lower price.

Although there were promising signs and another seven stores later opened, in 2011 all of the stores were closed, and Best Buy decided to focus on its Five Star chain in China. Adam Minter suggested some potential problems which may have led to the closings such as a desire to focus on service yet failing to maintain its quality. He also wrote about another repeated failing of some Western companies in China:
Best Buy’s management told me, over and over, that “our market studies show Chinese consumers like to try out products,” and that Best Buy’s interactive displays would take advantage of that predilection, put the company over the top in Shanghai. Lo and behold, it was kind of true: Shanghai’s shoppers would go to Best Buy to try out products – and then promptly march across the street to one of the other Chinese retailers and buy them for less [BG: basically, my experience minus the step of actually trying to buy the product at Best Buy] (in stores with much deeper production selection, no less).
In this case, Best Buy listened to research about what customers in China wanted — good — but apparently didn't accurately evaluate the entire purchasing experience & environment — not good.

I also wondered if there might be less transparent reasons for the closings. Sometimes due to not fully appreciating China's legal requirements and conditions, companies set up their business structures in a way that is not conducive to success nor easy to fix. The best, though painful, solution can be to start from scratch again. In this case, Best Buy may have been able to take advantage of its Five Star chain to do something similar.

Whatever the cause, Best Buy's stores had met a fate in China that Europe's largest electronics chain, Media Markt, later met as well. It wasn't the end of the story for Best Buy in China though. It still had Five Star.

But last year there were calls from Wall Street for Best Buy to further pull out of China and sell its Five Star stores. Recently, Best Buy announced it would do just that:
Best Buy is selling Jiangsu Five Star Appliance Co. to Chinese real estate company Zhejiang Jiayuan Real Estate Group Co. for an undisclosed amount, a spokeswoman for Best Buy said Thursday. She said that Best Buy is exiting the China market except for its sourcing operations, and that the sourcing of its private-label products—everything from tablets and cords to televisions—is projected to grow.
Oh, all the memories . . .

There is one thing that oddly enough isn't only a memory now. It has to do with Best Buy's Xujiahui store which appears in the photo at the top of this post. The photo wasn't taken when the store had its soft opening in 2006. It wasn't even taken before the store's closing in 2011. Instead, I took the photo less than one month ago — over 3 years after the store closed. Yes, not only is this large retail space in a prime shopping area still boarded up, it still has a large Best Buy sign. And any night I have passed by since the store's closing the sign has been lit up during "opening hours". Just to be clear, this is not normal behavior for a closed store in China.

The answer . . . I only have guesses. For example, perhaps Best Buy could not get out of the lease for the space. Best Buy may have figured it might as well keep the sign going. Or maybe unseen sections of the store are being used as office space by Best Buy. If true, I would question whether they couldn't do something better with the front entrance (there was another entrance from a parking lot below) than surrounding it with a wall of blue boards.

If you have an answer, I would love to hear it. There may be yet another interesting and valuable lesson to be gained from Best Buy's experience. At least for now, their light still shines in China.