The Nanfang / Blog

“The Incarnations” Is a Gripping Novel Set in China Packed with Historical Insight

Posted: 06/20/2014 3:06 pm

Literature is one of the few fields in which megalomania is a good thing. In fact, as Italo Calvino argued, without megalomania it is barely worthwhile.

Academic Alastair Macintosh claimed that the world is a ball of strings, including economics, ecology, theology and popular culture. Most non-fiction books about China written in English in recent years tend to be happy to pull at just one string. A novel by contrast can reasonably attempt to unravel the whole ball.

“The Incarnations” by Susan Barker is a radical and fascinating novel that makes a commendable fist of doing just this. Covering over a millennium of history and most of the major themes that are currently popular with China watchers, to work with such material would – in less capable hands – be as irresponsible as playing with a ouija board. But Susan Barker, a Creative Writing M.A. who researched the book over several years after moving to China in 2007, handles it with near flawless sensitivity and skill.

Wang Jun, a Beijing cab driver, starts receiving anonymous letters from someone who claims to have been close to him over several previous lives as well as his current one. Some letters display an intimate knowledge of Wang Jun’s far from perfect family life. Others tell stories about the narrator’s relationships with Wang Jun as he was everything from a slave of Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century to a foreigner during the Qing Dynasty.

The most extraordinary of the chapters set in the past takes place during the Tang Dynasty and would stand alone as a short story. Loaded with fascinating period details, it claims that Wang Jun became a eunuch after fathering the narrator and is one of the places in which Susan Barker’s flare as a prose stylist is truly successful. In one scene, a madam gives an inexperienced young prostitute the following advice:

Men have all sorts of peccadilloes…some men like to penetrate the red during a woman’s moon cycle, or piddle on a woman out of the jade watering spout. Some men like to poke a woman in the back passage, which is called pushing the boat upstream.

As fascinating as this is, the strongest part of the novel is that set in the Hu Jintao era. It paints a convincing picture of ordinary, downtrodden Beijingers as the new China prepares to celebrate its 2008 coming out party. Every character has a compelling and believable backstory and through them, Susan Barker shows a deep engagement with the major issues in modern China that have been written about over the past decade.

We first meet Wang Jun when he is delving through garbage (Adam Minter’s “Junkyard Planet”). Wang Jun’s wife points out that girls are less important in the eyes of their parents, therefore they are freer (Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls”). Wang Jun’s colleague Baldy Zhang is an incurable misogynist (Leta Hong Fincher’s “Leftover Women“). Wang Jun’s father is a bent government official (Philip Pan’s “Out of Mao’s Shadow”). One of the major characters is an oppressed homosexual (Richard Burger’s “Behind the Red Door”).

Whether or not Susan Barker read all these books, it is clear that her knowledge of China was won rather than scavenged. One of the major themes is China’s selectiveness in what areas of its past it’s willing to face (Louisa Lim’s “The People’s Republic of Amnesia”), but this need not distract from the fact that, for all its erudition, “The Incarnations” is best enjoyed as a thriller.

Susan Barker is a brilliant prose stylist and this book should be read out loud. Even some of the most minor details are charged with social and historical insight, such as the items that Wang Jun finds as he rummages through garbage. The notoriously difficult sex scenes are also well done.

However, Barker’s stylistic brilliance is the source of the novel’s biggest weakness – overwriting. Some of the similes, which average more than one per page in some sections, fall flat, not sufficiently defying cliche to warrant inclusion. Children are “wrapped up like little eskimoes” in winter.

This indulgent use of dazzling writing can be unappealing, like a beauty queen whose knowledge of her own hotness is to the detriment of her likability (oops, an unnecessary simile). At times, the excessive scene setting distracts from the narrative and makes the book a bit too much like a Creative Writing PhD thesis (oh bugger, another one). At times, my enjoyment of the writing declined like Wang Jun’s marriage (that’s the last one, I promise).

Moreover, Barker doesn’t always follow the principle that adverbs are guilty until proven innocent, though there is one brilliant use of the word “unfilially” towards the end. The edition I received also contains some utterly avoidable errors, although it is a pre-release version that may change prior to printing. Wang Jun’s stepmother Lin Hong is twice referred to as “Ling Hong.” Changsha is described as Mao Zedong’s hometown. The word “drank” is mixed up with the word “drunk” and the word “wedding” is mixed up with the word “marriage.”

Most of the scene setting is excellent though, such as at the beginning when Barker introduces Beijing by describing some of the passengers Wang Jun has had over the years. “Incarnations” is a genuine page turner that brings it all together quite unlike any other book about China published in the past decade.

“Incarnations” will be released in hardback on July 3 and is available on Kindle.


The Forgotten Story of…Shenzhen’s Disappearing Coastline

Posted: 06/18/2014 11:00 am

Shenzhen’s Dameisha Beach briefly became world famous this month when images of the mountains of litter left by revelers were published in international newspapers. This problem is not new. Last year, one local businessman complained that the beach was so filthy he couldn’t bring his foreign clients there.

Newsworthy as this is, thoughtless individuals throwing litter is far from the biggest threat to Shenzhen’s coastline. Moreover, once-pristine beaches are not the only thing about Shenzhen’s coastline worth preserving.

Dameisha during Dragon Boat Festival, when 362 tons of garbage was discarded on the beach, image via The Daily Mail

A brief look at some of the things that have happened along this coastline involving both human and non-human life shows that it is as evocative and historic as any other. These stories include a 40-day siege by Japanese pirates, mainlanders swimming to Hong Kong to escape Maoist China, the diverse marine life that hindered some of them, and the corporate interests that are destroying this marine life and the coastline itself.

Human stories

Dapeng Fortress in Longgang District, which was built in 1394 to protect the local area from pirates, is one of Shenzhen’s best known historic sites. In 1571, the fortress withstood a more than 40-day siege by Japanese pirates who were armed with ladders.

In the twentieth century, nearby Dapeng Bay was one of several main areas from which mainlanders risked their lives to flee to Hong Kong. Believe it or not, these escapees are among the major reasons why Shenzhen has gone from being a cluster of fishing villages to a metropolis in the space of 30 years.

Mok, 67, told the South China Morning Post last year that, as the son of a former Kuomintang official, he had few prospects in Cultural Revolution-era Guangdong. In 1971, he trained and practiced swimming for months while studying maps and the edibility of particular wild plants while planning his escape. He couldn’t carry maps on his person for fear of arousing suspicion.

Four “freedom swimmers” are led away by police for questioning at Tai Po Kau, Hong Kong in May 1971, image via South China Morning Post

At his first attempt, he and his friends nearly drowned while being captured by border guards. He was taken to various detention centres and beaten before being publicly paraded and sent back to the factory where he worked. The following year he tried again and succeeded. Mok was reluctant to reveal his real name to the paper because he and his family still have business interests in mainland China.

Shenzhen official Wang Shuo wrote in 2011 that an estimated 606,000 people illegally escaped to Hong Kong between 1956 and 1980, more than half of such cases coming in the 1970s. Chen Bingan, author of “The Exodus to Hong Kong” puts the estimate at 2 million, easily outnumbering East Germans who scaled the Berlin Wall or North Koreans who swam across the Yalu River.

The shortest and most popular route to swim was from Shekou to Yuen Long, but this was heavily guarded by People’s Liberation Army soldiers. So high was the casualty rate on this route that it was a paid job during that period to help officials collect and bury the bodies of those shot or drowned on the way.

Dapeng Bay was less well guarded but may have been an even more dangerous place to attempt to swim from. In October 1970, 300 mainlanders sneaked into the colony, 280 of whom had swum from this area. During this period, marine patrol police around Sai Kung regularly found the mutilated bodies of attempted escapees who had been attacked by sharks.

In spite of this, the following year saw a huge surge in “freedom swimmers” according to a contemporary report. In the first eight months of 1971, 2,500 of them were arrested in Hong Kong, a near three-fold increase from the previous year. An estimated 12,500 made it to safety during the same period.

In August 1971, Typhoon Rose caused guards patrolling the border to be diverted to clear up the mess, causing yet another increase. According to “The Great Exodus to Hong Kong,” the peak years for these escapes were 1957, 1962, 1972 and 1979.

These escapees may have been illegal immigrants, but their cheap labor was welcome in Hong Kong. Chen Bingan insists that they played a huge part in Hong Kong achieving its “Pearl of the Orient” economic status, though neither the Communist Party nor the Hong Kong government is keen to commemorate them. Some escapees became Hong Kong residents and the knowledge and skills they acquired were a direct influence on Deng Xiaoping choosing Shenzhen as a Special Economic Zone.

Tan Jialuo, a Cultural Revolution expert formerly of Guangzhou Teachers’ College, thinks this is one of the few examples of ordinary citizens changing Communist Party policy. “It had an important role in the initiation of reform…they effectively helped promote social progress,” Tan said.

Non-human stories

Escapees swimming through Dapeng Bay in those days are said to have had their bodies and limbs scraped by jagged oyster beds. This is a problem they may not have faced in more recent years. Human activity has severely depleted Shenzhen’s marine life and ravaged much of the land along the coast during the Reform and Opening Up period. The famed Shajing oysters, for example, are now gone from the bay.

Chief among this activity is land reclamation, that is the conversion of water surfaces into land for human use. Shenzhen Bay shrank by 25 square kilometers (27% of its total area) between 1997 and 2009. This caused the nearby mangrove forests to be halved from 140 hectares to 70 hectares and reduced the number of migratory birds that spend winter in Shenzhen. The bay could be lost completely in 170 years as sediments grow at a rate of 1.9 cm a year, according to Roger Lin of Shenzhen Daily.

Pollution has also done enormous damage to Shenzhen’s marine life and coastline. In 2011, nearly half of Shenzhen’s coastal waters were found to be severely polluted. Nine sewage pipes were discharging inorganic nitrogen and phosphates into the South China Sea. Professor Xu Hong of Shenzhen University blamed illicit dumping and poor oversight. The situation improved ahead of the Universiade but the bad old days swiftly returned.

The water off eastern Shenzhen where the more popular beaches are located was found to be cleaner and most areas where seafood is farmed were found to be safe, but much marine life and natural beauty has been lost. In the early 1980s, there were vast corals, starfish and shoals of long-gone fish species in Shenzhen’s Meisha area. Due to the city’s “development,” sightseers are now more likely to see tons of floating garbage than coral.

Coral in Dapeng, via

Plantlife near the coast has also suffered. Chen Cui of Shenzhen’s Green Management Department of Shenzhen Afforestation Committee, who is also known as “The Housekeeper of Shenzhen’s Ancient Trees”, uses great expertise and passion to help protect Shenzhen’s oldest plant life. However, Shenzhen has in recent years failed to preserve the centuries-old trees and pristine villages in Baguang on the northwestern tip of the Dapeng Peninsula.

The struggle to preserve it

In March 2013, an environmental protection group was established to remove 4.5 tons of floating garbage from the ocean off Meisha. It attracted 162 members in a successful first five months before turning its attention to seabed maintenance.

Protecting coral has become a policy in Dapeng. An article published November last year in Southern Metropolis Daily, a paper that has historically been far from a mouthpiece, predicted the recovery of the bay’s corals.

Divers are initiating a comprehensive coral planting campaign. Salinity and water quality are relatively stable and it has a natural barrier so is a good place to grow coral, according to Zhou Xuejia, professor of marine biology.

However, Shenzhen’s coastline is under threat from something more powerful than the cluster of groups and organisations that have taken it upon themselves to protect it – corporate profit. China’s oil and gas behemoth PetroChina announced a plan to reclaim 39.7 hectares of land from the sea off Dapeng Peninsula for the construction of a natural gas depot and wharf.

This will further threaten Shenzhen’s eco-system and decrease the number of places in the city where residents can be by the sea. No less importantly, it will mean Shenzhen loses remnants of its past.

The city needs a power supply and cash needs to be generated, but a balance also needs to be struck if Shenzhen is to develop its own distinct identity. Novelist Italo Calvino once said that a person’s memory must be strong enough to enable them to remain the same person but weak enough to enable them to keep moving forward. The same applies to a city.


PRD People: Medical Trainer and Online Celebrity Winston Sterzel

Posted: 06/5/2014 11:00 am

Mark Rowswell, better known as Dashan, once remarked that the statement “Westerners don’t understand China” is easier to take when you realize that Chinese people don’t understand China either. Sometimes however, a Westerner comes along who tries to make sense of the Middle Kingdom and wins recognition from his host country for his efforts in doing so.

Winston Sterzel, 33, a British-South African medical training manager who has been in Shenzhen for eight years, has been praised by plenty of Chinese netizens for the astuteness of his online videos which give an introduction to the “real China.” His motorcycle tours have taken him to dozens of cities and small towns, but the portal through which he understands the Middle Kingdom is Shenzhen, a city he fell in love with during a business trip and came to despite having no contacts here.

Winston Sterzel

Sterzel has a large following on YouTube, Facebook, and Youku and has been featured in Shenzhen-based media eleven times. He has kindly taken the time to talk to The Nanfang about road trips, cold beer, internet celebrity and Chinese nationalism.

Living in Shenzhen

After moving to Shenzhen eight years ago, he immersed himself in the local Chinese community while learning the language. “Shenzhen is a migrant city, you meet people from every corner of China in Shenzhen, and as a result are exposed to the many dialects, customs and foods from all over China,” Sterzel told The Nanfang.

He works for a medical training company, training doctors in international hospital rules, etiquette, medical terminology and other things related to internships in Australia and Germany. Another one of his main activities is taking motorcycle trips around China. Either through business trips or lone adventures he has biked his way to Dalian, Inner Mongolia, Shanghai and many other far flung places. His videos about riding to Guilin gained 10,000 hits per episode, almost 80,000 in total.

Despite all this travelling, it is Buji that he calls home. “I tend to stay away from the mainstream expat hangouts and prefer to hang out in the urban villages at small local restaurants,” said Sterzel. “I am the only foreigner in the community,” he added.

He is fond of almost all of the things that make Shenzhen what it is. “Although I do occasionally enjoy visiting a posh restaurant in a posh area (Near the MixC or Coastal city etc) my work and daily travels take me trough all the different districts in Shenzhen,” Sterzel told The Nanfang.

“I know the city very well and still my favourite places are the urban villages such as Shui wei cun, Xia Sha cun, Sha zui cun, Buji Zhen etc etc, basically anywhere with a vibrant night life, cold beers and all night BBQ,” he added.

Internet videos

Sterzel’s biggest claim to fame is his online videos that give outsiders an introduction to what he calls “the real China.” The series include “China, How It Is,” “Mandarin on Demand,” and “Village Crawls.”

As well as having over 26,000 subscribers on his YouTube page, his videos – which strive to inform other foreigners about China, have become an unexpected success with Chinese audiences.

A Chinese website picked up his videos, added subtitles and put them on Youku and Tudou. Shenzhen Daily reported in 2012 that his videos were popular both because Chinese appreciated seeing how outsiders see their country and to help teach themselves English:

“It is very interesting to see how foreigners think about China and us. He knows so much and is very objective. I particularly like one of his most popular episodes, ‘Are Chinese girls easy?’ It is so fun and so true,” one of the netizens, identified as “Nulixuexi,” said.

Here is part 1 of that episode:

His videos touching on more prosaic matters such as transportation, the cost of living and food have also proved a hit. “I like to show people what China is really like and dispel all the nonsense ideas that people have,” said Sterzel.

Ups and downs

Sterzel’s best experiences in Shenzhen have come as a result of breaking through the foreign bubble and getting to know the locals. “I work side by side with motorcycle mechanics in my area and have pretty much been accepted as part of their family,” said Sterzel.

However, in both real life and in the comments sections of his videos there is one major negative that he has to deal with. “The absolutely ridiculous, irrational and overblown ultra nationalism that can rear its ugly head at any given moment can turn even the nicest of local people into the worst sort of lynch mob imaginable,” said Sterzel.

“As a foreigner it is always very important to avoid treading on anyone’s national pride,” he told The Nanfang. If you sift through the comments sections of his videos you will see the odd Chinese netizen take issue with some of his less rosy observations.

In spite of this, his insights into his adopted country have made him a recognisable figure in the local media establishment. Shenzhen television interviewed him just a few weeks ago. Some netizens have even said that watching his stuff is better than reading any travel guide, and there are plenty of Chinese netizens who would back up Sterzel’s claims.


The Forgotten Story of…Christianity in 19th Century Shenzhen

Posted: 05/21/2014 10:15 am

The Communist Party is not so much allowing faith to grow as it is trying to keep up with it, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker writes in his new book. As the object of worship in China continues to move from Mao to the market, people are shopping around for something to believe in. In this climate, Christianity has probably become the country’s leading form of non-governmental organization, and China is set to become the world’s largest Christian nation “very soon.”

Shenzhen Christian Church, via Google Images

With its South China Sea coastline and proximity to Hong Kong and Macao, Guangdong has long been a popular portal through which Christian missionaries entered China. An estimated 40% of those converted by missionary group The Chinese Union in the 1840s were in this province. Italian Jesuit priest and Bible translator Matteo Ricci settled in Zhaoqing in 1583 where his cartography skills were welcome.

The territory now known as Shenzhen, which was designated in the late 20th century to be China’s most outward looking city, played its own part in the spreading of Christianity in the 19th century. This heritage is still visible today.

The Chinese Union and The Rhenish Mission

Although there had been earlier missionaries such as Ricci, this particular story begins with Prussian military translator, spy and colonial official Karl Gützlaff. Gützlaff was described by one Sinologist as being “a cross between parson, pirate, charlatan and genius, philanthropist and crook.”

After gaining a reputation as a swashbuckling missionary and authoring “Journal of Three Voyages along the Coast of China,” Gützlaff’s mastery of several Chinese dialects made him useful to the colonial establishment and British business ahead of the first Opium War. Despite his wide range of talents and responsibilities, evangelical activities remained his primary passion and his admiration of Chinese civilization made spreading the gospel in the Celestial Kingdom something of an obsession.

Convinced that only Chinese people could spread Christianity in China, Gützlaff founded the Chinese Union, a Hong Kong-based network of missionaries trained to go deep into mainland China and use translated biblical texts to attract converts. Gützlaff needed good European missionaries to train them and in 1846 sent for Ferdinand Genahr and Heinrich Koster of the Rhenish Mission along with two other missionaries from The Basel Mission.

Upon arriving on March 19, 1847, they were all assigned a southeast Chinese dialect to learn and Chinese missionaries to train. Koster would be dead by September and Genahr made his own way up to Guangdong, setting up his own school for evangelists in Taiping in November 1847. In 1848, he opened a school in Xixiang Village, which is in modern day Bao’an District, and the following year he opened stations in Fuyong, Nantou and other locations in the Shenzhen area from which to spread the word.

Disassociating himself from the Chinese Union proved to be good judgment. Karl Gützlaff’s upstart status and prickly personality led his political enemy James Legge to call for an investigation into the practices of the union. It turned out many of the Chinese missionaries were just staying in Hong Kong and using their travel expenses to feed their opium addictions. In 1851, Gützlaff died in Hong Kong due to a punishingly hectic lecture tour of Europe and the shame of being publicly discredited.

Making Inroads

For all his unscrupulousness and tireless self-promotion, Gützlaff was a committed Sinophile. His tomb in Section 13 of Happy Valley Cemetery in Hong Kong stands out because the epitaph is written in Chinese. Moreover, he was on to something when he said that only Chinese could convert Chinese.

One of the more honest members of the China Union was Guangdong-born Wang Yuanshen, who lost his father as a child and failed in several businesses before moving to Hong Kong. There he discovered Christianity and was baptized in 1847, becoming a member of the union.

Genahr, one of the few foreign missionaries who dared venture out of Hong Kong, appointed Wang to do missionary work in Fuyong, which is in Bao’an. When he first arrived, Fuyong was a haven for pirates and particularly hostile to Christians. Things improved, however, after Wilhelm Lobscheid, another Genahr appointee, impressed locals with the medical care he was able to give.

Wang Yuchu, via Shenzhen Evening News

Wang Yuanshen spent a decade in Fuyong, holding daily evening services in his home, which was next to the school that Genahr had established, and holding alternative Christian celebrations during Spring Festival. Although Wang Yuanshen did not accept ordination, he was delighted to see his sons ordained.

His eldest son, Wang Yuchu, was physically frail and had shown no academic promise in his childhood or youth. But he graduated from a Rhenish school in Xin’an (Bao’an District) in 1864 and was formally ordained in 1884 due to his outstanding work at the Foundling Home. Sun Yat-sen was a fan of Wang Yuchu’s services and the Wangs would go on to become an influential family during the republican era.

The Basel Mission and the churches that survive today

Genahr saw his work interrupted by the Second Opium War (1856-1860). It was during this time that he published “Dialogues with a Temple Keeper” 《庙祝问答》 which was particularly influential among the Hakka, directly causing one literate Hakka man to be the first person baptized by John Campbell Gibson in 1885.

As important as Genahr’s work for the Rhenish Mission was, the oldest church in Shenzhen – The Langkou Church in Bao’an District – was established by The Basel Mission in 1866. The Basel Mission’s members had been dispatched by Gützlaff to eastern Guangdong, where its missionaries did particularly important work for the conversion of Hakka to Christianity.

The identification of The Hakka as having particular potential to be good Christians was what brought French missionary Charles Piton of The Basel Mission to Langkou where he served as pastor at The Langkou Gospel Hall from 1866-1884. It was during this time that he worked on a translation of the Bible combining the Hakka dialect with Chinese characters.

Piton was initially critical of the lack of missionary zeal of the locals and wrote back to the mission explaining why he was delaying the baptisms of some whom he suspected of having “economic motives.” After he went back to Europe for health reasons, Piton published a book about infanticide in China that was widely ridiculed at the time.

He may not have loved his adopted country, but the church that Piton founded thrives today. After a long and turbulent history that saw it severely damaged during persecutions in the warlord era in 1917 when two foreign pastors were killed and later used as an administrative hall during the Cultural Revolution, the Gospel Hall reopened during the Reform & Opening Up Period. In August 2003, a new church building was opened on neighboring land after a three-year fundraising campaign and the old gospel hall is preserved as a historic building.

Langkou Gospel Hall, snapped in 2013 by Mary Ann O’Donnell

The history of the other churches in Shenzhen, though not as long, tends to be no less colorful. The one in Langkou is not the only one worth visiting to get a sense of local history. A visit to one of these places can dispel the notion that Shenzhen’s history began in 1980 and since then it has all been about skyscrapers, migrant workers and nouveau riche.

The Scottish academic Alastair McIntosh advocated the idea of “digging where we stand,” that is learning as much as we can about the place we are in to gain universal insight. Mathematician Jacob Bronowski wrote in “The Ascent of Man” that if we keep digging what is buried, we won’t find tens of metres of soil, but tens of metres of civilizations. Although this author is not religious, there is something admirably subversive these days about preserving history for its own sake.


The Forgotten Story of…The Canton Fair During The Cultural Revolution

Posted: 05/7/2014 11:00 am

The Canton Fair, which comes twice a year, is known for making Guangzhou even more crowded and chaotic than usual. Taxis are a rarity, restaurants are full, and hotels increase their prices to take advantage of the increased demand. But today’s fairs are sedate compared to those held during the height of China’s red years.

Officially titled The China Import and Export Fair (formerly The Chinese Export Commodities Fair), The Canton Fair came into existence in 1957 to show off the communist country’s economic progress and to earn some foreign currency for Chairman Mao’s regime. At the inaugural fair in the spring of that year, US$1 million worth of business was done and traders from 19 countries and regions were invited.

For decades, the fair continued to be the cornerstone of China’s international trade strategy. A 1973 edition of Cambridge University’s The China Quarterly stated that the fair then accounted for 50% of China’s foreign trade. By 1984, the fair accounted for as much as 20% of the country’s exports. Now, it is just one of many international trade fairs in China, and last year for the first time on recent record, the number of companies with exhibits declined in both the Spring and Autumn sessions compared with a year earlier.

But even though the strategic importance of The Canton Fair has been eroded, it is still essential to the story of China’s economic rise. The most colorful period of its history was during The Cultural Revolution, a time that saw Red Guards trying to topple a statue of Sun Yat-sen, Hong Kong-based foreigners sneaking tomato juice up the Pearl River so they could enjoy Bloody Marys at the fair, and Japanese companies putting “Long Live Chairman Mao” in front of their brand names to impress their host country.

Generating capital under communism

The Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966 when Chairman Mao personally supervised the issuing of the May 16 notification. At that time, the most recent Canton Fair had been the most successful yet, with US$360 million in trade being done. The autumn fair of that year was even bigger, with US$481 million worth of deals being done. Then politics started getting in the way.

Zhou Enlai coming to the rescue in 1967, via Baidu Images

In April 1967, one of several factions of feuding Red Guards raided the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and removed the sign that read “天下为公” which means something close to “All under heaven belongs to the people”. They also used rope to try to topple the statue of Sun. Mao, who cared about the Canton Fair even more than he cared about struggle sessions, issued a notice to the CPC Central Committee, the State Council and the Cultural Revolution Group urging for a trouble free Canton Fair.

In spite of this, the situation became so severe that Prime Minister Zhou Enlai had to fly down to Guangzhou on April 14 to help resolve the situation. The prime minister, who two months earlier had been diagnosed with heart disease and given doctor’s orders to stop working so hard, held a meeting with leading members of the rebel groups and calmly explained that it was their patriotic duty to let the Canton Fair go off without a hitch. Partly because of all this trouble, the fair saw a reduced return of US$418 million worth of deals being done, but things could have been a lot worse if it hadn’t been for Zhou’s intervention.

By the time of the next fair, things were still not under control. In August 1967, over 1,000 armed rebels built a fort and camped outside one of the main exhibition centres, blocking the entrance. Preparatory work for the autumn fair was disrupted and the opening was delayed from November 15th to December 15th.

This caused business to suffer with trade falling to US$406 million. Political unrest also caused the 1969 fairs to post a US$12.8 million decline on the year before.

One of the conference centres for the 1969 fair, via Zhang Hua of Caijing

Even after The Cultural Revolution ended, the fair was not entirely divorced from China’s domestic politics. In October 1976, a month after Chairman Mao’s death, there was a display of products showing the Chinese people’s “initiative and creative power in the struggle to criticize Deng Xiaoping.”

Business As Usual

But overall, the decade from 1966-1976 was a successful one for The Canton Fair with over US$1 billion in business being done for the first time at the Spring fair in 1971 and people from 107 countries and regions attending the 1975 fair.

A key reason for this was the eagerness of foreign traders to pioneer entering China. Americans were allowed to attend for the first time in 1972 after President Richard Nixon’s visit and traders from all over the world would accept political tension and unpleasant living conditions to get a chance to do business with a country that was still in one of the more hermetic phases of its history.

No foreigner was exempt from the customs of the day including “Asking instructions from Mao in the morning and reporting back to Mao in the evening.” The Japanese mostly stayed at the Guangzhou Hotel (广州宾馆) and eyewitness accounts from staff talk of Japanese, eager to be on good terms with their host nation politically, raising their fists and chanting “Long live Chairman Mao” with all the vigour of red guards. What a pity there were no camera phones around to capture this scene.

It was the norm for Japanese companies to put “Long Live Chairman Mao” ahead of their brand names to show that they were model guests, while hotel staff recall helping teach revolutionary songs to Japanese attendees. In 1999, the Japanese Minister for the Promotion of International Trade, who went by the Chinese name of 葛西 (Kasayi), impressed his hosts by showing he could still sing some of the revolutionary Chinese songs he had learned while attending fairs during the good old days.

Back then, it wasn’t just the foreigners who had to go out of their way to give a good impression. There are still remnants of the efforts made under Chairman Mao’s government in the late 1960s to make The Canton Fair successful. After Chinese traders complained of the conditions under which they were forced to greet foreign guests, the Guangzhou Foreign Trade Project was established and given 60 million yuan in subsidies at the orders of Zhou Enlai himself. Projects included the building of a new exhibition centre, the Liuhua Hotel and the Baiyun Hotel.

The Guangzhou Hotel was also built especially for the fair and at 86 metres and 27 floors was the tallest building in China at the time. Even so, plenty of foreign traders were happy to sleep in hotel corridors and write self-criticisms for Red Guards, just so they could get a slice of the action.

Still Bustling

Now Beijing and Shanghai are no longer inaccessible to foreigners. Traders aren’t expected to show allegiance to the communist regime and there are myriad ways in which a foreign company can enter the Chinese market. What purpose does the fair serve now?

In spite of predictions that it would become obsolete after China’s Reform & Opening Up, as the largest scale and most comprehensive business fair in China, it is still one of the best ways to make useful contacts and promote a business in what is set to become the world’s largest economy.

To the naked eye, The Canton Fair seems symbolic of the brave new China of skyscrapers, entrepreneurship and rural-urban migration. But it is the brainchild of a very communist government trying to negotiate an uncertain path through The Cold War-era global economy. It is for the best that nowadays the biggest hardship for most foreign traders is getting a hotel room, but it is hard to imagine it ever again being as exciting as it was during the days when traders had to demonstrate their left wing credentials to have a chance of smashing their competitors.


In Praise of…The Laobaixing

Posted: 04/30/2014 11:00 am

If you live in China, you see these people every day. You see them getting onto the subway before other passengers have had the chance to get off. You see them standing outside their stores clapping to attract attention, even when they’re being drowned out by happy hardcore music. You see them dressing up flamboyantly, convinced that they are fashionistas, even when their hairstyle alone is enough to prevent them from ever being allowed into Milan. You hear them shouting “hello” when they see a foreigner, which some consider to be the height of sophistication.

How is this group of people best defined? The workers? Too communistic. The great unwashed? Not communistic enough. The salt of the earth? We’re here to praise them, not worship them. Let’s settle for “The Laobaixing”.

Literally translated as “The Old 100 Names,” the meaning of Laobaixing is richer and more fluid than any possible English translation. In her book “Dreaming in Chinese,” the closest linguist Deborah Fallows got to finding a definition she was happy with was: “All those who are making the staggering adjustments to survive.”

It appears that China’s government, whose officials are by definition not Laobaixing, has little faith in the Laobaixing’s ability to behave well. Last year Shenzhen rolled out the nation’s first civility laws to crack down on spitting, littering and other uncouth behaviour. Vice Premier Wang Yang called for his compatriots to have a sense of ambassadorial responsibility when abroad as they have gained a reputation for the kind of behaviour that got Chinese tourists barred from one chic hotel in Paris.

Both Wang Yang and the Shenzhen government were probably doing the right thing. Clearly this behaviour is not acceptable and needs to improve, but since we are in the habit of praising things, let’s look at it from a couple of angles.

What is “rudeness” anyway?

In one of the most cringe-worthy China expat-related moments in the history of the internet, an American declares that “Chinese people are rude” while verbally abusing a Chinese girl who is in no position to fight back. This goes to show that the term “rude” is so vague and its definition so subjective that good users of the English language tend not to say it too often, like the words “weird” or “random”.

Let us roughly divide the definition of rude between “obnoxious” and “uncultured.” Obnoxiousness is intentional, for example making a passive aggressive remark at a dinner party. Being uncultured causes people to do inappropriate things because they don’t know any better. The latter is what has been giving Chinese tourists a bad name and what the Shenzhen government is targeting.

One day in Hunan Province in mid-November 2008, I was on my way to lunch when somebody walking in the opposite direction spotted me under my umbrella and said: “Hello.” After walking another 20 yards or so, the stranger turned around and started sprinting towards me. His first words into the back of my ear were: “Hey, I want to make a friend with you. I want you to teach me English.”

Not knowing what to say, I invited him along to lunch where he explained that he was a 20 year-old I.T. student named Benny who “likes foreigners”. He already had two foreign friends and wanted more.

I barely made eye contact for the whole lunch, not because I was annoyed, just because I was sad to know that I could never teach this guy how to talk to anyone. Friendships tend to be based on some form of usefulness, whether we admit it or not. W.H Auden was right, as always, when he said: “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.” Benny approached me because he wanted something – a free English teacher – and he didn’t get it because his approach lacked sophistication.

When I describe Benny’s actions to Chinese people who are sympathetic with the idea that they were inappropriate, they usually explain them by saying: “他的文化水平不高” (His standard of culture is not high). But he was not obnoxious. It’s unlikely he is capable of interpreting a passive aggressive remark at a dinner party, let alone making one.

Why being “cultured” is important but overrated

There is value in being cultured, just as there is value in being handsome, athletic or witty. Appreciating the arts does not make us morally better, but it makes us more thoughtful and complex.

Benny had obviously never given serious thought to the Lu Xun quote that says “The problem with our relations with foreigners is that we never look at them as equals, we always either look up to them as emperors or look down on them as animals.” If he had, he would have understood what is wrong with throwing himself at every foreign-looking person he sees.

To become more cultured, members of the Laobaixing need the chance to embrace more difficult works of art, not because Oliver Stone is as awesome as he thinks he is, but because public discourse needs to be more nuanced. As China gets ready to ascend to the status of largest economy in the world, it faces a set of internal problems that seem intractable and needs a sophisticated citizenry to have a chance of overcoming these problems.

However, it is very dangerous to suggest that being uncultured somehow makes somebody inferior. To Hitler, whose program of arts subsidy was one of the largest in the history of civilisation, what was good about art was that it “raised (people) above the petty cares of the moment and shows them that, after all, their individual woes are not of such great importance.” John Carey, author of “What Good Are the Arts?” believes that Hitler’s veneration of the arts wasn’t just a side issue, but the force that shaped and nourished his inhumanity.

Members of the Laobaixing should by all means learn their Shakespeare and their Mozart. But if somebody is an immoral person to begin with, the chances that doing this will make them any less so are low.

Only as messed up as it is

In “Chinese Lessons,” John Pomfret recalls hearing first-hand accounts of the Cultural Revolution from his Chinese friends. In one case, a boy was forced to witness the murder of his own father and help carry the severed remains through the streets, accompanied by his brothers. This boy is now a middle-aged man with a successful career.

Well within living memory, China went through what JG Ballard described as “the brain death of a nation,” in which many of the things that defined China as a great civilization were deliberately desecrated. And it’s not as if everything was rosy before then.

Literary translator Brendan O’Kane said in his final interview before leaving Beijing last year that he appreciated that, considering what China had been through over the past century, credit is due for things being only as messed up as they are. So next time an uncultured person shouts “hello” at you, just remember that it’s not so long since much worse things were being shouted at foreigners.


PRD People: Transport Planner and Shenzhen Stalwart Mike Clark

Posted: 04/23/2014 11:00 am

If you had worked and been successful in London, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Haven, Connecticut, where would you choose to live? Englishman Mike Clark, 67, one of the world’s leading transport planners, has done all those things and decided that Shenzhen is the place where he wants to spend the rest of his life.

Mike Clark in Yunnan, image via Shenzhen Stuff

Clark has been a transport planner since shortly after he graduated from Bristol University in 1968 with a degree in Pure Mathematics. His career, which has also taken him to Algeria and Bolivia, saw him become one of the most sought after transport planners in the world in the 1990s, when he lived in Hong Kong.

Clark is also a well known character in Shenzhen who is known for – among other things – well-attended annual birthday parties, coining the term “YCG” (Young Chinese Girl), and having a cross-dressing alter-ego named Meimei (more on that later). This week, he took the time to talk to The Nanfang about Shenzhen, transport, ageism, and the impossibility of reintegrating after being an expat for so long.

A career in transport

Transport planning is the first stage of developing major infrastructure projects such as highways, railways, ports, and airports before or in parallel to the engineers, land use planners, economists, and other experts. He started out as a transport modeller in London before moving to Hong Kong in 1973 for his first particularly well-paid job.

“A transport model is a set of relationships which allow transport demand to be forecast from sets of input data including transport supply, socio-economic data, what are the costs of transport by various means of travel, and what transport policies are in place,” he explained to The Nanfang.

Clark left Hong Kong for Algeria in 1976 but would return several times in the eighties, most permanently in 1988 when his employer won a project called the Port and Airport Development Strategy [PADS] for the Hong Kong Strategic Planning Unit. The next decade would prove to be the most colourful period of his career.

“The project looked at ways of relocating Hong Kong’s port and airport and the necessary infrastructure and land use plans to go with those relocations. It was a very high-profile project with steering committees up to the Chief Secretary’s, and presentations to Hong Kong’s parliament, so I got a lot of exposure at the highest level,” he told The Nanfang.

Moreover, many of the government people he had worked with in the 70s and early 80s had progressed to very senior positions in the Transport Department and Transport Bureau. They knew, liked and trusted him. “As a result, our company won most of the important projects during the 90s, including Updating of the Second Comprehensive Transport Study, Electronic Road Pricing Study, Third Comprehensive Transport Study, North Lantau Development Study, and Hong Kong Airport Terminal Design,” Clark said. The common factor in all these studies was Mr. Mike Clark, so if somebody, somewhere had a transport question they would call him.

Life in Shenzhen

Despite having retired in 1999, he came to work in Shenzhen in 2003 when the consultancy he had worked for won a project called The Shenzhen Comprehensive Transport Study. He has since made a life for himself in Shenzhen. “Shenzhen suits me well now given what I want from my life, but wouldn’t have suited me in other stages. I wouldn’t want to be raising a family here for example,” said Clark.

One reason he cites for preferring Shenzhen to Hong Kong or the U.K. at this stage of life is the relative lack of ageism. “I know that I am old because I have a calendar, but I don’t want to do the things that old people are supposed to do in the UK. The western world is ageist in a way that China is not,” he opined.

His belief on the subject can perhaps best be summed up by two quotes on his Shenzhen Stuff page: “It’s not getting old that stops you doing things, it’s stopping doing things that makes you get old.” and “Honestly, I often think that it would be good to act my age, but it is so difficult.”

Enjoying the freedom of not having to act his age has led to some memorable moments in Shenzhen, many of which have involved his cross-dressing alter ego Meimei. “At fancy dress parties I usually wore a female costume from university days onwards,” he told The Nanfang when explaining how the character originated in 2009.

He discovered he could get a qipao made for 250 RMB shortly before his young adult daughters came to visit from England. “I think it’s part of a father’s duty to embarrass his daughters,” he explained.

But the most important thing keeping him in Shenzhen, along with the ease of travel for residents of the city, is the people he knows. “I can act as I wish with the friends, restaurant staff, people I meet on the metro, other expats cut adrift from their roots, whatever,” he said. His birthday parties, which are held in Huaqiangbei every December, are among the most popular annual events in Shenzhen’s English-speaking community.

Eternal expat

Although he still spends a good chunk of every year in Worcestershire, England, he is convinced that he will never be able to fit in again in his home country. Having worked overseas since 1973, he initially tried to stay in touch with school and university friends, but their lives have taken different paths. “Our life experiences and expectations were so different that we gradually lost common ground to support our friendship. My friends became more and more my colleagues and those people I met overseas,” he said.

Continuing on the subject of ageism, he claimed that in the U.K. there is a separation between young people places and activities and old people places and activities. “I was clearly part of the old people, but wasn’t interested in doing old people things. I found it almost impossible to make friends with young people and wasn’t accepted in their places,” he said.

Comparing the strong friendships he has in Shenzhen with the dull conversations about cars and gardens that he is forced to have when in England, Clark – who has just received a three year visa – is in no doubt that he prefers life in the Pearl River Delta to England: “Maybe I’ll go back there to die, but that’s what it would be.”


In praise of…The Mandarin bum

Posted: 04/16/2014 11:00 am

There is Phil from the United States who has the very Chinese affliction of clinking glasses with you every time he takes a sip of booze, which is alarmingly frequent. There is Barry from South Africa who is a black belt in several martial arts and has his hair done up in a Qing Dynasty-style queue. There is also Sam from Canada who came to China in 1999 and for most of the next 14 years would work in Shenzhen without the right visa.

These men have two things in common. They speak fluent Mandarin and they are not professionals. They are examples of what is known in some circles as “The Mandarin bum”. They have spent the bulk of their working lives in the notoriously unstable position of teaching English in China. They are the antithesis of those on corporate packages who live in an “expat bubble”.

Do these English teachers warrant the label of “loser” that is often attached to expats who fail to carve out a professional career? Well, the “loser” is a concept that is particular to modern urban culture in which the value of a person is measured not by what they bring to the local community, but by the amount of wealth and status they acquire. By this measure, the migrant workers on whose labour China’s economic miracle has been built are also losers.

More important than usefulness

Novelist Alan Garner said in his book of lectures and essays “The Voice That Thunders” that nowadays we learn languages for the wrong reasons. We learn German not to see into the heart of Goethe, but to book a hotel room in Berlin.

Poet Matthew Arnold, who was the son of a headmaster of the famous Rugby School, said education should be about studying the best things that have ever been written and said. He lived in Britain during a time when elite education revolved around Latin and Ancient Greek. This also happens to be the time when Britain ruled the world, but that’s beside the point.

There are plenty of reasons why learning Mandarin makes you a smarter and more interesting person. Reading Chinese aloud activates far more widespread networks of the right hemisphere of the brain than English, probably because of the subtlety of both visual and tonal demands by Chinese, according to Ian McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.”

The pictorial writing system means the language wears its etymology on its sleeve in a way European languages don’t. For example, the character for man – “男” is a picture of an east-Asian field on top of a sickle, which is a symbol of strength. This most likely symbolizes the belief that the societal role of men is to offer strength in the field. The character for woman – “女” appears to be a picture of a demure woman curtsying or crossing her legs. The language is misogynistic as hell, but at least it lets you know.

Moreover, mastery of this language gives learners access to one of the world’s great cultures. It is the culture of the four great novels, Tang Dynasty poetry, The Tao Te Ching, and great scholars of more recent history such as Hu Shi and Lin Yutang.

It is also the culture that gave us the Sui Dynasty poem that goes “In books there is always a golden house. In books, there is always a beautiful woman.” Admittedly, just about every graduate in China is learning that real life is not poetry and it takes more than book smarts to earn enough to buy any house, let alone a golden one. But education is, lest we forget, about learning the greatest things that have ever been written and said.

Why Mandarin is probably not that useful

Will Mandarin ever be a global language? Going to Yangshuo and listening to Russian tourists communicate with Chinese locals in broken English is a reminder that it will take some time before English is supplanted as the lingua franca. In fact, a study by French investment bank Natixis last month concluded that French could be the most spoken language in the world by 2050, leaving both English and Mandarin lagging.

Maybe East Asian languages just weren’t meant to go global. According to linguist Claude Hagege, writing developed in Europe and the Middle East for the purpose of controlling crops, herds, and people. Writing in China did not appear to develop with the same ominous, utilitarian agenda. “The origin of Chinese writing appears to have been magicoreligious and divinatory rather than economic and mercantile,” writes Hagege.

When I met a fellow of the Institute for Translation and Interpreting (ITI) last year, he told me that the Japanese military didn’t bother encoding much of its most sensitive information during World War 2, so confident were they that no foreign devil would ever understand. Japan’s post-war economic rise certainly didn’t lead to the language taking over Yangshuo.

For this reason, becoming fluent in one of these languages is no guarantee that you will get a decent job. As a member of the ITI, I am technically a professional Mandarin translator, but I am neither rich nor powerful. Still, I’m one of the lucky ones. Phil, who we met in the first paragraph, is also fluent in Cantonese but cannot return to Hong Kong because of the six-figure credit card debt he amassed when he lived there.

Escape routes from Mandarin bum status

The Mandarin bum exists, but this article is by no means suggesting that learning Mandarin while working as an English teacher is a dead end. Matt Schiavenza, a senior associate editor at The Atlantic was an English teacher. After attaining an advanced qualification in spoken Mandarin and written Chinese at Kunming College of Eastern Languages in 2008, he (and this is the really important part!) then developed related professional skills that would help him stand out in the job market.

Being a trained journalist is good, being a trained journalist who is fluent in Mandarin is better. Learning English is nothing short of a national obsession in China, so as well as mastering this language, students of it need to think about how they will set themselves apart from hundreds of millions of fellow Mandarin speakers in the job market, but only if that’s what they want.

Expats who manage to go from being backpacker English teachers to professionals deserve lots of credit. But climbing a career ladder is only one of many reasons to learn a foreign language. As the English teacher in the Alan Bennett play and 2006 movie “The History Boys” tells his students: “All knowledge is precious, whether or not it serves the slightest human use.”

And if that notion is corny, then corn me up.


PRD People: International school teacher and author Sarah Li Cain

Posted: 04/9/2014 1:00 pm

John Steinbeck once said that great teachers were as rare as great writers, but Shenzhen-based Canadian Sarah Li Cain has managed to carve out decent careers doing each. As well as teaching grades two and three at the Shenzhen American International School, Sarah has a web content writing business that has led to considerable exposure and more clients than she can even handle.

Sarah Li Cain, via Google Images

Since graduating with a degree in English and Visual Arts Education at York University in Toronto, Sarah’s career has taken her to Australia, the United States, and Hong Kong. She was working in Seoul when she accepted her job in Shenzhen, where she now lives with her husband in Shekou.

Sarah kindly took the time to talk to The Nanfang about living, teaching and writing in Shenzhen.

International school teacher

Sarah’s teaching is all based on the common core standards found in the US, focusing on project-based learning. Her students are currently creating a website for tourists of their own age coming to Shenzhen.

Trained as a high school teacher, this is different to what Sarah is used to, but she enjoys the challenge. “Basically, kids learn about problems in the real world and through self-discovery and guided inquiry, solve that problem,” she told The Nanfang.

Since taking this job, Sarah seems to have come to agree with what Aldous Huxley said about the child-like man. As any teacher knows, working with kids is not for everybody, but Sarah just about manages it. “When I first arrived, I was really scared about teaching little kids, and thought I had no idea what to do. It has turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Little kids have a lot to teach adults about life,” said Sarah.

Much of her writing focuses on overcoming fear, and Sarah had to overcome two fears in Shenzhen. The first was a lack of Mandarin: “I spoke a little bit of Cantonese when I arrived, and now I can at least carry a simple conversation in Mandarin if I need to.” The second was a lack of experience with children, but she quickly overcame that: “The children I teach are some of the funniest and genuine people I’ve met.”

Running a web content business

When she is not teaching, Sarah blogs for a wide variety of clients. “I guess you could say it’s self help. I mean I write about my experiences and how to reclaim your fearlessness, and people have told me about how they’ve taken some of my advice,” she says of her writing style.

One of her best known pieces is one in Life Hack published in November 2013 titled “Don’t go into marriage if you haven’t done these things.” The piece gives a list of 20 experiences and abilities one needs to have before getting married. It has been shared over 6,400 times on social media so has obviously pushed the right buttons with a lot of people.

Another, titled “Practical ways to use unemployment to your advantage,” was syndicated by Chicago Tribune and AOL jobs. The piece puts a positive spin on the situation of long-term unemployment faced by so many in Europe and North America since the global financial crisis of 2008.

This business has opened doors both personally and professionally. “I’ve met quite a few writers how have shared their stories with me, and it really helps when I get frustrated with work or my business. Through blogging people have also recommended me resources or books which have helped me immensely in my professional life, and I’ve gotten more clients that I can handle at the moment,” said Sarah.

Bringing it all together

To some expatriates, everything they do is a side project. But some are lucky enough to have their various projects feed into each other. “Teaching definitely feeds into entrepreneurship! If you think about it, you’re left alone with a group of kids with some resources and are working towards making them successful. It’s a lot of trial and error. I feel like that’s been the same with my business,” Sarah told The Nanfang.

These twin passions for teaching and entrepreneurship could yet lead to more projects. “Just the other day I was talking to a programmer and I was mentioning how I’d love to create an educational app one day. He’s showing me a couple of things now. I’ve been asking my students a lot of questions about what they like, and what they want to learn, so maybe I can use that as part of my market research,” said Cain, suggesting a possible future project.

For now, Sarah will continue building on her body of work about subjects such as travel and yoga, growing and hopefully helping others grow along the way.


In Praise of…Teaching English in China

Posted: 04/2/2014 10:05 am

While the Chinese word for teacher “老师” (laoshi) is an antiquated term full of respectful connotations, the word for foreign teacher “外教” (waijiao) is a recent addition to the language. This little piece of linguistic apartheid says much about what website Middle Kingdom Life (MKL) called the “de-professionalised” status most expats have when they come to China to teach.

Such blogs as Beijing Kids, Chinasmack, and Shards of China have all discussed the problem of unqualified foreigners working as English teachers due to poor quality control. So lax is the regulation and so great the demand for white faces to teach English that it emerged last year that two foreigners linked to child sex scandals in their home countries had been teaching in China for years.

Those are extreme examples, yet beg the question why so many people travel so far to take such an oft-criticised job? Firstly, in being relatively low on status and pay and relatively high on work/life balance, it is the opposite of more traditional careers and involves advantages that they don’t.

The opposite of investment banking

Because the pressure to excel tends not to be high, the amount of free time provided enables foreign teachers to pursue hobbies and side projects with the kind of dedication that wouldn’t be possible for people with more demanding jobs.

Plenty of foreign teachers have done interesting, worthwhile things such as travel and voluntary work, one prime example is Guangzhou’s own Albert Wolfe. Plenty of others have used the time to learn valuable skills like Mandarin that have boosted their employability and led to successful careers, not to mention giving them more stories to tell than a person who had a more conventional career trajectory.

But all this talk about self-improvement takes away from something even more fundamental – job satisfaction. Although decidedly falling down on the negative side of the fence, MKL acknowledges that the job can be hugely rewarding. “Those who have a healthy degree of self-esteem to begin with — and do not require recognition and approval from their superiors — are able to find enormous satisfaction from the appreciation of their students and so they stay year after year,” one of the site’s editors writes.

For me, keeping in touch with students, some of whom I haven’t seen since 2007, has been the most helpful way of learning about China and the unique path it is on. For New Yorker correspondent Peter Hessler, it provided the bulk of the material for his second book, “Oracle Bones.”

The dead-end question

Since moving to China I have come to dislike the Eagles song “Hotel California.” This is partly because of its ubiquitousness and partly because the line “You can never leave” is an unwanted reminder of the situation of so many expats, particularly teachers.

Investment bankers do have to work hard, but once they’ve established themselves, the pay does increase and the hours do decrease. The lack of room for career advancement and sparsity of opportunities to lay down roots is a worrying thing for English teachers in the middle kingdom.

But school teachers and career advisers often neglect to mention that some people just weren’t meant to have a normal life. As Scottish academic Alastair MacIntosh wrote in his memoir/polemic “Soil and Soul,” the mainstream manufactures people as a monoculture. “It turns us out like cloned rows of apple trees on pesticide-manicured fields. The mainstream ‘trains’ people by pruning. It forces growth in standardised ways. The song that we sing from within the mainstream is thereby not our own song,” hymns Macintosh.

The song I find captures the spirit of people coming to China to teach English in a much more pleasing way is that sung by Tex Ritter for the 1956 Western “The Searchers.” I particularly like the way it begins by asking “What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam?” then declines to answer its own questions, simply howling “ride away” in the chorus.

Why it’s right for some people

One of the tools that education is supposed to provide is the knowledge that there are myriad ways of finding meaning and identity in the world. Even some career teachers may find teaching English in China to be right for them as it simply involves teaching. It is very rare for a foreign teacher in China to have to deal with parents nights or office politics, as there are few office hours and extremely high turnover anyway.

This blog post “How to Find Your Dream Job” offers a viewpoint that the English teacher-bashers might find repulsive but many English teachers might relate to. “You won’t get promoted, which is a good thing. Promotion means more responsibility, more out-of-work stress. It also means more money, but you’ll end up spending most of that on travel, junk food (you’ll have less and less free time to prepare real food), medicine for when you get ill from junk food or increased stress, and entertainment and drugs to numb the emptiness that defines how you earn your food tokens,” argues Dan Bartlett.

And lastly, as one English teacher stated on a Shenzhen forum in 2011, if you disrespect teachers all that much, there’s a period of China’s history in which you would have fit right in.

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