The Nanfang / Blog

PRD People: Musician and Expat Website Troll The Fred Fong

Posted: 09/5/2014 5:46 pm

Since January when the Nanfang posted his song “Super English Teacher,” The Fred (who also posts under the name of “Fred Fong”) has been one the best known trolls in the China-watching blogosphere. He is mostly known for his cheeky songs that rag on aspects of life in China (mostly foreign English teachers) and his provocative comments on websites such as Shanghaiist, Chinasmack and the Asia Stuff Media websites where he has been a fixture for years.

This is him

He has kindly taken the time to talk to The Nanfang about his career in business, life as a musician in China, why he considers himself superior to English teachers and how he is a “compulsive masturbator.”

The Nanfang: You are a regular in the comments sections of most major English-language websites that focus on China, known as both The Fred and The Fred Fong. You are quite a mysterious man, tell us about yourself.

The Fred: I’ve been coming to China since 1995 and find it fascinating. I’m very inquisitive about Chinese culture and history. Since selling my business in America in 2006, I’ve lived full time in China.

Having a challenge in life is important to me and trying to understand the Chinese puzzle is a challenge because several of the pieces are missing. I’ve started a couple of businesses here and recently sold one of them. I’ve always been self-employed and enjoy a challenge. Now I can relax a bit and write music until another opportunity comes along.

The Nanfang: You’re a long-term China expat, what’s Shenzhen got going for it?

The Fred: I travel between Shenzhen and Shanghai. All cities have their advantages and disadvantages. I’m comfortable and can enjoy myself wherever I happen to be at the time.

The Nanfang: Is Shenzhen’s live music scene any good? If not, why do you choose to live there?

The Fred: I play live music throughout China and the biggest problems is finding capable musicians to write and collaborate with. The other problem is finding venues that encourage original music.

I enjoy playing improvisational jazz/rock or “world” music as some people call it. A majority of the foreigners that come to China that are musicians aren’t very talented and can only play cover/copy music. A majority of Chinese don’t have any sense of rhythm and can’t play impov music because it means you must play spontaneous and creatively in an unstructered yet structured format.

Improvisation is the most satisfying form of live music and when you have capable musicians communicating and interacting together it becomes magical and very satisfying.

The Nanfang: You are something of a China basher in many of your comments.

The Fred: There is no “good or bad” place to live in my opinion. I can adapt to just about any environment, but China is stimulating. China inspires and confuses me daily and I’m pushed to respond to life experiences in some type of expressive way. If people find my comments offensive I apologize. My comments are made for the purpose of provoking thought and debate. Same with my music. Cover-band music and boring comments are not my cup of tea

The Nanfang: You have at least four songs that bash English teachers. Are they the real villains of today’s society?

The Fred: Not really villains, just easy targets. It’s the only group I can insult and joke about without being accused of being a racist or hating women. Its fun to laugh at those that are low on the social and mental spectrum.

The Nanfang: You repeatedly mock English teachers as not being very clean living (e.g. frequenting brothels), are you superior on this count?

The Fred: Yes…I am superior to your average foreign English teacher in China. Generally speaking, most non-English teachers are far superior to your average unqualified, low IQ foreign English teacher that stumbled into China.

The Fred with his guitar

The Nanfang: Do you intend to turn your attention to some other things in China that ought to be satirized?

The Fred: I’m a fan of common sense and when I see irony or a lack of common sense my mind takes note and before I know it a song is written. I can’t write about love or little apples. Common things are quickly deleted from my thoughts. My Songs about English teachers also subtly comment on how Chinese are willing to pay a foreigner that has never taught before a salary far higher than what a qualified Chinese person would get. Chinese not respecting their fellow Chinese is very disturbing to me and it manifests itself through the English teacher scenario…kapow! A new song is written.

The Nanfang: Some of your most popular songs are just flat out silly rather than satirical (“Big Chinese Dick”, “Boycott Bukkake”, etc…). Are you at heart an angry social critic or just an impish jokester?

The Fred: I’m willing to admit something that most artists aren’t willing to admit. I’m a compulsive masturbator…in an artistic sense. I write and record music and make videos for my own selfish enjoyment. For whatever reason…I guess…I’m a big jackoff…and no one can stop me.

The Fred’s latest song, “English Teacher Autopsy”, can be heard here.


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.


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.”


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.


PRD People: Guangzhou-based singer and TV personality Hazza

Posted: 03/12/2014 11:00 am

Of the handful of Westerners who have taken to singing Mandopop songs as a method for learning Chinese and reaching out to their host country, one of the best known is the Guangzhou-based television personality Hazza Harding.

Hazza in the music video for his original song “Let Go,” via Google Images

Hazza, 23, became an online celebrity in 2010 for singing covers of Mandarin pop songs while still a student back in his native Australia. He was subsequently offered a job in television in Guangzhou where he still lives, currently presenting the chat show Face Time.

Singing in Chinese

Hazza first became interested in China when he travelled to Beijing on a school trip in grade 7, but it wasn’t until he heard one of Jay Chou’s songs that he started to become fascinated by Chinese culture. “I bought Jay Chou’s ‘November Chopin’ at a dingy CD store in Chinatown back in Brisbane – best $15 I ever spent. I have listened to that album hundreds of times, the CD is all scratched up now,” Hazza told The Nanfang.

Singing in Chinese became a big part of his life while studying the language at university and it is what gave him his first taste of celebrity, making his current career possible: “Now looking back, learning Chinese songs wasn’t the best way of learning Mandarin (probably evidenced by my exam marks) but I guess I wouldn’t be doing what I am now if I hadn’t taken this approach,” said Hazza.

Serendipitously, the earliest videos of him singing in Chinese coincided with the rise of Sina Weibo in 2010. “At first I just uploaded a few videos to share with some of my Chinese friends from university, and all of a sudden they were re-tweeted a few hundred times. I guess this encouraged me to keep going,” he said.

Passion for Mandopop

Even though he acknowledges that a few million hits to his videos might not count for much in a country of over a billion people, he is proud that his videos have received a combined total of more than 12 million hits, half the population of Australia. His most popular video with several million hits has been his cover of Jay Chou’s “Nocturne,” the song which happens to be the one that got him interested in Mandopop all those years ago.

“Obviously I love (Mandopop), otherwise I wouldn’t be trying to make it! Some people think that Chinese songs are too ‘soppy,’ and sometimes I would have to agree, but there’s something about the sound that I really like and that attracts me,” he said, echoing some points made by The Nanfang last month.

He also writes his own songs in Chinese. “I released a single, ‘Let Go,’ that was on the ‘Guangzhou New Music Charts’ last year, and am currently working on my next single – it will be released in a couple of months. I hope that I have stayed true to the genre whilst adding my own individual touches at the same time,” Hazza told The Nanfang. Here is the video of Hazza’s original song “Let Go”:

Television work in Guangzhou

His online celebrity helped him land an interview for a job with Guangdong Television where he has been employed as a television presenter since early 2012. The job enables him to meet all kinds of interesting people while travelling around the country.

“Of course I enjoy interviewing models, despite the fact that they make me a little nervous. But by far, my favourite episode was when I interviewed my Chinese teacher from Australia who was here for a holiday,” he said, describing the moment as “surreal”. Other highlights of his time working for Guangdong Television include going backstage at a Wilber Pan concert and being put up in hotels that are way beyond the price range of most expats.

Despite having a relatively glamorous job, Hazza does not get out much in Guangzhou. “When I’m not at work, I’m at home sleeping (that’s my number one hobby) or learning new songs,” he said, adding “I would LOVE to meet some Australians who are in Guangzhou though, because I really miss my friends from home sometimes.”

As for the future, Hazza is happy to keep doing what he’s doing with his singing and his media work. “To be honest, I know I still have a LOT to learn when it comes to hosting and singing but I do put 100% into what I do because I know the chances that I have got are very hard to come by.”


PRD People: Albert Wolfe, Laowai Chinese founder, blogger and author

Posted: 02/26/2014 10:00 am

When Albert Wolfe first came to China in 2005, there weren’t many resources with which a foreigner could learn Chinese and few people were blogging about it. Now Wolfe, 32, runs Laowai Chinese, one of the most respected Mandarin education blogs around. This is one of many interesting and rewarding side projects he is able to work on while employed as a teacher at Peizheng College in Guangzhou’s Huadu District.

Albert Wolfe, image courtesy of Baidu

Wolfe came to Guangzhou in 2007 after spending a year in Nanchang followed by a year in Kunming. Since coming to the Pearl River Delta he has published a non-fiction book, written a novel and written several dozen songs in both English and Chinese, some of which have been played on local radio.

Tackling China and Chinese

After taking a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, Wolfe got his TESOL certificate and chose to come to China. “I wanted to learn Chinese. There was something alluring about the Chinese language,” he told The Nanfang. Wolfe added that he found the Chinese graduate students he knew to be very friendly and gave two main reasons why he wanted to tackle this language:

“Number one, (with Chinese) I could communicate with a huge amount of people. Number two, Chinese has a reputation for being so hard, I just wanted to see if I could do it,” said Wolfe.

When he arrived, there was one particular source of dissatisfaction – a shortage of resources with which to learn the language. “Learning to read from scratch, there were things my friends and I couldn’t find an explanation for.”

This frustration was part of the reason why he founded Laowai Chinese. “I put it out there for other people to benefit from,” Wolfe explained.

The blog has proved popular, useful and opened doors both socially and professionally for Wolfe. He has taught beginner Chinese classes for foreign teachers at his college which employs 65 (yes, 65!) foreign teachers.

Plus, Wolfe’s first book Chinese 24/7: Everyday Strategies for Speaking and Learning Mandarin, published in 2009, was made possible by the blog. Just a few months after he founded the blog at the beginning of his second year in China, a publisher approached him asking him to write the book.

Writing books and songs for publication

This was not to be Wolfe’s last book. Writing has inadvertently become a big part of his China experience. “I never thought I’d be a writer. I didn’t come to China with that in mind, just something I got into as a result of being here,” he told The Nanfang.

After Chinese 24/7 was published by Stone Bridge Press, Wolfe joined a writer’s group with two colleagues at the college in which they would write something and meet every week to read it out. After the first chapter of a sci-fi novel that Wolfe was writing went down well, he decided to persist with it. The work that Wolfe read out at these weekly gatherings became “Faceless,” a novel Wolfe says portrays “The worst case scenario for social networks.”

Wolfe’s next book has the working title of “The Great China Quest.” It is about a trip across China made with colleague Adrian Winter in 2010 without flying and with 15 Scavenger Hunt challenges to complete. Here is a brief description from the website:

With only the starting and ending points decided, and a time limit of just 30 days (July 29 to August 27, 2010), The Great China Quest is the story of our journey to cover the 2,000 miles from Urumqi to Guangzhou (without flying) while attempting to tackle 15 scavenger-hunt challenges that our Chinese students have dared us to complete (see The Rules).

“That’ll be a really fun book,” Wolfe told The Nanfang. As well as the story itself which is compelling enough, it is full of side anecdotes about the two men’s combined 15 years in China. Some of the best China books about what life is actually like here are memoirs (think “Mr. China,” “River Town,” etc. rather than more scholarly works).

Aside from the books, Wolfe has also used his spare time in China to get into the habit of making music. He has published two albums of English songs and two albums of Chinese songs for free on his website. His Chinese songs have been played on local radio. The comments are overwhelmingly positive but with characteristic self-deprecation Wolfe told The Nanfang: “People tend not to complain when a product is free.”

A teacher at heart

In spite of all the time he spends on these activities, he describes them all as nothing more than just hobbies. “I really feel like a teacher at heart,” he said.

To Wolfe, his job at Peizheng College is an “excellent” gig for people who have a large number of side projects. He describes the college as being “special” and having a “very supportive faculty.”

He teaches English, music and Chinese at the college and writes intelligently about the process on his blog. As many other Laowais have learned, language-teaching and language-learning are highly conducive to each other.

Having said that, the hobbies are a huge part of what keeps him at Peizheng College, where he is staying indefinitely. “The ones who stay are the ones who find some meaning here.” Indeed.


PRD People: Translator and pop culture expert Christine Ni

Posted: 01/30/2014 10:00 am

Christine Ni is a writer, translator and speaker on Chinese traditional and pop culture. Born in Guangzhou, she moved to London in 1993 when she was 11 years old. Now she lives between the two worlds and describes Chinese culture as “both very different and very similar to your own.”

Since 2008, she has been giving talks on Chinese tea culture, animation, punk music, classical literature and cuisine at festivals around the UK. She is currently working on a collection of manhua, a form of Chinese comic book.

Her blog “Snow Pavilion” (a literal translation of her Chinese name) covers developments in Chinese arts and sets out her intent of creating understanding between China and the West.

Promoting Chinese culture

Having studied English at Queen Mary’s University London and classical Chinese literature as a post-graduate at Beijing’s Central University of Nationalities, Ni would habitually attend pop culture conventions, usually around music or animation. At these conventions, she seldom saw her own culture being represented.

“I would hear a talk about Osamu Tezuka, godfather of Japanese manga, with absolutely no mention that he found so much inspiration from Wan Laiming,” Ni told The Nanfang. Wan Laiming (1900-1997) was the director of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. He was one of the most important pioneers of animation of the 20th century but is barely known in the West.

“There are a lot of bad new stories about China and on the whole we’re not so good at promoting the good things that are happening, or even understanding what the good things are,” Ni added. With support from her friends, she decided to devote her free time to promoting little known areas of contemporary Chinese culture, such as its punk music scene. “My Peking Into Punk Talk is always very well attended and I’m currently working with a film maker on a documentary on China’s underground music.”

“Yes, as China becomes more successful, the West will become increasingly less dismissive. I think the desire to understand China, not just to fear it, will grow.”

Attachment to the PRD

As well as it being the place of her birth, Ni cites two main reasons why the PRD is an interesting place. “Firstly, it is the area that the West first encountered and secondly, it is relatively free from government control,” she told The Nanfang.

Although the first reason explains why Cantonese culture has informed how the West views China, Ni thinks that internally, it is not quite recognised how distinct Cantonese culture is. “Whilst northern Han culture is seen as the main high culture, and the Miao, Zhuang and Yi are held up to show our internal ethnic diversity, I think Cantonese culture sort of gets lost in the middle.”

Ni talks with fondness about her time in Guangzhou. When asked what her favourite location in the city is, she couldn’t decide between the Yuexiu park district and the area around Haizhu Square.

Her best memories of growing up in Guangzhou include the flower market (which is going on right now), and meandering through the streets of the old city. The worst memory? “One Spring Festival when leaving Guangzhou, we decided to take the ferry back to Hong Kong. I was detained at length by the borders guards who took away my passport. Whilst everything was in order, but they simply couldn’t believe that somebody who had “made it out” would still want to travel by boat.”

Living between two worlds

Although those border officials described emigrating as “making it out,” she is far from finished with China. “I feel both foreign and at home everywhere. It’s quite upsetting how England is becoming more xenophobic,” she said, citing the “pointed looks” she gets from employees of the UK Border Agency. A YouGov poll a year ago found that only 11 percent of Britons agreed that immigration had been good for the country compared to 67 percent who viewed it as bad.

Supporting herself with a day job in publishing, she gives her time to projects that may otherwise not find support or funding. To her, the most likely art form to have crossover appeal is film. “There’s a reason why Run Run Shaw was given a CBE,” she says.

China also has cultural industries with latent potential. “The Chinese have yet to really take pride in their computer game and animation industries, even though in the West, that is increasingly where the money is,” according to Ni.

But as for publishing, the English Lit graduate thinks there is still a long way to go in Western publishers dealing with Chinese books. “Whilst there are some great Chinese authors, Western publishers tend to only pick very worthy titles.” If you’d like to learn what Chinese fiction and poetry was published in English during 2013, see here.

Another problem is finding translators who are up to the job. “There are very few translators who’ve got a good enough grasp of both cultures to really convey the author’s meaning. Some of the best fiction coming out of China still seems as unpalatable to Western distributors as thousand year old eggs or snake wine,” Ni told The Nanfang.

But who knows, maybe some day there will be enough Christine Nis in the world for there to be a genuine movement.


PRD People: Stephen Merchant, tech professional and singer-songwriter

Posted: 01/9/2014 10:00 am

Shenzhen is well known for offering numerous opportunities to tech professionals. This is what first brought American Stephen Merchant out here. But it is one of Shenzhen’s lesser known qualities that has helped Merchant really stand out in the city – its live music scene.

Stephen Merchant performing in La Casa, via Google Images

An operations manager at Amazon and a former employee of Apple, Merchant has had career success and started a family since moving to Shenzhen in April 2009. But what he is most known for in the expat community is his singing, songwriting, and contribution to the city’s music culture.

He kindly took time to talk to The Nanfang about his life in the PRD.

Coming to China

While with Apple in California from 2007 to 2009, Merchant helped successfully launch the 4th Generation “iPod nano” and 7th Generation “iPod classic” product lines as well as the 6th Generation “iPod classic” product line. He was initially brought to China by work but it was meeting a woman that led him to move out here.

“I would be sent to Shanghai 10 days a month and that is where I met (my wife) Rita.”

They were in a distance relationship until April 2009 when he moved out to Shenzhen and they both worked in a start-up for a year.

Merchant’s professional career took him to Amazon, for whom he manages manufacturing operations for the Kindle Fire tablet. For this job, he moved out to Shanghai in April 2011 to be put in charge of manufacturing operations. He then returned to Shenzhen in April last year to oversee engineering operations.

Having formed so many friendships in Shenzhen, Merchant was glad to be back. Moreover, of particular importance to Merchant, Shenzhen has what he calls “a way more vibrant live music scene than Shanghai.”

Having described Shenzhen as “certainly the music capital of China,” Merchant states that, despite having a much smaller population than Shanghai, there are many opportunities for musicians to perform live. He told The Nanfang that this may be because the make-up of the expat community is very different. “In Shanghai, there’s a smaller proportion of English teachers, and the expats are mostly older and at executive level.”

Making music

When Merchant released his 2011 debut album “Just One More Day,” he wrote on his website: “A few years ago music was not a large part of my life and at that time I had no idea how much of a role it would play in my future.”

Merchant’s initial spell of living in Shenzhen coincided with the rise of the La Casa open mic night. Now held on Sunday nights at 10 p.m., the open mic nights are an institution in the expat community, even though La Casa has been encircled by much bigger and noisier competitors since it opened in early 2009.

Much has been written about the La Casa event and the format has proved so popular that there is now one almost every night in Shenzhen. Merchant is one of the best known performers in town.

Merchant told THAT’S PRD in 2011 that he doesn’t know quite how to categorise his music. “Some songs are adult contemporary, some rock, some a little country. If I had to pick, I would go with ‘Adult Alternative Rock that would be considered Contemporary in the Country’.”

Life in Shenzhen
Merchant claims that both Shenzhen and Shanghai have been important to his music career, but for different reasons. He wrote and recorded his first album in Shanghai, but later explained that part of the reason for doing this was because he missed the friends he made and the live music he enjoyed in Shenzhen.

He told The Nanfang: “I’m less productive in Shenzhen when it comes to writing songs.” In Shanghai, he wrote more songs but, he explains: “Most of them were garbage.”

He puts this down to the fact that in Shenzhen, there is more room for collaboration and there are more opportunities to perform. “In Shenzhen when you write, you’re writing with people.”

As well as being the place where he rediscovered and honed his craft, Shenzhen is the place where he has had countless memories and saw the birth of his first son.

The birth itself was testing and going out in public with young children in China can be testing (he told The Nanfang that his biggest peeve here was strangers touching his children). But he cites having children here as his best memory.

Other good memories include days out at the Secret Spot at Xichong Beach and, of course, the numerous live performances he has given.

This is his best-known original song:

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