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Mission: Documentary

I’ve started putting together my documentary! After a little more than a month of waiting for all my interview transcripts to be completed, I finally have all the components I need to get this final project officially underway. I’ve been drafting storyboards for weeks now, but there’s nothing more satisfying than piecing all the components together, pressing the “play” button, and seeing your work in motion. And then going back and editing every second of video and audio a hundred more times. I forgot how much fun film editing is.

Appropriate with this theme of documentary filmmaking and China comes a new event hosted by the Asia Society New York. Starting today, the Asia Society is launching a month-long documentary film series entitled “Visions of a New China.” The nine films highlight stories from all around rapidly modernizing China, showing how the Chinese citizenry is coping with and adapting to a country that can sometimes be barely recognizable after just a year of development. China’s change within the past two decades is a common theme that countless articles, movies, TV shows, and books allude to and focus on. While I doubt any of the films in the series will be particularly groundbreaking in thought or message, they’re certainly worth a view. I’m excited at the prospect of being able to see a few in October: perhaps they’ll give me creative inspiration for my own documentary project. If you’re in New York before the event ends, go see one!

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Faces in the Crowd

As I sit in my naturally lit bedroom, surprisingly bright despite the cloud-covered sky, I cannot help but think: three weeks left in China and what do I have to show for it?

In the day-to-day life of a Chinese-American expat living in China, frustration, confusion, exhaustion, and isolation all have their familiar places. Why, just a few days ago, while walking tiredly home after logging a few hours of work at a local cafe, I crossed paths with a local expat who I have met at least 6 times in small social gatherings. I recognized her immediately but, as I’ve come to expect in these situations, she looked at and walked past me without the slightest hint of recognition. As I have had enough embarrassing situations of greeting acquaintances and watching them dismiss me as just another Chinese person (maybe even trying to practice English with the unsuspecting foreigner, the horror!), I let the “maybe you’ll recognize me, but I don’t want to embarrass us both, so I won’t say anything, I’ll just offer this” smile fade from my face as the moment passed without occasion. Cue exhaustion, momentary confusion/uncertainty, a familiar frustration, and slight isolation: all four feelings rolled into one, ten-second encounter.

It is always easier to focus on the negative aspects rather than the positive, but I am determined to never become one of those glass half-empty people. I have learned more from my year in China not only about US-Sino relations, but also about people, than I expected.

My research has taught me that the few survivors left from the Second Sino-Japanese War are generally more wise than the rest of us. They know how to separate governments from the governed, offenders from offenders’ relatives, subsequent generations and countrymen, and they continue to educate themselves about the world. Their experiences are often both awe-inspiring and horrifying, but they don’t make excuses based on the past. They open their homes and their lives up to strangers to whom they owe nothing. Several of my interviewees spent more than two hours with me, happy to answer my questions about their most haunting experiences and to let me film them, knowing that they would probably never see me again.

  

  

  

  

Yet, if one saw any of these men in public, what would be the immediate thought? Another old person walking slowly down the sidewalk with rambling thoughts? Someone who has little concern for what is happening around them, let alone in the rest of the world? An easy target to take advantage of? Every individual’s story is worth listening to – especially those who experienced the WWII-era in any country – but often meaningful stories are lost because of our general disinterest in connecting with or assumptions about others. Dismissing someone as just another old person/Chinese person/foreigner/etc can be one of the most harmful things one can do, on various accounts.

Most tend to focus on and bemoan the differences between China and the US – or any two countries or cultures, for that matter – separating into groups “them” from “us” and, more often than not, suspecting the worst of the other, but it’s important to remember the similarities. It’s easy to sit behind a computer and dehumanize individuals or think of “them” as a thoughtless, emotionless mass so far removed in another country, or part of a different culture or race. But every face in the crowd holds life experiences you can learn from, and is probably much more similar to you than you’d think.

So what DO I have to show for my time here? My documentary isn’t close to completion yet, but I have come across one theme along my way to making it: in any situation, one can focus on the dark clouds – namely, the bad or stubborn people, the uncomfortableness of the unfamiliar, the negative media stories – but if one makes a conscious effort to continuously learn and connect, to look at things and people with an open, sympathetic mind and from a wider perspective, s/he will realize that frustrations are only temporary, that the differences are rather shallow, that the larger space above the dark clouds is surprisingly bright.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Viruses and the Quest for World Domination

I downloaded an anti-virus program for my computer today. Exciting, I know. What I love most about using a Mac is that I never have to worry about getting a virus (or so the apt marketers at Apple and their cult followers have led me to believe). But today, I noticed a lag in typing to keyboard-response speed as I was entering various searches into Google, of which, I’ll admit, only half had to do with my research. This new development gave me an uneasy feeling that something wasn’t quite right down in the complicated depths of my laptop’s motherboard, so I did what any long-time PC user would have done: installed some anti-virus software, ran a scan, and breathed a sigh of relief after I was presented with the “no threats found” result.

But how many times had I gotten that same comforting message on my old PC, only to have everything crash on me a few seconds/minutes/hours/days later? Pictures, music, videos, school papers, random documents all lost; just the panic-tainted memories of that ‘blue screen of death’ make me feel short of breath! (Or maybe it’s Kunming’s high altitude.)

There’s a new Vanity Fair article that describes, at length, my very situation: China, computer hackers, viruses, and loss of sensitive information. Actually, it’s not really related to my situation at all, but it touches on some of my general concerns about being in China, using China-controlled internet, and often downloading TV shows (which is not illegal here), while also enjoying the freedom on a purchased VPN (which is greatly frowned upon, I’m sure). I don’t typically pay any attention to Vanity Fair magazine, but this month’s issue hasn’t disappointed yet, what with all the Jennifer Lopez relationship developments and now this article.

So what did the cover-featured article, not very cleverly entitled “Enter the Cyber-dragon,” say?

  • Unidentified people from China have been hacking into the computer systems of major corporations and government organizations around the world, with particular focus on the US, since 2005.
  • These attacks are serious.
  • Most US companies never publicly acknowledge(d) being victims of cyber attacks: “for fear of panicking shareholders and exposing themselves to lawsuits—or for fear of offending the Chinese and jeopardizing their share of that country’s exploding markets.”
  • It took the eventual whistle-blowing of Google to bring national attention to the issue in 2010, though: “many experts were puzzled by the way that Google announced the attacks, emphasizing Aurora’s secondary goal (reconnaissance of “human-rights activists” in China) rather than its primary one (stealing Google’s virtual DNA).” [obviously trying to get the less computer-savvy media and publics’ attention…]
  • It’s unclear if most of these cyber attacks from China are government-sponsored or coming from Chinese companies trying to get an edge on their biggest competition, but the Chinese government adamantly denies any involvement. Ever. [yeah, like some civilian would just want to hack into countries’ old Olympic committee files a year before the Beijing Olympics]
  • The skill level and ‘exfiltration’ involved in these cyber attacks is really impressive. [maybe we should all switch to Linux-based systems?]
  • Laws governing this ‘cyber-espionage’ are still unclear, US corporations assume the US government is protecting them, and the various problems are compounded by the fact that most companies are still too embarrassed to publicly admit their computer systems and confidential information have been compromised.

At the end of it all, it seems like the purpose of all this hacking is to get information that will help China be more competitive internationally, particularly with the US and US companies. We’re not going to be nuked and no one is trying to shoot down Air Force One. One only has to note the plethora of fakes and blatant disregard for intellectual property rights to know what China is focused on: advancement and making money by profiting off the work of well-established, successful foreign brands/concepts/systems.

All things “Western” are wildly popular in China, sometimes to a sickening degree (why are all the popular models white when China is obviously very Asian? Why does everyone wear shirts with non-sensical English on them? There’s no need to foster a Bluest Eyelike complex). Even Kunming, a second-tier city that wakes up around 9am and shuts down by 10pm, has fake Apple storesfake Nike stores, and rip-off Ikeas. Until recently, everyone thought the Apple and Nike stores were real and paid retail prices for their products. It’s not only the US that’s getting ripped off anymore, and one is stepping into dangerous territory angering the Chinese upper class.

Many people in the US are afraid of China eventually “taking over the world.”

I’m not too sure why that’s so terrifying, but maybe that’s because I don’t understand economics as well as I should. Yes, if China overtook the US, there would be a noticeable relationship change between our two countries (which is already happening) and its government is paranoid and whiny, but its citizens would inevitably be more exposed to the dangerous influences of the Western world and China has too many serious problems it needs to address for it to be considered a stable and truly developed nation.

Overall, as a country where cheating, corruption, and copycats are rampant and acceptable, how can China remain at the top if it gets there? Some Chinese “scholars” known for plagiarizing are already being closed out of international academic conferences. [Of course, that’s not to say that true creativity and intelligence can’t be found in China. As one of the opening lines in The Social Network asks: “Did you know that there are more people with genius IQ’s living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?”] But no one respects or wants to have a close relationship with the chronically dishonest classmate, even if (s)he did manage to become valedictorian.

So back to my computer problem. It’s certainly possible that I’ve downloaded some virus that’s stealing all my pictures, music, and out-dated resume files in search of a competitive edge or my credit card numbers. But since I’ve gotten the “all clear” from the 2009 version of iAntiVirus, I’ll just assume that the problem is is that I’ve become such an incredibly fast typer that new technology can’t keep up with me. That, or my computer was overheating.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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A Glimpse Into the Past

Tucked off on the side of the major expressway between Kunming (昆明) and popular tourist destination Dali (大理) lies Yunnanyi (云南驿). What remains of this old village that once housed General Chennault (he seems to have lived all over Yunnan during his service in China) and was a major airbase for the Flying Tigers/14th Air Squadron?

  

It’s takes some time to get to Yunnanyi (云南驿) via public, long distance bus. I bought a ticket to Dali (大理) with the intention of jumping off at the first highway sign for the village. Having a general idea of when that time would come, I slept for the first two hours and then anxiously waited for one, half-hoping I had somehow miscalculated the distance, missed the stop, and could just chill in Dali Old Town (大理古城) for the night. But, thankfully for my research, I at last spotted the exit sign and asked the driver to let me off on the side of the four-lane highway. Perhaps because I’m of the fairer sex, he decided it would be best to let me off at the “beginning” of the village right near a rest stop instead of at the exit I requested, despite my multiple requests to just let me 下车. Usually when passengers ask to be let off, the driver stops immediately and opens the door. Alas, I had to wait an extra 2 km before he opened the door to freedom (and the safety of a gas station and policemen).

I asked a nice traffic cop how I could get to the village of Yunnanyi (云南驿). He told me I would have to walk along the highway and would finally get to the exit I had spotted some kilometers back. Great. Under the blazing afternoon sun, I began walking, wondering why I always forget to eat and/or bring food when I travel anywhere. After a few hundred meters, I came across a ditch that went straight up to a dirt path which I guessed would lead to the village. Tired and hungry, I figured I had nothing to lose and proceeded to scale up the side of the highway. Luckily, the multiple lanes were empty and no one witnessed what would have been an odd sight of a girl climbing to, seemingly, nowhere.

I quickly came to the edge of the small village of Yunnanyi (云南驿). Despite its having two small museums – one centered on the War of Resistance (抗日战争) and the other on the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road (茶马古道) – Yunnanyi for obvious reasons doesn’t seem to get a lot of outside visitors. I ended up walking behind a group of children going back to school after their lunch break, and they all took a mild interest in me, turning around now and then to see what I was doing. I usually don’t get any attention in China, as I have the luxury of being able to blend in as just another Chinese person, but my backpack and camera were enough to garner attention this time around.

Yunnanyi (云南驿) seems relatively untouched by modern China. The majority of homes are made of mud and brick, designed in the old rural style with a focus on practicality. The village is surrounded by farm fields and people get around by motorbike or walking. They have an ‘old street,’ which the two museums are located on, but there’s not much difference between it and the rest of Yunnanyi.

The “Transportation Museum of the China-Burma-India Theater in WWII” is basically a museum dedicated to the Flying Tigers/14th Air Force. Fashioned out of Chennault’s old Yunnnayi residence, each room is filled with pictures from the war and other memorabilia. Simple, yet not entirely boring.

  

  

Right outside of the ‘old road’ entrance, one can see the old bunkers that were used as parking spots for the AVG’s planes. There is also a large collection of stone rollers, which were used to construct new airfield runways and roads (such as the Burma Road, which passed through Yunnanyi). Weighing up to several tons each, tens to hundreds of Chinese men would work together to pull the stone rollers across the ground, flattening the earth below them and making it suitable for airplanes, trucks, etc. The Japanese bombed Yunnanyi (云南驿) multiple times during the war, and there were times when the laborers were unable to unstrap themselves from the stone rollers fast enough, making them easy targets for the Japanese pilots.

  

Visiting Yunnanyi was like stepping back in time. Though change and modernism are inevitable everywhere in China, Yunnanyi is certainly on its own schedule and I imagine there hasn’t been immense change since the days of Chennault and the Flying Tigers. As late as 2006, residents who were alive during the war still remembered English words that the American soldiers had taught them. I unfortunately was a few years too late to find anyone to interview for my project, but I’m glad I was able to visit a village filled with so much history.

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Picture of the Day

More powerful (or destructive?) than your Arm & Hammer baking soda:

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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A Worthwhile Visit

My recent trip to Sichuan wasn’t just filled with encounters with semi-domesticated wild animals. My first stop in Chengdu was actually Jianchuan Museum Cluster (建川博物馆聚落), located an hour outside of Chengdu (成都) city proper in a small town called Anren (安仁). Getting to the bus station in the south, riding on the bus to Anren, and walking all the way to the museum from the long distance bus station in Anren (which I stupidly assumed would be a quick stroll on a nice, semi-shaded path) took forever. And by forever, I mean about 3 hours. That might not seem horrible, but the sun was scorching, the trees were few, the wind was non-existent, and the roads were dusty. Luckily, I had this restaurant’s name to laugh at towards the end of my long walk:

And then I finally came to it: the Museum Cluster.

Street Entrance to Jianchuan Museum

Jianchuan Museum Cluster is named after its founder, Fan Jianchuan. A very successful real estate mogul based in Chengdu, Dr. Fan Jianchuan began amassing a huge private collection of historically significant items once the money started piling up from his business. He then decided to fund the construction of a special type of museum in a “suburb” of Chengdu – a museum cluster – and populate the various exhibit halls with his complete private collection and a few other outside donations. A nice way to share the wealth, if I do say so myself.

Almost 500 acres large, Jianchuan Museum Cluster consists of 15 separate buildings (“museums,” 博物馆) encompassing 4 major themes (the Second Sino-Japanese War, the ‘Red era’, the Wenchuan Earthquake, and Folklore & Culture). Each museum has its own unique exhibits and design. The grounds and museum buildings are so extensive that the entrance ticket covers admission for three days. However, after the long trek out there, I knew I wouldn’t be returning to make use of my second and third entrance allowances.

I came only mainly interested in one of the museums, but left very impressed with all the ones I visited. Jianchuan Museum Cluster has certainly become one of my favorites in all the museums I’ve visited in the US and China.

The first exhibit I visited is entitled “Anti-Japanese [War] Veteran Fingerprints Plaza.”

"Fellow Countrymen, Hereto Bow Your Heads in Respect"

Fan Jianchuan and his team went all around China collecting handprints from surviving veterans of the War of Resistance (抗日战争). I’m not sure how many handprints are actually there in total, but it’s definitely more than a thousand, and they’re still trying to find more veterans. Every handprint has the veteran’s name, unit, and position held. It was a bit haunting walking along the walls of handprints alone, thinking of all the stories these men had/have and will probably never be told.

Next, I went to the Flying Tigers museum. It was very well done; definitely the best, most comprehensive Flying Tiger exhibit I have seen in China yet. The walls of the first floor entrance hall were lined with pictures of all the original AVG men (and select nurses and wives) who came to China: a nice tribute to their service to and sacrifices for China.

And of course, what’s an American war exhibit without the old US propaganda posters?

    

The other museums I went to focused on the Chinese experience and their various roles in the War of Resistance. The devastation captured in some of the pictures was greatly disturbing, as with any war.

     

But there were also moments of friendship and perseverance that photographers were able to preserve.

A US Soldier and a Local Share a Light after the Battle of Tengchong

After visiting war museums and hearing the experiences of those left from the War of Resistance era, I always leave with the same feeling: war and the aggression that fuels it are terrible, unnecessary things. In the end, leaders’ suffering is usually short and they are the ones who go down in history, while the soldiers and civilians are lucky if they are featured as one of the random people in temporary museum exhibits’ pictures. Civilians are left with memories they try to block out, from upheavals in their lives that they never asked for nor agreed to. Soldiers are lucky to return, but arrive to little or no fanfare, to hometowns that most likely don’t recognize or comprehend the experiences they’ve had. Life goes on and the war slowly becomes just a list of facts and dates for the next generations. And then, the cycle beings again…

How many people visit war memorials in the US and China, stand in awe of the lost lives, and then soon after disassociate from that experience (or rile up some crazy nationalism from it) and adamantly support wars (potential or real) that they know little about?

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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What’s in a Photograph?

I decided to skip the gym yet again yesterday, making it an impressive 1 time of actually going in the past week. But as I was heating up leftovers for my late dinner, I was pleasantly surprised by the view outside the kitchen window. It made not going to the gym and instead stuffing my face with greasy tofu (豆腐) a little more worth it.

Kunming, surrounded by low mountains, hardly ever gets sunsets or sunrises. Out of my 10 months here, I hadn’t seen one of either until yesterday. The consistently beautiful weather, however, more than makes up for that. Besides the (what I’ve been told was an) abnormally frigid past winter, I’ve woken up to perfect blue skies, puffy clouds, and cooling breeze almost every day. It’s pretty amazing, but it’s hard to capture that “I’m so happy to wake up to this weather” feeling in a picture.

As someone doing WWII history research, seeing 70+-year-old photos of cities/villages/people/you-name-it have become the norm. I find it most interesting when old photos are juxtaposed with the current state of things. And apparently, I’m not the only one. I just found out about a website called Dear Photograph, where people “take a picture of a picture from the past in the present.” Similar to website projects like PostSecret and Dear Old Love, Dear Photograph has more depth than you’d first think. Take that 5-minute break from work you’ve been thinking about and take a look!

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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