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Disclaimer: China files are essays about my experiences living and working in China. Mostly thoughts about things I’ve learned, or interesting experiences and conversations I had in this fascinating country.

“Chinese civilization originates in an antiquity so remote that we vainly endeavor to discover its commencement. There are no traces of the state of infancy among this people. This is a very peculiar fact respecting China. We are accustomed in the history of nations to find some well-defined point of departure, and the historic documents, traditions, and monuments that remain to us generally permit us to follow, almost step by step, the progress of civilization, to be present at its birth, to watch its development, its onward march, and in many cases, its subsequent decay and fall. But it is not thurs with the Chinese. They seem to have been always living in the same state of advancement as in the present day; and the data of antiquity are such as to confirm that opinion.”

Évariste Régis Huc, French missionary and traveller

I came across this passage while flipping through Henry Kissinger’s On China in a bookshop. Just yesterday, while relishing in spicy Yunnan cuisine in an old quaint Hutong restaurant after an idle afternoon walk through the Forbidden City, one of our friends of Manchurian descent began telling us stories, a mix of history, myths and legends, of the Qing dynasty. Every now and then, I would interrupt with questions such as: “When did this happen?” “Is it during the 17th century?” pressing for specific dates, or better details. These questions were often greeted with exasperation. Stop asking us for specific dates, I don’t remember them, who does? That’s us, the Chinese, we can’t remember the details.

But even events happened much closer to date, with heavier significance and colossal consequences to Chinese history, like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, were merely remembered or known as ‘something bad happened’. For one of course, these are sensitive topics that are heavily censored, what was surprising was their nonchalance. One of them told me her husband once met a Japanese protesting outside the Nanking Massacre Memorial Hall, denying that he was a massacre negationist, but that the Japanese had counted and recorded each individual’s name, and the death tolls claimed by the Chinese were exaggerated. When asked why the Japanese were able to track down and record every victim but the Chinese had no solid documented evidence, them simply replied, “It’s just not us, we don’t delve in the specifics.”

They tried to explain this mentality to me through other aspects of Chinese cultures, from culinary to Science. Just look at Chinese cooking, one of them said, its guiding principle is ‘适量’ (suitable and moderate amount), much in the spirit of 儒家思想, never to the precision of grams and ounces. The Chinese have also never developed the subjects of Science, or Mathematics, they were later imported from the West. Confucianism differs drastically from Western philosophy underpinned by logic and reason and a kind of zeal to find the ultimate truth. I remembered someone I met a few months ago once said, “The Chinese just don’t like to really look at anything or a thing and trouble themselves with questions like ‘what is a chair?'”

Any important events seem like vignettes of faded memory with no specific beginning or ending, no supporting figures or evidence, no attempts to explain how and why they happened. They are disparate, fragmented, and many times do not reflect the truth. For a ‘Western-brainwashed liberal’ (as accused by my mother many times) like me, I find this deeply disconcerting. How do we know who we are, make sense of the present, if we do not remember the past? While there’s a saying too much forgetting does an injustice to the past, and too much remembering does an injustice to the present. It is one thing to be perpetually haunted by the past, it is another to remember so little, or worse, be implicit in allowing this collective memory to be manipulated, or even manufactured. Perhaps it is the lack of remembering that helps catapults China to become the world’s second largest economy in such stunningly short time, without being burdened by the weight of her 5000-year history. This might be a good thing, but I am not convinced.

The One App to Rule Them All

Last year, I quit my job at Facebook, packed up my life in Singapore and moved to Shenzhen to join China’s Internet darling, Tencent for a new adventure. The first week in China, and the few weeks before that, had been what I’d call ‘A Crash Course on Bureaucracy’. Almost everything here has a 流程 (process), regardless of the complexity of the task, and I found an instant appreciation for Kafka’s The Trial. Fortunately, a protagonist in a green suit  has emerged in this Kafka-esque realm, bestowing upon us efficiency so beautiful it can move one to tears. That savior is WeChat.

While 张小龙 (Xiaolong Zhang)’s legend may not have crossed the China firewall, but WeChat did. This is not surprising. According to BigData Research, third party mobile payment rose 57% to 9.31 trillion yuan in 2015,WeChat and Alipay drove more than 70% of them. Many in the tech space, including Facebook, have always taken a keen interest in Wechat, watching their latest development closely and often bedazzled by the app’s boundless capabilities. Truth is, it can be difficult to fully grasp WeChat’s wondrous magic when you don’t interact with it on a daily basis, no matter how much you study it. I had the fortune to finally get a taste of it in the last few weeks, so I thought it might useful to capture the power of WeChat through my experience of settling down in this new city.

Linking Your Bank Card to your Wechat Wallet  

To deposit money into my WeChat Wallet I had to first link my bank card to my Wallet. Once that’s done it makes you set up a 6-digit passcode that you are required to enter every time you trigger a transaction. Side note: Getting a mobile number and setting up a bank account are surprisingly fast in China, it took me less than two hours to get both done.

I realized the ‘Wallet’ function under the ‘Me’ tab doesn’t show up automatically to those who downloaded the app outside of China. One way to get it to show is to ask someone who already has WeChat Pay to transfer some money to you or send you a ‘Red Packet (红包)’, this can be as low as 1 yuan. Fund Transfer is also an extremely convenient way to transfer money amongst WeChat users; not only do I never have to jot down someone’s bank details, they also make Paypal feels like 19th century invention.

walletBooking a Taxi

The amount of errands and government bureaucracy I had to manage in the beginning, plus house hunting in an unfamiliar place can be extremely overwhelming. How am I supposed to know 公安局 and 派出所 means the same thing? Thankfully, this whole experience was made less daunting thanks to the taxi booking app Didi Kuaiche (滴滴出行) embedded within WeChat. Didi Kuaiche is a third-party service that Tencent, WeChat’s parent company has a 20% stake in. The user experience is smooth and taxi uncle (we call them 师傅 in China) always gives you a call to confirm your exact location. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you can directly pay through WeChat.

booktaxi

taxi

Making Payments and Transferring Money to other Wechat Users

It’s absolutely possible to go completely cashless in China with WeChat Pay, someone actually did this experiment for 30 days and his only cash expense was parking fee which WeChat doesn’t support currently. Many merchants, from 7-eleven to my favorite dumpling street stall accept Wechat Pay, except some global companies like Starbucks and other retailers. To make a payment, you can either 1) let the merchant scan your payment QR code under ‘Quick Pay’ or you can 2) scan the merchant’s QR Code by clicking on ‘Scan QR code’.

convenience store

Redefining Online Shopping in WeChat

The first thing I did after moving into my new apartment is to fulfill my lowest Maslow hierarchy of needs – setting up the Internet. Getting my wifi up and running in China is easier than in Singapore by a mile. All I had to do was dial 10000 to make an order and choose a preferred subscription with 中国电信, make payment via Wechat and someone will arrive at your doorstep three days later to  set it up.

To buy a router, I clicked on ‘Special 京东精选’ and bam! The entire JD.com e-commerce site appears and my router was purchased within a few clicks, never once leaving the app. The best bit? My router arrived the next day.

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jd special

Managing Bills through Wechat’s Official Accounts 

On the outset, WeChat’s Official Accounts look similar to Facebook Business Pages, only it does so much more than that. Immediately after I moved in as a new tenant, my WeChat account got linked to my apartment’s official account 我们家公寓. Under the ‘Me’ tab consists of all the logistics and bills related to my tenancy, such as utilities deposit, the official channel to report maintenance or clealiness issue, a speed dial to reach our apartment butler, and most importantly, a one-stop shop for all my rent and other bills which I can pay directly using WeChat.

bills

WeChat instantly became an essential part of my daily life, mainly as a communication and utilities app, it’s my little high-function digital secretary. There are still many utility functions I have yet to experience. However, the most engaging feature on WeChat is probably ‘Moments’ (think Facebook News Feed), this is something I will need more time to experience and observe since I don’t have enough WeChat friends to interact with. I will definitely be sure to continue to share my experience in this parallel universe!

The One App to Rule Them All

Writings on Persepolis

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For those who don’t have the time to read my 1600-word essay, here’s ’10 things that surprised XC in Iran’ –

  1. Iran is bloody safe. I didn’t bump into any extremists. People are friendly, respectful and eager to talk to you about their country. No military outpost, or tanks with black flags rolling down the roads.
  2. 3.6million women were warned for not wearing proper hijab, and in one year, 18,000 women were sent to court for this. However, walk down any streets in Tehran or Esfahan you’ll see women wearing hijab just loosely over their head.
  3. The law says unmarried boys and girls shouldn’t be seen alone together, but people still do at a risk. Sit whenever you want in a bus, there’s no female only section.
  4. Iranian women wear very heavy make-up, almost all of them. They also like to color their hair blonde.
  5. Iran has the highest number of nose surgeries per capita. The nose bandage is a sign of wealth.
  6. People aren’t afraid to criticize the government even in public, just like many of us.
  7. They are not ‘Muslims’, they identify themselves as Persians before anything else and are extremely proud of their Persian history and culture.
  8. ISIS is called Daesh, some didn’t even know the term ‘ISIS’ exists.
  9. Taxis don’t run meters, and cab-pooling is a norm. You hop on to a taxi that goes from point A to point B with a standard rate, usually with three other strangers.
  10. Almost everyone I met was in the Iran-Iraq war, or has family members that were in the war.

“We are lawless.”

Sina proclaimed. A smirk appeared behind his perfectly groomed hipster beard and pointy mustache. He also goes by DJ Sinsaw, and deejays at Iranian wedding parties since clubs are illegal in this country. When he is not mixing beats Sina goes boxing – a pair of boxing gloves charm rests on his chest as a declaration of love for this sport. At first glance, Sina seems to fit right in London or Shanghai in his low-rise jeans and round-rimmed glasses, but strikingly out of place in Iran. With us was Hossein, also in the wedding business who loves Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, a huge fan of British rock band, Queen but doesn’t quite get Bowie. We had just returned from Persepolis, and were now sipping cappuccinos at a coffee shop in Shiraz, the home of revered poet Hafez (who loved wines and wrote profusely about them. This guy, I like him already).

We started talking about many things – from the Rouhani government to dating. They told me many of their friends had left Iran to become refugees in other countries, and they felt trapped. At one point I asked what does freedom mean to them. “Freedom means being able to hold my girlfriend’s hand on the street without fear.” Hossein said. Sina pointed at his beard and said, “Freedom means not getting arrested for growing a beard for fashion instead of religion.” Sina and Hossein complained about the widening of income inequality, the danger of cultural debasement as a result of a rising consumer society, and how difficult it is for a decent young man to find a girlfriend unless you are rich. This was all quite fascinating to me. Despite coming from completely different backgrounds, we seem to share many things in common – certain fundamental beliefs and aspirations, things that trouble us up at night. The Iran as described by Sina and Hossein sounded nothing like the ostracized pariah that we’ve come to known in Western media, but one that is rather similar to ours. Widening income equality and rising consumer society – aren’t these the same debates we have in our societies as well? It is the same tension that exists between every government and its people, but with governments serving their own agendas instead of serving their people’s. We have conjured up a different Iran in our heads because some governments are serving their own agendas. Didn’t the US government invade Iraq and Afghanistan, training ostensibly freedom fighters in Syria, and keeping quiet when their ally Saudi Arabia abuse human rights on many occasions? One’s good guy is just someone else’s bad guy, it just depends which side you are on.

But just when you think we have reached cultural singularity – where we are liberals, love freedom, latte art and industrial cafes, one of them blurted out, “I would go to war if I could kill the Arabs.” Sorry, there will be no PC bullshit in this writing; that was quoted verbatim. He wasn’t the only one that had expressed such sentiment. I later met an Esfahanian in ancient mud city Yazd, we had come to a tourist gallery and in that gallery was a room in the basement with about fifteen maps plastered on the mud wall, each showing different periods of the Persian Empire expanding and shrinking, all the way from the beginning of the Archamenid Empire to modern day Iran. One of the most important maps was the one of Arabs invasion in the sixth century. Soroosh, the Esfahanian stared at that map for a long time and said, “I look at this map and I want to cry.” It seems outrageous for someone to hold vengeance towards another group of people for what their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, and even more bizarre for it to come from a group of seemingly liberals. When is peace ever going to be possible if we keep counting scores like that? Me being me, I had to probe further. “But that was hundreds of years ago! Why the Arabs not the Mongols?” “Well, they can come and loot our gold that’s fine. But they destroyed everything. They killed our people, and they changed our religion. We were never an Islamic country.” Persians used to practice Zoroastrianism since 3500 years ago before the Arabs invaded Persia. The state was subsequently rapidly Islamicized and the newly subjected people were under the pressure to adopt Islam. Today, only a few thousands Zoroastrians left in Yazd and India. For ignorant fools like me very soon realize the dangerous simplicity of stereotyping the Middle East as an Islamic region, and all people are just ‘Muslims’. Iranians identify themselves as Persians, and the pride they take in Persia’s rich and long ancient history is palpable.

We took an evening stroll along the beautiful Zayanderud River in Isfahan and Soroosh schooled me on more Iran politics. Still in his early twenties, he is more mild mannered, unlike Sina and Hossein who are much more energetic and passionate, but equally eager to explain his country to foreigners like me. “We were never an Islamic Republic, look at what Islam did to my country. I don’t want girls to wear hejabs!” It’s difficult for me to recount his exact words right now, but I think I sort of got where his angst came from after hours of conversations. He believed Islam was just being used as a tool to win over people support. During the 1979 Revolution, they promised the people free water, free oil, free this and that under the name of Islam. And right off the heels of the revolution Iran plunged straight into an eight-year war with Iraq. They never got their free water and electricity. People’s lives never got better. When the Iranians discovered the truth it was already too late. And as much as they dislike the current regime, they know they cannot afford another revolution with Daesh hovering at their border. On top of that, Iran continues to be portrayed as a global threat whereas Saudi Arabia, with their ultra-conservative Islam, abuse of human rights and lack of women’s rights are met with much more forgiving criticism just exacerbates things. To him, this chain of events is all related. If the Arabs hadn’t invaded them in the sixth century, their history would live out very differently today. I don’t pretend to know enough about what is going on today with the war on terror, or ISIS and the Syria civil war, but I’ve always said this is not about religion, it’s geopolitics. Religion is just a tool power hungry egomaniacs use to serve their own agendas. Soroosh’s father, just like Hossein’s, served at the Iran-Iraq war too as a doctor. His father used to be a fervent believer of Islam, who often cited the Quran in his letters home during the war. Today, Soroosh’s father is an atheist who enjoys a good laugh whenever these letters are read back to him.

I chose Iran as a travel destination to proof something. Those who consume media in my part of the world believe that this country is full of extremists and is in constant turmoil. So picking Iran and traveling there alone as a woman will immediately proof those people wrong. It will also qualify me as a badass woman, which feeds my ego. To my disappointment, Iran is one of the safest countries I’ve ever been in my entire life. So I did not return to Singapore feeling like some femme fatale badass chick. I’ve traveled across cities from Shiraz to Yazd, Yazd to Esfahan in a bus, passing through hours of dusty desert and snow-capped mountains and never once did I feel unsafe. There weren’t any soldiers in camouflage uniforms or tanks with black flags rolling down the roads. People are respectful; no one stared at me because I looked different, they would just approach me with curiosity and kindness. I met Soroosh in a random backpacker hotel restaurant in Yazd, the next thing I know he was my couch surfing host in Esfahan. And when I was in Esfahan I met a retired grandfather who spoke very good English, he then suggested to bring me to see the shaking minarets and I ended up following him on a little bus adventure around town. This will remain as one of my fondest memories of the trip.

Picking an exotic destination aside, traveling alone to a place of zero familiarity can be an incredibly rewarding and emotional experience. I broke down in tears in my hotel room after sitting in a bus for six hours staring at desert and mountains, everything was just in fifty shades of brown. It was only my third day in Iran and I was still feeling extremely anxious, wondering if my existence alone was offensive. It was the feeling of complete isolation that got to me. There was no Internet or Facebook to distract me, it feels silly saying this but it was rather scary having to face your own thoughts for an extended period of time. Those around me are busy planting their roots, and here I am, uprooting all the familiarities and comfort in my life – coming to Iran by myself, moving to China alone, there was a lot of ‘What the fuck are you doing with your life XC’ sort of questions. I’m not sure if I have quite answered that question yet, since I didn’t have much opportunity to be alone after that day, ha! But I’ve certainly realized how easy it is to just go through the motions of life with all its deceptive distractions and never once had to face these real questions – questions about who you are, what you want, and what life really means to you. To quote Hafez –

I’ve lived my life without a life –

Don’t be surprised at this;

Who counts an absence as a life,

When life is what you miss?’

I didn’t get to go to a desert rave party, guess we’ll have to wait for next time.

Writings on Persepolis

How a friend inspired me to trace my roots in China

Few months ago, I had the fortune to meet an incredible bad-ass woman thanks to a work project. A former foreign correspondent at the Straits Times, Chiyin left for China after ten years and is currently the accredited New York Times photojournalist based in Beijing. When we first met for coffee, Chiyin began sharing some of the projects she had worked on and is working on, all the while pinching the stress ball she held in her tiny right palm to exercise her fractured thumb. Just a few weeks ago she was caught in a tug of war with a few women in a village while she was shooting near the China and North Korea border, which torn her right thumb that took months to recover. Chiyin started telling me of how she is trying to piece together the history of her family, and finding the truth about her enigmatic grandfather who used to be the chief editor of a left-wing newspaper in the Malaya called Ipoh Daily. At the height of anti-communist paranoia, he was deported back to China by the British government and went on to join the Chine Communist Party guerrilla army, and was eventually executed by the Kuomintang in late 1940s.

It was an epic story that gave us a peak into the tumultuous and uncertain period in post-war Malaya. At the turn of the twentieth century, many Hakkas and other southern Chinese, left the impoverished mountains of east Guangdong to set sail for South East Asia, becoming part of the growing Chinese diaspora. Now that the third and fourth generation Chinese immigrants have found a new home, I wonder how many more stories that are similar to Chiyn’s that would only live in the collective memories of a generation that has passed. I desperately wish both my grandparents are still alive today, so they could feed the thirst of my excess curiosity.

Intrigued by her story, plus admiration for her resolve, curiosity and determination in tracing her family’s history although she had never met this man before in her life, I was inspired by her to learn more about my own. Similar to Chiyin, my grandfather too came from a Hakka descent. However, I know very little of my father’s side of the family history, since my paternal grandfather passed away when my dad was only three. All I know was that he died of a heart attack while playing mahjong (my dad’s full time job now that he’s retired) and he left his wife and two sons before he came over to the Malaya and re-married and had my dad.

I texted my mom that afternoon, suggesting that we should try to find contact. Here’s the very initial conversation I had with my mom on Messenger:

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A few days later, my mom sent me a photo of an old stained letter with my grandfather’s name and an address 中国广东省梅县白度 柳乡 on it. My heart skipped a beat and my eyes surprisingly welled up at the sight of this evidence of my family history, the moment where you were confronted by an almost mysterious past that you had never known.

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Soon my mom took out all the letters that were left behind by the previous generation and started tracing out a family tree based on bits and pieces of information. The sleuthing adventure with my mom on Messenger was eye-opening and exhilarating, there were many back and forth such as:

  • Discovering that each person might have two different names, for example: my grandfather was called 罗国信 and also 罗伯正
  • Mixing up the generations while piecing together the family tree due to age difference. My dad is the same age as his half-brother’s son.
  • I went to Baidu to search for the names my mom sent over, and one of them 罗思源 turned up in the search results and is the current 增城市市长 in Guangzhou. We got super excited for a few days thinking we might be related to a CCP member!
  • Through our conversations I learned that my mom’s uncle was a communist and went to jail for a few years. My maternal grandfather would bring them to visit him in prison and when he was released he worked at my grandfather’s grocery shop in Rawang for awhile. His communist ideals led him to refuse payments from customers, and locked horns with my grandmother a couple of times. I found this to be quite hilarious, but I am even more curious to know why my grandparents were comfortable to house a communist when the government was cracking down on them so hard in those times.

Some of the vignettes:

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This is our 祖屋 in 梅县. Ostensibly there’s a room that belongs to my dad so we don’t have to worry about shelter should we go broke one day!

After I thought we had gathered enough information, I looked up a few governmental websites in 梅县 and started making a few phone calls. I was eventually redirected to 广东省梅州市梅县区外事侨务局办公室 and the lady asked me to drop her an email with all the information I know.

Here’s the screenshot of my email:

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The following Monday, I received the news that they’ve found them! The lady in the government office gave me two phone numbers and a few names and said she had personally talked to my relative and he sounded excited when he found out we were looking for him. Unfortunately, my dad’s half-brother, who was in a similar age as our late grandmother had already passed. Today, my dad and his half-nephew talked for the first time, connecting with our past in China after our grandfather set sail for what is today Malaysia almost 90 years ago.

My family is now planning to have 团圆饭 with 罗思哲, my half-cousin and his family during Chinese New Year next year. Have no idea what it would be like but I can’t wait to find out!

 

 

How a friend inspired me to trace my roots in China

How The Lion King Should’ve Ended

Many of us born in the late 80s grew up with the classic Disney’s animated film, The Lion King. I’ve personally watched this film numerous times. From the heart-breaking moment when Simba thought his own mischief had led to his father, Mufasa’s death, the lush landscape as the backdrop of the snappy big tune ‘Hakuna Matata’, to the beautiful Africa landscape and musical arrangements, The Lion King remains as one of the most enduring and timeless classics that tugged our heart strings and captured our imagination.

Interestingly, revisiting The Lion King almost twenty years later shed lights on this film otherwise a 6-year old child never would’ve caught. On the outset The Lion King appears simply to have borrowed a centuries-old plot from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. King assassinated by his own blood brother who overtook the throne, the prince banished from his homeland but eventually returned to reclaim his rightful place as the ruler. However, underneath the classical trope of betrayal and revenge lies a more interesting interpretation of various stereotypes and questionable values.

The opening scene depicts a ceremony celebrating the birth of Mufasa‘s monarchial dynasty’s new heir. When the rays of light kissed Simba’s skin as Rafiki hoisted him in the air, the entire animal kingdom bowed down to the newly born cub. Simba was clearly portrayed as the ‘Son of God’, the rightful leader born to rule in the natural order. Mufasa was characterized as the noble ruler of Savannah, and all animal species were fulfilled in their roles in the ‘Circle of Life’. But what the ‘Circle of Life’ actually is is an orthodox religious dogma; an entrenched caste system the Mufasa monarchy used to keep them in power. The power exerted in the form of religious code can be far more powerful than a big defense military, plus, there was no indication that Mufasa has a big army backing.

lion king

The early narrative construction tells the audience that the bright and sunny Savannah is peaceful and thriving under a benevolent dictatorship. However, under this veneer is possibly a severe lack of social mobility and access deprivation to equal opportunities. Overtime, a bubbling discontent began to reverberate across the jungle. The film then introduced the hyenas living in an abandoned forsaken enclave – these hyenas represent those at the lowest of the social hierarchy, despised by the ruling elites and were described as ‘slobbering, mangy, stupid poachers’. The hyenas were ostensibly enraged by their quotidian livelihood in a lion-controlled territory. Here, Scar, Mufasa’s jealous, sly and cunning brother, seized the opportunity to stoke this fury, plotted an assassination behind the veil of a class revolution.

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During the song ‘Be Prepared’, the dark, grey and ominous scene featuring cookie cutter faces of the hyenas is a juxtaposition to the diverse and colorful canvas in the opening scene. The lack of contrasts and earth tone colors are meant to represent the collapse of the class system, where all species become equal. “So prepare for sensational news, a shining new era, is tiptoeing nearer…When at last I am given my dues, and injustice deliciously squared, Stick with me and you’ll never be hungry again!” Scar belted out.This revolution will bring a new dawn to those who were disenfranchised and ostracized in the current regime. As the hyenas prepared for battle, the scene had an uncanny resemblance to Stalin and his marching army. Tragically, under Scar’s rule, violent life ensues; many fled Savannah and the ‘never go hungry again’ promise was never fulfilled. This is deeply Orwellian, illustrating a perpetual class struggle where the lower class was unlisted to depose the ruler, but upon assuming power, these people are once again banished to the bottom.

When Simba went into exile in the North, he met Timon and Pumbaa in the tropical forest, whose motto was ‘No worries for the rest of the day’. They represent the peace loving hippies who rejected society and had returned to nature for a more authentic life. In Simba‘s formative years, the triad lived a carefree life free of rules and responsibilities. But when Simba reunited with Nala, he ultimately decided to return to Savannah to answer his calling. Interestingly (with disappointment), the story arc bent the other way that contradicts the American audience’s republic values where Simba simply reinstalled the former monarchy. What Simba really should’ve done is to lead a revolution that resembles more of the French Revolution and eventually set up a Republic Savannah. All animal species would see the abolishment of the draconian law of the jungle and they would finally be treated as equals. Animals from the top to the bottom of the food chain, including the hyenas, would get to vote for a democratic government. That would have been a more edifying ending that is closer to our contemporary society, and one that allows us to impart important values to our children on top of it being an hour of incredible visceral entertainment.

And this will be the theme song for the New Lion King:

How The Lion King Should’ve Ended

The Age of Ambition Book Review

Panda

Asia is the new new world, credited to the prosperity and optimism the rise of China has brought to the region. Ironically, almost everything we read about China rings a soft hum of worry and fear. Be it the ongoing crackdown on online political dissents, recent Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, the rallying cry to realize the ‘Chinese Dream’, or China’s growing empire in Africa – these undercurrents might stem from the underlying political dichotomy between China and the West, or the sheer size or scale in everything China set out to do that appears daunting, or China’s lack of clear signaling of the kind of world leader it wants to be seen as as they become the next superpower.

Evan Osnos, The New Yorker’s foreign correspondent in China since 2008, provided a more nuanced account on how we should perceive or talk about China today. It is an attempt to explain China’s aspiration and the forces behind it – one is the ambition of 1.3 billion individuals unleashed thirty years ago when the government reformed land ownerships and opened its market to the world, second is the collective ambition of the Chinese people.that are set out to chase after this newfound fortune.

Osnos followed the stories of a few individuals closely – the iconoclastic artist and activist Ai Weiwei, the blind, self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng who escaped his house arrest to seek refuge from the American government, former military captain in Taiwan who defected to China and eventually became the chief economist of the World Bank Lin Zhengyi. Through these portraits Osnos weaves together a narrative about the power of an individual’s raw and unbridled ambition, one that can even circumvent the almighty Communist Party of China. On the surface the party might be controlling the drum beat, these extraordinary stories of ordinary people signals the Chinese society is marching in a very different beat. Osnos writes, “The Party had always prided itself on articulating the ‘central melody’ of Chinese life, but as the years passed, the Party’s rendition of that melody seemed increasingly out of tune with the cacophony and improvisation striking up all around it.”

But it was the story of Crazy English and Michael Zhang that best exemplifies these two forces. Studying English had become one of the many ‘fevers’ that hit the Chinese people, as English proficiency had become the new defining measure of life’s potential – it gets you better job and finds better spouse.By 2008, there was an estimated 200 million to 350 million Chinese studying English. Crazy English is a ‘model’ of studying English founded by businessman Li Yang with an Oprah-like popularity, method of teaching mirrors MLM motivational camps that usually involves war-cry like shouting in English. Li Yang’s English classes can cost as much as an average Chinese worker’s full month wage. One of the Crazy English students is Michael Zhang, a coal miner’s son, was determined to re-invent the way Chinese people study English that goes beyond profit-making. A Steve Job diehard, he was determined to make a dent in this universe. His indomitable tenacity to author his own life and the sacrifices he was willing to make to realize his ambition, is one of the many stories of the Chinese people in the age of ambition.

The main debate around China is whether this remarkable story of rapid growth and transformation can continue without substantial political reform. Thirty years ago, the haunting tales of the Great Famine still fresh in memory, the Chinese people were willing to exchange greater freedom in economic activities for less in political life, because democracy can’t put food on the table. In less than half a decade, this bargain has lifted 500 million people out of poverty. Consequently, when people no longer have to worry about their livelihood, the more people satisfied their basic needs, the more they uncovered the truth, and the more they challenged the old dispensation. So the trajectory might already be changing course. In a hyper-competitive free market, big ethical questions took a back seat when everyone chased after their own fortune. But many have started to sense an emptiness in public discourse and we are seeing multiple fascinating manifestations in which the Chinese people are coping with this void.

Consumerism is the easiest distraction. The luxury market continues to be a boon, and China is now one of the biggest importers for Louis Vuitton bags, wine, cheese, cigar amongst many other luxury goods. This trend is likely to continue as China’s growth GDP slows and economic growth will shift from government spending to consumer spending.If you can make people think that they always need more things, you’ll be able to distract them from thinking the hard questions. The rise of nationalism is another. Just when nation-state is fast becoming an anachronistic idea, China has gone towards a different trajectory. Young elites have risen again, this time, not for the pursuit of liberal democracy but in defense of China’s name. After living under the shadow of Western hegemony for so long, the recent rise of China had sparked a new found patriotism amongst the Chinese people. Tangjie, a farmer’s son, who lived in a tiny studio littered with books from Plato to the Koran, created a 6-minute video to decry the West for its hypocrisy and bias towards China following the Tibet upheaval during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The video was viewed millions of times shortly it went up online, and its popularity captures the growing sense of nationalism amongst the Chinese people.

Osnos writes, ‘There are moments in life of a country where people stop and look at themselves and ask if they have lost their way’. National scandals such as the Sichuan school corruption scandal that cost thousands of students’ lives and the tragedy of Little Yueyue who was struck twice by a vehicle and abandoned by seventeen passerby had awakened the society’s consciousness, making the nation questioned if they’ve sacrificed morality for money. Some turned towards religion for answers, as witnessed by the resurgence of Confucianism. The government erected a five-hundred-million-dollars museum-and-park complex near the cave in which Confucius was believed to be born back in 6 BCE and received 4.4 million visitors in 2012, surpassing those who visited Jerusalem. The revival of Confucius lends the Chinese government the perfect play of hands to fill the spiritual void since Confucius’ paternalistic didacticism always ties morality back to the strength of the state. Besides religion, many also turned towards philosophy. Michael Sandel, a Harvard political philosophy professor who teaches a popular course called Justice is an unlikely hero in China. His course had been downloaded 22 million times and his lectures overfilled auditoriums, advocating for liberalism with morality covering philosophers such as Mills, Rawls, Aristotle, and Kant. Sandel’s popularity is a testament to the Chinese’s thirst for justice and truth. “Young people they don’t care about literature or art or film or freedom or democracy, but they know they need one thing: justice. What they see around them is unfair.” says an influential blogger, Han Han.

Thirty years ago, Deng Xiaoping unleashed 1.4 billion’s 野心 (wild ambition). And this tsunami force exerted by billions of individuals’ relentless pursuit to be the master of their own destiny will only make it more challenging for the Chinese government to keep this central melody playing as they attempt to maintain a balance between individual ambition and conformity. In this sense, my personal opinion is that political reform will come eventually, and there are abundance of exciting prospects lie ahead of us. I want to believe a multi-polar pluralistic world is possible. China’s impressive story thus far provided us a new political and economic systems that can bring prosperity to people, challenging the centuries old tenets of Western thoughts. We should be open-minded in understanding the benefits and flaws of different institutions, systems and ideologies, challenging our assumptions and ultimately find ways to bring prosperity and economic growth to the rest of the world.

The Age of Ambition Book Review

Why I Am For Freedom Of Speech but I Am Not Charlie Hebdo

No one should be killed or murdered for anything, certainly not for offending someone with a few pen strokes. Whatever happened to Charlie Hebdo is utter abomination, and we should unequivocally condemn such act and stand shoulders to shoulders against fundamentalism and terrorism. So whether the killing is justified or not is a dead moral question, lets move on.

Shortly after the chilling tragedy unfolded, netizens from all around the world flocked to social media to express solidarity through tweeting #JeSuisCharlie or publishing prophet cartoon on major news publications. These terrorists are widely believed to be a virulent attack on freedom of speech. The resulting public reaction to those who did not conform to the universally accepted form of solidarity were accused of being against freedom of speech and that the terrorists have won.

Saying either one is a supporter of freedom of speech, or you condone such nefarious act is parochial and hypocritical. Solidarity takes many forms, and the whole notion behind freedom of speech is that it supports multiple views and allows room for disagreements. Reducing it down to one single form of solidarity, that I have to agree with what you are saying to show that I am with you, means we are no different than these terrorists, equally incapable of alternative views. Another point is that such transient and risk-less form of solidarity that does not extend beyond a social media status update completely undermines the gravity of the situation.

To decide if you are Charlie Hebdo or not we have to examine what public role satire plays in society. David Brooks from the New York Times wrote, “Provocateurs and satirists expose the stupidity of fundamentalists, expose those who are incapable of laughing at themselves and teach the rest of us we probably should. Satirists expose our weakness and vanity, puncture self puffery of the successful.” They serve the public role of leveling social inequality by bringing the mighty low, and are not afraid of doing so by being a little crass and compromising decency and public manners. However, Charlie Hebdo practices free-wheeling and indiscriminate satire. Their criticisms on ring-wing racism, police racial profiling and excessive military expansion were used as a defense against Islamophobia when confronted by those who find the prophet cartoon racist. Somehow, if you are making fun of everybody without clear ideological lines, that makes it ok because you are playing fair. But when Charlie Hebdo published those cartoons, it not only poked fun at fundamentalists, it also offends more than a billion people of the Islam faith, claiming superiority over minorities who are already being discriminated in our society – those who’ve lost their individual identities and are seen as mere tropes or agents of a symbol. Moderate Muslims not only have to muster extra courage to practice their faith everyday, but to also defend Islam as a peace loving religion and actively dissociate themselves from the radicals. Such satirical humor might lead to further systemic oppression, pushing them to an even lonelier corner in our polarized society.

Second, Charlie Hebdo is a French magazine meant for French audience that fell well within French tradition of satire. “There is, perhaps, something distinctly French about the form of offensiveness that Charlie Hebdo reveled in. Anti-clericalism has always been a Republican rallying cry, especially on the left, in a way that’s unknown in Britain and the US. Radicals, as the murdered journalists assuredly saw themselves, have always mocked Christian humbug, just as Charlie Hebdo did, and never seen any principled reason to show more deference to other faiths. Such strident secularism goes hand-in-hand with that assertive conception of French citizenship which was on display when the national assembly resolved to ban the full face veil, with only a single deputy voting against.” wrote the Guardian.  Charlie Hebdo’s humor is distinctively French. Before lionizing those who offend the views of Islam extremists in France, we should look at ourselves in the mirror and ask if our own cultural norms are tolerant of such satire. Coming from the part of the world where paternalistic didacticism still reigns, where social order and collective consensus take precedence over individual’s liberty expression (when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted a response on his Facebook page condemning this terrorist act, he did not tweet #JeSuisCharlie), satire is not a way of life so claiming I am Charlie is either disingenuous or ignorant.

Taking the above two perspectives into consideration, my conclusion is such that I cannot be Charlie Hebdo. However, we do need satirists so that someone will say things that are necessary to be said when others are afraid to. So I might not agree with what Charlie Hebdo have to say but I will defend their rights to say it.

Why I Am For Freedom Of Speech but I Am Not Charlie Hebdo