Category Archives: China

The Big Bamboo

Three years ago, Michele and I were in China – Shanghai to be exact – on the weekend of the  Bahrain Grand Prix1 wondering where to go to see the race. A week or two before, we had seen the Chinese Grand Prix in our hotel room near Wulingyuan National Park. Even though I am a Formula One nut, it was not a very satisfactory experience watching the race, alone in a hotel room, in Chinese. Michele suggested that we try a expat sports bar where the energy should be much higher and the broadcast in English. We ended up at the Big Bamboo – Your Favorite Sports Bar & Grill –  and had a great time. As sort of a remembrance, I bought a hat which I proudly wore for about two years and eleven months when, somehow, I lost it.

About a week ago, I emailed Big Bamboo to get a replacement and they sent me not one, but two new Big Bamboo hats. Thank you very much! If you are ever in Shanghai drop by, I see that today the Big Bamboo is featuring the St. Louis Blues at San Jose Sharks (game 3) and the San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors. I wish I was there.

Disney is in the teaching English biz in China


According to the Economist, in an article titled Middle Kingdom meets Magic Kingdom, Disney has ten English schools in Shanghai and five in Beijing. At first, I found that pretty surprising because it is such small small potatoes for Disney.Teaching English is like a classic cottage industry.

But I was reminded that we live in a time when nothing is considered too small if it makes money for the Mother Corporation. Maximizing profit is now considered the highest ideal. Banks charge fees for any service they can; including parking. The avowed goal of any company is to make as much money as possible. In 2007, before everything fell apart, General Electric made one and half times more profit in lending than any other GE division.

My childish fantasy is that – when I was young – General Electric made stuff, banks made loans, and Disney made cartoons and had Disneyland. Sure, they all made money, but that was a byproduct of their raison d'etre which was the service they provided. I think that this same childish fantasy was held by Obama, Geithner, et al when they bailed out the banks.

If they just got the banks – who were in trouble over their greed – some money, they would lend it to needy borrowers to get the economy going again. Of course, that is not what happened. The banks took the money and loaned it back to the government – in the form of safe government bonds – and started making even more money. This new, safe, profit was then used to pay themselves nice big bonuses. 

Archeology as projection or We usually find what we look for

Psychological projectionis the unconscious act of denial of a person's own
attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the
outside world, such as to the weather, the government, a tool, or to
other people. Thus, it involves imagining or
projecting that
others have those feelings.

Machu Picchu

In 1988, I had the opportunity to see Machu Picchu with a native guide who was an archaeologist. When I say native, I mean an Inca. Or a decedent of one of the other tribes subjugated by the Incas. Every once in a while, I read a sort of rhetorical question along the lines of what ever happened the Incas. – or Mayas? or, for that matter, the Romans?

The answer is nothing, they are still there but, because they are the indigenous people, they are usually ignored. Anyway, this anthropologist was one of the first indigenous people, in Peru, to get a degree in Anthropology. And he immediately set out to prove that the European anthropologists were full of shit.

Hiram Bingham, who is given credit for discovering Machu Picchu thought it was the estate of an Inca emperor or high priest, and he had all sorts of theories on what the various structures were. Usually the theories revolved around some sort of bloody sacrifice. Our guide thought it was just an run of the mill small town, like an Inca Healdsburg, and the only reason it was noteworthy is because it wasn't sacked by the Christian explorers like everything else.

He also showed us, what the Europeans thought were several "sacrificial altars" that even had little channels that "carried the blood away". Except that he showed us that the channels were lines that lined up with the sun or moon's location at
the Winter and Summer equinox. They were really solar and lunar observatories. One channel was even lined up with the true North-South axis.

He went from altar to altar, site to site, saying Look, look at this, they don't even ask what it is for. They don't even speak good Spanish and they don't speak any Quechua. They don't talk to the locals. Why not, they are Incas. I am glad to say that now pretty much everybody agrees with our guide. 

I bring all this up because, yesterday, I read an article in the NYT that there is going to be a show in California of mummies and artifacts found on the Silk Road in China. It looks like it will be a great show. The Chinese have found, or re-found, an old cemetery in a desert region of western China. And in this cemetery are mummies that turn out to have European features and DNA from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Siberia, but not China.

Small River Cemetery

According to the NYT,

As the Chinese archaeologists dug through the five layers of burials, they came across almost 200 poles, each 13 feet
tall. Many had flat blades, painted black and red, like the oars from
some great galley that had foundered beneath the waves of sand.

So what do they think these 13 foot tall poles are? phallic symbols,
signaling an intense
interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation. The whole of the cemetery was blanketed with blatant sexual symbolism.

Maybe they are right, but, in reality, they have no idea. Just like Hiram Bingham had no idea so he projected the bloody rituals on the Incas, the Chinese anthropologists project their idea of sex-crazed Europeans on these 4,000 year old mummies.But it still should be a very interesting show.

The Last Day

Like a lot of trips, on the last day, we are ready to come home and it seems like we have just scratched the surface and would like to stay for another month. We spent the day doing some standard tourist things like going to the Shanghai Museum. Everybody says that the Shanghai Museum is one of the must sees and I am sure it is and I am glad we went but, after a while (a very short while for me), one stone seal looks like the next stone seal.

For lunch, we went back to a dumpling shop that Michele had found that  specializes in a Shanghai dumpling called Xiaolong Bao, or XLBs to the cognoscente. The place (the first one listed under XLB's here) is really a hole in the wall, but the constant line (with Michele in it) in front is a give away.

I was sort of hoping that the XLBs would be no better than the Bay Area, but even I had to admit they were fabulous – especially the crab.

That same article had mentioned another sort of dumpling (Shengjian), and we saw the long line across the street at a place that serverd those, we we decided we needed to try those as well. We were so glad we did, and when we got back to our room, we discovered that the New York Times agreed that this was a particularly good spot as well.

After wandering around for a while, including the French Concession area, we ended the day looking at the view from the SWFC Observatory . This is touted as the tallest building in the world and the viewing area is on top of the open spot (that Michele observed looks like a bottle opener) and has a glass floor on the sides and in a glass strip down the middle. It really is physically difficult to walk to the windows over the glass. The attendants who guide the visitors to and from the elevators are wearing semi Startrek uniforms and the whole  experience is very other worldly. And the view is great – even through the Shanghai smog.

It is going to take a while to digest this trip but a few quick observations:

    China is a place of contrasts – with the gain turned way up. In the cab ride from our hotel to People's Square, we drive by miles of incredibly shabby 20 story apartments mixed with new, clean, apartments.  


    There are beggars, but very few. Much less than in San Francisco. By and large, the people look prosperous – we did not see any grinding poverty but almost everything is shabby. For a big percentage of people, life is lived in public – on the street. Stores stay open for long hours, and, when we walk by at dinner time and look in, we can see the whole family eating – squatted on the floor – in the back.

    The pollution is oppressive. I have had a sore throat since we left Hong Kong. At first I thought I was coming down with a cold, then I realized it is just the air. I lived in LA in the late 50's and it was nothing compared to this.

    Ridley Scott had it down pat in Blade Runner.    (Except the umbrella handles don't light up and there are still no flying cars).