As seen in the Hong Kong Standard
That's right. Every Thursday freelance journalist Bay Fang publishes a weekly China column for the Hong Kong Standard, one of the two major dailies in Hong Kong. Now China Insight brings you some of Bay's favorites.
Bay Fang writes out of Beijing for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong Standard and has had pieces published in several other magazines. Click here to send her an e-mail.
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A catalogue of unheralded success
October 8, 1997
By Bay Fang
The Soviet-style Beijing Exhibition Hall bustles with a carnival atmosphere.
Instead of rides and cotton candy, however, visitors enjoy displays of
successfully cloned vegetable seeds and life-size satellites with names like
"The East is Red." Jiang Zemins smiling image is everywhere chumming
around with Olympic athletes, cheerfully inspecting a natural gas plant,
posing in a tractor.
Rarely does Beijing see an event of such magnitude. The first
kind, the exhibition of Chinas achievements during the Eighth Five Year
Plan aims to "raise high the banner of Deng Xiaoping theory" and to show
the current leaderships devotion to the patriarchs memory in the year
of his death.
The exhibition received almost as much hype as the Communist
15th Congress itself. For weeks advertisements blanketed newspapers and
television. Every day thousands of tickets sold out, even while such
non-believers as the cab driver waiting outside laughed scornfully, "Who
wouldnt want to go to the exhibition? The work unit pays for the
tickets, and after you see it, you can go home!"
In fact, the country has a lot to boast about. Visitors marvel
secret success stories as the deer antler industry in Heilongjiang and
the blind piano virtuoso, who draws an admiring crowd with his rendition
of "Love Story."
The rapid modernization of the country over the past few years
apparent, not so much in the figures of industrial production or in the
fighter planes hanging from the ceiling, but rather in the
sophistication of the media accompanying each display. The exhibit on
dam projects, for example, includes not only the standard model dam but
also an illuminated map of China inset with little television screens
playing short educational programs about the construction of each
Other computers entertain visitors with tricky computer
quizzes for the
politically literate, such as, "Question: In 1996, Chinas agricultural
output ranked [blank] in the world. Answer: a) No. 1, b) No. 2 or c)
The political game goes on. As with other events such as Deng
Xiaopings funeral procession, work units and schools make a showing to
prove their devotion to the party. One student from a Chemical
University in Jiangsu Province diligently takes notes on the corn output
in Jilin, explaining that he will have to write a report about the
exhibition when he goes back. He is on a school-sponsored trip, which
began with the National Day flag-raising in Tiananmen Square to instill
a sense of patriotism before moving on to the exhibition.
Visitors appear dazed by the deluge of achievement.
"Theres just too
much to see," complains a retired schoolteacher who came with her whole
family as a treat for the holiday weekend. "I never knew what the
Meteorology Bureau did, and I work there!" exclaims a bemused
professional, gazing up at a huge exhibit covered with graphs. "Im
still not quite sure what it all means, though."
An inevitable side-effect of the overwhelming modernity of the
exhibits, however, is an outbreak of nostalgia for the era preceding the
frenzy of economic reform. "Tractor was one of the first words I
learned in English," a weary carnival-goer says wistfully as he wanders
through a display of combines and other advanced agricultural
machinery. "That and the phrase, Long live Chairman Mao."
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Bang Da Kuan for the big money
October 22, 1997
By Bay Fang
The talk on the streets has changed. As rapidly as billboards pop up
along the highways of the city, Beijings modern, consumer-driven
society is developing a wealth of vocabulary for its new cultural needs.
At the center, there is the semantic harem clustered around the wealthy
who are called, simply, "Big Money" -- Da Kuan. As with all Chinese
appellations, one may apply the standard honorific variations based on
familial relations: Kuan Jie (Money Older Sister) or, for the real
patriarchs of cash, Kuan Ye (Money Paternal Grandfather).
Where there are Da Kuan, there are those who will, with
romanization, bang Da Kuan for money. Counter to expectation, this
simply means "to accompany" a rich person in hopes of receiving some
personal benefit. Usage tarnishes the words reputation, however, for
the derivation bang jiar means sexual partner, and to diao bang is the
poor mans verb to seek a lover.
Todays streettalk has been derived from as far away in
distance as its own feudalistic ancestry. Da Wanr, meaning Big Wrist,
was a mafia term in pre-Liberation days for the gang leader or strong
hand. If someones wanr was hei (black) or liang (bright), that meant
he was especially cold-blooded. Today, it is a term of admiration for
those who wield a more contemporary form of power moviestars and
What does all this mean for the partys struggle for
civilization? Frustration, apparently. The countrys cultural leaders
are discovering that it may be easier to mobilize the masses to
revolution than to make them give up their favorite swears. At soccer
games the taunt hollered at the other teams players is sha bi, sha
being the innocuous word for stupid and bi being the slightly less
innocuous word for a womans private parts. The latter word is quite
verbally promiscuous, in fact the same soccer fans praising a good
play happily utilize the slang for "great/cool," niu bi another
reference to said private parts, this time of a cow.
After last years season of vulgarity, editorials tinged
desperation appeared in the Beijing Youth Daily, deploring the
ubiquitous use of that versatile term and exhorting people to substitute
it with the more civilized equivalent of "Go team, go!" So far the
suggestion does not seem to have been taken up by fans.
The government can blame outside influences for other
the language. The word ku, a transliteration of the English cool, was
absorbed into mainland slang by way of Taiwan. Of course ku by itself
is now long passe, and has been graphically modified with you guessed
Components of other Western words have managed to join with
form trendy new phrases such as beng di (to hop around at a disco) and
pao ba (to soak in a bar). In fact, newer Chinese dictionaries now have
sections at the back for foreign words such as CD and Internet.
The Chinese language police are on full-time patrol. A
standardization committee reviews foreign words to determine whether or
not they can be incorporated into the vocabulary, and generally acts as
guardian to ensure that nothing compromises the virtue of the Chinese
From the sound of things, perhaps they should face the reality
purity of their charge has already been violated what can you expect
from someone who has been sneaking out every night to bang Da Kuan?
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Home smashed in the name of Peace
February 11, 1998
By Bay Fang in Beijing
From time immemorial, Chinese have greeted each other with,
"Have you eaten yet?" On this street, a grandmother on her way home from the
market hails a neighbor by asking, "So, your house still standing?"
Just two months ago, Tenth Street in central Beijing was crowded
with historic, tile-roofed courtyard residences, "home-cooking" restaurants
and narrow tree-lined alleyways, where people lived as they had for
Now living rooms lie eerily exposed to people breezing by in
exhaust-spewing taxicabs. Decorative roof tiles embossed with the
character for longevity gasp their last breath under mounds of loose
brick and broken glass. Old-timers who used to exercise beneath the
trees now pick their way through the wreckage of their neighborhoods.
Make room for the Great Way of Peace. Billed as the second
Avenue of Eternal Peace, which cuts a wide gash through the heart of the city,
this new six-lane thoroughfare blasts across town from east to west
Second Ring Road, leaving one of Beijings oldest remaining
neighborhoods looking shell-shocked in its wake.
In ancient times, this street running behind the imperial
Forbidden City was the site of a Qing princes palace. On the east side stood the
granaries where the state stored its tribute rice. On the west was a
stone bridge with the only public inscription of the characters
"Northern Capital," or Beijing. The destruction of this historic route
is just one more example of "the shadow of a bane that has visited
itself upon every corner of the country," as Geremie Barme put it in his
introduction to In Search of Old Peking.
Beijing has been systematically demolishing its historic
neighborhoods for years in a quest to create a modern city, but the pace has
accelerated in the past five years. Widening Tenth Street to build the
grand avenue, a project which began last December, is supposed to ease
traffic, which has been clogging up the city with a multiplying virus of
cars. It also "carries on the spirit of the Fifteenth Party Congress"
and, with completion scheduled for the end of 1999, "welcomes the
fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China,"
according to the Chinese press.
"We dont want to move," says the old
grandmother, whose family
has lived in the same house, on the edge of the condemned area, for almost
half a century. "But what chance does my old house stand?" She looks
around at the skeletons of old structures, blinking slowly, and
reminisces about her lost neighbors. "That was a good sundries shop,"
she says. "And over there was the bathroom we always used."
Those who are left homeless in the wake of the Great Way will
liberally compensated, promises the government. The going rate, say
shopkeepers along the road, is 8000 to10,000 yuan per square meter.
Usually, however, the displaced families must move to a
government-provided apartment, often on the outskirts of the city,
without monetary compensation. The city pays moving costs -- provided
they clear out within the few days prescribed by the state.
Stores are taking a hit as well. A photo-developing shop that
still stands amidst a block of debris will lose hundreds of customers when it
is forced to move later this month. "The government is compensating the
landlord, but we dont get anything for all the money we sunk into this
place," the owner, Lin Qin, complains. "Our lease is for three more
years, but what can we do sue the landlord?"
In an informal poll of cab drivers, it seems the avenue is not
worth its cost. "The Second Ring bridge doesnt have the capacity to handle
the flow, so traffic will just be backed up anyway," says one. He also
lives in an old neighborhood, just south of Tenth Street. But does he
worry that his home will be razed? "Oh no," he says quickly. "They
wont get to us for another five or six years."
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Self-help publishing for the masses
March 11, 1998
By Bay Fang in Beijing
Need to spice up your love life? Covet an MBA? Want to learn
"how to talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere"?
Get it all on your way home from work. Popular literature,
the sole domain of revolutionary exhortations, has tapped into the
consumerist sentiment of modern China. Kiosks in subway stations and
along major streets in Beijing are crowded with books written by
specialists and celebrities that cater to the changing interests and
needs of the masses.
For decades, the Communist Party kept a stranglehold on books
available to the public. The story-starved populace could only read about the
anti-fascist movement and socialist heroes in the Soviet Union. During
the Cultural Revolution, a certain little red compilation of quotations
dominated the bookscape. Now, although the state still holds a monopoly
on publishing, new "consultancies" cooperate with government printing
houses, and can finance the publication of any books they want. That
is, "anything that will make money," says Huang Xiang, Manager of
Beijing Biaoda Publishing Consultancy.
This means cashing in on the overall mood of readers
consumers. And this can change from month to month. The most recent fad in
constructive China is self-help. Books that offer advice on everything
from making a million to achieving the ultimate orgasm are among the
bestsellers, according to the owner of a stall in one of Beijings
busiest subway stations.
A recent phenomenon is do-it-yourself capitalism. As Amway and
other multi-level marketing companies sweep into China, their entourage of
texts on how to "think positive" and "dress for success" have
effortlessly cornered the market on leisure reading. Chinese of all
ages study the haphazardly translated works of American business gurus
in hopes of learning how to strike it rich.
But money may soon be passe. The big craze in 1997 was books
guaranteeing a complete MBA education in as little as twelve hours.
Those, along with the biographies of entrepreneurs like George Soros and
Andrew Carnegie, "are on their way out," says the manager of a small
bookstore stocked with popular titles. "The Seven Cultures of
Capitalism" now vies for shelf space with "Chicken Soup for the Soul."
"People are discovering that its not as easy to make money as they
thought," Huang explains.
A new slew of translations catering towards a softened popular
mentality concentrates on improving personal relationships. "Men are
from Mars, Women are from Venus" teaches Chinese couples how to
communicate, and a "Sexual Studies Reader" does too.
Most were penned in that capital of self-help, America.
has more legitimacy if it was written by an American," says an editor for a
publishing company. "But Chinese authors havent been writing much
recently, so these books fill a popular gap."
Fitting these books to the Chinese market can sometimes be
difficult. The editor recalls having to translate an American guide entitled "How
to be an Assertive Woman." "If I translated it directly, no one would
buy the book," she says. Instead, she ended up calling it "Being
Trends in China may pass quickly, but they certainly come with
vengeance. Witness the "Saying No" phenomenon of 1996. "China Can Say
No" gained worldwide fame, and was instantly followed by the less
successful "China Also Can Say No," "Why Does China Say No" and "China
Not Only Says No." "Lots of young intellectuals only want to get
famous, so they gauge popular sentiment and cater to it," says a young
Of course, some classics are here to stay. A
series on Zhou
Enlai has been selling well this year on the one hundredth anniversary of his
birth, says the subway bookstand owner. "But why dont you check out
this one." She gestures to the colorful two-part set next to it,
entitled: "Sex? Now I understand!"
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All stories reprinted from
the Hong Kong Standard with permission from the author.
Unauthorized reprinting of any piece is expressly forbidden without the express consent of Bay Fang or of the Hong Kong Standard.
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Last updated: April 14, 1998.