Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

January 20, 2007

Flying pigeon

Where to all the bikes in China come from? They seemed to me to be as sturdy, standardized, bland and ubiquitous as the Model T must have been here in 1920.

The bicycles are called Flying Pigeons. The prototype was developed by a model worker in a factory shortly after the Communist takeover in 1949. He named the bike "The Flying Dove," in honor of the desire people had for peace during the Korean War, as well as after the other wars which had plagued China for the previous decades.

But due to a translation error, the logo became the somewhat non-sensical "Flying pigeon," and it has remained ever since.

The bicycles are still made by the million, but apparently, according to this article, things aren't going as well for the old Flying Pigeon in modern China.

Mr. Yu

While in Hangzhou, I got up early one morning to go for a walk along the legendary West Lake. I didn't get very far before this old man flagged me down and asked if I spoke English.

I had been used to brushing off people who asked if I knew English because chances were high that they simply wanted to lure me into a tea ceremony or something of the sort. We were told this, and we learned it first-hand.

But Mr. Yu was the real thing. He has never been outside of China. From Hangzhou, he spent the years of the Japanese occupation in Shanghai. He told of how Pudong, the section of Shanghai which now bristles with skyscrapers, was, at the time he was in Shanghai, just a dumpy old shipyard.

He then asked, "How did America develop so quickly?"

I shook my head and said that America has never seen anything like what I witnessed in Shanghai.

Mr. Yu then pointed to a monument in the park behind us. It was a statue of a Chinese hero of the Korean War.

"Who do Americans say won the Korean War?" he asked.

I said we probably considered it a draw.

Then, Mr. Yu dug into his shopping bag and pulled out some notebooks and a couple of English language texts. He asked me to sit down. It was cold that morning--probably in the 40s--and very humid. But I sat.

He had questions about English, mainly about verb tenses. Which is the proper way to say, "He said he is going to go to Shanghai tomorrow?" Do you say "He said that he is going to go to Shanghai tomorrow?" When do you use "that" and when do you not? Why?

Okay, nothing is more embarrassing when people learning English stump me, a native speaker, with good questions to which I have no answer. I said that the "that" was optional, and that I would really have to think about why we sometimes use it and sometimes don't.

Then, Mr. Yu pulled out a harmonica. On the harmonica was written "C major," indicating how the harmonica was tuned. In halting English, Mr. Yu eventually got me to understand one of his frustrations: People are always asking him to change the key of the songs he plays so they can sing to them, but he can't. "If you want it in G, buy me a G harmonica!" he said with a big laugh at the end.

But then came his question: When you say that a song is in C, is it proper to say that the song is "in the C key?" No, I said, you have to say that the song is "in the key of C." Of course, I couldn't for the life of me explain why this was. I finally said, it just is that way--English is a crazy language.

Then, Mr. Yu opened his notebook. He wanted me to write down the phrases that we had discussed. I etched them in his notebook. It was dog-eared. I asked if I could page through it. In it were other phrases copied down from discussions with other English-speaking tourists. His other notebooks seemed as if they were full of the same thing.

And there were greetings. "Dear Mr Yu, Thank you so much for stopping us for a visit. What a delight!" Sincerely, somebody from the UK. Another person from Hollywood, CA, who claimed to be a movie maker, and so on.

Early on in the conversation, a woman-friend of Mr. Yu's stood near. We talked a little, but she was self-conscious about her English. What she did say is that she remembered some seeing some American pilots who had been shot down over China during World War II. She said they were treated well. But she wished to excuse herself due to her English, which she did with a bow, something I hadn't seen in China.

But then, as we talked, other elderly people and a few young ones came and stood near us and watched as if it were a street performance of some sort. The real old ones stood only one foot in front of us. Kind of disconcerting, but I just kept on with the dialogue with Mr. Yu.

In the end, I wrote my name and address in Mr. Yu's book. He said his granddaughter has email, so I wrote my email address as well. He wanted very much to have a copy of the picture that I asked one of the passersby to take of the two of us.

I was hoping to get an email from Mr. Yu's granddaughter, but so far, nothing. I won't ever forget him, though.

January 19, 2007

Chinese media

Read this article for a fascinating glimpse of the Chinese media. Buried in the lower paragraphs is the shocking statement that an average of 13 people per day die in illegal Chinese coal mines. (Another startling statistic I heard last week: 150,000 Chinese women commit suicide each year. That amounts to one every four minutes.)

Tight margins

Everybody is moving in this picture. The bicyclist leans over to let a speeding car by. Nobody's flinching. Welcome to China.

Looking through my photos, I came across this one of the Master-of-Nets garden that I missed the first time through. This probably gives a feel for the courtyard better than the other photos.

Shanghai, cont.

In the French Concession, an area of Shanghai that was controlled by the French government, a park is the site for a card game. There was gambling going on, and that is illegal, so I got a lot of stares when I pulled out my little camera. I think it made the men uncomfortable.

The park is undergoing expansion. It is odd to see idle wheelbarrows. These are used to haul wet cement. Come back in a month and I'll bet the park will look like it has always been there.

Here is a part of the park which is finished. I asked what the glistening building at the end of the park was. A museum? A government building? An office building?

Nope. It's a karaoke bar.

Shanghai schoolgirls going home from school in the French Concession.

This picture is taken through our train window across the platform at another train before departing Shanghai. A beverage cart is in the foreground.

Another of the contrasts between new and old in Shanghai.

January 18, 2007

Shanghai supermarket

I made a special trip to the Carrefour supermarket, a French-owned chain, to get pictures of the produce department. I snapped only a few shots before security kicked me out. Taking pictures is "against the rules."

Weblog reader Sheila wondered if I had pictures of all the mushroom varieties I mentioned in the last column. This is the only one I could find, and it isn't very good. But suffice it to say, the selection of mushrooms was spectacular.

This shopper looks as Western as you can imagine. It doesn't look odd to us, but when you compare this picture a scene from the old town in Shanghai, the contrast is striking. It hasn't been very long that a shopper in Shanghai could sort through apples in a supermarket as glistening as this one.

A salmon slicer plies his trade in the fish section. Note the tanks of live fish in the background. The Chinese insist that their fish be fresh.

Women in China

One sobering reality in modern China: Women are still regarded as chattel. Although Mao declared women equal, and they have made strides, the overwhelming force of Chinese traditional culture still keeps women in a subservient position.

It starts at birth. The saying, "It is better to have a boy than a girl," still holds sway. There are practical considerations. A girl, when she marries, becomes the property of the groom's family. She will take care of the groom's parents in their old age, not her own parents.

Thus, having a son is a form of social security, for sons (and their wives) are expected to take care of their parents as they age. There is no government-provided social security in China nowadays.

But there are other sayings: "Marrying a woman is like buying a horse. She is yours to ride and beat as you please."

In the demeanor of older Chinese men, one can sense this patriarchial arrogance, the sense of being entitled to be served by a woman. Of course, one can sense the same thing here in certain quarters, but not with the same intensity.

Women at one time had a powerful role in China. About 1,000 years ago, that changed. That is when the practice of binding women's feet started. It continued until the 1940s.

The ideal woman's foot was seen to be three inches long. To accomplish this, the feet were violently bent in half and tied in place. As far as I can tell from photos, the toes were folded under the foot. This made it almost impossible for women to walk. However, the sight of women hobbling around was quite the thing for Chinese men. Women with small feet were seen as particularly attractive.

The grandmother of one Chinese man we talked to had her feet bound for a time before the practice was forbidden. Her feet weren't irreparably damaged. Did she feel oppressed? Far from it. Instead, she laments the ugly "big feet" of women today.

My cousin Roy once was an honored guest of the Mayor of Suzhou. During the course of dinner conversation, he asked the mayor, "Aren't women supposed to be equal in China? How come all of the officials at this dinner are men?"

The question was asked through a female interpreter. When the mayor gave his response, the interpreter turned red with rage and had to compose herself. His response: "Well, officially they are equal, but of course we all know that things go much better if they are run by men."

The interpreter later thanked Roy for asking the question.

A news article this past week reported that China is going to be short 30 million women by 2020. That means there will be 30 million men who will be unable to find brides. How did this happen? We all know that many female babies end up in orphanages because their family wanted a male. It is also possible that people find out the gender of their child through ultra-sound and abort it if it is a female, although the practice is illegal. In any case, something bad has been going on.

The undesirability of female babies has been exacerbated by China's one-child policy, which dicates that families which have more than one child face certain penalties.

Women who do come of age face sobering choices. Do they want a career? If so, they had better not get married, for then the expectation will be that they will stay home. There are instances of Chinese women maintaining careers with the support of their husbands, but those are mainly in the big cities.

More commonly, the men go off to the big city to earn a living while the women stay home and man the farm. There are entire villages in China with almost no men. They return once or twice per year. The women keep the home fires burning and till the land while the men are off earning money in the city.

I had a chance to experience some attitudes of Chinese men up close. The notion that a woman is anything but chattel brings a blank look.

January 17, 2007


I caught this traffic maneuver without even trying. Cars can make right turns on red in China without yielding. These two cars are roaring around the corner.

Meanwhile, the moped, which isn't considered a vehicle and is thus apparently exempt from the red light, wants to go through the intersection.

I can't describe to you how fast this happened: The moped cut between the two turning cars and went across the intersection, through a red light.

It was before 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Suzhou, a smaller city, when this happened. Traffic was a bit light. And still, death-defying stunts.

Looking back on China

Since I have returned from China, people have been asking the usual questions:

Did I like China?

Well, that's a difficult question. I enjoyed the trip. I learned a lot and saw many sights. We were inundated by wonderful food. We met wonderful people. But I couldn't live there! Not at this stage in my life, anyway.

I don't think China is someplace you like or dislike. It just is, and it is fascinating, well worth visiting. For a Westerner, 10 days isn't enough to get a real feel for the place. And we were insulated by the difficulties of living there by our wonderful hosts.

Would I go back?

Of course. However, the circumstances would have to be similar to those of this trip. In other words, I would have to have hosts, guides and translators who knew what they were doing and were able to plan things out. I also would not want to go on a canned tour. That would be too insulated.

What was your favorite place in China of those you visited?

The gardens in Suzhou. Hangzhou was the prettiest city. Beijing and the Great Wall are worth seeing. Shanghai is astonishing. But the gardens in Suzhou were the top for me.

Did you get sick?

Yes, but I had the flu for a week before I went over and I think it lingered. Looking back, I doubt it was anything we ate. The food was excellent.

Did you get jet lag?

No, oddly, I had no problem adjusting either way. That despite my history of getting completely screwed up for an entire week after traveling eastward across several time zones.

What surprised you the most?

The traffic. It is crazy. I am going to try to write a column about it, but I doubt I will succeed in describing the utter insanity of China's traffic. There are no apparent rules. Everybody does their own thing. Near-death experiences happen every few feet, yet the Chinese don't even grimace or holler or get upset in any way. The crowning experience: Seeing an 80-year-old Shanghai grandma on her bicycle serenely pedal against traffic between lanes of cars moving thirty miles per hour in the opposite direction. She brushed by our taxi. She had all of six inches on either side of her handlebars and she would have been toast, yet nobody batted an eye. That was apparently her day to break the rules. Oh wait, there are no rules.


A gigantic picture of Mao hangs above Tiananmen Gate, right below the balcony where the Chinese leader proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949.

The gate above is one of many landmarks centered on the meridian line, a symbolic line of power which runs through the Forbidden City, right where the Emperor's thrones are, as well as through Tiananmen Square, right through Mao's casket, and then through the Meridian Gate, which is the center of China's road numbering system.

When the students protested in Tiananmen Square in 1989, they constructed a Statue of Liberty--right on the meridian line. The symbolism was important. Today, an enormous flagpole marks the spot.

Any protest in China with any enduring effect would have to take place along the meridian line. Symbolism is so very important. That is why every landmark along that line is so heavily guarded. Protests can go on by the 10,000 in the countryside, and they do. But a protest on the meridian line could be incendiary.

It will be quite a day if ever Mao's picture comes down from this exalted perch.

January 16, 2007

Tea ceremony

The time came in Shanghai for the newcomers to go on their own without guides. Lance and I wanted to visit the Shanghai Museum. Our hosts had been there several times before, so they dropped us off and we were to find our way back to their apartment after we were finished. No problem, I thought.

As we exited the museum, two cute young women came up to us. "Do you know English?" they asked. Well, we did. And they were eager to practice. They were university students from some far away town, in Shanghai for the New Year, and they wanted to visit some real speakers of English.

So, we chatted. Then, they said they were on their way to see a "tea ritual." A tea ceremony? I asked. No, a tea ritual is what they thought it was called. Anyhow, they wondered if we wanted to see the tea ritual, too.

Oh, why not, we figured. I have heard of the elaborate tea rituals in Asia, and it sounded like a good cultural experience.

We followed the girls as they looked up at the street signs and tried to find the site of the tea ritual.

Eventually, after walking through several buildings and up a flight of stairs, we came to a door with a placard on an easel which announced a Tea Ceremony. I was happy that I had been right--it was a "ceremony," not a "ritual." I felt very smart.

We were escorted down a hall into a small, dark room with four stools, candles, and an ornate table made from a tree stump. The table was covered with jars of odd looking dried stuff.

At that point, I began to wonder. But the attendant was already making the first batch of tea. It was ginseng. She poured up tiny, tiny dishes of the stuff and then dumped them out. "Custom," she said, using the girls as an interpreter.

Then we got our first cup of tea. We were trained in holding it the proper way. By now, the two innocent little girls seemed more knowledgable than they had before. They seemed to be giving us lengthy instructions even without hearing first from the attendant and interpreting. That made me wonder if this was their first trip to the tea room, as they had claimed.

At the end of the first cup, I stopped and asked, "how much is this costing?"

Out came the price list. It was costing us about $7 per cup. I said, that's it, we're done, we've had enough.

Oh no, no, no! The ritual requires that you do at least five types of tea! Well, I said, we had to go and so although we were very sorry to upset their ritual, we had a train to catch, bring the bill.

The bill was for about $40, after the addition of a hefty service charge. Lance wanted the girls who brought us there to pay for their own. They were looking so poor and forlorn. I decided that $40 was not so bad. We'd been scammed. If $40 got us out of there, that wouldn't be so bad.

The girls brought us back to the train station, and I insisted upon taking their picture. They weren't real enthusiastic, and they refused to smile the cute smiles they had used on us before we got into the tea room.

I mean, in the picture they look like con artists--not like the innocent girls we thought wanted to learn English!

When we got back to the apartment, Lance looked up on the internet: Sure enough, the "tea ceremony" scam is one of the most common in Shanghai. Our host Michael told us we could have, and should have, stood up and said "we're calling the police," and they would have let us go in a hurry without having to spend a dime.

No wonder the girls didn't want their picture taken.

We got off easy. One British couple on the internet posted that they had been taken for over $1000 before they got out of the tea room!

January 15, 2007

I. M. Pei

The last building designed by legendary architect I. M. Pei was the museum in Suzhou, China. It is a masterpiece. Pei, who had roots in Suzhou, referred to the classical gardens of Suzhou when he designed this modern building.

Pei was even more direct in creating mountains in a courtyard than were the designers of the old gardens.

The cloudy day made the museum courtyard almost eerie.

Near the entrance, the appearance of these two old men made me think I wasn't too far from the cafe in Fertile.

January 14, 2007

Shanghai Museum

The Shanghai Museum holds many ancient Chinese art treasures, including the above ink drawing, which is about 600 years old.

I was struck by this statue. The blushed cheeks are made blush by using a different color clay.

This wooden head is about 1,100 years old. It is four times life size.

The Shanghai Museum is quite ornate, perhaps a bit over-the-top.

Lingering in the Gardens

This scene in the Master-of-Nets garden is replicated at the Metroplitan Museum of Art in New York City.

More framed scenes from the Lingering Garden.