good feelings and the Olympics

After visiting grand Shanghai and glittering Chongqing, it was in a taxi in Dongguan that my view of China took a small, but important shift. I was traveling with a friend to the South China Mall, down the main road that stretches from the city’s train station all the way out to the suburbs. It was Olympics time, but we were a far cry from Beijing’s impressive Bird’s Nest.

The train station was bustling with passengers, laborers and managers who clogged up nearby cafes and bars, eating cost-efficient meals before getting on buses to their offices or factories or wholesale shops. We were trying to get to a magical place, though, a place hailed as the world’s largest shopping mall. But we knew something was not quite right as the crowds thinned out and the buildings got taller but the streets got emptier. The downtown megacity was full of half-empty towers and ambitious but abandoned construction projects for new skyscrapers. The media, even China’s state-media Xinhua, was already reporting on falling property prices and demand well before the Olympics, and  in Dongguan, it was obvious, even to our taxi driver, that things were not as great as so many people thought they were.

At a University of Southern California conference on Friday, scholars gave more academic perspectives on China’s Olympics. Anthropologist Susan Brownell discussed China’s goals as hosts. Contrary to popular belief, she said, most of their efforts were turned toward their domestic audience. They did not have a “master plan to promote a positive image of China to the outside world.” She outlines this argument in a post on The China Beat and in her book, Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.

China promised to host a “People’s Olympics,” but can that kind of agenda survive, or even have any effect on the post-Olympics ground reality? Stanley Rosen raised the question, citing the warnings of state-run weekly magazine Outlook. Because of rising unemployment, reporter Huang Huo wrote that China is entering a “peak period for mass incidents.” Rosen, a USC professor of political science, pointed out significant, and emotional, upcoming anniversaries; May 4 will mark the 90 year anniversary of Beijing student protests that sparked the May Fourth Movement for populism and June 4 will mark the 20 year anniversary of the violent put-down of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Economist Jeffrey Owen stressed that the Olympics did not provide direct financial benefit to Beijing or China. With a $40 billion price tag, including Olympics and Olympics-related costs, the gains come more in the form of less quantifiable “legacy effects,” the good feelings, China brand building, and the international education received by volunteers, students and residents of Beijing. Certainly, Chinese residents of the second-tier cities, like Chongqing and Shenzen, felt pride for the country’s successes, even though they were far-removed from the glamor and cameras. But still, they, like me and my traveling companion, became very tired of the Game’s soundtrack.

 

Last week’s conference, hosted by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Center for International Studies and the US-China Institute, was filled with interesting food for thought. But it was hard to get the repetetive refrains Beijing Huan Ying Ni out of my head every time I thought about my time in China. A friend in Chongqing told me the young people there were alternately pulling their hair out and making lewd parodies of the song, just to make its constant presence bearable. So while Premeir Wen Jiabao does his best to spread hope for China’s near future on his global financial goodwill tour, it’s still difficult to figure out if the Beijing Olympics gave China any significant leg up, if it was, as the conference asked, a “Public Diplomacy Triumph or Public Relations Spectacle?”

So what happened when we finally got to the world’s biggest mall? My friend, Anka Lee, wrote about it for NBC in San Francisco. But I think you can guess that it was not as triumphant as Beijng’s fantastic opening ceremonies.

Diamond Bar evacuations from smoke, fire

The Country Estates, a gated community about 1 mile up the road from our house has been evacuated. There is an evacuation center set up at my alma mater, Diamond Bar High School on Pathfinder Road. We feel pretty safe here on the southwest side now, though we are ready to pack up and go if necessary. A lot of neighbors have already packed their cars just in case.

The air quality is abysmal though. When you step outside it feels a bit like a huge barbeque gone wrong and it’s not clear if the heat you’re feeling is just from the California sun, or if it’s coming from Tonner Canyon over the hill. The side streets have a flurry of activity, but the freeways are eerie and empty. Businesses are open still and life is going on, just with some apprehension. Fire fighting planes and helicopters have been flying low over our neighborhood since earlier this morning, making a massive effort to protect the city. I read later on L.A. Now that 15 helicopters and 10 air tankers are in the fight.

If you watch the local news, they are trying to see Diamond Bar from helicopters, but the smoke is so thick you really can’t see anything, particularly arund The Country. I have not seen or heard of any actual flare ups in the city, however. Here’s what it looks like behind my house.

Diamond Bar smoke

embers in the hills

It is a bit surreal when your drive home consists of barricades and smoke and embers. I left Long Beach before 5 p.m. today and got home to Diamond Bar just before 8 p.m. This is usually a 30 minute drive.

But I am very lucky that I have a home to go to. I have seen California wildfires in the past, but I have never seen a blaze from the hills near my house as I have today. The Yorba Linda fire stretches for longer than my eye could go and there are small blazes in many parts of Brea. Here in Diamond Bar, we have a canyon between us and the fires that will hopefully protect our city, but I saw a small stray blaze near Tonner Canyon Road being put out by a police officer on the way home.

The immediacy of the information being put out is very helpful though. In addition to local radio, Twitter feeds are offering very detailed information about hot spots, traffic and general information. (Twitter is a service that allows people to text message or post online short statements or news, a kind of microblog that can be read like an RSS feed.) The Los Angeles Fire Department created a hashtag, #LAFIRE, and there is a similar one for Orange County, #ocfire. I’ve been particularly impressed with the California Public Utilities Commissioner Rachelle Chong and her dedication to twittering the news. To get a feel for how people are reacting, I suggest Monitter (pictured below). I searched for tweets within 10 miles of Brea, CA and used the search terms “fire,” “evacuation,” and “canyon.”

The Orange County Register provides a good map of the flames. Our house sits right on the border of Diamond Bar, Rowland Heights and Brea. Things are ok now, aside from dismal air quality and the ash falling out of the sky. I hope it stays that way, and that, for our Brea neighbors, these fires come under control.

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best boss ever?

As I continue freelancing and working on projects while I spend time with my family, I am also job hunting. Apparently, so is my close-to-retirement father.

Thanks, Dad, for pointing this out to me. If as many people are excited about Barack Obama’s new job as it seems they are, this might be the best opportunity ever. Not to mention that the inital application is exceedingly simple. I hope for my dad’s sake that they’re looking for an engineer who designs water systems for a cabinet position. I wonder what kind of boss Barack Obama would be — I’ve already had the best boss ever, but I won’t discourage my dad from working with Mr. President-Elect until I know more.

Good luck to the hopefuls!

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Election day pre-game

When I lived in Singapore I watched the presidential debates and conventions online. I used to sit in our living room, lounging on the rattan sofa in my Thai fishing pants, and enjoying the wifi generously shared by the fellows downstairs. Sometimes on the Sundays that I stayed in town I would sit there for hours, unaware of time going by, taking in my Americanness and trying to stay connected to home once in a while.

My roommate, who still lives in the flat, would go out in the morning — for muy thai or ballet lessons because she is a very active person in that way — and come back in the afternoon only to find me sitting the same place, mugs and plates for snacks piling up around me. And I would absently make a comment — “That was a really solid speech,” or “I don’t think this is true,” or “What do you think of their approach to Asia?” — to which she would blankly stare or just continue with her activities.

Sometimes though, when I wasn’t spacing out, we had really interesting conversations. It’s really interesting to think about American politics from international perspectives. My old roommate is from a town outside of Hiroshima, Japan. Politics in Japan are very different, she told me. She was baffled at Americans and the way they watch politicians and listen to them speak.

Japan has had four prime ministers in the last three years; after the charistmatic Junichiro Koizumi’s almost six years in office (which is three terms in Japan), Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda took the post and then resigned under political pressure before their terms ended. The current Prime Minister, Taro Aso, just postponed until January a general election in which he and his party would have to defend their position. Add to this the financial crisis, and it seems like a good time for political news in Japan.

But young people in Japan and the mass media don’t give politicians the airtime that American politicians get here. They are not seen as the people who directly affect lives, and since Koizumi, they are not particularly interesting to watch. The dynamism and hustle of this year’s political race in America was something new to my roommate.

So we watched the conventions together, testing my ability to explain some of the more absurd elements American politics and punditry and my roommate’s ability to follow some pretty complex English.

Now that it’s election day, I wonder what she would think of the campaigning and media duke-outs — even I am a bit in awe of the Superbowl-like energy, even though I am really excited (I voted!). I’ve never seen CNN get so excited about a multi-touch screen (they need more applications for that, so its not John King doing the same demonstration over and over again), and The New York Times plug its own tech-saavy so heavily. Even the Japanese press are getting excited.

So here’s my election night game-plan: 4pm, CNN and local news on television. Online, I’ll be following the Los Angeles Times for my local fix (see this interesting graphic on the historic fundraising for Proposition 8 campaigns), The New York Times and their ticker that shows when major news outlets call races, and some papers in Asia. Many are relying on wire service reports or The New York Times, but I’m finding interesting real-time perspectives so far in the Straits Times of Singapore, the Jakarta Post in Indonesia, and The Times of India. In social media, I’m looking at Global Voices’ special election section and Twitter’s election ticker.

those crazy artists (or, why I went to Riverside)

It’s a lot like the Oregon Trail, driving out to Riverside. The road gets emptier as you go further along 60 East. There are warning signs: GUSTY WINDS AHEAD. You hope your passenger doesn’t die of cholera. At one point, the trail divides. You can choose the 15 to Barstow, and if you keep going you’d get to Las Vegas.

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But we stayed the course. All for the sake of a documentary about David Choe, a Southern California graffiti-artist-turned-hispter-phenomenon. If you’re from Los Angeles you might recognize his work even if you don’t know who he is. On the street, he’s famous for spray painting huge whales saying funny things on freeway retaining walls. His gallery showings include paintings made with soy sauce and urine from his three-month stint in a Japanese prison, an ice cream shop gallery of his portraits, and a $2.5 million sell-out show in London.

The film, Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, is a cut of 7 years of footage of Choe doing crazy things (traveling around the Congo with a child’s drumset on his back), breaking the law (grand theft for stealing groceries from a frat house), and talking about his life (a bevy psychological problems and addictions, the desire to make his girlfriend happy and God).

But the fundamental question I walked away with (from the film and the arduous journey into the armpit of Southern California): does great art or leadership or work require a streak of crazy? Is it necessary to travel down that road, where personal relationships and mental health sometimes suffer, to have singular experiences?

Choe himself wrestles with this problem in the film. When he tries to take prescribed drugs for his obsessive compulsive disorder and clinical depression (among other diagnoses), his art suffers. His inhibition — that manic feeling that makes his imaginative and often disturbing art so interesting to look at — was reigned in. He stopped taking the medication.

For those of us who keep or inhibitions in tact, like a security blanket that keeps us safe, Choe’s art and life can give us a taste of what goes on in a mind that does anything it wants. And it can inspire us to do the same, to some degree at least.

random updates: writing about Singapore, teaching in Cambodia and watching movies in Korea

I had a little bit of an epiphany about my writing life in Singapore a while ago. And I promised I would write more about the country where I live. So, a few months later, I am true to my word and am posting for Global Voices. Will work my way up to longer, reported writing.

I’m also not giving up just yet on my goal to get at least a few of my students reading more. I’m writing for them at npReads. Students, colleagues — if you’re reading this, I’d love for you to contribute and build the site after my fellowship ends.

Next next weekend, I’ll be attending a bar camp in Phnom Phen. I’d like to teach a news writing topic — perhaps about upsidedown triangles or a spiced up lead drill of some sort. Any suggestions or requests? Mostly, I am very excited to meet new people and get to know Cambodia a bit.

In the first week of October, I’ll be off to the Pusan Internation Film Festival with my friend and trusted film maniac Brian Hu. I’ll take some photos and do some writing and try to see as many beautiful people as possible. And get a taste for Korea.

Then it’s off to Los Angeles, home of tacos and burritos and In ‘n Out burgers. And my family too.

word cloud analysis?

Every major newspaper needs a clever multimedia way to cover speeches at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Nytimes.com scores with its streaming video, transcript and hyperlinked outline all in one. But I noticed today that newspaper websites are using word counts to add graphical interest. But what can you tell from the fact that Republicans used the word “God” 43 times and Democrats used the word “McCain” 78 times during their conventions? I’m not completely sure — but it’s nice to look at.

Again, nytimes.com wins for design — they go the extra step to provide numerical breakdowns, and breakdowns by speaker. Washingtonpost.com wins for interesting content — they compare buzz words across history. It’s fascinating to see what has changed over the years, and even more so to see what hasn’t. My hometown paper, latimes.com, unfortunately suffers from not putting word clouds side by side, leaving in links to nowhere, and generally not providing much more than an automatically generated tag cloud, with generic text below it. Here are the screenshots, linked to their sources.

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beautiful things

I went to China. It was a fantastic and eye opening trip. I took some photos and wrote a bit — will share that soon.

For now — I can’t help but echo the crowd about the Democratic National Convention. I had missed the Hillary Clinton who spoke on Tuesday, the woman who was a leader not because she’s a woman and certainly not in spite of being a woman. And Al Gore gave my second favorite speech I’ve heard him give — the first is on Ted.com. But I’m no political junkie, so I’ll comment more on what I know — online journalism.

I love good reporting, I love investigative journalism and I love moving images and well-placed quotes. But the meaning of news is changing and readers and consumers now demand many more options, including first-hand sources and searchability. Good journalism more and more often is a question of good design. My pick for best news coverage of the DNC (if there ever was such an award) goes to the designers of nytimes.com. If you haven’t yet, watch Obama’s speech on their website. It loads fast, the picture quality is fantastic, the transcript scrolls with the speech and you can jump to different sections easily. And they did the same for Al Gore.

It’s powerful. It cuts away the talking heads who recap and editorialize and speculate. It makes me more confident that 24-hour online news, with multimedia embedded, is infinitely superior to cable news alone.

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unlikely combos

I spent maybe too much time this weekend reviving my rap playlist on iTunes. But it’s not my fault! To be fair, rappers are making pretty good news lately.

I’ve been waiting for a hero to take on Fox News, and I’ve found one in the most unexpected of places. My favorite rapper #2, Nas, is taking Bill O’Reilly to task, and what’s even better is that he’s doing some of this very important work on really reputable new sources.

And I thought this was enough for one weekend, enough to keep me busy looking for videos and awesome soundbites from both sides. Enough for me to start emailing friends links to my favorite Nas songs from YouTube. But two more unlikely combos are taking even more of my attention.

snoop-akshay.jpgSnoop has gone to Bollywood. My favorite line: “Snoop Dogg’s got love for everybody. I like how the Punjabis get down;
the way they dress is fresh and they got a real appreciation for music.”

And then, I find out that Ludacris is eating roti pratas. I can relate to one of the patrons of his new restaurant: “‘The roti is like crack,’ said Camille Wright, 36, the owner of a boutique in nearby Decatur, who was devouring the paper-thin pancakes with friends.