Good for NYC, Bad for Beijing

Filmmaker Zhu Rikun is homeless.

Not literally, but in a philosophical way.

“I still continue my job as a filmmaker,” he says. “I just feel homeless. I don’t feel any home anywhere, in China or the United States.”

Zhu was the artistic director of the Beijing Independent Film Festival from 2006 to 2011 and is an acclaimed producer and director of independent film in China. In the years before he left Beijing, he was monitored, placed under house arrest and detained by authorities. The festival was shut down last summer. Zhu moved to the Hudson Valley, New York in the fall under a visa program for artists of extraordinary ability.

In a sense, both Zhu and the Beijing Independent Film Festival have become homeless, squeezed out of China’s increasingly tight space for artists and activists.

Next month, his film “The Dossier” will be screened in New York City as part of a special series of independent films from China. A sort of stand-in for what was blocked Beijing, Cinema on the Edge is an almost month-long event of 27 films curated from the Beijing festival that never took place.

Read on a

Gene Luen Yang on Relying on Stories, Creating Boxers & Saints

It’s not that the concept of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is complex: two volumes tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two perspectives.

But within this simple structure, Yang’s graphic novels build a compelling story around a war of identity, set 100 years ago in China. It combines mysticism with the very concrete ways that people decide who they are, in this case a leader in a secret fighting society and a Chinese Christian convert. It has the remarkable effect of allowing readers to explore how stories — saints and spirits — can shape physical events — the blood, gore and battles of history.

A book like this, both approachable and profound, could not come at a better moment. When you can imagine China’s history with foreigners this way, it becomes very difficult to oversimplify the mix of views Chinese people might have today about their spectacular entrance onto the world stage.

Read the interview in the Los Angeles Review of Book’s China Blog.

A textured look at modern China

Had the good fortune to talk about Chinese Characters, the book of essays about everyday life in China that I co-edited with Jeff Wasserstrom, with Lisa Napoli on KCRW in Los Angeles. Here’s our chat:

Lisa wrote in the Which Way, LA blog: “There’s lots of news each day from and about China, but it’s rare that any of the broad brushstrokes we read and hear in the news introduce us to real people grappling with real issues.” Couldn’t agree more.

China Stories

If Chinese Characters is about telling the stories of everyday life in China, China Stories is explicitly a way to think about how we tell and hear those stories. Historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom and I teamed up again to curate and edit this e-book volume of reviews and analyses for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The cover art is by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who figures in the collection alongside some others who have shaped how we see China and how people in China see themselves.

The ebook was available first to LARB supporters, but is now on Amazon for everyone. I hope you enjoy the collection!

Part 2 of my interview with Rob Schmitz

In the Los Angeles Review of Books:

In part 2 of this interview, Rob Schmitz talks more about factory workers in China, the vast system of netting installed at factory dormitories to cut back on worker suicides, the problems with and opportunities for doing responsible journalism in China, and his book recommendations.

Listen here.

Part 1 of my interview with Rob Schmitz

In the Los Angeles Review of Books:

“Rob Schmitz is the Shanghai bureau chief for American Public Media’s Marketplace. He broke the story about Mike Daisey, showing that Daisey’s reporting on Chinese factory workers for This American Life was full of fabrication. He talks here with Angilee Shah about that story, about reporting in China, and about the problems trying to understand the vast, rapidly changing country. This is Part 1 of 2 — the rest of the interview next week.”

Listen to the podcast here.

April 18 at UCLA, I’ll be in coversation with Marketplace China correspondent Rob Schmitz

These days, Rob is in the news for debunking the Mike Daisey Foxconn investigation that aired on This American Life. We’ll be talking about that story and his other reporting on China for American Public Media’s Marketplace radio program at UCLA on April 17. Is there something you want me to ask? Please leave your questions in comments.

The Challenge of Covering a Fast-Changing China
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
12:30 PM – 2:00 PM
Presentation Room 11348 YRL
UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library [map]

How is China’s economy changing and how is this affecting its people and the world?  What are the biggest obstacles and most exciting aspects of reporting on this increasingly important topic?  These are the kinds of issues to be discussed in a conversation between journalist and editor Angilee Shah, and Rob Schmitz, American Public Media’s Marketplace China correspondent, who along with covering a host of important stories, related to everything from labor rights to education to the rise of consumerism, played the key role in exposing the fabrications in Mike Daisey’s account of Foxconn factories on This American Life and then was featured in that show’s much discussed retraction episode.

Here’s the official UCLA announcement.

First press on Chinese Characters comes from Beijing

The collection of essays about everyday lives in China that I have been working on for about two years made its pre-publication debut in China at the M Literary Festival. Chinese Characters contributors Evan Osnos, Ian Johnson, Michelle Loyalka, Christina Larson and my co-editor Jeffrey Wasserstrom spoke on the “Art of the Profile” at a Beijing panel discussion earlier this month.

Our first mass media press, therefore, also happened in China. The English-language Beijing newspaper Global Times sent a reporter to the panel, who in turn wrote a preview article of our book. The story, “China at face value,” begins this way:

“There has never been a lack of good books about the history of China, from detailed analytical narration of its 5,000-year civilization to numerous travelogues depicting the country’s vast, grandeur landscapes.

“Although the Middle Kingdom has always held allure to outsiders, ordinary Chinese folks, or laobaixing, are often seen as just faces in the crowd. However, those faces are given a chance to bask in the spotlight in Chinese Characters: Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, a book co-edited by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, and Angilee Shah, a freelance journalist and editor in Los Angeles.”

India, China, and the Importance of Storytelling

Every time they fly in and out of Mumbai, tourists, businesspeople, and politicians can see blue-tarp and cardboard rooftops squeezed between condominiums and luxury hotels. The irony of Mumbai’s slums is that the urban poor are ubiquitous, simultaneously visible and invisible.

But seeing slums from the perspective of those who inhabit them — and not just an aerial view — is crucial to gaining real insight into a place. As UCLA historian Vinay Lal asks, “How else is one to understand a civilization and a particular junction in time?”

Katherine Boo’s debut book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, offers readers the chance to see this India from the ground up.

Read on at Miller-McCune.