Friday, June 30, 2006

Photographs of Beijings Hutongs-The "Alleys."

Photographs of Beijing's Hutongs-The "Alleys."

No pin-yin translation of the name of this hutong. The next six photographs were all taken on/around this hutong.

Such a beautiful little way.

This is the entrance to the hutong or one of its off-shoots.

This section of the hutong photographs is on the alley-ways themselves but there is so much more to the hutongs. The object on the door stoop at far left is a--I forget the real name right now--decorative stone, one of which stands guard on each side of the entryway. They are meant to bring luck and ward off evil spirits. They are beautiful and sometimes elaborately carved. We will see more of them in the doorways section of these pix.

One of the most charming aspects of the hutongs occurs when you snake your way far in. All of a sudden the narrow little way will open into a square. The two children at left are coming out of the square and turning down a hutong.

Photographs of Beijing's Hutongs-The "Square."

Here's a photograph of this hutong's "square." Off to the right the space narrows into a hutong. Behind the photographer is another hutong, or part of the same one.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Islam: "We Must Be Clear"

Islam: "We Must Be Clear"

Syrian-backed Muslims kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Israeli war planes just buzzed the summer home of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. Asad was home at the time, too.

Muslims in Iraq kidnapped and murdered four Russian diplomats. Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a fearfully-worded order to his security forces to track down and "destroy" those responsible.

I know that it's not "mature" or "responsible", but I had to chuckle at these two news reports.

In his 2003 book The Crisis of Islam Bernard Lewis wrote:

"Sooner or later, Al-Qa'ida and related groups
will clash with the other neighbors of Islam--
Russia, China, India--who may prove less
squeamish than the Americans in using their
power against Muslims."

The clock just struck sooner.

And not just for the actual perpetrators. The Russians will err on the side of their safety and collateral damage rather than on being sorry.

Israel's action, put in the language of American domestic politics, is getting at the "root causes" of the problem. Syria is the sponsor and enabler of the kidnapping in Israel as it has been for previous Muslim acts of war against Israel. Syria has also been sponsor and enabler of the infiltration of Muslim soldiers into Iraq who have then attacked American and Iraqi forces, Iraqi civilians, and the nascent Iraqi democracy generally.

So it was with a wistful sigh as well as a chuckle that I read these news stories, the sigh that President Bush isn't as clear-sighted as his counterparts in Russia and Israel.

"We must be clear," Bernard Lewis also wrote. That was the title of his famous post-9/11 article in the Wall Street Journal. We must be clear in our response to Islam's attacks, and we must be clear in what we expect in the behavior of the people of Islam. This is Public Occurrences.

Photographs of Beijing's Hutongs-The "Alleys."

Photographs of Beijing's Hutongs-The "Alleys."

Photographs of Beijing's Hutongs-The "Alleys:" Xiaoyabao Hutong

This photo and the four below are of Xiaoyabao hutong and enviorns. It is narrow enough to begin with but its narrowness is empahsized by the curve and the depth.

China has lots of walls, great walls, medium walls, small walls. Beijing has lots of walls. You never saw so many walls. Here is one of them.

Photographs of Beijing's Hutongs-The "Alleys:" Xiaoyabao Hutong.

Don't know what the writing says but thought we'd document it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Beijings Disappearing Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life-The "Alleys."

Beijing's Disappearing Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life-The "Alleys."

The symbol at far right on the sign is the Chinese character for hutong. That much we figured out. The rest of it is the name of the hutong. That much we did not figure out.

Beijing's Disappearing Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life-The "Alleys."

Beijing's Disappearing Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life-The "Alleys."

This is the hutong whose name is above. With the petite figure in the background one gets a sense of how narrow some of the hutongs are. The tower-shaped object center left is a horse-hitching post.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Beijing's Disappearing Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life-The "Alleys."

Beijins's Disappearing Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life-The "Alleys."

It is no exaggeration to say that Beijing's hutongs and the hutong way of life are disappearing parts of the world's culture so we felt that it was so important to document the precise location of the hutongs that we photographed. For us that realization came a day late. We didn't begin photographing the names until our second day. In some cases the location can only be approximated. The hutongs are famous for being officially unnamed so all one can do is document the nearest sign. We walked up and down some charming hutongs looking in vain for a name. Then too, some ways designated as hutongs are more the width and character of streets, and vice versa.

In this photograph "jie" means street. The photo below is a sure-enough hutong. Thiscould be a case of jie-ing when one should have hutong-ed or being the closest way name there was.

Beijing's Disappearing Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life-The "Alleys."

Beijing's Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life-The "Alleys."

This photograph shows some of the iconographic hutong objects, the two grinding wheels used to turn grain into meal and the horse-hitching post, the small tower-shaped object directly behind.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Beijings Disappearing Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life-The "Alleys."

Beijing's Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life-The "Alleys."

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Beijing's Disappearing Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life--The Alleys

Beijing's Disappearing Hutongs and Hutong Way of Life--The Alleys.

Hutong means alley. This is a Hutong which is more a crack in our experience. In fact to be labelled a Hutong meant that a way could not exceed a certain breadth. This is where the average people of Beijing lived for centuries. In preparation for Olympics these ancient neighborhoods are being razed. Public Occurrences travelled to Beijing in June of this year. The Hutongs and Hutong way of life so enchanted us that we missed some...other Chinese sites, like the ahh, Great Wall, and Tienanmen Square in it's nightime glory until our last day.

We were enchanted, and urged to ignore other sites because the Hutongs were literally disappearing before our, and the world's, eyes. Hutongs that we visited on our first day or two had been razed when we went back at the end of the trip. For several years the world has taken notice and numerous groups have implored the politically totalitarian Chinese government to stop. Of course, they have refused. The Hutongs have not just enchanted tourists. Some lifelong residents have protested by taking their lives, one immolating himself at the gates of the Forbidden City.

The Hutong residences were arranged around the traditional Chinese quadrangle residential plan. Some of the quadrangles belonged to the wealthy and were larger. Others were of more modest size.

The Hutongs were arranged around the center of old Beijing, literally right next to the Forbidden City and fanning out from there so they are off some of the largest streets and most opulent neighborhoods which makes entering the Hutongs more enchanting because of the contrast.

Friday, June 23, 2006

In Beijing: V.I.P.'s

In Beijing: V.I.P.'s

It's been an eventful ten days in the Chinese capital.

Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahadinejad was in town when we arrived. He and Chinese President Hu Jintao were meeting to put their bets down in a friendly wager on the exact date that the U.S. would begin bombing Iran back into nuclear incapacity. The two leaders were photographed smiling and shaking hands on the front page of China Today.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai then arrived. He was interviewed on CCTV-9, China's official English language news station, which Lonely Planet warned was stupefyingly boring. The interviewer asked about current economic conditions in Afghanistan, prefacing the question with the helpful info that China had given $150 million to help the reconstruction. I heard President Karzai answer in a satisfying tone that since 2001 per capita GDP had risen from something like two cents to something like three cents in 2006. That's all I remember. After that either I fell asleep or President Karzai did, I don't remember.

Stephen Hawking was next in town and was greeted with rock star-like enthusiasm. He addressed on overflow crowd in The Great Hall of the People, China's equivalent of the U.S. Congress building. The Great Hall was available since no legislators were in session at the time. One didn't get the impression there would ever be a conflict with use of the building by Chinese legislators.

But the big news out of Beijing, according to The New York Times, was the cracking of Chinese internet censorship by a clever American computer geek. This agent provocateur created a blog and then posted some known buzzwords on it to get the attention of the censors. The blog got through! Then 007 created another blog and this time was more bold, writing something deliberately insulting to the Chinese like "Hu Jintao eats boogers. HA, HA, HA."

Our ingenious code-cracker's day job is as an op-ed writer for the Times who operates under the nom de crayon of "Nicholas D. Kristof." Mr. Kristof had been sent to China to report on a serious matter actually, the show-trial of a Chinese researcher who worked for the Times. But after filing his dispatch on that event and seeing as how he still had money left on his expense account Mr. Kristof decided to spend the next day blogging and thank god for the freedom of journalism he did. In the column he wrote on his success as a code-cracker he even posted the web addresses of his blogs so that the rest of us could share in his revolutionary fruits.

Don't know how much longer Mr. Kristof plans on spending in Beijing but if you see a big spitball on Chairman Mao's chin mole on his huge portrait in front of The Forbidden City you'll know who to credit. This is Public Occurrences.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

In Beijing: Air Pollution

In Beijing: Air Pollution

Beijing has a real air pollution problem. After our plane broke through the clouds on arrival we saw that the city's sky was the color of dirty dish water. We then had three days of blue sky before the return of cloudiness and gray/brown air. An article in China Today said that the problem was the wafting of smoke from the countryside caused by the seasonal burning of straw by farmers. One of the tourist guidebooks mentioned that another source of the pollution was the dust caused by the razing of old buildings as Beijing modernizes and spruces up for the 2008 Olympics. There may also be some air inversion thing going on like in Los Angeles. There are mountains around Beijing and the air has the look of being stagnant and trapped.

We have just spent the day walking through some of the neighborhoods that are being torn down. They are the poorest part of the city, called hutongs--alleyways--that wind like mazes all around the center of Beijing, The Forbidden City.

The hutongs are also the oldest parts of Beijing and have become a favorite of tourists like us because of their humble simplicity, working-class authenticity, history, and the romance that goes with anything that is about to be no more. The language barrier is a near-absolute barrier to conversation on any subject in China so I don't know how the residents of the hutongs themselves feel about their destruction but this Yankee tourist found them charming in their humble simplicity, working-class authenticity, history and romance of being endangered. So enchanted that we have skipped seeing the Great Wall to spend more time in and photographingthe hutongs. We have felt like National Geographic anthropologists documenting for posterity a little-known and soon-to-be-gone culture. We like to feel like National Geographic anthropologists because it makes us feel important, not like tourists with cameras and sneakers, just like we like having a blog because it makes us feel more important than does spending the same amount of time on pornography sites or ESPN.

We have spent three full days walking the hutongs and there may be something to their razing being a source of air pollution. Both my girlfriend and I have had some minor but weird skin things. She has had a nasty coldsore-looking like thing on her Achilles heel. She said it didn't feel like a coldsore but it sure looked like it. The area around it started getting red and so we called a doctor who pronounced the area infected and gave her a topical anti-biotic.

Then I developed the same kind of thing on the bridge of my nose. It also doesn't hurt but I've put my girlfriend's anti-biotic cream on it the last couple of days.

We just came from the hutongs and my eyes feel irritated and my nose stuffed. (note: the following is more than you want to know.) I blew my nose and wiped it and the tissue paper was black. I've had the stuffy nose feeling since arrival and chest congestion also. But those are the things, don't you see, that all National Geographic type photographers-for-posterity have to put up with because we are so important. This is Public Occurrences.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

In Beijing: Misguided

In Beijing: Misguided

Two things travelers to a foreign city need to depend on are a good guidebook and a good map. There are neither on Beijing.

Here are some things on which the guidebooks provided misguidence:

Cigarette smoking is widespread and noxious: Wrong. It's just not a big problem.

Gross, loud, and frequent spitting, often right in the middle of a conversation, is widespread: It is gross and loud but not widespread. We have spent most of two weeks out walking the city and the working class hutongs. The spitting occurs several times in the course of a long day. It has never happened in the course of a conversation.

Beijingers routinely cut in front of you in line and elbow you out of the way in crowds: Wrong on the elbows, infrequent on the line-cutting.

The taxis are dirty: Wrong. There are at least three classes of taxi. We've ridden in all three. Every one has been clean inside and out.

Taxi drivers drive like maniacs: True but it's not dangerous. I know that doesn't make sense. They don't drive fast or recklessly. They do drive with an apparent disregard for the presence of other vehicles or pedestrians but they don't get into accidents. There seems to be a sixth Chinese sense that allows them to stop just in time. That's why it's not dangerous. Once you see it happen a few times you just learn to relax, confident that noone is going to get run over.

Beijing is a modern capital city, there is no significant language barrier: Wrong. Even in the foreigner catering hotels and shops it's a problem. Recourse to sign language is necessary in almost every communication. Even when a Chinese is reasonably fluent in English and has gotten the nuances of syntax down the accent is so strong that the English word is often misunderstood by its auditor.

Maps: On the five or six block walk from the Grand Hyatt hotel to Tiananmen Square there is a massive building of some sort impressively set off from the street. Obviously an important edifice of some kind. A government building? A museum? Dunno. It doesn't appear on any map. Not mislabeled or unidentified. IT DOES NOT APPEAR ON THE MAP AT ALL. This is not an infrequent occurrence. You'll be walking the city tracing your way on your map and where the map has a street you want to make a left turn on there's no street.

There are two exquisite little parks somewhere in the vicinity of The Forbidden City. In The Forbidden City? Dunno. Outside The Forbidden City? Dunno that either. The maps (plural) were unclear. This is Public Occurrences.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

In Beijing: Hu-bris

In Beijing: Hu-bris

As this is being written, in an internet cafe southeast of Tianamen Square, Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher, is awaiting a verdict on bogus leak charges because the Chinese communist government and President Hu Jintao didn't like his reporting on unrest in the countryside.

Times op-ed writer Nicholas D. Kristoff reported on Zhao's "trial" yesterday, the same day that I posted a positive--and accurate, as I saw it--series of impressions on Beijing. That post concluded with a series of questions: Should America be exporting liberal democracy and capitalism? Are the rights which we take to be "self-evident," universal human rights, or just universal American rights?

Walking back to the hotel last night I thought, as I always do in a foreign country, of--to me--the most nettlesome of the costs of the freedoms that we enjoy in America, violent crime. People are more safe, far more safe, in Beijing than in Washington or New York. You can feel it as you walk the streets. Likewise in Cuba. Because of energy shortages Cuba is without lights after dark. Still you feel safe.

When I got back to my hotel room a copy of The International Herald Tribune was at my doorstep and I read Mr. Kristoff's op-ed piece. He properly criticized China and President Hu for recent crackdowns on religious expression, press censorship, as exemplified by Zhao's plight and the lack of a right to a fair trial, as exemplified by Zhao's plight.

However the answers to the questions posed at the end of my previous post remained, for me, unclear. Let's clear the ground of the underbrush of shibboleths, straw men, and scarecrows. With Mr. Kristoff I share these self-evident wishes:

(1) the wish that Mr. Zhao were not imprisoned
(2) the wish that he and all others in China could get a fair criminal trial
(3) the wish that there was greater freedom of speech and religion in China

These areas of agreement do not go very far in answering the questions posed yesterday.

Economists use a standard "basket of goods" as an effective, easy-to-understand measure of a country's economic welfare, and to facilitate comparisons among countries.

A similar, clearly less precise (but that's the point) basket of human desiderata can be created. The American constitution fills our basket up pretty high with the "rights" family of products- speech, religion, presumption of innocence, vote-and the result is, in my personal opinion, the greatest society on earth and the greatest society that ever was.

However it simply is not true that these are the rights and in their proportion that every society and every human being in those societies would put in their basket of human desiderata.

There is also no, or not much, flexibility in the American rights. I have them, and to their fullest extent, and you have them and to their fullest extent. So I can write a lot of hurtful things about you and there's almost nothing that you can do about it.

To continue the economic analogy, Gresham's law, that bad money drives out good money, roughly applies to America's rights as well. I own no television or radio because there's so much "bad currency" there. I have voluntarily diminished my right to that speech.

A lot of Americans, myself included, would be open to the diminution of some of our rights in return for more of some others, like greater freedom from violent crime. A much repeated quote from one of the Founding Fathers has it that "it is better that 100 guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted." Several years ago The New Yorker published a cartoon of two middle-aged white men walking down the street, conversing. The caption read "Better that 100 guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted? Who the hell came up with that nonsense!"
American society would not be diminished if I were prohibited from publishing this blog. It would be if I, or anyone else, were murdered.

Americans joke that our basket of freedoms include the right to be poor, homeless, and jobless, and mugged. These negative "rights" are not mutually exclusive with the positive rights but some do tend to run counter to the enjoyment of others. There are hard trade-offs.

A couple of things that Mr. Kristoff wrote were particularly grating from the perspective of this American. He wrote that,

"China now imprisons 32 journalists...And yes, [Zhao's case] is personal."

There is hubris there, that imprisoning innocent journalists is worse than imprisoning innocent coal miners, factory workers or anybody else. There is a belief among some Americans, including this one, that some in the American press are arrogant, self-important and put one freedom, the one that pays their bills, ahead of all the others.

It is also hubris that Zhao's case is "personal" to Mr. Kristoff, as if whether it's personal to him has greater significance than it not being personal to someone else.

"Most Chinese...Are fed up with corruption and lies, with being blocked from Google and Wikipedia..."

Being blocked from Google and Wikipedia??? Oh yeah, I bet those are front-burner issues for "most Chinese." That statement by Mr. Kristoff is Gresham's law at work. There is absolutely no basis for it. Just a week ago Mr. Kristoff's newspaper published the results of a Pew survey on the attitudes of peoples of different countries toward their governments. Eighty percent of Chinese people were reported satisfied with their government. I don't know for an absolute certainty but I would wager a lot that that satisfaction has to do with China's astonishing economic expansion in the last 25 years, a performance that Mr. Kristoff acknowledges and gives President Hu his share of credit for.

I do not believe that Mr. Zhao's case is personal to very many Chinese people, the few who have heard of him, and what's personal to them is at least as important as what's personal to Nicholas D. Kristoff. I would bet that what's personal to the Chinese people is the better economic life that President Hu and the Chinese government have provided them in the last 30 years and the hope of a better life for their children. I would bet that that economic growth which has lifted 250 million Chinese out of a total of 1.3 billion out of poverty in that time period is what is personal to them.*

There is hubris, too much hubris, to Mr. Kristoff and there is too much hubris in America today. Americans have always had a becoming streak of modesty in their national character. We don't claim we're always right, we don't claim we are better than others, we don't claim that we're some god's, "chosen people," we didn't invent ludicrously sweeping philosophies like communism or socialism, and rejected attempts to plant them in our soil.

Let's keep that modest, self-concious streak in our national personality alive. Is our way the best way? Works for me. Is it the "Universal" way? Whoa there man, I just work here. Let's just keep the conversation going about whether it works for everybody else. This is Public Occurrences.

*Smaller Real Regional Income Gap than Nominal Income Gap: A Price-adjusted Study, Xiaojuan Jiang, Hui Li, in China & World Economy, Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Volume 14 No. 3, May-June 2006.

Monday, June 19, 2006

In Beijing: Freedoms

In Beijing: Freedoms

It is very hard to visit a "second world" country these days, that world having all but disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The P.R.C. is one of the few left. Cuba is another.

China (more precisely Beijing) does not feel second world, Cuba (Santiago, Barracoa) did. Beijing is so...up-to-date: airport modern, clean, and user-friendly; taxis omnipresent, modern and clean, inside and out; skyline crowded with robust glass and concrete office buildings. Beijing is efficient and well-organized. Beijing works.

Cuba was old, decaying, unpainted and held together with chewing gum and twine. Inefficient does not begin to describe Cuba. If "antithesis" is stronger than "synonymous," then Cuba was the antithesis of efficient. If there was an inefficient way of doing something that's how Cuba did it and if there wasn't one they invented it.

So many glass and concrete buildings-office buildings in Beijing, business buildings, banks. Banks in a Communist country? No banks worthy of the name in Cuba. China is now communist in government only. It is not communist economically. Capitalism is roaring here. There is petit capitalism, corporate capitalism, multi-national capitalism. If there's a capitalist way of doing things that's how Beijingers (that's what they call them) do it and if there isn't they will invent it.
Beijingers are busy. They work earnestly and hard. There is no work in Cuba and people are bored. There is real rush in Beijing's rush hour. Santiago de Cuba at 8 a.m. or 5:30 p.m. was the same as Santiago de Cuba at 8 p.m. or 5:30 a.m.

Beijingers work, not just some of them and not just those who work for the government. They work like they work in America, in businesses, the service industries, technology companies. They are smartly dressed, they're on their cell phones, they're hustling and bustling.

"The State" is no more visible in everyday life in Beijing than it is in Washington, D.C. There are no posters or billboards of Mao or of the Communist Party, none of those ominous and darkly humorous billboards trumpeting the glories of communism that were everywhere during the Cultural Revolution--people holding little red books aloft, eyes aglow looking to the bright future and Dentyne white smiles.

There is none of that in Beijing. There are billboards, for Lexus automobiles, Nike, McDonald's and KFC. In Cuba there were no commercial billboards, few billboards at all but those there were were of Fidel, Raul, or Che.

Read an article in Smithsonian magazine before leaving for China. It said there was dissatisfaction with the government and unrest just below the surface. Upon arrival my impression was the opposite. Then a day or two later read an article in the International Herald Tribune, a Pew poll showing that 80% of Chinese are happy with their government. Appears there's a lot to be happy with.

What does that say about democracy and our (America's) efforts to export it, indeed to demand it? During the Cold War, conservatives used to make a very plausible sounding distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian forms of government. The former, like Pinochet's Chile, were worthy of our support; capitalism could exist in authoritarian countries and those countries could easily transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Totalitarian forms of government like communism could do neither. Well, China is totalitarian politically but capitalist economically.

Then, after the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama wrote that history itself had ended with liberal democracy's triumph over it's last foe, communism. Democracy was a universal human condition. Where it didn't exist was abberational and temporal. Further, like the conservatives earlier, Fukuyama argued that by their natures democracy and capitalism go together, you can't have one without the other. Well, the Chinese are doing it.

I believe it was Samuel Huntington who rejoined to Fukuyama that America's liberal democracy/capitalism was not universal, it was unique. So should we be trying to plant it in all kinds of soil and climate? Should we be demanding human rights compliance of other countries? Are they "Human" rights, or American rights?

-Benjamin Harris

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Things that You'll Like and that are Good for You Too

Thing that You'll Like and that are Good for You Too.
Women's shoes by Cesare Paciotti. This is Public Occurrences.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Cesare Paciotti Shoes

Cesare Paciotti Shoes

Cesare Paciotti makes today's most striking haute couture women's shoes.

Paciotti's stiletto logo is design brilliance. Simplicity in appearance is key to brand identification and the stiletto is immediately identifiable. By contrast, Etro, which makes wonderfully creative mens and womens wear has a busy flying horse logo that is impossible to identify from a distance and difficult even upclose.

The Paciotti logo combines simplicity in appearance with the stiletto's symbolic power, danger and mystery. It is perfect symbolism for today's fashionable woman.

Paciotti adds to the logo's allure by unpredictable and unusual placement. Sometimes the stiletto is on the front near the tip, sometimes it's on the back, sometimes on the side, in one style it is on a brightly colored shoe bottom.

Paciotti sometimes displays the stiletto simply and discreetly, other times more prominently, for example in Svaroski crystals, other times boldly and dramatically, attached to a chain which swings with the step.

Even the most humble part of the shoe, the bottom, is brought into the whole design presentation. Paciotti seems to be defiantly resistent to predictability. As with the different manners of presentation of the stiletto, some--but not all--of his shoes have brightly colored bottoms. This idea is not unique to Paciotti, at least one other manufacturer does it, but it is so unusual and the colors so vivid as to make the shoe impossibly eye-catching. The eye is drawn to the color, the stiletto, the whole shoe, the ankle, the leg and ultimately the woman. Which is the point of the best fashion.

-Benjamin Harris

Thursday, June 01, 2006

"Some Look at the World and Ask 'Why?' Some Look at the World and Ask 'Why Not?' "

"Some Look at the World and Ask 'Why?" Others Look at the World and ask, 'Why Not?'"*

Combine the State and Defense Departments.

Currently, State is the department of diplomacy, Defense the department of the military. That builds in bureaucratic conflict internally and produces mixed messages sent abroad.

-Benjamin Harris

*See also October 19, 2003