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Fireworks factories, coal mines and cute little puppies

HENGSHUI, Jiangxi — “I don’t understand why so many people just want to stay in the village. They don’t want change. They don’t want a better life.”

Eighteen-year-old Miao Jiao — Jo, as I know her — is in limbo, hovering between two different worlds, two different eras. She attends college in Shanghai, an ever-changing city of nearly 20 million that buzzes like one giant neon light bulb. Her hometown is Hengshui, population 4,000, a tiny village in western Jiangxi Province, where the Miao family is one of the lucky ones — they have electricity. She said when she is in Hengshui, she misses Shanghai. When she is in Shanghai, she misses Hengshui.

If you live in Hengshui, you probably either work on a farm, in a coal mine, at a fireworks factory — or you don’t work at all. Until last year, Jo’s father, Miao Chang Xin, worked in sales for one of the many small local coal mines. But like so many small local coal mines in Jiangxi, Mr. Miao’s was mismanaged and went out of business. Now Miao, who had worked at the mine for more than 20 years, is jobless. At 43, Jo fears her father is too old to find steady work. He currently passes time at home making parts for a local fireworks factory on a small hand-operated machine. They pay him RMB 30 — $2.75 — a day.

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07.31.2004, 4:39 PM · Jiangxi, Stories, The Trip · Comments (15)

Hengfeng Town: ‘It’s different in China’

HENGFENG, Jiangxi — According to the Jiangxi Statistical Yearbook and State Statistical Bureau, the southeastern province of Jiangxi — which boasts the largest gold, silver, copper, plutonium, uranium, lead and zinc resources in China — has an average annual household income of RMB 4678, just a tad shy of $600 a year. But according to my former student Gerry (Hong Min) and his friends, that figure seems a bit off. It should be a about $120 lower.

Traveling from Hangzhou to northeast Jiangxi’s Hengfeng, a small town of 100,000 or 200,000 — no one seems to know — the great divide that exists in China becomes quite clear. As John Edwards might say, there are two Chinas. Three, if you want to put Shanghai in a category all by itself.

“Do you like hot food?” Gerry asked me as one of his uncles drove us to Hengfeng from the Shangrao train station. “My mother was worried you may not like spicy food.”

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07.28.2004, 4:50 PM · Jiangxi, Stories, The Trip · Comments (6)

The Trip continues

Since Dan is still unable to access the internet, he has requested that I, the Shanghai Diaries news editor, post a quick update to let everyone know he is alive and well.

The trip continues and Dan is currently in Hengshui, a very small village in western Jiangxi province. After a 6+ hour train ride last night, he was met by his former student, Jo, whose uncle drove them from Pingxiang into the actual village around 50 kilometers away. Estimated time of arrival in Hengshui: 1 a.m.

Despite a late arrival last night, the day started early and Jo has already taken Dan exploring through local coal mines and fireworks factories. Dan claims to have some interesting photos from his first day in Hengshui as well as some he has yet to post from Shangrao. You can also look forward to a new 2,400 word story which will be posted as soon as he finds a way to get to the internet.

Hopefully these delays in new story/photo postings don’t happen too frequently. But internet access in rural China is at times less than reliable. Thanks for your patience, and keep checking back for new stories and photos from Dan’s cross-country journey.

07.27.2004, 2:23 PM · The Trip · Comments (1)

Train No. 2249: Hangzhou to Shangrao

ON A TRAIN, Zhejiang/Jiangxi — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”

The scene at the Hangzhou train station has always reminded me of these famous words. For a major transportation hub, thousands of people sure seem to be going nowhere. They sit on the pavement, on luggage, on each other. Just waiting. Those with tickets step right over them.

My seven-hour, RMB 49 ($6) train ride from Hangzhou to Shangrao was comfortable enough. The lady who sold me my ticket said the train was air-conditioned, and at times during the trip it seemed as if it actually was. And I had a seat, which is not guaranteed along such routes. The trip went by rather quickly.

I imagine the same was true for my car companions, whose attention was occupied, almost constantly, with watching me. There were the usual looks, stares and whispers, and more than one person shouted “Hello.” But it wasn’t until I took out my Pocket PC to do some writing that the crowd gathered, peering over my shoulder. My every click was followed by a dozen curious eyes. I decided against taking out the foldable keyboard for fear that one of my admirers might faint.

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07.24.2004, 5:00 PM · Jiangxi, The Trip · Comments (8)

Greetings from the only foreigner for miles

TIANTAI, Zhejiang — On a Tongbai Mountain hiking trail on Wednesday, three Chinese teenagers were headed in my direction. One smiled with what appeared to be relief when he saw me. He held up a camera and walked toward me.

“Sure,” I thought. “I’ll help them out. I’ll take a picture of the three of them together.”

I took the camera from his hand and motioned for the three of them to stand side by side. But the boy took the camera back, handed it to his friend, and stood next to me with his hand rested on my shoulder. This photo was going to be of us. I should have known.

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07.23.2004, 1:07 PM · The Trip, Zhejiang · Comments (4)

My green tea is better than your green tea

“It is such a nice place, with green mountains, clean water, wonderful tea, kindly people and beautiful view.” — Li Peng on Mei Family Village

HANGZHOU, Zhejiang — Hangzhou is one of the top tourist destinations in China, so on Tuesday Arthur and I played the role of tourists. We took a short bus ride to Mei Jia Wu, or Mei Family Village, a peaceful place full of white buildings, rolling green hills and tea plants — lots of tea plants. Mei Village’s sole reason of existence is the production of Longjin, or Dragon Well, tea, which the people of Mei Village not surprisingly say is the best green tea in all of China. And most tourists who visit Mei Village come for two reasons: to drink tea and buy tea. You see them arrive on their tour buses … and then you see them leave on their tour buses. No one seems to stay long: drink, buy, leave.

Well, Arthur and I didn’t arrive on a tour bus. We took public transportation, for a grand total of RMB 6, or around 75 cents. And instead of drinking tea immediately, we went directly to the source — the tea leaves themselves. We spotted a dirt path that meandered off from the main road and into the neatly planted rows of tea bushes that lined the hillside. We hiked to the top of a hill and were rewarded with a nice view of the village. You’ve got to work up a thirst before it’s tea-drinking time.

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07.21.2004, 5:39 PM · The Trip, Zhejiang · Comments (6)

And on the first day … he sat on a soft seat

HANGZHOU, Zhejiang — I hesitated shutting the door to my apartment today, because I knew I wouldn’t be opening it again until October — at the earliest. All the constants, all the comforts of my less-foreign-every-day existence in Shanghai were locked inside. I couldn’t hesitate for long, however. I was already behind schedule. With the months of build up — and delays — this trip had, you would think if anything I would be too prepared. No, not me. I was running around at the last minute looking for bottles of hand sanitizer and spools of dental floss, things not easily found in the wilds of China, or some neighborhoods in Shanghai for that matter.

But I’m not roughing it … yet. Far from it, actually. Sure, I broke a sweat walking from my apartment to the metro station, past the gourmet food shop, past the Starbucks. But when it’s mid-July in Shanghai, you break a sweat walking anywhere — even if you don’t have all of your belongings for the next four months strapped to your back.

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07.20.2004, 1:34 AM · The Trip, Zhejiang · Comments (2)

The Trip: Why the hell should you give me money?

Dan answers the questions of a reader confused by the PayPal button in the upper-right-hand corner of this webpage …

So what exactly is The Trip?

For approximately four months, starting July 19, I will travel across China. From the road, I will try to update this website with words and images as often as possible, hopefully daily. (I’m bringing along a geekload of gadgets to ensure I stay as connected as humanly possible.)

This will be real-time writing, a travel essay for the internet age. Neither writer nor reader know what will happen next. It’s going to be an adventure — and I want as many people to tag along as possible.

For more information, go here: trip.shanghaidiaries.com.

OK. That’s all well and good, but it still kind of sounds like you are just delaying joining the rest of us in the real world. Why should I give you money? Why should I help support your life of leisure?

I don’t expect you to give me money.

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07.18.2004, 4:21 PM · The Trip · Comments (6)

The Trip: Gadgets Galore

I’m not a geek. I promise. I just want this trip project done right.

Anyone can travel cross country. Anyone can write about a cross-country trip.

But I want to write — a lot — during the trip. I want the reader to join me while I spend three, four, maybe five months meandering around one of the world’s most misunderstood countries. Another day on the road, another story from the road. And plenty of photos.

Maybe they’re out there, but I haven’t seen many projects like this on the internet. Not of the frequency and duration I am planning, at least. And definitely not in China. (Although I do believe it will actually be easier to pull something like this off in China than many other countries, even the U.S. In China, internet bars are found in the oddest and most obscure places. And Chinese mobile phone coverage is the most comprehensive I’ve ever seen.)

Still, I’m bringing with me a wide assortment of gadgets, things I think will make the project better and, in some cases, feasible. I’m listing the main ones below for your perusal. You know, the more I look at this, it just seems like an open letter to criminals: “Rob me!” I doubt, however, the average Chinese criminal spends much time reading weblogs … in English. But, on the off chance that a thief is reading this, I should have you know that one the gadgets listed below is really A BOMB! So, go ahead, try your luck.

In order to carry all of these tools, I actually had to go out and buy a pair of shorts, ones with plenty of pockets.

Hmmm. Maybe I am a geek. I don’t know: Check out the list, and you tell me.

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07.17.2004, 11:52 AM · The Trip · Comments (9)

The Trip: Passport? Check. Visa? Check. Plan? Um, sort of.

OK. I’ve got all my documents in hand — passport, residence permit, alien employment permit — and they all seem pretty legit. Lots of red stamps. And, in China, red stamps are all you need.

So, I think I can say, without much hesitation, that the much-talked-about trip will finally get underway on Monday … and could be coming to a city near you soon! (If you live in China.)

Due to the delay, however, I think it is best if I revamp my original plans a bit. The course of this trip is partly being dictated by where I have contacts, people willing to take me in and show me around and answer some questions. And some of my contacts are students. If I would stick to my original plan, they would be back at school by the time I arrive at their hometown.

So the course has changed a little, but the aim has not: I will still be traveling all over China.

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07.17.2004, 12:00 AM · The Trip · Comments (3)

Not reading Chinese will make your milk go sour

I have less than half of my iBook battery left — 49 percent to be exact — so I will keep this short.

Power went out in my building at around 7:30am. This has never happened before. It’s been nearly three hours, and I still have no power.

This is not good. My office is in my apartment. It requires electricity to live. So do the apartment’s air conditioners (the low temperatures in Shanghai have been around 80 recently). The refrigerator requires electricity, too (I think I can actually hear the milk curdling as I write this).

But there didn’t seem to be any panic in the building this morning. No one else really seemed to notice or care about the blackout. As my girlfriend left for work, and walked down thirteen flights of stairs — no electricity, no elevators — she passed not one sweaty soul doing the same thing. She didn’t see anyone working to fix the problem downstairs, either, even though everyone in the building, including those responsible for maintaining it, obviously had to realize we had been without electricity for more than an hour. Weird.

It’s as if they weren’t surprised by the problem. It’s as if they expected it. It’s as if they knew it was going to happen.

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07.09.2004, 11:53 AM · Observations · Comments (10)

Photos: Take a walking tour through Old Shanghai

I went on a meandering, self-guided, six-hour walking tour of Shanghai yesterday, paying special attention to the city’s old Western and East-meets-West architecture (or what’s left of it). I somehow managed to take 161 photos during the trek. And I have posted 67 of them in the Photo Gallery for your perusal.

Click and you will see domed Russian churches, the old estate of a newspaper magnate, an art deco hotel, and loads of longtang neighborhoods, shikumen archways, mops, doors and windows.



07.08.2004, 6:54 PM · Photos · Comments (2)

Unallowable. Objectionable. Impermissible. Inexpedient?

This sign is posted in Fuxing Park, one of Shanghai’s nicest, and just a short walk from my apartment. Bold added by me. Enjoy.

Shanghai Public Parks Rules for Visitors

Pursuant to the ‘Regulations of Shanghai Municipaity on Administration of the Public Parks’, visitors are advised to observe the following:

  1. Parks are accessible to the public during the ‘open’ hours; admission tickets or relevant identity documents, where desired, are to be presented at entrance; children below 1.2 meters in height, mental patients are admitted only under custody;
  2. Ethic and moral codes should be duly honored; visitors are expected not to urinate or shit, post ads or posters, and write or carve around in the park, nor to remove or harm any facility or equipment in the park; exposing one’s top, lying about, washing and airing clothes, scavenging or begging from others is unallowable; climbing artificial hills, or playing or swimming in the pond or lake is objectionable; ball games and kite-flying are impermissible (unless in a designated area);
  3. Visitors are not supposed to tease, scare, or capture bird, cricket, fish and shrimp, or cicada (except those for commercial purposes); no animal is allowed to enter the park unless permitted, visitors should take good care of trees, flowers and plants, and should not tear at flowers or plants, dig up fruits or seeds, and collect soil or water-plants;
  4. Firearms and ammunition, combustibles and explosives, and any other hazardous items are strictly forbidden; firework-playing, barbecuing or camping is banned (unless in a designated area) in the park;
  5. The visitor to the park should discipline himself instead of making himself a nuisance to others; any group activity in the park shall be subject to the administration of the relevant department of the park; public speech, public meeting or fund-raising of any nature is inexpedient; activities of feudalistic and superstitious nature, gambling and those banned under law are prohibited; activities of business nature, including setting up a vending stand, peddling about, practicing medicine or distributing propaganda sheets are not allowed;
  6. No vehicle (except special vehicles for the disabled) shall be admitted into the park; vehicles allowed into the park should move around slowly.
  7. Shanghai Green Administration Bureau
    October 2002

07.06.2004, 1:06 AM · Humor · Comments (1)

Photos: Hangzhou, Jesuits and Jazz

Marco Polo called it paradise, but I haven’t had much luck with Hangzhou. Not Hangzhou’s fault, really. It’s the rain. I’ve been to Hangzhou twice and it has rained both times, paradise shrouded in gray. But much of what I have seen through the mist I have liked. And what I saw Saturday made me glad that Hangzhou will be the first stop on The Trip, when it finally starts in the middle of this month.

I met up with my former student Arthur on Saturday. I’ll be staying with his family while in Hangzhou during The Trip. I told him about the relationship between rain and my visits to his hometown. He paused, thoughfully, and then responded:

“Very much like Wimbledon, I think.”

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07.05.2004, 11:53 PM · Photos · Comments (1)

Shanghai music scene gets mo’ better

It’s taken me a while, but I have finally found good live music in Shanghai. I’m going to have fun exploring the city’s resurgent jazz scene. It may not be indie-rock — my music of choice back in the States — but it still rocks, in its own way.

My girlfriend’s brother, A.J. Khaw, an accomplished jazz pianist living in Miami, is in town for a couple weeks. We didn’t have time to set up any gigs, and as it turns out we didn’t need to. One night earlier this week, we headed over to the Cotton Club and Club JZ — and A.J. ended up on stage in both places. Check out the photos.

I’ve also seen decent live shows at the House of Blues and Jazz, but the atmosphere there is a little too sterile for my taste. To properly enjoy jazz and blues, I believe, you need to be at a place where the smoke hangs in the air and your feet stick to the floor. And, ideally, sticking to your ribs would be some good Southern barbecue.

Not sure if the pulled-pork sandwich will ever make its way to Shanghai. But right now, the jazz music is enough for me.

07.02.2004, 7:15 PM · Music, Photos · Comments (2)

The Trip: Visa problems delay journey two weeks

Click map for larger, animated version>>>>>>>>

Some of you may be wondering what I am doing up at this hour. Perhaps you think I should be getting some rest, because, after all, I am starting a big cross-country journey of China on July 1. And, well, technically it’s July 1.

But I probably wouldn’t get very far without my passport. And some “visa consultant” named Magic has my passport right now. You see, my visa was set to expire on August 30, and I was planning on being somewhere in remote Sichuan at that point. And I’m pretty sure they don’t issue visas there.

So, I had to extend my visa before the trip began. And this process is turning out to be a time-consuming one. I have a Z visa, a working visa, issued to me because of my status as a “Foreign Expert” with Shanghai University. But I no longer work for Shanghai University (I am still coming to terms with the loss of my “expert” status) and, actually, I no longer work for anyone. Freelance writer is just a nice way of saying unemployed.

This caused a problem. No valid contract with a Chinese company equals no more Z visa. I learned this just around a week or two ago. I had figured I could get my visa extended … somehow. You know, grease the right wheels, spread some guanxi. But evidently the Z stands for “zilch” — I had zero good options. My only choices were to get another job — very quickly, and to a company that didn’t mind the fact that I would be out of town until October — or to leave the country, negate my Z visa, and apply for another kind of visa. And receiving a new visa is no sure thing these days for a US citizen. Other countries are ratcheting up the restrictions on Americans in retaliation for all the shit we’re pulling on their people.

Anyway, long story short — and I am being purposefully vague here — I do not have to leave the country, my job title is still Freelance Writer and I should have my new Z visa within 10 working days. There is a good story here, but I will likely wait until I no longer live in China to tell it.

So, the trip will definitely happen. Just hit a little snag. The first of many, I presume.

So the new tentative start date is sometime in mid-July. I will no longer set definite dates for anything. This is China, after all.

NOTE: I am still looking for contacts all over China. Click on the link for the map up above, and e-mail me if you would like to help. See you on the road! (Well, in a little while.)

07.01.2004, 2:19 AM · The Trip · Comments (1)

Never Trust Democracy

Ah yes, that tried and true rallying cry: “Never Trust Democracy!”

Ever seen that one before? I hadn’t until I walked into my local police station in Shanghai. I was sitting and waiting for my new temporary residence permit to receive its all-important red stamp, when a woman walked into the room wearing a black T-shirt that read, in big bold letters, “NEVER TRUST DEMOCRACY.”

It surprised me. It struck me as a little bit strange. Involuntarily, I read it outloud.

Nothing wrong with the shirt necessarily. You know, free speech and all that. Just not something I expected to see, especially in China, where people rarely discuss their political views, let alone broadcast them on a T-shirt. I wonder if she even knew what it said.

But you know the most surprising thing about this English-language T-shirt in China? It was grammatically correct.

Out of curiosity, I Googled the phrase “Never Trust Democracy.” You know how many hits I got? Two. Yes, two. For some reason, I thought it would be higher.

And you know what one of the Google links led to? A French guy talking about a T-shirt he saw in Shanghai.

07.01.2004, 1:21 AM · Humor · Comments (1)


Shanghai Diaries is a website about Shanghai, China ... and lots of other stuff. Voted Best Mainland China Blog in the 2004 Asia Blog Awards.

Editor: Dan Washburn

Related: Shanghaiist and Mudan Boutique

Dan is a freelance writer living in Shanghai. More about Dan.

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10.08.2005 (127 new)
Fujian Power!
Visit an old colonial island in Xiamen and huge earthen roundhouses in rural Fujian. Scenes from my National Day 2005 holiday.

10.08.2005 (41 new)
Go on the set for my very first infomercial! I play the role of “Dr. James,” inventor of a product called “Dolly.”

10.08.2005 (57 new)
Gaelic Football
Get some sweaty culture at the Asian Gaelic Games. Gaelic football comes to Shanghai!

10.08.2005 (14 new)
Xingfu 13
Jam with Xingfu 13 at the Shanghaiist.com launch party.

10.08.2005 (29 new)
Shanghai Sex Expo
Take a stroll through the Second Annual China International Adult Toys and Reproductive Health Exhibition, also known as the Adult Expo or the Adult-Care Expo.

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