Downtown Taipei, scene of many late-night strolls (photo by Chris; click to enlarge)
During the period of my life when I was studying abroad in Taipei, Taiwan, I was an inveterate walker. Whenever I visited a new place, I would buy a map and set out on a peripatetic exploration at the first opportunity. And while in Taipei, I routinely spent long stretches of time walking around the city by myself at all hours, familiarizing myself with its geography and making serendipitous discoveries.
One of those discoveries occurred late one night when I was walking down a narrow sidestreet. I came upon a forklift that was unceremoniously picking up cars parked on one side of the street and depositing them on the other, proceeding car by car down the block. The scene was so surreal, and yet the manner in which the driver was going about his work was so casual, that I could only stare for a moment, chide my lying eyes, and then resume walking. In the years since, I’ve sometimes wondered whether that strange sight was actually just a product of my febrile, sleep-deprived brain, which was on constant stimulus overload back in those heady days abroad—especially since it was the dead of night, and I had quite possibly been drinking beforehand. Now, however, after a quick search online, I have video evidence that such things do happen (in Taiwan, at least):
For all I know, this sort of thing is a routine occurrence that the locals don’t even bat an eyelash at. At the time, it felt as if I had wandered off into some kind of Bizarro World where people with forklifts could do whatever the hell they wanted, where Dude, Where’s My Car? had a radically different plot, and where street cleaners had a better option than punishing hapless residents with $40 parking tickets. (I make this comment as a former San Francisco resident who, like many others, unwittingly helped fill the city’s coffers by sometimes forgetting to move my car.)
But just as one person’s geeky is another person’s cool, what seems absurd in one society is completely normal in another—a fact I’ve often been reminded of during my adventures in China (and probably just as often living in the United States, which I’m well aware is by most international standards a strange country). In any case, it’s nice to know that this, at least, was not something I merely hallucinated.
Original post (September 2009): One of the nice things about being in Shanghai late in the year—besides avoiding any possibility of hot weather—is the opportunity to experience a Christmas atmosphere in China. It’s one of the consequences of American cultural influence that Christmas is now celebrated by a lot of people there, primarily in the form of decorations and shopping. (What it comes down to, naturally, is that Christmas is another way for the purveyors of materialism to get people to engage in some good old American-style self-indulgence.) I find it all good fun, personally, because there’s no danger of 5,000 years of Chinese culture being done in by a fat, bearded white man in a red suit, but depending on your opinions about globalization I suppose it could be quite disturbing. In any case, it’s certainly a bit surreal to hear “Jingle Bells” in a random Shanghai store and to see statues of Santa Claus, local people dressed up like Santa (not always very convincingly, mind you), enormous Christmas trees, and Christmas lights side-by-side with symbols of Chinese culture. And it’s fascinating to see the Chinese interpretation of Christmas—in some cases you would think you’re in the US, and in other cases they get it horribly or hilariously wrong:
Click on each photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.
December 6, 2009 Update: As usual, the “Christmas spirit” of commercialism is in full evidence in Shanghai this year, filling Chinese shoppers with Western cheer. I didn’t see any evidence of killer Santas, lame Santa costumes, or hip-hop Christmas choirs this time, though, so it appears that (as in everything else) China is making progress in its celebration of Christmas. And as you can see from the last photo below, taken in the lobby of Kunming’s Weilong Hotel on November 17th, the imperial presence of Christmas in China isn’t limited to coastal cosmopolitan centers anymore—it has extended its dominion far into the country’s interior:
Click on each photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.
September 23, 2011 Addendum: Although this photo wasn’t taken in Shanghai, it seems appropriate to include it here since it’s Christmas-related. On the same November 2009 trip that yielded the photos above, we posed as snowmen for this photo taken deep in a cavern in a remote mountain area of Guangdong Province. That’s right: in a cave in the middle of nowhere in November, there were Western-style snowmen and fake “snow” that you could cause to fall down from the ceiling to take Christmas photos. Another amazing fact about that cavern was that we could get crystal-clear cell phone reception on an international call. Considering I can’t even get cell phone reception in suburban parking garages here in the Bay Area, that was pretty mind-blowing.
The barrage of information—sensory, cultural, linguistic, emotional—experienced by a Westerner traveling in China can be both thrilling and overwhelming. Depending on your personality and interests, certain things tend to cut through that noise and grab your attention. For me, one of those things is dogs. On our November 2009 trip to China, my traveling companions and I found ourselves taking photos of the dogs we saw in all the different places we went. Although the phenomenon of “toy dog as fashion accessory” is definitely catching on in major Chinese cities, most of the dogs we photographed were living in more rural areas in a more traditional man-dog relationship, which is to say they were not relentlessly groomed and spoiled. In some cases the conditions they lived in were a bit pitiful. Like dogs anywhere else, however, one thing that all of these Chinese dogs seemed to share was personality.
Given the familiar and purposeful way with which he trotted down Dali’s Foreigner Street, the center of night life in the city, this party animal seemed to be running an errand or something. In fact, the more “urban” dogs we saw all seemed to share that sense of purpose and to live faster-paced lives, much like the cities’ human denizens.
Watching this weird-looking dog in Dali, however, really made me sad. A still photo doesn’t do its weirdness justice; the way it moved made it seem somehow broken, or as if a mad scientist had assembled it from leftover dog parts. It was clearly suffering from some kind of debilitating affliction.
These guys were enjoying the sunlight partway up Lijiang’s Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at White Water River, hanging out with tourists and yaks. They were apparently used to having their pictures taken, as they were uninterested in our presence and utterly nonchalant. Begging for food was clearly beneath them, too, so they also must have been quite well fed. Something about the self-assured coolness of that second dog somehow reminds me of Jack Nicholson or Marlon Brando.
This dog in Lijiang’s “old town” area of Baisha (“White Sand”) hung out with us in the open-air restaurant where we ate, begging for scraps, which it got quite a few of. At first I thought the owners wouldn’t want us feeding it and thus encouraging it to keep begging, but it didn’t seem to occur to them that some people wouldn’t want a dog underfoot as they ate. It didn’t bother us, at any rate. But this dog sure seemed to have a sense of entitlement—it made me feel like a total jerk for even considering not feeding it. A couple of other restaurants we ate at in Yunnan and Guangdong also had dogs hanging around, and they actually lent a certain charm to these places. Reminded me a bit of the dog lying on the bar at Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar in Bandera, Texas, a “dude ranch” town I used to frequent as a kid.
This dog in Shuhe, our favorite “old town” area of Lijiang, on the other hand, made quite an impression on us and probably a lot of other tourists, too. We all agreed that this is one homely pooch, clear proof that “ugly” is an international language. It’s no Sam, mind you, but not very attractive. Since it seemed like a nice dog, though, I’ll refrain from talking any further smack about it. Poor guy.
As you can see from its blurry tail, this dog roaming the streets of Xianggelila’s Old Town was quite pleased, presumably because it was being fed.
These poor dogs were pressed into service to pull this preening, pompous pussycat in its own chariot—a flagrant perversion of the natural order, in my caninocentric opinion. But far stranger stuff than this goes down in Shanghai.
I’ve saved the most tragic dog for last. This dog that we met briefly in Guangdong seemed like a perfectly serviceable companion—healthy, apparently well behaved, and even reasonably good-looking. As we passed by, our local tour guide made a comment that this dog would “上桌子,” which literally means “go up on the table.” You can probably guess what he meant, but I unthinkingly and naively replied with something like “Oh, lots of dogs have a tendency to jump up on the table.” Foolish foreigner. What he meant, of course, was that the poor dog was destined to be someone’s dinner. As I understand it, in many places in China dogs are generally not eaten, but Guangdong is one of the exceptions. Man’s best friend, indeed. Although I try not to be culturally judgmental, I must admit this is one practice that seems just barbaric to me. On the other hand, if you don’t see anything barbaric, you’re not really traveling. That should be a saying. In any case, rest in peace, O Tasty Rover.
Every month I feature a “Random Discovery Photo of the Month” on our website, a photo that is “random” in both the traditional sense of the word (chosen with no very specific criteria in mind and in no conscious order) and the contemporary colloquial sense of “strange and surprising.” Most of the photos on our site highlight China’s many beautiful and culturally profound places, but I wanted to have a prominent place to regularly feature photos to reflect the delightfully humorous, quaint, or just plain weird things that foreign travelers inevitably experience in China. Many of these photos were taken by me during one of my many travel experiences in China, though sometimes I choose an interesting photo that I’ve come across on Flickr or another Internet source.
March 2010: This is not, of course, actual panda milk, but cow’s milk produced by a company with the name Panda Brand, but at first glance it’s pretty disturbing. Given that even within China the Cantonese people are known for daring to eat anything (“广东人没有不敢吃的”), one wonders whether this would be a Cantonese delicacy if pandas were not an endangered species. (photo by Ming Xia)
April 2010: “Adibas” shoes—In China I’ve seen every kind of attempt to narrowly avoid copyright infringement you can imagine (including a t-shirt with a familiar-looking cartoon dog called “Snooby”), but for some reason this one in particular cracks me up. In a similar vein, here are some amusing variations on the McDonald’s logo that I recently came across online. (photo by “Lanchongzi”)
May 2010: This leprechaun was apparently a participant in Beijing’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. He seems to be pulling off the unlikely role with self-applauding conviction, despite the conspicuous clash between his red beard and black hair. (photo by Ivan Walsh)
June 2010: I came across these “U.S. Army” pillows in a resort store in an isolated mountain area of Guangdong Province in 2009. (Interestingly, in recent years I have continued to see people in China dressed in clothing featuring the American flag or a reference to the U.S. military.) In that same mountain area, an area with almost no Western tourist presence, I came across cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon being sold in a roadside convenience store. Globalization is happening in some very surprising ways.
July 2010: In my many trips to China, I still haven’t tried scorpion, but these “scorpion kabobs” (for sale in Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping district) do look surprisingly tasty. You might need a toothpick, though. (photo by Thierry)
August 2010: On the same trip to Guangdong Province, I saw these birds (ducks, I think, but I’m not sure) being herded along the road like goats or sheep. Unfortunately, I could only snap this blurry photo through the windows of our bus as we navigated the traffic jam. Driving conditions were quite fowl that day, you might say.
September 2010: One of my favorite places in China is Lijiang, a remote valley nestled amidst spectacular mountains in Yunnan Province. One of its many charms is the laid-back character of its “old town” areas, where you can see sights like barmaids engaging in a spirited singing contest with competitors across the lane or dogs hanging out on roofs. (photo by Chris Feser)
October 2010: Last fall, on my umpteenth trip to Shanghai’s Bund (it never gets old), I came across one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen: this cat decadently ensconced in a chariot being pulled down the street by a hapless team of toy dogs. The chariot seems to be some kind of patriotic nod to the Shanghai Expo, which was still going on at the time but certainly didn’t need a gimmick like this to get media attention. Someone in the crowd of pedestrians surrounding the chariot, noticing my baffled reaction, said something I didn’t quite catch about how the chariot had achieved some level of Internet fame in China. I haven’t been able to confirm that claim, but I certainly would not be surprised if it were true. (On a side note, how is it that Star Wars computer wallpaper, among other completely random images, comes up in a Google image search for “Shanghai Expo cat chariot”? Looks like that algorithm needs a little tweaking, Google.)
November 2010: “Pennington Bear”—While visiting a newly developed pedestrian mall area in Xi’an last fall, I noticed a group of human billboards (can’t say what they were promoting, however) in various animal costumes and clown getups. You would think that the bear or cat costume this guy was wearing would be enough to get people’s attention, but no…for no reason that I can puzzle out, he threw in a Chad Pennington jersey for good measure. Chad Pennington, of all people—a player in an American sport that I’m quite sure had nothing to do with whatever they were promoting, a sport that as far as I know isn’t even marginally popular in China. For that matter, how did they even get their hands on a Chad Pennington jersey in Xi’an? Truly random.
January 2011: This is another photo from Dayan, one of the “old town” sections of Lijiang, that exemplifies its relaxed and informal vibe. These boys, probably children of the local residents and shopkeepers, were playing some game of chance (and judging from their demeanor, actually gambling), but I didn’t want to interrupt to ask what exactly it was they were playing.
February 2011: I took this photo in the Shanghai Museum in 2005. The museum displays were fascinating, of course, but I couldn’t help being distracted by this completely inexplicable little cartoon figure featured underneath the museum pieces: it had alien or animal eyes, painfully splayed fingers, and unnaturally curved extremities, and it was naked except for some kind of cap, bikini underwear, and unidentifiable footwear, with two conspicuous little dots for nipples. It was a complete mystery to me how such a thing came to be used in the museum. Who approved this idea? Was it done by some mid-level museum manager as a kind of in-joke? Was the museum’s collection on loan from a friendly (if a little strange) alien race who had preserved our past for us? It was one of those amusing, perplexing details that reminded me as a Westerner how strikingly different the Chinese sense of taste and propriety can be—in the West you might see figures like this in a children’s museum, but not on displays featuring world-class works of art and artifacts thousands of years old! With my Western biases, I can only shake my head and say, “Weird.”
March 2011: Amusing examples of Engrish or Chinglish [post temporarily unavailable] still abound in China. The most interesting ones occur when bad translations mix with cultural differences that defy easy explanation. I believe I came across this mysterious device in a shop in Shanghai. Even taking into account the clumsy translation, I’m not sure what a “fruit vegetable counteracts poison Machine” is, what it does, or why only the word “machine” is capitalized on the package. Can people use it to eat rotten or toxic fruits and vegetables? Do Chinese spies carry it around to detoxify themselves, using only whatever fruits and vegetables are handy, when enemy agents have slipped arsenic into their food? Whatever it is, it must have something to do with Traditional Chinese Medicine. A Google search for its Chinese name, “果蔬解毒机,” does generate over one million results (as of today), if you want to learn more about it. Personally, I’d rather let it remain an interesting mystery.
April 2011: This is a tiny kitten I came across in a Shanghai alley, perched high on a narrow ledge and apparently enjoying its own little patch of grass, while I was taking photos of a traditional “shikumen” district in the downtown area. (See my post entitled “Shanghai’s Disappearing Shikumen” [temporarily unavailable] for more photos and an explanation of what “shikumen” are.) When I noticed it up there, it seemed like such a precarious place for something so fragile and innocent, particularly in the midst of an urban environment fraught with dangers for such small trusting creatures. No doubt my all-too-human tenderness was misguided, however, as I’m sure that millions of callow Shanghai kittens quickly learn to prosper in that perilous city. Anyway, I wrote a haiku (originally a Chinese form of poetry, I believe) to go with the photo:
Kitten on the edge Small patch of urban ledge-grass Precarious life
A strange window display finds immortality on the Internet.
How could anyone be “overstocked” on something so awesome?
May 2011: This month’s photo is one of innumerable jaw-droppingly (or at least double-takingly) random sights I’ve come across while exploring the vast human particle accelerator known as Shanghai. As you can imagine, in a city with that many options for shoppers, to be successful you have to find a way to stand out. This shop certainly got my attention with its mannequins, which are not only cutely cartoonish or disturbingly psychotic, depending on your point of view, but also used in an inventive way: ostensibly, the sole purpose of mannequins is to be an inconspicuous display device for items of clothing, but clearly the primary function of these particular mannequins is akin to that of the wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube men used at American car dealerships. Otherwise, why would some of them be naked? Well, here’s some free advertising and attention for you, whoever you are—too bad I can’t remember exactly where I took this, or what exactly you’re selling, or what the name of your store is. (It does appear to be across the street from “Jun,” though.)
Our Random Discovery Photos of the Month will resume next week with a new photo for September. Stay tuned!