Friday, March 30, 2007

One Day in Bangkok - Some Temples

This will be my final look at Bangkok - at least for now. Against expectations I really enjoyed my short time in the city, and I definitely hope to go back sooner rather than later.

I'm the one person in Asia who keeps visiting Buddhist temples and just never gets tired of it. I'll keep things to a minimum and focus on some favorite pictures. First of all, Thailand's largest temple is the Wat Pho, which contains a gold-plated, 150 foot long, reclining Buddha. It's housed inside a large wooden building, which isn't large enough to give any real perspective on the Buddha, and has a large wooden panel in the center. So it can only be seen right at its enormous head, or right at its enormous feet. Here, I took a picture at the second option.

One thing I find interesting about Buddhist temples is that they often have the same architectural and iconic conceits, but the design and usage of these conceits vary wildly between different sects and different regions. For instance the single, solitary stupa, which is at the center of traditional Buddhist temples, evolved into both the familiar pagoda, and the Thai chedi, there's a number of them scattered about:

They're decorated with layered enamel. Some other areas of the wat were similarly, whimsically decorated:

Finally, here's a shrine, from the same compound. It's all gold and crystal:

At the foot of the shrine is where the offerings are placed, although in this case it's just symbolic:

This is a wat I was very impressed by, it was also located in a fun area to wander around. It was dominated by a monumentally labyrinthine chedi.

It's hard to absorb all the details, this is a blow up of some cool demon-looking guys, standing side by side in a circle around the chedi.

Bangkok seemed a very religious city. Buddhism wasn't limited to these larger temples, which could possibly be seen as a historical relic. Just walking down the street, it was common to see people with small Buddhist artifacts. Here's a corner shrine, right in the center of a really tony shopping district:

It was really busy due to an annual remembrance. I wish I could remember the exact story, something strange about a bank building with bad luck...anyway across the street at night, the other places that were open were large outdoor beer halls, they had really bad bands playing and seemed to be relatively popular places for young wealthy Thai kids to go. Next to the beer halls were small shrines, people walking by (including some of the partiers) would make a small offering and prayer:

I found it interesting that even though Bangkok is thoroughly Buddhist, the Buddhism often included elements of Hinduism. Maybe it's a no-no in the more orthodox temples, but walking down the street I often came across takes on the Hindu god Ganesh:

I also came across other religion's temples, purely as a guess they were built to serve Bangkok's often long-time immigrant communities of Indians and Westerners, along those lines there were Chinese-style Buddhist temples. There were also occasional Hindu temples, mosques, and this small but large-steepled riverside Christian church:

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt: Shanghai in the Movies

This will be one of several upcoming posts to look at movies which look at Shanghai, joining my take on The Goddess. I enjoy seeing familiar sights in movies or TV shows, it can make even the worst movies at least watchable - for instance, having Bollywood film star Aishwarya Rai kicking it within walking distance of my old Oaktown digs was the only thing that made "Mistress of Spices" worthwhile.

I don't want to compare "The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt" to that stinker, but it was another movie where the characters and events were overshadowed by the setting. That was partly on purpose: the aunt's life is post-modern, but the film has an expressionist streak, with the setting and environment reflecting the fortunes of the lead character.

The filming of the movie was extraordinary, extremely beautiful and capturing a number of Shanghai's distinctive elements very well, without a glance at Shanghai's tourist skylines. The picture to the right (of stars Chow Yun-Fat and Gaowa Siqin) is located at the pedestrian overpass of Yan'an Lu, very near my apartment. In the background can be seen unlicensed street sellers, in this case a girl hawking pocketbooks. I'm very curious, are these real hawkers paid not to stare at the camera, or did they pay actors to imitate hawkers? Either way it looks genuine. More sellers can be seen, with their blankets spread along the ground. The Shanghai Exhibition Center is peaking out, in the back right.

Most of the movie is set somewhat North of the Bund, and in the Hongkou district, a part of town I'm not entirely familiar with. I believe this is the restaurant street of Zhapu Lu.

Look at the bok choy all stacked up circularly like that, and the cool Aloha shirt! Some shopworkers kneel in the background, talking story while they clean vegetables in dirty water. I have no problems imagining passing by this street scene.

Here's a related picture of street sellers. I also like the bicyclist in the technicolor raincoat.

This scene interested me: I'm not familiar with the Hongkou district, and I wonder if some early scenes were actually filmed in Beijing. I don't think so, and certainly the old building with irregular air conditioning units sticking out in a completely irregular pattern is something you see everywhere in the area. On the other hand, the shot seems to stretch across - a big parking lot. That I just can't imagine, not in Shanghai, no way!

Update 2/9/09 - Perhaps I spoke too rashly, this is right off Sichuan Bei Lu, near Wuchang Lu (a little North of Suzhou River), and here's a picture:

A picture of an older brick apartment building, done up with the distinctive pattern of orange and grey bricks. If the Shanghai government had any sense they would make it part of some loose building code for the city.

And finally, what a beautiful shot, of a woman eating noodles at a local hole in the wall joint. Just seeing this picture makes me miss living more in the outskirts of town. Central Shanghai is too snooty for this sort of place.

The movie isn't generally sold in the US, but is available as a bootleg from the usual sources, including as an emule download (which requires an emule downloading program) with English and Chinese subtitles, on verycd. The site is in Chinese, but it's easy, click the button below and to the left of the list of files in order to download. Here's the seriously ill-concieved trailer. The movie is somewhat problematic, but really not as boring as this:

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I Was Banned in the PRC

So the title is a little misleading. I'd love to think my pictures of Zhongshan Park were considered so incendiary, the government just had to single them out. But really, all of, and various other foreign-based blogging sites, have recently been added to the blacklist within China.

It's very mysterious how the process works, the Chinese government is opaque and it inevitably leads to guessing games. All I know is that Monday morning, without warning, suddenly sites no longer loaded. This is the third time China has blocked, the previous bans were lifted after a few months.

China maintains a system of hard bans and soft bans. For instance, this blog gets a soft ban, and still can be accessed via Anonymouse - even better is using Mozilla's Anonymouse Plug-In. Many other American sites, say English Wikipedia, are similarly blocked.

I can only speculate about the reasons for the convoluted system - my theory is, it's so foreigners and people who really want to see these sites can see them without too much difficulty - but also, it prevents these sites from getting too popular with the average Chinese person, who isn't familiar with proxy services, or just doesn't want to bother. This way, the most popular Chinese blogs are under Chinese jurisdiction.

There's also a number of web sites that get a hard ban, where even proxies don't allow it to load. That includes sites relating to the Falun Gong cult, pornography sites, or Chinese Language Wikipedia.

Simultaneously showing that the whole censorship nonsense really has nothing to do with fighting crime, and that China just doesn't care about intellectual property rights, popular Piracy Sites are operated within China, and don't recieve any sort of ban. Edit 3/28/6 - Just today blogspot was unblocked, although the status of Wikipedia and the other sites mentioned in this post remains unchanged.

Further update 3/30/6 - blogspot has been re-blocked, crazy!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Zhongshan Park

Zhongshan Park is in Western Shanghai. A little sign outside says it was created from the estate of a resident Englishman from a century ago, and the park has an appealing hybrid English/East Asian feeling to it, with both gardens to romp around in, and purely decorative elements. When I went, it was just a little after the New Year's Holiday, the Year of the Pig Decorations were out in force at the entrance gates.

Also interesting at the gate, was a person demonstrating his calligraphy techniques! I've seen this before, the squares of the concrete are used to frame the characters, and a special kind of mop/brush is used to write the characters. The "ink" is just water with no detergent added or anything, so even on a cool day the letters dissolve away by the time he's gone a few lines down. The whole affair draws a surprisingly big crowd.

There's a lot of games at the park, with families and couples having fun. One thing that's not so common in Shanghai is a series of small wooden boats with underpowered engines, they're taken around a large pond that extends through the park. It's so crowded it comes off more like bumper cars, but I haven't seen anybody sink yet. Here's a cute picture of a little girl and her smoking grandfather.

And this is a loving black-clad couple and their pet cuckatoo. Taking birds to the park seems to be somewhat popular with older people, and my Chinese texts mention the idea over and over for some inane reason, but I don't see tropical birds all so often.

There's also an under-utilized merry-go-round, bumper cars, a weird overhead monorail track that allows people to bicycle overhead (there's a small black seatbelt if you look hard enough), and a few other carnival-esque rides.

And there were people flying kites. Shanghai's so windy, it's easy!

Kind of strangely, these people had staked out a small tent in the middle of a big grassy field, and were playing cards. The sky was overcast, maybe they were anticipating rain?

Definitely the best part of the park was a very large group of pianos, maybe fifty of them, laid out in the middle of a field. They were there as part of a ceremony dedicating a statue to Chopin. Whoever wanted to could go up and start playing. Walking past, a few people were expert, and a few people could play a simple tune, but the vast majority were just fooling around, tapping on the keys. However it was obvious everybody thought it was a lot of fun. With being able to see how differnet age groups and apparent economic classes approached the pianos, it had something of the feel of a concept art project. Unfortunately the overcast skies and fear of rain meant the pianos had to be packed up early.

There was more music to be found, with groups of instruments, mostly traditional Chinese instruments, augmented with a few Western instruments such as accordians. These groups are always led by a singer with an ampliphied microphone. They came both in groups small:

And large:

Sunday, March 11, 2007

One Day in Bangkok - The Grand Palace

This update will have some more pictures from a stop in Bangkok. Specifically, the Grand Palace, one of the tourist highlights of the city. It's the former primary residence of the royal family.

This is the rather spectacular view I had from my approach. Strangely, I was followed by a few touts, trying to sell me pants! I was wearing shorts, which isn't allowed inside the palace. I ignored them of course, ultimately there's a service near the entrance that lends visitors a free pair of purple sweat pants.

There's a Buddhist temple integrated with the palace grounds. The Buddhist areas are unbelievably grand and ornate, gilded in gold and with detailed statues and carvings all around. It contains an Emerald Buddha which is supposedly the national symbol of Thailand, although I admit I didn't pay much attention about it when I was there,and pictures aren't allowed. Here's a picture of the surroundings:

And here's a large stupa in the center of the structure:

There's also a number of impressive statues. Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Hinayana Buddhism, which nominally is monk-based with less mysticism than Chinese Buddhism, but also incorporates a lot of gods from Hinduism. Honestly a lot of it is a mystery to me, but these statues definitely look Hindu-ish to me.

And this is one of many of similar figures, standing side-by-side:

There were also murals along the wall, depicting moments of religious import, they were getting restored when I was there.

The Palace structure wasn't as impressive. The buildings were in a European style, big wooden caverns with Thai-styled roofs on top. The insides had small museum displays, such as a collection of old Thai weapons.

While I'm at it, the strangest thing about Thailand is the hero-worship of the king. I can't claim to be expert, but what I know: He's made himself one of the richest people in the world, off the resources of a rather small third world nation. And while he's constitutionally not allowed to meddle with politics, he's been closely associated with the recent military coup. Pointing this out is illegal though - criticizing the king is a criminal offense, even by innuendo.

It gets a lot more strange than that. His picture is everywhere around Bangkok, there's no getting around it. Supposedly, most of Thailand wears yellow on Mondays, it's the official color of his reign. The English-language events magazine I read gushed on and on about his skills as a pop musician, of all things, and it was just one of several king-themed articles. People I talked to even casually, in non-king contexts, would volunteer that they really loved the king.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Immigration Office

This is a very painful subject for me, and so I will keep things short and to the point: there is a lot of red tape involved with being a foreigner living in China.

I had a friend call me up a ways back. He was unexpectedly sent to the Philippines, he goes "Jeff, I will come drop by Shanghai!" I ask, "Do you have a visa?" He didn't, and that was the end of that. Travelling to China requires getting a visa, either from the Chinese embassy or a specialty tourist office. It allows a stay of one to three months, depending which Chinese embassy grants it, and how generous they feel at the moment - supposedly before Communist party meetings, longer visas dry up.

But I know a lot of foreigners stay in Shanghai off these tourist visas. It involves going to Hong Kong every three months, and getting a new tourist visa. It takes a few days, all in all the process and the flights and the expenses probably cost $300 or $400 each time. What a drag!

There's also the option of heading out to East Shanghai's super Communist-looking visa office, where they give visas to students and to workers in certain industries. Actually the visa office is in the back right of the picture, most obvious is the super Communist-looking convention center. These big ugly Communist-looking buildings are grouped together in Shanghai.

There's short term workers (who are granted a visa of one year) or long term workers (who are granted a visa of one year). I kid, honestly the potential length of the visa depends on the size of the sponsoring company, among other things, I believe it varies from three months to three years. There's more paperwork for the long-term Visa. But they both involve lots of forms, and waiting in lines that make me yearn for the pleasant experience of the DMV:

Saying the experience is Kafka-esque is so trite, but I'll do just that. It's a Kafka-esque bureaucracy where they're very firm about rules that they don't disclose. Not to mention: as an inexperienced foreigner, I'm likely to make stupid mistakes as it is.

For instance, I have limited re-entries on my visas, a fact I didn't realize until I tried to get onto a return flight in Korea, and was stopped at the gates! Later, I realized I need to re-register my address with the police within 24 hours, if I move or if I change my visa status in another country. I waited three weeks and ended up spending a couple hours in the police station, filling out form after form, and paying a fine of about $40.

To be fair, this system of registering with the police isn't just for foreigners. China has a system of people with citizenship to particular cities. In Shanghai today, being a Chinese person with a good Shanghai job, or even owning a house in Shanghai, isn't enough to establish city-citizenship. These non-Shanghaiers similarly have to register their address with the police, and don't have access to subsidized public health care, free education for their children, or other basic aspects of the Great Society.

It's been pointed out to me that immigration requirements are more difficult in the US. While that's true, and overall staying in China is much easier for US citizens than vice-versa, the US has a much larger system of green cards, permanent residency, and giving immigrants citizenship. By contrast, China doesn't even give long-term residency to foreigners who marry Chinese husbands or wives.

Monday, March 05, 2007

North Wulumuqi Lu

Wulumuqi Lu is a road that runs through central Shanghai. The landscape varies, but for much of it, it's packed with pedestrians and with businesses catered to these pedestrians. In fact, the street it so nice, it got named twice! Like a lot of streets in Shanghai, it's named after a Chinese province, or city in this case. This city is part of the semi-autonomous Uighur state Xiangyang, "Urumqi" is a direct transliteration of the city's name in the local language. "Wulumuqi" is a transliteration of the Chinese transliteration of "Urumqi." Shanghai sign-makers seems to have settled on "Wulumuqi" a while back, but both roman spellings are out in force.

There's a large High School on the far North end of the street, here the students are busy playing basketball. When the high school gets out, the area changes character, being overwhelmed with kids getting snacks, looking at shops, and most of all clogging the streets with amazing amounts of bikes. During most of the day, the immediate surroundings to the school are peaceful, cobble-stone streets with nice trees and benches.

As would be expected, there's a couple stores dedicated to school books and school supplies and all that. But the large majority of the nearby stores are dedicated to cute things of all forms, especially little dolls. They're often of popular Japanese or American cartoon characters.

Here's a fun shot of a kid with her mom, although I chose the wrong moment to play around with the focus. The mom went around riding with the kid standing up in front - which was probably a blast for the kid, whether or not it's safe. Sometimes bikes and mopeds are over-loaded, but usually from carrying things. And the bikes always crowd the roads, even if it's worst when school or work gets out.

Tibetans sell knick-knacks alongside the street. It's a common site to see around busy areas of Shanghai. They have orange roll-up blankets. When a certain type of policeman comes, they lackadaisally roll up the blankets and wait maybe fifteen minutes before rolling them back out.

Here's a typical sample of what's being sold. Some bohemian-looking jewelries, and some weapons! These weapon-knives have blades nearly a foot long, and really look incredibly scary. There's also collapsible metal batons, which aren't quite as effective for hitting people over the head as a baseball bat, but are easily concealable on the person - they're illegal in California. I don't know why anybody who isn't a psycho killer would want to buy either of these things.

There's various small food stands on the street, such as this guy with an oil barrel on wheels, he's using it to barbeque sweet potatoes.

Here a lady grabs a quick bite, between roasting chestnuts. They're cooked in a large wok amid lots of small pebbles, it's all heated from underneath.

And there's also a number of fruit stands. There's no prices, you bargain about it. I hate that.

There's older houses right off the street, although they're often hidden from view. Partly it's because Shanghai houses have to face South, which may or may not face the road, there's perhaps a good reason for that but I have no idea what it might be. With these houses, there's shops on the first floor.

A lot of these houses are being torn down, to make way for this sort of thing:

Tenants must be careful not to walk into the similar-looking hospital, a couple minutes walk down the street:

There's an apparently unsucessful mall that contains a huge Internet Cafe. Like a lot of Internet cafes, it advertises that you can play World of Warcraft, an online role-playing-game. Its sign is larger than most, though: