Entries in china (8)


Twilight of Common Dreams

STS-135, the Shuttle Atlantis, screamed into orbit today. That's it for the Shuttle programme. Here's a column I wrote for Maclean's two summers ago, about the how our dreams of space travel were always embedded in History.



The news media reported last week that NASA’s robot rover Spirit, stuck in the Martian equivalent of a ditch, is still spinning its wheels in the deep powder like some suburban doofus trying to free his SUV from a snowbank.

NASA scientists have been working hard trying to figure out some way of rocking the space buggy free, and they hope to give this a shot in a few weeks. But in the meantime, the trapped robot explorer serves as a perfect metaphor for humanity’s entire extraterrestrial ambitions.

For space keeners, this should be a week of at least mild celebration. After six tries, the space shuttle Endeavour finally made it into orbit, on its mission to complete the construction of a Japanese-designed veranda that will house science experiments outside the pressurized space station. There are more humans in orbit than ever before, including two Canadians. Encouraging, no?

No. The mission comes framed against the attention given to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that saw humans bounce around for the first time on another world. And in light of what Armstrong and Aldrin accomplished, and the era of great exploration that everyone expected would follow, the baker’s dozen of astronauts spinning around in low orbit, still caught in the clutches of the earth’s gravitational pull, looks pretty pathetic. As Tom Wolfe, the prose-poet of America’s quest for the stars, put it in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, “If anyone had told me in July 1969 that the sound of Neil Armstrong’s small step plus mankind’s big one was the shuffle of pallbearers at graveside, I would have averted my eyes and shaken my head in pity.”

But here we are, four decades gone, and the spacefaring dreams of humanity are dead and buried. Not only have there been no manned missions to Mars and no permanent moon bases, no human has so much as ventured out of orbit since 1972. It’s as if humanity, having learned to swim by being tossed right into the deep end, opted to spend the rest of the time by the pool clutching the edge.

For decades now, the “space program” has amounted to little more than strapping some humans to a tube, sending them roaring thuggishly up through the atmosphere, and—once finally free of the cloying wetness of air—stopping dead, only to whirl about the earth in the name of science. Imagine if Columbus, having brought the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria safely back from the new world, spent the rest of his career tacking back and forth in the harbour at Palos, studying seasickness or testing chronometers.

Of course there are loads of excuses for why we’ve spent the last four decades doing space doughnuts. It’s expensive. It’s hard. It’s slow. It’s cold. There’s no air. No gravity. And when they aren’t crashing, getting lost, forgetting to return phone calls, or getting stuck in space dust, robots can do whatever sciencey things we need done up there.

But we all know the real reason we abandoned space exploration: Communism failed, the Americans won, and history ended. John F. Kennedy did a good enough job wrapping the moon mission in a lot of “for all mankind” hokey-pokey, but that’s not the UN flag stuck in the dirt in the Sea of Tranquility. As the Lyndon Johnson character in The Right Stuff put it, “I for one do not go to bed at night by the light of a Communist moon.”

The space race, and all the hopes and fantasies it inspired, was always a creature of the Cold War, an exercise in superpower one-upmanship. That doesn’t mean the ideals it inspired were false or not worth pursuing, only that it is on this field of striving, the prideful struggle for recognition, that courage, honour, and daring find their home.

There is nothing noble or honourable about our ambitions in space these days, no serious pride to be taken in what we’re accomplishing. Putting together the space station is dangerous work, but big deal. So is working on an oil rig, and we don’t build monuments or sing hymns to oil rig workers.

It would be nice if the Chinese got more aggressive in space, especially if they were to make a serious go at Mars. Perhaps the fear of the red planet becoming a Red planet would help shake the Americans out of their orbital slumber. But it is not America that is the real problem here, nor is it about “the West.” It is the honour of all humanity that is on the line.

Because the odds are that some day, eventually, we’re going to be visited by an alien civilization. It may be next week, it may be in the year 12009, but over the near-eternity of time this galaxy is surely going to fill up with a buzzing curiosity of life. Intelligent races will rise who will look to the spiral arms of the Milky Way, wonder what’s around the next bend, and set out to take a look.

When they get here, what will they find? An intelligent but distracted species fussing with Facebooks and iPods and Xboxes while a great game unfolds over their heads. Indeed we may have missed our window of opportunity to leave earth; with all the developments in information technology, the appeal of moving in outer space fades in comparison to the easy amusements of virtual space.

But the shame of it all. On their way here the aliens will see the Spirit rover, stuck for millennia in the Martian mud. They will look around and see our footprint on the moon, no bigger than a baseball field. And they’ll point at us, galactic laughingstocks, the species that looked briefly to the stars and said, “no thanks.”


Authenticity Watch: The narcissism of indifference

(Picture courtesy of Ryan Davey)


1. A very good Q&A about reason and skepticism with philosopher Stephen Law, author of "A Field Guide to Bullshit"

2. New York performance artist Tania Bruguera is spending a year as a poor immigrant, living amongst illegal immigrants in Queen's. Her new-found neighbours aren't sure what to make of her, and Bruguera herself is having trouble fitting in: "After finding her apartment and roommates in January through a flier on the street, she was surprised that the local gym did not offer yoga."

3. The latest in authentic tourism: An outfit in Turkey will let you come and be "Muslim for a month".

4. The narcissism of indifference: The New York Times finds a couple of hyperlocal fanatics who are actually smug about how their ecolunacy is completely pointless and apolitical.

5. China's assualt on our preconceptions about authenticity continues with Hengdian World Studios, aka "Chinawood," which contains, among other things, a full-scale replica of the Forbidden City.

Hengdian has plenty to offer beyond the Forbidden City. There is the Qin dynasty imperial palace that was the backdrop for the movie "Hero." There are 100 authentic Ming dynasty riverside houses shipped in from southern China, and the largest indoor Buddha in China.

6. And then there is this lovely Austrian town, a UNESCO heritage site, that the Chinese are secretly making a complete copy of. Tyler Cowen gets its exactly right: "It’s funny how a town gets insulted when outsiders start taking its kitsch seriously as proper kitsch."






1. Chinawood:  A five-hour drive southwest of Shanghai, in the hills near a manufacturing hub, something like a mirage appears among the smokestacks: a full-scale replica of Beijing's Forbidden City.

2. Hyper, local parenting:

While there’s nothing ambiguous about Storm’s genitalia, they aren’t telling anyone whether their third child is a boy or a girl.

The only people who know are Storm’s brothers, Jazz, 5, and Kio, 2, a close family friend and the two midwives who helped deliver the baby in a birthing pool at their Toronto home on New Year’s Day.

3. Accidental Chinese Hipsters

4. Why the "Adele is Authentic" debate is stupid:

I post this in a way as a warning; we're probably going to see stories setting Adele up as the Next Great Hope For Realness percolate on this side of the pond soon, since some critics over here never saw an authenticity fight they couldn't avoid.

5. Electricity is inauthentic in baseball



Where Shock Art is Still Dangerous

One of the defining characteristics of Western culture is our inability to be shocked by art...

That's the opening to my column in last week's Maclean's magazine, which is largely about the clampdown on artists in China. One thing I wanted to work in was an anecdote about Wham!'s famous tour of China in 1985, when they became the first Western pop act to tour the Middle Kingdom. I'll never forget reading in the papers stories about security guards beating kids who were trying to dance at the concerts. At the time, it seemed to fit in with my teenaged Footloose worldview -- that The Man was the same everywhere.

But the crucial lesson is that, while the countercultural rebellion pretty much is Western culture, there are parts of the world where anti-conformist iconoclasm is seen as a genuine threat. China is one such society, and it is disheartening to see that the Canadian government has no apparent views on the kidnapping of Ai Weiwei by Chinese authorities. 



Ai weiwei: Who is afraid of the Chinese government? 


My column in this week’s Maclean’s magazine (no link yet) is nominally about the contrast between the impotence of shock art in the West versus its all-too-threatening status in China. But mostly it was an excuse to get on the record some facts about the what is, effectively, the kidnapping and detention of the artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese government.

The government has put forth a  list of reasons for his arrest, including pornography (for this picture), plagiarism, and according to this story in the Guardian today, tax evasion. No one takes these claims seriously; it’s fairly obvious Ai is being persecuted for marrying his art with social activism (especially leading investigations into corruption and a cover-up surrounding the Sichuan earthquake).

Ai’s arrest has raised a great deal of alarm in parts of the West. Among the people or organizations that have expressed public concern and requested his release: The US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, US state department spokesman Mark Toner, UK foreign secretary William Hague, the EU delegation to China, German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, and French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. In addition, Anish Kapoor and Salman Rushdie have expressed their solidarity with Ai.

On April 18th, a group of about 100 members of the Toronto art community took part in the 1001 Chairs demonstration outside the Chinese consulate, and called on the “Prime Minister and our Minister of Foreign Affairs to express concern over the treatment of Ai Weiwei”. To no avail:Among those who have said nothing in public: Canada’s ambassador to China David Mulroney, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, departed DFAIT minister Lawrence Cannon, new DFAIT minister John Baird, and Heritage Minister James Moore. Brock professor of political science Charles Burton has posted a few items on his blog about the Ai Weiwei case.

After 43 days without any contact, Ai’s wife was allowed to visit him for 20 minutes on Monday. Her account of his condition does not sound great. As Burton and others have pointed out, this is not an isolated case: a disturbing number of people have disappeared in China since the Tunisian-inspired “Jasmine” revolution  began a few months ago. Also, Hong Kong street artists who have been stenciling in support of Ai have similarly been arrested.

(Props to Marina Galperina of Animal New York for keeping tabs on this).


Found: Chinese Hipsters

Back in April, David Goodman of Slate got the internet buzzing with his question, "why are there no hipsters in China?" His argument, in a nutshell, was that China was simply too poor for anyone to be ironic about aping the habits of the lower classes. I critiqued the argument in a blog post at the time, but a friend sends me a photo he just took in Beijing that settles the argument once and for all:


Authenticity is for tourists: China edition

I've been reading Country Driving, the third of New Yorker writer Peter Hessler's books about the cultural and economic transformation of China at the turn of the millennium. It chronicles his road trips and experiences hanging out in a village outside Beijing, and I'm loving it so far. The writing is great, and the stories from his road trip along the Great Wall are priceless. But I was struck by a passage where he describes how the little village where he'd rented a getaway house gradually opened up as newly rich Chinese tourists started coming in search of the rural life that was rapidly disappearing. His landlords have opened up a little cafe/restaurant that has found itself a lucrative niche:

The new restaurant in the lower village didn't affect them much, because there were always nostalgic city customers who preferred a traditional rural meal, served in a real peasant home. At least that's what they said -- they probably would have felt differently if they were served a bowl of elm-bark noodles. In fact they usually ate rainbow trout that originally came from Swiss stock. In recent years the foreign breed was introduced to the big fish farms down in the valley, and it became the standard meal for weekend visitors: practically every rural family that opened a restaurant had a sign that said "Rainbow Trout".



Are there any hipsters in China?

Are there any hipsters in China? That’s the question David Goodman confronts in a recent article for Slate. To frame the debate, he looks at the fashion for fixed-gear bikes, and wonders why come, in a country where everyone bicycles, there is virtually no fixie movement.

The question is, I think, at least semi-facetious, but it is a good way of getting at the real issue, which is whether there is any kitsch in China, and if so, of what sort. The conclusion is that while there is kitsch of a sort (Mao kitsch, in particular), there is no ironic playing with the signs and symbols of poverty, which is so central to the hipster worldview. Goodman has this great quotation from a sociology prof who says, "There is a saying in Chinese: 'Laugh at the poor, not the prostitutes,'".

By this, I gather he means that in China, the shame is in being poor, not in how you make your money. In such a culture, there is no room for nostalgie de la boue, there’s only the absolute shame of the dirt on your pants. You simply can’t “play” with being poor, because no one will get it.

Is this an accurate take on Chinese culture? I have no idea. One possibility is that China is still at an earlier stage of economic development, where conspicuous consumption has not yet become conspicuous authenticity. Once China gets rich enough, and bikes get scarce enough, the kids will get with the insta-irony/nostalgia/hipster/kitsch program.

Another possibility is that there is no romantic strain in Chinese culture that could underwrite a counter-progress movement, even an ironic one. In which case, China’swill always be a far more straightforwardly materialistic society than ours here in the West, since they don’t share any of the shame about consumption and brands that motivates so much hipster irony.  Again, I don’t know enough about Chinese culture to know. Anyone have any thoughts? Send me an email.

Meanwhile, this story might serve as a counterexample to the entire thesis.