Brett picked me up in his company limousine (with driver) and brought me to his company. Lavish but tasteful furnishings and decorations, Digital Bamboo (digitalbamboo.com) occupies an entire floor in Beijing's Soho district (doesn't mean south of Houston or whatever London's means, either, something about home office, mixed use). They lease an entire floor in a huge building (at a few cents per square foot, but still adding up to about US$10,000 per month), where about 85 employees work in cubicles designing a new Chinese style 3-D graphic immersive game with dragons, wolves and hulking guys and shapely women. I loved the tracks in the snow the hulk left as he walked. Amazing looking, with fluid animations, beautiful dragons, good game-play. The economics of China production must be transforming the gaming world, I say to him. Not so much yet, he replies, because the creativity just isn't there yet. All 85 need to be micro-managed, and there isn't enough management to go around, nor is creative management cheap because it is so in demand. He thought he would kick back and take it easier when he got here, lose weight and be less stressed. The opposite has been true, which is a bit ironic given that one set of games they develop and sell works like beta-blockers, helps you to train the way your brain works, reduce stress and increase concentration naturally. But he probably doesn't have time to use them. Great games, judging from the demo. Hopefully I can help him make connections, although he's pretty connected from his many years at Warner Bros. Interactive. He was very gracious, including a fabulous lunch at The Deluxe Restaurant, a local Cantonese restaurant. His wife, and a friend/colleague of theirs, Mr. Wang (not sure my sp is right), joined us for lunch. We took the limo, which isn't a stretch, but more like Morgan's BMW, and navigated the incredible Beijing traffic while he told me about what it's like to live here. Most of the drivers are people who a few years ago were riding bikes, and tend to drive their cars the same way, even though an accident in a car can be much more serious, and cars just aren't as navigatible. Getting around Beijing is so hard that they seldom go anywhere, and didn't even know any places to recommend. They're mostly working. Even Anna (his wife) works at home. She has a nine-year-old boy, who mostly plays games at home with his friends to relax, and otherwise is studying. Brett says kids don't play games here because they have to study all the time, and their parents keep a close eye on them (although Anna said fathers work all the time, and mothers usually do also—who is keeping the eye on them?). College students are the online gamers (very few people have their own computers, it's mostly in the internet cafes, or played on mobiles). Most of the games up to this point have been Korean, and a Chinese-made game with high budget and quality is almost a sure success (although mid-level, ordinary game developers are all going out of business).
Anna of course has her own business (what educated Chinese person doesn't?). She's an agent for the Colorado company which makes the heart games, and helps Brett's company make deals (most recently with the Red Cross here). Because of her responsibilities for her son, she wants a flexible schedule—she worked for the Tienanmen recreation park in Southern China (which cost 8 billion rmb, which is about a billion dollars), mostly marketing for it. She went to the U.S. hoping to work for Disneyland, but met and married Brett instead. She's not so happy to be back here, especially in Beijing, mostly because of the pollution and traffic. But here they are. Brett said he sent 15 of his people to Chengdu recently to set up a new unit to work with Microsoft's new XBOX development group there, but despite the costs here, it must be still necessary to base yourself in the capitol.
In the car we talked a bit about the one-child policy. Anna has two brothers, but Mr. Wang is young enough that his family was shaped by it. But finding a mate wasn't difficult (he's married and has a son), he said, men have all the younger women from which to choose.
I shared with them my observation of the two cab drivers Dawei "interviewed": the older one had the sense that he would never get rich, that you had to be connected to get anywhere, and because he wasn't born in the right family, he'd never have those connections. A certain bitterness and sense that that wasn't right—growing up (he was a middle school student during the Cultural Revolution) in a society that taught equality even if it didn't always practice it, that "back door" connections were punished sometimes even by death (red guard justice). The rules had changed, and the un-virtuous in the old system were rewarded in the new.
The younger one had the optimistic attitude that all things were possible—maybe he wouldn't get rich, maybe he didn't need to, but he COULD if he chose to. He had a wife and baby, and a happy enough life, a good job, and an expanding society around him.
Probably the two attitudes reflect somewhat their different prospects: this new society is mainly for the young. The cities are sucking up all the young talent from all over China, using them to build these massive projects, and all the new ventures are hiring them. But there is little retraining going on, and even very little training at all except for the very young.
Brett said even the art training is quite different from other societies—it has a very narrow focus, training technicians and draftsmen, etc., instead of broadly educated people, i.e., in art, painters and sculptures and "artists." You're not born creative, you learn it, and the educational system is "rote learning," he says. Probably he knows more about the educational system than I do, but this rings true to what the people said who offered Risa a job teaching "creativity." I'm sure as China develops creativity, it will be a uniquely Chinese brand of it. My sense is that China is drinking in world experiences through a fire hose, and synthesizing its own hybrid: neither wholly traditional Chinese nor a hybrid of only one culture (American) and theirs.
I discovered this morning that one of my friends, Hal Josephson, is here with a China Access tour group including the "Happy Feet" filmmaker who won the Oscar, but too late to actually do more than a hotel-to-hotel quick phone call before he heads back to SF. 44 hours in Shanghai and then Beijing. What can one know in that time? More than not coming, I'm sure.
Linda and I had a somewhat heated discussion about our different approaches to information gathering here—she has access to family and overhearing Dawei's "interviews" with cab drivers, but I don't, and find myself hungry to talk to people on more than a superficial tourist level. She sums up our differences that she knows so much more than I about China. Surely that's true, but irrelevant. Could one ever know enough about anything to be satisfied? I think I just like to meet strangers, hear their story, what they think about the world, more than others do.
Anna (Brett's wife) has arranged
an meeting with a journalist later this week, I can't wait. Dawei doesn't want
anything to do with meeting anyone other than his sisters and casual strangers.
He turned down meeting his brother-in-law's nephew, a China historian. I was
disappointed, but look forward to seeing Kandy (a publishing contact through my
previous work at Scholastic) later this week.
I took a short walk before dinner yesterday, so many people coming home from work, catching fast-food (not generally chains, just small vendors making food at hole-in-the-walls or from carts). So like New York, and yet so different. An old man chased me away from photographing an old set of buildings with the plaque identifying it as museum of classical drama. He was adamant and nasty, reminding me of the unpleasantness of our first trip around photographing anything not shiny and new, shades of the anti-Antonioni campaign that haunted us through that trip. For those of you who don't know of it, Antonioni, a famous Italian filmmaker, was invited to China in the late sixties to make a documentary, but "betrayed" that trust by focusing on a lot of the problems and underdevelopment. At every turn in 1974, we were admonished not to repeat his mistake, and to give a good report on China.
Speaking of that trip, I noticed the All-China Women's Federation building is nearby, but know that the language would be a challenge if I went on my own. I tried to interest Linda in contacting them, but couldn't get her to bite. Would be really interesting to see if anyone there knew anything about our 1974 delegation. Maybe I'll just go on my own later in the week.
Today is a walk in the park, which will be great. Lots of people-watching, beautiful scenery. Back from the day in the park, walking along the lake with the bars and restaurants along it. Beautiful. I had never been to that part of Beijing, it's really a night event they say, although beautiful by day. We had lunch in the famous barbecue Muslim restaurant, although we had beef and chicken, not "mutton". Delicious and a beautiful decor, it deserves its reputation, but a bit pricier than we've been doing. 160 yuan total for more food than we could eat.
We took two pedicabs to save Linda's stamina (her back was bothering her), but she held up for the walk around the lake and through the tunnel to Beihai itself, and all the way back to the front entrance. I had an event with a street seller who made children's cloth shoes by hand, she seemed to be spelling out a 5, and said wu, but then wouldn't take the money. I think she meant US$5, but then denied it when Dawei came back with me to straighten out the misunderstanding. Perhaps she estimated what the currency exchange was, and then was embarrassed not to have it right. Of course, I could have been mistaken, but since we went through it three times, my inclination is not to think so. One can get around language barriers so often that it becomes frustrating on those occasions that sign language doesn't work. Even my Chinese, poor as it is, is less likely to be understood by someone who doesn't believe I could speak the language than those who know I know a little. Like a badly pronouncing Japanese person on the streets of LA, I guess.
In the Beihai pavilion, where previously we found a miscellany of Chinese relaxing, this time an informal singing club of retired men and women were singing from a songbook. Greeting us with wide smiles and huanying, huanying, its apparent leader scooted over and motioned to the perch on the railing beside her. In our honor, the next song was "The Red River Valley," sung entirely in tune and correctly. The warm welcome and greeting was quite at odds to either the rather suspicious stares we usually elicit, or the swoop to sell us something.
The paving-stone replacement work we saw in progress last year was finished, the white pagoda without its sheath of scaffolding. Teams of workers trimmed trees, planted new ones (huge ones with their bowl of roots), landscaped the hillsides and painted and scraped the pagoda tiles. Spring housekeeping for an entire city, the scale of it mind-boggling. All for the Olympics next year—I do hope they aren't disappointed with the turnout. I suppose if even a small fraction of all the world's overseas Chinese return for it (not to mention others from everywhere), they will reach their numbers. Today we saw the tourists which we didn't see before, but not in Soong Chingling's residence, our first stop this morning, which was nearly empty. An amazing life she had—focal point for sympathetic foreigners' support of China in the face of world disapproval and abandonment. Few countries in the history of the world have faced such isolation, clearly now reversed into perhaps the MOST sought-after, looked-to. How to understand such a turnaround? Epitomized by Dawei's struggle to understand how the ruthless application of the very egalitarian ideals which made his life so difficult during the Cultural Revolution have been so thoroughly repudiated, and so quickly! Did he regret leaving? Yes, except for his unhappy personal life, he would have liked to stay. Such a reversal is so hard for returning Chinese to understand. A street vendor who plies his various products (hats, commemorative pins, etc.) has adopted us, tries to scare off (scolding, etc.) others who sell to us. I asked if he had Mao pins, and he brought them back today, zhende, real ones. Old ones from the Cultural Revolution. They have the mark of each group that made them. This morning we also visited the jewelry store we saw last night, first waiting for the entire group of them to finish their calesthenics and pep talk on the sidewalk in front of the store (a common story here), and then picking out a few pieces and brought them home. We had breakfast in a new place, steamed small buns with millet soup on the side, in Wang Fujing. I didn't care for the soup, but the buns were great. A bit more than our usual place, 80 yuan total (about $10).