Apr 14, 2015

A curious thing happened on the way to the Bund

I don't have a particularly strong attachment to protests. In tumultuous, post-socialist Spain where I spent most of my childhood, protests and strikes were common, but in our house they were viewed through the lens of in/convenience: teachers went on strike, we stayed home from school for a week; marches closed off roads, we went around them; etc. Politics didn't play a big role in our identity, and political action was looked upon as a curiosity more than as a serious agent for change. Perhaps my parents' missionary vocation and distance from home also prevented them from being overtly political.

In college I began to be more aware of the role of government and politics in shaping my life. Friends of friends were involved in social work, WTO protests, and art as activism. After college, I worked at a Borders bookstore during a period when the company was in decline and when some branches were attempting to unionize; the taboo nature of the subject at my workplace made it a forbidden fruit that I couldn't resist researching and experiencing vicariously. Ironically, even becoming more entwined with authoritarian China made me more open to consider socialism as a viable tool of government by the people, as twisted as the socialist system has become here.

All this to say that when I hear about protests like those in Egypt, or the proposed Jasmine Revolution here in China, I now am willing to take them seriously and evaluate them for whether they align with my personal political beliefs and methods.

I didn't make it to the first Jasmine Revolution meetup at the Peace Cinema on February 20 due to logistical reasons. Besides, the organization behind it wasn't clear and from the reception it was getting on Twitter my estimation was that it would turn out to be a journalist and curious-bystander fest, which didn't particularly interest me. In retrospect it was exactly that, though moreso in Beijing than in Shanghai.

What interested me more was the idea that this kind of protest could be and in fact was intended to be a regular, recurring event. Recurring events aren't news. They require a sustained effort and attract the truly committed. They must be designed to be sustainable and find acceptance, an equilibrium with their environment. So I was more curious about this week than the first date.

I really don't have much to say specifically about the protest itself. A combination of my passive-aggressive personality, my preference to let Chinese do their own revolution-ing, and having to frame/explain what was happening to the daughter I brought along meant that I kept the camera in my pocket most of the time and limited my involvement to a snail's-pace stroll along the front of Raffles City, dodging policemen and smiling exaggeratedly at everybody that would look at me. The policemen seemed mostly to be keeping people moving along; an interesting tactic was the use of "referee"-style whistles, which they would blow at anybody who seemed to be loitering. That meant that if anybody tried to stop and chat or say anything, they would be surrounded by a cacophony of police whistles that made it impossible to hear anything else.

A few photos:

IMG_7752Trying to come up in the middle of things, I discovered that exit 14 (I volunteer at People's Square for the subway so I know the place like the back of my hand) was a construction zone or something.

IMG_7753Into Raffles City through exit 15, found Peace Cinema blocked off. Poor Hershey's store, first victim of the revolution.

IMG_7754The door is broken according to Raffles City management, probably a lie.

IMG_7755An apologetic Starbucks worker standing outside informs me that the door from Starbucks to the outside of Raffles City is not open right now. Out of respect for the worker I didn't snap her picture, just this unrelated sign. At this point we were in the thick of things, our ears hounded by police whistles and milling around in the crowd.

IMG_7758Later that day we rolled through the newly re-opened Peace Hotel.

Train Tix Redux, 2014 Version

So, once again it's time to return home to the in-law's house for Chinese New Year. And time once again for the drama that surrounds this crazy migration.

In years past we've done different things to get the family to "home" in Hunan: take the overnight train, ride an overnight bus, send Jodi and the girls back early, fly to Changsha and complete the trip on land, drive our own car... Anything that worked to get all two, then three, then... five of us to our destination. Last year we drove, which was OK but meant spending a night on the road each way and about ten hours of driving each way. This was acceptable, but given that the total money cost was about the same as flying, and the time cost was far greater, we decided to look at other options this year.

One new option that presented itself this year was the high speed rail connection that has opened between Shanghai and Jodi's hometown, which is a station near the final stop in Changsha. The trip would start in the morning, arrive in the afternoon, take us directly to our final destination, and the cost could be as little as a half to a third of the cost of flying.

I say could be because we still ran the risks associated with taking the train during the Chinese New Year season, which is: trying to get tickets. Again, I say trying because this is never a certainty; a major factor in our having taken so many different form sof transportation is that it's often been difficult or impossible to get train tickets due to the high demand, scalpers, or other unknowable reasons.

And this year was no different. On the morning when train tickets would be available through the Railway Authority's website, Jodi fired up the browser (I taught class at that hour). The first disappointment came when she saw that second class tickets were sold out, probably to students who can buy pre-sale tickets and people who logged on just before. The second disappointment was that in filling in our passenger information, enough time passed that the first class tickets sold out as well. The last disappointment was that we were able to get two adult and two children tickets in business class, which cost twice as much as first class (still affordable to us, but almost USD 200 for the adults). So this year we will be taking the train, it will be fast, but once again the process leaves a bitter taste in our mouth.

As I write this, another colleague is holed away in a classroom with her iPad and cellphone vying for tickets. She holds little hope: word is that even with the new real-name registration system, scalpers use software to start the buying process and find buyers in real-time who can pay within the payment window time for the scalpers to finish the purchase.

A walk at Raffles

IMG_2068

Today I spent about an hour outside Raffles City, observing the goings on. By this week there is no noticeable gathering besides the usual fringe of retired people looking for a place to take in some sun, along the railing that separates the sidewalk from Tibet Rd. There were still lots of police patrolling the area; I came in from behind Raffles City, along Hankou Rd past the Le Royal Méridien hotel and walked past 3 or 4 large police vans. The Peoples' Square subway Exit 14 was still closed "for construction". The Peace Cinema was also still closed to the public but the KFC next to it was open through the side door; the Hershey's store was open but the only entrance was from the outside sidewalk; and the outer door to Starbucks was still closed and manned by an apologetic green apron.

Besides the uniformed police on patrol, there were about double the number of plainclothes police standing and strolling around the area. I spent most of the time standing by a group of plainclothes policemen who at first I suspected of being "participants"; eventually I came to realize who they really were. At first I tried to identify them by their shoes but these didn't follow any pattern. The profile I eventually developed was: middle-aged man, conservative or short haircut, sour expression (only one exception), substantial build, average to above-average height, earbuds with wired microphones for communication, Nokia cellphones that looked like they hadn't been upgraded in years, and either smoking or carrying a bottled drink: water, tea, or fruit juice. I didn't see them engage anybody the whole time I was there but they did a very professional job otherwise; no chatting or joking around, kept an eye on me as I people-watched and read a copy of Southern Weekend. It was a nice, quiet time of being introspective about the role I play as a liberal foreign national living in this society. Maybe I'll write a blog post about that later.

The only thing out of the ordinary happened about 10 minutes before I left. A young man and woman, about mid-twenties and Chinese, who had been sitting a few feet away from me, sprang up and started passing out A4-sized fliers to certain people in the crowd and along the side of the sidewalk. It seemed to me that they were targeting the plainclothes police, though I can't be sure because they walked down the sidewalk a few dozen meters away from me as they did so. In all they must have passed out about 20 fliers and I eventually lost track of them in the crowd. I didn't get a look at the papers up close. From far away it looked as likely to be an ad for a real-estate development as any sort of political message so it's hard for me to draw any conclusions about who they were or why the police left them alone.

That concludes my report.

VPN in my mailbox

Today I found a couple of these in my mailbox downstairs:

Business card scan: "UNblock mynet: Best VPN experience in China! Fast, secure and cheap! Unlimited bandwith" (in Comic Sans)

It's an ad for a VPN to get around the Chinese government's "Great Firewall" (GFW) that blocks many foreign websites used by dissidents, like Youtube, Face and Twitter. This is the first time I've seen offline advertising for a service like this, and I'm guessing that our building was targeted because our neighborhood has a high concentration of foreign nationals. This type of ad goes right along with the majority of ads my mailbox sees, which is illegal satellite dish ads, illegal moving companies, and legal(!) housecleaning referral services.

Idea: Visa Wait Times Eliminated!

One way the US government could drop visa wait times to *zero* is to employ the Chinese consulate's method: no appointments, first-come-first-served every day.

That just ocurred to me as I was sitting down to figure out what the girls will need for their visas to go to China this New Year (I will be staying in the US for work). But seriously, can you imagine what would happen if the Shanghai consulate switched to that system? 24-hour around the block lines, place buying and selling... It'd be insane. Luckily here in LA as long as you get to the consulate, say, an hour and a half before opening you can be near the front of the line and wait just a few minutes to complete your application.

I haven't written on this blog in a long time, but I'm glad it's still around for free-form writing whenever I need it. I post more on Facebook and Twitter, but this kind of long writing will always be saved for blogs.

Random bits of reflection

At work today I came back to find a new scarf on my desk. Turns out to be a gift from the union that was organized at my work a week or two before the Chinese New Year break, which I joined. Glancing through my e-mail I saw that, of the 9 teachers in my department, only three of us joined: myself, and the other two local teachers. I wonder if the social science department had a higher subscription rate.

This morning Jodi went to the 1st Maternity Hospital near the former Expo site and got her first ultrasound. It was 3-D: two dimensions plus time, so basically a movie. I think she put a still up on her 微博, like a Chinese Twitter but with pictures, video and censorship. The point of this piece of news being that, yes, we're having a third (and, uh, last), and that it cost RMB 300 to get the the ultrasound movie burned to a CD, which is RMB 100 more than last time, proving that inflation is everywhere.

Also, I'm coaching soccer this season. I volunteered to help coach the the boys team but so many guys tried out that they formed a JV team as well and let me take it alone. The guys are super respectful and proactive so coaching them is great fun. I joined in a drill today and my old cleats breathed their last; the plastic must have dried out over the past few years that I haven't played so the sole cracked and a couple cleats broke off. I'm not sure our budget can cover anything nice right now. I'll probably get something basic to replace them.

Bank card retrieval

This past week I've gone through a long and tortuous journey, getting back an ATM card that I left in a grocery store ATM. Read on for the sordid details.

Two weekends ago I was sent by my school to an IB workshop in Singapore. The night before I left, I dropped by the grocery store to shop for a few last-minute purchases and to withdraw some cash from the Bank of Communications ATM in the lobby using my Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) debit card. The plan was to take cash with me to Singapore, and leave the debit card home with Jodi in case she needed more cash.

Later that night as I finished packing my things, I opened my wallet to take out the debit card and found that it wasn't there. I immediately recognized that I had left it in the supermarket ATM after withdrawing the cash. I told Jodi, scrapped together as much cash to leave behind as I could, and made plans for the next morning.

At the airport, I called the ICBC customer service hotline and froze my account. I confirmed that the balance was correct, and was assured by the customer service representative that I could re-activate my card at any ICBC branch, including subway branches, once I had retrieved my card from the ATM. An hour later I was on a flight to Singapore for a four-day stay.

When I got back, I visited the ICBC branch near my school to try and withdraw some cash with my passport. No luck: no cash would be forthcoming without the card. The best they could do was print out a piece of paper with my bank account information that would prove the card belonged to my passport number. I was getting nervous because it was the beginning of the month and various things were coming due: rent, credit card bill, various utility bills, etc.

The next step was to find the card. I called the hotline for Bank of Communications and a helpful woman pointed me to the Xintan Rd branch of BoC as being responsible for this particular ATM. Discouragingly, she told me that cards like mine were usually kept for 4 days at the maximum--my trip had been exactly four days long--but that there was a chance mine was still there. I called the branch the next morning and was able to confirm that my card was probably in their possession, so in the afternoon I left work 30 minutes early and arrived at the bank 10 minutes before closing time. Using the printout from ICBC and my passport, I was able to claim my card. Being ever a scientist, I did not wait to activate the card before trying it at the ATM of the same branch where it was promptly confiscated for being frozen, necessitating another trip to the window for retrieval.

The afternoon of the next day, I took my passport to the ICBC branch in the Xujiahui subway station expecting a quick activation and finally being able to withdraw some cash. But no, the tellers were unable to activate my card because it had no personal information attached to it; this account was opened for me by my second employer in Shanghai back in 2006, and they had not given my phone number or address to the bank. The bank branch's standard procedure for unlocking frozen cards was to confirm phone number and address, and since my card did not have this information teller would require me to go to the bank where my account was opened, the central branch in Pudong, and "confirm my information". To me this was ludicrous: if my account had no personal information attached to it, how would the other branch even be able to confirm my info any better than this branch? Besides, the most important piece of personal information, my passport number, was attached to the account, and would be easily confirmable with my physical passport.

Without leaving the desk, I called the service number for ICBC and talked to a customer service representative. I hoped that the service rep would be able to guide the teller through unlocking my card without requiring a trip to Pudong. But even after handing the phone over to the teller twice and even escalating to a manager, the people behind the service number were not able to wrap theri heads around and solve this problem.

Finally, while I was busy on my phone, one of the tellers at the bank branch got on the desk landline to her boss at ICBC. After consulting with the boss, she received authorization to release my card without confirming my personal data. After a few simple questions about my last transactions, she handed the card off to another teller who worked on the computer for a few minutes and unfroze the account. There was a pause because the bank account is under my complete name, including middle names, and the input field was not long enough so my account name has always been SITTIGMICAHSTEVENSTU with a missing ART at the end, which is obvious if you are looking at my passport. But this was quickly resolved without my assistance and the card came back to me, ready to use. At some point, I still need to make a trip over to Pudong to enter my personal details into the ICBC computer system.

So it took a tense hour or so of negotiation between me, the two tellers, a security guard, the customer service rep, and her manager, but we were finally able to get the job done. Big thanks to Jodi for being a sport and taking care of the girls while I hashed this out. Hopefully this information is interesting or useful to somebody.

Sommers on Shanghai housing rights

This afternoon I went to Anne Sommer's excellent talk on the history of housing rights in post-liberation Shanghai, and took some brief notes. Sommers is a lawyer whose frustration at the difficulties of buying an old home in Shanghai lead her to research the history of housing rights in the city and how they stand in the way of preserving its cultural heritage. I'd like to point out the "Two Ironies and One Tragedy" (you know you've been in China too long when…) of the event:

  • Sommers envisioned, and the audience bemoaned with her, a future when living in a restored Concession-era house would only be fate of the "mega-rich". Ironically, the audience at the talk wasn't exactly the bottom of Shanghai's barrel.

  • The talk was held in the Puli Hotel, a "new Urban Resort Concept that blends the immediacy and convenience of being in Shanghai’s most central location with the quiet, emotional indulgences of a peaceful, luxurious resort". Ironically, according to Google Earth, as late as the year 2000 the site of this hotel was occupied by what appears to be traditional Shanghai lane houses. See Google's satellite imagery below.
  • The tragedy, which Sommers alluded to at the conclusion of the Q&A session but didn't fully capture, is not that the material evidence of the concession era is being hoarded in the hands of the elite and crushed under the bulldozers of the big developers, but that the unique Shanghainese urban culture that thrived in the lanes and art-deco apartments is disappearing as its environs are being destroyed. In my estimation, the best hope for the preservation of this culture is not the foreign professional class that attended the talk, but low-income young people who are willing to mold their lifestyles to the challenges posed by lane life, rather than those who would mold the neighborhoods to fit their lifestyle.

That said, I learned quite a bit from the talk and I hope that it does spur some grass-roots efforts at stopping the demolition of Shanghai popular heritage.

In 2000, Jing'an Park was bordered to the east by an empty lot on Najing W Rd, and five rows of red-tile-roofed lane houses on the corner of Changde and Yan'an Roads.

(Note to self. People I recognized at the talk: Sue Anne Tay, Peter Hibbard, Tess Johnston, Neale McGoldrick, Lisa Movius.)

Stamps of Disapproval

These make me cringe, but are worth a chuckle:

Stamps of phrases like "HUH.", "Has Potential", "Good Start", and "Are YOU happy with this?".

By graphic designer Heather K Phillips.

Getting CNY Train Tickets in 2012

I wanted to document the process of getting (or not getting?) train tickets for travelling back to Hunan for the Chinese New Year in 2012. It's something that thousands of people do in Shanghai every year but not something I've heard talked or written about in English. Here's the steps so far, and I'll update as the process moves along:

  • A few weeks before tickets actually go on sale, I mention to my coteacher Wendy that we'll both be buying tickets to go "back home" for the holiday. In our office, I am the only overseas teacher married to a Chinese and Wendy is the only local teacher who is not actually a local, but moved to Shanghai for her studies and stayed to work. Wendy and I chat over the details, which have been published in the paper (I get most of my Chinese news through the i时代报 and, now increasingly, through Weibo), of how tickets will be sold this year: for the first time, tickets will be sold online and by phone 12 days in advance. As in previous years, they will also be available fron train station windows and ticketing offices all over the city 10 days in advance. We promise to remind each other when the date comes.
  • On Jan 3, two days before the tickets I want go on sale, I access the official ticketing website 12306.cn and create an account for myself with my passport information, which will be needed to buy the ticket. I practice searching for tickets to get familiar with the process because I know that it will be a race to secure tickets once they go on sale Jan 5 at 3pm.
  • On Jan 5, I teach class until 3:25. By 3:30 I am sitting in front of my computer using two web browsers to access the website and my phone to call 95105105, desparately trying to book the tickets. It takes many attempts to get a connection with either method. I give up on the website, which is showing that there are no tickets left for the train I want, K137 to Changsha, and work the phone system to confirm that all tickets have been sold for Jan 16 and previous days. Wendy's husband is able to book their tickets through the phone system, probably because there are several trains that pass through her hometown. I call Jodi and we talk about possible alternatives, taking trains to neighboring cities and completing the trip by bus, or going to a "yellow bull", a ticket scalper she knows through a family friend.
  • That evening, I stop by the South Railway Station for dinner and to check out the options as far as buying tickets from the station. I find that there are several optional lines going to Changsha, but they have not been called into service. I confirm that the station is only selling tickets for 10 days in advance, meaning that tickets for Jan 16 will be available on Jan 7, this coming Saturday.
  • The next day at 3pm I'm simultaneously helping a student with homework and logging on to 12306.cn. I read in the newspaper that reserved but unpaid tickets would go back into the system 24 hours later, so I'm testing my luck for Jan 16 and also considering Jan 17. I have even less luck than the previous day, with the system being overloaded and not allowing me to log in. Eventually I get in, but the tickets are all sold. I notice that there are still lots of trains/tickets to Wuhan, which is about a couple of hours from Jodi's hometown by bus. Frustrated, I leave for an all-you-can-eat-Japanese department dinner at 5pm and Wendy asks me about the tickets. No luck.
  • Saturday morning I wake up early (for a Saturday!) and head to the train station. I seem to have read that a large portion of tickets were reserved for sale at physical ticketing offices, as opposed to online/phone sales. I say "I seem" because my Chinese is not fluent, so my recall is not great and sometimes I miss subtle differences in the meaning of words. Anyways, I'm crossing my fingers as I arrive at the train station. The main ticketing hall posts a sign outside informing me that the hall is only selling tickets for 9 days in advance, and that the line for 10-day-in-advance tickets is forming on the North side of the square. I had seen this line when I arrived at the station, so I trace my steps back and take my place at the end of a relatively short line with probably 100 people in front of me. The guards that are monitoring the line do a good job of chasing off cutters, spend a lot of time answering questions about where to buy which tickets, but also seem to be carrying a thinly veiled sneer in their hearts for the non-Shanghainese 外地人 that make up the majority of people in line; in fact, I hear many different accents and dialects from the people around me. When I ask the guards where to line up they try to persuade me to go home and buy online, but to spare myself the trouble of having to explain my situation I just smile and thank them and walk to the back of the line. The guard at the end of the line is telling people that tickets will go on sale at 3pm; I glance at my watch: 7:30am. In horror I realize that ⑴ I skipped breakfast and will have to skip lunch, and have only half a book left for entertainment, and ⑵ I've forgotten my passport. I can deal with hunger and boredom, and I decide to try and bluff my way through the process with my California driver's license. Then, I realize why the line is so short: we move forward and are handed a green piece of paper, stamped with a railway stamp and carrying two handwritten numbers: one a window number and one an order number. "Come back at 12:30 and go to the ticketing office," we are told. I run home to get my passport and eat some breakfast.

To be continued.

Continued:

  • I arrive at the extra ticketing area set up specifically for CNY train tickets. I get in line at my assigned window. It turns out that the "12:30" time was meaningless, tickets go on sale at 3pm the same as online/by phone. Also, standing in line is meaningless because at around 2:30 the military police arrive to keep order and people start sorting themselves out by number. I learn that some people lined up the night before and got tickets at midnight, and that my #23 is near the back of line 74. As people finish their transactions and walk away, others in line anxiously peer at their hands to see if they got tickets. Friends in different lines pass each other money to buy tickets for each other, or pull each other away when one finds out earlier that there are none left for their destination. LCDs above the ticketing windows taunt us with 100s of tickets left for tomorrow on countless trains to Beijing, Tianjin, Suzhou, Nanjing... but 0 left for still-huge inland cities like Chengdu or Changsha. That seems really unfair. I make a few last-ditch calls to the phone hotline, but nothing gets through. I finally get to the booth, and the young man behind the window apologizes after I thank him for confirming that there are 0 tickets to Changsha, 0 tickets to Zhuzhou, 0 tickets to Huaihua, the major railway stations in Hunan.
  • I call Jodi, who says that the scalper can't get tickets either. This year the newly implemented "real name registration" system means that it's basically impossible to resell tickets. I ran into a single scalper at the train station and didn't bother to inquire, and the Hunanese-in-Shanghai BBS has no tickets for sale this year either. At least for previous CNYs if we couldn't get tickets from the train station, we could at least find them at a small premium through other channels. Now we're looking at other possibilities -- I may go to the train station tonight for one more grab at tickets tomorrow afternoon; we're thinking about getting a ticket to Wuhan and taking the bus from there; on sites like Hunanese-in-Shanghai and Baixing.cn there are carpools organized by fellow travelers; and of course there's always the airplane, which is about four times the price of a hard sleeper, ten times the price of a standing-only ticket.

And there's always the option of spending CNY in Shanghai :(

Or not! Here's the exciting conclusion of this post:

  • After a long talk with Jodi and seeing train tickets disappear from another website before we can buy one, I make the decision to give up on the train, not risk carpooling with a poor driver, and instead to pursue taking a bus. I try to stay away from sleeper buses so I was happy to see the website of Shanghai's main bus station showing that the daily sleeper bus to Yueyang was sold out, but the bus with seats (still an overnight trip, but on a nicer bus) still had spaces available.
  • On Sunday afternoon I take Metro Line 1 to Shanghai Railway Station north square. I love the walk from the Line 1 platform to the north square exit because there are so many accents, skin shades and body/face structures. It's a snapshot of the rest of China here in Shanghai. At the main bus station, a 5 minute walk away, I find many scalpers (no real-name system for bus tickets) who direct me to the line to enter the ticket-selling area, which is fenced off for CNY ticket sales. Even though (or because?) tickets are being sold 15 days in advance, the line is short and I'm let in after about 20 minutes. I spend another 15 minutes in the ticketing line, scanning the LED sign for tickets to Yueyang: the sign lists availability from Jan 8 to Jan 17, and what I see is 无 (none) 无 无 无... As the listing scrolls away I start to make plans to book a bus to Changsha, the capital of Hunan, about two hours away from Yueyang. At the window just to be complete I ask about Yueyang and the women tells me that there are tickets! Not for the sleeper, but for the bus with seats only! I pay RMB 336 (a 30% mark-up for the holiday, about RMB 100 more than a train hard sleeper) for a ticket on the 16th, my target departure date. How could I be so lucky, I think. So I pause on my way out and look at the LED sign, noticing this:
891011121314151617
岳阳
  • Aha! After the first few 无s I had given up, not noticing the one 有 on the very date that I wanted. To my credit, the sign was scrolling quickly and I was trying to text Jodi as I watched. So while I was unlucky at train tickets, but the stars aligned perfectly for me this time.

And that concludes my 春运 ticket-buying adventure.

Now, as to how I get back to Shanghai...