The Regarde les Chinois series made a stop in Hong Kong in early May to meet Roland Soong. Shanghainese by birth, but a resident of New York for thirty years (until his return to Hong Kong in 2003), he is the blogger behind EastSouthWestNorth (ZonaEuropa.com), a site that welcomes tens of thousands of visitors on a daily basis, and which you have probably read if you are interested in China. Every day, aside from his regular job as CTO for the world’s second-largest media research company, Soong translates articles from Chinese-speaking newspapers and blogosphere for the benefit of English-only readers. We obviously spoke about media, but also of Lust, Caution, whose author of the short story it was inspired by, Eileen Chang, was a personal friend of his parents, and of other topics, like prostitution in Hong Kong, the coverage of the then-recent Tibet riots, the origins of ESWN and foot racing. This interview was conducted on the Thursday before the Sichuan Earthquake, which is why we didn’t talk about it (it made the site fall, but it still wasn’t the year’s most popular item, as explained later by Mr. Soong).
La série Regarde les Chinois s’est arrêtée à Hong Kong pour rencontrer Roland Soong au début du mois de mai dernier. Shanghainais de naissance, mais résident de New-York pendant 30 ans (jusqu’à son retour à Hong Kong en 2003), il est le blogueur derrière EastSouthWestNorth (ZonaEuropa.com), un site qui accueille des dizaines de milliers de visiteurs par jour et que vous avez sans doute déjà visité si la Chine vous intéresse. En marge de son travail habituel comme directeur technique de la deuxième plus grande compagnie en étude des médias au monde, Soong traduit quotidiennement des extraits choisis de journaux et de la blogosphère sinophone. Nous avons bien sûr parlé de médias, mais également de Désir, danger, dont Eileen Chang, l’auteure de la nouvelle sur laquelle s’est basé le film, était une amie personnelle des parents de Soong, et de d’autres sujets, comme la prostitution à Hong Kong, de la couverture des émeutes d’alors au Tibet, des origines de ESWN et de la course à pied. Nous nous sommes rencontrés au Pacific Coffee du IFC – je n’ai même pas eu le temps de partir mon enregistreuse que l’entrevue démarrait. Cette entrevue a été réalisée le jeudi précédant le séisme du Sichuan, ce qui explique pourquoi on n’en a pas parlé (qui fit tomber le site, mais qui n’est pourtant pas l’item le plus populaire de l’année, comme M. Soong l’expliquera).
[Fait intéressant: bien que cette entrevue ait été réalisée en anglais, l’un des premiers articles jamais écrits sur Soong et ESWN fût publié en 2005 dans Alternatives, un journal en français publié de Montréal! (voir article)]
Roland Soong: I was interviewed as well in English. That’s not too unusual, but usually, ordinarily, if you say that someone speaks only English, the Chinese press would not interview that person, because he is probably not of interest to their readers. But somehow, I do get (coverage from) both. And the other bits happen to be with Mainland Chinese media, as well as foreign media. So like, there is for example Reuters media. So again, it’s a little unusual.
Comme les Chinois: And on BBC, there’s your interview…
Yeah, there is a BBC radio interview. These kinds of things really tend to, how shall I say, cross-pollinate? Cross-pollinate, in that, maybe my first interview was with the BBC – and I don’t know how they found me, but they did it! It’s a little unusual, because here I am in Hong Kong, and the interviewer was in London. Because it is radio, you just do it by telephone. So, but to ensure the quality of the voice, I had to go to the Radio Hong Kong, where they put these studios and then, you know, you make the connection and it becomes kind of noise-free…
Yeah, so it was like BBC Four or something. Like, (the Chinese-language media) would be, so what, who cares! (laughs) Like, they think BBC, OK, it’s a bunch of listeners in the UK – what do they really care about what a Hong Kong blogger has to say. But oddly enough, that program is actually broadcast on RTHK 4 or something like that, like every Thursday night. They don’t broadcast everything, but they take parts of it.
CLC: It’s syndicated…
Yes, syndicated. And so, on that particular Thursday night, the publisher of, what, Next Magazine (website) in Hong Kong, somehow listening to it, and then in the morning, went back to the office, got one of the reporters and said, OK, now you are gonna get me an interview with this guy! (laughs) So that was how I got into the, like, Hong Kong media!
CLC: Oh, so that’s how it started. But you only wrote in English… You translate articles from Chinese. You write comments as well, right?
Yeah… Well, not a lot, because it’s problematic for me to start saying things, because my objective is really… I have lots of time, so I read a lot, and say, well that’s interesting and I haven’t seen it in English before, so let me translate it. OK. But somehow when I say something that something is of interest, it doesn’t mean that I agree with it. It’s of interest in the sense that, um, “ah, this is interesting right here, it’s unusual”, or it’s of interest because “woaw, everybody is talking about it” and you don’t hear (anything) about it in English. So I think, you know, that the people who can only read English are entitled to see what the Chinese are talking about. So, I go do that translation…
CLC: How do you choose your articles?… You choose them based on how popular a topic is?
Yeah… And the substance, it’s not as if I… There are some things that I just intensely dislike, like stock markets! (laughs) Stuff like that. And also what you call high politics.
CLC: Hype politics?
High politics, … high-level. Because I really truly do not understand it, in the sense that, um, you can say, OK, the Chinese government is meeting with the special envoy of the Dalai Lama, and then a whole bunch of people start speculating as to what the strategy, tactics and possible outcomes are? … I don’t. I don’t have a clue, I mean, and I don’t think they have a clue, so I don’t think I want to waste my time on this? And all this stuff is, you know, it’s a senior government official, so whatever, talking behind closed doors – who knows what they are thinking, you know, why do I wanna start guessing? It’s not useful. So, I kinda avoid that? You know, like, if you ask me what do you think of these talks: I don’t know? I really don’t know! (laughs)
Uhh, you can force me to give an opinion, but I will probably follow it by saying: “that’s a waste of time?” (laughs)
CLC: You’re not a reporter, you’re not…
Yeah, just that I think, you know, that I am not a reporter, even though… my job is related to media. It really has more to do with media planning? With respect to allocation of advertising money and all that, budget…
CLC: That’s your regular job?
Yes. Like optimizing, um, you know, like… I have a million dollars to spend on Coca-Cola, which I spend on websites, CD, radio, newspapers, magazines, um, whatever. So, my company really goes about collecting data that helps, people, let’s say advertising agencies, that make this kind of decisions. That, in turn, I do have a tremendous appreciation of the differences among media, what is more effective in one media as opposed to another? And also, what makes a successful newspaper, as opposed to one that is failing? There are issues of how a smart newspaper has to actually make a clear statement that it has some kind of position.
I mean, in Hong Kong, you can brand yourself as a pro-democracy or a pro-China. Or you can even brand yourself as a newspaper that is absolutely neutral, fair and balanced. That’s OK, but you gotta do it. Then you ought to pick up the issues that are emotional, makes people angry, or feel something about. It could be like, “oh my God, they are taking away our freedoms”, or “oh my God, they’re insulting China”. (laughs) You gotta do that, you know!
CLC: To get different markets… you define yourself as a pro-China or pro-democracy…
Or pro-nobody and just pro-people. (laughs) Yes, I am pro the general interest of the population, and I can swing this way or that way on specific issues, blablabla. And that’s OK. It just means that my sole part of it is really helping the newspapers or television stations to position themselves, um, based on the information I have.
So, a lot of it… So, I’ve done a lot of so-called “tracking” studies. You do that every week, and every time you do something, I can sort of track what the changes are. So, in a television station, it is fairly straightforward. Let’s say the stuff that relates to public opinion are the talk shows for example. And it is largely driven by personality: who is effective and who is not?
And sometimes it is effective because he’s persuasive, or he’s effective precisely because he is irritating, and their viewers are actually happy because they are irritating the other side. Every time that you say something totally outrageous, you say, “great, the other side will be really really upset”.
So, the tracking studies actually track many changes. So, (let’s say) we just had a personnel change: so you basically look at favourable ratings – you know, is it going up or down, that kind of thing… What does the competition look like as a result?
CLC: And sell that information to … (inaudible)
So part of it helps, because when I want to do stuff for my website, I pick up a newspaper and I kind of guess what the tricks are? Like, why are you saying this, it looks wrong! (laughs) There is a reason…
CLC: What’s your scope though? I mean, you look at newspapers in Asia, in Chinese language… or anything? Because I’ve seen in the top (of your website), links from American newspapers?
It depends. Part of it… You have to say what’s going on right now… So I do look at a whole bunch of things, but (for) some of them, if there is nothing going on, I would say “forget about it, OK”. Then will only pick up on some minor issues. So, if you look at this year, then I would say this year there were really long-term, extensive series of events, and they are completely different.
[Important editor’s note: this interview was done in early May, actually just four days before the Sichuan earthquake – which intermittently overwhelmed ESWN because of pictures directly hosted on Mr. Soong’s website.]
The first series of events, which is the stuff like the Edison Chen photos… I look at that particular case when it first started up, and I started covering it, and people start writing in, saying “Are you crazy? This is nothing – why are you wasting your time on this?” There are more important stuff going on, like the…
CLC: Snowstorms in China?
Snowstorms in China. Like, “why ain’t you talking about?” Because I don’t think you have anything to say. Everything that has to be said about it is basically in the newspapers… But then, I look at the Edison Chen case, and I said “Oh my God, this is it”. It’s not the sort of lurid part of the scandal, but it’s actually about something that, you would say, I was trying to work on, but could never get an effect on. It has to do with the censorship, or the classification system in Hong Kong.
Namely, you can publish something, and you could get into trouble depending on how a certain obscene articles tribunal, consisting of a couple of people, or adjudicators, decide to classify it. Is it indecent, is it obscene or is it neither? And you could get fined for basically publishing indecent or obscene material. Um, it’s weird, it’s a weird system, because it is totally a function of two people randomly selected, and you have inconsistent outcomes.
CLC: It’s an arbitrary…
Yes. But I could never get, regardless of how I pushed it in previous cases, I could never get out the contradictions and the absurdities out, in a manner that is sufficient to arouse public outrage? Along comes this thing, I say, well, it’s movie stars! (laughs) And you got the tabloid magazines. This is very different from, let’s say, a previous case, with the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) student newspaper. And they had no pictures, but an article describing something, and it was just considered indecent… You can talk about it, look, nobody’s ever read that newspaper! (laughs) It’s so abstract! It can talk about it and say “it doesn’t bother me!”
But except once it starts showing in like…
CLC: Mainstream newspapers, with photos, and it’s concerning stars… it becomes a big thing.
(laughs) And it’s not one photo, but whoever was doing it was releasing it in bits, and doing the entire process, all the contradictions and the absurdities start coming out. Like, what were the police doing? It was like, how could you put the entire commercial crime division to work on this case? And if you were an ordinary citizen, you would not have cared less! Tell them: go away, we don’t deal with this!
But because it is a movie star, it’s a public affair, the police put all this stuff together. It’s a question of…
CLC: Do you remember a story that you covered, I think it was last year or before, when they publicized … (it was) a website for hookers, prostitutes. I don’t quite remember it. Can you tell me more about this case? You did a Google search and how it was possible for you to do it… (Note: woaw, I was clearly mixing many cases together…)
(Here is the piece I was talking about – here is the website that we are talking about)
This is another piece of what I consider as absurdity in Hong Kong. Let’s say, what is the law with respect to prostitution… under very restricted circumstances it was perfectly OK. And namely, they would not want to interfere the fact that two adults decide to go to bed and afterwards the man wants to give money to the woman. There are perfectly legit reasons and you really can’t distinguish between the two situations, so they started saying that it was alright.
What is criminalized is in fact… you cannot run a brothel, like, hire ten prostitutes and put them in a stable, so to speak, let your clients come in and make their selection. The specific crime is not so much prostitution as profiteering out of immoral conduct on the part of other people. So, that’s possible. Or you can arrest a prostitute, maybe because she is a tourist from the Mainland and doesn’t have a working visa… You know.
But there is a perfect way to run, for an individual entrepreneurial woman to run, to conduct a business as a prostitute. And the way you do it is, you rent a single room, somewhere, and you start advertising. And your advertising could be, let’s say, you stick little posters down on lampposts and stuff like that. You know, “#700, on Main Street, Apartment 12F” or something, you know. And you have a deep description of your skills. So it would be in, uh, some other obscure language, like “expert flute player”. (laughs)
CLC: I see!
Stuff like that! (laughs) Once you know it, you’re like, let’s get on with the show, hum! (laughs)
CLC: And if I come from Overseas, I think, you know… First time I came here (in Hong Kong), I was like, to my aunt, oh hey, we should go sing some karaoke there! And she’d be like, “no, no, that’s not what you think!”
Another way is downstairs of your building, you have red neon lights.
CLC: Yeah. Or like I’ve seen on the Mainland (Note: near a posh residential area of Shenzhen, actually), they have this purple light in stores (that serve as brothel).
Yeah, you can’t do that here. Because that becomes simply… if it’s a store, and there’s more than one person, then it becomes basically, what we would call… If it’s actually a different person that is renting the store, then even the landlord can get into trouble, because it’s against the law to profiteer through the immoral behaviour of others.
Um, so, the thing is that once you start doing them, the neon signs, the police comes around to remove them, on the basis that they are too big. (laughs) Not because it’s advertising prostitution services, but because sign is too big, or it’s not authorized, you have no license to put up the sign. They come and remove it, but then there are… the problem is that signs are not very expensive. There are in fact services that you would call, and they will say that “we will replace a sign within six hours”… (laughs) No problem, it’s just a couple of hundred dollars. Like, six hours – it’s like those computer repair, the warranty, you know, “this is Dell Computer, if you want, if you pay X hundred dollars, for the next three years, we guarantee that a service person will appear on your premises within half a day”. (laughs)
CLC: Do you think it says something about Chinese society? Hiding, you know, all those contradictions? Kinda say that there’s no prostitution…
(long pause) I think what is interesting to me is that this is really more about the… an obstinacy for adhering to the concept of the rule of law in Hong Kong. Everything goes by the book? So…
CLC: Do you (Hongkongers) do that by contrast to the Mainland?
Actually, to the Mainland, there’s a lot of discretion, say, “OK, you’re a prostitute”, you know… “But I am just sitting in a coffee shop, why do you think I am soliciting?” … “It doesn’t matter, I think you are”
But in Hong Kong, it’s like, uh, you see the police basically reading the code of law and then you have this slow evolution of every process, whereby… because it’s a matter of always test and trial. Someone tries, pulls a new trick, you get arrested, you get prosecuted… You go through the court system, and someone just says, “but that’s ridiculous, police can’t do that”, and this is how it works out to be… It’s possible for individual female entrepreneurs to rent a single room to start actually a one-person-per-room. As soon as there are two persons in two rooms in a single apartment, it’s no good. So, what you have to do is rent an apartment, partition it into separate rooms, to make sure that they are not joined, and then all of a sudden, it’s OK.
So, I mean, that process has obviously evolved over time, because they, the police probably kept busting brothels with multiple rooms, and someone came up with the idea, why don’t we partition these apartments into different rooms? And then the police came in and arrested everyone all over again. You go through the court system, and the judge says, “but, they’re in disconnected rooms, there is not a single premise! you can’t say they’re running a business”. (laughs)
Then, when you treat this problem as one of advertising reach, and effectiveness, then you realize, OK, for me to put up little slips of paper on lampposts, or neon signs to the entrance of buildings, the reach is low, and it’s only seen by people who walk by, and the effectiveness is also not really good, because when you actually look at those buildings, there are about eighty signs! Why this one, as opposed to that one?
CLC: So, people came up with the website, with reviews from customers. And then they got into trouble.
Right. And they would not have gotten into trouble, because all you have to do is host that website server outside of Hong Kong and there isn’t a thing they could do about it. But people who did get into trouble… because you have to put the contents, so there are salespeople who visit the prostitutes and say “you want to advertise? and it’s only a dozen dollars (HKD – about $1.75 CAD or USD) a month and you make more than that in a single day. You do that, and you can increase your reach. You can add your photos, and your specialization on it, so that people can at least see what they are getting, and so on.”
So, ok, one, there is the salesperson, and after the woman says yeah, then they will go down and send a photographer. So the people who got busted in that case are the photographers and the salespeople, and the owner is actually still free! Because all you can say is that you are running a website, but the website is not in Hong Kong, sorry.
CLC: I know that you’ve lived in New York, before coming (back) to Hong Kong. Can a situation like this happen in America or somewhere in the world? Or is it specific to Hong Kong and its idiosyncrasies?
(pause) In New York… I mean, don’t be ridiculous – I don’t know about websites, but in the pre-Internet days, you can buy a copy of the so-called alternative weekly, known as Village Voice. It’s a pretty famous weekly magazine, because it does actually contain some interesting contents? Like, about the arts, Greenwich Village, or East Village, or stuff like that. It’s a pretty thick newspaper, so if you say that at each week it comes out at 80 pages, maybe the last 40 pages are classified ads, because that’s where they make their money. There are perfectly legitimate classified ads, such as apartments to rent, and stuff like that, and then you have pages and pages of escort services, or massage services, and there are photos… so what’s the difference?
CLC: Yeah, and they can’t get busted…
No. It’s a massage service, it’s an escort service…
CLC: So, you lived in New York – for how long? Were you born in Hong Kong?
CLC: And you moved to New York or somewhere else?
No. I grew up here and I lived for about seventeen or eighteen years, and then I went to study in Australia, Sydney, for about three or four years, and after that I moved to New York, where I lived for more than thirty years. I came back to Hong Kong in 2003, because my mother who was living here had a stroke, and I was taking care of her.
CLC: So you came back. And you are working for a company in Hong Kong?
In New York, but it’s sort of a globalized world – you don’t have to be anywhere.
CLC: Uh, what made you start the blog?
(Pause) It’s actually fairly easy for me, because I had a website… a couple of websites, since 1995 or something like that.
CLC: Zona Latina?
Yes, and a track-club website.
CLC: A what?
Track-club website… running website?
CLC: Oh ok.
That’s a New York City running club. And that’s actually closer to the blog than Zona Latina. Because it’s all random, like gossip news, like so and so run such a race, and whatever whatever. You know, and it’s a little bit funny, because it’s not totally true. It’s more like so or so run a race in Wisconsin.
CLC: Run races? You mean, just like (upon) hearing rumours of races…
No, no, no, it’s like I had a team, and it’s like a couple of hundred people. I write gossip about them.
CLC: About the track community?
No, it’s just my club – I don’t care about anyone else. It was just a little bit weird, it just had a very strong personality because it was a little bit what you call quirky. You know, it’s like, a lot of stuff tends to be really really funny. For some reason, the stories that I want to focus are the really weird ones? So, I have one teammate, who was in the business of collecting lost gloves. You know, it’s winter, and once in a while we lose gloves, don’t know where it went.
And it’s lost somewhere, and she just collects them. Then, periodically, she would make an announcement, and say, I am bringing all my gloves down to the playground to the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway. I welcome anyone – you can come down and if it’s one of your gloves, take it, even if it isn’t, take it anyways. So, she got featured in the New York Times, who wrote this follow-up… Like, why are you doing that? (laughs)
And, this stuff about people running races? You have tons of people running races. These people are runners, and runner do run races. It’s one thing for you to… They are mostly New York City residents, so you can run local races – on Thanksgiving, you go race somewhere.
CLC: You ran also?
CLC: You still run?
No. Knee problems – very bad knee problems.
CLC: If you were able to, would you run in Hong Kong? Do you know good places to run?
It’s actually very good, because there is so much. Ordinarily, you would advise people to… Running tends to be longer distance. There are certainly plenty of tracks around, but that’s kinda, you can’t run. Unless you want to run like 50 laps. (laughs) It’s not good, because you keep … that’s not good, because you keep running… That’s the reason for my knee problems, because you keep turning that bend. I used to run indoors, which is even worse, because the tracks are bent. So, that could really… (laughs)
CLC: In my city, you can’t run in the winter.
Yeah, but like I have the indoor tracks in New York.
CLC: Yeah, you have to stay indoor… But you can run outdoors in the winter in New York… It’s not too cold, it’s not like in Canada.
It snows in New York but it’s pretty much…
CLC: Clear most of time?
No, I mean they’re very quick and efficient about cleaning. Like, it doesn’t snow that much – it’s not like 3 feet of snow and then (laughs) you can’t do anything about it. So, they may have, let’s say, very typically six inches, then the plows come out, you know, the salt spreaders, the plows, whatever. And you basically have the roads cleaned out.
We also run… It’s actually best to run in the snow, actually, but sometimes… because the snow isn’t really that deep. You know, so we’re really talking about…
CLC: It’s squishy, (but) it’s (also) kinda like irregular, might hurt your knees sometimes (I was thinking about hardened snow, which NYC may not see much of, perhaps). I’m not a professional runner, unfortunately… Um, did you see Lust, Caution?
Yeah, of course, I had to!
CLC: Did you like it? Did you see the rendition of it?
I actually saw it here (at Palace IFC – since we were at IFC’s Pacific Coffee). Because they had the premiere, so I guess that they felt they had to give me a ticket. (laughs) Actually, when the publisher first told me that Ang Lee was going to make a movie, and I hadn’t read the so-called short story carefully before, so, I went back and looked at it… So how are you going to make a movie out of this? (laughs)
So, Ang Lee has actually significantly expanded it, but in a way that, I take, he necessarily had to. Because otherwise, it was way too subtle in an audio-visual media. You can’t really communicate… Because you can’t really have the kinds of monologues that, you know, a first-person observation, that you could have in the novel. So, you can’t express these, can’t expect the actors or the actresses to communicate through facial expressions or hand gestures.
Um, so usually people would say, oh, there are those three bedroom scenes that were not in the book. That’s somehow, I felt, they just had to be there, because it’s not the identical bedroom scenes, because it clearly shows the shift in the so-called power relation, power, politics if you will, as it starts off with the man being dominant, and then by the end, it’s really the woman taking charge? But without that, you couldn’t really tell what exactly had really changed.
And, you know, it has been asked enough that, how do I feel about that – how do I think Eileen Chang would’ve thought – I felt sorry? (Editor’s note: lost with the recording…) Or let’s say even my father would have thought about it. I think the answer is, um, they wouldn’t have minded, because both of them were actually script writer. My father was a film producer.
CLC: In Hong Kong.
Yeah. Some of Eileen Chang’s scripts were actually adapted. Because at one point, she needed to be as prolific and productive as possible, so how many stories, sketches you have to mind, that’s easy. Just go to the classical English-language novels, such as… You actually read some of the film scripts and you can detect a really Pride and Prejudice and stuff like that (inaudible).
But, clearly, doing (during?) the process, she appreciates that she is writing for an audio-visual media, in that, how do you capture the essence of Jane Austen, and that you have to do something, because it’s audio-visual.
CLC: They (in Mainland China) censored the movie, but they censored it after it came out. They let it show for a bit, and then decided to… I mean, Tang Wei cannot (perform in China anymore).
Yeah, there are several things going on. I believe, one, Ang Lee probably, before it ever came to Hong Kong, probably did something, some form of censorship, because some of the photos – there are photos out there that did not show up in the Hong Kong version.
Photos from the film, scenes. And, specifically, and I don’t know how well you remember. It’s somewhere at the start of the movie, when Tony Leung first showed up. He was so-called “at work” and he’s coming out of some kind of dungeon, and his aide is right behind him. And so what was censored was what happened inside the dungeon, where there were some torture scenes and some people being beaten, woman getting stripped naked, blablabla.
Now, you would say, was it necessary? Would that have been necessary? See, he filmed that originally on the assumption that … without that, what Tony Leung does in his day job is quite abstract. You need to be someone familiar with Chinese history – not so much official history, but so-called popular folk history, about what happened during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, you know, these sort of legends about people, number 76, … you know, that particular building, later on, you can see him come out it.
The place is well-known. People would say that they hear people screaming all day and all night, that kind of stuff. Since that was removed, it’s kind of actually hard for an American to appreciate, like, what is he doing – he is not such a horrible person!
CLC: By the end of the movie, you see the people get shot in the quarry…
But that’s not him. He might have signed the order, but it’s a little bit fairly different from basically (being) in the torture scenes.
CLC: In the dialogues, I think I remember one part where he was describing (the torturing)…
Where he said to her, “what do think I was doing”, you know… Like, I think, the dialogue, she says “you’re late”, and he explains “what do you think I was doing? I just arrested, bla-bla-bla, and made him talk, bla-bla-bla”. Hmm, but I think he took it out, I am guessing, because he didn’t want to be accused of gratuitous sex and violence. (laughs)
CLC: (laughs) (since) sex is already there.
Like, the three bedroom scenes, you could say that it’s not gratuitous, because he needs to indicate a shift in the power relationship, so on and so forth. If you just show people being tortured, beaten and raped or whatever, then…
CLC: Yeah, I thought that the sex scenes were not gratuitously there, and they were there for a reason. I didn’t know the reason, but it just felt natural in the flow of the movie as well! Hmm, I have a bunch of questions about media in China and the Western world. Since things are so censored in China (!), I found through the articles that you translate that a lot of news are being transmitted through BBS (bulletin board systems), through unofficial channels. Is there a sort of “free press” in China, but not officially?
(long pause) … no, it depends on what you mean on the specific item. There is a lot of software… OK, I mean, at issue is, they have a, what, 220 million Internet users. I don’t know. And they start talking at the same time, I don’t know how you are going to control it. So, about all you can do, … y’know, people talk about, oh, there is this legendary or mythical Friday morning meetings, where all the managers of the major web portals or forums are summoned to talk to the, whatever, the guys, the officials in charge of the Internet. You’re summoned there and handed off a list: OK, this is what must be avoided.
Fine, OK, (and) these guys go back and put in the filters or tell their workers that whenever someone writes about this, delete it. OK, that’s fine. Let’s say it’s true – I don’t know whether it’s true, but people keep talking about it. And on suddenly breaking events, incidents, they will just pickup the phone and call and say – you know, you can’t wait until Friday – so you could call, call and say that this subject is off.
So an example would be… But your problem is this: I’m going to come in on Friday, and you are going to hand me a list. How long is that list going to be? It’s not going to be 650 pages. Let’s say five pages, and it covers 150 items. That means that the web portals guys say, fine, then it means that everything else not on the 150 is free game, until someone calls on the phone.
So, a lot of stuff just goes right through. What won’t they allow you talk about, there would be things like, oh, this is the 17th Congress of the Communist Party. No discussion – doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad, just no discussion, just in case. Alright, fine, that’s off the table, you can’t talk about it. But then, all sorts of other things are on the table! So, if some guy wants to say, well, you know, I really don’t like what the French did with the Olympic Relay, so I am going to start a boycott of Louis Vuitton, and then someone else – you know, the discussion starts, and someone else says, “how are we are going to boycott that? I can’t afford it – I can’t buy it anyways!” (laughs) “Oh yeah, maybe you are right. So then let’s see what else is related to LV.” So they say, “Oh, LVMH, the holding company, has bought some stocks in Carrefour – we can boycott a supermarket, can’t we?!” (laughs)
That’s off their attention, until it got so big. Then, you know, someone picks up the phone and say, “wipe it out”. But then that’s only going to be (-inaudible- “tentle?”), because it’s absurd. It’s absurb, because if you get on Google China, google.cn, or the local Baidu search engine, and you look for Carrefour and you can’t find it, it just also wipes out their business. You have a real website, but suddenly you can’t get to it! Nothing on Carrefour, sorry!
CLC: It’s very dangerous to mess with China!
No, it’s… I think some things are not allowed, but there are all sorts of other things that are going through. So, you would say, are they allowed to talk about Tibet? I don’t see any problems.
Um, sometimes someone gets nervous unilaterally and they would just stick in a filter, nothing on Tibet, which is in Chinese, 西藏 (Xīzàng). So, it’s like, ok, you won’t let me type in 西藏 / Xīzàng.
CLC: So, you’re going to write something that sounds…
Right. Just initials, Z.D. (?) or, since 西/Xī is west, there’s a lot of talk of 东藏 “Dōngzàng”.
CLC: Is there a danger that … Because, that slight little small little things that bother these Chinese netizens can snowball into a really really big thing. The story of Grace Wang, that little girl on CCTV.
Very yellow, very vulgar? Um, you think it’s a lot of people, but actually it isn’t. The issue is the base – the base is 220 million. 0.000001% (!) is 20,000 people knocking on your door! (laughs)
CLC: Oh, that’s nothing, eh! (laughs) Everything is so big in China. It’s hard to control all that mass of people. How do you see the future of Chinese media?
(long pause) I think that eventually, all the controls will be gone. It’s gotta be so ridiculous, in the sense that it’s only humanly possible for, let’s say, the guys to say, “that’s the list of the week and everything else is ok”. At some point, it’s just ridiculous.
So, if I want to think about how it would happen, I might want to think… I look at what people are talking (about) today, what they were allowed to talk about on the Internet, five years ago, ten years ago, something like that. You can’t… I mean, just go to any BBS, and say, if I take this stuff, copy it, and post it on a similar BBS ten years ago… (laughs) You know, just take 100 posts, and put it there: well, I think 99 of the people would be arrested! (laughs)
CLC: Things change a lot… And what do you think of the perception of China in Western media? I’ve been “fed” with Western media, and coming to China made me a little bit paranoid about everything that I did in China. Now, I’ve stayed in Asia for my fifth week, and I think that everything is “normal”, and that you have to cause a lot of trouble to be in trouble. What’s my question… What do you think of the perception (of China in) Western media?
(long pause) That’s a very difficult question to ask, because it assumes Western media refers to some kind of, sort of like homogeneous entity? It would be equivalent to thinking, to asking what does the TV media in the US think about the Democratic Party candidates? … Well, what do you mean, Fox News? (laughs)
Uh, you know, it’s not the same. If I was to say, what about the Western media, you can say that some of them are, just by screening the contents, you would say, this is clearly driven by certain political positions, because absolutely nothing good comes out of it. So, I would list, ah, that whole Radio Free Asia. OK, it’s just human rights violations all the time. OK, nothing else ever happens.
Then, you have some other things, which you would say… well, you guys are kind of… Like, I understand, but always find it, you know, rather bizarre. You could take the big American media, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal. It’s actually fairly difficult to read, in the sense that you need to understand that they are divided into the news department and the editorial department. And the guys who write the editorial, a lot of times, I must say, you must not read the news in your own newspaper. Because your assertion is totally contradictory to what the reporters are saying! Like, it’s just sometimes, for whatever reason, the guys who are the senior editors just want, have certain positions, and it’s the mission of the newspaper to advance those positions. And ground reality has nothing to do with it.
So, maybe the Chinese people have a lot of difficulty understanding that? You know, they would look at the editorial and say it’s totally wrong. And the Americans would say, why? it’s an editorial, it’s an opinion. Who says there are no rights or wrongs about opinions? It’s not reporting, and the Chinese can’t really distinguish between that?
You also have a… there’s a difference in emphasis. So you see really the contradictions being brought out, especially now, with the Olympic Torch relays. ‘Cause you have been, during this period, travelling…
CLC: I’ve been following it with Hong Kong press. I’ve been reading, you know, the South China Morning Post. It’s one newspaper, I guess – one newspaper in Hong Kong. A place where you have people who are pro-Beijing, and people who are pro – the other camp.
Yeah, they tend to be way too careful.
CLC: Oh yeah, in Hong Kong they are too careful?
No, no, careful in the sense that it’s right. It is… you don’t know say anything that you don’t know. I don’t mean the opinion part, but the journalism part. And so, in that sense, you would say, well, I read the whole thing, and I have no idea what happened, because you simply completely refuse to speculate or even say “rumour has it that” because you couldn’t do anything.
CLC: I think I would say that the way that Tibet was handled was that, you know, by not allowing journalists, you don’t know what’s happening, in the West, and you can speculate in the West that something bad must be happening, since we are not talking about it. Like, nobody knows what’s really going on.
Well, I don’t know if you buy that. OK, so why can’t you tell me that you don’t know what’s happening, instead of making stuff up? (laughs) So, what Chinese are lashing are that we have all these instances where people are making stuff up! And therefore, we will refuse to believe in the Western media anymore. You know, this is treating the term, the concept of Western media as it was a homogeneous entity. “Just because some Western media are making stuff up, then all must be…”
So, I don’t think everyone’s making stuff up, but clearly you can’t write a piece of reportage that in fact says, “we have no idea what’s going on, because we’re not allowed in there”. So, you end up… So what does it mean for you to be fair and balanced when it gets to something (-inaudible-). Two sets of press releases: one from the Chinese government, one from the Tibet government in exile. You look at it, and then you say, you know, even superficially, this is two packs of lies! (laughs) It defies physics!
CLC: It would be interesting if one (a non-Chinese reader, we assume) could read news simultaneously in China, if Google Translate was a bit more faithful to what the original article was. I would like to read editorial from respected Chinese newspapers, and make an opinion from what I read from local media. I hope that someday we have the technological means…
It’s far away!
CLC: You think it’s just a communication problem? People don’t want to dialogue? …
Well, the whole thing is fairly complicated. Part of it is people are… what was it, the thing I was just telling you about: the term is chickens talking to ducks. You know, I have a… maybe the Chinese have this issue about Western media should not just be making stuff up? Because some of this stuff is very straightforward, elementary, basically journalist ethics or something. I mean, the behaviour is simply inexcusable. I think, you know, the answer is not… is just acknowledge it. Because you can’t defend it. You know, like just lifting a photo from Nepal and say, you know, Chinese police beating Tibetan monks. It’s that simple.
So, when the Chinese say this is what’s in Western media, you just say “it’s wrong, whoever picked the photo was either… stupid or getting out of line. Let’s move on with it.” But no, instead, the answer is “this is happening because Western media is not allowed to enter Tibet”. And then, all of a sudden, they are totally stuck, because then the other side says, we allow you into Tibet and produce this kind of stuff?” (laughs) Because you won’t know up to it (-kinda inaudible-), and just move on! If it’s just wrong, just get over it. No big deal, it’s wrong! You can’t say it’s alright, or pretend it’s not there! (laughs)
CLC: I’ll wrap this up. Woaw, it’s been an hour! So, my last question would be, who are you, how do you describe yourself?
Who am I? (laughs) I think, my life experience is I just happen to be someone born in China, grew up for quite some time in Hong Kong. So, I’m someone who has, who knows the Chinese language and understands some of the values. But I have also lived a much longer time Overseas, mostly in the US. So, that relative experience of having lived in two different places meant that I hold a certain amount of relativism? Don’t tell me (that) certain Chinese values or American values is absolutely and universally applicable to everybody – I don’t believe it. Because they are clearly different. I don’t know which is right or wrong: they are just different.
Um, so having said that, I am today, through historical circumstances, family circumstances, living in Hong Kong, with the luxury of plenty of personal time, not having to worry about working hard to earn a living. You know. So I find myself being able to spend a lot of time on my blog. And my hope on the blog is really, a lot of time, by virtue of the fact that I can read Chinese. And what I read in Chinese, what the Chinese are saying, is often not being represented in English. So, my website is there for a way of presenting to English-only readers about what the most hot… the most interesting or popular Chinese news are, and the most significant events of the day, so to speak.