Saturday, June 02, 2007

A Million Kuai

I'm waiting in China Merchant's bank, and two kids in front of me are taking out a million Renminbi.

Yes, you read correctly, a million kuai. That, with the new mark of the RMB against the dollar, is roughly $US 130,890.05. Enough to buy a nice house in the town I went to college, the next ten years on an island in Laos, or about a dozen United-Colors-of-Benetton orphans for Angelina Jolie.

And yes, you read correctly: kids. They look to be about 19. They could be brother and sister. They're big, shuffly types, with droopy faces. The guy keeps looking over at where we're sitting and grinning sheepishly. Behind the plate glass, six or seven bank employees are running hundred kuai notes through counterfeit detectors, then binding them up. Bundles of ten thousand are stacked up on several counters, like books of an over-worked librarian.

Based on where we are, there's a certain logic to big money transactions happening here. We work in Dongfang Guangchang, a big mall with office buildings attached to it in the center of the city. Big business is everywhere. We're in a building that's mostly occupied by Ernst & Young. On the first floor is a Lamborghini showroom, or some such ridiculously luxurious car like it. But just down the road the other way is the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square.

It's day two in the bank, and I'm sitting with my colleague who's there to help with the arcane paperwork. The day before I'd waited for an hour or so, only to be told I couldn't pay a fee because I didn't have my passport. (I need this to pay a fee!?) We're both sitting dumbfounded, watching the million kuai materialize in front of our eyes. My colleague tells me that he overhears the kid saying they could buy a better car if they could get three million.

"Okay, this is what we do, " I say to my co-worker. "We follow them out, and then we hit 'em and steal the money."

He looks befuddled for a moment. Then he gets it. I secretly wish I weren't joking.

We talk about what we'd do with the money. We both agree: buy a house. Something about a man reaching a certain age and he wants property. For 19-year old Chinese kids with a million kuai to take out of the bank, it's a car I guess. What kind of car are they buying? I wonder...Well what would Jesus drive? Or the Chairman? I have a momentary vision of the Chairman driving a convertible Corvette or Porsche or Lamborghini, the wind whisping through the remaining strands of hair, he replete with bling and sunglasses, girls in the car laughing...

I snap back to reality as the kids finish and begin loading the bundles of money into several backpacks. The guy shoots one more grin our way, and heads out. I watch them go wistfully. But we're up. Finally, after four months of delay, I may be able to buy eleven photographs for a book I'm writing - for 1500 kuai.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Beijing Baseball

My friend's writing a piece on the CBL, the China Baseball League, and the Beijing team, the Tigers. We've been going to the games, and I've been trying to shoot a bit. It's good to actually get out of the office and do something that approaches reporting again.

Baseball on the mainland is in its infancy. The fans are sparse, and the games are free of charge. The field is so far out in the suburbs that the last ten minutes or so of the drive out there is dominated by farmers' fields. The whole thing has kind of an overlooked feel about it.

Still, a scout from the MLB was at the last never know when the mainland Ichiro will materialize, I guess.

Look for more baseball photos coming soon on the Melon's photo link. For more on the Beijing Tigers, check out

Legends on Legends

I'm aware that what follows is gushingly positive, so if that's not your thing, be forewarned.

A couple of weeks ago back in Shantou, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture of epic proportions: Peter Arnett, the new addition to the J-school faculty, speaking about the life, times, and untimely death of his good friend David Halberstam.

(Halberstam, for those who don't know, was a journalist who wrote nonfiction books, the most famous of which was probably The Best and the Brightest, an account of how the Kennedy and then Johnson administrations got mired in Vietnam. Halberstam was killed in April. Though in his 70s, he was still writing, and was getting a ride to an interview from a Berkeley student. The car was broadsided; Halberstam was in the passenger seat, and was killed instantly.)

Arnett's presence in Shantou is both extremely lucky and oddly appropriate, considering the ravenous appetite for all things China among journalists and media types in the States. Not to toot our own horn, but it's fascinating to me how this small university in a strange isolated corner of southern China is attracting more and more heavy hitters from the journalism world. I guess it's a case of the right program at the right time in the right country.

Two things struck me about the lecture: One, how having a figure of such experience provides living, speaking history to the listener and two, how one of Arnett's strongest memories of Halberstam was quite personal.

"In Saigon, in 1962..." How many working journalists today can begin sentences like that? Things that most of us read in books or have only seen in movies are the man's memories, his working experience. To be able to hear those stories is simply incredible.

While he covered Halberstam's work extensively in the lecture, one anecdote stood out: Halberstam personally rescued Arnett from a beating by Diem's security forces. They'd been at some kind of protest or rally, and the increasing hostility that the police had had toward journalists bubbled over. They attacked Arnett. Halberstam, a large man with a large presence, waded into the fray and pulled Arnett out.

At the time, they were young guys, hungry for stories and passionate about covering a war. But, Arnett said, one of his strongest memories of Halberstam would always be that -- not how accomplished he was, but how Halberstam took a risk for him.

Even legends need a helping hand sometimes.