Follow the Living Buddha

Seeking enlightenment and energy drinks in Shangri-la – Alec Ash

Listen to Kaiser Kuo read an audio version of this story

The plane juddered in a stomach-turning lurch as it banked steeply to the left, clearing a hilly ridge to reveal Shangri-la. It was a moment we have all had: a sudden jolt of turbulence, or drop in altitude, that reminds us we are in a metal box miles above the hard ground – before a safe landing makes us feel like milksops for ever doubting. Yet here the irony was too delicious. The town of Shangri-la in southwest China, after all, was named for a fictional lamasery stumbled upon after a plane-crash landed a group of Europeans in a Tibetan mountain valley. Now it has become a Chinese tourist town in the East Himalayan foothills, served by half a dozen flights a day. A crash landing would be grimly poetic.

This township in northwest Yunnan wasn’t called Shangri-la (Xianggelila 香格里拉in the Chinese phonetic rendering) at all until 2001, when the nondescript Tibetan county of Zhongdian won a bid to retitle itself after the fictional paradise. Investment and tourist renminbi followed the same illusion, and soon the place was unrecognisable. Five-star hotels sprung up, where once there were wooden country homes. Yak hotpot restaurants, Buddhist trinket shops and ‘ethnic’ dancing performances entertained guests looking for Tibetan flavor. The nearby Songzanlin monastery was refurbished, alloted a field-size carpark and fitted with electronic turnstiles. Paradise, indeed – for the local economy. I didn’t find enlightenment, but my wallet was certainly enlightened.



The Chinese ‘alt-left’ who support Trump’s alt-right

How Trump still has fans among social conservatives in China – Alec Ash

“To change a president is common; to change an era is very rare.” So wrote Li Ziyang (李子暘), a 43-year old self-described Chinese nationalist and “self-media” opinion influencer, at 6:24pm on November 9, 2016, Beijing time, when Donald Trump’s electoral victory was secure but America was just waking up to discover it. Li was posting on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Sina Weibo, where he has almost 900,000 followers. And as a Chinese supporter of Trump, he was delighted.

“I like Trump because he’s a businessman, not a revolutionary,” Li told me after the election. We were in a Beijing Starbucks, and the Chinese patriot was wearing an Oakland Athletics baseball cap, slurping an Americano. There were three key areas where he was in agreement with Trump’s policy, he said. First: like Trump, Li is anti-immigration, in a Chinese context as much as an American one. Second: he hates social welfare policies, especially for ethnic minorities (“only Trump openly says that’s not all right”). And last: he enjoys giving the liberal Western mainstream a hard time, taking relish in the drumming that Trump doles out to what he, too, calls jia xinwen, “fake news.”



A Song for Hong Kong

A brief history of Hong Kong's protest music – Alec Ash

Hong Kong has long been a city of song. In the 60s and 70s it was the music bars of Wan Chai and the neon-lit karaoke joints of Kowloon. In the 80s and 90s, Cantopop became central to the city’s cultural identity (as well being go-to KTV picks in mainland China, an important form of soft power). After the handover to China in 1997 Cantopop lost its mojo – supplanted by K-Pop – but over the last ten years a new musical form has come to Hong Kong: the protest song.

Song is often married to dissent, from Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939, with its haunting arboreal imagery of lynching, to Bob Dylan’s 1963 ‘Masters of War’ at the height of US-Soviet tensions. In Hong Kong, musicians took up the mantle in response to Beijing’s slow encroachments on their freedoms, from the protest pop of Denise Ho (subject of a New Yorker profile just last year) to the crowd-sourced anthem of last year’s protests (see my LARB piece following a frontline fighter). Now a new security law muscled in by Beijing has muzzled them. To mark the city’s silencing – and in hope that its voice will still be heard – here are personal vignettes of four periods of the city’s recent history, through the prism of three songs and a silent coda.


May the 4th Spirit Be With You

The enduring, eroded legacy of youth protest in China – Alec Ash

On September 15th 1915, the intellectual Chen Duxiu wrote a paean to the youth of China, for the opening essay of a revolutionary magazine he had founded:

“Youth are like the early spring, like the morning sun, like the blooming grass, like the sharp blade fresh off the grinding stone; youth is the most valuable time of life.”

Titled ‘Advice for Youth,’ Chen’s essay lauds young Chinese who oppose the nation’s status quo as “fresh, vigorous cells inside the human body,” where the old guard are “rotten, corrupted cells.” In this metabolism of society, fresh cells must “vigourously drive out” the rotten. If “their blade is sharp enough to cut iron and hemp, and they don’t follow other’s lead or hesitate in thought,” he exhorts, then “maybe society will arrive at a peaceful day.”


Bare Branches

How Singles Day in China forgot its origins – Alec Ash

Every November 11th, while Brits wear poppies to remember the dead of WWI, the China news cycle [rotates] back around to [Singles Day] or ‘Double Eleven’: the online shopping bonanza, Black Friday on acid, pioneered by e-commerce company Alibaba. Last year, over [$30 billion] worth of goods were sold in 24 hours, and the early hours of this year’s discounts (sales start at midnight) are already 32% higher. But Singles Day hasn't always been about sales. The only figure worth crunching when it started was the loneliest number, number one.

In 1993, the story goes, four Nanjing University students were slouching on their dorm bunkbeds, slurping instant noodles, drinking beer, chain-smoking and complaining that the ladies weren’t falling over each other to get at them. They were ‘bare branches’, they grumbled, using a word for single men, guanggun, that still carried stigma. “From today,” one of them said, pleased by the recurring bare branch of the number one in that day’s date, “November 11th will be called Singles Day.”