Florentia Village: Pastiche halfway between Beijing and Tianjin

IMG_5467IMG_5470Out along the high speed rail lines, somewhere between Beijing and Tianjin is the Italian themed outlet mall Florentia Village. The pastiche of Roman, Venetian, Florentine and Chinese styles, facades, walkways, and faces is replete with a miniature canal ride fit for a low budget Disneyland ride, a pizza chain, and Costa coffee. The stores are all name brands and luxury goods marked down for convincing consumption. The patrons stroll with bulging packages, paper and plastic bags that themselves have become mobile advertisements for Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, Puma, and Omega. In the foreground is an attempt at misting the waters of Lethe over the shopping Chinese and occasional foreign denizen, to forget their troubles and their location; their worries will be put on hold by generating this ersatz holiday in Tuscany or Rome. It is another of China’s growing massive collections of the Other, the outside, the copied ruins and cathedrals, a riverside manse or an iconic tower. Here in Florentia village one doesn’t forget that they are in China, one is only reminded that China is a surreal place, where the cliche is still valid, that there are many Chinas and many of them are fake, or filled with fake things.

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IMG_5493IMG_5498But far in the distance a more real China is clearly visible, the soulless high rise apartments, built by migrant labor in a planned construction boom designed to appease a destabilizing labor surplus, extended to mostly state owned construction firms to hand out low paid work for China’s migrant working population. Here in the distance many of these apartments will remain vacant for years, but the shops of Florentia village are well stocked for now and nobody seemed eager to stare long outward, or inward, into China from Florentia.

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Toothless Tigers in the Subway: An Animal Rights Campaign in China

Amid the usual frenetic pulsing throngs of passing subway patrons, Beijing denizens and tourists rushing from the sliding doors of subway cars to be the first ones up the escalator to make their connections or meetings, I examined my reflection in a glass partition waiting for the train to pass. After the train rushed away, I took notice of a conservationist advertisement across the tracks, a not too common sight in China I must say. Admittedly, I was so unaccustomed to conscientious or activist inspiring discourse in such politically sanctioned public space that it took me several trips before I actually took notice of the nature of this advertisement: A proscription against animal cruelty. The public service announcements were designed by IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

IMG_5171The text reads, “Imagine an elephant without its teeth (ivory), a tiger without its bones, a bear without its gall bladder… A human without its humanity?”
The text in red reads, “To purchase (购买) = to slaughter (杀戮)”

IMG_5173Here the message is repeated. From left to right the Chinese characters for elephant, tiger, bear, and person are each written with a missing stroke; a splash of blood in its place. The sentence in green at the bottom reads,
“Purchasing is tantamount to slaughter, when it comes to products from wild animals just say “NO” !

IFAW lists fighting wildlife trafficking among its core activities. It explains on its website that it protects animals from illegal wildlife trade through: (1) Strengthening international agreements; (2) Training wildlife law enforcement officers; (3) Ending the illegal trade in tiger parts and elephant ivory; (4) Investigating Internet wildlife trafficking; (5) Educating consumers to reject products made from wildlife; (6) IFAW and INTERPOL, working together to fight wildlife crime. The illegal trade in tiger parts, elephant ivory, and bear bile is of particular concern in China, where certain folk remedies and traditional Chinese medicine nostrums still claim such products have curative properties.

In December of 2012 Malaysian authorities seized around 1,500 elephant tusks, between 20 and 24 tonnes, weighing the same as the previous year’s entire haul of illegally traded ivory, according to the Guardian. The two containers were seized by port authorities near Kuala Lumpur. The shipment had come from Togo, on the West coast of Africa, and was bound for China. The same Guardian article quotes Will Travers, the chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, a British based animal rights organization,

I thought that when the international ivory trade ban was agreed in 1989, we would see a permanent reversal of fortunes for this beleaguered species. How wrong I was – the respite was temporary. Experts estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 elephants are being illegally killed each year to fuel demand, largely driven by China. No part of Africa is now safe. Across the continent, for the first time, the number of carcasses recorded as a result of poaching exceeds the number reportedly dying from natural causes.

Elephant Ivory is preeminent among the world’s sources of ivory, which includes walrus, rhinoceros, and narwhal. Elephant ivory is most prized for its unique texture and because it is softer it is more malleable. In a 2012 piece for The Atlantic Rebecca J. Rosen explains, quoting a New York Times article, “as much of 70 percent of the illegal ivory heads to China, where a pound can fetch as much as $1,000. “The demand for ivory has surged to the point that the tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than 10 times the average annual income in many African countries…” This rise in demand has emboldened poachers who are enchanted by the corresponding rise in price. With Ivory, unlike other animal products, the principle drive for the Chinese market may be more aesthetic than medicinal. The demand is responsible for a startling increase in global ivory trade and a corresponding destabilization of human security in the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries, where ivory is among diamonds and other precious material fueling conflict.

IFAW explains that part of the problem in China may be explained by linguistics. In Chinese ivory is expressed by 象牙, which most literally just means elephant tooth. In previous IFAW polls 70% of the 1067 Chinese people included in the survey did not know that ivory came from dead animals, being mislead by the linguistic implications that ivory, like human teeth, can fall out naturally or be removed without killing. This discovery led IFAW to initiate the ‘Mom I’ve got teeth’ campaign in 2010, says Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia Regional Director. She explained, “The ads explain that ivory products come from dead elephants and encourage consumers to reject elephant ivory.” Since the campaign started running, IFAW is positive that the rate of ivory consumption in China has decreased. IFAW explains that 88% of those who have seen the campaign have fully processed its message and that within the demographics most likely to purchase ivory there has been a rate decrease from 54% to 26%. Elephants are not the only animals targeted for protection by the IFAW campaign.

Tigers in Crisis, an NGO focused on the protection of tigers and their habitats in China and Russia, notes that for over a thousand years Chinese folk medicine has included tiger parts. The continued belief in the curative properties of tigers is placing the threatened species at considerably increased risk. It is estimated that there are only 3,500 tigers still living in the wild. From their elevated position in mythology and legend tigers are believed to have extraordinary power and when certain parts of the tiger are consumed by humans that power is transferred. Tigers in Crisis explains that all parts of the tiger from bones, eyes, whiskers and teeth are used to treat ailments from malaria to bad skin. Many superstitions have been inscribed in tomes of folk remedies explaining that the “active ingredients in tiger bone; calcium and protein, which help promote healing, have anti-inflammatory properties.” According to the article, the following parts of the tiger are believed to have certain corresponding medicinal properties:

Tiger claws: used as a sedative for insomnia
Teeth: used to treat fever
Fat: used to treat leprosy and rheumatism
Nose leather: used to treat superficial wounds such as bites
Tiger bone: used as an anti-inflammatory drug to treat rheumatism and arthritis, general weakness, headaches, stiffness or paralysis in lower back and legs and dysentery
Eyeballs: used to treat epilepsy and malaria
Tail: used to treat skin diseases
Bile: used to treat convulsions in children associated with meningitis
Whiskers: used to treat toothaches
Brain: used to treat laziness and pimples
Penis: used in love potions such as tiger soup, as an aphrodisiac
Dung or feces: used to treat boils, hemorrhoids and cure alcoholism

Dried tiger bones are often boiled or soaked in alcohol to produce tonics and medicinal wines. Medicinal wines are popular in China, as is home made alcohols that often include cobras or scorpions but legally none of the commercially sold products are allowed to include the animal products of endangered species. That is, however, until recently.

A Chinese company has managed to circumvent stringent laws against the international trafficking of endangered species and their animal products, reports a watchdog organization. The spirits company has managed to sell its wine domestically for between 616 and 4740 RMB (about 100 to 767.40 USD) per bottle. The price depends on how long the tiger bones were soaked in the alcohol. The government has somehow decreed that because the tigers used in the production of the ‘tonic’ wines are both domestic and captive-bred international proscriptions do not apply. Although there are only about 3,500 tigers alive in the wild, China boasts almost 5,000 tigers in captivity, the largest number in the world. Although this tiger bone tonic wine does not seem to be widely available, the fact that it is sanctioned by the government at all is quite alarming. It is alarming that the government would condone such treatment of a captive-bred endangered species and further alarming that it condones this treatment for multiple endangered species.

“Some Westerners say this is cruel – but I think the bears are making a contribution to mankind,” says a grinning bear bile farmer to a BBC reporter. Like tiger bones and elephant ivory or other animal products, bear parts, particularly bile and dried gall bladders, have been used for hundreds of years in Chinese folk medicine. While bear bile was traditionally collected from wild bears, rapid urbanization and population increase in the 1970s and 1980s has driven the industry to establishing larger and larger complexes for captive-bred collection.

The process is excruciating for the captive bears. The animals are kept in severely restrictive cages that allow for easy access to their abdomen but completely restrict their ability to stand up or even move at all sometimes. Some bears have been kept in such confinement for upwards of 10 years, being milked for their bile twice a day. This confined state naturally causes severe psychological trauma and physical deformation. The extraction of bile usually happens twice a day and takes place through a tube that has been implanted in the bear’s abdomen. Since the holes never close, in addition to the already excruciating pain of extraction, infections and diseases are common.

The severity of this practice is highlighted in the following anecdote from a bear bile farm in Northwest China. A mother bear, hearing her cub howling in terror as the workers were about to make the incision for the tube that would likely milk bile from the poor cub twice a day for the next 5-10 years, managed to break free from her cage and charge to her cub. When she realized she couldn’t free her child from its confines the mother bear reached in and strangled the cub whereby she promptly ran head first into a wall killing herself. Such bizarre acts are testament to the extreme brutality of the process in China, where it is part of a surprisingly large business. Powdered Bear bile can sell for around 20 USD per gram and The Humane Society of the United States says that a bear gallbladder can sell for more than $3,000 in Asia. ‘A Controversial Cure,’ A characteristically informative and moving documentary by film maker Jonah Kessel offers a glimpse into the industry.

By some reports there are several dozen companies in China with upwards of 10,000 bears in captivity, while others report the number as high as 20,000. One company alone, China’s largest producer of bear bile, Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals, based in Fujian Province, boasts over 500 endangered moon bears. The company wants to go public on the Chinese stock exchange and double its number of captive-bred bears.

A New York Times report by Andrew Jacobs and Jonah Kessel explains the reaction to Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals’ I.P.O. by China’s nascent animal rights movement, “Protesters in bear suits picketed drugstores, hackers briefly brought down Guizhentang’s Web site and more than 70 Chinese celebrities, including the basketball star Yao Ming and the pop diva Han Hong, circulated a petition calling on the stock exchange to reject the I.P.O.” The animal rights movement in China is small compared to its American or European comrades but it has been increasing and winning successes through direct actions and social media campaigns. The New York Times piece quotes Deborah Cao on the burgeoning animal rights movement, “It’s a bottom-up, grass-roots movement, one that is contributing to an emerging civil society increasingly aware of individual rights and obligations, be it to humans or animals.”

The IFAW subway campaign is part of this multimedia public awareness project for greater animal rights in China. And, if we accept Deborah Cao’s analysis, that such a campaign is part of empowering the emerging civil society to be more rights aware, whether for animal or human rights, then these creative billboards are a more significant artifact in public space than they may first appear to be.

Last Week in Fujian

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Wonderland: Derelict Amusement

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Last week a few friends and I cycled out to Wonderland, an abandoned amusement park on the way to the Badaling Great Wall. Planned by the Thai property developers The Reignwood Group, this Disney World clone usurped farm land from the locals of Chenzhuang Village in Nankou Town, the Changping District of Beijing. Based on original plans this 120 acre doppelgänger of Disney Land, now aptly nicknamed the Creepiest Place on Earth, was never completed. Construction ground to a halt in 1998 when disputes between the Thai company, local officials, and farmers erupted over the value of the land. Attempts to restart the cacophony of construction again failed in 2008, in the building revelry of the Olympic Games. After that the site as grown into a static reminder, a ruined beast, of failed and rapid development in China.

IMG_5588IMG_5590In 2006, when I first visited china, I remember passing this ersatz Disney Land on my way to the overly touristic Badaling Great Wall. And I have passed it several times since, on my way out of Beijing through the Changping or Yanqing districts. The complex is an easy 32 kilometers (20 miles) from downtown Beijing on the Badaling Expressway but we decided to avoid this congested highway and made our way first due north through less serviced country roads and highways that took on a material and spiritual resemblance to a distant moon. At times sand storms roared past us as we cycled. Our circuitous route there and back added up; by the end of the day we clocked in at around 120 kilometers (75 miles). Was the journey worth the sweat and the grime? Wonderland, although it has been photographed and featured in the Atlantic, The Washington Post, and various other places, is still an attraction and an eerie oddity out toward the hills.

IMG_5600IMG_5605IMG_5624IMG_5627In the last few years farmers have returned to the soil that was once marked to house colorful rides and innocent saturnalia. As they have reclaimed the property they are at times brisk with explorers, finding it less a destination of ruinous explorers and photographers perhaps than the source of livelihood. As we wandered around several minders followed us closely and barked commands not to enter certain doors and structures. Despite the isolation, the abandonment, there is a kind of spirit still floating through the walls and earth, a spirit enlivened by the brusque and weathered farmers in black. Although at the time of our visit the planting had yet to resume fully from winter, there was activity buzzing in mall pockets of tillage and I can only envision the changed character of the site once the husks are removed and the land glows with production. We were never chased off by any angry farmers but others have reported such a treatment. Still, in the haze of pollution and the gusts of sand swept down from the Gobi, the ruins produce the feeling of post-apocalyptic agriculture.

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As the Fireworks Still Rumble

From the uneven dormitory courtyard of an old fireworks factory where I live, scattered paper remnants of the New Years will cluster for some time, vivid red and almost rufous with the dust. A charcoal frost accumulates bits of sand, the odd discarded cigarette and seed shell. The nighttime’s popping, multicolored war zone of a fête takes short rest breaks amid the drifting shadows of discarded revelry and gunpowder in the following days.

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Jinmen and Bokeh Mian