Vignette

The Promised (Disney)land

Middle-class aspirations at Shanghai Disneyland – Alec Ash

Wang Zhigang flew three hours just to see Mickey Mouse. In swimming shorts and a colourful umbrella-hat sold by peddlers outside the entrance to keep the sun off, he queued in 97 degrees heat for hours to get on the best rides. All because he made a promise to his son while Shanghai Disneyland was still under construction, that they would go when it opened. Wang Zhigang is a good father.

With his eight-year-old son, Xinbiao, he flew from Bazhong in Sichuan (just another anonymous Chinese city of three million) to Pudong international airport by the Pacific ocean. He took a plastic bag into the theme park. In it were two pots of instant noodles, a cylinder of chips, three bottles of water and a pack of what I can only describe as miscellanious meat jerky in shrink wrap. In his line of work as a travel agent, he explained, he has been to many of China’s tourist destinations, from the Sichuanese nature reserve Jiuzhaigou to mountainous Zhangjiajie in Hunan. “China has famous mountain and water scenery,” he told me – a stock phrase – then seemed to doubt his own pitch. “But it’s just mountains and water. Disneyland is more experimental.”

Dispatches

Singing for Hong Kong

Three protests, three tunes – Alec Ash

In October 2014 I travelled to Hong Kong for a friend’s wedding. I had booked my flight the year before, and went straight to St. John’s Cathedral from the airport. But instead of taking a cab down Connaught Road – Hong Kong Island’s central thoroughfare, usually choked with traffic – I walked down the empty multi-lane expressway it had become. Metal barricades were strewn across the tarmac, some knocked over. Impromptu stalls by the roadside were handing out free bottles of water and biscuits. A scattering of people were sitting cross-legged under the shade of overpasses, many of them on picnic blankets. But for the incongruous setting of an abandoned highway, the scene had the air of a not very successful county fair.

Later, after dusk had fallen and vows had been made, I slipped out of the wedding reception in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club and returned with a couple of friends to the blocked-off stretch of motorway. In the interim, crowds had gathered in the tens of thousands. Now the way was packed, with only elbow room to squeeze past the miles of protestors marching for democracy.

Q&A

The Golden Age

In conversation with speculative novelist Chan Koonchung

You came up with the idea for your novel in 2008. Why set it five years later?

In 2008, I realized something significant had happened to China’s perspective of itself and the world’s perception of China. I thought I had a story. I call it “the new normal.” The title of The Fat Years in Chinese is Sheng Shi (盛世), which means the golden years of ascendency and prosperity. This phrase was not used to describe China for at least a century and a half. Now, suddenly everyone is using sheng shi to describe China.

But as I started writing the book in 2009, my intellectual friends in Beijing didn’t agree – they didn’t feel that China was entering an age of ascendency. They emphasised the dark side of China. I wanted to write about what was happening before my eyes, but I didn’t feel my writer friends would agree. So I set it in the not-too-distant future, 2013, so I could come up with fictional events to describe my view of what was happening. In fact, it’s all about the present.

Translation

The Storytelling Robot

Fantastical sci-fi by Fei Dao – translated by Alec Ash

Once upon a time, there was a King, who loved neither the beauty of his domain nor its women, but only took pleasure in listening to stories. He kept a storyteller in his palace, but the number of tales that any one person can know is limited, and whenever a minstrel had told them all the King would exile him far, far away. After a while, no one dared tell any story.

And so the King convened the most ingenious scientists in the land, and ordered them to build a storytelling robot. At first, the stories that the robot told were lifeless, but it had the ability to learn independently, and under the supervision of the scientists it slowly perfected the quality. Its brain was installed with every story that was known of, and each night the King, tired from the affairs of state and wanting to relax, ordered the robot to spin him a yarn. If the King could not hear two or three short stories before retiring, he was not able not sleep.

Essays

Stranger than Science Fiction

Chinese sci-fi as a Trojan horse for social commentary – Alec Ash

This essay kicks off Sci-Fi Week at the China Channel. We’ll be featuring Q&As from two Chinese authors, as well as a couple of stories in translation. It’s the perfect excuse to go see The Wandering Earth in the cinema, or to pick up one of the recent collections of Chinese sci-fi stories to get acquainted with this fascinating and varied genre, the historical and political echoes of which are introduced below. – The Editors

In 1902, Lu Xun, the celebrated author of modern China, translated Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was “as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time.” In the same year, Liang Qichao, another reformist intellectual, in his unfinished novel Chronicle of the Future of a New China (新中國未來記), depicted a future in 1962 where the world came to admire China’s power at a global exposition in Shanghai (sounds familiar, albeit 50 years late). For both writers, exposing Chinese readers to sci fi was a way to promote new, scientific ways of thinking, and to drag the nation into modernity and out from under the yoke of the Qing Dynasty.