Essays

Hong Kong in WWII

How war changed a city and exposed its colonial lies – James A. Clapp

Somewhat in the same manner that fire anneals metals, terrible historical periods seem to have a way of hardening the resolve of cities. The conquered and occupied city must find new ways to survive in the face of subjugation and exploitation. When they do prevail, there is usually a new reality and understanding. In the case of Hong Kong during World War II, the British were no longer the great protecting overlord. When the local Chinese saw their rulers overrun and paraded in ignominy through the streets and into Japanese concentration camps, and that it would take the Americans to finally subdue the Japanese, and that a new China was emergent, there was indeed a new reality. War changes things, nations, people and cities. The British imperium in Asia was doomed. Two years after the end of the war the “jewel” in Victoria’s imperial crown was gone.

Essays

Fantasy and the Forbidden City

China’s most popular costume drama tells more about the present than it does about the Qing dynasty – Tobie Meyer-Fong

During the summer of 2018, The Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略), a soap opera set in the Forbidden City, mesmerized audiences with its sumptuous costumes and lavish sets. Media analysts celebrated the protagonist – a concubine rising within the ranks – as a bold female exemplar, and noted that it provided a promising vehicle for education about China’s cultural heritage both at home and abroad. The show was made and initially screened by iQiyi, a Chinese internet streaming company owned by Baidu, although it was later also broadcast on conventional and cable television channels. (A version with English subtitles can be found on YouTube.) It proved hugely popular, with episodes streamed over 15 billion times by Chinese viewers. The BBC online breathlessly announced that Yanxi Palace was the “most Googled TV show of 2018 globally,” even though Google is blocked in China.

The series portrays China’s dynastic past in ways consistent with other productions of the late 20th and early 21st century. It glorifies the expansive and multicultural empire of the High Qing period, which roughly coincided with the 18th century. It presents a courtly world filled with marvelous objects of exceptional value and expense. It reflects the muscular vision of China’s past currently promoted by the state, as well as the material aspirations of today’s rich and powerful. In particular, the show spotlights the magnificence of the Forbidden City, which itself has become a brand central to patriotic and consumer-friendly imaginings of the Chinese past – with specially branded cosmetics, elegant reproductions of palace artifacts, ticketed evening extravaganzas, a publishing house, and participation by palace curators and craftsmen in reality television shows. Yanxi Palace buys into an officially sanctioned and consumer-oriented vision of Chinese history, focused on power, wealth, and nationally-identified things.

Dispatches

Another Day of Life in Wuhan

A follow-up dispatch from the centre of the epidemic – Xiaoyu Lu, trans. Allen Young

The only thing that hasn’t changed since they shut down the city is my grandmother’s insistence on walking the dog. Every morning at five or six o’clock, she puts on her face mask and steps out the door. When she comes back around breakfast time, she gives a report.

“No one outside today, either,” she says.

But on January 25, the first day of the lunar new year, she saw something new. “I turned back early today. There were people with red armbands standing on the bridge, staring right at me,” she said. “So I figured maybe that means you’re not allowed to cross.”

That day we learned the authorities had tightened the lockdown. Every district was now closed off, and you couldn’t cross the river. Neighbors who had gone to call on relatives – a traditional activity in the first days of the festival – were stopped at the gates of their housing complexes. Not long after that came word that private cars were no longer allowed in the city center.

One after another, the cities and towns of Hubei were sealed off, as if under siege. Roadblocks and sandbags appeared on the expressways. Some towns have taken more extreme measures, blocking roads by digging them up.

Dispatches

A Viral New Year

Panic over the coronavirus empties the streets of Chengdu – Lauren Teixeira

Not long after lunch on the first day of the year of the rat, my fifth-floor neighbor Auntie Cheng bangs on my door. I had promised the previous evening to take her to my gym. We don our N95 respirator masks and set out for the northern end of our neighborhood, where the gym is located.

“It’s important to exercise so that your body can stay strong,” Auntie Cheng reflects as we walk by familiar shops, all closed. The Wuhan coronavirus has put a dent in her family’s new year celebrations. The whole extended family had gathered for a feast the previous night, but the first days of the new year will be spent apart.

There is a feeling in the air that it’s best – maybe even patriotic – not to go out. I am in a group chat with the former security guards from my compound. Earlier that morning Mr. Liao had forwarded a meme in the form of a short didactic poem:

     The country is in a muddle, so let’s not cause trouble
     Make your contribution by staying at home.
     Relatives aren’t going anywhere
     next year they’ll still be here...

Dispatches

They Shut Down the City

A dispatch from quarantined Wuhan during the coronavirus epidemic – Xiaoyu Lu, trans. Allen Young

On January 17, I went to pick up a friend at the Hankou train station in my hometown Wuhan. She was the only one wearing a face mask. At the time, the official line was that everything was under control, that the spread could be prevented. “The Huanan Seafood Market is only two blocks away,” I said to her, teasingly. In an all-night restaurant, the glass tanks were swimming with life. We ate noodles with crab legs. The streets were as packed as ever, with drunk revelers trying to call cabs after their year-end company parties. A man doubled over to vomit, while a young woman patted him on the back and said, “Ready for another round, honey?”

A week ago the panic was still confined to health-conscious retirees, who always worry about seasonal illnesses. It didn’t prompt them to wear face masks or use hand sanitizer more regularly, it just gave them a new reason to get on young people’s case: don’t go out, drink plenty of water. There were also the perennial conspiracy theorists, who doubted official news yet didn’t provide more reliable information. To most of us, not wearing a mask seemed reasonable and logical. After all, who wanted to be associated with paranoid old folks and crackpots?