A Travellerspoint blog

The Passion of Mao: A Movie Review

A Review of the movie "The Passion of Mao" directed by Lee Feigon.

I am a big believer that seeing movies and reading books about countries before, while and after traveling there can make the experience better. For some of my favorite countries I try to keep up to date on movies, books and newspaper articles. This way I maintain a connection with that country. Recently I read a review of a new documentary called “The Passion of Mao” directed by Lee Feigon and it caught my eye. My parents, brother, brother’s girlfriend and I decided to see the movie.

This documentary had a few interesting parts to it. It was a revisionist history of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, which is new for most people in the western world. Meaning that the voice of the movie was not going to be the normal way the story is told. I had a heard about revisionist versions before and I wanted to learn more so we went to the arts cinema in downtown Chicago. Another perk was that the director of the movie was going to be there for Q and A afterwards.

When the movie was over we were completely confused. Yes there were some interesting and good parts to the movie. The part about how the economy of China grew during the Cultural Revolution was interesting. Also the part about how the sent down youth, children of city dwellers sent to the countryside to work with the peasants in order to learn from them, believed they made a different in the lives of the peasants was interesting.

The main issues with the documentary primarily it was confusing, parts could be seen as offensive, and parts looked like a bad Michael Moore movie meeting a South Park episode. The confusing part of the movie was that it was hard to tell what Feigon wanted to say. Did he like Mao or did he dislike Mao? It was even hard to tell if Feigon were trying to just tell an evenhanded story. This is complicated by the fact that certain characters and facts were completely left out of the movie. Such as the massive amounts of cultural relics and temples that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution or Deng Xiao Ping did suffer such as his son being thrown out a window or the fact that Mao was dying from a mental illness and was pretty much insane the last few years of his life. These major parts were completely left out.

A large section of the movie had quotes by Mao read out load by a narrator. Many of these quotes were translated the most obscene way possible. I would like to see or hear the original Chinese and know the context because I have a hard time believing people would have had such obscene things in public meetings. Even if they were obscene translating in a less obscene way would have let the movie be seen by a wider audience.

One of the many obscene quotes was “You fucked my mother for 40 years, why can’t I fuck your mother for 20 years?” Why didn’t he just translate it to “You slept with my mother for 40 years, why can’t I sleep with your mother for 20 years?” The shock value was lost because of the amount of obscenity. After hearing several obscene words they lose value in any film. Also the context of the quotes was rarely given just the year making me wonder what was really going on.

Lastly, and the part that offended me the most, was that the quotes by Mao were read in accented Chinese English. It almost sounded like a bad 1950s bugs bunny cartoon. If Feigon wanted the affect of the Chinese, why weren’t the quotes just read in Chinese and then have English script go across the screen?

The movie used a lot of current day animation in order to show some parts of Mao’s life that there was no stock footage of. Such as his early life or parts about him addressing advisors in his bathrobe. Parts of the animation were interesting but other parts started to seem like a poorly made South Park knockoff. The attempts at humor were weak and too often. These jokes had a Michael Moor like feeling to them but with out a powerful punch to them. If there had been maybe a third of the number of jokes it would have been much better. The uses of a graphics were at best basic and took away from the value of the message. At the end Mao turning into an angel or the image of Christ just confused me.

In the end I am glad I saw the movie because if I hadn’t I would have thought I missed out on something. I did not stay around for the Q and A because I just didn’t have any questions and I didn’t want to hear anymore. If looking for a movie to learn more about the history of Mao this would only be helpful if you know a fair amount about the subject already.

Posted by Lavafalls 11:44 Archived in China Tagged educational Comments (0)

Home Town Foods In A Foreign Land

An exploration of what happens when a travelers requires food from there native country in a foreign land.

There was a great scene in the movie Shanghai Kiss where one of the actors orders a chocolate martini at a bar in China. The bartender gives him a strange look and the actor responds “It is a martini with chocolate in it.”

The bartender then comes back with a regular martini with a piece chocolate sticking in it. Now many travelers have had similar experiences when looking for a taste of home. My brother Paul and I where in Yangshou China on New Years Eve and he saw to his great surprise tomato juice on the menu. He ordered it with quiet haste and sat there. Leaning over he whispered to me, “Mike if tonight goes a little too wild we can hit up some bloody maries here tomorrow.”

The waitress returned a few moments later with a glass filled with an oddly pale red substance in it. She hands it to my brother and Paul sadly lifts the glass in his hand. He takes a sip and almost spits it out, “What is this! All they did was blend raw tomatoes.”

Now if your from a culture were all other juices are just made from blending or squeezing fruits then it would make since to just blend raw tomatoes to make tomato juice. This instance makes it apparently clear that most Chinese have not discovered the wonderful hang over cure of the bloody marry or they just stick to mimosas.

Looking for a taste from home can feel like a great victory or the ultimate loss. I remember living in Tianjin China and I ordered a pepperoni pizza from a Korean pizza joint and it was real pepperoni, not hot dog meat. Even though the pizza was square I was jumping up and down with joy just have to that taste of home. Or having a BLT in Cambodia after not having one for over 6 months.

In general though most battles for familiar’s food at best are a slight let down. Ordering a pizza and it turns out to have no cheese or tomato sauce on it. Maybe getting a chicken sub that has some crazy local sauce on it. Most of the time this twist on a familiar thing would be interesting but if the goal is a taste from home it can lead to a major bummer.

Now even the most veteran traveler needs to a have a taste from home every now and then. How do you avoid these major lets downs? Do you avoid getting your hopes up? Do you just say, “screw it” when it’s not what you wanted and find another restaurant? Do you make your own food or bring snacks with you from home?

I have tired all of these with mixed results. Trying to keep your hopes down is at best a method of delay. If I keep delaying I will eventually break down and been even more bummed out if I had just let the initial bum out happen. Saying, “screw it” and finding different food should only be left for the most extreme of situation because this option can get pretty expensive. Making your own food is great option if you are stationary for a while. Because, what guesthouses have all the spices, materials or cooking implements that you need to make the foods you want. Also I certainly can’t cook a few things I like to eat regularly.

After a year of trying these different methods I had a slight change of thought. When I go hiking in the desert I need to drink lots of water. If I wait till I am thirsty to drink water it is already too late. What do I mean? By the time someone is already thirsty making them want to drink, their body is already dehydrated therefore not running at top shape and it can takes hours sometimes for a body to become fully hydrated again. To keep running at top shape the hiker needs to drink a little every now therefore making them never feel thirsty.

Therefore I eat food from home before I crave it and keep myself from getting “thirsty.” This way when I hit a cultural cuisine hiccup it doesn’t bum me and can become an interesting story. I was reminded recently of this feeling from an experience that I had the other day after returning to Chicago.

I was in need of lunch I noticed a small Hong Kong Chinese food stall downtown just outside of the loop. I walked in and ordered a bowl of lao mien. In Mainland China lao mien is a soup noodles and that was what I was expecting. Then to my surprised I received a bowl of fried noodles. I wasn’t that upset and ate the noodles anyway, which were pretty good. But it reminded how I used to feel when I was in China trying to get a taste of home because if a Chinese person ordered lao mien here and got fried noodles they would be pretty bummed.

Posted by Lavafalls 21:02 Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Unexpected Sights Within a Famous location

sunny 24 °C

Now after two years in China one would think that I have seen it all. But every now and then I get completely blind sided. Today after realizing I would not be leaving Xining for another day I decided to set off on my own. Caught the public bus to the train station and then walked down some side streets to go to an Mabufeng's home,the old warlord of Qinghai in the 1940s.
After approuching it the first thing I noticed that there was a still an intact red hall attatched to the the warlord's house. I thought this was pretty cool. Espicially after I entered the old red hall and saw that it had been turned into a local market, mainly staffed by muslims (Hui or Sala). After this side adventure I entered the house and began to walk around.

On first impression this palace looked like a pretty standerd pre communist mansion. There were lots of quartyards and some western influnce. Then the strange began. First an entire wing (formally the womens wing) had been turned into an exhibit on the different minorities in Qinghai Province. After looking at all the "happy" minorities I decided I wanted to leave (this is after spending two hours looking around the rest of the house). Well apparently I was not I following the proper exit signs because the next thing I knew I was at a dead end.

It seemed to me not many tourists went to this last series of quart-yards in this house. Because there were some strange things going on.

Now in this last quartyard there was a gallery to ancient building methods (which i am guessing was added after the warlord had left) and an area that at one time was a military barracks. Once again I am pretty sure this was added after Mr Feng had fled because it was still in the womens area, male soldiers and lonely rich daughters bad combination. I personally think that might be a fathers worst nightmare. But when I looked around I saw:

First a dog, not super strange, it was tied up and looked like lassy.

Second a chicken, Ok so maybe some of the local migrant workers that lived in the mansion still needed a chicken (this is true I looked into some windows and saw some of the warlord areas had been converted into dorms, that is not strange in China).

Third and last A GOAT!!!! Why is there a goat! This house is in the mddle of a city of 2 million people and suppose to be a major tourist sight. And completely to my disbelief there is a goat chilling eating the grass that at one time had been an eloquent garden.

After standing there for 20 minutes trying to figure out how this seen had come into being a goat, some chickens and few dogs tied up in the back of an old quart yard home I gave up. I retraced my path back to the front of the house slowly coming across more and more people. Eventually hitting a Chinese tour group with a yellow flag and blow horn announcing made up facts. I wondered as I exited this building how the tour guide would explain the existence of these animals? Maybe the tour guide announced something along the lines of: "These animals are the decedents of the private animals of the great Mabu Fang, now take pictures 5 kaui!"

Posted by Lavafalls 06:23 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

When Saying Something is "Dirty"

Thoughts on the Words dirty or filthy

While traveling and living abroad, many people I have been around will say something is dirty or filthy. At first I would chime in with these comments because I agreed. But one day I was having a conversation with a Chinese friend of mine and she got very upset by the foreigners calling China dirty. She would agree that the country wasn't very clean compared to most USA cities, where she had lived for 6 years. But at the same time she did not like the comment of her home country being called dirty.

I started think more about what it means to call something "dirty" and what that word implies. Once I did more thought about, I started to come to some interesting conclusions. The question if something is dirty or filthy is difficult. The first is the basic question of hygiene and public safety. But having your house a little dusty does not make it a public safety disaster but can make it dirty. Then the big questions is when does something being "dirty" cross the line from being a hygiene/public safety concern to being a moral judgement or going beyond someone's personal comfort zone.

Many times I am around people in different countries and they say something like "that is so dirty!" Therefore implying that it is unhygienic. An example would be a Mongolian family drying the remains of a sheep inside their home. Yes, maybe in a wetter warmer climate that would be unhygienic but in the Mongolian climate the likely hood of the meat spoiling is pretty low, and the spread of disease by fly's is also pretty low. I have made similar observations in China. During the winter time, in the Shanghai area, right when the temperature is hovering around freezing, locals will dry meat on their balconies or even in the hallways of an apartment building.

Now to many westerners this would seem gross or dirty. But once again is it unhygienic? Does this cause danger to public health and safety? Personally I don't know, but i don't think it does. These are issue that have to be weighed when approaching the issue of what people think is dirty.
An example can come from American history. After the vacuum cleaners and modern cleaning products where introduced into people lives (mainly women) you would think women would get more free time? NO! The opposite happened, women's free time went down because a higher standard had been set because of the new cleaning products. The affect was even worse on families that could not afford the new products, because in order to appear "clean" these women had to work even harder. Because appearing "dirty" would make them appear in a lower social economic group.

An invention that was suppose to save time actually did not. As I said before having a little dust in your home is not dangerous to most people's health. Also what is considered clean or dirty changes greatly depending on culture. For a Thai family the idea of wearing shoes indoors is horrific. Outside of major cities in Thailand most places, unless outdoors, will require you to take your shoes off. This even includes grocery stores, bars and restaurants. Even though there might be raw human waste on the street, the floor inside a shop will be spotless.

What is the point of all this? The point is there are real public health concerns that come from not being dirty. But the one question people must ask themselves before they judge something as dirty is whether or not it is a health risk. Or just an issue with personal comfort. Because if it is an issue with personal comfort then the statement should be stated that way. It is very easy for the word "dirty" to appear as a form of neo-imperialism even if the speaker does not mean it. Because, the word dirty, or filthy, carry's a judgement to it with certain implications. Even if the speaker does not mean to be judgmental by using the word "dirty," the word still implies those judgments.

Now there are many instances in the third world where there are huge hygiene/public health concerns. And if that is the issue, maybe we should all just say "I think all that waste behind that building is a public health concern." Instead of saying "it is really dirty behind those buildings." Which one do you think sounds better?

Michael Wright Johnson

Posted by Lavafalls 13:56 Tagged educational Comments (0)

The Hard Seat Experience

The fun of Chinese hard seat trains!

The words “only hard seat available” makes many westerners cringe in pain while riding trains in china. Regardless of your social rank or connections, there comes a time when you get stuck in the hard seat cabin of a train. For those of you who have not had this experience, I will give a quick description. First, there is no seat assignment on a hard seat train and there are also no limitations about how many tickets are sold. The boarding experience is intense; everyone pushes with all their might to get on the train, hoping to find one of the limited seats. Once aboard, even if you are one of the first on the train, it seems as though every seat has been magically filled. Traveling in groups almost always results in being separated from your traveling companions or trading who stands and who sits. Then the smoking and spitting begins. Therefore imagine a sardine can filled with smoking, spiting and unwashed people then add yourself into it for multiple hours.
I try as hard as I can to avoid hard seat tickets. There are times, however, when it is impossible to avoid riding the hard seat. Though I have spent the last paragraph describing the horrible experience, some of my favorite memories in China have been while riding in a hard seat train.

My first hard seat experience was on a trip to Inner Mongolia during October break in 2005. Some friends and I went to the train station planning to take a soft seat from Hailaer to Manzhouli. Unfortunately, our trusty guidebook had not warned us that the only train that ran this trip is a hard seat train. With no other option we purchased the tickets. Pitted against the veteran Chinese hard seat traveler, we did not stand a chance. Because it was our first time to ever ride a hard seat train, we made every mistake possible. The four of us stuck together when an individual could maneuver the masses much better. None of us pushed our way to the front. We were also too scared to approach groups of people and just sit with them. In the end, we all stood for the first three hours of the journey and got to sit for the last hour only because other passengers left the train.

Because I was clearly a foreigner, and because I did get to move around a little bit, I got approached frequently. I played games with two brothers and pair of older women said I was the first American they ever met. They also told me that I was much nicer than the Russians they meet most of the time.

Even though the trip was not a complete disaster, I decided I would avoid hard seat trains. Like anything in life, however, you never have complete control… this is especially true when it comes to the Chinese rail system. Needing to get up to Beijing from Tianjin, I went to the train station. To my chagrin, I learned at the ticket window that no soft seats were available until much later that evening. Since I needed to be in Beijing that afternoon, I bought the hard seat ticket. A shudder went through my body remembered my trip to Manzhouli.

Learning from my mistakes, I pushed my way to the front of the train and sat down with a group of Chinese men. Once the train began, I removed my coat and sweater and started to read. Then I felt a hand grab onto my arm and start to slide up and down its length. I look up to see a man from across the aisle. The man lets go of my arm, rolls up his sleeve and shows me his lack of arm hair with a huge smile. His buddies and I proceed to have a great conversation in Chinese. I was the first foreigner they ever talked too. They did not even believe me when I told them I was American. I had to be Canadian because I have brown hair and brown eyes.

Due to that train ride from Tianjin to Beijing, I now have a completely different outlook on the hard seat experience. The next time you have a short train ride and you know a little Chinese, think about taking the hard seat. It is a great way to meet people who you would not usually interact with and have a great cultural exchange.

Posted by Lavafalls 12:25 Archived in China Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

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