“The Snakehead” in review; new title on Fuzhou -> New York Illegal Immigration Racket

Posted in Fujian, Immigration at 3:07 pm by Benjamin Ross

Since I first commenced “Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom” in 2007, I have periodically received offers from authors and book publishers for promo copies of soon to be released books, presumably in the hope I will take a look and dispense some free PR. Since I try to keep commercial interests out of this blog’s content, I typically reply that I’d be glad to accept a copy of the book, but cannot guarantee a review unless I find the book exceptionally relevant to the scope of the blog. Patrick Radden Keefe’s new title, The Snakehead, which was released to the public on Tuesday, was the first promo to fall into this category.

The Snakehead Patrick Radden Keefe
The Snakehead was released to the public this past Tuesday. The official website can be found at www.thesnakehead.com.

“Snakehead” (蛇头 she2 tou2) is not a common term in the American vernacular or through much of China for that matter. However in Fuzhou it is the household moniker for an individual who specializes in sneaking people over international borders. And in no other part of China are the snakeheads as adept at smuggling individuals into foreign lands than they are in Fuzhou.

Radden Keefe’s saga begins with the Golden Venture, a vessel which originated in Thailand, and ran aground off the coast of New York City at 2 a.m. on June 6, 1993. Aboard the ship were 286 illegal Chinese immigrants, mainly from Fuzhou. The sponsor of the ship had been a Fuzhounese woman in Queens who was known throughout Chinatown as “Sister Ping.” Using contacts in New York, Fuzhou, and across the globe, Sister Ping was able to establish a logistical network spanning through China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Central America, Canada, Mexico and the United States, in order to smuggle thousands of undocumented Chinese over the border. She also amassed a fortune of over forty million dollars in the process, all under the cover of a small storefront in Chinatown.

Radden Keefe’s tale documents the trials and tribulations the Fuzhounese who choose to illegally venture to America, which do not always run as smoothly as anticipated. This was discovered by the passengers on the Golden Venture when they were intercepted by the Coast Guard on the beach and subsequently sent to a lockdown facility in York, PA. In addition to the authorities, smuggling enterprises are often subject to the vicissitudes of Chinatown organized crime gangs who also want a piece of the action. Radden Keefe recounts much of this through Ah Kay, a Fuzhounese crime boss, turned FBI informant. As the preeminent gangster in Chinatown, Ah Kay uses his muscle to both cooperate and antagonize Sister Ping as they both battle for their share of the immigration profits, in a complex relationship which stretches from Fuzhou to New York City and ultimately to the federal courtroom.

With a nonlinear storytelling style, at times reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino script, Radden Keefe’s narrative bounces through a veritable merry-go-round of settings including rural villages in China, underground gambling dens in New York City, airport departure counters in Bangkok, the jungle of Burma, the coast of South Africa, the streets of Mombassa, safe houses in Central America, and the US Canada border at Niagara Falls. Each anecdote reveals another piece of the elaborate pipeline by which rural Chinese attempt the journey to the United States where they will work in restaurants, pay off the Snakeheads, and ultimately remit their earnings back to their families in China.

As a former resident of both Fuzhou and Fuqing (one of the small towns frequently cited in the book as a source of illegals) there was no way I was going to pass up on The Snakehead. When I was living in the area, it would have been impossible to carry on without noticing the widespread effects of the human smuggling operations which shape the region. Between the regular fake marriage proposals, the high-rise countryside mansions, and the stories from ever present taxi driver with three cousins and a brother all washing dishes in New York City, illegal immigration and the spoils it brings are in indelible part of life in and around Fuzhou.

The Snakehead is a comprehensive look at the expansive body of the actors in this global enterprise. Appropriately, Radden Keefe lays out the facts and particulars while carefully avoiding explicit value judgments which so often muddle the issues surrounding immigration. While he does share some of his own personal views in the epilogue, the bulk of the text refrains from swaying the reader’s opinion to any particular persuasion. Rather, it provides a equitable exposé on an underground topic which has yet to be documented in such a complete and readable form. For organized immigration enthusiasts, crime buffs, and China hands alike, The Snakehead is a must read.



Making a Fashion Statement in China

Posted in Fujian, Pop Culture at 5:38 pm by Benjamin Ross

It’s been several months since I’ve stepped foot in the Middle Kingdom.  However, my old cohort Rebecca McQuillen, is still in Fuzhou and recently logged these colorful snapshots (and captions) about fashion in China on her Facebook.  I have reproduced them here with her permission.

Real LV which is not seen very often. She went to Hong Kong to buy this beauty.

Retired look; This was at the the torch relay coming to Fuzhou.

Seeing a lot of price tags still hanging off clothing. It used to be the brand on the sleeve of business suits. Price tags are fairly new in the past 2 years.
College girl look

Love the colors and patterns. so cute

She is getting geared up for the 4th of July, I guess. I always wonder where they buy this stuff. Do with have sequenced flag purses at home?

Normal look for weekday afternoon. Gogo dress and high heels riding motor scooter.
Owner of local coffee shop; Her backpack is an over-sized teddy bear. Many adults wear and use things we in the West would consider for children only.

Menswear displayed in a window; This looks like a women’s outfit in the West, but they only sell men’s clothing in this store so was not an issue of only having a male mannequin.

“Less is more in the West.  In China, too much is not enough,” quote by Douglas Bonner, and this is another example.
Arm protectors; seeing less and less of these, but many young women who work in offices still wear them at work. Offices get cleaned maybe once a year, so they are quite dirty.
school boys and me

Face masks are now fashion statements.

Dogs dyed all different colors and made to wear doggy clothes is a normal site. Now more and more large dogs are being seen.

Airport porters with Chinglish, note this is in Shenzhen AFTER the Olympics.

Normal walk in high heels…looks like a homecoming queen, which is suitable cause she was at airport picking up a passenger.

Hanging out at nail salon
These hats are a huge hit on Gulangyu Island in Xiamen.
countryside look
Colored hair is everywhere. Yet they dye bottle color, not much mixing or toning down. It is still in experimental stage.

(I know this from first hand experience.)

What I like about Rebecca’s work is that it provides a pretty accurate cross section of a society which is only 30 years into a complete upheaval of common social practices;  how individuals clothe themselves being a major component of this.  Most of Rebecca’s shots were taken in Fuzhou, where only a generation ago, such photography would have yielded nothing more than monotonous blue and gray suits, straight black hair, and nothing more than a “Quotations of Mao Zedong” book as an accessory.  As China continues to change and develop at a rapid pace, so too will the fashion tastes of the populace. Many of the fashions shown here (sans the “countryside look” of course) will probably be by the wayside in just a couple years.  It’s already looking vastly different from when I left Fuzhou, and that was only August of 2007.



To Fuqing and Back…我的中国老家

Posted in Fujian, Travel Log (Asia) at 7:44 pm by Benjamin Ross

For those of you who have followed my blog since its inception, you probably remember when I lived in Fuzhou.  In posts, I often cite that I lived in Fuzhou for 3 years, but this is not completely accurate.  In fact, my first 15 months in the Middle Kingdom were spent in a town called Fuqing, a county-level city (县级市) under the jurisdiction of Fuzhou, but an hour outside of the city proper.  This past summer, I spent 6 days in Fuzhou which included two day-trips back to Fuqing.  Here are some pictures I took to give you a little taste of my adopted Chinese 老家.

In terms of size and city layout, Fuqing is very typical Chinese city, containing a population of several hundred thousand people cramped into an area which can be traversed by bicycle in about twenty minutes.
My original reasons for going to China were to experience a foreign culture (and learn its language) in a developing country, and do so by being completely isolated from my own.  When I first arrived in Fuqing in March of 2004, I did not see another white person for my first three months.  Today still, the sight of a foreigner is uncommon on the streets of Fuqing, and bound to draw attention.
Fuqing is dysected by the 龙江 (Dragon River) and several bridges connect the old downtown (background) to the new downtown and surrounding areas.  The building seen here is the 天河酒店 (tian1 he2 jiu2 dian4), a hotel/restaurant/KTV which is the tallest building in town.
Up until about 2005, this is what most of Fuqing’s housing stock looked like, rows and rows and rows of the infamous bathroom tile style buildings.
This is the infamous ICBC branch which formerly had frozen my assets.  For all the flack I give ICBC, the one thing they are good is managing to open a branch in every single imaginable stretch of civilization across the Middle Kingdom.  I’ve never looked this up, but I would not be surprised if ICBC had more branches than any other bank in the world.
At the center of Fuqing is 街心公园 (jie1 xin1 gong1 yuan2), which translates romantically into English as “Street Center Park.”  As is the case of central parks/squares in many small Chinese cities, 街心公园  serves as a community center for many of the locals, especially the elderly.  When weather conditions are favorable, crowds gather in the park to play card games or Chinese chess, smack around a shuttlecock, sell items ranging from remote-control cars to kitchen utensils, or just chat and enjoy the sun shade.  It’s the place to go to have your shoes shined, bust out the megaphone and promote your new product or service to the masses, or simply to catch up on the latest gossip and people-watch.街心公园 will always bear a special significance to me as my de facto Chinese classroom.  For the better part of 15 months, I would spend 3 or 4 afternnoons per week hanging out in the park and conversing with the locals.  The beauty of this arrangement was its symbiosis.  Most elderly Fuqingers can probably count on one hand the number of Westerners they have encountered throughout the course of their entire lives.  Chances are, even if they have seen Westerners, they had never had the opportunity (nor the ability) to communicate with them.  Therefore, the sight of me chatting with a random local would often draw a small crowd to eavesdrop on our conversation.  Before I knew it, I would often be surrounded by a mob of Chinese senior citizens, eager to ask me all sorts of personal questions about my job, my salary, George W. Bush, how many Chinese women I had slept with, etc.

Under normal conditions, this would have been quite an annoying situation.  But since my main goal was practicing the language, and their main goal was drawing as much information out of Whitey McForeigner as possible, it was the perfect match.  To this day, I can still objectively point to afternoons at 街心公园 as my most valuable Chinese language training.  And as a side note, I usually didn’t respond to the sexual inquiries.

Speaking of Whitey McForeigner, 街心公园 also sits adjacent to Fuqing’s one and only McDonald’s.  Like most single-McDonald’s towns in China, Fuqing’s McD’s is located right smack dab in the middle of the downtown.  It’s on the second floor of one of Fuqing’s most expensive pieces of commercial real estate.  McDonald’s is one of Fuqing’s hipper establishments, especially for youth, and a common spot for dates and social gatherings.
No introduction to Fuqing would be complete without a thorough disclosure of the 福清光饼 (fu2 qing1 guang1 bing3).  While there are countless bread creations across the Middle Kingdom referred to as 光饼, Fuqing’s 光饼 are distinct in their hardness…typically not a quality sought after in bread.
In and of themselves 光饼 are nothing to write home about.  However, it’s what is put inside them that make them so unique, and mouthwateringly delicious.  Jokingly referred to as the 福清汉堡包 (Fuqing hamburger), the 光饼夹 (guang1 bing3 jia1) is a sandwich created by slicing the 光饼 in half, and filling it with marinated pork and tofu.  Hot sauce is optional, and highly recommended by yours truly.  The 光饼夹 is possibly the tastiest street food concoction I have ever encountered anywhere in the Middle Kingdom. This is a distinction I do not throw around casually.
光饼夹 cost only 1 RMB each (approx 15 cents USD), and they can ONLY be bought in Fuqing.  There are vendors in Fuzhou who sell what they claim to be Fuqing 光饼夹, but in fact they are the 光饼夹 from another town called Jian’ou, and are completely different from (and disappointingly inferior to) the Fuqing ones.  To find the real 光饼夹, simply go to 街心公园, and look for elderly countryside women seated near over-shoulder baskets with the 光饼 in one, the pork/tofu/spice goodness in the other  (see picture above).  Unless it is raining (or an Olympic Opening Ceremony is taking place on Chines soil) they will always be there.
Fuqing is only 15 miles from the Taiwan Strait, and thus its topography is full of small rivers, creeks, and canals.  The coast near Fuqing has bountiful stone deposits, and thus nearly all buildings (like these pictured above) are constructed from stone or concrete.
One benefit of living in Southern China as opposed to the North is that air pollution is much less severe.  To be fair, I took these pictures on a day which was extrordinarly clear for Fuqing.  Even so, on an average day in any town of Fujian, the air quality would be much, much cleaner than an average day in say, Henan or Hebei.
An additional benefit of living in a small town (this goes for North and South) is that cost of living is cheap…dirt cheap!  Cab fare to anywhere within Fuqing city limits is 6 RMB (approx 90 cents USD).  It was 5 RMB when I lived there.  And due to Fuqing’s dearth of nightlife and quality dining, it is virtually impossible to spend much money, even if you tried.  That is, unless you are one of the locals who wear Japanese designer clothes and live in luxurious 6 story mansions.  Due to its large contingent of residents working in kitchens of Chinese restaurants abroad, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the recent boom in Fujian’s export market, Fuqing’s people have amassed enormous amounts of personal wealth over the past two decades.
The funny thing about Fuqing however is that after taking a casual stroll through the city, one would never realize it was one of the wealthiest cities in China.  Since much of the Fuqing elite’s income comes from graft, undocumented international employment, and other mischievous means, the city itself is not nearly as wealthy as the people whom it governs.  This is quite apparent by examining the public infrastructure, especially in contrast to the private homes which it supports.
Back when I lived in Fuqing, it’s most heinous eyesore was probably the Dragon River itself.  With its stench of feces, endless flow of trash, layer of industrial oil floating on the surface, and complete lack of fish or any other livng aquatic creatures, I had never seen a more polluted body of water in my life before.
However, since the time I left, a massive cleanup effort has been undertaken by the city government, and the Dragon River is actually starting to look like…well…a river again!
In addition, much of the infrastructure around the river is being replaced as well.  That tall structure in the background is a pagoda from the Ming Dynasty, one of the very few standing relics of Fuqing’s past.  I am assuming it won’t be torn down in the latest wave of construction.
Another one of Fuqing’s older structures (although not nearly as old as the pagoda) is the Min Opera House which like most of Fuqing, also sits on the bank of the Dragon River.  At the Opera House are regular live performances of 闽剧 (Fujian Opera).  The performances are all done in the local dialect with a flashing sign off to the side of the stage displaying subtitles in Chinese characters.  Even if you can’t understand what is said, it is still worth stepping in for a few minutes to check out a performance.  You can usually hear them from across the river as well.
Throughout the time I lived in Fuqing the downtown area was always the center of daily life and commerce.
However, during the time I lived in Fuzhou (05-07), the Fuqing city government began rapidly developing an entirely new downtown on the other side of the Dragon River, to the west of the old one.
If there is one thing that China can do better than anyone, it’s rapidly throw up new buildings.  This patch of real estate went from farmland to high-rise mega-commercial development in a period of less than 12 months.  It was also given the Chinglishly hilarious official English name “Long Wang Great Town,” translated from 龙旺名城.
Sites like Long Wang Great Town were nowhere to be seen in Fuqing when I first arrived.  Keep in mind, that was only four years ago.  My recent trip back to Fuqing underscored the fact that you don’t have to live in China very long before you begin to notice drastic changes in the landscape and architecture of familiar areas.  Contrast that to the neighborhood where I grew up in Overland Park, KS, which looks virtually identical now as to how it looked when I my family moved there in 1985.

Of all the various locales I have visited in the Middle Kingdom, none will ever have the same personal significance as my first Chinese stomping grounds.  Fuqing is generally not viewed as a desirable destination in the eyes of Chinese from other cities and provinces.  Most of my students at the university where I worked would tell me that Fuqing was dirty, ugly, boring, and that the people were rude and uncivilized.  I was frequently informed by cab drivers that out of the thousands of Chinese cities, I was stupid for choosing to live in Fuqing.  One student even told me that when her parents dropped her off her freshman year, she cried at the first sight of downtown.  But for me, this is exactly why I loved Fuqing.  There was nothing whatsoever which would have attracted anyone to travel there without reason.  To me it was a beautifully intact Chinese city, completely spared from the effects of tourism and large-scale Western influence, the perfect spot to begin my journey through the Middle Kingdom.



Update from the Barber Shop

Posted in Barbershop, Fujian at 11:07 pm by Benjamin Ross

For those of you who have kept up with this blog over the past two years, you probably remember when I worked at the Red Sun* barbershop for a month in May of 2007. With 8/8/08 rapidly approaching, I decided to spend my last week of pre-Olympic vacation in Fuzhou, my former Chinese stomping grounds. Of course, a trip back to Fuzhou wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the barbershop.

Since I had last been in Fuzhou, much has changed at the Red Sun. For one thing, only two of the little brothers who were at the Red Sun when I was employed are still there. The rest have either moved on to work in other shops, or completely different lines of work altogether. Several of the former Red Sun employees are now working in Ding Chuang, a new barbershop Mr. Zheng has opened just five minutes away from the Red Sun. Mr. Zheng has also installed Internet enabled computers in both of the barbershops. At first, employees were allowed to use them, but only when no customers were in the shop. Since some employees were abusing the privilege, Mr. Zheng decided to forbid them to be used by anyone except customers, enforceable by a 50 RMB fine. Mr. Zheng also plans to completely remodel The Red Sun next month. All employees will receive an unprecedented 2 week vacation, but unfortunately won’t be able to get paid for any of it.

I spent most of my week catching up with all my former co-workers, and here’s a little wrap-up of what everybody’s been up to.

Mr. Zheng has continued his aspirations to be more of a businessman and less of a barber, and opening Ding Chuang was a major step in this direction. He now splits his time between the two shops, acting as the manager for both. He still gives occasional haircuts to old customers, but is trying to focus more of his energy on management.

Adamum ended his tenure at The Red Sun shortly after I left China last summer. He went back to his hometown of Lianjiang for several months before returning to Fuzhou to open his own tiny barbershop located just around the corner from the Red Sun. In his shop, Adamum is the only master (barber) and there are only two little brothers. “This shop is pretty crappy, don’t you think? But at least it’s mine. I wasn’t getting too many customers at “The Red Sun.” I like being my own buss,” he told me. Adamum still hopes to one day achieve his lifelong dream of illegally immigrating to the United States.

Johnny left The Red Sun shortly after I did. Miraculously, the decision to leave was his own, not Mr. Zheng’s. Supposedly he returned to his hometown. Nobody has heard from him in months.

Jie Lun and Xiao Lei are the only two of the little brothers and sisters who are still at The Red Sun. Jie Lun is going to become a master next month, and Xiao Lei is still washing hair and giving massages.

Xiao Xia finished her tenure as a little sister shortly after I left The Red Sun. She is now working as a master at Ding Chuang.

Xiao Wang is still cutting hair for Mr. Zheng, but next week will be moving to Shanghai. His girlfriend, Xiao Xia’s sister, is already there and working. “I’m not sure what I’ll do when I’m there. Maybe cut hair, maybe something else, but it’s time to move on. I’ve been in Fuzhou for 7 years,” he told me.

After four years at The Red Sun, Jiang, who is the longest currently running employee, has also decided it is time to move on. His last day will be the fifteenth. He has been reading a lot of business books lately and is considering a possible career change. His son is now four years old and still being raised by Jiang’s parents in his hometown of Youxi. He still does not recognize Jiang as his father.

Cheng Qing is still at the Red Sun, and after Xiao Wang and Jiang leave, he will be the only master left who was there when I was employed. He, Xiao Xia, and Xiao Wang currently share a three bedroom unfinished apartment near The Red Sun “dormitory” which serves as an unofficial hangout for many of the employees after work hours are finished.

Guang Tou is no longer “guang tou” (bald). He has a full head of hair. When I ran into him unexpectedly in a kiosk on my way to Ding Chuang he shouted out my name and I didn’t even recognize him. He is now working as a master at Ding Chuang, and is engaged to Xiao Huang, who formerly worked the register at The Red Sun. She is now working as a cashier in a clothing store.

As planned, Mao Mao quit her job as a little sister at the Roman Barber Shop shortly after I returned to the United States. When Ding Chuang opened, she joined Xiao Xia and Guang Tou as the shop’s original three masters. She is still the only master who enjoys her line of work, and still hopes one day to become an internationally famous hair stylist.

Ling Ling is still working the cash register at The Red Sun. Just before I left China, she told me privately that she was going to quit, but I guess that plan never panned out.

Xiao Long returned to his hometown of Ningde several months ago where he has some family connections in the government. He is currently studying for the test to become a civil servant.

Nobody could tell me anything about Carrottop’s whereabouts. Mr. Zheng didn’t even remember him when I brought him up.

Xiao Fang finished his barber training and has now become a master at another barber shop in Fuzhou.

Chen Lin, who at 26 was by far the oldest little brother or sister in the shop, is also working at another barber shop in Fuzhou. I asked him if he had become a master yet. He laughed and said, “Nope, still washing hair.”

During my six days in Fuzhou, I spent the better part of most afternoons and evenings, chatting with my old buddies, performing colorful experiments on each other’s hair, and doing what we all do best, killing time in the barber shop. On my last night in town, we all went out to a local Fuzhou bar, to party the night away with Tsingtao’s and a Filipino cover band. Almost everybody came out, and even several of the employees who are no longer employed at The Red Sun showed up as well.

In addition to teaching me more than I ever imagined I would learn about life in China, my former co-workers have also become some of my closest personal friends. We still keep in regular contact via QQ, and whenever I am in China we exchange frequent text messages as they sit around the shop waiting for customers. The next time I return to Fuzhou, The Red Sun will hardly resemble the shop I worked in for 30 days back in May of 2007. The interior of the shop will look completely different, and likely only a handful of my former employees will still be working for Mr. Zheng. Yet I know my times at the Red Sun will never be forgotten as I look back at my years in the Middle Kingdom.

Below I’ve added some pics from the week back in Fuzhou. Enjoy.

*When I originally began blogging about my experiences in the barbershop, I kept the shop’s name (and those of my co-workers) private. Since then, my colleagues have all insisted to me that my concerns about protecting their privacy are far too American, and that I should go ahead and use real names. However, in order to prevent confusion, I have continued using pseudonyms for all of the employees.

me with Mr. Zheng
Guang Tou, me, and Xiao Xia
Jiang; waiting for customers
Xiao Wang; striking the official Chinese snap shot pose in the front of the barbershop shop
A trip back to the barbershop wouldn’t be complete without major modifications to my own hair style. Before I left Fuzhou, Xiao Wang gave me a spiky do and blond highlights.
me with Ling Ling (right) and Wen Bing, Mr. Zheng’s brother who is now working as a master at the Red Sun
Cheng Qing, Jiang, and Xiao Wang at the bar
more from the bar; me with Xiao Fang (middle) and Cheng Lin, who met up with us for the night out
Mao Mao and Xiao Xia
Adamum and Xiao Xia
the full group photo, after several rounds of Tsingtao and dice
one final look at the Red Sun before it gets remodeled
Mr. Zheng tells me it will look totally different next time I come back.
After I left, Mr. Zheng hung this shot of me, him and the masters in the back of shop. Clockwise from the back left that’s Guang Tou, Mr. Zheng, Xiao Wang, Adamum, Cheng Qing, me, and Jiang



The Foreigner Card, Don’t Leave Your Home Country Without It

Posted in Business 'n Economics, Curious English, Fujian at 11:16 am by Benjamin Ross

Have a look at this card which came into my possession the other night when I was out bar hopping in Fuzhou.

prada bar card
Chinese foreigner card

For those of you whose eyes are as bad as mine, here’s what the writing says:

外籍卡使用须知  The foreign card usage beard know  

This card is a foreign card, only for foreigner. 此卡外籍卡,限外国人使用

Can get to present 3 bottles of beers for specify everyday with this card. 凭此卡每天可获赠3瓶指定的啤酒

End explain power to return the prada bar all.  最终解释权归PRADA BAR 所有

The “Prada Bar,” a popular watering hole in Fuzhou, employs a marketing strategy which has been growing in Second Tier cities across China where foreign faces still number in the hundreds.  It works in three steps.  1) Attract foreigners to the bar with free beer.  2)  Next will come the Chinese girls, who are interested in foreign guys as well as English practice.  3)  Finally, the wealthy Chinese businessmen will swoop in after the Chinese girls.  The bar owner will lose money up front, but ultimately makes his buck when the Chinese businessmen spend hundreds of RMB on expensive bottles of imported whiskey.   

In China, bars are costly, out of the price range of an average working citizen’s salary.  A Fuzhou bar owner told me, “If a bar’s prices are too cheap, Chinese people won’t go to it.  They will think it’s a second-rate bar.  They might lose face if they take their friends there.  If the prices are expensive, it will give customers a better impression.”

With Westerners the logic is reversed.  In a city like Fuzhou, in which the foreigner population is only large enough to support 1 or 2 “laowai bars,” the crowd of foreigners usually follows the drink specials.  Whoever is selling Tsingtao’s for 10 RMB has a shot at attracting the crowd of white, black, and brown faces.  More expensive than that, and only Chinese patrons will show up.  Since the foreigners generally will only pay 10 RMB for beer (some bars sell them in upwards 30 RMB), there isn’t much profit to be made off this demographic anyway.  Instead, bar owners are oftne better off using the foreigners as loss leaders to attract the high-rolling Chinese businessmen.

In Wenzhou, a Taiwanese businessman who goes by the name “Cowboy Eric” has opened three night clubs around a country Western theme.  Cowboy Eric speaks fluent English, dons an oversized cowboy hat, and can be seen leading patrons in drunken renditions of “La Bamba.”  In each bar, foreign patrons are greeted with free 6 packs of Tsingtao and occasionally complimentary steaks.  All three of his bars are filled to the brim every weekend, with droves patrons often spilling over to the outside.         

As China’s foreign population increases, special priviledges for foreigners are likely to become less prevalent.  Whereas in small urban centers like Fuzhou and Wenzhou, using foreigners to attract Chinese patrons has proven succeessful, in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, these marketing efforts have little effect.  Foreigners there are an every day occurrance, nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly no reason to patronize a bar.  For me, although I have seen the “free beer for whitey” strategy practice for several years, the Prada Bar is the first bar I have known to have an official policy, not to mention one backed up by membership cards.  I can’t help but wonder if I were Chinese whether I might feel a little knee-jerk resentment knowing foreigners get free beer simply on account of their nationality. 



Fuzhou in The Slate

Posted in Fujian, Immigration at 11:40 am by Benjamin Ross

The Slate is currently running a 3-part piece on Fuzhou for which I did some pro bono consulting. The articles, written by Patrick Radden Keefe, explore life in rural villages on the outskirts of Fuzhou, which are the source of most of the United States’ Chinese restaurant labor pool. Keefe also details the human smuggling operations which have led to these small villages’ unprecedented economic booms. You can click on the link below for the articles. They’re all worth the read.



It’s Christmas in Chicago…and Fuzhou!

Posted in Culture Clash, Down in Chinatown, Fujian at 7:21 pm by Benjamin Ross

Now is the time of year when the snow if falling, houses are decorated with holly and Christmas lights, and the radio waves are filled with Christmas music. Christmas is in the air in Chicago. In Fuzhou, a modestly-sized Chinese capital city with a tiny foreigner population, Christmas is in the air as well…well, everything except for the snow.

trust mart employees santa hats
Several Santa Clauses greet customers outside a Fuzhou storefront

Christmas in Fuzhou is no longer a foreign festival that children read about in social studies books—it’s a local phenomenon as well. If Fuzhou, a 40 foot Christmas tree is erected every year in front of the (or I should say “one of the 3?”) KFCs in Dong Jie Kou, Fuzhou’s central shopping district. Storefronts are lined with holly, and novelty snow, and shoppers as well as store employees can be seen wearing red Santa hats. It’s now not uncommon for Fuzhou residents nowadays to purchase Christmas cards and Christmas gifts, and sign their e-mails and QQ greetings with “Merry Christmas.”

For me, Christmas in China was always an awkward time. As a Jew, I have never celebrated Christmas, and this came as quite a disappointment to many of my Chinese friends. Even when I would explain that the reason I do not celebrate Christmas is that I am not a Christian, this would do little to answer the curiosity. The general perception of Christmas in China is that it is a Western holiday, and not necessarily connected with religion. Based on the commercialization of Christmas in the US, it’s not surprising that many Chinese have drawn this conclusion.

trust mart employees santa hats
Trust Mart employees sport their special Christmas uniforms.

The boom in Chinese Christmas celebration has coincided with the seemingly diminishing relevance of the Chinese Spring Festival. While Spring Festival is still the most prominent holiday on the Chinese calendar, it’s significance has been slowly diminishing, especially in the cities. Not so surprisingly, it is also in the cities where Christmas celebration is most common, especially among China’s youth. Will there come a day when the Spring Festival is supplanted by Christmas? My guess is probably not anytime soon. But with the speed of globalization, who knows what it will be like in another 100 years?



Fuzhou People Everywhere! 到处都有福州人

Posted in Fujian, Immigration at 12:05 am by Benjamin Ross

It’s 1:30 on a sunny afternoon in Midtown Kansas City. After a walk around familiar environs, I stop for a bite to eat at the “Northern China Restaurant Buffet” on Main Street. While living in China for 3 years has utterly destroyed any affinity I had for American Chinese food, I still try to stop by a Chinese restaurant at least once a week, if anything, just to keep up my language skills.

After a brief conversation with the waitress in Mandarin, I return to my booth to begin my meal. Halfway though a bite of General Tso’s chicken, a familiar sound comes from the back of the restaurant. It’s definitely not Mandarin, and the excessive barrage of garbled nasal sounds don’t sound anything like Cantonese.

The waitress returns to refill my water and I decide to confirm whether or not my suspicious were accurate.

“Where are you from?” I ask her in Mandarin

“Fujian province.” she replies, assuming most people have heard of Fujian, but haven’t heard of any of its cities.

“Where in Fujian?” I reply.

“Fuzhou,” she replies, a little surprised I am continuing my interrogation.

“Where in Fuzhou?” I ask.

fuqing fujian rural china
It is small towns near Fuzhou like Fuqing (pictured here) which are the leading source of Chinese restaurant employees throughout the world.

At this point she gives me a look that I read as “There is no way this gringo could possibly have heard of the little rural town in Fujian where I grew up.”

That would be assuming this gringo didn’t happen to have lived just an hour away from that little rural town which I was guessing I knew the name of before she even told me.

“Changle.” she replied to answer my question.

No, nobody would have ever heard of Changle had it not been quite possibly the single largest source of Chinese commissary employees in the United States. And no doubt the sounds I had been hearing were those of the Fuzhou dialect.

Changle is a county-level city (县级市) just outside of Fuzhou, the provincial capital, and largest city in Fujian province. Fujian province is widely renowned for its mass quantities of migrants who move (often through questionable methods) to other countries, usually in search of amassing great fortunes by washing dishes in Chinese restaurants.

Most Fujianese immigrants come from smaller towns, like Changle, outside of the major cities. Once they go abroad, they often meet up with friends or family members from their hometowns, and establish their own small enclaves overseas. Because of these migration patterns, small towns in Fujian often have corresponding countries where their people migrate. For people in Fuqing (the town where I lived for 1.5 years before moving to Fuzhou), they gravitate towards Japan. For people from Changle the country of choice is the USA.

My return to the USA is beginning to confirm one of my suspicions I have developed over the past few years, and that is that there are quite possibly more Changle natives living in the US than there are in Changle itself. In fact during my time in Kansas City, I ate at 3 different Chinese restaurants, and at each one, my waiter was from Changle. For me this works out great, as when having my weekly Chinese language refreshment course at the local buffet, I can not only reminisce about the country I used to live in, but can tell people exactly where I lived down to the building, discuss Fuzhou area restaurants and shopping districts, and get updates on the latest trends in the city where I lived for 3 years. And hey, maybe those bits and pieces of the Fuzhou dialect I learned over there won’t go to waste afterall.



A $5 Culinary Trip Through Tokyo (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Food and Drink, Fujian, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 5:34 am by Benjamin Ross

continued from A $5 Culinary Trip Through Tokyo (Part 1 of 3)

With a sour taste still in my mouth from the previous day’s 7-Eleven hoagie, I played it safe for my second breakfast in Japan…this of course meant another sushi bar. I found yet another cheap conveyor belt sushi joint in Shibuya (a hip shopping district in downtown Tokyo) and parked myself at the bar.

Tokyo sushi bar
The sushi place I at my second day in Tokyo was almost an exact clone of the one I ate at on my first day…not that I’m complaining.

The setup was nearly identical to the conveyor belt sushi place where I had dined two days before, and the sushi and sashimi looked and tasted identical to those at the other place. At the end of my meal I could not decipher anything about the second sushi joint which was different from the first. Even the prices had been virtually identical. It led me to wonder if sushi preparation is more about standards and uniformity than uniqueness and creativity. Maybe somebody who has spent more than 3 days in Japan can fill in here.

Cost of meal: 700 yen (approx $6 USD) Final Verdict: 7…just like the other sushi place.

In addition to all of the tempting Japanese food Tokyo had to offer, it is impossible to walk too far in Tokyo without taking in the sights and smells of good ol’ hamburgers and fries. Whereas in most parts of Mainland China American fast food is still relatively exotic, American grease has seemingly been more so integrated into the Japanese culinary psyche. In Tokyo, small dive restaurants advertise for hamburgers, french fries, and steaks, often being served in the same storefronts as traditional Japanese cuisine, and rarely more expensive than Japanese alternatives. Japan also has several of its own homegrown American fast food restaurants, the most prominent I noticed was called Lotteria. For lunch on my second day in Tokyo, I gave it a shot.

Like most of the fast food restaurants I saw in Tokyo, the Lotteria I went to also had 3 stories. The first storey opened up to the street and consisted of the kitchen and ordering area, and the second and third floors were both tight, cramped-in dining rooms. Inside the dining rooms were Tokyoers of all ages and demographics, reading the newspaper, sending text messages, and taking slow, gradual bites out of their fast food. As I approached the ordering area, my eyes were immediately drawn to Lotteria’s current specialty item, the tandori chicken burger, which I ordered along with a hamburger on the side.

lotteria tandori chicken burger></td>
<td><font size=Japanese fast food at its finest. My personal recommendation goes to the Tandori Chicken Burger (top left)

Wrapped in soft pita bread, and topped with lettuce, onion, and tandori sauce, the tandori chicken burger provided a surprisingly zesty fusion of Indian cuisine and American fast food. It easily ranks up there with the Wendy’s Spicy Chicken and the Taco Bell 7-Layer burrito as one of the more innovative fast food creations I have sampled. The fries and the hamburger, however, were sub-par, comparable to those of the homegrown burger joints which have popped up all over China in recent years. I would liken it to an hour-old McDonald’s hamburger coupled with semi-stale KFC french fries. Not exactly a fast food all star lineup.

Cost: 520 yen (approx $4.50 USD) for the Tandori Chicken value meal, and 100 yen (approx 90 cents) for the hamburger; Final Verdict: 5, If I were to rate the meal separately, the tandori chicken would get an 8 and the burger and fries a 2.

For dinner on my second, and last evening in Tokyo, I met up with my old friend Andrew Houston, who has lived in Tokyo for over 5 years. Leaving the choice of dining establishments in his hands, he suggested a meal of yakitori.

meat on a stick
Yakitori, or “grilled bird,” or in this case, grilled pork liver

Andrew took me to a small dive restaurant where we sat at the bar and he proceeded to order. Literally, “yakitori” means “grilled bird,” and I think they chose this name because it would have been too troublesome to use a more accurate name which would have been “anything possibly edible to humans…on a stick.” Our meal consisted of beef, pork, chicken, liver, and fish balls, all strung together on long, wooden toothpicks, and smothered in a thick sauce.

Japanese Yakitori
More yakitori, now with beef, shrimp, and fish balls

As we consumed our yakitori and drank Asahi beers, Andrew struck up a conversation in Japanese with one of the waitresses. After an apparent communication mishap, Andrew turned to me and said, “That waitress has a strong accent when she speaks Japanese. I think she might be Chinese.”

When the waitress came back to the table, I asked her, in Chinese, “Are you Chinese?”

The waitress let out the token “woooaahhhh” (It’s probably not everyday she runs into a Chinese speaking white guy in Tokyo), and replied, “We are all Chinese,” pointing to the two other waitresses.

Overhearing our conversation, the other waitresses came over to say hello to the pair of bilingual gringos.

“Where in China are you from?” I asked the first waitress.

I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised when she quickly responded “Fuzhou,” as my former Chinese residence is well-known for its large amount of its people going abroad, but I never expected the first Chinese person I met after leaving China would be from Fuzhou as well. When I told her, in the Fuzhou dialect, “I used to live in Fuzhou” (one of the few sentences I can say properly), her jaw nearly hit the ground. After several minutes of reminiscing about Fuzhou shopping districts and fish ball restaurants, the waitress mentioned to me that there was an area, just down the street, where all of the shop owners are from Fuzhou. Unfortunately it was nearly 11 o’clock and all of the stores had closed for the next evening.

Andrew and I finished our Yakitori and 2 rounds of Asahi beer, and after bouncing English, Japanese, and Chinese around the room for an hour, we paid our tab and called it a night.

Cost: 2100 yen (aprox $18 USD, total for 2); Final Verdict: another 7

It was refreshing to find Tokyo residents with whom I could communicate, and reinforced the fact that you typically don’t have to look very hard to find Chinese people, especially ones from Fuzhou, in most parts of the world.



Mao Zedong Paintballed in Fuzhou?

Posted in Fujian at 3:08 pm by Benjamin Ross

The statue of Mao Zedong in Wuyi Square in Fuzhou has recently been either the subject of a political statement, or an unlucky bystander in the face of errant paintball fire. A friend of mine first noticed the giant paint spot yesterday, and when we came back today, it was still there. Historical precedents have shown strict penalties for those known to publicly deface Mao. The source of the paint (as far as I have heard) is still unknown.

Mao Zedong Statue Paint
A closeup of the paint spot
Some time in the last 3 days, the Mao statue in Fuzhou’s Wuyi Square was pelted by paint in the lower part of the coat.

« Previous entries Next Page » Next Page »

china china china mandarin mandarin mandarin beijing beijing beijing shanghai shanghai shanghai chinese chinese chinese China Chinese Mandarin Taiwan Beijing Shanghai Taipei Lhasa Tibet Asia China travel Chinese lessons Mandarin lessons learn Chinese Hong Kong Xi'an Great Wall China tours