Why the Chinese New Year Gala Is Better Than 10 Super Bowls, in a Bazillion Screencaps

Well, at least better than 10 Super Bowl halftime shows.

1. Let’s get this New Year party started by rapping about the anti-corruption campaign


2. … and the four competencies …


3. … while we digitally replace the studio audience with flowers …


4. … and waves.


5. Adorable kids in awkward looking poses and smiling so hard that their faces hurt? Yeah, we’ve got those.


6. We’ve also got guys on hoverboards, with plastic jackets and pants, because PROGRESS!


7. Is the backdrop just a super closeup of her dress?


8. And now, a musical tribute to solar power …


9. … and wind power …


10. … and economic power …


11. Now that you’re all revved up from the celebration of the industrial and finance sectors, let’s do a song about cartoons from your childhood.


12. Ah, it just won’t be a Chinese New Year Gala without an ethnic minority sing-along.


13. The only thing better than ethnic minorities singing is ethnic minorities dancing. God bless our ethnic minorities and their colorful ways.


14. Seriously though, the jam session with angry Chinese rocker chick and a bunch of old guys on traditional instruments was kind of cool.


15. Especially the guy who plays the brick-and-sawhorse.


16. That’s right. His instrument is banging a brick against a sawhorse. You can’t not appreciate that.


17. Sigh. This guy’s goldfish suit.


18. And these guys’ socks.


19. And this guy’s career.


20. And now, let’s turn the show over to a robot (made right here in Guangzhou! Huzzah for our technological power!) …


21. … and his army of robot friends … wait, this looks familiar …


22. The cylons were created by men.


23. They rebelled. They evolved.


24. There are many copies.


25. Copies that breakdance.


26. And they have a plan.


27. A plan that involves ominous looking drones …


28. … raining down death upon our heads!


29. “Oh …


30. … FRAK!!”



A Year of Podcasting

rotk-album-art_squareLast April, on somewhat of a whim, I started a podcast where I try to tell the story of the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in a way that is more accessible to a Western audience. It’s been a little over a year and I’m still going strong, 38 episodes into what’s looking like a roughly 150-episode undertaking. Thanks to the success of “Serial” (which I still haven’t listened to) thrusting podcasts into the mainstream, I can now say I was podcasting before podcasting was cool.

Here are some things I have learned in my year podcasting.

It’s the relationship with listeners that keeps you going.

I’ve said this a few times on my podcast, and I’ll say it again here: The listeners are the ones that make this venture worthwhile. I don’t make any money from it, and it doesn’t really tie into my professional work, so it’s not really a professional promotion vehicle. There are weeks where it’s tough to get up the motivation to put in the hours to write the script, record the episode, and produce all the supplemental material. That’s when a thank-you note from a listener who sounds so happy to discover your little corner of the Internet really gives you the little boost you need to keep going.

All good things should end.

This podcast will end when we reach the end of the novel. The simple knowledge of that fact is important because I know this is a finite commitment and I can measure my progress toward living up to that commitment. If this project had no clear ending, then I would feel less obligation to stick with it through the lulls.

Setting a publishing schedule that includes a regular break was a really good idea.

I set out to publish three episodes a month, and that monthly off week has been crucial in helping me avoid burnout. I’ve said this before: When you know starting out that you’re embarking on a project that will take four-plus years, what’s a few more months if it means ensuring you keep your sanity and enthusiasm for the project?

Shorter is better.

The first couple episodes clocked in at almost 40 minutes and felt really long during production and when I listened to them. I’ve since cut back to 30 minutes, and the episodes now feel snappier, and I don’t sound like I’m about to fade away by the end.

Thank you, Romance of the Three Kingdoms video game franchise!

I can’t begin to tell you how many comments or emails I have received from people who discovered the show that include something along the lines of “I got into ROTK through the video game and have been interested in learning more about the novel ever since.”

Confession: I’ve never played any games from that franchise, but maybe I should start.

I’m learning new things about the novel, too.

I’ve read the novel many times since childhood, but when you are doing a show on the book, you have to read it and research it in a much closer way, and I’m discovering new nuggets of insight into particular passages and characters.

Apple rules podcasts.

More than 65 percent of the clients used to listen to my show is some kind of Apple product, and 50 percent of all downloads come on an Apple platform (including 41 percent on iOS).

That said, I think it’s still important to make your show available on other platforms. For instance, I’ve had a number of people discover the show through its YouTube channel. Adding the show to various podcasting networks also helps improve the site’s search engine rankings.

iTunes’s listings are messed up.

I’m not griping because of where the show is ranked in iTunes’s listings. I knew starting out that a podcast on a subject as specific as this would naturally have a smaller potential audience. However, it would be good to know more about where the show ranks in the listings and why. Generally, it seems like the show is in the low 100s under the History section of podcasts on the iTunes Store, but probably 40 percent of the time when I go into that section, I don’t see the show listed at all. Then I leave the section and come back, and it’s back in its usual spot. Maddening.

A New Project: Romance of the Three Kingdoms Podcast

3kingdoms banner I’ve been up to something in the past month: A podcast retelling the story of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, considered one of the greatest works of Chinese literature. You can learn more about what I’m doing and why on that site, so I won’t repeat too much stuff here. Suffice it to say, I think that while the original Chinese novel is terrific, the English translations fall flat, partly because of the number of foreign and often similar-sounding names and seemingly dry accounts of battles. I’m trying to present the story in a more accessible and interesting way. I’ve got two episodes up so far, excluding the introduction, with a third on the way soon. Look for new episodes every ten days or so. Have a listen and let me know what you think. Thanks!

Idea: A YouTube Hub for Crowdsourcing Translations

So, I’m in trouble with Google. Kind of.

On Saturday, I got the following e-mail about a video clip on my YouTube account:

Your video “Lin Chong kills Wang Lun”, may have content that is owned or licensed by CNTV, but it’s still available on YouTube! In some cases, ads may appear next to it.

This claim is not penalizing your account status. Visit your Copyright Notice page for more details on the policy applied to your video.

– The YouTube Team

Here’s the offending clip, which I’ve since removed from YouTube because I don’t want to have to deal with potential account suspensions or similar nonsense over such an insignificant issue.

I originally uploaded the clip so that my wife could show it as part of a blog post she wrote about the awesomeness of the show and the book on which it was based. Innocent enough, but yeah technically I guess it’s still a copyright violation.

In any case, the incident brought to mind something I’ve long wished YouTube, or anybody, would do: Allow users to contribute captions to online videos they do not own.

If you speak another language, YouTube can be a great resource for discovering foreign TV shows and movies (not to mention videos of news events). To me, this represents a tremendous opportunity for learning about other cultures. For instance, there are tons of Chinese shows on YouTube, including many that reside on official channels and carry legit copyrights, all offering glimpses into Chinese culture, values, and worldviews.

However, there’s the not-so-slight hiccup of having to speak the foreign language to be able to tap into this resource. The only way my non-Chinese-speaking wife can benefit from the abundance of Chinese shows on YouTube is if I translated them, which I’ve done many times with a process that basically involves watching the show twice (and a third time when I watch it with her). I’ve probably translated more than a hundred episodes of various shows ranging from miniseries based on classic works of literature to contemporary comedies. Not to brag or anything, but my English subtitles are way better than those accompanying many of the official releases. For instance, I own an official DVD set of the mid-1990s TV show based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and its English subtitles are laughably bad as they carom between spewing nonsensical gibberish to rattling off SAT words (see for yourself).

I’m hardly the only one engaging in such endeavors (see these subtitled videos of a recent Chinese documentary about food). However, if I wanted more than just my wife to benefit from the countless hours I’ve spent adding English subtitles to the shows, the only way to do that is to violate copyright and post the subtitled videos online. That’s just something I’m unwilling to do, and frankly, it’s something I shouldn’t have to do to share my work with others for free and for the sole purpose of letting others benefit from it and learn something about another culture.

This is where YouTube can help by building some kind of mechanism for users to contribute captions for videos that they do not own. This way, someone can create a set of subtitles and just attach them to a video as YouTube captions. Of course, the owner of the video needs to have review and approval power over these to make sure they are accurate. Still, just having such a mechanism in place can open up a whole new world of content and cultural knowledge to YouTube users. Maybe YouTube can even build a hub where the legal owners of the videos can crowdsource subtitles for their videos.

The Internet lets us find information from around the world. Yet our own language barriers keep much of that information inaccessible to us. We need more tools like Google Translate to help us overcome such barriers. A YouTube mechanism to encourage crowdsourced subtitles would be a great step in that direction.

Update: Shortly after posting this, I discovered universalsubtitles.org, which crowdsources captions and translations for videos. This is a great site, but at the same time, I think the extra exposure from a tool like this being integrated into a popular site like YouTube could greatly increase participation.

China Talk with Fallows and Schell

James Fallows (left) and Orville Schell getting ready for Monday night’s talk at UNC.

I attended a talk last night at the FedEx Global Education Center at UNC where China experts James Fallows and Orville Schell discussed the rise of the Middle Kingdom and what it means for America. I’ve always enjoyed Fallows’ reasoned, knowledgeable writings about China, so the opportunity to hear him talk was a treat, and I found Schell to be very insightful as well.

Some of the main points from the talk:

China’s challenges

Fallows opened with the point that China, despite its image of being an unstoppable juggernaut the past decade, has many more major problems than the United States. “It’s harder to be president of China than to be president of the United States,” he said. However, he added, China might be in a better position to fix its problems than the U.S. is. For instance, on the environmental issue, Schell said that even though China is facing a more dire problem, it may be closer to finding a solution because “it’s run by technocrats and engineers” whereas one of the ruling parties in the U.S. basically refuses to acknowledge climate change.

Elaborating on China’s problems, Schell said that China needs to think about sustainability in all aspects, including not just its environment, but also its government and economy. He also compared China’s uneven development to plate tectonics, which he said is creating discontinuities across Chinese society.

Fallows added that one of the biggest questions facing China moving forward is whether its current system can continue to move ahead and keep its people feeling that their lives are improving without loosening up the government’s social and political control. As an example, he mentioned that when he was on a university campus in China during the Arab Spring, the country’s Internet was “unusable” because of the government clampdown. Such instances, he said, point to a serious problem: It may be easy for China to build a dam under its current system, but would it be able to foster a truly innovative environment? Fallows summed it up nicely by saying, “You can’t have a rich country with an Internet that doesn’t work.”

Democracy or liberties?

Both Fallows and Schell said it was unlikely for China to have a U.S.-like democratic system anytime soon (though as Fallows quipped, “Nobody has adopted the American model in the last 150 years, so maybe that should be a clue to us.”). In fact, both agreed that efforts by the outside world to push democracy on China often results in the opposite of the intended effect and makes it harder for democracy to spring up from within. Fallows also made an interesting point that many Chinese probably care more about having more liberties than whether their government becomes a democracy in the Western sense of the word.

One thing that Schell said caught my attention: That Chinese leaders over the past 150 years — whether it be Mao Zedong, Sun Yatsen, or Chiang Kaishek — all believed that democracy should be in the picture at some point … but not at their particular moment. Over the past 150 years, Schell said, China’s focus has been mainly on restoring the country to health. He also made the case that the government’s pattern of clamping down and snuffing out nascent social movements for change before they can really take hold actually makes it harder for China to incrementally evolve because every change that is allowed to happen would appear to dissidents as a signal that the floodgates are open.

China and America

Both Fallows and Schell made the point that Americans need a better understanding of China beyond seeing it as a threat. Schell said there is a heightened importance for Americans to understand what’s going on outside their own country because “the river used to always flow to America; now, the river is reversing course.”

Michael Tsin, the moderator of the discussion, pointed out that Americans are often getting two conflicting images of China, that of a prospering nation vs. that of a country filled with unrest and inequality. Fallows answered that “there are a million pictures of China and they are all simultaneously true.” He also pointed out that the world has a diverse image of the United States because the U.S. has been in the world spotlight for longer, whereas it has been harder to get that diverse image of China.

As for relations between the two countries, both Schell and Fallows agreed that it’s been mostly complementary and that overall there have been few areas of collision, perhaps surprisingly so given the rapid pace of change. U.S. policy toward China, they noted, has remained pretty much the same throughout the past 20 years despite changes in the American administration.

Both experts downplayed the idea that U.S. relations with China is a zero-sum game and that China is a threat to the U.S. from a strategic and economic standpoint. China’s military, Fallows said, is ridiculously weak compared to America’s. As for China’s manipulation of its currency exchange rate, Schell made the point that even if China lets its currency flow at market rate, it’s not going to send any jobs back to the U.S.

A Few Other Take-home Points

  • Fallows: Nobody really knows what’s going to happen in China.
  • Schell: The Chinese consider themselves to be on the right side of their history even if we think they are on the wrong side of ours.
  • Fallows: China’s problems are exacerbated by the American model much more than America’s problems are exacerbated by the Chinese model.
  • Schell: Despite their mostly complementary relationship, the big differences in the Chinese and American systems of government make it difficult for the two countries to collaborate as much as global issues now require.

Daily Tar Heel story on the talk

Welcoming the Dragon

As we’ve done the past several years, we attended the Chinese New Year Festival at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh today. I must admit that the event has gotten a bit dull for me, mainly because the program has remained pretty much the same over the years and also because the food served at the event has been less than stellar. Nonetheless, the festival is still a good opportunity to satisfy the shutterbug in me. We got there today in time to see the dragon dance, followed by a kung fu performance by a local club. Aww, it’s so cute to see little munchkins demonstrating their ability to bludgeon you and slash you with knives, swords, lances, and spades.

Latest Dylan Critics About 45 Years Late to Disillusionment Party

Bob Dylan’s recent performances in China have drawn the ire of some critics who are bashing him for apparently kowtowing to the Chinese censors and not playing his famous protest songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They’re A-Changin’ “. For instance, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote:

The idea that the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding.

My response to Dowd and others expressing similar sentiments: Umm … did you guys just forget about the last 45 years or so?

Let’s put aside for a while the fact that “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They’re A-Changin’ ” have long stopped being a regular part of Dylan’s sets. As a big Dylan fan, it irks me when I see people still trying to define his career by his protest songs when in reality he only wrote protest songs for the first three or four years of his now 50-year career. Sure, it’s a testament to the timeless quality of those early songs. No one would deny that “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” (which, by the way, he did play in Beijing) or “The Times They’re A-Changin’ ” were and still are powerful songs whose words can still be applied to some aspect of some society somewhere in the world today. However, anybody who’s even just somewhat familiar with Dylan’s career surely must know about his famous shift away from political songs and his rift with the protest movement, which happened back in, oh, 1964. Yes, 1964 — 47 years ago, and just two years after the release of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, the album that made him a star on the folk scene and in the protest movement. In 1964, he released “The Times They’re A-Changin’ ” — the last of his protest-song albums — in January and then just seven months later released another album with the ever so slightly obvious title of “Another Side of Bob Dylan”, just in case anyone was missing the point of what they were hearing on that record.

Oh, and remember the hubbub when he went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival? Yeah, talk about disillusionment. But at least back then Dylan’s folk/protest singer image was still fresh in everyone’s mind, so the feeling of betrayal is at least understandable. But this cry of “sellout” in 2011? It’s been more than four decades, people! Did you miss “Don’t Look Back”, the documentary that followed Dylan on his legendary 1965 England tour where he was called Judas for daring to “sell out” by playing half-acoustic, half-electric sets? Or “No Direction Home”, the 2005 documentary in which Dylan, and those who knew him, pretty much said he didn’t want to be a part of the protest movement.

Look, I like a lot of Dylan’s protest songs. Those were my initial exposure to Dylan back in college in the late 90s. I remember being knocked out by the lyrics and being amazed that these were written decades ago and yet still held such relevance and resonance in my time. I remember being wowed by the dark, dreary tone that permeates most of the songs on “The Times They’re A-Changin’ “, because many albums can make you happily tap your toes, but so few can make you fidget uncomfortably in your seat. I also remember popping “Bringing It All Back Home” into the CD player and then wondering “Where are the acoustic songs?” and skipping through the tracks on “Highway 61 Revisited” searching for a trace of his folk beginnings. But once I accepted the fact that Dylan had stopped writing those “finger-pointing songs” back in the mid-60s and started really exploring more of his later stuff (if you can call songs he started writing five years into a five-decade career “later”), I discovered a different — and in some ways greater — type of brilliance in those songs.

Dylan has gone through so many transformations over the course of his career, and I think that, much more than his explosion onto the scene as a folk/protest icon, is responsible for his remaining relevant as a musician over the decades. If he had simply remained a folk/protest singer, his relevance as a musician would have faded into the background like many of his peers from his folk-singing days. He has been many things in his career, but he hasn’t been a protest singer since the first few years of his career. I can understand someone in 1965 calling him a traitor to his status as an icon of the folk/protest movement, but when you are saying that in 2011, it just makes me scratch my head.

Oh, and while we’re at it, please stop quoting “Your old road is rapidly agin’ / Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand / For the times they are a-changin’ ” as a way to tell people to get the $&*@ out of your way because they disagree with some fabulous new idea to which you pray. Instead, consider that the kids who were singing that line back in the 60s are now the people on the receiving end of such sentiments. For me, therein lies the true brilliance of Dylan’s work. If you are looking for a Dylan song to quote, try looking one album down the list in Dylan’s discography. There you would find that he basically disavowed the black-and-white notions of his protest songs in the less-appreciated-but-perhaps-more-brilliant “My Back Pages“:

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Girls’ faces formed the forward path
From phony jealousy
To memorizing politics
Of ancient history
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Again, this song was written back in 1964. How many years must a man tell you he’s not a protest singer before he’s allowed to not be a protest singer?

Kung Fu Chefs: A Brilliantly Bad Movie

While watching the Hong Kong episode of Bizarre Foods the other night, we saw a segment where Andrew Zimmern went to shoot a Hong Kong-style Kung Fu fight scene, and the introduction for that segment included a few seconds from a movie called Kung Fu Chefs. We were instantly intrigued and I just had to go look it up, and like everything else that has ever graced a screen somewhere in the world, it was on YouTube.

The movie, made in 2009 and starring famous Kung Fu movie star Sammo Hung, is basically a blend of Iron Chef (which we love), old-school Kung Fu flicks, and The Karate Kid. It comes complete with a cooking competition in a knockoff of Kitchen Stadium, a main character named Ken’ichi (which had us wondering if this should be called The Chen Ken’ichi Story), a culinary version of Mr. Miyagi, and ridiculously elaborate food preparation. It’s an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek parody of the Kung Fu movie genre and a send-up of how seriously some people take food.

The plot focuses on … well, actually the plot doesn’t matter. What matters is that the first scene of the movie has chef Sammo Hung slicing his way through a whole pig carcass with just one cut using the Dragon’s Head Blade — a family heirloom whose use must be preceded by the offering of incense to the ancestors — and then getting into a scrum with five guys wielding Chinese cleavers when he finds out someone had sabotaged his pork. The movie pretty much leaves all traces of reality behind at that point — and we’re not even at the opening credits yet — so just strap yourself in for some cheesed-out fun, over-the-top acting, and shots of drool-inducing culinary creations.

Here’s the movie on YouTube in 10 parts. It’s in Cantonese with English subtitles. If you have a really fast Internet connection, you can see it as a higher-quality file here, in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Radio Storytelling: Rediscovering A Slice of 1980s Chinese Life

A few days ago, I was poking around in the iTunes Store for something new to add to the collection of podcasts on my iPod. I had caught up with the long-running, outstanding The History of Rome series, as well as the not-as-long-running-but-also-outstanding The History of China series, and I only had a scant two episodes left in the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. Out of curiosity,  I checked to see what kind of Cantonese podcasts were on iTunes and stumbled across a 27-episode historical novel about Xiang Yu, a prominent military figure who vied for control of China in the late 200s B.C. in the wake of the collapse of the Qin Dynasty. The program aired on a radio station in my hometown of Guangzhou a few years back, and someone had thought to add it to iTunes a couple years ago.

I was hooked five minutes into the first episode, not so much because of how great the story is but because of how it was told. While the program is a bit more structured and polished than a conversational-style podcast, no one would mistake this for a mere dramatic reading of a book or script either. The main voice was more village storyteller than narrator, as he spoke in a very colloquial manner and told the story with more than a little dry sarcasm and dramatic flair. When recounting dialogs between characters, he would do different voices for each part, and every now and then he would interrupt the story and explain something further to put it in a present-day context. He wasn’t merely reading a book to you, but instead was talking to you as if you were just shooting the bull with him by a campfire and listening to him regale you with a tale about the rise and fall of a great historical figure. It makes for a very intimate connection and really pulls you into the story.

One of the reasons this program appealed to me so much is the fact that it instantly brought back fond memories of one aspect of life in Guangzhou back in the 1980s. At a time when the Chinese economy was just starting to emerge from the turbulence and stagnation of the previous decades, television sets were still not yet a common-place household item, and radio remained the primary mode of entertainment for a huge portion of the population. One of the most popular parts of the daily radio schedule was this type of storytelling. Basically, it’s the transplantation of an ancient oral tradition — which dates back to before the Qing Dynasty — from the teahouses, where it had been widely practiced, to the radio realm. Narrators took novels, usually about historical personages or events, and retold them in a colloquial and colorful manner, and it was a huge hit with listeners as people tuned in every day. Think of it as sort of the equivalent of an American family gathering around the radio after dinner in the 1930s and 40s, except this was happening a few decades after that cultural phenomenon had faded away in the U.S. and at a time when America was already singing “Video killed the radio star.”

The most beloved and well-known practitioner of this craft on Cantonese radio from the 1980s was Zhang Yuekai. Every day at noon and 6 p.m., my grandmother and I would sit by our old transistor radio during lunch or dinner and wait for Zhang to come on for his performance. He’d begin every broadcast with “Picking up where we left off last time …”, except the Chinese expression (原文再续,书接上一回,话说) is much more poetic. We would hang on every word, and when that day’s broadcast was over, we eagerly awaited the next day’s performance, even though in the case of many of these novels, we already knew how the plot goes. The point was not to find out how the story turned out, but to hear it told by a master of the craft of storytelling.

I think this excerpt from an entry on the Chinese version of Wikipedia about Zhang’s performance is pretty spot-on:

For the old people in Guangzhou, Guangdong Radio Station evokes nostalgia, just like seeing a rice noodle shop, ice cream shop, or bakery on an old street might.

For four years from 1983 to 1987, Zhang Yuekai, who along with Liu Lanfang were known as “Liu of the North and Zhang of the South”, recounted novels in Cantonese, such as “Water Margin”, “Three Kingdoms”, “Warriors of the Yang Family”, “Mao Zedong in His Later Years”, and this became a program that people in Guangzhou followed religiously. How many “old Guangzhouers” in the Xiguan area of the city remember rushing home to catch his recount of ancient tales? Their devotion can only be described as “forgoing sleep and forgetting meals.” Mr. Zhang’s performance showcased the whole range of his voice. He could sound strong and arrogant, or slow and steady, or angry and saddened, or smooth and harmonious, or snappy and decisive, or full of joy. The vivacity of his voice is something that could be felt but not explained. His opening line, “Picking up where we left off … ,” still echoes in the memory of the old Guangzhouers.

The podcast I discovered on iTunes continues this great tradition, even adopting Zhang’s opening line for each episode. Of course, since it’s being told in a colloquial style, there are elements in there that reflect how the times have changed from the 1980s, such as an occasional English word or phrase being thrown in, just as it’s now often done in normal conversation in China. After just a couple episodes, I found myself “forgoing sleep and forgetting meals”. Well, maybe not quite that far, but I have been listening to this program every chance I get, whether in the car, on the bus, or when I’m just going out for a short stroll during lunch. Nothing else on my iPod has hooked me like this has, and it has rekindled my appetite for such storytelling. The only drawback is that at the rate I’m going, I’ll soon be done with these 27 episodes. To that end, I went searching for recordings of Zhang’s performances, and to my delight, I found a whole stash of them in MP3 format. We’re talking about novels that can be as long as 150-some chapters, so I’ve found a supply that’ll last me a good while. Here’s hoping we’ll see more of such programs. I think they are a great fit for the episodic, conversational-style format that we are becoming more and more accustomed to with the proliferation of podcasts, and perhaps new technology will help breathe new life into an old art form.

Note: This entry is cross-posted at my book blog.

Electric Shadows: A Little Gem of A Movie About Movies

Living in the United States, I don’t get to see a whole lot of Chinese movies, and quite disappointingly, the Chinese films that do make it into the Western consciousness tend to all feel like the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies — a giant and lavish production with jaw-dropping visual effects that seem hellbent on awing the audience into submission, as if to say, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Good examples of this are the likes of Red Cliff and Hero. Unfortunately for me, those movies feel like little more than occasional lines of dialog forced together to serve as mere transitions between epic special-effect scenes, and the resulting movie tends to be long on eye candy and short on substance. There’s probably a doctoral dissertation in there somewhere for someone who wants to look at how contemporary Chinese cinema reflects the contemporary Chinese psyche. It’s kind of like the first Star Trek film, where the producers went from having no budget at all on the TV show to having a ton of money for the movie, so they threw in everything but the kitchen sink and subjected us to 15-minute scenes of the Enterprise flying through clouds.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to discover Electric Shadows (梦影童年) while browsing through the foreign-language films on Netflix Instant Play. Hey imagine that, a Chinese movie that doesn’t involve martial arts, special effects, a couple hundred thousand extras, or (shudder) Jackie Chan. Electric Shadows, made in 2004, is a nostalgia-inducing (well, for the Chinese who grew up in the 70s anyway) piece of work that uses the story of a single mother and her daughter as a vehicle to take a trip down the memory lane of Chinese cinema and small-town life. There are spots where the movie does give you a rather heavy dose of mushy melodrama, but overall, it’s a delightful film and definitely worth checking out.

The movie is available on Netflix and also in multiple parts on YouTube: