December 21, 2010

Deformity Man

In modern parlance, the Western world refers to a person who has a physical or mental limitation as disabled. In less politically correct times when secretaries were called secretaries, disabled people were called handicapped. In China, this is taken one step further. Bathroom stalls reserved for disabled persons have the words "Deformity Man" prominently emblazoned on them. These are of particular use to me as they are often the only Western style toilet option available amidst a sea of fetid trenches, holes, or other open pits in which to deposit waste. I enjoy squatting during emergencies, but when I have enough time I prefer to take a seat.

Many Chinese men are uncomfortable with their buttocks making contact with the potentially hazardous seating surface of a Western toilet, so their allegiance lies squarely with the squat toilet. In a five star Shangri La hotel in Inner Mongolia, footprints were clearly visible on the toilet seat. On another occasion, there were several men waiting around all but one stall in a public bathroom. I went to investigate why this singular outlet was being ignored. I opened the door to find out it was a Western toilet. To my surprise everybody was content to wait for one of the squat toilets to become free, even though an alternative was available to them.


"As easy as lifting one's finger. Be civilized." ~ A message displayed on top of a urinal recommending the user to flush it after use.

December 19, 2010

The Manchurian Incident

The largest city in northeastern China is Shenyang. On September 18, 1931 a small segment of a rail line operated by the Japanese was blown up nearby. The damage was so limited that a train successfully crossed the tracks afterwards on the same day. The site was of little importance to either Japan or China. Nevertheless, the Japanese used the "Manchurian Incident" as a pretext for invasion. They had named the place Liutiao Bridge, even though it was flat land, so that it seemed to be of more strategic significance then it actually was. The 9.18 Museum in Shenyang explains the details of the plot and displays reminders of the atrocities committed by Japanese troops. 

The generally accepted version of the event is that the Japanese placed explosives near to both the train tracks and to a Chinese regiment. When the dynamite exploded it would do little damage to the rail line, but alarm the Chinese soldiers stationed nearby. The Chinese troops would then run out to the tracks. At this moment Japanese soldiers would appear and spot the Chinese, surmise that they must have bombed the tracks, and retaliate in full force. Using heavy artillery that they had smuggled in beforehand, the Japanese made quick work of the Chinese regiment. After meeting little military resistance from the locals in the region, the Japanese consolidated control of the northeastern states within five months of the incident.


"And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him." ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

December 05, 2010

Sichuan Earthquake

A devasting earthquake hit the province of Sichuan on May 12, 2008. The initial 7.9 magnitude quake lasted two minutes, followed by hundreds of major aftershocks. It claimed 70,000 lives, with a further 20,000 victims missing. The disaster rocked not only the region but the whole nation. Apart from the northernmost provinces, all other parts of China physically felt the tremors. The country quickly mobilized to rescue any survivors and then rebuild the affected areas. The most severely hit area was Beichuan.

An off duty Spanish journalist and I made the journey to the epicenter of the quake. The actual town of Beichuan is fenced off and deserted. We transferred from bus to smaller bus until we finally reached the closest settlement to it. The roads in the region had been remade at an astonishingly rapid pace thanks to large infusions of capital by the government. Many of the neighbouring towns had also been reconstructed, but there was little greenery in the neighbourhoods. With gardens full of rubble rather than grass, the vegetation had not caught up with the concrete foundations of the new homes.

We entered one of the few restaurants in the settlement. As neither of us could speak Chinese, we drew the animals we would like to eat for lunch. My artistic skills evaporated under the spotlight of several chuckling townsfolk, but they got the gist of it. After lunch, the restaurant staff corralled a local who dropped us off at Beichuan. Despite the hardship and loss, the people were friendlier and more helpful than most others I encounter on my travels.

Beichuan was still buried under debris, landslides having swept away many buildings and leaving others partially submerged in dirt. Temporary accommodation had been set up several kilometers away in the settlement that we had first arrived at, while a new city was being constructed in another location. Located at the base of a valley, the former site was deemed too dangerous for future inhabitation. There are plans to convert it into a memorial park. A stone marker with the date of the earthquake etched on it has been erected on a nearby ridge overlooking the valley, and that is as close as we ventured.


"We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival." ~ Sir Winston Churchill

December 01, 2010

Hakka Tulou: Roundhouses

Perfectly circular like the face of an overweight child who has visited McDonald's a few too many times, roundhouses are unique forms of housing complexes found in rural areas of Fujian. The most famous and well preserved fortified dwellings are to be found in Yongding County, home of the Hakka people. The dramatically large earthen structures are called tulou, with some rising five stories high and holding upwards of 80 households.

Built from the 12th century onwards, the strongholds provide security for the whole community. The stone foundation, high walls, and granite framed gates made it hard for attackers to enter the compound without incurring heavy casualties. The house within a house concept also exists. Smaller structures are built inside the protective walls of the roundhouse in concentric circles.

There is a central courtyard where gatherings for events like marriages and festivals can take place. Wells, temples, storehouses, and other facilities are also shared by all the inhabitants. Livestock relax on the ground floor, while people go about their daily business. Rickety staircases lead from one level to the next and the wooden floorboards of the corridors creak underfoot.


"Nor need we power or splendour, wide hall or lordly dome; the good, the true, the tender, these form the wealth of home." ~ Sarah J. Hale