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Richard S. Ehrlich: Letter from Jinghong

Letter from Jinghong

by Richard S. Ehrlich

JINGHONG, China -- Punk fashions, shopping malls and Mandarin-language rap are helping China create a sanitized, communist-controlled, parallel universe which mimics the outside world.

The apparent goal is a nationwide cocoon displaying the West's popular archetypes, but cloned and manufactured locally, so Chinese will perceive their society as open and prosperous, and not be attracted to free speech, political parties and other taboos.

Even here in China's deep south on the Mekong River in Yunnan province, near the border with Laos and Burma, struggling urbanites are starting to live a Chinese version of the American Dream.

They watch television shows which have the look and feel of dynamic U.S. broadcasts, despite oppressive censorship.

Dinnertime TV includes local game and talent shows, peppered by advertisements to make bikini-clad women sexier and blemish-free.

Einstein's face sells a tonic. Photos of skyscrapers provide a backdrop to flog instant noodles to harried workers.

A deft mirroring of American-style TV came when President George W. Bush and other officials visited Beijing in November.

Suddenly, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez was being grilled on CCTV's English-language talk show about the severity of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, electronic eavesdropping, and Americans torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib.

"Another major point of contention is whether terror suspects enjoy the law, or the full protection of law, given to U.S. citizens," CCTV's Dialogue host said to Gonzales, without a hint of irony over China's lack of legal protection for its accused.

Foreign influence also appears in impressive documentaries against pollution, deforestation, crime and other generic concerns.

Soap operas maintain political correctness by placing decadent, fedora-hatted Chinese men alongside coquettish Chinese women in corrupt Shanghai during the 1930s, safely before the bloody purges by China's late communist leader Mao Zedong.

Other dramas are set further ago, during China's ruling dynasties.

Science-fiction spaceships zip to other planets where Chinese battle strange creatures amid dazzling special effects and stunning computer graphics.

China also absorbs Hollywood films, dubbed into Chinese.

But Jinghong's newly constructed movie theater in a spiffy, two-story mall attracted few people willing to pay 30 yuan (3.75 U.S. dollars) for a ticket to watch a Mandarin-speaking Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Jinghong's poor still eke out hardscrabble lives in brick hovels and dank homes, working in grimy factories and cramped shops, and driving rickety, rattling tractors for agricultural tasks.

Many Chinese still loudly cough up mucous and spit it out in public with annoying frequency.

But throughout this small, modernizing town, cell phones are common, and many people drive new, Chinese-made cars.

Residents window shop for locally produced clothes which often juxtapose punk, futuristic, stone-wash, fur, and plain bad taste, all in the same outfit.

A lone teenager slinks by wearing baggy pants, a ski cap and sweat shirt, copying the MTV look with made-in-China threads, but having nowhere hip to go.

In some shops, Minnie Mouse adorns bra cups. Betty Boop appears on knee-socks.

But American icons are rare among the latest Chinese animated characters, and other illustrations, printed on this season's clothing.

Self-conscious about what defines the good life, most advertisements in shops and boutiques display larger-than-life photos of Caucasian men and women.

Wily entrepreneurs manipulate the lures of impulse buying, because Chinese covet many of the same items as their counterparts in the West.

Feeding Jinghong's seemingly insatiable quest for shoes, countless shops display endless racks of wall-mounted Chinese tennis shoes, high heels, dress shoes and other trendy footwear which blatantly rip off designs by Nike, Reebok, Hush Puppies, Church and other foreign brands.

McDonalds has not yet arrived in Jinghong, capital of Xishuangbanna prefecture, but copycat local restaurants sell hamburgers, French fries and Coca-Cola alongside fast food dishes of pork, noodles, chicken, rice and other Chinese favorites.

The night market offers traditional fare, including glistening brains, live squiggly larvae, fried frog on a stick, and majestic-looking fungus.

Similar to American and European cities, many public walls are smeared with graffiti.

But in a land where dissent and cults are punished, most sprayed scrawls merely list 12-digit telephone numbers.

"People paint their phone numbers on walls all over the city because they want to sell something, such as furniture, or clothes, or a motorcycle," a waitress explained, gesturing at several hurriedly painted numbers.

"If you look next to some of the numbers, there are Chinese characters written, describing what is for sale."

Most of the graffiti suffers the insult of having one digit blackened by a competitor, ruining chances that a customer might call. Fresh 12-digit numbers promise alternatives.

The government, meanwhile, hopes to make money from a pathetic, segregated, human theme park.

The "state grade AAAA scenic spot and a noted tourist brand name in China" displays some of Yunnan's minority ethnic Dai tribe, in Ganlanba town, 25 kilometers east of Jinghong.

According to the shaky English in its brochure, the so-called Dai Garden includes "five natural Dai villages joining together and forming an integral whole with the Dai culture and customs accumulated for over 1,000 years."

Authorities built a wall around the small, simple villages and its temples, and charge Chinese and foreign tourists to enter for a stroll.

"Every afternoon from 3:20 to 5:00, over 100 beautiful Dai girls would give you a grand song and dance performance rich in the Dai flavor," the brochure promises.

During the performance, Dai females splash water on visitors which "make you wet from top to toe, and happy all your life, as well as leave you a lingering impression on your mind."

Dai villagers, who live in wooden houses raised off the ground by thick beams, dodge photographers but sell cheap souvenirs.

One Dai vendor, after making a sale, tried to lure more business by mischievously whipping out a thick magazine illustrated with nude Chinese females in rural settings.

Jinghong's bookshops also sell such publications, usually titled "Human Body Art," or other euphemisms, to avoid anti-pornography laws.

Lest anyone forget which country they are in, the books are available next to large, wall-hanging, 2006 calendars portraying 12 versions of Mao.


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 27 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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