Category Archives: China

Lynn Ruth Miller meets her idealistic, optimistic, innocent 21 yo self in Beijing

In her last missive from China, comedienne Lynn Ruth Miller was in Shanghai. Then she progressed to Beijing…


There are definite pluses to being small and old in China. I have survived because of the kindness of strangers just like Blanche did in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but I did not have to sell what she did. Actually, mine is not worth selling these days, not even on eBay. Don’t tell ME it is never too late.

It is too late.

You would be amazed how confusing things are when you cannot ask directions or read the signs.

The road from Beijing airport into the city was lined with trees and it felt almost as if we were going through a forest to get to my hotel. The driver walked me into the lobby and left me there. No-one spoke English and I was thinking I might just have to unpack there and set up shop when, to my utter delight, a little angel appeared in a fuchsia hat that proclaimed: “Here to BREAK your heart”.  

A carbon copy of idealistic 21 y.o. Lynn Ruth

But she didn’t. Instead, she helped me find my room and figured out the lights and the internet. Her name was Diane and she was a carbon copy of the idealistic, optimistic innocent I was at 21, eager to learn more, do more and see more but afraid of all the unknowns in the universe. I discovered she also had challenges with relationships and food.

I had thought the only nervous, insecure wrecks were Jewish girls like me from Toledo, Ohio.

That evening, I sat and talked to this lovely human being who cares so much about life and thinks she can do so little. We talked about writing and the arts. We talked about philosophy and we talked about the ways society tries to limit us.

Then we walked to see my venue, The Bookworm.

I was struck with the way the main street looked like any street in Central London, filled with recognizable shops. I was told this was a very up market part of town and, indeed, it felt very Fifth Avenue but with a difference. Motor bikes go up on the sidewalks and weave through pedestrians and cars block the entrance to shops. I am absolutely certain there are no traffic laws whatsoever in Beijing.

Crossing the street is a challenge. Even when you have the green light, cars and motorbikes turn into the street and swerve around pedestrians. As I crossed on a green light, several cars turned into the intersection and just steered around me avoiding the ten bicycles coming the other way and motorbikes weaving through the entire mess trying to avoid severing toes and bruising hips. There is no such thing as right of way.

I did not get the sense that people feel repressed or unhappy even though we are told that they have a very repressive and controlling government that limits people’s freedom. Instead I got the same feeling I get walking the streets in London or New York of busy people living productive, secure lives.

Not all traffic – in the Soho area of Beijing

I was struck by how fashionable the women were and how beautifully they dressed. I was also taken by couples with children and the way they hover over their little ones.

Until just lately, China only permitted couples to have one child and that child was hopefully a son. From what I hear, girl babies were often aborted or drowned.

Now the law has changed and you can have two children. Furthermore, amniocentesis is banned. You cannot try to find out the sex of your unborn child.

These parents are totally devoted to their babies and the children are all dressed adorably with cute tee shirts and adorable little jackets and shoes. The place felt like a fashion show. Perhaps that’s why I saw so few dogs. You only have so much love you can give.

When we got there, I loved The Bookworm. It is one of those all-in-one places where you can go to an event, eat food, drink wine and have good conversations. Very reminiscent of Shakespeare and Company in Paris.

In the hutong area, I saw a very different side of Beijing: very Chinese, very traditional, with narrow streets, shops jammed next to one another and people crowding each other on the street. Chinese people push and shove their way to where they want to go. There is no sense of courtesy to strangers as there is in Britain and yet, face-to-face, they are unfailingly kind. I had numerous people guide me across streets and one guy hugged me afterwards as if I were his best friend. Yet, if you are in their way, watch out.

My friend Jesse Appel runs a venue in Beijing: the US-China Comedy Center. He comes from the richest community in the United States, Newton, Massachusetts, and went to Brandeis University, an exclusive Jewish university that, despite its origins, is very diverse. Only half the student body is Jewish.  

Jesse explained to me that standup comedy as an art form is very new in China, but growing. He was part of a small team that initiated Chinese standup with Des Bishop, an Irish comedian from Flushing, New York, who is famous for doing comedy in the Chinese language.

That night, I performed at The Bookworm. It was an add-on show following the Chinese Comedy that Jesse was in.

I listened to the Chinese show and was astounded and encouraged at how eager the audience was to laugh. However, after the group of 125 chuckling Asians at that show dispersed, I was left with about 30 people, most of them from Beijing with English as their second language. There were about 5 people who were from the US and UK – one from Leeds, one from Newcastle and one man from Michigan where I went to University. He was the only one who got all the jokes.  

Lynn Ruth performed in English at The Bookworm in Beijing

The rest of my audience were polite; they listened; they chuckled. But they were not like Jakarta or Manila. The host was a man from Orlando named Mac who was very good. The opener was his brother who informed us that he was very famous in Orlando, Florida. He was supposed to do 10 minutes but he rambled on for 30.  

The show began on Chinese time (always late) and, by the time I got on stage 45 minutes later, the audience was half asleep. But the guy from Michigan laughed; the man from Leeds chuckled and drank gin and tonics; and the rest of the audience smiled, nodded and tried to figure out what “a suppository” and “a cellar door” was.

You cannot win them all.

That said, I got a tremendous amount of praise for the show from the very audience members I thought I had confused. So maybe they did get some of it after all.

When it was time for me to go home (about 1.00am) Justin from Leeds offered to walk me to the hotel.

As we walked, chatting about life and love and the high cost of sex in China, we missed the sign for my hotel. We ended up in another hotel about half a mile from where I was staying, where no-one could speak English to help us.  Justin has been here for 6 years. He understands a bit of Chinese but, unlike Jesse who has mastered the language to the point where he has no accent, Justin communicates only in English.  

We wandered around asking people who had no idea what we were asking until one wonderful human caught on. He WALKED us to our destination. By this time, I had a raging headache from having only eaten those soggy noodles and nothing else all day. Justin, being an English Gentleman, was determined to find me something to eat. That is why I love British men. They do what their mothers taught them and their mothers got it right.

We went into a bar adjacent to the hotel but, by this time, it was almost 2.00am and no food was being served. A man from Los Angeles named Eddie saw our plight, argued with the manager about the necessity of bending rules and regulations to no avail, then disappeared to go to a convenience store to get me a bit of bread. Eddie informed me that I had very young eyes but my hearing aid didn’t quite get what he said, so I responded: “Yes, it never turned grey.”

I staggered upstairs at 2.30am, still worrying about audience reaction to my show. I wrote Eamonn in Jakarta and said that it was not like the show I did for him and, being the modest, non-assuming Brit that he is, he said: “Nothing is.”

Beijing – “Everyone has the same fears, the same wants…”

And he is right.  Each place is different and that is what is so exciting about doing an international tour.

Everyone has the same fears, the same wants and the same needs but they express them in totally different ways.

And that explains why Chinese people love that horrid tea that tastes like soaked dirt and the English love fish encased in so much batter you cannot find the cod.

There is no accounting for taste.

The next evening, I went to The Bookworm to hear Ian McEwan discuss his new book Machines Like Me. It examines what makes us human. Our outward deeds or our inner lives? He pointed out that the novel is the one place where you can get inside another person. 

When I returned to my hotel, I received two follow-up e-mails from people who had seen me at the book talk and heard that I had published books of my own.

I think it is safe to generalize that Chinese people are very anxious to enlarge their scope and increase their understanding. There is a tremendous amount of intellectual curiosity that I find very refreshing.  

Once you decide you know it all, you know nothing.

… CONTINUED HERE

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Comedian Lynn Ruth Miller walks round Shanghai and leaps out of a taxi

So far, on her Far Eastern tour, 85-year-old Jewish-American comic Lynn Ruth Miller, based in London, has blogged about her recent visits to Manila and Jakarta.

On her last day in Jakarta, she was suddenly told that her gigs in Shanghai had been cancelled because the Chinese authorities had closed down the comedy club. But her flights and her accommodation there were already booked…


I was not happy about my trip to Shanghai because I thought I had two nights performing comedy and now I was just visiting the largest city in the world to see sights I really did not care that much about.  

Promoter Andy Curtain and his sidekick Mohammed were lovely and caring about the cancellation and had not only promised to guide me through the visit but to change plans so I went on to Beijing a bit earlier.  

It took an hour to get from Shanghai Airport to the hotel, but I was immediately struck by the lack of congestion on the roads compared with Jakarta. There were lots and lots of high-rise apartment and office buildings all along the route. Everything looked clean and very modern compared to Indonesia.  

The hotel was called Xiangyang Fandian. When we arrived the woman at the front desk took an instant dislike to me. Or seemed to. But she did not speak much English, so, really, we could not communicate.

The language was a mystery, not that many people speak English and I am not a good sightseer so I was very uncomfortable in the city.

However, Shanghai is interesting. There are lots of green spaces and, although it is huge, it does not feel crowded or congested. There are a lot of military around which is unsettling, but the police do not seem to bother anyone (or could it be they just didn’t bother ME?).

Andy helped me get on the Internet. China has blocked Google and Facebook and you have to pay for VPN to access these sites.

I got some work done on the computer and had lunch at a breakfast place called Egg, founded by woman from New Jersey who is very active in the restaurant scene in Shanghai.

Then I walked over to the park. Evidently people dance in the park all day but sadly, by the time I got there, there was only one man doing Tai Chi. I was amused to seeing so many men bring their babies to the park. I never think of men as doing that kind of thing, but – hey! – it’s a new world and a new way of thinking about life… or so I am told.

As I did not do a show, I felt very plain. I prefer to feel shimmery and amazing. I just don’t know how you ordinary people do it.

That night I took a walk to find an Italian restaurant and, on the way, I stumbled on a gorgeous and very expensive French bistro, Saleya on Changle Road. I ate in a vine-protected porch-like area with lots of rattan furniture. It was peaceful, relaxing meal: there was no piped-in music!!! The place was relatively empty but, over in corner, were two men with their very small elaborately coiffed  poodles. Evidently dogs are fine in restaurants in China. And there is a gay scene in Shanghai.

Andy recommended a tour of the Jewish section of Shanghai that his friend Dvir Bar-Gal offers and I signed up for it.

I am aware of the migration of Jews to China when Hitler began his purge of the Jews and I know they lived in abject poverty crammed together like sardines in unheated, inadequate shelters with one toilet for many and often no toilet at all, but this tour really brought it all to life. It was a long tour, 4 hours, but not tiring. What I noticed most was the smell. There is a close gamey odour to the streets, particularly in the poor area where the Jewish ghetto was.  

The people on the tour were aged 50 or more and one 73-year-old woman from Toronto, Katherine, befriended me which was nice. It was not a very friendly crowd other than Katherine and I am certain Dvir was a bit offended by my smart remarks. He asked us all what the motivator to the success of all Jews was and I said: “A Jewish Mother”. Silence.

It turns out that business is the foundation of all Jewish enterprise. Who knew?

When the tour was over, Katherine suggested I join Adrian, Shirley and her for dinner at M on the Bund a very fancy 7th floor restaurant.  

The Bund is an area of modern skyscrapers along the western riverfront in the city and is filled with flowers and lots and lots of people. The dinner was really wonderful because of the conversation. It turned out that Adrian is a psychiatrist and Shirley collects exotic perfume bottles. Katherine is an investment guru. Katherine talked about how she had had four husbands and someone accused her of serial monogamy. I had only two husbands and no real childhood hardship. My biggest conflict was which cashmere sweater to wear with which skirt (and I always picked the wrong one, according to my mother).

After the meal, the three of them put me in a cab and this was the only really horrid experience I had while there.  

The cab driver (like most of them) could not speak English.  

He agreed to take me home for 60 yuan and I gave him my hotel key envelope with the address on it. But, when we got to the hotel, he wanted 80 yuan. I didn’t want to argue, but wanted the address ticket I had shown him because that was how I could show people who cannot speak English where I am staying. I simply couldn’t make myself understood, so he just grabbed the money and sped away AS I got out of the moving car.

I am convinced that I handled it badly, however.

He really did not know what I was asking him. I could have asked a passer-by to translate but you always think of these sensible solutions after the fact don’t you?

I finished off my computer stuff after that fiasco and went to bed, setting the alarm for 8:30am. Sadly my clock was having the same problem as my circadian rhythm and I overslept until 9:25am. But I managed to pack and get dressed in 10 minutes, found the driver Andy had scheduled, and off I went to the airport.

Next stop Beijing.

… CONTINUED HERE

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Worldwide comments on Louise Reay’s husband’s self-destructive court case.

Controversial Edinburgh Fringe show

If you want to complain about something included in a comedy show you have not seen, my advice is do not sue the comic. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the case, it will not make you look good and the media will love it.

Last Friday, I blogged about Louise Reay starting a crowdfunding appeal to cover court costs because her estranged husband is suing her for mentioning him in an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show Hard Mode last year.

As far as I am aware, he has never actually seen the show, which was about political totalitarianism and what would happen if the Chinese government took over the BBC.

I saw a preview of Hard Mode before the Fringe in which Louise mentioned how sad she was about her marriage breaking up. Without details.

I never saw the show in Edinburgh. Apparently her husband objected to some comments he was told she had made in a handful of shows and she removed the comments. Now, six months later, he is suing her.

Drawing attention to something only a few people heard by going into a public court and attracting inevitable media publicity is staggeringly counterproductive. As I mentioned in my blog yesterday, it triggers the Streisand Effect. I showed how the story had spread, virus-like – basically Husband Sues Comedian Wife for Talking About Him on Stage – and, since yesterday, it has spread further with people now commenting on it worldwide. The latest new references to it which I spotted on a cursory Google this morning are listed below at the bottom of this blog.

Eraserhead – Louise’s new show had to be written in 48 hours

In Australia, The Advertiser noted that the complained-of show “last year won an Adelaide Fringe Best Emerging Artist Weekly Award”. This year (Louise is currently performing in Adelaide), The Advertiser notes she was forced to write a new show Eraserhead in just 48 hours. It is “about the experience of censorship and the way it makes you feel like your identity is being erased”.

Louise is quoted as saying: “he’s suing me, which in my opinion is simply an attempt to silence me. As standup comedians, I believe it’s the very definition of our job to talk about our lives and social issues.”

Canada’s National Post wisely got in touch with Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award judge Claire Smith, who actually saw and reviewed the complained-about show in Edinburgh for The Scotsman last year.

She said that the show was about freedom of speech and political oppression. At one brief point in the show, she told the National Post yesterday: “My memory of it is that (Louise) said that she’d realized that she’d also been in an oppressive relationship. But it was so minor — there was very, very little detail… I’ve seen lots of shows where people talk about relationships where they’ve gone into a lot of detail about their relationships, their marriage. Mostly what she was doing was making a political point. It seems extraordinary that he has taken this view of it.”

The Malaysian Digest quoted Mark Stephens, a libel lawyer at Howard Kennedy in London, who told the UK’s Guardian:

“There’s a long history of British juries – before they were abolished [in defamation cases] – not finding in favour of claimants when it’s a joke… This will be the first time [the issue comes] before a judge. It’s going to be a test of whether the British judiciary understands a joke – I mean that seriously. It’s a test case for the judge to see whether they will follow the same route as juries used to take, which was to throw libel cases which were based on humour out on their ear. Judges have traditionally had something of a humourless side.”

The Malaysian Digest continues: “Drawing from personal experience has been key to vast numbers of comedians’ work. Last year’s Fringe, even, featured separate shows by ex-couple Sarah Pascoe and John Robins in which they discussed their break up, the latter winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Show, shared with Hannah Gadsby. Sarah Millican won the if.comedy award for Best Newcomer in 2008 for her show Sarah Millican’s Not Nice, inspired by her own divorce.

“It was a show about censorship and authoritarianism…”

“(Louise Reay’s) solicitors have also issued a statement on the case, reading: Louise started to write her Hard Mode show when she was still with her husband. It was a show about censorship and authoritarianism, asking the audience to imagine that the BBC had come into the control of the Chinese Government. It was in no way a show about her husband. While performing the show after their separation, Louise mentioned her husband a couple of times but this was in the context of telling the audience how sad she was that they had recently separated.

“At certain performances of the show, she cried at this point. While she used Mr. Reay’s image of a couple of times, she invited the audience to admire how good-looking he was and expressed sadness that the marriage had come to an end. She used an image and some footage from their wedding that she had been using in her shows for years without any objection from Mr. Reay.

Mr. Reay had claimed that there are sections of the show which will have been understood by the audience to mean that he was abusive to Louise. Louise’s position is that the key sections that he claimed are defamatory of him were not intended to be understood by the audience to refer to him. During the most of these sections, Louise was playing various different characters, including a newsreader and Jeremy Clarkson. Should this case go to trial, there will undoubtedly be debate over the meaning of the words complained about and whether they can truly be said to refer to Mr. Reay.

Claire Smith’s review of the show in The Scotsman last year, by the way, said it was: “an absurdist show about totalitarianism which intentionally makes its audience feel uncomfortable. We are hustled to our feet, given identity papers and surrounded by masked guards who are watching our behaviour. In the past Reay, who is fluent in Chinese, has been sponsored by the Chinese government to create absurdist mime shows in Chinese. It is safe to say Reay and the Chinese government are getting a divorce – particularly as she has worked on this show with dissident artist Ai Weiwei. It’s a bold experimental comedy.”

In fact, the Chinese, as far as I am aware at the time of writing, have not yet threatened to sue Louise.

Louise’s TV documentary work covers difficult subjects

Incidentally, Louise’s TV documentary credits include BBC1 Panorama, Channel 4’s Dispatches, BBC2’s study of income inequality The Super Rich & Us, Channel 4’s series on immigration Why Don’t You Speak English?,  BBC2’s series on education Chinese School: Are Our Kids Tough Enough?, BBC4’s History of India: Treasures of the Indus and Channel 4’s History of China: Triumph & Turmoil.

I don’t think the current court case could easily be the subject of some future TV documentary. More a TV sitcom.

Louise Reay’s crowdfunding page is HERE.

The latest batch of media reports are:

THE ADVERTISER (AUSTRALIA)

BBC NEWS, SCOTLAND

DAILY EXPRESS

DAILY RECORD (SCOTLAND)

(LONDON) EVENING STANDARD

GIZMODO

THE i

LINDA NIEUWS (HOLLAND)

MALAYSIAN DIGEST

MANDY NEWS online

NATIONAL POST (CANADA)

NEW YORK POST

THE SCOTSMAN

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Louise Reay’s Chinese language comedy and a man bangs a nail into his penis

Louise Reay Chinese

The Thoughts of Louise Reay – 喜剧演员和电视制片人

I missed a preview of Louise Reay’s show It’s Only Words a few weeks ago. Not that I would have understood it. Her show is billed as “the first ever stand-up show where the audience will literally have no idea what the person on stage is talking about.”

This is because her show is performed totally in Chinese for audiences who speak no Chinese.

“So,” I told her when we met, “you studied Chinese at university. That was very sensible of you, given they’re the rising world power.”

“It may sound sensible now,” she told me, “but it wasn’t at the time. I did it on a whim. My parents are hippyish and we were like a host family for foreign students. When I was like 16, a lot of my siblings had moved out so there were spare bedrooms and we filled them with foreign students.”

“How many siblings have you?” I asked.

“I’m one of four, but I have three step-siblings, so my parents have seven between them and, when each one left, we put like two foreign students in their bedroom until there was just me and my little brother left of the original siblings. We would have these big dinners with like 2 Chinese, 1 Swiss and 3 Mexicans. At one point, we had 4 Brazilians living with us who we couldn’t get rid of. They just kept inviting more people to live with them.

“It sounds terrible to say it today but, at that time, it always felt like the Chinese ones were the most alien. I was like 16 and going clubbing all the time and we had one Chinese girl who came to stay with us and she just read the Bible all the time. It felt weird.

“So I chose to study Chinese on a whim. I thought: Chinese people seem the weirdest to me. That will be the most fun. I can go to university in Beijing. It was as simple as that. It sounds so bad now, but I was only 17. About a year later, the Chinese economy took off and everyone said to me: What a wise decision you made. It was a complete whim.

Louise Reay, fitting in with Chinese culture

Louise always tries to fit in with Chinese culture

“I was at university in Beijing for a year and later I went back to work there for another year. in business. All my colleagues were Chinese women and all my clients were middle-aged Chinese men and that’s why I came home. It was like just really weird?”

“When did you come back?” I asked.

“Quite a long time ago – like 2010 or 2011.”

“The first three times I went to Beijing,” I told her, “were 1984, 1985 and 1986.”

“Oh!” said Louise. “You’re so lucky! Deng Xiaoping! Cool! I went to Beijing again last December. There’s a cool TV series coming out on BBC this summer – The School That Turned Chinese – about a school in Surrey which gets Chinese teachers for a month and I was out there getting the Chinese teachers.”

“Your day job in TV is what?” I asked.

“Assistant producer. Freelance. I just fell into it about five years ago because I speak Chinese. I do all kinds of projects. I did a big economics series for BBC2 that came out in December. I do really random stuff. I’m an assistant producer, so I just run round after the middle-aged man. I came home from Beijing to avoid hanging out with middle-aged Chinese men and all I do now is run around after middle-aged British men. Apparently that’s my destiny. My first ever job in TV was in Zambia filming a documentary about middle-aged Chinese men who were entrepreneurs in the Copper Belt.”

Louise in London’s Soho last week

Louise could not escape China in London’s Soho last week

“So,” I said, “you do live stand-up comedy AND these serious BBC2/BBC4 documentaries…”

“Yes,” said Louise. “I first did stand-up when I was 16. I stopped at 18 after a weird gig in Eastbourne. They had a racist joke competition led by the compere. Then a man in the audience said: If I hammer a nail into my penis, can I get free entry to this club night for the rest of the year? And they said: Yeah! Sure! and they ran around and got a stool and a hammer and a nail and he hammered it in.”

“We are talking here about hammering it into skin,” I checked, “not into the more solid bits?”

“I didn’t look,” said Louise. “But, an hour later, he stood up and said: If I hammer a second nail into my penis, can I get free drinks for the rest of the year? and the audience went Yeeaaaaahhhh!!!! and basically, like, at the end of the night, he was doing a wee into a basin and I went to wash my hands next to him and he turned to me and said: Oh, I really like your set. And wee was coming out of the different holes in his dick. So I thought: I can never do comedy again and I didn’t do stand-up for about six years after that.”

“I have to say,” I told Louise, “I would book him as an act… What have you just been working on recently?”

Louise in China, blending in with the locals

“Dude, we WILL be able to understand what you want…

“It’s really random. There’s like a Harvard professor and he has a TV company in the UK so we were doing like a history of capitalism thing?”

“Why,” I asked, “are you doing this Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe show It’s Only Words in Chinese?”

“I’ve always been interested in communication. I made a documentary about a Chinese woman called Apple who lived in Croydon. She could not speak any English and she did not go outside except for once a week to go to the Chinese supermarket. She was so isolated because she didn’t speak the language. And I thought: Dude, if you go to an English language shop and try to buy something, we WILL be able to understand what you want.

“People have a real mental barrier about languages and the way we communicate. But just one look can mean so much. We communicate all the time. Look at my hands. I can’t stop them moving. There’s so much more than language going on. That’s what my show’s all about.”

“So,” I asked, “people sitting in the audience will able to understand what’s going on?”

“Yes. That’s the thing. It will prove that you can. There was a very spurious 1960s experiment which proved that only 7% of communication was verbal. So my whole show is an experiment in the 93%. If I did it in French, it wouldn’t work, because most people maybe understand enough.

“A really weird thing is that, depending on where you live, your face ages differently, because you use different muscles in your face depending on what language you’re speaking.

Louise Reay, cleaning a great wall

Louise Reay, a woman with experience, cleans a great wall

“I know a Western man who has lived in China for the past 40 years and he looks like a Chinese person now, because the muscles that he’s used from speaking Chinese every day… Like Chinese is very much in the front of your face, whereas European languages are much more throaty? The whole face changes, because you have some muscles that are not used and other muscles that are used a lot more. It’s like really nuts that you can age your face differently depending on what language you’re speaking each day. It’s mental.”

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Sichuan Opera’s face-changers, British variety acts & magical Chinese medicine

In 1942, screenwriter and science fiction author Leigh Brackett wrote that what seems witchcraft to the ignorant is simple science to the learned. In 1962, this was re-phrased by science fiction author Arthur C Clarke into his Third Law of Prediction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

The Chinese ambassador’s wife (left) and Professor Ke (right)

The Chinese ambassador’s wife (left) and Professor Ke (right)

A couple of nights ago, I went along to the official opening by the Chinese ambassador’s wife Madame Pinghua Hu of the Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine’s new site in Highgate, north London.

In 1991, I was hit by the sharp edge of an articulated truck while standing on a pavement in Borehamwood. I blogged about it in 2011.

I was thrown backwards with a slight spin and the back of my head hit the sharp edge of a low brick wall maybe nine inches above the ground. What I did not know until much later was that my spine had been twisted and jerked when my head hit the wall. It took about nine or ten months to get over the concussion. I still have trouble reading. I still have a slight line in my head where it hit the edge of the wall. The discs at the bottom of my spine are still slightly mis-aligned and occasionally cause me extreme pain if I twist my back at certain angles. It took about eighteen months to (mostly) sort out the pain in my shoulder.

My shoulder in 1991 - pulverised in two places

My shoulder in 1991 – the bone was pulverised in two places

In 1991/1992, I was in extreme pain from my shoulder for about 80% of my waking hours. My GP asked me what drugs I wanted for the rest of my life. Instead, I went to a Chinese doctor, knowing that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is slow because, whereas Western medicine tries to cure the symptoms, Chinese medicine tries to cure the cause.

The Chinese doctor gave me some Die Da Wan Hua Oil to rub on my shoulder and, within two weeks, my shoulder pain was gone. It has never recurred unless I put extreme pressure on the shoulder – and, even then, it is discomfort rather than pain.

The ‘miracle’ cure for my shoulder pain cannot have been psychological because it never entered my head that TCM could have a quick effect. I had thought, if it did work, it might take many months or maybe a year.

I have no idea how it worked and, surprisingly, when Madame Pinghua Hu officially opened the Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine’s new site this week, she too said she had no idea how TCM worked.

Anything sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic to the uninitiated and this ’thing’ is several thousand years old.

Professor Ke at his new Asante building in Highgate this week

Professor Ke at his new Asante building in Highgate this week

The Asante is run by the Chinese doctor who helped me – Dr (now Professor) Song Xuan Ke. He started to learn his skills when, aged 13, he was apprenticed to three herbal masters in his home province of Hubei in China. He qualified in both Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine at university in Canton in 1982.

I found him in 1991 because he tended to be interviewed on ITN TV news reports whenever they referred to Chinese medicine – and because he was listed as an advisor for an Observer newspaper series on alternative medicine.

Since then, among other things, he has been providing an acupuncture service in NHS hospitals including London’s Royal Free, Whittington and North Middlesex, has been involved in TCM research programmes with various London hospitals and became president of the British Society of Chinese Medicine and vice president of Pan European Federation of TCM Societies. He is actively involved with the UK Department of Health in the process of statutory regulation of professional practice and he was a member of its Regulating Working Group.

But the reason for writing this blog is not because of the near-magical-seeming effects of some traditional Chinese medicine but because, as part of the opening of the Asante centre this week, Professor Ke booked a man called Hou De Zhang who did a face-changing (bian lian) dance as performed in traditional Sichuan Opera.

Sichuan Opera face changing this week (Photo by my eternally-un-named friend)

Sichuan Opera face-changing this week (Photo by my eternally-un-named friend)

It seemed as magical as some Chinese medicine.

The dancer wears a face-hugging silk mask which can be changed in a split second into a totally different face-hugging silk mask. I have seen a video in which a photographer says he set his shutter speed to 1/200th of a second and could not capture the mask-changing moment.

The dancer twirls with his hands visible – or, for literally a split second, obscures his face with a fan or with the briefest of head-spins (without touching his face) and the mask changes.

At one point, Hou De Zhang shook me by the hand while his other hand was visible and, with a head shake, his face mask changed, but I did not see the point at which it changed.

Hou De Zhang performed at the Asante this week

Hou De Zhang performing at the new Asante

There is some sort of trigger mechanism which, I understand, can be hidden almost anywhere on the body. I reckoned it was in his hat. But it is impossible to see the point of transformation and how it can change one face-hugging silk mask into another is beyond my weak ken.

At another point in the dance, a moustache suddenly appeared on his face and then disappeared. My eternally-un-named friend (who does a neat line in Monk-like thinking) suggested it might have been inside his mouth. I suppose that must be right, but it was impossible to see. The moustache just appeared.

The dance was arguably the best variety act I have ever seen because it seemed to be actual magic. Perhaps Jerry Sadowitz’ close-up magic equals it, but it is a close-run thing.

I mentioned at the start of this blog Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction.

His First Law is: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

His Second Law states: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

I am all for that… in everything.

There is a video of Sichuan Opera face-changing on YouTube.

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North Korea – my undying admiration for their supreme leader Kim Jung-un

The admirable flag of the supreme leader’s admirable country

A former criminal once told me that it was possible to make money – a lot of money – from crime and not be caught. But only if you had an aim. And most criminals, he claimed, are aimless.

“It’s like gambling,” he told me. “People get addicted to gambling and they may make a load of money, but they throw it all away because they don’t know when to stop. If you have an aim to make £100,000 or even £1 million, you could probably make that. But then you’ve got to stop. If you don’t have a specific number as your target, if you don’t stop, if you just keep going, then eventually, if you’re a criminal, you get caught and, if you’re a gambler, you lose what you’ve won. Because the odds are increasingly against you.”

I do not think I ever had a career aim. I found it more interesting to take things as they came along. As a result, at parties, I have never been able to coherently answer that inevitable question: “So what is it you actually do, John?”

Someone also told me, “You should achieve everything you want to achieve by the time you reach the age of 40,” though, sadly, they suggested this to me after I had passed the appropriate age.

I was once told: “John, your CV has no focus.”

I took this as no bad thing.

Better to die in the gutter with multiple memories than to live in bored comfort and regret unexplored avenues.

I have always thought the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” was a rather attractive prospect.

I am writing this blog in longhand on a British Airways 747 flight from Beijing to London. I will re-type it all out onto a computer when I return to the UK and will post it on my blog later tonight. I took no computer, no iPad and no mobile phone on my trip to North Korea. I am not that mad.

North Korea does not allow foreigners to bring into their fine, tightly-controlled country any mobile phones or any electronic device containing GPS. China is not that paranoid but, of course, blocks access to not only Facebook, Twitter and other Western social networking sites but also to all the main Western blogging sites. This blog of mine (hosted by WordPress) alas cannot be read in China. Their loss.

As I write this in longhand on the 747, I am 2 hours 45 minutes into a 10 hour 45 minutes flight back to the UK.

According to the electronic in-flight map on the seat-back in front of me, we are just approaching a set of white cartoon mountains.

Aha!, I just wrote in longhand, this must mean  we are just about to fly over Tibet. But now a wider map shows me we are flying westwards somewhere between Irkutsk in Siberia in the north and Ulan Bator in Mongolia the south.

Just south of both those cities on the very small map is the Chinese city of Chongqing.

At Beijing Airport this morning, I unexpectedly bumped into Ben, who had been in the group I went to North Korea with last week.

He told me that, last night, when another member of the group Googled “Chongqing”, it came up with nothing. The name seemed to have been blocked by the Chinese authorities. An entire city temporarily wiped from existence, presumably because they did not want people in China researching beyond the Party line on the on-going Bo Xilai scandal which, to me, seems less of a scandal and more of a future thriller movie plot.

Ben told me that, even before he went to North Korea, he had started keeping a diary.

“You should write a blog,” I told him.

“I don’t think my life is that interesting,” he said.

“What are you doing when you get back to Britain?” I asked him.

“I’m thinking,” he said, “of starting up an internet radio station… My uncle used to be a weather man and wants to do the night shift.”

It is good to have an aim.

China seems to know where it wants to go and is getting there.

North Korea is perhaps like a floundering gambler with no target. It has changed little since I first went there in 1986. Except for the small matter of mobile phones, presumed ICBM tests and the possession of nuclear bombs.

“Do not treat us as children” was the North Korean reaction when the US complained about their recent rocket launch. That is always a good rule-of-thumb, I think, when dealing with people who have nuclear bombs and a volatile diplomatic tendency towards brinksmanship.

On landing at Heathrow Airport in London late this afternoon, I picked up a copy of the i newspaper. It contained a small piece claiming that the official North Korean website was built using a template which cost just $15 – less than £10.

Typical propaganda in the Western media, trying to belittle the great land of the supreme leader Kim Jung-un.

The business page of North Korea’s website says the country “will become in the next years the most important hub for trading in North-East Asia” and promises that workers there “will not abandon their positions for higher salaries once they are trained”. It also says the country has “a government with solid security and a very stable political system, without corruption”.

In the circumstances, I would just like to state my undying admiration for North Korea’s 28 or 29 year old (opinions vary) supreme leader Kim Jung-un.

I think it is better to be safe and cover all angles.

We live in interesting times.

On its website, the North Korean government is currently offering “an exclusive business trip” to the country from 11th August to 18th August 2012. They say they will “facilitate visit to factories and meetings with commerce officials in charge of your professional area. All passports are invited to apply except for: U.S.A., Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan due to special protocol in bilateral relations. The number of visitors is limited to 10.”

Now THAT is a trip I would like to go on.

The website adds: “Participants will be accompanied during the entire visit.”

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Filed under China, Crime, gambling, North Korea, Politics

Return from North Korea to China, land of individual freedom & Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves’ new movie “Man of Tai Chi” shooting in Beijing

During the night, on the long train trip back to Beijing from Pyongyang, I mention that, since an accident in 1991 in which I was hit by a truck, I have not been able to read books. I can write books, but I cannot read them.

Our English travel agent guide tells me he was recently mugged in the street in Bristol. “They hit me on the back of the head with a baseball bat,” he told me. And roughed me up a bit at the front, too. I have had difficulty reading – and slight speech problems – since then. It’s very frightening when it affects your mind.”

I develop a slight toothache.

As soon as we crossed the bridge over the Yalu River which divides North Korea from China, two smiling strangers (everyone was smiling) separately observed to me how strange it was to feel that entering China was returning to ‘freedom’.

A woman I did not know said to me, smiling: “It’s like a weight has been lifted.”

Somewhere between a station signposted Tanggu and Tianjin city, I noticed there were satellite TV dishes on some of the old, single-storey peasant homes. Not Party buildings, not notable buildings, not in any way rich homes. And occasional clusters of buildings had solar panels on their roofs; possibly communal buildings; impossible to tell.

Then, for mile after mile after mile, a gigantic new elevated road/train track was being built. Make that plural. Over mile upon mile upon continuous mile, new highways, new tower blocks were being built. It is as if the country is building a new city like Milton Keynes every week or a new London Docklands nationwide every few days.

So very different to when I was last here in 1984, 1985 and 1986.

The irony with China is that, in the Cultural Revolution – the Chinese call it the ‘Ten Year Chaos’ – of 1966-1976, the Red Guards wanted to destroy the past, to start from the ‘now’ and build a new society. That now has happened. The irony is that it is not the future they envisaged; it is the future they feared.

Would this giant leap forward have been possible in a country without the unstoppable anti-democratic will and irresistible totalitarian power to push it through? Who knows? But it is an interesting thought/dilemma.

As we arrived at Beijing railway station, someone told me they had seen on BBC World TV that the North Korean satellite launched last week had exploded shortly after launch. Back in North Korea, of course, they will ‘know’ that Satellite 3 was a glorious success and will ‘know’ the giant leaps which their country makes continue to be the envy of the world.

If you live in a self-contained village isolated from all outside knowledge – or, indeed, in The Village in The Prisoner TV series – you know only what you know. There are no known unknowns, only unknown unknowns.

Living standards and social/technological advances are comparative. The North Koreans can see for themselves – they ‘know’ – that their society has advanced in leaps and bounds – from the electricity pylons of the 1980s to – now – mobile telephones and three satellites in space. And they have seen the tributes brought to their leaders by the admiring leaders of other countries.

China – with 7.5% growth per year – is living the advance a stagnant North Korea falsely believes it is making.

In the afternoon, in Beijing, I go into a Bank of China branch. It is in a suburb of the city. The door guard and staff look shocked that a Westerner has wandered into their branch.

I get a ticket to go to the cashier. A recorded message on the loudspeaker tells me when my number – Number 46 – is ready to be dealt with and which cashier to go to. The recorded message is in Chinese… then in English. Like the road signs, the metro signs and many shop signs. It is not just for my benefit. Each customer announcement is made in Chinese… then English.

At the cashier’s desk, facing me, is a little electronic device with three buttons marked in Chinese and in English. By pressing the appropriate button, unseen by the cashier, I can say if her service has been Satisfactory or Average or Dissatisfied.

Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to China 2012.

About half an hour later, near the Novotel and the New World Centre shopping complex, I pass a woman with one eye, begging. Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to China 2012.

Close to a nearby metro entrance, an old grey-haired woman is lying flat on her back, immobile, on the pavement. Beside her, by her head, a middle-aged man, possibly her son, kneels, rocking backwards and forwards, bobbing his head on the pavement, as if in silent Buddhist prayer. A large sheet of paper with Chinese lettering explains their situation. Passers-by drop Yuan notes into a box.

Welcome to China 2012.

At dusk, walking back to my own hotel from a metro station on one of Beijing’s busy, modern ring roads – a 45 minute walk – I see some movie trucks belonging to the China Film Group – dressing rooms, a director’s trailer, equipment vans.

Further along, down a side street, they are shooting second unit photography for a movie called Man of Tai Chi – actor Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut – in an area of grey, old-style, single-storey streets just a 15 second walk off the busy ring road.

In Pyongyang, the North Korean film studios had clearly been doing nothing. But they wanted – they liked – to pretend they have a thriving film industry.

In China, they do.

But they also block Facebook, Twitter and, indeed, this very blog you are reading.

Welcome to China 2012.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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