Deborah Fallows, Lung Ying-Tai and I

I'm going to start off by talking about myself, because this will explain my interest in Deborah Fallows and Lung Ying-tai.

At a recent guest lecture for journalism/media students in Hong Kong, I mentioned the fact that I have three 'ages' was very important with respect to how EastSouthWestNorth turned out in this style.

First, there is my physical 'age.'  Born in 1949, I am now 57 years old.  This makes me a lot older than the journalism/media students in the class; actually, I am even older than most of their parents.  This means that I have had the time to stuff a lot of (possibly useless) history inside my head.  History is never a smooth unidirectional flow.  The many setbacks and reversals in the history I have witnessed  should be enough to make any non-comatose person become leery of the next politician who will say: "A war in Iran will be necessary to eliminate their nuclear-tipped missiles and to bring freedom and democracy to the people of Iran."  So my physical age brought me a lot of skepticism about superficial and cynical statements from public figures.

There is also my 'Chinese cultural age.'  I grew up in Hong Kong and left when I was about 18 years old.  I went to Australia first and then I lived in the United States for 32 years before moving back to Hong Kong in 2003.  Insofar as my Chinese cultural learning went, I only had formal bilingual education up to Form 5 in Hong Kong.  Afterwards, I was an autodidact in Chinese culture and literature.  As such, my education was unsystematic and unbalanced.  Within that self-education is an immersion into Chinese organized crime culture through being a translator with US law enforcement agencies (see Translation and its Discontents), as well as involvement in the various Chinese-related political movements in the 1960's and 1970's.  But I probably know more about Chinese culture than one might expect from a Hong Kong Form 5 students, because of the family background.  I can say that my relatively short 'Chinese cultural age' brought me the self-discipline and competence to learn on my own.

Then there is my 'Chinese Internet age.'  In 2003, I came back to Hong Kong.  I was quite ignorant about Greater China during the previous twenty something years.  So I started the EastSouthWestNorth blog as a bookmarking system.  Every day, I read as many online newspapers as possible, and I saved the most interesting readings for later reference.  I was in no position to comment or reflect, because I did not know much.  In retrospect, I should probably have kept a more detailed diary just so my progress (including mistakes) can be captured from the very start.  My very young 'Chinese Internet age' brought me a certain reticence.  Most of the time today, I will translate but decline to state my own thoughts for fear of detracting from the primary text.  If I find a text interesting, I translate it and hope that you find it interesting too without me telling you exactly how you must think.  In rare cases, I will comment when I am actually reasonably sure about the subject (see, for example, The Parachutist's Adventure in Hong Kong).

[For example, I was recently told that my series about the July 1st estimates about the number of marchers at:

have been used as case studies for students in journalism/'media studies university courses.]

My point in recounting all this personal history is that I regret at not having kept a diary of the first days of the EastSouthWestNorth blog.  This would have been about the thoughts of an old political hand (in American politics or overseas Chinese politics) who can read and comprehend Chinese (including the Cantonese dialect) but who had been completely removed from Greater China for the last 20 plus years.  This is the rarest of combinations.  I even sometimes wonder now what I had been thinking back then.

Bonus example (from the memory hole):

Here are some of the things that happened as I tried to get my Hong Kong ID back.  Anyone who has stayed in Hong Kong for seven consecutive years ("most of the time" in the sense that you can take short trips away) has "right of abode" in Hong Kong.  So when I returned to Hong Kong in 2003, I went about establishing that I had lived in Hong Kong for seven years (note: I lived exclusively in Hong Kong from age 0 to age 18 but proving it something else).  I went back to my elementary school and I spoke to the receptionist about getting a letter to state that I was there for three years (and I already had transcripts for four years at the middle school).  She looked the time period, giggled and said, "Well, the old school building was demolished decades ago and we are standing here right now in a brand new building.  But I guess the records must be somewhere in the basement."  So I eventually got a letter signed by the principal who was not even born yet when I attended the school.  Then I went back to the Immigration Department for an interview.  The officers (there was one interviewer but another one stuck his nose in when he overheard the conversation) asked:

Q: So you attended La Salle?  What famous people do you know?
A: I don't know.  That was in the early 1960's and I just got back last month.  How am I supposed to know if my classmates became famous, infamous, unknown or just died?

Q: But you must have heard about some of them?
A: Well, I was in the same class as the younger brother of singer/actor Phillip Chan.  Does that count?

Q: But there has to be more?
A: Well, I sat next to comedian Leung Shing-bo's second son.  Does that count?

There are a number of cultural elements in this exchange that a long-time Hong Kong resident might take as fact and don't think about anymore.  For example, there is a mythical adulation of elite schools and there is an acute interest in celebrity gossip.  Without that, it would have been another boring day for immigration officers but I provided some diversion.  This is something that can only strike an outsider with respect to local culture.  More than three years later, I probably wouldn't give another thought if asked these questions again because I now read Apple Daily every day and Next Weekly every week.  Everybody asks those types of question of everyone else, right?  Why should I be surprised?  I have even been quizzing other people about such matters.

This leads to Deborah Fallows.

This week, Deborah Fallows has a series of diaries titled "At Home in Shanghai" over at Slate magazine: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.  Here I want to bring your attention to some selected comments at The Shanghaiist post: Deborah Fallows in Shanghai by Peijin Chen.  I am just citing some comments and I do not imply any criticisms.

As usual, you are being hypercritical of what is intended to be a lighthearted diary of her move to Shanghai.

Maybe you should see her bio.

Deb worked most recently at Oxygen Media, where she was Director of Data Architecture. She has a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin and an A.B. from Harvard. Deb has written many pieces about education, health, families and work, and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, The LA Times Magazine, Newsweek, US New & World Report, The Washington Post and The Washington Monthly. Her book, A Mother's Work, was published by Houghton-Mifflin. Deb also worked at Georgetown University as Assistant Dean for the School of Languages and Linguistics and as Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions.

Your attitude of "I'm smart, the whole world is dumb" is a real drag on this site.

[1] Posted by: Nathan | November 15, 2006 8:50 PM



Hypercritical means more than critical. I believe i was just plain critical, if that. I told people what my impression of her post was. I understand it's meant to be light-hearted, but that's like saying every "light-hearted" comedy ought to be given the benefit of the doubt. No--there are good light-hearted comedies, and there are OK ones and there are awful ones. Standards of some sort are still applicable, esp. if you're writing a blog where people expect you to have some kind of opinion, and not just be a robot blandly copying and pasting things from the internet.

If you call her "Deb" I believe that you know her personally, so i can see how you might be offended. However, you can't really expect someone who doesn't know her to think in the same way you do. It's quite likely that you would commit the same "error" when you criticize some piece by some author and their friends or relatives get offended.

If her post can be light-hearted and dare i say superficial, then why must my post take into account her degrees and complete resume? Am I obligated to give her the benefit of the doubt because she has a PhD and I don't?

[9] Posted by: peijin | November 16, 2006 8:57 AM


Peijin - while Nathan may or may not have a personal connection to Deborah Fallows - I think he makes a valid point. Shanghaiist is suppposed to be about Shanghai - not about slinging shit in a very petty, self-serving manner at other bloggers, publications, and/or journalists. Lately, this site had seen several of these posts, and while you might think it makes your own writing (and your blog) seem clever, insightful or informed, I assure you it doesn't.

[11] Posted by: JW | November 16, 2006 11:07 AM


JW, I am a friend of Dan, but at the same time a highly critical reader of Shanghaiist. In this particular case, however, I must agree with Peijin. While I might not have expressed it in quite the same way (the jabs at her quotes on the internet were unnecessary), Fallows' diary is precisely the kind of ignorant commentary to which I believe Shanghaiist (at its best) is an antidote. Too often in the popular American media China is portrayed as nothing but cliched juxtapositions (tall buildings and people wearing pajamas! Starbucks and animal carcasses on the same street! Trend-setting fashionistas and old men out of doors in pajamas!). Where is the substance? Where are the pieces that reflect more than a superficial interaction with this country? Occasionally, they are here at Shanghaiist, and Danwei, to name another.

Is it too much to ask that a well-educated and well-published writer would have more interesting things to say? Reading her (currently three) entries reveals that she seems to know less about Shanghai or China than the average expat tai-tai who spends her time chauffeured between Gubei and the Portman. At least the tai-tai could name a handful of places to find chicken breasts.

[12] Posted by: LAT | November 16, 2006 11:37 AM


I guess the jealousy of the unpublished for the published knows no bounds. As if anybody on this board - if given the chance to blog on Slate about their first few weeks in Shanghai - would have refused AND/OR provided insights any more probing than those of Deb Fallows. Perhaps, like Dan, y'all spend your time reading Marxist blogs and fill-in your journals with the biting insights of a Jane Dark (who, so far as I can tell, isn't even in Shanghai).

But for the rest of us, those first days in Shanghai (and mine are four years ago) usually feel just like the ones described by Deb Fallows.

[20] Posted by: Lee Ann Womack | November 16, 2006 3:15 PM


Lee Ann,

You miss the main point. Sure, first days in Shanghai are often like that. Sure, most people would jump at the chance to blog for Slate. But this is the main problem most people have: Why does Slate think publishing the diary of someone's first days in Shanghai is in any way interesting or newsworthy? In late 2006? I could see if it was some remote place few foreigners had ventured or heard about, but Shanghai? My problem is with Slate -- they should have left Deb's diaries for her personal blog.

[22] Posted by: published | November 16, 2006 3:32 PM


If I kept a diary of every day I have been in Shanghai (since 2002), I wonder what the contents of my earliest days would be. I'm sure I'd look back and be shocked at my total ignorance.

Give the woman some time to find her groove. And remember, we think we know everything about China after one month and realise we know nothing after five years!

[25] Posted by: plex | November 16, 2006 6:35 PM


What is my interest in all this?  First of all, I know Deborah Fallows, if not all that well.  I met her at the 4th Annual Chinese Internet Conference in Singapore, July 21-22, 2006.  At the conference, she delivered the paper titled: "Comparing Popular Online Activities in the US and China" using data from the Pew Internet and American Life project.  After the conference, I spent a long evening over drinks with Deborah Fallows and a group of esteemed "A-list" Chinese bloggers.  If I can put it simply: she is no 'dummy.'

I was not at the Second Annual Chinese Bloggercon (CNBloggercon) held on October 28-29, 2006 in Hangzhou.  But I note that Deborah Fallows presented a paper titled "Blog Survey Results from The Pew Internet & American Life Project."

In the Singapore paper, Deborah Fallows spoke of the differences between Chinese and American Internet users in terms of their online activity patterns.  How many of the Shanghaiist readers can talk with authority and information as well as Deborah Fallows about why the Chinese Internet users will end up as a different breed from the American Internet users?  I suspect that the answer is NONE.

But that is not the real point.  I am butting in here on account of my own missed opportunity.  I would like to ask you to re-examine the Deborah Fallows diaries in the light of my personal regret at never having a set of diaries for my thoughts when I first arrived in Hong Kong.  If you don't like what Deborah Fallows writes, you don't have to read it; if you came across it by accident and hated it, you can always erase it out of your flash memory.  But even if you don't like its style or substance, you may get some useful ideas about how people react when they encounter a new culture.

People can talk about globalization, but most of the time the assumption is that the rest of the world will get to see it your way.  Wrong!  WRONG!  It is just so WRONG!  Until you begin to see it in someone else's way, you just totally don't get it.  It doesn't mean that you have to do it their way, but you need to accept that other people have their own ways.  You cannot force them to do it your way, just as you won't allow them to make you do it their way.  Most of the time, it is about seeing the others' ways in microscopic close-up and examining your own reactions.  This is the message that I want to get through, Deborah Fallows or not.

Alternately, to put it more generally, I cannot believe that the only good ideas come from people like Thomas L. Friedman, who tells us every week that the next six months will be crucial in Iraq (note: A "Friedman" is the short-hand term for 'six months' in American blog language) and he has been saying that for the last three years and nothing that he said has ever held up.

This lead us now to Lung Ying-Tai.  In Asia Weekly (Yazhou Zhoukan) (November 26, 2006 issue), there is an article by Ji Shuoming (纪硕鸣) about the Hong Kong University presentation of the book Hong Kong Notebooks by Lung Ying-tai.

[in translation]

... Lung Ying-tai opened up her notebooks and shared it with everybody.  She did so in the hope that more people can understand how "a cultured person from the outside came to Hong Kong at the beginning of the 21st century and looked at Hong Kong."  One day, Lung Ying-tai went into the cemetery next to Sha Wan Drive (note: where Hong Kong University provided housing for her).  She does not detest cemeteries, because these places are filled with secrets as well as the happiness and sadness of life.  She looked up and saw a large flock of snowy white birds.  The notebook recorded that Lung Ying-tai conducted research to identify the birds as a certain type of parrot known as "Yellow-crested cucktaoo" (小葵花鳳頭鸚鵡).  Lung Ying-tai described them as being like a group of elementary school students rushing out to the front gate after school to make noise and jostle each other.  In this city of concrete jungles, "it was an unthinkable Hong Kong for me" to have these beautiful birds as my neighbors.

Lung Ying-tai also noted that Hong Kong was a "city of eagles."  According to the research records, there are more than 1,000 eagles in Hong Kong, compared to fewer than 200 in all of Taiwan.  She found out that there was a type of plant that withered while everything else was greening.  But this plant was an outsider which threatened the survival of the local flora.  In her notebooks, Lung Ying-tai noted that Hong Kong has more than 2,000 types of plants, of which more than 140 are outsiders; there are more than 140 types of fresh water fish, of which 27 are outsiders; there were 22 types of frogs, of which five were outsiders.  The details of her observations and notes were impressive.

In the notebooks of Lung Ying-tai, there were stories of little old ladies beating on the "little people" dolls underneath the Gooseneck Bridge in Hong Kong; the birthplace of Executive Council Chairman Leung Chun-ying; the place where entrepreneur Chiang Chun made his first invention and contribution; the Hong Kong apartments in which murders had taken place; the names and meanings of certain places in Hong Kong; and so on.  These were all "collected" by Lung Ying-tai.  Although these pieces of information had never been published in any of the books of Lung Ying-tai, they describe an exciting and lively Hong Kong.

Now even a 'non-Hong Kong native' like myself is wincing at this list of 'extraordinary' Hong Kong phenomena.  Take the case of the eagles of Hong Kong.  It is true that if you are just someone who drives through the cross-harbor tunnel to and from work, or even if you are just someone who takes the Star Ferry regularly, you may not be aware of the eagles soaring over Hong Kong harbor.  But I have watched this movie Running Out of Time - Part 2  on cable television many times in which an eagle played a crucial role.  The story could not even exist without the eagle theme.  It has now gotten to the point when if you say "eagle," I no longer think about the bald eagles in the Rockies of Colorado; instead, I think about the Hong Kong's Central district!  How about that for globalized culture?

Or what about the practice of little old ladies beating on the "little people" dolls under the Gooseneck Bridge?  When I researched the subject some time ago, I found out that the practice was actually more prevalent in Taiwan!  The only unique selling point was that the little old ladies in Hong Kong have their own uniquely amusing script, which was made all the more amusing by Bridget Lin's imperfect and 'dodgy' (in the sense that she knew that certain phrases were not supposed to be articulated by refined ladies and therefore she discretely mispronounced some words to general amusement) reading of the script that Lung Ying-tai projected on the screen at the meeting.  

Still, I agree that it sometimes take an outsider to point out the obvious that the locals are no longer capable of seeing.  This is an easy point to prove: just go out tomorrow morning and make careful observations and then reflect on what is happening around you.  Notice anything that you never thought about ... ?  Trust me, there will be ...

Postscript: (Sing Pao)  (November 18, 2006)

[in translation]  

As an outsider coming to a place, there are some things that he won't be able to see but there are also other things that he can see more clearly on account of his outsider status.  There are advantages for outsiders, because they are not immersed within it."  Lung Ying-tai's description explained concisely how she made her observations about Hong Kong.  "I found out that Hong Kong was largely an city that is not understood.  I saw its image to the outside, but when I met her from the inside, I saw that there was a huge gap between the two at various levels."  So unless it is an outsider, who can have the perspectives from both the inside and the outside?

"Taipei is an under-estimated city.  Due to its political blockade, outsiders basically cannot know about the good things about her.  As for Hong Kong, she is not an under-estimated city.  She is a city that is very much not understood.  Many outside views about her are unreal.  For me, this was something that I found repeatedly."

Relevant LinkLung Ying-tai's My Hong Kong Notebook