Why Did I Remove My Safety Hat?

(Southern Weekend)  The "Fake Foreigner" Jeremy Goldkorn: Why Did I Remove My Safety Hat?  By Zhang Shougang.  August 1, 2008.

[in translation]

Muzimei: "(On that evening) he said that he hadn't worn a condom for four years.  I said that he must wear one later on ... Oh, you are wearing a safety hat!"
Goldkorn: "Yes.  I wear one almost daily ... a safety hat.  I haven't been wearing that other one recently ... the condom."

That was a conversation two years ago.  At that time, Jeremy Goldkorn was wearing a yellow safety hat and traversing Beijing with a microphone in hand.  He was a citizen reporter interviewing people from all walks of life and posting digital videos on the Internet.  The yellow safety hat became his logo and the netizens referred to him as the "foreigner with the branded hat."

But now Goldkorn has chosen to give up.  That iconic yellow safety hat has gone away.  He has humbly bowed to reality and he kept repeating the short phrase: "I wanna make money!"  This desire has buried his unique hat and swept his pure and idealistic notion of individual media off into history.

If it were not for his curly hair and crooked nose, his fluent pronunciation of Chinese would have made you mistake him for an authentic Beijing local.  He can type faster in Chinese than in English.  His speech is extremely colloquial.  When the phone rings, he replies just like Ke You in the movie <Mobile Telephone>: "I'm sorry, but I'm  in a meeting."

Many people know how the name 金玉米 comes from.  His full name is Jeremy Goldkorn.  金玉米 sounds like Jeremy, and it also means "Gold Corn."  He is such an interesting person with such a unique translation.  He hailed from South Africa.  He is the founder of Danwei.org.  He has been in China for 13 years.

He has recently received the attention of many Chinese netizens on account of an ingenious translation.  On June 1, in an English-language article on Danwei.org, his colleague Joel Martinsen created the title of "Runner Fan" for the overnight sensation of 范跑跑.  From then on, the Runner Fan story drew the attention of overseas media and netizens.

"The Runner Fan incident is the typical subject for Danwei.org.  I think that foreigners take a very biased view of China.  They think that there is no freedom of speech in China.  They think that everything is totally like the Cultural Revolution without any voice from the people.  But it is not that simple.  For example, there is a lot of debate over Runner Fan.  People are debating whether he was wrong, ot he was a hero or he was a shameless vile person."

Jeremy Goldkorn was happy to expound his concept of journalism to me.  "I don't care who is right or wrong.  The key is that people are able to debate about moral issues.  Five year ago, I don't think that there is such room for this kind of discussion.  His story is significant with respect to the change in Chinese society.  I like this kind of topic."

He then spoke with interest about the currently popular term "push-up."  "When westerners see this kind of campaign, they immediately classify this under categories such as corruption or freedom within their fixed framework.  They make the obvious judgment."  Jeremy Goldkorn demurs.  He will use his own Danwei.org to provide the westerners with a more diversified angle of observation.

Since publishing the first blog post in November 2003, Danwei.org has been in existence for almost five years.  At first, the daily hit rate was in the dozens.  Today, it has grown to between 10,000 to 15,000 hits per day, of which 80% come from outside China.  At first, Danwei.org was a personal blog.  Today, Jeremy Goldkorn has three editors and Danwei.org is a group blog.  Looking at Danwei.org. it is more like a small website.  Jeremy Goldkorn claims to be be "an individual media."  He likes that status.  "An individual media comes from the grassroots and its voice is more authentic."

"Foreigners actually do not have too many channels to understand China," says Jeremy Goldkorn.  The model of Danwei.org is very simple.  That is to translate the latest published articles in China into English and publish it on the blog.  This opens a new window for many foreigners who want to understand China but cannot read Chinese.  When he chose 'Danwei" as the name of the blog, he though that 'Danwei" was a term with unique Chinese characteristics: The Danwei is a unit that can provide wages, benefits and other guarantees under socialism.  This is a utopian society that provides an identity for the people.

But things do not happen as planned.  The number of hits on Danwei.org rose steadily and he receives more than 100 emails each day.  Some contain praises, some are rubbish and some contain angry criticisms.  "Some foreigners decry us as the running dogs of the Chinese government.  Some Chinese netizens angrily denounce me because a foreigner knows fart and is unqualified to comment on China."

Jeremy Goldkorn shrugged his shoulders, and then he shook his head helplessly.

He never imagined that he would end up on the wrong side everywhere.  When he gets an interview from a media outlet which considers him as being a moderate about China, he is happy about getting appreciation."  "Yes, I am not extreme.  I also want to express that.  For the westerners, this should not be the Cultural Revolution again.  The voices of the Chinese netizens should be more diversified with less from the angry youth."

This Beijing drifter from South Afraid does not sing praises such as "I fell deeply in love with Chinese culture."  Compared to the most famous foreigner in China, Da Shan, his style tends towards "I think" and not "I like."

On account of the Danwei.rog, Jeremy Goldkorn has achieved a modicum of fame in China.  A month ago, he was invited to hold a salon at the One Way Street Library near the Summer Palace.  Quite a few people form all walks of life showed up and the place was packed.

He stunned people with his opening statement: "Today it is really intimidating for a foreigner such as myself to talk about China, especially since the famous Summer Palace is right behind me.  But fortunately South Africa was not of the eight Allied Nations {that looted and torched the Summer Palace}, so I am not as terrified ..."  The audience roared in laughter.

His reputation was based largely upon the Danwei.tv series.  This was a series of documentary films that reflected the lives of ordinary people in China, including vendors of barbequed lamb pieces, senior citizens doing morning exercises, pedestrians intercepted in the street .. the interviewer on camera was Jeremy Goldkorn, who always wore his yellow safety helmet.  Therefore, he is know as the "foreigner with the branded hat."

He has interviewed Wang Xiaofeng, who is one of the most famous bloggers/writers in China.  When that interview began, his opening statement was: "Today, we will not discuss culture.  Instead, we will talk about foul language."  Wang Xiaofeng was excited and he began with a discourse on "Stupid c*nt" and "F*cking balls" and then went on to discuss the ruffian culture of Beijing.  He eventually ended with an attack on Sina.com blogs which was described as a brothel.  It was interesting, to say the least.

When the cursing stopped, the two stared at each other for a couple of seconds and then roared in laughter.

Jeremy Goldkorn located the most trendy and controversial people.  He found Muzimei, but he was clearly "stunned" by her frank sexual talk.  In front of the dirty-talking Muzimei, he turned wooden.  Finally, with the encouragement of Muzimei, he asked sensationalistic questions such as: "How are men better in bed?" and so on.  After the interview, Muzimei happily took the yellow safety hat off his head and placed it upon her own head.

Concerning that interview, Jeremy Goldkorn said: "The Muzimei interview was the one with the highest number of hits on the Internet for Danwei.tv."

Jeremy Goldkorn has great instincts.  Several years ago, the South Luogu Lane of Beijing was to be reconstructed.  He got concerned about whether the characteristically plain South Luogu Lane would become another Sanlitun or Houhai?  At Danwei.tv, he used the words of the coffee house owner to express his own concerns.  "I love avant-garde design, but I don't want to get rid of tradition.  After the Olympics, I hope that the control should be tighter about the preservation certain Beijing histories."  He said that he has a love-and-hate relationship with respect to Beijing architecture.  Right now, Beijing is the center of world architecture. But when the plans get too grand, the details are ignored.  "This change is not just organic growth, but it is an explosive growth."

Wang Xiaofeng has rated him: "He is totally aware of what is happening at every nook and corner in China.  Compared to the foreign correspondents based in China, Jeremy Goldkorn should become their consultant."

But over the past couple of years, there has not been any new programs on Danwei.tv.  The reason for the unexpected demise is not because he did not want to do them, but because he is "too poor."

Jeremy Goldkorn has always been in economic hardship.  When he arrived in China, he took the USD 15,000 savings from his teaching job to purchase a camera in Hong Kong.  But he came across a pickpocket at the Shanghai Grand Theater and his hard-earned money vanished.  Afterwards, he had to borrow a DV camera from a friend in order to realize his dream of making his own documentary.

"These videos were the collaborative effort with Sophia and an American friend.  Sophia likes to make films and I like to produce for the Internet.  Afterwards, we had different directions of development.  I told them that they could use the yellow safety hat image if they want."  Bit behind this seemingly grand statement lies Jeremy Goldkorn's concern over production costs.  "I have to solve the problem of making a living first, and it is expensive to make a video."  The demise of Danwei.tv was a severe blow to Jeremy Goldkorn.  Because of that, it triggered serious doubts about his life as a Beijing drifter.

Jeremy Goldkorn took a deep drag on his Zhongnanhai cigarette.  Beijingers like this brand of cigarettes, and he has been smoking them for ten years.  6.50 yuan per pack.  The cigarette lighter that he carries with is the one yuan kind.  He does not pay too much to appearance.  His freely curling short hair and the tight t-shirt conveyed a feeling of being well-traveled.

I could not resist asking: "Have you felt a midlife crisis?"

He paused after hearing the question and said: "A feeling of crisis?  Sometimes.  There are times when I think that I have made a lot of small accomplishments, but I have never achieved anything big.  This feeling should ..."  He wanted to speak but stopped.  "I have several meaningful projects which I hope can offer some stability as well as creative satisfaction.  I have been trying to seek the balance, and I am still on the path."  Before coming to China, he had an unsatisfying professional experience.  When he was young, he learned gymnastics.  Between 6 to 16 years old, he trained at a very rigorous recreational club.  "Our coach loved Li Ning above all, and he liked the Chinese training model.  Of course, we did not have a sports/work team as in China and we must learn at school."

Later one, Jeremy Goldkorn found out that he was not very talented in gymnastics.  He sadly realized: "The level of gymnastics in South Africa is not much to speak of, and I was an athlete about whom there is not much to speak of in a country in which gymnastics is not too much to speak of."

In his eyes, gymnastics is more performance than competition.  "Wang Xiaofeng said that he had the desire to perform a pole dance before  people.  So do I."  This desire was the seed for his effort to work in media later on.

At Cape Town University, he majored in American/European literature.  He loved Nabakov and he also loved Milan Kundera.  He graduated and then spent one year in England.  In 1995, he came to China without knowing why.  Perhaps it was because he thought that it was interesting to come to a not-quite-open countty.  Then, just as he didn't know why he came to China, he chose to be in media.  His first job in China was teaching English.  Then he traveled to Tibet, Xinjiang and other places.  When he returned to Beijing, he worked at the entertainment/dining magazine <The Beijing Scene>.

Jeremy Goldkorn can be considered a veteran in civilian media.  He has worked in many different magazines in Beijing.  His job titles included Executive Chief Editor at <The Beijing Scene>, Creative Director at the Phoenix TV website, Chief Editor at <Music> magazine.

Once he achieved some fame in his circle, many events sought him out for help.  When the "Contemporary Chinese Art, Architecture and Visual Culture" Exposition in Holland wanted a chronological development of Chinese media, they asked him; when the "Social Linking Forum" at the University of Pennsylvania needed a presentation on Internet media in China, they invited him; when the president of South Africa attended the Sino-Africa Summit in Beijing, the media interview was assigned to him.

Unfortunately, these experiences look attractive on the surface. but the projects usually end with a whimper.  At present, with the exception of Danwei.org, his media experience can basically be described as a series of setbacks one after another.

He feels ashamed about his lack of accomplishments.  "At this age, I should be economically more stable," he said.  On this point, Jeremy Goldkorn is like many Chinese men of his age: after struggling for many years, they have not succeeded and they are not resigned.  Yes, it is just like the title of his favorite book: "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

He said that one reason why he has not accomplished anything great was that the people in his circle were "unconventional."  "The people whom I work with are artists, photographers, moviemakers, reporters ... these are the most unconventional people.  Of course, this is not just a Chinese problem.  The group is the same way in the West.  This is a problem about this circle."

At a new media conference in China, he opened with Wang Shuo's words: "I'm a rogue so I am afraid of nobody."  He describes himself as an "individual media."  He optimistically said: "This is the first time ever in the world that everyone has such an opportunity."  He can be an individual media for the public interest,  because an individual has no ties with the government structure.  Of course, he does not deny that this is a chance to make big bucks.

But he is reticent about making Danwei.org as a money-making tool.  Like his attitude towards Beijing architecture, Jeremy Goldkorn feels both "love and hate" towards Danwei.org at first.  "I did not want to make this a very commercialized website.  It should not carry any advertisements.  It should have a unique character, or else the flavor of the contents will change.  But the key is that I cannot make a living off it.  If I can make a living off it, I will concentrate on doing this."

Within China, there aren't any grassroots bloggers who can make a living off their blogs.  Wang Xiaofeng is a friend of Jeremy Goldkorn and his professional job is the principal writer for <Life Weekly> which pays him a sizeable monthly salary.  But Jeremy Goldkorn has to find work at all sorts of places and he changes jobs frequently.  It was a dead end to depend on the income from Danwei.org.

During this time, the Danwei.org website began to display some advertisements.  This 36-year-old foreigner who drifted to Beijing said with emphasis that he needs to make a living.  "There is always someone asking me about where my safety hat is.  I was getting annoyed.  So I waved my hand and said, 'Forget it!  Forget it!'"

So the safety hat is gone, but he finds sadly that he is still a member of the uncertain generation, including about his own future.  He disclosed that he is working with <Mrs. Bei's Kitchen> on the website for a women's magazine.  The pure concept of a personal media is broken into pieces in the face of reality.

He seldom goes out for entertainment.  Like many foreigners coming to China, there was a time when he liked to be in Sanlitun and Houhai.  But now he is tired of them.  His only unbreakable hobby is to climb the Great Wall: "Roaming around the Great Wall is like an addiction."

Today, he has turned himself into a workaholic.  He gets ups every day at 7am, drinks a cup of coffee and edits the articles for Danwei.  At 10:30am, he goes to work at the new office near Wangfujing and stays there until the afternoon -- the job is mostly about updating the contents of a website which he describes as "tiring."

In the evening, he takes his tired body back to the foreign compound near Jianguomen and he does some more work on Danwei.org until 1am.  He comforts himself: "Work is a hobby.  Half of one's life is for work."

When he is at the office, he obviously does not need a safety hat.  So that iconic symbol is slowly growing stale.  He has no choice about this outcome.  When he was young, he had the romantic vision of chopping wood, feeding horses and seeing the world.  Today, he sits in an office and wonders how he can turn his dream into reality.