Beijing vs. Singapore

When I lived in Singapore, I felt completely at home. But, after living in Beijing, coming back to the tropics felt a little foreign. This week, I contemplate the similarities and heart-tugging differences between the two places. Which one do I ultimately prefer? I think you know.

Read it here or on China Daily:

Temperatures have hit the searing 30s, construction sites drone, spewing dust into the air, and families descend on shopping malls for quality weekend time with free air-conditioning. It may sound like summer in Beijing, but it’s not.

This week I’m in Singapore, the tiny city-state on the tip of the Malay Peninsula rarely featured in international news.

Most Chinese have a vague geographical notion of Singapore, which takes up but one syllable in the tripartite of Southeast Asian country names that rolls off the tongue – “Have you been to Xinmatai?” – for “Singapore-Malaysia-Thailand”. Having lived here and in another Southeast Asian country (the Philippines), I know firsthand just how little Singapore registers in the Chinese mind. None of my Chinese friends or relatives ever bother to make the distinction between my two former domiciles. To them, the countries are roughly the same – just tropical island states where possibly English is spoken and maybe a lot of ethnic Chinese live, but they’re not too sure.

Aside from the seasonal heat and abundance of malls and real estate developments, there are, in fact, many similarities between Singapore and China, and even more between Singapore and Beijing.

For one, the populations and cultures in both places are predominantly Chinese. Nearly three quarters of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese. The rest are Malay, Indian, various other Asians and some Caucasians. A stroll down Orchard Road – a more commercial equivalent of Chang’an Avenue – feels like a walk through a southern Chinese city, down to the staccato dialect spoken and the pitter patter of slippered feet.

The crowds are another thing about Singapore that make me feel like I’m still in China. Although, at barely 5 million people, the population here is less than a quarter of Beijing’s, Singapore has one of the highest population densities in the world. Standing elbow-to-elbow at busy intersections certainly reminds me of Guomao at rush hour.

Not only are there a lot of people here, but also there are a lot of foreigners, as is the case in Beijing. Expatriates make up more than 40 percent of the residents in Singapore – that’s the sixth highest ratio in the world. So, judging by the diversity of faces around me and the bizarre array of accents and languages – British, American, French, Portuguese, and more exotic varieties – I could well be making my way about Sanlitun or Gulou.

Perhaps even more so than the northern Chinese residing in Beijing, Singaporeans live to eat. The rich cultural amalgam in this country – plus high disposable incomes and a scarcity of other diversions – has created an unrivaled culinary landscape. Singaporeans are known for planning their days around their meals and for fiercely sticking to personal lists of favorite holes in the wall. They go to great lengths to visit those spots for foodstuffs as specific as “secret recipe fish ball”.

As much as being here resembles being in Beijing, there are enough things missing from Singapore that make me long to be back in my home city. Call me crazy, but I miss the chaos.

After a week in orderly Singapore, where everything is clean, functional and clear (imagine government offices staffed with phone operators who tell you precisely what you need to bring to apply for such-and-such documents), and the people are pleasantly placid, I’m starting to suffer from a constant malaise.

Today, I put my finger on it as “boredom.”

While people do busily go about their affairs in Singapore and the government is perpetually pushing for new ways to stimulate economic growth, I sense that most people are pretty content with having “made it” already. Between the eating, shopping, and frequent travel to nearby beach destinations where the Singaporean dollar brings more, people are mostly reaping the benefits of development.

In Beijing, in contrast, I feel the energy of unceasing striving going on around me. In the hurried steps of fellow pedestrians, the impatient voices of neighbors, and the intent expressions on everyone’s faces, I can sense people’s daily dreams, hopes and struggles.

More than once this week, I’ve looked around the palm-lined lanes of Singapore and wondered: Where are the random outbursts of excitement and anger? The million little deals and live negotiations on street corners? People trying to make a better living? Bewildered tourists exclaiming their surprise at the madness of the city?

I miss witnessing public lovers’ spats, saying “thank you” to hopeful young migrants who help make life comfortable, and meeting new expatriate friends who are enthralled with Beijing’s possibilities. I’m even yearning for the wild swerving traffic of the Ring Roads. Beijingers may be driving hazardously, but it’s because they’re really trying to get somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed my time in Singapore immensely. The daily diet of freshly squeezed juices and ethnic cuisine, afternoons by the pool, and the Great Singapore Sale (read: the whole country goes on sale for two months every summer), have been fun. But I’m itching to get back to dirty, gritty, alive Beijing.


Getting poked, smoked, and soaked

Reviewing The Meridian traditional Chinese medicine “spa” (I think of it as a “splinic” – cross between spa and alternative medicine clinic) was one of my favorite assignments. I spent 4 hours one June day “researching” the story, which involved some interviewing, but mostly falling asleep on a massage table while a crimson-robed man waved aromatic herbal incense around me. It was great!

Read it here or on China Daily:

From its indoor koi pond to traditional wood-paneled doors, The Meridian’s classic Chinese dcor and serene ambience resembles a high-end spa, in the vein of Oriental Taipan. But this is no simple spa. The Meridian, located in the posh Lido neighborhood, is the first Beijing leisure facility to combine traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice with luxurious spa-like services.

Named after one of the central concepts in TCM – the system of intricate pathways running along the body through which qi flows – The Meridian claims to be the capital’s “first national level authentic meridian conditional organization”.

What that mouthful means is that this “spa” has forged partnerships with the country’s most prestigious TCM institutions – the China Academy of Chinese Medical Science, Beijing Association of Chinese Medicine, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine and Guanganmen Chinese Medicine Hospital – to bring their expertise to its customers.

Visitors at The Meridian will be impressed by the lofty glass structure and portraits of doctors displayed on the walls. VIP customers (who prepay 50,000 yuan for services) have access to these professionals, including the head of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Science or a former expert with the Ministry of Health, among others.

The resumes of doctors who see walk-in clients at The Meridian are only slightly less impressive: a professor at the Beijing International Acupuncture Training Institute and a Tsinghua University Hospital doctor, to name two.

Well-dressed and well-mannered assistants greet customers and usher them into an airy reception area where glass jars filled with “secret recipe” cough drops and cups of specially brewed tea (in the summer The Meridian often serves lily lotus tea for a “cooling” effect) sit on a coffee table.

The assistants discuss patients’ general health conditions, fill out medical questionnaires, and recommend the right doctor. The Meridian prides itself in not administering any treatments without a doctor’s diagnosis.

One attending doctor, Dr Ji, is a sextagenarian who has the quiet thin appearance of a classical scholar. He diagnoses patients through a combination of traditional methods, such as taking pulse, assessing outward appearance, and detecting unusual smells.

These subtle methods are hardly considered science in the West, but they form the basis of TCM examinations. After hearing the patient’s ailments – which can be as severe as diabetes or as mild as fatigue – Dr Ji prescribes treatment from the seven main categories of services offered at The Meridian.

The menu of services at The Meridian is similar to what one will find at most TCM hospitals or wellness spas: tuina massage, cupping, scraping, spinal massage (including bone setting), herbal bath, moxibustion and the house signature treatment, “clearing the meridian”.

“Clearing the meridian” applies TCM principles through modern technology. A therapist places electrode pads on his feet and on the patient’s feet. Then, using his body to conduct mild electric currents, he presses specific acupoints (following the doctor’s instructions) along the patient’s meridians to alleviate symptoms and eradicate the roots of illness. The numbing sensation the patient experiences through the therapist’s fingers is strange, but comforting, to the point of inducing slumber.

Those who are wary of TCM need not fret. Initial visits and doctor consultations at The Meridian are painless – and free of charge. Once a patient decides to follow the doctor’s course of treatment (usually administered in an intensive 10-day sequence), an assistant discusses pricing options.

Prices for individual treatments range from about 200 to 500 yuan a session. Alternatively, visitors can become members of The Meridian by paying between 5,000 yuan and 50,000 yuan for various levels of service.

Members get a 10 percent discount on a la carte prices. The most exclusive customers receive additional perks, such as weekend lectures with TCM experts at The Meridian.

Whether it’s to cure a pressing ailment or to satisfy a long-held curiosity about TCM, The Meridian is among the city’s most relaxing and comfortable environment to dabble in Chinese medicine.

What is it?

The name game

Addressing someone properly in China isn’t as simple as shouting, “Hey, Joe!” What should you be calling people? I’ve been wondering the same myself… Read my take here or on China Daily:

I come from a big clan that likes to apply the term “family” very generously. For many Beijingers and other Chinese urban dwellers, a family dinner means sitting down with mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, perhaps an uncle or two, and maybe some in-laws. But back home in the northeastern countryside, getting the family together meant I would be greeting relatives as tenuously tied to me as my grandmother’s cousin’s grandchildren or my mother’s brother’s brother-in-law.

As you can guess, one problem with a large jolly family is that it requires one to learn how to address all the random relations. In a Confucian society, filial piety and respect for the proper order of things are of supreme importance, so it’s not as simple as calling a man “uncle,” a woman “aunt,” and everyone else directly by their name.

To cope with the problem of what to call my many relatives, I devised simple rules as a child. At the frequent family reunions on my mother’s side, any male over 1.8 meters tall with hardy features was likely related to me by blood, so I would call him jiu (maternal uncle). Any female meeting a lower, but still relatively high, height requirement would be a yi (maternal aunt). Males and females not bearing strong physical resemblance to us were probably related to me by marriage, so I would call them yi fu (husband of maternal aunt) and jiu ma (wife of maternal uncle), to be safe.

These rules weren’t fail-proof, but they got me through most of the merrily confusing gatherings of my childhood.

Things got more complicated as I got older and started dealing with people who weren’t related to me at all. A young Chinese adolescent has to know the proper terms of address for strangers of different ages. Fortunately, children and teens can mostly get away with using generic pseudo-familial titles, such as “old grandpa” (lao yeye) for old men and “aunt” (a yi) for middle-aged women.

It’s when you cross into adulthood that things get really messy. To spend a day in China as a grown-up is to negotiate a hundred small transactions, from buying clothes at a market to hailing “black cabs.” In these commercial situations, calling someone “uncle” is a tad too cozy and can appear horribly “country bumpkin-ish.”

I’ve often wished that I came of age earlier in China’s modern history. In the 1980’s, when people were still loosely held together by an ideological camaraderie, one term fit all – “comrade.” By the 1990’s, things had changed, but were still relatively easy. Out went the “comrade” (for more connotations than one) and in came the Western style “Mister” and “Miss” forms of address. xian sheng and xiao jie became the new universal titles.

But, by the time I was entering adulthood, things had taken a more complex turn. Somewhere along the way, as my countrymen plunged into private enterprise with zeal and my countrywomen entered industries to entertain the new flock of businessmen, “miss” became hugely inappropriate. Once xiao jie became a euphemism for “call girl,” I could hardly use it (and its male linguistic counterpart, xian sheng) in everyday life.

So, what have I had to work with as an adult? I’ve learned that in many formal settings, it’s still wise to default to calling someone by their professional designation. It’s always respectful to address an educator as “Teacher Wang” and a bureaucrat as “Department Chief Li.” And, for the most part, it’s flattering to call a businessman zong, short for zong cai, or CEO. The exception with the latter is that as the Chinese practiced their ability to out-flatter each other, we now occasionally find ourselves in the ludicrous situation of addressing a lowly company driver as “Chief Executive Guo.”

While I’ve been struggling with finding the right appellations, my compatriots have struggled as well, especially those working in service industries. Salespeople seem to have it hardest, for they are perpetually performing an awkward dance around their biggest customers, the young women. For this clientele, a yi would be age-inappropriate, “madame” too formal, and xiao jie implying that she is of ill repute.

I notice some of the humbler vendors, such as street peddlers and drivers, still using familial titles, calling young female customers “little sister”, or xiao mei. Logically, older male customers are then da ge (“older brother”). But, depending on where you live in China, these titles can be problematic, for in folk and nostalgic culture, “little sister” and “big brother” are coy names used between courting couples.

A salesperson also has to master the delicate balance between flattery and respect. There have been times when I have gone shopping with my mother and both of us are dismayed to hear a saleslady eagerly calling her “big sister” while referring to me as “little sister.” Mixing generations is a major Confucian taboo.

Since I’ve come back to live in Beijing last year, I’ve noticed that more and more strangers are using the “in” lingo of shuai ge and mei nu (the colloquial equivalents of “hot stud” and “pretty chick”). I’m not so comfortable yet with homely aunties and uncles referring to me as “chick” while selling me bottled water, but perhaps I need not worry. Before I get used to this moniker, the name game will surely change again. I might as well just resign to the fact that I will perpetually play catch up when it comes to knowing what to call people.

The X-files: my adventures with Chinese bureaucracy

This week, I document my journey to unravel the mystery of my missing “file” — or “dang an.” Read it here or on China Daily:

Every adult who attended high school in China has a secret file called a dang an. The file is “secret” because access to it is closely guarded. Yet, the dang an is also not a secret at all.

It’s common knowledge the file is established when you enter high school. From there, it follows you from school to school, job to job, documenting your successes and failures in banal precision (test scores) and subjective detail (employer evaluations). Although the paper dossier looks flimsily unimportant (if you were ever privileged enough to see yours), it carries as much weight in China’s administrative system as the hukou (residency permit). Prospective bosses, teachers and even spouses want to know that your file is in tip-top shape.

Last year, The New York Times profiled the drastic turns of fate that can result from files gone wrong. One interview subject lost his chances at coveted State firm jobs and went to work as a laborer, for $10 a day. So, it was with some alarm that I discovered this year that I don’t have a file, and that I might need one to get things done here. I’m a bit of an administrative anomaly: I never attended high school or worked in China, but I’ve hung onto my Chinese passport for years while living abroad, out of a sentimental nationalism.

As far as the government and national enterprises are concerned, I’m just a regular Jane with a Chinese ID. Everything they need to know about me should be written in my file. What happens when they discover I don’t have one?

The first time someone asked about my file was during a job interview. Things were going well until the conversation moved to hiring logistics. Instead of asking for the standard references and background checks, as per American corporate custom, my Chinese interviewer casually said, “We’ll just diao your dang an” (“pull up your file”).
I hesitantly replied, “I don’t think I have a file.” From there, the prospect of my getting hired this decade dissipated into the over-conditioned air.

Homegrown enterprises, especially State firms, have grown used to hiring expatriates who flash their foreign passports and locals who can prove their trustworthiness with their files. But they have no procedure for assessing a Chinese citizen without a dang an. In that nebulous area between foreign and local, I simply don’t exist. At least, not in a standard paperwork kind of way.

I left the interview feeling a little indignant and very overwhelmed by the prospect of navigating administrative hurdles ahead. Instead of figuring out how to establish a file for myself at this ripe age, I simply buried my head in the sand for a while.

Then, the dang an question came up again two weeks ago. A certain foreign embassy wanted to see a statement from the Chinese police, proving I’ve never engaged in criminal activity here. Since I never have committed a crime, I figured it would be easy.

Alas, nothing is ever so easy. I called my neighborhood police station and was told to find where my file is domiciled (with an employer, a school, or elsewhere), ask that agency issue a letter, and bring it back to the police for the official statement. That’s when I realized that I should bite the bullet and sort out this dang an business once and for all. But how?

I first went to the source of all wisdom – my mother. She also recently moved back to China and had to do some creative maneuvering to be able to work again. I listened half frightened, half awestruck as she recounted her debacles from finding where her file was domiciled (after 18 years away) to standing in a dark basement-level crypt, fingering the dangerously thin pages of her dang an. “There was stuff in there I didn’t even remember about myself,” she said for emphasis.

Interesting story, but it didn’t tell me how to establish a new file and get that police statement. For once, Mom didn’t have the answers to all my questions in life.

Next, I tried working backward, heading to the Public Notary’s office, which would eventually need to translate and certify the police statement once I had it. Standing outside the bland government building marked with imposing gold lettering, I dreaded entering. Memories of disgruntled clerks pounding official seals on paper came back to me from my childhood.

But the office was surprisingly orderly. All I had to do was take a queue number and wait for a public notary to be available. When, at last, I waded through the crowd to present myself, like a guilty school child, to the notary on duty, I was braced to hear a laundry list of confusing instructions for rectifying my file-less status.
The notary, after listening to my timid retelling of the file quagmire, dismissed me with a flourish: “You don’t need that file for a police statement. Go to the police station and ask them to look in your other file.”

Wait? There’s another file? Why didn’t the police say so in the first place?

Disbelieving, I followed the notary’s instructions and went to the police station where my hukou is registered. From there, the police kicked around to a few more public offices. Two weeks later, I was walking out of the notary’s office with stamped, sealed and legitimate police statements in hand.

In the end, I didn’t need to establish a dang an to get what I needed. The grand tally from my adventures with bureaucracy was just three trips to the Public Notary’s office, two trips to the Haidian police station, one trip to a Chaoyang police station, and a lot of time logged on the cross-town subway.
I haven’t quite figured out my luck and the differences between the files I was asked for in the process, but for the time being, I remain happily (perhaps precariously) dang an-less.

Fun people in Beijing

I wrote a story about Mo Li – fashionista, DJ, businessman, entertainer, all around fun guy in Beijing. He may sound like a party guy, but he has a pretty incredible story that reflects the times and places he has lived through in China and in the US.

Read it here or on China Daily:

From his hometown in Shenyang to Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Illinois, Nevada and Ningbo, Li Mo came to Beijing via the long route. Along the way, Li – who prefers going by “Mo” – dabbled in many trades, working his way up from humble bus boy at an American chain restaurant to bartender in Las Vegas, to general manager at a fusion lounge bar. In between these food and beverage (F&B) industry stints, Li also recast himself several times – as an army man, a real estate agent, and most recently, an event organizer, party promoter, and DJ.

This year, Li is trying something new again, but this time it’s going to be different.

“This is a big year. I’m doing what I love,”he said.

That love is for a creative melange of fashion, music and entertainment. It took Li many years, trials and errors, and getting into “a lot of trouble” before he found his way here to make his dreams come true.

The child of a dancer mother from a high-ranking Kuomintang family and a military father from an equally staunch Communist family, Li was born into a home rife with creativity and conflict. A difficult childhood led down diverse paths before Beijing.

“My parents split when I was 18 months old and I grew up with my maternal grandparents,” he said.
When he was 14, Li followed his mother and uncle, both graduates of Liaoning Opera House who count popular 90s singer Mao Ning as a “shi di” (fellow student), to America, where they worked in a family-owned restaurant.

“At first, we went to Kansas. It was horrible. I was the only Asian kid in my school. I have a bit of a temper so I ended up going to three different high schools.”After passing the GED -an American high school level equivalency test – at 17, Li left home to try to make it on his own.

For 10 years, he bounced between jobs, trying to find something that would engage him. “I did so many things because my mom thought I ‘should’ be doing it.”

Then, in 2008, China came calling. A friend Li had met in Las Vegas offered him a job with a tools supplier for Home Depot, the American home decoration retail giant. The job brought him to Ningbo. Of this fortuitous job, Li says, “I spent every day at KTV drinking with government people, shipping companies, and factory owners. After two months, I couldn’t take it any more.” So, he called up his friend, packed up his bags and left his hotel for Beijing.

Once in Beijing, he started pursuing his passions, working as an event organizer, party promoter and DJ.
“Everybody knew me as a party guy.” Living the party life was good, but Li is realistic about making things work in the long term. “I could be a DJ, dancer, entertainer- would love to do that for a living. But I still have to pay the bills. The F&B business is something I know how to do.”

On May 21, Li and his partners launched The Beach, an upscale bar lounge on the rooftop of entertainment venue Block 8 in Chaoyang district. With their newly formed F&B company – Sigma – they hope to open several entertainment spots in Beijing and be part of the party scene for a long time.
This time, it looks like Li the wanderer is ready to settle down. “I’m here to stay. I feel comfortable.”

Q: After so many years away, is this your grand homecoming?
A: In the last two years, I’ve seen so many people come and go. Not many become successful here. They get destroyed because they can’t adapt to what’s happening in China. That’s the beauty of it for me, because it doesn’t mean everybody can make it.

Q: Where do you take your very varied career from here?
A: I’m at a different stage in my life now. I want to build something solid and use my different talents and experiences. I want to turn all the things I know how to do into one thing. I want to combine fashion, art, music, entertainment and put it all together.

Q: What makes you tick?
A: I love it when I tell people I want to do something and they laugh in my face.
I started DJ-ing just six months ago. When I first told people I wanted to be a DJ, they laughed. But I love to be on stage, it’s like I have a remote control in my hand. I give people how I want them to feel, when I want them to feel it. I’m definitely an adrenaline junkie – a lot of it comes from right here (points to his heart).

A new favorite spot

True to its name: Banana + Fish in sushi

Thanks to the diligent gourmet sleuthing of a three-letter-acronym’ed friend, I have found a new favorite spot to eat, drink, be merry, and work in Beijing. BananaFish is my latest obsession and I’ve already been there 3 times in the last 7 days.

5 reasons to check out BananaFish:

1. Creative, simple, fresh food. Chef Richard Chen serves up Pan-Asian salads, grilled meats, and Californian-style sushi.
2. Wallet-friendly. In its opening month, BF gave diners 50% discounts, followed by 20% last month, and this month, if you go there with a copy of my China Daily review (coming out soon) you get 15% off. I’m flattered the owners think so highly of my readership…
3. Pleasant environs. Crisp, clean, modern interiors. None of the gaudiness of a Chinese joint, nor the grubbiness of your typical Sanlitun Village hangout.
4. Fantastic location. For day or night, you’re right in the middle of Sanlitun shopping and clubbing.
5. A place to bring your laptop. Free Wifi and the promise of “afternoon tea” specials this month to draw in the creative / nomadic / self-employed crowd. When I checked it out this afternoon I was told the restaurant doesn’t open until 5pm for dinner…worth checking back again in June to see if the half-priced desserts have been rolled out.

Tongli Studio 3F
Tel: 6415-7166

Beggar vs. musician

I’ve had plenty of subway commuting time lately to reflect on the different treatments beggars and “beggar musicians” receive from strangers. Why does the average Beijinger so disdain one and admire the other? Read my take here or on China Daily:

Last week, Chinese and American bureaucracy conspired to force me into making several trips to Haidian district, where my family’s hukou is still based. As far as the government is concerned, I’m still a resident of Beijing’s scrappy west side, and not its chic eastern half. So, whenever I need anything “official” done, I set off on a 20-kilometer trek across town.

The journey by subway or taxi is impossibly tedious, takes well over an hour, and leaves me intoxicated with car fumes or other people’s body odor. But this time, I noticed something else.

Now that the weather is welcomingly warm, the beggars, and the “beggar-musicians,” have returned to their posts.
In the dead of winter, there were no pitiful faces haunting the side windows of taxis. By early spring, a few brave souls started staking out major intersections and pacing the length of subway cars. This month, it’s back to business as legions of mendicants and musicians roam Beijing, relieving me of yuan after yuan.

I’m a former student of economics, so I understand incentives and know the rational arguments against giving money to those who beg. But I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for a sad sight.
There are three types in particular that I can’t seem to say “no” to: 1) elderly women with brown lined faces, 2) anyone with a moderate disability, and 3) long-haired hoarse-voiced musicians with guitars strapped to their thin torsos.

These types tug at my heartstrings for simple reasons:

1) they remind me of my grandmother;
2) I want to help people with disabilities who face an unlevel playing field in China, but severe degrees of maiming just frighten me into looking away;
3) tortured singer-guitarists bring back memories of the intoxicating mix of hope and angst that I heard in 1980s Cui Jian rock.

On my journeys between Chaoyang and Haidian, I saw plenty of these three types. As I tucked bill after bill into gnarled hands or messenger bags, I began to notice what others around me were doing. With great surprise, I realized that no matter how ragged, old, frail, and country-ish successive beggars looked, few commuters bothered to even glance their way. (I could almost hear the disdainful snorts of my neighbors each time I opened my wallet).

Yet, as soon as young musicians strolled through strumming their chords, people perked up, put away mobile phones and MP3 players, and whipped out generous donations (5 and 10 yuan bills aren’t insignificant in this context).

What’s behind the discrepancy? Why are people selectively compassionate, willingly ignoring the poor while eagerly supporting grassroots artists?

Most local Chinese are likely to say that they turn a blind eye to beggars because “It’s all a scam.” Jaded isn’t apt enough of an adjective to describe these sentiments.

“They’re professionals!”
“The older the granny and the younger the kid, the more they cheat you.”
“They make more money than I do!”

The indignation is understandable. Ordinary Chinese perceive this country to be a land of opportunity where, in 30 years, people who seized new opportunities pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve enormous success. So, why give freebies to those who didn’t manage to better themselves and instead resort to begging?

While this attitude is understandable, it is not excusable. The average middle class city-dweller overestimates how much their diligence is responsible for their current comforts and underestimates the role of luck. In our rapidly changing economy, the upside, if you happen to be in a place to catch it, is huge, but so is the downside. The worst off, those who continue to fall through the cracks of market reform, are unfathomably destitute.

Saying that beggars are “professionals” doesn’t change the reality that theirs is a pathetic choice set. If other attainable ways of making a living were available, who would prefer roaming the streets bowing down for money as their choicest employment? If you’re opposed to monetarily rewarding those who “choose” this life, then give food or water, not a contemptuous look.

What about the “beggar-musicians”? What explains the enthusiasm my fellow commuters show for the cause of struggling artists?

I suppose the flip side to jadedness toward beggars is affinity for free-spirited musicians. The glamour and romance embodied in a passionately irresponsible, stylishly disheveled rocker with a “devil may care” attitude is irresistible. On some level, all the subway commuters and cross-town drivers toiling away at their day jobs must aspire to the reckless abandon with which these young men pursue their creative interests.
While an older generation looked upon these “beggar-musicians” as decrepit good-for-nothings, the younger set bestows its admiration. I hear people reflect, “They’re doing something to deserve the money and not just begging” and “I give them money because they play good music.”

But, truly, is a city boy dressed in deliberately frayed clothing playing his guitar working harder than the country beggar who never had the luxury of music lessons? And what about the city’s many blind beggars who play er hu or sing into microphones with speakers strapped to their chests? They’re also “doing something” to work for their money, but people don’t respond with 10-yuan bills.

Ultimately, I think these inconsistent feelings toward beggars and street musicians are mixed up in the modern Chinese amnesia. After pulling through decades – indeed centuries or millennia, if you want to include dynastic strife – of suffering, we simply want to forget pain and unhappiness. Those who have modestly “made it” want to look to the future, to hope, to happiness, and to all things pleasurable. And while they’re making their way to the future on their daily commute, they want to hear the aspiring song of a young artist, not the tragic tunes of people who have already been left behind.