Friday, November 28, 2008

The Camphor Suitcase

My personal essay, "The Camphor Suitcase," which tells the story of what made me quit my high-tech job and start writing in English, now appears in Literal Latté. The reputed New York based magazine has a cool new look.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Engage with Grace Project" for Thanksgiving

(I'm interrupting my holiday break to post a message from my friend Jessica Lipnack. See also Boston Globe's front page coverage today.)

Hello, blogger-friends,

I'm participating in a touching project and I hope you'll consider being part of it too. Beginning on Wed, Nov 26 and continuing through Sun, Nov 30, a group of bloggers, including me, are turning over their sites to Engage with Grace: The One Slide Project.

It's an astonishingly simple idea. Alexandra ("Alex") Drane, whose sister-in-law almost died in the hospital (had her family been less attentive - and at age 32 of glioblastoma seven months post diagnosis - grab your tissues and see the backstory) has set in motion a talking/blogging/thinking campaign to get us to deeply consider how we want to die.

Alex's one slide has five conversation-starter questions about dying, really simple stuff like: given the choice, do you want to die at home or in the hospital; do you want medical intervention or not...etc (see below) - and then she did the networking thing. Now bloggers have agreed to post her message about the campaign as a Thanksgiving project. We're all posting the same message - with a lead-in of our own choosing on Nov 26 - and leaving it up throughout the holiday weekend (yay! an enforced break from blogging - my family will be so happy).

There's also a great short video (as in a minute) with Alex explaining how she used the very best of networking principles to keep this really really simple.

If you decide to participate, please post some kind of intro and then the note below from Alex. People on Facebook are also donating their status as of Wed to draw attention to the project.

Thanks so much...I also blogged this (similar to this note) in prep for Wed...Love, jessica


We make choices throughout our lives - where we want to live, what types of activities will fill our days, with whom we spend our time. These choices are often a balance between our desires and our means, but at the end of the day, they are decisions made with intent. But when it comes to how we want to be treated at the end our lives, often we don't express our intent or tell our loved ones about it.

This has real consequences. 73% of Americans would prefer to die at home, but up to 50% die in hospital. More than 80% of Californians say their loved ones "know exactly" or have a "good idea" of what their wishes would be if they were in a persistent coma, but only 50% say they've talked to them about their preferences.

But our end of life experiences are about a lot more than statistics. They're about all of us. So the first thing we need to do is start talking. Engage With Grace: The One Slide Project <> was designed with one simple goal: to help get the conversation about end of life experience started.

The idea is simple: Create a tool to help get people talking. One Slide, with just five questions on it. Five questions designed to help get us talking with each other, with our loved ones, about our preferences. And we're asking people to share this One Slide - wherever and whenever they can--at a presentation, at dinner, at their book club. Just One Slide, just five questions.

Let's start a global discussion that, until now, most of us haven't had.

Here is what we are asking you: Download The One Slide <> and share it at any opportunity -- with colleagues, family, friends. Think of the slide as currency and donate just two minutes whenever you can. Commit to being able to answer these five questions about the end of life experience for yourself and for your loved ones. Then commit to helping others do the same. Get this conversation started.

Let's start a viral movement driven by the change we as individuals can effect...and the incredibly positive impact we could have collectively. Help ensure that all of us - and the people we care for - can end our lives in the same purposeful way we live them.

Just One Slide, just one goal. Think of the enormous difference we can make together.

To learn more please go to

--This post was written by Alexandra Drane and the Engage With Grace team

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving break

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Despite the economic downturn, we can still find comfort with our families. I'm taking a break this week and will return after the holiday. Stay tuned.

For your enjoyment, here is a picture of my favorite hometown flower of the season: winter plum blossom, taken by my sister in January. I can almost smell its fragrance from Chongqing.

(© Copyright 2008 Maple Xu)

Saturday, November 22, 2008


A Forbes article by Chris O'Brien quotes my opinion on China's "human flesh search" and internet regulation.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hillary, Please Say NO

(image from

It has surprised me how many Republicans have come out to sing the praises of Hillary Clinton and hailed her as a great choice for the new Secretary of State. I always thought she was unpopular in the Republican camp. But even Arnold Schwarzenegger who did not think Obama had the quads to be President, sees this as a good move, apparently seeing Clinton as a heavy lifter.

On reflection, I guess it makes some sense. Going back to the love fest primary debates, where Obama and Clinton seemed to agree on most everything, it was foreign policy outside of Iraq that stood out. On those issues Clinton had pressed the same arguments that McCain later followed with.

During the primary debates, Obama said he would meet with "rogue state leaders." He said the notion that not talking to countries is punishment to them "which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration – is ridiculous." While Hillary Clinton said she would not meet directly with those leaders.

And she opposes lifting the ridiculous embargo on Cuba.

Hillary Clinton does have a great deal of experience and understanding and would certainly be formidable negotiator. She is tough, but tough to a point where she already knows where she stands. More to the point, others outside the US also know where she stands. She is part of the old guard on foreign affairs with both an image, and apparently an imagination, clearly defined by what has come before. It seems she is still a member of the cold war generation.

Hillary Clinton is tremendously popular among my Chinese friends in the US, but not because of her foreign outlook. Instead it is her thoughts on domestic issues, especially health care and social justice.

In April this year, Clinton called for Bush not to attend the Beijing Olympics. Perhaps she was simply taking an opportunistic position trying to cater to the then anti-China sentiment, in order to rescue her failing primary, but it backfired. Her speech met with strong objections from many Chinese Americans who had been her supporters.

I applaud Obama's swell heart and wise actions to "ally the majority, including even those who were against you before" (as Chairman Mao once taught us :-)). And I think that Clinton could make a very important contribution to the US, but a contribution from within. It is unfortunate that the highest profile cabinet positions really have nothing to do with the common person in the US. Why should we care about money, wars and foreigners much more than we care about health, education and the common good? It is those latter places that are far more important in the long run, and where Clinton could serve so well.

So Hillary, should you chance to read this, please say NO to being Secretary of State. You can serve America much more effectively looking inward than facing out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Lowly, Majestic, King Hui and the Real Hong Kong

King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong
Jonathan Chamberlain with a foreword by Sir David Tang
Blacksmith Books, 348 pages, HK$140 / US$17.95

A Review by Xujun Eberlein

It is said that oral history did not become an academic discipline until 1948, when Alan Nevins established the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University. Yet for thousands of years it has been the standard venue for common Chinese people to learn about the past, especially in the olden days when literacy was an unattainable luxury for most, or in the abnormal modern times when books were burned and libraries sealed.

When oral history is recorded in books, it is considered part of the nonfiction genre of literature, yet it is almost as all-encompassing as fiction in presentation and effects. In recent years, we have heard several big quarrels over the truthfulness of memoirs, but books of oral history are seldom the center of such disputes, even though they cover similar ground. One reason for this, I guess, is that the readers realize and embrace both the indispensable benefits and certain unreliability inherent in word of mouth. It probably doesn't hurt that the author of the book is usually not the oral storyteller, which serves as a natural reality check.

From time to time, I have the pleasure of meeting a person who can recount an episode of his or her life that is so captivating, I cease to care whether or not I believe the storyteller. I even know a few people who are full of such stories. I have never, however, had the delight of meeting someone with the breadth of stories told in King Hui: The Man who Owned all the Opium in Hong Kong by Jonathan Chamberlain.

These are the stories, presented as a first person narrative, of Peter (Shen-Kei) Hui, an uncommon, though largely unknown, man with an astounding range of experience. Told shortly before his death at the age 79 in 1993, the stories reflect not only the man, but also the times he lived through. The earliest are from his childhood during the First World War, the latest from the years leading up to Hong Kong’s handover to China. For all his breadth of experience, Peter Hui traveled little and his stories are concentrated in Hong Kong, Macau and Canton (Guangdong). They show the evolution of Hong Kong and the impact of China, Britian and WW II Japan on the city.

The stories told are full of colorful details that, for a historian or anthropologist, they provide a wealth of hooks for cross-referencing against other materials. For the less academically oriented reader, those of us reading for pleasure, these details serve to bring history to life.

As I read how a downing man always gets three chances, a dead grandmother's month closes only after a silver coin is dropped in, a legendary herbalist uses bamboo saps to cure a stroke patient, and how, during the Sino-Japanese war, the children trained by the Chinese army go into Japanese camps in the middle of the night and, by touch, kill anyone with pants on, for the children themselves are not wearing them, I can't help but be fascinated.

In fact, fascination is a good word to describe the book's narrative. The details become more intriguing as they portray a complex personality. The first-person narrator, Peter Hui, presents a conflict between his honest, moral uprightness and his willingness to do many things that suggest otherwise. Well educated, he appears to have strong, if confused, feelings of obligation and responsibility. Though trained when young and possessing outstanding kung fu skills, he doesn't fight often. But every time he fights, he is taking up the cudgels for a just cause. Yet this is the man who decides to work for the Japanese during the war, heads a gang of robbers in peace time, and works for money as a CIA spy during China's Cultural Revolution.

With his wife and children living in Canton and himself in Hong Kong, his change from a Mao lover to Mao heater is especially curious. Reading this part brought me back to the familiar craziness of the time in the mainland, and I'm just glad that Hong Kong was fortunate to be spared from being ruined from the monopoly on ideology.

An intriguing character is hardly the only thing the book offers. It is full of events and activities that shaped Hong Kong and would make a wonderful companion to a more standard history. For readers who are interested in China and its relationship with the outside world during and after the World War II, many of the stories touch this, though from the local perspective of southern Guangdong. If you are an anthropologist, or simply a student of human nature, this book provides insights into the working of the Asian mind.

One also gets a good glimpse of the triads. Before reading the book I wasn't aware that those crime organizations had migrated from the mainland before the Communist victory, less still how they had evolved and how British policing might have influenced it. Another thing the book made me recognize was the intricacies of British rules in a Chinese population. I had heard about corruption and moral lapses of course, but was still charmed by the dispassionate description Peter Hui provided of working with the Hong Kong police.

To me, the book effectively puts a personality, a live face, on Hong Kong. Admittedly, growing up in mainland China at a most isolated time, I knew little about Hong Kong's cultural history. The first time I set foot there was in summer of 1988, on the way out as I was immigrating to the US. I stayed for a few days, and visited tourist attractions in the company of a college classmate who had moved to Hong Kong earlier. My impression of Hong Kong then was nothing beyond a commercial world of red lanterns and green wine. Years later, after my graduation from MIT, I had exchanges with academics in the area and was very impressed by the depth of their professional achievement, so much so I even tried to apply for an academic job in the newly established HK University of Science and Technology.

During the recent two decades, Hong Kong's movies, music and literature have gained a huge fan population in the mainland. My younger sister, who lives in Haikou, once asked me to help her collect a complete set of books by female writer Yi Shu. That turned out to be not quite a trivial task as Yi Shu was very prolific. It took my college classmate several full days running around between many local bookstores in Hong Kong to collect the 30-odd books. When the news of singer Zhang Guorong's suicide broke, fans in the mainland (including my sister) cried uncontrollably. The Phoenix TV, though regarded as a leftist channel in Hong Kong, became very popular in the mainland, because its news reporting and commentary style were much freer than the mainland choices. Once, in the late 1990s, when I was visiting my alma mater in Chongqing, my old high school teacher complained about the government's temporary blockage of Phoenix TV, saying being unable to watch it was a big inconvenience in his family's routine.

Still, despite the cultural permeation, we knew very little about the real Hong Kong. My generation of Chinese were never taught much about the famed "fragrant harbor," especially its 155 years of history between 1842 and 1997 as a British territory. When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, there was a big celebration in Beijing and people gathered in Tiananmen Square as if for a happy holiday. That enthusiasm, I suspect, was more due to the Chinese nationalism than their intimate feelings for the island. For all the years before that, Hong Kong was like a veiled beauty standing in the distance, we could only glance at her lithe profile but were unable to look into her eyes or feel her pulse. This book serves to shorten the distance and unveil her true face, to let me see that she is neither Chinese nor foreign yet both, possessing not only beauty but also scars, experiences, and depth. It makes me more appreciative of Hong Kong's unique characteristics, and I hope the uniqueness will be preserved rather than assimilated by any mainstream culture. Such an effect is no small achievement for a book of oral history.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More taxis go on strike in China

This time in Sanya, Hainan, a beautiful coastal tourist city I've been many times. Looks like the cabbies there are following Chongqing's example.

Another, smaller city involved in cab strike this week is Yongdeng County, of Gansu Provence. See Xinhua's report.

Cheers, short story writers!

...and Asians no less.

From Vietnam born writer Nam Le has won the 2008 Dylan Thomas prize, picking up a cheque for £60,000 at a ceremony in Swansea last night for his first collection of short stories, The Boat. The Guardian reports that the chairman of the judges, Peter Florence, hailed Le as a "winner worthy of Dylan Thomas". (I've read a couple of Nam Le's stories and he's a natural.)

From Malaysia born writer Elaine Chiew, who currently lives in London (and is a cyber friend of mine) won the 2008 Bridport's 1st Prize £5000 for her story "Face." Congratulations Elaine!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

American Election and Chinese Rice Bowl

A few days ago, China’s Southern Metropolitan published a column with the headline “The game of accusing China resumes in the last minute?” (h/t ESWN) The article comments on Obama’s letter to the National Council of Textile Organizations last week, in which Obama blames China for the US trade deficit, requesting that "China must change its policies, including its foreign exchange policies, so that it relies less on exports and more on domestic demand for its growth." He vows to use "all diplomatic means," if elected, to make that happen.

(photo by Maple Xu, all rights reserved)

Unlike the LA Times report that quotes some Chinese who brush off Obama’s words as rhetoric, the columnist at the Southern Metropolitan attributes the statements to Obama’s persistent protectionism, and dolefully predicts that, if his policy is to be realized, southern China’s unemployment rate would increase. Under the article, a couple of readers commented that McCain as the US president would be more beneficial for China than Obama.

But this is not the first time we’ve heard that the Chinese should increase their domestic consumption, and it is more than simple American protectionism. While it seems doubtful that this would be enough to make up for the lost consumption from America, it may be time to pursue this. China has built its growth on demand from the rest of the world, but it is more than demand that has made that growth possible. Not only have Chinese factories been producing goods for others to use, they have been employing the production methods that others have perfected. This catching up - bolstered by having the very companies that developed the techniques help implement them - has supported phenomenal growth. Now, however, China has caught up in many areas of technology and really is only getting the benefit of the demand. Clearly some adjustment is required, given differing tastes and needs, but it does not make sense for Chinese people to pick up more of the burden of consumption - America cannot continue to do it alone.

Coincidentally, just yesterday I saw that WSJ translated Premier Wen Jiabao’s essay, which also says China should boost its domestic demand. It is good to see China’s leaders have further horizons than the aforementioned columnist.

On a note related to the US election, many media outlets have published polls and reports to show a largely uninterested Chinese population, for example see the recent Gallup poll. This should not come as a surprise. Why should the majority of Chinese people be interested? The US president is not the one who cares about their rice bowl.

Among those who are interested, however, the opinions seem more diversified than the polls’ indication of Chinese preference for Obama. Beside the aforementioned columnist at the Southern Metropolitan, as a Chinese student studying journalism in the US blogged about, many comments left in a chat room on are not very complimentary of Obama (whether those opinions have any sound basis is another question).

In contrast to mainland China, I see an increasing interest and participation in the election this year among my Chinese friends in the US. The dramatically more exciting characteristics of the candidates, both the presidential and vice presidential, certainly have been a major attraction. Before the primary, most of my Chinese friends preferred Hillary Clinton over Obama or McCain, which made me, the Obama supporter, an absolute minority. Now they distrust Palin’s ability to lead so much, Obama becomes the no-brain choice. “I wouldn’t have minded McCain if not for Palin,” one friend told me. None of those friends are either Democrats or Republicans, as such party lines don’t concern them. It is the personal impression from each candidate that affects their voting decision.

It is also interesting – though not surprisingly – to note that the question of which candidate would carry more beneficial policies toward China has never entered our consideration. In this case, it is our own, Americanized Chinese rice bowl that matters more.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Church’s Guide for the Election

Across street from my house, there is a flat-top, square-ish building, looking rather modern. If it were not for the sign in front of it, I wouldn’t have thought it a Christian church. For the ten years since I moved to this quiet suburb, I had never set foot in it.

Now I’m taking a journalism class, one of the assignments is to establish a “listening post.” The idea is to visit a community you are less familiar with, so as to increase the understanding of diversity. Since I never knew what this church across street was doing, I decided to pay a visit to it this morning. That is, a Sunday morning when it’s running a service.

At 10 am sharp I walked into the church. On a desk in the hall lay some handouts. I picked one up; it’s titled “Values Voter Guide for 2008 Presidential Candidates.” It highlights issues debated between McCain and Obama, 21 of them all. A simple “Yes” or “No” column indicating each candidate’s position on each issue. Not surprisingly, on 16 of the issues listed, the two candidates take opposite positions. They agreed on three of them, while the remaining two issues were alternately addressed by only one of the candidates.

At first glance, this list is quite impartial. It does not spell out a recommendation, and the issues listed are quite informative. The Guide only asks you to compare the candidates. I was impressed.

Walking into the nave, for a moment I suspected I was in the wrong place, or at a wrong time. The stage looked ready to start a musical, or some Broadway performance. A glass room located on the left side of the stage housed a man with a full set of shining silver percussion instruments. In the center of the stage were a pianist, two guitarists, and a row of seven men and women waiting to start singing.

And singing they began soon after I took my seat. The choirmaster, a black man with beautiful voice, called for the audience to stand and sing with them. A large pull-down screen hanging above the stage, showed colorful moving pictures with the lyrics. People raised their arms and sang enthusiastically and repeatedly: “I’m desperate for you, I’m lost without you…We live to glorify your name.”

They stood and sang for 40 minutes. When they finally finished, the priest took the place of the choirmaster and explained the voting guide. He called his audience to “vote for our values, not by the party line.” He then went on to say “we don’t want the government to redefine the values of our families; God defines it, Jesus defines it.” And he said he puts his hope in God to place the right man in the government.

As he continued, I read the handout again and realized that he was calling for people to vote for McCain and Palin, mostly for Palin, who was viewed by some people as representing American family values.

During the next hour the priest preached Revelation 12 to 14, and he emphasized diversity.

Later, on the way home, I wondered how diverse the church members actually are. Will all, or most of them, listen to the priest and vote for McCain? Do most Christian churches want McCain and Palin to lead America? If the result turns out to be the opposite, is God wrong, or are the churches wrong?