Safely tracing a path back to Shanghai

PEN America yesterday released a chilling, illuminating report on the increasingly difficult environment foreign journalists face when reporting from present-day China. When I was there precisely five years ago, I wasn't working as a journalist or trying to post anything to a blog or Facebook or Twitter or a newsy site in any form. Nonetheless, I couldn't access any of those sites or the like given the "Great Firewall" the Chinese government relies upon. According to PEN America's study, it's since gotten a helluva lot worse for people trying to pursue and publish stories. What better time for me to offer a taste of what I was pursuing then, as I continue to research and write about it from a safe distance.

After spending close to a week in Beijing, I traveled with my group of 40 foreigners to Shanghai. We were officially there to see the Chinese part of the global fur trade. We spent our days being spoon-fed locations that surely were allowed for only with government approval. One particular excursion from our temporary base in Shanghai gave me a chance for some off the leash wandering. We were taken by tour bus to a small coastal city named Yuyao. It would have been indistinguishable from the other sprawling population centers radiating out from Shanghai, had it not been for the existence of a major fur garment manufacturing facility plopped amidst the maze-like residential "hutongs" and rapidly gentrifying blocks of factories. What we saw inside that facility and the adjacent "wholesale mall" of retailers was unlike anything I saw up close in China. In my book Pelting Out, you will learn much more about what I saw and learned there. For now, here's a few pics to whet your appetite.

 Just in case visitors are confused about what the majority of the goods they're buying comes from, the China Fur Market in Yuyao offers a reminder. It felt and looked like an empty outlet mall. 

Just in case visitors are confused about what the majority of the goods they're buying comes from, the China Fur Market in Yuyao offers a reminder. It felt and looked like an empty outlet mall. 

 Up in the main manufacturing warehouse, workers match cut pieces of pelts to larger garment patterns.

Up in the main manufacturing warehouse, workers match cut pieces of pelts to larger garment patterns.

 This type of manufacturing requires lots of nails, and lots of precision.

This type of manufacturing requires lots of nails, and lots of precision.

 I was struck by the diverse workforce...drawn from many parts of China from what I was told...populating this specialized manufacturing trade.

I was struck by the diverse workforce...drawn from many parts of China from what I was told...populating this specialized manufacturing trade.

After some touring as a group within the factory, our group was encouraged to go shopping within the connected mall. I used this open time to wander into the nearby neighborhood. This wasn't approved...or formally discouraged...yet it didn't take long for me to feel unwelcome. A few blocks of shops radiated out from the China Fur Market, getting shabbier as the distance from the center grew. Soon the fur goods shops ended and what I came to recognize (not by experience, I assure you) as sex worker shops began. These mini-brothels all had the same sliding glass patio doors behind which stood women ready to greet visitors. The doors would open with that signature "swoosh," that is the universal sound of a sliding door running along its track. When the workers caught sight of me...a pale Westerner with my Canon camera slung over over my shoulder...the sliding chorus was all I could hear over the neighborhood traffic. Not long after, I garnered a few curious men tailing behind me. I could sense I'd ventured a bit too far into the unguided, so I turned back toward the security of the business-lined blocks. Along the way, I noticed fur garment patterns nailed to plywood outlines laid out in every available area. There weren't any customers. And there definitely weren't any other Westerners.  

 Any available surface is a good enough surface for the neighborhood's workers to lay out patterned goods in process.

Any available surface is a good enough surface for the neighborhood's workers to lay out patterned goods in process.

Luckily nothing unwelcome or unkind happened to me while exploring around China in pursuit of my chosen subject. According to PEN America's reporting, however, way too many other writers haven't been so fortunate while trying to work there. Here's hoping everyone working in a safe locale this Friday evening raises their voices and glasses to those in China and elsewhere endeavoring to tell stories that matter. Wherever you're exploring, I look forward to sharing new stories with y'all next week.

Dichotomies - not just a really bad name for an '80s New Wave band

My personal trade mission to China in 2011 began in Beijing. As a part of a group largely driven by newcomer curiosities, tourist-y highlights factored in right from the start. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square were among the first sights seen, before our collective jetlag really even had a chance of kicking in. By the time our group of 40 hit the public bathrooms at the Forbidden City, culture shock seemed to be taking hold for most. Nothing makes a Westerner miss the comforts of home quite like a hole for crapping in the floor. Sorry to go blue right off the bat. I'm just calling it as I recall seeing it. I was actually more struck by the walk back to my fancy hotel, sans group. Just so you know what to expect, I always look to walk and generally always spin off from the dictated path. Here or there or most anywhere. That's how I roll.

Stroll many of the business neighborhoods of Beijing and you'll see very little separation between the sort of places that burn garbage in the alleys (or "hutongs") and the places where the open display of copious wealth dominates way some modern Chinese urbanites live. I came across numerous Lamourghini and Ferrari dealerships literally right down the block or around the corner from the sort of urban lower class realities that made me cautious and a bit ashamed for taking the time to look more closely. I would love to go back and see if anything's changed in the five years since visiting Beijing. I'd do so tomorrow. I loved my brief explorations of urban, rising China. However, my bet's that the dichotomy has only become more pronounced.

Not that I'll find a perfect analogy to bring us up to the current day...but I did purposely come across a pretty damn close one today right here in Seattle. The Alexander Wang Pop-In Shop@Nordstrom...a brilliant bit of marketing overseen by the enigmatic Olivia Kim...currently open through mid-October. I troll through the department stores regularly no matter where I am. Nordstrom is one of my favorites, and not just because they're based here. I'll admit shopping there, too. When it's justified. Recent Nordstrom pop-up shops...which amount to temporary sections at just a few big stores set up to feature a specific company or designer...have drawn my attention and business. I love my Warby Parker sunglasses and wear them way more than I should. I just wore my new Olivia Kim-designed chukka-style maroon Vans and they're on their way to becoming faves, too.

Alexander Wang designs for a very different consumer, though.

Plus, Wang uses fur.

Just a few years ago I heard outright denials from Seattle Nordstrom employees that they even had any fur garments in stock. Today I saw the following $1000 Arctic Fox neck pillow. I was told it's made in NYC. Unlike most of his designs, which are made in China. Cue the irony music. But rather than explain more fully what I mean, I'll post a few pics.

 The "metal diamond plate" flooring material makes any surface a mirror. And maybe a total bitch to clean regularly.

The "metal diamond plate" flooring material makes any surface a mirror. And maybe a total bitch to clean regularly.

 The little bag charms up top in this display are accented with rabbit fur. The travel pillow is made with black Arctic fox, and features "memory foam" in the pillow. Probably so that you'll never forget you dropped a grand for a pillow. 

The little bag charms up top in this display are accented with rabbit fur. The travel pillow is made with black Arctic fox, and features "memory foam" in the pillow. Probably so that you'll never forget you dropped a grand for a pillow. 

 I can't remember what the sales person said was the origin of the leather in the carry cover. Not soy, I'm pretty certain.

I can't remember what the sales person said was the origin of the leather in the carry cover. Not soy, I'm pretty certain.

My point for the day may seem convoluted. If I was being forced to pull it together into a simple daily thesis, I'd crack under the pressure and fall back on an unanswerable favorite. Dichotomies are everywhere. False ones, classical ones, and even some real, economic ones. Don't ask me which is formally which. That's why we use the Google. But I'm left to ponder...how did a country that during the Cultural Revolution sent millions of people to their deaths in re-education camps for any embrace of capitalism in a just few short generations become the world's magnet for both the manufacture and consumption of luxury goods? Or, closer to home, how did a company that responded not long ago to the threat of being visited by animal rights activists for selling fur goods with a blanket denial that they don't sell such things become the sort of place that's celebrating a fur neck pillow that costs more than the median monthly residential rent in the U.S.? Obviously, I have many many more questions. Some might even have answers.

Thanks for checking in. That's all I've got today. Good night, good grief, and good luck, World.