Hong Kong Dispatch


Plush dolls of the “Fuwa” (Friendlies), the official 2008 Olympic Mascots. Each Friendlie represents a different element and set of traits. From left they are Beibei (female, blue, water); JingJing (male, black, metal); HuanHuan (male, red, fire); YingYing (male, yellow, earth); and NiNi (female, green, wood).

It’s time for some study abroad dim sum! In the tradition of dim sum – the traditional Cantonese cuisine that involves an array of light plates and finger foods – this week’s column will offer a little taste of various observations and goings on from around Hong Kong and mainland China, where I spent my fall break. With luck, it will be less bland than actual Cantonese food.

Human Rights in China

In my last class before departing for mainland China over fall break, my Human Rights in China professor, after a long discussion in which he essentially argued that the prevalence and visibility of human rights abuses by individual American police officers excuses China’s systematic political policy of abuses, announced that defense attorneys are essentially useless for criminal defendants, because all they do is negotiate plea bargains anyhow. Personally, I’m glad to hear it. Now I can dive right into my soulless corporate litigation job with no regrets!

Fire Safety in the Forbidden City

To me, the most remarkable thing about the Forbidden City is that its buildings are all made out of wood, yet in remarkably good condition given their age. How is this achieved? Simple: lacquer. Massive amounts of lacquer, applied liberally and re-applied regularly. Of course, this may also explain why all of these beautifully-preserved buildings have signs in front of them that read, “First constructed in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty, [insert building here] burned down and was rebuilt in 1680 during the Qing Dynasty.” Did it occur to them that all of those intricate and beautifully-colored patterns were extremely flammable before, or after, 50% of the buildings on-site burned? The thing is, I’ve used the year 1680 in my quote, but they actually burned in different years. This just kept happening over and over. Some burned down several times. The Chinese emperors were committed to this architectural style, fire safety be damned!

Meet the Friendlies

Olympics mascots just get weirder every year. The 2008 Beijing games are being headlined by a colorful fivesome of animal/cabbage patch doll-looking creatures named Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, and Nini. Together, they are the Friendlies, and they are a phenomenon. If you take the repeated syllable from each of their names in order, you get “Beijing huanying ni,” which means “Beijing welcomes you” (clever). The fivesome represents all kinds of things at once. Olympic rings? Check! Captain Planet-style elements? Sure! Local wildlife? Throw that in too! Particular sports? Why not!

Official stores in Tiananmen Square and throughout Beijing promise officially-licensed Beijing 2008 merchandise. Do you think they recognize the irony of their proud claims of official licensing? Even though the Friendlies sort of creep me out, I was tempted to buy some counterfeit merchandise in the shady markets, just for the comedy of doing so. Ultimately, I decided that $2 and the thought of the irony was worth more to me than paying $2 to actually indulge the thought. And guess which one of the Friendlies I loathe most? That’s right: Jingjing the Panda.

The Friendlies, of course, are plastered over all manner of merchandise, but I think the most interesting is the Friendlies cartoon series that’s been airing on TV. Unfortunately, I never got to watch, but (no joke here) I have it on good authority that Jingjing is apparently the worthless idiot of the group.

One cartoon features the Friendlies confronted with learning a simple task: leapfrogging over one another, one at a time, until they end up in a lake. All of the Friendlies are on it, except for Jingjing, who (like all pandas) is a failure at life. He’s tripping over himself, he’s trying to go under the others instead of jumping over, he’s injuring himself. The other Friendlies, paragons of patience, finally help him figure it out. Cartoon over. For the closing credits, all of the Friendlies stand within their respective colored Olympic rings and pose. Jingjing, again, can’t get it right and stands in a neighboring ring until he’s pushed back into place.

Apparently, the makers of the Friendlies cartoon have figured out that pandas are evolutionary failures with no intelligence or instinct for self-preservation and have only been saved from extinction by the inexhaustible (and inexplicable) patience of far superior creatures. But that is a different rant altogether.

Hall Democracy

Upon my return to my residence hall from my trip to mainland China, I discovered a notice placed in the building lobby and in each of the elevators. I offer you the text of that notice, penned by the president of the hall students association, just as I received it … without any context or explanation:

“I am here to apologize for the inconvenience I caused. After rational thinking and communicating with hall mates, we found that this is simply a misunderstanding. I apologize once again for those who have been affected by my action and my words.

“Someone may concern the democracy of Morrison Hall will be affected by my notice. As one of the main students’ body in Morrison Hall, we do definitely defend students’ rights and power; we execute and respect the constitution and by-laws of our hall. I apologize for making any harm to the democratic system that we are all treasuring.

“I would also like to say thank you for those who have shown us your strong support and those who show your deepest concerns to the incident. We are inspired and moved by your support. We promise we will continue our work and try our best to make Morrison Hall a better place.”Thank you very much.”

Ken Basin is a 3L who is currently studying abroad at the University of Hong Kong, and is being every bit as diligent in Hong Kong as he would be in Cambridge. His complete adventures are chronicled at kbasin.blogspot.com.

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