13 Cultural Inversions

I have always told people that my ultimate remit is introducing and explaining China and its diverse cultures to the world. On this year’s national day, I will be talking about the elements of this subject which might be slightly harder for people in the West to get their heads around – common cultural symbols that hold exactly the opposite meanings. 13 is a lucky number. I start with the number 13. The Chinese love luck and puns, especially the Cantonese. The Cantonese pronunciation of 十三(“sup saam”) is a near homophone to 实生(“sut saang”), meaning definitely or certainly alive or vibrant. In the Guangdong region, it’s common to find a 13thfloor followed by a 13A in a building, bypassing 14, an extremely unlucky number. 666 means awesome. To the Chinese, 666 is not the Number of the Beast, nor are those biblical beasts relevant to their mythos. The number 6 六(“liu”)is a homophone of the slang term for “smooth”, both in Mandarin and Cantonese. 666 is internet slang that derived from League of Legend players, meaning cool or awesome. White is black. White is the colour of death and mourning. White is worn to traditional Chinese funerals and the mysterious lady in white or the white-clad female ghost is a staple of Chinese horror and gothic. Bats are auspicious. Bats are auspicious creatures to the Chinese. The second character in their word for bat, 蝙蝠,whether in Mandarin or Cantonese, is a homophone and near homonym of 福, fortune and happiness. Continue Reading →


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The Farewell: A Review

When I saw the trailer for The Farewell, I knew it had the potential to be the film people were hoping Crazy Rich Asians would have been, and fill that cultural void that they were hoping it would fill. Having now watched it, I can confirm it has met my expectations.

Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is of the story of Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese American young woman who learns that her grandmother has lung cancer and only three months to live. Shocked that her immigrant parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) and extended family plan on keeping the news from the old lady, Billi flies to China despite their admonitions to join them and see her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao). As cultural clashes intensify and family tensions rise, Billi struggles to keep up with the preparations and celebrations around her cousin Hao Hao’s (Han Chen) fake wedding, the pretext the family have devised for the gathering.

In many ways, The Farewell has got the Culture so right, providing a window into the lives of an ordinary middle-class Chinese family of sea turtles, who live in an average city, in a typical apartment block, in a typical neighbourhood. All the major scenes and dramatic climaxes are aptly set during meal times. To the food-obsessed Chinese, eating together is an essential ritual that fulfills a whole range of social functions. Food also is a major way in which people show affection. Everyone who can, emigrates. The film cinches this irony of this Chinese phenomenon by demonstrating the inability of Billi and Hao Hao, who moved to different countries as young children, to communicate with each other.

From the semi-seedy hotels with its prying, nosy caretakers, the popular massage treatments with a dash of TCM, to Nai Nai’s string of live-in carers from the countryside; from the peculiar custom of pre-nuptial wedding photography, to the details of interior décor of the family home, such as the communist-era couples photo hanging on the wall of Nai Nai’s bedroom, the film is telling it as it is. My mother’s hometown is Changchun, which I have often visited, and seeing Hao Hao’s wedding was like seeing my own cousin’s nuptial festivities again on the big screen.

Although the modern China presented in the film feels very limited, its entire focus being based around a hospital, a couple of urban backstreets, and a soulless construction site, I do grant that the story is told mainly from Billi’s viewpoint. Not everyone in the country is just after making money, as the conversation during the family meal in the restaurant seems to suggest, and most old Chinese cities have an old town that’s steeped in history, existing alongside the highway jungle of concrete and glass, where life is slower, greener and more picturesque. I found the (Western) classical, modern classical soundtrack rather over-abundant and at times jarring against the East-meets-West themes explored in a Chinese environment, though again this can be attributed to the point of view.

Another quibble I have with the film is the apparent confusion between different locations within China. We see Billi arriving at Shanghai airport on the East coast, but the wedding takes place thousands of miles away in Changchun, capital of the country’s northeastern-most province. Although migration is a common phenomenon over there, an explanation would have been good as to how the family ended up in Shanghai. Regional culture is often diverse, especially in a vast and heterogeneous country like China, where you can feel very displacement by being in another province. Had the wedding taken place in the south, it would have had a very different feel.

In a point-of-view film that aims to show rather than narrate, the script becomes central. The script couldn’t have been easy for an American-Chinese author to write, being partially in English and Chinese, yet it has been localized well in both languages. The film shines with some very memorable dialogue tableaus throughout, such as Billi’s unexpected arrival at the family home, and old comrades and old flames reuniting at a grandchild’s wedding. My favourite scene is the picnic at the graveside of Billi’s late grandpa. Albeit a visit to the dead, it’s a time when the family seems most at ease, united and happiest in the entire film. The stylized cinematography is certainly an appeal of this film. Bustling contemporary Chinese streets, packed with hawkers, LEDs and multicolour store fronts, provide a gorgeous palette for the deep bokeh shots that frame the story’s more contemplative scenes. The long shot of solidarity at the end featuring the whole family standing together, looking somber in a harsh palette, speaks volumes within the context of the story.

Expectedly, The Farewell explores themes of generational and aspirational conflicts arising out of the East-West culture clash, which no doubt resonates with diaspora Chinese of different varieties around the world. Despite being a very Chinese film, The Farewell is highly relatable for everyone. As with big family gatherings anywhere, antagonisms tend to emerge and the past comes to the surface. We are also seeing three generations of strong women represented here, Lu Jian, Billi’s stern and stoic mother, Nai Nai, a hugely positive portrayal of the formidable Chinese granny who, despite being the invalid everyone is trying to support, holds the family together and proves a wise and caring intergenerational mentor; and of course Billi, the protagonist who is rather downtrodden at the beginning of the film but whom we see grow in understanding, strengthen and transform, while other characters start to unravel.

With a little more humour and irony, I think the Farewell could have been an even better film. However, I sense that it’s a highly personal experience for its creator and has successfully explored some difficult themes. The Farewell will become a classic of diaspora cinema, and in the years to come, it shall be one of the films I’ll recommend when people ask me what it means being Chinese is, or what Chinese families are like.


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Raising Inner Demons: Chinese Black Metal in Europe

I explore the Zuriaake’s live presence and the representation of Chinese indie music in the West.


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My PRI on Mulan

Thanks to works such as Disney’s animation, Mulan has become a global icon of gender queerness, feminism & support for any groups in need of her spirit. I talk to PRI about how Disney’s upcoming live version feature based on Mulan seeks to be relevant to the culture of the her origin.


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The Boss Behind the Cowherd and Weaver Myth

This time last year, I launched my book “From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: An Essential Guide to Chinese Deities” in the UK. Vivian Ni, the wonderful manager of Guanghwa in London, my bookshop of choice for the launch, wrote a lovely article for the occasion of Qi Xi, which she published on WeChat. I liked it so much that this year, I have translated it into English to share with my English-language readers on the same occasion of Qi Xi. The article contains a brief interview with me, I hope you enjoy it.


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Stir-Frozen

Summer is finally coming into full swing this year in the UK. Summer is my favourite season. It’s a time that always reminds me of my hometown, the subtropical city of Guangzhou. A while ago, I was thrilled to find that as part of the renovations of London’s Chinatown, southern Chinese dessert parlours were finally coming to Britain. So as a follow-up to Sweet & Sour, which talks about traditional desserts, let me introduce you to some of the delights of contemporary Chinese sweet treats that are now well within your reach.


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Zhong Kui, The Demon Slayer

The Chinese believe that death is not the end, that ghosts and spirits co-exists with human beings at all times, only noticed when they are disquiet, and need to be put to rest. It’s no surprise that the Chinese have many demon slaying deities. The god that has by far enjoyed the most popularity, and endured the test of time, is Zhong Kui.


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Wandering Earth and China’s Sci-Fi Heritage

The Wandering Earth has been billed as a breakthrough for Chinese sci-fi. The film tells the story of our planet, doomed by the expanding Sun, being moved across space to a safer place. The Chinese heroes have to save the mission – and humanity – when Earth gets caught in Jupiter’s gravitational pull. Based on Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin’s short story of the same name, Wandering Earth has already grossed $600m (£464m) at the Chinese box office and was called China’s “giant leap into science fiction” by the Financial Times. It’s been bought by Netflix and will debut there on 30 April. But while this may be the first time many in the West have heard of “kehuan” – Chinese science fiction – Chinese cinema has a long sci-fi history, which has given support to scientific endeavour, offered escapism from harsh times and inspired generations of film-goers. So for Western audiences eager to plot the rise of the Chinese sci-fi movie, here are five films I think are worth renewed attention. Rest the rest on BBC Asia.


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Tu Er Shen: Patron of Homosexual Love

This week sees many gay and lesbian couples proudly walking up the isle as Taiwan becomes the first region in Asia to legalise same-sex marriages. Whilst my book “From Kuan Yin to Chairman: An Essential Guide to Chinese Deities”, aims to show the depth and breath of native Chinese beliefs and their cultural significance, it’s by no means a definitive guide. One deity I didn’t get to write about in the book, is 兔兒神Tu Er Shen, the rabbit god, patron of homosexual love. This weekend is the perfect time to tell you a little bit about him.


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Some Thoughts on The Wandering Earth

Hope you’ve all had a chance to watch The Wandering Earth by now. (If you haven’t, its on Netflix, and iQiyi). I’m ready to share my thoughts on it.

Did Wandering Earth live up to all the hype? I think it did! It was an excellent hard sci-fi movie. With very high production values, including the CG, a gripping but logically grounded plot line, which, whilst comparable to some of Hollywood’s disasterporn sci-fi, never loses its very Chinese heart.


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