SVAMA Global Marketing Blog

SVAMA's Special Interest Groups are designed to allow members and friends to network and learn from peers interested in the same marketing specialty. SIGs operate independently and frequently morph into face-to-face, book review, or email sigs depending on the needs of the group.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Mystery of Laoximen

You pass it a million times. Just another set of Chinese
characters to use as a landmark on street signs, subway maps,
and bus directories. Just part of the chore of getting to work,
coming home, and reaching There from Here. And then, one day,
the Chinese characters acquire meaning and you wonder: Whatever
happened to Lao-Xi-Men, the Old West Gate?

Look at a modern map and you'll know, sort of. Just inside the
boundary of the roughly oval area that contains Yuyuan Gardens
and the rest of Shanghai's Old Town is a dot marked Old West
Gate. Except, standing at the corner of Fuxing and Zhonghua
Roads, you can see that there's nothing there. Nothing that
resembles an old gate or wall anyway. These days, the only thing
marking the old city's walls are the names of a few bus stops:
Old North Gate; Large East Gate; Small East Gate; and Old South
Gate. And of course, Laoximen. So there's only one way to
solve the mystery...

Welcome to 1817. Please watch your step as you cross the
footbridge into the walled city. You check the guide map, The
moat surrounding the city is fed by five canals diverted from
the river, which isn't labeled, though in modern times it's the
Huangpu. The canals flow in and out of the city through
separate tunnels, part of an irrigation system that weaves
around the various homes inside. Up ahead, next to the canal on
the city's west side, is the fort-like gate that is probably
Laoximen. Crossing into the city, you overhear a conversation
between two portly merchants.

"It's all because Lord Amherst didn't kowtow before the
"Yes, but he's the second British ambassador to the Middle
Kingdom not to do so."
"True," replies the first, "but that was before the British were
exporting so much tea."

Twenty-three million pounds of it every year, in fact, all via
Canton. You step back and let the merchants continue on into
the city, noting the four watchtowers at the northern tip of the
city. Then the time effect takes you again.

You are outside the gate again, only it looks different, older.
This too is Laoximen, clearly labeled as "Porte de l'ouest" on
the 1848 map of "Changhaï" and its ports. There are three other
gates shown--North, Small East, and Large East--and probably a
South gate cut off by the map's edge. The Treaty of Nanjing
giving the British Hong Kong and access to Shanghai was only
signed six years before, after an earlier but bungled attempt to
end the First Opium War. Tensions are still running high. You
are advised not to enter the Chinese part of the city. In any
case, a courthouse, a British consulate office, and perhaps a
tax bureau are the only landmarks. A fortified road just
opposite the walled city's northern gate goes through a no-man's
land into the English Concession. You had hoped to stop there,
but you have no chance as the time effect takes you again.

You find yourself in the "Foreign Settlement" anyway, standing
at the corner of Rue du Consulat and Honan Road, just north of
the walled city. It’s 1855. Except for the names of the
streets (known in modern Shanghai as East Jinling Road and
Central Henan Road) the general pattern of the roads is starting
to look familiar. To the east, is the "Wong Poo" River, and to
the northeast, the Bund, easily visible without the modern
city’s apartment towers.

A group of Western missionaries hurry past you, heading for the
Chinese city. You decide to follow them. They speak English.
In slightly hushed tones, one is discussing Hong Xiuquan, leader
of the Taiping Rebellion. Hong and his followers have held
Nanjing as the capital of the "Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace"
since 1853.

"He claims to be the younger brother of Christ," remarks a
British missionary, causing the others to chuckle. A slightly
younger man looks flushed, but not from the heat.
"They adhere to the Ten Commandments, preach egalitarianism, and
aspire to an admirable austerity," the flushed man says, in an
American accent.
"They also destroy temples, religious images, and raise the ire
of the Chinese by forbidding ancestor worship," another British
missionary adds gruffly.
Hanging back, another American missionary quips, "But their
biggest mistake by far is their chilly reception of the British
envoy." The flushed American laughs.

Hong and his followers will hold Nanjing until 1864, but the
missionaries don't know that. What they probably do know is
that fallout from Hong has caused many Chinese to flee into the
foreign settlement areas where, since last year, they have been
able to purchase land.

The missionaries pass into one of the northern gates into the
Chinese city, probably on their way to one of the five
chapels/missions within, two of which are American. There is
another gate a few blocks to the east. Further south are two
eastern gates, and a southern gate. According to the map, there
are no gates on the west side. Maybe you have solved the
mystery, but the blinking holographic prompt says that there's
more. Clicking on it with your eyes, you see a sepia toned map
completed by the Royal Engineers in 1860, five years from your

The French Concession will be located where you are currently
standing, wedged between the Chinese city and the English
Settlement. Looking again at the map available for 1855, you
see no such indication. The French didn't have a concession
until they fought with the English in the Second Opium War.

Laoximen seems to reappear on the 1860 map, but the other gates
are not clearly visible. The engineers captured more of the
details of the streets and canals within the walled city of
"Shanghaï" and no wonder. An earlier ad hoc arrangement,
partially caused by the havoc of the Taiping Rebellion on
Shanghai’s outskirts, where foreigners collected customs dues,
including within the Chinese city, is now a formal system of
foreign customs inspectors working for the Qing dynasty

An 1867 map of "Shanghae" doesn't show any gates, but provides
other types of description. Just south of the Chinese City are
"crowded suburbs." To the north and west is open country beyond
which there are orchards and "numerous small villages." Though
not on the map, some of the older Shanghai residents are aware
that at this time there were several munitions factories in
Shanghai, one of which was on "Manufacturing Bureau" (Zhizao-ju)
Road. You are thinking of heading to 1867, until an 1882 map in
Chinese catches your eye and the time effect takes you.

It's not as quaint as the Chinese style drawing, but Laoximen,
big tunnel gate and all, is open for business again. It is even
connected to one of the east gates by a footpath, clearly noted
on the map. Beside it, is the western canal entrance. To the
north, bisecting the old city, is Fang Canal, now Fangbang Road.
Many of Shanghai's former waterways have been preserved in
street names, where "-bang" means stream or creek.

Although you didn't select a year, the time effect takes you and
you find yourself in 1902. Unfortunately, you are sinking in
the mud of the semi-marshy clearing beside a more modest
Laoximen, more like a break in the wall than the grand tower it
was in the past. The inner details of the Chinese City are
included in this map along with details of both the French and
English Concessions and also the area of Zi-Ka-Wei (now
Xujiahui), which looks like a village outpost. It is connected
to the main city by a fairly large artery, but is a world apart,
surrounded by agricultural holdings, tiny roads, and sparsely
populated areas that are quite a contrast to the densely
detailed areas of the Chinese City and Concessions. One thing
is clear. The city is spreading outwards, at least on the Puxi
side, into its modern incarnation.

A 1903 map indicating the routes of the trams in the French
Concession shows only 3 gates: West; North; and East. Line C of
the French tramways will go to what is now Xujiahui, though it
is not labeled on the map. It and the English tram system will
start running five years from “now,” with a Chinese tram system
starting five years after that.

The time effect takes you to 1912. Shanghai's wall still
exists, but is segmented into 12 pieces, including one that is
probably Laoximen. China too is segmented. Sun Yat-sen arrived
in Shanghai in December 1911 and became the provisional
president of the China republic. In Beijing, the last vestige
of the Qing dynasty lives on. Yuan Shikai, who will try to set
himself up as emperor before suddenly dying in 1916, controls
the armed forces there. World War I is only two years away.
The Japanese will join the allies and seize Germany's concession
in Qingdao.

There is one last stop on this trip through time: 1917. China
has just entered WWI. Although entering the war will secure it
a place at the Peace Conference in Versailles, it will mostly be
ignored there. In Beijing, Puyi, the last emperor, is allowed
by some northern military leaders to warm the throne as emperor
for a few days before being deposed by other forces there. Sun
Yat-sen's republican government exists in Guangzhou, while
shifting warlord governments exist there and throughout much of
the country. In Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution is underway.

And in Shanghai, you are standing more or less on the same spot
where you started this journey. At least until a tram beeps at
you, perhaps picking up passengers from the Laoximen stop. The
old city's walls are long gone. Gone too is its moat. There is
nothing between you and Shanghai's old city anymore, or between
it and the rest of the world.

Posted by Beth Epstein,

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Journey to the West

In 629CE, a renowned Buddhist monk left the Big Wild Goose
Pagoda in Xi'an (then China's capital) and traveled to India.
Along with the copies of the Buddhist sutras he also brought
back stories about Hanuman, the mischievous monkey god from the
Hindu Ramayana epic. These tales, the hardships of the trip,
and his mission fused in the retellings until they were
eventually written down in the late 1500s as "Journey to the

Tripitaka, as the monk is known in English, probably ventured to
India with the usual traveling companions, but the literary
version has him in the company of three disciples--Monkey,
Pigsy, and Sandy--respectively representing mischief, gluttony,
and duty. They went off India to bring sacred Buddhists
scriptures back to China. The reason for my journey was more
mundane, but the three disciples were all represented in their

Dutiful Sandy was why I went in the first place. After all, I
had promised that I would attend my friends’ weddings 'if ever'
and 'wherever' we all happened to find ourselves. And so, I was

Wedding number one was in the South, in Chennai (aka Madras).
But first I headed off to Kochi, (formerly Cochin) for a couple
of days. Like Shanghai, it's a hub of historic globalization.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the old district of
Mattancherry, reachable after a 10 minute ferry ride from the
more modern incarnation of Ernakulam.

One legend has it that Cochin's Myuchasim (black Jews) arrived
in 587 BC, fleeing the occupation of Jerusalem, while another
dates their arrival back even further to the eleventh century BC
as part of King Solomon's fleet. In any case, they had been
there for a long, long time, working in the spice trade, and
converting and intermarrying with locals. Along with the
Myuchasim, were the 'brown' Jews, thought to be converted
slaves, and the Pardesi (white orthodox Jews) who only married
each other and generally looked down on the other groups.

While the Chinese were slowly weaving Tripitaka’s tales into
Journey to the West, the Portuguese Inquisition was ridding Goa
and elsewhere along the coast of all its Jews. The Raja of
Cochin, however, gave the Jews a parcel of land and encouraged
them to stay and trade. They may have built the synagogue there
as a monument to God, but it was also a monument to trade.
First of all, the temple is in India, but its arrangement is
typically orthodox--a raised platform in the center and a
cloistered area for the women. The lamps are Belgian and look
like colored fishbowls and candelabras made from drinking
glasses. But the floor tiles are from Canton, handpainted in
blue and white like a Ming vase.

Just one ferry stop over, in the district of Ft. Kochi, huge
Chinese finishing nets have become part of the classic view of
Kochi. The nets, called 'cheena vala' in Malayalam, are said to
have been introduced by traders from the court of Kublai Khan
and have to be manned by at least four. The fish caught by
these nets and grilled in sea salt, garlic and lemon at a stall
nearby or made into fish curry were fantastic. Which brings us
to Pigsy.

One early English translation of Tripitaka’s epic journey is
translated as “Monkey” because seven of the 100 chapters are
about him and because, in the rest of it, he generally has the
best lines. However, in my tale, Pigsy dominates. Unable to
speak Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, or Punjabi, I sit, smile, and
swallow the delicious food offered me by mothers, fathers,
aunts, uncles, brothers, and half a dozen other of bride #1's or
groom #2's relatives.

But Monkey did have a good time getting food all over me. Most
Indian restaurants serve Northern food, while food in the South
was mostly about rice and the spiced vegetables and watery and
yogurt-based sauces you can mix into it. I initially struggled
without bread or utensils and eating with only my right hand.
Several waiters, after watching me that first day especially,
offered me a spoon out of pity. But I was determined to get the
hang of it in time for the wedding. The woman who taught the
four-hour cooking course I took one evening revealed the secrets
of how it was done. So by the time I went to the wedding I was,
er, an old hand.

The second wedding was in the Indian Punjab, in Chandigarh and
Ludhiana, and marked the first time I'd ever been inside a
gurudwara (Sikh temple). Again I played hooky and first made a
quick tour of Agra to see the Taj Mahal with an interesting
assortment of travelers. There was a couple from Sikkim (an
Indian state between Nepal and Tibet); a London based
photographer of Indian descent just returned from work in Bhutan
(a small country southeast of Sikkim); a woman from Hyderabad
doing a Northern India tour; a man from Tokyo, Japan; and a
British-Korean couple whose initial remark when we first saw the
Taj from the first gate, was: "It looks so small." Of course,
as the Taj ‘got bigger’ we teased them about that.

At Delhi's Red Fort I sat down next to Yasumi from Fukuoka who
was completing her PhD in anthropology. She was on a break from
field work where she was working with a Japanese NGO to build a
water purification system in some little village. The water
would now have to be drawn from the purification machine, so the
machine had to be located in a culturally-appropriate place.
Too close to a man's house and the women wouldn't be able to go
there, especially the young, unmarried women who traditionally
drew the water.

Yasumi and I headed over to Jama Masjid, a very large Mughal
mosque, to look around during the open period between prayer
times. We were in line to climb the minaret for a great view of
the area when the ticket seller said: "No women alone. Need
man." Within minutes, a man dressed in travellers’ fatigues
complete with bulging backpack approached. I intercepted him in
line and with Yasumi standing beside me said: "We need a man."

To his credit, he kept a straight face, first looking at Yasumi
and then at me, while Yasumi quickly explained just what exactly
we needed him for. Nico turned out to be from Mexico City, but
actually lived in Denmark with his Danish soon-to-be wife. A
filmmaker, he was in Delhi because his documentary about a 1960s
Mexico-US poetry magazine was part of the film exhibition there.
He confirmed my feeling that Delhi, at least, felt a lot like
Mexico City, summing it up by saying that "the forms of the
rituals are different but there's the same sense of magic and

Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy faced 81 ordeals on their
journey, battling demons of all kinds. For their pains, Monkey
and Tripitaka become Buddhas, while Sandy and Pigsy get promoted
to higher posts in the bureaucracy of the heavens. My own
Journey to the West was entirely free of such hassles, but I’m
cursed me all the same. Cursed with the desire to go back.

Beth Epstein

Monday, July 17, 2006

New Year's In China

New clothes are often worn on New Year's Day in China. This year, my clothes will not only be new, but tailor-made. Ready-made clothing in Europe appears to have started with the sailors. Tailors (the word in English dates to 1297) kept a stock on hand for those who were literally in town just long enough to get supplies. For everyone else, clothes were made to order by the tailor or the women at home. How ironic that in the 21st century it is again chic to have clothes made to fit, especially novel items like a custom-made qipao, usually in red silk. High mandarin collar. Short-sleeves. Form-hugging top. Long and high slit down the side. Add a tapered cigarette holder and it's the embodiment of 1930s Shanghai, or at least of its singsong girl advertisements. But while the tailors who made them were from Shanghai, the qipao itself is not, at least not originally. The 'banner gown' is actually named after the 'Banner People,' that is, the Manchu of Last Emperor fame. In their native north, the qipao was an ankle-length, tube-shaped over garment just perfect for their farming, semi-nomadic lifestyle. After the establishment of the Qing dynasty, the qipao's modest predecessor began to replace the traditional long skirts Han women had worn for more than two centuries. The influence of Western fashion affected the length and fit to emphasize women's figures and ultimately substituted nylons underneath for the more traditional cloth leggings. The Hongbang ('red band') Tailors of Shanghai probably made a lot of the qipao that ended up adorning movie stars from the 1920s and 1930s. The Hongbang Tailors were first in the city to establish a Western suit shop, make the first Western suit, the first Chinese tunic suit, and also set up the first school for Western suit design. They were probably also among the 2,000 Shanghai tailors who struck for 8 days in October 1895 for more rice, pork and fish in their meals, a 15 cent raise in daily wages, an increase in meal expense budgets, and double pay for night work. The strike was successful and the Hongbang Tailors, at least, are now part of a museum exhibit in nearby Ningbo about China's history of fashion and textiles that I hope to visit soon. But as tailors they no longer exist, so I went instead to a shop following in the same tradition. The shop designs Western apparel for discerning Chinese customers and makes them to order. The three women took on my Western suit and pair of pants project as a favor, but found my clothing demands downright boring. Maybe so, but my new clothes began with a stroll among the bolts of silk, cotton, linen, cashmere, corduroy and even sequined fabrics of the cloth market on Dongjiadu Road. Bartering was cordial. Several cloth sellers offered advice on which fabrics were best for pants, shirts, or suits, before deftly measuring out the fabric with a ruler and slicing it free. Cloth in hand, I then went to the shop to get measured and identify the pattern for the suit. I supplied a pair of pants as a sample of the style I wanted. I modeled them so that they could see the fit. The verdict? "Too short. Too loose." The suggestion? "The pant leg should go down further." She bent down and adjusted it so that it was just above the floor. "Or here." A little higher, it was now just above the sole of my flat dress shoe. She stood, looked in the mirror and nodded. Her hands now free of pins, she then bent down to grab one pant leg from behind, bunching up the pant leg so it hugged my form, as if the cotton slacks had Lycra in them. "And like that." It was actually sort of funny. Western fashion had made the qipao sexier by having it hug the body, but now I was insisting that the slacks should hang flat, rectangular. Her expression said it all. The plain jacket I initially picked also didn't meet with her approval. "That way, you look like an old woman." So we compromised with a slightly larger, lower collar, and more V-shaped cut at the bottom. The material for the suit was a weave, so I needed it lined. "Just in the front," she concluded, then explained that women here found a lining that went all the way around the leg too bulky and confining. On the other hand, I don't wear long underwear in the winter so maybe that was a factor, though I didn't ask. I held up the cloth to the light to show how it was see-through and the idea of a complete lining was quickly approved. We briefly discussed jacket buttons and then she measured me. A week or so later it was time for a fitting. The jacket only had one sleeve, with the other side still open like a vest. The pants already had their zippers but were fastened on top with a temporary cloth-like Velcro. And of course there were pins everywhere holding things in place so that adjustments could be made. Like to the pant legs, which were too long. And there was another problem: I didn't have enough cloth for the rest of the suit. She showed me the chalk marks on the black cloth I had brought. The material for the vest had already been removed. One pant leg was sketched out, but there wasn't enough material for the other one. I had asked the cloth seller how much material to buy in order to make a suit and had even bought a little extra in order to avoid this problem. I didn't understand all the details of why the cloth turned out not to be enough, except that she was blaming herself for not measuring the last time. But no big deal, I had gotten name cards from the cloth sellers for just such an emergency. I gave her the information and we were able to get more of the same black material. I can't see any difference in the color, so it might even be from the same bolt. Just last week was the second and final fitting, really more of a final check just to make sure that everything was okay. I asked to quickly replace the faux diamond-and-gold buttons on my new black business suit with black buttons, and voila! My new look for a new year. Whatever your new look, I wish you all the best in 2006!

Pizza . . . and . . . Cut - The Movie Industry in China

INT. BEDROOM - NIGHT On a bed not yet slept in is a box of partially eaten pizza. Nearby, the open window is a portal into black silence. At the desk, a WOMAN stares into the white-blue glare of the computer screen. She is the CONTEST WINNER, but she has 50 more pages to go first. Her fingers never stop typing. There is no sound except for the CLICK CLACK CLICK of the computer keys and an occasional CURSE. The real history of film in China begins in 1896; just one year after the Lumiere brothers presented the first projected, moving picture short films to a paying audience. A Beijing photographer established the Daguanlou Cinema in 1903. Two years later, he essentially shot a concert video for the then contemporary King of Beijing Opera—a ten-minute, silent version of "Conquering Jun Mountain." By this time, the Qing government was on its last legs but could still issue regulations. In June 1911 it decreed that cinemas were to have licenses, separate seating for males and females; and to close by midnight. In 1930, to much controversy, the Daguanlou Cinema broke the ban against men and women sitting together. Beijing might have been first on the Mainland film scene, but Shanghai's economic might during its good old bad days of the 1920s and 1930s, plus the abundance of shady characters quite literally on its doorstep, quickly helped the Paris of the East surpass the capital. J.G. Ballard, the writer whose childhood experiences in Shanghai were filmed as "Empire of the Sun," remembers hundreds of hunchbacks outside the cinema to promote the debut of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." As far as I could determine, Shanghai's oldest surviving cinema is the Daguangming Cinema (Grand Cinema), designed by a German architect and constructed in 1928. There were certainly earlier locations used to screen films, though. The city’s first open air screening of a ‘half sound’ film was in 1908, in the garden of the Astor House Hotel, founded in 1846 and still located at the corner of Huangpu and Daming Roads near the Bund. It’s not clear if the Shanghai Concert Hall was originally built in 1930 for movies, but it was supposedly the best cinema until it became primarily a concert hall in 1959. Shanghai didn't actually need good acoustics for its films until after 1936 anyway. While Hong Kong switched to sound almost immediately, it took Shanghai five years. Experts on the subject attribute the difference to the importance of Cantonese in Hong Kong, but in any case, Shanghai was off and filming. Copies of Chinese films from the city's heyday can be found in the street vendors’ assorted DVD collections. Recently, when I bought one such film, the middle-aged vendor complained that the only people who ever bought those films were foreigners. The young in China only had eyes for Hollywood. Despite China's recent celebration of the 100 years of Chinese cinema, the Shanghai film industry seems to be just waking up from a long sleep. The Shaw Brothers' film empire, which dominated Southeastern Asian film for two decades well into the 1960s, actually began in Shanghai in 1925. It relocated to Hong Kong in 1937 because of the Japanese invasion. Many of Shanghai's filmmakers and major stars went with them, but between 1937 and 1941, Shanghai still managed to make 230 films. The Japanese occupation tried to inveigle the remaining filmmakers into making propaganda for them. Meanwhile, some Chinese filmmakers in Chongqing were busy making propaganda films _against_ the Japanese. Most films made just after 1949 were about the civil war or China's war against the Japanese. However, the quality of filmmaking steadily deteriorated until, by the early 1960s, most of the filming being done was documentaries and news. The wars had made things difficult for the Shanghai film industry, but it was the Cultural Revolution that really killed it. And it was no accident. It was murder. Her birth name was Li Yunhe and under the name of Lan Ping, she was a minor actress in Shanghai between 1934 and 1937. But it was as Jiang Qing that she got her biggest roles: first as Mao's wife and then as a member of the Gang of Four. Initially Jiang targeted Beijing opera, promoting her own ‘model operas’ instead. After consolidating her power, she returned to Shanghai to direct the downfall of its film industry. Between 1973 and 1976, she reduced the city’s film industry to a mouthpiece for the Gang of Four. China’s renaissance of ‘fifth generation’ filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige came out of Beijing in the 1980s, not Shanghai, which has never really recovered. But, there is hope. Shanghai seems to have recently been added to the list of locations considered by Hollywood moguls. The Mission Impossible series recently made a visit and move ‘The White Countess’ was both filmed in and set in Shanghai. Hopefully this is just the beginning and the international vogue will encourage local Chinese to take camera in hand. Exactly what a recent amateur competition encouraged a typically international collection of Shanghai residents to do. Seven teams took on the challenge of making a 3 to 8 minute film that had a list of required elements including a surprise ending. The resulting films were all fascinating and are supposed to be on the sponsor's website at some point. However, I subjected myself to the private torture of the feature length screenplay contest that ran at the same time. Overall, I learned that the level of creativity in Shanghai is amazing and the future of film here looks promising. Just don’t say the word ‘pizza’ around me, please. Posted by Beth Epstein Beth is a member of SVAMA who is currently working in China.