The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Eventful Photos

As a journalist, you run around with a sense of joyful entitlement. This feeling of self-righteousness is usually what encourages journalists to sneak into places or to not be pushed around by the rich and powerful. You might be struggling to pay the rent, but when you’re holding a notebook or a camera, you can act like a little emperor. You get to ask the rude questions, to pop your flash in someone’s face and demand time with veryimportantpeople. Sure, it’s crucial to be nice as well, but you also get to be stubborn.

Being an event photographer is very different. I’ve started doing some event photography on the side, and it’s been fun to assume a different professional demeanor. If you acted like a journalist while shooting a party, you’d be a real jerk. One can’t constantly, rudely butt into an event’s most precious moments. Instead of being a little emperor, you’re a member of the waitstaff, anticipating the right moment to jump in. You’re always courteous, always smiling, and there’s none of that cowboy swagger I sometimes try to fake as journalist. Read the rest of this entry »

Cage dwellers

Some stories should be told again and again. The media usually does a good job covering a sudden calamity, but a slow moving tragedy or the static plight of a downtrodden group gets short shrift. Before I went home for the holidays last year, a friend and I started to look into a story on cage homes in Hong Kong. It’s a story that’s been done multiple times over the last three decades (watch a particularly moving version of the story here). The gist of the story is that Hong Kong has some of the highest real estate prices in the world. With long waiting lists for public housing, some people can only afford to live in cages and are stuck there for years at a time. In many places, the actual cages have been removed, making the densely packed residences (still called “cage homes”) the world’s most dilapidated hostels. Scores of people share smelly, filthy squat toilets that are often located two steps from the kitchen sink. Read the rest of this entry »

War Games

On the Oregon coast, there’s a giant sand dune conveniently located next to a microbrewery where kids and families slog up and then roll down, before climbing back into their mini-vans dizzy and with sand in their shoes. As a kid though, I enjoyed the backside of the dune—a warren of sand paths in coastal greenery—even more than sledding down the sandy slope. You could crawl through a maze of plant tunnels, sneak up and spy on the other kids. You never knew what was around the corner. There could be nothing, or you could find yourself running into a suburban dad or a white-tailed deer. You were always close to others, but if you were stealthy, they couldn’t see you. I got a certain mischievous thrill when they had no idea you were crawling circles around them.

Crouched in the Hong Kong foilage near the border with China holding an automatic weapon, I remembered how exciting that feeling was. When you’re crawling around trying to remain hidden, you become aware of every movement and every sound around you. Even if you’re just waiting in the bushes, time seems to stretch out, and you’re aware of every moment.

A couple of weeks ago, a few friends and I got roped into playing war games. I’d imagined something akin to the paintball experiences I’d had: We’d run around a small field, getting shot at by teenagers on birthday parties. But when we got to the bus stop, we realized we the people shooting at us wouldn’t be rank amateurs. Everybody was in full fatigues and many wore genuine military helmets with built-in radios. When we got the field, everybody took out their guns and lovingly assembled them, comparing sizes and models with the people around them. We were the only people—out of about 80—without our own automatic rifles. We just referred to as ‘the rentals’, and with our inferior gear we made easy targets for the military hobbyists and their high-powered BB M-16s and sniper rifles.

The BBs don’t hurt a great deal unless you’re hit at really close range. Of course, we didn’t know this in the first round when we were dumped into a labyrinth of forest paths. There was no team strategy or goal. We were just told to shoot the enemy. We’d recognize the them, we were told, because they’d be shooting at us. Fair enough, I thought, but the reality was you’re almost always in total confusion about who’s around the corner. In the fog of war, one constantly wonders, ‘If I crawl down the path, will I find myself staring down the barrel of an enemy rifle?’ Usually, when you crawl around a corner, you meet an empty path, but enough of the time, you find yourself getting shot in the face that you became hyper-sensitive to the sounds around you, listening for any clue about who’s in the neighborhood.

In the end, I don’t think the world’s armies will come recruiting me after my first effort as a foot soldier, but I didn’t do half bad either. Maybe crawling around the Oregon coast spying on other children taught me a thing or two after all.

Hong Kong Phooey

I’ve left Cambodia and the Phnom Penh Post, and I’ve landed back in Hong Kong with Time Magazine. By and large, it’s been an easy transition back to a city with mass transit, dumplings, and the rule of law, but I’ve really struggled to explain my last year to people.

When people ask what was it like in Cambodia, it’s difficult to whittle it down to a few statements. Sometimes I ham it up for people, and Cambodia has provided enough adventures good bar talk.

I tell people I lived in a coldwater flat that overlooked the spot where a Scottish teacher was shot. I mention that I was punched in the face twice protecting a woman after being pushed off a scooter next to an old torture chamber. I sip my own drink and tell them about downing homemade whiskey with former Khmer Rouge soldiers while trying to smuggle myself across a border. I say that I once woke up to find a tarantula in my toiletries bag, that I rode on the back of strangers’ scooters to go places, that I lived in a house without internet (the horrors!), and that for fun I partied in abandoned mansions with felons.

This is all true, and these stories might impress the person on the bar stool next to me, but it doesn’t really capture what it was like living in Phnom Penh. Between my home and my office, there were four places to buy gourmet muffins. Danger does not lurk around every corner in a city with so many muffin options. I labor on this point, because if you understand Phnom Penh’s muffins, you understand its expat life.

There’s the all-white Fresco’s. With its sleek, minimalist interior and high-prices, the Frescos stand out along the dusty streets of Phnom Penh. It represents the Phnom Penh fabulous life. If you don’t look out the windows, you could be in a posh coffee shop anywhere in the world, and then there’s the Living Room, where all the NGO consultants and freelance journalists go on their laptops. Closest to my apartment was Jars of Clay that was always full of nice old British ladies talking about church. Finally, there’s Java Cafe which doubles as a gallery. Each stands for a different part of the expat scene: the moneyed who miss the luxuries of home, the small army of consultants and freelancers, the religious groups, and the art lovers.

At different times, I frequented all of them. My life in Phnom Penh is better described by its muffins than its muggings. But then again, muffin-shop monologues rarely make good bar talk.

Announcement Time!

I received an email from Princeton in Asia. They’ve offered me a position at a daily paper—

—in Cambodia.

I’d already decided I was going to stay in Hong Kong. I was absolutely sure. I’d made great friends, had great experiences, and even had a roommate lined up. I wasn’t ready to leave.

But, a job as a reporter at the Phnom Penh Post is just too good of a career opportunity, too good of an adventure to pass up. Plus, I hear one can watch the Tonle Sap River change colors at sunset from one’s choice of beer gardens.

I’ll be sad to leave Hong Kong, but I’m looking forward to hosting couch-surfing visitors in Phnom Penh. See you in Cambodia!

On old new media, new new media, and the “Net Nanny”

In the early days of photography, many people claimed that photographs could never be art. In response, early photographers both consciously and unconsciously imitated Renaissance painting and sculpture—sometimes even going as far as dressing their models in togas. After all, that is what was considered art. It wasn’t for fifty years after the fixed image that photographers began to take full advantage of the medium and create a distinct aesthetic.

If you’ve ever watched the Honeymooners, a show from the mid 1950s starring Jackie Gleason, you see the same phenomenon. Television was relatively new, and people had yet to unlock its full potential. The can lighting, simple sets, fixed audience perspective, and exaggerated physical expressions had more in common with theatre and vaudeville than later television shows that the Honeymooners inspired.

It’s not that all of early photography or the Honeymooners was bad art—quite the contrary—but they show that it takes time to figure out what to do with new media technology. It should be no surprise then that people are still struggling to wrap their minds around the internet.

On Friday, I attended the 6th annual Chinese Internet Conference hosted by the University of Hong Kong, which explored different understandings and uses of the internet in China. The conference included business advisors, journalists, famous bloggers, and academics, and at times, people were just throwing out ideas to see what stuck. In some ways, the Conference was in the Honeymooners stage; there were some great ideas and insights, but people—bloggers excluded—stuck in the language of the past.

There was one presentation in particular that brought to mind early photography and the Honeymooners. Lokman Tsui, a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that the term “the Great Firewall”—the regime of internet censorship in China—was actually a continuation of Cold War ideology, a sort of “Iron Curtain 2.0.” Tsui pointed to proposed American laws aimed against against the “Great Firewall” that tried to prevent internet “jamming.” “Jamming,” of course, is a radio metaphor; one cannot “jam” the internet. The words, Tsui argued, politicize the American understanding of the internet.

So why does it matter that American understanding of the internet in China is informed by the Cold War? If early photos can sell for millions and the Honeymooners can be ranked the #3 greatest TV show, perhaps a Cold War radio analogy can be useful for understanding and implementing internet policy—especially for our less tech savvy members of Congress. Our notion of the internet is already moving away from Cold War radio analogies. Young people today may never even listen to an AM/FM radio ever again. They may only understand the influence of Cold War era Voice of America in terms of internet analogies. Surely, we’ll develop a new language for the internet and internet regulation. It just takes time.

Also, if not the “Great Firewall” then what term is better? Tsui’s response was hardly satisfying: “As an academic, I’m good at putting up problems.” That’s akin to noticing a photograph of person in a toga standing on marble pedestal has something in common with Renaissance sculpture. It’s nice that someone noticed, but it doesn’t push us any closer to developing a new language of the internet.

Other possibilities to use in lieu of “the Great Firewall”? Gamers in China apparently compare internet regulation to controlling the supply of “digital opium,” but my personal favorite was put forward by Jeremy Goldkorn of danwei, calling internet censorship in China a “net nanny.” It’s a cute moniker that better reflects the feelings of many using the internet in China. Here’s hoping that the term sticks.

FEERless in Hong Kong

After she finished her exam, she handed me a bottle filled with 128 hand-folded origami stars. It would bring me good luck, my student explained.

On Friday morning, I really wanted some good fortune. Not sure how to properly activate a bottle of lucky stars, I rubbed it; I kissed it; I even uncorked it and sniffed it to better absorb the luck fumes.

In the taxi to the interview, there was a two dollar coin on the floor. I resisted the urge to pick it up. In Hong Kong, the two dollars would be considered the property of a ghost. Taking the money could lead to bad fortune, and that morning especially, I wanted Hong Kong’s ghosts on my side.

But while waiting for the job interview to start, I realized that I’d forgotten to wear red underwear, which is considered lucky in Hong Kong.

Yesterday, they informed me the job went to my friend—this, despite the fact I was wearing my red boxers when they called. I did everything I could to get the position. Well almost. Next time, I will bring the stars with me to the job interview.

“…mit grosser Wildheit” (with great ferocity)

In 1902, Rainer Maria Rilke went to the zoo and wrote about a panther pacing in his cage. Though Rilke’s panther has a “great will,” so long as he’s trapped, the desires that exist deep in his limbs can never be realized. There are moments when one can see the tension in the panther’s body and his eyes dilate with memories of freedom—reminders of the elegance and ferociousness of a liberated panther, reminders of what could be.

Tonight, four us—all men—went to see Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 played by the Hong Kong Baptist University Orchestra. Nearly every week, a group us guys goes to a classical music concert, and as we teach ourselves about the music, we bond over our shared experiences. I’ve dubbed us “the Mahler Men,” and I had high hopes for this concert.

Written in the two decades before Rilke’s poem, Mahler’s first symphony is full of instructions that could describe Rilke’s pacing panther—”dragging like a sound of nature,” “solemn and measured”—as well as possible descriptions of an uncaged panther: “tempestuous,” “vigorous,” “with great ferocity.”

But at this performance the panther never escaped. Like the poem, there were moments of tension, and there were places where I could see great ferocity. Though there were a few missteps notably in a bass solo and in the brass section, what really separated this performance from an inspiring, professional one was the inability to let the cat out.

Unlike Rilke’s panther, who never tried to leave the cage, the orchestra attempted to free the music. But to play with great ferocity doesn’t just mean to play loudly, one has to play fearlessly.

Sure, it was a disappointing concert, but it was also the first classical concert where I could confidently point to specific moments and aspects of the performance that should have been better. I actually knew when they messed up. Oddly, it felt good. It’s exciting to have proof that you’re learning. You don’t need to be an expert to enjoy classical music, but it’s fun to know that the contrabassoon player had a great performance. I mean it’s cool enough just to know what a contrabassoon is.

Go Big Green!

Why didn’t I think of it before? Priya Venkatesan taught a required first year writing course at Dartmouth, which means she and I taught very similar courses, and I have to give her credit I never could’ve come up with her idea. Priya Venkatesan threatened to sue her students for criticizing her. She sent her class an email:

… I regret to inform you that I am pursuing a lawsuit in which I am accusing some of you (whom shall go unmentioned in this email) of violating Title VII of anti-federal [SIC] discrimination laws…

It’s brilliant. First off, this a good technique to make your students pay attention: “Hey class, pay attention and agree with me, or I’ll sue you.” Plus, they’ll be too busy freaking out to notice the grammar errors in the email. Apparently, the students disrespected Venkatesan by being intolerant of her views. Unfortunately for academia, the press has called her views “post-modern” and part of “French narrative theory,” rather than the more accurate label—stupid. If I had followed her example, I could have waltzed into class and said anything I wanted, and my students would’ve been forced to listen to me. There’d be no need to lesson plan.

Second, she reportedly missed about three weeks of class and stopped grading papers. Think of all the free time I’d have to travel around Asia if I didn’t have to lesson plan, attend class, or grade papers. I could learn to cook, spend time learning Chinese, or maybe even take massage lessons. Now it turns out that Dartmouth is making her class pass/fail. This means she didn’t need to do any grading at all. Her entire class is passing. For every hour of class there is about three hours grading, and Venkatesan found a way to around this whole system. Supposedly, she has left Dartmouth and is now at Northwestern, another elite university.

If you read her students’ reviews, they clearly hated her. But on the bright side, she’s writing a book about the whole experience. I could even imagine the autobiography of a delusional crackpot academic selling well. Her emailed finished:

… I am also writing a book detailing my experiences as your instructor, which will “name names” so to speak. I have all of your evaluation and these will be reproduced in the book.

Have a nice day.


Have a nice day, indeed.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

I learned most of my Chinese history from playing Nintendo.

Before the age of ten, my neighbor and I had familiarized ourselves with the names of the important figures in China during the second and third centuries. Liu Bei, Sun Quan, Cao Cao, Cao Ren, and Cao Pi—we knew ‘em all. Combined, we spent countless hours and (our parents’) dollars playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a role-playing game where you attempted to unify China. Somehow—even without Wikipedia or the internet—we learned a bit of the actual history. Though, we always chose to play as the Cao family not for any historic reason, but because we thought Cao Pi—and this provided hours of entertainment—was pronounced “Cow Pie.” Come to think of it, the idea of “Cow Pie” conquering China is still funny.

I bring this up, because at dinner with some of my students, Romance of the Three Kingdoms came up in conversation. It turns out it’s an important historical novel based on actual events—not just an era acting as fodder for video games. Wanting to come off as more knowledgeable than I actually was, I asked a few educated questions: “Now, I know Cao Pi was Cao Cao’s son but how was Cao Ren related to Cao Cao again?” I impressed a couple people—briefly—but then someone inevitably asked how I knew the plot of a massive tome written in the 14th century. Sheepishly, I had to admit that I learned it from a video game.

But, they had too! While I learned my Chinese history from the first RotTK, a couple of my students learned from the much more sophisticated ninth installment of the game. It doesn’t sit completely right with me for a generation of people to learn Chinese history from a Japanese video game, but if you’re going to play video games anyways you might as well learn something that you can later teach your English teacher. Right?