China-focused Satire, Social Commentary, Comics and More

Postcards From Tomorrow Square – a Review

The Escape List: Postcards From Tomorrow Square by James Fallows

*Editor’s Note: The Escape List originally existed as a separate identity from TRW. However, as busy readers and watchers we thought we ought to include some exposure for the various China-related (defined as broadly as we decide) media we have ingested and try to put them into the context of our own perceptions. These books, films, and other things are not necessarily new releases, they are not in any special order, and some will be much more relevant to your interests than others.

As we have reminded our readers recently, China’s rapid development and emergence as a world power is the source of a great deal of fears and misconceptions, as well as a well-deserved general amazement (which may link to the former two). Fellow China-dwellers may be familiar with the fascination one encounters upon returning to America (and presumably other countries), and the ensuing exhaustion and numbness that comes from answering identical China questions every time you encounter someone you haven’t yet seen. (“Actually, Chinese students are not perfect angels.” “Really!? Tell me more!”). Of course, we do what we must do, just as we might try to ensure people over here that not quite everyone in America is a gun-toting madman. Meanwhile, there is no end to the implications that China is frightening, both from blatant fear-mongerers and well-meaning sources.

James Fallows seems to be the opposite of a fear monger – a sensibleness monger, perhaps. This collection of essays, Postcards From Tomorrow Square, could save expats on leave some trouble. The most obvious theme throughout the book is the need for the world, especially America, to take a realistic view on China. His essays take on broad and relevant topics (though three or four years old), and could be seen as a sort of introductory guide, as if the author anticipated what might be the most common questions Americans would have about the country and then did his best to answer them: How do Chinese factories work? What’s the deal with pollution in China? How does the Great Firewall work? If the Chinese hold our debt, can they make us their slaves? Indeed, he is often not writing about China so much as China’s relation to American and Americans, with the aim of reminding them of the United States’ supposed strengths, using China as a sort of big smudgy mirror. His conclusion, naturally, is that what America should fear is its own moping apprehension. China is important, but it is not scary. It is a place experiencing profound change and advancement but it’s people are still mostly poor. Its government may be shifty, but is often self-damaging. Of course, he does not dismiss the idea that there are things to be concerned about – pollution is real and is a world problem, for example. But repeatedly he encourages America to stop worrying that a usurper is coming, urging it instead to look across the ocean for collaborative opportunities, as well as to start exercising the old competitive muscles and get innovating.

Most of all, Fallows aims (and succeeds) to get one point across – that China is complicated, and therefore there are both positive and negative sides to almost every issue. Shanghai, he ensures his readers, is just a weird shiny blip in the vastness of the country, where a great variety of people and problems exist. If it is a dose of stark ideology you are after, avoid this reasonable author and turn on Fox News. Or read the China Daily, for a more entertaining – and oddly enlightening – kind of spin.

Leave A Comment »

A Chinese Car Accident in Three Parts

Attn: Outside World

We wish to share with you a complete account of the recent remarkable event which unfolded directly below our dusty office window here at This Ridiculous World Headquarters.

Set deep in the remote urban jungles of modern industrial China we witnessed the coming together of human, machine and fire hydrant. The story will be illustrated in three parts as follows:

Scene One: The Incident
In which the tree is in bloom, the vehicle-tree-hydrant meet abruptly, water streams forth, people crowd, the water is shut off, the law arrives, the crowd disperses and the insurance man photographs.
Cast: Tree, Audi, Woman, Construction Workers, Elderly, Babies, City Worker, The Law, Insurance Man
Time Span: 1 hour

Scene Two: The Rescue
In which a man in a business suit, two children, a teen, and a few old men push the car from the hydrant, the tow truck arrives, the damage is surveyed, loose parts are collected and all parties depart.
Cast: Family of Woman (no woman), Elderly Men, Tow Truck Operator
Time Span: 2 hours

Scene Three: The Aftermath
In which soil is hawked, cement is mixed, the hydrant is replaced, months pass, the plot is empty and, eventually, the tree is replaced.
Cast: Two City Workers, Dirt Purchaser, Sweet Potato Salesperson, New Tree
Time Span: 2 months

Click Photos to Enlarge
your arrow keys can be used to assist you in navigation

1 Comment »

Skyline full of Fireworks at Chinese New Year

Leave A Comment »

Dear People of the Rooftops

Dear People of the Rooftops,

We see you sometimes, black shapes crawling over unfinished buildings – black because of your distance and the dulling grayness between us and also because of the jackets you wear and the hair on your head. You are the toilers; the transformers of the cities; the ones who knock it down and put it up. However, it would be too easy, and a little cruel, and perhaps inaccurate, to compare you to ants. You may be small and black, but you do sometimes stop working.

In fact, there are times, watching the skeletal towers that surround us, that we do not know you are there at all, not until you step out from hiding to the edge or up to the peak to check the health of your rooftop plant. Without harnesses or even ropes, you move easily on over those high beams, swinging hammers and guiding the hanging loads of cranes. You seem to belong in those high places. Look up to any rooftop, on any day and in any weather, on any tower wrapped in green, and you will be there. Black shapes, looking down, probably thinking how ant-like the moving bodies far below appear.

Even up so high you try to enjoy yourselves. One day we watched a show you were putting on. Rockets whisked and shattered noise, along with a little light, above the neighborhood. Unroped, unsupervised, unconcerned, one of you perched on the edge of the roof and lit the fuses of those mortars, which launched from a colorful box set amid a lumber pile. For extra effect, a string of firecrackers had been wound up the scaffolding and the explosions seemed to climb upward like a crackling spider. That was the same day that a building burned, unintentionally, in the not-so-distant city of Shanghai. The scaffolding of that high-rise caught fire and spread into a raging blaze. The cause of the fire was only a spark, but the results were disastrous. I do not suggest that a rooftop celebration was involved, but that day, with safety on our minds, we watched from our balcony across the open air as puffs of smoke added to the sky’s grayness, covering our ears as each blast rang out, and felt that we might witness a parallel tragedy. Perhaps your show was in honor of the disaster that day; perhaps it was in response to it, an attempt to ward off a similar accident; or perhaps it was unrelated to the earlier events. Whatever the reason, your building remained, and still remains after other explosive shows. And you, the people of the rooftops, still come and go, like tiny laboring inhabitants, from the woodwork.


This Ridiculous World

Leave A Comment »



CHINA – If you have eyes or ears, you’re no doubt familiar with the rumor: China is changing. The Western media teems with tales of the massive nation’s development – the qualities of a rising middle class; the plight of the poor rural folk left behind; the corruption that chews its way through the system; and the unfortunate pollution that comes with growth. The details of your education have perhaps varied, and to you the stories may reek of bias, but the one thing you know for sure is this: China’s rise is something to fear.

Here, finally, is some hard evidence. The streets of China’s city are filled not only with people and a growing number of cars but also heaps of old, unwanted appliances. Televisions, refrigerators, microwaves – things you may have doubted even to exist in the distant communist land. The problem is not environmental, however – the earth will surely devour these piles of glass, metal, and plastic and work them back into raw minerals; America and the rest of the Western world, on the other hand, will never recover.

The might of the West has come not only from ingenuity and consumer clout. Our constant upward exchange of technology has ensured that what we see is sharper and what we hear is crisper than the so-called developing world. We can live comfortably knowing that while we are watching high definition, eating ice cream from our energy-sucking freezers, the rest of the world is stuck in grainy low res, if they even have color. These discarded devices are more than garbage – they are symbols. An old TV means there’s a newer one somewhere, which in turn means that some upwardly-mobile Chinese family now sits in their living room before an image just as precise and colorful as their counterparts in the United States. The edge, it seems, may be lost. The most populated country in the world has reached an unprecedented stage of equality. It may be only a matter of time before their streets are littered with flat screens, and one can only guess what that would mean.

Leave A Comment »

English Programme for Children: That was a Funny Thing I Did

Having survived twelve weeks and twenty four classes of the English Programme for Children I am ready to put it behind me and search out the humor in the experience. The “Program” involved teaching a class of twenty Chinese kindergartners an assortment of English terms (random in my eyes but no doubt the favorites of some Hangzhou entrepreneur) complete with misspellings, poor grammar and words as stereotypical as “Coke” and “Apple Pie” (click on images above to enlarge and follow the link for a previous post with more information).

It would be going too far to say that the kids were scarred by the materials. In fact, the entrepreneur seemed to know his/her audience well. The students ate up words like “Eagle” and “Milk Shake” despite never having seen either nor having been taught the more basic concepts of English such as the alphabet or numbers.

On the other hand, as purveyor of this gibberish, I had issues and discomfort throughout. For example, a unit called “In McDonald’s” introduced the children to important food types such as “Hamburger” and “Sundae” before they had a chance to learn any types of fruit, or cultural staples such as rice, noodles, or even water. Ironically, the kindergarten is located in perhaps one of the only prefecture-level cities left in China that does not yet sport the Golden Arches (a lack that has been noted and is soon to be remedied, much to the excitement of my high school students, who ask me weekly when it will be opened [oh omniscient foreigner!]). Another side-note: It makes you feel like a monster when you have to explain to a five-year-old that he is not right after he confidently shouts “ice-cream” at the flashcard that reads “sundae.”

Another major problem I had was with the videos. A large portion of the teaching materials consisted of songs and chants and a correlating VCD. The kids loved twirling their arms and tilting their legs and mimicking everything else the Chinese women in elf-like outfits did on the TV. Though I’ll admit that some days I found the accented English voice-over that accompanies the dancing in the videos amusing (“stuh duh soup in duh pot!”) the English was so entirely inaccessible that what should have been the loudest activity during class became the quietest. Often the lyrics were new words, barely related to the unit to which they were attached, so instead of having a fun chance to use the words they had just learned the students were dancing to poorly pronounced new vocab. For the few that tried, the strange noises were not as easy to copy as the strange dance moves.

Setting aside the video half of the class and considering the progress of the students over the semester, I can’t help but be impressed. Most of the students retained every word I taught them, including difficult words like “umbrella” and “restaurant.” One can only imagine that this spring, when McDonald’s finally opens and these kids order their French Fries and Apple Pies in English, confusing the other people around them in the crowd (my high school students included) who were never so lucky as to be graduates of the English Programme for Children, and as the parents of these kindergartners are forced to translate, their pleasure creeping tangibly through their smiles, it will seem that something, however trivial, was accomplished this fall in those twenty four sessions of cultural awakening. Perhaps I’ll even be there to witness it, happily ordering ice-cream by it’s proper name.

For Your Viewing Pleasure:

(pick any, they are all equally bad)


Dear People of the Rooftops
Dear People of the Rooftops

Dear People of the Rooftops, We see you sometimes, black shapes crawling over unfinished buildings &

More in Letters to Whomever
What Are Sidewalks For? Answer #22
What Are Sidewalks For? Answer #22

Explosives Share this:

More in What Are Sidewalks For
Just Another Day at a Chinese School
Just Another Day at a Chinese School

Share this:

More in Totally Awesome Picture of the Week
Traces of Progress: Open Forums
Traces of Progress: Open Forums

Share this:

More in Traces of Progress
What We Could Sell if Only We Owned a Tricycle: Idea 18
What We Could Sell if Only We Owned a Tricycle: Idea 18

Food We Thought Was Toilet Paper

More in What We Could Sell if Only We Owned a Tricycle