Fieldnotes from Shanghai: An ‘Adult’ Playground

Here’s me clowning around with some adult playground equipment. We stumbled onto these facilities near an old folk’s home in Shanghai. The plastic equipment was heavily used by the older residents for their morning exercise.


Photograph by Eric Klopfer

Fieldnotes from Shanghai: A Psychedelic Subway….

We took a subway underneath the xx River which separates Padong from the main part of Shanghai. The full length of the ride is accompanied by flashing lazer lights, inflated figures, retro electronica music, and a cryptic narration.

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Photographs by Sasha Barab

This ends my reports on China. Next time: Confessions of a Superhero

Fieldnotes from Shanghai: The Cathay

The Cathay

These two photographs show the exterior and interior of a vintage movie theater in the French Concessions in Shanghai — a section of town which was among the first to be westernized but which now lags behind the more futuristic sections of the city.



Photographs by Eric Klopfer

Fieldnotes from Shanghai: How to Confuse With Pictures…

The use of pictures is supposed to produce signs which can be understood universally, but we had some difficulty deciphering exactly what was being communicated here…

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Photography by Sasha Barab

Fieldnotes from Shanghai: Cult of the Unscrutable Colonial

In Search of the Inscrutable Colonial…

Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age refers to a future Chinese cult around the “inscrutable Colonial” who never revealed the secrets of his recipe for fried chicken. We saw plenty of signs that this cult was taking shape when we visited Shanghai but we also saw even greater symptoms of another religion in the making — perhaps centered around the resurrection of a certain character from Battlestar Galactica. If nothing else, these images suggest how transnational brands get adapted to fit within culturally specific contexts.



Photographs by Sasha Barab

Fieldnotes from Shanghai: Signs for Desperate Tourists

The following are signs for rest rooms seen in the Yu Gardens in Shanghai. ‘Nuff Said.



Photographs taken by Eric Klopfer

Field Notes from Shanghai: China’s Digital Mavens

As I was getting ready for the trip, I stumbled onto a recently released study, produced by IAC and JWT, which compared the centrality of digital media in the life of teens in the United States and China. I used these statistics in my talk at the conference to suggest the importance of fostering new media literacies and ethics among Chinese youth. Here are some of the report’s findings:

  • Almost five times as many Chinese as American respondents said they have a parallel life online (61 percent vs. 13 percent).
  • More than twice as many Chinese respondents agreed that “I have experimented with how I present myself online” (69 percent vs. 28 percent of Americans).
  • More than half the Chinese sample (51 percent) said they have adopted a completely different persona in some of their online interactions, compared with only 17 percent of Americans.
  • Fewer than a third of Americans (30 percent) said the Internet helps their social life, but more than three-quarters of Chinese respondents (77 percent) agreed that “The Internet helps me make friends.”
  • Chinese respondents were also more likely than Americans to say they have expressed personal opinions or written about themselves online (72 percent vs. 56 percent). And they have expressed themselves more strongly online than they generally do in person (52 percent vs. 43 percent of Americans).
  • Chinese respondents were almost twice as likely as Americans to agree that it’s good to be able to express honest opinions anonymously online (79 percent vs. 42 percent) and to agree that online they are free to do and say things they would not do or say offline (73 percent vs. 32 percent).

In almost every category, Chinese youth expressed an even deeper investment in the online world than their American counterparts. It is particularly compelling the degree to which they use digital media to escape constraints on their real world experience, whether local constraints imposed by parents and schools or larger societal constraints imposed by governments.

We need to be careful about framing these findings through Cold War discourse which stresses the free west against the repressive east. It seems more useful to think about the different constraints on participation teens in each country face in their offline lives and the ways that online experiences may allow them at some limited experiences of transcending those constraints. Of course, in both countries, there are ongoing struggles about how much access to and what kinds of participation teens should enjoy in the online world.

Several people I’ve spoken with here, however, have sought to qualify the picture of Chinese digital youth culture represented through the study. They note, for example, that while Chinese youth have extensive access to blogging technologies they have little to no access to social networks like MySpace and Facebook and they are blocked from being able to use Wikipedia except through elaborate proxies. (I’ve struggle while I have been in China with having my own access to wikipedia cut off behind the firewall.) Others suggested that Chinese youth have been very active in helping to translate western media content, including the work of participatory culture, into Chinese but have been much slower to embrace such cultural practices themselves. Some have adopted judgmental perspectives on this participation gap suggesting that the Chinese take but do not give to the culture of the web.

Certainly, we can point to the visible contributions of amateur Chinese media makers to YouTube — most notably, of course, the Back Dorm Boys. (See an interview here conducted by my CMS colleague Beth Coleman as part of her Project Good Luck initiative designed to better understand the rise of digital culture in China.) Yet, I am told they have been much slower to embrace re-mix or modding practices or to generate their own fan fiction, though some have told me that this is starting to change at a rapid pace.

One might hypothesize that Chinese and American teens deal with the uncertainties of the digital environment in different ways: many American teens are unaware of the potential consequences of posting their own content on the web, showing ignorance or naivity about the intellectual property implications of such activities or the long term impact of digital content on how they are perceived by schools or future employees. The Chinese youth, living in a very different cultural and political context, seem less willing to take risks and probably much more awareness of the potential ramifications. They seem to value the freedom they find online all the more because they know what the stakes are in their exercise of those freedoms.

Others stress that the difference may have to do with the language barrier of the online world. Chinese young people may have more skills at translating English content for their own community and may have stronger incentives for wanting to access that western content; Chinese youth perceive the west as having little interest in what they have to say and little willingness (not to mention capacity given how rare it still is for schools to offer courses in Chinese languages) to help close that gap in terms of translating their content into English.

Field Notes from Shanghai: Fansubbing in China

I had dinner on my last night in Shanghai with Yu Liu, a reporter who covers digital culture for Lifeweek Magazine, which is roughly the equivalent of Time. She shared with me a story she had written about the growing fan culture around Prison Break in China. As she notes, Prison Break‘s focus on strong filial bonds resonate powerfully with Chinese cultural tradition.

(This left me wondering about the popularity of Supernatural in China — which has the strong brotherly affection coupled with ghost stories and would seem ready made for this market, but I didn’t see any signs of it.)

Prison Break had already been mentioned to me several times during the visit as a series which was sparking strong fan response here. Yu Liu’s report describes the elaborate collaborative network which has emerged to allow Chinese fans to translate and recirculate Prison Break episodes within twelve hours of their airing in the United States. As we spoke, she drew strong parallels to the fan subbing practices around anime in the western world, which I have discussed here in the blog in the past.

She said that during the first season, the Chinese fans had discovered the series on dvds sold on street corners as part of the black market in entertainment properties here. By the second season, the fans primarily relied on the internet to access content, impatient with the longer turnaround time of dvd production. Like American anime fans, they took the media in their own hands.

She notes that some of the amateur media fan groups in China can translate as many as twenty television shows a week, suggesting how Prison Break fits within larger patterns of cultural practice. She noted that the technical languages used on contemporary procedurals such as CSI and the slang used on many American programs posed particular difficulties for Chinese translators, who had mastered textbook English but had less exposure to more specialized argots.

The internet distribution of this content had special implications for rural communities, which had enjoyed less access to dvds than their urban counterparts. Web-based fan cultures were allowing rural youths to more actively engage with their urban counterparts and to become more fully integrated into online communities because they could consume the same television and film properties without significant delays.

Such access, however, was also fostering greater dissatisfaction with what many fans saw as the inferior quality of local media content. Chinese programs, produced under a state service model, had less of a focus on entertainment and fewer of the hallmarks of cult media than programs produced from outside the country, including not only American series but also Korean soaps and Japanese anime programs. Such programs, however, gain little airtime on Chinese television given the government’s long standing quotas on how much foreign content can be distributed within the country.

I was reminded of how I first got into Hong Kong Action films in part through a local dealer who had made pirated dubs of films from Japanese dvds, many of which were not available commercially here in the United States. Over time, I watched attendance at local screenings grow and grow because more and more people got access to films which no one imagined we would be interested in seeing in the first place. You started to see websites emerge which offered more information about the filmmakers and stars. All of this proceeded a wave of immigration during which people like Michelle Yeoh, Chow-Yun Fat, and Jackie Chan, began to appear in western films. Here, again, as I suggest in Convergence Culture, piracy becomes promotion.

Field Notes from Shanghai: Whatever Happened to Shanghai Swing?

Shanghai had been a thriving center for jazz and swing music during the 1930s and 1940s. These night clubs are vividly recreated in the opening segments of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom . I got deeper into this world when I had a chance to see some 1930s and 1940s era Chinese musicals when I attended the Hong Kong film festival a decade or so ago. Unlike Hollywood’s representation, Shanghai swing was not simply derivative, appropriating western tunes and translating them into a new language. Rather, Shanghai Swing offered a fusion of western syncopation with classical Chinese instruments and sounds. It was, in effect, an early predecessor of today’s world music movement.

I was able to find a few rare recordings of the 1930s Shanghai Swing, mostly taken from film soundtracks, during a trip to Beijing five years ago and it has a cherished place on my ipod. So, I was determined to learn more about the contemporary swing scene during this trip.

A little research suggests that there are at least some new groups seeking to revive this popular music tradition, much as neo-swing music has enjoyed at least niche success off and on across the western world over the past few decades. I was able to find this website which offers some background on “Yellow Music,” as Shanghai Swing was known among some of its followers. They explain:

In the colourful cabarets and sepia-lit dance halls of Old Shanghai, Jazz music set the background score to a fleshy world of mobsters, adventurers, and sing-song girls. Old Shanghai was the uncontested Jazz capital of Asia, where musicians from the World over tested their musical mettle nightly to the delight of enthusiastic audiences. In 1935, Du Yu Sheng, the notorious overlord of Shanghai’s ominous “Green Gang” ordered into creation the first all-Chinese jazz group, called “The Clear Wind Dance Band”, to perform at the Yangtze River Hotel Dance Hall. Critics called this music ‘pornographic,’ but the band played on just the same. The wheels of time brought Shanghai’s heady heyday to an end as the once-bustling nightclubs were boarded up or converted into Communist factory buildings, and Jazz music was outlawed as an ‘indecent’ form of entertainment…Until Now.


This site publicizes the efforts of the Yellow Music Ensemble to revive his rich cultural tradition, through a series of albums which promise us “musical seductions from China’s Age of Decedence,” a phrase which turns decades of anti-jazz criticisms among Chinese cultural and political leaders on its head, even as it continues to exploit western orientalist fantasies about musical exotica from the East. In explaining their name, the site suggests,

The term ‘yellow music’ was used as early as 1926 by May 4th musical reformers condemning the works of composer Li Jun Hui, labeling them as ‘fleshy’, ‘pornographic’ and ‘decadent’. Fusing Chinese folk melodies with western jazz and the styles of such composers as George Gershwin seems innocent enough, but having them performed by rows of teenage girls ‘clad in costumes that left their arms and legs unencumbered’ , drew its’ critics . This yellowness to which the authorities objected was not so much the exposed skin color or even the urban pentatonic quality of the music, but its’ Chinese-ness, and perhaps its’ blackness as well. During the 1920s jazz was racialized and assigned to the lowest rungs of the musical evolutionary ladder, the Shanghai Conservatory considered jazz to be ‘a bad form of Western music’ much the same manner as were Chinese folk tunes; ‘primitive music composed with a pentatonic scale’. This is obviously not the case in the 21st century. We have revived this concept in describing the modern instrumental fusion of Chinese and Western musical styles.

The group has produced three albums so far, which don’t seem to be for sale on the site. I have friends in China trying to track down copies for me. The site does offer some mp3 samples as well as an interesting video showing Shanghai Swing then and now. The design of the album covers evoke the aesthetics of old Chinese calendar art, a popular collectible among western visitors to this country, though I suspect few of them connect these amber images of beautiful women in traditional garb back to the thriving entertainment industry in Shanghai during the pre-war years

Field Notes from Shanghai: My Newest Avatar

Last time, I offered some perspectives on the current state of serious games in China, based on a conference I recently intended in Shanghai. Today, I want to share some other impressions of the place of popular culture and digital media in contemporary Shanghai based on other experiences and encounters I had in the country.


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While visiting the Yu Gardens, I stumbled onto a series of craftspeople from the region, including a sculpture who was producing likenesses of visitors by carving colored dough. Being obsessed with multiple personas, I could not resist the temptation to have him sculpt a “mini-me,” my term, not his. The process took about twenty minutes from start to finish. Sitting for the clay portrait gave me a chance to watch him apply his skills as a craftsman involved in an activity which I am told goes back centuries. I have reproduced the likeness here (though the piece was damaged slightly during my trip back to the United States and seems to be falling apart day by day as the clay dries.) It was interesting to see what someone from another culture would emphasize in representing me. I’d just had a hair cut and beard trim before the trip so you don’t get the full ‘shaggy man’ Henry look, but he does capture my salt and pepper beard. He spent a great deal of time trying to replicate the precise pattern and coloring of my blue and purple striped shirt. I was wearing my black leather jacket so you don’t get to see my trademark suspenders.

The practice involves rolling very thin strips of clay which may be cut and shaped using tiny implements. He also mixes his colors from a more limited palette, a skill which especially came into play as he tried to match the coloring of my beard.