Letter from Beijing


Sculpture from 798 Art District in Beijing

This is not really a letter from Beijing.  I would have liked to have written it there, but Blogger is blocked in China.  Facebook is also blocked there, which was less distressful than I imagined.  I can now attest to the fact that nobody ever died because they couldn’t check in somewhere cool.

Of course China has come up with its own version of Facebook, just like it has its own version of Google (Baidu) and Yahoo (Sina) and PayPal (Alibaba), to name a few.  It’s really a cross between Twitter and Facebook, and it’s called Weibo.  Last Tuesday my colleagues and I braved the Beijing smog (shocking even by the standards of a former Angeleno) to sit down with a few folks from their team and talk shop.  I was there with the Western European, aged, behemoth of a technology company I work for, along with some partners from an American, aged, behemoth of a technology company.  Together we easily averaged twice the age of the our Weibo colleagues.  We sat listening attentively while Gaofei, Jerry, Terry, and Ianli regaled us with tales of their three-hundred million and growing user base.  I half expected them to dab the dribble from our chins and tuck blankets over our laps before they wheeled us out to contemplate how we might capture just a few drops from their overflowing cup.  Instead they gave us each a red scarf — Weibo apparently sounds a lot like the word for scarf in Chinese — which was promptly stolen from my hotel room by the maid.

There were other memorable if more predictable experiences over the course of the five-day trip.  There was the restaurant lit up from the outside like a Vegas casino with hostesses dressed in matching fur-collared camel coats and rhinestone tiaras who ushered us up escalators in a corridor with AstroTurf-lined walls to eat fried fish with a spiked ridge like a dog collar.  Then there was the dinner at a restaurant laid out like the villa of a rich Qing dynasty family, where women in elaborate costumes — embroidered peony pink dresses, fan-shaped head pieces crowned with a single oversize flower, white socked-sandals resting on a squat stilt under the center of the foot — served us individual carafes of hot, clear liquor alongside a taunting plate of deer tongues.  The tongues were redeemed with a duck hamburger, a crisp patty sandwiched between a spongy oyster shell-shaped bun, scalloped like a madeleine.

Culinary miscellany aside, the meeting at Weibo made the deepest impression on me.  I feel like I have seen the future, and it coincidentally looks a lot like the above picture I snapped in the trendy Beijing 798 art district.  Because of course Beijing has trendy art districts now, just like they have Zara and iPhones and social networks that are on course to dwarf Facebook before the year is out.

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