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Kristi Heim: The World in China

Seattle Times reporter Kristi Heim explores a changing China on the world stage.

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August 24, 2008 7:30 AM

Closing ceremony: Chinese youth culture and a double-decker bus to London

Posted by Kristi Heim


If Beijing's opening ceremony was full of tradition, its closing was meant to carry China into the modern world and hand off the games to London.

What passed for modern in China was a little odd: 200 Chinese drummers in gold bicycle helmets, riders on "wheels of light" circling the stadium and "bouncing and flying men" wearing silver body suits and special shoes that propelled them high into the air. Young women in sports clothes played the erhu, (a traditional stringed instrument) to accompany a pop song.

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After athletes entered stadium, I noticed Lauren Jackson and Yao Ming exchanged a big hug on the field. The atmosphere was all youthful energy, with athletes mingling around in center of the stadium.

The Games that set 38 world records and 85 Olympic records were then handed off to London when a bright red double-decker bus drove into the stadium, peeling away to expose a garden.

Singer Leona Lewis emerged on a platform through the middle of the bus, and then the guitar chords of Led Zeppelin began. Jimmy Page appeared and played a rousing duet of "Whole Lotta Love" with Lewis. Too bad no one in the crowd seemed to recognize him. David Beckham emerged next to them and kicked a soccer ball into crowd. Placido Domingo and Jackie Chan both sang on stage later.

This time the ceremony was mercifully short, not as impressive or sweeping as the opening, but fitting in its own way. As the stadium screens were transformed into airport departure signs, and an airplane ladder rose into the night sky, I realized this time I would be more than happy to board.

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August 22, 2008 11:06 PM

An Olympics beyond gold medals: one alternative view

Posted by Kristi Heim

What images and memories will people take away from these Olympics, beyond who won gold?

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One Chinese observer, Xiong Lei, is disgusted with medal counts and doesn't think much of Liu Xiang, either. She's a retired senior writer and editor of Xinhua News Agency. It was fascinating and refreshing for me to hear her very international view of the games.

Liu Xiang, the Chinese sports icon who dropped out of the Olympics just before his first race, lost the moment Dayron Robles walked into the Olympic Village, Xiong said. Robles "was eating what he wanted to eat. He was playing what he wanted to play... just a normal man," she said. In contrast, Liu was a special athlete surrounded by coaches and boosted to star status, all the while avoiding the public and hiding an injury. Liu was no hero.

When she thinks back on the highlights of the Beijing Olympics, Xiong will think of these people:

--British marathon runner Paula Radcliff, who finished the race in pain without any hope of getting a medal.
--Oksana Chusovitina, the 33-year-old German gymnast driven to compete and use her prize money to cover medical bills for her son, who has leukemia.
--Iraqi athletes like Dina Hussein, who risked her life to train for the games and crossed a battlefield just to buy shoes.
--Asenate Manoa, a runner from the Pacific island of Tuvalu who never used a starting block before participating in these games -- Tuvalu's first Olympics.
--Swedish Table Tennis veteran Jan-Ove Waldner, who played several generations of Chinese players and kept the sport alive in an unlikely place.

Here is a link to Xiong Lei's column.

And just for fun, another alternative view of medals, suggested by Australians as a per capita resorting of the ranks:

Gold medals by population:
1) Jamaica
2) Bahrain
3) Estonia
4) New Zealand
5) Slovakia
6) Australia

Total medals by population:
1) Jamaica
2) Slovenia
3) New Zealand
4) Australia.

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August 22, 2008 8:46 PM

Three countries borne by one athlete

Posted by Kristi Heim

The American flag bearer at Sunday's closing ceremonies is neither famous nor decorated with a lot of gold, but she couldn't be a better choice. Khatuna Lorig, an archer, has represented three different countries in her Olympic career: the former Soviet Union in 1992, Georgia in 1996 and 2000, and the United States at these games.

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Lorig, 34, was chosen yesterday by fellow athletes -- the U.S. captains of each sports team. She was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, and immigrated to the United States in 1995, but did not get her citizenship in time to compete for the U.S. in 2000 or 2004. She lives in California, where she works at Home Depot when she's not training.

Lorig's parents still live in Georgia, where Russian forces have been battling Georgian troops in the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

In the first week of the Games, she was shocked to turn on the television and see the conflict erupting there, Lorig told Reuters last week. "My parents are over there, very close to that area where the situation is happening. But I got to talk to my mom on the telephone this morning and she's fine. She was happy to hear from me and just told me to get my mind back into the Olympics."

Lorig didn't advance past the quarterfinals this time, but she said having a chance to carry the flag is "almost like winning a gold medal, maybe even better."

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August 22, 2008 6:23 AM

A patch of green in a sea of gray

Posted by Kristi Heim

Beijing is a grand city on a larger-than-human scale, but it makes living here a daily confrontation with huge boulevards, traffic, noise, and mountains of glass and cement. After pounding pavement all day on three hours of sleep, I was desperate for some relief.

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Most of the farmland in Beijing has been turned into buildings. But there's one place where a prime piece of farmland has been preserved, a refuge for people looking to escape the city. A couple turned it into an organic fruit orchard, botanical garden and lake, with a restaurant that serves food from the garden.

I visited The Orchard, opened in 2002 by West Virginia native Lisa Minder and her husband Wu Yintao. They manage to do something good for the environment, sustain a healthy business and find room for charitable projects. Such are the pockets of green among an ocean of gray.

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At a Starbucks cafe nearby, students from Beijing Forestry University were surveying customers about Beijing's so-called Green Olympics. Starbucks was sponsoring their work, along with an earlier event called the "Green Long March," where student volunteers walked along the Yangtze River to raise environmental awareness. They asked people what they thought about the ban on free plastic bags in Beijing, the odd-even days traffic system to reduce driving, and the state of the environment in Beijing.

My response: no medal yet. "Jia You!"

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August 21, 2008 11:50 AM

A personal quest for Hope

Posted by Kristi Heim

Hope Solo, that is. I just watched the U.S. women's soccer team beat Brazil 1-0 for the gold medal, a game that must have felt like justice after last year. Several big saves by Solo were key to the win. In a sense, she had a chance to prove what she famously said after last year's World Cup defeat: that she could have stopped the Brazilians' four goals if she'd been on the field and not on the bench. This time she was.

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"I'm on cloud nine," she said. "I was floating out there. It didn't seem real. I didn't shed a tear. I didn't cry. I can't really believe it. I put my phone by the goal post. As soon as that last whistle blew, I called my brother. It was amazing. He was in tears. He was here for the World Cup, for my dad... I just was screaming in the phone. I was running around the field screaming."

Solo said she was "going through hell" for the last 10 months following the death of her father, and then being sidelined and getting the cold shoulder from teammates after her World Cup remark. In the end, she and the defense shut down the world's best player, Brazilian forward Marta. Later on the medal stand, Solo kissed her gold medal.

"Many people dream of this all their lives," she said. "It's significant for my family, for my friends, to how far I've come over many years. I think this medal it, I don't know... it represents my family."

Indeed, the U.S. team must have felt like the underdog in Beijing. The mostly Chinese crowd booed when the U.S. took corner kicks and screamed for "Ba-xi," the name for Brazil in Mandarin. It was a rainy night, so the hosts just happened to have bright yellow rain tarps to hand out, making the stadium awash in Brazil's color. Not many people were counting on them to win.

"I think we thrive when there's so much doubt," Solo said. "When we're the underdogs. We heard betting for the Japan game was four to one against us. We know a lot of people doubted us against Brazil... I think our defense really won this game."

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As for whether Solo felt vindicated, she said: "I don't even think about whatever I said last year. I said everything under emotions. I'm just enjoying the moment right now. I feel great. I just won a damn gold medal."

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August 21, 2008 12:20 AM

Lost in the heart of China

Posted by Kristi Heim

Outside National Stadium, I met a man from Reno who brought his 79-year-old father to the Olympics. He said one day his father was on the subway by himself when he struck up a conversation with a local Chinese man. This total stranger then spent the whole day guiding the guy's dad through Beijing, visiting museums and even paying for his lunch.

Yesterday Steve Kelley and I got lost in a hutong, one of Beijing's famously narrow alleys winding through a warren of ancient single-story houses. Turned out to be one of the best moments of the trip, as Steve writes in his column today. We were adopted by a couple in their 80s, invited inside family homes and shown wedding pictures, and introduced to one of Zhou Enlai's security guards.

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It started when the hutong we were following dead-ended at the Qianjin Guesthouse. Zhang Guangrong, the 20-year-old son of the proprietor, offered to help us find our destination, but we decided it was more interesting to explore the hutongs with him. This is one of last remaining parts of the original city that hasn't been demolished and replaced by skyscrapers. I had written about the pre-Olympics construction boom displacing old neighborhoods and their cultural heritage. Residents said this neighborhood isn't entirely safe from destruction, either. Meanwhile it's an oasis of calm and quiet, with pomegranate trees, red peppers drying in the sun, ancient doorways protected by stone lions, and elderly people out for a stroll.

One of them was Song Zhilin, who saw us and piped up "welcome," in English. I started chatting with her and she offered to let us take a look at traditional "siheyuan" or four-sided courtyards in the area. I heard her tell Zhang that her husband, Li Tieniu, 87, had worked for Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. She led us through her neighbors' courtyards, one beautifully preserved for more than a century that housed four generations of the Ren family.

At last we stopped at her own house, just two small and dark rooms. Above the bed were various framed black and white photographs, and Li proudly took down one of himself in the military in the 1940s, and another of Zhou Enlai. Though the couple's house was modest, Li was happy to have Americans in it. After all, the man he so admired helped make such an exchange possible. Far from the fanfare of the Olympics, here was the real heart of China we were lucky enough not to miss.

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August 20, 2008 6:31 PM

Some things get better, others get worse

Posted by Kristi Heim

While some doors to freedom in China have opened since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), others seem to be slamming shut even as China welcomed the world here for the Olympics.

China promised the International Olympic Committee that three public parks would be designated for protests. People would be allowed to demonstrate there during the Games after applying for permission through Beijing's Public Security Bureau. It turns out that none of the 77 applications were approved, Chinese state media reported. But that doesn't mean no action has been taken on the applicants. As I suspected last week, now it seems that the application process itself was nothing more than bait.

Among the applicants were two women, Wu Dianyuan, 79 and Wang Xiuying, 77 who wanted to demonstrate in the park against being forcibly evicted from their homes in 2001. When they returned to check the status of their application, they were arrested, interrogated for 10 hours and then sentenced without trial to a year of re-education through labor, according to Human Rights in China (HRIC).

This follows the case of Ji Sizun, who was arrested and detained after he applied to demonstrate in one of the parks. Ji, 58, went to a police station in Beijing Aug. 8 for a permit to hold a protest, stating he would call for greater participation of Chinese citizens in the political process, and denounce official corruption and abuses of power. He was arrested three days later when he returned to check on the status of his application.

Wang Wei, the Beijing Olympic Committee spokesman who headed Beijing's bid in 2001, said at the time that he was confident hosting the Games would enhance human rights in China.

In a news conference yesterday, Wang was asked why none of the applications were approved and why some of the applicants had been arrested. All but three of the applications were withdrawn by the would-be demonstrators after being dissuaded by the authorities or discouraged by the process itself.

He said the process was meant to address problems, and was not merely "for the sake of demonstration." He compared filing for a protest to filing for a divorce, as if it was inherently a bad thing that should be intercepted and prevented if possible.

The issues behind the protests were resolved "through dialogue," Wang said. "This is the way we like to deal with things in Chinese culture."

But I suspect that some people in Hong Kong, Taiwan or other Chinese communities around the world might disagree. People here in Beijing might disagree, too, if they had a chance.

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August 20, 2008 9:11 AM

A music revolution in China

Posted by Kristi Heim

Inside the National Center for the Performing Arts, a group of middle-aged Chinese music lovers is rocking out to the Scorpions.

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Their joy is apparent, especially for those who remember the time when they were forbidden to listen to any music from the West.

During the Cultural Revolution, even classical music was considered "a bad influence of the Western world," said Chen Li, a Beijing arts critic who lectures at the center. So Chen listened in secret.

Now he's inside one of the premier arts venues in China, if not the world, transfixed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing a special concert with the Scorpions on DVD. "This is globalization," he said.

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These are a few of the 600 members of a music club launched in the new performing arts center in Beijing. Just west of Tiananmen Square, the colossal ultra-modern dome known as "The Egg" is to the arts what China's Bird's Nest stadium is to sports. The music club is hosted by the arts center and meets here every weekend.

The aim is to give people the space and the means for learning how to appreciate music.

"People have their material lifestyle satisfied, so they need more, something spiritual," Chen said. "China is opening up. and it's opening everyone's eyes. A country's strength doesn't mean just military, it's also economic, it's cultural."

When he was young, Chen listened to classical music by himself behind closed doors and gradually developed a love of opera, especially for the soprano Maria Callas.

"She was singing with her life," he said. "She could bare her soul and shine a light on others with her voice."

Now he can share his love of music openly with others, in the grandest of places.

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More from this blog

Recent entries

Aug 24, 08 - 07:30 AM
Closing ceremony: Chinese youth culture and a double-decker bus to London

Aug 22, 08 - 11:06 PM
An Olympics beyond gold medals: one alternative view

Aug 22, 08 - 08:46 PM
Three countries borne by one athlete

Aug 22, 08 - 06:23 AM
A patch of green in a sea of gray

Aug 21, 08 - 11:50 AM
A personal quest for Hope

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