This Week's Show •

Studs Terkel’s Feeling Tone

The Studs Terkel edge on the radio was, first of all, picking guests who would sound more interesting 50, 60 years later: Mahalia Jackson, Bucky Fuller, Toni Morrison, Bertrand Russell. Simone de Beauvoir on her ...

The Studs Terkel edge on the radio was, first of all, picking guests who would sound more interesting 50, 60 years later: Mahalia Jackson, Bucky Fuller, Toni Morrison, Bertrand Russell. Simone de Beauvoir on her Second Sex. Federico Fellini on La Dolce Vita. David Mamet on his Glengarry, Glen Ross. Aaron Copland, Dizzy Gillespie. James Baldwin from 1961, Woody Allen in his twenties. Janis Joplin, Tennessee Williams. John Cage.  The other great mark of Studs Terkel radio was that these weren’t interviews – except when Marlon Brando wanted a second hour to interview Studs. They were conversations – emphasis not on facts or even opinions but rather “feeling tone,” emotion and experience.

Radio legend Studs Terkel was the all-American listener: ears tuned, mind open, tape recorder always on.  The trick, he said, was something he’d heard – appropriately enough – from one of the uncelebrated citizens he loved interviewing.

Illustrations by Susan Coyne

That “feeling tone” is the thread of this radio hour as much as the late Studs himself.  He was the voice of Chicago between Carl Sandburg a century ago – “hog butcher to the world,” and all that – and Chance the Rapper today.  Studs Terkel compiled a best-selling vernacular oral history of city life — Division Street America — then classic social histories of the Depression and World War 2.  Home base for more than 50 years was his daily radio hour on a privately owned fine-arts station in Chicago, WFMT.  The news of Studs Terkel that we’re happy to share is that 5000 hours of that radio archive are open anew, being digitized and transcribed – an audio event on a par with the opening of King Tut’s tomb.

 

Tony Macaluso manages the Studs collection at WFMT. He led us into the archives this week and guided us through some of his favorite interview with folks like Muhammad AliMahalia Jackson, Bertrand Russel, and Jimmy Baldwin.

Alan Wieder wrote an oral history of how Studs got to be Studs. He helped us understand the roots of Terkel’s “soft socialist” politics through his growing-up years in the Wells-Grand Hotel as well as his early television career in Chicago.

Rick Kogan is a newspaper guy and radio voice in Chicago today.  He grew up modeling himself after his father—the great Chicago journalist Herman Kogan—and his father’s great pal, Uncle Studs:

Sydney Lewis was one of Studs Terkel’s closest collaborators in radio and literary production to the very end. She now works down the road from us at public station WCAI in Falmouth, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. With us, she discusses the joys of working with the man who wrote Working.

Jay Allison produces the NPR story-telling hour known as The Moth, which draws on a certain Studs enthusiasm… and extends it into deep into the digital cosmos: all those individual voices empowered in the podcasting era. He guides us through one of the lesser known parts of Terkel’s audio legacy: the incredible, freeform audio documentary Born to Livewhich won the Prix Italia in 1962 and which was given a second-life online thanks to Allison and the team at transom.org.

On the Veranda • June 12, 2014

Chris’s Postcards from China

I’m going to China next month, and I’m looking for your encouragement and leads. It’s my first trip to the mainland after exactly 50 years of vivid dreaming about it. I land in Shanghai on June 15, to extend a radio-podcast series over several years and many countries we’ve called “parachute radio.” The recurring question is always something like: “What are we going through, you and I?”

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August 8: At Peking University: the Rising Generation

 

We call ourselves the ’90s generation. The late ’90s — not so much the rising generation as the boasting generation, the blossoming generation — about to open up ourselves and explore the outer world.”

Max, a student from Hong Kong at Peking University in Beijing.
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Future leaders of China, from left to right: Max, Rebecca, Flora, Nick, Payton.

What I went least prepared for was the openness of Chinese people in what we call a closed society. So the last audio postcard from this trip is a 10-minute distillation of a conversation that sprang up like music to my ears in a dormitory room with five students at the venerable Peking University in Beijing. These are aspiring middle-class kids – a random sample of the top of the heap. Nobody here is bent on being a billionaire. All voiced versions of a searching interior life. Nobody mentioned political participation as they listed their ambitions. But social idealism infuses their talk. Several volunteered that inequality – of incomes, education, opportunity – is the blight on their society, a problem their generation will have to address. None expressed the slightest confidence in ideological communism. They sounded more embarrassed than outraged by official controls on information (of which they have plenty) and expression (in which they feel individually free). They credit their government with overall effectiveness. And they all spoke comfortably of loving their country and their moment in its history.

China is searching, the China we see today is shaped by different factors: traditional Chinese civilization, and also the western culture since 1840, when Great Britain launched a trade war and broke the gate of the Qing empire. [By now] it’s another aspect of tradition… also the communist ideology… The problem for China is we lack a national philosophy. We as a people, as a nation. We lack a philosophy that supports the spiritual life of our citizens. It’s a problem in the whole country.”

Nick, a philosophy major, whom I’ll remember specially for his short list of cultural treasures for the proverbial desert island: Collected Poems of the Tang Dynasty, Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3.

There’s societal pressure, and family pressure, to do financially at least as well as your parents. That’s one of my anxieties, and a big anxiety of a lot of my friends. You’re supposed to do well and your parents have paid a lot for your education. But you don’t know what you want to do. I haven’t declared a major yet. I’m focused on finding something I really enjoy doing.

Rebecca, a rising sophomore at Carleton College in Minnesota.

I think it’s not difficult for us to find good jobs. To earn money is not important for us, we can earn so much money. The most important thing is to find ourselves, to be ourselves.

Flora, pursuing a double degree in law and Chinese literature.

I read American books, we talk about the system of American politics almost every day. America is everywhere. I want to have my graduate education in America. It’s necessary to get to know and understand America — necessary to understand the whole world. I don’t like nationalism, and I don’t like to emphasize enemies. I think we have to cooperate, but we are not genuine friends. But we have to cooperate with each other.”

Payton, who rounded up his friends for us at the University of Peking.

Special thanks to Jiang Xueqin, an activist teacher and school reformer, for introducing us on campus.

August 4: Ai Weiwei: At Home With China’s ‘Second Government’


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Not perhaps since Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Gulag has there been a dissenting artist who got to be as famous as the government that hounds him. But Ai Weiwei’s situation is one-of-a-kind.He’s a scathing oppositionist who argues with me that China’s moral, natural, aesthetic, philosophical and family foundations have been “completely destroyed.” At the same time he is a celebrity, the virtual mayor of an industrial district in Beijing that’s become a thriving village of modern painters, sculptors, studios and galleries.

At one cheerful turn in our gab, he’s reminding me about the Chinese gift for breaking rules, for thinking outside the box, for double thinking, even under Communism: “Yeah, that’s the culture. Chinese are quite intelligent, witty, and create their own liberal space. Even in very extreme conditions, they still can achieve some kind of happiness or self, some kind of confidence, so that makes Chinese culture very different from others.”

Ai Weiwei is China’s official scare-word and favorite non-person. He’s what Solzhenitsyn called a “second government.” But let’s remember: the embattled democrat and artist of ideas was a star consultant in the design of the “bird’s nest” stadium built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He sees himself naturally as a leader and a patriot. He’s mastered what people say is a very Chinese use of paradox and contradiction. He refers to his testing of the limits as a kind of performance art.

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We met his wary sort of humor and warmth on the way into his walled garden. He parks his bicycle at the gate with a basket full of fresh flowers as a greeting each morning to the government spies who ‘mind’ him and who, it turns out, took our picture on the way out.

Ai Weiwei SpyFor almost an hour the conversation flew around a big table in the traffic of Ai Weiwei’s studio. Maybe the worst disaster in China, he said, is the flood of migrant workers out of farm villages into cities where they have dangerous jobs, small pay, no benefits and no residency rights – no rights to city schools, for example, for their kids. “This is just modern slavery” for the migrants, said Ai Weiwei. For the broken families left behind, it’s a desolation.

He says our friend the novelist Yu Hua is “absolutely right” about the continuity between Mao’s brainwashing Cultural Revolution and the booming Market Revolution today. The key links, he concurred, are violence, lying propaganda, and a tiny monopoly of political power. Just off the high-speed train from Shanghai, I confessed I was dazzled by the smooth ride at 300 kpm and by the orderly green abundance in the farmlands. “Wouldn’t this government be good for – say – Egypt?” I asked. But he’s heard the line that China is developing faster than Brazil, or India, or Egypt, and he’s not impressed. “How do you give young people hope, imagination and creativity,” he asked. “Those are the inner structures I think a lot and worry about.” As we wrapped up, he said I’d made him sound like a complainer, just a critic. We could have talked about the weather, he said, “or food, or sex.” Next time we will.

And what did I take away? Mainly gratitude to this brave man for his stubborn, almost fearless attachment to the soul questions: he’s reminding us all what it costs to stand out as an individual, and for a society to stay free, alive, critical, human.

July 24: Yu Hua and China’s Revolution Addiction

yu hua 2

Everybody loves Yu Hua, a giant of the literary life in China today.  He’s a free spirit with a critical eye, and a popular touch, a tragic vision, an easy laugh.  We’re in the snazzy new Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, video-recording a long conversation for Harvard’s ChinaX course on modern China.  As soon as Yu Hua walks in (with his striking 20-something son Phineas) his presence is magic, alike with the Chinese film crew and the young Harvard scholars. I know Yu Hua as much as anything through the long-suffering hero of his novel that became the movie masterpiece To Live. The film and its central character, Fugui, reminded me somehow of Charlie Chaplin, as I said to Yu Hua. He smiled and said, well, of course, he had studied the Chaplin archive. Were Fugui alive today, Yu Hua said he would most likely be among the victims of the Capitalist Revolution.  Fugui would have lost his land and been displaced as a farmer.  He might be living precariously in a tiny, unsafe apartment in a city, but he’d still be thoughtful, tidy, maybe cheerful, and indestructible.

It is a main theme in much of Yu Hua’s work and our conversation that China is hooked for a century now on something like an addiction to Revolution. And a revolution, he reminds me with heavy irony, quoting Chairman Mao, is not a dinner party.  It’s an insurrection, an act of violence.  The market revolution, he’s saying, is more like than unlike the notorious upheavals that preceded it: the war of “liberation” that brought the Communist Party to power in 1949; Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 50s, a headlong rush to industrialize that ended in famine and death for 20-million or more; then the know-nothing Cultural Revolution of the 60s into the 70s.  The problem with all the endless revolutions is that they’ve been run by political monopolies. They’re invariably violent, mobilized by propaganda, not participation.  And they’re generally heedless of long-term results – even in the market revolution that has made so many Chinese people rich.

Yu Hua reminds you that China is still a poor country – median income between ninety and a hundred in the ranking of nations, in the zone with Cuba, Angola, Iraq.

The wealth revolution that we’re conditioned to celebrate has been a hardship for most Chinese, he is saying. The divorce rate goes up on the same curve as the GDP.  A “simmering rage” is the ruling popular emotion, he wrote in an invaluable collection of essays, China in Ten Words (2011).  The capitalist revolution has been bad for human-rights awareness. “This revolution has made the Chinese people profit-driven… They care less about other people, less about the country.”  Our people are losing their health, he says.  And what about their minds?  “People’s minds are chaotic, schizophrenic,” he replies.  “I can’t figure them out.”  The last resource is the Chinese people, I say, and surely they are not destroyed.  “I was half joking, half telling the truth,” he grants, with a laugh.

So we end on a Chinese paradox.  Yu Hua sums up China’s contradictory rules and symptoms today with the point that when guests enter a hotel room in China, they see a “No Smoking” sign and, under it, a gift package of cigarettes.  He lives with such anomalies every day. His novel To Live is sold in bookstores in China.  The movie version is banned.  “The book is like the cigarettes,” he said, “the movie is like the ‘No Smoking’ sign.”

It was a high-point in China so far to feel Yu Hua’s presence.

July 5: Whose Shanghai Is It?

Wang Anyi + Chris Lydon (Photo: Adam Mitchell).

The great modern novelist of Shanghai, Wang Anyi, is coming to feel like a stranger in her city.

The enclosed alleyways of Old Shanghai — the distinctive “longtang,” in a peculiarly Shanghainese word — were the living background of her classic tale, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow. The longtang, with their cement pavements and iron balconies, their pigeons and their gossip, their card games and cooking smoke, their romances and unsavory goings on, “the intimacy of flesh on flesh, cool and warm, tangible and knowable,” are almost gone, being bulldozed in front of our eyes for the new high-rise and Western commercial Shanghai.

The local joke, she is telling me, is that in fashionable downtown today, the likeliest language is English. In the next ring out, you’ll hear Mandarin spoken. Only in the outskirt third ring, newly settled by “longtang” refugees, will you hear Shanghainese. The women of Shanghai, she says, are more independent than they were, but not quite happily so. They miss being taken care of by men, and their ambition is typically overwhelmed by romance.

Shanghai still lives in something like Jane Austen time, Wang says. “What women are most concerned about is a good marriage.” Women are still being “consumed” as products, consumed by the malls where she observes 70 to 80 percent of the branded luxury goods are aimed at women, in a market designed by men. She herself is still happier to have the man in her life pick up the dinner check.

Wang Anyi was still shaken, she confided, by the movie she’d seen the day before, Spike Jonze’s Her, about Joaquin Phoenix’s infatuation with the computer voice of Scarlett Johannson inside his phone. She was troubled to see that so much of the film was shot in the new Shanghai. Was this a joke, she wondered: thirty years of modernization in China to become a prop in a Hollywood take on the American way?

Tower

July 2: China’s Bling Thing

The Chinese in their prosperity have become fantastic shoppers. In colossal shiny-white malls all the high-end Euro brands are here: Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier and Co. The customers are mostly Chinese, the models on display invariably Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the hand manufacturing of more and more high-end Italian shoes and bags in these outlets is said to take place in Asia.

Haagen-Dazs

A certain aesthetic imperialism has met a ravenous acquired Chinese appetite for a lost season of their lives in Tuscany, or a year in Provence. Almost by accident I spent an afternoon in a made-up retail village outside Suzhou, a couple of hours on the road from Shanghai.

Opened by American entrepreneurs the village is built, in the Las Vegas style, around a Venetian canal. There are bridges and a mix of stores in buildings designed to represent the variety of towns Marco Polo might have stopped in, back and forth to China at the end of the thirteenth century. The game at Suzhou Village will be to draw visitors not simply to buy but to share an “experience,” a spokeswoman told me.

I’m digging through my notes from Singapore a decade ago, to recall a conversation with the architect Tay Kheng Soon. He is the designer of some of Singapore’s finest buildings, but ever out of step with the non-tropical, non-Chinese roots of the celebrity high-rise towers on his island.

“Kitsch is very big in Asia,” Tay Kheng Soon said to me, driving around Singapore one morning in the summer of 2002. “It’s the architecture of Disneyland. It works as a narcotic. It dulls the senses in a pleasurable way. It’s an anesthetic, in that it prevents you from knowing what is going on, and so it has political value.”

He anticipated the unease in the malls of the new China: “We know now from a lot of history,” said Tay Kheng Soon, “that the human spirit is invincible in the face of adversity. But I’ve decided that the human spirit is defenseless in the grip of wealth.”

horns dress

June 30: Kaiser Kuo, King of Chinese Media

Kaiser Kuo2 Listen to some of Chris’s conversation with Kaiser Kuo below: Kaiser Kuo was born in New York, but he has remade himself many times in Beijing by now: as a guitarist for the pioneering metal band, Tang Dynasty, in the 1980s and ’90s, as a blogger and podcaster, and most lately as a global marketer for Baidu, the Chinese search giant, with a star turn on This American Life with our guest, Evan Osnos. For a few hours on my last night in Beijing, we ate and spoke as fellow broadcasters, talking about his second home. KK at dinner Kuo told me to prepare for “paradox after paradox” on the ground in China. It’s a practical nation that drifted, for decades, from calamity to calamity in the Maoist spirit, he said. Today China is still Communist, but its city-dwellers are getting used to sitcoms and mass consumerism — and the ‘spiritual vacuity’ that comes with them. To Kuo, Beijing itself seems to be bustling or depleted, depending on which angle you approach it from. Kuo pointed me toward a song-and-dance number from this year’s televised New Year celebration, sung from a treadmill by the comedian Huang Bo, on the subject of the ‘China dream’, a political concept introduced by the new premier, Xi Jinping, in 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di-qATFK3WM The song is called “My Desires Aren’t Too High”, or “I’m Not Too Demanding”. Kuo asks us to take this song as evidence that our title, “China rising”, may have a moderate meaning against the backdrop of saber-rattling and Sinophobia in the West. The expectations of its people are rising — for cleaner air, for a seat at the table globally, for a little more say in their civic lives — and they still have a way to go in meeting them.

June 26: DUMBO East

UCCA wall Chris moved on to Beijing to meet with Ai Weiwei, Kaiser Kuo, college students and others. Hear his conversation with the curator of UCCA, Philip Tinari, here, and come subscribe to our podcast on iTunes to hear China conversations with Yiyun Li, Evan Osnos, Ambassador Chas Freeman, and more:

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, which opened in 2007, calls itself a “catalyst for contemporary culture in China.” It’s a linchpin location in Beijing’s 798 art district, a world of converted warehouses and artist spaces. (Think of it as an oversized version of DUMBO in Brooklyn or Boston’s Fort Point.)

When I visited on Tuesday, gray works by the Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer were spread around the gallery space. But I was drawn to the corner of the 70-foot-long shoebox of the room where everyone’s allowed to paint. Little jars of the primary colors and brushes are laid out on a table in the center of the space. There’s a metal movable industrial ladder that allows you to pick a spot well over your head.

The rest is up to you — or, as it happened, me. So of course I inscribed our name, OPEN SOURCE, on a small patch of floor. Alongside it there are portraits of Michael Jackson, catchphrases and slogans in many languages, and icons all over. Every so often the wall gets refreshed with a new coat of white paint, and the painting starts again.

In forthcoming conversations with Ai Weiwei, China’s dissident artist #1, and the novelist Yu Hua, I was told that China is stuck in a centuries-old cycle of revolutions, one that isn’t learning liberal ways of being, still stuck in patterns on violence and suppression.

Looking at the wall in the Ullens, I see the question from another side — is this what the slow birth of a new culture of pop expression looks like: the visual riffs on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and a free-for-all wall in an art district? I put that question to UCCA curator Philip Tinari, who has his doubts but still comes to work everyday, seeking the next artist to carry the conversation forward in China. Kid by wall

June 24: A Piano Lesson

Mrs-Ying-lesson Listen to Chris’s conversation with Tian Yang about his mother, who started him playing piano when he was three years old — and still teaches: Getting on thirty years ago, in his mid-teens, the prodigy pianist Tian Ying migrated from Shanghai to Boston to study with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory. At the time I was able to help Tian find a small apartment in town, and we always joked that he’d return the favor by showing me around Shanghai someday.

While still in his teens, Tian went on to become a finalist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. From there he’s proceeded to an international career as a piano soloist and a tenured professorship at the University of Miami.

No sooner had I made my plans to go to China this month than Tian told me that he was going home himself, on the same weekend, to present his year-old son to his mother (and first teacher) back in Shanghai. True to his word, he’s been walking me around the home precincts of the French Concession, where he grew up.

It’s been a blessed reunion; the timing still feels miraculous. Perhaps the sweetest moments of my time in Shanghai were in his mother’s apartment, where she still teaches serious pianists, young and old, with an extraordinary flair.

Below, a clip of one of China’s 40 million aspiring virtuosos, under Mrs. Ying’s tutelage.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tP8nlEtP_Ho 2014-06-18 13.46.07

June 21: Shanghai 02138

220 Listen to a conversation Chris had with Ben Wood in the DR Bar here: The DR Bar (DR for ‘Design/Research’) in the Xintiandi section of old Shanghai was the third stop that Prof. Eugene Wang said I must make in his favorite city in the world. It’s the trendy martini bar a stone’s throw from the historic first meeting-place of the Chinese Communist Party. All around it, Xintiandi is a growing neighborhood of global boutiques and a sign of China’s capitalist makeover marching on.

A wax recreation of the First Congress of the Communist Party.

It was Benjamin Wood, a very New England sort of American, who designed both the bar and the shopping district that surrounds it. He was a protégé of the late Ben Thompson, the man who famously rescued the Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston. Thompson designed and built many buildings around Boston, including the five-story, concrete-and-glass Design/Research Building on Brattle Street in Harvard Square, where locals encountered Marimekko fabrics, midcentury-modern furniture, and everything else in the windows beginning in 1969. Ben Wood told me that his China project is a kind of tribute to his mentor, who didn’t live to see it. He repurposed two blocks of the city’s old shikumen courtyard houses, slated for destruction, into an airy, luxury shopping district that sees 82,000 visitors a day.

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Ben Wood’s original plan for the Xintiandi district.

Now he serves as a consultant to many of the major and minor cities around China about their own dreams of a new urbanism. Wood is at war with the soulless, high-rise reality of those  cities, as he recounted to me over his famous martinis in the DR Bar. He favors “Monkey Gin” from Germany, which he says is the critical ingredient of the best martinis made today. I’ve come to believe him.

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Chris and Ben at DR Bar. (Photo: Adam Mitchell).

June 19: A Warning from the Bronze Age

Hear an excerpt from our China Rising hour about this vase:

Potter's hu vessel

Adam Mitchell / Suzanne Petrucci.

In the Shanghai Museum, we’re standing in front of a bronze hu-vessel, a wine urn from roughly 2,500 years ago — from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), not so long before the first emperor Qin unified the country.

We’re here because Eugene Wang told me to start at the beginning in China, and to absorb a sort of “holy grail” of Chinese thinking. The exquisite inlaid design on the bronze vessel depicts frolicking paired animals on the domed lid and, below, a poetic treatment of four seasons: embryonic animals at the bottom in a symbolic winter, swallows returning and couples mating around a mulberry tree in a version of spring. We’re looking at a “cyclical blueprint of regeneration,” Professor Wang tells me, “attuned to the cycle of waxing and waning energies.” The master conceptual scheme “is premised on the belief and observance of the natural cycle of seasonal change and renewal.” So there’s inspirational beauty here, and irony as well. The blue heavens of Shanghai today are in the subway video ads — mostly gone from the smoggy sky over our heads. About sixty miles west of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, Lake Tai is dying. Endlessly celebrated by painters and poets as a symbol of China’s natural beauty (and by fishermen for its fish and white shrimp), Lake Tai is lined with chemical factories and covered in many places with green scum. An old story in China is getting radically more dangerous. The first serious wood shortage in China was noted in the 11th century. The Maoist period, with slogans like “Battling with Nature is Boundless Joy,” is remembered now as an natural catastrophe. Today rivers are still drying up; 90 percent of China’s groundwater is polluted. “To be Chinese today,” according to a Harvard Business School case study, “means being heir to both a great civilization and to millennia of environmental exploitation.” And the legend of the bronze urn reads something like a last warning.

China Algae

A man skimming algae off Lake Tai, 2007. (AP Photo)

June 18: The Green House

The Green House in Shanghai, previously owned by  Wu Tongwen . Just a postcard from a house that wants a novel. D. V. Woo (or Wu Tongwen), who built it in the late 1930s, was the dye tycoon who put the color green in China’s Nationalist Army uniforms. László Hudec, his Czech-born architect, had escaped from Russian captivity in Siberia after World War One and had joined the flow of gifted strays (including many Jews) to visa-free Shanghai.Many Hudec buildings in Shanghai survive in one-off splendor, like his rough-hewn China Baptist Publication Society building and his Park Hotel.  This Green House, deemed his masterpiece, was Shanghai’s first private house with an electric elevator (still working).The eve of World War Two was a high time for Americans in China: among the famous names (then or later) the young scholar John King Fairbank, Claire Chennault of the volunteer “Flying Tigers,” and Leighton Stewart, the China-born principal of Yenching (later merged with Beijing) University, who became FDR’s Ambassador to China during the war.  Ambassador Stewart was caught in the post-war cross-fire between the “who lost China?” crowd in America and the Communists taking power; Mao denounced him in a venomous speech that Chinese school kids were required to memorize into the Sixties, and he is said to have died heart-broken.Meantime, the young nephew of D. V. Woo played in the gardens of the family’s treasure house and was seen to be developing an enthusiasm and flair for design. When he came to America his name was transliterated as I. M. Pei.greenhouse1On the show, our friend Eugene Wang observed the asymmetrical balance in the stories rising out of the Green House: Leighton Stewart was an American whose heart was in China.  I. M. Pei was a Chinese man whose heart yearned for America.  The Green House, impeccably restored, stands in a Shanghai visitor’s eyes for a modern cosmopolitanism, open to past and future still unfolding.  On the weekend before I got to Shanghai, the Green House was opened to the public for the first time in 70 years.  Ten thousand neighbors showed up and stood in line for hours to visit it. Chris and Yaping Shen, one of his Shanghai guides, discussed the Green House during the visit: 

June 2: Scratches On My Mind

People ask: “What kinds of people are you hoping to meet and interview in China?”  I answer: maybe people like Alaa Al Aswany in Cairo, the prophetic novelist of The Yacoubian Building, who’s also a full-time dentist.  At the end of 2012, when protest was boiling again in Tahrir Square, I sat in Alaa Al Aswany’s dentist chair as he explained: “Literature and medicine are one profession with two aspects, in that novelists and doctors are both interested in understanding human pain.” And now it turns out that, Yu Hua, a dentist/novelist in China, writes in a similar vein, in the opening of his marvelous kaleidoscope, China in Ten Words. From his training years, Yu Hua remembers discovering the intense suffering that he was inflicting on factory workers, then children, when he injected them with barbed, worn-out needles that pulled out bleeding bits of flesh.  His shock and remorse, he writes, “left a profound mark, and …  stayed with me through all my years as an author.  It is when the suffering of others becomes part of my own experience that I truly know what it is to live and what it is to write.  Nothing in the world, perhaps, is likely to forge a connection between people as pain, because the connection that comes from that source comes from deep in the heart.  So when in this book I write of China’s pain, I am registering my pain, too, because China’s pain is mine.”

“Poverty, misery, disease, hunger, famine, [and] ignorance…” were the controlling images of the China I met first in a Yale history class in the 1960s. Our background impressions of China, good and bad, had been outlined by MIT’s Harold Isaacs in his masterful Scratches on Our Minds: American Images of China and India (1958). Good China derived from Marco Polo’s 13th-century discovery of China’s ancient greatness and the remarkable intelligence, industry and stoicism of her people; also from Pearl Buck’s novels, read by billions and translated to movies for the multi-millions, about the simple, suffering good people of The Good Earth (1931). Bad China derived from the medieval, non-Chinese Genghiz Khan and his Mongol hordes – prototypes of faceless barbarism, brought vividly to life again in 1950 by Mao Tse-tung’s “human sea” flooding down across the Yalu into Korea, “massed barbarians,” as Harold Isaacs put it, “now armed not with broadswords but with artillery, tanks, and jet planes.”

Headlines since my boyhood have shuttled from the Sino-Soviet marriage to divorce; from Mao’s famine-inducing Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s to the mind-numbing Cultural Revolution of the 1960s; from Nixon’s opening to China in 1974 to Deng Xiaoping’s opening to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” in the 1980s and with it abandonment of equality as first principle.  “Let some people get rich first,” he said, “and gradually all the people should get rich together.” We are transfixed in the present by China’s transformative growth as a manufacturer, the workshop of the world; by the vast and unprecedented migrations of peasants to cities (150 million in the last thirty-some years, 300 million more in the planning); and by China’s spectacularly uneven wealth.

Evan Osnos of The New Yorker writes in his absorbing Age of Ambition that China today is going through something very like our own post-Civil War “Gilded Age.” (The U.S. had fewer than 20 millionaires in 1850, as he writes; 40,000 of them in 1900).  China today, bristling with construction cranes, “is building more high-speed railroads and airports than the rest of the world combined.”  China’s new billionaires are a primary market for Rolls Royces from the U.K. and Lamborghinis from Italy. Yu Hua observes that China’s makeover has upended the meaning of the “people,” the first of his Ten Words:  “With the flick of a wrist Chinese history has utterly changed its complexion, much the way an actor in Sichuan opera swaps one mask for another.  In the short space of thirty years, a China ruled by politics has transformed itself into a China where money is king.”

Ha Jin, the exiled novelist and poet celebrated in the U.S. for Waiting and A Free Life, tells me: “in the alleys behind the façade, a lot of the old ways have not changed.  You must find the people playing chess and poker, drinking tea, as they always have.  A friend says to me: ‘my grandmother in the countryside is still living like a peasant in China a thousand years ago.’”

I travel to China next month under the wing of the Fairbank Center at Harvard and its director Bill Kirby, having played a bit part in the production of their online course, ChinaX. My first landing on the mainland is fifty years late, but there’s a nice sentimental symmetry in all this. John King Fairbank was the founder of “China Studies” in American academia.  Bill Kirby was the last of his brilliant protégés.  Fairbank’s first star graduate students in the late 1930s were Arthur Frederick Wright from Portland, Oregon and Mary Clabaugh from Birmingham, Alabama.  Married in 1940, the Wrights lit out immediately for Asia, first Japan and then China.  Through the end of World War II they were interned in a Japanese camp in Shandong province.  After liberation by American paratroopers, they chose to stay in China and traveled widely, encountering Mao along way.  They came home first to Stanford, and then Yale, where I took their celebrated year’s survey of Chinese history.

Arthur Wright liked to say it was a two-part field: “ancient Chinese history and ancient-as-hell Chinese history.”  Their star graduate student was Jonathan Spence, who graded our blue books on his way to becoming eminent in the profession.  In their sabbatical year of 1962-63, just after my graduation, the Wrights needed a tutor-babysitter for their sons, then 10 and 11, on a round-the-world journey of research and family grazing.  Grace alone got me the job – as grand a tour as Henry James could have imagined.  But all the way, and especially as we got to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia (we skipped Vietnam), Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, the Wrights were itching and pulling every string they could to find a way under the fence and back to the real China.  That mission failed, but unworthy as I am, I take it up again in their sainted names.

May 30: Getting Ready

shanghai longtang Have I told you: I’m going to China this week, and I’m looking for your encouragement and leads. It’s my first trip to the mainland after exactly 50 years of vivid dreaming about it. I land in Shanghai on June 15, to extend a radio-podcast series over several years and many countries we’ve called “parachute radio.” The recurring question is always something like: “What are we going through, you and I?” Over and over I find that it’s artists broadly – novelists and story writers, actors and screenwriters, musicians, poets, architects and planners – who give me what I’m looking for: wide scope, the long view, and imagination about what’s coming. China is of course a wholly new story – terra largely incognita to me, which is why I’m going.  

I’ll be sending back missives and postcards  and sharing photos and bits of sound. The China watcher, Evan Osnos, will help send me off, on our program on June 12th. I’ll be talking with him and others about what I should be looking and listening for. Please help with your own questions and clues to the urgent mystery of China. What can I bring back for you? And please stay tuned as I prepare for the trip.

By the Way • December 24, 2013

Waking up to the BRA

In our last podcast, “Where’s Boston,” citizen activist Shirley Kressel excoriated the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a corrupt, powerful, unaccountable and non-transparent organization that gives away Boston land and tax-money to wealthy developers, ignoring the ...

In our last podcast, “Where’s Boston,” citizen activist Shirley Kressel excoriated the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a corrupt, powerful, unaccountable and non-transparent organization that gives away Boston land and tax-money to wealthy developers, ignoring the dire need for affordable housing in this rapidly gentrifying city.

Today, the Boston Globe reiterates her claim in an article that reveals some shady deals by the BRA, contrasting Mayor Thomas Menino’s public statements supporting affordable housing in the city. By law, developers are required to allocate at least 13 percent of their housing units for middle-income families or pay fees to build the units in a different location.

However, Globe reporters discovered hidden “discounts” unequally granted by the BRA to some developers but not others. In one particularly egregious example, the BRA staff awarded a $5.9 million discount to Anthony Pangaro, the developer of the luxury Millenium Place and campaign contributor to Menino. Additionally, the Globe writes, “a four-month Boston Globe investigation has found that the BRA has allowed at least four other developers breaks on affordable housing fees valued at a combined $3.4 million without disclosing them publicly.”

Unfortunately, the problem seems to extend beyond the secret tax breaks and loopholes that erode public funds for affordable housing. When money is collected, it is misused. According to the Globe, “the BRA has spent just $18 million on affordable housing since Menino established the housing program in 2000, less than a quarter of the $75 million the agency should have collected if the BRA had consistently followed the rules… the rest either has not been collected, was diverted to other purposes, or languishes in a BRA account.”

Four out of five of the BRA board members are appointed by the Mayor, and all report directly to him alone. During his campaign, Mayor-elect Martin Walsh acknowledged the need for change in the BRA, saying “the BRA must be reformed for efficiency and transparency.”

Will he keep these promises and prevent the siphoning of money away from affordable housing and into the pockets of developers? How will these uncovered deals impact the legacy of Mayor Menino? Is the BRA giving away the city of Boston to its political friends?

December 19, 2013

Waiting a New Mayor, a New Radio Show

Where’s Boston? We’re piloting a new radio show here for WBUR in Boston and puzzling about the hometown. What can you tell from the pick of the first new mayor in a century well underway? ...

Where’s Boston? We’re piloting a new radio show here for WBUR in Boston and puzzling about the hometown. What can you tell from the pick of the first new mayor in a century well underway?

Where’s the emergent Boston — in the old cradle of liberty that’s become a perfect example of the new inequality? Where prices keep rising and real incomes keep falling: meaning an average worker in Boston can’t afford an average home. Where’s the spirit of Boston — the Puritans’ city on a hill, ready for another Irish Last Hurrah at City Hall… when the Boston accent is fading and in fact 100 different languages are spoken in the city… where most of the people (and three of every four school kids) are black, brown, Asian or Hispanic? In the city of champions — baseball, football, med tech and higher ed… On the new bicycle paths over the ancient cow paths: where’s this reinvented Boston going?

In the land of The Last Hurrah, mayor’s races are markers of social history: James Michael Curley’s Irish wars with the Protestant Yankees in four decades of the 20th Century; John Collins and Johnny Powers and then Kevin White and Louise Day Hicks in Irish contests among themselves; Ray Flynn against the black contender Mel King in the 1980s; then the Irish eclipse through the 20 year reign of Tom Menino. And finally this year in majority-minority Boston (you could argue the most globalized immigrant city in America) we had a final choice between two very different Irish flavors: the favorite John Connolly was Harvard educated and school-reform minded, but he was defeated in the end by the trade-union lobbyist and recovering drinker from the working-class and waterfront precincts, Marty Walsh.

Our guests in the WBUR studio are: John Connolly, because so often it’s the loser who learns more in the game than the winner. Shirley Kressel, a mere housewife from the Back Bay who may be the most relentlessly informed and critical citizen in the Republic of Boston — a combination of Jane Jacobs and I. F. Stone. And Barry Bluestone, the progressive and prolific social scientist who’s had an outsider’s eye on Boston for 40 years now.

The upshot of an hour’s gab seems to be that Boston — for all the knocks — is in a spot that almost any big city in America would dream of occupying. And further, that the hero and villain of the moment is the Graduate Student, most particularly the ones from “away” and “abroad.” It’s those graduate students who (for want of dormitories) are sucking up the three-decker apartments built for workers back in the day — at the same time they’re confirming Boston’s attractiveness and conceiving its future.

Our question — “Where’s Boston?” — was the title of a brilliant little bicentennial film collage of pictures and voices of Boston as of 1976, almost 40 years ago. It makes you wonder: do we still sound that interesting?

Thank you to Cambridge Seven Associates and Executive Producer Peter Chermayeff for the”Where’s Boston” video.

By the Way • December 4, 2013

A few good men and women

Chris Lydon and Mary McGrath are putting the band back together, re-launching “Open Source” on public radio in Boston and as a podcast and conversation platform at this site. We’re looking for a few good ...

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Chris Lydon and Mary McGrath are putting the band back together, re-launching “Open Source” on public radio in Boston and as a podcast and conversation platform at this site. We’re looking for a few good men and women to join the adventure. There are opportunities for both full and part-time work for a few Boston-based self-starters– “self-stahtahs” as we call them in the Hub. Some experienced is required.

Web and Social Media Producer/Community Manager

We’re looking for people who still read books and who have wide interests in the arts, ideas and politics to blog, share and promote our content and conversations as well as dig up interesting new stuff to share with our audience.

We’ll need help updating, adapting and expanding our WordPress site, producing multi-media extras for it and keeping track of analytics. We have a worldwide community that wants to be involved and engaged in ongoing conversations. With an exciting new partnership with WBUR radio in Boston, we’re looking for new ways for an expanding audience to participate across our web and broadcast platforms.

Audio Producer

How are your recording and ProTools or Hindy chops? Can you help us integrate our site with SoundCloud? We’ll have more conversations to record and edit than we can handle, so we’ll need some help getting them produced and then distributed across the web and public radio outside Boston via PRX and other services.

BizDev

No one has cracked the code for supporting and sustaining high quality on-line media, but we have some interesting elements to work with in a smart, active community and a new broadcast platform. We want to be built to last. What are the media partnerships, promotions and collaborations we haven’t unlocked yet, and what are the events, special projects and features we should be cooking up?

Interns

Yes, we’ll pay you decently, and we promise you’ll be having more busy fun at a job than you thought you could.

Want to apply?

We’d love to hear from you. Send a cover letter describing your interests and why you might like to join our merry band. Include a resumé with a reference or two and your twitter handle. We look forward to meeting you.

Please contact:

Mary McGrath

mary@radioopensource.org

zadie 1Mary McGrath and Christopher Lydon have worked in public media together for nearly 20 years. They created an award-winning call-in talk show for WBUR in the 90’s called “The Connection.” They created “Open Source,” a national program and blog for public broadcasting from 2005 to 2007, which was independently produced by them and supported by the MacArthur and Schumann foundations, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and by donors. The show got credit for pioneering the use of social media in radio production and distribution. 

Since 2007, Chris has hosted hundreds conversations on the Radio Open Source website which are distributed through iTunes. Back in 2003 Chris hosted the first podcast with the web innovator Dave Winer at the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School. The new project, Open Source with Christopher Lydon, is a co-production with WBUR radio in Boston. Chris and Mary will also be producing additional conversations and content that will be available on-line in podcast form and available for broadcast outside of Boston. A fuller description of the new project is here.

 

 

By the Way • November 18, 2013

Good news for dear friends!

We’re putting the band back together, in a new world. With the peerless producer Mary McGrath, we’re bringing Open Source back to our first radio home, WBUR in Boston. Drawing on our roots in New ...
Thanks to Barry Blitt and The Atlantic

Thanks to Barry Blitt and The Atlantic

We’re putting the band back together, in a new world. With the peerless producer Mary McGrath, we’re bringing Open Source back to our first radio home, WBUR in Boston. Drawing on our roots in New England and our interest in the wider world, we’ll be doing a weekly evening program (Thursday nights at 9, rebroadcast on the weekends), re-launching radio and online conversation as challenging, as engaging, as various, as irresistible as we can make it. 

Strange thing: all of us have changed in this mobile, digitized, smartphone and twitter world. Stranger still is what hasn’t changed:  New England as an American capital of ideas, teaching, learning and research – of thinking! – as it has been since Emerson’s heyday in the 1830’s. The Hub today is a hive of hives – in the brain sciences, health care delivery, every kind of tech and biotech, also music, poetry, security studies, economics, in all the great branches of human exploration. President Obama had it right in his speech after the Marathon: we live in an iconic American city, and our creative and intellectual diaspora excels in every field of human endeavor all over the world. Boston’s late mayor, Kevin White called it a “small town of international significance.” Our goal, drawing on the almighty human voice and the many extensions of modern media, is to make radio talk as bracing and smart as this Global City we’re living in. 

Our website, radioopensource.org, is central to our new project. We will be expanding Open Source’s online platform of podcast conversations on the widest range of solid stuff, local and global, that people talk about: books old and new, music of all kinds, culture in general, and, of course, politics. We will be sharing our podcasts with WBUR, and at the same time we’ll be counting on a growing radioopensource community, as we always have, to help shape our discussions, sharpen the questions and make connections where others haven’t even noticed the dots.

Mary, Zadie & Chris

Mary, Zadie & Chris

Will you join us in this conversation? Will you help sustain it? We’re installing our first PayPal donate button on the site. In the new media landscape it takes a community as well as a public radio station to kickstart and support a mission like this one. Please give that donate button a try! And while you’re at it, sign up for our newsletter. 
 
The sweetest discovery in the twenty years Mary and I have been working together has been that we could actually build a living chain of listeners — a pulsing coral reef of conversation on the radio and the Web. And all of us could sustain a sensibility of open-minded hunger and enthusiasm around strong call-in talk with a tuba soloist and the Tulip Lady, as well as with Eddie Palmieri and Toni Morrison. The best thing we’ve done is build that far-flung network of loyal enthusiasts. We are hugely grateful to you, and proud to have done it together. At the start of a renewed adventure, we’ll be cheered more than ever by your support and encouragement. 

Podcast • February 12, 2010

Ghana Speaks (V): The Radio Voices of Cape Coast

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Mike Serwornoo (15 min, 9 mb mp3) An underlying question through this experimental week in Ghana is: what more would it take to podcast conversations as direct as ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Mike Serwornoo (15 min, 9 mb mp3)

An underlying question through this experimental week in Ghana is: what more would it take to podcast conversations as direct as these from India, or Israel, or the West Bank? Or China, or Congo, for that matter?

Mike Serwornoo, in our exchange here about radio in Ghana, strikes me as the sort of modern practitioner I’d want to engage with almost anywhere to enlist the Web’s boundary-jumping tools in service of “that fabulous instrument,” as Studs Terkel used to call it, the human voice.

Mike Serwornoo is the ambitious young general manager of ATL-FM, the multi-purpose radio voice of the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. It’s one of the scores of community radio stations working like democratic yeast for a decade now in West Africa generally, not Ghana especially. Mike’s boast to me is that popular trust in radio is now so powerful that the rule in a street emergency is “don’t call the police, call the radio station.”

ATL-FM carries news, talk, music and the Voice of America. In the local politics of Cape Coast, my impression is that ATL-FM vents the views more of the mainstay fishermen (for public pensions, for example) than of college students and teachers. We’re talking — Mike Serwornoo and I — about ways to combine some flavors of their gab with some of ours.

One thing most of us in Ghana don’t want is Euro-centric or American-centric solutions to Afro-centric problems. We don’t want a solution brewed in the United States. We want solutions brewed in Ghana, in Africa, with the guidance of someone who has been through our experience… The dream here is that the great things we do in Ghana can get to the people in the diaspora… that we converse with the world at large, without boundary, without color.

Mike Serwornoo with Chris Lydon, at ATL-FM in Cape Coast, Ghana, January 27, 2010.

Sounds astonishingly like my dream, too.