As I walk the streets and roam the web of China, I share snapshots from my fieldwork on Bytes of China. My list of longer thought pieces can be found on my Writing Page

I am currently living in China, following students and migrants as they process information and desire, remaking cities and rural areas. I investigate media and memes in their collisions with markets, governments, and local thugs.   [More about Bytes of China.]

Here's a video of the most recent talk I gave about my research at LIFT in Geneva, Switzerland, "Dancing with Handcuffs: The Geography of Trust in Social Networks". In this talk, I analyze the changing conceptions of trust through the story of a college student who threw shoes and eggs at the government official who oversees internet censorship in China. 

Read more about my research. My analysis of culture and technology can be found on Cultural Bytes. And my personal blog is Hi Tricia.

The views expressed on this blog do not in any way reflect the position of any of my funders, past employers, the Chinese government, the US government or the Fulbright program. 


My research is generously funded though a mix of university grant programs, state initiatives, or industry research.

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His own style: A fashion choice that keeps people and crowds at a distance

Xin Kai (psyeudonym) is a wholesale clothing seller. I stopped by his story today and he told me about an incident that happened today with the chengguan

I write often about the chengguan. Officially, they are a bureau located in every city that is responsible for managing public spaces in a city. But they are more commonly known as a violent and deathly street mafia.

I also thought this conversation was interesting becaue we talked about the police stopping him because he looked different.

Xin Kai: Today the chengguan game.

Me: Why would they come for you? You have a store.

Xin Kai: I had all these new winter jackets dropped off from a seller and there wasn't room in my store, so the piles of jackets were placed in front of my store. Then the chengguan came and they didn't even ask if the jackets belonged to anyone. They just started putting my jackets in their truck. If I didn't come out earlier they would've just taken all my coats and all their family members would've been warm this winter. Bastards.

Me: How could they just do that?

Xin Kai: Ha, they don't have to ask, they can do that to anyone. They are the chengguan. But I got my stuff back with a little bit of arguing. 

Me: Well they probably didn't believe it was your stuff. You don't really look like a typical store owners.

Xin Kai: Yah I don't, great huh? [had a proud look on his face] They can't bully me that easily.

Me: Well you do look pretty different with your hair. [The top part of his hair is 2 inches long, the rest of it is buzzed, half of the hair on top is kept long that extends past his neck. He has a tatoo on one side of neck.]

Xin Kai: yah you like this? I used to have it even longer and then a few years ago I used to have the outline of my hand imprinted into the back of my head. Looked like someone had grabbed my head. It was pretty cool.

Me: What makes you think of all these creative styles?

Xin Kai: I like that it's different. I have a new style ever few years. Plus it keeps people far away from me. No one ever cuts in front of me. Like when I need to buy a ticket at the train station, people step out of my way. They think I am mafia member. Which is fine with me.

Me: Do the police ever stop you?

Xin Kai: All the time.

Me: Like where?

Xin Kai: At the train station, on the road. They used to stop me more, but now its more relaxed.

Me: Does it bother you that they stop you?

Xin Kai: What does it matter? I haven't done anything wrong. Sure you can run my identity. But I'm clean. I have nothing on me. This is me, this is my special look, fuck them if they don't like it. I'm not a bad person.

Me: So you know the power of your "look."

Xin Kai: Ya, I like it a lot. I am trying to think of what I should do next.

Me: maybe I should adopt your hairstyle - people are always cutting in front of line.


The New Luxury Consumer: White male serving Chinese couple in Toyota Highlander Advertisement

Oh how this Toyota Highlander advertisment is reflective of the new global order.  I saw this picture in Guangzhou's domestic terminal. A Chinese couple is getting out of their Japanese brand car into what appears to be a private yacht. A white male greets them, taking their travel items and appears to be eager  in their service. 

This advertisement reflects a new Chinese imaginary - one that is global, expansive, unlimited, and exploratory. It also tells us who has the power to live out this imaginary. 10 years ago or even 5 years ago, I don't think this advertisement would've existed. But now companies have turned to the Chinese consumer, encouraging them to participate in this lifestyle. The entire global economy right now depends on the Chinese elite and middle-class to spend. But how long can this go on for until we see the next crisis? For how long can each system create "value"?

As of right now:

“The ugliest part of the saga is that the well-being of many other countries is also in the impact zone when the donkey and the elephant fight,” Xinhua News


Just Another Day of Fieldwork in China - Student singing for money on street

I felt off today. Everything was making me annoyed.

The grey air full of deathly toxins seemed to bother me more than usual. The bus exhaust in my face made my eyes sting. Walking on the street didn't seem faster than the sidewalk. Every pivot I made seemed to slow me down. I was totally off rhythm - motor bikes were blocking every possible space and bicyclists seemed to cut me off at every exploit to move ahead. It wasn't even hot but I was sweating just from the effort required to push through the crowds. A plume of kebab smoke enveloped my body, i knew I would smell like a stale fried piece of meat instead of my soap fresh body wash.

Congested bodies bumping into each other with no care for who is pushed or ran over. I walk past the bus station depot and I feel so tiny. Rows of buses waiting -  I could easily be squished in between two of them  and no one would help me, just like no one helped the 2 year old girl in Foshan who was ran over twice. The officials here would probably cover up the accident. What horrible thoughts I am imagining.

I am such a ball of negativity. I shouldn't be out in public right now because on any other day none of this would bother me.

Then then a voice pushed through the crowded space of sounds. A singing voice. But not the typical high pitched and stuffy karaoke voice. This voice was deep and honest. It was a young voice that carried itself through smoggy air and into your ears.

I walked up and saw that a crowd had gathered around the voice.

He was a young male. Like everyone else from my own world, I was drawn into a pause.  Crouching on the street with one arm awkwardly resting on his leg - the hand seemed to dangle. His microphone hand rested on top of his other arm. His body was compacted to take up minimal amount of space.

There were no obvious visual clues for why he would resort to singing on the street for money. His jeans appeared clean, his hair was long but not oily, his sneakers weren't falling apart, his color on his shirt remained true to its original black color, and his arms and face were not spotted with dirt.

He never looked up at the crowd. Not once did he turn around to see that there was a crowd of around 50 people on the steps in front of the mall standing and listening.

He wasn't a performer; he didn't have the air of a young street musician whose love is to sing for a living. To sing and ask for money, this was not his doing. Circumstances must have forced him to take his voice to the street. His voice was strong yet so unprepared and so unaware of how it could stop even a crowd - it grabbed me so much that I didn't even realize he was singing to music until he used a remote control to change the track for the next song.

I stepped through the crowd to read his hand written sign that was held down a money box.

I am a poor student from a mountainess rural area, I lost my father when I was young. My mother brought me and my sister up, she sent us to school. My sister got into Wuhan University of Technology, but because of economic problems my sister couldnt' go to school and had to work with my mom in the city. Then my sister got really sick and went into the hospital. The doctors tried their best to rescue her. But her sickness has made our family even more poor. So now I have to take one year off to make some money. Thank you to all who can donate money. I will always remember you.

This is the beauty of living in a city with streets that are alive. The streets hold stories. And even when you're feeling grumpy, you'll be given a distraction long enough to remind you of all the souls who share the world with you.


Fieldwork can be tiring and difficult on the body. I've been trying to slow down so that I don't become the grumpy anthropologist who no longer appreciates her own field site. But no one ever talks about this - how to be emotionally and physically healthy in long term fieldwork. We hear stories of anthropologists going off into their field sites, immersed into everyday life, and then they return to society with goodies of insights.
But what if everyday life is wearing on you? What if everyday life is wearing on the people you spend time with? What if it all feels so heavy that you forget why you are doing this fieldwork in the first place?
How do I keep my observations alive when what once seemed to be an observable distance is now hovering over me - like the sulfuric smelling smog that just makes me feel nauseous the moment I step outside?

I worry that I will begin missing stories like this young student.  If the conditions in my own fieldsite begin to annoy me, then that will be a bias what I observe and that could prevent me from seeing many moments that would've otherwise stood out to me before.

I just co-started a new blog with Heather Ford, Jenna Burrell, and Rachelle Annechino.  It's called Ethnography Matters. Well be talking about some of these issue on our blog. This inspires me to create a category with tips on how to remain balanced while doing fieldwork.

In the meantime, I will reflect on what my wonderful advisor Barry Brown suggested: for every 3 days of fieldwork, I should spend 2-3 days writing and another day resting.

Well it's been 6 months into fieldwork and I have yet to follow his advice.  I think this is a good time to start.

It's time to remind myself what a magical place I am in.


Shanzai Nokia N9 has 7 OS interfaces, but most importantly it has Talking Tom & Stripping Games

In the wonderful world of shanzai, we have a new competitor made with a Mediatek chip- a Nokia N9 knockoff, the Noka (诺卡) N9. The Noka N9 has 7 operating systems interfaces: Meego, iOS 5.0, HTC Sense, Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry, Smasung’s TouchWiz  and Symbian Anna. This screenshot below from the video shows the user switching OS interfaces.

But it wasn't the impressive overload of OS interfaces, dual-sim card, 3.8″ WQVGA 240×400 resistive touch screen or the  1.3MP rear and front facing camera that caught my attention.

It was an advertisement on Taobao that revealed much more about what Chinese users want: games and porn (two areas I research). Below the description of the knock off, the first and most prominently placed feature of the Noka N9 was Talking Tom - a game that could that operate across platform. The writing in red claims that:

In all of history, this is the most versatile Talking Tom ever!!

Then below three rows of Talking Tom screenshots, is another ad for a game that allows you to watch females strip when you blow on the microphone:

Most deliciosly evil game of pretty girls stripping!!


Then below the stripping games are more pictures of other games included in the phone from Angry Birds to Fruit Ninja.

If users just want games and stripping apps, then do they really need any of the other features that are offered in any of the original OS's  on phones that cost 3-15 times as much as knock offs? Not really, at least according to this Taobao advertisement which shows that it is possible to reduce user needs down to a few most necessary apps. The success of Shanzai mobiles tells us that the purity of an OS actually matters little to these users. They just want a phone that looks like a smartphone with games and basic features. The interesting point here is "looks like."  The Noka N9 is a semi-smartphone (半职能手机) that looks like a smartphone but doesn't have the full features of a pure smartphone. In previous interviews that I have conducted with shanzai phone users, they expressed that they valued durability (i.e. droppability. not longevitiy) and affordability in a phone. But in more recent interviews, they now the new value for non-elite users is to have a phone that can do the things that they see smartphone users doing - like interacting with more complex, interactive, & graphically rich stuff - like Talking Tom & Puff - a stripping game for you to look at girl's underwears.

This Noka N9 knock-off is apparently doing so well that even if you type in NOKIA N9 (诺基亚 N9) on Taobao's Hot Items, a list of NOKA N9 knock offs come up as the top results, covering the entire first page, which tells me that a sizable group of consumers are buying the shanzai version instead of the original N9.

*This post was prepared with the help of research assistant and manager, Pheona Chen.

Related Posts: The shanzai smartphone bandits are coming in China: My response to Nokia's CEO on 90% of the world not using smartphones - 6.27.2011




The shanzhai smarpthone bandits are coming in China! My response to Nokia's CEO on 90% of the world not using smartphones

This is a quote from Stephen Elop's first speech in Asia last week since becoming the CEO of Nokia.

The reality is that 90 percent of the world does not have or cannot afford a smartphone or a high-end device...This gap creates an opportunity.” Nokia's CEO

I wrote a blog post about shanzai phones last month that essentially serves as a very appropriate response to Elop's statement. Here's an excerpt below:

Cellphone producers worked with a Taiwan company that stands outside of Chinese governance, MediaTek, to quickly produce affordable and customizable cellphones that could flood markets within and outside of China. Essentially, cellphone producers dreamed of a way to operate outside of market regulations for cellphones and in the end shanzai phones now are estimated to makeup 20% of all cellphone sales within China. Millions of migrants can now have their dreams come true of connecting in real-time with friends and family, playing lots of games, going online, reading books, and taking photos - these non-elite users can finally afford cellphones just like anyone else in China. Shanzai culture is about equalizing the playing field for the most economically disadvantaged consumers. Now that is what I call a disruptive innvoation.

Now companies like Nokia and Microsoft are panicking because they are unable to compete in the crowded smartphone market. Longtime buyers of Nokia feature phones (symbian) have defected to Shanzai smart phones in masses. But Nokia still has an odd split in their company - they’ve set their company up in China (and India, Africa) to be split into two parts: emerging markets and smartphones. And now Nokia smartphones are switching to Microsoft platform (good-bye Meego!). But this means that Nokia has segmented their market into two groups and made two assumptions - that emerging markets still want to buy feature phones and elite-users want to buy expensive smart phones. Sorry, but this isn’t going to work because both non-elite users AND elite users want access to really cool smart-phones.

People in emerging markets are going to want to have access to the same features that expensive smartphones offer. They see the iPhone ads and they want the lifestyle that comes with it. So even if they can’t buy it from Nokia/Microsoft, iphone, or some Android phone  - they’re going to get it a smartphone with the SAME features from a shanzai smartphone. Sure shanzai smartphones are cheaply made and it may fall apart in 1 year, but guess what - that’s more of an excuse to buy a new one.  At such an affordable place, migrants can afford to get a new phone every year or so. My suggestion for any hardware manufacturer in emerging markets - learn more about your consumers.

In addition to what I already wrote last month, I have several thoughts about Elop's comment:

  • There are already companies that are ready to offer the 90% a very affordable smartphone.
  • It is misleading to think that this 90% won't spend more on cellphones than they did on feature phones.
  • Ahtough this 90% can't afford a smartphone now, it doesn't mean that they don't want one in the near future.

It would've been more accurate for Elop to say, "previously, 90 percent of the world could not afford a smartphone or a high-end device, but we are going to see affordable smarpthones enter the market and users who will spend more on mobiles...This creates an opportunity."

But I suspect that the reason why Nokia's CEO made his statement is because the market has yet to see the flooding of affordable smartphones. This is because Mediatek, the platform on shanzai phones, up until recently has only been able to offer 2G chips, not 3G chips.  But Mediatek is beginning to produce Android smartphones with their 3G MTK6516 cellphone chips, the first affordable shanzai smartphone. And now that Mediatek has sorted out legal issues with Qualcomm in a a cross-patent liscensing deal, they are moving upmarket and ensuring that their 2G customers transition to their 3G handsets.

So this means guerilla warfare on the smartphone market: Chinese cellphone makers will soon be producing smartphones that are much less expensive than the current array of smartphones ( i.e. iphones, HTCs, samsungs, and ericssons).

Can Nokia and Microsoft together figure out how to fight guerillas and out-wit bandit strategy?

In teaming up with Microsoft, a company who is also trying to figure out how to enter the smartphone, Nokia needs to make a decision: do they want to make mobiles for elite users or non-elite users? Does they want to compete with a handful of elite smartphone producers or do they want to compete with one really amazing company who just so happens to supply the 3G chips for a guerilla army of hundreds of smartphone manufacturers? 

In Nokia's transition from a hardware to software company, they have forgotten their mission: connecting people in affordable ways. If Nokia wants to return to their original mission and audience,  they should focus on producing cellphones for non-elite users - the 90% that Elop refers to in his speech.


Ethnographic converstaions with some of the 90%

In my research with non-elite users around the world, Nokia has always been at the heart of every conversation about cellphones. But I've noticed the decreasing ownership and desire of Nokia phones in the last 3-4 years, and it is even more apparent over the last year. The 3G market among non-elite users is already being created by current advertisement for high-end smartphones from iphone to HTC to Motorola. Cellphone vendors are selling 3G phones even in second hand cellphone markets. So even if non-elite users can't afford these phones, their desires for one are being nutured. High-end smartphones are paving the way for shanzai smartphones.

I just spent several days with construction workers this past week. I hung out with them after work hours working as a migrant worker at a food vendor carts and wandering around nearby second hand markets. These markets offer items from clothing to shoes and to cellphones.

Each of the cellphone sellers offered a range of shanzai feature phones, feature phones (Nokia, Lenova, and etc), and smartphones (open-android OS like Lenova, anycall). Construction workers make anywhere from 1500RMB to 4000RMB per month depending on their skill set. A used shanzai feature phone is usually around 50-100RMB. A used smartphone sells for around 800-1500RMB. This is a big difference, but if a younger worker don't have to support a family yet, he can afford to use a whole month's salary just on a phone.

  • I noticed a lot of workers picking up 2G phones that looked like smartphones - such as the fake iphone.
  • Even though I didn't see anyone purchase a 3G phone, I heard a lot of people asking questions about it and I saw people picking them up and turning it around in their hands, pushing buttons, playing games, and turning the music on. Essentially, they were interested but not ready to purchase.
  • I spoke to the sellers and they told me that while they didn't sell that many 3G smartphones, but people showed a lot of interest in them. I asked one seller would even make the effort to put it on the table for customers to buy. He explained that having a few 3G phones on the table gives customers a broader range of choices to chose from. It makes customers think that he was a good seller who had access to "good and high-end phones," even if these phones were not within the budgets of his consumers.

Nurturing Desire

What's striking in the moment of observation is that cellphone vendors and users in the non-elite market are all quite aware that the "smartphones" were not ready for consumption at that moment, but they were anticipating the moment for a future date. It's like what department stores do with window displays - they put the most expensive product for display knowing that most customers can't afford it but want something like it.

The younger construction workers I spoke to were "investigating" smartphones for themselves. Even if they coudn't afford it at that moment, they wanted the opportunity to play with the phone since the seller allowed people to interact with the phones. Many of them were saving up for a second hand smartphone that would cost anywhere from 300RMB to 1000RMB. The older construction workers just wanted a cheap feature phone, but sometimes I heard them asking about smartphones after they witnessed their younger counterparts inquiring about it and playing with it.

Here are some  conversations that I overhead:

  • A seller asked an older construction worker what kind of phone he were looking for, he said "one that can go online...look at video...I am giving it to my son."
  • One younger worker picked up an imitation 2G Apple iphone. He didn't know how to use the touchscreen and move to the next page. The seller taught him how to swipe. Sometimes he swiped too slowly or too fast so the screen didn't move. He became frustrated with the phone and aksed to see another one.  
  • Older worker, "I want a phone that comes with a box. I need to send one home." (meaning it was a gift and he wanted this second hand cellphone to come in the "original" box)
  • Younger worker: "Is this 3G thing fast enough for me to watch movies and videos?"
  • Young worker holding fake 2G iphone, "How do I save music?"

Some other observations:

  • Question about battery life were the most consistent concerns that I had heard from all workers. All of them live in dormitory like housing and most of the time there aren't enough plugs for every person's phone at one time. Even with an extension cord, there aren't usually enough outlets. But most feature phones have longer battery life than smartphones. All the workers wanted a phone that they didn't have to charge everyday.
  • Most people tested out the audio levels for music when they picked up  a phone.
  • Testing the phones was a very social process -  workers had a friend or two with him. So there was usually a friend overlooking a worker's shoulder and they would discuss the features of the phones, like what questions to ask the seller or what functions to test out.

A large portion of this 90% are read to buy smartphones not just because affordable phones will soon be available, but because the have the desire to own one.

With costs for hardware and infrastructural barriers to 3G access decreasing there is going to be a major market shift very soon when shanzai smartphones become available. From advertisements to cellphones vendors, the techno-social lifestyle of owning a "good phone" is being created before our eyes. With Western & Japanese markets nearing handset saturaion, in next few years the mobile market is shifting to focus on this 90% - understanding their desires, needs, and daily life is absolutely necessarily for any mobile company who is going to develop services for them.

Here are some factors from the user's perspective for Nokia and any other company to be aware of before entering the 3G non-elite market:

  • data plans for 3G phones are still relatively high compared to non-data plans
  • 3G phones eat up a lot of battery - this makes it hard for low-income or mobile workers who cannot charge their phone as easily -
  • 3G services are not as widely available yet in non-urban areas
  • there is a learning curve as people transition from 2G to 3G phone

It's going to be a few interesting years to see what happens in the smartphone market. Can established companies compete with these affordable smartphones? In terms of Nokia, the company really has some of the most brilliant researchers in their labs. They just opened another one in Shenzhen, China, the heart of shanzai culture. But Nokia doesn't have a technology problem, it has an institutional culture problem. Nokia's management needs to figure out how to let their researchers, programmers, & designers disrupt the entire mobile industry and hack apart the shanzai guerillas, or else the company may not learn how to take advantage of this "opportunity" that Nokia CEO Elops referred to in his speech.



How I was treated on the subway when I was doing fieldwork as a migrant worker 

One of the people I've spending a lot of time in my fieldwork is Yang Jie. I wrote about her a few years ago when I met her on the street selling traditional Miao clothing and trinkets in Beijing.

Today, we both got on the subway together to head to one of the places she usually goes to sell her clothing.

She was carrying a bag over 70 pounds on her back. She is 5'2. She has the frame of someone who has been through a lifetime of work, a resilient body that could withstand hunger. I was carrying two bags for her also. Yang Jie also was carrying an plastic container that looked like it had been found on the side of the road - it had dirt encrusted into its crevices.

When we got on the subway, the passengers were not very friendly in giving us space to put down our bags even though the train wasn't crowded. When Yang Jie put her hands on the pole, passengers moved away from us.

I was dressed to blend in with Yang Jie, so I looked like a migrant street seller also.  There were no seats when we first got on the train, but then at the next stop two seats opened up. Yang Jie spoke loudly and told me to come over. Several people turned their heads to look at us.

The minute someone speaks and the second you glance at how a person is dressed, you can more or less make a guess what kind of background they have. It doesn't take long to see that Yang Jie is a probably from a village, is poor,  and part of a minority group.

Like Yang Jie, I am also darker skinned, so I had no problem blending in with her.  If you looked closely enough, the only give away that I wasn't really a migrant worker would be my manicured and painted red toe nails (this is something I am not willing to give up even when I'm doing fieldwork!).

Alhtough, I forgot that there was one more give-away and I found out quickly after we sat down.

When we sat down on the empty seat, I accidentally lightly brushed my backpack against the man sitting to my left. I immediately apologized.  But he didn't respond, he just looked alarmed that I had touched him and gave me a glaring look that told me immediately that I shouldn't even be sitting near him. He wiped off the part of his arm that my bag had brushed as if I had dumped dirt on his suit.

His action alone made me super conscious of my physical condition -  the dirt on my toes, my oily face, and my blackened clothing from working with food vendors. I hadn't showered in two days and that's all I kept thinking after he looked at me.  I glanced around around and saw people staring at us. I immediately made a boundary in my head and called them "city people." As Yang Jie kept talking, I kept noticing the "city people" in their daily showered bodies, freshly washed clothing, and dirt-free toes.

I then received a text message so I pulled my phone out. I immediately noticed the man next to me look at me curiously - he saw that I not only had a smartphone, but probably what looked like a real iphone (it is a real iphone). I texted back to my friend in English, and this is when he became super aware that something was off - it's hard to explain the look on his face, but he just kept looking over my shoulder as if his eyeballs were going to pop out. He then looked at  Yang Jie up and down and then at me up and down.

The more he looked, the more I just glared at him and the more upset I became. I wanted to say out loud, "what are you looking at? Do you have a problem? Aren't we too dirty for your eyes?"  But I was with Yang Jie and I didn't want to make a scene. I'm sure she receives this kind of treatment every day and she has learned to ignore it. It angered me that I could feel his judgement seeping onto me, and I could feel that the minute he saw me texting in English his level of disdain at me decrease. Texting in English in combination with owning an iphone are signifiers of an education and he picked up on it immediately.

Reflecting upon this story, I think this experience served as a fascinating moment for me to watch how technology works as a signifier for class, lifestyle, or respect.  Iphones (at least real ones) are still really expensive phones and when migrants save up for a year for an expensive smartphone, they usually are not dressed like me because they tend to work in non-labor intensive conditions like factories, restaurants, or hair salons. I saw the man's face change when he saw me pull my iphone; so the big contrast between how I was dressed and the technology that I owned was something that didn't make sense to him within this context.

I also started thinking about how migrants laborers begin to form their own categories about city people versus village people or people who wear suits versus people who wear working clothes. And I had to remind myself in that moment as I became fixated on the man's categorization of me that not all "city" people were similar. In the underground tunnels where rent is 350RMB/month - white collar workers make 1000RMB/month - the same as Yang Jie - a laboring street seller. Their income is the same but their outer appearances are radically different. To begin with, the white collar worker has access to a shower while people like Yang Jie who live in urban villages do not have access to a shower.  Their work also requires them to wear different types of clothing. So these catagorizations are misleading, but they can often be formed in moments when we feel the weight of a situation and need to make sense of it.

We all form categories about the world. I'm reminded now of Leigh Star's and Geoffrey Bowker's work on the power of classification as an enforcer of institutionalized ideologies in their amazing book, Sorting Things out: Classification and It's Consequences. Their main argument is that "all category systems are moral and political entities" that create and enforce beliefs and practices in our everyday lives. The way we see the world is constructed based on our experiences.

We have a moral and ethical agenda in our querying of these systems. Each standard and each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing—indeed it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous—not bad, but dangerous. (Bowker and Star, 5-6)

We are used to viewing moral choices as individual, as dilemmas, and as rational choices. We have an impoverished vocabulary for collective moral passages, to use Addelson’s terminology. For any individual, group or situation, classifications and standards give advantage or they give suffering. Jobs are made and lost; some regions benefit at the expense of others. How these choices are made, and how we may think about that invisible matching process, is at the core of the ethical project of this work. (Bowker and Star, 6)

I tried to imagine how would I see the world if I experienced this every single time I got on the train. Would I become bitter, would I form over-arching categories about "city" people so that I could make sense of how I was treated, would I essentialize anyone who looked like they were well dressed or showered?

When I try to think about these questions I am even more amazed at Yang Jie's life. When we first met, I looked like what I had just categorized as a "city" person. I was working as a visiting scholar at the China Internet Network Information Center and was wearing office attire every day. I showered everyday and always had clean clothes on with high heels. And still, Yang Jie treated me with respect. She didn't put me into the category of "city person" or "rich person" or "white collar worker."

What I remember the most about meeting Yang Jie is that I didn't have to prove myself to her that I wasn't  judgmental or didn't look down on her. Often times when I meet migrants  and they know that I'm not a migrant, I work very hard to make sure that I convey to them that I don't look down upon them. It takes a lot of energy and trust to convince someone that you see them as equals. Sometimes the social divide is too great in their minds and I am not able to convince them otherwise. Sometimes I don't get enough time to spend with them to build the trust and to show them that I am not one of "those" people. I can always tell when people still don't believe that I see myself as their equals.  When this happens, I am not able to do in-depth ethnography because people don't open up to me when they don't feel comfortable. They often give stilted answers and just aren't willing to share their stories.

Back to the discussion of technology. Marketing creates our desires for the the newest and shiny products. In all possible advertising spaces in China from subway walls to the the exterior of buses and shopping malls, posters showing off the wonders of 3G smartphones are everywhere. We are seeing the creation of desires in the making - the desire of a smartphone.

My experience illustrates the type of power a piece of technology can convey in everyday life. Will first time smarphone owning migrants experience the same kind of treatment I received today? Will they notice people giving them better treatment once they pull out thier cellphone?

I remember in high school when I got my first pager, I tried to find every way possible to let students know that I owned one. I was bullied in high school for being one of the few Chinese faces in a all white, middle to upper class suburb. So I yearned for any kind of signal that would convey that I was also able to participate in a smiliar lifestyle. I even recall one time in AP History when I purposely left my pager on so that everyone could hear it ring. No one paged me that time.

I predict that soon we will see 3G shanzai smartphones flood the market, but the question is how much do the current non-elite users of 2G feature phones really need these smartphones? Of course this is a bit of a rhetorical question because in the end how much do any of us really need our technologies. None of can really objectively answer this! Do I really need Cat Paint on my iphone? NO! but YES! YES because it makes me really happy to draw cats flying over my friends' heads.  But the more interesting question is to find out how migrants construct their own technology needs. How do non-elite users describe their reasons for transitioning from a feature to a smartphone?  What does the transition from a feature to a smartphone mean for them? Will it provide them with greater economic opportunities? Will it allow them to stay in touch with their families more easily? or will it create new problems? I'll find out in the next year as I watch the transition. I hope to catch people right as the shanzai smartphone enter the market and do some before and after ethnography.

I also thought of Anil Dash's Last Year's Model campaign. Maybe we need something similar here in China!


Stay posted for my piece next week where I respond to Nokia's CEO who made a comment that 90% of the world cannot afford a smartphone.

UPDATE JUNE 29, 2011:  My thoughts on Nokia, Smartphones, and the other 90%



warm hot dogs: protein source in internet cafe


I was hanging out an internet cafe around 4pm in the afternoon on a weekday.

For each cafe that I spend time at, I do a quick and dirty subjective rating of each cafe on a scale of 1-10 stars, 10 being the most luxurious and 1 being the most dilipidated.

This cafe is on the nicer end; I would've given it a 7 but I gave it 8 because they offer warm hot dogs - note the keyword - warm. Most cafes, if they offer hot dogs, sell cold hot dogs snacks in a wrapper.

Here is a short excerpt from my fieldnotes about this cafe.

Cafe rating - 8 stars: air-conditioned, requires identification cards and they appear to check them, no mosquitos or flies, keyboard and mouse appear to be clean, available warm food (hot dog in food display, bathroom located on same floor as cafe (2nd floor), cloth on chairs are in place, no nuts or food scattered on ground, the workers seems responsive when customers need help, cubicles in back appear ot be new

keyboards are not stained with dirt though the keyboards are black so it would be hard to see the dirt  -but I don't see food encrusted in between the keys

estimate: total of 100-120 computers, 60 computers are being used with around 40 people playing games and 15 people watching videos and 5 people on websites browsing, 40 females and 20 males, I see 5-6 couples together, there are 2-3 people napping at all times

most customers playing games have a soft-drink or sugar beverage with them, some have lots of wrappers of candies and other snacks spread around their keyboard

within the last hour, two customers (one male & one female) bought 1 hot dog each, the meat is kept warm in a transparent plastic food display with a light, you can see the oil on the hot dog bubbling up, 1RMB each, customers went back to their computer and began playing their game, the female was playing a dancing/clothing game of some sort, male playing first person CS-like game

there's a sudden down pour outside, people are running in with drenched clothes and hair, the internet cafe is dry, are they coming here to use the computer or coming here to get away from the rain?

overheard conversation: let's just pay for 1 hour, check to see if companies have emailed me back, and then the rain will probably clear up

I wonder how many people have been living here, how many people are on a gaming deadline (like joined a team or bought in-game items that will expire), where are these people from, how many people are lookin for a job, who lives in the nearby tunnel, how many alrady have internet access at home


Life Underground: an ethernet line to the outside world with no windows

I've been touring underground tunnels looking for a short-term rental. This is the room that I've decided to rent. The room includes an incredibly dilapidated twin bed and a wooden desk. To give you an idea of the size of this particular room, it's as big as a large walk-in American closet and smaller than a queen sized bed. These rooms cost 350RMB/month. Some rooms have a double-bed or a TV, and those cost a bit more.

Each room comes with an ethernet cable; internet costs 60RMB/month.

There is no way to tell if it is daytime or nighttime as there are no windows in the room. There are two ways to find out the time of day: look at the time on your cellphone/clock or walk all the way up into the upper-ground world.


Empty Condom Dispensing Machines

Even though there are condom vending machines scattered through out the city, I have yet to find one that could dispense even one condom. It only takes coins.

All the machinese have a picture of a male and female hugging on a beach. Wuhan is very far from the ocean, it is in the middle of the country. Most people have not seen the ocean. 



Using 驴友 BBS Message Boards to Find Travel Friends

I met a young, college student at a bus stop while I was waiting for a bus with a friend.

He is from Jiangxi Provence and is in Wuhan studying to be a train operator. His father was also a train operator.

He is going to catch a night train to Changsha in Hunan Provence.

After he shared with me where he was going, I asked him why he was going to Changsha all by himself at 11pm in the middle of the night. He explained that he needed a break from his girlfriend. She was being difficult and he couldn't rest, so he just decided to get up and leave, hoping that it would make him feel better.

He seemed visibly frustrated, constantly checking his phone.

Him and his girlfriend have been together for 1 year and its the first relationship for both of them. She is a college student and he is going to have a very safe job inside the state-run train company. They already broke up once, but then they got back together.

But recently, she's been ignoring his calls. A week before she suggested that they take a break, but he didn't agree to it. Just a few hours ago, he called her and she answered the phone but she said that she was out with friends at KTV and then hung up on him. He could hear several people laughing in the background.

I asked him for more details about their relationship. He said that he wants to marry her and that both of their parents approve of the relationship. He can give her a stable life. I then asked if he felt this was the right decision even though it was only their first relationship and she already seems to want to take a break. He responded, "Does it matter? The point is that I can take care of her and we can be together. We are a good match for each other. What's the point of a break? We rarely see each other."

He lost his virginity to her. He was 21 years old. The first girl he had ever kissed, the first girl he had ever slept with, and the only girl he wants to be with forever. Even though they live in the same city, they only see each other once or twice every month because they both go to different universities.

I then asked why he was constantly looking at his phone, he said that he was hoping she would call and tell him that she wanted to see him.

I then asked about where he got his current phone. He said it was his third phone this year. The first was a Nokia smartphone that was stolen out of his dormitory while he was sleeping last summer. Someone stole phones that were being charged while students were sleeping. He replaced it with another Nokia smartphone but then that was stolen on a bus. Then he bought this used Shanzai phone for 50RMB. He can't get online with this latest phone but he can do simple apps like QQ. He keeps all his contact info on his QQ address book.

He then explained that he uses a vacationing BBS (驴友bbs) site where strangers organize meet-ups in cities around China. After his girlfriend hung up on him, he turned to the vacationing BBS and found several people who were going to Changsha. He made contact with them, exchanged cellphone numbers, and agreed to meet up at a hostel in Changsha the next morning. After meeting up, they would go as a group to a travel agency to buy tickets for local touristic sites.

I asked if he only travels when he's upset, he said no. He used to travel more often when he was single. He prefers to travel alone to a new city because it's more convenient to coordinate with strangers than friends. He found traveling with friends to be too complicated because he had to consider their needs, negotiate where to go, and to make compromises. With strangers he found that he could do what he wanted without feeling guilty.  He could tell them that he was going to a museum and then meet up with them in the afternoon. With a friend, he couldn't do that; they would have to stick together the entire time.

I asked what he hoped would happen after he came back from his Changsha vacation. He plans to call her when he returns and hopes that his girlfriend realizes how much she missed him.

He doesn't really keep in touch with people he meets on these trips. He doesn't have any plans to travel with the same people again unless they bump into each other on the BBS again and just so happen to be going to the same city.

This student comes from at least a lower-middle class family. His family had enough connections to get him into the training program based off of his father's employment. He uses the internet as a place for finding random connections for temporary activities. He isn't using it to create lasting relationships. He believes that he is already in one, but it appears from his story that his girlfriend may not be on the same page with him.


Explosion at Construction Site - No Public Reports

I was walking by this construction site above with my friend Lao Meng when we heard a humongous explosion and then saw large metal sharples the size of car tires flying onto the street. We both just stood there watching everyone panic and running away from the site. We didn't see any pieces of metal land on anyone; the metal flew over everyone's heads and onto the street. And we were safe in the end. It was shook us up a bit and reminded us that it's quite normal for several deaths to be associated with each construction project.

We couldn't get any answers about what happened. Construction sites are very private about what goes inside their walls. If they see you taking pictures, someone will come up to question you on why you're taking photos and harrass you.

We will probably never know if any migrant worker was injured  or killed. There were no reports of this in the newspapers the next day. From my apartment building I could see a big hole had been blasted out on the site and they had to tear down several levels of concrete. It appears that they had to start all over again after the blast.

Chinese construction companies are notorious for creating shoddy buildings. Some apartments begin to show problems with the first few years. But construction companies often change their names, so it becomes difficult to hold the company responsible for the building. Most of these buildings are only made to last 25-30 years, even though the government requires them to last 50 to 100 years. According to the Land Administration Law that was last modified in 1988, people only have residential rights to buildings for 70 years from date of purchase.

Below are some pictures of what the area surrounding a construction site loosk like - the walls block pedestrains from seeing the site and the sidewalks are filled with dust. The walls are usually plastered with advertisments symbolizing the success of construction projects.





Technolgies of Luxury: Toilet Ads featuring "Western Toilets" are a sign of luxury

All around the city are advertisements for "Western" styled toilets that have lids, seat, and raised base. No squatting is required. In new apartment buildings, there are ads pasted in elevator entrances. Usually there is a woman in a dress pointing to the toilet. This is the first ad that I've seen with a male baby holding his penis as he urinates into the toilet.

The western toilet, along with iphones and ipads, are all part of this new wave of technologies of luxury in China.


Man on bus having difficulty with his cellphone stylus



This older man is using his stylus to write Chinese characters for a text message. He keeps having to take his glasses on and off to write it. He writes a few strokes, then presses a button, then puts his glasses back on, and then repeats the entire process. The bus is also very bumpy so he is trying to stablize the mobile with his hands.

Across the aisle, a girl is cutting her nails (picture below).


The Culturally Situated Weibo 随手拍 Instant Photo Phenomenon: the largest singles Social Networking Site in China

What first started out with well-meaning citizens taking pictures of child beggers on the street has now turned into a national phenomenon of individuals uploading pictures of themselves and their friends in the hopes of finding a potential relationship.

Weibo is the most popular micro-blog in China, often compared to Twitter. 随手拍照解救乞讨儿童 Rescue Children (almost 300,000 followers) is a Weibo account that posts pictures of potentially kidnapped child beggers on the streets with the hopes of matching them with their original families. Charles Custer from China Geeks has written about Weibo's child begging  and the backlash against it. Rescue Children was the first 随手拍 group. 随手拍 means Instant Photo.

Now, dozens of Instant Photo groups are springing up all over the country not to rescue homeless children, but to rescue single men an women.

Users @ the specific Weibo Instant Photo Singles accounts that they want to be featured on. So if a person is an older woman living in Shenzhen, she would @ the Shenzen Instant Photo Singles Older Women group.  Weibo users post their pictures accompanied with a description of their personality traits, weight, profession, instant messaging QQ number, and the kind of person they are looking for. Friends often upload pictures for their friends and some people upload their own pictures. Beijing Today has a lovely article about how this started.

Here are two examples below.

奈奈de小懒猪 posted this to her Weibo on March 31st 7:22pm for her friend and included Instant Photo Qing Nong University's Rescue Single Men @随手拍解救青农大单身 in the post.

@随手拍解救青农大单身 说:女,青岛农业大学外院大一学生,92年,身高162,狮子座,籍贯山东济宁,老家吉林延边,具有东北人的豪爽直率。想找一本校大一大二大三男皆可,身高176—183,偏瘦,阳光点的男生。不用太帅,感觉最重要。求解救哈。

Qingnong female, studying foreign language at Qingdao Agricultural University, born in 1992, 162 centimeters tall, hometown is Jining in Shandong Provence, has the loveliness of an eastern northerner. Looking for a university freshman, sophomore, or junior around the height of 176-183 cm, slim, and doesn't have to be too handsome as this isn't the most important thing, it's more important that we hit it off.

@随手拍解救青农大单身 (Qing Nong University's Rescue Single Men) reposted it to their weibo at 2.28pm Tues May 24th to their 218 followers.


Ah friends are so worried. What are you all doing?  This is a good girl // @随手拍解救青农大单身   the hardest part is to hit it off because feeling sare very valuable. She must be rescued!

So far the original post has 68 comments and 22 forward.

In this post above, a student, 懂事么, posted this on his own Weibo on May 22, 8pm. It was then reposted (pic above) an hour later by the Wuhan Univeristy Singles Rescues 随手拍解救武大剩斗士  group.

@懂事么:对@随手拍解救武大剩斗士 说:哥们我来了,,华师大三学生,厦门人。88年 180cm 性格好 阳光 激情 喜欢打球 喜欢唱歌,属于熟了就很放得开的。想找人一起看电影 一起游凤凰。。。QQ340054497 原文转发(4)|原文评论(8)

Hey friends, I'm here! Born in 1988, 180cm tall, junior at Wuhan Normal University, from Xiamen. I'm a good person with a fun personality. I like to play basketball and sing. I'm pretty laid-back after we get to know each other. I want to find someone to relax with and watch movies. My instant messaging QQ number is 340054497.


There are Weibo Singles Rescues for cities based general age groups that is not city specific.  This Weibo group above, @随手拍解救大龄女青年, is for for all singles women (64,129 followers).


Some Instant Photo groups are organized by location with no gender separation. @随手拍解救惠州单身人 is for the couples of Hui Zhou with 698 followers.


Students across the country have started to organize local in-person meet-ups. In the last meeting for Wuhan Singles Student Instant Photo, 10 couples were matched up. I think the student users of Weibo Instant Photo groups present some of the exciting emergent interactions on Weibo and the web at large.There are several things that come to my mind when I think about this 随手拍 Instant Photo phenomenon:

  • People are finding ways to make existing services useful for them  - this is very disruptive innovation because Instant Photo for single men and women was not part of Weibo's original plan, but now I'm sure they are paying attention to it and learning from it.
  • People are finding ways to extend digital interaction into physical meet-ups in third places. “Third places” places are neither home or work, such as pubs, cafes, libraries, and public spaces. These are important sites of community formation in urban spaces. (I have written about internet cafes as third places for migrants)
  • They are creating impromptu and temporary third places.  These meet-ups only last a few hours, but then are then discussed for several days or weeks back on Weibo. It's like flash mobs but for more meaningful and lasting connections.
  • These temporary meetings are done outside of any formal organizational support or approval from the government or any businesses. Many of times these are organized by individuals and some are able to pull together a few sponsors.
  • Temporary places such as real-life Weibo singles dating events reveal how people are making urban spaces work for them. It also shows us the different needs of elite versus non-elite users; for these Instant Photo participants so far are all users that are not part of a social group that I would classify as disadvantaged or non-elite.
  • We also get a chance to understand how internet regulations and policies are actually enforced, ignored, and negotiated in real life. Charles Custer's discussion of the controversy around the original 随手拍照解救乞讨儿童 Rescue Children site provides great analysis on why the government decided to find this site problematic.
  • It's another example of how one of the most important types of interaction on the Chinese internet revolves around sex and love (I will write a post later about how porn is a reason why many Chinese users registered for twitter in the first place)
  • This also reflects changing norms among younger and older people around love and relationship. Online dating isn't a popular way to meet people; there's still a social stigma attached to it. But many of the people I spoke to said that using Weibo for finding a girl/boy-friend wasn't real online dating and that for them this was a very comfortable way of exploring "possibilities."
  • There's something about the transparency of Weibo and the scale of Instant Photo Singles that makes it easier for people to participate in this than online dating sites. So far, my conclusion is that people are comfortable using Weibo for dating because it makes dating social - and making something social means that it that there has to be a degree of transparency and openness involved. Now finding a potential relationship though the internet isn't something that you are doing on your own。All the stuff that you had to do before alone like sorting through profiles, wondering which ones were legitimate, and trying to figure out how to represent yourself - all can be done with the help of friends and the greater Weibo community. With Weibo Instant Photo, the entire Weibo-sphere is helping you find that "right" partner, your friends are helping you sort through comments, and you're able to see the person's past Weibo posts and get a sense of who they are.

I don't think Weibo is a mere copy-cat of twitter. While it is a micro-blog, Weibo offers so many amazing features that make what I am describing in this post possible. On Weibo, you can have threaded conversations, track commentary on posts, embed various media formats, view media within the same window, and sort by content type. There are a lot of other features that I will talk about in a separate post, but this is all to say that communities like these can  develop on Weibo precisely because of its rich features and stable platform. Weibo simply works. There are no fail Weibo jokes. The only jokes you are hear are ones about internet censorship but that runs across all Chinese web services.

But it's not just the Weibo technology that makes this Instant Photo Single phenomenon possible, it's China and it's the users that make this possible. The emergence of Weibo Instant Photo for Single Men and Women is a culturally situated phenomenon in Chinese society. It reflects current anxieties and changes around family, dating, marriage, the internet, relationship, and love.

Starting from around third grade (some earlier) and on, college bound students are expected to be be totally dedicated to school work 15 hours a day. Most parents scare their children out of having relationships and fill their time with so much academic training that they don't have any free time to pursue their own interests much less a relationship. When these students enter college and are free from the confines of home, most of them have not had the chance to develop "dating" skills. They have not even had that much time to interact with youth of the opposite sex in a non-school context.

From what I've witnessed so far, the Instant Photo Phenomenon and its extended physical offline meet-ups fulfill a need that many students have - to talk with members of the opposite sex in a non-academic context where the mission and boundaries are clear: to hook up. Weibo Instant Photo and offline meet-ups offer a space for social interactions with a very transparent mandate: get into a relationship, not a friendship. I have heard so many times through my fieldwork over the years of how students would get stuck in the "friend box" with someone that they liked and felt that they had no way out it. Even if I encouraged them to confess their feelings just so they can relieve themselves of the pain of not knowing if that person liked them back,  they would give some excuse about not being able to express their feelngs. Most youth that I talk to just are simply lost when it comes to dating and have no idea how to tell someone they like them. They fear rejection so much that they would rather keep silent. And this is a very specific condition for the generation born in the late 80's to early 90's because these are the youth that have been subjected to this incredibly controlled education.

This is not to say that Chinese teenagers don't have sexual feelings at a young age. Quite contrary, many students would tell me of epic 3 year to 10 year crushes where not one word was said, not even one brush of skin was touched. These crushes would start in junior high and high school and would continue on and on. I know that American teenagers often have crushes that are unvoiced, but in China most of these crushes happen in a context where no one is hooking up with anyone in high-school because there is no space or time to even TRY hooking up or voicing your crush to someone. If a female even hangs around a male student too much, the teachers will pull the female student in for a talk along with her parents. Students' schedules are so tightly controlled that they don't have time to interact with each other without adult supervision.

I think the Instant Photo Phenomenon for older women and men speaks to another type of culturally situated context - the emergence of divorcees in a society where divorces are still stigmatized and in the minority. Having done research on how divorced women and men date in China, I can tell you that it's not easy for a divorcee. And it's even harder for female divorcees; there is a double standard for women. If men are divorced, they usually want to marry someone younger who has never been married before. Divorced women are seen as leftovers and in many ways they see themselves as unrescuable.

So here comes a service, Weibo Instant Photo, that allows you to connect to all these other people who are also older, most likely divorced or seen as the leftovers of society, and finally have a chance to meet men who know that they are divorced but are willing to still explore a relationships - well these women are very happy because the have faith in being "rescued."  It's comforting to know that one doesn't have to be ashamed of one's age or background. I've noticed that some of the most popular Weibo Instant Photo are the ones for older women for all that info is posted publicly!  I haven't heard of any single meet-ups for older people yet, but that doesn't mean that they aren't happening. I've just begun to observe this and haven't had a chance to do enough poking around yet.

Now if taking digital encounters into physical encounters such as these Weibo Singles meet-ups are  becoming socially acceptable, how can we design around this existing practice? What kind of games can we build on top of this? What other kind of offline activities could be extended from Weibo? Will Instant Photo Singles remain politically benign and out of the government's concern?

I've only done a few interviews and spent a few weeks conducting ethnography so these are some very preliminary observations.  So I'll have a lot more to write about this after a few months when I participate in the meet-ups, interview people who have posted for their friends and who have posted pictures of themselves, and get a better understanding of what this means for Weibo, SNS in China, and its users. 

I am also aware that these Instant Photo Singles meet-ups and the social circumstances that I've described so far apply for hetero-normative relationships. I have just started researching the LGBT community and will write more about this later also when I have some done more fieldwork.

Thank you to 孟繁永 for telling me about 随手拍!


Alexis Madrigal wrote up a great post about this on The Atlantic, How China's Twitter, Weibo, Became a Dating Platform.


Weibo Message to all Users - Fun, Love, & Entertainment

This is a message that has started popping up on my Weibo account lately:


Do you like finding interesting people? Weibo is a fun place! Hurry up and discover classmates, celebrities, and cute girls and guys on Weibo!

One thing that I've noticed is how much Weibo will explicitly push the idea of finding "cute" people to follow who aren't celebrities. Other than pointing users to celebrity's accounts, you don't see Twitter sending out messages to discover "cute" or "pretty" people on twitter. This message to all Weibo users emphasizes that it is a place to find interesting people, celebrities, classmates, and cute people. You don't see an emphasis on Weibo being a place to find out good information about local and national politics and news, even though that is why many people use it.

I've been using Weibo a lot over the past few months and it's been fascinating to note the major differences in how people have discovered Weibo vs Twitter. I am preparing a blog about these differences so stay tuned!


Some tips for surviving in any city where the transportation can be a litlle messy.



Transportation in some second tier cities is still a major work in progress. In my city, Wuhan, roads are being torn apart to create the new subway system that will be finished in 3 years. The government is also building new highways, bridges, and canals. Incredible water engineering feats will be accomplished - East Lake will be connected to the Yellow River.

It's impossible to avoid traffic or dust. With that being said, it's also incredibly difficult to flag down a taxi here. There is a shortage of available taxis. It's almost just as hard to get on the bus. Bus drivers are short tempered with the traffic and uneven roads. And on top of that scooters are anxious to weave in and out of traffic, people, and bicyclists  - so you could get run over anytime.

I have been to a lot of Chinese cities and spent quite some time in Beijing as it was building its subway - but no place compares to Wuhan for having the most horrendous traffic and transportation system - ever, ever, ever. It often feel like someone decided to splatter holes all over the road just to see which taxi or bus would fall into it first.  Or perhaps some govt official created a game called "miss the pot-hole" and we're all being held hostage in a game that we can't win. But this is also what makes this city so nitty and beautiful - I think I'll miss all the mismanaged road consruction projects in a few years.

Here are some taxi, train, bus, bicycle, and pedestrain tips for surviving in any city where the transportation can be a title messy.

First, download this web browser, UC 浏览器, on your smart phone. Use this app to plan out all your transportation needs and it's also a great web browser!

Second, fights happen quite often between taxis, cars, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. It's ok - people are used to it. Just step away from the scene.

Third, this is the hierarchy that you must follow if you want to understand the rhythm of local traffic - buses, taxis, motorcycles, scooters, privately owned cars, bicycles, people. This is the implicit knowledge of traffic that holds the entire city together when everyone is on the road together. You must follow it if you don't want to be crushed.


  • In Wuhan, taxi drivers will scream at you. 50% of the time they aren't really screaming - they're just talking. The other 50% of the time they really are screaming at you. It's hard to tell the difference. Taking a cab in Wuhan will make you miss the civil cab drivers in Beijing.
  • Cab drivers will not answer back in putonghua; they answer back in the local Wuhan dialect.  I've learned how to speak conversational Wuhan dialect and understand them.
  • If you are going a short distance that may be a 10-15 minute walk but need to get there as soon as possible, don't actually tell the cab driver because they won't find it worth their time to take you. Tell them that you need to go somewhere farther and then pretend to get a phone call that requires you to get off the cab asap.
  • If after running an errand at Walmart or Carrefour and you are carrying stuff like big house stuff or lots of grocery bags, no cab will stop for you. You must hide your stuff behind a car and only carry 1-2 bags in your hand, flag a cab down, open the door and put one bag in the car, and then ask them to open the trunk. 
  • Cab drivers have some of the most amazing knowledge of the city. Always find a way to speak to them about their past if you can. They will tell you so much about their life and the changes in the city. 
  • If you complain about the traffic WITH the cab driver by showing your surprise at how bad the jam is, it will be a good way to bond with them because you are empathy and sharing the frustration.
  • Sit in the front seat, it makes having a good conversation easier
  • It may seem like the cab driver's driving style doesn't appear to diminish the chances for accidents, but know that they want to avoid them as much as possible also. They have a total of 12 points and each accident deducts 2 points. They have to go through a lot of trouble if they use up their 12 points and for most drivers this means they can't drive again.
  • If you know that you'll be stuck in traffic for a long time like on a rainy day, find a black cabbie. They will give you a better deal than the cab driver.
  • Try to find a few good black cabbies that you trust to take you across the river to Hankou. This will save you money and time. Many drivers are unwilling to go to Hankou and the other way around.
  • Be prepared to be ripped off by all cabbies - it's just a part of the deal of getting to know the city. Once you know it, you will be able to tell them that they are going the wrong direction.
  • the difference between black cabbies and regular cabbies is that the regular ones definitely have insurance (if you were to be in an accident), have a camera (on top right part of windshield), and can give you a receipt. I find that black cabbies are way cleaner and most of the nicer cars carry insurance for the driver and the passengers.

if you want to live, go for the honkers

  • Fear for your life if your cab driver is silent. Alert cab drivers honk like the car is about to explode! Honking is a sign of complete mental awareness of one's physical surroundings - it's part of the transportation language that says, "hey get out of my way, or ELSE I will run you over!" The cab drivers who don't honk are the ones you need to worry about. The non-honkers just think silently to themselves, "anyone who is in my way I will run over."
  • The real concern for your life are not the cabs, but the scooters. Scooters will run your foot over and keep driving off. They will ram their mirrors into your shoulders, dent up the computer in your bag as they drive by without even stopping. AT least if a cab or car hits you they have to find a way to drive off quick enough without you writing down their license number and with traffic being such a big problem, it's hard for cars to just drive off that easily. But scooters aren't slowed down by cabs. So watch out for the scooters!


  • Buy a bus card! The price difference can be 75%. Here you can buy a bus card from stands on the streets - just ask around and everyone knows the closest place to buy it. You will need to put a deposit down for the card (like 20RMB - you get back when you return the card) and then add $ to your card by going to a grocery store that has this service. Every city has the official "bus adding money" grocery store. In Wuhan, it's 中百超市 - zhong bai chao shi.
  • If you want to ride the bus, use these websites for helping you map out your route: 8684 and Aibang Bus
  • But to actually get on the right bus is another feat to conquer. Although you may have found the correct bus to get on, the next goal is to get on it as it is coming by. Buses don't always come to a full stop and they won't go into the bus lane. You have to spot the bus ahead of time and guess down to the last second where it is going to stop  - in which lane and how far from the stop it will stop. If you don't guess correctly, most bus drivers will stop if you wave them down and get in FRONT of the bus so that is forces them to stop. Good luck!
  • If the bus is super full, swipe your bus card and then say, 往后上 (Wǎng hòu shàng)and then get run to the second door in the back. 
  • And if you get your phone or wallet stolen on the bus, just say oh well, you gave the theif an opportunity to steal it. If you always keep your belongings in a place that's not easy to steal then it won't get stolem. My #1 tip is to avoid wearing backpacks. Wear the purses that sling over one shoulder so that you can always position your purse in front of you with your hand on it.


  • I use Aibang train and Baidu search to find train times. In Baidu, just enter your starting point, then the character 到 (dao), and then the destination。If that doesnt work, add the words 火车 (huoche) to the beginning
  • and I use these sites to locate how many empty seats are left on a train - it works much better for Dong (D) class trains: KunXin 
  • but train tickets from a local train seller in your city. Or you can do it online and pay 20RMB for it to be delivered to you Ganhuoche
  • if you really need to get somewhere and there are no more tickets, just buy a ticket to anywhere on the route just to get yourself on the train. Then exchange the ticket later on the train for your actual destination. You can also buy a zhang piao (standing ticket) and exchange it later for a better ticket.
  • Traveling during any national holidays is just a bitch. There's no way around it. People fight, people push, people scream. And there is a dearth of tickets which means many people are desparate to go home to see their families.  It's quite sad that with all the more expensive trains, migrants are unable to afford the tickets to go home. Even going home once a year is very costly. Keep that in mind as you are traveling during holidays.
  • if you get a wopu (sleeping) ticket, wear or brings socks and wear shoes that are easy to slip in out of. This is especially important if you sleep on the 2nd or 3rd level where you will need the climb the ladder.
  • Bring a good thermos for overnight train rides.


  • again, be scared of the scooters! they are crazy
  • get a mouth cover, you will need it because of all the dust that will fly into your face. I suggest to do it in style.
  • get a big, light hat to cover the sun from your eyes in the summer
  • buy the cheapest, ugliest bike ever and no one will steal it. I prefer to get a second hand bike for around 100RMB
  • Dont' bike drunk - this is when you are most likely to be run over
  • bicyclists don't have to wear lights at night time, be aware that cab drivers are not able to see you so you much be prepared at all times to be hit - so that means bike on the defensive and never assume that anyone sees you
  • and please Americans - don't wear your freaking ipod when you are biking! you need to hear the sounds to that you can properly bike defensively!


  • there is only one tip for walking - that is the most hazardous part of pedestrain life are the hundreds of umbrellas that could poke your eyeball out. This can happen while you are walking on the street or just standing at a bus stop; women will run past you with their umbrellas and not even bother to lift it above people's heads. Umbrella injuries are most common in the summer. My advice is that when someone runs into you with their umbrellas and seriously hurts you,  find a way to grab it in the confusion and break it  - women pay a lot of money for their precious umbrellas to keep their skin white but they need to learn how to stop hurting others in the process.
  • when you cross the road it's just not worth it to wait for a cross walk or even an intersection - cars don't obey all the rules anyways so it's not ANY safer to cross at a crosswwalk or intersection. The key is that if you are going to cross the middle of the street with cars coming at you, you want to take it one lane at a time. Just make sure your toes don't get run over. I suggest that you cross with locals the first few times to get a hang of it.

 so what are your tips for surviving transportation?


Some things that I learned about my new home in China - settling in takes a long time!

Fieldwork: yes! After 3 weeks of running around, I have my permanent residency card! 长住证 done!

I've finally accomplished 2 very important things after a month of being here - I have my permanent residency card and am officially registered with Wuhan University. Neither of these things were easy. They required tons of running around and tons of bureaucracy. After all the quarantine health checks, cab rides, unclear answers, unexplainable long breaks, and missing officials - I am happy to say that I've learned a lot about my city. I think this advice is also useful for other cities in China.

  • You need a lot of stamps for anything official, and if one person isn't there, you're screwed. There is not alternative person to stamp your card, you need to wait until they return.
  • In Wuhan, the entire city stops between 12pm and 2pm, and for anything related to the police office and the university, the break starts at 11am and doesn't end until 2:30pm.
  • The 2-3 hour break in Wuhan is equivalent to the Spanish siesta. People sleep at work, eat lunch, run errands like shop for clothes and food, and go online. Although I have found out that a good portion of people use the time to gamble or play games. I have spent time watching what these city officials or administrators do during their break, and most of them who were publicly sight-able were playing mahjong, card games, or games on their cellphones.
  • Do not interrupt policeman or any administrator at any time of the day when they are at their computers watching an online viral video of traffic accidents or anything silly. They will not answer you and will become very upset if you disrupt their viewing time.
  • Though you can definitely interrupt them if they are doing their work - they are more than capable of stopping their work or multitasking to help you.
  • Do not be secure for one moment if you are the first person in line or are already speaking to an administrator that another person won't just cut in front of you, push you aside, or shove their paperwork over your head. You must be prepared to be ousted from your position at all times. So this means that you must speak quickly and be prepared to push someone aside if they try to cut in. Be on the defensive. People are pushy here and will scream at you.
  • If you are cutting it close to their mid-day break, if people care about getting your work paperwork done they will stay until 11:15am, but if they don't, then you have to come back at 2:30pm.
  • Take 30 passport photos of yourself at a mall or photoshop before you take care of any bureaucratic paperwork. Each place will want 4-6 photos. If you don't do it ahead of time, you end up having to pay 3x's the costs and you have to spend additional time in line taking the photo, which then could delay your entire day. RISK
  • Do not trust what anyone tells you, even if it's a policeman telling you info about the police station or a university administrator telling you about how to register at the university.
  • Always say thank you and hello with a smile, even if you never hear anyone else say it. I still believe that a genuine thank you and hello can go a long way - you always will be surprised at who actually smiles back when you smile at them.

So what are your tips for settling into China?


A documentary about the city that I am based in - Hankou 汉口

This is a documentary, 汉口汉口 Hankou Hankou, by 刘文祥 Liú Wén Xiáng. It detials the early commerical history of Hankou, Wuhan.

Thank you 孟繁永 Meng Fang Yong!


China's and the World's future can be summed up in three words: thanks for shopping.

Fieldwork: china's and the World's future can be summed up in three words: thanks for shopping

This is the sign that is the exit and entrance of every Carrefour in China  "谢谢你惠顾“ "thanks for shopping."

These are the same kind of advertisements you see at Walmart in the US - pictures of a typical light-skinned, smiling, male and female hetero-normative family with their cute children. Except for in China, no family is ever pictured with more than 1 child.

But the odd thing is that even though every family has only one child in China, each family is still expected to shop as if they has several children. The importance of spoiling and putting all your attention and love ino your one child is emphasized through various forms of cultural pressures from commercials to movies. The overarching message is that you only have this one child, so don't screw it up but not giving her/him all that you can - and you can do this through shopping!


Non-digital means of spreading information through paper currency

Fwd: china

I bought a tea from a tea stand and this is the 1RMB change that I was given:  a hand-written message about fal0n g0ng, explaining that it is a harmless organization that does good things.

I find it fascinating that people are using the natural circulation of paper currency to keep messages alive that would otherwise be difficult to find through the internet or libraries. And of course the 1RMB is the most widely circulated bill in China.

Governments have long used paper currency as a place for spreading propoganda. Benjamin Franklin discovered that the paper currency was a suitable place for the US Colonies to print anti-British propoganda. During the first convening of the Second Continental Congress in 1975, members voted to pass the first resolution to print paper money under the name, "United Colonies." These bills were the first paper currency (according to John Sandrock) to faciliate commerce and reflected anti-British sentiments such as using symbolic motifs and mottos to signify the unity and strength of the US colonies. John Sandrock has written a lot about the history of money and propoganda, and in particular he provides some fascinating history of paper money in China (google his name & download his pdfs, I can't find a website for him!).

If the government can use currency as a form of propoganda, then fal0n g0ng groups have also decided to do the same thing by putting their own hand-written message on them. This makes for an interesting phase of Chinese monetary history.


Here's an idea - if any government wants a quick way to make money, I think circulating money with advertisements would be an option. Of course the permanance of ads would be a problem but this could be easily solved with printing ads that fade over time. (I declare a patent on this idea. Who wants to invest in it!?)

Some advertisers have found ways to attach ads to $1 without defacing it or rendering it unusable, such as such NBC's marketing effort in 2005 to give out $115,000 worth of $1 bills affixed with stickers, "What's your Wish," to get people to watch the new show. Christian Mayaud provides some really great analysis and asks some smart questions about the use of paper money as an analog way to spead money. He's fascinated by the economics of spreading messages on paper money, as opposed to more expensives means such as pamphlets. He provides some reasons for this:

  • The value of paper currency itself keeps the message from getting thrown out.
  • The natural circulation of paper money keeps the message exposure growing in proportion to the number of time a given bill changes hands.
  • The variable cost of each exposure is zero.
  • Targeting isn’t required.


side note - this also makes me think of an interesting site in the US is the Where's George money tracker, which allows you to enter in a serial # to see if others have tracked where the bill was. If people wanted to use money as a propoganda, social movement, or cool project -  they could build a digital component to this to extend the information life of the dollar. Then you could track how often a message was getting accessed. The next time I get a dollar with someone's QQ # , I will add them to see who they are.