Readings: Expo Preparation, Food, Music, and Fashion

A variety of readings that piqued our interest this week:

1. In a New York Times story, Howard French takes a look at the ongoing preparations in Shanghai as next year’s World Expo grows closer. In addition to Expo-related construction in the city center, French notes, attention is also being paid to outlying neighborhoods, which are being spruced up in anticipation that some Expo-goers will want to explore Shanghai’s innumerable side streets and alleyways:
Shiny new aluminum facades are being hastily stapled onto grubby family storefronts, and fresh coats of paint and mortar are being applied, often for the first time in decades. This Potemkin salubrity is regarded with frank skepticism by many locals as a gigantic, government-run “face operation.” Its aim, they say, is to impress foreign visitors, even those who wander off the beaten path, with Chinese living standards.

Shanghai authorities are seeking to achieve more than just cosmetic changes, however; like Beijing did prior to the Olympics, Shanghai is also exhorting its citizens to become more “civilized” before the Expo begins.

2. It’s the height of shui mi tao, or water honey peach--“The Best Peach on Earth”-- season in China, but American consumers can’t enjoy any of these delicious treats, as Stan Sesser writes at the Wall Street Journal. U.S. markets prize long shelf life and durability in the produce they sell, and the honey peach is a delicate fruit that quickly turns rotten, so it cannot survive the long journey to American tables. The honey peach isn’t especially attractive, either, which is a further strike against it in the U.S., where fruit is bred to have a vibrant exterior color that pleases the shopper’s eye. Because of all these factors,
Growing honey peaches on U.S. farms isn't practical, either. "It can be done, but it would be very time-consuming," says [Al Courchesne, a farm owner in California], speaking of Agriculture Department regulations that require quarantine of imported fruit trees. To prevent the arrival of agricultural viruses, the USDA requires a period of isolation that could last several years, he says. When that period was over, growers would have trees bearing an ugly-looking fruit so delicate it would require special handling and rapid-fire distribution.

It appears, then, that honey peaches will remain a special treat to be enjoyed on visits to China--which is almost a novelty these days, now that so many foods are shipped around the world at the click of a mouse.

3. In more food news, organic farms are popping up in China, though their number is still small, as Joshua Frank reports in the Los Angeles Times. While organically grown food is comparatively expensive, recent tainted-food scandals have made many consumers wary and willing to pay more for peace of mind. Even large chain stores such as Carrefour have picked up on the trend: organic produce is accompanied by informational posters that chart its journey from farm to store, and staffers stand by to answer any customer questions. In Beijing, Lejen Chen and her husband have started the Community-Supported Agriculture program:
Fifteen families receive baskets of fresh seasonal vegetables, and have access to the Green Cow farm, about 20 miles from the center of Beijing, as a leisure spot.

The privilege of a year's involvement with the program costs roughly $45 a week, and families are also expected to help out with chores such as weeding and harvesting at least three times a year. The farm's crops go to program participants, and are also used to supply Chen's New York-style diner nearby.

Issues of trust, however, persist:
Conforming to organic standards when you have no control over neighbors' practices, or what rains down on you, is difficult. But on paper, China's organic farming standards are strict enough, Chen says.

The problem, she says, is making sure that farmers stick to those standards, and ensuring that there are enough authorities to adequately monitor producers who claim their food is organic--a tall order in a country where toxic, heavy-metal-filled sewage sludge is the cheapest, most easily accessible fertilizer around.

4. Over at the Fool’s Mountain blog, a recent post spotlights Louis Yu, a PhD student in theoretical computer science who also produces a weekly podcast featuring world indie music (podcast archives available at woozy.cn; Chinese only). Yu shares his thoughts on the state of indie music in China right now, which he views as a constantly evolving scene:
Most bands are just copying random Western indie bands, they don’t know WHY they’re making indie music, or rather, what indie music is. It should be craft on songs, melody, and lyrics the foremost, not styles you pick and choose from swatches because they happen to be “hip” at the moment . . .

That being said, like most things in China, Chinese indie has the ability to surprise the hell out of everybody. For one, it’s growing and progressing in such an alarming speed. I mean, the quality of the music got so much better just within the last 4-5 months, I personally can see the progress from when I first really paid attention to the Chinese indie scene a year ago, till now.

5. We previously linked to Gina Anne Russo’s post on femininity and advertising in China, in which she notes that most ads, especially provocative ones, seem to feature Western women. A story in The Guardian, however, hails the arrival of Asian supermodels on the international fashion scene (hat tip to Stylites in Beijing):
The monopoly of white models on the catwalks and in the glossies over the past decade has been immovable, but many fashionistas now believe the future is Asian. As Condé Nast prepares to launch GQ China, its fourth Chinese title, and Vogue India increases its print run to 50,000 copies a month, British model scouts say a new demand for Asian talent is being created that will transform the face of fashion . . .

It was the summer launch of Supermodelme.tv that gave Asian models a boost. The show, which appeared online in June, follows 10 aspiring models from Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and India as they compete for a prize of $10,000 and the chance of fame. Karen Seah, of Singapore-based media group Refinery Media, came up with the idea after witnessing "a growing market for Japanese and Chinese models".

Even so, modelling has yet to attract the same kudos in the south and east Asian communities as in the west. White says that many Asian girls view modelling as a "hobby" to pursue much later in life than their European counterparts. Ashanti Omkar, former editor of Asian lifestyle magazine Henna, says change will not happen overnight. "An increase in the number of Asian models is to be expected, but it will take time. Many young Asian girls don't think of modelling as a career."