An Interview with MyLaowai
His blog: Mylaowai.com
MyLaowai is frequently said to be a controversial blogger, and one of the most popular among the SMBs. In November 2008, he won Chinalyst‘s Best China Blog award as the overall winner. Huoleifeng, a competing blog, had previously urged its readers to vote for Huoleifeng, because
I don’t mind losing to China Smack, which is a great blog that I really respect, as they do so much work translating interesting stories from the Chinese web for English speakers. However, we don’t want to lose to the current leader, a blog that looks like it could win a China Blog award despite the fact the writer(s) seems to hate China.
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Q: Why do you blog? Was there a key moment where you felt that you should share your experiences in and your feelings about China, which got your blog started?
A: MyLaowai was born in April 2007, but prior to that I had written a few pieces for various websites, forums, and a newspaper – nothing too serious however. The idea behind this blog was twofold: firstly, it was simply a place for me to get my thoughts down, on a variety of topics. Some of it could be described as ‘venting steam’, for want of a better phrase. The second purpose, and one which over time has come to be more important, was to shine a little light on the abuses that I see occurring in China on a daily basis. I am well aware that many other people also do this, but I wanted to try to inject a little (dark) humour into it, in the hope that people would be more likely to listen if what I said wasn’t just a lecture. Most of my inspiration comes to me while I am in small towns and on public transport out in the countryside (I travel a lot for my work). Really, I do hate public transport out in the countryside – it’s dirty, smelly, and noisy, but more than that, it’s extremely unfriendly if you are a foreigner. Add to this the fact that there’s nothing else to do except think, and it’s a perfect recipe for inspiration. The downside of this, of course, is that most of what I write about isn’t very positive, and I do wish at times that I could see China more as a tourist sees it, i.e. more of the positives without any real understanding of what is going on around me.
Q: What’s the worst online article or post you have ever read about China (that you remember)?
A: Wow, too many to mention by name. They typically fall into one of two camps – the “China is our long-term friend” and the “China is a threat”. The articles I hate are the ones that have not done any homework, are typically written by people who have not lived in China for an extended period, and tend to quote existing stock phrases without understanding. The Associated Press and a number of ‘legal’ blogs are the worst offenders. A small number of print newspapers buck that trend.
Q: May I, then, put to you how Huang Mengfu, vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and chairman of the board of directors of the China Foundation for Human Rights Development, once quoted a foreign friend:
“Not long ago, an American friend told me an interesting story about China. He said an American could write a book after returning from a weeklong trip to the East Asian nation but could only write a brief article after a three-month stay. No single word, however, could be written after staying in the country a year, he said. That is because things in the booming ancient nation are much too complicated.”
You have stayed in China for much longer than a year. Do words come easier once the first year in China has passed, or …
A: I know this quote, of course. It’s puerile nonsense, and I don’t actually believe it to be true. I certainly have a much better understanding of China than I used to, and frankly I understand China the nation better than almost every Chinese person I have ever met (I understand them better as people than they understand themselves, too). Are things complicated? Yes, of course. Things are complicated everywhere. But finding ways to describe China and the Chinese isn’t the hard part – the hard part is finding people who are able to believe you, or who can understand that what you are describing is something that is often far outside what they consider possible. This is one of the reasons I try to use humour, to get people past the disbelief or, at least, provide entertainment for people who disbelieve anyway.
Q: If angry pro-China commenters stopped commenting, would you miss them?
A: Yes. I spend a lot of time writing to them, and their responses say more about the average Wang than I ever could. Bearing in mind that my blog is usually blocked in China, these people are going to some considerable effort to make their point. I appreciate that. And my blog would be far poorer without them. And anyway, their various threats and assertions make for great comedy.
Q: Do you have a policy on trolls? Can you think of a reason to ban a commenter from your threads?
A: I have never banned a commenter. I hope I never will. My policy is that people are entitled to say what they please, how they want to say it. The exceptions are when a commenter says something about the private life of someone that is not already in the public domain, or when a commenter introduces subject matter that is way off topic or criminal in nature (child pornography photos, for example). Interestingly, both these cases tend to occur with the same type of person. At any rate, I edit less than one comment in a thousand.
Q: Are there comments on your blog you feel uneasy about?
A: Yes. But there are comments I feel uneasy about in the pub, too. I take the position that, in general, people have as much right to their opinions as I do, and to express those opinions as they see fit.
Q: Do you feel uneasy about your own posts at times? If yes, why do you write them all the same?
A: I write many posts that I do not publish, because I can’t find a way of making them read in keeping with the overall theme of my blog. Some I keep in case I can think of a way to re-write them in future, some I delete outright. This applies to guest posts as well. In a very few cases, I have made changes subsequent to publishing, following feedback from readers – I actually feel very uneasy about changing something I have published, but I accept that there are times when the words I use can get in the way of the point I’m trying to make. For every three articles that I post, there is another one that is deleted before it is published. It’s not always easy, drawing the line between what could be humorous, and what could be seen as hate. Certainly, I have my critics over where this line is drawn, and it is something that I take very seriously.
Q: You mentioned guest posts, and spelling. If someone reads this – and your blog – and would like to contribute to your blog: besides treading the fine line between humor and hate successfully, are there other points they should bear in mind when sending you a guest post?
A: I’ll correct for spelling and grammar, but I will quietly resent you for ever, as if you had cut in front of me in the queue at the Post Office. More to the point, have a laugh with yourself and your reader. Don’t try to impress the world with tales of your sexual exploits unless that’s part of the joke. And don’t try to be me: find your own style – what works for me is unlikely to be what works for you, so find what works for you. MyLaowai has room for more than one style of writer. I’d love to be able to rely on a regular source of guest writers, each doing their own thing. Remember Sinocidal? Perfect example of a group each doing what they did best. While I’m at it, although for various reasons I don’t post every guest submission, I do keep them all for possible future inclusion, and I do seriously appreciate every piece.
Q: Have you seen big changes in your own blog, or in the “China blogosphere” in general, since you started blogging yourself?
A: In the case of my blog, it’s getting harder to stay ‘fresh’. It’s been a long time now, and although I still feel inspired to write, it is getting harder not to sound like a re-hash merchant. In terms of the ‘China blogosphere’ in general, I am quite convinced that they overall quality has worsened over the last few years. Too many blogs that were witty and clever have gone the way of the dodo as their writers left for civilisation, and too many of their replacements are twaddle or self-important hand-waving. And, call me Mister Pedantic, but I like a blog that spells, punctuates, and uses grammar correctly.
Q: Which is your favorite blog (don’t name your own, and don’t name mine). What’s the most informative online source about China?
A: I read a number of blogs on a regular basis, but none of them are even a tenth as good as Sinocidal used to be. So, although they closed shop years ago, they are still my favourite. I still keep in touch with a few of the writers. As far as informative information about China, that’s harder. The Guardian and the New York Times are quite good, although not as good as they used to be. The South China Morning Post remains brilliant and in touch. I subscribe to a number of military and intelligence sources, some of which are not for the general public, although one that is is Stratfor. And I read a number of Chinese blogs and news sources daily – although the Propaganda Department writes most things, it’s still a valuable guide as to what the Party is wanting the People to think. Certainly, MyLaowai doesn’t make for better reading than some of the other blogs out there. There are some first class blogs around and not all of them were represented in the China Blog Awards, unfortunately. I also feel strongly that a sense of humour, dark though it may be, is the main reason why MyLaowai did so well. Humour that is on the edge of causing offence is often the sort that is the most memorable.
Q: In your view, has China changed since you first arrived there? Have your feelings changed? Has the world changed? How so?
A: ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’. This is particularly true of China. Yes, they have tall buildings and televisions and sports cars, but it’s still a bronze-age culture, albeit one with nuclear weapons. The world has not changed much, either. The West in particular still makes the same mistakes with the Chinese Communist Party that it made with the National Socialists in a previous era, for example. As for me, well I have changed. China has made me a far worse person than I used to be – I find it harder to trust now, and I am a lot more cynical that I used to be. I am more generally correct than I used to be when it comes to China and the Chinese People, on the other hand.
Q: Isn’t blaming the host country for ones own changes for the worse something that is more frequently attributed to Chinese, than to, say, western people? Isn’t responsibility iindividual, rather than collective, in your view?
A: First of all, I attribute this behaviour to all people, everywhere; it’s not a peculiarly Chinese thing. And yes, responsibility is individual, but it is also collective. We all have a responsibility to behave in a civilised manner in society, but that’s fairly tough when civilised society collapses. Such as in downtown Mogadishu, for example. I guess the point I was trying to make was, I am less trusting and more cynical than I used to be, as a result of long-term exposure to Chinese society, and I consider that a bad thing. Important for survival and very necessary for the survival of my businesses, but not, on the whole, something that I view as personally progressive.
Q: When you finished your “This is your Life, Wang Xiansheng” series with part two, in 2007, you wrote that “part three” would be coming soon. That struck me because after all, Wang was already dead. Was that announcement an error?
A: No error: http://mylaowai.com/2008/06/29/wang-20-the-return-of-wang/
Q: Most of the items on offer in your shop look terrible. Why should people buy them anyway?
A: Yeah, I agree. It’s hard to run a webstore under the WordPress terms & conditions, and harder to use a third-party supplier when you are in China. I’m looking at ways to change that for the better, and I’m open to ideas.
Q: Is the Wet-Pussy award dead?
A: No, not dead. But I find myself writing the same sorts of things over and over. It’s hard to sound fresh. And the Wet Pussy Award is one that needs careful writing.
Q: Beijing has been waiting for Banjos for more than a year. What is it about? Will we ever know?
A: Banjo’s For Beijing was conceived one drunken evening with a few good friends. It’s 75% ready in concept, but it’s not right yet. But mainly, I just haven’t had the time to give it – it’s hard enough running MyLaowai at the same time as my various businesses.
Q: Is there an unasked question to which you would like to reply to anyway?
A: There is an important point I would like to clarify. I have been accused by some of being a racist, for the way in which I refer to the Chinese people from time to time. I completely understand where this is coming from, and much of it stems from the way in which the word ‘Chinese’ is used in English. I write about Chinese in the sense of a nationality, not in the sense of an ethnic group. I have serious issues with this nationality, the way its leaders operate, and the way in which it interacts with other peoples. I do not have any issue at all with people of this ethnic group – I love Hong Kong, I think Taiwan and Singapore are great, and I do business with ethnic Chinese all across Asia. It’s only this one country, China, that I refer to when I use the word ‘Chinese’. I honestly do believe that this nation represents an enormous threat to its neighbours, and the peoples of large swathes of Africa and South East Asia. The history of China, and particularly the last 60 years, has been one of constant aggression against other nations (Tibet, East Turkestan, Mongolia, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, India, Taiwan to name but the most obvious). Were the CCP to have their way, the entire world would be at their mercy. I wish that people would make more effort to understand China and Chinese culture, because they would then be in a better position to demand more ethical behaviour from their own Governments and media in relation to China and the CCP.
Q: You said earlier that many newspapers fall into the “China is a threat” camp. You now seem to confirm the view that China is a threat after all. Do the papers you mentioned before consider China a threat for the wrong reasons?
A: No, not entirely, merely that many don’t actually do their homework, they merely repeat what other people have said without doing any analysis or employing any critical thinking. I most certainly do fall into the ‘China is a threat’ camp, but I can argue against that position as well, because I understand China and the Chinese, and the geopolitics of the place. I’d like to think that even a threat, properly managed, can be manoeuvred into a friend, even if one of convenience. You can’t do that if you don’t understand the threat (or the motivations of the people) properly.
Q: MyLaowai, thank you very much for this interview.
The interview was conducted by an exchange of e-mails.