One thing that has always puzzled me about Chinatown is the preponderance of Chairman Mao–related things that are for sale: busts, paintings, photos, tea towels — he is second only to Hello Kitty in ubiquity. Correct me if I am wrong, but shouldn't most Chinese people who made it to the U.S. hate the guy? I mean, isn't he the reason they left in the first place? It would be like fleeing Ceausescu in Romania in the '80s and then screen-printing his visage onto your leg warmers. You don't see the handful of folks who have gotten out of North Korea whittling Kim Jong-Il doorstops out of redwood. 'Tis indeed strange. I had to get to the bottom of it, so I did what any journalist would do (after consulting with a real journalist to find out just exactly how): I was going to ask someone in Chinatown about it.
I picked Red's Place, the most "locals only" bar in the neighborhood I could find, at least in my estimation. The name itself could be a salute to communism. After all, there aren't that many redheaded Chinese people. It's very small inside, and usually packed with bent, elderly men who are still cursing the no-smoking-in-bars law. The few times I have gone in, I am always greeted as if I am a health inspector; like I can't possibly be there to drink. I entered this time with my hand raised in a wave, as if to say, "No need to padlock the storage room; I'm just here for kicks."
I pulled up the only available stool and sat down. I was the only woman in the place except for the bartender. The men around me were either sitting by themselves, taking in the scene as if it were their first time there (though I knew, intuitively, that it was definitely not), or chatting with permanent smiles fixed on their faces and chuckling about who knows what.
It was the heart of the Chinese New Year celebrations, and the streets were packed with people carrying festoons of flowers, stems of cherry blossoms, and orchids. I walked through at least six photographs in the making as tourists snapped away to preserve the day for future bored houseguests who would no doubt be forced to view the souvenirs from their trip. I am happy to say that my head will be featured prominently in at least five of these shots.
Inside Red's, though, it was a different scene. People peered outside occasionally to see the events, but for the most part had a "been there, done that" vibe that must be second only to those apartment dwellers in Pamplona who endure bulls stampeding past their homes once a year. I looked around and smiled sheepishly, hoping to make eye contact with someone long enough so that I could initiate a conversation and then grill them about Mao. It wasn't working; their countenances allowed no purchase for my gaze.
Communist China was fresh in my mind, because the day before I had seen a monologue by Mike Daisey about Apple computers. It was a love song to the products and Steve Jobs, but he also used the forum to educate and generally be subversive. By the time it was done, he had given a firsthand gonzo journalist report on the factories that make MacBooks, iPads, and iPods. He described them as essentially Orwellian gulags that employ child labor, impose 16-hour workdays, and imprison for life anyone who tries to organize. Daisey claimed one factory compound has had so many suicides from people jumping off the roof that it has had to install nets around the rim.
This bad news was timely for me, because I had just ordered a new Mac and was receiving daily updates on its whereabouts. "Your new MacBook Pro has just shipped from Shanghai," read the subject line of the first one. I had never really taken the time to picture where the stuff came from. Now I know that it comes from Satan's sweatshop in the first circle of hell.
But back to the lecture at hand, to quote Snoop. I had finally made contact with another soul at Red's. He smiled at me a few times, so I said hi. He waved and nodded, and in one second, I knew that he didn't speak English at all. Even if someone in the place did speak English, it was unlikely that he would talk about the dictatorship back home with a honky. So I did what any real journalist does when no one is looking: I got out my mobile device — hand-assembled in China by a child, of course — and Googled the question, "Why do American Chinese immigrants like Mao?"
The answers were varied and disparate, but I came to the following conclusion: Most of the people who initially did not like the rise of the communists in China were the middle and upper classes. The peasants were, for the most part, totally psyched. Since few people in Chinatown are what you would call well off, Mao is not seen as a pariah. For now, this overly simplified explanation would have to do.
I got up from my seat and put a tip on the bar. I could feel the whole place start to loosen up. If there was a "Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out" phrase in Cantonese, I'm sure it was being uttered.
I boarded the bus toward Powell and checked my e-mail. "Your MacBook Pro is now in Memphis," one message declared, along with a perky note about how happy Apple was to have me as a customer. The e-mail outlined a bunch of ways my new computer would enrich my world, and for a minute, I forgot about everything. For a minute, there was no better, more innovative company than Apple. For a minute.