Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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The Rest


The dance of the Dragon

Some time ago, when I visited the University of Sydney in Australia, a student and young friend of mine, greeted me at the campus gate with, “Welcome to the Republic of China”.

He spoke to me about the all-pervading influence of Chinese students in the university, and outside in the city itself.

I would think the reach of the Chinese community extends far beyond Sydney, far beyond the coastline of Australia.

In fact, the world over, there is an almost inexplicable fascination for Chinese culture, cuisine and products. Let us look at a few examples.

Shanghai, where Chinese influence begins
For the first time in the history of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, a Chinese was appointed President of the main international jury. Movie director Wong Kar-wai (with such hits as “2046”, “In the Mood for Love” and “Happy Together”) chaired the nine-member jury at this edition of the Festival, which began on May 17 2006.

Even more remarkable, the jury had one more Chinese apart from Wong, internationally celebrated actress Zhang Ziyi. Her “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” were runaway successes.

Cannes is indicative of a trend: China’s power to draw people is growing in several directions. One analyst says that China’s influence is now threatening America’s. There was a time when we all believed that only the Mickey Mouse had the ability to transcend borders, munching on McDonalds’ burgers and carrying reels of Hollywood cinema.

Today, Chinese tourists have outnumbered Japanese visitors in Southeast Asia, and these men and women from the land of the dragon carry their culture, and plant its seeds all over the globe.

Some of the most popular eateries – whether it is in Milan or Cannes or Hiroshima or Calcutta – are those that serve chowmein and chopsuey. When I travel in the Indian countryside, even villages and small towns sell Chinese food. Admittedly, it is Indianised in taste and title: we have paneer (cottage cheese)/gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian, and the noodles that is given out tastes like Indian curry, strong and spicy.

The average Indian’s fondness for Chinese cuisine is age old. Some of the best restaurants in the Calcutta of 1950s and 1960s, even 1970s, were Chinese. There were also tiny holes in the walls that went by names such as “Mama’s Kitchen” and “Wang’s Delicacy”, where huge Chinese women had even Calcutta’s rich and the renowned eating out of their hands.

Calcutta -- which had the largest concentration of Chinese in India till the Indo-Chinese border war broke out in 1962 souring relations between the two neighbours and driving a good part of the expatriate community to Canada and Australia – once boasted of fine Chinese dentists and shoemakers. Even today, elderly Calcuttans will vouch for the methodical efficiency and professional expertise of the Chinese dentist. Chinese shoes always scored over Indian brands, of which there were but merely a couple, including Bata.

History is now repeating itself in India. Although Chinese dentists and shoemakers have almost disappeared from Calcutta and elsewhere in the country, Chinese food continues to rule the palate.

And, Chinese consumer goods are beginning to make deeper inroads into the Indian market: refrigerators, television sets, electric irons, light bulbs and a host of other goods can now be found in Indian shopping malls and even small shops carrying “Made in China” labels and price tags aiming to wean the customer away from Indian goods. The competition is intense.

The desire for all things Chinese also extends to learning Mandarin, visiting China, watching Chinese pictures and buying Chinese artifacts.

The National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language in Beijing says there are approximately 30 million people learning Chinese around the world, and China's aims at pushing up this figure to 100 million by 2007. The Government is spending $ 25 million a year on this

In 2004, China had 109 million tourists, and overtook Italy as the fourth most visited country in the world after France, Spain, and America. Beijing's Forbidden City and the Army of Terracotta Warriors in Xian attract more tourists than Florence's Uffizi Gallery or Rome's Coliseum.

In cinema, China may well beat America soon. In 2005, China made 260 films, the third largest producer after India and the U.S.

Art lovers are turning “Chinese” as well. New York’s Sotheby’s sold a painting by China’s Zhang Xiaogang for $ 979,200, just missing the $ one million mark.

The spread of Chinese culture now seems unstoppable, and the almost ruthless determination of the average citizen, conditioned by strict political regimentation that gives little space for differing individual thought, can well lead to the fire-breathing Dragon swallowing Mickey.

(Posted on this website on June 5 2006)