Monday, August 18, 2014

Master of Peking opera Mei Lanfang

Mei Lanfang,
Mei Lanfang (1894 – 1961) was one of the most celebrated artists in the history of Peking opera. His specialty was qingyi – a young to middle-aged female singing role.

He was responsible for the worldwide recognition of Peking opera as an exquisite form of performing arts.

Mei is considered the first of the Four Great Dans – Dan meaning Peking opera artist in a female role – in the early 20th century, widely regarded as the golden age of the art form. The other three were Shang Xiaoyun, Cheng Yanqiu and Xun Huisheng.

A family of operatic talent

He was so popular that an honorary Doctorate was conferred on him by the University of Southern California.

Born Mei Lan in Beijing, he later adopted his stage name Lanfang. He came from a strong lineage of Peking opera artists, with a famous qingyi grandfather, Mei Qiaoling. His parents passed away when he was a young child, and he was raised by his uncle, a Peking opera instrumentalist.

He started learning Peking opera when he was eight, and made his stage debut at 10. At the age of 19, he shot to fame performing the opera Mukezhai in Shanghai. The key to his success was his solid training in body movement, which he refined to perfection, coupled with soulful interpretations of his roles, which he created to improve on the hitherto perfunctory rendition of characters. Mei was credited with combining singing and acting into a uniquely artistic style – the Mei style.

International fame

Mei Lanfang
Mei’s first tour in Japan was in 1919. In 1924, he returned to Japan to perform at charity concerts as part of the relief effort in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake. In 1930, he was invited to tour the US, covering Seattle, Chicago, Washington, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

He was so popular that an honorary Doctorate was conferred on him by the University of Southern California. 

Among his foreign acquaintances were such showbiz luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford. His art also left a strong impression on German dramatist Bertolt Brecht.

Passive resistance in wartime

He moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1938. During the Japanese occupation in the Second World War, Mei refused to perform for the Japanese military and grew a moustache. His defiance resulted in his assets being frozen so that he and his family were caught up in dire financial straits. Yet he persisted and eked out a living by selling his paintings.

He returned to the stage only after the war ended in 1945. In 1951, he moved back to Beijing. In 1956, he visited Japan again to enthusiastic reception. The great master died in 1961 at the age of 66. His life has inspired Chen Kaige, the director of Farewell My Concubine fame, to make the 2008 biopic Forever Enthralled.

Learn more about Beijing opera, please go to BGTime.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Driven to success

The idea for Airbnb, the home rental start-up, originated in San Francisco when Brian Chesky and his friend Joe Gebbia decided to rent out their house to delegates at a conference. All the hotel rooms on the conference website were sold out. Since the two friends needed some extra cash, they accordingly decided to offer bed-and-breakfast to attendees.

The problem, Chesky told the New York Times, was that they had no beds at home, only air-pumped mattresses. “So we inflated them and called ourselves ‘Airbed and Breakfast,’” he reminisces.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. What started out as a way to make a few dollars on the side, was recently valued at $10 billion. More importantly Airbnb established a new trend: the “sharing economy”.

The concept is inspiring copycats around the world, China included. There, four graduate students had something different in mind to finding a room for the night. In 2012 they founded PPzuche, which operates a business model similar to Airbnb but for car rental.

The company was founded in Singapore, where the four friends were studying at a graduate school in the city and decided to launch a mobile app dedicated to car rental services under the name iCarsClub (the name was later changed to PPzuche after investors complained that iCarsClub sounds like a club for car fanatics).

The founders then returned to China to make their fortunes. “The peer-to-peer car rental market in Singapore is very small because with the licencing issues some vehicles are only allowed to be driven on weekends and some only on weekdays. So we decided to move back home,” Zhang Binjun, one of the company’s four founders, told CBN.

PPzuche began operating in Beijing last October. According to an internal survey, the market potential for private car rental in China is huge – the estimate is that nearly 17% of private car owners in Beijing and Shanghai are willing to rent out their vehicles (the figure for Singapore is 19%). At the moment PPzuche has 50,000 cars available for rental (with 1,400 in Singapore), although it expects many more after adding Shanghai and Guangzhou to its business operations.
PPzuche, which means ‘peer-to-peer car rental’ in Chinese, secured $10 million in funding from investors including Sequoia Capital and Crystal Stream Capital in May.

So how does PPzuche make money? It takes a commission from each vehicle rental, a business model similar to Airbnb’s. By charging as much as 30% less than its more conventional competitors, it aspires to overtake the market’s largest traditional player, China Auto Rental (which is part-owned by Hertz. “I believe that in one year’s time we will surpass China Auto Rental in total transactions,” says Wang Jiaming, another of the four founders.

Peer-to-peer services like PPzuche challenge their more traditional competitors from much lower cost bases. They don’t need to invest in car fleets of their own. Plus the customer service overhead is also contained because bookings on PPzuche are completed via its mobile app. Drivers locate nearby cars that are available and then use the app for key-less entry. Each vehicle is fitted with what the company calls a ‘smart box’, a hardware device that provides GPS tracking, as well as clocking the distance for owners that want to charge by mileage instead of the number of days. Everything is digitised, from renting a car to returning it. Payment is straightforward too as PPzuche stores credit card details and charges rental fees automatically. And like Airbnb, drivers get ratings after rentals, meaning that customers who damage vehicles or drive recklessly have their membership revoked due to bad behaviour.

Please go to Week in China to read the rest of the story.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

3 Reasons Why Japanese Localization Is ... Different

Japanese translation projects have earned quite a reputation in the translation and localization industry. It is too time intensive, say some. It is far costlier than other language projects, say others. And Japanese clients are notoriously fussy about that ever-moving-goal called “quality.”

But this relatively small island alone is the third largest in the world’s economy and the amount of content that gets localized to or from Japanese is enormous. So it makes sense to learn what it takes to be successful at Japanese localization.

Rules? Which Rules?

Language is a living thing — actor and subject, evolving and dying, a nearly inaudible whisper and a forceful storm. Efforts at structuring and containing it, while noble, quickly come up against its everyday realities.

That doesn’t mean that these efforts are never undertaken. Quite the opposite. In France, for example, the 379-year old Académie Française strives to police, protect, and preserve the French language. When you consider its very public fight last year against the efforts of the French government to open up higher education to English, you can see that is no easy goal. But these efforts at linguistic purism are the passion of similar language academies around the globe.
Except in Japan. Japan does not have a centralized regulatory body to fulfill the “officiate and prescribe” role that these other nations do.

So how then do translators ensure that they are properly translating from or into a language that has three writing systems?

The answer: It depends.

The Quality Question

Across all language projects, the notion of linguistic quality remains largely a relative one. The variables are based on factors as diverse as audience, deliverables, locale, generational differences, and even mere preferences.
Stating that the linguistic quality of Japanese translation is highly subjective is a gross understatement. It has multiple writing systems (kanji, which is ideographic; hiragana and katakana, which is collectively known as kana and is phonetic; and romaji, which is used in specific situations for writing Japanese with the Latin alphabet), two computer input methods (direct kana or keyboard romaji), no centralized authority’s take to fall back on, and the variables mentioned above to contend with.

The choice of words/writing systems is often driven by cultural differences, context, target audience, or company policy. Kana words are used ever more frequently, because kana is more likely to be used for foreign concepts and terminology. Software or online content are one such area. Much is also generation specific. While the younger generations may prefer katakana to kanji, older generations may sometimes not understand modern katakana.
Add to this the distinctive grammatical structure of Japanese. It is an agglutinative language, having more in common with Native American languages than with neighboring China’s. Unlike English, its word order is subject-object-verb not subject-verb-object. The differences are so stark that translators often have to restructure sentences, reorder words, add words or omit words altogether to arrive at the proper translation.

Japanese reading comprehension is also highly context dependent. This means, for instance, that when sorting in Japanese, one may have to manually index characters by considering their reading in order to arrive at the correct table of contents, index, or sorted lists.

No surprise then that Japanese localization is plagued with high error rates, longer project cycles, and budget-breaking costs.

Customer Care Conundrum

As if these challenges were not enough, Japanese localization projects generally call for greater attention to the customer service experience. Like Japanese characters themselves, translations are expected to be aesthetically driven. Business relationships, too, are expected to show attention to style, presentation, and visual coherence.

Our own experience with Japanese localization, for example, has revealed
  • low tolerance for design errors
  • preference for the visual over the textual (often calling for re-design of original source materials)
  • presentation valued more than substance
This may be, too, why Japanese business relationships place greater emphasis on harmony rather than confrontation, constructive or otherwise. According to Robert Whiting, the author of You Gotta Have Wa, the concept wa, or peace, is a core Japanese value and critical to succeeding in its market. For an unprepared non-Japanese, wa may prevent them from discovering the root cause of a problem or an issue.

Learn more about this topic? Please go to Libor Safar's blog.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Chinese Racer Wants to Win the Game

For a country so associated with the bicycle, it has always been something of a mystery why China has not produced world class cyclists. A 27 year-old from Harbin tried to change that this year by competing in the Tour de France, which finished last Sunday. Ji Cheng made history by becoming the first Chinese racer to finish the epic 3,659km tour, even if he did so by finishing dead last.

In fact Ji came 164th and clocked a total time that was six hours behind the event’s winner, Vincenzo Nibali of Italy. That earned him the Tour’s lanterne rouge (red lantern – the title given to the final finisher, and at the other end of the honours scale to the victor’s yellow jersey). As AFP also notes, Ji suffered the indignity of being lapped by the peloton on the final stage as racers did circuits of the Champs Elysees in Paris. Ji kept his chin up, saying he felt “pretty lucky” to complete the race (34 other competitors dropped out). But he also admitted it will take more than his own experience of the Tour to transform the sport in China. “Maybe I can show them something, but I cannot change anything,” he admitted.

Interested in other cartoons about China? Please go to Week in China.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Chinese Tycoons Help Poorer Students Study Abroad

Pan Shiyi and his wife, Zhang Xin
In 2010 Zhang Lei, a Chinese fund manager who earned an MBA at Yale’s School of Management, decided to donate $8,888,888 to his American alma mater. “It’s no overstatement to say that Yale School of Management changed my life. I learned so much there, and not just finance or entrepreneurship. I learned about freedom and the spirit of giving, which to me is a great reflection of the American spirit.”

This act of generosity – the largest ever donation to Yale’s business school by one of its graduates – went on to trigger a furious debate in China. Many netizens accused Zhang of being a “traitor” to the country, claiming that he had humiliated Chinese education. Some even called him a “lunatic”.

Against this backdrop, China’s reaction to a donation from Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi to Harvard isn’t so surprising. Last week, the couple behind property developer SOHO China announced that they had signed a $15 million gift agreement with Harvard University. The couple also intend to gift another $100 million in scholarships to help Chinese students to study at prestigious universities overseas. After Harvard, their next target is Yale.

According to Zhang, SOHO China’s chief executive, studying abroad is a huge financial endeavour for most Chinese students, who have to self-fund their education in the US. So the SOHO China Scholarship will be aimed at encouraging less-well-off students to apply to study overseas. Zhang told Century Weekly that students with annual family incomes below Rmb65,000 ($10,500) would be eligible to apply for scholarships.

“I received financial aid when I studied abroad in England. Education changed my life. I hope the fund can help poor students afford college education,” Zhang also explained on her personal weibo page.

Pan and Zhang’s rag-to-riches story is well-known. Zhang worked as a factory worker in Hong Kong before studying on full scholarships at the University of Sussex and then Cambridge University in the UK. She later went on to become an investment banker at a US bank. Pan, meanwhile, grew up in impoverished Gansu province.

But the two are now the power couple of Chinese real estate, with combined wealth valued at some $3.6 billion, according to Hurun Report.

But like Zhang Lei’s gift to Yale, their act of generosity soon prompted a landslide of criticism at home. One popular conclusion was that the donation is designed to make it easier for their son – reportedly at high school in the US – to gain admission to a sought-after college. Other responses were similarly predictable, deriding the two for being “traitors” to China and “forgetting where they came from.”

Continue to read at Week in China.