Derek Man

文 or "man" is my middle name. I write, take photos, design, eat, drink, and narrowly dodge death and diarrhea on a daily basis in China. These are my stories.


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A Year in the Life


It was a big one.

Last year, beginning with the tail end of 2011, was absolutely monumental for me. Unnerving in the best sense of the word.

It started with several dominos that collapsed my life as I knew it. Being 25, with a good job and a nice girlfriend, I was happy and comfortable.

I even worked up the courage to move out of my parents house, only to discovered that the housing market in San Francisco was damn competitive. Two friends and I tried to search for a new home, but the apartments were either too expensive, or quickly snatched up by the Silicon Valley elite. Shit, right?

Then my employer lost a huge client, and a quarter of the agency was laid off, including yours truly, sadly. I walked out of the office that morning not knowing what to do. The sun shone bright, and having a beer at the pub sounded like a pretty good idea.

In the following weeks, I spent my days sitting at home in my pajamas. I burnt through piles of video games, bags of junk food, and weed. Lots of it. My girlfriend came over often to study and keep me company, but it didn’t sooth my depression. 

I soon noticed how our relationship was deteriorating, and without getting into too many details, I broke it off. It wasn’t a casual showing-of-the-door. It left a void, like removing a bowling ball from your gut.

This was, in a way, rock bottom. No girlfriend, no job, no strategy to move out of my parent’s home. I felt good for nothing.

Then I called my sister. She told me to visit her in Shanghai.

I packed my bags. Not for a vacation, mind you. As I filled my suitcase, there was a nagging sense in the back of my mind that I may not come back. I bought a plane ticket, tucked the biography of Steve Jobs into my pits, and left the rubble behind. Finally, my childhood home was behind me, and new adventures lay ahead.

I woke up the next morning to the noise of Chinese construction workers breaking pavement. This wasn’t home.

From that moment on, that resounding punctuation mark in my young adult life, I knew things were different.

Welcome to my year in review. Self-absorbed? Yes. Fuck if I care? Definitely.

This year, I learned a lesson in turning off my inhibitions, and taking in the world with open arms.

I got a taste of travel in the Eastern Hemisphere: Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, Jiuzhaigou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing, Seoul (Gangnam), Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Bali. Thanks to my sister, I learned the backpacker’s ethos. To find companion in fellow wanderers. To ignore the cockroaches on the hostel walls. To haggle hard. To find joy in peeking around local towns.

I lived in Building 69. This was a halfway house for young expats. There were students and interns from France, Italy, Sweden, Morocco, Germany, Switzerland, England, etc. Each and every one of them was a character, and all of them drank and partied like crazy. Shanghai was our playground, and we tore it up every weekend. I had a hell of a time, and made some life-long friends. And my close-minded American brain learned a lot about people from other cultures.

I picked up Mandarin, a language that I’ve tried time and time again to learn.

I found a job I like. Each day, I’m surrounded by awesome, creative people, and every interaction with them is a learning experience.

The job was in a new city I like, Beijing.  

Living here gave me a stronger sense of self. It toughened me. 

I developed a love for two-wheeled vehicles. Riding my scooter around Beijing was sooo amazing. In the summer, I would stumble upon hidden alleys, and find interesting things to photograph: hundred-year old buildings, turtles, entire families teetering on a motorcycle.

I will never forget the hot wind blowing in my face as I cruised across the super-policed road that parts Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Then there was that night at a free concert in the 798 art district. I remember all of it. My friends were there. The Chromatics put on a good show. I complimented LCD Soundsystem frontman, James Murphy, on his scruffy beard. And someone in the crowd caught my eye. She wore a big bow in her hair, like a girl out of a Miyazaki film. She had charm and energy like no one else. To her, at any given moment, there were a 1,000 fun things to do, and we had to do all of them now. She danced her own silly way, effortlessly. Three months after that night, the girl still captivates me everyday.

In a flash, a year had gone by and I found myself sitting on a plane back to San Francisco. This wasn’t a return, it was a visit. What would my friends think of me? My family? Was I the same guy they said goodbye to a year ago? Maybe, maybe not.

I had new stories to tell, and that’s all that mattered.

Cheers to an even better 2013.

Chinese senior citizens exercising!

This morning, I went to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and discovered a huge outdoor gymnasium designed for old people. There were friends playing jianzi, a sort of Chinese hacky sack played with a shuttlecock, and others practicing dance routines. But most of them were happily using the exercise equipment. Half the time, I was confused by what they were doing. You’ll see what I mean.

This groovy man led all the ladies.

Bicycle kick?

They were all friendly and more than happy to have their workout gif taken.

Practicing her DJ skillz!

None of the exercises were too strenuous, just simple movements to keep you limber.

These ladies were super sweet and offered to teach me whatever that is.

Work dem thighs!

My favorite. Check out the guy on the left!

Reminder to self: never ever stop moving.

The People’s Person: Bored Afterschool Kid

The People’s Republic of China is a nation of 1.6 billion people. Let’s honor the misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who hang their laundry where they damn please. The People’s Person.

Kids do the darndest things when class is out. Especially when their faces aren’t buried in homework at an afterschool program or when there aren’t any local gangs to join. Such is the case with Bored Afterschool Kid. Let’s call him Zhou (Joe). His parents own the restaurant down the block from my flat and they make “jook” or rice porridge. The restaurant gets tons of customers throughout the day, so the parents are often too busy to look after their son. For Zhou, this means absolute freedom.

For me, a paying customer hungry for a steaming bowl of jook, this means crayons in the hot chili oil. And for your information, the crayons are not made by Crayola. I’m guessing they are probably made in a factory in Shenzhen, where impoverished workers – most likely the same age as Zhou – stir large vats filled with boiling ammonia, rat carcasses, and soy to create all the colors of the rainbow. As I slurp up my jook, I pretend that “Yin Black” is made by Crayola. Unless Crayola is made in China, which means I’m fucked.

On another occasion, I walk by the restaurant and see Zhou playing outside. No, not with toys. But with a wooden plank and a stack of concrete blocks. Here’s his game: Zhou positions the middle of the plank on the sidewalk edge. Then, he places a concrete block on one end of the plank, and jumps on the other end, sending the heavy block flying into the streets. Meanwhile, cyclists zoom by, completely oblivious to their impending face-to-pavement future. And after Zhou has exhausted his supply, the little boy runs out into the street and lugs each concrete block back onto his plank for round two.

All the while, Zhou’s parents are stirring their umpteenth pot of jook. The matron might scold him every now and then to do his homework, but she’s usually far too busy dealing with customers. They aren’t to be blamed for Zhou’s self-directed afterschool curriculum. They have to make money to support a family, that is the reality of it.

But I see it this way. For working class families in the China of today, Zhou’s upbringing is no different than that of middle American families in the 1950s. When the bell rings, children would run home to play stickball. They would explore by the creek, or experiment with wood and fire. Do unspeakable things to a snail.

The world is their playground.

There’s a beautiful ring to it. One that’s missing from the touchscreen-obsessed youth of the United States of Facebook. Film director Terence Malick expressed this sentiment wonderfully in the Tree of Life. Sure, the environments are different: Shanghai in 2011, with its constant inflow of construction and commerce versus the quiet life of 1950’s Waco, Texas. But the dreams are the same. Work hard to support your family. Do whatever it takes to better your child’s future. In the meantime, hand them a concrete block and let them run free.

(picture source: aiweiweineversorry)

There are some things I’m not supposed to write about and this is one of them. Ai Weiwei was once beloved as an artist in China, having helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics. But because of AWW’s outspoken criticisms of his motherland, “stuff” happened to him. Google around and you’ll find the story.

I admire AWW for his no bullshit attitude toward his work and society at large. Nothing is precious, and everything he outputs – from his more formal art pieces and architecture to his documentation of China through photos, videos, his blog, his Twitter, and interviews – leans heavily on grand sweeping concepts, rather than aesthetics. AWW has dipped neolithic vases in industrial house paint. He’s videotaped the entire sprawl of Beijing – street by street – from a bus, as commentary on the rapid industrial changes of China’s capital. There’s also his landmark piece, Sunflower Seeds, where he employed an entire village to make several hundred million sunflower seeds by hand. Because in China, with enough money and influence, you can.

Oh and one of my favorites, Fairytale. When asked to create an exhibit for a show in Kassel, Germany, AWW decided to bring 1,001 Chinese tourists to Kassel. The exhibit became a living, breathing, fanny-packed sculpture, and the art became the audience. Everyone – from the snooty art critics to the citizens of Kassel to the 1,001 wide-eyed Chinese visitors – left the show a little more enlightened.

Much like Andy Warhol, AWW is one of those rare figures that foresaw the sea change of a generation and through art, made it easy to understand for the masses. Andy Warhol for consumerism and the meaning of celebrity. And AWW, for the growing pains of a new Chinese superpower.

There’s a new documentary out about him, but unfortunately, there’s no chance in hell it will show here. You should also check out this short and super readable interview series published by Penguin Books.

The Meaning of Dumplings, Explosions, and Celebration

These are bamboo shoots. At least that’s what the lady at the supermarket told me. So I bought two, along with many other ingredients, for the dumplings my roommates and I were planning to make. It’s Chinese New Years after all. We had no problem preparing the other ingredients; mincing cabbage, garlic, ginger, green onions, and cucumbers were a cinch. But THIS, these bamboo shoots, were blowing my mind. I began peeling off each layer, one by one, until I reached the core. There was a huge pile in the trash but nothing in my hands. Where the hell was the meat?

And then I realized something. This was my first time holding a bamboo shoot in its original dirty rooty glory, let alone peel one. The first time I’m hand-making dumplings from scratch. The first time I’m celebrating Chinese New Years wholeheartedly and not just half. I realized the America in me has overshadowed my ancestral heritage.

After all, I had already celebrated, you know, the regular New Years on December 31st. I had already stumbled from bar to club to bar in the company of my equally hammered friends. We drank to the dawning of a new three sixty five. And before that – for that warm, fuzzy feeling – there was Christmas. So like any American, I already had my fill of holiday.

But this time around, I saw CNY as a minor annoyance. I liked many parts of it: relatives gave me red envelopes stuffed with money, the delicious home-cooked meals, and the general liveliness. But this was my first time celebrating it in China, and Shanghai has been a ghost town. All the restaurants and stores are closed and no one is on the streets. The supermarket chains are open, but they are filled with a province’s worth of Chinese people. And they are damn aggressive with the shopping carts. Fireworks – while exciting at the first burst – explode incessantly at all hours of the day every day. Travel is difficult because ticket prices are expensive and scarce, tourist attractions become crowded, and I’d rather not occupy a train seat that a migrant worker might need. To be honest, it’s kind of a boring week.

A few days before the official holiday, at 11pm, I was hungry but too lazy to make or pick up any food. So I called McDonald’s delivery (which has been an absolute godsend even though it contradicts the term “fast food” because delivery can take up to 90 fucking minutes and your fries get all soggy). I waited impatiently and finally, the delivery guy rang my doorbell. He took off his motorcycle helmet and as I handed him my money, I saw his face. The man was tired. Really tired. He had little fight in his eyes and he was drenched in ice-cold rain from delivering fast food to spoiled brats like me. I felt terrible. I was being a little shit, the People’s Republic’s Scrooge. The Chinese are hardworking people and all they ask is one week a year where they can spend time with family. And here I was grumbling.

At that moment, I conceded my grumpiness and dove headfirst into celebrating Chinese New Years. On the day of, I wore my brand new red pants (please, no judgements). My roommates, my sister, and I made dumplings from scratch. We prepared the pork and shrimp filling, kneaded the dough, and fried the suckers. And the best part of all – thanks to my industrious problem-solving German friends – there was a hint of bamboo shoot in every bite.


It’s 6am and the rooster’s crow jolts me out of sleep. I must be very far away from home.

I’m in Jiuzhaigou, Valley of the Nine Ancient Tibetan Villages.

But let me explain how I got here. I flew from San Francisco to Seoul to Shanghai to Chongqing, where my sister Maggie and I got swindled by a cabbie. We then took a full day’s worth of cramped bus rides from Chongqing to Chengdu and finally into the valley. After traveling two hemispheres, that first whiff of mountain air was the smelling salt to my exhaustion. Ahh.

Jiuzhaigou is a protected nature reserve known for its snow-capped peaks, waterfalls and lakes. We could’ve experienced it the easy way – in a heated bus full of fanny-packed Chinese tourists – but no, our crew found ourselves shuttled to the top of the mountain. A sign, blanketed in snow, told us we were in the Primeval Forest. Did I take a wrong turn in the Legend of Zelda?

We hiked down, all 14 kilometers of it. Along the way, the landscape changed with each passing turn. The lakes were amazing! There were ones that reflected the thousand-foot rock faces above it, and ones that were so intensely blue, you could see the bottom of the lake.

During the trip, Maggie and I met a mother and her two sons, Kenneth and Nick, from Hong Kong. They took us in as their own, and that night, after a trek of a lifetime, we stayed in a Tibetan home stay.

The matron of the house – a tall Tibetan woman in her 60s with a booming voice and a sweet, genuine smile – welcomed us. She had prepared a meal cooked over a wood-burning stove: stir fried beef with veggies, ice cold tomato slices with sugar, and a bowl of cabbage soup. And for dessert, yak butter tea.

The sun had set, and the street dogs outside were scampering home. I returned to my room and slipped under the covers, very far away from home.