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Mascots: the Cutest Social Police?

Image via Wikipedia.

Image via Wikipedia.

In the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Fuwa (福娃, “dolls of good fortune”), the official Olympic mascots, were everywhere: on billboards, in TV ads, made into stuffed toys, and erected as mini-statues in malls and airports all across the country. Since then, hyper-cute anthropomorphic mascots designed through public contests have become all the rage.


Exhibit A: Tian Tian (天天)


A TianTian poster in the immigration line at Shanghai Pudong.

TianTian on a billboard near Shanghai Pudong airport

TianTian on a billboard near Shanghai Pudong airport。

Tian Tian (天天, “Everyday”) is the official mascot of the “Sunny Border” branding campaign, a joint effort between several governmental departments to give the Chinese border control a friendlier facelift. In posters around immigration areas (and in billboards near airports), Tian Tian greets visitors and promises them a “friendly, efficient, and professional” experience. In a press release promoting the campaign during its 2012 launch, Tian Tian was highlighted as being a hit with kids.


Exhibit B:  Chang Chang (畅畅)


A Chang Chang toy poses with fan letters and next to a safety sign normally posted near the track that reads “For your personal safety and convenience, please don’t loiter here during high traffic areas.” (Image from SHMetro.)


A detailed introduction to Chang Chang’s design concept. (Image from SHMetro.)


Chang Chang stars in a video PSA about public safety that loops in Shanghai metro stations. (Image from SHMetro.)

Chang Chang (畅畅) was selected as the official mascot of the Shanghai metro following a 3 month contest in 2009. You’ll spot him in signs and videos around Shanghai’s metro stations encouraging good behavior or issuing warnings, as well as in special merchandising booths in popular stations.


Tian Tian and Chang Chang are part of a growing bestiary of mascots for all kinds of faceless infrastructure. In my travels, I’ve spotted them for fire departments, banks, and a huge number of public spaces such as malls and airports. They seem to be primarily intended for display in the physical environment—as statues, characters in PSAs, merchandise, and signs and banners—rather than on websites or in social media.

In addition to being great for merchandising and photo opportunities, these mascots are also often used to encourage and model “civilized” (文明) behavior. The videos and signs they star in are part of a series of nationwide awareness campaigns to model “civil” behavior” and spread new norms about acceptable public behavior; specifically targeting newly-urbanized migrants learning to share urban public spaces for the first time. The mascots advocating these norms—don’t stand too close to the train tracks, do conserve tap water, don’t smoke indoors, do stand in orderly lines—increase the visual appeal and friendliness of these mandates, especially to the younger generation. These mascots represent not only an interesting part of China’s contemporary visual language, but also a soft mechanism (or accessory) for social regulation.

We’ll be keeping my eye out for these in the future: email us your favorites and we’ll feature them below!


Our collection so far

The hand-themed mascots of Hunter City Mall in Guiyang.

The hand-themed mascots of Hunter City Mall in Guiyang.


The Tao Doll appears on a sign at a Taobao corporate building in Hangzhou, asking employees not to smoke in the bathroom. The slogan reads: “Care for yourself and others: start from smoking civilly.”

Shenzhen Bao An airport's mascot

Shenzhen Bao An airport’s mascot is a stingray with a WeChat QR code on its belly. (Screenshot from szairport.com)


On Publishing Art Magazines in Asia & Chinese Net Art

Our illustrated notes from some of the talks and panels we attended this week at Art Basel Hong Kong.


Into Asia: Publishing Asian Editions:



Digital Geographies: Net Art in China:


A Look Back: Our Writing on Internet Culture & Graphic Novels in China

Editor’s note: This post was commissioned by The London Book Fair, who wished to offer attendees in its upcoming conference an introduction to internet culture, graphic novels and book culture in Greater China.


Internet memes are alive and kicking in China, though they might not be the ones we’re used to seeing. If you only had time to learn about one Chinese meme, it would have to be the obscenely-named grass mud horse, sometimes a symbol of anti-censorship, sometimes just a cute animal.

The real-life consequences of internet memes. How the Umbrella ‘Revolution’ meme hurt the movement in Hong Kong.

Fans affectionately call Nicki Minaj “spicy chicken” online. The funny Chinese nicknames of international celebrities.

Netizens in Hong Kong defend copyright with internet memes. A fascinating case study on cross-border intellectual property, copycats and some angry, angry fans.

Author-illustrator Jing Liu made a graphic novel chronicling Chinese history through the ages. We reviewed the first four parts here, here, here and here.

China is not on the verge of a new comics renaissance. That and other gems from this interview with underground comics group Cult Youth.

The Hong Kong bookstore that sells banned-in-China books alongside… infant formula and milk powder. Ironically, its emblem is the face of Chairman Mao.


For more check out our column, the China Meme Report, or read some of our other book reviews.

The Translation Detail Everyone Missed in the China Internet’s Incredibly Surreal Anthem

In case you missed it, the New York Times, ProPublica, the Guardian and the Atlantic all wrote about this incredibly surreal but voted best of event anthem celebrating China’s glorious internet. Thanks to ProPublica we have a subtitled, Youtube video above.

As James Fallows at the Atlantic pointed out, one of the most stirring phrases in the song that is repeated eight times during the chorus is 网络强国. The New York Times and ProPublica both translated this as “internet power,” while Fallows points out that:

English speakers might think of “Internet power” as comparable to “soft power” or “girl power” or “people power.” But to my amateur eye there is a more explicit connotation of China’s becoming a national power in cyberspace. I’m sure Chinese speakers will tell me if I’m wrong to read 强国 as meaning a powerful country, as in “rise and fall of the great powers” etc. Thus the refrain would emphasize “a powerful Internet country.” The impression I got from this was of a strongly nationalistic message about a supposedly borderless medium.

I wanted to add to the translation and confirm Fallows’ viewpoint by examining one of the lines from the chorus:

网络强国 告诉世界中国梦在崛起大中华

Both the New York Times (Paul Mozur) and ProPublica (Sisi Wei and Yue Qiu) translate this to some variant of: “An Internet power: Tell the world that the Chinese Dream is uplifting China.” (Emphasis mine.)

Actually, the line in Chinese does not end with the phrase “China” (中国) but “the greater Chinese” (大中华). Not only does “the greater Chinese” sometimes mean Greater China, but it also hints at overseas Chinese people (华人 or 华侨) and, as Fallows put it, the “borderless” greater Chinese culture/civilization.

Fact checking the hype around mesh networks and FireChat

Being based in Hong Kong, my tech friends and I still occasionally get asked, “So what’s the deal with FireChat?” In case you missed it, FireChat, a smartphone chat app with basic mesh support, made headlines during the recent Occupy Hong Kong protests. Protesters on the ground here turned to it in late September when rumors began to circulate that the government would shut down the internet. It never did, but plenty of people, myself included, downloaded FireChat anyway. Hearing about this, many publications then used FireChat to tell a techno-utopian story about the future of mesh networking. Yet in the same stories, many publications pointed to faulty evidence of, or simply speculated about, people using its mesh features. (The sole exception being TechPresident’s Rebecca Chao, who actually found real evidence of its use.) As the hype has subsided, we at 88 Bar have decided that it’s a good time to review the facts and figures around FireChat.


1. FireChat was built for concerts and Burning Man

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Figure 1: Press images are from its listing in the iTunes store.


2. FireChat is “not meant for secure or private communications”

The full quote that FireChat gave Wired last June is: “People need to understand that this is not a tool to communicate anything that would put them in a harmful situation if it were to be discovered by somebody who’s hostile. It was not meant for secure or private communications.” (This is, of course, months before they went on the speaking circuit to market its use during the recent Hong Kong protests.)

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab ran a full, tech analysis and concluded: “Messages sent in any of the application’s three messaging modes are sent in the clear without encryption. All messages sent and received, as well as a list of chat channels the user has joined, are stored unencrypted on the device. It is also possible for anyone (regardless of whether they have installed the app or not) to visit an IP address associated with the service in a web browser to see the most recent messages sent by users of the application.”


3. Lots of people in Hong Kong signed up for FireChat

Sign up figures for FireChat in Hong Kong during the protests range from 100,000 to 500,000. Assuming only a small number of “troll” accounts and that not every protestor would have downloaded the app, this would imply that there were at least 100,000 to 500,000 people who downloaded it to support the protest. (Estimates say roughly 200,000 people took part in the Hong Kong protests at its peak.)

And according to FireChat’s twitter account, people are still using it: their stats show 208k chat sessions on December 16, 2014.


4. But FireChat put Hong Kong citizens in danger during the protests

Not only are messages unencrypted, but it encourages the use of real names. Again from Global Voices: “Once installed, the app requires the user to sign up with her real name (which will be pre-filled with the name she eventually configures on her iOS or Android phone), a username and an email address.”

This is especially troubling because police have arrested at least two people in Hong Kong who posted protest-related messages online. See Quartz’s “police are using Hong Kong’s computer crime law to crack down on pro-democracy organizers.”


5. Protesters did use its mesh networking capability, but there’s only one report of it

Of the dozens of articles published on FireChat during Occupy Hong Kong, I only found one report that found evidence of mesh network usage. From Rebecca Chao on TechPresident:

As a volunteer, Ip was among a group of roughly 60 to 120 that monitored the supply stations. He used FireChat to recruit more volunteers. While verification is an issue in the app’s anonymous chat room settings, Ip says that given the proximity needed for off-grid use, “we could meet up instantly to confirm who I was and what volunteers we wanted and to ensure they got the right information.”

The other reports sadly only pointed to evidence of use of its internet (not mesh) chatrooms:

  • In a Wall Street Journal video cited in The Atlantic, The Verge, and TechCrunch, a Hong Kong student protester who shows off FireChat only uses its internet-enabled chatrooms, not its mesh network chatrooms.
  • When FireChat talks about its explosion 2M chatrooms created last month, they are referring to internet chatrooms. As Forbes’ Parmy Olson says, “Once a FireChat user goes off the grid like this, San Francisco-based Open Garden can’t track them anymore. That’s why they have no idea how many people are actually using its off-the-grid feature.”
  • In another Wall Street Journal video, the reporter and FireChat CEO are testing the mesh network function in the middle of the protests. It’s clear they are the only two chatting on the mesh network channel. My own experiments with my friend in the middle of the protest fared similarly.


6. FireChat is an IRC-like chatroom app, not a messaging app

2015-01-12 11_14_24

Figure 2: A 12-second clip of FireChat in action (as of 11am, January 12, 2015). Picture shrunk in order to conceal username + locations.

As Nathan Freitas and Oiwan Lam write in Global Voices: “FireChat is not a messaging app. FireChat is a chatroom, a platform to send insecure and public messages to people over the Internet or within your geographical vicinity.” As such it is not a replacement for Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Line or WeChat.

During the Hong Kong protests, everyone I spoke to said that Facebook and WhatsApp were by far the most commonly used communication tools. This isn’t to say FireChat wasn’t used, but it’s good to put its popularity into perspective.


P.S. The Hong Kong mobile network did not “collapse”

Nellie Bowles writes in Recode that “during the recent enormous pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the city’s cellular networks got so jammed they collapsed.” I have seen no reports to that effect (congestion yes, collapse no). As one protester stated in TechPresident, “I found that my LTE [4G] connection was pretty solid in most cases, even with tens of thousands of protesters around me.”

Localized WeChat ad sells its animated stickers, nails it

Created by Hong Kong-based artist-designer Ping Wong for the Hong Kong market.

霓虹的製作 The Making of Neon Signs

Who knew that neon lights (powered by neon gas, not LEDs) were such an artisan’s craft?

More details about this preservation and exhibition project here.

A Figurine Maker’s Journey Through China


Boing Boing recently published a great feature from Jared Zichek, an avid entrepreneur who manufactures and sells classic-comics action figures. In the feature, Jared talks about his prototyping, manufacturing and sales process – part of it happen in the US, part of it in Hong Kong and part of it in China.

Here’s a juicy excerpt:

Finding a factory. The safest route is going through a trading company; reputable ones I’m aware of are Lucky Group International Ltd. and Point East Ltd., which act as middlemen between you and the factories. You will not be scammed, though they will pressure you to order a minimum of 500 pieces; you will also pay more than dealing directly with a factory. To cut out the middleman, go to Alibaba.com and search for “resin character statue” or the like and start contacting companies which look promising; I don’t deal with anyone that hasn’t been a Gold Member for at least three years due to the many incidents of fraud that have occurred on the site. I email them my production guide and wait for a few days to receive all the quotes; several will not respond if you are not ordering at least 500 pieces. The quotes you receive will be all over the map, though you shouldn’t necessarily pick the cheapest one without first doing a lot of online research. Be advised that the quotes never include shipping, which is a substantial additional expense to consider.

Read the full article on Boing Boing, or buy Jared’s action figures from GoldenAgeFigurines.com.

Xiaomi’s vaguely familiar design and a Chinese bitcoin mine

In case you’re not following consultant-turned-VC Benedict Evans‘ newsletter on mobile technology (which is excellent and highly recommended), here are the China-related gems from this week:

Xiaomi unveiled the latest version of its custom flavor of Android. Lot of interesting and innovative features in there. The design language, though, looks… vaguely familiar. Link

Apple is now storing Chinese user data on Chinese soil. Link

Joi Ito: visiting Shenzhen. Link

Inside a Chinese Bitcoin mine. $60k a month in power bills. Link

The Chinese taxi app wars. Link [paywall]

Smartisan – one of the many Chinese companies trying to innovate on top of Android. Link

More information about Benedict Evans, his newsletter and how to subscribe.


UPDATE: related to the first quoted link: