In his very checkered career Justin Mitchell has worked at Pulitizer Prize winning US newspapers that no longer exist as well as hopscotching across China, Hong Kong and Thailand to stay employed. His past includes interviewing Yoko Ono, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis and Ray Davies as a music writer, as well as Japanese porn star Suzi Suzuki. He also broke ground-breaking stories for The Weekly World News such as “Mermaid Found in Tuna Can,” and “Irish Built the Great Wall of China.”
“Where are you from?” is a common icebreaker when meeting new foreigners or Chinese colleagues.
I’m from Boulder, Colorado, but my answer always varies slightly. If I’m talking to an American or Canadian, I usually simply say, “Boulder.” It’s an admittedly small conceit, as if it’s LA. Or Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary or DC. Or New York, Philly, Chicago or Boston.
It’s none of those, of course, but it does have a slightly hip cachet and is a combination of a rocking college town, high-tech, environmentally progressive haven nicknamed “The People’s Republic of Boulder” for things like being the first city in the US with a smoking ban and strict limits on growth and a small thriving medicinal marijuana market. It sits at the foot of where the Rocky Mountains begin. There are no high rises or sky scrapers in Boulder and it has miles of hiking green belts off limits to developers.
Boulder attained one-word status like Berkeley during the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s as a hippie alternative. Many light years ago, I ran into the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg in line behind me at a Boulder Safeway grocery check out and asked him to autograph my frozen pepperoni pizza box, which he kindly did, as well as giving me friendly advice to go vegetarian. That’s the kind of place it was.
If the query comes from a Brit, European, Aussie, Kiwi or Chinese person I say “Colorado.” Though like my knowledge of Chinese geography and geography in general is hazy, most can’t connect it with anything except maybe the old John Denver song, “Rocky Mountain High” or the NBA Denver Nuggets. Or the Grand Canyon, which is in Arizona.
I never mention “Columbine” as in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre; though it’s also the official state flower and the name of the street on which I grew up.
That is until the other day when a Welsh colleague asked me. “Where did you say you were from in Colorado?” We had introduced ourselves a day before and I’d confessed the only things I knew about Wales were Dylan Thomas, Cardiff, an incomprehensible native tongue, chronic unemployment, hard drinking and coal mining.
“Boulder,” I replied, starting to go into my usual Boulder Chamber of Commerce spiel.
“Not Aurora?” he interrupted me politely.
“No, it’s a piece of shit suburb of Denver. Why?”
Then he told me about the movie theater massacre. I mentioned Columbine, which he knew about and then I excused myself and began frantically Googling and quickly felt sick and sad.
Chinese colleagues and friends began asking and texting me, too. Some even asked if I knew the shooter (WTF?) and, some, more gently asked if my family was okay. I assured them that all was well and I didn’t have a clue about the killer.
I saw CNN and online photos and footage of the theater, which I recognized as a place I’d driven by perhaps a dozen or so times in the past on my way to other destinations in sprawling, soulless Aurora.
“It is like Columbine, maybe?” asked a Chinese coworker who also asked me point out Colorado on a fading world map pinned on the office wall. I showed him.
“So it is in the western United States? Why do you have so many guns? Like a cowboy or gangster movie maybe?”
I didn’t want to go there and the right to bear arms or arm bears, etc, excused myself and went back to editing a glowing piece on the harmonious relations between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities in Tibet.
But the next day the same coworker and two others wanted to know more. They were fascinated with the booby-trapped apartment and how one man could walk into a movie theater dressed like some kind of futuristic grim reaper packing three or four guns.
“Your country is so violent,” one said, stating the obvious and not with malice. Indeed, and Aurora, a mostly downtrodden home for many unemployed which sees about 20 of its 320,000 or so residents murdered annually, is particularly so.
But I felt defensive and asked about the recent hostage taker who was shot dead by a police sniper in the No. 10 line Hujialou subway station. Why hadn’t that received more press?
“But he was a professional man,” one coworker said. “A white collar.” As if that explained anything. I pressed on about past atrocities – some worse then the Aurora massacre – such as the rash of young school children decapitations, kidnappings and murders in Shenzhen and other cities a few years ago.
“What ever happened to the men who did that?” I asked. “And what about the other children who saw their schoolmates hacked to death? How do they handle the memory of seeing their friend’s head chopped off with a meat cleaver? In the US or elsewhere these would all be relevant, newsworthy. Here it seems it is quickly mentioned at most and then swept aside in favor of harmonious unilateral relations with Africa or squabbles over tiny islands.”
China also has its fair share of serial killers, as Robert Foyle Hunwick pointed out in an excellent piece in Danwei,though unlike the US or UK, these crimes are underreported and often virtually ignored due to the low social status – migrant workers, hookers, etc – of the victims. The reverse side of the coin that says a hostage taker in a sport coat who is taken out by a police sniper is not worthy of much press because he’s a “professional man” and it might offend others in that class.
There are obvious answers to these questions for anyone who has done hack work or “PR for the PRC” as I have since arriving in 2003 and – exceptfor 3 and a half year stint at The Standard in Hong Kong – has otherwise toiled in the belly of the beast at state publications, including China Daily, Global Times and China Radio International.
It was at my first Chinese English language paper, a small, friendly and never feisty publication called Shenzhen Daily where I first learned how these things work. A wealthy Hong Kong family connected with Phoenix TV had been murdered and robbed in their Shenzhen luxury home.
Juicy stuff. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as the journo cliché goes.
The suspects were caught shortly thereafter and all I had to do was to clean up the grammar and slap a headline on it.
“Phoenix TV murder suspects nabbed” was what I wrote. Simpl7e and to the point.
Alas and alack, my chief Chinese overseer came to me shortly thereafter and asked me to tone it down.
“It is too harsh,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” I replied.
“There was also a robbery,” he said. “Perhaps you might say, ‘Robbery suspects arrested.’ Murder is too harsh for a headline.”
Flash forward. Okay. How about “Colorado ‘Dark Knight’ premiere interrupted by discord, experts say.”