Super Bowl Monday Morning? A Giants Fan’s Super Bowl in China

I have quite the dilemma on my hands.

I’m currently working in China. Come Monday morning (for me, anyway), my New York Football Giants will be playing in the Super Bowl against the Greatest Sports Dynasty Ever Conceived by Man, the New England Patriots.

Obviously, American football isn’t a big deal, or even a moderately-sized deal, in China. The Super Bowl, however, will be played on CCTV5, which will give me the chance to actually watch the Giants play live for the first time all season. Since week one I’ve been dutifully trudging over to my laptop in the wee, wee morning hours to listen to the live radio feed on giants.com. You might think I’d be ecstatic at the idea of finally have the chance to watch a game but I’m not. I have my reasons:

  1. I’ve always enjoyed the quaintness of listening to a game on the radio.
  2. The Giants play-by-play team of Bob Papa and Carl Banks are pretty damn good.
  3. I can avoid listening to Joe Buck on FOX.
  4. Most importantly, they’ve made the Super Bowl with me listening on radio. I’m a superstitious man – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Unfortunately, the giants.com feed will be blocked out for the Super Bowl, so I’ll be forced out of my comfort zone. I’ve been approached by a fellow Giants fan with the idea of finding a sports bar and watching the game on a nice TV. The plan sounds nice in theory – I live in Beijing, where there is roughly one expat bar for every three foreigners – but I know my tendencies as a sports fan. I am beyond a sore winner or a sore loser, I’m what you might call a sore inter-actor – I simply cannot be around strangers when my team is playing.

I remember a specific encounter at a Korean youth hostel in February, 2008; a week after the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII wins. I was approached by a couple of Pats fans who spotted my Eli Manning jersey. “I bet you just bought that jersey this week,” they accused me. I nearly had to be restrained, and that was a week after my team had already won. On top of all that, the game will start at 9 am, Beijing Standard Time, and I am by no means a morning person. Watching a morning Super Bowl in a bar with Patriots fans might just mean a ticket to a Chinese prison. The only other option is staying at home with my crappy TV and a bottle of scotch, nervous pacing the room, muttering to myself and to my wife’s cats…like a boss!

So what of the game itself?

I always enjoy tracking the shifting narratives leading up to any Super Bowl, and this one has been no different. The initial knee-jerk reaction in the press (and from Vegas) was that the Patriots should be slight favorites because – well, because they are the Patriots. Upon further analysis, many writers began pointing at the Giants match up well, have equal if not superior talent, have been playing better of late, and beat the Patriots in Foxboro this year. Now it seems the pendulum of opinion has swung back toward the Patriots. Check out this SI article:

http://www.cnnsi.com/2012/football/nfl/02/02/super.bowl.xlvi.predictions/index.html?eref=sihp&sct=hp_t11_a3 

Five of six writers are picking the Patriots. Especially damning is this quote from Kerry J. Byrne of Cold Hard Football facts: 

“Cold, Hard Football Facts, meanwhile, has eight stats that each predict winners in more than 60 percent of NFL games. New England was better in all eight this year.”

DOOOOOOOOOOOOM! But is 60 percent accuracy really that impressive? I can’t help but remember the last time a guy was so confident in 60 percent: the day Brian Fantana decided to musk up with Sex Panther cologne…

Would you trust this guy to pick the Super Bowl winner? I sure would.

…and we all remember how that turned out.

Some of the other reasons for picking the Patriots seem more ephemeral. Apparently the Patriots insatiable lust for revenge trumps anything the Giants have to offer. Sure, only seven Patriots remain from the team that lost Super Bowl XLII – and you would think the Giants would be equally motivated to vindicate themselves, especially after hearing all week that they “won’t be able to sneak up on the Patriots this time” – but let’s face facts: “The Revenge Bowl” sounds much better than “The Vindication Bowl.”

Also, one should never bet against defensive mastermind Bill Belichick in a big game. Just for fun, let’s take a look at a breakdown of the points scored by Belicheck’s opponents in the fourth quarter of each of his four Super Bowls.

Super Bowl XLII (vs. NYG):                14 points surrendered in the 4th quarter.

Super Bowl XXXIX (vs. PHI):             7 points surrendered in the 4th quarter.

Super Bowl XXXVIII (vs. CAR):         19 points surrendered in the 4th quarter.

Super Bowl XXXVI (vs. STL):             14 points surrendered in the 4th quarter.

In three of four Super Bowls, the Patriots have allowed at least 14 points in the fourth quarter. And the one exception was the infamous Donovan McNabb “did-he-puke?” fiasco, where the Eagles’ coaching staff took their sweet time milking the game clock while trailing on the scoreboard, and the quarterback’s teammates accused him of being so nervous on the final drive that he tossed his cookies. Who knows what might have been accomplished by a competent clock manager and a quarterback with some balls?

It certainly seems as if Belichick-coached defenses have a problem stopping teams in the fourth quarter. Now if only the Giants employed a quarterback with a history of fourth-quarter success – maybe even someone who set some kind of a NFL record for fourth-quarter touchdown passes…

Still, I would be lying if I said I was confident in a Giant victory. It is part of what I call “The Giants Paradox”: they win when they should lose and lose when they should win. I’m holding out hope that, Monday morning at the crack of noon, the Giants will be holding the Lombardi trophy. Then I can go grab a victory lunch at the Dongzhimen branch of Nathan’s Famous.

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China at the Movies: Part 1

If there’s one thing the Chinese film industry has on its American counterpart, it is a ruthless – and surprisingly enviable – efficiency. For those who lament Hollywood’s pandering to the lowest common denominator with their non-stop orgy of remakes, sequels, prequels and half-assed 3-D conversions, it’s somewhat refreshing to live in a country where crappy movies are made for a fraction of the cost.

The Chinese Film Bureau runs a tight ship. It controls which movies are made and which movies are played in theaters. The Chinese movie industry operates on its own unique supply-and-demand model, and when making movies they rely on these three immutable facts:

  1. They are the only ones making Chinese movies.
  2. Chinese people want to watch Chinese movies.
  3. There are a buttload of Chinese people.

That, my friends, is a license to print money. They can turn a profit on nearly any film with second-rate kung fu and third-rate CGI not even fit for a high school audio visual club. The one drawback of this filmmaking strategy is that you rarely see a Chinese blockbuster – or, more specifically, a Chinese-made blockbuster. Chinese people are crazy for Harry Potter and worship at the altar of Michael Bay – an altar no doubt made robot testicles wrapped in C4 – and by far the biggest “event” movie to premiere during my five years in China was none other than Avatar. Chinese-made films just don’t generate that kind of buzz among the natives. My wife is a rabid defender of Chinese culture, and though she’s seen her fair share of Chinese films over the past few years, she couldn’t recall a single one off the top of her head: “Chinese movies? You’re not supposed to remember them after you watch them.”

That isn’t to say that there haven’t been a few event movies made by the Chinese during my time here. I can think of three clear examples, and the circumstances surrounding the release three movies were each so quintessentially Chinese that I, as a student of this proud culture, feel honored to have witnessed.

 

建国大业 The Founding of a Republic – Oct. 2009

 

On any normal year the Chinese celebrate their National Day with enough pomp and circumstance to make even the most hardcore Fourth of July celebration look as lame as Kirk Cameron’s Five-Dollar Footlong Birthday Bash, but this particular year was special: the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China! I’m still not sure why 60 was such a significant number –after all, Betty White is almost three decades older. Chinese scholars maintain that the founding of the PRC was more significant than the birth of Betty White – but since they were reared on PRC propaganda while I was reared on reruns of “The Golden Girls,” we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

The celebrations culminated in the release of “The Founding of a Republic”, the most hyped film to premiere inChinain my recollection. The ad blitz was unprecedented. Just about every big-name Chinese actor – Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi and John Woo, to name a few – would make a cameo appearance in the film. Apparently the China Film Bureau had spread the word: “if you’re not in this film, then you hateChina.”

The film was hyped as a dramatic, but historically accurate, retelling of the Chinese Civil War between the Soviet-backed Communists and the American-backed Nationalists, which meant two things right off the bat:Americawould be the bad guys and Papa Joe Stalin would be among the good guys. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to see this movie.

As a student of history, I was excited to see the narrative the filmmakers would use. The story was, after all, the conflict between two Chinese political parties. Had this movie been made the Mao era the story would have been an easy sell: the defeat of corrupt, bourgeois capitalists by the overwhelming and sacred power of Marxist ideology. However, that kind of bullshit just won’t fly in modernChina. The Communist Party does a remarkable job of maintaining the name of communism while so completely disregarding the basic tenets of communism that they were recently singled out for praise by none other than Newt Gingrich, who said that theUScould learn a thing or two from the CCP and their 0% capital gains tax. It’s safe to say any government supported by Newt Gingrich isn’t going to make a film celebrating the struggle of the worker.

I sat in the theater – one of only two foreigners among the packed house – with a palpable sense of excitement. I was about to see a Communist-made movie about the victory of communism that couldn’t mention anything overtly communist. Could they pull it off?

Their solution to the narrative problem was as creative as it was ballsy. The film picks up at the end of World War II. The Nationalist party, led by Chiang Kai-shek is trying to consolidate their power at the expense ofChina’s other parties, including Mao Zedong’s Communists. The Communists leadChina’s other parties in an epic struggle against Nationalist domination, driving Chiang Kai-shek into exile inTaiwan. At the end of the film, the Communists invite the other parties to sign the charter for the new People’s Republic ofChina. As Mao and his cohorts stand proudly on stage, the subtitles announce that 19 political parties were invited to the first congress of the PRC. The end.

Huh? Nineteen political parties…in China? So the Communist Party’s victory wasn’t a victory for communism at all…but a victory for multi-party democracy. One can only guess as to what happened next: those other 18 political parties found to CCP to be so awesome that they all willingly disbanded. And to this day, no Chinese person has even thought of starting another party.

That bizarre narrative aside, the writers didn’t take the opportunity to thoroughly demonize the Nationalists. I guess that was to be expected – the relationship betweenChinaandTaiwanhas thawed significantly in the past few years, and Chinese audiences have mostly lost their taste for films bashing the Nationalists. Still, I was hoping for a good old-fashioned Maoist propaganda film, and I was left with a movie that was disappointingly nuanced.

The atmosphere in the theater was surprisingly tame. Spirits in the crowd were piqued a bit during the climactic scene in which the Americans lowered their flag and abandoned their embassy, but I never felt like I was about to be lynched.

My most awkward moment as a spectator came during a rather unimportant scene. As Chairman Mao and his staff discussed strategy, a cook came out to meet them. The mere sight of this pudgy dufus sparked a delirious fit of laughter among the Chinese in the audience.

My wife sensed my confusion. “That man is Fan Wei,” she explained, “the number one comedian inChina. He is so funny! Everybody loves him!”

I could certainly see that. Listening to the crowd’s reaction triggered a depressing thought: there is no comedian on Earth who can get that kind laughter out of me simply by walking onscreen.

The dufus professes his undying love for Chairman Mao and says he will work diligently as the chairman’s personal cook. Mao humbly accepts and offers the cook a cigarette. The cook squeals with delight: “I cannot smoke the cigarette given to me by Chairman Mao. I must keep it. I will cherish it forever.”

The cook’s manic, sweaty bit of Mao-worship brought more howls of laughter from the audience.

Cut to the next scene. Nationalist warplanes savagely bomb the Communist camp. As the soldiers flee for their lives, the cook suddenly stops in his tracks. “I forgot Chairman Mao’s breakfast on the stove! I must go back for it!” No sooner does he run back to the kitchen than the building takes a direct hit from a Nationalist bomb. Cut to a graveyard. Chairman Mao offers a brief eulogy and honors the cook buy leaving a whole pack of cigarettes on his tombstone.

The idea of casting the funniest man inChinaand killing him of for Mao’s breakfast was more than I could bear. I must admit to letting out the most inappropriate laugh heard in a movie theater since Homer Simpson first viewed the classic Han Moleman short “Man Getting Hit by Football.”

“What was the fucking point of all that,” I howled. As I regained my composure, I glanced at rest of the audience. The Chinese people didn’t seem to mind; there were enough laughs to be had by all.

 

Memories of Chinese New Year

I’ve had a few reasons to celebrate recently: my fifth anniversary in China, my fifth Chinese New Year and, most importantly, the New York Giants’ fifth trip to the Super Bowl. Since this isn’t the first time Chinese New Year – Spring Fesitval, as the  Chinese like to call it – has coincided with a Giants’ Super Bowl run, I thought I’d reminisce on the magical day of Feb. 10, 2008 in Changchun.

 

            One problem with watching important American sporting events live in China – meaning, in the wee small hours of the morning – is the gaping void left in the rest of your day. Had I watched the Giants’ miraculous Super Bowl XLII upset of the Patriots back in the states, I would have celebrated deliriously for an hour or two, and then passed out from sheer exhaustion. As it was, the clocks inChina had just passed noon, and outside my window Chinese office workers shuffled about on their lunch breaks, totally unaware of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, the 18-0 Patriots, and the magnificent David Tyree helmet catch which had just sent their world crashing down around them.

What should I do now? It was payday, which meant a fresh paper bag stuffed with discretionary cash waiting for me at school. There I caught up with my buddy Erik.

“Wanna grab a couple beers and buy a bunch of fireworks?” he asked.

“Hell yeah,” I replied, “This is a day worth celebrating.”

Spring Festival – the granddaddy of all Chinese holidays – was fast approaching, and the fireworks stands had spread to nearly every street corner in the city. I’ve always had a somewhat complicated relationship with this holiday. I love the days off, but I’m terrified of the chaos of traveling at the same time as roughly 900,000,000 Chinese people. I appreciate the startling casualness of elderly people playing majiang, but I’m frustrated by their initially violent refusal of any gift – I know they want the gift, I know they’ll take it eventually, do we really need all the pretense and keqi? I love the dumplings, but I still have a hard time biting into pig’s feet. But I have nothing but love for the fireworks.

For a few weeks each year the people of Changchuntake to the streets each evening – child in one hand, fireworks in the other – and light off a blitz of light and sound that consumes the city. The sheer number of people lighting fireworks, combined with the rather lax Chinese approach to public safety, gives the Spring Festival season a chaotic feel that is astonishing to behold – less “4th of July” and more “firebombing ofDresden.” The year before I had called home and held my phone out the window so family and friends could hear the carnage; I felt like a war correspondent covering the Battle of Britain. It truly is a joy to watch, but you have to keep your head on a swivel, ready to hit the deck if some misfired rocket should happen to explode a little too close for comfort.

Erik and I hit the fireworks stands just after sundown. We came with two large black trash bags, ready to devour the smorgasbord of fireworks laid out before us – skyrockets, bottle rockets, fountains, roman candles, belts of M-80’s. Within minutes we had caused a minor uproar on the street; Chinese witnesses were calling their friends to tell them that the waiguoren were buying up all the fireworks in sight. Nothing impresses the Chinese quite as much as a man willing to blow an obscene amount of money on fireworks.

I spotted a massive multi-shot box behind the fireworks stand: “The grand finale, we gotta have it.”

We hauled the spoils over to the nearest open space:Culture Square, in the center of the city. Spending any amount of time outdoors inChangchunin February is a life-or-death battle against bitter cold and the treacherous, icy sidewalks. Every foreigner who has lived inNortheast Chinahas at least once laughed of the absurdity of people celebrating a “spring” festival in late-January/early-February, with the temperatures often plunging past fifteen below. Still, the Chinese were calling it spring, and they had the fireworks to sell: when inChina, detonate as the Chinese detonate.

We started the show, launching glittering rockets toward the penthouses of the high-rise apartments, laying anaconda lengths of firecrackers to pop-pop-pop across the icy street. Chinese people came from blocks around, eager to partake in the mayhem. This wasn’t usual crowd of stalkers come to peer shamelessly into the exotic world of the foreigner. This was a kindred vibe – almost as if it were two regular dudes lighting off the fireworks. The crowd came simply to show the show.

As I lit off the grand finale I called out, “This is for the Giants!” The crowd clapped their approval. Of course, nobody in the crowd knew a goddamn thing about the Giants, or American football. They simply loved the fireworks.