“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

The plummy voice of Julie Andrews rings out through the Grand Court of Center City Philadelphia’s Macy’s store every hour on the hour throughout the month of December. As children (and more than a few adults) crowd for seats on the floor of the Grand Court, Andrews invites them to enjoy the Christmas Light Show, “a brilliant holiday spectacular celebrating the color, warmth, and joy of the Yuletide season.” Philadelphians have been enjoying the 15-minute light show since 1956, when what is now Macy’s was still John Wanamaker’s flagship department store, offering shoppers nine floors filled with goods to buy. Wanamaker’s folded in the 1990s, and Macy’s now occupies only three floors in the building (the remainder is now office space—including the healthcare company where my father works). But the light show remains.

Rather than try to explain exactly what the light show is, I’ll make things simple and give you the chance to watch a bit of it yourself.

Here’s the original John Wanamaker light show, in a video made in the 1980s. At that time, local broadcaster John Facenda narrated the show, which included “dancing water fountains” that have since been removed.

Other than those alterations (and a switch to LED lights in recent years), the light show is still largely the same as it always has been. It’s probably Philadelphia’s most iconic Christmas tradition, and while I haven’t gone to see it every year of my life, I’d say I’ve watched 15 or so performances over the decades.

Even more than the light show, however, I love the Dickens Christmas Village that’s now also housed in Macy’s. The village exhibit originated in 1985 at another major department store, Strawbridge and Clothier, that used to be located a few blocks down Market Street from the Wanamaker Building. Like Wanamaker’s, though, Strawbridge’s has closed; that building has stood vacant for the past few years, but will soon become the new home of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Fortunately, Macy’s took over the Dickens village and installed the exhibit on the third floor of its store, so holiday-minded shoppers can now get two unique Christmas experiences in one place.

The Dickens village consists of a series of walk-through dioramas relating the events of A Christmas Carol. Somewhat hokey animatronic figures act out the major scenes of the story as appropriate (though again, rather cheesy) sound effects are piped in around visitors. While the light show is enchanting, the Dickens village can occasionally be scary—I remember that as a child I was terrified of the scene where Scrooge’s door knocker glows and turns into the face of Jacob Marley (photo at right). Likewise, the vignettes depicting Scrooge’s visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future resemble more closely something from a Halloween haunted house than an uplifting Christmas tale. Yet I find the whole experience charming: the fake cobblestones lining the path visitors walk on, the figures clothed in Victorian dress, the earnest expressions on Tiny Tim’s face. Compared to the light show, the Dickens village is low-tech and subdued, but I suppose it’s the historian in me that enjoys walking through the streets of 1840s London.

It’s also for that reason that I’m so glad these two pieces of local history have been preserved, despite store closings and consolidations. Christmas in Philadelphia, to me, just wouldn’t be the same without them.

My mother, whose grammar geek genes I've inherited, found a typo (painto?) on one of the Dickens village placards when we visited this year

On Rereading Gatsby

For well over a decade, I’ve been listing F. Scott Fitzgerald as one of my favorite authors. I went through an intense Fitzgerald phase in high school, enthralled by his descriptions of flappers and bootleggers whooping it up during the Jazz Age while unconscious of the troubles ahead of them. In retrospect, I have to admit that I was reading his novels and short stories more for content than form; I wasn’t paying much attention to Fitzgerald’s mechanics or how he structured his work. I wanted to be entertained, pure and simple. As I escaped into the world of Prohibition, though, I was overlooking the considerable lessons that Fitzgerald could teach me as a writer.

Despite my teenage fascination with Fitzgerald, I haven’t actually picked up any of his work in years. But back in October, I came across my old copy of The Great Gatsby (cringe-inducing high school marginalia intact) and tossed it into my briefcase, thinking that brushing up on a classic couldn’t hurt. I now work in New York (at the Asia Society) two days a week and have been making an effort to spend my commute from Princeton reading for pleasure rather than work. F. Scott Fitzgerald is as far from Chinese history as I can get, and has strong connections to the town where I now live, so it seemed natural that I should crack open Gatsby on New Jersey Transit one morning.

What I realized while rereading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece can be boiled down to two points: (1) I had almost completely forgotten the plot of the book, retaining only the vaguest details (lots of parties; assumed identity; colors are important), and (2) I had never understood just how brilliant The Great Gatsby is. Now what I notice most about Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s mastery of language. The book, brief as it is, brims with beautifully crafted* phrases, evoking impressions I otherwise wouldn’t have thought could be put into words. Yes, the rippling surface of water touched by wind is “corrugated”—but I needed Fitzgerald to choose that adjective before I could see that it’s simply the only one that could be used. And describing fall as the season “when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air”? Perfection.

Had I read Gatsby with pen in hand and circled every one of those finely tuned phrases, I expect not a page of text would have gone unmarked. Rather than sit here and list my favorites, though, I’ll bring up another aspect of the book that I had previously overlooked: the image of New York City that emerges from its pages. Though at the end Nick Carraway concludes that he, Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom Buchanan are “Westerners,” not cut out for life in the East, Fitzgerald had a great eye for the rhythms and confusions and possibilities of Manhattan. What other city in the world would give rise to a paragraph like this one?

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

Ignoring the somewhat stalkerish qualities that Nick displays in his daydreams, this paragraph amazes me. It begins on a positive note, celebrating the vitality and excitement of the city … but by the end (only four sentences later!), it’s a meditation on loneliness and the passage of time. Could the scene just as easily be set in London, or Beijing, or San Francisco? I guess. Alienation is a quality shared by residents of all big cities. But when I read this paragraph, it has to be about New York, in a way that it could never be about Philadelphia or Los Angeles.

One more example:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. (Really.)

* An editor once told me to avoid describing an author as having “crafted” a piece of writing—but I honestly can’t think of another verb that so perfectly describes what Fitzgerald accomplished in The Great Gatsby. He truly did craft the book, heavily revising the galley proofs until he got things right (causing his editor and publisher no small amount of panic, I’m sure), and Wikipedia quotes Fitzgerald as saying the novel represented a “consciously artistic achievement.” So I think this deserves an exception to the “no crafting” rule.

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!

It’s only October 29, but Philadelphia got a good dose of snow today.

Things started out rainy this morning …

But by early afternoon, it was truly snowing.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, this is only the third time since 1884 that the city has experienced a measurable snowfall in October. It’s a bit bizarre to drive through the city and see jack-o’-lanterns and snowmen standing side-by-side!

Questions and Answers

“Is it good to be home?”

“Do you miss California?”

“Which do you like better, the East Coast or the West?”

I’ve heard all of these questions, each one multiple times, since I arrived in Princeton at the end of the summer after three years in Southern California. I never really know how to answer, and usually just settle for “I like both places.” This is true—I was very happy in Orange County, and I’m equally happy, though for different reasons, in New Jersey. But as I was walking home from town yesterday afternoon, I did notice one significant advantage Princeton has over Irvine at the end of October …

… the color palette.

Selling Thin in China

After stating in my very first post here yesterday that I wanted this space to be about more than just China, I’m going to jump in with a short piece about … China.

Today is the National Organization for Women’s Love Your Body Day, an event designed “to send a positive message to women and girls that beauty comes in all colors, shapes and sizes.” I have divided feelings about LYBD: while I appreciate focusing attention on the issue of body acceptance, I also wish designating a special day to do so weren’t necessary. But I don’t think anyone at NOW would disagree with me on that point.

When I was thinking about whether or not I might participate in the LYBD blog carnival, though, I realized that it would present a natural opportunity for me to write about something I had noticed during the eight weeks I spent in Shanghai over the summer: the proliferation of weight-loss centers targeting women and spreading a message that equates thinness with achievement and beauty.

Charmaine Sheh advertises Perfect Shape at the Yan'an Xi Lu metro stop in Shanghai

While I certainly remembered plenty of hair salons, nail parlors, and plastic surgery centers from my previous time in China (2006-2008), the new visibility of the weight-loss industry surprised me upon my return. This summer, every time I entered the subway station in my neighborhood, I walked past a larger-than-life advertisement for a program called (in English) “Perfect Shape,” featuring spokeswoman Charmaine Sheh wearing a short and tight red dress that accentuated the curves of her breasts and hips and narrowness of her waist. Perfect Shape, I later learned from its website, is a Hong Kong company that offers customers “medical body slimming” through (as far as I can determine) electrical stimulation and deep tissue massage. No dieting or exercise necessary! And with the special 688RMB ($108) introductory package, within two weeks a customer could lose between six and ten jin (about 6.6 to 11 pounds)—though, of course, the website warns that individual results might vary.

Once I noticed the Perfect Shape ad, I began looking for evidence of other weight-loss centers during my trips around the city. It didn’t take me long to find several more: at metro stops and in shopping malls across Shanghai, I saw poster after poster selling weight-loss services, every one of them aimed at women. The advertisements promoting these programs generally sported a mixture of Chinese and English text, visibly linking the industry with the West. Some of the businesses’ names performed a similar function. London Weight Management, for example, encouraged potential customers to take up the “4S Figure” challenge:

尺码更加Small, 拥有Slim苗条身段

Make your measurements smaller, have a slim figure
Attract stares from everyone, develop a sexy allure*

Marie France Bodyline, proclaiming a tagline of “New Body, New Life,” favored spare billboards with brief testimonials from satisfied customers, accompanied by before-and-after photos. According to “Sabrina,” “成功纤体就是女人成功的开始” (Achieving a slim body is just the start of a successful woman). Like Perfect Shape, Marie France Bodyline promised a painless, effortless weight-loss process: as I strolled past their outlet in a large shopping mall, I spotted a sign outside the door assuring potential customers that they would find “No Pills, No Hunger, No Exercise” within.

Marie France Bodyline advertisement in a Shanghai shopping mall

The growing obesity problem in China is no secret (particularly to those who have read Paul French and Matthew Crabbe’s book on the subject, Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines Are Changing a Nation). But these weight-loss centers are not expressing concerns about their customers’ health; they’re selling a message in which thinness is the key to happiness and success for a woman and weight loss a foolproof way to transform one’s life for the better.

The Marie France Bodyline weight-loss plan

I don’t know if Shanghai’s weight-loss centers are profitable or not, and chances are a few will have shut their doors by the time I return to China. But the mindset and the lifestyle that they encourage might be much more difficult to eradicate. Perhaps, as Marie France Bodyline, Perfect Shape, and other such businesses paper cities like Shanghai with their advertisements, we’ll also see a Chinese version of Love Your Body Day emerge to counter such messages.

*I’m not a trained translator, and this isn’t exactly vocabulary I encounter frequently in my research on Chinese children’s literature! Corrections and improvements are very welcome.

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival.

Opening Day

Does the internet really need another blog? Probably not. And yet here I am.

Initially, I wasn’t planning to have a blog on this site; I simply wanted to build a space on the web where I could share a bit about my education and interests as well as link to pieces I had written. If people Googled me, in other words, there would be one place where they could learn something about me and my work. That was the idea.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that I might find having a blog of my own worthwhile. Not so I’d have a place to praise the new shoes I just bought* or complain about people who talk too loudly on their cell phones while riding the train, nor because I want to share details about my life with everyone who stumbles across this website. I’m far too private a person to feel comfortable writing about myself, and I don’t expect that to change. But I do have a lot of interests that I rarely get the opportunity to write about elsewhere: higher education, publishing and digital media, feminism, baseball, travel, knitting, cities, books, trains, pop culture. Everything I’ve ever published (as far as I can recall) has to do with China … and while talking about China is a huge part of my life, I finally decided that it might be nice to have a venue where I could post about other topics on a semi-regular basis.

And so, here we are. Real posts will begin tomorrow. Welcome.

*For those who are curious about the shoes: Mara Mary Jane pumps from Naturalizer, and they’re amazingly comfortable. I wore them around New York for nine hours yesterday and never once regretted it.