BEIJING — Belly dancing has long been associated with the Middle East, but there seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest that its future may be here in China.
There has been a huge growth in popularity of belly dance shows, contests and schools across the country. A recent belly dancing convention in Beijing brought stars from around the world for a weekend of workshops and performances.
Two dozen dancers are going through their routines at an afternoon class at the Wen Kexin Belly Dancing School, located in a plush new commercial complex on Beijing’s east side.
Fan Hui Mi, 25, is a regular student here who, over her parents’ objections, gave up her white-collar job in financial services to become a full-time belly dancing teacher.
“They were really against me starting to belly dance because the outfits weren’t appropriate for a young Chinese woman,” she says. “But then gradually they changed their minds when they saw how artistic and pretty the dance was. And then they saw our performances on TV, and when I danced on a well-known TV show I know my mom was proud.”
This belly dancing school was opened by former singer Wen Kexin, who learned to belly dance a decade ago when she went to Egypt to record a music video. Hers was Beijing’s first belly dancing club and school. Today she has 63 licenced belly dancing schools around China serving 100,000 students.
“There are three kinds of people who learn belly dancing with us,” she says. “There are quite a lot who come to learn to be belly dancing teachers and open their own schools because belly dancing is hot right now. Secondly, we have students who want to be belly dancing stars. They don’t necessarily want to dance in bars or Arab restaurants, rather they want to join a dance troupe and perform in theaters and stadiums, which is popular in China. Many would like to be in my dance troupe or in another troupe called the China Belly Dancing Superstars. And then, finally, we have many students who dance to keep fit. For them it’s a hobby.”
Tao Xue Lie, 30, a business graduate from Zhengzhou in central China, learned to belly dance in 2007. “When I started, it was very hard, but all students find it hard at the start. I had a very helpful teacher. She gave me encouragement, she kept saying, ‘Come on, don't worry, one step at a time, do it again.’ And slowly, slowly I started to build confidence and get better.”
After a week of special training in Beijing, she now sees her future as a belly-dancing tutor. She’s ready to set off to a new Wen Kexin Academy in the southern island province of Hainan.
But it’s not just women who are taking up belly dancing in China. Yao Peng Bu, 32, is a male belly dancing superstar with his own Beijing school and a busy performance schedule. He travels regularly to the Middle East and around Asia to take part in workshops and performances.
“I was talking with a famous Egyptian belly dancing instructor who told me that our belly dancing events are the best attended in the world,” he says. “She attends these events around the world. I have been to other countries, and I think our belly dancing is of a very high artistic standard. In Western countries the cost of staff and property are much higher, so they do things on a smaller scale compared to China.”
Wen Kexin has big plans to grow the art form further in China. “Next year we’ll add five to eight more Wen Kexin academies in regional cities,” Wen says. “Also we’re planning a big Egyptian festival, and I plan to bring some of the biggest stars of belly dancing to China for performances and workshops.”
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Special Sauce To Sriracha, Globalization Is Thriving And Terribly Broken
For some, it is the most memorable Hollywood dialogue of the late 20th century. Two hitmen driving through Los Angeles (on the way to their next job) are discussing what one calls the “little differences” between the U.S. and Europe after his visit to Amsterdam and Paris.
You know what they call a Quarter-Pounder with cheese in Paris?
They don’t call it a Quarter-Pounder with cheese?
No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn’t know what the f*ck a Quarter-Pounder is.
Then what do they call it?
They call it a Royale with cheese
Royale with cheese [smiles]. What do they call a Big Mac?
Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.
Le Big Mac. [laughs] What do they call a Whopper?
I don’t know. I didn’t go to Burger King.
The exchange in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction gives us a singular je-ne-sais-quoi cool from John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, as genuine curiosity in that which is foreign meets the utterly mundane.
The movie came out in 1994, at a moment when some believed the Pax Americana was bound to last forever as the Cold War had given way to the global dominance of U.S. culture, commerce … and fast food chains. The opening in 1990 of the first McDonald’s in Moscow was hailed as bonafide geopolitical history: The Iron Curtain had come down and the special sauce was flowing.
The same Golden Arches metaphor has been hauled back out in recent weeks — in the inverse — by commentators and politicians alike, as McDonald’s closed up all its Russia-based restaurants last month, in response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Putin has insisted on a knock-off Russian burger brand taking over the shuttered McDonald’s locations, with stories shared about the similar menu, subbing in a new logo and customers barely noticing the difference in the products. Had the Kremlin gotten hold of the secret sauce recipe?
For the Russian president, the rebranded burgers would be proof on the domestic front (as pumped-up energy sales in Asia were abroad) that Moscow could withstand any economic sanctions the West had to present.
As with many other aspects of the Russian war in Ukraine, it is an odd twist to events: counterfeiting American fast food as evidence of standing up to the power of the American economy.
But it’s also worth remembering that around the same time that Tarantino’s hitmen were pondering the Royale with cheese, celebrated New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had proposed what he called the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.” As global capitalism expanded, he explained, conflict would eventually dissipate because countries had too much to lose in their economic and commercial relationships. “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other,” Friedman declared.
Of course, the theory has long since been proven far too optimistic — and as one commentator put it, “lazy” at its origin.
I have neither the foresight nor energy myself to come up with an alternative. Still, we know that food always gives us something to chew on. The war in Ukraine has set off economic disaster that extends well beyond Russia or McDonald’s, and we’re currently seeing factors from climate change to blockades to supply chain breakdowns combine to create serious food shortages — risking famine in some places, and elsewhere leaving shoppers without some of their favorite staple goods and consumer products.
That brings us to Sriracha, Thailand’s own brand of (spicy) special sauce, which by now is a beloved condiment for a variety of foods around the world. In recent months, a series of circumstances, including drought in Mexico, have caused a shortage of the chili peppers needed to produce Sriracha, and the global supply is expected to remain severely limited for months to come.
It’s a missing squirt of spice in the lives of diners around a world where globalized cuisine has long since spread well beyond multilingual McDonald’s. It no doubt has the makings of a new theory on where our messy world is heading. Hmmm…?
In the meantime, you know what they call it in Paris: La Sriracha.
— Jeff Israely
What do you remember from the news this week?
1. The BRICS summit was held this week, gathering the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China — and…?
2. Which country just voted to dissolve its parliament and move toward a new election, for the fifth time in less than four years?
3. Twitter is testing a new “notes” feature that would let its users write how many words: 500 / 1,500 / 2,500?
4. What was caught in Cambodia, at a record 13 feet (4 meters) and weighing 660 pounds (300 kg)?
[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]
• More than 150 cultural sites destroyed in Ukraine: UNESCO has released a new assessment of the damage inflicted on cultural landmarks during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. An estimated 152 sites have been destroyed so far, most of them in the Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kyiv regions.
• Controversial mural taken down at German art fair: A mural depicting soldiers with antisemitic attributes has been criticized by German and Israeli authorities after it was exhibited at the documenta contemporary art fair in Germany. Taring Padi, the Indonesian collective behind the artwork, denied the allegations but the mural was subsequently taken down.
• Rupert Murdoch & Jerry Hall split: Australian-born U.S. media mogul Rupert Murdoch, 91, and American actress and model Jerry Hall, 65, are getting a divorce after six years of marriage. This is Murdoch’s fourth divorce and Hall’s second — she was previously married to the Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger from 1990 to 1999.
• “Lucy” paleontologist Yves Coppens dies: French paleontologist Yves Coppens, who was part of the team who discovered 3.2-million-year-old female Australopithecus fossil nicknamed “Lucy” in Ethiopia in 1974, has died aged 87 after a long illness.
• Kate and Will’s first official portrait: The first official joint portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Kate and William, has been unveiled at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. The portrait was painted by British artist Jamie Coreth and will be loaned to the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2023 to celebrate its reopening.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has had a trial by fire since taking over for Angela Merkel, writes Claus Christian Malzahn for German daily Die Welt. With European leadership in high demand, Scholz has claimed that Germany bears “a very special responsibility.”
Read the full story: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz: A Very Special Responsibility
Understanding the unique nature of U.S. gun culture and the politics surrounding the issue can be confusing for Americans, let alone for foreigners who live there. In this essay for independent magazine La Marea, Spanish writer Azahara Palomeque, who just left the U.S. after living there for 12 years, recounts her thoughts and experiences living in a country so riddled with gun violence that she was close to panicking every time she walked out the door.
Between gun violence and the most expensive healthcare system in the world, the U.S. is governed by “necropolitics,” she says: the ruling class gets to decide who lives and who dies.
Read the full story: Real Fear, Fake Politics: How U.S. Gun Culture Looks To A Foreigner Living There
About 4,000 students have been arrested since the 2019 democracy protests in Hong Kong, and of those arrested, 1,150 have been prosecuted. Now three years later, some of those students are attempting to reintegrate into society. They may, at long last, be out of prison, but a new set of struggles await them, from finishing school to job hunting.
This piece by Hye-kwan Lee and Stanley Leung for Chinese-language media The Initium details the bitter road back for some of those arrested.
Read the full story: A Bitter Road Back For Hong Kong Students Arrested During 2019 Protests
A vintage, home-grown fast food chain in the Philippines called Tropical Hunt soared in popularity this week after a customer posted a picture showing an empty restaurant in Manila, prompting fans of the chain to post about their memories of the chain on social media. Tropical Hunt opened in 1965 and has become so popular now that some branches had to turn away dine-in customers to prioritize delivery orders. Hiring ads for the chain have also begun popping up on Twitter, so the restaurants can keep up with the increased demand.
Researchers at the Sichuan University in China have unveiled a tiny, self-propelled bionic fish robot capable of removing harmful microplastics from seas and oceans. The fish-bot absorbs the polluting particles through its soft body so that they can later be analyzed by scientists. It can also fix itself if it gets damaged thanks to the material it is made of — inspired by nacre, the interior of shell clams.
🐘🐘🐘 SMILE OF THE WEEK
An officer from the Indian Forest Office captured a cute video showing a herd of elephants walking on a road in southern India in a very tight way to protect a calf in the middle. “Nobody on Earth can provide better security than an elephant herd to the cute newborn baby,” tweeted the man along with the viral video.
• The 2022 NATO summit will take place June 29-30, with a dozen leaders of the alliance attending the event in Madrid, Spain, and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenski virtually addressing the G7 and NATO summits.
• The 109th edition of the Tour de France kicks off on July 1 in the streets of Copenhagen, Denmark. The Tour will end in Paris on July 24.
• Starting July 1, Australian pet owners will be required to keep their cats indoors or contain them in enclosures 24/7 to prevent them from killing or hunting other animals in the wild.
• Wimbledon is set to open next week — and for the first time in over two decades, without Swiss tennis icon and eight-time winner Roger Federer who will undergo a third operation on his right knee.
News quiz answers:
1. China was the host of the 14th BRICS summit with the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa connecting virtually to discuss global economic recovery, climate action and public health.
2. Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced the dissolution of his weakened coalition and called for new elections, which will be the fifth in three years. Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid will take over from Bennett as early as next week until a new government is sworn in.
3. Chatty people will be delighted to learn that Twitter is testing a new “notes” feature allowing users to write up to 2,500 words, in addition to its posts limited to 280 characters.
4. A giant stingray caught in the Mekong river in Cambodia has been recorded as the largest known freshwater fish.
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