For this the next chapter in Lost Laowai’s series of posts on prolific bloggers in the English-language China blogsphere I go right to the source, as there are few more seminal English-language China blogs than the Peking Duck.
Authored by Beijing-based PR man Richard Burger, the Peking Duck is one of, if not the, oldest blogs featuring a laowai writing about China. The blog offers some of the most well-written and insightful commentary about China, with posts that often elicit hundreds of comments.
[Full Disclosure: I, via my design biz, gave the Peking Duck a bit of a facelift this past May. I’m, admittedly, an avid reader of the Peking Duck, and it was great fun to work so closely on the site.]
Lost Laowai: You’ve bounced around Asia quite a bit – can you tell us what your history with the region has been, and what pulled you to it in the first place?
Richard Burger: I say in the description of The Peking Duck that I’m “an accidental expat,” and that’s the truth. Coming here was not part of any strategy, it just sort of happened. After my company sent me on my first trip to Asia in 1997, I fell in love with Hong Kong and Singapore and began wondering whether the expat life might not be for me. I even met with the head of my company’s affiliate in HK, who said he was looking for a writer and senior PR manager. It was the peak of the Clinton boom, and I was still quite happy in the US so I didn’t take any action. Then came the crash in 2000 and I found myself jobless. I called up the fellow in HK and asked if the job was still available, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to my new home in Hong Kong.
To make a long story short, after a great run in HK I decided there would be more opportunities in China. This was a mistake; I wasn’t ready for China, linguistically or psychologically. A combination of general unhappiness (it was the coldest winter in 20 years) and deep concerns about the way the government was behaving during the SARS days caused me to leave for a brief stay in Singapore. I had remained on quite good terms with my company in Beijing, and they soon invited me to rejoin them in Taiwan. When in 2006 they needed someone to manage an Olympic project in Beijing, they sent me back and here I am today. It’s been the exact opposite of 2002. I’ve loved nearly every minute of it and feel Beijing is my home.
LLW: Your blog started its life while you were in Hong Kong back in 2002. What was it about blogging that got you to give it a go?
Richard: For years I read the print articles of pundit Andrew Sullivan, and then followed him on the Web. In 2002 he wrote a famous article calling blogs the way of the future. I’d never heard the word before, but his endorsement was enough for me to try it out. I had no idea what I was doing back then. I was writing for myself, using the blog as a diary. I never thought I’d have an audience.
LLW: You said in your inaugural post, “I’m not sure whether I understand it yet, but hopefully I’ll get the hang of it in time.” The popularity of your blog is a testament to the fact that you have gotten “the hang of it.” What do you think it is about the Peking Duck that routinely has its posts’ comments number in the hundreds? Is there some magic blogging sauce that you’ve discovered?
Richard: At first I was just writing about my personal feelings, impressions of Hong Kong, etc. My posts were mundane, to say the least. Then I moved to China, where suddenly I had a cause, a purpose to blog. I was always the kind of person who gets passionate about causes and had my first letter to the editor published in my town newspaper when I was a teen. Unlike Hong Kong, which was basically a big party, China presented me with political and social issues that made me passionate, and not always in a positive way. When the government began to block Blogspot blogs in 2002 I was blown away, and I started to write about it. I saw how questionable many of their news stories were, how inefficient their banks were, and how frustrating life in general there could be. And I started to blog about it.
You have to remember, this was when I was not ready for China. I thought Beijing was going to be another Hong Kong. I had major culture shock, no friends to talk to, no blog audience like I do now. Then came SARS. Let’s just say that the way the government handled it was the last straw and I decided I wanted to leave. If you see my posts from January through April of 2003, you’ll see I began to get more and more incensed, more and more sarcastic and critical. Too critical. For a while I saw China through a very negative lens.
At the same time, I began to gather an audience. My first posts about the blackout of Blogspot was being picked up by some big US blogs. Andrew Sullivan linked to a post on Chinese society. I think the biggest break was when Dave Winer of Scripting News wrote a totally unexpected mini-review called “Meet the Peking Duck“. Suddenly I had a steady flood of visitors. Some of them emailed me and said I should add a comments plug-in. I did, and by 2003 my site began to morph into part message-board, part blog.
So the “magic blogging sauce” was passion. Writing about what I felt and not caring about the controversy. Once I felt I really had something to say and began writing with conviction, the readers just came. , There was also some good luck with the links I got, the timing of my SARS posts, and the fact that I was also one of the first expats to blog in China; being early to market always helps.
LLW: With nearly 4,700 posts in the archives, how do you possibly find the time to write so much?
Richard: One of my first jobs was with a large newspaper, and I was responsible for indexing all their articles – scouring the text for key words and then writing a detailed summary of the article. I usually wrote up to 100 abstracts a day. This gave me the skill to look at complex stories and quickly spot their essentials and to write about news articles really fast. That’s mainly what I do as a blogger – summarize and opine on what the media are saying. This training made it easy for me to write posts. In 2004 when the site was at its busiest I was pumping out as many as 8 posts a day while doing a full-time job.
LLW: Is there any single post you are particularly proud of as a blogger – either for its prose, the discussion it invoked, or the subject it covered?
Richard: My favorite post is called The staggering magnificence of China. The idea came to me months before I actually wrote it. Unlike my posts about articles, this was an actual essay. It took me a long time to take it on, but once I started it instantly fell into place. I think t worked pretty well and it has a little twist at the end that was inspired. I’d say the other favorite is the Interview with a 1989 Demonstrator. That post pretty well captures the mindset of China’s upwardly mobile post-Tiananmen achievers who now feel the government handled the situation well enough.
For totally different reasons, I love a post I wrote about the death of a friend of mine, not because of what I wrote but because of the comments. Most of his friends hadn’t known, and the post brought them all together, and magically they all left deeply personal, beautiful comments. I can’t read that comment thread without tears coming to my eyes.
LLW: Your blog has long been an unabashed critic of some of China’s harsher policies. If you were given the power to make just one monumental change in China tomorrow – what would it be?
Richard: First, I hope you’ve noticed after I came back in 2006 I tried to give a more nuanced picture of China. I understand its challenges better, and i know it’s not a matter of black and white, good and evil. The monumental change I’d implement, should Hu Jintao ever ask me, would be rule of law with an untouchable supreme court at the top. This would provide checks and balances, deter corruption and help ensure that no one was above the law. The laws are all there, but China has no system for enforcing them. This can lead to outrageous crimes by local authorities and literally no hope for justice from the disenfranchised.
LLW: Having ping-ponged through the three groups of people that all largely identify themselves as “Chinese”, and yet all clearly maintain a visible amount of cultural separation from each other, where would you say the commonalities lie between mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong?
Richard: Citizens of HK and Taiwan are similar in that they grew up in a relatively developed, wealthy place. The Taiwanese tend to be more aware of politics and government that those in HK, whose focus was more business and money. The mainland Chinese are in a separate class because their country is just opening up. They tend to be the most passionate when it comes to political issues, but can also be naive when it comes, for example, to claims on a website that American media are “anti-China.” I came to be more balanced about my own views on China, and I think as China matures their outlook on America will become more balanced as well.
LLW: What’s it like to return to Beijing?
Richard: It’s been thrilling. Everything about Beijing – infrastructure, transportation, customer service, shopping, restaurants, general civility – it’s all soared since 2002. It’s now a world-class city. Of course, I came back to Beijing in much different circumstances than before. I had a community from my blog, and these people have been spectacularly helpful and generous. I also came back speaking passable Chinese so I could express whatever I wanted to. I still have my political and social issues with China’s government. But I will have a real hard time if and when the day arrives when I have to leave Beijing. In 2002 it was punishment. Now it’s home.
LLW: Casual readers of the Peking Duck may not know that you are a classical music aficionado. Where does this love affair for classical music come from?
Richard: Since early childhood I was a classical music lover and began playing the violin when I was 7. In my teens I became a passionate lover of Wagner and Brahms, and even traveled to Germany when I was 15 to stand at Wagner’s grave. I trained as a singer for a while at one of America’s best music schools, and sometimes I regret I didn’t stick to it. It’s still my greatest passion.
LLW: Though the Peking Duck is clearly China-themed, you’ve also created a rather extensive collection of posts critical of Bush and his time in office. Finishing things off, I have to ask what your thoughts are on Barack Obama and the new course that is being set for the US?
Richard: The election of Obama has been the best thing to happen to America in 8 torturous years. He is not my first choice. He has disappointed me at times. But after 8 years of government run amok, it’s not surprising that so many see him as “Messianic.” (I’m not one of those people.) I’m still worried he is beholden to Wall Street and business, and that he is not as liberal or as out-of-the-box as I’d like. This is a radical time in our history and we need some radical thinking. I am going to continue to support Obama while I watch him carefully. I’m immediately suspicious of anyone in power and Obama gets no free pass. But oh, it’s nice to have Bush out of Washington. Obama’s election was a great turning point in American history in so many ways,
Find Richard Online:
- The Peking Duck
- Follow Richard & The Peking Duck @ Twitter