Written September 4, 2007
How Now Brown Mao
Since my arrival here in Hong Kong about two weeks ago, I have been seeing a lot of someone who I thought to have been dead for over 30 years. For the most part he hangs out around public markets and tourist attractions, on trinkets and teeshirts, keychains and postcards. His name is Mao Tse-tung and he used to rule China.
Mao (pronounced Mow, not Mayo) is one of the most immediately recognizable people in China's history and his image, still hanging in Red Square , has become as popular among visiting Westerners as that of Bruce Lee taking a fighting position. Seeing his likeness so frequently and almost exclusively in these locations that are essentially Venus-fly-traps for tourists and bargain hunters makes one curious about the actual attitude of people towards this man. The local population either really likes Mao, or they really like beguiling unsuspecting tourists into wearing a terrifying dictator as they would wear Mickey Mouse (who is also very popular here).
I am woefully ignorant of Mao's history and leadership style, as I fear most Americans and other Western tourists must be, because I was taught he was a bad guy, but Mao shirts sell like hot cakes, and hot cakes sell like pornography. And we all know that pornography sells very, very well.
You don't often see a local wearing a shirt with his face; though not uncommon for a young girl or a visitor to have a bag with his image – Andy Warhol style, much like a young American might have one featuring Marilyn Monroe. It leads me to believe they're fucking with us.
I entered one market shop and really like the style of a particular Mao teeshirt, just a simple white and black profile with some red thrown in for good measure. And for Communism. In the same shop I found a brilliant Mao alarm clock, the art on the clockface worthy of a 70's action movie poster. The smiling Mao is glowing like the sun in the foreground, beams of light emanating from his glorious head of male-pattern-balding hair, giving a grand sweeping wave to the crowd. Behind him Red flags flap in the wind, Red armies march on the square and in the lower corner, a small boy in drab clothing, happily waves back at his passing hero, his arm, bent at the elbow, disjointedly ticking away with seconds while the soldiers goose step in time.
It looked 30 years old judging by the rust around its base. It was "Not old, new," according to the watchful woman keeping the shop. I tried to ask her if people like Mao, what their feelings are toward him, but she just keep telling me how much the clock cost.
Well, people must love Mao for such a clock to be available for purchase, and "New, not old" after all.
Like the Che Guevara shirts so widely peppered through out the closets of angsty young teens in the US and Canada, Mao shirts are beginning to infiltrate the culture here in Hong Kong and abroad. Many wear them. Few know what the men stood for. "For freedom!" they might tell you. "Independence!" Well yes, as did Ho Chi Minh, Jefferson Davis, Jim Jones, Bin Laden, Nelson Mandela. Freedom fighters and liberators to some, a scourge to others. Maybe not so much Nelson.
I was tired of my own ignorance on the subject so I purchased an exhaustively researched 900 page biography on the man they called the Chairman, which I plan to dog ear and mercilessly bend while I look him up on Wikipedia so that when I go back to that market, and purchase that shirt and alarm clock, I will know in my heart whether I am doing so with sincerity or in the name of irony. With 70 million plus people dead during his peacetime rule, I might have to say irony. It seems that wearing a Mao shirt to China would be akin to wearing a Hitler shirt to Poland or Germany. But what if Hitler had won?
The Chinese government maintains that he is a national hero, preserving his body for all to see in Tiananmen Square. The blood of countless millions spilled is the price a nation must pay to build a new empire. However, to those visiting tourists who do purchase some Mao-aphrenilia, I would suggest leaving it at home if you decide to go to the mainland. Perhaps, you have a drab gray workshirt and some dark trousers instead.
As for the people of Hong Kong who remained largely unmolested due to the protection of the British occupiers, I suspect their feeling towards Mao is one of slight apprehension and sincere gratitude that they have a photogenic figure on whom they can make a good buck, telling Westerners of his cultural hero position simply by putting him on a teeshirt and sitting him on the rack next to Bruce Lee.