There’s More to That’s

In the Hutong
Looking up “Lactose Intolerance”
1537 hrs.

That’s Beijing, and its sister publications under the China Intercontinental Press marque, are the functional if not ideological successors of the departed-but-not-forgotten Beijing Scene, an underground periodical that was the lifeline for the dispersed and disconnected expatriates of the capital in the days before Internet, Jenny Lou’s, Starbucks, and cheap mobile phones.

Beijing Scene was written with an edgy, dry wit by people like Jeremy Goldkorn (later founder and lingdaoof Danwei.org,) Ada Shen (now a film producer here in Beijing) and Steven Schwankert (IDG Asia editor, SCUBA poo-bah, Explorer’s Club member and Village Grouch.) Whereas That’s, for much of its history, has been written and edited indifferently, almost as if the articles were meant as a token gesture to the pretense that the publications was actually something more than a repository for advertisements.

I’m not quite sure how, but that’s all started to change in the last year or so. I am not quite ready to pronounce That’s as the true heir of Beijing Scene’s legacy, nor name it the Village Voice of China. But I’m starting to see signs that more time, care, and attention is going into the editorial side of the business.

Unsurprisingly, that’s a talent thing.

Sticking rocker-cum-scribe-cum-digimarketing guru Kaiser Kuo on the back page with his Ich Bin Ein Beijinger column was initially a bit of a risk, but Kaiser has found his voice, and his occasional romps into styles and themes that seems to have him jamming with the laptop keyboard the same way he would with an electric guitar means that the book always finishes with an edge. Imagethief Will Moss, who occasionally subs for Kaiser, should have his own column, and we should probably encourage that when Will returns to Beijing from his Shanghai soujourn later this month.

I first came across senior writer Alex Pasternack when I had temporarily convinced myself that there was a lack of locally-savvy international environmental reporting in China. I started to plan what I could do with an opportunity like that. Then I ran across one of Alex’ articles on TreeHugger. And I got mad. And the more of his articles I read, the more pissed off I got. Because the guy is good. After I got over the fact that I had been beaten to the punch, I started to enjoy his writing style, especially how fast, easy, and fun his stuff reads.

Ed Lanfranco, though a journalist by profession (UPI should count itself lucky), is an amateur historian who put many professionals to shame, and his focus is Beijing. His stuff makes excellent reading, and it’s inThat’s. Besides, anyone who would say that if he were emperor his first act would be to abolish the second tone cannot help but write engaging stuff.

The occasional contributors are also getting really good. Amanda Weiss, in the current edition of That’s, does an interview with award-winning director Li Yu that is both engaging and includes a quote that is going into my hall of fame:

“When asked how she feels about being labeled a ‘feminist director,’ Li bursts into laughter. She shakes her head, amused. ‘If I were constantly crying out about feminism, it would be like I defined myself as a powerless, disenfranchised person. But I feel that just naturally existing is fine.'”

I could go on, but you get the point. There are the nascent signs of greatness in That’s, and it will be worth watching where Mike Wester and his team decide to take the publication.