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A Heritage Loses its Bearings


110,000 RMB | Image: Ophelia Chong

The Chinese invented paper, wood block printing, gunpowder, the compass, and, one of my favorites, the noodle. I could go on all day about how amazing we Chinese are at inventing things. We love making things all day. We love sticking needles into people and seeing what muscle we can make contract on the other side of the body, throwing leaves into hot water to make tea, and eating with sticks.

Now if you ask what the Chinese are most famous for, you would hear "they are great counterfeiters". I can attest to this. During my yearly treks back to China, when I shopped at the tourist mall, I would see Prada, Michael Kors, Chanel and Tod's bags in colors the designers never even thought of. The most easy to copy are jeans, True Religion and any brand that is the must buy of the season are laid out in piles in the stalls. Ralph Lauren polo shirts are ubiquitous, as well as GAP khakis; it almost seems that the most popular style of clothing for male tourists are soft and stretchy. In the jewelry floor there would be trays of fake Tiffany charms and Franck Muller watches with florescent watch bands.

During one trip to Shanghai, I went to the largest drugstore in the city, the Shanghai No.1 Pharmacy. It was three floors of herbal medicine and pharmaceuticals. One counter caught my eye and as I looked closer I could see that they were selling chemotherapy medication. Over on the other counter I found depression and anti-psychotic medications. All could be had by asking the clerk. My friend who was with me, an expat of the U.S., told me that some of these medications could be fake. She buys all her over the counter medications during her visits back home in the states. It's even sketchier off the main streets and in the smaller drugstores. It's a roll of the dice if you are getting the real or the fake as spotting real medication is harder to spot than a handbag. And far more dangerous. One investigation found 22 out of 32 drugstores in Nanjing were selling counterfeit drugs. The investigator Gao Jingde was a victim himself of fake liver medicine (and he was a senior employee at a Shanghai pharmaceutical firm before becoming an investigator).

From July 2007 to August 2008, the company Sanhu Group sold tainted baby formula contaminated with melamine an industrial plastic, making over 300,000 babies ill. Poisoning babies for profit brought the death sentence for two of the perpetrators and a life sentence for chairwoman of Sanhu.

Today in the news, Kil Jun Lee was charged with smuggling 8,993 counterfeit Cialis pills, 29,827 Viagra tablets and 793 counterfeit Levitra tablets. Mr. Lee was returning from a trip to South Korea. In the news article it does not say where the fake pills came from. Last December a ring in Houston was broken up, the Viagra and Cialis came from China.
Is it really worth it to trust a medication bought under the counter that could adversely affect you? Are men that willing to roll the dice for a deal?

As a person who is very proud of her Chinese heritage, I am distressed at how the same people who invented the compass could loose their bearings over greed. As a frequent shopper in Chinatown and Monterey Park, I avoid any canned or jarred goods from China. I have no idea what's in it. Even the honey is suspect. Due to an epidemic in China with the honey bees, the local beekeepers used an antibiotic that is banned by the U.S. FDA. And is the honey even real honey? Or a mixture of corn syrup, sugar water and malt? Are we willing to make trade authenticity and our health for a few dollars?

I am disappointed and disheartened by the greed over safety, the dearth of innovation and the lack of pride we once had in our products. The future is just a step behind and one fake away from irrelevance.

Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog

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