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July 3, 2004

In Defense of Piracy


by Sascha Matuszak

Come payday a crew of us head toward Chengdu's Computer City and stroll past a riot of electronics and dance groups touting their goods to techno beats. Underemployed and bored locals gather with migrant workers and stare at the computers and dancers.

We continue on and enter an older building with a rickety elevator. A guard eyes us and the three young Chinese men waiting patiently. We decide to turn the corner and head for a rotting wooden door under the stairs techno from above thumps and vibrates the door.

Knock knock on the door.

"Who is it?"

"It's a bunch of laowai here to pay the pirates a visit."

The door opens and we enter a 50 sq. m (538 sq. ft.) room with stacks of DVDs to the ceiling and a quiet crew of young Chinese flipping through the new releases, the music videos, the collections of sitcoms, the Asian films DVD 5s cost 6 to 7RMB, DVD 9s as much as 14RMB. We spend 200RMB a piece and head back home with black plastic bags full of evening escape from daily life.

Among the hundreds of DVDs we have bought over the years are Chinese classics like The Devils are Coming, Back to Back, Face to Face, Iron Monkey and A Chinese Ghost Story as well as newer hits like Chongqing Express, Cell Phone, The Emperor and the Assassin and The Story of Qiu Ju.

The real prizes are ancient Spaghetti westerns (A Man Alone), Asian artistic blasts (Public Toilet, Taboo), various European films with various film festival awards and the occasional Hollywood movie of note (Butterfly Effect). One can find every horror movie ever made within this small room, and if it isn't there now, just say the word and they'll raise the Jolly Roger and commandeer you your film.

Somewhat complete seasons of the Sopranos, Friends, Sex and the City, 24 Hours and X-Files are on the shelves for 30 to 100RMB depending on your haggling skills. The Bond Collection goes for a little more than 200RMB. All the Aliens. All the Rambos.

Head out to your nearest Blockbuster and try and find this kind of selection. We have been going to the same little room for two years now and we have now amassed a collection of candy, comedy, horror, drama and crazy animation films that rivals a whole chain of midwest Blockbusters. For 1/10 the price. There are hundreds of little rooms in a four-block radius.

You like porn? Just take a walk down Consulate road and browse the sidewalk vendors, glowing eyes and rubbing hands as they flip cover after cover in and out of your hands.

Chinese pirates are indiscriminate. If there be a ship with booty, it gets looted and booty is dumped out onto the streets for rats like us to gobble up. It's a business and the Chinese realize that the wider the selection, the broader the clientele, the heavier the pockets. For the consumer and collector, it's paradise. Rare and hard to find selections that require road trips to secret societies in the U.S. are just a bus ride away in Chengdu, deep in the Chinese hinterland.

The day Matrix Revolutions came out in the theaters in the U.S., my little room had 100 copies on display. But a seasoned booty hunter knows the pirates can't get their hands on a good copy until at least a month after the movie has been playing in the theaters in the West.

A Lazy Eye

Guards in light blue with oversized trousers and Liberation shoes patrol Computer City and watch for pirates and booty hunters. We call them smurfs. The pirates themselves slink out from the shadows and furtively drop WindowsXP wrapped in newspaper in your hand and then greedily snatch your 5 to 10RMB. Then they disappear. Strange, when just a level below rows and rows of pirated software and games lie gathering dust. Norton's latest goes for 200RMB.

Computer City has been raided a few times in the past few years. Last year the complex even closed down for a month or two and everybody nodded and smoked proclaiming the power of the state and the end of artistic freedom and unfettered economic gain.

But like the campaigns against unlicensed rickshaw drivers, prostitutes and drug dealers, the crackdown lasts a month and then things return to normal. The end of the crackdown usually coincides with a massive traffic jam as everybody is held up while some high level Communist Party official heads for the airport.

The difference is drug dealers get shot, everybody else gets fined.

The only mildly successful anti-piracy operation may be Microsoft's tricky program writing for WindowsXP. After buying the software, the user is continuously bugged to "update" this or that which requires contacting the Microsoft SuperComputer. A pirated copy contacts Microsoft, which in turn tells the pirated copy to cripple itself, but remain more or less operational, so sales don't slide ridiculously leaving room for a competitor. The confused user must reboot his computer every three months for the next year until he/she finally buys a new copy, convinced that the old copy is bugged. Really frustrated users take their computers in for a check up, scratching their heads as the prognosis turns out to be "healthy."

The Great Library

Ancient Alexandria demanded all ships unload their cargo and hand over all manuscripts, which were then diligently copied, catalogued and returned a short time later. Any historian worth his weight in parchment headed for this Great Library for research and tea and crackers with fellow intellectuals. A small side operation developed in the city for those scholars "unworthy" of mention or without the credentials to actually enter the hallowed halls of the library. Not only were the contents of the library reproduced and disseminated, but alternate views, commentaries and critiques flowered as well. The Great Library officials flip-flopped between periodic crackdowns, tacit approval and for those wise court scholars with vision, cooperation and consultation. It all went up in flames, eventually.

But that does not necessarily need to be the case with the rebel library of pirated music and movies that is developing throughout Asia. A movie buff in the U.S. would be astounded by the volumes of volumes to be found in your everyday People's Pirate Ship Shop. Films that are relegated to the indie circuit in the U.S., where cash rules and the small guy takes the hit. In China, the movie industry is still in its infancy, in terms of content control and distribution power. Movies and music that are supposed to be banned in China can be found on a street corner near you.

For those with political aims, the pirates help bring a new culture into transitory China, influencing the youth and helping to make the world Western?

For those with cultural aspirations, Asia represents the rebel library of ideas and art that flourished alongside the Great Library in Alexandria. Espresso-sipping Minneapolitans yapping about film should make the Asian film bazaar a destination whether it's on the streets of New York, San Francisco, Shanghai or Chengdu.

For those with economic ambitions, come visit a pirate den and hire out the sneaky computer hacks and theatre plunderers. Queen Elizabeth did it once, and look what it got her!

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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