On Friday afternoon, the Lakers will take to the air en route to China for the first time ever as a team.
In addition to two preseason games against Golden State first in Beijing and then in Shanghai, the Lakers will have the chance to see The Great Wall, Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City, the pearl and silk markets and more in the Far East.
To get a better understanding of what to expect on the trip, we enlisted the expertise of the team's head physical therapist, Dr. Judy Seto, who has traveled to China several times.
Below is a transcript of our conversation:
MT: So Judy, how many times have you been to China? And can you describe your heritage with the country?
Seto: I've been to China three times in work-related fashion, and this will be the fourth. I went for the 2008 Olympics with Kobe (Bryant) and Team USA, and twice with Kobe during his Nike sponsored trips, including this summer. I've also gone several times to visit relatives and travel with family. In fact, my parents were born in China, so it was great to be able to go see where they came from. My dad grew up in a town called Hoyping, which is how it is pronounced in the Cantonese version, the Chinese dialect that I speak. My family is from Southern China, and thus spoke Cantonese at home. My mother was also born in a city in the Southern part of China called Gaogong. Hoyping is one of the smaller suburbs in Guangdong Province. Further north and east from Guangdong in central China is Shanghai, where we'll be going after Beijing, which is in northern China.
MT: How is Cantonese different from the national dialect?
Seto: Mandarin is the national dialect and is what's taught in the (Chinese) schools. Furthermore, Mandarin is now being offered in schools in the United States as a second language; as a result, it's becoming more universally used. But many regional areas have different dialects. Some are so different from one another that someone who speaks Cantonese can't understand someone who speaks purely Mandarin because they're pronounced so differently. So the language is written the same, but pronounced differently.
MT: To reiterate: if you speak Cantonese only, and I speak Mandarin only, we can't understand each other by speaking, but we could write back and forth?
Seto: That's correct. It's that different.
MT: Very generally, how would you describe China?
Seto: Modern day China is one of the largest growing - if not the largest growing - economies in the world, and a growing, major player in the business world. My recollection is that there are about 1.4 billion people. Mandarin is now being offered in schools as a second language, as a result, as it's becoming more universally used. It may be wise to have Mandarin as a second language if you're ever going to be dealing with Asia, especially China, where the NBA continues to grow its relationship. And also, every time I go back to China, things change and advance more and more. The progress has been remarkable.
MT: What do you think it means to the people of China to have the Lakers, and especially Kobe, come to them?
Seto: In some of the places in China we've gone, people say, 'I've waited a lifetime for them to come. To have the Lakers finally be here in my country, in my city, is almost like a dream come true.' To have something that you've been following from afar for such a long time in your backyard is truly unique and special. Traveling with Kobe, where he tries to visit as many cities as he can when he's there, you get that impression in every city. Many people in China are willing to wait such a long time just to get a glimpse of him. Not to talk to him, or shake his hand, just to see him. Like, 'He's coming to my town, I just want to be there for this event because I don't know if it will ever come again.' I've seen so many passionate basketball fans there. It's amazing to me how many people actually come out; there were 15,000 people waiting for Kobe in a small town outside of Hong Kong this summer during our trip. It's just phenomenal.
Basketball does have a strong heritage in China. My parents actually both played basketball growing up. My aunt, who was living in Hong Kong* and came to visit during the peak Lakers–Celtics rivalry in the 1980's, when a random NBA game was on, perhaps the Knicks against someone. She asked, "What team is that? … How many teams are there? I thought there were only two teams in the NBA. They only show the Lakers and Celtics games in Hong Kong!" They were so popular and exciting, so that's really when it started. Yao Ming coming over to the NBA certainly put more focus on the NBA, but basketball's been popular for a long time in China.
*Hong Kong was under British rule from the end of World War II until 1997, when China resumed sovereignty over the city, though Hong Kong has a different political system than mainland China. Dr. Seto said she was not sure if NBA games were shown in China in the 1980's, as they were in Hong Kong.
MT: How much have things changed since you first traveled to China?
Seto: The first time I flew over was in 1980, and to get to my dad's village, we had to go by bus, then by cab, then by boat, and then the road stopped. It became a dirt road, and my cousins were waiting for me and my aunt on bicycles. My cousin had me shine a light over his shoulder to be able to see the road. Now, it's just about an hour's drive, directly. Things have completely changed, with massive cities springing up everywhere. Back then, one thing that was interesting in certain cities is that everything was just dark at night. People didn't go out. There's nothing to do, with all the shops closed. It was a long time ago, but they even had a different system of money for foreigners and locals. You could only go into certain shops as a foreigner, and use one type of money.
MT: What can we expect from Beijing and Shanghai specifically?
Seto: Shanghai is a sprawling, massive city*. Lots of people, hustling and bustling all of the time. Shanghai is known as the New York City of China; it's also the fashion capital of China – known as the Paris of the East – with any kind of shopping you want. In Beijing there is a lot of cultural heritage, with the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square, as the historic and current capital of the country. *The Great Wall is over an hour's ride from Beijing. Beijing is so far away from my dad's village – perhaps like Los Angeles to New York, but it wasn't viable to travel in between either financially or logistically – that it was remarkable to be able to travel there with my parents, who never thought they'd be able to go. People understand how significant the Great Wall is, probably, if not the Forbidden City – which is where the Emperors lived for almost 500 years, and outsiders were not allowed to enter. There were layers and layers of hierarchy so that the further out you were, the more removed from the goings on of the government. You can look for figurines on the corners of rooftops, and the more figurines there are, the more important the building and thus the people are.
MT: What should we make sure to eat in each city?
Seto: In Beijing, one of the big things to get is the Peking duck. Beijing is famous for it. In Shanghai, you have to get the dumplings.
MT: Several of the players and coaches are already discussing how easy it is to get a nice suit at a low cost … we need details!
Seto: There are a lot of different places to get suits, and the tailors will come right to you. There are different qualities, as you sometimes get what you pay for. Marcus Landry played in China, and said he knows where to go, and where to get a nice suit made and returned in 24 hours for $100. And shirts are about $25 per shirt if you buy in bulk. If you have a favorite cut or how something fits, bring it, because they can match the design or cut that you show them.
*Shanghai is the world's largest city by population, with approximately 23.7 million people, and 17.8 million people in the city proper (not including suburbs or surrounding area).
MT: Finally, can you give us an idea of what it's like to be around Bryant in particular in China?
Seto: It's fanatical. Pandemonium. The fans are absolutely exuberant, with the best of intentions. Of course, they do really want to get close to him, so it's not always the safest thing. I had to watch out for that this summer, because I didn't want to have to go back to L.A. and explain to (Lakers GM) Mitch Kupchak that Kobe got hurt on my watch by getting caught up in the horde. And this summer, Kobe couldn't run. You can't be in a situation where you have to run, so you have to control the situation. Now, he can do some running, because he's been running, so it's not as much of a concern. People simply do want to get close to him, and I can understand that. One of the funny things is that the trips I've been on with him – they think I'm a local fan, so I get pulled out of his group by local security, and I have to show my badge. There may be eight people in our group, so now they put me in the middle to make sure I don't get lost in the crowd.