Jack Black visits Atlanta zoo to name ‘Kung Fu Panda’ cub

Actor Jack Black visits with Po, the giant panda cub at Zoo Atlanta.The only giant panda cub born in the United States last year got a name this morning. And his name is Po.

In a bit of cuddly promotional goodness, actor Jack Black, who voices the character Po in the “Kung Fu Panda” movies, was on hand this morning at the little guy’s naming ceremony at Zoo Atlanta.

And the whole thing was sponsored by Dreamworks Animation. Who would have guessed it?

Raymond King, president and CEO of the Atlanta zoo, says Black “has already helped to bring the importance of saving this species to a new generation of conservationists.”

Zoo Atlanta says Dreamworks is partnering with it to help panda conservation programs at the Chengdu Research Base and other panda reserves in China.

No details on Dreamworks’ donation have been released. But the zoo wants you to know that “Kung Fu Panda 2,” also starring Jack Black, opens May 26, 2011, on movie screens around the U.S.

You can get a live look at Po on Zoo Atlanta’s Panda Cam.

Smurfs theme park to be built in China

Papa Smurf and his band of blue men (and one sexy Smurfette) are headed to China.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that a $2.9 million Smurfs theme park is set to open in three to five years in Chengdu.

Chengdu is best known for its pandas, but there’s a movement there to smurf up the tourism numbers, and this new theme park is part of the plan.

The Smurfs were dreamed up in 1958 by Belgian cartoonist Peyo. At the height of their popularity in the 1980s, the Smurf€s pulled in 42 percent of Saturday morning cartoon audiences in the United States.

But then they smurfed out of view in most of the world. A Smurfs theme park in France struggled to survive during the 1990s, and while the park is still there today, the Smurfs are not.

The WSJ says since their 50th anniversary in 2008, the Smurfs seem to be making a comeback. There are new Smurf toys on store shelves and the classic series has been released on DVD. A live-action/animation hybrid Smurfs movie starring Neil Patrick Harris and Katy Perry is set to be released in 2011.

Once in a lifetime: How to track pandas in the wild

What you see in the shot here is a panda turd. And not just any panda turd, it’s a fresh panda turd. (Don’t worry. They smell like fresh bamboo.)

If you want the chance to find your own panda turds, there’s perhaps no better place than to trek to Wanglang Panda Reserve. That’s what I did last March, where I stopped as part of a big story for Science about the booming panda population. Unfortunately, the story is behind a subscription firewall, so here’s a shorter one I wrote about my trip for The Scientist.

Wanglang Panda Reserve can’t match its more famous big brothers, such as Wolong Panda Reserve, which NBC Nightly News, Animal Planet, etc love to cover. But that’s a great thing for you. Wanglang is very peaceful–chances are you’ll have the whole place to yourself. Their eco-tourism only recently kicked off, and even then, they rarely if ever receive any travelers from outside China.

To arrange your tour, you can try contacting the park directly, though I don’t believe any of the rangers or staffers speak English. Or you can go on one of the arranged tours, which will be more expensive of course. But it’s definitely an adventure to brag about once you get back. Worth every dollar!

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Suzhou Bookworm now open for business

Back in July I took a daytrip to Suzhou, China (about 40 minutes by train outside of Shanghai) and visited the future site of The Bookworm’s latest English-language library cafe location. Owner Peter Goff took me on a tour of the construction site, which you can see here (scroll down to the photos at the bottom of the post.)

I was happy to learn this week that the transformation is complete and the new Suzhou Bookworm is now open for business. The photos really wowed me. After walking through demolition rubble and dust, it was cool to see the finished project looking so fab — the two-story bookstore cafe appears almost to be floating along one of the canals that Suzhou is famous for.

A few days ago, Peter checked in with an update on how things are going: “We had our first booktalk last night..historical fiction writer Adam Williams doing his stuff. It was great. About 30 people turned up to listen and buy books so not a bad start.” They had another event today, award-winning Canadian children’s writer Marie-Louise Gay.

This opening is another great score for booklovers in China. Be sure to visit a Bookworm location (the others are in Beijing and Chengdu) when your itinerary brings you through any of these cities.

Chinese Buffet – Part 9: The Bookworm Grows in China

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Before I depart on any trip, I always do some research on bookstores in the cities I’ll be visiting. (My own personal Bookstore Tourism planning, of course!) As I researched the bookstore situation in China, I learned about the large state owned operations and at least one English-language chain. But one of the most interesting places I read about was this lime green literary hub, which sits pretty atop a water pumping station in Beijing’s popular Sanlitun neighborhood:

Primarily a cafe, The Bookworm is cushioned by shelves of books and supported by a growing membership and impressive events schedule. It’s a unique community library, cultural center and gathering place for both locals and travelers that opened in Beijing in 2004 and is now expanding throughout China.

I visited The Bookworm on an event night in early July, arriving several hours before the scheduled speaker, so I could enjoy the atmosphere, grab some dinner and chat with Bookworm founder Alexandra Pearson.

The first of the Bookworm’s three spacious rooms has the most social atmosphere, houses the bar, and is one of the cafe’s two smoking rooms. This is where most folks seem to hang out and chat or check email on The Bookworm’s free wifi:

Directly behind the bar area is a cozier room with lounges and a few tables. This is where members can check out books from the lending library, and also purchase select nonfiction titles that The Bookworm keeps in stock. There are cards and jewelry for sale as well:

The third room is the non-smoking room, and home to The Bookworm’s fiction collection. During the two times that I sat and worked on my laptop in this room, I observed a variety of folks browsing the shelves, meeting over coffee or dining with family and friends. The menu serves up typical Western fare with academic names like Plato and Pythagoras. The motto says it all – folks come to The Bookworm to Eat, Drink and Read:

The Bookworm operates to serve the local English-speaking population – expats and Chinese locals too, looking to improve their English language skills. Foreign travelers increasingly seek it out as well — a comfortable haven that may provide a “homesick fix”. It can be a peaceful place to relax in the afternoon, or a chill spot to party in the evening.

In the Bookworm’s back room I met Benjamin Tang, a Taiwanese-American based in Houston, TX, who has been traveling to China since 1990. Ben explained to me that when he visits China, it is usually for several weeks at a time, and what frustrates him sometimes is the lack of being able to obtain information from the “outside world”:

“After traveling in China for a couple of weeks, I somehow feel disconnected from the rest of the world. Going to the Bookworm has always helped me fill that void. The liberation of the mind is a wonderful feeling.”

The series of literary and cultural events that The Bookworm organizes throughout the year is exactly what draws Ben and so many others to visit again and again. As it approached event time, the fiction room transformed into a sea of curious faces, and by the time things began at 7:30 pm, there were about 120 people in attendance. They had all come to hear Dr. Kerry Brown talk about his new book, Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century.

The Bookworm hosts author events like this on a weekly basis, and also runs children’s programs and monthly musical events — the bar area is home to a piano too. Owner Alexandra Pearson originally came to China when her parents moved to work at the British Embassy. She left, then returned to China in the early 1990’s to study at The Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Several years later, she had a business venture for which she purchased a collection of books. When ownership changed hands, Alexandra lost the books, but a few years later was able to buy them back. Those 2,000 books formed the foundation of The Bookworm.

The majority of books that make up The Bookworm’s collection – now 20,000 strong – have come from donations. Because foreign-language books are so expensive to purchase in China, Alexandra envisioned The Bookworm as a place for exchange — of books and literary ideas. The collection, while large, is far from comprehensive (by library standards) — but the real value lies in the community and cultural discussion that the Bookworm environment fosters.

And recently the Bookworm has branched out to offer that same community atmosphere to other Chinese cities. After the Beijing location was up and running successfully, there was talk of taking the concept elsewhere. Alex teamed up with partner Peter Goff to open a second library cafe branch in Chengdu in 2006.

And the momentum continues. While traveling in China, I had a chance to meet Peter and visit the future home of Bookworm #3, positioned along one of the canals of Suzhou, a popular “water town” about 40 minutes by train from Shanghai. In mid-July, the demolition and gutting process was well underway:

A former journalist in Hong Kong, Peter eventually moved to mainland China and was a Beijing Bookworm patron first, before teaming up with his friend Alexandra. He manages the logistics of start-up and expansion outside of Beijing, while she focuses on the book collection and event content for all three locations.

As Peter explained, there is obviously a much smaller expat market outside of Beijing, but he and Alexandra still saw great value in taking The Bookworm brand elsewhere. They see the opportunity to appeal to a larger Chinese market, which means offering a greater portion of events in Chinese at these smaller locations. The English speaking population is just not large enough at the moment, so while all the books on the shelves are in English, certain programs offered in Chengdu and Suzhou will be run in Chinese. The Suzhou branch is scheduled to open sometime in mid to late September 2007:

Beginning this fall, Alexandra Pearson will be booking authors to do mini-tours of all three library locations. The Bookworm branches will also work together on their annual Literary Festival, which will take place in March 2008.

News of a growing Bookworm network is fantastic for English-language readers living in China, but it’s just as great for lit-minded travelers too. Each store has an email newsletter, so sign up if you’ll be traveling to China — it’s an easy way to keep informed about events that may be happening during your trip. Visiting a Bookworm is sure to be an excellent way to connect with locals and other travelers too. And, if you’ve got extra books in your backpack that you’re looking to unload, now you know where to donate them!