Monday, December 31, 2007

The Superpower Debate

The media keeps hyping China up as the next superpower.

Of course it all depends on what your definition of superpower is.

If you look at China in terms of its economic strength, then it is, with its hundreds of trillions of US treasury bills. But if you're looking towards it as a country that will lead the world in politics, economics, society and military, then the Middle Kingdom falls short -- way short.

China is the world's factory. It manufactures practically everything from clothing and toys to computers and cars.

Its millions of people are employed in hundreds of thousands of factories, producing these goods, day after day.

These people are not asked for their input in the production process, or if they have suggestions on how to improve on the product. They are just told to make them as fast as they can so they can be paid per piece.

Management in China is very much top-down. Bosses bark orders down to their underlings who execute them. In many state-run companies, completing tasks at a high standard is not put into consideration -- staff only care about finishing their assignment rather than doing it well.

And bosses feel entitled to bark orders because of their titles and also because their salaries are so many more times than those of their staff. And by the same token, these underlings don't make enough every month to care too much; they just want to get the job done so that they can get their measly salary to survive.

There isn't much chance of those at the bottom to rise higher in salary or position, so these underlings are resigned to their fate and have little motivation for self-improvement, or acquire more knowledge or skills to get a better job.

At the management level, executives are battling each other for supremacy in office politics. They keep information to themselves, which results in little cooperation and creative thinking. Most of the time companies are stagnant or don't demonstrate much progress unless the big boss orders something to be done.

And every boss has a boss above them. No one ever knows who the big cheese really is.

In the 17th National Party Congress this October, President Hu Jintao said he wants China to move ahead -- through innovation.

Hu is thinking in the right direction, but getting 1.3 billion people on the same page will be a challenge to say the least.

Currently there are more and more young people graduating from university. This is great, but there aren't enough jobs for educated people.

Companies need to innovate, think outside the box. But when most of them are run with top-down management, success completely depends on the boss rather than the minds of many.

Also, the education system is such that students are spoon-fed information so the only way to get through with flying colours is to memorize rather than question. Pupils are not encouraged to think critically, to wonder or have different ideas.

Even the lucky some who have studied abroad don't seem to have picked up much Western thinking, like freedom of speech, free press or healthy criticism. They just learn what they were sent there for and come back. Even their English is hardly better than someone who has never left the country.

These observations bring on a conclusion that China is far from reaching the possibility of becoming a superpower anytime soon. If and when the country opens up more and encourages its people to think beyond the box will China develop and follow the path of Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

For now it will grab as much money as it can, supplying goods for the rest of the world.

Perhaps China thinks money will help it sort out its problems. But it will soon learn that money doesn't buy happiness.

Another 10 Years


Hong Kong residents didn't get the answer they were looking for.

Beijing finally gave a ruling, albeit a vague one, saying the former British colony would finally be able to directly elect their leader in 2017, and legislators in 2020.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang was very pleased to get the news, while the pro-democracy camp was very disappointed.

Both Tsang and President Hu Jintao plan to leave office in 2012 and the following year respectively, so they won't have to deal with this issue closer to the time.

Meanwhile Hong Kongers took to the streets to demonstrate their frustration.

The year 2017 was chosen to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China, but the people aren't keen to wait that long.

Since 2003 when SARS hit, Hong Kong people have become more community minded and politically active, setting a precedent when hundreds of thousands of them took to the streets to show their displeasure of then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

They believe they are ready to take more responsibility of their city, while Beijing begs to differ.

As the mainland hasn't clearly set out how universal suffrage would be implemented in the Special Administrative Region, 2017 isn't set in stone either.

Which means the fight for democracy still continues.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Resolutions for August 2008

The eight month countdown to the Olympics is literally around the corner.

Twenty-six of the 31 venues are completed and many of them have undergone testing.

The new subway Line 5 is up and running, and more lines are madly tunneling their way under the city.

Finishing touches are being added to Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital Airport, ready to receive tens of thousands of visitors a day.

Progress of the hardware is practically ahead of schedule.

But what about the software?

Officials are really concerned that the Chinese still aren't getting the message that they should really curb their desire to spit.

"Hosting the Olympics is not only about building grand stadiums," said Zheng Mojie, deputy director of Beijing's Capital Ethics Development Office, the official etiquette watchdog.

"As tens of thousands of foreign visitors are expected to flood into China next summer, both China's positive and negative sides will be amplified. So we must change those bad local habits," she added.

One civil servant named Wang Tao has taken it upon himself to wage a campaign by recruiting a team of volunteers who call themselves the Green Woodpecker Project. He chose this bird because he says it picks up worms and cleans up the forest.

Wang's team literally hit the streets and as soon as they see someone about to hork, they stop them and hand them a tissue. Wang even films them on his camcorder as evidence of their bad behaviour and apparently puts the clips on his website.

However it's going to take longer than months to fix the problem.

The concept of spitting is ingrained in the culture and hey -- if paramount leader Deng Xiaoping did it, why can't I?

Many believe if there is an irritation or too much phlegm in their throats, the best thing to do is to spit it out.

But I don't know when the practice of just spitting on the streets began.

No one bats an eyelid when they hear that screeching noise and no one makes a face; spitting is a memorable addition to the city's atmosphere.

It probably won't be until the "floods" of visitors come to Beijing and look with shock and horror will the residents perhaps consider what they are doing is not quite polite.

In the meantime city officials are stepping up their campaigns to stop the spitting as well as enforcing the idea of lining up properly.

The 11th day of every month is designated "Queuing Day". With some imagination, the number 11 looks like a pair of orderly lines.

But one day a month isn't enough to instill this culture in the people. I've had to fight tooth and nail to get into a 614 bus at Dongzhimen. If you don't stick out your elbows and force your way in, you'll never get on, let alone get a seat.

Again, there aren't enough officials to enforce this or to catch people spitting to fine them 50RMB (US$6.50).

People are just going to continue these practices before and after the Games.

During the Olympics they'll probably be hidden away at home, so the foreigners can't see them.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

China's Copy Cats

The Chinese have their own versions of almost every main Internet site outside of the country.

Instead of Google, they have Baidu.

Instead of Google or Yahoo news, they have Sina.com.

They also have their own social networking sites like xiaonei.com.

Want to sell something on a site like eBay? Go to taobao.com.

Foreign firms have a hard time penetrating the Chinese market. And when they finally get their paperwork approved, like Facebook did recently, do they find out they got in too late and now they're stuck with using their name more as a marketing tool than having registered users.

And another reason is that these copy cat sites are launched and established so quickly so that foreign-owned sites don't even get a chance to get in first so that they can build up their users. That way when sites like youtube.com.cn finally get in, it's not a novelty anymore.

But another possible explanation is that it's a way for the Chinese government to keep its people living in a cyber bubble. As long as there are google-like sites like baidu and social networking ones like xiaonei that are in Chinese, the public will think it's fantastic and use them.

It prevents the people from looking elsewhere to consume news or place their lip-synched videos on sites outside of China, where they could possibly get new ideas...

Overdosing on Fresh Air


There's a report that on Thursday Beijing had the worst air quality it's had all year.

According to the Beijing Environmental Protection bureau, 15 of the 16 pollution monitoring systems registered a "five" for air quality.

"Level five is the worst level of air pollution," said a spokeswoman. "This is as bad as it has been all year."

The elderly and children were warned not to go outside on Friday as pollutants from coal burning and vehicle exhaust were suspended in the air. In the last few days there hasn't been much wind in Beijing so the accumulation has led to people breathing in thick smoggy air.

This report comes despite the government promising air quality will improve by the time the Olympics roll around in August.

But international agencies like the United Nations and the World Bank rate Beijing's air quality as one of the worst in the world due to coal burning, sand storms and the increasing number of cars on the road.

The government plans to stop all construction and factories in the spring so that the air will clear by the times the Games begin.

But it's not that simple. The capital doesn't get regular rainfall or wind gusts like coastal areas to guarantee the air will be cleaner in over eight months.

It takes more than just weeks and months to decrease the number of pollutants in the air. It's more a long term thing. Or perhaps the government's band aid solution is to launch its rockets to trigger clouds to sprinkle rain over the city.

My friends here at home ask me about the pollution and I tell them it's frightening. "What do you do? they ask. "There's nothing much you can do except breathe it in!" I reply.

What's even more frightening is that the government is not measuring the smaller pollutants in the air, the microscopic ones that can cause cancer and other chronic respiratory diseases.

Which is why now I'm back home, I'm breathing in a bit deeper everyday... hopefully cleaning out my lungs and getting rid of toxins before inhaling the thick smog again.

While China is a land of opportunity and potential, the pollution is enough to make you think twice about going.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

China's Take on Pakistan

For some, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto came as a shock; for others it was not a surprise.

The former prime minister of Pakistan was rallying crowds for the upcoming January 8 election when she was shot by a gunman and she died in hospital.

The 54-year-old probably knew the risks she was taking when she returned to the country only two months ago after a self-imposed exile. But she wanted to offer another choice to Pakistanis -- other than military man-turned civilian leader President Pervez Musharraf.

News reports from there are predicting Pakistan will descend into chaos, with riots already erupting in the streets.

But China's English-language newspaper is quoting Chinese experts who believe otherwise:

The experts, however, said Pakistan is not likely to plunge into chaos because Musharraf still enjoys strong support at home, especially from the military, and abroad.
But according to foreign correspondents, many are pointing fingers at al-Qaida for her death, and some blame Musharraf for not giving Bhutto enough protection. Military support will only lead to more bloodshed, and not necessarily calm.

The experts here may be vaguely referring to China when talking about strong support from abroad. But as China claims it doesn't meddle in other country's internal affairs, how will that help Musharraf make Pakistan stable?

The article also quotes Sun Shihai, an expert on South Asian studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who adds, "I think the general election will be held on schedule."

However, many news agencies are quoting people within Pakistan who believe the chances of postponing the January 8 election are very high, as well as the possibility of Musharraf calling a state of emergency.

From the China Daily story, one can figure out which side of the fence China is sitting on.

And not everyone is on that side.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A New Appreciation for the Game

Whenever there's a table tennis tournament broadcast on TV, my colleague turns on the one above her desk and stares at the screen.

The players dance back and forth behind their respective ends of the table, at times gently hitting the ball on angle so it lands in corners, or smashing it leaving their opponents no chance to defend themselves.

China used to dominate in this sport for a long time. But this year, it's losing its grip as the champ of table tennis. Some of its top players lost a few key tournaments, giving other teams the hope of chipping away at China's armour, while Chinese fans question their team's performance for next year.

While the Chinese paddlers are trying to keep cool about public opinion, I never really had an appreciation for the game until last night.

We went to my parents' friends' house for Christmas dinner last night. And after gorging on the endless array of food from sushi to turkey, curry and jello pudding, I tried playing some table tennis in the basement.

They bought a table that was recently used in a local tournament, and also a machine that lobs balls for practice, similar to a tennis ball machine. If you hit the ball correctly, it hits a protective net on the other end and falls back into the bucket to be lobbed again.

I didn't have too much difficulty hitting the ball, but hitting it back into the other court was hard, as I hit it out most of the time.

I tried a few slices, but my backhand wasn't too hot, and missed the balls completely. My forehand was fine, except they still would have been easy shots to slam back at me if I actually played against someone.

It was a pretty good workout, as the balls kept coming, fast and furious, at different speeds and angles.

And it definitely gave me a new appreciation for the game. Those players make it look so easy...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Spotting the Income Gap

The Chinese are complaining more and more about the income gap.

It's the usual story -- the rich are getting richer, the poor getting poorer.

And the gap between them is so extreme, it's almost exponential.

It's not too difficult to distinguish who is wealthy and who isn't by what they're wearing. Usually you can separate them by the shoes and handbags for women; the colour of socks and shoes for men.

But the divide seems even more stark in the winter.

Plebians like me take public transit. And as a result we have to stand outside in the cold waiting for the bus.

So to keep warm, not only do we wear long johns, sweaters and scarves, but also long winter coats. They're long ski jackets padded with down feathers. They definitely shield your butt and thighs from the bitter wind.

We look like walking sleeping bags, but our first priority is not to freeze to death, not fashion.

On the other hand, the rich wear thin jackets and coats, stiletto-heeled boots and open-necked shirts. They can afford to do this because they drive everywhere and are only a few seconds away from their cars where they can jack up the heat. They don't have to squish in with other plebs on the bus to generate body heat to keep warm.

So remind me again -- isn't China supposed to be a socialist society? Or perhaps it's evolved into one with Chinese characteristics where rich and poor live together in a quasi socialist setting, but it's the former who have access to the better things in life.

Standing Out from the Crowd


The airwaves and public spaces in China are crowded with Olympics advertising.

Billboards, magazine ads, commercials on radio, television and in the subway are definitely keeping the Olympic spirit in overdrive.

In fact it's almost on overload and it isn't even 2008 yet.

Most of the average ads are the ones featuring people doing some kind of physical activity, from riding a bicycle, doing tai chi, rocking a baby to sleep in a cradle or skipping rope. And they're all set against a clear blue sky and lush green trees which is hardly possible in the capital. But for one of the biggest events to happen in the country, viewers can suspend their skepticism for the greater good.

However, one commercial that towers over the rest so far is the one from Adidas.

As the official sportswear sponsor of the Games, Adidas has a vested interest in making its mark.

The brand continues its slogan "Impossible is Nothing" with a series of ads showing Chinese athletes supported by thousands of fans and supporters. A female basketball player dribbles the ball and masses of people hold her up one step at a time as she lays up a shot to the human-made basketball hoop; three volleyball players try to block the ball while the public jump up behind them with hands up; a soccer player is also held up by people as he kicks the ball; and a diver pushes off from a human diving board and gracefully dives into a human sea that ripples.

The athletes are flawlessly superimposed on top of people drawn using pencil animation.

It brilliantly shows how the Chinese are so feverently behind their athletes in the high hopes they will bring home gold next year.

The ad is memorable and no doubt will translate into sales dollars for a long time to come.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Mary Christmas

Christmas is a relatively new concept in China.

Factory workers know it by assembling toys for the mad rush in the stores, or producing Christmas-related merchandise.

The day isn't observed in the country so the Chinese will be working on the 25th. It'll be just another day at the office for them.

Many of my colleagues are curious about the holiday. They think, like Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, that everyone gets at least a week off. But I have to explain to them not everyone takes that whole time off, that many people are still working in between Christmas and New Year's. It's just that many people choose to take their annual leave at that time. My coworkers were quite surprised when they heard that.

They also wondered what we did for Christmas. I basically described the ritual of opening presents, eating turkey and seeing family and friends. Many say they don't like turkey, thinking the meat is very dry, but they either have never tried it before, or never had it with gravy!

Before I left on holidays, I tried (but not too hard) to find candy canes, something I usually give out to colleagues. Worried they may not like the taste, I handed out mini Snickers bars instead. For me it felt like Halloween.

But they all appreciated it very much. I just hope they don't think Christmas is the time to hand out chocolate bars.

A few even gave me presents -- including a Chinese dictionary, a stuffed puppy, and a Christmas card.

Even though they don't really know what the holiday is about, it's really sweet to be appreciated at this time of year. And especially on the low salaries they have too.

As for Mary Christmas, my colleague told me he saw that sign on a restaurant with decorations.

In a way it's true -- it does involve Mary in some way.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Passing Time at the Airport

I just got back to my hometown after a very long wait at the airport... before the actual plane ride.

Worried there might be a rush of travelers at the airport, I thought it would be a good idea to go earlier.

At first I was going to try out an airport bus, whose terminus is near my place. And at 16RMB, it beat the usual 60RMB by taxi.

However, with my luggage mostly laden with gifts, I barely made it out of my compound lugging it all and breaking out in a sweat.

I gave up and instead took a taxi waiting just outside my apartment gates.

"Why are you going so early?" he asked. I explained that I had wanted to try out the bus. "Oh so cheap!" he exclaimed. But I'm sure he soon realized he was lucky he was getting business from me instead of the bus.

There wasn't much traffic on the roads and I got to Beijing Capital Airport in good time.

The thing with this airport is that you have to fill out a declaration form, informing the authorities of what you are/aren't leaving with. And you have to fill this out even before you get to the check-in counter.

It asks if you're taking an weapons, 20,000RMB of cash, things for commercial purposes, and so on.

Then you take that form and passport and show it to an officer who only lets passengers in through a doorway. Another officer then takes the sheet of paper and yet another directs you to put hand luggage through an X-ray machine.

After all of that, then you are ready to actually go to the check-in counter.

When I got there, I was told my flight was delayed -- by six hours. I couldn't read the sign they had printed, only the time 23:30. I had nine hours to kill.

I don't think I would have been allowed to leave the airport by then and come back later. Maybe, but I didn't try.

So that explained why there were so many people sitting around. But there were no shops or cafes in the area so I decided to check-in anyway and go through passport control and security where I knew there were some shops.

I wandered up and down the boutiques. They ranged from high end Dunhill and Salvatore Ferragamo to shops called "Chinese Products" and the ubiquitous Olympic souvenir shop.

The Starbucks was doing brisk business as well as a gelato stand that served only a few flavours, repeating them so the selection was deceiving.

I bought a bottle of water for 15RMB (usually it's around 1RMB on the street) and settled down with a borrowed copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

What is neat is that around the gates there are free water dispensers. So I filled it up a few more times which was fantastic.

Also the handicapped washrooms are big enough to hold you and your belongings in a small cart.

Thank goodness for having a good book with me otherwise I won't know what I would have done to pass the time. The shops started closing at 8pm and they turned off their lights too so window shopping wasn't really an option either.

My airline (a national carrier) gave us each a meal coupon and at the gate offered sandwiches and drinks. They also gave us a small credit towards our next plane ticket with them.

We finally got on the flight and again thanks to having great reading material with me, I wouldn't know what else to do because the video on board wasn't working, flickering images here and there that made no sense.

So now I'm home safe and sound.

Beijing Airport's Terminal 3 will open in the next few months. While it will be much bigger than Terminal 1 and 2, there has to be better shops. Otherwise how else can people kill the time?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Skippin' Along


Camaraderie with colleagues usually involves having drinks after work, or organizing a barbecue, perhaps a hike, skiing or maybe even karaoke.

My coworkers decided the best way to encourage teamwork is by skipping rope.

In the last two weeks they've spent a few lunchtimes practicing jumping rope, with two people holding one end each and the others jumping through and running to the other side to repeat.

It's pretty neat seeing them do it, and as they are much younger than me, it's seems like the last time they did it was only a year or two ago.

Those who don't want to skip rope can play a kind of hackey-sack, but the Chinese version has a plume of artificially-coloured feathers. And it always seems to land with the feathers up every time.

Anyway, today was a competition day and the employees were divided into their different departments and pitted against each other.

One team was way ahead of the others, mostly due to the number of people in the group so that they had a mini break in between each jump.

There was also a competition to see how many jumps they could get in with four people skipping rope at the same time in two minutes. Four guys were chosen for the task and got in some 60 jumps in.

While it's great seeing my colleagues getting exercise in the cold weather, it's weird watching them do an activity I did when I was a kid!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Crashing in Popularity

This headline made me laugh: Anti-corruption website crashes on first day.

On Tuesday the central government launched its anti-corruption website, encouraging the public to submit concerns and complaints about corruption.

But hours after the site was launched, it crashed due to an overwhelming response.

By late afternoon Tuesday there were some 22 pages of messages left on the website's guest book.

Many complained about specific cases, while others hoped the government would step up its efforts in fighting corruption. It seems many of the complaints were focused around institutions of higher learning and grass roots governments.

The huge response on the site obviously shows people are fed up with corruption and they want something done about it -- now.

"The corruption problem in China is a fatal illness," wrote one person. "Establishing more institutions will not solve the problem."

First of all, the central government needs to show it really is determined to root out corruption, by putting in more checks and balances and stiffer penalties.

It needs to have a tighter rein on provincial level officials as some have the attitude of managing their own fiefdom.

Many officials go to places like Macau to gamble all their black money away, or to Hong Kong by spending it on Gucci purses and Louis Vuitton bags.

If they are caught, they could get serious jail time or the death penalty. But some think the country is so large and the number of people who are corrupt are many so that the chances of them getting caught are slim.

Which is why one hopes the government will seriously investigate the public's claims of corruption otherwise its integrity will shrink down a few more notches.

What China really needs is a free press to be able to openly report on these allegations, but that won't happen for a while yet.

Hiding in the Dark

Today I read a feature story about a Paralymic athlete who is one of the first people in China to have a guide dog.

Ping Yali is a partially blind athlete who won gold in long jump at the 1984 New York Paralymics. And her canine companion is called Lucky.

She's had the golden retriever for four weeks now and is so thrilled to have this animal help her up and down the stairs, a difficult task for the blind. When she first walked down the stairs with the help of Lucky, Ping couldn't help but burst into tears.

But Beijing has many restrictions on dogs, let alone guide dogs.

Large dogs aren't allowed in certain parts of the city, and not in public areas either. She even has to get Lucky checked at Beijing's animal husbandry and veterinary bureau so that he can be recognized as a guide dog so Ping won't have to pay registration charges with the police.

Another thing is that since Lucky is one of the first guide dogs in the country, not many people understand this and so Ping can't go out in public places with Lucky unless an able-bodied person accompanies them. This defeats the purpose of encouraging Ping to be more independent.

She first found out about guide dogs during the Paralympic Games in 1984 when athletes from Europe and the United States had their own seeing eye dogs.

"It has taken more than 20 years for China to have guide dogs," Ping says.

For me it's shocking to read she is one of the first to have a guide dog in this country. I have yet to see a blind person on the street. Apparently there are some 12.3 million people in China who suffer from some kind of visual impairment.

I can't help but wonder how these people function if they don't even have white canes, let alone guide dogs. Perhaps they are hidden somewhere, never given the chance to interact with the community and achieve some kind of fulfilling life.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Pearl of Shanghai


The 2008 Beijing Olympics hasn't even started yet and China is already excited about the 2010 Expo in Shanghai.

Yesterday there was lots of fanfare over the unveiling of the exposition's mascot.

And..... it's blue.

It's called Haibao, which has such meanings as, "sea treasure" and "Shanghai's treasure".

The design is actually inspired by the Chinese character ren, person or people. And then designers chose the colour blue to represent the sea which is also shown in its cowlick wave on the top left.

Many Chinese are going gaga for the mascot and think it's so adorable. And to satisfy their demands to have one, souvenirs of the blue creature already started selling in stores around Shanghai.

Officials also unveiled the design of the China pavilion, which looks very traditional with lots of red. It's already nicknamed "oriental crown", shaped like an inverted pyramid.

The pavilion won't just show off China as a country, but also will have space for every province and region to make their presentations as well as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

However, the mainland Chinese media are reporting that talks with Taiwan about being part of the China pavilion aren't going so well.

Officials are hoping Taiwan will participate, but they haven't gotten much of a response yet from what they call "the renegade province". Organizers say they do have a backup plan just in case.

There is still lots of time. But having a plan B in place isn't a bad idea.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Washroom, Anyone?

Where's the Polisher Part 3


Some signs along the Great Wall need some serious polishing.

There were two at Ju Yong Guan. One advertising snacks and drinks has a line that says "Childs Food (sic) Beer Cracker". One should probably politely point out that beer and children's food don't go together.

Then near the washroom -- and a clean one I might add -- is this sign: "The Space of Manage Toilets". What they meant to say was "Toilet Management Office". But perhaps it should be a little more vague and say "Administration Office or Operations Office".

Finally at Badaling, in one of the towers, inside is a garbage can. For some reason there's an arrow pointing down and it says: "Don't Call in Thunder Storm Day". In Chinese it says, "During a thunderstorm, please don't use your mobile phone".

It's a pity these mistakes are found on one of the world's most popular tourist attractions. But at least these signs gets visitors taking more pictures as fond reminders of their visit.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Instant Family Outing


At Ju Yong Guan we met some foreigners holding Chinese babies.

They had just adopted them a few days earlier in Nancheng, capital of Jiangxi Province.

From what we could tell most of the babies were girls, fitted in pink or white snowsuits complete with hats and mittens. Some were asleep in their new parents' arms, or were uneasy and crying, perhaps confused by the new environment and adjusting to their new moms and dads.

Some couples were French, Spanish and Canadian. One proud father from Vancouver, Canada, showed off Emily, his daughter from Nancheng. She was the second child he adopted from China.

"I love China," he proclaimed, having visited many places in the country. But when he went to pick up 11-month old Emily last week he was saddened after seeing the dreary environment of Nancheng. One could tell he was sure to give his daughter a much better life in North America.

The families all climbed up this steep section of the wall and took snaps -- their first outing together.

They all captured the Kodak moment and perhaps years from now when their children are older they will return to retrace their steps to help them better understand their roots.

Adopting children from China has become a cottage industry. Couples not only pick up their children, but also get to tour around the country before going home.

It's great to see loving parents willing to take these otherwise neglected children. But one can only imagine what it is like for the child, when she grows up and realizes how much different she looks from her parents and trying to understand how she ended up so far from her homeland.

Will she shun her past completely embracing her new country, or will she appreciate both worlds? Each situation will be different. But as more of these adopted children get older, it will be interesting to see what they think their identity is and what it means to them.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What Travel Guides Don't Tell You


Following the advice of our travel guide books (Frommers and Rough Guides), we decided to go to the Great Wall, taking a city-sponsored bus.

There are a few of them leaving from different spots in the city. In the morning we took a cab to Qianmen. We bought our return tickets for 90RMB, which included a 35RMB admission fee to the Badaling section of the wall. We thought that was a deal.

We climbed onto an empty bus that started up right away so we thought we were the only passengers.

We were wrong.

Instead we were shuttled to another spot two minutes away down the street to Tiananmen where another (older) bus with passengers was waiting to go.

We climbed on board towards the back of the bus and soon afterwards we started off at 10am.

Once the journey started, a woman in a red coat began telling us that we would be making two stops on the wall, the first one called Yu Yong Guan, and then Badaling.

When we arrived at Yu Yong Guan just over an hour later, the woman in red told us we had to join them as the bus wouldn't leave for over an hour and a half. That meant we had to buy a 45RMB admission ticket to this particular part of the wall.

We thought about taking a taxi to Badaling and telling the guide we'd meet up with them later, but she tried to scare us saying the taxi drivers would take us for a ride and we would be better off sticking with the rest of the group.

Our biggest concern was getting a ride back, so we relented and followed the pack.

Yu Yong Guan Administrative Center as it's called on the ticket has a steep part of the wall and is quite the stairmaster workout.

The views are fantastic; however when you look down, you see manufactured traditional Chinese-style buildings that probably were never there in the first place.

We made it back to the bus on time and then we were finally headed to Badaling. The ticket stub describes it as:

"Great Wall-soul of China, master piece [sic] of mankind! It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World as well as one of the man made structures visible from space, recognized by the United Nation as the cultural heritage of the human kind".

But when we arrived, the woman in red again told us we had to buy tickets to take the "cable car". This apparently was the only way up.

So again we gave in and had to shell out 60RMB for a return ticket. "Remember to keep your tickets because the other part is for the return portion," she kept warning us.

On our way to the "cable car" we passed by some pens where black bears waited around for people to feed them with cut up apples. It was really sad seeing them in a man-made environment. They knew the drill. They clambered up some posts and when people threw food at them they would catch them in their mouths. They shook their heads back and forth, a sign of boredom and isolation.

Then we got onto the "cable car". I say got on, because they were actually a seated pulley ride. We each sat in a plastic seat with our legs sticking out straight and each seat was linked up to a pulley that dragged us up one by one. A brace held us back like the ones found in amusement rides.

We didn't get to see much on the way up, except for going through a tunnel with funky rainbow lights on the ceiling.

Then we finally arrived to the wall and started climbing again. But this time the path along the wall was quite wide and mostly in a slope rather than stairs. Again the views were fantastic, seeing the wall gliding over the hills like a dragon's tail.

We had two hours to wander around the wall, but after over an hour we made our way back down. And with half an hour to spare, we went to a small restaurant for a bite to eat.

The female manager was very aggressive, asking us what we'd like to eat. We made our order of two bowls of beef noodles and a set meal of dumplings. Then we asked for tea, but she said a pot would cost 10RMB -- the equivalent to a bowl of noodles. No thanks, we said. She still pestered us saying a coffee would be 5RMB.

The return trip back on the "cable car" was fun. It was like a tame rollercoaster with natural views.

We made it back to the bus on time and an hour and a half later we were finally back to where we started, around 5pm.

It seems that tourist traps here have become more sophisticated. Instead of imprisoning visitors in Chinese medicine shops or silk factories, it's taking them to a destination -- oh wait two of them -- and also not telling visitors all the hidden costs of having to shell out for more tickets. In our case we had to pay 105RMB extra each.

If we had known of the extra costs, we would have taken public transit instead, or at least would have been prepared for the runaround. And for a city-sponsored tour, the hassle was hardly impressive. The tourism industry here had better shape up for next year otherwise the anticipated travel boom could be a bust.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Beijing Polar Bears


I took my cousin and his friend sightseeing around Hou Hai today. And we went by bicycle which I highly recommend.

It cost 30RMB (US$4) for two bikes, one single, and the other double seater, with a 300RMB refundable deposit.

The sky was blue and temperature was chilly at 5 degrees Celsius, but we kept warm pedaling around the back lakes.

I hadn't ridden a bike for a while so it was good that there weren't too many people along the roads and sidewalks to navigate around.

And passing some hutongs converted into bars and restaurants, we came across some Beijing polar bears going for their ritual swim in the lake.

I've seen them there during the summer, and you wonder why they swim in there when it's so dirty. But it's even more surprising to see them jump in when most of the lake is frozen over.

But there they were, older men in their 60s and 70s standing around in their Speedo-like swim suits while we stood watching them in winter coats and scarves.

One by one they jumped in, did a few strokes and clambered back onto shore and rubbed themselves down with a towel.

The male swimmers outnumbered the females, and they all enjoyed the attention even though they acted nonchalant about their crazy stunt.

Perhaps this is the secret to longevity in Beijing - plunging into Hou Hai everyday regardless of the temperature. It surely gets the blood going and gives new meaning to respecting the elderly.

Us young ones are definitely not worthy.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Perpetuating Bad Blood

Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking.

On December 13, 1937, Japanese troops entered the former Chinese capital and began six weeks of killing, raping and pillaging. Some 300,000 people were killed.

This year some filmmakers including Americans have produced documentaries about this horrific event, piecing together first-person accounts by foreigners who were in the city at that time.

One of the movies includes one about Iris Chang who was one of the first to write about this bloody history.

And 70 years on, there are many Chinese on the mainland who insist on continuing their hatred of the Japanese.

Some of my colleagues get offended when you mention that their hairstyle or outfit looks Japanese.

Another refuses to eat Japanese food or buy Japanese cars, which probably explains the steady sales of American cars here.

Many Chinese here have a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to Japan. If you try to get them to explain where this automatic hatred comes from, they can't describe it to you. It's all they know. Some may have had relatives who were directly affected by the Japanese invasion. But in reality, this generation has never experienced hardship to justify such extreme reactions.

The government uses this event for political purposes to shame Japan in the hopes of getting more out of Sino-Japanese relations.

It's almost an emotionally abusive relationship that can make one wonder how Japan takes the humiliation 70 years later.

By the same token, the Chinese today should learn from history and try to create peace with its neighbours for the future.

That way they'll help fulfill President Hu Jintao's goal of "a harmonious world".

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Other than Duck


Last night my friend and I headed to Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant.

But this time we didn't have the signature dish.

Instead we opted for other things on the menu. And the highlight was the braised ox tail.

It came beautifully presented, the meat having fallen off the bone and bound together by a parsley stem.

Cooked in red wine and garnished with shaved carrot and peas, the oxtail was absolutely delicious. The meat was tender and full of flavour.

We also had pea shoots, very fine ones that were crunchy and fresh, stir-fried with finely diced garlic.

Another good spicy dish was the kung pao chicken, flavoured not only with dried chilis, but also Sichuan peppercorns for that numbing effect. Again the chicken was tender, but perhaps bigger chunks would be better. It was good to see it was hardly oily, a problem that many restaurants have with this dish.

Finally for dessert we had black sesame pudding with crushed peanuts. My friend found it too thick; I agreed, but still enjoyed every last spoonful of it.

So it's still possible to have a delicious meal at Da Dong minus the duck.

Passing Time


Most of the buses here have TV screens to keep commuters entertained.

But they're mostly of infomercials that become tedious after watching them at least 10 times during the ride.

There's only so many toothpaste, detergent, milk and Olympics commercials you can watch over and over and over again.

Rush hour after work has more interesting programming, broadcasting news, and in the evening, entertainment magazine shows.

And the newest subway, Line 5 is taking TV shows to a new level.

The screens on the platforms and in the trains are now showing Tom and Jerry cartoons. And everyone watches them transfixed.

They're watching the escapades of the cat and mouse for the first time, while for me it brings back childhood memories.

The cartoon viewing does make the time go by fast... and if you're not paying attention you could miss your stop.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Chinese Texting

People here are constantly on their cell phones.

They aren't necessarily "talking" to someone directly, but their thumbs are madly punching away at the touch pad.

They're fa duan xin or texting messages to each other as the air time is much cheaper than speaking voice to voice.

And they have come up with some interesting short cut texting vocabulary that involves lots of numbers and a bit of creative interpretation.

For example, "88" is ba ba which is similar to "bye bye".

Another is "3x" or "san-x" is "thanks".

"520" or "521" sounds sort of like wo ai ni or "I love you", while 537 is wo fang qi is "I'm angry".

There are so many numerical combinations to create phrases that pretty soon Chinese may become a numeral language kind of like pig latin for those in the West.

Except this may become a lingo that people won't let grow out of quite easily...

Monday, December 10, 2007

White Stuff in Beijing


We had our first snowfall last night.

Luckily it wasn't a big dump of the white stuff, but enough to make it feel cold.

Unfortunately the sky was dreary looking otherwise I'm sure most people would have been in a more cheerful mood. Instead everyone just focused on commuting to work on time... or there abouts.

I managed to flag down a taxi quite quickly, but soon after there was a huge traffic jam on the roads. My driver tried to take a short cut I like to use when the fourth ring road is jammed. But then that side street was hardly moving.

He had to do a U-turn and take another route that was a bit further.

"It's not usually like this," he said referring to the short cut. I think he was afraid I would be angry.

It doesn't matter," I said.

About 35 minutes later we finally made it to my office.

The meter said 29RMB, but the driver felt bad about the longer route and said I could pay 25RMB instead.

"It doesn't matter, " replied. "It's more important that I get here safely."

I think he was pleased to hear this. But really, it's OK. He wasn't trying to take me for a ride.

After I got into the office it snowed a bit harder, but it didn't stick to the roads. By lunchtime it stopped snowing, but it was still cold.

Interestingly enough my commute home on the bus was a breeze.

Perhaps all the shock of the snow had worn off and people were back to driving as normal.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Artistic Homecoming


Chinese contemporary art is a hot acquisition these days.

But a Belgian couple beat many collectors to the punch over 20 years ago.

Guy and Myriam Ullens have come to China in these two decades, visiting periodically and buying up art from a group of artists now known as the '85 New Wave.

After the death of Chairman Mao and emergence of Deng Xiaoping and his open door policy in 1979, Chinese artists began to get more exposure to the outside world, as Western culture forced its way into the country.

These artists began documenting the societal changes they saw around them in their work.

The Ullens collected lots of pieces and less than a year ago started renovating a deserted space in the Dashanzi art district with the money they made from selling their Turner collection.

And the result is a fantastic gallery cum museum cum meeting point for artists, academics and visitors.

The UCCA was officially opened last month and today was my first visit.

There was a question about why people had to pay 30RMB for admission, but one can quickly see why. The space is done up so well and is practically a museum, showcasing their collection. They also have well-suited security guards, young men who also know a bit about the art on the walls to answer questions from inquisitive visitors.

And appropriately the inaugural exhibition is a retrospective of these New Wave artists.

At the entrance is a series of Chinese scrolls hung from the ceiling and several printed books laid out open to certain pages.

It's called "A Book from the Sky" by Xu Bing. This artist created some 1,000 new Chinese characters that don't exist and published them in these books and scrolls.

Two artists named Wang Luyan and Ge Dexin made a series called "Tactile Art". They think art should communicate and in a graphic art kind of way they have achieved it.

In one, there is a sort of square with a half circle on the left and one on the right, and they merge in the middle. On the left and the right it says "shou" or "hand" and in the middle where they are merged it says "handshake".

Wang Yong Ping is considered controversial. He had a retrospective show at the Vancouver Art Gallery where some reptiles were in glass boxes as part of his work. Animal rights activists thought this was cruel and some of these exhibits were taken off.

And another one of his work was "unexpectedly removed" from UCCA. He had taken scrolls, put them in a washing machine and used the remnants to form traditional Chinese tombs. Some people may have found this offensive.

Despite the brouhaha, it's great to see a fantastic collection of contemporary Chinese art before the madness at the auction block. And to have it back in China.

The artists have thought long and hard about what they want to say and then carefully decided how they are going to execute it artistically to create an effective piece of art.

This collection makes the rest of the art work in 798 pale in comparison; the other galleries are mostly filled with attention-grabbing "art" that is just done for shock value rather than with any thoughtful statement.

One featured a former bar waitress naked, posing with four suited men in various corporate settings. What does that say other than a woman having control in the board room?

Hopefully the works in the UCCA gallery will inspire the young artists of today to work hard at their art instead of thinking about dollar signs.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

New Merchandise


Every time I go to Panjiayuan I always see new things there.

And yesterday I may have spotted a new trend.

These giant towels or blankets were on sale... showing Lin Biao clutching a little red book and looking at Chairman Mao waving.

There were at least two of these at the market.

I didn't ask how much they were, but maybe this wall hanging or beach towel will be the next in thing for Communist souvenir hunters.

Another American in Beijing


In the summer I watched some jazz performed by a trombonist from New York.

And last night I had the chance to watch another jazz great, Matthew Shipp perform.

He's considered one of the leading avant garde jazz scene in the Big Apple and I can see why.

We went to a club hidden along Dongsishitiao, next to a temple. And inside was a beautiful large space with some couches and a bar, then some bar tables and chairs near the stage.

A local jazz band warmed up the audience and a few of those musicians played at the summer gig I went to.

After an hour-long set and then a 15-minute break, Shipp wandered on stage from the back, sat at the baby grand piano and then started playing -- non stop -- for an hour.

His large hands ran over the keys effortlessly and then at times it looked like he would stumble on them but in fact they were calculated and precise. The only way for me to describe his music is like a Chinese painting -- there were patches of dark spaces and white ones, brush strokes that were wet and dry, all coming together to create a vibrant piece.

At one point he stood up to play and then reached over and strummed the strings of the piano. It was as if he was having an internal conversation with himself.

You can't listen to Shipp's music like a background tune -- audience has to concentrate on his music and his performance all in one.

Apparently catching him at the Montreal Jazz Festival would have cost $50. But in Beijing, we were able to see him for 50RMB ($6.76).

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Glowing Helmsman


After the Fou Ts'ong piano recital in Zhongshan Park I decided to take a stroll along Chang'an Avenue instead of rushing to the subway to get home.

And I stopped in front of the Forbidden City to take some night shots of Mao all lit up.

When I turned around to face the busy traffic and look towards Tiananmen Square, a bus passed right by me and I saw a reflection of Mao.

Luckily another bus came by and this is the picture I took.

The Passionate Musician


Before Lang Lang there was Fou Ts'ong.

Born in Shanghai in 1934, Fou is the son of Fou Lei, who was a literary critic and well known for his Chinese translations of French writers, like Honore de Balzac, Romain Rollard, Voltaire and Andre Gide.

When Ts'ong was young, he listened to his father's recordings of classical music. Ts'ong started learning piano and in 1951 made his debut with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

Fou's career soared soon after that performance. He went to Poland to study piano and came in third in the International Chopin Competition in 1955 in Warsaw. From then onwards he was considered a great interpreter of the Polish composer.

His father was very concerned about him being far from home. Fou senior wrote him long letters about how to be a man, what to wear, even how to find a wife. These were later published in a book that my friend told me about.

Back in China during this period, Chairman Mao began creating havoc in the country, with his "Anti-Rightist" campaigns, rounding up those who criticized him during the Hundred Flowers Movement.

Fou stunned the Chinese Communists by defecting in 1957 while in London for a performance. The British capital has been his home ever since.

He was also briefly married to Sir Yehudi Menhuin's daughter Zamira in the 1960s.

By now the Cultural Revolution was about to paralyze the country and Fou's defection along with his parents considered intellectuals made them targets for the Red Guards. His parents suffered so much humiliation that they decided to kill themselves in a suicide pact in 1966.

Fou did not return home to mourn them until 1979 and came back a year later to perform his first concert in China in 20 years.

But he didn't come back again until 1998 after the Tiananmen Square Incident.

Tonight I had the privilege to watch this man perform at the Forbidden City Concert Hall.

It's hidden inside Zhongshan Park, or Sun Yat-sen Garden, next to the Forbidden City.

Fou doesn't look like his publicity photos with his cheeks filled out and full head of hair. Instead his cheeks are sunken and has a receding hairline.

But the old school pianist did not disappoint. He walked on stage in a plain black Chinese jacket, black pants and shiny loafers.

He performed a selection of Haydn, Debussy, Schubert and of course Chopin.

At times his fingers weren't as agile as they used to be, but that didn't matter. His passion for the music was still strong and he may not be as expressive with his gestures as Lang Lang, but the audience can feel him communicating his emotions through the piano keys.

Throughout the concert I couldn't help thinking the incredible life he has lived and how he has the courage to perform in the country, and to the people who at one point in time vilified his family.

But perhaps his love of music transcends all that hatred and pain. Or perhaps it's a loving tribute to his parents, who helped give him the career he has today.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Santa is Coming


The other day I went to the shopping mall near my place to get my weekly groceries.

And outside there was this setup of a faux living room on a stage, complete with a fireplace and big red armchair -- complete with white doilies on the arms.

Currently it's covered up with plastic, probably as the Big Guy's elves are still setting up for his arrival.

But it's really interesting to see how the Chinese view Christmas. It's more of a commercial thing for them than stirring up childhood memories.

My colleagues are very curious about this holiday and ask me how we celebrate it. The closest equivalent is the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year. Just that there's no big guy in a red suit.

But just as Hong Kong and Singapore have embraced Christmas, it won't be long before the Chinese will know a few carols and pass out the candy canes.

Hopping on for the Ride

After almost eight months in Beijing, I'm becoming more comfortable taking the bus.

Before I was really worried about not knowing the bus's route, if I would get lost, or I had no clue which bus to take, and ended up hailing a taxi instead.

I still take taxis when I'm in a hurry, but when time is on my side, like this past weekend, I'm a bit more adventurous.

Most of it is because I can read some Chinese characters and can make out some of the subway stops I'm familiar with.

It also takes a lot of memorization, remembering which buses to take from which stops, and more importantly, having a good sense of direction.

On Saturday I had lunch with a friend in Panjiayuan -- actually across the street from the antique market. And after our big Sichuan feast, she told me to take #802 to Wangfujing or if I wanted to go home, to take #827. It was handy information to file in my brain.

After church on Sunday, there were several cars outside waiting for their masters. Many of the expats took taxis. I opted for the bus stop and took one that went to Andingmen, north of the city. From there I took another streetcar south. Then I got off at Di'anmen Dongdajie and walked west, and managed to find Nanluoguxiang Hutong again, near the old Drum and Bell Tower. I was very pleased with myself.

I wandered around the area again and grabbed a bite to eat at a Korean restaurant called Saveurs de Coree. It's a quaint, narrow place, with a small rectangular pond in the middle with running water and funky jazz background music. I had a dish of stir-fried vegetables with noodles made from potatoes, and green tea cake for dessert.

Then I headed north to Goulou Dongdajie and took a streetcar to Dongzhimen. From there I took the #614 back home.

Granted it took me over an hour to get to Nanluoguxiang and an hour to get back. But since it was late afternoon, the buses weren't too crowded and it was a pleasant ride both ways. The total cost of the bus fare was less than 5RMB (US$0.67).

I'm going to try taking the bus more often. For me it's the best way to get to know the city at a leisurely pace -- without breaking the bank.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Caring for the Environment


The cold winter air is already here and everyone is bundling up.

My colleagues scared me about the chilly weather so I bought a long nylon coat padded with down feathers (at least I think it is) that goes down to my knees.

I have already started wearing long johns, along with everyone else.

Outside we look like big padded Michelin men waddling down the street.

There are the odd people who wear thin jackets and I wonder if they realize it's really cold outside!

Owners obsessed with their pets are eager to give canine fashion shows, dressing their dogs up in everything from sweaters and coats to red Santa suits.

The city also looks after its greenery for the winter.

Along the streets workers have constructed thin wooden frames around shrubs to cover them with an awning-like material in forest green. The leaves won't be able to do much photosynthesis, but at least they'll keep a little bit warmer.

Even some trees are protected, with these giant burlap tents mounted on their sides to block the winter winds from the north.

So you can't completely dismiss Beijing for not caring about the natural environment. But more people are donning face masks these days. And not all of them are sick. They're trying to avoid the smog that has built up in the last few months due to the lack of precipitation.

Maybe the government should turn its attention to its people who are also part of the environment.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Battle of the Tai Tais

This past weekend was the fight everyone was watching in Hong Kong -- the by-election race between Anson Chan, former Chief Secretary during the last days of British rule, and Regina Ip, former Secretary for Security, who was backed by Beijing.

It was dubbed "the battle of the tai tais", referring to the two women's upper class backgrounds.

Chan lobbied for direct elections for not only the chief executive but all legislators by 2012; Ip pushed for democracy too, but only after Beijing had vetted the candidates.

And in the end Chan won a decisive victory -- 175,874 votes over Ip's 137,550. Chan won 54 per cent of the vote.

"It's a great encouragement," Chan said in her speech. "This victory belongs to the Hong Kong people who love democracy."

This win is a big boost to the pro-democracy camp, a collection of groups who have finally put their differences aside and come together as a show of force to the central government.

It also sends a strong signal to Beijing that Hong Kongers want to have a direct say in their government.

"I think that it shows a lot of middle class people in Hong Kong still care about democracy, even though the economy is getting better, the stock market is rising, and the economy is more dependent on China," said Ma Ngok, associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "This is something that Beijing needs to think about."

The ball is now in China's court on how to deal with this latest development in the HKSAR.

So far I haven't seen any reports about it in any of the English-language state media here.

This is a warning shot to Beijing: once people have a stable economy, good livelihoods and have their desired possessions, they will want more -- democracy.

It will come to China. It's only a matter of time.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Praise the Lord in Beijing

Today I went to my first church service in the Chinese capital.

The Beijing International Christian Fellowship organizes a number of services on Sunday, in English, Indonesian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian, Japanese and French.

I checked out the English service at 11:30am which is held at the 21st Century Theatre, a block east of the Yansha Youyi Center or Luftansa Center.

People from all kinds of nationalities converged into the giant auditorium -- Americans, Filipinos, Koreans, Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, and Africans to name a few. Apparently some 300 come every week.

These services are strictly for foreigners only so we all had to show our passports before going in.

I arrived just on time to hear the music start so I grabbed a seat.

On stage was a band led a guy on a guitar singing, with a flautist, extra singer, two keyboardists and a drummer.

And the music was very American evangelist. The screen above showed the lyrics for people to sing along things like "God is king", "God is beautiful", and how the Lord is amazing. Some people in the audience raised one of their arms swept up in the fervor even though the service just started.

It was led by the guitarist along with two other "elders" or pastors. We were invited to participate in Communion, and ushers handed out small plastic cups of juice and tiny squares of bread to everyone in the audience. People who were leaving Beijing were asked to stand up and say goodbye, while newcomers were asked to stand and they were immediately accosted by people handing out pamphlets on the religious organization.

Today was a special Christmas presentation and they dramatized the birth of Jesus using everyday language. The acting was really good, complete with a sleeping Chinese baby. So it was interesting to see them try to make the biblical event relevant to people, by acting out what they thought was going through Mary's and Joseph's minds.

In the end the guitarist told the audience if they felt what they heard and saw today affected them then they should come forward and talk to some people near the stage about further developing their religious beliefs.

While it was really uplifting, it reminded me too much of televangelists preaching the Gospel. It was really slick, but at the same time, better than sitting in an austere church.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

New Haunt: Nanlouguxiang


Near Hou Hai, one of my favourite places in Beijing, is a hutong or alleyway that's transformed itself into a funky strip.

Called Nanluoguxiang, this narrow street used to be a run-down residential area. But in just over two years, the old hutongs have been spruced up with new "old" walls, brick walls that have had an artistic paint job to make it look antique. There are also some restaurants, cafes, bars and really cool shops.

One is called Grifted at 32 Nanluoguxiang. Inside are parasols made with bright flowery fabric from the 1950s, cheeky T-shirts and dolls.

There's a T-shirt with an old man wearing a singlet rolled up to his armpits revealing his bulbous tummy, and has striped pants covering his chicken legs. He holds a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other, and below it says in Chinese, "Ni Hao" or "Hello".

There's also panda bear-shaped dolls, but these bears looks like they've been roughed up and worse for wear than the cuddly ones you usually see.

Grifted had a number of Christmas merchandise for sale, including Christmas cards with Santa on his sleigh passing over Tiananmen, or Chairman Mao wearing Santa's hat complete with a yellow star and holding a sprig of holly. It says "Merry Christmas" in Chinese.

Just a bit further down the street is Plastered T-Shirts at 61 Nanluoguxiang. Englishman Dominic Johnson-Hill started making these funky T-shirts two years ago. He takes retro images from the 1950s and 60s and makes them kitsch.

There's ones that have the Beijing subway ticket on them, table tennis paddles, or a picture of a hot thermos. Another has "Gong Bao Ji Ding" in Chinese characters, which means "Kung Pao Chicken", or pictures of rosy-cheeked children in an idyllic setting. One even says "expat prick".

Foreigners are lapping these up, and now the Chinese are discovering them and beginning to find them amusing.

It's really neat to see some people taking creative risks. I hope to find more of them in Beijing.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Here we go Again

The Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) announced details of how the second round of 2008 Games tickets would be distributed.

On October 30, the system crashed due to the first-come-first-served basis online and in Bank of China (BOC) branches. Red-faced officials had to deal with an angry and frustrated public when ticket sales were suspended.

Days later, the Olympic ticketing centre issued an apology. The then director, Rong Jun even stood up and bowed to the media during a press conference.

Today the new director made his appearance. Zhu Yan explained that due to public comments, the ticketing centre is now reverting back to the lottery system for some 1.8 million tickets, and taking applications from December 10 to 30. Ticket requests can either be made online or at 1,000 designated BOC branches.

However, each applicant can only make requests for up to "two competitive game sessions", getting up to four tickets each. That means the maximum number of tickets each person can ask for is eight.

It's a definite drop from the original 50 in the ill-fated first-come-first-served policy. A BBC reporter asked if it was because officials were concerned about people selling their tickets to make a profit. Zhu replied that while it was a concern, their main aim was to make more tickets available to more people.

He also couldn't promise the seats would be together, and that children two and under didn't need a ticket.

Another asked if it was possible to find out which events were already sold out. Zhu stopped short of naming specific events, even saying that high demand events had a few seats left. He promised information would be made available on the website, without giving a time frame.

The director added that the public was so enthusiastic about the Olympics and that they should also support the less popular sporting events. That way they could have a high chance of getting tickets.

It was a big hint that BOCOG needs more bums on seats.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Still in Denial

Today the Ministry of Health released its report on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in China, two days before World AIDS Day on December 1.

It says there were 223,501 registered cases by the end of October this year, 50,000 of which are new cases. Some 62,838 have full-blown AIDS.

However, according to an estimate by the health ministry, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, there could be as many as 700,000 people in China infected with the deadly virus by the end of 2007.

The report claims there's such a big discrepancy because people are reluctant to come forward and get treatment.

That's because if they want treatment, they have to identify themselves, which easily makes them a pariah. Due to lack of education, others don't want to have anything to do with them and for some, the lack of social networks is worse than death.

The Chinese government claims it will step up efforts to educate groups like homosexuals, migrant workers and drug users. It has also promised to provide anonymous testing, free treatment for the poor and ban discrimination on those with the virus. But the situation hasn't changed much.

Xiao Dong, a gay AIDS activist in Beijing, is still struggling to do his grassroots work. He and his group go out to gay bars and hand out free condoms and talk to people about HIV/AIDS and how to practice safe sex.

He and his seven-member team only get 14,000 RMB (US$1,896) a year from the government. Xiao and his friends have shelled out 110,000 RMB (US$14,900) of their own money to keep their organization going.

So, if the government really wants to get tough on fighting HIV/AIDS, it really should be doling out funds to grass roots groups like Xiao's. They're the ones who are really out there pounding the pavement and reaching out to a sector of the population that is vulnerable to the virus.

The government also needs to change its attitude about HIV/AIDS so that more people won't be afraid to get the help they need.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Who's Cuter?


The mascots for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games were unveiled yesterday.

And the trio are, from left to right: Sumi, an animal spirit, Quatchi, a sasquatch, and Miga, a sea bear. Strange, but true.

Miga is a combination of an orca or killer whale and the "spirit" or Kermode bear. Quatchi is a big furry animal that a few people claim they have spotted, but have yet to prove the "big foot's" existence. And then Sumi is a mix of an orca and thunderbird, the mascot for the Paralympics.

They look.... Japanese. Not that that's a complaint. It's just an observation.

My colleague thinks they look much better than the Beijing Olympic mascots, called Fuwa. "We have five. That's too many. And Vancouver's look like real animals," she said.

She's not a big fan of Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying, Ni Ni. She'd rather just have the panda as the official animal of the Games.

With the 2008 Olympics still 253 days away, it looks like she'll be stuck with the Fuwa for a while yet.

Where's the Polisher Part 2


After work I went to Ito Yokado, a Japanese department store near my home.

It's great for staples, especially homeware and basic clothing. By the way I got my humidifier there. Originally I was set on buying one that was 100 RMB (US$13.52). But then a woman selling a different brand of humidifiers managed to persuade me to buy a more expensive one. What sold me was that it had a water filter in it. Originally it was 238 RMB, but she sold it to me for 206 RMB.

She said the filter was good for two years. And then what? I asked. Can I buy another filter here? No, she replied. Oh. Maybe by then I'm supposed to want another humidifier.

Then I headed to the basement where the supermarket is. And there was a stack of these biscuits on sale.

It literally says putao jia ceng bing or literally "grape press on both sides layer cake".

But as you can see from the picture, it's not grape, but raisins. I guess there's no word for dried grapes.

I didn't buy a pack, but they probably taste good.

Campus Life


At the University of International Business and Economics, I came across these hot water thermos.

It seemed like they were standing around waiting for their owners to collect them.

At the university there isn't any hot water in the dorms. Students have to carry these thermos to a place that has automatic dispensers. And it's not free either.

For showers, they have to carry their toiletries with them to the men's and women's shower stalls. In the summer it's OK to waddle around in a T-shirt, shorts and flip flops. But I can imagine it's a drag to have to bundle up to go take a shower and then bundle up again to go back to the dorm.

And I thought I had hot water problems.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cheap Thrill

Public transit, especially during rush hour can create intense physical intimacy without taking your clothes off.

I wrote before about feeling flattened like a pancake on the bus home. But today was even better.

I crammed myself onto the back of the #408 bus and thought the doors would close behind me. But a man pushed me further into the bus so that he could squeeze in too. Until the next stop, I was arching my back as some women's shoulders were jutting out in front of me and the man behind me didn't give me much breathing room either. Too bad I wasn't enjoying the moment so much.

Some people got off at the next stop, but even then the bus was still packed until my stop.

Thankfully, everyone was wearing thick winter coats so we were all practicing safe intimacy.

But with the flu bug going around, a few people were coughing which was a bit unnerving.

Public transit is cheap (US$0.14) which is great especially for people with low income levels. But with the crowded buses, you can't blame others who have the means to buy cars.

Apparently there are some 1,000 new cars on the road each month and earlier this summer we hit three million already.

The government is trying to get people more environmentally conscious and take public transit. But at the same time it has a major stake in the car industry and encourages people to buy these vehicles.

While there is no easy solution, perhaps taking cars off the road and putting on more buses would help us all enjoy our commutes more and do our bit to save the planet. It just depends on the will of the government. And unfortunately, it doesn't look like its heart is going green anytime soon.

Whatever happened to a green Olympics? Or is that only for two weeks in August?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Hacking Our Throats


Many of us are coughing in the office.

I recently had the flu and now still have a lingering cough. Others are hacking away perhaps getting over their colds.

One theory for the irritated throat is that since the heat was officially turned on on November 15, the warm air has sucked all the moisture out of the air, making it drier than usual. Oh yes and the pollution is accumulating in the air, with no chance of precipitation in sight.

I've resorted to drinking lots of chrysanthemum tea, while one colleague has installed a humidifier on her desk (in the shape of a blue elephant so the mist sprays out of its trunk), and occasionally spritzing her face.

"My skin feel so dry," she complains. Gotta keep that complexion fresh somehow I guess.

A foreign expert who has been here for a shorter time than me claims he has a lung infection. He used to be a smoker and explained that he now feels as if he were lighting up again. He sounds like he has a stuffed up nose rather than a sore throat.

Another foreigner tells me he has coughing fits at night keeping him up until two or three in the morning. Other than the coughing he doesn't think he's sick. And yes it only happened recently.

I think I may break down and buy a humidifier for my home. For now I have the dual purpose method -- since I have to hang up my laundry to dry, I put the damp clothes in my bedroom in the evening and presto! The next morning they're all dry.

But I don't think the blue elephant is for me.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Foreign Devils

Foreigners in China, or Beijing at least have a strange existence here.

In some cases, they are reluctantly welcomed for their superior English skills and in others they come here to set up their company's office.

And overall most of their expat packages are several times more than the average Beijinger. Foreigners' benefits can include things like housing, car and driver, ai yi (maid or housekeeper), a return ticket home, and health insurance.

So it's no wonder many locals resent expats coming in, costing their companies a lot of money, or getting perks they can only dream about.

But at the same time, there are some foreigners like myself who are interested in getting to know the Chinese better, at least beyond the work environment. But many of my colleagues are in a rush as they have a long commute, or they need to save money and eat dinner at home.

One expat friend told me today that the locals in his state-owned company were so annoyed by the number of holidays the foreigners were entitled to, that management decided to cut the days down to avoid more resentment. But this only brewed more furor on the expat end.

While it's true my friend and my salaries are considered high, they are no means exorbitant. By Chinese standards we live quite well. He even has an ai yi clean his apartment, wash his clothes and iron his shirts every week.

But at the same time, we're taking major pay cuts compared to North American standards -- I'm making a third of my previous job's salary.

Everything's relative, but in the end I wish the locals would understand that some of us aren't here to be obnoxious expats, but to witness the changes China is undergoing and try to make sense of it all first hand.

We're trying to bridge the gap, not exacerbate it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Duly Noted

The Donald paid his annual visit to Beijing this week.

Donald Tsang, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region gave a status report to both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao separately.

The Chief Executive of Macau, Edmond Ho, also briefed the two senior leaders.

Tsang outlined his plans for Hong Kong in the next five years, told them the outcome of the recent district council election (the Pro-Beijing camp won), and the progress on constitutional reform.

In front of the cameras, Hu praised the bow-tied leader for developing the city's economy, improving people's livelihoods and raising the level of democracy. It's not clear exactly what kind of democracy he's referring to.

An interesting observation is I have never seen a senior leader whip out a notepad and pen to take notes until Tsang did yesterday. Most people would think his assistants would do the dictation for him. Or have an MP3 player recording the conversation.

But from the news footage, it looks like Tsang wants to make sure he's got the leader's words down correctly for his own records.

Or maybe he's writing down a shopping list of things to get at the Silk Market?

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Unharmonious Society

At my office, my colleagues on the whole seem to be a tight group.

They do lots of group activities, like play volleyball, basketball, go on company-organized outings and eat in the canteen together.

Everything's fine when everyone does his or her job. Nothing more, nothing less.

But once someone aspires for more or has an opportunity to get ahead, friendliness turns to hatred.

One of my coworkers is going to the United States in the next few weeks to get his Masters in mechanical engineering.

But he hasn't told anyone except me.

He told me that when other people resigned from the company, the ones left behind were very angry, jealous that others had a chance to get another job or go abroad to study. They were hardly supportive or inspired to work hard or try something new.

And he's worried the same will happen to him if word gets out.

He has told the company he's visiting his father in the US which is true.

But after a while, people are going to wonder why he isn't back. He naively hopes they'll forget about him so that they won't hate him.

So while President Hu Jintao keeps saying the mantra "harmonious society", repeating it over and over again doesn't have the desired effect.

They've become empty words in a place where people don't want their social order to change, unless it benefits them.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Bullish for More

The European Union Chamber of Commerce says its members are overall optimistic about doing business in China, but want a more level playing field.

That's according to their European Chamber Business Confidence Survey 2007 in which they questioned over 200 enterprises, large, medium and small.

The main message, according to the chamber president Joerg Wuttke, was that European companies are doing well in China, but they could be doing better.

He stressed the enterprises here are not producing goods and services for export, but for the China market. This explained why many had a strong focus on research and development.

"Investment is expanding," Wuttke explained. "It's bullish with companies expanding beyond first tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to second and third tier cities."

While more companies are profitable, the amount was less than last year.

He then went on to describe the challenges European companies are facing.

One major problem was recruiting and retaining staff, leading to higher costs. Wuttke said in the case of engineers, while there are 350,000 graduates in this field every year, not many can speak European languages. On top of that, Chinese universities don't offer much practical training so many fresh grads don't have the work experience necessary to get hired. As a result the ones that have these two skills can pick and choose where they want to work.

Another was that more than half of the companies surveyed were negative about the implementation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) pact. They claim they are still waiting for a level playing field to happen. Another irritant is the lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese government. This makes it difficult for these enterprises to plan their strategy or even be clear about regulations that sometimes change without reason.

Companies were also concerned about intellectual property rights (IPR), claiming the business environment hasn't improved much in this area. Wuttke says the EU Chamber is hopeful for a better legal system that specializes in things like copyright and environmental laws and higher penalties are enforced.

On the whole, Wuttke says European enterprises are seeing stiffer competition from Chinese ones, as the latter are starting to produce goods similar in standard to European ones. While the EU companies may not like this trend, it's benefiting the consumer in the end. Which is why the EU Chamber is pushing for more industry sectors to open up as well as revaluating the renminbi.

It looks like Wuttke is lobbying both Chinese and European officials hard. But with the slow pace China moves on trade policies, he may have to be a bit more patient to see his wish list of things to come true.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Literary Darling


This is 10-year-old Adora Svitak. She's American-Chinese, her mother originally from Sichuan Province, and her father's family from the Czech Republic.

Svitak is already a published author with Flying Fingers, a compilation of her stories that she launched in Vietnam recently.

The bright girl started writing almost six years ago, putting pencil to paper, but her output of stories increased exponentially after she got a laptop and began typing up to 60 words a minute.

Seattle television station Komo 4 did a story on her and then she was soon on the interview circuit with Diane Sawyer and Oprah Winfrey.

And in all her interviews, Svitak is poised, very mature, and easily comes up with an answer for every question.

She obviously loves reading and writing, having read some 2,000 books and could practically write non-stop, using everything around her as inspiration. And she tries to spread her passion to other children, even carrying a power point presentation on her sticker-covered laptop to teach kids how to write.

Her mother Joyce is anxious for her child to get as much exposure as possible. She explained Svitak raised US$30,000 in Vietnam for needy children to buy books and her daughter was written about in all the newspapers there.

What's also interesting is that this morning Svitak and her mom paid a visit to New Oriental, a Chinese company that specializes in teaching English. They are currently in talks to possibly use the literary prodigy's teaching methods.

So while the girl from Redmond, Washington may claim she's basically an ordinary kid, she has big ambitions -- to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Her publicity campaign has already started.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Searching for Shangri-La

I just finished watching a documentary called Searching for Shangri-La. It's about American Laurence J Brahm, an old China hand who goes on a physical and spiritual journey looking for the Shangri-La James Hilton described in his book Lost Horizon.

Hilton describes a place where buildings with golden rooftops reach the heavens and Brahm goes in search of this destination, wondering if it's a figment of Hiltons' imagination or reality.

Most of the movie feels like an ego-driven one, as there are numerous shots of Brahm trying to look deep in thought, or showing off his fluency in Putonghua. And just in case we've forgotten who this white guy is, his name comes up periodically along with the other people he interviews.

But at the same time it's a road trip where he travels through Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan, Lijiang and Zhongdian and meets artists, musicians, Buddhist monks and nomads.

He asks them all where Shangri-la is. And many of them say it's in your heart, when you have renounced materialism, meditate and drink yak butter tea.

The film also goes off on a tangent about how people in the West look for a spiritual answer and they get inspiration from the East, modify it or modernize it to make it seem New Age. They cite examples of music, saying Enigma's break out song Sadeness is actually based on Tibetan chants. They say this style of music evolved because sheep herders were usually alone with the animals with no one to talk to all day so they sang to fill the expansive land.

They also talk about how Westerners think meditating everyday will lead to enlightenment when they live in cities that are hardly spiritual. Chinese artists try to find places that aren't "polluted" so that they can freely find themselves and their art. That's why they drift to more remote areas free from distractions.

By the end of the documentary there is no real resolution or conclusion so the viewer is left wondering what the whole point of this film is.

So for the record, Shangri-la is where you are, and what you make of it. Sounds like the Eastern version of searching for the meaning of life.